1863 Battle of Camerone

The Battle of Camerone (also Battle of Camarón) was an important action during the Second French intervention in Mexico. It occurred in late April 1863. In the eight-hour battle, a company of 65 men of the French Foreign Legion faced almost 2,000 Mexican infantrymen and cavalrymen. This action is portrayed as a pure example of bravery and determination of fighting to the finish.

Battle of Camerone - Battle of Camaron - Mexico - 1863 - Foreign Legion - History

 
 

Prelude to the Battle of Camerone

In 1861, the four-year Mexican Civil War between Liberals (supported by the United States) and Conservatives had just ended. The same year, then liberal President Benito Juárez canceled repayments of interest on foreign loans. As a consequence of this step, French Emperor Napoleon III, supported by Britain and Spain, launched a campaign in Mexico to protect French, British and Spanish creditors. The Second French intervention in Mexico started in late 1861.

However, the European alliance fell apart and in April 1862, the British and Spaniards withdrew their forces from Mexico. Supported by Mexican Conservatives, Napoleon III decided to overthrow Juárez, but the situation became complicated. In early May, French forces suffered a surprise defeat near Puebla on their way to Mexico City, the capital. French reinforcements were needed, and they arrived in late 1862 to prepare and launch a new campaign in early 1863. To support this new campaign, the French Foreign Legion, then stationed in Algeria (North Africa), was eventually allowed by officials to deploy to Mexico.

At that time, the reduced Legion was known as the Foreign Regiment (2nd Foreign Regiment formerly, until early 1862). In February 1863, two of their battalions left Algeria for Mexico: a total of almost 1,500 men, led by Colonel Pierre Jeanningros. They landed in Mexico in late March. In the meantime, the Siege of Puebla had been launched by the French in mid-March, intended to recapture the city and allow French forces to advance toward Mexico City, the bastion of Juárez.

 
America - Mexico - Map

Battle of Camerone - Mexico - President - Benito Juárez
Benito Juárez, the head of Mexico in 1861-1863 and 1867-1872.
Battle of Camerone - General - Pierre Jeanningros
Pierre Jeanningros. In 1862-1865, he led the Foreign Regiment. In 1863, then Colonel Jeanningros deployed with his men to Mexico.

 
 

French Foreign Legion in Mexico

In Mexico, Foreign Regiment legionnaires were assigned to support the French troops besieging the city of Puebla. Their main task was to guard French supply convoys moving on Royal Road, an old important road connecting Veracruz (an eastern port city occupied by the French) and Puebla. These convoys were attacked from time to time by Mexican guerrillas (irregular militants), who were loyal to President Juárez.

The legionnaires had to protect the 40-mile (65-km) long section of the Royal Road between the towns of Soledad and Cordoba. This segment was the worst part of the road. Located in tropical lowlands, the region was affected by several diseases. Primarily, vomito negro (yellow fever) and typhus fever. In 1863, these diseases would together kill the majority of the legionnaires deployed to Mexico.

The Foreign Regiment battalions were stationed at Soledad with their headquarters at Chiquihuite, a small village situated in the foothills of the Chiconquiaco mountain range, east of Cordoba. The regiment’s companies spread into posts alongside the road, each of them guarding a designated sector.

 
America - Mexico - Map - Mexico City - Puebla - Cordoba - Veracruz

America - Mexico - Map - Cordoba - Soledad - Veracruz

 
 

Important French convoys for Puebla

In late April 1863, two important French convoys headed for Puebla, still besieged by the French troops of General Forey. The first convoy, formed in Soledad, consisted of around 60 vehicles and 150 mules. Apart from mail and ammunition, they transported artillery guns and materials for siege construction. The second important convoy, formed in Veracruz, was to carry supplies and 3,000,000 francs (France’s former currency) in coins as cash payment for the troops. Two Foreign Regiment companies were sent to Soledad to accompany and guard the convoys.

Meanwhile, preparations were already underway to attack and seize the artillery convoy, preventing it from reaching Puebla. Overseeing this plan was Colonel Francisco de Paula Milan, a high-ranking Mexican military officer of the Liberals loyal to Benito Juárez. Under Juárez, he served as the governor and military chief of the Veracruz state, now partly occupied by the French. His forces for this attack on the convoy comprised almost 2,000 Mexican infantry and cavalry. According to an official August 1863 report from the Foreign Regiment’s second-in-command, Major Regnault, the presence of such a force in the region was unexpected.

To be fair, the legionnaires had only been in Mexico for four weeks and during that time, they had faced nothing but small groups of Mexican mounted guerrillas. The forces of Colonel Milan were certainly gathered as the last chance to turn the game for besieged Liberals in Puebla. If the French had received the artillery guns, Puebla would have been lost, and with it, Mexico City and the reign of Benito Juárez.

 

Battle of Camerone - Mexico - Colonel - Francisco de Paula Milan
Colonel Francisco de Paula Milan, the head of 2,000 Mexican Liberal troops prepared to seize the French convoy in late April 1863.

