The Battle of Puebla occurred on May 5, 1862. It was an unexpected victory for about 4,000 Mexican soldiers facing about 8,000 well-equipped French troops. Although it was a stirring victory, the outclassed Mexicans were eventually overwhelmed, and the French installed a new government in Mexico a few months later.
So… let’s climb on the alternate history bus and wonder what would have happened if the French had won at Puebla. Without that crucial lift to morale and Mexican national pride, would the French have won more easily? Would Emperor Maximillian have been able to hold his seat more comfortably for a couple of years?
A couple of years is all it would have taken. The Americans were slaughtering each other in their own civil war. Given a little breathing room, an enterprising European colonial power might have found it worthwhile to aid the southern states, and in return have a friendlier partner on Mexico’s northern border.
But, in part emboldened by their success at Puebla, the Mexicans never let Maximillian get too comfortable in Mexico City. As the US Civil war drew to a close, with France dealing with Prussia back in Old Europe and the Mexican Guerrilla warfare gaining intensity, Napoleon III bid adieu to Maximillian, and not long after that the emperor was executed.
Honestly, I don’t think for a minute that the French would ever have held Mexico with or without the Battle of Puebla. The colonization was a doomed endeavor from the start, and turned out to be a costly mistake for France.
So the Battle of Puebla may not have turned Mexican history that much. Maybe the Emperor would have lasted a couple more years, but that’s about it. That couple of years, though, may have been HUGELY significant to the United States.
So if you’re hoisting one tonight to celebrate Drinko-de-Mayo, stop for a minute and consider: about 4,000 hungry, ill-equipped Mexicans may have saved our nation. Now that’s something to celebrate.