Thursday, 3 May 2012

Cinco de Mayo, Batalla de Puebla

 Somewhat stylised depiction of the
aftermath of the Battle of Puebla

   General Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez would probably not have liked the above illustration of the aftermath following his attack on the the two citadels outside of the city of Puebla de los Angeles.    He was commanding an expeditionary force representing the Empire of France, and Napoleon III, the nephew of the much loved and hated Napoleon Bonaparte.
Furst Otto von Bismark shown here sitting with the just-captured Emperor of France, following the Battle of Sedan, in 1870.   It was the loss that established Germany as an Empire in its own right, and finished France as anything of importance for the next two centuries.    The Franco - Prussian War's conclusion costed France Alsace and Lorraine, destroyed the Monarchy, and generally left France with an inferiority complex that it has never seemed to be able to outgrow.   Liberte', Fraternite', et Egalite' became Mediocrite', Hypoctrite', et las femmes avec des jambes poilues.    But we diverge.   The issue here is the Battle of Puebla, in Mexico, eight years before these two gentlemen above-depicted had their brotherly, post-carnage conversation (they were 2nd cousins).
      So why is all this fuss raised about the Battle of Puebla?   For one it was a splash of cold water over the reality that Mexico would be a difficult blowfish to swallow.    The French (Napoleon) assumed that if the Americans could beat the Mexicans, then anybody could.   The Americans had managed to dispatch the Mexicans in less than two years, carrying their war into the very center of the City of Mexico.   The Mexicans had avoided every advantage in that war, and even when winning, seemed to withdraw.   Very peculiar.
      The French, who were adamant about being repaid monies invested in Mexico on a loan basis.   Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had stolen much of that money and moved to New York City where he set about various swindling schemes.   Antonio stole public money and private money so he would have been very comfortable working for Corzine and Co.
      Banditry was rampant in Mexico, the Wars of the Reform had ground on for years, with grumpy, autocratic Conservatives jostling with a Zapotec Indian President who hated the Roman Catholic Church that taught him how to speak Spanish and read and write, hated white people, hated wealthy people, hated foreigners, and hated most Indians as well.   That is why everybody loved him, according to present day Mexican official history.
       The French decide finally to invade, after failing to convince the Spanish and the Brits to join in the invasion of Mexico to recover all debts.    A huge army is dispatched to Vera Cruz, which is Mexico's principal port and one of its main sources of income to the government by means of the levy of  tariffs and import duties.    Starting with that income, the French would then fund their army's advance to the City of Mexico where the mints, stores of gold and silver coin and bullion, and site maps of the mines of gold, silver, copper, and semi-precious stones were known to exist in abundance.
       The esteemed Generale Charles Latrille de Lorencez leaves Vera Cruz with a large army, under good order.   Zouaves, artillery, cavalry, drummer, buglers, bands, munitions and supply trains....and almost 30,000 effective combatants and close support personnel head West and Up....from sea-level to 7,300 feet fasl.    There are several significant skirmishes, and finally one significant battle that dispatches nominal Mexican Resistance.   Gen. Charles is being opposed by a Brigadier from the Guardia Nacional who is commanding about 1,000 regulars and about 4,000 better and lesser prepared troops from various local units of the Mexican Guardia Nacional, such as it was.
      Latrille de Lorencez had dispatch this unit here and that unit there as he moved, correctly,  into the interior of this foreboding and difficult terrain.   He learned about Mexico being hot, wet, dry, cold, windy, jungle, desert, and everything at the same time.   He also knew that each cluster, village, ranch, town, and city would have to be subdued, and  all this he did well, usually with little or no loss.    The significant battle that fairly well convinces all  that the French Army's task would be blessedly simple was fought on the 28th of April, 1862 in and around the community of Alcutzingo, not far from the pass of the same name that is hubbed on the mountain known as La Malinche or Matlalcueitl (goddess of blue and green waters, also perhaps non-salty water in Nahuatl language).
Gazebo in the Main Plaza of Alcutzingo, Vera Cruz
Now, Alcutzingo is a blessed place, to the left is its showy gazebo in the main plaza.  It is said that many French soldiers retired there after all the warring, and other family members joined them when things had settled down.   There are also curmudgeon Gringos tucked in here and there in this and other similar communities here-abouts.
15,000 fasl Peak of La Malinche, aka Matlacihautl
     It was here that the French dispatched the Mexican resistance and relaxed a bit to continue to Puebla de los Angeles.   It was anticipated that the conservative, very Roman Catholic population there would be happy to see the French and that there would be a celebratory reception.  Two days' march, 8,000 crack troops with fine French howitzers, a couple of grand entrances and a ball at the Kasino de Eventos on the Main Plaza beside the Great Cathedral....such anticipation was difficult to contain.   The officers and men knew that Puebla was a place of great refinement and excellent table fare as well.
      It was two days later that the French forces prepared to assume control of the critically important city of Puebla.   But only one little nagging problem remained.   It was that same pesky Brigadier General Ignacio Zaragoza Sequin and his gaggle of rag-tags from the Mexican regular and highly irregular Army.   They were terribly outnumbered, and already fatiqued and defeated, so what is going on here?
    All of this had started downhill when   Le Generale Charles had been confounded by a call from the the French Royal authority who wanted Le Generale to return to Vera Cruz city with his army and assume total and secure possession of that city and everything within 100 leagues along the coast.    This call came shortly after French forces had secured Orizaba, another important, although smaller, city on their way to the west.   He had begun to prepare a compliance, but noticed that Mexican units had begun to demonstrate hostile postures along his flanks.   That is when Monsieur Le Generale determined to seal up the opposition and destroy its ability to resist in the future.   It was a "slight deviation" from his orders that he would regret in short order.