 
 

A planned reconnaissance mission

On Wednesday, April 29, 1863, at the regiment’s HQ in Chiquihuite, Colonel Jeanningros prescribed a reconnaissance mission in support of the artillery convoy coming from Soledad. He ordered that a company should march to Palo Verde, an elevated orientation point and an important stopover for French convoys on Royal Road. It was situated some 15 miles (25 km) northeast of Chiquihuite, with an important waterhole/fountain nearby, giving “delicious water.” A large wooden military construction had been built there to provide shade and rest for French troops.

At Palo Verde, the legionnaires were instructed to scour the sector in the perimeter of about 2,5 miles (4 km). They had to ensure that there were no Mexican guerrillas wandering around and posing a threat to the French artillery convoy, as they had in the same spot three months earlier, in late January 1863. However, at the time, their attack on a French convoy was successfully repulsed.

 
America - Mexico - Map - Chiquihuite - Palo Verde

 
 

3rd Company, 1st Battalion, Foreign Regiment

In the afternoon of April 29, the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion of the Foreign Regiment was designated for the reconnaissance mission, as the service duty company of that week. It was stationed at Chiquihuite, the headquarters of both the regiment and 1st Battalion. Nevertheless, the company was in poor condition.

After only four weeks in Mexico, a third of the men had already been in the hospital, affected by yellow fever. The commander of the company, Captain J. Cazes, was being detached to lead a smaller outpost near Veracruz, to recover from a wound he had suffered while embarking in Algeria. His deputy, Lieutenant Gans, was suffering from malaria. The third officer of the company, Second Lieutenant Jean Vilain, was being detached to serve temporarily as a battalion paymaster.

Therefore, there were only 62 combat-ready men within the 3rd Company: 5 NCOs, 6 corporals and 51 legionnaires. A strength of two platoons.

Among these men were 20 Germans, 16 Belgians (including French citizens with a changed identity), 8 Swiss (also, including the French), 7 Frenchmen, 1 Austrian, 1 Dutchman, 1 Dane, 1 Italian, 1 Spaniard and six men born to male immigrants seeking asylum in France (with or without a French mother).

Captain Jean Danjou, the Adjutant of Colonel Jeanningros, volunteered to lead the company during their one-day reconnaissance mission. The colonel agreed. Two other officers volunteered to accompany Captain Danjou and complete the company’s leadership: Second Lieutenant Jean Vilain and Second Lieutenant Clément Maudet, the regimental color bearer.

 

Captain Jean Danjou
  • 35 years old, of French nationality
  • a French officer; over 10 years with the Legion (since September 1852)
  • he lost his left hand in Algeria in early May 1853
  • during a topographical expedition, when the canon of his musket exploded
  • then-Second Lieutenant Danjou refused to leave the Army
  • he got a wooden hand and continued to serve with the Legion
  • promoted to captain during the Crimean War (1854-1856)
  • bearing the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit
  • in 1859, he participated in a campaign in Italy (Battle of Magenta and Battle of Solferino)
  • a regimental adjutant since 1858

 

Battle of Camerone - Mexico - Captain - Jean Danjou
Captain Jean Danjou. He volunteered for commanding the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion, Foreign Regiment during a one-day reconnaissance mission in Mexico in late April 1863.

 

Second Lieutenant Jean Vilain
  • 27 years old, of French nationality
  • 9 years with the Foreign Legion
  • enlisted as a simple legionnaire at 18
  • after leaving a military academy
  • campaigns in Crimea and Italy
  • bearing the Cross of the Legion of Honor
  • promoted to the officer rank only four months prior
  • the only member of the 3rd Company among the three officers
  • a battalion paymaster at the time

 

Battle of Camerone - Mexico - Second Lieutenant - Jean Vilain
Second Lieutenant Jean Vilain. A member of the 3rd Company, temporarily detached as a battalion paymaster at the time. He was a volunteer for the one-day mission.

 

Second Lieutenant Clément Maudet
  • 34 years old, of French nationality
  • the longest-serving man among the 65 company members
  • almost 15 years with the Foreign Legion
  • enlisted as a simple legionnaire in the Year of Revolution, 1848
  • campaigns in Algeria, Crimea, and Italy
  • bearing the Cross of the Legion of Honour
  • promoted to the officer rank only three months prior
  • the most decorated junior commissioned officer of the 1st Battalion
  • because of that, he served as the regimental color bearer

 

Battle of Camerone - Mexico - Second Lieutenant - Jean Vilain - Clément Maudet
Second Lieutenant Clément Maudet. Alleged Clément Maudet. Nevertheless, this is most likely only a later reproduction of the previous original portrait of Second Lieutenant Jean Vilain, already published in mid-1863.

 
 
 

Mission to Palo Verde – April 30

From Chiquihuite to Paso del Macho

Shortly past midnight on Thursday, April 30, at 1:00 a.m., Captain Danjou and his 3rd Company left Chiquihuite. Forming a column of two close files in the middle of the road, they had to march 15 miles (25 km) to reach their destination, Palo Verde. Each legionnaire wore a Mexican sombrero (a wide-brimmed hat worn instead of képi to shield him from the sun), a dark blue jacket with yellow epaulettes for voltigeurs (skirmishers) or green epaulettes for fusiliers (ordinary infantrymen), a red sash and beige trousers (used for operations, instead of the ordinary red ones). The men were equipped with a French rifled musket Minié (model 1851), updated by the French in 1857. Each legionnaire also bore a sword bayonet and 60 bullets. Two mules were assigned to the company to carry food supplies.

