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This Week in History
May 4 - 10, 1862

May 5, 1862

Cinco de Mayo and the US Civil War: A Joint U.S.-Mexican Fight against the British-French-Hapsburg Empire

May 2014

Mike Manning. Released to the public domain on Wikipedia, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later.
Charge of the Mexican Cavalry at the Battle of Puebla.

A delegation of descendants of Union soldiers and officers of the U.S. Civil War traveled in May, 2012 to Puebla, Mexico at the invitation of the Governments of Mexico and of the State of Puebla, to participate in what was then the 150th Anniversary celebration of the Battle of Puebla. The defeat of the forces of Napoleon III on May 5, 1862, thwarted Anglo-French plans to break up the United States and supply the Confederate forces. There is a direct line from the Mexican victory at Puebla, and Lincoln's victory at Gettysburg 14 months later.

Marching along with the Mexican Army in the parade were representatives of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (the hereditary organization of Union officers formed to prevent a coup against the U.S. government, immediately after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln), and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (the successor organization to the GAR—Grand Army of the Republic).

The Loyal Legion's announcement of the delegation stressed the impact of the Battle of Puebla on the U.S. Civil War. "Some historians have argued that France's real goal was to help break up the American Union... The Mexicans had won a great victory that kept Napoleon III from supplying the confederate rebels for another year, allowing the United States to build the greatest army the world had ever seen. This grand army smashed the Confederates at Gettysburg just 14 months after the battle of Puebla."

Some essential background: Britain and France had been conspiring since the outbreak of the Civil War, to try to destroy the United States by directly supporting the southern rebellion, and by using Mexico as a flanking operation against Lincoln. In 1862, Earl Russell, the British Foreign Secretary, and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, cooked up a scheme to propose mediation between the North and South, on the assumption that the North would refuse, providing a pretext for European recognition of the South as an independent nation. The Union repulsion of the Confederate forces at Antietam in September 1862, followed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, rendered the Russell-Palmerston plan impossible to carry out, because of popular support for the Union and opposition to slavery, among the British population, especially the English working class.

Meanwhile, in 1861, Britain, France and Spain had agreed on sending their navies to attack the Republic of Mexico, to overthrow the Republic and install as their puppet, the Hapsburg Prince Maximilian, who would then draw the Confederacy into the French-Hapsburg Empire. The pretext was to collect debts incurred by Mexico during its civil war. Britain and Spain settled for payments offered by Mexican President Benito Juarez, but France went ahead and invaded, despite Lincoln's warnings. Napoleon III's army landed in Veracruz in 1861, and prepared to move toward Mexico City to capture the capital and overthrow the government.

On May 5, 1862, a Mexican army of professional and citizen soldiers inflicted a major defeat on a 6000-man French army. The French were forced to regroup, and it took another year to finally occupy Puebla with a much larger force, and then move on to eventually occupy Mexico City. Juarez kept his government intact while moving it around in Mexico in order to survive.

During the same time, the British- and French-backed Confederate forces undertook their second invasion of the North, which was halted at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, with the ill-fated "Picket's Charge."

As is reported in the current issue of the Loyal Legion Historical Journal: "Had the confederate artillery been fully supplied with modern and high-quality French munitions and guns, and highly compacted Union lines could have been severely hit and weakened, and it would have given a real opportunity for a successful charge and a different outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg, and possibly set the stage for the victory needed by the Confederate States of American to gain diplomatic recognition by the European Powers and the military support that this implied."

At the end of the U.S. Civil War two years later, General Phil Sheridan took 100,000 Union soldiers the Mexican border as a show of force against Maximilian and France, and the U.S. also provided modern weapons and military equipment, including medical equipment. In recognition of Juarez's role, he was made an honorary member of the Loyal Legion.

UCLA professor David Hayes-Bautista has recently shown that the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were actually held in the southwestern United States starting in 1862, among pro-Union Hispanics inspired by the victory at Puebla, and after the Civil War, veterans of both the Mexican and Union armies joined in these celebrations.