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“Running American Guns to Mexico”


The Mexican defeat of 8,500 French forces at the Battle of Puebla (Pweh-blah), a hundred miles east of Mexico City, on the 5th of May, 1862 is celebrated with parades and fiestas in parts of Mexico and the United States on and as Cinco de Mayo.

The battle was fought in a valley below two old Spanish forts. The French suffered 25 percent casualties and retreated back to the Gulf of Mexico. They sent for more troops for another campaign a year later. The 4,000 plus Mexicans soldiers and irregulars, including Indians with machetes and bows and arrows, had done what no one had accomplished since the French lost the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. They defeated the best army in Europe.

The aftermath of the battle and how the United States was involved and why is here.

The French defeat at Puebla delayed Napoleon III’s efforts to supply the Confederacy with munitions through Mexico, material the Confederacy desperately needed to make war on the United States of America. The year delay in taking Mexico City ended serious French supply of the Confederacy.

The Confederacy made war on President Lincoln within days of his inauguration. The war kept President Lincoln very busy, too busy to help Mexico. Nonetheless, Lincoln was concerned when Spain, Great Britain and France landed troops in Mexico in December, 1861. When the British and Spanish made deals and left, the French stayed. Lincoln was alarmed and expressed concern to the French ambassador.

Days after the war ended, President Lincoln was assassinated by a fanatic Confederate. Despite Lincoln’s death, the Union listened to its military leader General U.S. Grant who said that the Civil War wasn’t over until “the French were out of Mexico.” This was the official view of the United States of America.

In May, 1865, the United States government implemented two focused strategies immediately after the Confederate surrender: 

1. Civil War hero General Phillip H. Sheridan was appointed Commander of the Southwest Military District and sent to take Texas from the last Confederate Army still in the field. General Sheridan mobilized a 50,000-man army force to take Texas. The Confederates surrendered before Sheridan arrived;

2. Upon occupying Texas ports, Sheridan began patrolling the Rio Grande border to show the 70,000 French, Austrian and Belgian troops in Mexico that the United States of America was back in charge.

General Sheridan confiscated Confederate munitions. His soldiers stockpiled them at shallow fords on the Río Grande border between the United States and Mexico. Union Army sentries ignored Mexican “bandits” that crossed the river every night to take everything back to Mexico. They took everything but the sentries (sin permiso) without “permission.”

When the French Ambassador com-plained about the guns across the border, the State Department replied with a shoulder shrug, “¿Quién sabe?” who knows? After all, the Mexicans were famous for banditry. The French were furious, but with the United States Army (USA) being the largest in world history, the French discomfiture was a petty annoyance to Generals Grant and Sheridan.

While denials by the State and War Departments were expressed daily of any U.S. government complicity in the gun running, General Sheridan later wrote in his memoirs that the large inventory of cannons and military supplies “ . . . was left at convenient places on our side of the river (the Río Grande) to fall into their (Mexican) hands.”

Generals Grant and Sheridan went further. It was Grant who said that the Civil War wouldn’t be finished until the French left Mexico. It was Sheridan who supplied soldiers.

Sheridan’s unofficial Army discharge policy in Texas was to discharge a soldier, give him $6 for his “kit” including his rifle and a month’s pay, $10.00. If the soldier volunteered to join the Mexican Army, he was paid his $6.00, his one month’s pay and given a $10.00 enlistment bonus a Mexican Army officer paid.

The discharged soldier joined the Mexican Army carrying his rifle the Army forgot to take back. The hardened combat veteran soldiers were welcomed by Benito Juárez’s Mexican Army. Their worth was proven when they clashed with French and Austrian soldiers. Victory was their middle name.

When 40 Union officers arrived with ex-Union Army soldiers, President Juárez activated the American Legion of Honor making it an all-American regiment. They were armed with Henry repeating rifles that had enabled victory for the Civil War U.S. Army. The Americans made the troops they fought–Austrians, Belgians and French–look like amateurs.

Secretary of State William H. Seward sternly apprised the French ambassador that the French presence in Mexico did not please the victorious United States Army and its 500,000 combat-hardened veterans. The French decided to leave Mexico.

As he has declared economic “war” on Mexico, one wonders if presidential candidate Donald J. Trump knows any of this American/Mexican history.

Excerpted From Contreras’ Forthcoming Book, The Mexican Border: Its Politics, Immigration, War & A Trillion Dollars In Trade.