Why We Celebrate Cinco de Mayo: A Brief History of the Battle of Puebla

Against all odds, Mexico throws back the French army.

Wikimedia Commons

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


In 1862, the U.S. was embroiled in a Civil War, but there was also an entirely different battle going on in North America, as France fought Mexico at Puebla.

The French emperor, Napoleon III, saw Mexico as an ideal acquisition that would give France a foothold in the western hemisphere. French General Charles Lorencez decided to attack Mexican troops entrenched at Puebla.

It should have been an easy win, as 6,000 French soldiers attacked 2,000 Mexican troops on May 5, 1862. But the French assaults were repeatedly thrown back by the Mexicans, who inflicted heavy losses. The French lost 462 men, the Mexicans just 83.

Battle of Puebla
The Battle of Puebla. (Image provided by Mike Manning, Wikimedia Commons via  GNU Free Documentation License)

American newspapers must have assumed what seemed the most likely outcome: That the Mexican government had fled Puebla and the French were advancing on Mexico City.

Not until May 31, 1862, was the Post able to set the record straight with this item under the heading “Mexican Affairs.”

article clipping
The column from the May 31, 1862, issue of the Post. (Click to Enlarge)

Semi-official advices from sources favorable to Mexico, with dates from the City of Mexico to the 12th, from Jalapa to the 8th, and from Vera Cruz to the 12th inst., received at Washington, show the falsity of much that has been published.

The Constitutional Government has not abandoned the City of Mexico, nor is it likely to do so. The French and Mexicans had a battle at Humbres de Aculzingo, the result of which is not clear.

[The French captured the first line of Mexican defenses, causing the Mexicans to withdraw to Puebla.]

The French claim a victory, but would seem to have lost more men, especially in officers, than the Mexicans. Up to the last dates indeed the French had not occupied Puebla, which is only an easy two days’ march from Humbres.

General Zaragoza, the Mexican General-in-Chief, had defeated Marquez on his way to join the French, and was preparing to fight the French before Puebla. Great preparations were making in the City of Mexico for resistance to the invaders in case Puebla was lost. Gen. Ortega had arrived there with 6,000 volunteers from the state of which he is governor. Forces from other states were rallying to the defence of the capital.

As soon as the French left Soledad and Cordova, both places were occupied by Gen. Llave, the Constitutional Governor of the state of Vera Cruz, within the limits of which they are situated. He had cut off the invading army’s communication with the coast. Gen. Llave was also marching upon Orizaba. Almonte had vainly expected pronunciamentos [public declarations of opposition by troops, usually the preparation for a military coup] in his favor in the interior, in places not under French bayonets.

Mr. Corwin in the treaty which he has negotiated offers a loan from the United States to the Government of [Benito] Juarez of $10,000,000. Mr. Allen, our Consult at Minatitlan, had brought the treaty to Washington.


This item was followed in the next issue with this brief but important notice.

Article clipping
The column from the June 7, 1862, issue of the Post. (Click to Enlarge)


The steamer Orizaba brings news from the city of Mexico, via Acupulco, to the 8th ult. On that day the French army commenced retreating from before Puebla towards Amesa. It appears that there had previously been some fighting.

The following is the dispatch announcing the news to President Juarez:

“Puebla, May 8 — Word was received at the city of Mexico on the 7th p.m. that we have triumphed.

“The French has since commenced retreating. We offered them battle this morning, forming our troops in front of their camp, but they refused to accept our challenge, and have turned their backs to their foolish hardihood and unpardonable credulity.

“Please receive the compliments of General Sara Gasa [Zaragoza] and myself. Yours, forever (signed) Ignacio Migl.”

Americans would have welcomed the news. They dreaded the possibility of France establishing itself in the New World and involving itself in American politics, especially since the French government sympathized with the Confederacy and were ready to exchange military aid for southern cotton.

President Lincoln personally supported Mexico’s struggle for liberty, and he didn’t relish the idea of confronting both the Confederacy and a French colonial force. This probably explained the federal loan of $10 million to Mexico.

In time, that initial victory at Puebla was undone. The French rallied their forces and moved beyond Puebla to occupy Mexico City and install a puppet government. Napoleon III installed Mexico’s first emperor, Maximilian I.

But by 1866, Napoleon III realized he couldn’t suppress the continued Mexican resistance — and, with our Civil War ended, ongoing pressure from the U.S. He withdrew his troops and, within months, Maximilian I was led before a firing squad.

Excecution by shooting
The execution of Maximillian I of Mexico in 1867. (Wikimedia Commons)

It is Mexico’s determination to remain independent, demonstrated to the world in 1862, that is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo.

Featured image: The Battle of Puebla (Wikimedia Commons)

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *