It all started with loans. During the 1850’s, Mexico borrowed heavily from Europe, using its rich silver mines as collateral. Unfortunately, this was a decade of political turmoil and civil war that made repaying the loans impossible.
By the time newly-elected President Juarez could bring a little stability to the nation, the silver mines had flooded—in large part because of a shortage of labor as men left the mines for the military—ruining the nation’s economy, and leaving the government broke. In July, 1861, Juarez announced a moratorium on loan repayments, since the nation needed a little time to stabilize and rebuild its economy. Note that the Mexican president was not repudiating the loans--he just needed time before he could start repaying them again.
Unfortunately, the timing of this announcement was extremely bad. In France, Emperor Napoleon III was looking for an opportunity to expand the French Empire, and the curtailment of loan payments gave him an excuse for intervention and expansion into Mexico. While the United States normally would have vigorously challenged such a move by France as a blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine, America was already deeply involved in its own Civil War. Simply put, Americans were too busy shooting Americans to shoot Frenchmen.
The initial European invasion was jointly conducted by England, Spain, and France--supposedly to seize the customs house at Vera Cruz, Mexico’s major port. Since the import taxes were the main source of the Mexican government's revenue, diverting those funds would easily repay the European debts. However, within months of their landing in Mexico, England and Spain withdrew, since by that time, of Emperor Napoleon III's true intentions had become obvious—he wanted to add Mexico to the French Empire. England and Spain were well aware that, eventually, Americans would stop shooting at each other and do something about the French Army in Mexico. (And eventually, we did just that, but that’s getting ahead of our story.)
In early 1863, additional French troops landed and the French army began marching towards Mexico City, generally following the same route that had been used by Cortes in 1519 and General Winfield Scott in 1848. As part of securing supply lines, the French Army laid siege to the town of Puebla and, after a few weeks, the forces around Puebla needed food andammunition, and the French soldiers needed to be paid.
To protect the supply convoy, a company of the French Foreign Legion was to march two hours ahead of the supplies. The unit selected, the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion was far from combat-ready due to illness. Napoleon III really should have paid more attention to the way in which the Americans had timed their invasion of Mexico so as to avoid the Yellow Fever season . Half of the men and all of the officers of this company were on sick call, leaving only 62 men and three volunteer officers, including Captain Danjou, to lead the legionnaires.
Captain Jean Danjou was a veteran of several wars, having fought with distinction in Algiers, Italy, and Morocco. A decade earlier, while fighting in Algiers, he had lost his left hand when his rifle had exploded, and had replaced it with a painted wooden replica. Captain Danjou was leading a force that was decidedly understrength.
On the morning of April 30, 1863, the 3rd Company began its march hours before dawn in order to avoid the heat of the day. About 7 am, Captain Danjou called for a brief rest stop, and the men began to brew coffee, but before the water began to boil, lookouts reported spotting several hundred Mexican cavalry approaching their position.
Infantrymen in the field, unsupported by artillery, can easily be run down by cavalry. The classic defense is for the men to form a square, with bayonets facing outward and the center of the square providing protection for the wounded and the supply animals. Captain Danjou had his men form such squares repeatedly that morning, and between cavalry charges, the men tried to seek defensive ground.
After repelling repeated charges, Danjou ordered his men to make their way to the remains of a hacienda near the village of Camarón. The old hacienda had a large house surrounded by a ten-foot wall. During the dash for safety, the group became divided, resulting in 16 men being captured by the Mexican troops. Worse, in the confusion, the pack mules carrying the unit’s food, water, and spare ammunition were lost.
The fifty remaining Legionnaires, armed with muskets, took refuge within the hacienda walls, though they were now surrounded by the Mexican Army. Under a flag of truce, Colonel Francisco Milan offered the French forces a chance to surrender, which Captain Danjou rejected, saying that his men had munitions and would defend their new position to the death.
Over the next hour, several assaults on the hacienda were repulsed. The adobe walls provided cover from the Mexican infantry while the single gate was too narrow to allow an effective cavalry charge. Time, however was not on the side of the French forces, as they slowly exhausted their ammunition, and they had neither food nor water. Meanwhile, the Mexican Army received reinforcements, growing to 2000 men.
Inside the walls, Captain Danjou went to each man, offering encouragement and a small sip from a wine bottle, getting each man to vow to fight to the death. According to one source, Danjou asked each man to give his vow while placing his right hand on Danjou's wooden prosthetic.
About noon, during one of the seemingly endless assaults on the hacienda, Danjou was killed by a bullet to the head. His replacement, Lieutenant Villian, also urged the men to never surrender, even as they fought off repeated attacks on the hacienda walls. By the late afternoon, when Villian was also killed, only Lieutenant Maudet and a dozen legionnaires were left. Under a flag of truce, Colonel Milan once again offered to accept the French surrender, only to have his offer refused.
By six p.m., only Lieutenant Maudet and five men were left, and each of the men possessed only a single round of ammunition. The men loaded their weapons, affixed their bayonets, and lined up with their officer in the center and waited for the next enemy assault. When the Mexicans next attacked the hacienda, six men appeared at the gate, firing a last volley before commencing a bayonet charge into the much larger Mexican force.
Almost immediately, the men were brought down (it was later claimed that one body had been shot 19 times). The men were simply overwhelmed, beaten with rifle butts and forced into submission. They would have almost certainly all have been killed had not a Mexican officer, impressed with their bravery, once again offered surrender terms. Corporal Maine, the highest ranking NCO accepted, but demanded that the survivors be treated for their wounds, be allowed to keep their arms, and be allowed to return the body of Captain Danjou to France.
Colonel Milan, impressed with the men’s bravery, accepted the offer, saying, “What can I refuse to such men? No, these are not men, they are devils.”
Of the last bayonet charge, three of the six legionnaires survived. Of the original force, 37 had been killed or were missing, 23 wounded were captured, and later, an unconscious drummer boy was found among the dead. The Mexican forces had lost 190 killed and over 300 wounded. In the running battle that lasted eleven hours, the French forces had battled an enemy that outnumbered them thirty to one, had fired 4000 rounds, and had killed ten of the enemy for each of their own losses. The battle pulled all available Mexican soldiers to Camarón, allowing the supply convoy to successfully reach Puebla.
Today, every April 30, on Camerone Day, the French Foreign Legion holds a special mess in Paris, at which the officers prepare and serve coffee to the men in their command, in remembrance of the coffee the men of the 3rd Company never got to drink. The Legion then ceremonially removes the glass-encased (wooden) hand of Captain Danjou from its museum and that hand leads a parade commemorating the battle.