The Battle of Puebla (Batalla de Puebla) took place on May 5, 1862, near Puebla City during the Second French intervention in México. The battle ended in a victory for the Mexican Army over the occupying French soldiers. The French eventually overran the Mexicans in subsequent battles, but the Mexican victory at Puebla against a much better equipped and larger French army provided a significant morale boost to the Mexican army and also helped slow the French army’s advance towards Mexico City.
The Mexican victory is celebrated yearly on the fifth of May. Its celebration is regional in México, primarily in the state of Puebla, where the holiday is celebrated as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla). There is some limited recognition of the holiday in other parts of the country. In the United States, this holiday has evolved into the very popular Cinco de Mayo holiday, a celebration of Mexican heritage.
Cinco de Mayo is Spanish for “Fifth of May”). In the United States, the celebration of Cinco de Mayo has taken on a significance beyond that in México and the date has become associated with the celebration of Mexican-American culture. These celebrations began in California, where they have been observed annually since 1863. The day gained nationwide popularity in the 1980s thanks especially to advertising campaigns by beer and wine companies. Today, Cinco de Mayo generates beer sales on par with the Super Bowl.
In México, the commemoration of the battle continues to be mostly ceremonial, such as through military parades or battle reenactments. The city of Puebla marks the event with an arts festival, a festival of local cuisine, and re-enactments of the battle.
Cinco de Mayo is sometimes mistaken for México’s Independence Day — the most important national holiday in the nation — which is celebrated on September 16, commemorating the Cry of Dolores, which initiated the war of Mexican independence from Spain.
Cinco de Mayo has its roots in the Second French intervention in México, which took place in the aftermath of the 1846–1848 Mexican–American War and the 1858–1861 civil war (known as the Reform War). The Reform War pitted Liberals (who believed in separation of church and state, and freedom of religion) against Conservatives (who favored a tight bond between the Catholic Church and the Mexican state). These wars nearly bankrupted the Mexican Treasury. On July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juárez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years.
At the end of October 1861 diplomats from Spain, France, and Britain met in London to form the Tripartite Alliance, with the main purpose of launching an allied invasion of México, taking control of Veracruz, its major port, and forcing the Mexican government to negotiate terms for repaying its debts and for reparations for alleged harm to foreign citizens in Mexico. Britain, France, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. In December 1861, Spanish troops landed in Veracruz; British and French followed in early January. The allied forces occupied Veracruz and advanced to Orizaba.
The Tripartite Alliance fell apart by early April 1862, when it became clear the French wanted to impose harsh demands on the Juarez government and provoke a war. Britain and Spain negotiated with México and withdrew. France was ruled at the time by Napoleon III and decided to use the opportunity to establish an empire in México that would favor French interests, the Second Mexican Empire. The empire was part of an envisioned “Latin America” (term used to imply cultural kinship of the region with France) that would rebuild French influence in the American continent and exclude Anglophone American territories.
Moving on from Veracruz towards Mexico City, the French army encountered heavy resistance from the Mexicans close to Puebla, at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. The French expeditionary force at the time was led by General Charles de Lorencez. The battle came about by a misunderstanding of the French forces’ agreement to withdraw to the coast. When the Mexican Republic forces saw these French soldiers on the march, they took it that hostilities had recommenced and felt threatened. To add to the mounting concerns, it was discovered that political negotiations for the withdrawal had broken down. A vehement complaint was lodged by the Mexicans to General Lorencez who took the effrontery as a plan to assail his forces. Lorencez decided to hold up his withdrawal to the coast by occupying Orizaba instead, which prevented the Mexicans from being able to defend the passes between Orizaba and the landing port of Veracruz. The 33-year-old Mexican Commander General, Ignacio Zaragoza, fell back to Acultzingo Pass where he and his army were badly beaten in a skirmish with Lorencez’s forces on April 28. Zaragoza retreated to Puebla which was heavily fortified — it had been held by the Mexican government since the Reform War. To its north stood the forts Loreto and Guadalupe on opposite hilltops. Zaragoza had a trench dug to join the forts via the saddle.
