“Every mexican is a guerilla!”
May 4th, 1862. The most successful French Army general of his generation sat in his headquarters in Mexico passing judgment on Mexican men who resisted his soldiers. The general did not know that the following day, 5 May 1862, el Cinco de Mayo, would be the worst day of his life.
Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez was an accomplished French General who had fought in Africa and earned major general’s rank in the Crimea fighting Russians. Now he led the invasion of Mexico for Napoleon III.
He sat at his desk listening to a translator tell him what the Mexican peasant was sobbingly telling the general.
“Your excellency, I am but a humble farmer, sir. I raise pigs. I do not fight the French, sir. I do not know how to use a rifle, sir. I do not own a horse, sir. Please, sir, I am but a humble farmer. I am not a guerilla fighter sir.”
Bah, the general grumbled, “Every Mexican is a guerilla! Shoot him!”
Invading French soldiers died every day in Mexico, some from fever, some from machetes wielded by Mexican Indios, some from musket balls fired from rifles last used in the defeat of Napoleon I at Waterloo five decades before.
A French expeditionary force landed in Mexico in December 1861 intent on conquering the country. Napoleon III wanted to help the Confederate States of America destroy the United States of America. Using Mexico to arm the Confederates was necessary, Napoleon thought, because Lincoln’s Union Navy had effectively blockaded Confederate ports preventing the French, or anyone, from supplying the Confederates. Napoleon was convinced Mexico would capitulate and be but an adventure for his army, considered to be the best in Europe.
Using the same route used by Spanish conquerors in 1519 and the American Army in 1846 General Latrille’s 6,000 French troops, including African Zoaves with their red uniform pants made their way into the mountains around Puebla (Pweh-blah), 100 miles east of the Mexican capital, Mexico City. There had been little resistance with some pin-prick attacks by mounted Mexicans but nothing serious. After all, the Comte de Lorencez reasoned, his were the finest troops in the world.
At Puebla, the only approach was a valley leading up to the city; the valley was guarded at the top by two forts, Loreto and Guadalupe, built by the Spanish two centuries before. The Mexican commander, General Ignacio Zaragoza Sequin, a Texas-born soldier had 4,000 soldiers at his command, had few cannon, few rifles for his soldiers and none for Indian volunteers; the Indians brought their machetes and cattle.
Zaragosa was outnumbered, out-gunned and his troops had little experience. What experience some had was fighting fellow Mexicans in the War of Reformation in 1858. A few had a losing experience of fighting the Americans 14 years before but most were teenaged boys that had never seen battle.
Tropical rains inundated Puebla and the French troops the night of May 4th. Machete-armed Indians stampeded their cattle back and forth in the valley for hours in the darkness. The French thought it was funny.
Mexican Colonel Porfirio Diaz’ horse soldiers cared for their horses and cleaned their carbines. Many prayed.
Dawn arrived after the rain. The 6,000 French and their 2,000 Mexican Monarchist allies formed and started marching up the valley. French cannon bombarded the two Mexican forts that responded with their cannon. The French infantry was immediately mired in cattle-stirred mud, the troops could barely move. They were slaughtered. The French commander ordered his cavalry in to help but before they could they were attacked by Porfirio Diaz’ horsemen who hit and ran towards the east. The French commander ordered his ostrich-plumed cavalry to pursue and destroy the pesky Mexicans at all costs. The Mexicans ran. It looked to the French that the vaunted Mexican cavalry was running so fast they simply must be frightened to death of the plow horse-riding French ostrich-plumed cavalrymen.
The French infantry was dying in its tracks. The over-confident cavalry gleefully charged after the “cowardly” Mexicans. Colonel Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s future President/Dictator, turned his men and attacked and decimated the French horsemen from three sides.
As the sun set the 5th of May, the French and Mexican monarchists had lost a quarter of their men to the poorly-armed inexperienced Mexicans and their cavalry had been destroyed by the best horse soldiers they had ever seen.
Mexicans as far away as California cheered the victory when the news reached them. In Washington’s White House, President Abraham Lincoln decided — when news of the Battle of Puebla arrived — that help for the Mexicans was the order of the day. The French must be expelled.
The French came back a year later with 30,000 troops and defeated the Mexicans and took control of much of Mexico. But it was too late. After the year-long delay caused by the Cinco de Mayo battle, nothing Napoleon could do could save the Confederate States of America. Some might say that a key American Civil War battle was fought on the 5th of May, el Cinco de Mayo, in Puebla, Mexico, far from the battlefields of Virginia.
U. S. Army General U.S. Grant told the country, the “Civil War was not over until the French were driven out of Mexico.” They left in 1867.
Contreras formerly wrote for Creators Syndicate and the New American News Service of the New York Times