Sunday, May 31, 2015

MAY 31 = The Johnstown Flood of 1889

"The morning was delightful, the city was in its gayest mood with flags, banners and flowers everywhere... we could see almost everything of interest from our porch.  The streets were crowded with more people than we had ever seen before."  - Reverend H.L. Chapman on Memorial Day

As the city of Johnstown celebrated Memorial Day that year, everything seemed to be looking up. The city was prospering on a wave of economic production brought about by the iron works and the steel mills of the nearby plants at Cambria and Pittsburgh.  Life was good, but little did they know that their entire world would soon come crashing down around them. On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam high above them in the mountains burst open under unusually heavy rainfall.  The waters of beautiful, serene Lake Conemaugh (above), playground  the rich, then came rushing down the Conemaugh Valley and wrecked everything it touched, killing 2,209 people, leaving thousands more injured, and wiping out every town in its path, particularly the city of Johnstown 14 miles downstream. It was a weekend of death that none would ever forget.

The Lake, the Dam and the Club

The Southfork Dam had been constructed between 1838 and 1853 to
service the Erie canal. But soon  the railroads came through the area, putting the canal out of business.  So the whole dam was sold in 1879 to the Pennsylvania Railroad which was represented by Henry Clay Frick (below) and Benjamin Ruff, businessmen who sought to turn the whole reservoir and the dam into a weekend retreat for the rich men of the Pittsburgh steel industry.  It was called the Southfork Hunting and Fishing Club, and a very exclusive club
it was, with members such as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew W. Melon. But the dam which held all of this opulence in place was not a very secure one. The dam was 722 feet high and 931 feet long.  It was an earthenware dam which frequently sprung leaks which were poorly patched. Worst of all, there had been three cast iron discharge pipes at the bottom-center of the dam which had been sold for scrap in previous years.  So when the rain came with such vigor that May 31, there had long since ceased to be any way to lower the water level in the lake.  The spillways had been fitted with iron gratings to keep game fish from escaping, so they became clogged with debris. So frantic efforts by the resident engineer, John G. Parke to raise the top of the dam were not good enough in the huge thunderstorm, and at 3:10 the dam gave way, dumping the 20 million cubic tons of the lake down the valley.

Lake Conemaugh Destroys Everything in Its Path

John C. Parke mounted a horse and road ahead to the town of South Fork just ahead of the collapse to warn people there and to send telegraph messages to Conemaugh, and to Johnstown.  But the messages didn't get to Johnstown due to telegraph line which had gone down in the rain storm, and those that got to Conemaugh were not believed... the idea of the dam bursting just seemed too wild to be true. On its way down the Valley, the raging torrent smashed whole towns and picked up a huge amount of debris as it rushed on with a flow rate that temporarily equaled that of the Mississippi River. The raging torrent wiped out the town of Mineral Point before hitting Conemaugh. Just before it got there, an alert engineer named John Hess who was
out repair- ing damaged tracks heard the tidal wave coming, and swung into action:
"It was like a hurri- cane through a wooded country. It was a roar and a crash and a smash... the first thing I heard was a terrible roar in the hollow and the next thing was a crash something like a big building going to pieces... I couldn't see it, but there was people told me afterwards that that house crushed together just about the time we left. We saw no flood; we saw a drift of large logs in the river, but the river was no higher than it was twenty minutes before that. I pulled the whistle wide open, and went into Conemaugh that way.." Hess said "The lake's broke!" and putting on his whistle - continuously -  took his train flying into East Conemaugh just ahead of the killer wave and thus gave that town tell-tale warning that something was terribly wrong. This was just enough time to warn some of the residents to flee to higher ground, which Hess and his crew did as soon as they could go nor further (click on the map above for an enlarged view of the flood's path). Hess, who would become legendary because of his warning whistle, said later: "I didn't know what else to do.  I couldn't see what else I could do."

Johnstown is Hit Without Warning

Unfortunately, for the people in Johnstown there was no warning whistle. They had flood waters before but nobody truly believed that the Dam would ever burst.  So the torrent that came smashing into their town was a deadly surprise to everyone; most residents never even saw the water. They heard the sound of the debris tumbling towards them... a kind of low steady sound that grew until it became overpowering,  It hit the town at around 4:07.  George Heiser whose
store on Washing- ton St. was getting flooded sent his son Victor to the barn to look after the horses. When (above is a depiction of the flood in Harper's Weekly) Victor stepped outside the barn he was frozen in his steps by the loud sound coming towards him. He then looked over to his house and saw his father motioning for him to go to the roof of the barn. When he did he saw no water, just a huge wall of debris, dark and pulsing with rooftops, boards, and trees uprooted. He then looked over and saw his own family home crushed like a wooden crate and swept away. The barn roof then tore away and took Victor on a wild ride on the flood water wherein he saw people he knew drowning, and in which he was nearly crushed by floating railroad freight cars until he came to rest in the nearby town of Kernville.

The Methodist preacher who was quoted at the top of this posting, H.L. Chapman had gone to the front door of his strongly-built stone parsonage in his bedroom slippers at about 4:00 just in time to see a boxcar thrown by in front of his house.  He quickly gathered up his family and they ran to the attic of their home where they and whomever the storm threw their way were trapped for hours by the flood waters. But unlike so many other buildings, the parsonage held in place.  When Chapman looked out at the scene around him through a
window, he was dumb- founded:

"…I went to the window and looked out on a scene of utter desolation. The water, from eighteen to thirty feet deep, had spread like a lake all over the better part of town in the direction of the railroad bridge. Only one dwelling house, that of Dr. Lowman, on the corner of the park remained. On the left several large buildings, which stood on Main Street, had escaped being protected by our large stone church, which had resisted the force of the flood...  But in the direct course of the flood, the large market house, the Episcopal Church, the large brick residence of Dr. L. T. Beam, and hundreds of others, showed no signs of ever having existed. The very trees in the park had been swept away, and an indescribable scene of desolation spread in every direction.... the mass of debris, accumulated at the railroad bridge, had caught fire, and cast a lurid light over the devastated city, otherwise shrouded in gloom…."

The Fire At the Bridge

A particularly horrific event was the flaming pile of debris which was caught at the railroad bridge. Nobody knows for sure what caused the fire, it may have been oil from a railroad tank car dumped into the pile
which was then set off by burning coal from one of the countless homes that had been thrown onto the mass.  But whatever it was it made the carnage even worse.  The railroad bridge had been shielded from the full force of the wave by the mountain, so it stood.  But all of the accumulated debris, from railroad cars to barbed wire from the Cambria iron works plant which had been wiped out, to people swept up in the current were trapped up in a tall, tight pile at the bridge which burnt all night, slowly incinerating those people who had been caught there, perhaps eighty in all. According to one account, it burned "...with all the fury of hell that you read about -- cremation alive in your own home." Once the flood had receded the pile was measured to 70 feet high.

The Aftermath

The total death toll in the Johnstown Flood of 1889 came to 2,209 people, many of whom were never identified.  This made it one of the worst losses of civilian life in U.S. history up until the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the World Trade Center Terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  A huge amount of food and supplies came from all over the country to help and donations from all over the world totaled $3,742,818.18.  Clara Barton showed up with her National Red Cross
organization on its first emergency, and performed wonderfully.  But 99 entire families had been wiped out, and 396 children had been killed.  1600 homes had been destroyed, with 17 million dollars in property damage. And what of the Southfork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose poorly constructed and badly maintained dam had released all of this carnage on the communities below?  They were successfully defended in court by Philander Knox (above), and James Hay Reed who were both club members.  Although legal definitions of responsibility would change if future years, the dam break was ruled to have come about as a result of the rainstorm - an act of God - and the courts granted the survivors no legal compensation at all.

Sources =

"The Johnstown Flood" by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1968

"Darkest Hours" by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

MAY 13 = Robert Smalls Takes a Ship to Freedom

"I am delivering this war materiel including these cannons, and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use."

