The Battle for Puebla

The Real Story of Cinco de Mayo

All history is written from one perspective or another with the victor usually writing the narrative. In the case of The Battle for Puebla, we are dealing with the dynamic of defeatism in México, where history is propagandized for political purposes, and with marketing schemes appropriating history for commercialism. Somewhere in there is the truth — lost in myth and in the propaganda wrapped up in a marketing ploy. Most of you reading this today know the Battle of Puebla as Cinco de Mayo, but you don’t know the whole of it.

Let us start by clearing up the largest misconception about Cinco de Mayo, it is not Mexican Independence Day. México’s Independence Day was on September 16, 1810. That was the day that Dolores Hidalgo proclaimed that México would go it alone and thus began the revolt against Spain. The Battle for Puebla was on May 5, 1862, over fifty years later. It was fought against a French invading army that was marching to impose a monarchy in México under Napoleon III.

The history of the Battle for Puebla, like most Mexican history, involves a complex set of dynamics over decades of internal discord. The Mexican War for Independence lasted almost eleven years, from 1810 until 1821. Immediately after, a Constitutional Monarchy (Imperio Mexicano) was established under the direct control of the Catholic Church. Between 1821 and 1833, various battles occurred between various political ideological groups competing for control of the country. The competing ideologies were the federalists, centrists, conservatives, liberals and the republicans. (For a chronology of Mexican wars follow this link)

Although the ideologies remained unsettled, for the most part the fighting had subsided by 1833. However, that did not last long, because in 1835, Texas rebelled against México over the prohibition of slavery in Mexican territories.

That war was followed in 1838 when France invaded México in what became known as the Guerra de los Pasteles, or the Pastry War. The Pastry War ended a year later. This was first French intervention of México.

Between 1846 and 1854, the United States intervened twice in México. The result of the first intervention, in 1846, was the loss of about half of México’s national territory. In 1854, William Walker invaded México in an attempt to establish a colony in Sonora.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church consistently intervened in Mexican affairs through political backchannel intrigues. In 1847, in what is today known as the Rebelión de los Polkos, a group organized under the influence of James K. Polk, who were rebels supporting the Catholic Church, rose to defend the expropriation of Church property. At the same time, the indigenous Mayans also rebelled for indigenous rights in southern México.

Additionally, two more battles were held against the United States by Mexican irregulars in 1859 and 1861 near Brownsville Texas. During this time, starting around 1857, war raged across México between the conservatives (Republicans) and the liberals.

Benito Pablo Juárez García, better known as Benito Juárez was one of the leaders of the liberals fighting the conservatives. Benito Juárez, as Minister of Justice, drafted the Juárez Law which proclaimed all citizens equal and limited the authority of the Catholic Church and the army in political affairs.

In 1857, a liberal Constitution was adopted. Félix María Zuloaga led a rebellion, with the support of the Catholic Church, to restore Church authority in Mexican political affairs.

The War of Reform raged as the country was divided into two political ideologies, the conservatives versus the liberals. The conservatives were led by Félix María Zuloaga while the liberals were led by Benito Juárez. Zuloaga controlled Mexico City while Juárez established himself in Veracruz, a very important commerce port in México at the time. The port was the lifeline for European commerce through México.

In 1859, the United States government, through Robert McLane signed a diplomatic accord whereby Juárez began to receive aid overcoming the conservatives’ military advantage. On January 1, 1861, Benito Juárez recaptured Mexico City and assumed the presidency.

The defeated conservatives continued to stage guerilla attacks against the Benito Juárez administration for years. The various armed conflicts had left the Mexican state’s infrastructure severely damaged and the economy was destroyed.

With Benito Juárez in control of México, it was now illegal for the Catholic Church to own property and they were limited in the tithes and in the fees they were extracting from Mexicans. Up until Benito Juárez took power, the Catholic Church was the largest land owner in México. It owned almost one-third of the private land in México. The Mexican government attempted to pay for the Catholic Church land that expropriated through the Ley Lerdo, but the Catholic leaders refused to accept the payments and instead continued to fund the rebellion against the Mexican government.

