Today is celebrated in memory of the Battle of Peubla, Mexico as “Cinco de Mayo” – the Fifth Of May. Though observation of this holiday is quite localized in Mexico, being mainly celebrated around the city of Puebla, it is widely observed in the United States (and even Canada these days.) A common misconception is that Cinco de Mayo is “Mexican Independence Day,” but this is not the case. Mexico’s independence is honored on 16 September. Cinco de Mayo commemorates an important military victory, and its observance was decreed by Mexico’s legally elected president Benito Juarez on the 9th of May 1862. Because the outcome of the battle had a lasting impact upon the history of the United States, it is not at all strange to find its anniversary celebrated here, though it appears that few people delve into these connections.
On this date in 1862, Mexican forces led by Texas‐born General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin (he was born in Goliad, Texas) and General Porfirio Diaz defeated an invading French army at Puebla on the road to Mexico City. The French forces outnumbered the Mexican troops at least 2 to 1, and they had much more modern armaments such as rifled muskets. Some of the Mexican troops carried muskets that had seen service with British troops in the Battle of Waterloo 47 years earlier (the selling off of outdated weapons to developing nations being an old and respected tradition!) It is a wonderful irony that those same “Brown Bess” muskets beat the French a second time! Despite the unequal odds, the ferocity and audacity of the Mexican troops defeated the French nevertheless.
This patriotic victory stalled the French invasion for more than a year, and though the French ultimately remained in Mexico until 1867, this battlefield success proved that Mexico could face the military might of Europe without relying on the support of the United States and its Monroe doctrine (the U.S. was rather preoccupied with an internal struggle at the time.)
The French had invaded Mexico at Veracruz in April of 1861 along with British and Spanish troops under the pretext of collecting payment toward Mexico’s outstanding loans owed to those countries. The year before, after three years of bitter civil strife between the conservative party led by Felix Zuloaga and the liberal party led by Benito Juarez, Juarez had formed a government and had, of necessity, suspended payment on all foreign debt. (A common tactic to this day.)
After Juarez’ government negotiated terms for extended repayment with both Britain and Spain, France’s Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon, a nephew of the Napoleon) declared that France was unsatisfied and would remain in Mexico until full repayment was completed. Britain and Spain withdrew their troops, but Napoleon III, confident that he could succeed while the United States was rent by Civil War, decided to install his own puppet government in Mexico.
The conservative faction was impressed with Louis Napoleon’s plan to place a European monarch at the head of Mexico, and backed the French. The liberal republicans who supported Juarez vowed resistance. As the powerful French force advanced from Veracruz to Mexico City, they won city after city and seemed to be unstoppable; after all, the French army had not lost a battle since Waterloo. But, at Puebla, the loyal Mexican forces rallied and made what was almost certainly a last‐ditch, suicidal stand. Yet they prevailed and turned back the French advance.
Since “Cinco de Mayo,” is a Mexican holiday, some may wonder why we in the U.S. would have any interest in it. Well – as is true for so much of history – there is an important but often overlooked connection between the Battle of Puebla, the Mexican Victory/French defeat, and the very fate of the United States of America.
My friend George Krieger was good enough to point out this connection to me some years ago, and I feel it is worth sharing, because it turns out the United States of America was a very real beneficiary of the Mexican victory.
In May of 1862 The United States of America had been engaged in a fierce Civil War for just over a year. This meant that the U.S. could not intervene against the French in Mexico as I mentioned earlier. But it is also worth noting that after nearly a year without new shipments of raw cotton from the South, the vast cloth mills of England and France were becoming idle. Many politicians and patricians in England were very interested in throwing their support, financial and military, to the Confederacy. In France, Louis Napoleon was similarly eager to support the Confederacy.
The reasons behind this notion of supporting the Rebels were more than just a desire to keep the mills running and the people working. There were also geo-political considerations: neither England nor France were anxious for a growing United States to become a Western rival to their dominance of world trade and politics. It would help both England and France to maintain their global positions if the United States remained two separate countries (preferably squabbling with each other!)
In his concise history of the Confederacy, The Confederate Nation: 1861 – 1865, Emory Thomas notes: “… diplomatic circumstances were a bit more volatile … than historians have often assumed. The Powers had not declared irrevocable neutrality. James McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom, his acclaimed one-volume history of the Civil War, “Napoleon [III] dared not act unilaterally … he recognized that a confrontation … without Britain at his side might scuttle his plans. From his summer palace, Napoleon therefore instructed his foreign secretary: “Demandez au government anglais s’il ne croit pas le moment venu…“* And McPherson further notes that a Union diplomat in London, James Mason, sent his superiors dispatches warning of intervention.
The threat of Anglo-French intervention in the United States Civil War was quite real and such intervention would have been disastrous for the cause of The Union. Great Britain had the greatest navy in the world, and it was chiefly lack of a navy that put the South at a great disadvantage in the war from the start. And, too, France had a large and well-trained military presence on the North American continent, in Mexico.
If the French army had triumphed at Puebla, it is very possible that Louis Napoleon would have been willing to take steps to aid the Confederacy. Had the French not been forced to withdraw and regroup, and to spend another year recovering from the Mexican victory, the United States might not exist as we know it today. Unreconstructed Rebels amongst us notwithstanding, the world would be a much different place had the Union been sundered, very likely a much worse place as well, for what nation, then, would have been able to defeat an Adolph Hitler, or to bring down a Soviet Union?
Always bear in mind that events in history do not happen in a vacuum. The events a world away affect us, and surely the events next door must as well. The failure of the Polish wheat harvest in the Fall of 1862 also helped to deter Anglo-French intervention in our Civil War (the details of which are for another essay.) But it remains that the victory celebrated by our Mexican neighbors indeed helped to make the world we have today. It was Mexico’s greatest patriotic victory, at the time surpassing in importance and emotion even Mexico’s independence from Spain. But it also was a victory for our One Nation, Indivisible.
Here’s to the Fifth of May! And my thanks to George Krieger for reminding me of this connection.
The emotional impact of the victory is commemorated in the festivities celebrating “Cinco de Mayo.” In the modern U.S., the day has become yet another occasion for marketing hype and enthusiastic consumption, with little or no concern for the actual reason or origins of the event (just as have other national holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, and even Chinese New Year.) It is primarily owing to the marketing muscle of U.S. Mega-Brewers that we find Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Hawaii, Alaska, across the lower 48, and even in major Canadian cities these days. There is little thought of how the Battle of Puebla affected contemporary history. Rather, it is simply another reason to have a party (and to consume immense amounts of beer.) But that’s terrific! We can always use another excuse to celebrate!
Flower Mound, Texas
Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria . — Zaragoza
 The Confederate Nation: 1861 – 1865, Emory M. Thomas, Harper & Row: New York, 1979. p. 182.
* “Ask the English government if they think that the moment has come…”
 Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press: New York, 1988. pp. 554-555.