Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Cinco de Mayo and the Civil War

Perhaps it is hard to imagine a relationship between Cinco de Mayo and the American Civil War, but the two events have a great deal in common. If you will put down your cerveza or margarita for a moment, I will explain the connection.

The Battle of Puebla
Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle that took place on May 5, 1862 during the American Civil War. The battle was part of the war between France and Mexico. Mexico had experienced several wars over the period 1846-1861 (Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the Mexican Civil War of 1858, and the 1860 Reform Wars) which left the Mexican Treasury nearly bankrupt. On July 17, 1861, Mexican President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand repayment. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew their forces. France,which was ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to establish a Latin empire in Mexico that would favor French interests, the Second Mexican Empire.

Late in 1861, the French invaded Mexico and captured Veracruz. Like the Americans in 1847, the French advanced towards Mexico City. Near Puebla, the French army encountered heavy resistance from the smaller Mexican army at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. The 8,000-man French army attacked the smaller and poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,500. In a shocking result the Mexicans crushed the French army, which was considered the world's best military.

After their loss at Puebla, the French forces retreated and regrouped. However, the invasion continued when Napoleon III sent additional troops to Mexico. The French were eventually victorious, winning the Second Battle of Puebla on  May17, 1863 and capturing the capital at Mexico City. With the backing of France, the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico in the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.  

Benito Juarez
Some historians suggest that the French occupation was a response to growing US power and to the Monroe Doctrine (America for the Americans). Napoleon III believed that "if the United States was allowed to prosper indiscriminately, it would eventually become a power in and of itself." There are even reports that suggest the French wanted to follow-up their victory in Mexico by forming an alliance with the Confederate States of America to defeat the Union.

Abraham Lincoln  met with Juarez's charge' d affaires, Mat├Čas Romero, in Springfield, IL, at his home in the days as the president-elect was preparing to move to Washington. After the meeting, Lincoln wrote a brief thank you note on January 12, 1861 to Romero. Lincoln offered, "sincere wishes for the happiness, prosperity and liberty of yourself, your government and its people."

The letter fell short of the support Romero was asking for from the United States, but the Mexicans were talking to a sympathetic leader. As a Congressman, Lincoln was one of the few members of Congress who had opposed going to war with Mexico in the 1840s.

Once the Civil War was underway, Lincoln realized that Juarez's ability to maintain the support of the Mexican people is what caused them to revolt so strongly to Maximilian. Because of this instability,  the French were never able to seriously follow through on their rhetoric of offering military and economic support to the concept of the Confederacy.

Because Juarez had helped the United States, Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, approved military aid to Juarez' supporters, which ultimately led to the abdication and eventual capture and execution of Maximilian in 1867.

The resistance to French rule began that May 5 over 150 years ago gave birth to the celebration of Mexican pride we all enjoy today.

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