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The Book:

Under the orders of French Emperor Napoleon III, French troops arrive in Mexico in 1861 with a dual purpose: to conquer Mexico and to help the Confederacy win its war against the United States. As President Benito Juárez suspends payment of Mexico’s foreign debts, the French drop their façade of debt negotiations and head for Puebla, where they are soundly defeated in their attempt to capture the city.

The French withdraw from their stunning setback and spend the summer of 1862 nursing their wounds and awaiting reinforcements in Orizaba. This gives the Mexicans ample time to highly fortify Puebla against a future attack. During the spring of 1863, French troops head for Puebla and Mexico City in what they hope will be a pair of easy victories.

Juárez and his government flee Mexico City rather than trying to defend the capital against overwhelming odds. The French make their grand entrance and immediately encounter problems with the Catholic Church. Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, asked by the French to become emperor of Mexico, will not accept the throne without a “popular” vote from the people.

When the American Civil War ends in 1865, generals and high-ranking officials from the former Confederate government drift into Mexico. General Ulysses S. Grant’s U.S. Army is now free to stage maneuvers along the border, setting off panic in Mexico City and Paris. Grant’s move prompts Napoleon III to cut his losses and pull his troops out. Now, it’s only a matter of time before Mexican forces retake the country …

The Author:

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Don Miles has been News Director for radio stations in New York City, (WPAT,) Connecticut, Florida, Nebraska and finally Texas. He has won “Best Newscast” award from the Nebraska A.P. Broadcasters and his news teams in Florida and Nebraska have won numerous statewide awards. Don has served on the Board of Directors for Florida’s AP Broadcasters and has judged broadcast news contests for UPI Rhode Island. Don has taught at the Universities of Florida and Nebraska, at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and at elementary schools in New York, Connecticut, and Texas.

He is the author of two books in the field of broadcast news, (Broadcast News Handbook and Broadcast Newswriting Stylebook.) He has a Bachelors in Education from State University of New York and a Masters in Journalism and Communications from the University of Florida.

Don’s inspiration for the book came mainly from his late wife, Dr. Minerva González-Angulo Miles. Minerva grew up in the neighborhood at the base of Chapultepec Hill in Mexico City, where the Emperor Maximilian’s castle still stands. She would often visit the castle and view the portrait of the emperor and empress whose story is featured in this book.

Don and Minerva traveled extensively throughout Mexico, and over the past few years visited many libraries and bookstores there in the research for this book. They also spent many hours in the stacks at the Benson Latin American Library at the University of Texas in Austin, which is widely recognized as the premier source for information on this topic. They also paid several visits to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. to photocopy various U.S. government documents pertaining to the Mexican situation during the 1860’s.

Don has written and produced plays and slide shows about Cinco de Mayo for elementary students, teachers and parents.

Visit his website.

The Excerpt:

Excerpt From Cinco De Mayo
Chap. 14 – Foreign Legionnaires
Fight to the Death

The Legend of Camarón

Running out of ammunition at the wrong time had also raised General Forey’s anxiety level. Forey realized that his entire operation would be at risk if he couldn’t provide his troops with food and ammunition. The commander-in-chief had already detached extra troops from Puebla to guard the wagon trains, but now the bandidos and guerillas had dramatically stepped up their attacks on the convoys.

Forey called on the French Foreign Legion. They had just arrived in Veracruz.

They were approaching the little village of Camarón (which means shrimp in Spanish.) For a number of years it was called Villa Tejeda, but the name was changed again to “Camarón de Tejeda,” by which it is known today. The few authors who have written about it in English refer to it as “Camerone,” which is very close to how it’s pronounced in Spanish.

The legion had first seen action in the French conquest of Algeria in 1831. After serving during the Spanish Civil War in 1835, it was stationed in North Africa. Now, on the morning of April 30, 1863, the legion’s Third Company, under Captain Jean Danjou, was escorting a very important convoy from Veracruz. The wagons were bearing ammunition, artillery, food, provisions, and – most critically – three million French francs in gold to pay the troops at Puebla.

Danjou’s group consisted of sixty-four battle-hardened legion veterans: Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Danes, Italians, and Spaniards, in addition to the native Frenchmen. They feared nothing. They had taken the legion’s oath never to surrender.

Stalking the convoy was a Mexican force of somewhere between twelve hundred and eighteen hundred men, depending on whose account you choose to believe, led by a Colonel Francisco de P. Milán. Regular French troops were guarding the convoy itself, but Captain Danjou’s contingent was marching some distance ahead to search for possible assailants waiting in ambush. The legion officers normally in charge of this unit were hospitalized with yellow fever, so Danjou, along with second lieutenants Napoleón Vilain and Clement Maudet, had volunteered to lead this detail.

