In 1861, the liberal Mexican Benito Juarez became president of a country in financial ruin, and he was forced to default on his debts to European governments. In response, France, Britain and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to carve a dependent empire out of Mexican territory. Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juarez and his government into retreat.
Certain that French victory would come swiftly in Mexico, 6,000 French troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico. From his new headquarters in the north, Juarez rounded up a rag-tag force of loyal men and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza, the 2,000 Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On May 5, 1862, Lorencez drew his army, well-provisioned and supported by heavy artillery, before the city of Puebla and began his assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening, and when the French finally retreated they had lost nearly 500 soldiers to the fewer than 100 Mexicans killed.
Although not a major strategic victory in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza’s victory at Puebla represented a great moral victory for the Mexican government and symbolized the country’s ability to defend its sovereignty against threat by a powerful foreign nation. Today, Mexicans celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla as Cinco de Mayo. Six years later, under pressure from the newly reunited United States, France withdrew. Abandoned in Mexico, Emperor Maximilian was captured by Juarez’ forces and on June 19, 1867, executed.