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Understanding the Battle of Puebla, Fifth of May, 1862

  • I am very honored to have been invited to speak to you today, by my dear friends, The Honorable Rodolfo Quilantan and his wife Patricia Tapia Quilantan, Mexican Consul at Little Rock Arkansas and formerly at Brownsville, Texas. 
  • I have been asked to clarify the misunderstandings that often exist surrounding the Battle of Puebla more commonly known as the Cinco de Mayo which took place on the Fifth of May, 1862.  Most people in the US do not understand what it commemorates.
  • The 159th anniversary of the battle is tomorrow and is celebrated in Puebla but not in many other places in Mexico.  It is not an official Mexican Holiday.
  • I also want to thank the Central Arkansas Library System’s, Literary Bridges Arkansas-Mexico a partnership between the Central Arkansas Library System and the Mexican Consulate in Little Rock to encourage cultural and bilingual interaction.
  • Thank you for this opportunity.
  • I speak to you today from the Historic Fort Brown the first fort built on the U.S.-Mexico border and today the home of Texas Southmost College in Brownsville Texas. 
  • The image you see in the background is Fort Brown as it looked in 1890, situated right on one of the many bends in the Rio Grande river.
  • I want to thank all who have zoomed in for this discussion including many at home in Brownsville.
  • I will not be using any graphics in my presentation today; I invite those who are interested in maps and such to search the internet there are many details there.
  • The Battle of Puebla was fought between Mexico and the invading French army beginning in 1862.
  • Known as the Cinco de Mayo, the Battle of Puebla did not have long-lasting significance in Mexico outside of the City of Puebla. 
  • Today there is an annual celebration and battle reenactment.
  • Similarly, many battles were fought throughout Mexican history and are celebrated locally with parades and dance reenactments.  I’ve participated in many.
  • The Cinco de Mayo is not an official Mexican holiday and is not, as often thought by Americans, Mexican Independence Day.
  • In order to understand the significance of the battle of Puebla we must examine the relationship between Mexico and Spain, France and England, during the time from, 1820 to the 1870s.
  • We must also understand the geo-political situation of the United States at the time which led to the Mexican American War, twenty years earlier in 1845.
  • Mexico’s loss to the United States in this war made their political vulnerability greater.  After the War with the United States, Mexico was broke.
  • In fact, after the fall of Mexico City in the Mexican American War, General Winfield Scott was asked to stay on in Mexico as emperor.

The Colonial period

  • In 1820 Mexico won independence from Spain after 300 years of colonial domination, from 1520 to 1820.
  • In the early 19th century Mexico borrowed money from Spain, England and France, and since Mexico was cash-poor after their loss in the Mexican American War, they were not able to repay their debt to the three lending European nations.
  • Over three centuries, Spain had developed an antiquated and centralized social, political, religious form of government in New Spain, which exported most of its wealth to Spain.
  • These cultural attitudes and beliefs eventually caused Mexico to grow apart from Spain and to seek independence as a nation. 
  • The most destructive part of Spain’s failure in its system in Mexico was the implementation of a caste system which did not allow persons born in Mexico to have equal social status with those who were born in Spain.
  • Those born in Spain were called Peninsulares, while those born in Mexico were Provinciales.
  • There were other smaller but significant groups like the Jewish and Basques communities in Northern Mexico who held no allegiance to Spain. 
  • Intermarriage in these groups was common and even desirable for the consolidation of land and wealth.
  • For example, the children of Spaniards born in Mexico were known as Criollos and had lower class status than their brothers and sisters born in Spain. 
  • This affected both marriage and land rights.
  • The sons and daughters of Spaniards, born in Mexico could never have equal class status.  This was cause for tremendous consternation and ultimately, cause for rebellion.
  • In another custom imported from Spain, the first-born son inherited all of the family land and wealth.  This created a very resentful class of people who desired equality and independence from Spain and were willing to fight for it.
  • Second born sons were expected to become governmental officials, priests or soldiers, while daughters were expected to marry or become nuns or live a life as spinsters caring for their aging parents.
  •  Another failure was Spain’s creation of a political system which was centralized in Mexico City and that ignored the importance of Mexico’s provinces. 
  • This was a tremendous land-area from Santa Fe in the North, the Missions of California in the West and East Texas on the border with Louisiana.
  • Most wealthy Spanish landowners lived in Mexico City and not in the provinces where their haciendas and ranchos and mines were located. 
  • They were absentee landlords. They were required to have an overlord, mayordomos and other classes of persons living on their haciendas including peasants and Native Americans in the Mission system.
  • Few soldiers were sent to the provinces which were left largely unprotected.
  • The result was a very weak social and political system that did not concentrate on strengthening or protecting the population and their land holdings outside of the Capitol.
  • Provincial governments were not protected.
  • Mission priests were not protected. The failure to protect the missions and priests of New Mexico led to the Pueblo rebellion of 1680 in which many Spaniards were killed.  
  • My ancestor Father Juan de Zavaleta escaped to El Paso del Norte founding the Isleta Mission where the first Catholic mass in Texas was celebrated.

