History Tidbit: Cinco de Mayo de 1862 – The fifth day of May, 1862
On how the outnumbered Mexican army defeated the French advances on the City of Puebla, in a heroic battle to the likes of David vs Goliath, and its ramifications in Europe and The United States
Between December 1861 and January 1862, the Spanish, British and French governments had form a tripartite alliance to demand debt payment from the Mexican government of Benito Juárez, and had landed troops in the Mexican port of Veracruz. In the United States, the rage of The American Civil War was taking its toll, and the Hispanic and anti-slavery groups in the Southern states were particularly vulnerable; Napoleon III of France saw this as an opportunity to invade Mexico and aid the Confederates win the American Civil War, which would give him an advantageous political position in the continent. The British and Spanish armies left, but the French marched towards Mexico City through the state of Puebla; General Ignacio Zaragoza, the young commander of the Mexican army, had retreated to the city of Puebla from Acultzingo. The city was heavily fortified, with the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe on opposite hilltops to the North. The French army could not unmask the cyphered strategy, and entered the battlefield from there, finding themselves surrounded by Mexican troops on either side; in a matter of hours, over 400 French soldiers had been killed, and they were forced to retreat.
The Battle of Puebla was an inspirational event for Mexico, after its own Reform war and previous defeats against the French. Even though the war was eventually lost by Mexico, putting the country under French rule for three years, Mexicans were not disheartened and kept fighting the occupation, and Juárez was able to mostly preserve his government and fight the Empire from the North. President Juárez and his allies recognized the importance of the victory in Puebla as a boost to the morale of the Mexican troops, as well as Hispanic communities in the United States; just a few days after the battle, he declared Cinco de Mayo a holiday. By the time the French had regrouped, eventually taking Mexico a year later, the American Union had built a strong army that defeated the Confederates at Gettysburg, just 14 months after the battle of Puebla. Mexico’s victory brought hope to the pro-Union Hispanic communities, especially in California, which began and continue to celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a holiday of their own. Napoleon III was now plagued by health issues and conflict with Prussia, and lacking support from Great Britain. Once the American Civil War was over, all hope for control over the Americas was gone; Juárez and the liberal Mexican forces finally regained control of the government in 1867, ending the last European invasion to the Americas.
Photo at the top of the post: Schoolgirls in traditional “China Poblana” garments, during a Cinco de Mayo celebration (photo taken by my father, circa 1970.)
In Canada, Cinco de Mayo has been mostly promoted by bars and Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants, but this year, social distancing is still in effect for the whole month of May, so any celebrations will take place at home. I have a complete menu previously posted for a Cinco de Mayo celebration, including options for vegetarians, and the following are my suggestions for this year (click on highlighted titles for recipes):
Cinco de Mayo Menu