Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) is a holiday commemorating the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. It is not Mexican Independence Day (that’s in September), although in the United States that is a common misconception, possibly because “5th of May” sounds similar to “4th of July”, our own Independence Day.
The year was 1862. Following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and loss of significant territory to the United States, the situation in Mexico was unstable. A civil war between secular and Catholic Mexicans, known as the Reform War (1858-1861), depleted the nation’s treasury. Mexican President Bonito Juarez called for a two year recess from repaying foreign loans, while their economy stabilized.
Meanwhile, civil war was also the biggest issue facing the United States. General Robert E. Lee of the rebel Confederate forces was enjoying success. The best military schools were in the South, with the best armament factories in the North. In 1962, with Lincoln actually being terrible at picking generals and making strategic decisions as he was, it looked like the Confederacy might win.
In Europe, Napoleon III ruled France (not to be confused with the other French ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte). He, along with Spain and Britain, sent naval forces to Mexico to ensure faster loan repayment. But Napoleon went farther than that, viewing the instability in North America as an opportunity. His forces sought to occupy Mexico and bring it under French rule.
When French forces landed in Veracruz, President Juarez and his government fled. As the French soldiers marched onward into the state of Peubla, they encountered tremendous resistance at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. Although estimates of troop numbers vary (were there 6,000 French soldiers or 6,500?), everyone agrees that the Mexicans were greatly outnumbered.
Yet they were victorious against “the premiere army of the world”, as France’s troops were known at the time. This battle was not the war, however, and after France captured Mexico City, Napoleon appointed Emperor Maximilian I as (French) ruler of Mexico. This French rule spanned from 1864-1867 before Mexican freedom fighters executed Emperor Miximilian and restoring President Juarez to power.
(Continue to part 2)