The Cinco de Mayo and French Imperialism


In Texas and Mexico, the Cinco de Mayo is a time for eating tacos and being proud to be Mexican. But was the ‘Batalla de Puebla’ really the defining moment of Mexican nationalism, more than the declaration of independence from Spain, 16 September, 1810?

The Background: Santa Anna, Texas and the Mexican War

In the 1820s, after the downfall of ruling imperial Iturbide family, Mexican politics revolved for some time about the charismatic general Antonio López de Santa Anna (1796-1876) who took up the post of Mexican president in 1834. In decade following his appointment, Santa Anna’s major concern was to be US relations and the problem of the secession of Texas (at that time part of Mexico). Indeed in response to Santa Anna’s new constitution (1836), which severely limited states’ rights in Texas, Texas declared itself an independent republic. Mexico then took up arms against the renegade state in an attempt to bring it back into the fold, but although the campaign was initially successful (notably at the Alamo), Santa Anna was defeated and captured by Texas forces in the April of the same year, after the crushing defeat at the battle of San Jacinto. On the end of hostilities, Santa Anna was freed, but Mexico made no further efforts to reconquer Texas, limiting itself to refusing to recognise the state’s independence.

These developments in Texas coincided with the infamous US doctrine of ‘Manifest Destiny’ whereby it was perceived as the United States’s obvious destiny to occupy the whole of the North American continent, and perhaps all of Mexico. Thus in 1845 the United States annexed the Republic of Texas, causing the Mexican government to break off diplomatic relations. President Santa Anna was overthrown for his apparent willingness to negotiate with the United States.

Conflict flared up again between Mexico and Texas (now part of the US) after a disagreement as to what should mark the Texas/Mexico boundary – for the US it was the Rio Grande river, whilst for Mexico it was the River Nueces). The recently-elected US President James K. Polk had tried to secure a boundary settlement and to purchase California – but the Mexicans had refused point blank. And so, using the pretext of retaliation to fighting in the inter-river zone occupied by US troops (April 1846), and backed by Congress Democrats, Polk immediately declared war on Mexico in April, starting the so-called ‘Mexican War’.

US troops easily captured New Mexico and Upper California (today the state of California) and General Zachary Taylor won quick victories in north eastern Mexico. Mexican president Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga (along with his government) was as a result overthrown, and in September 1846 Santa Anna returned as president . The ensuing hostilities led to the closely fought battle at Buena Vista of 23 February, 1847. Despite sustaining almost as heavy losses as his adversary, Taylor managed to force Santa Anna to retreat.

The US then changed tactics. It was decided that Taylor should hold the ground gained in northern Mexico and General Winfield Scott should then lead an expedition by sea to take Vera Cruz and then to march on Mexico City. On 18 April, 1847, Scott defeated Santa Anna in the critical battle of Cerro Gordo (north west of Vera Cruz, heading for Puebla). He went on to take Mexico City on 14 September, 1847. Santa Anna went into voluntary exile while a new Mexican government negotiated peace.

The agreement ending the war was enshrined in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (dated 2 February, 1848). According to the terms of the agreement, Mexico ceded to the US all territory north of an irregular line drawn along the Rio Grande and the Gila River, crossing the Colorado river and going to the Pacific coast. The United States paid Mexico $15,000,000 and assumed $3,250,000 in claims held by US citizens against Mexico.

Santa Anna returned to power in Mexico in 1853. Conservatives had seized power and he was invited by them to become dictator. Amongst his many actions, on 16 December, 1853, he decreed that the dictatorship should be prolonged indefinitely and that he should be addressed as « His Most Serene Highness. » The event however which was to lead to his final downfall was the sale of further Mexican territory to the US. In order to raise funds for an expanded army, he sold territory south of the Gila River to the United States for $10,000,000; this Gadsden Purchase, as it is now called, was the last significant boundary change of the Mexican Republic. This sale of thousands of acres of Mexican land united liberals against him and he was deposed.

After Santa Anna’s fall in the autumn of 1854. the liberal General Juan Alvarez and his troops marched into Mexico City on 14 November and the general took over as president, with Benito Juárez serving as his Minister of Justice. However, following disagreements with the conservatives over the new liberal constitution and its anti-clericalism, political relations between liberals and conservatives deteriorated greatly over the following four years, leading directly to the bloody, fratricidal Reform War of 1858-61. When Juarez became president in the aftermath of the victory at Silao (1860) he found Mexico devastated and bankrupt. As a result, on 17 July, 1861, he issued a moratorium during which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for a brief period of two years, with the promise that after this period, payments would resume. The three countries most affected by the moratorium (in order of exposure) were Britain, Spain and France (through the Jecker loan).