An hour later, at 2:00 a.m., the column reached Paso del Macho, a small village 4 miles (6,5 km) northeast of Chiquihuite, with a French post and a watchtower (from 1836-1838) used by legionnaires to observe the surroundings. A Legion company was stationed there to guard the road and an old Spanish bridge nearby. The unit was led by Captain Saussier, a friend of Captain Danjou and the future Military governor of Paris (1884-1898).

The 3rd Company took a short break in Paso del Macho. Thereafter, Captain Danjou shook hands with his friend and the column hit the road. Captain Saussier and his men were the last Frenchmen to see them alive.

 
America - Mexico - Map - Chiquihuite - Paso del Macho

Mexico - Chiquihuite - Paso del Macho
A view from the Chiconquiaco mountain range toward Paso del Macho. In the foothills was the camp of Chiquihuite with the HQ of the Foreign Regiment and 1st Battalion. On one of the hills, a Legion post was established in early April 1863, to observe the sector with the important road. The post was occupied by a rotating group of some 15 men, led by a sergeant.
Mexico - 1862 - French troops - Paso del Macho
Paso del Macho. As seen in 1862, occupied by French troops. Note the strategically important 30-foot (10 m) high old Spanish bridge on the left (forgotten today and not even mentioned by the Spanish Wikipedia page of the town). A watchtower was built nearby in 1836-1838 to guard the bridge. In 1863, a Foreign Regiment company was stationed there.
Mexico - Watchtower - Paso del Macho
Watchtower of Paso del Macho in the 2010s. Known as “French tower” today, it was built in 1836-1838 to guard the nearby bridge.

 
 

Camerone and Palo Verde

Three hours later, around 5:30 in the morning, the 3rd Company passed Camarón (Camerone in French), a small abandoned Indian settlement composed of a few ruined huts. Nearby, along the road, stood two or three ruined small constructions. Opposite them, across the road, a long-abandoned hacienda (a Spanish colonial villa) with a large, enclosed farmyard, La Trinidad Hacienda.

The legionnaires combed both the hacienda and the farmyard to ensure they held no hidden Mexican enemies. Thereafter, Captain Danjou ordered his men to form two platoons. Each would be tasked with scouring the sector on one of the two sides of the road, overgrown with wild vegetation, toward their destination. The captain, accompanied by legionnaires-skirmishers (acting as a vanguard) and followed by the mules, continued to Palo Verde, the French stopover situated some 2.5 miles (4 km) east of Camerone.

 
America - Mexico - Map - Camarón - Camerone - Palo Verde

Mexico - 1862 - French officers - Palo Verde
Palo Verde. A very rare picture showing French officers taking a break at the popular stopover between Soledad and Paso del Macho, in late 1862.

 
 

Alarm at Palo Verde

Around 7:15 a.m., the 3rd Company gathered at Palo Verde, after having marched 15 miles (25 km) from Chiquihuite, and took a break at the wooden shelter built for French troops and convoys. The men emptied their bottles into a large pot to make coffee, and Corporal Magnin and his group went to the nearby fountain to bring fresh water for the whole unit. The sun shone and a number of legionnaires went to sleep. It seemed like another calm day in Mexico…

Between 7:45 and 8:00 a.m., the company was alerted by a sentinel who had spotted something raising a cloud of dust about 1.5 mile (2.5 km) away, between Palo Verde and Camerone. Captain Danjou took a look at the road through his field glass: Mexicans! Then he shouted: “Enemy! To arms!

Within five minutes, the men were ready for combat. The unfinished coffee was poured away. Corporal Magnin and his group had to return hastily, without water. Meanwhile, the Mexican irregular cavalrymen (guerrillas) disappeared. An order was issued to leave the place and get closer to see what had just happened.

 
 

Back to Camerone

For the next hour, the legionnaires and their commander marched back to Camerone. To avoid any contact with Mexicans, the unit went around the village, north of the road, through the wild vegetation protecting them from cavalry. Legionnaires-skirmishers were ahead of the column, using their sword bayonets from time to time to hack a way through the heavy thicket.

Before 9:00 a.m., the men were back on the road, about 250-300 yards (some 250 m) west of Camerone. As far as the eye could see, there were no Mexican cavalrymen in the sector. Suddenly, a shot was fired (most likely from the village), wounding a legionnaire in the leg. The company reacted quickly and the legionnaires went to scour the ruins and the hacienda. Nevertheless, they found no one.

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Mexicans - Palo Verde - Camarón - Camerone

 
 

Mexicans

Captain Danjou‘s men still didn’t know how many enemy guerrillas they had seen. No doubt they expected a common independent group of 30-70 Mexican mounted guerrillas, similar to those who often operated in the region and provoked the French, without any significant impact on the well-trained, disciplined and cold-blooded legionnaires.

But this was not the case on April 30. That day, at his HQ located about 3 miles (5 km) northeast of Camerone, between two local rivers, Colonel Milan gathered an army of three battalions, each of them comprising around 400 men, accompanied by some 500 regular cavalrymen and 300 irregular mounted guerrillas. In total, almost 2,000 men were getting ready for combat.

