April 12, 2005

The Demons of Camerone Part 1

The French have a well deserved reputation for surrendering in the face of the enemy. Not since the days of Napoleon have they offered an effective fighting force. This is a fact they realized themselves over 160 years ago when they were forced to form the French Foreign Legion. The Legion was the brainchild of Marshal Soult, one of Napoleon's Field Marshals. At the time of its formation most French thought the Legion was a disgrace and were offended that mercenaries had to be used to fight the Nation's battles.

The Legion was given the dirty jobs the French regular Army was too soft to handle. They subjugated North Africa, they were rented to Spain, they carried the brunt of the French fighting in the Crimea and Peidmonte Wars. The Legion was only for the strongest. Discipline was brutal. Soldiers from the Legion were separated from their homeland and family. For them, the French Foreign Legion was "Legio Patria Nostra" -- The Legion is our Country.

By 1860 Mexico had finished a bloody Civil war. The economy was ruined. The Government could not pay its debts(some things never change). President Benito Juarez suspended payment of all foreign debt. French Emperor Napoleon III took strong exception. He invaded Mexico with the intention of installing his own puppet government under Archduke Maximillian. Wait a minute you might ask? What about the Monroe Doctrine. Well you see the French did not have to worry about the US as we were in the middle of a little altercation already -- our own Civil War.

The Legion was given the duty of guarding the supply lines in the malaria zone of the coastal plain from Vera Cruz to Cordoba. Legionaire ranks were soon depleted by Malaria, typhus and Yellow Fever. On April 20, 1663 a convoy of artillery, ammunition and paychests left Vera Cruz. The Mexican army soon caught word and set out to attack the convoy.

The French learned of this impending attack and sent the Third Company of the First Battalion French Foreign Legion to scout the route back to the convoy. This reconnaissance in force was to travel down the Vera Cruz road to Palo Verde, a trip of about 20 miles. The Third Company had a nominal strength of 120. Disease had thinned the ranks to just 62 men when the march began. All the officers were sick, so command was given to Captain Jean Danjou. The Captain was a longstanding veteran who had lost his hand in the Crimea. He sported a wooden left hand held on with a leather cuff.

The Company left their post at Chiquihuite around just after midnight on April 30. They passed an abandoned and partially destroyed hacienda called Camerone. The traveled on a few more miles to Palo Verde even more ruined and deserted. This was the limit to the patrol. Danjou allowed the men breakfast, but they no sooner lit the cookfires when Mexican Cavalry was spotted to the West.

Danjou moved the men quickly back in the direction of Chiquihuite, using the scrub away from the road as to avoid detection. Just past Camerone, the small column was attacked by Mexican cavalry. The pack mules with the spare water and ammunition fled in panic. Danjou retreated south of the road where he beat off another attack by forming his company into a square. The company moved toward the ruined hacienda at Camerone for protection, and 16 stragglers were cut off. Danjou got his company to the safety of the ruined adobe walls, only to find Mexican snipers have occupied the upper floors. A long fire fight ensued. By about 8:00 am The remaining 46 Legionaires are surrounded by about 800 Mexican Cavalry, snipers cover most of the courtyard where the Legionaires are holed up and an unknown number of local guerrillas have joined the fray.

At around 9:30 a Mexican Army officer came forward under a flag of truce. He informed the Legionaires that they were now surrounded by more than 2,000 soldiers. He offered generous terms of surrender. Danjou replied that he had plenty of ammunition and he would never surrender.

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