The French Occupation and the Cinco de Mayo

In an attempt to make Juarez’s cancel his moratorium, an Anglo-Franco-Hispanic expeditionary force was sent to Mexico. Within this concerted force, France’s position was however ambiguous. Its loan was not as large as those made by Britain and Spain. In fact, the Jecker loan was a pretext. Napoleon III had pretensions to establishing a foothold in South America. He wished to create a French buffer colony, which would serve as a foothold from which to invade other South American countries so as to form eventually a Catholic Empire counterbalancing the Protestant one (i.e., the U.S.) to the north, (the US at that time was taken up with its own civil war).

After a half-hearted military expedition, Britain and Spain agreed to negotiate with Juarez, receiving satisfaction via the Treaty of Soledad, April, 1862. They consequently sent their troops home. French forces under General de Lorencez however remained in Mexico, purportedly to negotiate the Jecker repayments, with Lorencez consequently marching on Mexico City. The official reasons were that: a) he had been instructed to do this negotiation in Mexico City, and b) his soldiers were subject to yellow fever on the plains around Vera Cruz and he wanted to get them to the relative salubrity of the high lands.  However, de Lorencez’s forces were clearly intended to depose Juarez – and eventually to place a king on the Mexican throne. But in order to do this, he had to get past General Zaragoza and his Mexican troops in Puebla, the town barring the route to Mexico city.

The two generals facing each other were from completely different backgrounds. Charles-Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, was an aristocratic soldier who had distinguished himself with the taking of the Malakoff bastion during the Crimean War. General Zaragoza, born in Texas when it was still Mexico, had become a soldier after abandoning careers in the church and business. Allied with liberals before the fall of Santa Anna, he had risen rapidly to the rank of general. His support for Juarez during the Reform War led directly to his appointment as War Minister in 1861 – which he refused however, preferring to face French troops at Puebla. He became the first Mexican general to beat a foreign army but died of typhus in the September 1862.

The French expeditionary force led by General de Lorencez which finally attacked Puebla numbered about 7,000 men. 3,500 had arrived 8 January, 1862, and Napoleon III decided (9 January) to send a further 4,500 reinforcements, which arrived at Vera Cruz 6 March, 1862. The force was composed of Zouaves, Chasseurs, ‘Marsouins’ and Fusiliers Marins.

The preliminary combat took place on 28 April, 1862 at the Cumbres Pass, where the French drove the Mexicans back, directly threatening the town of Puebla. The Battle of Puebla took place on 5 May, 1862. Zaragoza’s forces in the town numbered (according to French sources) 12,000 heavily entrenched men. Zaragoza however in his telegrams to the War Minister General Blanco refers to 3,500. It is clear that most of these were not local conscripts because Zaragoza, in telegram 19, criticised the locals for their lack of cooperation, stating that he wished he could burn the town down! The failure of the attack on the fortified convent on the Cerro de Guadalupe (de Lorencez profoundly underestimated Mexican capabilities) led the French general to retreat in good order to the town of Orizaba (the retreat of the 6,000). The Mexicans then pursued the French, attacking them and taking the Cerro Borrego, a hill rising above Orizaba. Zaragoza planned to drive the French to the coast before the reinforcements arrived. Capitaine Détrie and two companies of the 99e infantry retook Cerro Borrego during the night, and the Mexicans retreated to Puebla, leaving the two armies in exactly the same positions as before the battle.

As a result of his lack of success, de Lorencez was replaced by General Forey, who returned in September, 1862, with an army corps of 30,000. After the long siege of Puebla in the following year (March – June 1863), the Combat of Camerone (30 April, 1863), and the defeat of the Mexican army coming to relieve Ortega in Puebla (Combats of San-Pablo del Monte and San-Lorenzo), Puebla fell to the French on 5 June, 1863. With the fall of Puebla, the shame of the previous year’s defeat was effaced. French troops controlled the Mexico/Vera Cruz axis. The stage was set for the accession of Maximilien I of Mexico…


Dictionnaire du Second Empire, ed. J. Tulard, Paris: Fayard, 1995, s.l. ‘Mexico’ by Jacques Jourquin,
L’expédition du Mexique, by Paul Willing, Collections Historiques du Musée de l’Armée, 1984
La Campagne du Mexique (1862-1867): la fin de l’hégémonie européenne en Amerique du Nord, by Jean Avanel, Paris: Economica, 1996, 194 p.