Battle of Puebla
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The Battle of Puebla (Spanish: Batalla de Puebla; French: Bataille de Puebla) took place on 5 May 1862, near Puebla City during the Second French intervention in Mexico. The battle ended in a victory for the Mexican Army over the French Army. 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 Mexicans and also helped slow the French advance towards Mexico City.
The Mexican victory is celebrated yearly through a festival on the same date as the battle. It is primarily celebrated in the Mexican state of Puebla, where the holiday is celebrated as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (English: 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.
The Reform War of 1858 to 1860 had caused major distress throughout Mexico's economy. When taking office as the elected president in 1861, Benito Juárez was forced to suspend payments of interest on foreign debts for a period of two years. At the end of October 1861, diplomats from Spain, France, and the United Kingdom met in London to form the Tripartite Alliance, with the main purpose of launching an allied invasion of Mexico, and ensuring the Mexican government would be willing to come to terms to negotiate terms for repaying its debts. In December 1861, Spanish troops landed in Veracruz; British and French troops followed in early January. The allied forces occupied Veracruz and advanced to Orizaba. However, 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. The British and Spanish withdrew after peacefully negotiating agreements with Juárez, leaving the French to march alone on Mexico City. The goal of Napoleon III was to set up a puppet Mexican regime.
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The French expeditionary force at the time was led by General Charles de Lorencez. The battle came about by a misunderstanding of the French agreement to withdraw to the coast. When the Mexican forces saw French soldiers on the march, they took it as a sign that hostilities had recommenced and felt threatened. To add to the mounting concerns, the Mexican forces were informed that political negotiations for the withdrawal had broken down. A vehement complaint was lodged by the Mexicans to 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 Mexican Commander-general, Ignacio Zaragoza, fell back to Acultzingo Pass, where he and his army were defeated in a skirmish with Lorencez's forces on 28 April. 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 towards the French, and that the Mexican 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 5 May 1862, against the advice of his officers, Lorencez decided to attack Puebla from the north. However, he started his attack late in the day, using his artillery just before noon, and advancing his infantry by noon proper. The French mounted two unsuccessful assaults, which were driven back by Mexican forces. By the third assault 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 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 172 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 withdrew to Orizaba.
The Battle of Puebla was an inspirational event for Mexico during the war, and it proved 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 Mexico. The French were eventually victorious, winning the Second Battle of Puebla on 17 May 1863 and pushing on to Mexico City. When the capital fell, Juárez's government was forced into exile in the remote northern parts of Mexico.
On 9 May 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".
A common misconception in the United States is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day, the most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico. Mexico celebrates Independence Day on the 16th of September, commemorating the beginning of the war of Independence (September 16, 1810, the "Cry of Dolores"). Mexico also observes the culmination of the war of Independence, which lasted 11 years, on 27 September.
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