Holiday History: Cinco de Mayo

A 2019 Cinco de Mayo celebration in San Francisco.
A 2019 Cinco de Mayo celebration in San Francisco.
Sheila Fitzgerald via Shutterstock

Did you know that when you celebrate Cinco de Mayo you are celebrating bravery?

Cinco de Mayo honors the victory of a Mexican army over invaders from the French Empire in the Battle of Puebla. The Battle of Puebla was fought on May 5, 1862—that is, on Cinco de Mayo.

The French army had at least twice as many men, according to the best estimates, and was far better equipped than the Mexicans. But brave—and well led—Mexican troops prevailed in a battle that had significance not only for the warring parties, but also likely for the United States and even the rest of the world.

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France had envisioned setting up an empire in Mexico and placing someone friendly to France on the throne. That was thwarted by the Mexicans under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza. Zaragoza is generally considered the hero of the Battle of Puebla for his skillful placement of troops and his handling of them during the fight.

The French retreated and would not start a true offensive again in 1862. Unfortunately, things did not continue to go well for Mexico. Zaragoza died of typhoid fever just four months after the battle. The vastly reinforced French troops would go on to occupy Mexico City the next year, eventually installing an Austrian archduke named Maximillian as Emperor. It would take a confluence of events for Mexicans to regain their government in 1867.

The victory at Puebla almost certainly had a major impact on American history. The U.S. Civil War raged from 1861 to 1865. Although almost two more years of the Civil War were left when the Mexican Empire was declared in 1863, the Union was in a much stronger position versus the Confederacy than it had been even a year earlier.

There are “what ifs” throughout history, but a particularly big one here. Napoleon III, then the ruler of France and the nephew of the more famous Napoleon Bonaparte, generally favored the Confederacy in the dispute. He never acted to intervene in the American conflict, but that might have been different if there had been a French client state in Mexico in 1862. Instead, his army was stopped at Puebla. Given the significance of the United States in world events over the last 150 years, a large impact on the outcome of the Civil War would have changed world history.

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated widely in the United States, with formal events but also plenty of informal gatherings to enjoy Mexican food, beverages, music and culture. Its observance is more formal and less widespread in Mexico. However, with the ascendancy of Mexican influence throughout the world, it is now celebrated in many other countries as well.

As you take time to enjoy Cinco de Mayo today, think of the brave men who fought with such distinction on this day 159 years ago.

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