YOU lead a company of legionnaires in desperate combat against a much larger Mexican force.
When the republic of Mexico’s president Benito Juárez suspended interest payments for the country’s foreign debts in June 1861, three of Mexico’s principal European creditor nations – France, Britain and Spain – formed a military coalition to force resumption of the payments. From December 1861 to January 1862, coalition naval and ground forces arrived and seized Mexican ports at Veracruz and Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico coast to use them as advanced land bases for further military campaigns. However, in April 1862 the coalition fell apart, largely due to the unbridled ambition of French Emperor Napoleon III.
Although Napoleon III (nephew of the great Napoleon I but woefully lacking his uncle’s genius) had claimed that his motivation for intervention was “maintaining free trade,” Britain and Spain soon discovered that his real aim was to seize all of Mexico. Despite the collapse of the coalition, France pressed ahead with military intervention on its own.
The Mexican republic fiercely resisted this blatant aggression by the much stronger European power. Indeed, the Mexicans turned back France’s first attempt to capture their capital, Mexico City, with a victory over a 6,500-man French army at the Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862 (four days later, Juárez declared “Cinco de Mayo” a national holiday). The French were forced to withdraw, regroup and await reinforcements.
Undeterred by the setback at Puebla – and encouraged that the Western Hemisphere’s principal military power, the United States, was fully engaged in the American Civil War and thus unable to interfere – Napoleon III sent troop reinforcements to Mexico beginning in September. By March 1863, this included a two-battalion regiment (2,000 men) of the French Foreign Legion under the command of Colonel Pierre Joseph Jeanningros.
On March 16, as part of another attempt to capture Mexico City, a French army of 24,000 troops began a siege of Puebla. As the siege progressed throughout April, the sizeable French force operated at the end of a long, tenuous supply line that extended through the hostile Mexican countryside back to the main base at Veracruz. Since the vital supply line was highly vulnerable to attacks by Mexican regular army and irregular guerrilla forces, French units were assigned to sections of it to provide convoy security. The Foreign Legion’s 1st Battalion was given responsibility for a 25-mile sector between Soledad and Chiquihuite.
We take you back to April 30, 1863, near the small village of Camerone, Mexico, where you will play the role of Captain Jean Danjou, commander of the French Foreign Legion’s 3d Company, 1st Battalion, conducting a security patrol along the Chiquihuite-Soledad road east of Camerone. Moments ago, while your 65-man company was temporarily halted roadside just east of Camerone, a force of 800 Mexican cavalrymen suddenly appeared to the north. Although your men repelled an initial attack by 50 of the enemy soldiers, it was only the opening action of what will certainly be a fierce battle against daunting odds. Your mission is to determine how best to defend against this much larger enemy force. Given that French units are widely dispersed along the entire length of the supply line, you cannot expect timely reinforcements. Your company must fight the upcoming battle on its own.
WOODEN-HANDED CAPTAIN France’s King Louis Philippe created the Foreign Legion in 1831, three years after you were born. Led by French officers, the legionnaires are recruited foreigners – including Swiss, Germans, Poles, Italians, Spaniards, Dutch, Belgians and English – and by law they must serve outside the borders of Metropolitan (mainland) France. The legion has established its reputation as an elite infantry unit in numerous combat operations in France’s Algeria colony (1831-47), Spain’s Carlist War (1835-39), the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Italian War of Independence (1859).
After graduating from Saint-Cyr military academy and serving three years in a regular French army infantry unit, you joined the Foreign Legion in 1852 as a lieutenant. Your first posting was to French Algeria; in May 1853, while on a mapping expedition there, you lost your left hand and lower forearm when a faulty weapon you were holding exploded. You replaced the partial limb with an articulated prosthetic wooden hand, and the injury has not prevented you from leading legionnaires in combat. Indeed, you fought gallantly in the Crimean War’s famed battles of the Alma, Inkerman and Sevastopol, and you received a promotion to captain in 1855. In 1859, you served in combat during the Italian War of Independence, fighting in the battles of Magenta and Solferino.