The 300 mounted guerrillas were the first to face the 3rd Company of Captain Danjou. According to a May 1863 report from Colonel Milan, he himself led this group appointed to conduct a reconnaissance mission in the sector. Nevertheless, he added, he and his cavalrymen were surprised by the legionnaires. So, the French were to be “removed” to not thwart Colonel Milan’s plans for seizing the artillery convoy.

 
 

First Mexican charges

When leaving Camerone, the legionnaires saw their enemy for the first time. The Mexican cavalrymen were advancing from the northeast, ready for a charge. Captain Danjou ordered his men to form an infantry square, with himself and the mules inside. But the two mules got scared and fled in panic. Thereafter, a mass of screaming guerrillas launched their first charge. The cold-blooded legionnaires stopped them quickly with a precise salvo, and pushed Mexicans into a retreat with a following fire.

Afterward, the company penetrated a natural barrier of cacti on the left, which stretched along the road as far as Camerone and protected the legionnaires from the Colonel Milan’s cavalrymen. Captain Danjou considered entering the wild tropical vegetation in the southwest, some 500 yards (450 m) distant, to continue through it back to Paso del Macho. However, some of the Mexicans coming from behind the hacienda blocked their way.

After quickly weighing his options, the captain chose to reach the hacienda with its farmyard instead, to defend themselves inside until potential reinforcements could arrive. Consequently, his men formed a new infantry square and stopped the advancing group of Mexicans. They then fixed bayonets and launched a charge. The guerrillas withdrew in a hurry, and the legionnaires successfully entered the farmyard.

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Mexicans - Legionnaires - Camarón - Camerone - Charges

Mexico - Camerone - Wild vegetation
Wild tropical vegetation southwest of Camerone. The legionnaires considered to reach it and go through as far as Paso del Macho. Nevertheless, blocked by Mexicans, they eventually decided to hide themselves in the hacienda.

 
 

La Trinidad Hacienda

La Trinidad Hacienda was built between 1814 and 1817 by Spanish Lord Ferrer. Later becoming the property of the Alarcon family, La Trinidad Hacienda was abandoned in the late 1850s due to the Reform War in Mexico (1858-1860). The hacienda was a Spanish colonial building with a farmyard forming a square, flanked by stone-built walls that were about 55 yards (50 m) long and roughly 10 feet (3 m) tall. The north side of the building faced the road and had a raised, whitewashed facade with at least one entry (without doors) close to the western corner. On the other side of the facade, inside the farmyard, stood a three-room house of an unspecified length, comprising a first/ground floor and an attic.

On the western side, the wall was pierced by two large gateless gateways. The legionnaires barricaded themselves and a group of 6-8 men was set to guard each gateway.

Their plan to occupy the house and defend themselves there was thwarted by an unspecified number of Mexicans. The legionnaires discovered that two rooms had already been seized by the enemy (who may have broken in through another entry from the outside). Instead, two groups of legionnaires (14 men) seized the last room, situated in the western part of the house, which was open to the road through the entry without doors and to the farmyard by a window. Another large, closed door connected this room with the two others.

A small group led by Sergeant Morzycki (born in France, a son of a Polish officer) jumped up onto the roof of the house to observe the surroundings.

On the eastern side of the farmyard, in the southeastern corner, the wall was interrupted by an old opening about 3.3 feet (1 m) wide. Around this hole was the ruined wall of a former shed. Another group of legionnaires was placed there to guard the opening.

The rest of the legionnaires were placed between the two gateways, along the wall, as a reserve. They were tasked to keep an eye on the house (to shoot any Mexican who appeared in the window) and the upper part of the walls.

Meanwhile, according to Colonel Milan, he and a small group of his cavalrymen hurried to his field camp to inform the rest of the Mexican troops about the situation and to get reinforcements.

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Camarón - Camerone - Hacienda - La Trinidad

Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Camarón - Camerone - Hacienda - Legionnaires - positions

 

Preparing for the battle

Captain Danjou grabbed his bottle of wine and distributed it among his men. Each legionnaire got a few drops in the hand. This was the only liquid they would have drunk that hot day. It was 9:30 a.m.

A Mexican negotiator arrived (Lieutenant Ramon Lainé, 22 years old, of French origin) and offered the 3rd Company to surrender. Still on the roof, Sergeant Morzycki interpreted back the answer of his commander, Captain Danjou:

We have munitions. We will not surrender!

Thereafter, Captain Danjou asked his men to fight bravely to the finish, and they made a pledge to do so. Shortly afterwards, around 9:45 a.m., the battle started.

 

Battle of Camerone – April 30, 1863

09:45 – 11:00 AM

Fierce fighting
– the fights started
– the legionnaires were attacked from all sides
– the worst situation was in the house
– in the room with the open entry
– protected by two groups of legionnaires
– being under attack from the road

– during the fighting, Mexicans were most likely reinforced
– by the remaining cavalrymen of Colonel Milan

 

11:00 AM

Captain Danjou killed
– the defenders lost their captain
– he was shot in the chest
– after having visited the house
– when returning to the reserve
– Captain Danjou died within five minutes

Second Lieutenant Vilain took command

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Camarón - Camerone - Captain Danjou - Jean Danjou - Death

 