Independence

  • The Mexican War of Independence began with the Call to Arms called the Grito by Father Hidalgo in 1810 which initiated ten years of bloody conflict ending with Mexican independence in 1820. 
  • Therefore, Mexico’s official Independence Day is the 16th of September 1820.
  • On December 23, 1832, the leading politicians in Mexico gathered at the family Hacienda de Zavaleta in Puebla to ratify an agreement establishing the legitimate president and constitutional order for the country. 
  • The War of Independence left Mexico in chaos with little system for the perpetuation of leadership in place or with people who knew how to govern. 
  • For the next 40 years, 1820-1860, most leaders were Military generals and war lords called Caciques. 
  • Mexico suffered from one emperor or president after another.
  • This period would be chaotic. Whomever controlled Mexico City usually controlled the nation.
  • The best known was Santa Anna, the 8th president of Mexico who served during the 1830’s, known for his victory over a rag-tag group of Texans at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.
  • What is little known is that a couple of weeks after the Battle of the Alamo, Santa Ana and his army were defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto by Sam Houston and the Texians.  
  • A Little-known story, is Santa Anna was lined up and about to be executed, he showed General Sam Houston, who was standing in front of him, a Masonic brother-hood sign which caused Houston to cancel the execution and Santa Anna was released by his Masonic brother and sent back to Mexico in shame. 
  • Mexico lost Texas in 1836 under the rule of Santa Anna and the boundary between Mexico and Texas was drawn at the Nueces River near Corpus Christi.
  • In 1845 Texas became part of the US and Mexico was then invaded by U.S. as a result of the US acquisition of Texas and Manifest Destiny.  The war that ensued in 1845, ultimately cost Mexico to lose half of its land mass.
  • The Texas-Mexico border from Brownsville to El Paso was drawn in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the Rio Grande River approximately 125 miles south of the Nueces River.
  • The War between the US and Mexico ended in 1848. 
  • From 1848 until 1860, and the French Intervention Mexico floundered without political leadership or direction.
  • The Mexican Conservative party longed for the return of a European style Monarchy with an Emperor at the head.
  • The opposing Liberals sought a democratic form of government with an elected President similar to the United States. 
  • In the interim, Mexico’s hero president Benito Juarez, a Zapotec from Oaxaca was elected President of Mexico in 1861, and immediately suspended all payment of foreign debt.
  •  After the Mexican American War of 1845, Mexico was broke and had lost one half of its national territory.
  • This incensed and encouraged the foreign lenders, England, France and Spain to intervene.
  • Seeing Mexican vulnerability, Spain, France and England formed a triple alliance resulting in:
  1. Military expedition to Mexico and the appropriation of all military and governmental agencies that collected taxes.
  • Constituted a commission of the three nations that would disburse funds collected in Mexico to repay debt.
  • Respect Mexican territory and constitutional government.
  • France decided to topple the weak Juarez government, and invaded Mexico in April of 1862.
  • The British and Spanish troops decided not to invade and withdrew from Mexico.
  • On April 12, 1862, President Juarez announced that Mexico had been invaded by France.
  • The French landed at Veracruz on the coast preparing to march on Mexico City.  There was only one road from the coast to the Capitol up steep mountains and through the Colonial City of Puebla.
  • Political, social, and economic instability in Mexico, was ongoing between the conservative party and the liberals.
  • France saw an opportunity to dominate Mexico and thus invited a member of the European Royal family, Maximillian of Hapsburg to rule as Emperor of Mexico in 1865.
  •  Emperor Napoleon the third the nephew of the original Napoleon saw the collection of debt as a justification for invasion and the establishment of a puppet government in Mexico.
  • Texas born General Ignacio Zaragoza a proud Tejano, was placed in charge of the Mexican army at Puebla to defend the nation.  He was a decorated military man and politician and in line to be President of Mexico.
