The third wave of French infantry was forced to retreat. It had begun to rain, and the foot troops were moving slowly. With no fear of the French artillery, Zaragoza ordered his cavalry to attack the retreating French troops. What had been an orderly retreat became a rout, and Mexican regulars streamed out of the forts to pursue their foes. Lorencez was forced to move the survivors to a distant position and Zaragoza called his men back to Puebla. At this point in the battle, a young general named Porfirio Díaz made a name for himself, leading a cavalry attack.
“The National Arms have covered themselves in Glory”
It was a sound defeat for the French. Estimates place French casualties around 460 dead with almost that many wounded, while only 83 Mexicans were killed.
Lorencez’s quick retreat prevented the defeat from becoming a disaster, but still the battle became a huge morale-booster for the Mexicans. Zaragoza sent a message to Mexico City, famously declaring “Las armas nacionales se han cubierto de gloria” or “The national arms (weapons) have covered themselves in glory.” In Mexico City, President Juarez declared May 5th a national holiday in remembrance of the battle.
The Battle of Puebla was not very important to Mexico from a military standpoint. Lorencez was allowed to retreat and hold onto the towns he had already captured. Soon after the battle, France sent 27,000 troops to Mexico under a new commander, Elie Frederic Forey. This massive force was well beyond anything the Mexicans could resist, and it swept into Mexico City in June of 1863. On the way, they besieged and captured Puebla. The French installed Maximilian of Austria, a young Austrian nobleman, as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian’s reign lasted until 1867, when President Juarez was able to drive the French out and restore the Mexican government. Young General Zaragoza died of typhoid not long after the Battle of Puebla.
Although the Battle of Puebla amounted to little from a military sense – it merely postponed the inevitable victory of the French army, which was larger, better trained and better equipped than the Mexicans – it nevertheless meant a great deal to Mexico in terms of pride and hope. It showed them that the mighty French war machine was not invulnerable, and that determination and courage were powerful weapons.
The victory was a huge boost to Benito Juarez and his government. It allowed him to hold onto power at a time when he was in danger of losing it, and it was Juarez who eventually led his people to victory against the French in 1867.
The battle also marks the arrival on the political scene of Porfirio Díaz, then a brash young general who disobeyed Zaragoza in order to chase down fleeing French troops. Díaz would eventually get a lot of the credit for the victory and he used his new fame to run for president against Juárez. Although he lost, he would eventually reach the presidency and lead his nation for many years.