They had passed through Camarón at about 6:30 in the morning and were cooking breakfast near a location called Palo Verde at 7:00, when one of their sentinels spotted a dust cloud behind them. That could only mean one thing: a lot of people moving rapidly on horseback. They quickly put out their fires and raced toward Camarón, not stopping to retrieve their canteens of fresh water from the pack mules. At Camarón, they encountered several hundred Mexicans who were poised to attack the caravan, and the shooting began.

The convoy was alerted and reversed direction, successfully escaping the ambush, but the legionnaires’ pack mules also panicked and fled at the sound of gunfire, taking all the water and extra ammunition with them. By 8:00 in the morning, a few of the legionnaires had already been wounded.Danjou ordered his unit to take cover in a barn, but the Mexicans lost no time in taking over the huge farmhouse nearby, firing down at the besieged legionnaires from upper-story windows.

Mexican Colonel Milán realized that cavalry wouldn’t be of much help in taking the barn, so he started to surround it with infantry troops. After a few hours, nothing much had changed. The colonel found a Mexican officer of French heritage among his ranks, and he sent Captain Ramón Lainé with a white flag of truce to see if they could negotiate a surrender.

It didn’t work.

Captain Danjou said his legionnaires had plenty of ammunition, and that they’d keep on fighting.

By now, the Mexicans had surrounded the barn and were firing from all sides. It was a hot day, and the legionnaires inside were just discovering that the only canteens they had were filled with wine, not water, because the pack mules had run away with the water as the fighting started. It was going to be a long afternoon.

Although the Mexicans had obvious superiority in numbers, the legionnaires had the upper hand in training and firepower. Most of the Mexicans were of the “national guard” variety. They had left their farms and small businesses just days earlier to help defend their country, while the legionnaires were well accustomed to the sound of gunfire and highly experienced in the art of war. The Mexicans had ball-and-musket rifles, which gave off so much smoke that at times they couldn’t see what they were shooting at. The legionnaires were firing percussion-driven cylinders with pointed tips, known as “bullets,” and they could see exactly where they were aiming.

In spite of all their technical superiority, the legionnaires were fighting a losing battle. Captain Danjou and Lieutenant Vilain were both dead before noon, and the command fell to Lieutenant Maudet for the rest of the afternoon. Inside the barn, things were going from bad to worse. Ammunition was running out, and the extra supply had vanished with the pack mules. The Mexicans
kept charging the barn, and although they were driven back, they were killing another legionnaire or two each time. By 5:00 PM, the legionnaires had already stripped whatever ammunition was left from the bodies of their dead comrades.

The Mexicans knew they had won, but they also knew that the remaining legionnaires intended to fight to the death. They set fire to some straw and threw it into the barn, hoping to bring the matter to a close. The legionnaires just stamped out the burning straw and continued firing through the smoke.

By 6:00 PM, only Maudet and four of his legionnaires were still alive. Each man had only one round of ammunition left. The lieutenant had a decision to make.

“Reload,” he ordered. “Then fire on my command and follow me. We’ll finish this with our bayonets.”

It was going to be a suicide charge.

The Mexican commander, Colonel Milán, ordered his troops to cease fire. All five legionnaires were captured after some brief hand-to-hand fighting, but Lieutenant Maudet and one of his men died of their wounds within a short time. The remaining three were hospitalized, along with the Mexican wounded.

The French later returned to put up a monument at the scene of the battle. For many years, members of the French Foreign Legion have returned each April 30 to what is now called “Camarón de Tejeda” to honor the courage of their fallen heroes. The encounter still stands as the worst defeat in legion history.

CINCO DE MAYO is available from Amazon and B&N in both hardback and paperback.

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In this interview, author and former news director Don Miles talks about his latest book, Cinco de Mayo–a date most often misunderstood in the US. Don talks about his inspiration for the book and his struggle in finding the right publisher.

When did you decide to become an author?  Do you have another job besides writing? 

Believe it or not, I’m supposed to be “retired.”  I’ve written all my books so far because there was a  problem to be solved in each case and few or no books on how to solve them. As a news director in the late 1960’s I got tired of writing memos to my reporters and anchors in radio newsrooms, so I came out with a book called Broadcast News Handbook.  As a professor at the University of Florida in the 1970’s, I had 65 undergraduates in the newsroom and no style book, so I wrote one for them.

Tell us a bit about your book, and what inspired you to write such a story. 

Cinco de Mayo means “the fifth of May,” and this latest book was triggered when the principal at an elementary school where I was teaching in Texas told the whole school on the P.A. system that May fifth was Mexican Independence Day. Well, no it’s not – it’s September 16th – so I went to her office to say that, and her attitude was “We’ve always taught it that way, so don’t make trouble.” I looked in libraries, bookstores – all over the place – for a book that would prove her wrong, but there was nothing in print for adults. There are 56 children’s books on the market, and almost all of them have the French army show up and lose the battle, but then when you turn the page it says something like, “Now, here’s how to make a piñata for your classroom party!” That’s when I said to myself, “Somebody’s got to write this book.” So, here we are!