11:05 AM

House abandoned
– at the same time, the house had to be abandoned
– after more than a hour of fierce fighting
– Mexicans smashed down the closed door
– connecting the rooms inside the house
– legionnaires withdrew
– from 14 men, only 5 left now
– they reinforced the remaining Legion positions

– however, Mexicans didn’t gain an advantage
– well-shooting legionnaires kept an eye on the house
– they fired at every Mexican having appeared there

 

12:00 AM

Mexican reinforcement
– at noon, the battle was suspended
– the attackers were reinforced again
– by three infantry battalions
– originated in Veracruz, Cordova and Jalapa
– some 1,200 men altogether
– Jalapa infantrymen had kepis instead of sombreros

 

12:15 AM

Second proposal to surrender
– Lieutenant Lainé arrived once again
– he made his second proposal to surrender
– Sergeant Morzycki rejected it in an undiplomatic manner
– his answer infuriated the attackers
– the battle continued

– Sergeant Morzycki rejoined the men inside the farmyard

 

12:15 AM – 02:30 PM (14.30)

Mexican assaults + terrain modification
– the legionnaires faced waves of assaults
– aimed at two gateways + old opening
– in the house, Mexicans tried to pierce a hole in the wall
– to get access to the farmyard
– on the eastern side, the wall was also perforated
– the attackers did several battlements
– to shoot easily at legionnaires
– moreover, Mexicans pierced a huge hole
– about ten-foot (3 m) wide, in the same eastern wall
– because of that, the Legion reserve had to change their position

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Camarón - Camerone - Hacienda - Mexicans - pierced holes

 

02:00 PM (14.00)

Reserve to change their position
– the reserve had to change their position
– because of the huge hole made by Mexicans
– pierced right opposite the Legion reserve
– the reserve was the largest group of legionnaires
– until now, placed between the two gateways
– the reserve desided to move to the south
– between the southern gateway and the southwestern corner
– two sheds were situated there

Two sheds in the south-west
– the first shed was in good condition
– a wooden shed with well-preserved walls
– built next to the southern gateway
– the second one in the corner was open (no walls)
– only a dilapidated roof remained
– being supported by two or three wooden piles
– standing on a low brick wall
– the reserve would occupy it
– led by Second Lieutenant Maudet

Reserve reinforced
– at the same time, the reserve was reinforced
– by the group having defended the southern gateway
– reportedly, this gateway “hadn’t been attacked anymore
– there are any other info to explain that
– the group joined the reserve in the open shed

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Camarón - Camerone - Hacienda - Legionnaires - Legion reserve - Sheds

 

02:30 PM (14.30)

Second Lieutenant Vilain killed
– after having visited the old opening
– when crossing the farmyard
– in direction of the northern gateway
– he was visiting the posts personally
– as did Captain Danjou
– to encourage their men
– Second Lieutenant Vilain was shot in the head
– he died immediately

Second Lieutenant Maudet took command

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Camarón - Camerone - Second Lieutenant Vilain - Jean Vilain - Death

 
Terrible conditions
– the legionnaires suffered much during the battle
– the tropical sun was really beating down
– it was very hot and sultry
– the men were hungry and, above all, very thirsty
– they hadn’t drunk anything during last seven hours
– except for the few drops of their captain’s wine
– the men had swollen tongues and chapped lips
– suffered from thirst, several of the wounded lost their mind
– they started to harm themselves, their open wounds
– to draw blood to suck it thereafter
– the rest of legionnaires had to drink their own urine
– on top of that, the defenders fought among their dead
– there wasn’t anybody to carry their killed comrades away
– nevertheless, they didn’t even think of surrender

 

03:00 PM – 04:30 PM (15:00 – 16:30)

Fire
– at the time, the situation got worse
– Mexicans were all around
– crossing the farmyard wasn’t no more possible
– then, the enemy set the hacienda on fire
– first, a shed outside, in the north-east
– then, the fire spread over the hacienda
– a heavy smoke smothered the legionnaires
– the smoke intensified also their thirst
– moreover, it blocked their view on the farmyard
– about one and a half hours later, the fire was over

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Camarón - Camerone - Hacienda - Fire - Smoke

 

04:30 PM – 05:00 PM (16:30 – 17:00)

Mexican advance
– thanks to the fire, Mexicans advanced
– they fixed their positions inside the farmyard
– to shoot easily at the legionnaires
– the two last forward posts of the company suffered a lot
– northern gateway + old opening
– they lost the majority of their defenders
– the northern gateway was defended by a single legionnaire
– the old opening was defended by four legionnaires

 

05:00 PM – 05:30 PM (17:00 – 17:30)

Pause
– at five o’clock, the attackers withdrew
– the battle was suspended
– at the moment, only 12 combat-ready legionnaires left
– led by Second Lieutenant Maudet
– out of 65 men, 52 had already been killed or wounded
– 2 officers + 50 legionnaires

Colonel Milan’s call to Mexicans
– Colonel Milan came to visit his men
– gathered outside the hacienda
– he gave an ardent speech
– to finish the battle and capture the legionnaires
– if not, it would be a “big shame” for all Mexicans

Third (and last) proposal to surrender
– the third offer to surrender was made
– the legionnaires didn’t even answer
– the battle resumed

 

05:30 PM – 05:45 PM (17:30 – 17:45)

