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Sesquicentennial of Cinco de Mayo

Saturday marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the battle of Puebla, Mexico, in which the people of Mexico defeated an invading force of European powers led by France. This important victory, in the cause of freedom, had a lasting impact on the ongoing American Civil War. Here is “the rest of the story.”

It is often said that the American colonies achieved their independence from Great Britain because of the substantial assistance from various European powers most notably that of France. At the same time, it is stated by James I. Robertson, Jr., professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, that the Confederacy failed to achieve its independence precisely because it did not receive recognition from Britain and France.

Note: during the May 1864 battle of New Market in the Shenandoah Valley, when the local citizens saw the Virginia Military Institute cadets advancing over a hilltop with their beautiful large white VMI flag and their dress uniforms of white pants and tailored grey shell jackets, they cheered that the French had come to fight alongside the Confederacy.

In November of 1861, with Confederate forces encamped just 20 miles from Washington in Northern Virginia, and with a Confederate blockade of the Potomac River stretching for 35 miles, occurred the Trent Affair. This incident, in which the U.S. Navy forcibly removed two Confederate diplomats from a British ship on the high seas off of Bermuda, caused Great Britain to send 10,000 soldiers to Canada.

Then in December of 1861, France led a European invasion of Mexico resulting in the battle of Puebla fought on May 5, 1862. This was only a temporary victory for the citizens of Mexico as more and more European/French forces invaded and occupied their country resulting in the eventual imposition of the Austrian Archduke Maximillan as “Emperor of Mexico.” See the 1938 Hollywood version titled “Juarez” starring Paul Muni and Bette Davis.

Now Great Britain wanted the dismemberment of the United States in order to reclaim lost territories along the U.S./Canadian frontier, most notably the territories of Washington and Oregon with their magnificent harbors and rich farm valleys. In the mid 1850s, young Capt. George Pickett of Pickett’s Charge fame at Gettysburg, had stood his ground in Puget Sound against a British fleet.

France wanted to reclaim the Louisiana Purchase territory because of its vast riches of mineral, agricultural and forestry wealth. Napoleon had tried to do so earlier but his expeditionary force had been wiped out by fever in the Carribean.

The leader of the Mexican people, Benito Juarez and President Abraham Lincoln, were well aware of each other's situation. That is why, following the surrender of the various Confederate armies in the late spring of 1865, the United States sent Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan with 60,000 battle hardened Union Soldiers to Texas to put pressure on France to withdraw from Mexico.

It is not well known that Sheridan sent his elite “Jessie Scouts” (special Union cavalry scouts who dressed as Confederate Soldiers and who had the correct accents to pass as southerners), deep into Mexico in 1865 to gather intelligence information on the situation there. A number of them were killed in these intelligence operations.

Though the battle of Puebla did not stop the eventual French occupation of Mexico it did significantly delay it and showed the Mexican people that they could defeat European powers. It also showed the Lincoln administration that the citizens of Mexico were willing to fight for their freedom.

Great Britain eventually withdrew her soldiers from Canada and France withdrew from Mexico in 1867.

A salute to the brave citizen soldiers of Mexico, on this the sesquicentennial of their victory for “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”