Battle of Puebla
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|Battle of Puebla|
|Part of the Second French intervention in Mexico|
Charge of the Mexican Cavalry at the Battle of Puebla, Francisco P. Miranda
|Commanders and leaders|
|Charles de Lorencez|
|2,000 to 5,000 (4,500)||6,000 to 6,500|
|Casualties and losses|
83 killed |
227 casualties total
50 to 462 killed |
300 to 404 wounded
12 to 127 captured
462 to 770 casualties total
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 by 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 and bitter enemies, but the remaining defeated conservatives still opposed the government and were hoping for support for their cause. 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 negotiate terms for repaying its debts. However, the French were secretly using the alliance as a facade to invade the fractured country. The goal of French emperor Napoleon III was to set up a puppet Mexican regime in a bid to establish French influence in America and potential French allies. 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.
Prelude to Battle
The forthcoming 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 justification to assail his forces. The French general 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 commanding Mexican 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 had been held by the Mexican government since the Reform War. The city was heavily fortified with 5 forts surrounding it. To its north stood the two stone forts Loreto and Guadalupe on opposite hilltops. Zaragoza had a trench dug to join the forts via the saddle. Lorencez expected to meet with the forces of Mexican conservatives who promised to assist his campaign but there was no sign of them. Unknown to him, Zaragoza had already sent a force to prevent their interruption in the coming battle. He was also 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 as more Mexicans rallied to fend off the foreigners rather than fight for the conservatives once more.
The French army consisted of mainly of Zouaves, highly skilled light infantry initially consisting of tribesmen from mainland Algeria but over time would include more Europeans. They had proved themselves highly skilled and able during the Crimean war and wars in Italy and would contribute the main effort during the battle. French forces were far better trained and equipped and the size of the army was equal to that of a French division with around 6,000 men. The French expeditionary force at the time was led by General Charles de Lorencez, an ambitious career soldier with services in Algeria and the Crimea being recently given the rank of major general.
The Mexican army was a band of ragtag patriots compared to their counterparts, but could still be counted on to serve their country. The Army of the East had recently fought and won against the conservative faction during the Reform War and were skilled in both conventional and guerilla warfare. Their commanding general was Ignacio Zaragoza, an experienced general with no formal military training who had led volunteers in support of Juarez and understood the importance of terrain and position which had led to his decision to withdraw more inward into Mexico rather than fight on open ground.
On 3 May, the retreating Mexican forces reached Puebla and began to hastily build up defenses. Although Puebla had fallen during the conservatives, the northern forts had never been attacked head on by opposing forces. Meanwhile, at the nearby village of Amazoc, Lorencez and his staff were deciding on a plan of attack. His conservative allies suggested outflanking the city altogether and marching on to Mexico City, but Lorencez did not want to leave his lines of communication back to Veracruz vulnerable to guerrillas. When battle at Puebla was inevitable, many officers and conservative allies suggested outflanking the two northern forts and attacking more south towards more favorable grounds. However, a Mexican engineer told the general that Forts Loreto and Guadalupe had been left in disrepair and they would be more susceptible to artillery shells. Lorencez decided to take on the forts and trusted that his experienced men would easily take them.
On 5 May around 5 am, the French left Amazoc towards Puebla. They set up a temporary camp by Hacienda Amalucán, three miles from Puebla, to wait for the battalion of Chasseurs d'Afrique to find space for the artillery to fire their shells. Although harassed by Mexican guerillas on horses, the French found a position 2,700 yards from Fort Guadeloupe, the main objective for the assault. As the French arrived in force during the morning, Lorencez expected that the conservatives in Puebla would riot and cause disarray in Zaragoza’s army, but by 10:15 am, the battle had begun as cannons began firing.
The forts and the trenches in between made the Mexican left flank, while the foot of Guadeloupe’s hill represented the center, and on the right, the Amazoc sentry box.
