The 5th of May is Cinco de Mayo
The French have been so romanticized by Hollywood that most of us carry images of dashing French Foreign Legionnaires fighting in deserts and jungles all over the world.
What we never see is French Foreign Legionnaires – mostly German by the way – being wiped out by lowly Third Worlders like what happened on April 30th 1863 in Mexico at a town named “Cameron” (kah-mer-own) in the state of Vera Cruz. The wickedly contrarian French celebrate the April 30 defeat of the French Foreign Legion by Mexican irregular cavalrymen at Camaron. 60 of 65 Legionnaires were killed this day by Mexican irregulars during an all-day battle.
Contrarily, many Americans have taken up the Mexican Cinco de Mayo celebration of a larger defeat of French forces in that same war that was waged by Napoleon III in clumsy attempt to establish another Napoleonic empire and to simultaneously destroy the United States of America.
We Americans should offer many toasts (French Champagne?) for what happened on the 5th of May 1862, about 100-miles east of Mexico City after a night of torrential rains, rains that created knee-deep mud that along with cold mountain rain caused great suffering among ill-equipped, ill-fed, ill-armed Mexicans facing what arguably was Europe’s finest Army.
The “war” started when French, British and Spanish troops landed in Mexico in January, 1862, to collect private debts owed by the “Conservative” Mexican government of 1858. The “Liberal” Mexican government of 1862 refused to honor those debts to private European banks.
The British and Spanish left after they negotiated a deal, the French remained. Why? Because Louis Napoleon III hated the American democracy that at that very moment was fighting a Civil War.
The United States was too busy to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, which warned Europeans not to meddle in the Western Hemisphere. Thus, Napoleon decided to invade Mexico and use it as a base to supply the rebel Confederacy with arms.
The French planned to take the exact route the conquering Americans took in 1847 from the port of Vera Cruz through Puebla into Mexico City. .
Spanish-blooded Creoles without a drop of Indian blood plus Spanish/Indians AKA Mestizos and pure-blooded Indians – Mexicans all – about 4,000 total huddled in the rain the night of May 4 praying their 50-year old rifles would work the next day against the 6,000 French soldiers and 2,000 Monarchist Mexican allies.
The French had not lost a battle in almost five decades since their defeat by the Brits at Waterloo. Coincidentally, the very rifles the Mexicans carried were last used at Waterloo by the British. Machete-armed Indians brought their cattle which they stampeded through the French camp causing chaos.
Texas-born Mexican general Ignacio Zaragoza ordered (future President and dictator) Porfirio Diaz to run his light cavalry away from the French at daylight to give the impression that they feared the beautifully ostrich-plumed French dragoons. The French were so pretty; the Mexicans so cowardly.
The French commander ordered his “superior” infantry to charge the Mexicans head on up a muddy valley without cavalry support. He ordered his beautiful and “superior” cavalry to chase and annihilate the cowardly Mexican horse soldiers.
Two ancient Spanish-built forts blasted away at the French with cannon decades old. Four thousand Mexicans blistered the French with deadly musket fire from their positions above the valley floor. The French suffered 25 percent casualties. It was a slaughter.
The French cavalry limped back from a disastrous chase of Mexican horse soldiers who had turned and killed many of them with lances. The French withdrew and sent for more soldiers.
More came and a year later they defeated the Mexicans at Puebla and marched on Mexico City. Nonetheless, despite losing their capital and much of the country the Mexicans didn’t surrender. The government of Indian President Benito Juarez took to the road and “governed” on the run from wagons. Mexicans took to the hills. Mexicans invented a guerilla war that the French would never overcome.
One lucky surviving French Legionnaire wrote: “Send forty men alone, they will be massacred by the small bands of four to five hundred men who come out of nowhere and who are elusive, protected by the inhabitants of the towns and the countryside who keep them abreast of what we do.”
The Battle of Puebla kept the French at bay in Mexico for another year. By the time the French took Mexico City, the critical Mississippi River town of Vicksburg, Mississippi had fallen to the Federal forces of General U.S. Grant and forever cut the Confederacy in half. The Mexican defeat of the French was a great gift to the USA.
As to how the Battle of Puebla affected U.S. History, one need only know that the Confederate forces did not have enough cannon, cannon balls and black powder at Gettysburg. They would have had the French prevailed on the 5th of May 1862.
During the first three days of July, 1863, 14 months after the Mexicans won their battle in Puebla, the Confederates carried the battle on the first and second of July. They lost on the third day when Federal forces turned back the famous charge of 10,000 Confederates after defeating the Confederates at the Battle of Little Round Top.
The Union was saved.
Napoleon III’s grand scheme to kill the United States came to a grinding halt the 5th of May 1862. Its death came at the hands of Mexicans with 50-year-old rifles, cannon made from church bells and by Mexican soldiers and cavalry who had been fighting each for years. A cattle stampede orchestrated by Indians who spoke no Spanish and had no rifles helped make victory possible.
Mexicans defeated a superior white European army.
Americans gave thanks to Mexicans by shipping captured Confederate arms/munitions to the Rio Grande and leaving them unguarded for Mexican “thieves” to steal at night to use against the French invaders during the day.
General U.S. Grant sent famous Union Cavalry Generals Phil Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer to the Rio Grande with thousands of American troops to remind the French of the Monroe Doctrine. The American army also discharged soldiers in Texas with their rifles and “kits” so they could cross the Rio Grande and join the Mexican Army for $10 a month and some land. They formed the American Legion of Honor and fought for Mexico with glory and panache the French could never match.
The French gave up and left Mexico in 1867 after five years of constant guerilla warfare against them after the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. Cinco de Mayo presaged the embarrassing twilight of the French Empire that ended at a place and disaster known as Dien Bien Phu in “French Indo-China.”
In the we find these appropriate words: “Mexico was not a success for French arms.” It was, however, a “success” for freedom, a freedom enjoyed by the millions who live in the USA and Mexico.
¡Viva Cinco de Mayo!
Contreras’ books are available at amazon. com