Camarón – 30 April 1863

Commemorations of the Battle of Camarón in Mexico.
Commemorations of the Battle of Camarón in Mexico. Source: Foreign Legion.

Created in 1831 by Louis-Philippe, the Foreign Legion has taken part in every conflict France has been involved with since and contributed to the formation of the French Empire.
In the mystique created around this elite corps, one exploit symbolises most its heroism and sense of duty: Camarón.
Corps 1

The Foreign Legion in Camarón. E. Détaille. Source: Musée de l'Armée

The Mexican Expedition

The Battle of Camarón is an episode in the Mexican Expedition, led by Napoleon III in 1861, in the middle of the American War of Independence to counter the expansion of the United States and its domination over the rest of the American continent, the Emperor believing at the time that the US posed a threat to European interests, France's in particular. The plan was to ”march on Mexico and boldly there plant our flag” to establish a monarchy, an idea proposed by Archduke Maximilian, the Emperor of Austria's brother, which Napoleon accepted after some deliberation.

Maudet's charge. Pierre Bénigni. Source: Musée du Souvenir de la Légion étrangère (Foreign Legion Remembrance Museum).

The port of Vera Cruz, in the Gulf of Mexico, and the fortified town of Puebla, protected the Mexico Road. In early 1863, the Legion regiment sent to Mexico to reinforce the French troops who had been stationed there for two years, were given the mission of ensuring the security of the supply convoys for the units leading the siege.

Intervention of the Foreign Legion

This company of the foreign regiment was under the command of Colonel Jeanningros, based in Sidi-bel-Abbès in Oran. After boarding the Saint-Louis, the legionnaires arrived into the port of Veracruz on 26 March 1863. Jeanningros' men were assigned the mission of keeping a part of the road from Veracruz to Cordoba under surveillance, the terras calientes section running between Tegeria-Chiquihuite.
On 29 April 1863, Jeanningros learned that a large convoy carrying three million in cash, equipment for ”HQ” and ammunition was en route for Puebla. Captain Danjou, his adjutant, took the decision to send a company ahead of the convoy. On 30 April, Colonel Jeanningros ordered Danjou's company to carry out a reconnaissance near Palo Verde, some 10 kilometres from Camarón. It was just at this moment that the enemy showed itself and battle commenced.

Captain Danjou Source:

Once he and his men arrived at the Hacienda Camarón, a large building containing a courtyard surrounded by a 3-metre high wall, Captain Danjou decided to make a defensive stand to fight the enemy. Captain Danjou responded to the Mexican Army by declaring: ”We have munitions. We will not surrender.” Then raising his hand he swore to fight to the death and he had his men swear the same oath. His 60 men resisted against 2,000 Mexican men: 800 cavalry men and 1,200 infantrymen.
Corps 2

At midday, Captain Danjou was killed by a shot to the chest. Sub-lieutenant Vilain took over but died two hours later after falling during an assault. At this point, the Mexican colonel managed to set fire to the inn.
The legionnaires persevered; many of them were killed until, after five hours, only 12 men remained standing under Sub-lieutenant Maudet.

Sublieutenant Maudet. Source:

The Mexican Army launched a final general assault through the gaps they successfully opened, but before that, Colonel Milan addressed a last warning to Sub-lieutenant.
At the end of battle only six men had survived: Sub-lieutenant Maudet, Corporal Maine and legionnaires Katau, Wensel, Constantin and Léonhart. Each of the men still had a bullet and, in a corner of the courtyard, they faced the enemy. Sub-lieutenant Maudet and two legionnaires fell to their death; Maine and his two comrades were massacred when a Mexican officer rushed to protect and save them crying: ”Surrender!” ”We will surrender if you promise to tend to our wounded and if you allow us to keep our arms.” They continued to stand with their bayonets raised. ”What can I refuse to such men?” replied the officer.
Captain Danjou's 60 men managed to kill 300 Mexican soldiers and wounded the same number of men.
Emperor Napoleon III decided that the name Camarón would be printed on the Foreign Legion's flag and that the names Danjou, Vilain and Maudet would be engraved in gold on the walls of the Invalides in Paris.
A monument was erected in 1892 on the battleground. It bears the inscription: Here there were less than sixty men fighting against an entire army. Its numbers crushed the, Life rather than courage abandoned these French soldiers on April 30, 1863. In their memory, the motherland has erected this monument.
On 30 April every year, the Foreign Legion commemorates the Battle of Camarén on its anniversary as part of its traditional celebrations during which the account of Camarón is read out to the troops in each unit of the Legion, wherever it is and whatever the circumstances. On this occasion, a legionnaire carries a wooden hand on a cushion. It ascends the sacred way that leads to the monument to the dead transported piece by piece from Sidi-bel-Abbès.
Captain Danjou's hand
After the combat, Colonel Jeanningros' rescue party found nothing but dead bodies. They looked in vain for Captain Danjou's articulated hand that 10 years earlier he had had made in Algeria following a fire arms accident. The prosthesis was found on 20 July 1865 by an Austrian lieutenant at the ranch owned by a Frenchman in the area around Tesuitlan, which he bought for 50 piastres. It is currently on display at the Museum of Aubergine.

Captain Danjou's wooden hand. Source: Musée du Souvenir de la Légion étrangère (Foreign Legion Remembrance Museum).

External website: Légion étrangère.