Horrible Confession Time: I had no idea Cinco de Mayo was based on a badass battle from Mexican history. I just figured it was like Mexican Independence Day or St. Patty's Day with Coronas or some shit.
Horrible Confession Time, Part Dos: I learned this fact from a paper placemat at a cheesy Mexican restaurant during Happy Hour Monday night and was so overcome with a range of horrible self-guilt-related emotions that I nearly horked up a tequila-saturated enchilada. How had I survived thirty-two years without knowing that Cinco de Mayo is the story of a bunch of psychotic Mexican asskickers in straw hats hacking up battle-hardened French regular infantry with machetes? I briefly considered quitting my writing career, disabling the website, and moving to some caves near Guadalajara to partake in a life of silent penance to reflect on a lifetime of folly, but instead I decided that instead I would spend all week reading every possible thing I could find on the Battle of Puebla in an effort to ensure that you do not make the same tragic dumbshit mistakes I have made with my life.
The badass tale of guts, glory, and Massive Mexican Asskickings begins South of the Border in the 1860s, when essentially the entire country of Mexico was one gigantic war-torn hellhole that nobody would ever want to visit. Mexico had recently just lost two wars, one to Texas and one to the United States (which, by that point, included Texas), and in the wake of that unholy carnage the citizens of Mexico then spent the next twenty or so years kicking the holy shit out of each other in a series of zany internal power struggles that left tens of thousands of people dead and depleted every last peso from the national treasury. When the President of Mexico told the great European powers that he was basically bankrupt and that Mexico had no possible way of ever repaying even a little bit of the astronomical debt they owed, the understanding, compassionate rulers of Europe put together a gigantic fleet and prepared to kick the holy fuckshit out of them in a vengeance-inspired barrage of cannonballs and death, then personally shake down every single human being in Mexico until they'd extracted what was owed them.
Now, normally the U.S. had Mexico's back on shit like this thanks to an obscenely-badass document known as the Monroe Doctrine – a no-bullshit decree where American President James Monroe basically came out and said, "If any of you European fucks try to land troops in the Americas I will personally rise from the dead, come down there, and shove my boot so far up your collective asses that it will dent your brains." Unfortunately in 1862 the U.S. was a little tied up with the whole American Civil War of Northern Aggression Between the States thing and everyone know the Americans weren't really DTF with anybody other than themselves. So the French Emperor Napoleon III (a man notable for being the second-lamest of the Napoleons) decided, fuck it, I'm just going to land a shitload of troops in Mexico, conquer the hell out of everything I can find over there, and if anyone has a problem with that they can take it up with my penis.
So in April of 1862, a battle-hardened, well-equipped army of French Regular Infantry under the command of General Ferdinand Letrille, Comte de Laurencez, landed in Veracruz and began a 400-mile march towards Mexico City with one thought on their minds – dickslap all of Mexico and turn it into part of the French Empire. As part of his briefing, the Emperor Napoleon III told the Count of Laurencez that he could expect a warm reception from the Mexican people, and that women and children would be lining the streets with flowers jubilantly welcoming their new French liberators.
It turned out that they weren't as excited about seeing a foreign invasion force as Napoleon had predicted.
Mexican militia, circa 1862.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The Mexican commander was a tough-ass hombre named Ignacio Zaragoza. Born in Mexican Texas (present-day Goliad, TX) in 1829, Zaragoza was the son of an infantry footsoldier, but he himself was skinny, nerdy, and nearsighted, and basically looked like the last fucking person you'd ever expect to lead an army of badass Danny Trejos screaming into hand-to-hand combat with one of the world's most technologically-advanced professional armies. Zaragoza had dropped out of seminary to fight the infamous dictator Santa Anna (you know, the guy responsible for the Alamo) in the 1850s, but was denied entry to Mexico's top military academy because of his peasant status. Then he tried to enlist, but was denied on grounds that he kind of looked like Stephen Colbert. In 1853 he finally managed to sign on with a crappy little militia regiment, where he immediately began to demonstrate his natural talent for tactics, leadership, and general over-the-top asskicking. He quickly rose from private to sergeant to captain, and by the time this guy was 31 he was a Brigadier General commanding an 8,000-strong army of volunteer troops that defeated Santa Anna in battle and helped establish a constitutional democracy in Mexico.
Zaragoza was serving the Mexican Secretary of War, but as soon as he heard that fucking Napoleon had landed a bunch of assholes on the Mexican coast he resigned his post in the President's cabinet, hauled ass to the battlefront, and took command of the Mexican forces there. After being defeated in a skirmish near the city of Acultzingo on April 28, Zaragoza opted for a tactic that had worked pretty well against uppity Napoleons in the past – he'd withdraw into the mainland, burning everything behind him to prevent the French from using captured supplies, and draw them out into a battle they didn't want.
For almost a week Zaragoza torched everything he could find, drawing the French further into unfamiliar territory. Then, on the night of May 4, 1862, the Mexican commander positioned his rag-tag band of 4,500 ill-equipped citizen-soldiers in fortifications near the city of Puebla de los Angeles – a critical city of 80,000 people positioned along the road from Veracruz to Mexico City that was absolutely vital to the French if they wanted to have any chance of maintaining their supply lines to the sea.
