Break out the Margaritas and Tequilla, for today is Cinco de Mayo.
There are a lot of civic holidays that we celebrate in the US, but Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday that is celebrated more vigorously in the US than Mexico. No, it’s not Mexican Independence Day. It’s the day that helped to unite a fractious Mexican country that was in the midst of a civil war.
From 1857 to 1861, the Mexican people were involved in a war that pitted the liberals and conservatives against each other over the separation of church and state. After our recent, crazy election everyone is probably sick of hearing about ideology, but other countries had their versions of ideological issues to work out, too.
This civil war devastated the country, and left it nearly bankrupt. Mexican President Benito Juarez defaulted on all foreign debt, which made the kings of some of the countries of Europe angry. In response France, England, and Spain sent their armies across the Atlantic to force payment.
In a last-minute effort, the Mexican government persuaded England and Spain that another war would ruin Mexico and make debt payments even more difficult. Both countries accepted a promise of payment at a later date, then turned around, and headed home.
France wouldn’t accept that promise. In January, 1862, the French landed their army and began to move on Mexico City. With 6,000 soldiers who were better equipped and supplied, the French captured towns and farms as they moved closer to the capital. That is, until they came upon the city of Puebla.
French Commander, the Count of Lorencez, was brimming with too much confidence and believed that the city would be taken easily. However, Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza had the town fortified with about 4,500 soldiers and cavalry. The Mexican army also had the benefit of two forts to defend Puebla: Loreto and Guadalupe.
Lorencez’s overconfidence in his numbers and equipment led to a frustrating day for the French on May 5, 1862. He ordered a frontal attack on Fort Guadalupe and the city’s other defenses and was turned back three times. The third assault was the worst for the French. Having no more artillery to support the attack, the last attempt was a waste of life for French soldiers.
The win was short-lived. France quickly received reinforcements and eventually captured Mexico City, installing Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. But by 1867, Maximilian and the French were kicked out of Mexico for good.
Today Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican-American culture. But in 1862, the Battle of Puebla helped to restore pride and patriotism in Mexico when there wasn’t much of either.