Cinco de Mayo and the French invasion of Mexico

The Cinco de Mayo celebrations began as an effort to remember the Mexican victory over superior French forces in 1862. Photo: Reinactment of the Battle of Puebla

SAN JOSE, Ca. May 5, 2013 –  Today as Cinco de Mayo celebrations take place throughout the United States, many of the celebrants may have little clue as to what the day actually commemorates.  Americans and Mexicans who celebrate the annual holiday may simply overlook the significance of this day in order to enjoy good food, friends and family.  To enjoy the day is a good enough reason to celebrate the holiday; however, the day within a broader historical context does have a deeper significance, even though misconceptions regarding the historical relevance and the significance of this holiday persist.

One obvious misconception is that Cinco de Mayo is simply the Mexican version of the 4th of July in the United States, or a celebration of independence.  Actually, Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, and today Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16th each year.  Cinco de Mayo dates back to 1862 when the Mexicans were fighting for their freedom in resistance to impending French tyranny. 

One of the original Cinco de Mayo celebrations began in 1863 in California as an effort to remember brave Mexicans who fought and won victory over superior French forces in 1862.  One of the first battles, in a war with French military determined to take over Mexico, was fought near a little town called La Puebla located in central Mexico.  The French generals underestimated their enemy in this battle.  The Mexican commander, General Ignacio Zaragoza Sequin, proved quite creative in using everything at his disposal, and the Mexican military amazingly won this battle although outnumbered by margin of approximately 2:1. 

The odds against the Mexican military units were evened a bit because Native American warriors were persuaded to fight alongside the troops to defend their homeland.  This unity was a bit reminiscent of General Andrew Jackson’s hastily organized victory over the British Army at the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815.  Jackson was desperate to muster enough defenders against a superior number of attacking British troops.  He was successful in enlisting the aid of local militia, as well as free blacks and American Indians   in his efforts to defeat the British.    

Legends surrounding the Cinco de Mayo victory relate that General Zaragoza garnered the assistance of local Mixtec and Zapotec Indians, as well as a nearby herd of cattle that he stampeded into advancing French columns at the most opportune time.  Zaragoza had command of around 4,000 men combined between the infantry units and cavalry, but the well-disciplined French battalions numbered about 8,000.  The cast of extras, which is not easy to authenticate, including machete-wielding Indians and the cattle, may have made up the imbalance in troop strength.

The Mixtec and Zapotec Indians had lived in this area of Mexico for centuries and they had a legitimate reason to help the Mexican military – the newly elected president of Mexico was a native son.  President Benito Pablo Juarez Garcia was born into a Zapotec family from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which borders the state of Puebla.  Benito Juarez had become the first Native American president of Mexico and may have had significant influence with the native populations in recruiting their assistance in the Battle of Puebla. It certainly played to the president’s favor when the freedom of the Mexican people was threatened. 

Unfortunately, Benito Juarez was an indirect cause of the predicament, but not entirely to blame for the invasion.  Juarez was a reform candidate that won his election in 1861 with   a serious intent to create a more modern Mexico modeled after the United States.  Sadly, when he finally took office, he had to deal with a country that was bankrupt due to the Mexican Civil War and internal Reform Wars during “La Reforma”.  To make matters worse, Mexico was in debt to the three major nations in Europe:  France, Spain, and Great Britain.

President Juarez thought it wise to inform the representatives of the three governments that Mexico was going to suspend the foreign debt payments for a period of two years.  It was not a wise move.  The president had issued the debt “moratorium” in July of 1861, but by December the three nations had sent warships across the Atlantic and jointly seized the custom house at the port city of Vera Cruz. The nations intended to stay until they collected their respective debts. Juarez had to make the next move.

Benito Juarez did realize his mistake, but it would not be easily rectified. While the Mexican officials were able to renegotiate new loan terms with Great Britain and Spain, the French emperor, Napoleon III, had already formulated a different plan and used the excuse of collecting the debt as a means by which the French could place their troops on Mexican soil. Unfortunately, the mistake of Juarez would prove much more costly to the Mexican people and to the Juarez government.  

By December of 1861, the French emperor, Napoleon III, had already formulated a plan of his own. Entwined within the emperor’s intent was his interest in the American Civil War. By the end of 1861, the War Between the States had been raging for several months, and by this time, French observers, invited by the Confederacy, had already sized up both of the   American armies during the early battles, and they witnessed that the Confederates were usually on the winning side in most of the time and were truly worthy of international support.

In direct violation of the Monroe Doctrine, Napoleon III decided to help the promising  rebel government and to invade Mexico as a means of securing a French stronghold in     the western hemisphere. He wisely surmised that Lincoln and the United States would     not be able to interfere with such a plan, and to Napoleon III, it must have seemed like it was a win-win strategy. Napoleon III had the intent to install Maximilian von Hapsburg,       a younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, to become the new emperor of Mexico. It   was a brilliant plan and it was eventually successful.            

The initial Mexican victory at La Puebla proved to be a thorn in the French emperor’s side as it basically delayed his plan, but his plan did unfold successfully in the following year. In 1863, the second battle of Puebla was fought, but this time the French were victorious as the Mexican army surrendered on May 17th and on May 31st, President Juarez was forced to flee the capital with his cabinet in order to persist with his government-in-exile. The French eventually took Mexico City by June of 1863, and Maximilian was offered the crown as emperor in April of 1864 and became Maximilian I of Mexico.

Up in the north, the American Civil War was still being fought, so President Lincoln still was powerless to do anything about the French takeover of the southern neighbor. The U.S. Congress unanimously passed a resolution in April of 1864 that condemned the Hapsburg installed rule over Mexico. Lincoln never could help the Mexican government because no sooner than the Army of the Republic claimed victory under Ulysses S. Grant in April of 1865, Mr. Lincoln was assassinated. 

It was President Andrew Johnson who ultimately, dispatched General 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.  Eventually, President Johnson invoked the Monroe Doctrine in February of 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 people, and as Benito Juarez regained control of Mexico in 1867, the U.S. welcomed his return as the legitimate leader of Mexico.

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 rest of the story. Nevertheless, the holiday has been transformed into much more than a simple commemorative event. Recently, in 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a concurrent resolution that requested the President of the United States issue a proclamation calling upon the U.S, citizens to celebrate the day appropriately with ceremonies and cultural activities -  like enjoying good food, friends and family.


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
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 also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.

 

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