My real inspiration in this case was a smiling young señorita from Mexico City who came up to me in the cafeteria at college and said, “Hi, I’m one of the foreign students. May I sit here?” Well, sure, it’s the cafeteria, right? To make a long story short, we got married and we traveled all over Mexico for  more than 40 years. I didn’t have a book in mind for at least the first 35 years, but when I told her what the principal had said to me, we started scouring the stacks of libraries in Texas, Washington-DC, Mexico City, Veracruz, Orizaba, Puebla, – you name it. Yes, I had to write an outline. There was a lot of information in more than 100 books, some of them dating back to the late 18-hundreds, so an outline was the best way to sort it all out. It took me five years to write it.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity? 

Writer’s block?  Not really.  As I said, my motivation has always been, “Somebody’s gotta write this,” so when I commit to the topic, the whole project sort of gains a life of its own, like a runaway train. I’ll admit to you, though, that I wrote a complete novel about Cinco de Mayo before I wrote the non-fiction book that’s been published. As I resumed sending the manuscript for the novel around, a reviewer said that one of my characters was “flat,” meaning that she was just “there” in every scene but didn’t do much. After a few days, I had her kidnapped by a serial killer, but that’s as close as I’ve ever come to  writer’s block. Even then, the delay was because I was busy with other stuff and had deliberately set the manuscript aside.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one? 

My advice would be, “Keep your day job.”  I was rejected by 44 agents over more than a year of sending out queries for the novel, but when one of them wrote on the rejection slip, “I’d like to see a non-fiction version of this,” I immediately got in touch with him and he took me on. Even he couldn’t find me a traditional publisher, though, so I finally laid out my own money and went with a subsidy publisher. At least we were talking about a real book, not just an idea or a manuscript. I’m about ready to upgrade from there, and I’ll have two editions in Spanish coming out in ’09, with maps and charts and a lot of nice color graphics.

What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you? 

I have one of the best publicists in the business, and together we’ve spent the past year researching that very question. I told a panel at “Book Expo America” in New York last summer that my best responses were coming from libraries, museums and the field of education, but I said that Barnes & Noble, Borders and the other major book stores were not putting it on their shelves. One of the panel members told me how to solve the problem. He said, “Just change the title to The Secret Diary of Anna Nicole Smith!”  Oh, sure. On the other hand, I addressed a faculty gathering at the University of Texas     on May 4th, the night before Cinco de Mayo, and the very next day I sold 19 books at Book People, the state’s largest independent bookstore, a few blocks away. Unless you’re already famous, you’re going to be in a “learning process” when the book comes out. You have to be flexible and patient.

What is your favorite book of all time? Why? 

Oh, I’d have to say  Three Cups of Tea,  by Greg Mortenson.  He’s a mountain-climber, and when he failed to make it to the top of one of the world’s toughest peaks known as “K-2,” he wound up in a little village in Pakistan. They were extremely poor, but since they had treated him with such warmth and kindness, he promised that he would come back and build a school for them. Well, this is way up in the Karakoram mountains, where the Taliban got its start. This is the story of how he not only went back and built a school, but in the next ten years he built 55 of them. It’s a really fine example of      Americans at their best, and a relief from all the “negatives” we hear in the news lately.

Do you have a website or blog where readers may learn more about you and your work? 

I’m  so  glad you asked!   It’s only a website right now, but I hope to add a blog within the year. It’s simply  www.DonMiles.com.

Do you have another book in the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects? 

I’m expecting to have the two Spanish editions out sometime next year – one for students taking Spanish and the other for Latin America. Then, there’s the novel which has been on the back burner for a few years, which will come out in both English and Spanish, and I’m going to be in Mexico a number of times before this year is out – recording some DVD’s – for a documentary, for some visuals that Spanish and History teachers can use, for promotional purposes, and some of my friends and family members are mulling over the possibility of a movie. We’ll see. It’s fun dreaming about it.

Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work? 

Oh, just that a very supportive family has been the foundation of everything I’ve achieved. My wife – that señorita I told you about – became a United States citizen and earned a bachelor's, a master's and a P-H-D, and taught at several universities. The book is dedicated to her. She died in 2006, but lived long enough not only to see both our daughter and son graduate from college and get married, but to see our daughter become a helicopter pilot and our son work at the White House.

Our daughter is now retired from the military, and our son is now the National Security Council Director for Canada and Mexico. I’m very proud of each of them, and very grateful for the enabling role that all of them have played in my life.  I might not have ever written a book without them.

Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here. 

You’re very welcome! Thanks for having me.

 

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