THE VICTORY OF CINCO DE MAYO. The Mexican victory over the French (in red trousers) at Puebla in 1862 was considered so significant that 5 May is still celebrated throughout Latin America – including parts of the southwestern United States.
The strategic significance of Puebla lay in the simple fact that it blocked the direct road through the mountains from Vera Cruz on the east coast to Mexico City. Consequently if the French were to take the capital they first needed to capture Puebla.
After the loss of Texas in 1836 and the rest of its North American territory following the Mexican- American War of 1846-1848, Mexico entered a period of crisis. This culminated in a civil war between conservatives and liberals, which ended in late December 1860 with victory for the liberals. By this time, the Mexican economy, always precarious, was in a complete shambles and in July 1861 President Juarez (1806-1872) and his Congress announced a two-year suspension of payments on all foreign debts. In response Britain, France and Spain (the principal creditors) sent a joint expeditionary force to seize the port of Vera Cruz and its customs house. Having made their point and enforced payment of at least part of the debt, the British and Spanish contingents left in April 1862. The French, though, had other ideas.
General Santa Anna had once declared that the Mexican people were not yet ready for democracy and required a dictatorship. Now, encouraged by the recently defeated conservatives, the French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) decided to give them one in the form of the otherwise unemployed Archduke Maximilian of Austria (1832-1867). Establishing him in power would require the spilling of French blood, but in return France would gain a vast new empire in America, with the prospect of dominating the entire continent at a time when the United States was being torn apart by civil war.
In March of that year, General Lorencez had moved inland to occupy Orizaba, ostensibly because Vera Cruz was notoriously unhealthy. However, instead of withdrawing when the other foreign contingents departed, he moved inland again, defeating General Ignacio Zaragoza (1829-1862) at the Alcuzingo Pass on 28 April and forcing him to retreat to the fortified city of Puebla. This covered the approaches to Mexico City and had earlier, in 1847, been the scene of a full-scale siege by the army of Major-General Winfield Scott (1824-1886) during the Mexican- American War.
Anonymous painting depicting the Battle of Puebla in 1862
First Battle of Puebla: 5 May 1862
Lorencez was confident of victory and believed that his 6000 well-trained veterans could easily dislodge Zaragoza from the town. Not only did they outnumber the defenders but they were significantly better equipped. The Mexicans were largely armed with smooth-bore muskets, including old flintlocks, while the French all had rifled weapons. More importantly, Zaragoza’s artillery was unchanged from Santa Anna’s day and largely comprised old Spanish tubes on Gribeauval-style carriages, firing only solid shot or canister. The French guns, on the other hand, had rifled barrels capable of firing explosive shells. Intelligence supplied by Mexican conservatives also suggested that the population was pro-French and would aid in expelling Zaragoza’s men. This assessment, however, was overly optimistic. The population might indeed be hostile towards Juarez and his liberal regime, but as so often in 1836 they were prepared to put aside factional differences when faced by an external threat.
With his rear secure, Zaragoza placed most of his 4000 men in an entrenched line, anchored by two hilltop forts, Loreto and Guadalupe, on the north side of the city. Arriving on 5 May, Lorencez decided to storm the Mexican lines forthwith, since he had no great opinion of the Mexican Army and assumed that a gallant rush would carry the position out of hand. Selecting Fort Guadalupe as his objective, he began shelling it at a range of 2000m (6560ft), well beyond the reach of the Mexican guns. His gunners were soon on target, but nevertheless, having been brought up in an earlier age of gunnery, he ordered them to close the range.
Too late he realized that the new position offered a very poor angle of fire. There was no question of withdrawing, however, so instead he ordered an infantry assault on the fort. With inadequate preparation, French elan counted for little against a determined enemy that was well dug in. Two French colonels were killed at the head of their regiments and although one man succeeded in planting the tricolour on the ramparts, he was immediately shot down and the flag contemptuously tossed back. Then, to make matters worse, as the French fell back, Zaragoza’s cavalry, commanded by Colonel Porflrio Diaz (1830-1915), sallied out and caught them in the open. Afterwards, the French admitted to 462 killed and eight captured.
Heavy rain then brought the battle to a close. Lorencez waited a couple of days in the hope that Zaragoza might be rash enough to come out and fight him in the open. It was a forlorn hope, and he eventually withdrew to Orizaba.
