LINDSAY: This old-school episode of History Daily originally aired on May 5th, 2022.
It’s the morning of May 5th, 1862, in the town of Puebla, in central Mexico.
An army general named Ignacio Zaragoza strides along the ramparts of a stone fortress.
Ignacio peers over the parapet into the valley below, where a force of almost 6,000 French soldiers march toward the fortress walls, their bayonets gleaming. As Ignacio turns to survey his own battalion – a force of only 2,000 men – a look of concern creeps across his face. He’s outnumbered more by close to three-to-one. He knows defeat is all but certain. But he also knows his men are courageous patriots who will stop at nothing to defend Mexico from the invading French army, who are readying their cannons.
The deafening blast shatters the morning tranquility.
The air fills with smoke and debris, as artillery shells rain down on the Mexican defenses. The sound of explosions and shrapnel and agonized screams reverberate around the fortress walls.
Amidst the chaos, Ignacio orders his men to return fire. But there are simply too many French soldiers. Before long, the invaders are at the fortress gates. Ignacio tries to rally his men, but morale is beginning to waver.
But just when Ignacio himself is beginning to lose hope… a thunderclap echoes through the valley. A split second later, the heavens open, and torrential rain begins pouring from the sky. Within minutes, the steep incline toward the fortress has turned into a muddy bog, and the French attackers cannot find purchase in the slippery, wet earth.
The Mexican gunners take advantage of the moment, firing into the French lines and inflicting a heavy toll.
Soon, a bugle sounds, as the commander of the French army orders an urgent retreat. Ignacio seizes his opportunity. At his signal, the fortress gates open, and his Mexican soldiers charge, driving away the last of the French invaders.
During the Battle of Puebla – as this bloody clash will come to be known – outnumbered Mexican forces will be victorious, as General Ignacio Zaragoza leads his men in repelling a superior French force. But the Mexicans’ heroics at Puebla will prove to be in vain. Soon, the French army will regroup and seize Mexico City, forcing the Mexican president into exile. But in the years that follow, the Mexicans launch a counterattack against their occupiers, and the victory at Puebla will provide a vital source of morale.
The date of the battle – Cinco de Mayo – will become a national holiday; a time to celebrate the heroic actions of the brave soldiers who fought and died for their freedom at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5th, 1862.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 5th, 1862: The Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo.
Act One: La Reforma
It’s March 1st, 1854, eight years before the Battle of Puebla.
In the town of Ayutla, in southwest Mexico, a meeting of some of the country’s keenest political minds is taking place. A tall man with wavy white hair stands to address the room. Juan Alvarez, a governor of the state of Guerrero is an outspoken critic of Mexico’s prime minister, a military General, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
Ever since Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, two political groups have been vying for control over the country: liberals and conservatives. When the conservative Santa Anna seized power in 1852, he established himself as a dictator – to the dismay of most Mexican liberals. By 1854, Juan Alvarez’s state, Guerrero, remains one of the few liberal strongholds left in Mexico, and the region has become the epicenter of a resistance to Santa Anna’s regime.
Today, Juan Alvarez has assembled a meeting of prominent liberals to draft a plan to overthrow the dictator. Alvarez believes this plan will receive widespread support. He knows that many Mexican people resent Santa Anna, largely due to his mishandling of foreign affairs.
Following its defeat in the Mexican-American War, Mexico faced bankruptcy. Santa Anna sought to balance the books by selling Mexican territory to the United States, yielding vast swathes of what is now Arizona and New Mexico – a transaction known as the Gadsden Purchase. But this was seen by many Mexicans as a humiliating concession. In addition, Santa Anna increased taxes, putting further strain on the pockets of many ordinary Mexicans.
But even though Santa Anna’s popularity is waning, he retains control over most of the country. Crucially, he still has the support of the army and the Catholic church – two of Mexico’s most powerful institutions. Only in Guerrero is Santa Anna’s authority in question. And so, in April 1854, Santa Anna sends troops to Guerrero’s largest city, Acapulco, hoping to extinguish the flames of dissent.
His troops arrive in Acapulco on April 19th, but a liberal force commanded by Juan Alvarez’s deputy, Ignacio Comonfort, has readied the town’s defenses. A week-long siege begins, but Santa Anna’s men cannot breach the battlements. Forced to retreat, the government’s army returns to Mexico City in defeat.
But along the way, Santa Anna’s soldiers burn down any villages they suspect are harboring liberal rebels. But this only serves to strengthen support for Alvarez’s cause. By the summer of 1855, Santa Anna’s authoritarian leadership has alienated many in his own army. And on August 12th, the dictator is forced to abdicate power and flee to Cuba.
