ARCHEOLOGY – The defeat, in 1862, of the French army vis-a-vis the numerically inferior Mexican forces had caused stupor in Europe and exalted the morale of the attacked republican troops.
Unknown episode of a forgotten war, the Battle of Puebla hardly resonates in the ears of the French. In Mexico, on the other hand, as well as within the Hispanic communities of the United States, the event and the place merged with a date, May 5, 1862 to become a major celebration: Cinco de Mayo. More than 150 years after the defeat suffered by the French army, eight graves containing twenty victims of the engagement were discovered by Mexican archaeologists, during a preventive excavation carried out since January in the church of Saint-François-Xavier , in the city of Puebla.
Puebla, located in the heart of the Mesoamerican plateau, nearly 100 kilometers south of Mexico City, was an important objective of the French expedition sent from 1861 to the New World by Napoleon III. Against all expectations, however, the imperial contingent was routed by the Republican forces of Mexico. The remains unearthed in Puebla by teams from the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (INAH) remind us that the Mexican victory was however dearly paid for. One of the victims was thus discovered with a hip punctured by a bullet discovered at his side. The projectile had previously pierced the abdomen of the individual and devastated vital organs, said in a press release from the INAH the Mexican anthropologist Lizbeth Chicas Martínez. Cannonballs completed the funeral assortment.
“We believe this is an unprecedented discoverytrumpeted to the Spanish daily El País the director of INAH in Puebla, Manuel Villaroel. The site tells us about what the city of Puebla was like at a time in the second half of the 19th century.and century, that is to say a space that has become the setting for a battle of the French invasion. During the French intervention in Mexico, the Saint-François-Xavier church was transformed into a hospital, a fort and a prison. It lives to the rhythm of the various battles of Puebla: the imperial defeat of 1862, the siege then the capture of the city in 1863 and finally the final, republican liberation of 1867.
The times, deprivations and hardships of war are found in the pits discovered by archaeologists. Clothing buttons made of animal bones attest to makeshift repairs. “These elements can begin to give us information about the battle that took place in the streets of Puebla, when they were converted into trenches and the houses turned into bastions”, said Manuel Villaroel. According to the first examinations carried out on the bones unearthed in Puebla, all of the buried individuals would be adults over 25 years old.
As the INAH specialists have specified, all the individuals exhumed on the grounds of the Saint-François-Xavier church are probably not direct or indirect victims of the war. The oldest burials would be prior to 1850. Other individuals could have been carried away by epidemics. Were there other war victims among this batch of deceased? Anthropological analyzes should allow, within the next few months, to refine the identity and the cause of death.
The news of the setback of the French expedition to Puebla in 1862 had created stupor in France. “A dispatch published by the Times announces that the French have been beaten three leagues from Mexico. Can anyone take this story seriously?thus exclaimed The Charivari on June 16, before making amends two days later. The unexpected victory of the troops of the Republic of Mexico at the strategic lock on the road to Mexico galvanizes those resisting the French intervention. Like an upside-down Valmy – a few tens of thousands less infantry. Much like the War of the First Coalition, the conflict ended five years later. In the absence of a victorious peace at Campo-Formio, signed in 1797 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the expedition supervised from Paris by his nephew contented himself with evacuating the New World in the winter of 1866-1867.