Cinco de Mayo: Mexico’s short-lived victory at Puebla

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, but a celebration of a victory over invading French troops.


SAN JOSE, Calif., May 5, 2016 – The holiday of Cinco de Mayo takes on a special significance in 2016, as the presumed GOP candidate for the president of the United States has centered his campaign on building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It has become a point of serious contention and controversy due to the effects of illegal immigration from Mexico. Yet, the real issues regarding immigrants from south of the border no longer centers on the people of Mexico coming into the country, but on terrorists sneaking into the nation. The controversy in the past year has become overly politicized, with the two mainstream political parties scrambling for current votes as well as future votes.

Ironically, what is happening in 2016 in America is eerily parallel to the internal problems in 1860s Mexico, which confronted a new president – an outsider — Benito Juarez. The problems that Juarez faced included a huge national debt left by previous administrations run by the Mexican elite. There was also very little money in the treasury to service the high debt sufficiently. These problems led to confrontation and ultimately war in 1862.

There are lessons to be learned here, and an adept student of history who moves beyond the political smoke and genuine lack of understanding will see there is more to Cinco de Mayo than great tacos or lively music.

Many Americans believe Cinco de Mayo, like the Fourth of July in the U.S.,  is an independence day, but it is not. The holiday honoring Mexican Independence Day is celebrated in September.

The original celebration of Cinco de Mayo marks the extraordinary victory of about 4,000 Mexican patriots over several battalions of French troops on May 5, 1862. The French force, which possibly outnumbered the Mexicans by a margin of 2:1, were soundly defeated in this battle due to the strategy of Mexican leader Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin. The question that is usually raised at this point of the narrative is why the French Army was even in Mexico in 1862. Ostensibly, they were sent to collect a debt.

The French army had been sent across the Atlantic to Veracruz, Mexico, to collect a debt owed by the Mexican government to the government of France. This action was not simply unilateral – it was part of a concerted effort of three European governments, orchestrated by Napoleon III, the French emperor, to facilitate the collection of the outstanding debt Mexico owed to the governments of Spain and Great Britain as well. Sizable loans had been secured  in order to mitigate the Mexican government’s near bankrupt status as a result of years of instability due to unrest and revolution.

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It was indeed a very precarious time for Mexico in the aftermath of the Mexican Civil War of 1858 and the internal “reform wars” between ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ (the aristocracy) factions. The period of Mexican history dominated by “La Reforma” came to a climax when democratic-minded liberals took control of the government in 1860. Democratic-minded Mexicans won a great victory when the first Native American, Benito Juarez, was elected to the presidency. Hopes were high that with the Juarez victory, the sincere intent to create a more modern Mexican civil society, using the United States as a model for a stronger, more capitalistic-oriented economy, could be realized.

On the other hand, the Mexican nobility, the old entrenched aristocracy, felt desperate when Juarez was elected the new president. They saw their control over the Mexican government seemingly coming to an end. Unfortunately, the Juarez political victory turned into a nightmare that ultimately led to a French takeover of Mexico and a return of Mexico to its older, more monarchical state.

In March of 1861, around the time Abraham Lincoln was officially becoming the president of the United States, Juarez was elected president of Mexico and was provided a term of four years under its constitution of 1857. Unfortunately, Juarez soon discovered the real economic circumstances of the nation’s treasury. As a result of their civil war, the Mexican government had found it necessary to borrow large sums of money from the three colonial “superpowers” in Europe. By July 17, 1861, after deliberation over his options, Juarez issued a moratorium aimed at suspending all foreign debt payments for a period of two years.

Juarez had made a grave mistake, as do most debtors when they think they can bypass terms of their financial contracts. On Oct. 31, 1861, representatives of the governments of France, Great Britain and Spain met in London and signed a tripartite agreement to intervene in Mexico to recover the unpaid debts. Then each government sent warships across the Atlantic. The ships reached Veracruz by Dec. 8. The combined military force seized control of the custom house.

The obvious intent of the troika was to stay until they collected on their respective outstanding loans. However, Juarez sent representatives to Veracruz, and Britain and Spain were willing to simply renegotiate the debt with the Juarez administration, so their troops got in their ships and sailed back to Europe. But the French did not. In dealing with the French representatives, the Mexican officials would not have been able to reach any satisfactory agreement due to the subversive plans of Napoleon III.

