“As the Mexicans charged, the legionnaires fired volleys into the onrushing horde.”
By Frederick J. Chiaventone
IN 1861, MEXICO was in a state of turmoil.
Newly elected President Benito Juarez had, in defeating the rebels contesting for control of the government, nearly bankrupted the country. Desperate for relief, Juarez had decided to cancel repayment of credit loaned to Mexico by Great Britain, Spain, and France. It was a move which did not endear him to his creditors.
By December of that year, those three European powers had dispatched a joint expeditionary force to seize the customs house at Veracruz. The idea was to simply force Mexico into repaying its debts. Unbeknownst to the English and Spanish however, Napoleon III had other plans. He intended to overthrow the Juarez government, seize control and install a puppet regime which, among other things, would allow France to profit from Mexico’s extensive silver deposits. It was the beginning of a long and ultimately costly folly for France but one which would produce an incident which is still celebrated by the legendary French Foreign Legion.
The French intervention got off to a shaky start. A French fleet was able to force the surrender of Campeche at the end of February 1862. A small ground force arrived a week later. But it was at this point that the joint effort came adrift.
The English and Spanish having discovered the French emperor had other ideas about Mexico; they wanted nothing to do with his perfidy. Both powers quickly withdrew their forces. Mexico was quick to take advantage of the split. Its forces under General Ignacio Zaragoza inflicted a stunning defeat to the French at the Battle of Puebla – an event which is celebrated to this day on Cinco de Mayo (5 May).
Pursued closely by Mexican forces, the French were driven nearly 300 kilometres back to the coast. It was not until the June 14 that the French were able finally to consolidate a strong defensive position outside the port of Veracruz.
In September, a French expeditionary corps of 30,000 men, under the command of General Elie-Frédéric Forey arrived but the situation remained static until more French reinforcements arrived in March of 1863. Among these troops were the 1st, 2nd Battalions of the Foreign Legion (Légere Étrangerè) under the command of Colonel Pierre Jeanningros.
A brief history of the Foreign Legion
The Foreign Legion was an unusual but highly effective unit. Formed initially in 1831 by King Louis Philippe it drew its recruits from colonial holdings of the French empire and from foreign populations including Swiss, Germans, Poles, Belgians, and Englishmen all commanded by natural-born Frenchmen. Having first served in the conquest of Algeria, they were later deployed in the Spanish Carlist War, the Crimean War, and the second Italian war of independence. In all of their campaigns the Legion was renowned for its desperate courage and an exceptionally high rate of casualties. However competent and well-led, the Legion, because of its dependence on non-French soldiers, was often held in low regard by many of the French regular forces. Thus, when it arrived in Mexico, the Legion battalions found themselves relegated to the most onerous tasks, routine escort duties and providing security for couriers and supply columns. The commander-in-chief, General Forey remarked: “I preferred to leave foreigners rather than Frenchmen to guard the most unhealthy area…where the malaria reigns.”
A special mission
Despite their experience in Africa, conditions in Mexican quickly took its toll on the legionnaires. Within weeks of their arrival, their ranks had been savaged by yellow fever, malaria, and black vomit. Thus, when intelligence was received by Colonel Jeanningros, that Mexican forces planned to intercept a French supply column, he was desperate to assemble a reinforcing unit to accompany the column. The column, having left Vera Cruz, was an especially tempting target as, in addition to supplies, siege guns, and munitions, it also carried some three million francs in gold. Were it to fall into enemy hands it would be disastrous for French forces now attempting to retake Puebla and waiting anxiously on resupply. Jeanningros needed to dispatch troops to reinforce the convoy but, with a large percentage of his legionnaire’s laid out by tropical sickness, was at a loss as to how to do so.
At this point, a 35-year-old Foreign Legion captain named Jean Danjou stepped forward and volunteered to take command of the small force that was available. Danjou was an unusual choice. An experienced veteran of several campaigns, including the siege of Sevastopol and the battle of Solferino, he had lost his left hand in Algeria and now depended on a wooden prosthetic appendage that he himself had designed. But Danjou had been performing administrative duties since his arrival in country, and as such, the French commander wondered if he was up to the challenge. But, with half of the 3rd Company, including its line officers, on the sick list there was little alternative, so Danjou was given the job.
He quickly received offers of assistance from members of the headquarters staff, sous-lieutenants Clément Maudet and Jean Vilain. Jeanningros had little choice. He would have to send out what few legionnaires they could spare.
Thus at 1 a.m. on April 30, 1863, Captain Danjou led a 62 man detachment out of their headquarters at Chiquihuite and headed for Palo Verde where they would join the supply column to provide security.
They estimated it would take some six hours of marching to reach the rendezvous, a task which Danjou rightly assumed would be less stressful in the cooler night temperatures. By 5:30 a.m., they were just short of their destination. As the sun rose, Danjou ordered the men to halt to brew coffee and take a a short rest before moving on to Palo Verde. They had just passed the deserted compound of La Trinidade Hacienda near Camarón.
Contact with the enemy
That’s when things began to go horribly wrong. The coffee had scarcely been brewed before one of Danjou’s men called commander’s attention to clouds of dust being stirred at the base of the foothills to the west. Plumes that large could only be created by cavalry and, from the intelligence that Colonel Jeaningros had provided, no friendly mounted units were in the area — these could only be hostile forces. Danjou assembled his men and moved quickly to the west intending to intercept the enemy. He hoped to use the tall, thick scrub nearby for cover, especially the spiky Maguey and Saguaro cactus, which would offer good protection from cavalry. When a shot rang out, it was clear that the Mexican forces had detected their movement and combat was imminent. Danjou, quickly formed his small band into a square and prepared to meet the onrushing cavalry.