Severe Mexican attacks
– after the pause, the battle resumed
– severe attacks aimed at the legionnaires
– conducted by Mexicans coming from all openings

Northern gateway seized
– shortly after, the northern gateway was overrun
– Corporal Berg, its last defender, was captured
– however, the reserve were aiming at the gateway
– they fired at every attacker trying to enter the farmyard
– in ten minutes, more than 20 Mexicans were killed there

Old opening seized
– at the same time, the old opening was overrun too
– defended by four legionnaires
– Corporal Magnin + Corporal Pinzinger
– legionnaires Gorski and Kunassek
– their were attacked from behind
– by Mexicans coming from the north
– the legionnaires were captured

 
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - 1863 - Camarón - Camerone - Hacienda - Legionnaires - last position

 

05:45 PM – 06:00 PM (17:45 – 18:00)

Last legionnaires
– after the two posts were overrun, only the reserve left
– during the next 15 minutes, another 3 legionnaires were killed
– Sergeant Morzycki + legionnaires Bertolotto and Leonhard
– thereafter, only 5 men of the 3rd Company left
– Second Lieutenant Maudet + Corporal Maine
– legionnaires Cateau + Constantin + Wensel
– they almost ran out of ammunition

 

06:00 PM (18:00)

Final assault
– at six o’clock, Mexicans occurred everywhere
– they slowly advanced to the open shed
– in the south-west corner
– occupied by the last defenders
– Second Lieutenant Maudet ordered last fusillade
– to be followed by a bayonet charge
– the charge would by led by Maudet
– Mexicans fired back at the charging defenders
– legionnaire Cateau jumped in front of his leader
– he received 19 bullets and died
– still, Second Lieutenant Maudet was badly wounded
– legionnaire Wensel was also wounded
– meanwhile, the last defenders were quickly surrounded
– by Mexicans with fixed bayonets being aimed at them
– at this moment, the battle was over
 

A Mexican officer (Colonel Angel Cambas, of French origin) step out and ordered his troops to cease fire and spare the last three legionnaires. He allowed them to keep their equipment and promised them to take care of badly wounded Second Lieutenant Maudet. Then, under his protection, they were going to meet Colonel Milan in his provisional field camp, established during the battle not far from the hacienda.

Fifteen minutes later, the three legionnaires being accompanied by the Mexican officer reached the provisional field camp. When amazed Colonel Milan saw the last three defenders, he exclaimed:

That’s all what is left?? These aren’t men, they are devils!

The legionnaires got something to drink and eat and waited for their wounded comrades. Thereafter, around 08:30 PM (20.30), Mexicans and legionnaires left Camerone for La Joya, the main camp of Colonel Milan situated some 3 miles (5 km) in the north-east, between two local rivers.

 

1863 Battle of Camerone: Aftermath

The 3rd Company, 1st Battalion, Foreign Regiment was annihilated. The majority of its men were killed or wounded. However, even Colonel Milan and his troops suffered important losses. At least 300 Mexicans are estimated to be killed or wounded. Between the killed, Lieutenant Colonel José Ayala (Chief of Staff of Colonel Milan), Captain Francisco Zaragoza and his brother Lieutenant Vicente Zaragoza, or a chief of the guerrillas Peréz.

As a result, the operation to seize the French convoy was cancelled. Moreover, being fearful of the French retaliation, Colonel Milan and his men left hurriedly the region.

The way for both French important convoys was safe. They reached Puebla and two weeks later, the besieged city was finally captured by the French. The road to Mexico City was open. Another three weeks later, June 10, the French forces of General Bazaine entered the capital and captured it for the French Empire. Benito Juaréz fled.

The ultimate sacrifice of a small company of brave legionnaires resulted in the fall of the Mexican government and an important French victory.

 

Mexico - Mexico City - 1863 - French troops
French troops parading in Mexico City in June 1863.

 

3rd Company: Results of the battle

During the battle, the company suffered heavy losses: 2 officers were killed, an officer was badly wounded. As for the men, the figures are not completely accurate (they varied even in 1863). Jean Brunon, a honorable member of the Legion, stated in his Camerone from 1963 that the following numbers (provided by General Zédé in his memories published in the 1930s) should be the most accurate:

– 30 legionnaires killed or fatally wounded during the battle
– 19 legionnaires having died from their wounds
– 12 legionnaires (mostly injured) survived the imprisonment

Drummer Casimir Lai, an Italian legionnaire, was found naked and half dead close to the hacienda on May 1, by a Foreign Regiment column. His body was pierced seven times by a lance or a saber, and two times by a bullet. During the cold night, he woke up to find himself among the dead and decided to crawl away. The only member of the company to escape the imprisonment, he eventually survived.

Second Lieutenant Maudet died of his wounds a week later, on May 8.

The majority of imprisoned legionnaires were released in mid-July 1863.

 

Mexico - Battle of Camerone - Camaron - 1863 - Legionnaires
Legionnaires. Awesome pictures painted by Rosenberg and Benigni. As we can see, the men of the Foreign Regiment bear a sombrero. They wore them during operations in the tropical lowlands to shield themselves from the sun. According to Corporal Maine, they had them also during the battle at Camerone. However, to not be confused with Mexicans, the legionnaires of Camerone are portrayed with white kepis instead.