With these words, said to have been spoken to an astonished Union Naval Officer, Robert Smalls (left), then 23 years old delivered the C.S.S. Planter and her slave crew and their families to freedom on this day, May 13, 1862.  Smalls thus completed one of the most daring escapes - right under the nose of the enemy guns - in all the history of warfare, and struck a powerful blow for the freedom of his people.

Robert Smalls: Born But Not Destined to Be a Slave

Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 5, 1839
in a house behind his Master's house.  His mother, who was taken from him when he was nine, was concerned that the favor shown to Robert over the other slave children would lead her son to a soft view of slavery. So she arranged for him to do field work, and to witness the whippings of his fellow slaves first hand. He learned the lesson well, developing a defiant streak that would frequently land him in trouble. By age 19, Smalls had been rented out to work in Charleston and had learned various jobs including how to pilot a boat around the shallows of Charleston harbor.  He was allowed to marry his wife Hannah with whom he would have two children.  But he was keenly aware that his slave status granted nothing permanent to his marriage. So he always kept his eyes open for a way out.

Robert Smalls and the C.S.S. Planter

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Smalls with his know- ledge of Charleston harbor was assigned to serve as the pilot aboard the C.S.S. Planter (above). A sidewheel steamer built in 1860 to service the southern cotton trade, the Planter had been armed with a pair of cannons, one of which had been taken from Fort Sumter. That fort in Charleston harbor of course had been the scene of the start of the war when South Carolina had seceded from the Union in 1861. Planter had since the war begun been used by the Confederates as an armed dispatch boat and transport; part of the engineer department at Charleston, under General Ripley. For nearly a year Smalls had closely observed the movements of the ship and of her officers, lead by Captain C.J. Rylea as well as the other two white officers under whose orders he and the eight member slave crew of the Planter served.  He had made plans to take the ship at the right moment, travel to another point to pick up his and the crew's families and then make a dash for the Union ships which were blockading Charleston harbor.  On the evening of May 12, when Captain Rylea and the officers elected to spend that night ashore, Smalls put his plan into action.

Smalls Takes the Planter on May 13

At about 3:00 in the morning Smalls and the eight other slave crewmen weighed anchor and carefully eased the Planter out of her moorings. They then took her a short distance to pick up Smalls' and the rest of their families and then traveled back down the inlet into Charleston harbor for an extremely hazardous journey out to the Union blockade. Their route would take them past three armed confederate batteries to start with.  As Planter was flying the Confederate flag, this was accomplished without incident.  But then she had to go right by Fort Sumter, a huge fort bristling with guns.  A single shot from one of these guns could have easily destroyed the Planter.  When she got near Sumter, Smalls ignored advice to take a wide berth around it, as this would cause suspicion.  Instead, Smalls donned a straw hat just like Captain Rylea wore, and cooly pacing the Planter's deck using the Captain's gait he took the Planter right under Sumter's guns.  He passed any visual inspection as he gave the correct signal to pass.  The signal was accepted and Planter was allowed to pass. There remained now the approach to the Union blockade in an armed Confederate-flagged ship without them opening fire to be accomplished. So the Southern banner was removed, and replaced with a white sheet as a flag of surrender.

The C.S.S. Planter Arrives 

The following eyewitness account comes from a man aboard one of the Union ships, the U.S.S. Onward, after they saw the white flag:

"As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it, and ‘de heart of de Souf,’ generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward, one of the Colored men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’ ”

In addition to her crew of newly freed men and their families, Smalls had also delivered the guns aboard the Planter as well as quite a large amount of ammunition.  In 1863, Smalls was given command of the newly re-christened U.S.S. Planter, which he held until 1866.  He was present at the RE-raising of the U.S flag over Fort Sumter after the end of the war, and went on to serve three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (above). He died on February 22, 1915 at the same house behind which he had been born in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Sources =

Sunday, May 10, 2015

MAY 10 = Bass Reeves is Sworn In

"Among the numerous deputy marshals that have ridden for the ....Indian Territory courts none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have effected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves, of Muskogee.  Bass is a stalwart negro, fifty years of age, weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, stands six feet two inches in his stockings, and fears nothing that moves and breathes.  His long muscular arms have attached to them a pair of hands that would do credit to a giant and they handle a revolver with the ease and grace acquired after only years of practice.  Several 'bad' men have gone to their long homes for refusing to halt when commanded by Bass....." 