Lorencez was led to believe that the people of Puebla were friendly to the French, and that the Mexican Republican garrison which kept the people in line would be overrun by the population once he made a show of force. This would prove to be a serious miscalculation on Lorencez’s part. On May 5, 1862, against all advice, Lorencez with his army of 8,000, decided to attack Puebla from the north against the poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,000. However, he started his attack a little too late in the day, using his artillery just before noon and by noon advancing his infantry. By the third attack, the French required the full engagement of all their reserves. The French artillery had run out of ammunition, so the third infantry attack went unsupported. The Mexican forces and the Republican garrison both put up a stout defense and even took to the field to defend the positions between the hilltop forts.
As the French retreated from their final assault, Zaragoza had his cavalry attack them from the right and left while troops concealed along the road pivoted out to flank them. By 3 p.m. the daily rains had started, making a slippery slope of the battlefield. Lorencez withdrew to distant positions, counting 462 of his men killed against only 83 of the Mexicans. He waited a couple of days for Zaragoza to attack again, but Zaragoza held his ground. Lorencez then completely withdrew to Orizaba.
The victory represented a significant morale boost to the Mexican army and the Mexican people at large and helped establish a sense of national unity and patriotism. The Battle of Puebla was an inspirational event for wartime México, and it provided a stunning revelation to the rest of the world which had largely expected a rapid victory for French arms.
Slowed by their loss at Puebla, the French forces retreated and regrouped, and the invasion continued after Napoleon III determinedly sent additional troops to México. The French were eventually victorious, winning the Second Battle of Puebla with 30,000 troops on May 17, 1863, and pushing on to Mexico City. When the capital fell, Juárez’s government was forced into exile in the remote north.
With the backing of France, the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian became Emperor of México in the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.
The French victory was itself short-lived, lasting only three years, from 1864 to 1867. By 1865, “with the American Civil War now over, the U.S. began to provide more political and military assistance to México to expel the French”. Upon the conclusion of the American Civil War, Napoleon III, facing a persistent Mexican guerilla resistance, the threat of war with Prussia, and “the prospect of a serious scrap with the United States”, retreated from México starting in 1866. The Mexicans recaptured Mexico City, and Maximilian I was apprehended and executed, along with his Mexican generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía Camacho in Cerro de las Campanas, Querétaro. “On June 5, 1867, Benito Juárez finally entered Mexico City where he installed a new government and reorganized his administration.”
Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín is considered the hero of the Battle of Puebla. Zaragoza was born on March 24, 1829, in the village of Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahia del Espíritu Santo in what was then the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas. It is now the town of Goliad, Texas, in the United States. He was the son of Miguel G. Zaragoza and María de Jesús Seguín, who was a niece of Erasmo Seguín and cousin of Juan Seguín. The Zaragoza family moved to Matamoros, México, in 1834, and thence to Monterrey, México, in 1844, where young Ignacio entered a seminary.
During the political unrest of the 1850s, Zaragoza joined the army supporting the cause of the Liberal Party, in opposition to dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna. Zaragoza rose to command an army of volunteers that in 1855 defeated Santa Anna and led to the re-establishment of a constitutional democratic government in México.
Zaragoza served as Secretary of War from April through October 1861, in the cabinet of Benito Juárez. He resigned in order to lead the Army of the East (Ejército de Oriente) against the Europeans who, using the Mexican external debt as a pretext under the Treaty of London concluded earlier that year, had invaded México.
When the forces of Napoleon III invaded in the French intervention in México, Zaragoza’s forces fought them at Acultzingo on April 28, 1862, where he was forced to withdraw. Zaragoza understood the favorable defensive positions outside of the city of Puebla, and with a force that was smaller and not as well equipped as his opponent, beat back repeated French assaults upon the Mexican positions at Forts Loreto and Guadalupe. The French were forced to retreat to Orizaba.
