The Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862 near the city of Puebla, Mexico, during the French invasion of Mexico. It was a major Mexican victory, and is commemorated every year as the Cinco de Mayo, a major Mexican public holiday.
In late 1861, Napoleon III of France sent his troops to Mexico, supposedly to collect debts owed by a previous Mexican government which Mexican President Benito Juárez had agreed to pay, but only in installments over time. Neopoleon III really wanted to dispose of the Mexican Constitutional Government and set up a monarchy favorable to France and then expand control to more nations of Central and South America.
Napoleon III's troops took the port city of Veracruz on December 8, 1861. It soon became apparent, that the actual goal was not the collection of debts, but rather the control of Mexico.
French General Charles Latrille de Lorencez (or the Count of Lorencez), commanded 6,000 to 6,500 well trained troops.
Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza commanded some 2,000 to 4,000 forces. Less than 1,000 were regular Mexican army; these were supplemented with local militias, hastily conscripted men from Puebla and the environs, and untrained volunteers.
The pass leading to Puebla was protected by Fort Loreto and Fort Guadalupe. Zaragoza had defensive trenches dug across the road and linking the forts.
The Mexicans were aided by the weather – rainy season downpours had made the ground muddy, slowing the movement of the French artillery.
General Lorencez was at first contemptuous of the Mexican troops, assuming they would quickly flee from heavy fighting. At noon, he directed his first charge directly at the Mexican center. The Mexicans held their ground and drove the French back. The French regrouped and launched two more charges, both of which were similarly defeated.
The Mexicans then counter-attacked, including a force of Zacapoaxtla and Xochiapulco Indians, many armed only with machetes, who nonetheless succeeded in overrunning part of the French lines. Porfirio Díaz (later to be President of Mexico) led a well disciplined company of Mexican cavalry which flanked the French. The battle was over by 4:30 p.m.
The French then pulled back some distance as dark fell. General Lorencez waited two days for a Mexican counter-offensive, but Zaragoza did not wish to attack the French in open country, where he would lose his defensive advantage. Unwilling to risk another attack on the Mexican position and faced with more inclement weather including a hail storm, Lorencez withdrew his forces back to Orizaba.
On May 9, 1862, President Juárez declared that the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla would be a national holiday, the Cinco de Mayo.
The French realized their forces were inadequate to their intended task, and were eventually reinforced with an additional 30,000 troops. In 1863 the French again marched towards Mexico City – this time bypassing Puebla on their route – and succeeded in taking the capital and installing the puppet regime of Emperor Maximilian.
While the Battle of Puebla did not stop the French takeover of Mexico, it was nonetheless an important victory for the Mexicans. It greatly raised Mexican morale and strengthened their determination to resist the invasion. It gave the Juárez government more time to prepare, and while they were forced to abandon Mexico City and retreat to the north of the country, they continued to maintain a working government which was recognized as the legitimate government of Mexico by many foreign nations, and eventually succeeded in defeating Maximilian and his allies in 1867.
The Battle of Puebla was also of historic importance in that it quashed Napoleon III's hopes of a quick takeover of Mexico, which he was planning to use as a base to aid the Confederates in the American Civil War.