The Real History of Cinco de Mayo

Soldiers wearing period costumes take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, in 2012. (Imelda Medina/Reuters)
The battle it commemorates changed the course of North American and European history.

The fifth of May has been a Mexican holiday since 1862, and has gradually become a bigger one in America. Like many American holidays, it is now encrusted with humbug and commercialism. As with St. Patrick’s Day, many Americans see it solely as an excuse to drink, eat some ethnic food, and maybe wear some ridiculous plastic hats. You may know some of the common myth-busting tropes: It isn’t Mexican independence day, it’s arguably a bigger holiday here today than it is back home in Mexico, and it only celebrates beating the French for control of a town the French won back a year later anyway.

Here’s the thing, though: The Mexican victory at the Battle of the Puebla on May 5, 1862, really was a big deal that deserves to be remembered. It’s one of a handful of days that decided the fate of the North American continent. Yet, it is also a tragic story, as are so many episodes in the modern histories of Mexico and France.

Our Southern Neighbor
Mexico, like most of the nations south of the United States, was a child of the Napoleonic Wars. The greatest victim of those wars was Spain, a traditional Catholic monarchy ruling over an agrarian economy that depended heavily on cotton exports and the mineral wealth of its vast colonial empire, second in size only to the British empire in 1792. Before independence, Mexico produced 80 percent of the world’s silver and gold; the disruption of the supply of Mexican silver would badly destabilize the silver-based economy of China in the 1820s and 1830s. The British blockades of the Napoleonic era wrecked Spain’s cotton exports, which were supplanted by the American South and its cotton gin after 1793. The Spanish navy was destroyed at Trafalgar, the country laid waste by guerilla war from 1808 to 1813. Protracted economic separation from the mother country drove the colonies to rebel against Spain and enter the trading orbit of Britain.

Mexico’s national governments were unstable from the outset of independence in 1821. The country was strained by the two great dividing lines of the mid 19th century: federalists against nationalists, and liberals against conservatives. The federal–state power struggle was, if anything, more acute in Mexico than in the United States, except that Mexican nationalists rarely faced united regional blocs of states after the fashion of the American South. When Texas rebelled, it did so at the same time as multiple other Mexican states, some as far south as the Yucatán, but their coordination was limited, and only the Texans won their fight for independence.

Mexican classical liberals (whose ideology would today be considered conservative) opposed throne-and-altar conservatism with demands for written constitutions, democratic and republican government, equality before the law, religious, civil, and economic liberty, and an end to established churches. The two sides’ ideas did not exist in isolation but mirrored the liberal–conservative divides in Spain and France as well as the liberalizing influence of America. The liberals also sought to improve the legal status of Indians (Mexicans of Native American descent), who made up around 80 percent of the country and were, in some places, held in a state of peonage (debt-enforced forced labor) only a step above slavery. Peonage was one of the underlying factors in the Caste War, which erupted among the Mayans in the Yucatán in 1847, creating a separate enclave by the early 1850s that would not be restored to Mexican sovereignty until 1901.

Benito Juárez and the Liberal Dream
Mexican vulnerability naturally attracted opportunistic foreign governments, but geography gave the United States the edge, reflected in the 1846–47 Mexican War, which stripped away a third of Mexico’s territory. The Monroe Doctrine, which at the time was enforced as much by the British Royal Navy as by the U.S., kept the European continental powers away as well.

Mexican national pride balked at any hint of further losses of territory or sovereignty. Antonio López de Santa Anna, who embodied the shifting sands of Mexican politics for two decades and frequently switched sides among the various factions, fell from power for good in 1855 after a backlash against the Gadsden Purchase, his sale of Mexican border land to the United States — the last time, as it turned out, that the continental borders of either nation would change. With Santa Anna deposed, a liberal constitution was established by the victors in 1857, with Ignacio Comonfort as president and Benito Juárez as chief justice. The constitution made the chief justice next in line to serve as president.

Juárez, a slight, dark man easily recognized in Mexico as an Indian, was a devoted classical liberal cut from much the same cloth as Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln, he was an unassuming man proud of his humble origins, a frock-coated lawyer who never aspired to be a general or an aristocrat. Before the 1855 revolution, he had been in exile in New Orleans, then a hotbed of expatriates out of favor in their homelands. Cholera almost killed Juárez in New Orleans, but he was made of stern stuff, and nothing short of the grave deterred him.

The liberal constitution was overthrown by a conservative military–clerical coup almost as soon as it went in effect. Comonfort collaborated with the coup but was overthrown himself within weeks. His last act in office, once he saw the writing on the wall, was to let Juárez out of jail. Juárez declared himself the constitutional president upon Comonfort’s departure and spent the next three years locked in the Reform War against the conservatives, led ultimately by Miguel Miramón.