Lorencez decided to attack Puebla from the north solely on the Mexican left, focusing the attack mostly on the forts, of which Guadalupe was believed to be badly fortified. However, his officers again suggested trying to outflank the forts and attack more south but Lorencez dismissed their opinions. He intended to attack the forts overall with 4,000 soldiers. However, he started his attack late in the day, using his artillery just before noon, and advancing his infantry by noon proper. In the first assault, Lorencez used his artillery to pound the forts right before launching his men at 11:45. However, the stone forts held, possibly due to the fact that Lorencez positioned his artillery at a far range for a better angle. During the battle, he would try to change the artillery's position but the attempt was futile as the slope of fort Guadalupe subtracted the power of the bombardment as shells sometimes skidded along the ground. The French four rifled 4 pounder cannons were too weak and light to impose serious damage and only the 12 pounder howitzers made serious results among the Mexican ranks within the fort but by the first attack, the French had used up half artillery ammunition. The French sent 2 battalions of Zouaves to attack Guadeloupe while a battalion of Marines covered their flank against Loreto. The French were mauled by exposed fire from both forts and the trenches and were thus beaten back forcing Lorencez to change his tactics.
During the second assault, Lorencez planned to make a diversionary attack to the southeast of the city to draw off the attention and defenders of the forts. At 12:30 pm, the French artillery once again began a bombardment on the forts and the French soldiers once again launched their assault with the Zouave battalions and a battalion of Chasseurs de Vincennes to attack Guadeloupe. The marine battalion would cover Loreto once more while the 99th line and some Chasseurs d’Afrique would advance towards the Mexican center and also covering the Mexican right at the Amazoc sentry box covered by Porfirio Diaz’s brigade. The second attack proved more successful as companies of French Zouaves managed to climb the wall of Guadalupe with one raising the tricolor flag but they were ripped apart and pushed out in retreat. Their flag standard, decorated in the battles of Magenta and Solferino, fell into a nearby moat by the fort but was recovered by a Zouaves who went missing by Mexican fire. The early diversionary attack was also beaten back in melee combat by forces led by General Porfirio Diaz, who successfully stopped them from assisting their comrades.
By the third assault the French required the full engagement of all their reserves around 2 pm. The French artillery had run out of ammunition but Lorencez was unwilling to concede defeat yet, so the third infantry attack was ordered without any supporting fire. The same repulsed Zouaves and marines towards the Mexican left flank while the marine regiment infantry and chasseurs d’Afrique would cover the Mexican center and right flank. At 3 pm the rain started, making the battlefield slippery and muddy. 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 left while troops concealed along the road pivoted out to flank them. The French were harassed until they went outside the Mexican artillery range. Against the orders of his commander, General Porfirio Diaz ordered his brigade forward to charge down the disorganized French in front of them, but Zaragoza ordered him to stay in his position and allow the artillery to finish up the work until 7 pm. Lorencez withdrew to his bivouac around 4 pm, counting 172 of his men killed against only 83 of the Mexicans; Mexican historians believe he lost 50 dead, 404 wounded, and 127 prisoners.
Lorencez waited a couple of days for Zaragoza to attack again, but the general held his ground knowing that an open field battle with the French was a guaranteed defeat. Lorencez then withdrew to Orizaba, fending off Zaragoza's pursuit forces in a fighting retreat as the Mexicans sang the Marseillaise, France’s liberal anthem banned by the emperor.
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. General Zaragoza would not live long enough to celebrate the victory as he died four months later due to typhoid fever.
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 and dismissed General Lorencez. 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.
With the backing of France, the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico of the short-lived Second Mexican Empire. By the time that puppet regime had been created, the United States was able to support Juárez, turning the tide of the war.
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".
Cinco de Mayo is not the national day of Mexico, as is sometimes misunderstood. The most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico is Independence Day, on 16 September, commemorating the 1810 "Cry of Dolores" call-to-arms, that began the War of Independence. Mexico also observes the culmination of the war of Independence, which lasted 11 years, on 27 September.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Puebla.|
- French Intervention in Mexico: Battle of Puebla
- Phil's Findings: Did Battle of Puebla change the course of U.S. history? by Philip A. Rue