The Real War Story Behind the Cinco De Mayo Holiday

There should be a whole holiday for the Mexican soldier who decided to throw a cannonball.

Though the day has nothing to do with American history, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States are only getting bigger and bigger. Like on St. Patrick's Day, Americans are celebrating their affinity for a culture that is also increasing in the U.S.

With both holidays, there are a lot of misconceptions about what exactly is being celebrated. With Cinco de Mayo, some Americans believe it's a celebration of Mexico's Independence Day, which is actually Sept. 16. Cinco de Mayo is actually the celebration of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, where an outnumbered Mexican Army defeated the invading French.

The battle didn't lead to an ultimate victory over the French, but it was a bright spot during a bad time for Mexico, one that showed the world that Mexico wasn't going to roll over for just anyone.

In the years before the battle, Mexico had undergone a civil war in an attempt to limit the power of the Catholic Church and of the Mexican Army in the country. The chief result of that war was an economy left in shambles. Mexico was forced to pause interest payments on foreign debt for two years while it tried to recover, a decision not taken well by its European creditors.

An allied force from France, Spain and England landed in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1861. While England and Spain just wanted their money, Emperor Napoleon III, on the other hand, had bigger ideas. He wanted to overthrow the elected Mexican government and install his Austrian cousin Maximilian as emperor of Mexico.

Maximilian I, the first of so many jerks to come from Austria.

When France's other allies negotiated a separate peace with Mexican President Benito Juarez in 1862, the real war began. The French reneged on a promise to withdraw to the Mexican coastal area, instead opting to take a critical town that secured their hold on Veracruz. Skirmishing between the two sides began shortly after.

Mexican Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza realized his position trying to keep French forces bottled up in Veracruz was no longer tenable, and he fell back to the town of Puebla with an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 men. Zaragoza was not a trained military leader, but he had just fought a civil war and was skilled in unconventional warfare.

The French Army was made up of battle-hardened veterans of France's recent conflicts and outnumbered the Mexicans by at least 1,500 more troops. Moreover, French Gen. Charles de Lorencez expected Mexican citizens would be tired of war and the slow pace of recovery led by the government in Mexico City and would rally around the French flag.

He was wrong. Mexican citizens in the area around Puebla volunteered in droves to fight with Zaragoza's army. By May 3, 1862, Mexico's defenders were fortifying their positions around Puebla. Lorencez's attack began on May 5.

Puebla was ringed by a series of five stone fortresses in varying states of repair. In the first French attack on May 5, Lorencez sent 4,000 men to storm the two forts to the north of the city. They were believed to be in the worst state. After using half of their artillery ammunition with little effect and taking heavy casualties in their assault, the French were forced to withdraw.

The second assault was on the same forts, but included a diversionary attack to the southeast in an attempt to pull men away from the fortresses' defense. Not only did the second assault fail, but the diversionary force tried to move to assist in taking the fort and was also badly beaten up.

France's most decorated troops, North African Zouaves, were repeatedly mauled by Mexican patriots.

After just more than two hours of fighting, the French were forced to commit all their reserves to a third assault. They were out of artillery ammunition, so this next attempt against the Mexicans was also launched without any supporting fire from French cannons. This attempt also failed, but one hour into this last assault, it began to rain.

With the battlefield turned to mud, the Mexicans fought off the French assault and then left the safety of the fortifications to defend the surrounding hilltops. The French had finally had enough and attempted to retreat, but the Mexicans weren't done. They fired artillery at the French troops until they were out of range, then sang the Marseillaise (the French national anthem) at them as they walked away.

Ultimately, the Mexican government would fall to France, and Maximilian would rule Mexico from 1864 until 1867. When the United States ended its civil war in 1865, it was able to assert its Monroe Doctrine foreign policy, which guaranteed U.S. support against European colonization and puppet governments in the Western Hemisphere.

The forces of Benito Juarez never gave up their fight against the French puppet government. With American support and arms rolling in, they forced Maximilian off the throne and retake the seat of government. The emperor was captured, jailed and executed as a message to the old world: Mexico was done being ruled from abroad.

But even as the Civil War raged on in the U.S., American sympathized with its southern neighbor. The first Cinco de Mayo celebration in the United States was held in California, a former Mexican territory, in 1863.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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