Cinco de Mayo: Battle of Puebla History

Anónimo, Batalla del 5 de mayo de 1862, óleo sobre tela, Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones, Exconvento de Churubusco, INAH. Imagen tomada del libro: Eduardo Báez, La pintura militar en el siglo XIX, México, Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, 1992, p. 1

In many parts of the United States, Cinco de Mayo (or May 5th) is celebrated with half-priced beers and tacos in homage to our neighbors to the south.

Although, if you stroll down State Street and ask someone holding a Modelo what today actually represents, you might get this answer: “It’s Mexico’s Independence Day.” Wrong. In fact, Mexico doesn’t celebrate May 5th much outside of one small town.

May 5th is formally known as the Battle of Puebla Day when the Mexican army was victorious over France at the battle in a municipality named Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War on May 5, 1862.

Benito Juárez, a lawyer and member of the Indigenous Zapotec tribe, was elected president of Mexico in 1861. The country was struggling financially when Juárez took office and he was forced to default on debt payments to European governments. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz, Mexico, demanding repayment. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their forces, according to

France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided to take over sections of the Mexican territory. Late in 1861, a heavily armed French army landed in Veracruz forcing President Juárez and his government to retreat. Approximately 6,000 French troops went to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico. Juárez rounded up 2,000 loyal men, many of them Indigenous Mexicans, and sent them to Puebla.

The Mexican forces were outnumbered and poorly supplied, but they fortified the town led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza. On May 5, 1862, France’s heavy artillery assaulted the city. By the end of the day France retreated after losing nearly 500 soldiers while fewer than 100 Mexicans had been killed.

“The Second Battle of Puebla” (General Bazaine attacks the fort of San Xavier during the siege of Puebla, 29 March 1863 / wikipedia)

Although, Mexico didn’t win the war, the battle was a symbolic victory and bolstered the Mexican resistance. France regrouped and won the Second Battle of Puebla a year later, toppling the capital and forcing President Juárez into exile. The Second Empire of Mexico was established in 1864 with Napoleon appointing Habsburg Archduke Maximilian of Austria as Emperor. Later that same year, the Archduke was captured and executed by Juárez’s forces and Puebla de Los Angeles was renamed after General Zaragoza, who died of typhoid fever months after his historic triumph there.

Within Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is primarily observed in the state of Puebla. Traditions include military parades, recreations of the Battle of Puebla, and other festive events. For many Mexicans, however, May 5 is a day like any other: It is not a federal holiday, so offices, banks and stores remain open.

The most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico is Independence Day, on September 16, commemorating the 1810 “Cry of Dolores” call-to-arms, that began the War of Independence. Mexico also observes the culmination of the war of Independence, which lasted 11 years, on September 27.

While you’re eating chips and salsa today remember the accurate history of this triumphant battle.

Edhat Staff

Written by Edhat Staff

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