By M.J. Philippus, Ph.D
and John F. Garcia, Sr., M.A.
The celebration of Cinco de Mayo is a remembrance of the 5th of Many of 1862 in which outnumbered Mexican forces defeated French invaders at the city of Puebla. Actually there were two battles at Puebla. The second one lasted from March 17th to May 17th in 1863, thus passing through May 5th of 1863.
The events leading to the battles of Cinco de Mayo actually began with the ending of the Mexican War in 1848. The disastrous ending of this conflict caused General Santa Ana, then head of the Mexican government, to fall into disfavor with his countrymen. Subsequently, he left Mexico to live abroad. His rules was followed by the presidencies of Herrera and Arista, but in 1853 Santa Ana was recalled and again made president. Stories soon developed that he planned to make the office hereditary and he was replaced in 1855 by General Alvarez. However, Alvarez soon resigned in favor of General Comonfort who became president in 1855.
A violent conflict soon developed between the Presidency and the party of the Church. In 1856 Comonfort recommend a measure to confiscate and sell church lands. The recommendation was accepted and an Act was passed to establish religious freedom in Mexico. About the same time a movement for the formation of a more democratic constitution developed. A document was drawn up and accepted by the government. Consequently in 1857 Mexico seemed headed toward a more stable existence. However, when the government decided to refuse payment of part of a national debt to Spain, conflict developed with France and England each of which also had investments in Mexico. Amidst this turmoil, the presidency passed to Benito Juarez, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Juarez was immediately recognized by the United States.
Juarez continued on a course to separate church and state. Marriage was declared a civil contract, and additional church lands were confiscated and sold. Many of these lands were actually held by citizens of Spain, France, and England, either by actual possession or by mortgage. These three nations sent demands for restitution to the Mexican government and advised Juarez that if these demands were not met an invasion of Mexico would take place. Subsequently, in December of 1861, armies of Spain England, and France landed in Mexico and occupied Vera Cruz. Settlements were soon negotiated with Spain and England and their forces were withdrawn.
However, the French armies of Napoleon III remained. It soon became evident that the French were bent on establishing themselves in the New World by making Maximilian the Monarch of Mexico.
This plan was not an accident. For several years prior to the sending of troops, a small but active group of emigres from Mexico had been seeking support in various European countries for a more conservative rule to be established in Mexico. Consequently, an intrigue developed in the French court. The main figure favoring French intervention was General Almonte, who had been Minister of War under President Bustamante and later was Ambassador to Pairs. Almonte convinced the French court and the emperor to attempt the re-establishment of France in the Western hemisphere.
Once the French forces had secured Vera Cruz they began their march toward Mexico City. The French army of that time seemed to have many arrogant, bizarre leaders. One of them, Charles Ferdinand Latrille, the Count of Lorencez, made the statement that “We have over the Mexicans the superiority of race, of organization, of discipline, of morality and morale, and to further show our excellence, I say to our emperor, that from this time, at the head of six thousand soldiers, I am master of Mexico...”
Lorencez had under his command an unusual combination of forces. His advanced guard was largely made up of Zouaves from French Algeria and French marines. Additionally light infantry and light calvary also came from African units. Some companies of engineers were from Martinique. Overall this army totaled 5,700 men who were largely troops from French colones. Why this arrangement took place is not clear.
The main objective of this army was to take Mexico City. To do this they would have to pass through the town of Puebla.
Mexican troops were quickly gathered. They were neither well trained nor well armed but their leader, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was able to mold a fighting force by his sheer force of personality.
Cinco de Mayo
Thus the stage was set for the beginning of the War of Intervention, as it was called in Mexico.
The defense of Puebla actually focused on two large forts named Guadalupe and Loreto. Guadalupe was a large church with fortifications around it. The invaders would first have to take these two forts before reaching the city of Puebla which was protected by a series of additional defenses. Zaragoza’s forces contained two divisions of infantry under Generals Negrete and Porfirio Diaz.
The Second Division under Diaz was placed between the forts of loreto and Guadalupe along with two batteries of cannon. To the left of the forts the main body of cavalry was stationed. Guadalupe was higher in elevation and more difficult to attack. The main part of Puebla was to be held by regular infantry was well as volunteers and townspeople who offered their services. The total number of defenders varied from four to five thousand men, but it is doubtful that Zaragoza ever had more than 4,000 soldiers at any one time.
The French had superior fire power but the Mexican cavalry were better horsemen and their constant thrusts were unsettling to the French who were not used to such bold use of cavalry.
