Sunday, May 05, 2013

A Serious Reason to Celebrate Cinco De Mayo

Here in the states we gringos* get our Mexi-CAN attitude up during May 5th for all things Mexican... mostly Mexican food (TACOS), Mexican drinks ('RITAS), and terrible attempts to speak like Speedy Gonzales.

But there's a good reason to celebrate this day of Cinco De Mayo, in honor of the Battle of Puebla, not only a positive moment for Mexico but for the hemisphere as well.

You see, back in 1862 the nation of Mexico was a huge mess.  The aftermath of the Mexican-American War left the government divided and the people's spirits broken.  From 1857 to 1861 they suffered a civil war (see? another one) that wrecked their finances and made it difficult to pay off their debts to overseas creditors... which happened to be France, Spain, and England.

Around this time France had fallen under yet another would-be dictator in Napoleon's nephew who declared himself Napoleon III (there really wasn't a II, but III needed to include his dad into the equation for his claim to stick).  Itching for an overseas empire of his own, and wary of the United States - even in the middle of its own civil war - growing into a global power if it ran unchecked across the western hemisphere, Napoleon III used the default to convince the Spanish and British governments to jointly send troops to Mexico and force the Mexican government to capitulate and pay off those debts.

When the overseas force reached the shores of Mexico the Mexican President Benito Juarez had sent envoys to negotiate a deal to pay off the debts at a prolonged period with favorable rates to the creditor nations.  Thankfully, neither Spain nor the UK wanted to start a fight - they were also pissed to find out this was an excuse by Napoleon III to invade, not reclaim debts - and accepted the terms.  Napoleon's forces, however, were ordered to march in and take over no matter what.

Into this mix came Ignacio Zaragoza.  Growing up to become a priest, during the civil war unrest of the 1850s he quit seminary studies and offered to join any army supporting the struggling republic.  At first unqualified for officer rank - he was from the peasantry - and then barred from signing up for foot soldier duty, Zaragoza was able to join a ragtag team of misfits and proved himself with them, working his way into the regular ranks.  By 1855 Zaragoza was the officer in charge of the military that ousted Santa Anna - where Zaragoza should be considered Mexico's greatest military hero, Santa Anna should be considered the worst - and helped establish the Liberal Party's control of Mexico.

Zaragoza was serving in Juarez's cabinet as War Secretary when the armies landed in 1862.  He promptly resigned his post and took charge of the eastern defenses.  As the French moved inland towards Mexico City, Zaragoza's early forays convinced him to pull back to a fortified position and get the French to do something stupid (being the French army he was facing, this was doable).  That meant tearing up the fields in a scorched earth policy and pulling back to the city of Puebla, where two forts were already built and all Zaragoza needed to do was carve out a horse path between the two for his cavalry to maneuver.

I just noted that the best way to defeat the French was to let them do something stupid, which seemed a common occurrence   It was.  While the French troops themselves are as good and hardened as any other army on a battlefield, the French leadership leaves a bit to be desired more often than not.  The general in charge of the invading French force for example - Comte de Lorencez - had been told (and believed) to expect the Mexican citizenry to welcome his forces as liberators (gee, sounds familiar) and so expected any Mexican opposition to get turned over by their own people the second French troops paraded nearby.  He also wasn't too familiar with weather conditions in that part of the world and so didn't think to get his fighting done before the afternoon thunderstorms would roll in.

Lorencez started his artillery barrage just before lunch and didn't send his ground troops to attack the forts until right after lunch.  Zaragoza kept his troops on the defensive, using the terrain and patience to keep his troops fresh and ready, forcing the French to keep charging uphill into a swarm of machete-wielding - yes this part is real - Mexicans.  When the French started their third wave, they were low on ammo, their artillery was useless, and the weather turned wet (hello, afternoon rainstorms!) and the terrain muddy.  During their pullback from the third failed assault, the French forces were confronted by Zaragoza's meager cavalry and a concealed flanking contingent that turned the pullback into a retreat.  Lorencez retreated from the battlefield, and spent the next few days trying to get Zaragoza to chase after him (hoping to get Zaragoza's smaller force into an open field for easier stompage).  Zaragoza wouldn't bite, forcing Lorencez to retreat all the way back to the Gulf of Mexico and call for reinforcements.

Zaragoza sent word back to Mexico CityLas armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria.  The national arms have been covered in glory.  After the massive humiliations suffered by the Mexican-American War, the Mexicans had won a battle against a foreign army.

Sadly, they didn't stop the war.  Napoleon III wanted his overseas empire and so sent more troops expecting a bigger fight.  By 1863 they had seized control of Mexico City and inserted a puppet "emperor" Maximilian (some guy from the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty).  As to why Zaragoza wasn't there to stop them... well by September 1862 Zaragoza died of typhoid fever, leaving a vacuum of military leadership and skill.

But Zaragoza's victory was a big one: for both Mexico and the United States.  It gave Mexico a year to organize and prepare for further hostilities, which became the resistance fighting that continued the war into 1867.  It gave time for the United States to finish up their civil war by 1865 to give the Republic forces much-needed weapons and a 50,000 strong veteran army led by Philip Sheridan - think Patton on a horse, about 3 inches shorter and 3 times more blood-thirsty - that hampered French resources.  By 1867 Napoleon III's dream of empire was over and he abandoned Maximilian (who foolishly stayed behind thinking he could appeal to the Mexican people) to his fate.

Mexico retained its national identity and its honor.  The United States no longer had a hostile European-backed empire in its backyard.  The Western Hemisphere was no longer under threat of hostile takeover by France or any other European nation with imperial ambitions like Belgium or the emerging nation-states like Germany or Italy (sadly, the Central and South American republics still had - and have - to contend with a meddling US government instead...).

And that, kids, is why we raise a drink in honor of General Zaragoza.  A toast... on this Cinco De Mayo!

* Mexican for "Crazy White Tourists".  I'm not kidding.

No comments: