The Battle of Puebla took place on 5 May 1862, near the city of Puebla during the French intervention in Mexico. The battle ended in a victory for the Mexican Army over the occupying French soldiers. The French eventually overran the Mexicans in subsequent battles, but the Mexican victory at Puebla against a much better equipped and larger French army provided a significant morale boost to the Mexican army and also helped slow the French army's advance towards Mexico City. There were a total of 10,540 soldiers in the war. 462 French soldiers died in combat. Only 83 Mexican soldiers died in the battle.
The Mexican victory is celebrated yearly on the fifth of May. Its celebration is regional in Mexico, primarily in the state of Puebla, where the holiday is celebrated as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (English: The Day of the Battle of Puebla). There is some limited recognition of the holiday in other parts of the country although this holiday remains very popular in the United States where it is celebrated yearly as Cinco de Mayo.
The 1858–60 the Mexican civil war known as The Reform War had caused major distress throughout Mexico's economy. When taking office as the elected president in 1861, Benito Juárez was forced to suspend payments of interest on foreign debts for a period of two years. At the end of October 1861 diplomats from Spain, France, and Britain met in London to form the Tripartite Alliance, with the main purpose of launching an allied invasion of Mexico, taking control of Veracruz, its major port, and forcing the Mexican government to negotiate terms for repaying its debts and for reparations for alleged harm to foreign citizens in Mexico. In December 1861, Spanish troops landed in Veracruz; British and French followed in early January. The allied forces occupied Veracruz and advanced to Orizaba. However, the Tripartite Alliance fell apart by early April 1862, when it became clear the French wanted to impose harsh demands on the Juarez government and provoke a war. The British and Spanish withdrew, leaving the French to march alone on Mexico City. Napoleon III wanted to set up a puppet Mexican regime.
The French expeditionary force at the time was led by General Charles de Lorencez. The battle came about by a misunderstanding of the French forces’ agreement to withdraw to the coast. When the Mexican Republic forces saw these French soldiers on the march, they took it that hostilities had recommenced and felt threatened. To add to the mounting concerns, it was discovered that political negotiations for the withdrawal had broken down. A vehement complaint was lodged by the Mexicans to General Lorencez who took the effrontery as a plan to assail his forces. Lorencez decided to hold up his withdrawal to the coast by occupying Orizaba instead, which prevented the Mexicans from being able to defend the passes between Orizaba and the landing port of Veracruz. The 33-year-old Mexican Commander General, Ignacio Zaragoza, fell back to Acultzingo Pass where he and his army were badly beaten in a skirmish with Lorencez's forces on 28 April. Zaragoza retreated to Puebla which was heavily fortified – it had been held by the Mexican government since the Reform War. To its north stood the forts Loreto and Guadalupe on opposite hilltops. Zaragoza had a trench dug to join the forts via the saddle.
Lorencez was led to believe that the people of Puebla were friendly to the French, and that the Mexican Republican garrison which kept the people in line would be overrun by the population once he made a show of force. This would prove to be a serious miscalculation on Lorencez's part. On 5 May 1862, against all advice, Lorencez decided to attack Puebla from the north. However, he started his attack a little too late in the day, using his artillery just before noon and by noon advancing his infantry. By the third attack the French required the full engagement of all their reserves. The French artillery had run out of ammunition, so the third infantry attack went unsupported. The Mexican forces and the Republican garrison both put up a stout defense and even took to the field to defend the positions between the hilltop forts.
As the French retreated from their final assault, Zaragoza had his cavalry attack them from the right and left while troops concealed along the road pivoted out to flank them. By 3 p.m. the daily rains had started, making a slippery quagmire of the battlefield. Lorencez withdrew to distant positions, counting 462 of his men killed against only 83 of the Mexicans. He waited a couple of days for Zaragoza to attack again, but Zaragoza held his ground. Lorencez then completely withdrew to Orizaba.
The Battle of Puebla was an inspirational event for wartime Mexico, and it provided a stunning revelation to the rest of the world which had largely expected a rapid victory for French arms.
Slowed by their loss at Puebla, the French forces retreated and regrouped, and the invasion continued after Napoleon III determinedly sent additional troops to Mexico. The French were eventually victorious, winning the Second Battle of Puebla on 17 May 1863 and pushing on to Mexico City. When the capital fell, Juárez's government was forced into exile in the remote north.
With the backing of France, the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico in the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.
On 9 May 1862, President Juárez declared that the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla would be a national holiday, regarded as "Battle of Puebla Day" or "Battle of Cinco de Mayo". Although today it is recognised in some countries as a day of Mexican heritage celebration, it is not a federal holiday in Mexico.
A common misconception in the United States is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day, the most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico. Mexico celebrates Independence Day on the 16th of September, commemorating the beginning of the war of Independence (September 16, 1810, Grito de Dolores). Mexico also observes the culmination of the war of Independence, which lasted 11 years, on the 27th of September.
Since the 1930s, a re-enactment of the Battle of Puebla has been held each year at Peñón de los Baños, a rocky outcrop close to Mexico City International Airport.