TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Daring valor of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza

By Ken Bridges
Special to the Herald Democrat
Monument of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza

On May 5, Mexico will celebrate one of its most important patriotic holidays, known simply as Cinco de Mayo.  It marks the victory of Mexico over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.  It was an improbable victory against overwhelming odds.  Above all, it is a day remembered for courage.  This special day for Mexico is a day made possible by the daring and valor of a native Texan, Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza. 

Zaragoza was born in March 1829 in Presidio la Bahia, which is the current city of Goliad, about 90 miles southeast of San Antonio.  He was born into a prosperous and respected family of landowners and politicians.  His uncle, Erasmo Seguin, had served as mayor of San Antonio and helped draft Mexico’s 1824 constitution which established it as a republic.  Seguin had also helped Stephen F. Austin with his early colonization efforts.  Seguin’s son, Juan Seguin, also served as San Antonio mayor and was a captain in the Texas Army during the Texas Revolution. 

When Zaragoza was five, his family moved from Texas to Matamoros on the southern banks of the Rio Grande.  In 1844, his parents enrolled him in a seminary in nearby Monterrey.  Two years later, however, he left the seminary, feeling he had a different calling.  When the Mexican War started later in 1846, Zaragoza attempted to enlist in the army but was not allowed to join.  

Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza

 By 1853, he joined the local militia in Nuevo Leon.  Impressed by his skills and daring, he was commissioned as an officer when the force was incorporated into the regular army.  In 1857, civil war again erupted in Mexico, a conflict known as the Reform War.  Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was controversial even in Mexico, provoking feelings of love, fear, and hatred.  Zaragoza sided with the reformers against Santa Anna during the war, fought in several important battles, and rose through the ranks.  After the war ended in 1860 with Santa Anna in defeat, a new constitution was enacted and Zaragoza was appointed Minister of War. 

Mexico, however, was still in the midst of chaos.  It had been embroiled in civil wars almost since its independence in 1821.  One government after another was overthrown.  Threats of coups, assassinations, and uprisings were constant.  This chaos had allowed its international debts to soar.  And the countries it owed the most money to – France, Great Britain, and Spain – were determined to collect. 

 France had one of the most powerful armies in the world at that time and was led by the ambitious Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of his famed namesake.  Napoleon III sent his armies to Mexico in early 1862 to subdue the country.  Zaragoza resigned his ministerial post to take command of the Army of the East and set to fortify army positions at Puebla, east of Mexico City.   

Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza

                French forces attacked Zaragoza’s troops on May 5, 1862.   Zaragoza was badly outnumbered against better-trained and better-supplied troops but had planned carefully, taking advantage of his troops’ uphill and fortified positions.  The French assault failed at Puebla, with the loss of nearly one thousand French troops to a loss of only 86 for Mexico.   

The victory pushed French forces back on their heels and left their battle plans in tatters.  Within days, President Benito Juarez declared that the Fifth of May would be celebrated every years afterward in honor of the victory. 

Zaragoza briefly returned to Mexico City to coordinate with Juarez and was celebrated as a great hero.  When he returned, a typhoid fever epidemic was spreading among his troops.  Zaragoza fell ill and died on September 8 at age 33.  The loss devastated the country. 

Though Zaragoza won the day on May 5, Mexico would still lose the war.  France regrouped and seized control of Mexico City within a few months, installing a puppet government.  But Mexico continued to fight on, with Juarez moving the capital across the country, invoking the victory at Puebla and the memory of Zaragoza and the Battle of Puebla to urge Mexico to continue to resist.  

The United States ordinarily would have objected to the French occupation of Mexico but was distracted by the chaos of the Civil War.  France considered intervening in the Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy in order to defend their occupation of Mexico – already a costly one because of Puebla --but decided against it after Great Britain declined to intervene. 

Fighting against France continued for several more years before Mexico finally repelled the French in 1867.  Zaragoza is still considered a great hero across Mexico to this day, honored with statues and streets named for him.  His image was even on the 500-peso note for a time.  Several small communities are named for him.  Cinco de Mayo is still one of the most popular celebrations in Mexico to this day, with celebrations even in Texas and the United States. 

Ken Bridges

Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.