This is the way which in 1901, the historian D.C. Gideon described Bass Reeves, who was sworn in as a Deputy U.S. Marshal on today's date in 1875. Reeves is one of the toughest, yet least known figures in the "Old West" histories, mainly because he was black; one of the first black deputy marshals ever sworn in west of Fort Smith, Arkansas,   But happily some of that long overdue recognition is coming to this remarkable and very brave man, and I will attempt here in these few paragraphs to tell you a little about him.  He deserves credit in our history of the West!!

Bass Reeves  - Born a Slave

Records of slave births were sketchy at best, so there is a good deal about the early years of this man's life on which we're not clear.  But he was born as a slave probably in 1838 at a cotton plantation near Paris, in Lamar County, Texas.  His mother was named Pearlalee, and an older sister was named Jane. Bass was an energetic youth, always working hard, but a little too restless to suit his mother, who tried to pass along the teachings of Jesus (which she had secretly learned), to her son in hope that these would calm his restless spirit.  In time, young Bass became very good with the horses and other animals.  He became the
black- smith's helper and eventually the "com- panion" to his master. This was a prestigious position for Bass, but it also put him in very close contact with his master, one George Reeves. This contact got a bit too close with Reeves because the two men had an argument one night over a game of cards, and Bass apparently knocked the man out and fled to the Indian Territory (above, now the state of Oklahoma). Bass may have been with Reeves during a portion of the Civil War, but the available information is unclear on this point,  What is clear in that Bass spent a good number of years in this Indian Territory, and got to know these Indigenous Americans very well, becoming friends with many of the tribes, even becoming fluent in several of their languages.

Judge Parker, Bass Reeves, and the Indian Territory

This Indian Territory was so called because that is where the U.S. government forced the various Indian tribes to relocate after they were forced off of their native lands.  The end of the Civil War made Bass Reeves a free man.  But in it's upheaval and its end it made an evil mess of the legal situation in the Indian Territory. This was because it attracted every sort of desperado imaginable as it was a huge chunk of land with little law and order at all. As historian Glenn Shirley has said: "The Civil War wrecked the peace of the Five Tribes. Its aftermath was a maelstrom of racial hatred, and unbridled vice. Rape, robbery, and 
pillage became common offenses.  Killers traveled in gangs." Into this mess, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed in March, 1875 a very tough, no-nonsense Federal Judge, Issac C. Parker (left) to bring law and order to this territory.  Parker soon became known as the "Hanging Judge", from whose jurisdiction there was no appeal, save to President Grant himself. One of Parker's first orders of business was to appoint men to be Deputy U.S. Marshals to administer his decrees and serve his warrants.  Bass Reeves was one such man who was sworn in on this date. Reeves was an excellent choice for this sort of work, as he was an extremely good shot, and was known to be on good terms with the Indians who lived there, and could deal with the freed blacks in the territory with ease. But his main qualification was that he was known to be incorruptible, as tough as the trails he rode, and very reliable.  

Reeves Reputation for Getting His Man - Alive

Bass Reeves was a giant of a man, described by one as "... a very big man, told jokes, was boastful and lusty, full of life and wore a large black hat." Art T. Burton has said based on descriptions by those who knew him, "He had a deep and resonant voice that could be very authoritative when it had to be but assuring just the same." But he quickly developed a reputation as a man who whenever he served a warrant, followed the letter of the law, bringing his men in alive most of
the time. As he had been born a slave, he could neither read nor write, so he would memorize the names and text of a warrant before serving it so he could always deliver it properly.  He would always travel with a cook, and a man to serve on his posse, and would ride the huge distances he needed in order to bring his men in, sometimes bringing in six to thirteen men at a time, all chained to his wagon to their judgement in Judge Parker's Fort Smith (above, circa 1867). He would then collect the reward, spend time with his wife (Jennie) and children (he had ten) before going out to search for criminals again.

