In 1862, the United States was in the middle of a civil war. All the South needed was a strong exterior ally and its strengthened cause might have permanently split the United States. A possible exterior ally was closer than Abraham Lincoln liked, as the French Army under Gen. Laurencez was making its way through Mexico.
The French Army was considered the greatest military force on the globe. For nearly 50 years—since the defeat of Napoleon I’s army at the hands of allied forces at Waterloo, Belgium in 1815—it had not known defeat and had recently won victories in Europe and Asia. In 1862, the French landed in Veracruz along with forces from Queen Isabella II of Spain and Queen Victoria of Great Britain. They had come to collect the debt owed to them by Mexico—debts that Mexican President Benito Juarez had officially suspended because the country was essentially bankrupt.
Refusing Juarez’ proposed compromise to repay the debts two years later, the collaboration of the three countries’ militaries seized the custom house at Veracruz. They intended to intercept the customs payments in exchange for their debt. After some time, the diplomats for Spain and Great Britain reached an agreement with Juarez and the armies from those two countries departed from Mexico. The French, on the other hand, stayed and headed for Mexico City.
France had significant interest in halting the growth of the United States. The North American country’s rate of expansion and power was threatening to the other world powers. If Napoleon was successful in conquering Mexico, the possibility of marching north to aid the Confederates in dividing the United States into two less powerful and less threatening countries was real.
The United States was a major cause of France’s attack on Mexico. The war America recently won over Mexico leveled the Mexican treasury and led to financial disaster. Thus, Juarez suspended payment to France and incited Napoleon III, ruler of France, to act. Lincoln and the United States were dependent on Mexico staving off the French troops until the Confederacy could be defeated and Lincoln could deploy troops south to aid Juarez.
Early on May 5, 1862, General Laurencez led 6,000 French troops toward Puebla, Mexico, just 100 miles from Mexico City. Expecting the attack was General Ignacio Zaragoza, a Texas-born Mexican who was ordered to defend Juarez with a force of 4,000 troops, many of them agricultural workers armed with antiquated rifles and machetes. The battle would take place in a muddy, uneven field.
To show his contempt for the Mexicans, Gen. Laurencez ordered his troops to attack through the middle of the foes’ defenses, their strongest position. The French cavalry went through ditches, over adobe ruins and toward the slope of Guadalupe Hill. By then, the cavalry, exhausted and nearly disbanded, failed to achieve its goal. The Mexican army stood its ground. Gen. Zaragoza, who had no experience in military tactics but was a veteran in guerrilla warfare, ordered his troops to go after the French, who fled to Orizaba, where Zaragoza attacked the French again, forcing them to flee to the coast.
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