Dancer Daniela Leon performs onstage at The Dalles Wahtonka High School’s MEChA Club presentation Friday, May 3, part of an early celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Marking the date of a famous Mexican battle that aided the North in the U.S. Civil War, the observance is often used to celebrate Mexican culture in the United States.
Photo by Mark Gibson.
Events planned locally
Lots of celebrations are planned in The Dalles. Read more.
The Dalles The annual Cinco de Mayo — May 5 — celebration across the U.S. is more than just a tribute to Mexican heritage — it is a reminder about the important role the neighboring country played in ending America’s Civil War.
Historian Justo Sierra wrote in his “Political Evolution of the Mexican People” that the defeat of the French in the state of Puebla on May 5, 1862, kept Napoleon Bonaparte III from using the country as a base to aid the South in freeing Confederate ports from the Union Blockade.
During that time, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was mounting successful military actions and French intervention would have greatly aided his campaign.
The victory of the Mexican Army in the battle near the City of Puebla stunned the world. The French Army, about twice the size, had not been defeated for 50 years and was, therefore, expected to crush any resistance.
The battle, led by Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, took place in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the Mexican Civil War of 1858 and the 1860 Reform Wars.
Those conflicts had left Mexico nearly bankrupt and President Benito Juarez was forced to suspend foreign debt payments for two years.
That announcement provided Bonaparte with the opportunity he had been seeking to establish a French toehold in the Americas.
Declaring outrage over the debt owed to France, he sent a well-armed fleet to the Mexican coastline and landed a large invasion force near Veracruz, driving President Juarez and his government into retreat. The 8,000-strong French Army then moved toward Mexico City but encountered heavy resistance from about 4,000 Mexicans from the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe in the state of Puebla.
Although Bonaparte, by increasing ground forces to 30,000, eventually overwhelmed and subdued the Mexican army, historians believe the time spent fighting for that victory gave Gen. William T. Sherman, commander of the Union Army, time to smash the Confederacy at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, which effectively ended the Civil War.
The victory at Puebla provided a morale boost that inspired Mexican pride and unity. The battle was also significant because, since that time, no country in the Americas has been invaded by any other European military force.
The French occupation of Mexico lasted only three years, from 1864-1867, due to the fact that the U.S., with its own civil war over in 1865, began to provide more political and military assistance to its neighbor. Bonaparte, facing a tenacious and determined Mexican guerilla resistance and the possibility of direct conflict with the U.S., began a retreat that started in 1866.
Many Americans mistakenly believe that Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day, which is observed Sept. 16. While May 5 is not an official holiday in Mexico, it is a time of revelry in Puebla and that region of the country and is rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S.
Latinos living in California during the Civil War are credited with being the first to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. The festivities then expanded across the United States and on June 7, 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a resolution that called upon the President of the United States to proclaim that all citizens should observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities.