By Raoul Lowery Contreras
“The Civil War will not be over until the French are out of Mexico,” General U.S. Grant told the President of the United States in 1865, three years after French troops landed in Mexico.
General Phil Sheridan, the famous Civil War cavalryman, arrived in Texas to command the victorious American Army of the West in 1865. He ordered all captured Confederate rifles, cannon and munitions lined up at the Mexican border and that all be unguarded at night. Naturally, the materiel disappeared every night.
Demobilized American soldiers in Texas, in 1865, bought their rifles, and ammunition for six dollars if they showed enlistment papers in the Mexican Army of President Benito Juarez.
The “American Legion of Honor” was organized in 1865 with former American soldiers to serve in the Mexican Army’s final push against the invading French Army (and French Foreign Legion) of “Emperor” Napoleon III.
Was it to help an underdog that led to the Americans helping President Benito Juarez with weaponry and experienced soldiers? Partly, but the real reason might be the Mexican victory over the French at Puebla, Mexico, on May 5th of 1862. A Mexican victory that contributed to Union victory in our Civil War is what makes the 5th of May noteworthy.
Heavy rain pounded around Puebla, a mountain city 100 miles east of Mexico City, the night of May 4th. Four thousand Mexican soldiers, some in uniform, most not, many without rifles, some with, waited in the rain, wet, hungry, scared. One battalion of Indians was armed with only machetes and their cattle, cattle they stampeded through the French lines.
The Mexicans were in trenches on hills overlooking a valley, a valley filled with 8,000 French and Mexican Royalist troops. The French Army they watched prepare for battle had not been defeated for almost 50-years.
Napoleon III’s French troops invaded Mexico in 1862 with the British and Spanish to collect millions in debt owed by Mexico to European bankers. The English and Spanish quickly made deals and left. The French stayed.
2,000 combat hardened Mexican monarchist troops marched with 6,000 French troops on Mexico City. By tradition, if an army captured a European capitol, the country was officially conquered. The French assumed Mexico would capitulate if Mexico City was captured. The Mexicans, however, had other ideas. They never surrendered.
More importantly, on May 5th, 1862, those 4,000 Mexicans resoundingly defeated the 8,000-man French army by killing or wounding one in four of them. The Mexican cavalry, commanded by future President/Dictator Porfirio Diaz, chased the beautifully plumed French cavalry for miles, caught and slaughtered them. The French retreated to wait for help.
No fluke this Battle of Puebla, on another dateApril 30th now celebrated as a French national holiday, Mexican troops killed, wounded and/or took prisoner an entire French Foreign Legion unit. Ironically, the very rifles the Mexicans used had been unused since the British used them to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.
The French defeat by Mexicans on the 5th of May kept the French from supplying the rebel Confederacy with massive cannonry and munitions. Superior Union numbers and soldiery combined with a lack of cannon and munitions to defeat the Confederate Army of General Robert E. Lee at the four-day July 1863 battle of Gettysburg. This Pennsylvania battle assured the total defeat of the Southern rebels and the continued existence of the United States of America.
Once the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln turned his attention and American resources to help Mexico throw out the French Army. He personally ordered General Sheridan to Texas to help the Mexicans.
The 5th of May, el Cinco de Mayo, is a holiday for both our countries, for both can trace their existence today to that wild battle in which Mexicans handed the French their first military defeat in almost half-a-century.