For many people Cinco de Mayo is just an excuse to party, drink a lot of beer and/or Margaritas, and binge on Mexican food. Some may be vaguely aware it has something to do with Mexican history; they might guess, based on the fact it’s a date, that it’s Mexican Independence Day, just as the Fourth of July is the U.S. Independence Day.

Ummmm, no.

The first half of the nineteenth century is a turbulent time for Mexico. They declare independence from Spain in 1810, and attain it in 1821 when the last Spanish Viceroy departs. But within two years the nation descends into a multi-decade period of civil war between Centralist (conservative) and Federalist (Liberal) factions, with a little time off in the 1840s to lose the Mexican-American War and cede half the country’s territory to the United States.

Benito Juarez, President of Mexico
Credit: Library of Congress

By 1857 the liberals have the upper hand. But the decades of war drained Mexico financially (as well as a lot of other ways.) In 1861 President Benito Juarez temporarily suspends payments of Mexico’s debts to foreign governments. The foreign governments are not happy. Spain, Great Britain and France stage an “intervention” put together by France’s Emperor, Charles-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, better known as Napoleon III. (Nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was deposed as Emperor after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.)

But Napoleon III has bigger plans. He doesn’t just want the money, he wants the whole country, as part of his dream to restore France to its pre-Battle of Waterloo glory. His idea is to create a puppet empire, with Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, as Emperor. (When the British and Spanish figure out what’s actually going on, they bail, reaching agreements with the Mexican government, raising anchors, and sailing home.)

Napoleon III, Emperor of France
Credit:Wikimedia Commons

The French figure it will be an easy conquest, with a country already ground down by years of war. They find out otherwise on Cinco de Mayo, 1862.

On that day a French army of 6,000 commanded by General Charles Latrille de Lorencez attacks Pueble de Los Angeles, a small town on the road to Mexico City. Defending Puebla is a poorly equipped force of about 2,000 led by General Ignacio Zaragoz.

In a battle lasting from about noon to evening, the French get clobbered. The Mexicans have an excellant defensive position–and a lot of anger to vent. General de Lorencez finally breaks off the attack when he realizes he’s losing many more men than the Mexicans, his artillery is out of ammo, and rain is making another charge a slippery, gooey impossibility.

Battle of Puebla, 5 May 1862

For the Mexicans, the victory at Puebla is a huge shot in the arm for the nation’s morale. President Juarez declares Cinco de Mayo to be a national holiday. When news of the victory travels north of the Rio Grande, it’s a cause for major celebration among Mexicans living in the United States.

Sadly, it doesn’t stop France’s conquest of Mexico. They regroup, and renew their invasion in 1863. (There would be a second Battle of Puebla in March, which would turn into a siege lasting two months.) By April 1864 Emperor Maximillian would sit on the Mexican Throne.

Maximillian I, Emperor of Mexico

His empire would last three years.

Benito Juarez’ government in exile kept up the pressure; and with the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the United States was able to provide him more support. (U.S. troops were instructed to “lose” large amounts of weaponry along the Mexican border.) The French withdrew their troops in 1866 because of the increasing threat from Prussia, and in 1867 the Mexican empire imploded. Maximillian I was captured and executed.

Ironically, today Cinco de Mayo is celebrated more in the United States than Mexico. (The Mexicans make a bigger deal about their own Independence Day on September 16th.) During the 20th century the holiday became a day for Mexican Americans to celebrate their heritage, and a day to party for everyone else.

The town of Puebla keeps the memory of the battle alive. The battlefield itself is now a park, and they have a museum about it. And on Cinco de Mayo itself, they hold parades, give speeches, and reenact parts of the battle.

FILE – In this May 5, 2010 file photo, people dressed in period costumes re-enact the Battle of Puebla during “Cinco de Mayo” celebrations in Mexico City. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, in which the U.S. helped Mexico combat the French occupation, is being used as an anchor to get U.S. tourists to visit the 16th century colonial Mexican city. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)