The swords of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is primarily an American holiday that celebrates Mexican culture and heritage in the US, but its origins commemorate the victory of Mexican republican forces over the army of Napoleon III of France at the Battle of Puebla, 1862.  Contemporaneous with the American Civil War, the Battle of Puebla was part of a larger conflict in which the French 2nd Empire asserted control of Mexico in concert with Mexican monarchists and other conservatives.  


A painting of the Battle of Puebla

The former French President, and at the time, Emperor Louis-Napoleon III, was eager to reestablish a French foothold in the Americas and had Austrian Archduke Maximilian appointed Emperor of Mexico.  The Archduke/Emporer seized power at the conclusion of a bloody struggle between Mexican liberals and a coalition of religious conservatives, monarchists, and descendants of Spanish nobility involved in the viceroy system.  

Mexican Emperor Maximillian I, Archduke of Austria of the House Habsburg-Lorraine.  
Weapons used in this conflict seem to run the gamut from earlier Napoleonic blades, cannon, and muskets, to varieties more similar to those used in the American Civil War, and more primitive knives, spears, and swords produced locally in Mexico.  The Mexican martial tradition drew heavily on the late medieval and Renaissance martial traditions of Spain, which included the practice of formal schools of fencing in the Spanish tradition derived from La Verdadera Destreza, or Spanish rapier fighting, especially among officers, gentlemen, and other elites.  
A Mexican Saber with a double-sided blade inscribed with the motto "No me saques sin razon" (Do not draw me without reason) and on the other side with the words "No me envaines sin honor" (Do no sheath me without honor).
Though the rapier was long past its heyday in the 1860's, sabers, machetes, and large knives were standard fare.  The above sword is a good example of a broadsword-type blade mounted to a saber hilt.  There is a similar example in the Oakeshott Institute Collection with the same motto and blade type, though with a differently styled saber hilt.  
Officers would have carried either sabers or mostly ceremonial dress weapons such as the model 1852 French smallsword below.
There were also probably earlier swords still in use, such as the colonial Espada Ancha, or broadsword of the late 18th century that predominated in more rural regions of Mexico and California before the revolution.  The example below is fairly representative of this form reminiscent of German hunting swords and cuttoes of the time.  
Overall, the swords in use at the Battle of Puebla represent an interesting melange of New and Old World weapons from the period of American Civil War.  Though we do not frequently reproduce swords from this period - largely because it is just cheaper to buy an original than to commission one, we do love swords from this period when the sword was still in military use.
Check some out!  Viva Mexico!
Watch the movie!                                    
Traditional Machete Dance
divider swords

Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography.  He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985

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