On the morning of the 5th of May, 1862, Lorencez divided his army into three columns. The first column composed of French Marines and Algerian Zouaves assaulted the heights above For guadalupe. Initially they found easy going but were soon attacked by Mexican lancers and a furious fusillade of cannon and rifle fire and were forced to retreat.
The second column of the French attempted to pass the right flank of Guadalupe. This column was almost entirely made up of Zouaves. They made three desperate attacks on the right of Guadalupe but were driven back each time. The Zouaves suffered the greatest casualties of the French forces. The third column was to support the other two and attack the Mexican center. But they, too, could not stand up against the cavalry thrust and artillery of both forts. They were in range of the heavy guns on both sides. Zaragoza had cleverly arranged the defenses so that artillery from Loreto would protect Guadalupe. By four o’clock in the afternoon the French were defeated on all three fronts and began to retreat to the city of Orizaba. Zaragoza was able to telegraph to Juarez that “The armies of the nation have been covered with glory.”
When the news of the French defeat reached Paris, Napoleon III was so incensed that he immediately dispatched General Elias Forey and twenty-five thousand men to Mexico.
Ignacio Zaragoza was so exhausted by the defense of Puebla that he became ill with fever. He died on September 8, 1862. The city of Puebla was designated Puebla-Zaragoza.
The Second Battle of Puebla-Zaragoza, 1863
With the death of Zaragoza, General Gonzalez Ortega became commander of the Mexican Army Corps of the East and proceeded to Puebla-Zaragoza to establish new defenses against the huge invasion force sent to Mexico by Napoleon III.
In addition to General Forey, the French sent General Bazine as Supreme Commander of Expeditionary Forces. Bazine now had about 26,800 men with which to overpower Puebla-Zaragoza and proceed to Mexico City. By the 15th of March 1863 the French had occupied Amozoc, Animas, and Chachpapa, all vantage points on the way to Puebla-Zaragoza.
By mid-March the French Division led by General Douay arrived within sight of Puebla-Zaragoza and occupied Mount Amalucan. Here they could view the area but were not ready to attack.
On March 15th a deserter from one of the French Zoave units found his way into General O’Horan’s camp with some unusual information about the French plan of attack. The deserter was from an artillery company and claimed that General Forey would arrive the following morning with eighty mortars. The mortars of that time were extremely heavy and fired lead shot with a high arch. They were used effectively in siege tactics. The Zoave deserter claimed the French planned initially to focus on fort Guadalupe with heavy artillery and eight thousand men.
The information from the deserter was apparently correct and by March 21st the French began an extensive bombardment of Fort Guadalupe. The Mexican artillery returned such an intense fire that confusion developed in the French units. On the following day a small Mexican force from the Durango Brigade attacked the Zoaves at Agua Auzul, a point on the road from Amozoc, the main route used by the French. The Zoaves were all killed or retreated. On the 24th the 5th Battalion of Zacatecas made a sortie from Fort Morelos and again the French were routed.
Initially these opening skirmishes kept the French off balance, but on march 26th they massed troops and equipment and centered their artillery on Fort San Javier. On March 29th they finally drove the Mexican army out. The Fort had to be taken building by building and with hand to hand fighting. It was this kind of defenders the French would face for the next two months at Puebla-Zaragoza. And it was apparent that fortification would have to be captured in single actions before the actual city of Puebla-Zaragoza could be reached.
By the 28th of April the French were within the walls of Puebla-Zaragoza. As the battle became more compressed to the center of Puebla-Zaragoza, the hand to hand fighting became more furious.
By May 8th the French were now using their Gatling guns with devastating results. Finally on May 16th the Mexican generals held a meeting and decided that further defense of Puebla-Zaragoza was impossible.
It was the lack of provisions and war material which caused the defense of Puebla-Zaragoza to collapse. The will of the defenders was unbreakable even though they were outnumbered and poorly supplied. The had upheld. The city against the French for fifty-five days.
Even the French expressed admiration for the defense by the Mexican army. In Paris the newspaper “L’ilustration,” on June 20, 1863, reported, “The defense of Puebla-Zaragoza was one of the greatest in the history of warfare....” and that “it had equaled the heroism of the Spanish when facing the troops of Napoleon I.”
In the main sessions room of the Mexican Congress in Mexico City a plaque is hung with the inscription: A los defensores de Pueble de Zaragoza, en 1862 y 1863, el congreso de la union.