Cinco de Mayo: Celebrating a Mexican victory in 1862

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Puebla's baroque-style cathedral is one of the largest in Mexico.PUEBLA, Mexico -- It was May 5, 1862, and it was going to be a glorious day for the French army and Emperor Napoleon III. Decked out in their finest uniforms, the troops could hardly wait to start slashing away at the city’s defenders as bugles blared l'attaque (attack) and battle flags proudly waved overhead. One general called it “the grande advance.”

But the French invaders, who had marched 135 miles to Puebla after landing at eastern Mexico’s port of Veracruz (and had to pass through Puebla on their way to Mexico City) would be defeated that day by rag-tag Mexican peasant brigades – much to the anger of Napoleon back in Paris.

Taking Puebla in France’s foray into Mexico – prompted by unpaid debts to Napoleon – at first looked like a piece of cake. So what if the French soldiers would have to get past two forts bristling with guns atop two opposite hills in front of the city. They'd also have to cross a quarter-mile-long trench between the forts packed with enemy troops and lined by sharp-spiked maguey cacti.

It would have been much easier to attack Puebla on the relatively undefended back side of the city, as urged by veteran Legionnaires among the 6,500 French troops gathered for the battle. But they were mostly commanded by civilians, typically noblemen with little combat experience, or none at all. Going around to the back, as one general put it, would have been “beneath the honor and dignity of France.”

So off went thousands of chasseurs, zouaves and other troops, charging up the hills short on artillery shot (someone miscalculated how much they'd need) and with ladders too short to scale the walls of the forts (another goof). What's more, it began raining, turning “the grande advance” into a muddy mess besides swelling the water in moats around the forts, making it even harder to get to the walls.

As bugles sounded the order to retreat, Mexico racked up its first (and according to the history books, its last) victory over a foreign army. A little over 460 French soldiers died in the battle vs. 83 Mexican losses.

The victory was short-lived, however, because the French came back to Puebla the next year –  this time with a bigger army – and after a pitched battle hoisted their red, white and blue tricoulour flag over the city.

Downtown Puebla is a jump back in time to colonial Mexico.Still, the date of the initial victory is celebrated each year at fiestas, parades, street dances and the like in Mexico as well as in Latino communities across the U.S.

Where is Puebla? Mexico’s fourth largest city – some 6 million people hang up their sombreros there – Puebla is about 80 miles east of Mexico City, a drive of 1 to 2 hours depending on the traffic.

Footnote: In Paris, Napoleon was said to be furious when he heard about the defeat of his army. The following year, he sent 27,000 reinforcements to Mexico for what turned out to be a two-month siege of Puebla. On May 17, 1863, the out-numbered, out-supplied and out-gunned Mexican troops – who by then had eaten their horses, dogs and cats and were mainly getting by on boiled leaves – finally threw in the towel. The French left three years later.

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