There is a wooden hand in a box and it is one of the most venerated artifacts of the Legionnaires. Getting to hold the hand on parade is considered to be one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed upon a Legionnaire. The hand belonged to Captain Danjou who led 64 men on a daring attempt to hold off a Mexican force of 3,000.
His courage, dedication and willingness to fight to the death made his story and that of the other men who fought at the Battle of Camarón one of the most cherished in Legionnaire history.
In 1863 the French were in the middle of an intervention into Mexico. The French wanted to put pressure on Mexico to get her to pay her debts to the European countries that had loaned money to the country, namely Spain, France and the United Kingdom. The French had already tried once to take the Mexican capital of Puebla in 1862 but were pushed back. In March of 1863 they tried again and by the end of April the attempt to take the city was still dragging on.
On April 29, a supply convoy was getting ready to relieve the Siege of Pueblo. Carrying ammunition, artillery and a fortune in gold francs it was desperately needed. Two companies of Fusiliers were commanded to protect the convoy on its dangerous journey ahead. The 3rd Company 1st Regiment of the French Foreign Legion was asked to scout ahead and plot a safe course for the convoy. There were 65 men but no officers in the company so three men volunteered to lead the regiment, including Captain Jean Danjou.
On April 30 at 1am, Danjou and his men set out to roam the countryside. A few hours later they reached La Trinidad Hacienda, a two-story ranch house surrounded by a 50-meter wall. They continued on and reached Palo Verde at 7am where they stopped for coffee. At 8am they spotted a Mexican cavalry and Danjou ordered the men back west to the ten foot walls of the hacienda.
Mexican Colonel Francisco De Paulo Milan wanted to eliminate the French forces before they could alert the convoy and tell of the ambush that was planned. Captain Danjou wanted to draw the Mexican forces away from the path of the convoy.
The Legionnaires had not made it far before they were met by the cavalry. Danjou ordered the men to form a hollow square and preserve their ammunition by waiting to fire until the Mexican forces were close enough that they knew they would not miss. The Legionnaires defeated the cavalry and pushed them back. This allowed the French forces to make it back to the hacienda but along the way 16 men were captured and they had to defend against a second charge from the cavalry.
The retreat of the cavalry was not the end. Danjou knew they would be back and likely in greater numbers. He sent word for the convoy to retreat, if the Legionnaires failed to stop the Mexican force, the convoy would be next. Knowing the convoy was safe, Danjou and his men worked to fortify their position. They shoved debris into any openings and around the perimeter.
The fortifications cut off any view of the battlefield so they lifted a man up onto the roof of the house to look. He came back with the sobering news that there were Mexican troops as far as the eye could see. Colonel Milan after hearing what happened to his cavalry, assumed that he was facing a large French contingent and therefore brought 3,000 men to defeat them.