Few Americans are aware of Hispanics fighting for the United States before there was a United States. In 1779, 220 of Hispanics reached what is now St. Louis before 1200 Brits and Indian allies did -- defeated the enemy and chased them back to Canada.
That was followed by brilliant and strategic victories at Baton Rouge, Mobile Bay, the Bahamas and the Mother of all Battles at Pensacola where 1400 Mexicans, Cubans, Spanish and Puerto Rican soldiers defeated the largest British fortress on the Gulf of Mexico. General Bernardo Galvez took 45 ships with men to Yorktown where he placed them under the command of General George Washington.
In New Mexico 4000 Mexican Americans volunteered for Civil War Union forces. They were led by Colonel Miguel Pino. Texas Mexican Americans formed 12 companies of Union cavalry.
In California, state Senator Romualdo Pacheco was appointed by Governor Leland Stanford Brigadier General Commander of the Native American Cavalry making him the highest ranking Hispanic army officer of the Civil War outranked only by Admiral David Farragut, son of a Spanish admiral of the Revolutionary War.
These men lived, fought and died for the United States. That was to be expected, they were Americans.
Not to be expected was a great battle in which many Mexicans fought and died a thousand-plus miles south of Texas in a town called Puebla (Poo-eh-blah) that affected the Civil War.
In 1861 Lincoln’s army was fought to a draw by Southern forces that won 15 battles, the Union won 14, six were inconclusive and the war continued for four more years. In 1862 Union forces won 30 battles, the Confederacy won 42 and 20 were inconclusive. It was not a good year. But it was for Lincoln’s war, Lincoln gained much in Mexico in 1862.
The French landed in Mexico with British and Spanish troops in January 1862. Their stated mission was to convince new President Benito Juarez to pay back millions previously borrowed from Swiss banks by the conservatives Juarez replaced in 1860.
The Spanish and British left after a deal was struck. The French stayed. More French troops arrived commanded by French Army hero General Charles, Compte de Lorencez (Count de Lorencez).
A battle between Mexicans, French and North African Muslims -- how could that have any importance for the U.S.?
The Confederates couldn’t make the armaments they needed. Cannons cannot be made of cotton. They needed help. The Union Navy blockaded Confederate ports, thus Mexico’s thousands of miles of coastline not covered by the U.S. Navy were valuable in supplying the Confederacy.
General Charles brought together 4500 French troops and 2000 Mexican Royalist troops left over from the war of 1858-60 that brought President Juarez to power.
The march on Mexico City started at the Gulf of Mexico port of Veracruz where Hernando Cortez started his march to conquer Mexico 343 years earlier. The city of Puebla straddled the mountain road to Mexico City. The road approaching the city was in a valley flanked by hills topped off with two ancient Spanish forts, Guadalupe and Loreto.
Four thousand Mexican troops and militia led by Texas-born Ignacio Zaragoza awaited the French. Their rifles were bought from the British; they had last been used against Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815. It rained hard the night of May 4, 1862. Inside a fort, General Zaragoza dined with his officers including a dashing brigade commander, Porfirio Diaz.
A former seminarian, Diaz turned down the priesthood to join the Army. He honed his leadership skills in the Army and in government administration. Along the way, he met and joined Benito Juarez whom he would both support and fight in future years.
The French forces attacked at dawn of the 5th of May. The French split their forces, two to attack the forts, one to attack the Mexican center, the very center General Diaz had been assigned to protect. Diaz was unhappy with his assignment, he wanted to attack the French. His men fought fiercely.
Short of rifles, the men, mostly Indians, had been taught the night before to pick up rifles from dead soldiers -- to reload, point and shoot. The battle raged. Diaz’ men held, barely. Worried that his lines would collapse, Diaz organized his men and charged surprising the French. Many threw down their rifles and ran. Diaz would be elected President and later become dictator. The French would never forget Colonel Diaz. He died in Paris in 1915.
The French returned to Vera Cruz and sent for more troops. They came a year later with a new commander, General Forey. They attacked Puebla again; this time they won. They marched into Mexico City without resistance. A year too late, however, to help the Confederacy.
While the French were inching their way towards Mexico City in May 1863, General U.S. Grant and his union soldiers marched 180 miles, won five battles, captured some 6,000 prisoners and cut the Confederacy in half by taking the entire Mississippi River. The French couldn’t deliver arms and cannon to the rebels.
The United States won the Civil War with help from Mexican Americans in New Mexico, Texas and California; Mexicans, real Mexicans the Union win the Civil War at Puebla on the 5th of May 1862, El Cinco de Mayo.
Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and A Trillion Dollars in Trade and Murder in the Mountains: War Crime at Khojaly, both published by Floricanto Press and his work was formerly distributed by the New York Times Syndicate.
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