Do you know what is celebrated the “cinco de mayo” (May 5th)?
Time to think…
Brownie points if you answered the Battle of Puebla (hopefully, you didn’t answer “Mexico’s Independence Day”). That date is observed as a celebration of heritage, pride, freedom and democracy in the United States and some parts of Mexico. Others use the day to indulge on a feast composed of hearty dishes.
What if I ask you a different question? Do you know what really happened that day?
I certainly had no idea of why the conflict originated, who was involved or why it is significant. When I started to research my Puebla trip, I was determined to visit the forts where the battle was fought, even though that meant getting outside the lovely historic center.
I went to the tourist office and asked one of the guys how to get to the “forts” area. The place is officially called the 5th of May Civic Center but locals still see it as the area where the forts used during the battle are located.
“Cross the Heroes del 5 de Mayo Boulevard and wait for bus 72. It is going to say “Fuertes” on the windshield,” said the guy working for the city with an air of ease.
The guy told me where to take the bus but not where to get down. I asked a lady who was riding with us at the exact moment when we were about to miss the stop. The walk was quite long and I started to second guess the directions given by the angel lady. Then, I saw the giant monument commemorating the general who led Mexico to a victory the 5th of May, Ignacio Zaragoza. I was giddy with excitement. I still had to plan how to cross the 8 lanes boulevard separating me from the entrance but that is another story.
The area I visited contains two structures that held a strategic role during the Battle of Puebla. They are known as the “Fuerte de Loreto” and the “Fuerte de Guadalupe.” Zaragoza stationed men in both forts, others forts and in downtown Puebla. The battle was mainly fought at the slopes of the hill where the “Fuerte de Guadalupe” is located (the invading forces didn’t make it to the Loreto Fort or to the city).
The Guadalupe Fort sustained considerable damage from more than a hundred canon bullets. The place left to ruins for more than a century, was reconstructed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle (in 2012). What you see today is a museum holding documents and objects from around 1862, guarded by a building with a brick foundation and modern glass walls.
There is a lot to say about that tragic, and at the same time glorious, day in 1862. At the museums, there is a lot of detailed information explaining the facts. In here, I only want to give you a basic idea of the conflict.
What events led to the battle?
To sustain the Reform War (see it as a civil war), the Mexican government had to take loans from other nations. Once the war was over, the national economy entered a crisis and the payment of public debt was suspended. The government was able to negotiate with England and Spain but France ordered a military intervention. Experts saw the debt issue as an excuse. France was interested in expanding and having more control in America.
Who were the main players?
From Mexico: General Ignacio Zaragoza, who was the Minister or War at that time, many battalions from other states and the inhabitants of the city of Puebla.
From France: General Lorencez and his army of 8,000 men which marched to Puebla from the port of Veracruz.
Why Mexico won the battle?
There may be many interpretations of why Mexican forces were victorious that day. According to the murals and to a historian at the museum:
- General Lorencez had strong reasons to believe the city of Puebla was an easy target. The day after the battle he communicated to his superiors about the trusty sources who told him Puebla was a declared enemy of the country’s government. He wrote, “My soldiers are going to be covered with flowers.” Lorencez went too relaxed to battle.
- The French didn’t recognize the area where they were going to fight. They marched to Puebla directly from Veracruz. That road took them straight to the base of the hills were the forts are located. If they have recognized the area, they would have known it was simpler to surround the hills and attack downtown first.
- The battle was divided in three stages. During the third stage, a torrential rain started to hit the area. That rain made the hilly terrain slippery and treacherous. That was an advantage to the locals who were used to that type of weather. The French had no other option than to retreat.
Mexicans ended up beating the strongest army of that time.
Why the battle was important?
The Mexican army was able to save the country from the French invasion. Since that battle, no other European army has tried to invade any territory in America.
Sad events after the battle
To me, one of the saddest parts of the story was the death of Ignacio Zaragoza 4 months after the battle. He succumbed to typhoid fever. President Juarez declared him a national hero and gave Puebla his name (Puebla de Zaragoza).
The events surrounding the Battle of Puebla are important for anyone wanting to learn more about Mexican history. I am glad I made time to visit the “forts.”
Recommendations in case you visit
- It is easier to arrive by taxi.
- Prepare to walk since there is a considerable walking distance between the forts.
- The explanations in the museum are in Spanish and English.
- The forts are just two of the museums you can visit in the Civic Center. There is a planetarium, interactive museum, auditorium and other facilities in the area. It can take days to explore everything.
- There are restaurants at the forts. I saw a café and a snack shop while walking around. I believe the more modern museums have spaces to eat but take precautions.
- The tourist office in downtown can give you excellent information on what to do in the area.
How much do you know about the Battle of Puebla?