After Spanish and British forces withdrew, the plans of Napoleon III began to emerge; it became apparent that he was interested in reviving the French global ambitions, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. French ships remained parked in the Gulf of Mexico, and their troops remained on alert. Napoleon III had cleverly decided to utilize the crisis to establish a French empire in Mexico. This agenda was promoted and supported by powerful members of the conservative elite of Mexico’s “hacendados” and the conservative Catholics.

The majority of the Mexican nobility attempted to reverse the popular election of Benito Juarez and would go so far as to promote a foreign power to invade and take over their nation in order to recover political power and control over the Mexican people. The obvious intent was to end the cycles of unrest and revolution and remove the government authority from the Juarez administration, and return the nation to “stability.” The French were more than happy to help return Mexico to the system that had been established under the old Spanish dominion that had lasted for 300 years.

The French troops in Veracruz waited until spring and then began marching to Mexico City. The very first battle took place near the village of Puebla. It was there on May 5, 1862, the French battalions with 8,000 troops encountered heavy resistance from a rag-tag band of Mexican patriots, which numbered about 4,000 consisting of Mexican cavalry, troops and Zapotec and Mixtec Indians, as well as a herd of cattle that the Mexicans stampeded into the oncoming French footsoldiers.

Despite outnumbering their foe by a margin of approximately 2:1, the better-trained, better-equipped, French force was soundly defeated in this battle. The Mexican general, Ignacio Zaragosa Seguin, used all manpower and everything at his disposal, including the cattle. It was an amazing victory for the outnumbered Mexican force over the superior military strength of the enemy.

This victory surprised the French and galvanized the Mexican resolve to fight for their freedom. Unfortunately, it was only a temporary setback for the French and proved to be a short- lived victory.

The initial Mexican victory at La Puebla became a thorn in the French emperor’s side as it delayed his plan. The following year, however, he was successful. Napoleon III simply sent reinforcements. In 1863 with 30,000 troops, the French fought the second battle of Puebla. On May 17 the Mexican army surrendered, and by May 31 President Juarez was forced to flee the capital with his cabinet to the city of El Paso del Norte, which is now known as Ciudad Juárez. Here President Juarez decided to persist with his government-in-exile. The French eventually took Mexico City by June of 1863.

The two factions simply set up opposition governments in different locations in Mexico. The ruling elite regained control of Mexico City and central Mexico, while the Liberals concentrated their power in Veracruz. The Maximilian Empire received backing from Isabella II of Spain and, of course, Napoleon III. Juarez benefitted from support from President Lincoln.

In 1863, Napoleon III had invited Ferdinand Maximilian von Habsburg, archduke of Austria, and younger brother of the emperor of Austria, to become emperor of Mexico. Maximilian accepted the gracious offer. On April 20, 1864, the Mexican congress, members of the Mexican aristocracy and the occupying French forces installed Maximilian as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, and essentially made Mexico a French colony.

North of the border, the United States had splintered, with the country still in the midst of the American Civil War, so President Lincoln was powerless to do anything about the French takeover of a southern neighbor. The U.S. Congress unanimously passed a resolution in April of 1864 that condemned the Hapsburg rule over Mexico. Lincoln could not help the Juarez government because, after the Army of the Republic claimed victory under Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, Lincoln was assassinated.

Ultimately, it was President Andrew Johnson who dispatched Gen. Phillip Sheridan and 50,000 troops to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico and to aid in providing weapons to Juarez’s rebel forces.  President Johnson invoked the Monroe Doctrine in February 1866 and demanded that the French leave Mexico. Around the same time, the U.S. Navy initiated a naval blockade in the Gulf of Mexico to intercept any possible French reinforcements attempting to enter Mexico.

Finally, it was over. Napoleon III decided to pull the French troops out and advised his puppet, Maximilian I, to vacate the premises as well. The U.S. was pleased because the Lincoln administration had never viewed the reign of Maximilian as the true will of the Mexican people, and when Benito Juarez regained control of Mexico in 1867, the U.S. welcomed his return as the legitimate leader.

It was President Juarez who, not long after the improbable Mexican victory, requested that Cinco de Mayo be remembered as a great day in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, the day did not live up to the hype because of the French dominion, but Cinco de Mayo can provide some serious lessons in the struggle of freedom against tyranny.

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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.