When “Cinco de Mayo” is mentioned in Mexico, one of the most symbolic battles in the Mexican collective unconscious immediately comes to mind: the Battle of Puebla. General Ignacio Zaragoza, with only a small army, took on the powerful French forces of Napoleon III during the Second French Intervention.
Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin was born on March 24, 1829 in the city of Presidio de La Bahia de Espiritu Santo, now Goliad, in southern Texas, USA. He was the second son of the marriage between Miguel Zaragoza and Maria de Jesus Valdez Martinez Seguin.
When he was five years old, after the independence of Texas, his family moved to Matamoros in Tamaulipas state, where he began his studies and ten years later he moved to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.
For several years he leaned toward the priesthood, but then left, perhaps to continue the example of his father, who was an infantryman.
During the United States intervention in Mexico between 1846 and 1848,young Zaragoza tried to enlist as a cadet, but was rejected.
He saw, however, from a distance, how Mexico lost more than half of its territory in an unequal war. It was not until 1853 that he managed to enter the Nuevo Leon army, first as a sergeant, then later as captain of his regiment. In 1854, he decided to join the Plan de Ayutla, a movement that attempted to overthrow the dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
Along with 100 followers, he took up arms to defend the liberal cause, a cause that he would not abandon until his death.
In 1860, he fought in favor of the Constitution of 1857. He also participated in the battle of Calpulalpan, facing theconservative forces. In this battle, easily won thanks to a brave counterattack, the liberals ended the War of Reform and laid down the foundations of a new republican system.
During the term of Benito Juarez, Zaragoza was recognized for his high sense of loyalty and patriotism. Thus, heserved his country as Minister of the Army and Navy, a position that he held until 1861.
But the most remarkable passage in the life of this military man was when the fledgling Republic of Mexico, financially drowning due to all of its debts and war expenses, decided, through the person of Benito Juarez, to decree a moratorium to suspend all foreign debt payments.
Faced with this scenario; Spain, France and Britain, countries to whom the majority of the debt was owed, became dissatisfiedand made up a tripartite alliance whose armed forces reached the port of Veracruz.
After further negotiations, Spain and England decided to retreat, but France, in a frank desire to build a new imperial government and extend its American colonies, decided to continue its foray into Mexican territory.
President Juarez swiftly organized a military unit and placed General Ignacio Zaragoza in command.
The army, composed of nearly 10,000 men, was named the Eastern Army, whose mission was to confront the French contingent of 6,000 soldiers commanded by the insolent General Charles Ferdinand Latrille.
Zaragoza knew beforehand that he had a difficult responsibility as well as a clear disadvantage in both arms and in discipline, for the Mexican army was in a precarious situation and was practically devoid of everything except for courage. Knowing of what stuff his men were made of, Zaragoza said to them: “Our enemies may be the world’s first citizens, but you are Mexico’s first sons and they want to wrest your homeland from you”.
Zaragoza headed east and decided to confront the invaders with an initial contingent of 4,000 troops in the area known as the Summit of Acultzingo. In this first meeting, Zaragoza did not intend to stop the passage of the French, but simply to let his soldiers gain experience, as many of them had no prior experience in battle. In this first skirmish, Napoleon’s powerful army lost nearly 500 men, while the Mexicans lost only 50 soldiers. In the face of this event, Zaragozareturned to his headquarters commenting to his soldiers, “The French fight well, but our soldiers are better at killing”.
Under orders from Juarez to stop the French at Puebla, Zaragoza prepared a quick plan for the plaza’s defense. Climbing to the top of Cerro de Guadalupe, he decided to mount two garrisons in the strongholds of the Loreto and Guadalupe fortswith 1,200 men and to take on the French Army with another 3,500 men.
The battle began on May 5th when the interventionist army arrived at the city of Puebla. At 11:15 a.m., the first group formed by Mexican soldiers and indigenous Zacapoaxtla forces faced the French and managed to overcome the powerful attacks of the foreigners.
Zaragoza quickly positioned his soldiers in the dip between both hills and formed an angle between the forts and other keyareas in the defense of the site.
Artillery fire launched from the fort of Guadalupe managed to decimate the French army, but the seasoned and experienced Zouaves managed to ascend to the fort of Guadalupe in an attempt to take it, but were stopped cold by the Rifle Corps, who were stationed there. The Zouaves retreated in order to regroup and resume the advance, they knew that the fight would be tough but hoped that the Mexicans would be easily overcome in the ensuing melee. The French regrouped and, supported by the First and Second
Marine Regiment; counterattacked the rest of the Mexican line. They were received by Mexican bayonets in a bloody melee where they were courageously repelled, one by one.
To complement the Mexican defense, the Pachucan Guard, on horseback, charged on the rest of the column firing their guns and striking with powerful sword blows on the already decimated and surprised French Army, who retreated from the position.
After the battle, Zaragoza sent a very important message as part of his battle report: “The national arms are covered with glory. The French troops behaved with courage under fire, but their chief, ineptly” – perhaps referring to General Ferdinand’s vanity, who, even before any military confrontation with the Mexicans had expressed
-”We are so superior to the Mexicans in organization, discipline, race, morale and refinement of sensibilities, that from this moment, in command of our 6,000 brave soldiers, I am the master of Mexico”.
Because of this great feat, Ignacio Zaragoza is considered as the Hero of Liberty and champion of the Battle of Puebla. Since then, the city of Puebla was named by presidential decree as Puebla de Zaragoza, as well as the bordering state of Coahuila de Zaragoza.
Ignacio Zaragoza married Rafaela Padilla de la Garza, with whom he had three children. Their marriage lasted only 5 years because his wife died of pneumonia.
At the age of 33, he contracted typhoid fever, leading to the premature death of this brave Mexican hero on September 8th, 1862.