Shortly after his famous victory, Zaragoza was struck with typhoid fever, of which he died on September 8, 1862, at the age of 33. He was buried in San Fernando Cemetery in Mexico City. He was later exhumed and transferred to Puebla, while his former tomb became a monument.
On May 9, 1862, President Juárez declared that the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla would be a national holiday, regarded as “Battle of Puebla Day” or “Battle of Cinco de Mayo”. The Battle of Puebla was significant, both nationally and internationally, — an inspirational event for wartime México which also provided a stunning revelation to the rest of the world which had largely expected a rapid victory for French arms.. According to a documentary broadcast in 2009 on the American Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the battle “was significant in that the 4,000 Mexican soldiers were greatly outnumbered by the well-equipped French army of 8,000 that had not been defeated for almost 50 years.” However, the French were in fact considered to have been defeated by the Russians at the Siege of Petropavlovsk in 1854 Some have argued that no country in the Americas has subsequently been invaded by any other European military force since the Battle of Puebla. Historian Justo Sierra has written in his Political Evolution of the Mexican People that, had México not defeated the French in Puebla on May 5, 1862, France would have gone to the aid of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War and the United States’ destiny would have been different.
A common misconception in the United States is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, the most important national patriotic holiday in México. México celebrates Independence Day on the September 16, commemorating the beginning of the war of Independence (September 16, 1810, the “Cry of Dolores”). México also observes the culmination of the war of Independence, which lasted 11 years, on September 27.
Today, the commemoration of the battle is not observed as an official national holiday in México. However, all public schools are closed nationwide in México on May 5. The day is an official holiday in the State of Puebla, where the Battle took place, and also a full holiday (no work) in the neighboring State of Veracruz.
In Puebla, historical reenactments, parades, and meals take place to commemorate the battle. Parade participants dress as French and Mexican soldiers to reenact the battle. Every year the city also hosts the Festival Internacional de Puebla, which gathers national and international artists, traditional musicians and dancers. During 2011 and 2012, a public park and memorial designed by Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos was constructed in the city of Puebla to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Since the 1930s, a re-enactment of the Battle of Puebla has been held each year at Peñón de los Baños, a rocky outcrop close to Mexico City International Airport. A military commemoration is occasionally held at the Campo Marte in Mexico City. A street, Avenida Cinco de Mayo, in the Historic Center of Mexico City was named after the battle in 1862 by Benito Juárez.
According to a paper published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture about the origin of the observance of Cinco de Mayo in the United States, the modern American focus on that day first started in California in 1863 in response to the resistance to French rule in México. “Far up in the gold country town of Columbia (now Columbia State Park) Mexican miners were so overjoyed at the news that they spontaneously fired off rifle shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs and made impromptu speeches.”
A 2007 UCLA Newsroom article notes that “the holiday, which has been celebrated in California continuously since 1863, is virtually ignored in México.” TIME magazine reports that “Cinco de Mayo started to come into vogue in 1940s America during the rise of the Chicano Movement.” The holiday crossed over from California into the rest of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s but did not gain popularity until the 1980s when marketers, especially beer companies, capitalized on the celebratory nature of the day and began to promote it. It grew in popularity and evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, first in areas with large Mexican-American populations, like Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, New York, followed by Cleveland, Boston, Indianapolis, Raleigh, Dallas, San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Denver, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Tucson, Albuquerque, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego.
In a 1998 study in the Journal of American Culture, it was reported that there were more than 120 official US celebrations of Cinco de Mayo in 21 different states. An update in 2006 found that the number of official Cinco de Mayo events was 150 or more, according to José Alamillo, a professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University in Pullman, who has studied the cultural impact of Cinco de Mayo north of the border. Los Angeles’ Fiesta Broadway has been billed as the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the world, which it most certainly was at its peak in the 1990s when it attracted crowds of 500,000 or more. In recent years attendance has seen a dramatic decrease.
