Batalla de Puebla, also referred to as Cinco de Mayo, occurred in 1862 and represents one of the few victories by the Mexican civic-military union against a world power like France, whose army was recognized as one of the best of that time. It is impossible to write about this memorable and glorious battle for the Mexican people without addressing its origin, the War of Reform.
The War of the Reform was an armed civil conflict fought in Mexico between the years 1858 and 1861, in which the conservative and liberal political parties divided the country while each struggled to impose its model of government and ideals.
The Conservatives were led by General Miguel Miramón, and the Liberals by Benito Juárez. The former gained power after a coup d’état that forced the resignation of President Ignacio Comonfort in January 1858. The latter had been the president of the Supreme Court of Justice when Comonfort resigned, and was therefore the new constitutional President.
In that war the liberal party prevailed, and Benito Juárez, a lawyer of indigenous descent, was elected as president in March 1861. But this internal struggle had left the country with a significant debt to the European nations of England, Spain, and France that amounted to more than 80 million dollars.
The Dilemma of Benito Juárez
Mexico’s impoverished situation endangered President Benito Juarez’s position. The revenues of the Mexican state came from only two unique taxes: those obtained in customs on the import of products, and those generated by the production of silver. Mexico was losing the recognition of the global creditor powers, and Juarez had to decide whether its revenues would be used for the growth of the country or applied to the payment of the debt
With this difficult situation, Juárez decreed the suspension of credit payments on July 17, 1861, generating dissatisfaction among three European nations with the irresponsibility of Mexico. On October 31, 1861, representatives of France, Spain, and England met in London to establish an ultimatum and demand the payment of the debt.
After receiving no replies, they decided to force Mexico to pay through a joint military armed invasion that landed at the port of Veracruz in December 1861: 700 English soldiers, 5,600 Spanish soldiers, and more than 6,000 French soldiers.
Juárez tried to exhaust all diplomatic strategies to prevent a new armed conflict for his country, and sought to negotiate with the representatives of Europe who were quartered in Veracruz. For this task he turned to Manuel Doblado, a political rival of his government who was Governor of Guanajuato, and appointed him Minister of Interior and Exterior for his conciliatory skills.
In February of 1862, Manuel Doblado achieved a moratorium agreement with England and Spain regarding the payment of the debt. It was called Tratados de la Soledad, and allowed England and Spain to intervene in the customs and supervise the taxes on goods that entered Mexico.
Those two European countries accordingly withdrew their troops from the coasts of Veracruz, but France decided not to sign the treaty, and officially continued as an invader of Mexican territory.
Real French Intention
The intention of conquest of Emperor Napoleon III was evident when he ordered his army, led by Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, to capture Mexico City. Ferdinand had a long military career behind him and had participated in colonial wars in Africa, Crimea and Northern Italy. This time, he was in command of a disciplined and properly armed army,which made France visualize itself as an easy winner in this conflict.
Juarez ordered his Minister of War, General Ignacio Zaragoza, to prepare the defense of the nation. Zaragoza decided to form “El Ejército de Oriente” (the Army of the Orient), but this was not an easy task since the Mexican military forces were still divided. Radical and subversive conservative groups remained, continuing to bet on a monarchical model of government and a foreign prince at the head of the country, regardless of the means to achieve it. Some even joined the invader army, as did the conservative general Leonardo Márquez.
All together against French invasion
Attempting to repair the unacceptable division of the Mexican army, President Benito Juárez decreed an amnesty law for all conservatives in arms that wanted to join the national army and defend the republic. He proclaimed a call to arms and opened a recruitment process, but most men did not join voluntarily, which complicated the task of forming the army for battle.
The Conservative General Miguel Negrete, who was a war professional, and the young General Porfirio Diaz, who was in charge of a brigade of indigenous people from the Ixtepeque mountain range, were among those who did respond to Juarez’s call to arms.
An army of pure courage
General Ignacio Zaragoza managed to gather and motivate an army of around 4,700 men, both military and armed civilians, and organized them under Generals Miguel Negrete and Porfirio Diaz. The army clearly had many weaknesses in terms of military training, discipline, armaments, and even in nutrition and health, but its soldiers possessed the courage and latent desire to defend their homeland.
Prelude of the Batalla de Puebla
The first battle between the Mexican and the French armies was on April 27, 1862. The Mexicans tried to ambush the French army, which was led by General Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, at Veracruz. Lorencez was surprised by the attack, but quickly activated his Zouave infantry regiments for a counterattack.
The Zouaves were fierce soldiers from Algeria. Due to the Zouaves, Zaragoza’s army was overwhelmed and forced to retreat to Puebla to reorganize its forces. The retreat of the Mexican troops generated airs of victory in Lorencez, and he mistakenly notified the French Emperor that Mexico was already theirs.
The Batalla de Puebla
The French army wanted a quick conquest in Puebla before advancing to Mexico City. On the morning of May 5, 1862, Lorencez decided to make a direct attack on the most fortified positions of the Mexican army: the forts of Guadalupe and Loreto. When Zaragoza saw the arrival of the French army, he delegated the protection of these forts to General Negrete, who used both cannons and soldiers with bayonets to resist the waves of attacks by the French.
His flanks were guarded by the indigenous brigades under the orders of General Díaz. These men hid in the outskirts, waiting for the precise moment to start a melee with machetes and then with cavalry against the French army.
The battle was intense, and the attacks of the Mexican defenders were surprising and efficient to the point that they neutralized the attacking strategy and discipline of the French army.
Lorencez’s decision to first attack the forts of Guadalupe and Loreto instead of the city of Puebla itself condemned the French army. After three unsuccessful attempts to take the forts, the French decided to retreat. At the end of the battle, most of the casualties were French.
French shame and the revenge of Napoleon III
Being defeated by the Mexican soldiers caused rage and disappointment in the French army and it was a blow to the morale of the Comte de Lorencez, but this did not stop Napoleon III from seeking revenge a year later. In this case, France defeated the Mexican army and took possession of Mexico City on June 10, 1863. This victory formed the Second Mexican Empire, ruled by Maximilian of Habsburgo.
Despite being defeated at the Second Battle of Puebla, the first confrontation, that glorious May 5, 1862, will always be remembered by the Mexican people as a shining example of courage and patriotism. When the Mexican people overcame internal differences and achieved unity, they counteracted all the disadvantages against France and successfully fought for their sovereignty and freedom despite the fact it was short-lived.