Cinco de Mayo celebrates the 1862 victory of the Mexican army over a superior French army at the Battle of Puebla. Although France eventually prevailed and installed Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico, the battle has become a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism.
The Mexican-American War had devastated the Mexican treasury. By 1861, Mexico was essentially bankrupt. To remedy the situation, President Benito Juarez suspended the repayment of foreign debts for a period of two years. At the end of this period, he promised, such payments would resume.
Three foreign powers refused to accept Mexico’s suspension of payments. The French, Spanish and British jointly invaded Mexico and seized the custom house at Veracruz. Their intention was to intercept customs payments to cover Mexico’s debts. Eventually diplomats for Spain and Great Britain reached an agreement with Juarez and their armies left Mexico. The French, however, stayed behind.
France’s interest in Mexico had less to do with repayment of Mexico’s debt than with halting the growth of the United States. The U.S. was expanding too rapidly and becoming too powerful for Napoleon III’s taste. But the United States was in the middle of a civil war. If Napoleon could conquer Mexico, the French could march north to aid the Confederates and help divide the United States into two less powerful nations.
Early on May 5, 1862, 6,000 French troops under General Charles Latrille Laurencez marched toward Mexico City. The Mexicans expected the attack. General Ignacio Zaragoza, a Texas-born Mexican with little formal military experience, awaited the French at Puebla, just 100 miles from Mexico City. He had 4,000 troops, many of them agricultural workers armed with antiquated rifles and machetes.
General Laurencez had nothing but contempt for Zaragoza’s army. He demonstrated his disdain by attacking the middle of the Mexican army, the enemy’s strongest position.
It was a serious miscalculation. The Mexicans stood their ground, while the French cavalry was forced to ride through ditches, over adobe ruins and toward the slope of Guadalupe Hill. One thousand Frenchmen were killed. Zaragoza then led a series of counter-attacks which forced the French all the way back to the coast. It was France’s first military defeat since the battle of Waterloo half a century earlier.