  • Puebla would be the only line of defense against the French.
  • With little hope of victory, Mexico planned to make its stand on the high ground at Puebla.
  • The French would have to climb a steep hill in their approach to the city approaching with wagons, canons and supply trains.
  • Zaragoza was able to gather a force of approximately 4,000 untrained and undisciplined men, some military men, mostly peasants and Mexican Indians of the surrounding tribes joined in to save Mexico.
  • The French general Lorencez commanded an army of approximately 6,000 of the best trained soldiers in the world including Zouaves, a highly decorated light infantry battalion from North Africa.
  • Inaccurate intelligence assured the French commander that the Mexicans would not resist and were in favor of French rule but that was not true. Of course, the Conservatives were in favor of the French.
  • The French army was advised to attack from the high side of the city on the north, but they chose the easier southern more direct route.
  • The southern route was through the twin forts of Guadalupe and Loreto protecting the entrance to Puebla.
  • A fierce day long battle ensued in which the French bombarded the rock-solid Forts to no avail.  The French batteries could not destroy them, and this initial assault failed.
  • The French regathered and struggled up the hill attacking on three successive occasions taking heavy casualties and expending much of their ammunition.
  • As they approached the top of the hill the French were met by an army of fierce Zaca-po-axtla Indians who drove the French back down the hill.
  • The French were caught in a devasting cross-fire.
  •  The Mexican commander Zaragoza assumed the French would attack for a fourth time from the south and the Mexican army met them head on and the weakened French were cut to shreds.
  • The majestic French army had been defeated by an army of rag tag soldiers, conscripts and Indians.
  • The Mexican army had also exhausted much of their ammunition and the fighting was now hand to hand.
  • As the French prepared for a final assault of the day, a violent spring storm developed over the twin volcanoes and rained and hailed incessantly on the battle field preventing either army from moving.
  • All credit was given to the Virgen of Guadalupe to whom they had prayed for a miracle, and the French retreated down the hill.
  •  As night fell the French searched all night for the dead and wounded sounding trumpets in the search.
  • The Mexicans assumed that the Trumpeting was from Gabriel the Archangel and were further invigorated by their miraculous victory.
  • Similarly, to when Saint James appeared during the Spanish defeat of the Moors.
  • After heavy fighting and four attempts to take Puebla, the French army was forced to retreat back toward Vera Cruz and wait for reinforcements.
  • President Benito Juarez and the nation reveled in Victory, and honored the various Mexican generals one of whom was my great-great grandfather General Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, Brownsville native who later became the Military Governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
  • The disgraced French Commander returned to France in shame, and a new commander was appointed and thousands of French troops were sent to Mexico.
  • On March 16, 1863 with 38,000 French troops the French once again attacked Puebla, called the second battle of Puebla.
  • The Mexicans held out for 72 days but were finally defeated.
  • The French defeated Puebla and marched onward to Mexico City where the Conservative party offered the Mexican throne to Maximillian.
  • After the Battle of Puebla, the Mexican combatants were honored as were their commanders.  
  • The highest accolades were given to General Zaragoza of Texas who planned the strategies of defense.
  • He led the skirmishes and developed the strategy used to defeat the French on the cinco de mayo. 
  • Zaragoza recognized the arrogance of the French commanders.
  • The Mexicans had defended the sovereignty of their nation against foreign invaders.     
  • Four months after the Battle of Puebla on September 8, 1862 General Zaragoza died of yellow fever and did not become Mexican president.
  • Today Puebla is a thriving Mexican city which celebrates the victory over the French at the first Battle of Puebla every Cinco de Mayo, which is tomorrow.
  • It is Celebrated with parades and battle reenactments with the participants dressed in both Mexican and French uniforms.