When Jeanningros’ two-battalion regiment was sent to Mexico, you were assigned as regimental quartermaster-adjutant. Yesterday, April 29, Jeanningros informed you of an important convoy scheduled to travel today from Veracruz to Puebla. Inside its wagons are 3 million francs plus guns, ammunition and other important supplies needed to support the ongoing siege at Puebla.
Since legion units are responsible for convoy security in their assigned sections of the long Veracruz-Puebla supply route, Jeanningros accepted your recommendation that 3d Company, 1st Battalion, be given the mission to provide security on the road between Chiquihuite and Soledad. Moreover, since the company’s assigned officers have all been stricken with yellow fever, you volunteered to command the unit.
The officers are not the only ones ravaged by the deadly disease the Mexicans call vomito negro – “black vomit,” one of the horrific symptoms of yellow fever. Normally 100 men strong, 3d Company now musters only 62 legionnaires. Joined by two officers who volunteered for the mission, Lieutenants Jean Vilain and Clement Maudet, at 1 a.m. today you led a force of 65 men from the company’s base at Chiquihuite to patrol and secure the road to Soledad prior to the convoy’s arrival. Shortly after 6 a.m., the company passed through the village of Camerone, about 15 miles west of Soledad. Halfway between Camerone and an isolated farmstead called Hacienda de la Trinidad, you halted your force at roadside for breakfast.
Your legionnaires are armed with Model 1857 Systeme-Minié Rifle-Muskets – .71-caliber, muzzle-loading percussion weapons with 18-inch “sword” bayonets – and they each carry 60 paper-wrapped powder-and-bullet cartridges in a leather waist pouch worn at the front. The officers carry swords and .43-caliber Perrin six-shot revolvers. The legionnaires’ distinctive uniforms consist of dark blue wool jackets with prominent tasseled epaulets, red baggy trousers extending below the knee, leather ankle boots, and red and blue kepis (although many of the men wear locally obtained broad-brimmed, straw sombreros to protect against the sun).
In general, the Mexican threat to the French supply line is two-fold: irregular guerrilla fighters, and regular army infantry and cavalry. The guerrillas – local peasants armed only with machetes and a few castoff firearms – are not a major concern for the disciplined French troops unless fighting alongside a regular army force. Mexican army infantry and cavalry units, when competently led, fight very effectively, as demonstrated by their May 1862 victory at Puebla. Mexican infantrymen carry muzzle-loading rifle-muskets similar to your legionnaires’ weapons and, like all regular army troops, are trained to execute standard infantry tactics and battlefield maneuvers. The cavalrymen – expert horsemen trained to fight mounted and dismounted – are armed with lances, swords, muzzle loading carbines and pistols.
CAMERONE, APRIL 30
Between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. today, as your legionnaires made campfires to cook breakfast, a force of 800 Mexican cavalrymen suddenly appeared several hundred yards to the north. With your company caught on the road in open terrain, you immediately ordered the men to “form square,” the standard tactical formation for infantry to defend against a cavalry attack. The highly disciplined legionnaires obeyed instantly, fixing bayonets and forming ranks in the shape of a hollow square in plenty of time to meet a mounted charge initiated by about 50 Mexicans. As the enemy cavalrymen rode to within 70 yards with their lances leveled, you ordered your men to fire a volley that brought down several horses and riders and sent the rest galloping back north to the main Mexican force.