On June 7, 2005, the United States Congress issued a concurrent resolution calling on the President of the United States to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities. To celebrate, many display Cinco de Mayo banners while school districts hold special events to educate students about its historical significance. Special events and celebrations highlight Mexican culture, especially in its music and regional dancing. Examples include baile folklórico and mariachi demonstrations held annually at the Plaza del Pueblo de Los Ángeles, near Olvera Street. Commercial interests in the United States have capitalized on the celebration, advertising Mexican products and services, with an emphasis on alcoholic beverages, foods, and music. According to Nielsen, in 2013 more than $600 million worth of beer was purchased in the United States for Cinco de Mayo, more than for the Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day.
Events tied to Cinco de Mayo also occur outside México and the United States. As in the United States, celebrations elsewhere also emphasize Mexican cuisine, culture and music. For example, some Canadian pubs play Mexican music and serve Mexican food and drink, and a sky-diving club near Vancouver holds a Cinco de Mayo skydiving event. In the Cayman Islands, in the Caribbean, there is an annual Cinco de Mayo air guitar competition, and at Montego Bay, Jamaica, there is a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The city of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, holds an annual Mexican Festival to honor the day, and celebrations are held in London and New Zealand. Other celebrations of the day can also be found in Cape Town, South Africa, Lagos, Nigeria, and in Paris. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Japan in Osaka and in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park Event Space as a celebration of Latin American culture.
Ignacio Zaragoza’s famous quotation, Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria (“The national arms have been covered with glory”), is used to remember the battle, and comes from the single-line letter he wrote to his superior, President Juárez, informing him of the victory. It was included, along with Zaragoza’s likeness, on Mexican 500-peso banknotes from 1995 to 2010 (Series D). The city of Puebla’s name was changed to Puebla de Zaragoza in 1862, by a decree issued by Benito Juárez. The city was attacked again by the French in 1863, who succeeded in taking it. French forces left in 1866 and reconstruction began in 1867.
In Mexico City, Zaragoza is honored with a Metro station named for him on Line 1. In the film Cinco de Mayo La Batalla (2013), Zaragoza was portrayed by Kuno Becker.
Zaragoza was first portrayed on a stamp issued by México on September 16, 1915. Scott #502 is a 3-centavo stamp printed in brown using lithography on unwatermarked paper and rouletted 14½. The same design was reissued on December 20, 1915, perforated in a gauge of 12 (Scott #508). There are several color shades of this stamp.
A new definitive depicting Zaragoza was released in 1917 as a one centavo dull violet stamp engraved on thick unwatermarked paper and rouletted 14½ (Scott #608), also perforated 12 and found on thick or medium paper (Scott #618). A lilac gray variety, rouletted 14½, was released in 1920 (Scott #609). There were a number of Official overprints issued between 1918 and 1921 using these three stamps with the overprints printed vertically reading either up in red (Scott #O113, O124, O130); reading down in black (Scott #O134, O134a, O145, and O145a); or reading down in red (Scott #O155). There are two instances of the overprint reading OFICIAN (Scott #O124a and O130a) and the color varieties include dull violet, violet, lilac gray and gray. I am sure there are many more shades that are not listed in the Scott catalogue.
The city of Puebla has been honored on numerous stamps as well, beginning with a single commemorative released on May 1, 1931, marking the city’s 400th anniversary (Scott #675). The 10-centavo blue and sepia recess-printed stamp bears Puebla’s coat of arms and is perforated 12½. The Independence Monument at Puebla is first seen on Scott #714 issued on December 1, 1934, engraved in olive and denominated 20 centavos with the imprint Oficina Impresora de Hacienda-Mexico, perforated 10½. Slight color changes were issued between 1945 and 1947 (Scott #796 gray green, #846 olive green and #846a green).
