By Raoul Lowery Contreras
Agreat deal of blood drenched Mexico’s soil to uphold a political principle of the United States of America on the 5th of May, Cinco De Mayo, 1862, and none of it was American. It was mostly French, and it was the first defeat of the French Army in almost 50 years.
The victors: Mexicans armed with half-century old rifles; and, Mexicans armed with machetes. Mexicans who had thrown out their Spanish masters forty years before in a decade-long War of Independence.
The beneficiaries: Mexican self-determination; Latin American self-determination; and, American pride, dignity and position in world affairs. When American Secretary of State James Monroe bravely proclaimed that European powers could not re-impose their monarchical or other systems on any country in the Americas, neither he nor the thirty-year-old United States could do anything to back up his “MONROE DOCTRINE”.
Nevertheless, the Doctrine was respected by European powers until Communists took over Cuba in 1959, with one glaring exception, the 1862 French invasion of Mexico.
More beneficiaries: Abraham Lincoln and his struggle to keep the Union whole as the great Mexican victory prevented European royalty from flooding the American Civil War with munitions for the Confederacy. And, American soldiers who swiftly made their way to Mexico when the Confederacy had been defeated to join the Mexican Army; as well as every American who savors freedom today.
Freedom won, in part, by Mexican teenaged soldiers in the mountains 100 miles east of Mexico City on the 5th of May, Cinco De Mayo.
Cinco De Mayo does not celebrate Mexican Independence Day; it commemorates the Battle of Puebla between 6,000 French soldiers and 2,000 Mexican allies and 4,850 Mexican soldiers under the commmand of Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza.
Following the same route Spaniard Hernando Cortes took in 1519 from the Gulf of Mexico towards Mexico City and American General Winfield Scott took in the Mexican American War in 1848, French General Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Count of Lorencez, marched his soldiers into the Mexican mountains hoping to engage the Mexican soldiers of President Benito Juarez in one decisive battle. He did and he lost.
On the 4th of May, General Zaragoza ordered Colonel Porfirio Diaz, later Mexico’s President and dictator for thirty years, to take his cavalry several miles away from the city of Puebla to be used as a battle reserve.
The Count divided his forces and sent one column to chase Diaz’s cavalry and his main column to attack two forts guarding the city of Puebla. The evening of May 4th was used by both sides to prepare for battle.
Confessions were heard, letters written, rifles cleaned and prayers uttered by Mexican citizen-soldiers who knew the army they faced hadn’t lost a battle since Waterloo, fifty years before. The French prepared for battle as only professionals can, for they knew they hadn’t lost a battle since Waterloo and, brimming with professional confidence, they prepared to win.
The rains came. Heavy torrential rains. Then, before dawn, came the Indians, the Indians for whom there were no rifles, only machetes. They also brought their cattle with them, cattle they stampeded through the French troops causing the professional soldiers to scatter, giving Zaragoza time to reposition his cannon and troops.
The Mexicans waited. Dawn came. Onward came the French through the mud, to be slaughtered. Profirio Diaz and his cavalry, probably some of the best cavalry in the world, attacked the French sent to hunt him down.
When the sun went down, that 5th of May, 1862, almost a thousand French were killed or wounded. Diaz was chasing French late into the night. The Indians scoured the Killing Fields and retrieved French rifles, then melted back into the hills. The Hills from which they would wage a guerilla war for the next five years.
With tails between their legs, the French retreated to the coast to await 30,000 more men; to wait for a year. They would return, and they would win the second battle of Puebla. They would chase Benito Juarez to within yards of the Amnerican Border. They would bring Prince Maximilian from Austria and crown him Emperor of Mexico. They would occupy most of Mexico.
They came, they told the world, to collect legal debts. The reality was, however, they came because the United States of America was busy disemboweling itself and couldn’t enforce its Monroe Doctrine. But when America defeated its domestic enemies it turned a jaundiced eye towards the French interlopers on its southern border.
Combat-veteran Americans, answering Juarez’ 1864 call for volunteers, rushed across the border to help the very army and country they had fought less than twenty years before in America’s bloodiest war ever. Armed with weapons covertly supplied by the U.S. and protected by U. S. soldiers in Texas, Mexicans and their American volunteers took the offensive. It was now only a matter of time.
When the war ended in 1867, Juarez led his triumphant Army into Mexico City, an Army that included an American Legion of Honor. Though long and bloody, the war’s end began on the 5th of May 1862 at the Battle of Puebla and continued through victory because, as one French General put it, “Bah! Every Mexican is a guerillero, either he has been or he will be”.
True, General. Every Mexican...every American...is a “guerillero” for freedom. The 5th of May, like the 4th of July, is proof.