Bass Reeves Guns Down Jim Webb

There are just too many stories about this man to tell even a small portion of them in my limited space here. But here is one which sums up the man well as any:

Bass had pursued Jim Webb for murder and had brought him in. But after a year in jail, the man got out on bail, which Webb skipped. Reeves pursued him again, tracing him to Jim Bywater's store in the Chickasaw nation.  Webb saw Bass coming and crashed through the window of Bywater's store, and tuned and fired at Reeves who pursued on his horse.  He shot with his first bullet grazing the horn of Reeve's saddle, the second cutting a button off of his coat, and the third
severing the reins of his horse. Webb hit the ground, and rolled to his feet firing and grazing the brim of Reeve's hat. But Bass was so quick and accurate in his response that he hit Webb three times.  Webb went down and with his dying words said to Reeves: "Give my your hand, Bass," said Webb, as he extended his own with an effort to grasp it. "You are a brave man. I want you to accept my revolver and scabbard as a present and you must accept them. Take it, for with it I have killed eleven men, four of them in Indian Territory, and I expected you to make the twelfth." Bass accepted the revolver, helped bury Webb, and then presented his gun belt and boots as proof that he had gotten his man.

Bass Reeve's Obituary... Another Story of His Devotion to Duty

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department (below, far left), but only served there for two years before his health began to fail.  In 1909 he retired, and he died on January 12, 1910 of the effects of Bright's Disease, an inflammation of the kidneys.  In an obituary for him published in the Muskogee Phoenix the next day came another story which was typical of the man:

"Undoubtedly the act which best typifies the man and which at least shows his devotion to duty, was the arrest of his son. A warrant for the arrest of the younger Reeves, who was charged with murder of his wife, had been issued. Marshal Bennett said that perhaps another deputy had better be sent to arrest him. The old negro was in the room at the time, and with a devotion of duty equaling that of the old Roman, Brutus, whose greatest claim on fame has been that the love for his son could not sway him from justice, he said, "Give me the writ," and went out and arrested his son, brought him into court and upon trial and conviction he was sentenced to imprisonment and is still serving his sentence."

Reeve's son later was released after serving his time, and lived an exemplary life ever after.  Bass Reeves deserves to be mentioned in the front ranks of the lawmen of America's Old West.  He was the equal of Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hicock, and Wyatt Earp.  And like Wyatt Earp, he was never once, in his long career wounded.

Sources =

"A Certain Blindness; A Black Family's Quest for the Promise of America"
by Paul L. Brady, ALP Publishing, Atlanta, 1990

"Black Gun Silver Star - the Life and Legend of Marshal Bass Reeves"
by Art T. Burton, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2006

"Law West of Fort Smith" by Glenn Shirley, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1957

"Indian Territory" by D.C. Gideon, New York, Lewis Pub. Co., 1901, found online at:;view=1up;seq=141

Friday, May 8, 2015

MAY 8 = V.E. Day = 71 Years Ago

Today - May 8th is the 71st Anniversary of V.E. Day (that's Victory in Europe Day to those of you who are new to this Blog), and I just couldn't let it go.  So here is a compilation of records of how this truly momentous day went from a couple of different vantage points:

In Washington D.C., President Harry Truman..

"...broke the news in his office to reporters in his office at 8:30 (a.m.).  At 9:00 from the Diplomatic Reception Room where Roosevelt had so often broadcast to the country, he spoke to the largest radio audience yet recorded: 'This is a solemn but glorious hour.  I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day... We must work to finish the war.  Our victory is but half-won..." 1.

In New York, the Times published General Eisenhower's Victory Order of the Day to his troops :

"May 8, 1945

The crusade on which we embarked in the early summer of 1944 has reached its glorious conclusion. It is my especial privilege, in the name of all nations represented in this theatre of war, to commend each of you for the valiant performance of duty.

