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The Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862 and Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that was initially celebrated in the southern Mexican state of Puebla following the May 5, 1862 Battle of Puebla. It has recently become a popular celebration of Mexican culture in the United States. The holiday commemorates the victory of an outnumbered and poorly equipped Mexican force over a French force that was attempting to forcefully install a regime friendly to the French government. The holiday does not commemorate Mexican independence. Mexican Independence Day is commemorated September 16, to mark the start of the eleven-year War of Independence fought with Spain, 1810 to 1821.

The Mexican government was heavily in debt following the Mexican War (1846-48) and the Reform War (1858-61), a civil war fought regarding the role of the church in state affairs. Unable to repay their European loans, new Mexican president Benito Juarez delayed interest payments for two years. Spain, Britain and France, eager to hold Mexico accountable for their debt, sent troops to land at Veracruz in December 1861. The Spanish and British quickly negotiated a settlement with the Mexican government but the French sought to march on Mexico City with a military force to install a regime that would be friendly toward French interests. The 6,500 French troops were commanded by General Charles de Lorencez, a veteran of campaigns in Algeria and the Crimean War. The 4,500 ill-equipped and poorly trained Mexican troops were commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza. The Mexican general skillfully utilized terrain to his advantage. Following a April 28 defeat of his troops at Acultzingo Pass, Zaragoza retreated to Puebla, entrenching his men in a saddle between fortifications on higher ground to each flank.

French artillery bombardment preceded two infantry assaults on May 5, 1862, one of which was defeated in close quarters combat. The French artillery ran out of ammunition before the third assault. Zaragoza launched his cavalry in a well-timed attack upon the flank of the French third assault, causing the French to break and flee the battlefield.

French general Lorencez was replaced following the unexpected defeat. General Zaragoza was hailed a hero but died from typhoid fever four months after the battle. The French did not depart Mexico and defeated the Mexicans at the Second Battle of Puebla a year later. The French occupied Mexico City and installed a new government under Hapsburg Archduke Maximillian. That regime was short-lived as U.S. aid to the Mexicans successfully helped foment unrest against the regime. Napoleon III withdrew French troops from Mexico in 1867.

U.S. celebrations of Cinco de Mayo has for decades focused on food and beverages. The first known U.S. celebration occurred in California in 1863. Congress passed a 2005 resolution encouraging communities to create educational programs on the history of the Battle of Puebla and develop programs highlighting the music, dancing, and culture of Mexico.



General Ignacio Zaragoza    Napoleon III of France


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