CINCO DE MAYO:
What Is Everybody Celebrating?
Donald W Miles (Author)
|It's not Mexican
Independence Day and it's not an invention of the Mexican Restaurant Association.
We've all heard of it - and now it's even celebrated "here" more than "there."
Set in tropical Veracruz in 1862, this fascinating story with an unbelievable
cast of characters is stranger than fiction. It's also about time the definitive
book about the Battle of Puebla is available for history buffs on both sides of
the border. - Editor |
Legend of Camarón
"Cinco De Mayo,
the Story Behind Mexico's Battle of Puebla"
out of ammunition at the wrong time had also raised General Forey's anxiety level.
Forey realized that his entire operation would be at risk if he couldn't provide
his troops with food and ammunition. The commander-in-chief had already detached
extra troops from Puebla to guard the wagon trains, but now the bandidos and guerillas
had dramatically stepped up their attacks on the convoys. |
on the French Foreign Legion. They had just arrived in Veracruz.
approaching the little village of Camarón (which means shrimp in Spanish.) For
a number of years it was called Villa Tejeda, but the name was changed again to
"Camarón de Tejeda," by which it is known today. The few authors who have written
about it in English refer to it as "Camerone," which is very close to how it's
pronounced in Spanish.
The legion had first seen action in the French conquest
of Algeria in 1831. After serving during the Spanish Civil War in 1835, it was
stationed in North Africa. Now, on the morning of April 30, 1863, the legion's
Third Company, under Captain Jean Danjou, was escorting a very important convoy
from Veracruz. The wagons were bearing ammunition, artillery, food, provisions,
and - most critically - three million French francs in gold to pay the troops
Danjou's group consisted of sixty-four battle-hardened legion
veterans: Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Danes, Italians, and Spaniards, in addition
to the native Frenchmen. They feared nothing. They had taken the legion's oath
never to surrender.
Stalking the convoy was a Mexican force of somewhere
between twelve hundred and eighteen hundred men, depending on whose account you
choose to believe, led by a Colonel Francisco de P. Milán. Regular French troops
were guarding the convoy itself, but Captain Danjou's contingent was marching
some distance ahead to search for possible assailants waiting in ambush. The legion
officers normally in charge of this unit were hospitalized with yellow fever,
so Danjou, along with second lieutenants Napoleón Vilain and Clement Maudet, had
volunteered to lead this detail.
They had passed through Camarón at about
6:30 in the morning and were cooking breakfast near a location called Palo Verde
at 7:00, when one of their sentinels spotted a dust cloud behind them. That could
only mean one thing: a lot of people moving rapidly on horseback. They quickly
put out their fires and raced toward Camarón, not stopping to retrieve their canteens
of fresh water from the pack mules. At Camarón, they encountered several hundred
Mexicans who were poised to attack the caravan, and the shooting began.
The convoy was alerted and reversed direction, successfully escaping the ambush,
but the legionnaires' pack mules also panicked and fled at the sound of gunfire,
taking all the water and extra ammunition with them. By 8:00 in the morning, a
few of the legionnaires had already been wounded.Danjou ordered his unit to take
cover in a barn, but the Mexicans lost no time in taking over the huge farmhouse
nearby, firing down at the besieged legionnaires from upper-story windows.
Mexican Colonel Milán realized that cavalry wouldn't be of much help in taking
the barn, so he started to surround it with infantry troops. After a few hours,
nothing much had changed. The colonel found a Mexican officer of French heritage
among his ranks, and he sent Captain Ramón Lainé with a white flag of truce to
see if they could negotiate a surrender.
It didn't work.
Danjou said his legionnaires had plenty of ammunition, and that they'd keep on
By now, the Mexicans had surrounded the barn and were firing
from all sides. It was a hot day, and the legionnaires inside were just discovering
that the only canteens they had were filled with wine, not water, because the
pack mules had run away with the water as the fighting started. It was going to
be a long afternoon.
Although the Mexicans had obvious superiority in
numbers, the legionnaires had the upper hand in training and firepower. Most of
the Mexicans were of the "national guard" variety. They had left their farms and
small businesses just days earlier to help defend their country, while the legionnaires
were well accustomed to the sound of gunfire and highly experienced in the art
of war. The Mexicans had ball-and-musket rifles, which gave off so much smoke
that at times they couldn't see what they were shooting at. The legionnaires were
firing percussion-driven cylinders with pointed tips, known as "bullets," and
they could see exactly where they were aiming.
In spite of all their technical
superiority, the legionnaires were fighting a losing battle. Captain Danjou and
Lieutenant Vilain were both dead before noon, and the command fell to Lieutenant
Maudet for the rest of the afternoon. Inside the barn, things were going from
bad to worse. Ammunition was running out, and the extra supply had vanished with
the pack mules. The Mexicans kept charging the barn, and although they were driven
back, they were killing another legionnaire or two each time. By 5:00 PM, the
legionnaires had already stripped whatever ammunition was left from the bodies
of their dead comrades.
The Mexicans knew they had won, but they also
knew that the remaining legionnaires intended to fight to the death. They set
fire to some straw and threw it into the barn, hoping to bring the matter to a
close. The legionnaires just stamped out the burning straw and continued firing
through the smoke.
By 6:00 PM, only Maudet and four of his legionnaires
were still alive. Each man had only one round of ammunition left. The lieutenant
had a decision to make.
"Reload," he ordered. "Then fire on my command
and follow me. We'll finish this with our bayonets."
It was going to be
a suicide charge.
The Mexican commander, Colonel Milán, ordered his troops
to cease fire. All five legionnaires were captured after some brief hand-to-hand
fighting, but Lieutenant Maudet and one of his men died of their wounds within
a short time. The remaining three were hospitalized, along with the Mexican wounded.
French later returned to put up a monument at the scene of the battle. For many
years, members of the French Foreign Legion have returned each April 30 to what
is now called "Camarón de Tejeda" to honor the courage of their fallen heroes.
The encounter still stands as the worst defeat in legion history.
The Book: CINCO DE
MAYO sets the record straight about the historical significance of May 5, 1862
and how it influenced the outcome of the U. S. Civil War.
arrive in Mexico in 1861 to conquer Mexico and help the Confederacy defeat the
Union in the American Civil War. The French are defeated at Puebla and retreat
to Orizaba during 1862, awaiting reinforcements. They capture Puebla in 1863 and
then enter Mexico City, finding the Catholic Church to be an obstacle. Unable
to install their choice for Mexican Emperor without a popular vote, they gather
the so-called "vote" at gunpoint.
When the American Civil War ends in 1865,
Confederate soldiers and officers drift into Mexico. General Grant's Army is now
free to stage maneuvers along the border, setting off panic in Mexico City and
Paris. Grant's move prompts Napoleon III to cut his losses and pull his troops
out. Emperor Maximilian, surrounded by Mexican forces, is captured, tried and
executed. President Benito Juárez returns to the capital as Mexicans take their
The Author: Award-winning
radio journalist Don Miles is the author of Broadcast News Handbook and
Broadcast Newswriting Stylebook. The author personally traversed many of the
sites in this book with his late wife and Mexico City native, Dr. Minerva González-Angulo
Don Miles is based in Austin, Texas.
April 4, 2007