French intervention in Mexico - Liberal troops - Mexican Cavalry - Mexican Infantry
Mexicans. Great pictures painted by Richard Hook for René Chartrand‘s The Mexican Adventure 1861-67 (Osprey Military, 1994). Left, a Mexican infantryman of Liberals. They wore a sombrero or a white kepi with suncover (according to Corporal Maine, only Jalapa infantrymen had this kepi at Camerone). Right, a Mexican irregular guerrilla being equipped with a lance. Half dead legionnaire Lai would be found on May 1, having been pierced several times by this weapon… Extreme right, a Mexican cavalryman. Corporal Maine confirmed that regular cavalrymen at Camerone had kepis.
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - Louis Maine
Louis Maine. Corporal Louis Maine was among the last three combat-ready legionnaires at the hacienda. A former NCO of the French Army awarded in Crimea, Louis Maine joined the Legion as a simple legionnaire only three months before the famous battle, to be allowed to deploy to Mexico. After the battle, he was awarded with the Legion of Honour and promoted to Sergeant. A few months later, he became an officer. Here, Second Lieutenant Louis Maine in the 1860s.
Battle of Camerone - Mexico - Legionnaire - Hippolyte Cunnasec
Hippolyte Cunassec. A son of an immigrant coming from Central Europe, legionnaire Hippolyte Cunassec (Kunassek at the time of his service) was among the last four legionnaires to defend the old opening in the south-east of the hacienda. Awarded with the Military Medal, he left the Legion in November 1863, after three years of service. The last survivor of the battle, he died in France in 1906. Nowadays, he is often spelled incorrectly as Kuwasseg.

 

1863 Battle of Camerone: Legend was born

Battle honor and Legion colors

The Battle of Camerone became a crucial moment in history of the French Foreign Legion. It is portrayed as a pure example of bravery and determination of fighting to the finish. An example to be followed by every legionnaire. The phrase “gonna make Camerone” (on va faire Camerone) became popular among legionnaires, clearly expressing their will to fight to the last bullet.

In response to this famous action, then French Emperor Napoleon III prescribed the name of Camerone as a battle honor to be emblazoned on the Foreign Regiment’s regimental color. Today, this battle honor is seen on all Foreign Legion flags and standards.

Also, it’s more than sure that the green and red colors of Mexico on the French Empire’s Medal of the Mexican Expedition (issued in 1863) were adopted by the Legion to become its official colors. By the way, the design of this medal decorates the current regimental badge of the Foreign Legion’s “Motherhouse” – 1st Foreign Regiment.

 

Battle of Camerone - Battle Honor - Foreign Legion - Flag - Standard - Regimental color
Battle honor – Camerone. The pre-WWI regimental color of the 1st Foreign Regiment, displaying the emblazoned Camerone battle honor.

Mexico - Mexican Campaign - Medal - Foreign Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - Insignia - Badge
Medal of the Mexican Expedition. Left, the medal issued by the French Empire in 1863, for soldiers having participated in the campaign in Mexico. For the Foreign Legion, this campaign was a turning point in its history, thanks to the Battle of Camerone. It adopted the green and red colors and uses the design of this medal (inspired by the coat of arms of Mexico) for the insignia of its Motherhouse/HQ – 1st Foreign Regiment (1er RE).

 

Camerone Day

During the next decades, after an unintended withdrawal from Mexico in 1867, sad events in France of 1870-71, the famous campaign in Indochina in the 1880s and the bloody world war in 1914-18, the Battle of Camerone had been all but forgotten. This changed in 1931, when then Foreign Legion chief General Rollet (the popular Father of the Legion) decided to give the Legion its new character and ideology, lost after WWI, to improve moral and esprit de corps of this unique military unit.

The 30th April of 1931 was designated for both the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Foreign Legion’s creation (although it should be March 10) and the first official commemoration of the epic Battle of Camerone. General Rollet determined that the day marking the famous battle is much more important than the birthday… and it hasn’t changed since then.

The 30th April has become the most important holiday of the Foreign Legion, called Camerone Day. It is proudly commemorated even by the smallest Legion unit in the most isolated place of the planet. Narration of Camerone (Recit de Camerone), telling of the story, is inseparable from the ceremony. The legend was born.

 

Battle of Camerone - Camerone Day - Aubagne - 2017
Camerone Day in Aubagne, the HQ of the Legion, 2017. On Camerone Day, the doors of the Legion are open for public.

Narration of Camerone - Recit de Camerone - Foreign Legion - Camerone Day - Sahara - 1953
Narration of Camerone (Recit de Camerone) in the Sahara in the early 1950s, pronounced by a lieutenant of a detachment of 1re CSPL.

 

Captain Danjou’s wooden hand

In Algeria in early May 1853, Captain Jean Danjou lost his left hand during a topographical expedition, when he was giving a signal gunshot and the canon of his musket exploded. Because of that, he wore a precisely-made wooden hand instead.

This wooden hand was stolen at the hacienda by a Mexican as a souvenir and wasn’t discovered until 1865, when an Austrian officer Grueber of the Austrian Legion (allies of France) found it in a ranch, bought it and handed it over to Marshal Bazaine, then the chief of the French forces in Mexico and a former NCO (and an officer) with the Foreign Legion. Thereafter, the hand was transferred to Algeria, to the HQ of the Legion.

