How Mexico Helped Win the Civil War
I get it. People are always looking for a way to complain about Cinco de Mayo and how “un-American” the celebration is.
May the 5th is a day which could be celebrated as ne of the most American days there is. From the Battle of Puebla, which traces its root cause to the Monroe Doctrine, to Alan B. Shepherd, hurtling into outer space as the first man to reach for the moon. And yes, I know that most of you believe that Yuri Gagarin was first, but how many of you know the reason the Soviets kept the details of his flight secret? Do you understand that it is the west, with its tradition of openness and taking chances that meant that Gagarin’s flight was conducted entirely in secret, while Shepherd was launched on live Television for the world to see.
On May 5, 1862, General McClellan had commenced his ill fated and ultimately failed Peninsula Campaign. The idea was that by avoiding a direct land line to Richmond, the Confederates would surrender. On May 5th, McClellan hurled his troops at Williamsburg, a small colonial town where the first Virginia legislature had met, guarded by a Confederate General who was once an actor and a master of disguise and props. For day he had marched his limited and small number of troops in circles, and had others cut down trees, carve them into the shape of cannons and place them on the defenses. Eventually the Union overwhelmed the small defense, and proudly proclaimed a “victory over superior forces,” as McClellan himself termed it.
In Mexico, the French were marching in much the same manner towards Mexico City, again the presumption being that if they took the Capitol, the opponent would give up. At a small town named Puebla, the Mexicans gained a seemingly minor victory that merely delayed the French on their way north. But like Williamsburg, the battle provided a much needed morale boost. It rallied Mexico to the fight and helped them to understand that they could beat the French.
And when you ask that most important question, the eyes really open up – Why were the French in Mexico in 1862 to begin with?
The answer is pretty simple – Empire.
The French saw an opportunity, with America engaged in its own Civil War to advantage of the situation and blow up the Monroe Doctrine. The Congress of the United States knew what was going on, and even sent a warning to the French that we were busy at the moment, but we don’t like what you’re up to. The presumption was and remains, that France, while technically neutral in the Civil War, would have preferred a Confederate victory in the war. And with the way the war went over the next year and two months, one has to see tat a quick French victory in Mexico could have been big trouble for the Union.
And yet, a small army of Mexicans held off the French and delayed them. And convinced them to continue the fight even after Mexico City fell. When Americans of Mexican descent living in California descent heard about the Battle and the victory, they fired their guns in the air to celebrate. And to this day in the area around the City of Puebla, the battle is celebrated.
But here in the US, the day has become a lighting rod of controversy. Is it an American drinking holiday or a Mexican culture day?
Neither. It s a day when Mexico helped the Union to win the Civil War. And why can’t we celebrate that with some Mexican music and tequila?
This is a short clip (17 minutes) of the day we discussed this story on the show. The full version is available HERE.