Throughout the United States today, Americans of all races and origins will celebrate Cinco de Mayo. In recent years with the immigration debate, some have criticized the celebration in the U.S. of a "Mexican holiday." Perhaps a brief tutorial will show why we here in the United States should be grateful for the brave Mexicans who, on Cinco de Mayo ("Fifth of May") in 1862, stood against a vastly superior French army and help preserve our own Union!
In 1861, in response to Mexico's refusal to pay off debts, Britain, Spain and France sent troops to Mexico. The new democratically-elected government of President Benito Juarez made agreements with the British and the Spanish, who promptly recalled their armies. But the French refused to negotiate. French Emperor Napoleon III had a much larger goal in mind: Conquer Mexico and install his cousin, Archduke Maximillian of Austria as ruler of Mexico; and then assist their allies, the Confederate States of America, in their war against the North. The French were unable to supply the South with desperately needed arms and supplies because of the Union's naval blockade of Southern ports. Once they ruled, Mexico however, Napoleon III planned to supply and support President Jefferson Davis through the confederate state of Texas.
In 1862, confident of a quick victory, 6,500 French soldiers marched on to Mexico City to seize the capital before the Mexicans could muster a viable defense. Along their march, the French already encountered stiff resistance before General Ignacio Zaragoza struck out to intercept the invaders. The battle between the French and Mexican armies occurred on May 5 at the town of Puebla when Zaragoza's ill-equipped and under-trained militia of 4,500 men, mostly farmers, encountered a well armed French force that hadn't lost a battle in fifty years. However, Zaragoza's small and nimble cavalry units were able to prevent French dragoons from taking the field and overwhelming the Mexican infantry. With the dragoons removed from the main attack, the Mexicans routed the remaining French soldiers with a combination of their tenacity, inhospitable terrain, and a stampede of cattle set off by local peasants. The invasion was stopped and crushed!
Zaragoza won the battle but lost the war. The French Emperor, upon learning of the failed invasion, immediately dispatched another force, this time numbering 30,000 soldiers. By 1864, they succeeded in defeating the Mexican army and occupying Mexico City. Archduke Maximillian became Emperor of Mexico. Fortunately for the United Sates of America, it was now too late to help the South turn the tide back in their favor and our Union was restored!
Fortunately Maximilian's rule was short-lived. Mexican rebels opposed to his rule resisted, seeking the aid of the United States. With the Civil War over, the unified and strengthened U.S. military returned the favor and began supplying Mexicans with weapons and ammunition, and by 1867, the Mexican freedom fighters finally defeated the French and deposed their puppet Emperor. The Mexican people then reelected Benito Juárez as president.
So eat your favorite Mexican food today, strike a Pinata, listen to a Mariachi Band, and send a big "Muchisimas Gracias" to our amigos to the South and best wishes for a Muy Feliz Cinco de Mayo!