Though these words are feeble, they come from the bottom of a heart overflowing with pride in your loyal service and admiration for you as warriors. Your accomplishments at sea, in the air, on the ground and in the field of supply have astonished the world.

As we celebrate victory in Europe let us remind ourselves that our common problems of the immediate and distant future can be best solved in the same conceptions of cooperation and devotion to the cause of human freedom as have made this Expeditionary Force such a mighty engine of righteous destruction. Let us have no part in the profitless quarrels in which other men will inevitably engage as to what country and what service won the European war." 2.

In London:

"When the day finally came, it was like no other day that anyone can remember. It had a flavor of its own, an extemporaneousness which gave it something of the quality of a vast, happy village fete as people wandered about, sat, sang, and slept against a slimmer background of trees, grass, flowers, and water...Apparently the desire to assist in London's celebration combusted spontaneously in the bosom of every member of every family, from the smallest babies, with their hair done up in red-white-and-blue ribbons, to beaming elderly couples who, utterly without self-consciousness, strolled up and down the streets arm in arm in red-white-and-blue paper hats."  - Mollie Panter-Downes

In Moscow:

"The announce- ment came long before dawn, and thousands of people poured into the streets wearing everything from pajamas to fur coats. The crowd stayed on and on and grew ever larger.  There had been no such demonstration in Moscow since the Revolution's earliest wild days.  Hordes gathered in front of the British and American embassies, and whenever a foreigner was spotted, he was gently plucked up by hundreds of hands and passed along with cheers.  George Kennan, U.S. charge d'affaires, made a speech from the embassy balcony where the Red banner hung beside the Stars and Stripes.  Roars went up: 'Long live Truman!' 'Long live Roosevelt's memory!' 'Long live the great Americans!'" 4.

In Ulm, Germany:

"When the war ended, I was in Germany, in a town called Ulm. Out of the clear blue sky over the loud- speaker they say, 'The war has ended! The war has ended!' Here I am in a foxhole talking to one of my buddies. 'What did they say?'

'Pat! The war has ended!' You'd see there were some of them out there going crazy. Guys were shooting each other by mistake! GIs, yes, they were shooting themselves, from the excitement. They tried to tell everybody, 'Calm down! Be careful!'

And I was in a foxhole down there. 'The war is over! The war is over!' I was crying in the foxhole from joy, I couldn't believe it. The following morning they called formation outside, they said, 'The following names, please step forward.' Finally, 'Pfc. Patsy Giacchi!' I step forward.

'Okay,' the captain says, 'you guys are all going home.' Boom. One guy passes out from the excitement. I couldn't believe it. I think I was 21 years old then." 5.

- Patsy Giacchi of New Jersey, 94th Quartermaster Co.

Notes =

1. - "Truman" by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992

2. -

3. -

4. - "The American Heritage Picture History of World War II" by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1966

5. -

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

MAY 5 = Cinco de Mayo - the Battle of Puebla

"And yet, ever more terrible, the battle waged on. As our columns approached the fort, the defence intensified and [the defenders] redoubled their fire. The air is filled with nothing but the uninterrupted hissing of cannonballs and bullets." - Prince Georges Bibesco

"The national arms have been covered with glory" - General Ignacio Zaragoza

The Battle of Puebla took place on today's date in 1862 (above).  The battle was won by a rag-tag group of Mexican soldiers over the much better equipped and more numerous forces of the French Army. While militarily the battle amounted to but a temporary victory in Mexico's struggle to throw off foreign domination, it was a huge morale boost to the Mexican people and gave them confidence that their patriotism would win out in the end. The two quotes above are both reactions to the battle. First from the French side describing the battle and the second is the famous reaction of the Mexican commander to his nation's victory. The day is known as Cinco de Mayo, and while it is not Mexico's Independence Day, and it is celebrated more among Mexican Americans that it is in Mexico herself, it is an important moment in history, and should be remembered as a true mark of Mexican Independence.

What Was Napoleon III Doing in Mexico?

