Mexico | Books
CINCO DE MAYO:
What Is Everybody Celebrating?
by 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
"Cinco De Mayo,
the Story Behind Mexico's Battle of Puebla"
Fight to the Death
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.
Forey called on the French Foreign Legion. They had just arrived in
They were 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
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 at Puebla.
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
It didn't work.
Captain Danjou said his legionnaires had plenty of ammunition, and
that they'd keep on fighting.
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.
The 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.
About 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.
French troops 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 country
About The Author:
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 Miles.
Don Miles is based in Austin, Texas.
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April 4, 2007