“These are not men; they are demons!”
This was Mexican Colonel Francisco De Paulo Milan’s response when presented with the only French survivors of the Battle of Camarone. Earlier that day, April 30th, 1863, 3,000 of his men had been tied up fighting what he assumed was a large and powerful force of French Legionnaires. What Milan didn’t know was that while the French force certainly was powerful, it wasn’t large.
The French army had arrived in Mexico a year earlier, in March of 1862. They were coming to pressure Mexico into paying her debts to her European creditors, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. In May of 1862 they had tried to take the Mexican capital of Puebla but were driven back. On March 16th of 1863, they tried again. By the end of April, the siege of Puebla had been dragging on for a month and a half. The French had been steadily losing troops to disease, and their supply lines were constantly harassed by Mexican guerrillas.
On the 29th of April, a supply convoy was preparing to go out. It carried a king’s ransom in gold francs, artillery pieces and ammunition, all bound for the Siege of Puebla. The convoy was protected by two companies of Fusiliers, but they were going into dangerous and unknown territory.
The mission to reconnoiter the road ahead was given to the 3rd Company 1st Regiment of the French Foreign Legion. The 62-man company had no officers, but three volunteered from the regiment, including the daring one-handed Crimean War veteran, Captain Jean Danjou.
At 01:00 AM on April 30th, 1863 the small band of Legionnaires marched out to roam the countryside. At 07:00 they reached their stopping point, Palo Verde. Captain Danjou told the men to prepare coffee, while sentries were posted to keep an eye out for Mexican guerrillas or cavalry. At 08:00 the call came back, 250 Mexican cavalry had been spotted.
Danjou immediately recalled his sentries, ordered the fires out and his men formed a square. They waited anxiously, watching the cavalry approach them over the fields. Finally, the Mexican force charged them. Danjou’s men held their fire until the enemy closed to 100 yards, to conserve ammunition and ensure accuracy. Finally, they let loose a volley of devastating fire, and the Mexican troops fled to regroup. Danjou moved his men to the top of a small nearby hill and formed another square. Again the cavalry charged, this
Danjou moved his men to the top of a small nearby hill and formed another square. Again the cavalry charged, this time more cautiously. And again the Legionnaires waited until they were practically on top of them to fire. The cavalry finally relented and went back their headquarters two miles to the north to report.
Danjou knew his time was limited. The cavalry would likely be back in numbers, and his men would be quickly destroyed if they stayed out in the open. He retreated to the Hacienda La Trinidad, a small ranch with a 10-foot high wall and two story house. He also got word back to the convoy to return to its base and await further instructions, if his reconnaissance force fell, the convoy would be next.
The Legionnaires immediately set about fortifying their position. They piled debris and anything they could find into the openings around the perimeter. While this kept out the cavalry, it also cut off Danjou’s view of the battlefield.
To compensate they lifted a Polish Sergeant, the Legion being made up volunteers from around the world, onto the roof as a lookout. He reported that there were Mexican troops for as far as the eye could see. The Mexican Colonel Francisco De Paulo Milan had sent a large group of dragoons to deal with what he likely assumed was a large French force.
Milan arrived with his cavalry to oversee the battle. Danjou, on the other side of the wall, knew that his men were completely surrounded and outnumbered. He and his men took an oath to fight to the death, for the glory of France and the Legion. They didn’t have a Bible, so they swore on the captain’s wooden prosthetic hand. Danjou shared a bottle of wine with the men around him and prepared for the worst. Their oath would soon prove to be more prophetic than they had hoped.
Offered surrender by Milan, Captain Danjou responded that they had plenty of Ammunition and were ready to fight. The Battle began in earnest when the Mexicans charged at 11:00 AM. Cavalry rushed the front, as well as the open space at the rear of the small ranch. While the attack was held off, Captain Danjou was shot in the chest and died soon after. Lieutenant Vilain took over command.
The Legionnaires kept up fire against the Mexicans, keeping them from getting close to their small two-story fortress. But they were fighting the extreme heat of noon in the Mexican desert and had no food or water left. Adding to this the Mexicans received reinforcements of around 1200 Infantry. Despite the terrible conditions, the Legionnaires continued to fight as casualties mounted on both sides.
By 14:00 there were only 20 Legionnaires left able to fight. To make matters worse, one of the buildings in the courtyard had been set ablaze, covering the whole area in thick asphyxiating smoke. By 14:30 Lieutenant Vilain had been killed, and Lieutenant Maudet took command. They continued to fight, and by 17:30 there were only 12 men left standing.
Another chance at surrender was offered, and again refused, the Legionnaires taking their oath very seriously. Again the Mexicans charged, this time capturing five Legionnaires, leaving only Lieutenant Maudet and a few men in the stables at the rear of the compound.
Come 18:00 the five remaining Legionnaires were out of ammunition. They had fought for nearly 12 hours, hadn’t eaten since the day before, and had no water. Their entire company had been wiped out before them. But still their oath rang in their ears over the cacophony of gunfire, and they knew that surrender was out of the question. The five men charged out of their position, bayonets fixed. Two were killed by Mexican fire almost immediately, one of them jumping in front of Lieutenant Maudet, saving him from the fateful bullet. Finally, the two remaining enlisted men agreed to surrender, but on their own terms.
They demanded permission to keep their weapons and uniforms, and that the Mexicans must provide their wounded Lieutenant with medical care. Amazed by their tenacity, and wanting to have the whole ordeal over with, the Mexicans accepted their terms. They brought these two bedraggled, battle weary and dehydrated Legionnaires before their commander, Colonel Milan, who famously declared “These are not men, they are demons!”
The Battle of Camaron has gone down as a legend in the Legion. The men who fought and died there are believed to exemplify everything the Legion stands for: brotherhood, discipline, and devotion to duty. Every year it is celebrated on April 30th, with a large parade led by the Legion’s Pioneer Corps.