As the Mexicans charged, the legionnaires fired volleys into the onrushing horde and soon the scrub was a tangle of rearing horseflesh and dead and wounded soldiery. As the Mexicans withdrew to just out of range Danjou realized that they were vastly outnumbered and that the only hope for his command was to drop back, occupy the deserted hacienda, and fight from behind its walls. The 3rd Company surged for La Trinidade but lost men along the way. By the time they had slipped into the walls Danjou’s command was reduced to 46 men and the three officers. Not only that but the mules carrying water and extra ammunition had been spooked by the gunfire and bolted, but the hacienda was already occupied by a handful of Mexican who were sniping at the Legion from the windows.
The firefight raged on until 9:30 a.m. when a Mexican lieutenant approached Danjou under a flag of truce. He pointed out that the legionnaires were surrounded by over 2,000 soldiers and that further resistance was futile. If the French surrendered they would be well treated and not subject to abuse. Danjou however, realized that he was facing the same force that had been targeting the supply column. The longer he could keep his enemy occupied, the more likely it that the convoy would win through to Puebla. Danjou rejected the Mexican offer insisting that they had water and ammunition enough to stand a siege. When the enemy officers withdrew, Danjou moved throughout the hacienda to share a few words with his surviving men. He had each one of them touch his wooden hand and swear to defend the position to the last man.
From bad to worse
The French were in a precarious position. In addition to the sizeable force encircling his position, Mexican soldiers still occupied the upper floor of the house in which Danjou’s men had barricaded themselves. The lack of an interior staircase made it virtually impossible to dislodge them, especially as their rifle fire restricted any movement in the interior courtyard. At around 11 a.m., Danjou darted across the courtyard to find a vantage point from which to engage the Mexicans on the second floor and was immediately struck by a sniper’s bullet. Two legionnaires dragged him back to cover but within five minutes he was dead; command devolved to Lieutenant Vilain.
Shortly afterward the faint sound of a bugle in the distance gave the defenders a brief glimmer of hope. Hope that was quickly extinguished when they found that the bugle call announced the arrival of 1,500 Mexican infantry under the command of Colonel Francisco Milan.
The siege resumed with the vast Mexican host now pouring thousands of rounds into the beleaguered detachment. A second call to surrender was rejected and the fusillade continued. The conditions within the house deteriorated rapidly as the effects of swirling gun smoke and the brutal Mexican sun combined with the rapidly declining stock of ammunition. By 2 p.m., Lieutenant Vilain was also killed. Lieutenant Maudet took charge and the French continued to fight on.
By now the legionnaires canteens had all been emptied and the soldiers were thirsty and gasping for breath. The wounded writhed in agony. By 5 p.m., the Mexican forces had succeeded in firing several bales of hay, the thick acrid smoke filling the hacienda and worsening the defenders’ plight. Only a dozen legionnaires remained. They were driven steadily out of the hacienda until only Maudet and five French troops remained standing. They fought desperately from the barricaded stable. Finally, their ammunition expended, Maudet ordered them to fix bayonets and, thrusting aside a barricade, the half-dozen legionnaires charged their attackers. The Mexican infantry mowed them down as they came on. Maudet dropped to the ground severely wounded. legionnaires Katau and Leonhart were also killed instantly. Three men remained standing back to back, their empty, bayoneted rifles pointed outwards – Corporal Maine and legionnaires Wenzel and Constantin – encircled entirely by Mexican infantry who stood silently staring at them. After a few moments, a Mexican officer pushed to the front and quietly asked Corporal Maine to surrender. Only when it was agreed that the three survivors could retain their weapons did the trio agree. The Mexican officer said merely: “To men such as you we can refuse nothing.”
The Battle of Camarón was over. In the surrounding brush 190 Mexican soldiers lay dead, while more than 300 were terribly wounded. The Mexicans searched the now smoking ruins for survivors, all of whom were badly wounded, and cared tenderly for them. Seven of these, including Lieutenant Maudet, died but 16 survived the fight and were eventually exchanged for Mexican prisoners of war. Colonel Milan, shaking his head over the casualties his soldiers had sustained remarked of the legionnaires, “Truly these aren’t men – they’re demons.” Long after the fight, a Mexican farmer accidentally uncovered a strange artifact of the battle – Captain Danjou’s wooden hand. He sold it to the local French commander for a nominal fee. In 1892 the Legion erected a monument on the site which states;
“Here there were less than sixty opposed to a whole army.
Its numbers crushed them.
Life rather than courage abandoned these French soldiers on April 30, 1863.
In their memory, the motherland has erected this monument”
For those who find themselves in Mexico this monument and one erected in 1964 to the Mexican forces involved may be visited at the village of Camarón de Tejeda in the state of Veracruz 64 kilometres west of the city of Veracruz.
Every year, April 30 is designated Camarón Day. To this day, Danjou’s prosthetic hand, now preserved in the Legion Museum of Memory at Aubagne, France, with much pomp and ceremony is paraded before the assembled legionnaires. It is considered the most sacred relic of the French Foreign Legion.
Frederick J. Chiaventone is a novelist, screenwriter, military historian, consultant, commentator, and retired cavalry officer. His novel A Road We Do Not Know: A Novel of Custer at the Little Bighorn won the 1999 Ambassador William E. Colby Award.