Starting in 1861, a movement to convince Europe that the Mexican people wanted a European monarchy placed over them was started by political factions within México. Their attempt was opposed by an indigenous president, Juárez and his liberal government who wanted a México independent of the Church or of European influence. Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was chosen as the monarch for México. Maximilian was the natural choice for a Latin American monarchy because of his affinity towards the region. However, Austria did not have the maritime resources in place to establish the monarchy in México. It needed France and England, the two greatest maritime superpowers of the time to support it.

Meanwhile, the United States was divided into two countries with the onset of the American Civil War, it opened the opportunity for Europeans to attempt to reclaim their lost territories. The United States was in no position to oppose European intervention in the New World. The New World was now open to European interlopers.

México’s foreign relations, at this point in time, was European-centric depending on European commerce. This, was in addition to the United States.

In the attempt to rebuild México after many years of wars that it had endured, Benito Juárez informed the European countries that it was suspending debt payments for two years. Britain and France received notification of the suspension of the debt payments on July 17, 1861. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continued to fund opposition to the Juárez administration.

It is important to note that before Félix María Zuloaga was defeated by the liberals, he had implored Napoleon III to intervene to restore order in México, under his authority. Napoleon III was too distracted by European issues and thus ignored the request from Zuloaga.

In response to the suspension of the debt payments, England and France mobilized their naval forces to occupy the Port of Veracruz, through which most of the revenues from foreign trade traversed on its way to the Mexican government. Spain, already had naval forces in Cuba and it also mobilized them. Spain still entertained the possibility of reestablishing itself upon México.

On October 31, 1861, the Convention of London was signed by England, France and Spain. All three countries agreed to mount military operations against México to recover the debt payments. A clause in the convention specifically prohibited the three countries from acquiring any land and resources or from interfering in internal Mexican affairs. They were only authorized by the convention to recover the debt owed to them.

Spain immediately set sail from Cuba landing 6,000 troops in Veracruz.

On January of 1862, the French landed in Veracruz. The English soon followed, landing only 200 marines.

For the English, the French and the Spaniards, Veracruz was nothing but miserable for them. Juárez had decreed that any help proffered to the invaders would result in an immediate death sentence for treason. The largest danger to the invading armies, though was the Yellow Fever, or vomito negro, that caused many casualties among the Spaniards and the French troops.

England was only intent in collecting its debt, while Spain was contemplating on reestablishing itself upon México. Napoleon III, by this time, had been convinced that he could establish a foothold in the Americas by imposing Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian as the new emperor of México. The opposing interests created discord among the invading allies, leading to distrust among themselves.

Benito Juárez used the discord among them and the threat of Yellow Fever on the invading troops and began negotiations. The Spaniards soon realized that it was too hated by the Mexicans to have any hope of reconquering its lost territories and, thus, it sided with the English.

Juárez negotiated a settlement, first by quartering the invading troops in Orizaba, while negotiations between the various governments were undertaken, to protect the troops from the Yellow Fever threat. The three invading armies were quartered under the flags of the four nations, including México’s flag, thus the allies tacitly accepted the Convention of London and the government of Benito Juárez. The troop quartering agreement was signed on February 9, 1862 in La Soledad. It signaled the beginning of negotiations between the four countries. The governments of England and Spain signed the agreement, while the French disavowed it.

On April 9, 1862, the English and the Spaniards openly accused the French of breaking the Convention of London. The French had brought Juan Almonte, a former leader of the conservatives and a former Mexican soldier, who had come along with the French as Napoleon’s emissary to establish the monarchy in México. Almonte had arrived along with another 2,000 French soldiers under the command of General Lorencez in March. The arrival of Almonte erased any pretense that the French would honor the agreement of nonintervention in México.

General Ferdinand Latrille Comte de Lorencez was a relative of Empress Charlotte also known as Carlota, who was married to Maximilian. History has shown that Empress Carlota had been the driving force behind the attempt to impose Maximilian as the emperor of México.

Lorencez considered the Mexicans inferior to the French.

After reaching a settlement with México, the English departed México on April 10, 1862. By the middle April, the Spaniards had also departed as well. At the end of April, Lorencez, with 6,000 French troops began to march on Mexico City to impose a monarchy on the country under Ferdinand Maximilian. About 1,000 French troops had already succumbed to Yellow Fever but 6,000 troops remained active. Lorencez had no doubt that he would be in Mexico City by May 25, according to a dispatch he had sent Napoleon III before departing. Lorencez had been under the illusion, perpetuated by the Church and Carlota that the Mexicans were ready for a monarchy and thus expected welcoming Mexicans in Puebla. Lorencez also heavily underestimated the Mexicans refusing to believe that they were equal to the French.

