There has been debate year after year as to the significance of Cinco de Mayo and why it has been celebrated so heavily in the United States, not just by Mexican Americans, but by the U.S. population in general.  Mexican Historians and just plain people “in the know” become frustrated at the ignorance of many who believe that Cinco de Mayo symbolizes the Mexican Revolution.  I am writing this to provide a brief history lesson as to the truth of Cinco de Mayo, and why its significance may be just as important if not more important to the history of the United States as it is to the history of Mexico.

What Took Place on Cinco De Mayo?

First things first, the date of May 5, 1862 does not mark the date of the Mexican Revolution.  Rather the date signifies an epic battle between a grossly under manned and under armed Mexican Army (apprx. 4,000 troops) led by Ignacio Zaragosa and the highly touted and “Undefeated” French Army (approx. 6-8,000 troops) sent by Napoleon III to seek payment for a debt owed from a financially bankrupt Mexican Government.

The battle is known as “La Batalla de Puebla.”  The French troops had marched all the way from Veracruz and were intent on taking over Mexico City and installing their own Monarch to reign and control Mexico with a watchful French eye.  At this point they were met by the Zaragosa led army in the city of Puebla.  The French were defeated in one of the biggest military upsets ever, and the rest is history…  Right?

What many people do not know is that the French returned in a year’s time to successfully overthrow the Mexican Government and install Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg as its reigning monarch.  Who four years later was booted out by a returning Benito Juarez.

How A Small Mexican Army May Have Saved the Future of the United States

Many people are aware of the British involvement to help the Confederates during the Civil War.  However, what a lot of people do not realize is that France had an equal hand in the matter.  You see had the United States been split in half.  Countries like England and France would have had a greater chance at capturing the wealth that was the United States.

Let’s go back a little further so we can see where Mexico comes into play.  After a devastating loss to the United States during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), in which Mexico would lose half of its land to the United States, the country would be thrown into an economic crisis that would last throughout the 1850’s.

By the time 1961 came about, Benito Juarez saw the state of affairs in Mexico and decided that the country would no longer pay its debtors, due to its suffocating financial situation.  Much of the debt owed by Mexico was to France.  Napoleon III saw his opportunity.

Napoleon III sent his indestructible army to Mexico to secure payment.  Another little know point, is that Napoleon III saw this as a perfect opportunity to establish a base of support for the struggling Confederate forces in the south.  He clearly underestimated the pride and stubbornness of Mexico’s troops.  After being defeated at Puebla, Napoleon’s troops retreated back to France and were not heard from for another year.

In this year’s time, the French were unable to aid the Southern Colonies like they had hoped.  Fourteen months after La Batalla de Puebla, in 1863 the Northern United States forces would crush the Confederate troops at Gettysburg and the tide of the Civil War would never turn to the Confederate’s favor.  Four months later Abraham Lincoln would make his famous address, and a year and half after, the American Civil War would officially be over.  And as they say… The rest is history.

Circumstantial? Maybe… Far Fetched? I Think Not!

Clearly it is a reach to say that a small Mexican Army could have changed the way the American Civil War panned out.  What I have written here is not to take away anything that was accomplished by our Northern troops during this war.  However, what I would hope to accomplish, is for people to think about why they celebrate events such as Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day, to name a couple.  These are not just reasons to hit the bar and get drunk.  Rather, it’s a time to celebrate the accomplishments of others, whether directly or indirectly, who may have had a hand in changing our lives for the better.  So when you’re at the bar pounding your Mexican beer, or taking a shot of Tequila, stop and make a toast to the memory of the troops at Puebla.  Their sacrifices may have provided you with more than just a reason to party.

-Randy Shoemaker