Napoleon III, also known as Louis Napoleon (right) was but a pale, stuffed shirt imitation of Napoleon I, who was his Uncle. Napoleon I was something of a stuffed shirt himself in my opinion, but he was a genius on the battle field; he knew how to build and run an army. By 1852 his nephew had had taken dictatorial power in France and declared himself Emperor.  But Louis Napoleon lacked his uncle's military, as would soon become apparent. Meanwhile, in Mexico a bitter civil war had left that country nearly bankrupt. The President of Mexico, Benito Juarez announced in 1861 that Mexico would suspend payments on her foreign debt for two years.  This led Great Britain, Spain and France to send military forces to the region to take the port of Vera Cruz in December of 1861.  The Brits and the Spanish were able to negotiate a solution and in April, 1862, they pulled out.  But Louis Napoleon smelled an opportunity to make Mexico a vassal state to France, as America was then caught up in her own civil war, and was thus unable to enforce the tenets of the Monroe Doctrine.  This was  a policy developed under U. S. President James Monroe in 1823, which precluded any foreign powers from setting up colonies in North or South America.

The Battle of Puebla

On March 5, 1862,  French forces, commanded by Major General Charles de Lorencez began marching inland against the Mexican forces which were commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza, which retreated to the fortified city of Puebla (below). Lorencez had about 6500 men to
command, and these were considered some of the best soldiers in the world who were well equipped. But they were not the troops of Napoleon I. Arrayed against this were about 3500 to 4500 Mexican troops, many of them irregular forces. These were well dug in into trenches and covered positions linking the two forts defending the city, forts L'oreto and Guadelupe'. So the French with little regard for the fighting ability of the Mexicans launched a full frontal assault of the Mexican positions. This attack was met by heavy fire from the Mexican line, and from the two forts and was beaten back. A second such assault got further but was still beaten back. Lorencez's artillery was nearly out of ammunition so a third assault was tried unsupported,  The French forces surged forward but were unable to break the line of the tenacious Mexican defenders, French Captain P. Ginard described some of this fighting:

"And now the Zouaves have begun to approach the fort; the cannonade firing at us has not stopped, but other cannons firing grapeshot have now been met by our column. Our troops continue to advance, taking cover where they can in the dips in terrain (pictured above).

The French began to fall back from this third assault, so General Zaragosa sent his cavalry to attack them, supported by troops firing from flanking positions on the roads.  But by 3:00 p.m. the rains began falling, making a muddy mess of the battlefield. Lorencez withdrew to defensive positions, waiting for a counter-attack. This did not come, but after a couple of days he withdrew from the field entirely. The failed assaults by Lorencez had cost him 462 men killed and over 300 wounded. The Mexicans, firing mostly from their covered positions in the trenches and behind walls had only 83 killed and 131 wounded.

The Aftermath of  Puebla

In a famous one-line report of his victory to Mexican President Benito Juarez, the young (33 year old) General Zaragoza exclaimed "The national arms have been covered with glory.” Juarez ordered that the day of May 5 be celebrated ever after. The world, which had expected a quick French victory by the forces of the mighty Napoleon III was astonished that the French could afterall be beaten by these Mexicans! The French Emperor would withdraw, sack Lorencez and replace him and pump in 30,000 more troops.  With these men he was able to retake Puebla, and the rest of Mexico, installing a relative, Maximilian von Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico (below), just as his Uncle
attempted to do in Spain in 1808 with Dos de Mayo.  But this ham-handed attempt to set up a puppet ruler was no more successful this time than it had been before. By 1867, with the American Civil War having ended, U.S. support for the forces of Juarez became more pronounced, and the French were obliged to withdraw. Maximilian was deposed and executed.

But Mexican-Americans were so impressed with the victory at Puebla that they continued to sing and celebrate on Cinco de Mayo.  Meanwhile, Juarez became the President of an independent Mexico. Napoleon III whose army was clearly not his Uncle's was beaten by the Prussians and captured after the Battle Sedan on September 1 of 1870. He was thereafter deposed as the French Emperor, and France never again returned to monarchy. And Cinco de Mayo continues as a celebration of Mexican patriotism, primarily in the U.S., but also in the Mexican state of Puebla.

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