Rescued from a siege in the coastal city of Veracruz in 1859 by yellow fever among Miramón’s men, Juárez turned in desperation to a deal with the Americans, the McLane–Ocampo Treaty, which promised U.S. military and financial assistance in exchange for the sale of the Baja California peninsula to the U.S. and a railway concession in southern Mexico. The treaty eventually died in the U.S. Senate amidst the sectional fractures of 1860, but Mexican conservatives did not forgive it, and ultimately kidnapped and murdered Melchor Ocampo, Juárez’s foreign minister, in 1861. Meanwhile, Juárez turned to General Jesús González Ortega and his second-in-command, Porfirio Díaz, who turned the tables and crushed Miramón, taking Mexico City on Christmas Day, 1860. At long last, Juárez — now elected president in his own right — could bring constitutional government to Mexico.

Unpaid Bills and a Distracted North
The U.S. Senate may have let Juárez off the hook for the commitments he made during the Reform War, but European creditors would not so easily relinquish debts that Miramón had rung up fighting him, which they insisted were enforceable against his enemies. The British were willing to cut a deal, but the Spanish and French were not. Spain had only been stopped by the U.S. Navy from intervening on the side of Miramón’s siege of Veracruz, and French investors were tied closely to the half-brother of Napoleon III. The Mexican congress scuttled Juárez’s effort at a negotiated solution by passing a ban in July 1861 on repayment of Miramón’s debts. Juárez, unwilling to expose himself to the fate of Ocampo and Santa Anna, reluctantly signed the bill.

The timing was fateful: News of the debt repudiation reached Europe at the same time as news of the First Battle of Bull Run, which had ended in an inconclusive Confederate victory that promised a longer American Civil War. Napoleon III, an inveterate schemer who was simultaneously engaged in a joint Franco–Spanish war in Vietnam and a peacekeeping mission in Syria, approached Spanish general Juan Prim about a joint expedition to Mexico. Two years earlier, Napoleon had told Mexican conservatives that he dared not involve himself in Mexico for fear of a war with the United States. Only the promise that America would be too engaged in its own war to stop him made the invasion of Mexico possible.

Napoleon’s plan now added a twist: He would try to cement ties with Franz Joseph of Austria, whom he had defeated in a war in Italy two years earlier, by making Franz Joseph’s brother Maximilian the emperor of Mexico. Franz Joseph, who never trusted Napoleon, thought this was a terrible idea, but he needed to appease France and would not stand in his brother’s way. Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, also hated the idea, but was wedded to the principle of gunboat enforcement of British rights. William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, tried to forestall an invasion by promising that the U.S. would repay the Europeans and take a mortgage on Mexican mineral rights, but Palmerston (who despised Seward because they were too much alike) hated that plan even more, as it would strengthen the American hold on northern Mexico.

The European landing at Veracruz in December 1861 would fairly swiftly become a solely French venture, as its goal became imposing a conservative European emperor. Prim, who had family connections in Mexico, saw at once that this would be an unpopular and protracted campaign, and fell back to Havana — a wise move that would aid Prim’s ascent to lead Spain later in the decade. The British refused to let their 700 Royal Marines venture far from their ships for fear of yellow fever. Both abandoned Mexico in the spring of 1862.

The British presence, however, had unforeseen consequences. When the U.S. and Britain nearly came to war in November and December of 1861, the British had to rush troops across the Atlantic to defend Canada. Unfortunately, the Admiralty found that it had sent all its available troop ships to Veracruz, and it had to rent mail steamers. Because the St. Lawrence River was frozen, the advance party of British officers was packed onto a mail ship in civilian clothing with unmarked baggage and sent to Boston, where they traveled by American trains to Canada to prepare to fight a war against America.

The Stand at Puebla
Mexican geography offers few choices for the invader by sea: armies must land in low-lying Veracruz, as Winfield Scott did in 1847, and move due west up a series of plateaus to reach the elevated center of the country and Mexico City. Staying put in Veracruz in the mid-1800s meant exposure to yellow fever, which would typically kill 20 percent of any European expedition in a single season. The French, with some 7,300 men under General Charles de Lorencez, struck an agreement with Juárez: France would recognize the Juárez government and negotiate the debt in exchange for letting the French army encamp at Orizaba, at the entry to the first plateau above the yellow-fever zone. If negotiations broke down, Lorencez was on his honor to withdraw from the plateau.

Meanwhile, disaster struck Juárez’s army. In February 1862, women cooking for their husbands in the camps accidentally set off sparks that detonated a barn full of gunpowder. The resulting explosion killed 1,500 people, destroying in one stroke 10 percent of the army. The French sent doctors to help treat the wounded. When further negotiations broke down and hostilities were imminent, Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican general, reciprocated the favor by allowing Lorencez to leave sick soldiers in Orizaba. But miscommunications over Zaragoza’s gesture led Lorencez to fear that his wounded men would be massacred, and he abrogated the agreement and held his upland position, compelling Zaragoza to withdraw at an unexpected disadvantage.

The city of Puebla, with 80,000 inhabitants, was then the second largest city in Mexico. Mexican conservatives told Lorencez that his army would be greeted with flowers and welcomed as liberators. Puebla stood at a river crossing on the line of march from Orizaba to Mexico City, the first major crossroads after ascending to the central plateau. The French forced the passes up to the plateau, overpowering Zaragoza’s 4,000 defenders. Lorencez arrived north of the city on May 4, 1862, three days after the 15th anniversary of Puebla’s surrender to Winfield Scott.

