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I had mentioned this before but today is the day so I thought I would lay it out again. This is something that makes Cinco de Mayo as important to Americans as it is to Mexicans. I have wondered why this isn’t taught in school. It is an event that happened in the middle of the Civil War and one that was important to its outcome.
It was 1862. The United States was deep into its Civil War and, at this time, it wasn’t going all that well for the Union. For the benefit of readers that didn’t have to learn American history. The American Civil War went from 1861 to 1865 and the standing government was called the Union and the breakaway states formed a Confederacy. In 1862 the Confederacy and won several battles and the Union army seemed to be completely disorganized. The Confederacy seemed to have the better commanders and more disciplined troops. They had the momentum but what they didn’t have was a great industrial base to sustain the war. The south was mostly rural and not suited to support a large army for a long period of time.
During this time Napoleon III was emperor of France. Napoleon had an active dislike for the United States and great aspirations for a new empire in the Americas. The emperor planned to retake control of Mexico and place the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as its emperor. From there he intended to expand his control. He also planned to use Mexico to supply the Confederacy with everything they would need to defeat the Union and shatter the United States. His plan would have worked.
The French landed at Veracruz early in 1862 and prepared for an easy march west to Mexico City. There they would depose the democratic government of Benito Juarez and establish Maximilian’s rule. They would be able to establish a strong supply line to the Confederacy by early 1863 and that could have been enough to change history.
They were stopped by General Zaragoza and a force half their size at the town of Puebla 100 miles east of Mexico City. The defeat pushed the French out of Mexico. The Mexicans used brilliant tactics to defeat the larger and better equipped French. Their biggest asset was the attitude of the French officers. They had no fear of the Mexicans and they chased the Mexican cavalry into a large field of soft dirt. It began to rain and the field quickly turned to mud. That’s when the Native Americans stampeded a large herd of cattle into the French lines. The French lines shattered sending the invaders running back to Veracruz.
They would return the following year with a more serious attitude. The French would defeat the Mexicans and install Maximilian as emperor, but by the time they were able to establish a supply route, it was too late. The war had turned in favor of the Union and new supplies couldn’t stop the eventual outcome.
General Zaragoza and the brave Mexicans that halted the French on May 5, 1862 took a big step in the preservation of the United States and for that all Americans owe them a debt of gratitude.