OPINION

Opinion: On 5 de Mayo, the French suffered like they had not experienced since Waterloo

388842 04: Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a reenactment of the 1862 battle between the French and the Zacapuaxtlas Indians May 5, 2001 in Puebla, Mexico. Mexicans celebrate their victory over France with reenactements and parades around the country. (Photo by Susana Gonzalez/Newsmakers)

388842 04: Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a reenactment of the 1862 battle between the French and the Zacapuaxtlas Indians May 5, 2001 in Puebla, Mexico. Mexicans celebrate their victory over France with reenactements and parades around the country. (Photo by Susana Gonzalez/Newsmakers)

The United States of America has only been invaded once; the British landed in 1812 from Chesapeake Bay and took Washington, D.C. the capital of the United States. Mexico has not been so lucky.

First, the Mexicans warred on the Spanish for a decade before they left in 1821; then the United States invaded Mexico in 1846 and would invade again in 1914 and 1916. The U.S. won in 1846 but Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 and 1916 incursions failed in their missions. The 1916 incursion was humiliated by Mexican soldiers that captured Americans in battle. The incursion failed in its mission of capturing Mexican bandit Pancho Villa.

Not all soldiers had rifles. Some were armed with machetes only. Indian volunteers carried machetes and brought cattle to feed troops and to use as a “secret” weapon. Wives, mothers and sisters fed the troops.

- Raouk Lowery-Contreras

In between the Spanish and the Americans, the French invaded Mexico. Napoleon III invaded Mexico so he could help the Confederate States of America destroy the United States of America, a country despot Napoleon hated.

French troops landed alongside Spanish and British troops in the port city of Vera Cruz in December 1861 to collect debts owed by Mexico to European banks. The British and Spanish negotiated a deal and left. The French stayed commanded by General Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, the most accomplished French soldier of his generation. His troops were considered to be the best in Europe; they had not lost a battle since Waterloo five decades before. Supplementing his soldiers was the three-decade old French Foreign Legion that took no prisoners. Their standing order was shoot to kill.

The Comte de Lorencez was not thrilled that Mexicans did not prostrate themselves to his soldiers. His staff reported sessions in which he would listen to poor Mexican men deny they were guerrilla fighters then grumble, “All Mexicans are guerillas.”

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Firing squads were the order of the day. The Foreign Legion did not hold hearings like the general did, they simply executed all men and boys over 12 in villages they suspected of resistance. The French secured the coastal plain and port facilities within weeks.

The army, joined by 2,000 Mexican Monarchists, commenced its march towards Mexico City from the lowlands in late April; the total of 8,000 men and their supplies followed the route taken by the Spanish in 1519 and the Americans in 1846 that led through the city of Puebla (Pweh-blah) 100 miles east of Mexico City. Due to steep mountainsides, the only avenue of attack was up a valley defended at the top by two old Spanish-built forts, Loreto and Guadalupe.

Four thousand Mexicans defended Puebla; they were commanded by Ignacio Zaragoza, a Texas-born general with experience during the War of Reformation in 1858 in which he fought fellow Mexicans. Some of his men shared that combat experience and some were veterans of the war with the United States between 1846 and 1848. 

The mostly teenaged soldiers had rifles bought from the British that had last been used at the Battle of Waterloo in which Napoleon I was defeated five decades before. Not all soldiers had rifles. Some were armed with machetes only. Indian volunteers carried machetes and brought cattle to feed troops and to use as a “secret” weapon. Wives, mothers and sisters fed the troops.

Tropical rains hit the valley and surrounding mountainsides the night of May 4th presaging what would become the worst day in General Latrille’s life, the 5th of May. In Spanish it is el Cinco de Mayo.

During the rain, the Indios stampeded their cattle around the valley causing the French to laugh at the comedy of cattle and Indians.

At dawn the 5th of May, the 8,000 French and Mexican allies formed their attack, the French cavalry deployed and amidst competing trumpets the march started toward the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. Cattle and rain-produced mud slowed them to a crawl. They were decimated. The French and Mexican allies suffered 25 percent casualties. French dead littered the valley floor.

When the infantry faltered the generals ordered the ostrich-plumed plow-horse riding cavalry to attack. They too had mud problems. Out of nowhere Mexican cavalrymen struck until the French commander ordered his cavalry to run down and kill the Mexicans.

Off they went, running for miles until, much to their surprise, the Mexicans turned and attacked the French with a fury from three sides. The French were decimated. Mexican cavalry commander Colonel Porfirio Diaz became a national hero and later President and dictator.

The French had a very bad day that 5th of May 1862. Certainly the French returned to Puebla a year later with 30,000 troops to take it and Mexico City, but the French tired of daily deaths and defeats and left like the Spanish did four decades before.

The French and their Foreign Legion suffered at the hands of the Mexicans like they had not experienced since Waterloo. At a village named Cameron, outside Vera Cruz, in April 1863, 65 Foreign Legionnaires ran into Mexican irregulars – guerillas – and were all killed or taken prisoner by those guerillas in the worst defeat in French Foreign Legion history.

The French, being the French, celebrate that Cameron defeat on April 30 as a national holiday. Mexicans and American friends celebrate the Cinco de Mayo battle remembering how the best army in the world was defeated by poorly armed kids helped by cattle, rain and answers to their prayers.

No armed force has invaded the Americas since the French left Mexico in 1867.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a political consultant. He was formerly with the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate. Contreras's books are available at Amazon.com

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