The city of Paris abounds with sights to see. One of the more interesting for me is the Musee d’Armee located in the Hotel d’Invalides. There, two audio-visual and interactive exhibits depict and describe the Battle of Waterloo that ended Napoleon’s reign for good in 1815, and the Battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which ended that of his nephew Napoleon III. What is remarkable is that the French lost both of these engagements along with the wars in which they were fought, yet the museum does not seem at all defensive about them. They are presented to the visitor as matters of fact.
Another battle in with the French Army did not fare well is celebrated in our neighbor to the south and arrives each year with some degree of recognition in the United States, mostly in Texas and the other three border states. This event is commemoration of the Battle of Puebla fought on May 5, 1862, the Cinco de Mayo. Today is the sesquicentennial of that engagement.
In 1862, Mexico had defaulted on foreign debts, a result of the civil war between what loosely can be described as conservative and liberal factions, as those terms were understood at the time, that had only nominally ended the year before. Its principal creditors were Spain, which had never completely reconciled to losing Mexico as a colony in the first place, and France. Britain also had a claim for property stolen by various generals on both sides of the civil conflict. In the Nineteenth Century, being a debtor was a sufficient casus belli for a creditor nation.
Spain had an army in Cuba and prepared to invade Mexico to collect its debts unilaterally. France, then under the Second Empire of Napoleon III had grander ideas. Napoleon was anxious to expand France’s overseas empire much as the British had done with their’s, and looked upon Latin America as plum ripe for the picking. The pesky American Monroe Doctrine made European re-colonization attempts in the Western Hemisphere a diplomatic and possibly a military risk for any foreign power so inclined. The United States, however, being embroiled in its own Civil War, was not in a position to enforce that doctrine.
France, together with Britain and Spain, agreed to send a tripartite military expedition to Veracruz as show of force to prod the Mexicans to pay up. Napoleon, however, had ulterior motives. His idea was to use this foray, conceived as limited, as cover for an invasion to seize the capital, provoke a revolution against the shaky government of Benito Juarez, and install a client as Emperor of Mexico. Napoleon had already persuaded Austrian Archduke Maximilian to take the throne.
The British and Spanish, who only wanted their money, made a deal with Juarez’s government to withdraw and make no further military incursions while Mexico made arrangements to pay. General the Comte de Lorencez, the French commander, whose intent was all along to conquer Mexico and enthrone Maximilian, pressed on toward Mexico City. Ignacio Zaragoza, a Texas born officer who had demonstrated his military prowess in the internal conflicts, established a redoubt in two forts guarding the passage to the city of Puebla with only a small, poorly armed force. Lorencez made the mistake of not using the tactics of the first Napoleon (and those of the U.S. Army General Winfield Scott who had successfully invaded Mexico only 15 years prior) by using artillery to reduce the forts. He sent his battalions in a frontal assault believing his supposedly superior soldiers could overwhelm the Mexicans. Lorencez was wrong. The French attackers marched into a crossfire in which more than a thousand out of six thousand men in his force were killed, while the Mexicans stood their ground. What was essentially a ragtag army carried the day. That Cinco de Mayo, the French were forced to withdraw to Veracruz.
It would seem that the victory was short lived because another, larger French force under a much abler commander, again invaded the next year. On May 31, 1863, the Juarez government was forced to flee, and Maximilian was enthroned as Emperor in Mexico City. Nevertheless, Mexico was never completely, or even mostly conquered. Even though he had the support of Mexican royalists, clericals, and various conservative elements, Maximilian only ruled in the areas under French Army control. The most energized political forces in the nation were still the backers of Juarez, and were biding their time. Napoleon’s grandiose scheme was becoming financially ruinous, and he ordered his troops withdrawn in 1866, leaving Maximilian in an untenable position. He was deposed and executed by firing squad June 19, 1867. The full story of Maximilian is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. He was not a despot, and was revered by many in Mexico, then and even now. His story, of course, is too long to tell here.
The significance of the Battle of Puebla is twofold. First, whether the victory was really the result of the Lorencez’s bungling or the steadfast courage of Zaragoza’s men, the fact remains that the Mexicans bested the army of one of the premier world military powers. The Cinco de Mayo became a focus of national pride, much like the Alamo is for Texas, and Lexington and Concord are for the United States as a whole. Second, and really more significant, similar to the Texan stand at the Alamo that gave Sam Houston time to marshal his forces, the Cinco de Mayo victory delayed the French installation of Napoleon’s client Maximilian in Mexico by a full year. Recall that the American Civil War was going on at this time, and in 1862 a Confederate victory seemed a good bet. The Confederacy had been actively seeking the recognition and assistance of Britain and France, both of whose economic interests were aligned with the South. Neither, however, was inclined to intervene on the losing side. If Napoleon had established a foothold in Mexico as early as May 1862, he well might have decided that the Cotton Kingdom could serve him and his plans in a number of ways. This, of course, might be dismissed as contra factual speculation, but seems logical in view of the known historical facts.
For sources, see T. R. Fehrenbach, Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico (Da Capo Press Edition 1995), Chapter 29; Jasper Ridley, Maximilian and Juarez (Phoenix Press London, 2001). Most primary sources are in Spanish or French.
The Friday, May 4, 2012 Dallas Morning News features columnist Steve Blow recounting of the family history of Mary Stewart. Ms. Stewart is an 82 year old local resident whose grandfather Eugene Carrier, was a medical officer in the French army at Puebla. Dr. Carrier settled on Mexico, and married some local women. This couple’s son, who emigrated to Texas, went into the grocery business, and married here was Ms. Stewart’s father.