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Cinco de Mayo, sesquicentennial of the Battle of Puebla

By William H. Beezley


Mexicans are celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) 1862, when at the Battle of Puebla, their troops defeated a veteran French invasion force. The battle shocked western leaders and military observers in equal measure. The Mexicans were viewed as ragtag, poorly-armed bandits rather than soldiers, and the French were considered by many as the world’s best-equipped, most-experienced army. As astonishing as the victory was, it did not end the French invasion, but only postponed it for a year until a second Battle at Puebla. Reinforcements would arrive and delay the capture of Mexico City, the capital west of Puebla, which remained occupied by foreigners until 1867. Nevertheless, the anniversary of the battle became a Mexican national holiday — only one of the numerous ironies and oddities of Cinco de Mayo.

Puebla de los Angeles, the city of Angels, was Mexico’s second largest community at the time with a reputation (that it still maintains) as the most Catholic town in the nation. The city was expected to welcome the French invaders, come to oust Benito Juárez and the Liberal forces that had defeated the conservative, Catholic dictatorship of Antonio López de Santa Anna; written a new Liberal constitution (1857) that separated church and state; removed numerous Catholic privileges and attacked church landholdings; and defeated conservative armies (sarcastically known as the green crabs, for the color of their uniforms). Those armies were inspired in part by the Pope’s excommunication of anyone who accepted the Liberal constitution during a three civil war (1858-1861). The faith remained strong in Puebla, but it was not the formal religion of Rome, especially when their bishop fled to Paris after the civil war. Rather it was a local folk religion that included Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe, local Saints, and legendary women who expressed the blissfulness of the faith and contributed to the community — especially the Nuns of the convent of Santa Clara (who are credited with the invention of the traditional food mole poblano) and the iconic colonial woman, the China Poblana. Moreover, the residents of Puebla were Mexicans, nationalists opposed to the foreign occupation of their city. The French took the occupation of Puebla lightly, and paid for their lack of preparation in the battle.

The Mexican troops had a poor reputation as a western army because of previous defeats, such as at the Battle of San Jacinto (1836), which resulted in Texan independence from Mexico and its ultimate annexation to the United States. A French blockade humiliated the Mexicans at the port of Veracruz and forced the government to pay the exorbitant claims of French bondholders and citizens in Mexico, including one submitted by a bakery owner (thus naming the Pastry War). In the subsequent bombardment of the port, General Santa Anna lost his leg, which became the source of pomp, circumstance, and satire. The territorial goals of US President James K. Polk and others who believed in the idea of manifest destiny resulted in the invasion of Mexico in 1846, occupation of the capital city for 10 months, and ultimately in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which Mexico recognized the loss of about half of its national territory (the American southwest and California).

The Mexican army’s reputation for futility notwithstanding, its commander at Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza — who had been born in Texas before its rebellion and left to remain Mexican — was a successful veteran of the Three-Year War of the Reform. Many of his troops had modern rifles. One oddity of the Treaty of Guadalupe was that the US government paid Mexico $15,000,000 for its loss of territory. Most of the money was spent buying US guns and ammunition to rearm the army. The weapons purchased with money of the Mexican-American War helped defeat the French.

Zaragoza’s army withstood three charges by the French troops. Then he sent his cavalry to turn the flank of the French, forcing them into a disorderly retreat. Before the Mexicans could fully complete their victory, sudden heavy rains marred the Mexican advance in mud. Porfirio Díaz would emerge as the most successful of the victorious officers, as he ruled as president from 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911. As for the commander, Zaragoza died from typhoid fever within days — so that his victory, not he, received national honors.

Napoleon III, the French emperor, hoped to establish a client state in Mexico with the puppet royalty Maximilian and Carlota. He wished to block US expansion as a leading republic and restore good relations with the Pope by assisting the Mexican church. His forces did occupy much of Mexico, and Maximilian and Carlota ruled until 1867, but his overall goals failed. Juárez and the Liberals ultimately defeated the invaders and laid the groundwork for modern Mexico. Their inspiration was the Mexico victory on Cinco de Mayo.

William H. Beezley is Professor of History at the University of Arizona. He is author of Mexico in World History and co-editor of The Oxford History of Mexico (with Michael Meyers).

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