What is Cinco de Mayo? Ask people in the US about its history and they’ll often respond that it’s Mexican Independence Day. Which, nope — that’s actually September 16th. The real reason we celebrate Cinco De Mayo is an amazing piece of military history in which a bankrupt, poorly armed, mostly volunteer army of Mexican citizens faced down French invaders, the premier army of the world at the time, and handed them their asses.
So, what were the French doing in Mexico? Essentially, they were there with the excuse of getting cash money. In 1861, Mexico was ending the Reform War — a civil war over religious freedom — and it left them broke. As a result, President Benito Juárez declared he wouldn’t be paying back loans to France, Britain and Spain for two years. In response, the three countries formed the Tripartate Alliance, with the goal of taking over Veracruz, the country’s main port, and forcing the Mexican government to pay up.
Or, at least, that’s what Britain and Spain wanted. France wanted all-out war.
Napoleon III thought Mexico would be a fine addition to the Napoleonic Empire, and that the debt was a perfect excuse to get in and take over. After all, France knew Mexico was flat-broke. The Reform War had exhausted the country militarily and politically, and powerful social divides remained. Mexico’s closest ally, the US, had a Civil War of its own to deal with. And the French Army, at the time, was on an undefeated streak that had gone on for nearly five decades. Mexico, in other words, was easy pickings. The British and Spanish realized what was happening and left.
“No problem,” Napoleon III basically said. “France has this in the bag.”
It all came to a head at Puebla, southeast of Mexico City. Ironically, the French were actually pulling back at the time; they’d been ordered to withdraw to the coast. However, Mexican forces observed General Charles de Lorencez and his troops on the march, and complained he wasn’t acting in good faith. Lorencez, who was apparently the pettiest man ever to lead an army, took offense at the implication he wasn’t acting with honor and decided to occupy Orizaba, which cut off Mexico from the rest of Veracruz. An attempt to get the French out of Orizaba led to the Mexican Army taking a drubbing on April 28th, and retreating to Puebla.
Lorencez was convinced that the civilians in the heavily fortified Puebla loved the French (they didn’t) and that they’d overrun the garrison once the French Army appeared. Then, Lorencez assumed, the Mexicans in Puebla would just hand over the city. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, so the French attacked from the north, starting with artillery at noon before advancing.
Unsurprisingly, Lorencez hadn’t thought he’d need a lot of firepower to defeat an army half his size (which he’d just beaten a week before), but by the third infantry attack, the French artillery was out of ammunition.
Mexican troops, realizing they had the advantage, struck. General Ignacio Zaragoza hid troops along the road and then had his cavalry assault the French on the right flank. By then, it’d begun raining, creating slippery mud that put the cavalry at an advantage, and in the end, the French were driven off the field with nearly five hundred dead, and the Mexican Army sustaining only 83 losses. After a few days of Lorencez sulking nearby, hoping that Zaragoza would come out and fight, he hustled back to Orizaba.
It was a minor battle, in terms of military results, but it was an enormous PR victory. The entire world had expected Mexico to roll over, and instead, they’d popped the most powerful empire in the world right in the face. It was, essentially, an announcement that invading was going to be a lot harder than it looked; in fact, Mexico’s dealings with France marks the last time in history that a European power has invaded the Americas.
Ironically, in Mexico, Cinco de May is not a federal holiday and is mostly celebrated ceremonially. Still, as you hoist a beer, take a moment to remember the facts about Cinco’s cool origin story: When those Mexican troops were told they were going to be crushed by French soldiers and instead showed the world their grit and spirit.