There’s a common misconception in the United States that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s independence day. Rather, it commemorates the Mexican victory against the French at the city of Puebla on May 5, 1862. (“Cinco de Mayo” is Spanish for the “5th of May.”) Why was this military victory — the Battle of Puebla — so significant? The determined Mexican defenders delivered a serious blow to the French invasion despite daunting odds and helped to rally Mexicans to resist the occupation of their country.
Prelude to Battle of Puebla
In an attempt to gain a foothold in North America, Emperor Napoleon III desired to establish a puppet government in Mexico. The French emperor planned to place Archduke Maximilian, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, on the throne. But before they could take control of the country, the French needed to overthrow Liberal president Benito Juárez’s government. The opportunity came when France, Spain and Britain sent 10,000 troops to Veracruz while the Mexican Congress suspended paying unpaid debts for two years. Spanish and British troops eventually left Mexico, but French soldiers didn’t.
Roughly 6,000 French soldiers under General Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez marched west from Veracruz toward the Mexican capital. President Juárez responded by sending General Ignacio Zaragoza’s army to intercept Lorencez’s force. The two forces collided at the city of Puebla, 65 miles southeast of Mexico City.
The French Army was regarded as one of the best in the world. In the decade before the invasion of Mexico, it had seen service in conflicts fought on the Crimean Peninsula and in Italy, Africa, and Asia. Among Lorencez’s seasoned and well-trained veterans were Zouaves (pronounced zoo-ahvs), Chasseurs d’Afrique, Chasseurs de Vincennes and French Marines. On the contrary, the Americans had defeated the Mexican Army roughly 15 years before, during the Mexican-American War, largely due to poor senior leadership and inferior armaments.
The French were confident of success. “We have over the Mexicans such a superiority of race, organization, discipline, morality and elevated spirits,” Lorencez wrote to the French minister on the eve of Puebla, “that I beg you to inform the emperor that, from this moment on and at the head of six thousand soldiers, I am the master of Mexico.”
Lorencez’s men were either armed with the M1857 or smoothbore muskets converted from a flintlock to percussion firing mechanism, such as the M1822T or M1853T. By the 1850s, all modern armies adopted the percussion system that replaced the flash pan with a simple brass cap. The M1857 fired a 17.6mm Minié ball, while the M1822T and M1853T fired a 17.5mm round ball.
Once the M1822Ts or M1853Ts were converted from flintlocks to percussion, a “T” was added to the barrel tang that stood for “transformé” or “transformed.” Some were altered again to .708 caliber and rifling added to their barrels, which would fire an 18mm ball. Muskets with rifling had grooves cut into the barrel that allowed the bullet to spin as it left the barrel and added greater range and accuracy. Traditional smoothbore muskets did not have any kind of grooves cut into their barrels. Most of the French soldiers that marched to Puebla were likely armed with muskets that had modern rifling and used the percussion system.
The soldiers of the Mexican Republican Army were typically armed with the rifled 1853 Enfield Rifle Musket or the M1841 or “Mississippi” rifle. More than 1.5 million Enfields were produced from 1853-1867. Enfields were also widely used by both Union and Confederate infantrymen during the American Civil War. The Enfield fired a 14.65mm ball, while the American Mississippi rifle fired a .54 bullet or .58 caliber Minié ball. The Mississippi rifle earned its nickname during the Mexican-American War when Colonel Jefferson Davis purchased and armed the soldiers of the First Regiment, Mississippi Volunteers with these rifles. It is worth noting that Mississippi didn’t have a place to mount a bayonet, so any of Zaragoza’s troops carrying one would have been without a bayonet during hand-to-hand fighting.
Mexican volunteer and National Guard units carried a variety of smoothbore muskets and even outdated flintlocks, such as the Brown Bess or Baker rifle. These rifles fired a 19mm and .62 ball, and had no rifling. Various calibers within a single army complicated resupplying troops during battle, and likely impacted Ignacio Zaragoza’s defenders. While rifled muskets did have a greater range over smoothbore muskets by more than 200 yards, the smoothbore muskets could be equally as effective at closer range when it came to accuracy. Also, smoothbore muskets had higher velocity at shorter ranges compared to rifled muskets. While Zaragoza’s army may have been inferior in training and experience, their armaments weren’t as poor as they have been popularly portrayed. It wasn’t superior guns that led to the stunning Mexican victory against the French. It was the Lorencez’s arrogance, the Mexicans’ stubborn defense and Zaragoza’s audacity.
Lorencez believed his troops were better trained, led and armed. While there may have been some truth to it, Zaragoza had two advantages: his defensive position and that his roughly 5,400 men were fighting to protect their homeland. Two stone forts situated on two hills, Loreto and Guadalupe, anchored Zaragoza’s left flank. “Our enemies may be the world’s best soldiers,” Zaragoza told his men, “but you are the best sons of Mexico, and they want to seize our country from you … ¡Viva México!”
An officer convinced Lorencez that the Mexican defenses were weak and Zaragoza’s men were demoralized. Lorencez also feared his army’s line of communication would be cut off if he marched around the Mexican defenses. He launched an assault against Fort Guadalupe on the Mexican left flank. The Mexicans repulsed the attack. Lorencez then attacked the Mexican right as a diversion and assaulted the fort a second time. The simultaneous attack also failed. In one last desperate effort, Lorencez committed his reserves and attacked with everything. When Lorencez’s forces faltered, Zaragoza took the initiative and launched a counterattack, driving the French from the field after three hours of fighting. Lorencez estimated he lost roughly 500 men, compared to Zaragoza’s fewer than 230. It was a catastrophic defeat for the French.
Cinco de Mayo Celebrates the Battle of Puebla
Word of the French repulse at Puebla quickly spread throughout the world. One American headline read, “How the Mexicans wouldn’t run away — How the French did.” Lorencez blamed the defeat on the weather, which he said obscured his sight and made the slippery ground untenable. He also claimed he was misinformed about the real sentiments of the Mexican defenders. Sadly, Zaragoza died of typhoid fever four months after his stunning victory. During his funeral, a French flag was tossed at the feet of his coffin, and banners hung proclaiming him to be el conquistador de los conquistadores (the conqueror of conquerors).
While the Mexicans won the battle, the French ultimately won the war. The French established a government in Mexico City the following year. But their success was short-lived. When the Civil War ended, General Ulysses S. Grant dispatched 25,000 troops to Texas to pressure the French to withdraw troops from Mexico. The United States government saw the French intervention in Mexico as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and a threat only second to the failed rebellion. By 1867, the French government collapsed and Maximilian was executed. The Mexican adventure was over. The same year, President Juárez declared May 5 a national holiday. While you’re enjoying a margarita this Cinco de Mayo, take a moment to appreciate the Mexican defenders who not only fought to protect Mexico’s sovereignty but who also resisted European intrigue on the United States’ border.
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