Today, the wooden hand of Captain Jean Danjou is paraded annually on Camerone Day in Aubagne, the Legion’s current HQ in southern France, carried by a designated veteran – a legionnaire, NCO or an officer. To be designated to carry the wooden hand of Captain Danjou during Camerone Day is seen as the most deserved honor for any veteran of the French Foreign Legion.

 

Battle of Camerone - Captain Danjou - wooden hand - la main - Danjou - Sidi Bel Abbes
Wooden hand of Captain Danjou. The wooden hand of Captain Jean Danjou became a sacred artifact of the Legion. In the 1950s in Algeria, touching of the wooden hand of Captain Danjou to “share the spirit of Camerone” is said to be part of the then ceremony to become a legionnaire. Today, the wooden hand is placed at the crypt of the Foreign Legion Museum.

Battle of Camerone - Camerone Day - Captain Danjou - wooden hand - la main - Danjou - Aubagne
The wooden hand of Captain Danjou presented during 2016 Camerone Day in Aubagne, carried by General Grosjean. This opportunity is seen as the most deserved honor for any veteran of the French Foreign Legion.

 

1863 Battle of Camerone: Additional information

War Memorial at Camarón

In 1863, a simple wooden cross was raised at Camerone by the Foreign Regiment. In 1892, a small official tomb was built there by the then French ambassador in Mexico. Finally, a large war memorial replaced that tomb in the 1960s.

Battle of Camerone - War Memorial - Camaron - Mexico
War Memorial at Camarón. The current war memorial to commemorate the Battle of Camerone, as seen on a Veracruz State bulletin cover, was built at Camarón in the mid-1960s.
Battle of Camerone - War Memorial - Camaron - Mexico - 3 REI - 2013
Legionnaires of the 3e REI at Camarón in 2013, during the 150th anniversary of the legendary battle.

 

Camarón: La Trinidad Hacienda

The original La Trinidad Hacienda was built in 1814-17 and abandoned in the late 1850s due to the Reform War in Mexico (1858-60). In November 1864, a French railway reached Camerone. We don’t know if the farmyard still existed back then. However, a new village was established around the new station, a few hundred yards/meters distant from the original one. Thereafter, the railway was modernized in the 1890s and the location moved a little bit once again. The farmyard has been presented as demolished since then.

Today, a hacienda in the center of the town of Camarón is presented to tourists as the original La Trinidad Hacienda, occupied by the legionnaires of Captain Danjou during the epic battle. Its then interior side should be the current exterior facade and the building measures much less than 55 yards (50 m). But whatever we may think, if you are interested in the battle and think about visiting the town, visit also the hacienda.

Battle of Camerone - La Trinidad Hacienda - Camaron - Mexico
This building in Camarón is presented nowadays to tourist as the original La Trinidad Hacienda. It is located in the center of the town, on the main road, not far from the railway station.
Battle of Camerone - La Trinidad Hacienda - Camaron - Mexico
The same La Trinidad Hacienda of Camarón in the mid-1940s.

 

3rd Company: Forgotten officers

Captain J. Cazes. The official commander of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion, Foreign Regiment, when the Battle of Camerone happened. An officer since 1852, Captain J. Cazes was being detached to lead Medellin, a smaller outpost south-west of Veracruz. By an unbelievable quirk of fate, this forgotten officer followed almost the same destiny as Captain Jean Danjou, who replaced him for a one-day mission on April 30, 1863. Captain Cazes himself became an Adjutant, of the 2nd Battalion. In early March 1866, he was killled in front of the hacienda of Santa Isabel (Mexico), during a tragic battle considered as the second, but needless “Camerone”. A sad affair of Major Brian, his chief.

 
Lieutenant Gans. Another official member of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion and one of its three original officers, alongside Captain Cazes and Second Lieutenant Vilain. At the time of the Battle of Camerone, Lieutenant Gans with 15 years of service (most likely also a former legionnaire promoted to the officer rank, just as Vilain and Maudet) was suffering from malaria. In February 1867, when the Foreign Regiment was leaving Mexico, the men made a stopover at Camerone to pay homage to their fallen comrades, for the last time. Deeply moved Lieutenant Gans said to his friend that his place should have been there, among his dead men. He would die back in Algeria a few weeks later, from a disease caught in the Tropical lowlands of Mexico. He had 19 years of service and took part in many campaigns.

 
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Main information & images sources:
Testimony of Louis Maine (Revue des Deux Mondes, III. period, 1878)
Official report on the battle by Major Regnault, August 1863
Report on the battle by Colonel Milan, May 1863
Camerone by Jean Brunon (France-Empire, 1963)
Képi blanc magazines
Vert et Rouge magazines
The Mexican Adventure 1861-67 by René Chartrand (Osprey Military, 1994)
Camerone by Pierre Sergent (Historia, 1981)
Sur le Camerone by Pierre Sergent (RHA, 1980)
Veracruz State bulletin (July 2007)
Google Maps
Wikipedia.org

 
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More from the Foreign Legion’s history:
1908 Forthassa Disaster
Foreign Legion in the Balkans: 1915-1919
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1976 Djibouti helicopter crash
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1982 Mont Garbi Accident

 

 

The page was updated on: April 29, 2019

 

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