Puebla was surrounded by a chain of five forts, two of them (Forts Loreto and Guadalupe) on the north side. Lorencez’s local allies warned him that the city had never been taken from the north, but they offered conflicting views of whether he should attack from the east or west instead. On the morning of May 5, Lorencez ignored their advice and moved into the teeth of the northern forts. Even with losses from disease and the initial skirmishes, he had a numerical advantage of approximately 6,500 men against Zaragoza’s 4,500 defenders.

French soldiers, in 1862, were still widely regarded as the best in the world. They had led the vanguard of successful frontal assaults on fortified positions from Sevastopol in 1855 to Saigon in 1861. Alone or with allies, they had blasted through the walls of Rome in 1849, whipped the Austrian army in Italy in 1859, and forced their way upriver to Beijing in 1860. On this day, the daring French advance guard even reached the top of the walls and hoisted the imperial eagle of the French flag. But the forts were too strong. French barrages could not put out their guns, and French soldiers lay heaped in front of Fort Guadalupe. Porfirio Díaz led a cavalry charge to dislodge the attackers. France sustained 462 casualties, to only 83 Mexicans.

Come nightfall, the Mexican defenders sang the Marseillaise, the revolutionary anthem that Napoleon III had banned in France. Juárez had commissioned a Mexican national anthem, but it was new and nobody knew it, so they reached for the song of anti-royalists everywhere. Juárez, recognizing the propaganda value of a victory over the French, immediately proclaimed Cinco de Mayo a national holiday, and for good measure, renamed Puebla for Zaragoza (the change didn’t stick, and Zaragoza died of typhus four months after the battle).

Lorencez braced for a counterattack, but Zaragoza knew his men could not stand with the French in the open field. In fact, a small French detachment routed a much larger Mexican force two weeks later, during the French withdrawal.

Puebla was not a big battle for its time. The Battle of Shiloh, fought a month earlier, featured ten times as many soldiers and 50 times as many casualties. But it changed the entire tempo of the war. Had the Mexican army been driven out, Lorencez would have established a permanent foothold on the central plateau and would likely have marched swiftly on Mexico City. Instead, recognizing that he could not remain encamped around Puebla, Lorencez retreated downhill to Orizaba. Napoleon, regretting what now looked like a premature effort to force the issue, would not authorize a renewed offensive until reinforcements had been dispatched to Veracruz, and Lorencez replaced. By the time Puebla (now defended by Comonfort) was retaken on May 17, 1863, and Mexico City captured less than a month later, a crucial year had elapsed.

It was a year Napoleon could not afford. The Confederacy reached its high tide in mid 1862, but by the time Puebla was recaptured, Stonewall Jackson was dead and Vicksburg was surrounded. Europe teetered on war over Poland for much of 1863. By the time Maximilian was finally installed in May 1864, Napoleon’s ability to sustain an open-ended troop commitment was already wearing thin, his army overextended. Prussia and Austria went to war against Denmark in early 1864, and the hour of the long-awaited reckoning on the Rhine was in view. Napoleon notified Maximilian of his intention to withdraw in January 1866, a decision that grew more urgent when Prussia turned and crushed Austria that May. The last French soldiers left Mexico in February 1867. A little over three years later, Napoleon’s unprepared and undermanned army would be routed by Prussia, toppling him from power. Had Napoleon devoted fewer resources to Mexico and more to upgrading his army in Europe, the whole history of France and Germany might have been different.

Juárez, once besieged on the Gulf coast, was driven into the far northwest of Mexico. In extremis, even his constitutional principles were bent by his efforts to remain in power and preserve what little remained of the Mexican republic. But he never gave up, and the tide turned in his favor. American pressure was a major part of that: As the Civil War wound down, Seward played on Napoleon’s fear of a clash with the battle-hardened U.S. Army. Even Confederate leaders tried to talk Lincoln, in February 1865, into suspending hostilities for a joint march against Mexico. Grant sent 50,000 men to the Mexican border as soon as the war ended, hastening Napoleon’s decision to evacuate.

Maximilian went to a firing squad in June 1867. No European monarch was ever again a serious threat to reign in the Western Hemisphere. Together with the end of American threats to Canada after its 1867 unification, the 1867 purchase of Alaska, and the 1871 settlement of Civil War–era claims between the U.S. and Britain, the borders of North America were finalized as they are today.

Mexico survived the French occupation as an independent nation, thanks in good part to the defenders at Puebla and the doggedness of Benito Juárez. But Juárez’s dream of a liberal, constitutional Mexican republic did not. The war with the French did more damage to Mexico’s institutions and its economy than had even the loss of its sparsely settled and barely governed northern provinces in 1847. By the time Juárez died in 1872, a decade of industrial progress had been missed. Porfirio Díaz, who after Zaragoza’s death would be the main surviving hero of Puebla, would serve as Mexico’s president for most of the years from 1876 to 1911. Diaz brought belated economic development, but at the cost of a conservative strongman style of government far removed from Juárez.

So raise a toast to Cinco de Mayo, a day that changed the course of history, and to the Mexico that might have been, and maybe someday will be.


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