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Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Did you know that Cinco de Mayo is more widely celebrated in parts of the United States than in all of Mexico, and that the course of the American Civil War may have been changed by what happened in Mexico on May 5, 1862? The defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla inextricably intertwined the history of the United States with Mexico.

There can be confusion over the origins of Cinco de Mayo, though. Some think it’s a holiday celebrating Mexican independence from Spain (September 16) or even marking the 1910 Mexican Revolution (November 20). Cinco de Mayo celebrates the surprising defeat of French forces by a grossly untrained and undermanned Mexican army at the Battle of Puebla. Scholars believe this loss prevented French Emperor Napoleon III from helping the Confederacy win the American Civil War.

In 1860, the nearly bankrupt Mexican government announced it was suspending debt payments to its European creditors for two years. Spain, the United Kingdom, and France didn’t like the delay and sent forces in 1861 to collect on Mexico’s debt. Spain and the UK made deals, but French Emperor Napoleon III figured if he could get his hands on Mexico, it could become the first colony in a new French stronghold in North America.

He thought that since President Abraham Lincoln Abraham was busy fighting the Civil War, the Americans wouldn’t stand in his way. With a French puppet government installed in Mexico City, Napoleon was planning to provide guns to the Confederacy in exchange for southern cotton, a scarce commodity in Europe due to Union shipping blockades.

In early 1862, well-trained French forces marched from the port city of Veracruz with the aim of capturing Mexico City. But on May 5, the French took a surprise beating at Puebla at the hands of Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza and a ragtag group of enlisted and volunteer troops. The French army retreated to Veracruz and wouldn’t return to Puebla until a year later in May of 1863.

Some contend that the year-long delay of the French invasion gave Abraham Lincoln’s generals just enough time to win decisive Union victories before Napoleon could provide upgraded artillery and munitions to the Confederacy.

By the time the French occupied Mexico City in June 1863, the battle of Vicksburg was already underway, and the Battle of Gettysburg was about to begin. Union victories were signaling the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.

In the western areas of the United States, the tradition of celebrating Cinco de Mayo has continued without interruption since 1862.

We know how the Civil War ended, but how did things work out for the French in Mexico? In 1864, Napoleon installed the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria as the Emperor of Mexico. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Lincoln made it clear that he opposed the French occupation of America’s southern neighbor. Napoleon responded by withdrawing his troops, but left behind Maximilian, who was captured and executed in 1867.

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