This stunning defeat is a point of pride for the French Foreign Legion
At the Battle of Camerone in 1863, 65 Legionnaires with the French Foreign Legion resisted a series of attacks by a 2,000-man Mexican force for 11 hours, killing about 300 of the Mexicans before the surviving Legionnaires demanded concessions from the Mexican commander.
The engagement centered on a small group of abandoned buildings in the desert. The Legionnaires were escorting a train of mules carrying gold with which to pay other regiments fighting deeper in Mexico.
When the Legionnaires stopped to rest, they were almost immediately spotted by a force of a few hundred Mexican cavalrymen. The commander, Capt. Jean Danjou, ordered a fighting withdrawal towards an abandoned Mexican estate.
Capt. Jean Danjou refused to surrender, even when 2,000 Mexican soldiers bore down on him. (Painting: Public Domain)
As the French made their withdrawal from the force they could see, some of the Mexican cavalrymen went around them to the estate and began taking positions in the second-floor windows of the main house. Other cavalrymen went to alert the Mexican main force which consisted of more cavalry and 1,200 infantrymen.
When the French made it to the estate, they were forced to take shelter in an outlying building as the Mexican sharpshooters kept them away from the main house.
The Legion had not been able to get much of their ammo and supplies from the mules when they began their withdrawal, and some versions of the story say that 16 men were captured during the withdrawal. So, either 65 or 49 men with little ammo were defending a building and a small yard surrounded by a stone wall.
Mexican cavalry attempted to force their way into the yard multiple times but the limited space made it hard for the cavalrymen to maneuver their horses. The Legionnaires fired their smoothbore muskets as quickly as they could, cutting down the cavalry and approaching infantry.
The Mexican commander then came and asked for the legion to surrender. His argument, that he still had nearly 2,000 men while the French had only a few dozen, was pretty sound. Unfortunately for him, the French had a few dozen Legionnaires.
"We have munitions," Danjou told the Mexican officer. "We will not surrender!"
The Mexicans resumed the attack, maybe figuring that they could force the French out or possibly that the French would finally surrender after they really did run out of ammo.
Danjou was killed soon after this exchange, struck in the chest by a bullet.
The Legion rallied under the direction of another officer, who told them, "My children! I command you now. We may die, but never will surrender."
Illustrations of the Battle of Camerone include a lot of bodies. (Illustration: Public Domain)
For hours, the Legionnaires beat off attack after attack while the wounded and dead were piling up. The officer who succeeded Danjou was killed and the last living officer, Lt. Clément Maudet, refused Mexico's next request for surrender.
In the following attack, another seven Legionnaires were killed, and Maudet was left with only five soldiers. They scrounged what little ammo they had and loaded one shot in each of their muskets.
These survivors burst from their cover and charged the Mexican lines, firing their shots and then fighting savagely with their bayonets.
The Mexican soldiers finally beat down the surviving Legionnaires with clubs and presented them to the Mexican commander. The commander then demanded their surrender.
Though gravely wounded, Lt. Maudet was still alive and in command. He finally agreed that he and the surviving Legionnaires would stop fighting, but he had some conditions. The either two or five surviving Legionnaires, reports vary, had to be allowed to carry the wounded, their regimental colors, and their commander's body from the field or they would resume resisting the Mexican forces.
What makes this request especially poignant is that Danjou was not the unit's normal commander. Maudet, Danjou, and the other officer were all assigned to the patrol at the last minute because the unit's normal officers were sick with fever. And Danjou was an amputee who lost his left hand in an earlier battle.
The Legionnaires were willing to leave only if they could take their temporary commander's fake hand with them. (Photo: Public Domain)
The Mexicans yielded to the Legionnaires' demands as a sign of respect for their fighting spirit.
Maudet died a week later from his injuries sustained in the battle. The body of Danjou, including Danjou's prosthetic hand, made it back to France.
The story was a piece of forgotten history for decades but was eventually revived as a symbol for the French Foreign Legion to take pride in, sort of their own Alamo.
"Camerone 1863" was embroidered on the 1st French Foreign Legion Regiment's colors along other storied battles the regiment took part in. Now, "Camerone Day" is a holiday for Legionnaires on Apr. 30 every year.
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