During the French-Mexican War (1861-1867), an outnumbered Mexican army defeats a powerful invading French force at Puebla. The retreat of the French troops at the Battle of Puebla represented a great moral victory for the people of Mexico, symbolizing the country’s ability to defend its sovereignty against a powerful foreign nation.
Benito Juarez and Napoleon III
In 1861, Benito Juarez became president of Mexico, 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 de Lorencez set out in May, 1862, to attack Puebla de Los Angeles. From his new headquarters in the north, Juarez rounded up a ragtag force of loyal men and sent them to Puebla.
Zaragoza Defeats French Invaders
Led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, an estimated 2,000—5,000 Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the assault by the well-equipped French force.
On the fifth of May, or Cinco de Mayo, Lorencez gathered his army and began an attack from the north side of Puebla.
The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening. After Lorencez realized his superior French force was losing far more troops than the Mexicans, he completely withdrew his defeated army.
Battle of Puebla and Cinco de Mayo
Though not a major strategic victory in the overall war against the French, Zaragoza’s victory at Puebla galvanized Mexican resistance, and six years later France withdrew. Later that same year, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who had been installed as emperor of Mexico by Napoleon in 1864, was captured and executed by a firing squad.
Puebla de Los Angeles, the site of Zaragoza’s historic victory, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general. Today, Mexicans (and Mexican Americans) celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla as Cinco de Mayo, a holiday in the state of Puebla.