Today in History – May 5, 1862 – Battle of Puebla commemorated today as Cinco de Mayo

Napoleon I had his Spanish ulcer.  His nephew Napoleon III‘s ulcer was Mexican.  In 1861 President Benito Juarez‘s suspension of interest payments ticked off Mexio’s European creditors France, Spain and the United Kingdom.  The three powers sent their navies to threaten Mexico.  However Spain and the United Kingdom soon realized that Napoleon III meant to seize all of Mexico including its silver mines and they withdrew.

On May 5, 1862 a Mexican army stunningly defeated a larger and better equipped French army at Puebla.  The battle shocked those who expected an easy French victory.  The battle was an inspirational boost to Mexico and delayed the French advance.  President Juarez decreed that the day would be commemorated as a national holiday – El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla).  The day is not a Federal holiday in Mexico, but is celebrated by Mexican communities in the United States as Cinco de Mayo.

Depictions of the battle showing Mexican cavalry taking over the French troops below the fort at Loreto
Depictions of the battle showing Mexican cavalry taking over the French troops below the fort at Loreto

Napoleon III sent more troops and the next year the French won the second Battle of Puebla and occupied Mexico City.  He then offered the Crown of Mexico to the brother of the Austrian Emperor – Maximilian.  Emperor Maximilian reached Mexico the following year.  The well meaning and somewhat naive Maximilian was too liberal for Mexico’s conservatives and as a monarch unacceptable to liberals.

In 1866 with the American Civil War over, the United States demanded the withdrawal of French troops and sent troops to the Rio Grande.  Napoleon III decided to cut his losses and withdraw and the Mexican Republicans started winning major military victories.  The naive Maximilian would not abandon his loyal supporters and was captured.  Even though prominent liberals like Garibaldi and Victor Hugo asked for his life to be spared, Juarez wanted to send a message that foreign rule of Mexico was unacceptable. Maximilian and two of his generals were executed by firing squad.

The Mexcan fiasco was ultimately a humiliation for Napoleon III who was blamed for the death of Maximilan.  Maximilain’s Belgian wife Carlota collapsed on hearing his death and was later judged insane.  Benito Juarez is recognized today by monuments and streets named after him around the world – including a statue at the Plaza of the Americas along Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  He is also the subject of a 1939 Hollywood film with Bette Davis as the unfortunate Carlota and Claude Rains as Napoleon III.

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