  • But it is for the most part not celebrated in other parts of Mexico, as these religious and military celebrations are generally regional. 
  • After the second battle of Puebla, in 1864, Archduke Maximillian of Hapsburg was appointed Emperor of Mexico, the French military upheld the puppet government. 
  • He was an idealist with good intentions for Mexico but his short reign only lasted two years and he was executed in 1867 after his cousin Napoleon III withdrew military support from Mexico to support the Franco-German war of 1870.
  • After the execution of the Archduke Maximillian, His wife the Duchess Carlotta escaped to Europe.
  • Three years later, the French army was withdrawn from Mexico but not before the French army made their way to Matamoros across from Brownsville in 1864.
  • They were bivouacked along the banks of the Rio Grande River near the coast waiting to be called into the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.  
  • The American Civil War raged on until 1865. 
  • Brownsville was a Confederate town and the site of all cotton exportation to Europe since the river was not part of the naval blockade.
  • The United States was fearful of interrupting the peace with European countries.
  • By 1864, the French army had reached the border with Texas and while at Matamoros witnessed the battle of Palmito Hill fought on the coast near Brownsville, Texas in May of 1865.
  • The Battle of Palmito Ranch is recognized as the last battle of the American Civil War.
  • The French troops, watched from the river bank across from the family ranch and cheered the Confederacy to victory.
  • The battle was a decisive win for the Confederacy occurring one month after the surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. 
  • When I was a school boy in Brownsville, we were taught that the battle took place because the Union general had not received word of the end of the war. 
  • But I learned later that was simply not true.
  • Both sides were fighting for the control of the cotton trade exportation to Europe and the opportunity for great fortune.
  • Support of the Confederacy in Brownsville continued well into the 20th century. 
  • As was seen in the historic event of the Brownsville Raid in 1906, when African American troops were blamed for shooting up the town and unjustly expelled from the Army.
  • The Battlefield at Palmito Ranch is today owned by my cousins and me and is a Land Heritage site. 
  • The area is historically significant for several reasons; one was the participation of hundreds of African American soldiers and common ghastly apparitions at the ranch, similar to many other Civil War battle fields.
  • The French troops subsequently marched down the Mexican coast from the Port of Bagdad on the Coast to the east of Matamoros to Vera Cruz from where they sailed back to France. 
  • Many deserted and remained in Mexico the remainder returned to France.
  • Mexico endured continued political chaos from 1867 to 1876, when Porfirio Diaz became Emperor of Mexico, ruling Mexico with an iron fist for 35 years, from 1876 to 1911.
  • His period of rule, referred to as the Porfiriato, was marked by great progress and modernization, and the Mexican economy boomed. 
  • However, his rule was ended by the Mexican Revolution of 1910, with the battle cry, Land and Liberty.

In Summary

  • In the 19th century Mexico won its independence from Spain
  • But lost Texas and half of its land mass as a result of the Mexican American War and French Intervention.
  • For the entire 19th century, Mexico faced political and economic instability.
  • The Mexican Revolution of 1910 took advantage and created a weak form of stability and distribution of land to the peasants.
  • Mexico celebrates many political and military victories and heroes but the Cinco de Mayo is not one of them.

Why do we recognize the cinco de mayo in the U.S.?

  • The Latino Movements of the 1960s tried to establish cultural identity associated with Mexico in the United States and especially around university towns.
  • In the 1960s there was little or no celebration of Mexican historical or cultural significance in the United States.  In the years to come that would change.
  • Today there are many celebrations of the Cinco de Mayo in the Hispanic communities but most people do not understand what they are celebrating and they are opportunities to have Mexican style fiestas. 
  • Its an opportunity to honor Mexican cultural history and pride and that’s not bad.
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