3 – WAR
At the town of Puebla de los Angeles, the French find their way barred by General Ignacio Zaragoza with 4000 troops. Lorencez, his cavalier head so full with the exploits of Hernán Cortés (as his officers tell afterwards) that there is hardly any place left for common sense, launches the attack on the strongest point of the city’s defences: the fort of Guadalupe. When the men are ordered forward it is found that the field-battery can not be brought close enough to do any significant damage. Three times the zouaves charge, the last time without any artillery support at all, as the gunners have run out of ammunition. Then the Mexican cavalry counterattacks. The French are routed, and forced to fall back on Orizaba. So much for the incomparable superiority of the French race.
Shortly after his victory Zaragoza dies of typhoid fever, and is buried in state in Mexico City.
The French army is now in a critical position. Communications are interrupted by Liberal guerillas, bridges are destroyed, convoys of provisions are attacked and burned, and the garrisons left on the way are simply melting away under the pressure of enemy raids and disease. The rainy season is near at hand when finally some reinforcements land under General Félix Douai and communications are restored.
Finally, the realisation is dawning that this is not going to be a military parade from Vera Cruz to Mexico to present the flag to the gratitude of the Mexican people. Something substantial has to be done, and it had better be done quickly if the expedition is to be rescued from complete disaster. Napoleon finally takes measures that are up to the mark: he recalls Lorencez and sends an admirably equipped army of 30,000 under the command of General Forey.
Elie Frédéric Forey is not a great strategist. Not his qualities as a general, but his loyalty to his chef has earned him the command. He enters upon his official duties in October 1862, and on 18 February 1863, after having wasted four months at an enormous cost of money and prestige, he appears before Puebla. Forey’s procrastination has given the Mexican government time to elaborate the defence. The place has been strongly fortified; this time it is to be war in earnest.
Trenches are dug; batteries are brought into place; the siege is laid. The fighting is fierce and cruel. Houses are turned into fortresses, and have to be taken one by one. The struggle drags on for two long months. When at last a Mexican relieve force is defeated by Forey’s second in command, General Bazaine, further resistance becomes useless. The Mexican commander, General Ortega, spikes his guns, blows up his magazines and surrenders. The road to the capital lies open.
French volunteer Japy writes home: “It were not our cannon balls, nor our bullets, nor our trenches, nor our courage (…) that forced that town to surrender. It was hunger; sad hunger. (…) I am still deeply affected by the sight of 4000 starving Mexican soldiers”..
After conferring full and extraordinary powers upon Juárez, the Mexican Congress indefinitly adjourns. Juárez issues a proclamation announcing his resolve to continue the struggle, and threatening anyone collaborating with the French with death. Then he retires to San Luis de Potosi and leaves the city to the French, who make their triumphant entry on June 10, 1863.
But it is not the end of the war. It is the beginning.
©2010, M.S.F. Wick