Cinco de Mayo: How Mexico saved the Union

More than just a good excuse to drink tequila.

cinco battleWhile Cinco de Mayo has been widely celebrated in the USA in my lifetime, many Americans still believe they are celebrating Mexico’s independence day – September 16th. In reality, Cinco de Mayo represents the victory of the Mexican army over that of the French monarchy, at the battle of Pueblo, May 5, 1862. The battle of Pueblo – in a manner of speaking – hastened the end of the American civil war, in favor of the United States. I know, it sounds crazy! So grab a cerveza, and I’ll explain!

The cotton connection


Now you may be asking “Ben, how is the Mexican army defeating the French beneficial to the United States? weren’t the French our allies? wouldn’t we end up going to war with Mexico only a couple decades later?” Well yes, the French were technically allied to the United States, but as with all things in geopolitics, there was a catch: economics, in this particular case, primarily cotton.

blockadeYou see, the CSA ( Confederate States of America) was the powerhouse of cotton in the 19th century – and also a huge importer of French wine and brandy, and since the USA had formed a naval blockade of southern ports, the French textile industry was on the verge of collapse. So Napoleon III devised a plan.

After the Mexican civil war, the economy was in shambles. The new president decided to stop making payments to their lenders – who just so happened to be Britain, France, and Spain… three massive empires who decided if they spared the rod, they would spoil the child. The Tripartite alliance, as it was known, launched a limited invasion of Mexico to convince them to pay their debts. Napoleon took advantage of this,and began making extra demands on the Mexican government. Unfortunately for France, the other members of the alliance weren’t so hip on his ambitious plans for a central american empire and backed out.

Napoleon III goes it alone.

Napoleon_IIINapoleon III was hell bent on pushing on to Mexico city, and installing a puppet regime – to be ruled by a Habsburg, archduke Maximilian… what a name! – through which the French could pursue a number of economic and strategic goals – not least of which being the procurement of cotton from the Confederates in exchange for arms and other desperately needed military supplies.

The Battle

Map of Pueblo, 1862

After deciding to go it alone, the French – led by General Charles Ferdinand Latrille (Charles de Lorencez) – were on the march. After being beaten in a number of skirmishes, the Mexican army had fallen back to the fortified town of Pueblo. Pueblo was a strategically vital town, which was linked to two fortified hilltops to the north – named Guadalupe and Loreto – connected by a trench system which ran along the saddle between the hilltop bases. Believing that the local townsfolk were sympathetic to the French and would over run the base with French support, Lorencez, against the advice of his staff and subordinate officers, attacked.


Mexican cavalry cuts down the retreating French

The attack was launched just after noon, giving the Mexican defenders plenty of warning and time to prepare. The French  – without help from any sympathetic locals -attacked from the north, opening with a large artillery barrage. While the artillery was effective enough to allow the French to close some of the distance, by the end of the second attack wave they had expended all of their available artillery munitions. This left the third and final wave, comprised of Lorencez reserve units – a big tactical no no- to press the attack without any supporting fires… another big tactical no no. The French were routed, and whilst trying to retreat, the Mexican cavalry cut them to pieces.

The final tally was 463 French casualties, to 83 Mexican casualties. Not a great day for what was, at the time, the worlds best performing army.


Last stand of Captain Danjou’s legionnaires at hacienda Camerone April 1963.. as a Legionnaire, I couldn’t resist! 

The French were forced to withdraw towards the coast, and await reinforcements to arrive from Europe. When word spread through the ranks that their ragtag army had defeated the better trained, equipped and more experienced French army, moral exploded within the Mexican army. This, the long pause in hostilities, and increased international pressure on the French monarchy, boosted Mexican confidence, while raising the stakes for Napoleon III in Mexico. The cost of the war was beginning to add up both politically and economically.

The French would eventually oust the elected government of Mexico, and install a puppet regime. They would trade in small amounts with the rebel government in the south. However, the delay caused by the defeat at Pueblo allowed the Union to gain the upper hand in the American civil war.

over the way
British cartoon depicting the rise of new markets due to American infighting.

By the time the French were fully established in Mexico, Lincoln had convinced them that it was only a matter of time before the south would lose the war, and the French textile industry found new suppliers in Egypt and elsewhere. Economic pressure waning abroad, combined with supplies and moral shortages at home, the Confederates were doomed.


French recognition of the CSA early on would’ve completely changed the face of the war. With international recognition and support, the Confederacy would’ve had the primary thing it lacked against its opponent – industrial capacity. What most Americans don’t know today, is that the combined industrial and economic output of the south was equal to about 15%… of that of the state of New York. The Confederacy never stood a chance against the economic might of the Union. As a southerner, it hurts me to say that bit of truth… But, alas, I am a student of history, and it’s my duty to be truthful when telling these stories, the greatest stories ever told in my humble opinion.

This map illustrates the hopelessness of the Souths struggle.

Although its men fought with great skill, courage, and resiliency, force of will was not enough for an agrarian society to overcome a modern industrial nation. Support from an economic powerhouse – especially one who had a long established relationship with the southern aristocracy – such as France, was vital for the survival of the CSA. This is why they put so much effort into charming the French, British, and the Vatican, and why Lincoln was so adamant about recognition of the CSA, being cause for all out war with the USA.

Drink up amigos!

Thanks to the defiance of our slightly tanner brethren to the south, we are a United States to this day. The American civil war allowed for the consolidation of federal power, which has alloflagswed us to become the bastion of liberty and hope we are today. The battle of Pueblo is the perfect example of how events thousands of miles away, can shape our daily lives here at home. The men who fought on those hills unintentionally ensured that the American century would come to be, and that monarchies and oligarchies would fall to the beautifully fair idea of the republic. The Republic stood, and slavery ended, ensuring that not only are all men created equal, but that they remain equal under a system where no one man or group wields unchecked power. Happy Cinco de Mayo America!



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