Instead of open arms and flowers, the French army was met by 4,000 Mexican soldiers armed with obsolete, almost 50-year-old weapons left over from the Battle of Waterloo. The English had sold México the weapons previously. They were a ragtag army hastily organized to defend Puebla from the French.

The Mexicans were led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, a veteran of the conservative-liberal wars. Zaragoza was born in present day Goliad, Texas, when it was still Mexican territory and thus was a Texan, giving the future Cinco de Mayo holiday in the United States a nexus. The Mexican defenders were mostly a militia drafted into service with only three months of training.

Opposing them was a French army made up of Zouavez, Algerian regiments drafted into French service in 1830. The Zouavez were renowned as an elite French army force having fought in many French military expeditions. By 1853, there were three Zouavez regiments.

On May 5, 1862, Lorencez attacked Puebla. He was forced to retreat by the Mexican forces under Zaragoza. The Mexican forces repelled various French attacks. After Lorencez was unable to take Puebla in his initial attacks that day, he regrouped his forces and again attacked from the south. The Oaxaca infantry and the Rifleros de San Luis stopped his advances upon the southern part of the city. The Brigada Porfirio Díaz then pursued the French when they tried to retreat from the field of battle. General Zaragoza, knowing that his forces were outgunned and out manned, ordered the pursuit by Porfirio Díaz, broken off.

By the end of the day, the French had registered 476 casualties. Mexican forces registered 83 dead, 102 wounded and 12 missing in action. [Mexican Army official report]

Lorencez, humiliated, was forced to retreat and summoned more forces to continue his advance upon Mexico City. On November 10, 1862, Lorencez was forced to relinquish his command to General Élie Frédéric Forey, who had arrived with French reinforcements to continue the march upon Mexico City.

The Battle for Puebla was not the decisive victory that the Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States mistakenly portray it to be. Rather, the Battle for Puebla was a much-needed affirmation of the Mexican psyche that pushed away, for a time, the feeling of defeatism that had overtaken Mexicans over the numerous years of wars and losses of national territory. The Batalla de Puebla was a psychological win for the Mexicans and a defeat for the French.

The French went on to impose the Second Mexican Empire (Segundo Imperio Mexicano) under Maximiliano I. It was the second monarchy to govern México. The Catholic Church and the conservatives were now back in power in México. Benito Juárez was forced to retreat his government to present day Cd. Juárez, then known as El Paso del Norte. The City of Juárez was ultimately renamed in honor of Benito Juárez in 1888.

In 1865, the American Civil War ended and the U.S. government started to impose pressure upon France under the Monroe Doctrine. In 1866, Napoleon III withdrew the French troops leaving Maximiliano I without French troops for support. Napoleon III had stretched his military forces too thin and he needed to bring back his 40,000 French troops deployed to México to help guard the Pope from the Italians and reinforce his units in Algeria.

On June 19, 1867, Maximiliano I and two of his generals are executed by firing squad, effectively ending the French monarchy in México and restoring Benito Juárez as the legitimate president of México.

The Battle for Puebla proved that Mexicans could overcome their sense of defeatism and thus a slow reawakening began. For Mexicans, the Battle for Puebla is a civic holiday about a historical event that gave Mexicans a sense of accomplishment.

Sources:
1. Haslip, Joan; The Crown of Mexico: Maximilian and His Empress Carlota; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1971
2. Marley, David; Wars of the Americas: A Chronology of Armed Conflict in the New World, 1492 to the Present; ABC-CLIO, 1998
3. Krauze, Enrique; Mexico: Biography of Power; HaperCollins, 1997
4. Hamnett, Brian R.; Juarez; Longman Publishing Group, 1994
5. Sepúlveda, César; La política internacional de México en el decenio de los ochenta; Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, 1994
6. Medalla Conmemorativa de la Heroica Batalla del 5 de mayo de 1862; Sociedad Numismática de Puebla, 1962
7. Fuentes, Gloria; El Ejercito Mexicano; Editorial Grijalbo, México, 1983