With Santa Anna deposed, Juan Alvarez becomes president and appoints a cabinet of leading liberals, including Ignacio Comonfort who becomes Minister for War.
Immediately, the new government begins dismantling the old conservative state. They introduce a series of reforms that seek to limit the power of the army and church by confiscating land and abolishing military courts. The new regime also safeguards civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In 1857, they enshrine these laws in a brand new Mexican Constitution.
For many, Mexico has finally freed itself from the repressive conservative order and emerged as a modern, open-minded democracy. But not everybody approves of these reforms. Conservatives in the Catholic church and the military fiercely oppose the new liberal government, which they believe came to power unlawfully.
But now, Alvarez has been succeeded as president by his Minister for War, Ignacio Comonfort. And as opposition to the 1857 Constitution grows, Comonfort tries to quell the fires of rebellion by appeasing angry conservatives. He orders a second constitution to be written by a conservative general, named Felix Zuloaga. This document, known as The Plan of Tacubaya, renders the 1857 Constitution void and abolishes many of its democratic laws.
Comonfort hopes that the Plan of Tacubaya will appease conservatives and stave off civil strife. But the gamble does not pay off. Instead, it polarizes the nation even further, splitting Mexico into those who support the Plan, and those who still support the 1857 Constitution.
Unable to unite the nation, Comonfort resigns in January 1858. He is replaced by another of Juan Alvarez’s original cabinet members: a prominent lawyer named Benito Juarez.
Juarez is a radical liberal, and his appointment deepens Mexico’s divisions. Conservatives refuse to recognize him as president. And instead, they swear allegiance to the general who drafted the Plan of Tacubaya, Felix Zuloaga.
Soon, both sides assemble armies and prepare for war. Over the next two years, bloody skirmishes will break out between liberals and conservatives. Initially, the conservatives gain the upper hand by driving Benito Juarez out of Mexico City and into hiding in the port city of Veracruz. But after several failed attempts to capture the city, the conservative force is left weakened.
In late 1860, Benito Juarez launches a counter-attack. On December 22nd, a force of 16,000 liberal troops marches on Mexico City, clashing with 8,000 conservative soldiers. The conservatives are vanquished, and the triumphant liberal army marches into Mexico City on January 1st, 1861.
The liberals have won the Reform War, as this conflict will come to be known, and Benito Juarez is recognized as the undisputed leader of Mexico. But it will be a hollow victory. During the war, both conservatives and liberals found themselves short of funds. They borrowed heavily from international creditors. And just as Benito Juarez begins settling into his presidency, those creditors will send fleets of ships to demand their money back.
Act Two: The French Intervention
It’s October 31st, 1861, 7 months before the Battle of Puebla.
On a cold, autumn day in London, delegates from Britain, France, and Spain are meeting to sign a military alliance.
During the Mexican Reform War, in which the liberal forces of Benito Juarez defeated the conservative army of Felix Zuloaga, large sums of money were provided to both sides by creditors in Britain, France, and Spain. But following his victory, Benito Juarez decided to delay debt repayments until the Mexican economy recovered. This was not acceptable to the European powers. So today, their delegates are in London to decide how to get their money back.
As part of this new alliance, these three nations agree to send battleships to take control of Mexico’s ports, where they will seize customs income on imported goods. The purpose of the alliance is to get their money, not to topple the Mexican government. And in fact, one term of the pact forbids any of the signatories from attempting to overthrow the Mexican government. Delegates from all three countries sign the agreement. But only Britain and Spain will stick to the terms of the deal.
For many years, France’s leader, Napoleon III, has nursed a secret ambition to restore France to its former imperial glory. Political instability in Mexico has made the country vulnerable, and an obvious target for French expansionism. Napoleon also wants to limit the growing power of the United States and to establish a French puppet regime in the Americas.
But despite his desire to conquer Mexico, Napoleon has not been able to invade, knowing to the inevitable opposition he would face. The US is committed to actively resisting any European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere, a policy called the Monroe Doctrine, espoused by America’s fifth president and a founding father, James Monroe.
But earlier this year, in April 1861, America was plunged into a civil war. And with the US government preoccupied with domestic turmoil, France was finally free to pursue its imperial designs on Mexico. All Napoleon needed was an excuse. When Mexican President Benito Juarez refused to repay the wartime loans, Napoleon leaped at the opportunity to join the alliance, knowing full well he intended to violate its terms.
In December 1861, France, Britain, and Spain deploy a fleet to seize control of Veracruz, on the eastern coast of Mexico. According to their pact, these three countries are supposed to leave Mexico after they’ve recouped their loans. But it quickly becomes clear that France's ambitions go far beyond debt repayment, and the alliance fractures. By April 1862, British and Spanish troops have withdrawn from Mexico – but the French remain.