     After a bit of preparation and reconnoitring, the French began an assault on the Fortress of Loreto and its brother on the right looking out, the Fortress of Guadalupe.    The Mexicans repulsed the first charge.   Then came the second and telling attack, during which time the French exhuasted their artillery advantage by running out of powder and munitions for the Brass Napoleon 6 pounders.    The Mexicans on the line of defence between the two citadels broke out of their lines, and were backed up by fresh and competent cavalry.    The third attack failed miserably.
      Flanking Mexican infantry, supported text-book style by cavalry,  followed a fairly disorderly retreat of the French, during which time they suffered a devasting series of counter attacks that could not be prepared for.    Heavy rains commenced and both sides quit the day.    The French forces had lost almost 500 dead, 500 captured and 600 wounded.
     Mexican irregulars continued to arrive and bolster weak spots in their ranks.   They had paid a price, with shy of 100 dead and a similar number wounded, but the French estimated that by dawn there would be 3,000 more irregulars joining the Mexican assault.  Monsieur Le Generale Charles was to be astounded that he had been essentially destroyed by an inferior army in terms of numbers, training, and supplies but when he began his orderly retreat the next morning, NOBODY CAME TO CHALLENGE HIS REAR GUARD!   He was expecting an officer's group to arrive from Zaragoza to request his fine French sword.   None came.

     The battle stops there.   Zaragoza has no munitions.   Food is no problem.  From here to Vera Cruz there are beans, tropical fruit, fish, goats and cows that provide meat, cheese, milk, and there is abundant production of wheat, rice, and corn.   But he has no munitions, and he does not know how much punch the French have left in them. He and his older, trusted subordinate, General Silvestre Aramberri determine to put up a hostile appearing distraction on the French rear-guard, which they do for the next two weeks.   They know that  at least the French are withdrawing.    At that is how the Battle of Puebla would end.   Mexicans 1  -    French 0.

     The 31 year old Mexican Brigadier would be dead within two years.   Always sickly during his early years, and lovelorn at the loss of his betrothed in Monterrey  (cholera?) a few years before, he was a surprise graduate of the Colegio Militar.   Born in Texas, near Goliad, he was the direct nephew of Juan Seguin who gave great and grand service to the Texian cause against Lopez de Santa Anna, both during the early stages of the siege of the Alama, and later at the total destruction of Lopez de Santa Anna's Army at San Jacinto, Texas.
     Monsieur Le Generale Latrille would come down with typhus, fight in other wars, become debilitated during his advancing years, but die among his own aristocracy in Paris in 1892. There is a legend of the Ceremony of Camarone, associated with a fight to death stand by some very valiant (perhaps stupidly so) Legionaires, some times associated with the Battle of Puebla, but while the heroic company was at the Battle of Puebla, their other heroism was accomplished about a year later and towards the northeast in the coffee  country down a bit lower in elevation.   Of 93 officers and men, only two survived.   The captain, who perished, had a wooden forearm and hand....quite a nice piece of art....which was recovered by an Anglo-French (Franglaise) farmer in the area and returned to the French much after the Battle.   There were only two survivors, and they demanded to be given terms or they would not surrender.   As per agreement, they were escorted to French lines and delivered back to their Army.   It is said  the the Mexican Cavalry dismounted and fave the two a sword salute and 21 gun honor salute.
     To this day, the remembrance of the loss at the Hacienda de Camarone -  Tejada is commemorated with the Legion's most somber and moving ceremony.     The officers of the unit terminate the eeremony by service coffee to the enlisted personnel.   The Hacienda concerned was and remains, actually, a source of some of the best coffee grown.   To end, the soldiers did not die at the Battle of Puebla, but they had fought there, a year earlier.

File:Camerone 2006.jpg
 This is the ceremony paying honours to the Legionaire
company commanded by Captaine Danjou,  His faux
forearm and hand are carried by the centre veteran
behind the officers in this formation. 
File:Main Danjou.gif
The esthetic prosthetic forearm and hand of the Captaine Danjou
Too much for one Gringo to digest. the OROGs know and understand the rest of the beginning of the story about the Cinco de Mayo.    Very quickly, it becomes a much deeper and wider story.   It is a compelling story, and one of the best places to start would be "The Cactus Throne", which is a definitive, dispassionate, and even-handed treatment of the rise and fall of the Second Mexican Empire.
El Gringo Viejo