Puebla Cathedral, with construction beginning in November 1575 and continuing until 1690, was pictured on the 20-centavo value of a long-running definitive series starting with Scott #860 in 1950 and ending with Scott #1054 in 1973. A larger format 80-centavo stamp depicting the cathedral was released on April 16, 1981 commemorating the 450th anniversary of Puebla (Scott #1230a). The city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status was marked on a stamp from the Grenadines of Grenada issued on April 3, 1997 (Scott #1893c), part of a miniature sheet of eight, and by México on an 11.50-peso large format stamp released on December 8, 2011, picturing images from ten Mexican cities that are designated World Heritage sites.
The Battle of Puebla finally received a postal commemoration with the release of two stamps on May 5, 1962, to mark the battle’s 100th anniversary. A 40-centavo sepia and dark green stamp portrays an insurgent at the battle marker (Scott #922) while a 1-peso slate green and gray green airmail stamp depicts General Ignacio Zaragoza on his horse with a view of the city of Puebla (Scott #C260). The 125th anniversary of the battle was honored with a single 100-peso stamp issued on May 5, 1987 (Scott #1478). This stamp’s central design is a 1901 image from the Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano, a series of booklets for children detailing the history of México. Zaragoza would not appear on another stamp until November 23, 1995, as part of a set marking Military Highlights in the History of México (Scott #1937).
México and the United States each released a stamp utilizing the same design on April 16, 1998, differing in size but also in the inscription. México’s stamp (Scott #2066) reads Festividades Mexicanas, which translates to “Mexican Festivities” in English, while the U.S. stamp (Scott #3203) reads Cinco de Mayo. This was the first U.S. Postal Service release in its Holiday Traditions series to venture beyond the winter season. The painting of a couple dancing was created by Robert Rodriguez of Pasadena, California, and was his first design to grace a postage stamp. The dual first day ceremony was held for both stamps in San Antonio, Texas. The Mexican stamp bears a denomination of 3.50 pesos while the 1998 U.S. stamp was denominated 32 cents and was printed using the photogravure process by Stamp Venturers. The self-adhesive U.S. stamp has serpentine die cuts measuring 11.7 by 10.9. It was re-issued at San Antonio on April 27, 1999, this time offset printed by the Banknote Corporation of America and denominated 33 cents with serpentine die cut perforations of 11.6×11.3 (Scott #3309).
México’s release for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is a beautiful miniature sheet printed by Talleres de Impresion de Estampillas y Valores giving a thumbnail history of the battle and additional images in the margins. Scott #2782 was released on May 5, 2012, and contains three 7-peso stamps, perforated 13¼, printed using offset lithography on fluorescent paper. The stamp on the left brings attention to the Tripartite Alliance formed by three European nations to act against México (the Spanish Tratados de la Soledad translates to “Treaties of Loneliness”). This treaty is known as the Convention of London and signed by France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, on October 31, 1861. The purpose of the treaty was to agree on a course of action towards obtaining loan repayments from Mexico. Though this violated the main tenet of the Monroe Doctrine (European non-intervention in the Western Hemisphere), the United States could not offer much opposition as it was engulfed in its own civil war. The second stamp honors General Ignacio Zaragoza while the third portrays the Army of the East (Ejército de Oriente). Zaragoza had resigned his position as Secretary of War in order to lead the army against the Europeans who had invaded México.
Having been born in Texas and having lived a significant portion of my life there and in New Mexico, I grew up exposed to a lot of Mexican culture and remain enamored with the food and traditions. Even here in Thailand, where I have lived for nearly 15 years, I make a point of celebrating Cinco de Mayo each year even if its only to eat a nice Mexican meal. Luckily, there is now two or three decent restaurants near my home in Phuket that serve passable versions of Mexican food. I plan to go to one just as soon as I publish today’s article, the first for this blog in more than a month’s holiday (I don’t plan on returning to a daily publishing schedule but will put together articles as I have the time and energy to do so).
Feliz Cinco de Mayo!