The Roots of Cinco de Mayo: The Battle of Puebla

A bright yellow, green and purple post for Cinco de Mayo, featuring two dancing skeletons

A poster for a Cinco de Mayo celebration in San Francisco in 1984. Artist: Réne Castro. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post by Maria Peña, a public relations strategist in the Library’s Office of Communications.

A batch of 36 Mexican letters recently acquired by the Library not only offers a vivid description of the last months of the Second French Intervention in Mexico, including the Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo) in 1862, but also the complex alliances of global powers jousting for influence in the Americas against the backdrop of the U.S. Civil War.

The letters, obtained from a rare books dealer, offer a reminder that Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican independence, as is often assumed in the U.S., but rather an unexpected victory over French invaders that also helped sound a death knell for the Confederates in the Civil War.

“The United States was divided in civil war at the same time, with concurrent definitive battles in Arizona and New Mexico — all part of the area ceded to the United States by Mexico just 14 years earlier,” said Suzanne Schadl, head of the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division. “These letters offer researchers an opportunity to examine another piece of a complex puzzle during the mid-1800s in North America.”

The new collection of letters by Mexican historical figures, still to be digitized, includes descriptions of complex military planning, weapon inventory and movement, and even how to deal with deserters.

Cinco de Mayo has its roots in an 1861 decision by Mexican President Benito Juárez. Facing a nation in financial ruin after two years of civil war, he suspended payment of foreign debts to the United Kingdom, Spain and France. All three nations sent warships to Mexico to seize payment, landing in Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast. The first two soon cut deals for repayment and withdrew. The French, led by Emperor Napoleon III, had more on their minds, planning to conquer the nation and establish a pro-French monarchy to rule it.

An elite French military force headed for Mexico City was stopped on May 5, 1862, at Puebla, a city about 80 miles southeast of the capital city. The Mexican forces were led by Texas-born general Ignacio Zaragoza. Working with a ragtag army, he defeated the superior French forces. The French withdrew and were forced to await reinforcements, which took nearly a year. The victory only delayed the eventual French victory (that government lasted until 1867, when it was overthrown) but it was a significant morale boost for a beleaguered nation.

A yellowed letter, written in Spanish, in elegant handwriting

Benito Juarez letter. Latin American, Caribbean and European Division.

One of these letters from the Library’s recent acquisition was written by President Juárez while Puebla was still under Mexican control. He fired off a letter on March 18, 1863, to his minister of war, Col. Miguel Blanco, asking that a local leader, Feliciano Chavarría, be named political and military chief.

The letter — brief, handwritten — is now fragile and yellowed with age. In it, Juárez orders Blanco to take care of the issue because “what is convenient is that this matter be dealt with briefly,” according to a Spanish-language transcription. It’s the only one penned by Juárez in the collection.

But in the United States, the victory at Puebla played an important role by delaying French rule in Mexico. France had not recognized the Confederacy — no nation ever did — but was considering it. According to Clark Crook-Castan, a historian, former U.S. diplomat and vice president of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, the victory at Puebla delayed French consideration of a plan that might have helped the Confederates.

“The French hoped to circumvent the Union naval blockade by shipping long-range artillery overland to Texas and on to the Confederate armies in the east,” he said.

By the time the French gained control of the Mexican border with Texas in the summer of 1863, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had already won the Battle of Vicksburg, cutting off the Confederates’ access to weapons from the west.

The subsequent Cinco de Mayo celebrations in California and elsewhere in the Southwest were fitting because California Latinos were strong Union supporters and had helped finance Juarez’s army.

Some of the earliest American celebrations of Cinco de Mayo date back to 1866, when the Mexican Patriotic Club in Virginia City, Nevada, held a party with “grand success,” according to the Gold Hill Daily News. As the Mexican flag waved on the club’s flagstaff, the party stretched into the afternoon with celebratory gunfire, a live music band “and a good social time.”

In 1867, leaders from Mexico and the Mexican American community celebrated Cinco de Mayo at a fancy hall in California, where political speeches in English and Spanish filled the air, while “tastefully attired” ladies, mostly young and “slowing with ardent sentiment,” made up a third of the audience, according to the Daily Alta California.

In 1870, a wire-service roundup of news from San Francisco published a one line item: “The Mexicans are celebrating the anniversary of the defeat of the French at Puebla, by salutes, to-day.”

Statue of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin in San Agustin Plaza in Laredo, Texas

Statue of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin in San Agustin Plaza in Laredo, Texas. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division.

Other articles in the Library’s Chronicling America, an online directory of American newspapers published between 1836 and 1922, detail celebrations over the ensuing decades in places like San Francisco, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and San Antonio, Texas.

A 1936 celebration on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border made front page news in the Nogales International, while another Arizona newpaper, El Sol, published a lengthy profiles of Zaragoza in 1942, calling him a “hero” and highlighting his Texas roots.

So as you gather with friends for the 160th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, you might have to remind some that is is not Mexican Independence Day (that’s Sept. 16). But now, as you sip a beer and munch tortilla chips dipped in guacamole, you can share a story about how, as Crook-Castan, the retired American diplomat puts it, the French defeat at Puebla had a profound impact on the Civil War and “it may well have saved the Union.”

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