It's Camerone Day again. I've added some information since last year to (hopefully) make for a better article.
April 30th is Camerone Day. All posts of the French Foreign Legion pause each year to honor the memory (even under heavy fire at Dien Bien Phu in 1954). France was emboldened to set up an empire in Mexico while the Civil War kept the U.S. from enforcing the Monroe Doctrine and, conversely, hastened to leave with the end of that war and a huge U.S. standing army starting to mass at the border. United States newspapers gave regular reports on the conflict with a strong pro-Mexican bias in the North.
At 1 AM, April 30th 1863, Captain Jean Danjou led the half strength 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion of the French Foreign Legion out from Chiquihuite, Mexico to scout the road for a convoy bringing supplies, siege artillery and 3 million in gold bullion from Vera Cruz.
The patrol was in response to a report from an Indian spy about a large Mexican force assembled to ambush the convoy. All officers of the 3rd were sick that day so Danjou along with Sous-Lieutenants Napoléon Vilain and Clément Maudet volunteered to lead the company. The Captain had lost his left hand in an accident years earlier and now wore an articulated wooden one in it’s place covered by a white glove. Stifling heat had modified the regulation uniform, white canvas trousers replaced the usual baggy red wool and the local sombrero was worn by all. Knapsacks and haversacks were left behind, each man carrying only rifle, canteen, sixty rounds and their beloved kepis hanging from the belt.
Six AM found the company halted by a pond a mile east of the village of Camerone where - following Legion custom - canteens were emptied into communal pots to make coffee and handed over to a detail for refilling. A sudden appearance by Mexican cavalry forced them to fall in without coffee or water and begin moving back towards the village.
The 3rd of the 1st - 65 officers and men - were now confronted with 300 to 400 cavalry and more arriving minute by minute attracted to the firing. The horsemen approached at a walk to within sixty yards before charging full speed at the French unit formed in square. Disciplined volleys quickly halted this attack and more saddles were emptied as they withdrew. Several more charges were beaten back but Captain Danjou realized they couldn’t remain in the open and decided to retreat to the shelter of a ruined two story hacienda where he would “amuse the enemy” and prevent them joining the ambush forces. Unfortunately the Mexicans got to the building first, occupying all but one room and, even worse, trying to cross a cactus filled ditch broke up the square’s cohesion briefly, sixteen men were cut off and overwhelmed as the pack mules carrying food, water and the reserve ammunition bolted.
The remaining 49, several wounded, took shelter in the adobe walled corral behind the hacienda and set up a defensive perimeter. The ten foot high walls had few loopholes except for three large breeches and the one room at the northwest corner of the hacienda that let them fire into the area along the road; the legionnaires could only shoot as men showed themselves at the hacienda windows, came over the walls or tried to force the breeches. Sergeant Morzycki climbed to the 2nd story roof to scout the situation. He reported a Mexican strength exceeding 600 cavalry and the approach of a messenger offering immediate surrender or certain slaughter. Morzycki came down to ask the Captain how to reply: “Réponds simplement que nous avons des cartouches et que nous ne nous rendons pas” - (“Simply say we have ammunition and we don’t surrender.”). Despite being outnumbered 10 to 1 the shared opinion was they could stand off any number of cavalry. As voiced by Corporal Berg: “With no bayonets on their short carbines, they did not have the ability to wipe out a Company of the Legion sheltered behind walls.”
By 9 AM the heat was suffocating and there was nothing to drink except for the Captain’s small flask of wine which he shared out equally – a few drops per man -- asking each to take an oath to fight to the death with him. With the Mexicans desperate to overwhelm the legionnaires quickly, intense fighting occurred at the gates and from room to room in the house. A couple of hours later the Captain kept his part of the blood oath, shot through the chest. Sous-Lieutenant Vilain took command and continued to beat back repeated assaults. A distant bugle at midday gave brief hope of rescue but turned out to herald the arrival of 1,500 Mexican infantry under command of Colonel Francisco de Paula Milan. Eager to end the siege and get on with the convoy ambush he offered surrender a second time. Morzycki replied on his own: “Merde!” Milan now franticly pushed his men over and over to breach the walls and destroy the little band of stubborn defenders but savage hand to hand fighting stopped them cold. Hour after agonizing hour the 3rd fought on under a blistering sun, nothing to drink. Those that could squeeze out a few drops of urine drank that, wounded men lying helpless in the corral opened their wounds and lapped at the blood. Vilain was hit in the forehead, dying instantly, and the remaining officer, Sous-Lieutenant Maudet took command, fighting on without false hope. Told Morzycki was dead, he replied coldly: “Bah! One more! Soon it’s our turn!” The steady attrition left no doubt of the eventual outcome but a third surrender demand was ignored completely.
Driven back from the walls, house and outbuildings set on fire by the Mexicans, the few remaining legionnaires gathered in the ruined stable and shot down anyone trying to cross the corral through the smoke. Just before dark, down to five men with one cartridge each, Maudet ordered: “You will fire on my command, then charge with the bayonet. You will allow me to lead. Mes enfants, I bid you farewell.”. A last small volley and a charge into hundreds of Mexican infantry ensued. All but Corporal Maine were hit immediately. Fusiler Catteau was shot nineteen times trying to shield the Sous-Lieutenant - but to no avail - Maudet was fatally wounded. The slaughter of the three left standing was only prevented by the intervention of Major Angel Luciano Cambas beating down the Mexican bayonets at their chests with his sword. His shout of “Surrender!” was met with a defiant demand - they would surrender only if they were allowed to keep their weapons and their wounded were cared for. “One can refuse nothing to men like you!” came his response. The battle was over. Said Colonel Milan: “Pero non son hombres! Son demonios!” – (“These are not men! They are devils!”)
It was a French defeat but a defeat that has defined the standard of “Fidelity to the Mission” for the Legion in the 149 years since. 65 legionnaires had fought some 2,100 infantry and cavalry for twelve hours, inflicted 300 casualties and saved the convoy from ambush. Danjou’s wooden hand was taken by the victors as a souvenir but later recovered and returned to France to become the Legion’s most precious possession.
Captain Jean Danjou lies today with the 3rd of the 1st in their mass grave near the site of the struggle beneath a monument inscribed:
THERE WERE LESS THAN SIXTY OF THEM
OPPOSED TO A WHOLE ARMY
IT’S MASS CRUSHED THEM
LIFE RATHER THAN COURAGE
ABANDONED THESE FRENCH SOLDIERS
April 30, 1863
“The History Of The French Foreign Legion From 1831 To The Present Day”
Lyons Press, 2005
“The French Foreign Legion”
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991
“The Hand Of Captain Danjou, Camerone And The French Foreign Legion In Mexico, 30 April 1863”
Marlborough, GB, The Cromwell Press, 2005
Ryan, James W.
“Camerone, The French Foreign Legion’s Greatest Battle”
Westport, CT., Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996
“Camerone, La Campagne Héroique de la Légion Étrangère Au Mexique”
Paris, Fayard, 1980
“Not Men But Devils.”
Military History Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 6
Maine, Corporal Philippe (interview with Lucien Louis Lande)
‘Le combat de Camerone: vu par le Caporal Maine’
“Vert et Rouge: Revue de la Legion Etrangere”
‘Cameron, 30 avril 1863:Episode de la guerre du Mexique’
“Revue des Deux Mondes, 28”