This victory over the leading European power of the day bought Juarez some time, and is still celebrated throughout Latin America as the Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May), but Napoleon was not about to let such a blow to French ambitions go unanswered. General Elias Forey landed in Mexico on 21 September 1862 and moved to the forward French position at Orizaba, but initially seemed in no hurry to recommence the campaign. In Puebla, meanwhile, Mexican General Jesus Gonzalez Ortega (1822-1881) was doing his best to build up the town’s fortifications, while General Ignacio Comonfort (1812-1863) was bringing another force to the area, hoping to act as a mobile threat to the eventual French advance.
By February 1863, with still no sign of a French advance, Juarez himself went to Puebla to review the progress and provide moral support. At the time, heartening news was coming in from other fronts as French forces were forced out of the coastal town of Tampico to the north and Jalapa to the west. Within days, however, the French began their move and arrived before Puebla on 16 March 1863 with some 18,000 infantry, 1400 cavalry, 2150 gunners and 450 engineers. There were also 56 modern cannon and 2.4 million rounds of ammunition of all calibres.
Instead of a precipitate assault, there was to be a formal siege. Forey established his headquarters on high ground to the south of the town, then spent five days having his men dig in around the city. Only then did he begin his bombardment. This time, the objective was Fort San Xavier, on the western side, and the artillery preparation was both thorough and effective. Some of the forward parallels were advanced to within 150m (490ft) of the defences before the guns opened fire. Four days were allotted for the initial bombardment, and an assault was mounted on 27 March. This failed dismally, but a second attempt two days later successfully carried the fort.
To French dismay, there was no breakthrough. The Mexican defenders merely fell back to the first of the houses, about 50m (164ft) behind the fort. Anticipating the fall of the fort, they had barricaded the streets and pierced the houses with loop-holes. This meant that when the French again advanced they found themselves bogged down in costly house-to-house fighting. Progress was painfully slow and by 11 April seven officers and 56 men had been killed and a further 39 officers and 443 men wounded for negligible gains. Unsurprisingly, some officers advocated breaking off the operation, but Forey was determined to continue.
Meanwhile, the French had to maintain themselves off the countryside. As in all colonial campaigns, the ammunition had to be dragged very long distances over hostile terrain, and foraging parties were necessary to feed the men and animals. These were vulnerable to harassment by a small Mexican field army commanded by General Comonfort. With only some 7000 men, and many of them irregulars, he lacked the confidence to engage the French in open battle but had the good sense to concentrate on interdicting their supply lines and cutting off foraging parties. On 14 April, the French struck back, catching one of Comonfort’s detachments and hustling them back in confusion. Any expectation that they had thereby solved the problem was soon dashed, however.
Later that month, the French sent a convoy up from Vera Cruz with three million francs in gold, materiel and munitions, and were confident enough to assign only a single company from the Foreign Legion for its protection. It was intercepted by a substantial force of Mexicans under Colonel Milan on 30 April and only got through thanks to a sacrificial stand by the Legion at the Hacienda Camaron, an inn protected by a wall 3m (10ft) high. In the now legendary fight that followed, Captain Danjou (1823-1865) and his detachment quite literally fought to the last man, and the safe arrival of the convoy proved crucial to the successful prosecution of the siege.
General Bazaine ordering the Zouaves to charge Fort San Javier.
War of Attrition
Meanwhile, supplies were also becoming a problem within the town. Although much had been done in the way of improving the fortifications, little had been done to stock the town sufficiently. Then, on 8 May, one of the French commanders, General Achille Bazaine (1811-1888), spotted a large cloud of dust in the distance. Rightly assuming this to be a relief force, he led a detachment out that night and surprised Comonfort’s camp, inflicting a thousand casualties and capturing another thousand. The defeat marked the beginning of the end.
By now, the defenders had eaten every dog and cat in the town and were now reduced to eating leaves off the orange trees. Ammunition lasted longer: while there was powder, solid shot could be cast and langrage improvised for the obsolete guns – in contrast to the French who required factory-made shells, shipped over from France and laboriously carried up from the coast. However, on 12 May, Fort del Carmen fell and Ortega recognized that the end was near. On 17 May, he ordered all weapons and ammunition to be destroyed – then communicated with Forey about surrender terms.
With Puebla at last in their control, the French now had no serious obstacle barring their entry to Mexico City. Juarez had wanted to fight for the capital, but with only 14,000 men at his disposal, he and Congress instead retreated to San Luis Potosi. From there, they continued, and would ultimately win, the war, thanks in no small part to British gun-runners who landed thousands of modern Enfield rifles. Diplomatic pressure also came from the Americans, who had concluded their own civil war and were now able to demand the withdrawal of the French.