By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn
This year marks the 180th anniversary of the birth of one of Cinco de Mayo’s most revered heroes—Texas-born General Ignacio Seguín Zaragoza, who led his Mexican army to defeat French forces sent by Napoleon III in the critical Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
Zaragoza was born on March 24, 1829, in a stone house in La Bahía del Espíritu Santo near present-day Goliad, Texas. Today, the General Zaragoza State Historic Site, managed by Texas Parks and Wildlife, includes a replica three-bedroom stone house and commemorates his birthplace two miles south of Goliad.
In 1844, Zaragoza’s father, an infantryman, was transferred to Monterrey, where Zaragoza entered seminary. However, it was not long before he changed course and set out to become a businessman. After delving into the mercantile business for several years, Zaragoza’s true calling finally became clear – military service. He joined Nuevo León’s militia as a sergeant and was promoted to captain soon after.
Zaragoza eventually joined the liberal faction of the army led by Benito Juarez, who sought to remove Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna from power and establish a democratic government and constitution. This effort, called the Plan of Ayutla, paved the way for the War of the Reform, which took place in the late 1850s. Zaragoza fought against Santa Anna’s armies in the battles of Saltillo and Monterrey. He became so engrossed in his mission, he was not present for his own wedding ceremony. Rather than postpone it, Zaragoza sent his brother Miguel to stand in his place in his marriage to Rafaela Padilla in Monterrey.
Zaragoza led troops in Comonfort’s rebellion in 1867. He fought in the battle of Guadalajara and finally in the battle of Calpulalpan, which marked the end of the War of the Reform. Zaragoza’s dedication and military skill were quickly recognized and he was promoted to the rank of general.
After the war, Mexico’s newly-elected President Benito Juarez named Zaragoza as Minister of War and Navy, and shortly after, made a decision that would give Zaragoza the military challenge of his lifetime. In July 1861, President Juarez attempted to save the national economy by placing a two-year moratorium on Mexico’s debts to Europe. Mexico’s lenders were not receptive. By year’s end, a fleet of Spanish ships had made its way to Mexico and forced the surrender of Veracruz. The Spanish were soon joined by French and English forces.
Zaragoza left his post as Minister of War to make a return to the battlefield and lead the Army of the East. Though the English and Spanish soon retreated, the French army was considered the most powerful in the world, and it set its sights on Mexico City under the charge of Gen. Charles Latrille Laurencez. Before he could reach Mexico City, however, Laurencez had to conquer Puebla, which was about 100 miles east of Mexico City and heavily fortified.
Unbeknownst to Laurencez, Zaragoza and his men were entrenched in Puebla and anticipating the attack. On May 5, 1862, Gen. Laurencez threw caution to the wind and stormed the Mexican lines at Puebla, believing the population was friendly to the French and would assist them in defeating Zaragoza. Despite being outnumbered and poorly equipped, Zaragoza and his men pushed back against the French in a day-long battle and succeeded in forcing them to flee to the coast. Zaragoza’s victory not only delayed the French invasion of Mexico City, but it served to unify the Mexican people and renew their fight for independence.
Sadly, only months after his historic victory, Zaragoza died at age 33 from typhoid fever. He was honored in a state funeral and only days later President Juárez issued a decree making Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.
While celebrations are held across Texas, Zaragoza’s hometown of Goliad is recognized by the Texas Legislature as the only official venue for Cinco de Mayo. Each year, Goliad hosts one of the nation’s most elaborate Cinco de Mayo celebrations, complete with the coronation of Little Miss Cinco de Mayo, a street dance, food booths serving nopales and taquitos, Mexican arts and crafts, and commemorative speeches from dignitaries and historians.
On Cinco de Mayo, we join our neighbors in Mexico and Mexican-Americans across Texas in saluting the legacy of General Zaragoza and his quest for freedom and independence.
Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.