By Pat Murphy
Sentinel Editor & Publisher
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel
San Francisco Cinco de Mayo festivities begin Saturday morning, an important date in Mexico history memoralizing the Battle for Pueblo.
The 11:00 a.m. celebration kick-off of Cinco de Mayo events is slated for Dolores Park located at 18th and Dolores Streets.
Although some mistake Cinco de Mayo for Mexico Indepedence day — which is honored September 16 — Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates Mexico victory over French armies.
The Battle of Puebla, Mexico on May 5, 1862 was one of the few victories of the Mexican people over the occupying French Army. The battle has become legendary and has been susceptible to many variations in the telling.
The French Army at the time was led by General Charles Ferdinand Latrille de Lorencez. He had great contempt for the Mexican people, so much so that he believed he could control the whole country like puppets with his army of 6,000 men. What led up to the battle was a misunderstanding, fired by infuriation, of the French forces’ agreement to withdraw to the coast before resuming hostilities. The French left some of their sicker men in the highlands. When the Mexican people saw these men walking around with rifles, they took it that hostilities had recommenced. There were not supposed to be any able-bodied men left behind. Add to that the fact that negotiations for the withdrawal were breaking down.
A vehement complaint was lodged with General Lorencez who took the effrontery as a plan to murder his ailing forces. Lorencez decided to hold up his withdrawal to the coast by instead occupying Orizaba, which prevented the Mexicans from defending the passes between Orizaba and the landing port of Veracruz. The 33 year old Mexican Commander General, Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, fell back to Alcuzingo Pass, where he and his army were badly beaten in a skirmish with Lorencez’s aggressive forces on April 28. Zaragoza retreated to Puebla, which was heavily fortified. Puebla had been held by the Mexican government since the Wars of Reform in 1860. To its north lie the forts Loreto and Guadalupe on opposite hilltops. Zaragoza had a trench joining the forts via the saddle.
Lorencez heard that the people of Puebla were friendly to the French, and that the Mexican Republican 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 May 5th, against all advice, Lorencez decided to attack Puebla from the north. Unfortunately, he started his attack a little too late in the day, using his artillery just before noon and by noon advancing his infantry, which by the third attack needed the full engagement of all its reserves.The French artillery had run out of ammunition, so the third attack went unsupported. The Mexican forces and the Republican Garrison both put up a stout defense and even took to the field to defend the positions between the hilltop forts.
Depictions of the battle showing Mexican cavalry overwhelming the French troops below the fort at Loreto. Note there are no machete wielding civilians, as some accounts have it
As the French retreated from their final assault, Zaragoza had his cavalry attack them on the right and left while the troops concealed along the road pivoted out to flank them badly. By 3 p.m. the daily rains had started, making a slippery mess of the battlefield. Lorencez withdrew to distant positions, counting 462 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 completely withdrew to Orizaba. The political repercussions were overwhelming, as the outnumbered Mexicans used what courage and determination they could to repel the ominous French Army. When news of the defeat reached France, Napoleon III sent 29,000 additional troops to Mexico. Suffice it to say they eventually overran Puebla, but the legendary battle had created a Mexican moral victory which is celebrated today as Cinco de Mayo.