The Fifth of May — an American Holiday

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

An interesting aspect of my morning news every year on the fifth of May is the festive manner in which the broadcasters note that the day that will be celebrated by revelers at their local Mexican/Tex-Mex restaurant with drink specials and free salsa. On the Baltimore morning news this year, they actually listed some of the half-price taco and $2 Tecate deals that are available to the happy hour crowd.

News reports never remark, however, on the importance of this day to American freedom, and the defeat of the Confederacy in our Civil War.

An unusual fact of Washington life is the presence of the Irish prime minister, or taoiseach, in the city on or near almost every St. Patrick's Day. Up until recently a mostly religious holiday in Ireland, the Irish have recently begun to "catch up" with the party spirit of the holiday as celebrated in the United States. That the taoiseach still makes the trip most every year reflects the importance of the United States to Éire, but also pays tribute to the fact that the feast day of Ireland's patron saint took on a life of its own in this country.

The same is still true of Cinco de Mayo and Mexico.

Today is not Mexican Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16, "the day in 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla urged Mexicans to rise up against the Spanish-born ruling class." In Mexico, the 16th of September "is a day of full-blown festivities" that actually begin the night before. Cinco de Mayo is, rather, a "minor" holiday in Mexico, a fact repeated here, and here, and, well, here.

The day is of greater importance in the United States than most Americans, who primarily celebrate it to drink outdoors in the spring realize, however.

The Monroe Doctrine, announced by President James Monroe in December 1823, made clear the United States' position that "The American continents ... are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." With the United States embroiled in the Civil War, however, there was little that President Lincoln could do to stop France, the United Kingdom, and Spain from landing in Veracruz, Mexico, in December 1861 to collect debts that were owed the three countries by the Mexican government. While Britain and Spain left soon after, however, the French remained, as an observer shortly after the fact noted, "for the express purpose of controlling the destiny of Mexico."

The Mexicans fought back, and on May 5, 1862, 6,000 French troops under General Charles de Lorencez attacked the city of Puebla, which was defended by 2,000 Mexican troops under General Ignacio Zaragoza, who was born in what is now Goliad, Texas. The all-day battle ended in French retreat, with a loss on the French side of 500 soldiers, sparking the Mexican resistance.

The battle did not mark the end of French involvement in Mexico and, in 1864, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph was installed with the assistance of French Emperor Napoleon III as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Despite this fact, liberal elements in the country continued to oppose Maximilian, aided covertly after the Civil War by U.S. Generals Ulysses S Grant and Phillip Sheridan. Between November 1866 and November 1867, the French armies withdrew, and in June 1867, Maximilian was captured by Mexican forces and executed.

While there is disagreement on whether the French ever intended to support the Confederacy, a weakened United States plainly provided opportunities for Napoleon III. Had the French been able to control Mexico, the temptation to gain a dependent ally for France in the Confederacy may have been too much for Napoleon III to resist. Thanks to the efforts of General Zaragoza at Puebla 155 years ago, however, we will never have to know. The Confederacy was defeated, the scourge of slavery was ended, and the Republic was saved.

General Zaragoza never lived to see Mexico's ultimate victory, however. A victor in battle, he died months later of typhoid at the age of 33. At least one day a year, however, we can remember what he accomplished in his short life. Happy Cinco de Mayo.