*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Five months after Napoleon III of France ordered troops into Mexico under the guise of defending his country’s interests, the Mexican Army scored a major victory at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Facing superior numbers and advanced technology held by their counterparts from Europe, the native soldiers managed to slow the French march toward Mexico City. Cinco de Mayo, an annual celebration in the state of Puebla and across the United States, commemorates the triumph to this day.
Ever since achieving independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico faced tremendous upheaval as opposing factions attempted to wrangle control of the government. Some, interested in central control placed in one individual, attempted to create a parliamentary monarchy similar to those on the rise in Europe. Others, enticed by the possibility of a federal republic similar to that in the neighboring U.S., attempted to exert influence by shedding the Catholic Church and subjugating the military.
In 1855, led by Benito Juarez and Ignacio Comonfort, the progressive element gained control from General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Following the Mexican-American War, the country was now significantly smaller — Texas and much of the Southwest U.S. were lost — and the ousting of Santa Anna amounted to a new lease on life for Mexico as a nation. Immediately, Liberal representatives like Juarez offered fresh legislation to President Juan Alvarez that separated the Church from the state.
Conservatives, angered by the assault on traditional religious involvement in governing, decried the laws and quickly mounted a rebellion in Puebla. Over the next two years, additional statutes authorized the government to seize Church property and, when necessary, hold public auctions when officials refused to sell land at reduced prices. Further, several important Catholic days were now relegated to minor status and crucial events to Mexico’s history honored with holidays of their own.
Just as another Constitution was passed in 1857, the nation fell into civil war once again. General Tomas Mejia gathered an army to defend Conservative principles, eventually marching his forces into Mexico City and ousting Liberal politicians to start the Reform War. Juarez, jailed by Mejia’s men, eventually escaped to western Mexico, and was acknowledged by the displaced government as president when he moved to the provisional capital of Veracruz. For three years, the two sides fought a bitter campaign against each other, with the Liberals’ retaking Mexico City on January 1, 1861.
Officially handed the highest office in the land two months later, Juarez stared a frightening reality in the face: Mexico had, in many ways, destroyed itself from the inside. The treasury was empty and the fledgling infrastructure ripped to shreds. In order to help the nation rebuild, he opted to stop servicing debts accrued to European nations like France, Spain and Britain in July 1861.
Napoleon III, seeing an opportunity to grab territory in the Americas while the U.S. was embroiled in its own civil war, formed a coalition with the other Mexican creditors in Europe and launched ships for the Western Hemisphere. The first elements arrived on December 8, 1861, fully aware the Americans would be unable to honor the Monroe Doctrine’s promise to defend other nations from fresh colonization and, at least from a French perspective, determined to claim the whole of Mexico. (The British and Spanish, once Napoleon’s intentions became clear, backed out of the coalition and returned to Europe on April 9th.)
General Ignacio Zaragoza, leading the Mexican Army, drove his soldiers toward the French troops withdrawing to the coastal city of Orizaba commanded by General Charles de Lorencez. Late in April 1862, after being roundly thumped at Alcuzingo Pass, Zaragoza ordered his men into the city of Puebla to regroup. For the next week, Mexican forces worked furiously to link the two forts outside, Loreto and Guadalupe, with the garrison inside.
On May 5, 1862, Lorencez marched his men toward Puebla from the north. Through the course of day, the French commander made a series of strategic missteps: attacking under the noonday sun, launching forward into the teeth of the Mexican defense and overestimating the local desire to see Zaragoza’s units thrown out. By mid-afternoon, as Lorencez’s full force made a third run at Puebla — this time without the benefit of artillery cover — the fatigued troops were repulsed once again.
With the French limping away, Zaragoza directed his cavalry to pounce. Mexican horsemen swept in from both sides just as a group of hidden riflemen stood up and opened fire. Lorencez pulled his armies back to a nearby hill after suffering 462 dead. Though the French general hoped to draw his opposite number into another engagement, Zaragoza held his ground for three days and left Lorencez no choice but to complete his movement back to Orizaba.
Joyous after facing overwhelming odds, Juarez decided the following September that Mexico would honor the unexpected victory every year. However, twelve months later, a larger collection of French soldiers would triumph at the Second Battle of Puebla and take Mexico City in a matter of weeks. Pleased to have a government of his own choosing in control, Napoleon installed the Habsburg prince Maximilian as the first Emperor of Mexico on April 10, 1864.
The Conservatives were happy to see the Emperor in charge, though conflict continued between the Mexican political factions. Maximilian reigned as a puppet king for three years before diplomatic pressure drove the French out and stranded him — the Liberals, after regaining Mexico City in April 1867, executed the former Emperor two months later.
Also On This Day:
1818 – Political philosopher Karl Marx is born in Prussia.
1821 – Napoleon Bonaparte dies in exile at Saint Helena.
1891 – Carnegie Hall, then known as The Music Hall in New York City, opens with Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as guest conductor.
1905 – The Stratton Brothers Case, the first to use fingerprint evidence in rendering a murder conviction, opens in London.
1961 – Alan Shepard becomes the first American to travel into outer space, flying aboard Mercury-Redstone 3.