Excerpt From Cinco De Mayo
Chap. 14 – Foreign Legionnaires
Fight to the Death
The Legend of Camarón
Running out of ammunition at the wrong time had also raised General Forey’s anxiety level. Forey realized that his entire operation would be at risk if he couldn’t provide his troops with food and ammunition. The commander-in-chief had already detached extra troops from Puebla to guard the wagon trains, but now the bandidos and guerillas had dramatically stepped up their attacks on the convoys.
Forey called on the French Foreign Legion. They had just arrived in Veracruz.
They were approaching the little village of Camarón (which means shrimp in Spanish.) For a number of years it was called Villa Tejeda, but the name was changed again to “Camarón de Tejeda,” by which it is known today. The few authors who have written about it in English refer to it as “Camerone,” which is very close to how it’s pronounced in Spanish.
The legion had first seen action in the French conquest of Algeria in 1831. After serving during the Spanish Civil War in 1835, it was stationed in North Africa. Now, on the morning of April 30, 1863, the legion’s Third Company, under Captain Jean Danjou, was escorting a very important convoy from Veracruz. The wagons were bearing ammunition, artillery, food, provisions, and – most critically – three million French francs in gold to pay the troops at Puebla.
Danjou’s group consisted of sixty-four battle-hardened legion veterans: Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Danes, Italians, and Spaniards, in addition to the native Frenchmen. They feared nothing. They had taken the legion’s oath never to surrender.
Cinco De Mayo
Stalking the convoy was a Mexican force of somewhere between twelve hundred and eighteen hundred men, depending on whose account you choose to believe, led by a Colonel Francisco de P. Milán. Regular French troops were guarding the convoy itself, but Captain Danjou’s contingent was marching some distance ahead to search for possible assailants waiting in ambush. The legion officers normally in charge of this unit were hospitalized with yellow fever, so Danjou, along with second lieutenants Napoleón Vilain and Clement Maudet, had volunteered to lead this detail.
They had passed through Camarón at about 6:30 in the morning and were cooking breakfast near a location called Palo Verde at 7:00, when one of their sentinels spotted a dust cloud behind them. That could only mean one thing: a lot of people moving rapidly on horseback. They quickly put out their fires and raced toward Camarón, not stopping to retrieve their canteens of fresh water from the pack mules. At Camarón, they encountered several hundred Mexicans who were poised to attack the caravan, and the shooting began.
The convoy was alerted and reversed direction, successfully escaping the ambush, but the legionnaires’ pack mules also panicked and fled at the sound of gunfire, taking all the water and extra ammunition with them. By 8:00 in the morning, a few of the legionnaires had already been wounded.Danjou ordered his unit to take cover in a barn, but the Mexicans lost no time in taking over the huge farmhouse nearby, firing down at the besieged legionnaires from upper-story windows.
Mexican Colonel Milán realized that cavalry wouldn’t be of much help in taking the barn, so he started to surround it with infantry troops. After a few hours, nothing much had changed. The colonel found a Mexican officer of French heritage among his ranks, and he sent Captain Ramón Lainé with a white flag of truce to see if they could negotiate a surrender.
It didn’t work.
Captain Danjou said his legionnaires had plenty of ammunition, and that they’d keep on fighting.
By now, the Mexicans had surrounded the barn and were firing from all sides. It was a hot day, and the legionnaires inside were just discovering that the only canteens they had were filled with wine, not water, because the pack mules had run away with the water as the fighting started. It was going to be a long afternoon.
Although the Mexicans had obvious superiority in numbers, the legionnaires had the upper hand in training and firepower. Most of the Mexicans were of the “national guard” variety. They had left their farms and small businesses just days earlier to help defend their country, while the legionnaires were well accustomed to the sound of gunfire and highly experienced in the art of war. The Mexicans had ball-and-musket rifles, which gave off so much smoke that at times they couldn’t see what they were shooting at. The legionnaires were firing percussion-driven cylinders with pointed tips, known as “bullets,” and they could see exactly where they were aiming.
In spite of all their technical superiority, the legionnaires were fighting a losing battle. Captain Danjou and Lieutenant Vilain were both dead before noon, and the command fell to Lieutenant Maudet for the rest of the afternoon. Inside the barn, things were going from bad to worse. Ammunition was running out, and the extra supply had vanished with the pack mules. The Mexicans
kept charging the barn, and although they were driven back, they were killing another legionnaire or two each time. By 5:00 PM, the legionnaires had already stripped whatever ammunition was left from the bodies of their dead comrades.
The Mexicans knew they had won, but they also knew that the remaining legionnaires intended to fight to the death. They set fire to some straw and threw it into the barn, hoping to bring the matter to a close. The legionnaires just stamped out the burning straw and continued firing through the smoke.
By 6:00 PM, only Maudet and four of his legionnaires were still alive. Each man had only one round of ammunition left. The lieutenant had a decision to make.
“Reload,” he ordered. “Then fire on my command and follow me. We’ll finish this with our bayonets.”
It was going to be a suicide charge.
The Mexican commander, Colonel Milán, ordered his troops to cease fire. All five legionnaires were captured after some brief hand-to-hand fighting, but Lieutenant Maudet and one of his men died of their wounds within a short time. The remaining three were hospitalized, along with the Mexican wounded.
The French later returned to put up a monument at the scene of the battle. For many years, members of the French Foreign Legion have returned each April 30 to what is now called “Camarón de Tejeda” to honor the courage of their fallen heroes. The encounter still stands as the worst defeat in legion history.