Although some of your legionnaires had burst into spontaneous cheering at defeating the cavalry charge, you realized that the Mexican commander was only testing your defenses and measuring the strength of your firepower. You had no doubt that the charge was only the beginning of what would be a desperate fight for survival by your heavily outnumbered men. Moreover, you assumed that the enemy commander was quickly gathering reinforcements – regular infantry and cavalry as well as guerrillas – which would soon make his force several times larger than it already was. Now, while still standing at your command position in the center of the square, you summon Lieutenants Vilain and Maudet to your side. “Do not be fooled by the ease with which we turned back the Mexican cavalry charge,” you warn them. “Our enemy was only feeling us out. No doubt the Mexicans are preparing to attack again, and they will come in much greater numbers – too many for our small hollow square to withstand. We must prepare to defend against the next onslaught. I am considering three possible courses of action. Listen closely as I explain each one, and then give me your candid assessment.”
Course of Action One: Defend at Camerone
“The first plan,” you begin, “is to march our men back to Camerone as quickly as possible and occupy the village by dispersing them in squads inside the houses and buildings. This will force the Mexicans to engage in closequarters urban combat in Camerone’s narrow streets and alleys, significantly limiting their mobility and freedom of maneuver. Fighting within these restricted confines also prevents them from using their soldiers in a mass attack, thereby helping our legionnaires overcome the enemy’s greater numbers.”
Lieutenant Vilain nods in agreement. “Yes, Captain,” he replies, “the enemy commander will be unable to use sheer numbers to overwhelm our legionnaires since he must fragment his force to attack our dispersed squads. And our men’s firepower will turn Camerone’s maze of confined streets and alleys into death traps as the Mexicans crowd through them to attack us.”
“My main concern with this plan,” Lieutenant Maudet interjects, “is that by scattering the squads throughout the village, we make exercising command and control very difficult, if not impossible. Although this option does fragment the attacking force, it also fragments our company, putting it at risk of being defeated in detail since the enemy could overwhelm the squads one by one. We also risk losing the vital cohesion, psychological boost and moral support that soldiers gain from fighting side by side as a single unit. I fear our legionnaires will feel isolated and vulnerable, and their morale – the legion’s greatest strength – will plummet.”
Course of Action Two: Defend at the Hacienda
“The second option,” you continue, “is to move the company as a single unit to Hacienda de la Trinidad. The farmstead’s thick, 9-foothigh walls and limited number of heavy-gated entrances make it a perfect fortress. It is completely surrounded by flat, open terrain and thus offers good fields of fire for shooting down any approaching enemy force.”
Lieutenant Maudet supports this course of action, saying, “Captain, this plan keeps the company together and provides for effective and continuous command and control. Importantly, the open fields of fire on all sides will ensure our legionnaires can wreak the greatest slaughter with their rifle-muskets, which are much longer-ranged than the Mexican cavalrymen’s carbines.”
“What Clement has said may be true,” says Vilain, “but unlike the first plan that spreads out our men, this one gives the Mexicans a single bastion to target. All of our eggs, so to speak, are in one basket, too easily crushed by a single powerful blow.”
Course of Action Three: Break Out Cross-Country
“The third plan,” you explain, “is to avoid a battle against such great odds by breaking out cross-country to the south. Unlike the open ground here near the road, the land there is rugged, rock-strewn and choked with cactus and brush. A massed cavalry charge would prove impossible, as even large formations would have to dismount and walk the horses over the broken ground. This would reduce the enemy cavalrymen to nothing more than marching infantrymen – and no soldier in the world can outmarch a legionnaire!
“Rotating our squads, we will use one at a time as a rear guard to further delay the Mexicans if they come close. After we have eluded the enemy by marching south for several miles, I will decide whether we will turn east to Soledad or west to Chiquihuite to rejoin the French forces at those locations.”
“Captain,” Vilain responds, “our most important task is to ensure the security of the convoy, yet this plan abandons our section of the supply road to the enemy’s control. While our men may escape danger, the Mexicans will be free to seize the wagons and all that they carry. The honor of the legion demands that we stand and fight, whatever the outcome!”
With a quick glance to the north, you realize the Mexican force is forming ranks for another attack. Worse, you also see telltale dust clouds to the northeast and northwest, indicating even more enemy soldiers are approaching. The time to act is now!
What is your decision, Captain Danjou?
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.