SAN JOSE, Ca., May 1, 2014 – Although Cinco de Mayo has become a well celebrated holiday in the United States, it remains relatively insignificant within most of Mexico. Despite the festivities celebrated on this day all across the United States, the average American may not know the why behind the celebration.
Many American’s believe Cinco de Mayo is Mexican independence day, but that is actually celebrated in September.
The celebration of Cinco de Mayo marks the extraordinary victory of about 4000 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 the Mexican leader, General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín. Seguin used everything at his disposal to beat the French, including Native American Indians from central Mexico and a local herd of cattle stampeded into the core of advancing French troops.
The question which 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 story begins with Mexican indebtedness to France, Great Britain, and Spain after securing loans to mitigate the government’s near bankrupt status as a result of the Mexican Civil War of 1858 and the internal Reform Wars between liberal and conservative political factions.
The period known as “La Reforma” ended with the liberals taking control in 1860 with the intent to create a more modern Mexican civil society with a capitalist economy using the United States as a model.
In March of 1861, Benito Juárez, the first Native American to be elected president of Mexico, was provided a four-year term under the Constitution of 1857. Unfortunately, as he took the reigns of government he discovered the real economic circumstances of a destitute treasury.
By July 17, 1861, Juarez issued a moratorium aimed at suspending all foreign debt payments for two years. It was not a good move. France, Great Britain, and Spain all sent warships into the Gulf of Mexico and jointly seized the custom house in the port city of Veracruz in December of 1861.
The obvious intent of the troika was to stay until they collected on their respective outstanding loans. Britain and Spain simply renegotiated the debt with the Juarez administration and the troops got in their ships and sailed back to Europe. But, the French did not. France left their ships parked in the Gulf of Mexico and left their troops on alert. Their intent was not initially obvious, but Napoleon III, the French emperor, had cleverly decided to utilize the crisis to establish a French empire in Mexico. The emperor had sent Maximilian von Habsburg, a younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, to become the new emperor of Mexico.
Marching from Veracruz towards Mexico City, the first major battle occurred near the little village of Puebla. It was there on May 5, 1862 the powerful French battalions with 8,000 troops encountered heavy resistance from a Mexican band 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. This victory surprised the French and galvanized the Mexican resolve to fight for their freedom.
Unfortunately, it was simply a temporary setback for the French forces.
In 1863 with 30,000 troops, the French forced the Juarez government to flee north and ultimately to the city of El Paso del Norte, which is now know as Ciudad Juárez. Here is where he established his government in exile. In July of 1863, the French took over Mexico City. On April 20, 1864, the French installed Maximilian as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and essentially made Mexico a French colony. The United States could not do anything because our country had splintered and the nation was in the midst of the Civil War.
One of the fears of the Lincoln administration was that the French were in a great position to aid the Confederacy, which some historians believe was one possible effect of the French colony. Jefferson Davis had appealed to the British and French to assist the Southern cause in the “Second Revolution” against the tyrannical Federal administration under Lincoln. Because of the victory at Puebla, it delayed French attempts to assist the Confederates for one full year.
By July of 1862, Lincoln felt grave concern over the ability of the Union forces to prevail and decided to issue an edict to free the slaves as he was uncertain that the Army of the Republic had not been effective in prevailing over the Confederate forces. He was aware of Napolean III taking advantage of the situation. With the Union victory at Gettysburg, which came 14 months after the Battle of Puebla, the tide of the war began to turn and Lincoln regained confidence. In 1864, Congress issued a resolution which expressed opposition to the monarchy in Mexico.
President Lincoln developed a new policy regarding the Latin American crisis, which in addition to the Monroe Doctrine, addressed the issue of the sovereignty of the autonomous nations in the Western Hemisphere. Unfortunately, with the resolution of the Civil War in April of 1865 and the U.S. being able to act forcefully to back up the policies, President Lincoln was assassinated. Nevertheless, Andrew Johnson followed the initiative of Lincoln and took action to push the French out of Mexico.
This incredible period of shared crisis should strengthen the ties that bind the U.S. and Mexico as neighbors. The very lethal threat to Mexican sovereignty and independence, although not easily dealt with at the outset, was met with decisive action by the united States when our internal war had subsided. Also, the potential threat to the continued unity of the United States was hampered by the victory at Puebla on May 5, 1862. Those are two good reasons to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but beyond that it is just plain fun to celebrate with neighbors.