CINCO DE MAYO
During the 19th Century, two great events stand out with paramount significance in the history of Mexico. The first is the war of Independence, whose long struggle began on the night of September 15-16, 1810, and finally concluded in triumph on August 27, 1821. The second is the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, which is commemorated each year as the Cinco de Mayo.
The celebration of the Dieciseis (16th) of September is for Mexico what the Fourth of July. is for the United States. Many in the United States are aware of the struggle between royal Spain and the patriots of Mexico, which led to Mexico's independence. But fewer in the United States know the history of the Cinco de Mayo, the celebration of Mexico's greatest and most improbable military victory.
The chain of events, which would lead to the battle of Puebla began in the 1850's, when the Emperor Napoleon III of France sought to create an empire in the Americas which could rival the United States. Napoleon III used the power of the French army then considered the world's finest, to attempt to impose a French-led monarchy on the Mexican Republic.
Fortunately for Mexico, the French Army was led by General Charles Latrille de Lorencez, an arrogant aristocrat who held the Mexican people in contempt. "The French soldiers enjoy such racial and organizational superiority over the Mexicans that with my 6,000 men, I control all of Mexico!" Lorencez boasted. In spite of the counsel of caution he received from his own allies, Lorencez intended to prove his claims of French dominance on the field of battle. On the Fifth of May 1862, Lorencez drew his army, well-provisioned and supported by heavy artillery, before the city of Puebla and prepared to attack from the north.
Commanding the Mexican forces in the city was the young General Ignacio Zaragoza. Though only 33 years old, Zaragoza was a brilliant and innovative commander, whose tactics had frustrated Lorencez for weeks before the climactic battle. Zaragoza confused the French by declining battle on the open plains; instead, he used skirmishes and patrols to harass the French and gain vital intelligence while he fortified the city of Puebla. The French outnumbered Zaragoza’s army two-to-one; in order to win, Zaragoza needed to fight the battle on his own terms.
Lorencez concentrated his attack on the northern front of the city's defenses, but the vaunted French troops could not crack Zaragoza's fortifications. Turned back but not yet defeated, the French army pulled back from its assault. Seeing his opportunity, Zaragoza launched his own attack, using troops positioned in advance for just such an opening. The French fought well, but that day they were no match for the courage and skill of the Mexicans. Defeated and humiliated, Lorencez ordered a general retreat. Against all odds, Zaragoza had held the city and had inflicted a major defeat on the invaders. The effect of the Battle of Puebla on the struggle against the French was fleeting, but the contribution of Zaragoza and his brave men to the pride of the Mexican people lives on to this day.
The Cinco de Mayo has ever since been a major holiday in Mexico, and Mexicans celebrate it around the world. For Mexican-Americans, though, the day holds still greater meaning. The young General Zaragoza, who died within a year of the Battle of Puebla, was born in Goliad, Texas, in 1829. The son of a cavalry officer, he brought to the battle the military traditions and the spirit of frontier innovation which characterized the original Tejanos. In recognition of the town's most famous son, a historical marker dedicated to Zaragoza stands today in Goliad, and every year the citizens of Goliad recall their part in the victory of the Cinco de Mayo.
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