So Ignacio Zaragoza dug in, positioned his artillery, and prepared for the fight of his life. All that stood between 6,500 elite soldiers of the French Army and Mexico City were 4,500 Mexican militia troops, many of whom had less than three months of experience as soldiers. He had no money, no equipment, very little artillery (and even fewer cavalry) and no way to pay his troops, and his men were basically just wearing whatever clothes they brought with them and were carrying little more than antiquated rifles and the machetes they'd used to cut crops on their farms back home.
Opposing him were the French Zouaves. The Zouvaes might look funny and wear stupid-looking pants, but don't be fooled by their terrible fashion sense – these were battle-hardened troops who had been kicking fucking asses up and down Algeria for decades and who did their basic training by punching each other in the face with bear traps in the middle of the goddamned Sahara Desert. Trained specifically for bayonet-to-face combat in any tropical or desert climate, this was the closest thing to Special Forces the French military had to offer. These guys were not deployed with orders to "fuck around" or "do whatever", they had one goal – kill everything in sight, then stab the corpses with bayonets to make sure they're dead.
When May 5, 1862 dawned in the skies above Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza looked out from the bell tower of the city's cathedral to see three columns of French troops lined up for an all-out assault on the city. There were two major forts guarding the gates of Puebla – Fort Guadalupe on one side and Fort Loreto on the other. Both of these were strategically positioned at the top of steep hills, were bristling with nearly every cannon Zaragoza had to offer, and had lines of fire across the entire field – if the French were going to capture the city, they had to take these forts.
The Zouaves weren't intimidated. They charged straight in like they didn't fucking give a shit (because they didn't).
At 600 yards out, Zaragoza gave his men one final pump-up speech to his presumably-scared-shitless soldiers and ordered his cannons to rip them some new assholes with as much grapeshot as they could ram down their barrels. Huge shotgun bursts of human-destroying pellets shredded the front lines of the French columns, but the Zouaves didn't even flinch – they did what Zouaves did, which is attack, close orders, and keep coming in an orderly, unstoppable wall of Hammer Pants and curlicue moustaches. At 400 yards the infantry opened up with their rifles, pouring even more fire as the French charged ahead, utterly oblivious to the explosions around them and the bullets ripping up their comrades. When they reached the base of the hill, they climbed. When they reached the wall, they put their rifles over and shot the defenders point-blank in the face. Then they climbed over, bayonets at the ready, preparing to massacre everyone they could catch and capture the city from its rag-tag defenders.
What they found on the other side of the wall were the 1st and 3rd Toluca Light Infantry Regiments – pissed-as-fuck Mexican badasses with bayonets and blood-stained machetes, charging ahead, screaming like madmen, swinging their scary-as-fuck swords over their heads in a berserker kill-charge that crashed into the French onslaught in a whirling torrent of blood and steel and Spanish swear words.
For the first time in over fifty years, the French Army retreated in the face of the enemy.
I'd run too.
Zaragoza didn't have any cavalry at Guadalupe to pursue the enemy, so despite having the advantage he had to instead somehow stop his battle-raging men from charging out across the field after the withdrawing French forces and running straight-on into a deathtrap. The French Zouaves fell back, rallied, regrouped, and prepared for a second charge.
The second attack came across both forts at the same time. The machete-wounded Zouaves charged back at Guadalupe again, while another force of Light Infantry attacked Loreta. Both attacks were driven back with intense cannon and rifle fire, as the Mexicans were now starting to get really pumped up because hey, maybe this wasn't a totally fucking unwinnable battle after all.
Seeing that he had now failed in two attempts to capture Puebla, the French commander decided instead to order a full-on balls-out attack across the entire front – he'd take the city or die gloriously while trying. A third, final charge was mounted at Guadalupe and Loreta, as the elite of the French military prepared to grind these uppity hombres under their heel with a boot full of broken glass.
Battle of Puebla re-enactment.
The rain started coming down hard as the French made their attack, and the slippery conditions weren't exactly great for these exhausted, wounded, beat-up dudes trying to scramble uphill for the third time that day straight into a face-full of ammunition. The attacks both reached the walls of Puebla, but as they attempted to scale the fortress walls, ferocious counterattacks by hardcore Mexican troops drove them back. On the Loreta side, the French broke and withdrew, and were immediately pursued by the small cavalry force Zaragoza had to offer – the French attempted to form squares and give them a little bit of the old Duke of Wellington treatment, but a mighty crush of Mexican cavalry smashed open the boxes and pissed-off Mexican badasses carved up the squares from the inside. On the other side, the Zouaves were once again thrown back at the wall, and this time Zaragoza let his machete-swinging wildmen chase the French all the way back across the battlefield, hacking and swinging at anything in a blue uniform. The French withdrew all the way back to Veracruz and didn't come back for a year.
It was the first French defeat since Waterloo in 1815, and the first time that penniless, war-torn Mexico had defeated a foreign invader in battle.
General Ignacio Zaragoza's after-action report consisted of two sentences: "The national arms have been covered with glory. The French troops conducted themselves with valor, their commander clumsily." He would die four months later of typhoid fever at the age of 33 and is now on the Mexican 500-peso bill.
Let's raise a drink to him tomorrow.
Dent, David W. Encyclopedia of Modern Mexico. Scarecrow, 2002.
Hayes-Bautista, David. El Cinco de Mayo. University of California Press, 2012.
Iber, Jorge. Hispanics in the American West. ABC-CLIO, 2006.
Noll, Richard Howard. A Short History of Mexico. A.C. McLurg & Co., 1903.
Marley, David. Wars of the Americas. ABC-CLIO, 2008.
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