“Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria” - The Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo in Mexico

“Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria” ("The national arms have been covered with glory", General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín in a single line letter to President Benito Juarez)

5 May 1862: Today, 151 years ago, 4.500 ill-equipped Mexican soldiers under the command of General Zaragoza managed to defeat numerically superior French elite forces in defence of the city of Puebla.

A late  19th century Mexican School painting by an unknown artist depicting a sally from the trenches in the final stages of the Battle of Puebla

When President Juarez suspended the payments of foreign debts for two years after the end of the Reform War with the country being virtually bankrupt and the U.S. occupied in the Civil War and unable to enforce the Monroe doctrine, the French seized the opportunity to widen their influence in Middle and South America by simply occupying Mexico. Veracruz was secured in December 1861, Campeche fell in February 1862, the spring of the year saw the French marching towards Mexico City.

Jean-Adolphe Beaucé (1818-1875): "General Bazaine attacks the fort of San Xavier during the siege of Puebla, 29 March 1863"

Led to believe that the population of Puebla would be friendly, the French General Lorencez decided to attack Zaragoza’s entrenchments and was met with fierce resistance from both the Mexican Army and the locals. By the end of the day, Lorencez had lost almost 500 men with Zaragoza still holding his ground and even disrupting the French retreat with his cavalry when the invaders decided to regroup at Orizaba.

1901 poster for Cinco de Mayo: "May 5, 1862 and the siege of Puebla"

Reasonably enough, Zaragoza decided not to follow up and attack the well equipped and disciplined French troops in open battle. Puebla fell on May 17th and Mexico City was occupied in January 1863. Nonetheless, Juarez decided to declare the victory at Puebla as a National Holiday and the boost in Mexican morale and the will to resist foreign occupation was immense. The French adventure in Mexico ended 5 years later. Cinco de Mayo today is a festival celebrated chiefly in the state of Puebla and in the U.S. as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride.

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