Then on April 20th, France declares war on Mexico, and the French army begins a march toward Mexico City. The first major town the French troops reach is Puebla, a hundred miles south of the capital, and on May 5th, the invading force launches an attack.
But the French artillery bombardment and their superior numbers are unable to break down the stout Mexican defenses. Under the courageous leadership of Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican soldiers keep the invaders at bay. Their cause is further aided when heavy rainfall turns the ground around the fortress into a muddy swamp, slowing the French advance.
The invaders are forced to disperse under heavy musket fire, and Mexico claims its first victory against the French. Soon, President Juarez declares the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla a national holiday – known throughout the country as Cinco de Mayo.
But the morale boost following the Battle of Puebla will not last. Five months later, in October 1862, 30,000 French reinforcements arrive in Mexico. The newly strengthened French army proceeds to sweep through the country, capturing town after town, until the invading force enters Mexico City on June 10th, 1863.
President Juarez is forced to flee north, to the city of Monterrey, where he sets up a government-in-exile. The French military declares Mexico a client state of the French Empire. All that’s left to do is to install a monarch, and Napoleon III believes he’s found the perfect candidate.
The Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria is an ambitious European aristocrat and an ally of Napoleon. He is the younger brother of the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef, and a member of the illustrious Habsburg dynasty. With few career prospects in Europe, Maximilian is eager for the chance to rule Mexico and extend the Habsburg Empire to the Americas.
So in May 1864, Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, arrive in Mexico City. There, they are lavished with decadent banquets and extravagant exhibitions celebrating the glory of their new Mexican kingdom. But far from the opulence of the capital, a campaign of terror is being waged in the countryside. As the French Army seeks to stamp out any opposition to the new imperial regime, they often torture and execute suspected dissidents.
And by 1865, President Benito Juarez and the remaining liberals have been pushed further north to the far-flung city of Chihuahua, where they lack the resources to mount a challenge to Emperor Maximilian. Soon, however, events in the United States will ripple south across the border, and spell the beginning of the end of French intervention in Mexico.
Act Three: Cinco de Mayo
It’s April 1865 in Mexico City, three years after the Battle of Puebla.
Inside the imperial palace, the Empress Carlota of Mexico writes a letter to her husband, the Emperor Maximilian, who is away on administrative duty. The smiling Empress writes: “the mood here in the palace is excellent”, before going on to describe an incredible event that occurred just days earlier in Washington D.C.
While attending the performance of a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, American president Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by a well-known stage actor named John Wilkes Booth. The news of Lincoln’s assassination is welcome in the Mexican imperial household. Because Lincoln was a vocal critic of the Habsburg empire in Mexico.
For a time, Lincoln was unable to provide military support to Benito Juarez and the liberals due to the ongoing Civil War in America. But then, earlier this month, the years-long conflict came to an end with a Union victory. And with the Confederate rebels defeated, many in the Maximilian regime feared Lincoln might turn his sights south.
But Lincoln now dead, Emperor Maximilian promptly sends envoys to Washington to seek an alliance with the new president, Andrew Johnson. But Johnson, like his predecessor, resents European colonialism in Mexico. He has no intention of recognizing the legitimacy of Maximilian’s kingdom. He ignores the envoys and instead pledges his support for Benito Juarez.
Soon, American weapons and soldiers begin pouring over the southern border, equipping Benito Jaurez and the liberals with the resources they need to oppose the French army. President Johnson also sends a threat to France’s leader Napoleon III, telling him that unless France leaves Mexico, there can be no friendship between the two nations.
And by now, the cost of maintaining a military presence in Mexico has become too much for Napoleon to bear. In 1866, he writes to Maximilian to inform him that all men, money, and supplies from France will be cut off. One year later, following an effective guerrilla campaign by Benito Juarez and his army, Maximilian is captured and forced to surrender. On June 19th, 1867, Emperor Maximilian is executed by firing squad. Benito Juarez will be reinstated as president, and Mexico will finally enjoy a period of political stability.
In a letter to an American officer who fought for the liberal army against the French, Juarez will express his gratitude, writing: “to make every sacrifice and to suffer every privation for the Mexican republic, was a spirit so noble that it could not be put into language.”
Today, many who celebrate Cinco de Mayo outside of Mexico have forgotten or never knew the true history behind the day. But in Mexico, it is a prideful remembrance of some of the nation's greatest heroes; Ignacio Zaragoza and the patriotic men who bravely defended their country from tyranny on May 5th, 1862.
Next on History Daily. May 8th, 1886. American pharmacist John S. Pemberton sells the first glass of his new cure-all tonic, known as Coca-Cola.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.