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How Cinco de Mayo Helped Prevent a Confederate Victory in the Civil War

May 1, 2019 in History

By Dave Roos

When a small, scrappy Mexican force handed the French army a surprise defeat in 1862, the Confederacy was denied a potential ally.

There can be confusion over the origins of Cinco de Mayo. Some think it’s a holiday celebrating Mexican independence from Spain (that’s actually September 16), or the 1910 Mexican Revolution (November 20), or that it was dreamed up to sell more beer and guacamole.

Cinco de Mayo actually marks the unlikely defeat of elite French forces by an undermanned Mexican army in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. In fact, this underdog Mexican victory may have played a part in preventing French Emperor Napoleon III from helping the Confederacy win the American Civil War.

Debts to France Lead to the Battle of Puebla

The lead-up to the battle began in 1860 when the Mexican government, bankrupt after decades of internal conflict, announced it was suspending debt payments to its European creditors for two years. Spain, the United Kingdom and France didn’t like the delay and sent over joint forces in 1861 to collect on Mexico’s debt. Spain and the UK ended up cutting deals, but French Emperor Napoleon III, a direct descendent of Napoleon Bonaparte, had other plans.

French Emperor Napoleon III (1808 – 1873).

Napoleon figured if he could get his hands on Mexico, it could become the first colony in a new French stronghold in Central America. Abraham Lincoln was busy fighting the Civil War, so the Americans wouldn’t stand in Napoleon’s way. Even better, with a French puppet government installed in Mexico City, Napoleon could provide guns to the Confederacy in exchange for Southern cotton, a scarce commodity in Europe thanks to Union shipping blockades.

READ MORE: 7 Things You May Not Know About Cinco de Mayo

So in early 1862, well-trained French forces under the confident command of General Charles de Lorencez, marched from the port city of Veracruz with the aim of capturing Mexico City. But on May 5, the French took a surprise beating at Puebla at the hands of Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza and a ragtag group of enlisted and volunteer troops. The French army retreated to Veracruz to lick its wounds and wouldn’t return to take Puebla until a full year later in May of 1863.

Some contend that the year-long delay of the French invasion gave Abraham Lincoln’s generals just enough …read more


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