On May 5, 1862, Mexican troops defeated an invading French army in the outskirts of Puebla, a city around 60 miles east of Mexico City. How did events come to this point; what were French troops doing in Mexico and why?
On September 15, 1810, a priest, Miguel Hidalgo, sounded the church bells to unite Mexicans in a war of independence from Spain. Independence was declared the following day, September 16th. But it took Mexicans 11 years to oust the Spaniards.
They were barely getting their house in order when an unprovoked war was thrust on them by the US wanting and taking about 50 percent of its territory. Needless to say, Mexicans weren’t happy with this circumstance and blamed their leader, Santa Anna, accusing him of great treason. This led to a rebellion to oust him from office.
Once this done, Mexico entered into one of its most important historical periods, the formation of its Constitution of 1857.
There were two political forces at work, the Liberals who wanted to create a country not unlike the US: A representative republic, democratic, federal, religiously tolerant, free market economy, and an educational system independent of religion, and, most importantly – separation between the State and religion. This instrument would provide Mexican citizens with vast constitutional protections rivaling those in the U.S.
The other political force was the Conservatives who wanted strong ties to Spain, only the Catholic religion would be allowed, national industrial protectionism (limited imports), regulated freedom of expression, no opposing political parties. They also believed Mexico should be tied to a European monarchy with the head of Mexico having absolute power, and to distance the country as much as possible from the US.
This terrible schism led to the civil war known as La Guerra de Reforma (The War of Reform). In 1861, the Conservatives were defeated, and their leaders executed. But the combination of so many years of fighting had placed Mexico in heavy international debt with England, Spain and France.
Meantime in the French court of Emperor Napoleon III, a wealthy Mexican land owner and Conservative, who had access to, and meetings with, the Emperor’s wife, the Spaniard Eugenia de Montijo, planted the idea of establishing a monarchy in Mexico as a way of stopping the further territorial expansion ambitions of the U.S..
The U.S. was tied up in its Civil War, so France convinced Spain and England to join in sending troops to collect monies owed them by the new Liberal controlled government presided by Benito Juarez.
Troops from the three countries landed in Veracruz in late 1861. The English and Spaniards were able to negotiate a repayment schedule that was acceptable to all. The parties, including the French, signed the agreement. The Spaniard and English troops left Mexico without incident.
The French commander, Dubois de Saligny, declared, “My signature is worth as much as the paper it is written on.” Declaring they were there at the invitation of the exiled Conservative government to establish a monarchy and save Mexico from its non Catholic leaders, French troops began their long march to capture Mexico City.
And so it was that on May 5, 1862, the most potent army in Europe of its day met the Mexican army of veterans and farmers outside of Puebla. Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza, addressed his troops, “Your enemies are the first-rate soldiers of the world; but you are the sons of Mexico, and they are here to take your country.”
The battle began at noon – the French stormed the Mexican defensive position once and were repelled. A second charge brought the same results. It was then that the Mexican troops attacked, driving the French back in disarray. Hostilities came at the end of the day due to heavy rainfall making any more action impossible.
French commanders were so sure of quick victory that before beginning their march had sent a message to Napoleon III declaring the Emperor owner of Mexico. Instead, it took three months to capture Puebla, and eventually all of Mexico.
Having captured the country, the French were never able to appease the population. Widespread resistance finally led to their defeat and departure from Mexico. The Intervention lasted until 1867.
So as history goes, Cinco de Mayo was one day in which the soldiers of Mexico fought bravely for their country, and bathed themselves in honor.
So on the Fifth of May raise your glass to them setting aside our differences wishing that they may again be victorious in the present “war” they face.