Editor’s Note: The following column originally appeared on May 22, 2016.
During the first week of this month, we saw banners hanging across south Austin Street announcing the upcoming celebration of Cinco de Mayo or the 5th of May. Schools marked the date with celebrations.
This year’s celebration marks the 154th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo. The date is actually a bigger celebration in the United States than it is in Mexico where it is mostly a regional celebration around the town of Pueblo.
In the spring of 1862, during our Civil War, Mexico was having financial problems, mostly from the cost of continuing revolutions and the Mexican Civil War of 1856. Mexico was in debt to a number of countries, primarily Spain, England and France.
In April, President Benito Juarez suspended interest payments which gave France the opportunity and justification for military intervention.
France was now led by Napoleon III, elected by popular vote, unlike his uncle Napoleon I who had been a military ruler. Napoleon wanted to spread the influence and power of France across Europe and into the western hemisphere and used the defaulted debt as an excuse to establish France’s own control in Mexico.
He landed an army of 6,500 at Vera Cruz and began the march toward Mexico City some 500 miles away. Mexico quickly organized a rag-tag army of 4,500 men and set up a defense near the town of Pueblo. The Mexican army was actually led by an American, Ignacio Zaragoza, who had been born near Goliad.
The Mexicans were able to defeat the better equipped French army which resulted in a much needed feeling of national unity. However, the victory at Pueblo did not end the invasion.
Napoleon sent an additional 30,000 men and the following year the French deposed the Mexican Army and installed a relative of Napoleon, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian. Maximilian accepted the crown on April 10, 1864 and was enthroned as Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, actually a puppet of France.
Three years later, in 1867, in a revolt led by Benito Juarez, the Mexican army overthrew the French army and the French began withdrawing their forces. During the revolution against the French, Maximilian issued an order that any man captured while fighting for Juarez would be executed.
Napoleon urged Maximilian to abandon Mexico and withdraw with the French troops but he hesitated too long and was intercepted while trying to escape through the Mexican lines.
Juarez issued the same order that Maximilian had issued and on June 19, 1867, Maximilian was executed in front of a firing squad along with several of his generals. The republic was restored with Bento Juarez as President. Today Maximilian’s bullet riddled shirt is on display in a museum in Mexico City.
Maximilian’s attempted escape from Mexico led to the story that his wagon train, loaded with $10 million in gold, and destined for Galveston, Texas, made it as far as south Texas where legend says that at the border of Crane and Upton counties, near where route 385 is today, the wagon train was overpowered by former confederate soldiers.
The soldiers buried the gold but were all killed by Indians with the exception of one man. That man became sick and returned to Missouri where, when dying, he told the doctor about the gold and drew a rough map of the location of the buried treasure.
The story of Maximilian’s gold is still told across Texas but the gold has never been found.
So Cinco de Mayo is the provincial celebration of the small battle that led to France’s occupation of Mexico. The Mexican Independence from Spain is actually Sept. 16, 1821, some 41 years earlier.