The Mexican War
President Polk had no intention of letting the Mexicans off the hook.
He was either less frightened or less kind to them than to the British,
or was it because he was a slaveholder? He had settled upon the
British a goodly part of the wonderful, free, well-watered and
well-settled territory of Oregon, whose American pioneers were
ready, with considerable Northern sentiment in their favor, to
fight for the disputed land.
Soon enough, now that the sheen had rubbed off the fur trade, the
Russians might retire and there might come a land juncture with an
American Alaska, the whole Pacific Coast, no less! Whereupon
Canada would collapse into itself until it should become totally
annexed by the United States, hopefully by peaceful means,
assimilating both Canadiens and Royalists in due course. (This
Author can yak Expansionist as well as the next jingo!) There was
no hurry about the Mexican lands; they were ripening on the vine.
The Texans were bellicose and would trespass willy-nilly.
Their story version went like this:
John Quincy Adams had given away part of the
Louisiana Purchase when, in his treaty with Spain,
he had agreed to its boundaries. On the South,
the Rio Grande should have been the boundary line
and on the West, a North-South line more or less
following the continental divide.
President Polk agreed.
In truth Polk wanted more, ultimately California and all that lay
between. He wrote the American consul in San Francisco, telling
him that, although the United States would not openly support an
independence movement of Californians, he would recognize an
independent nation of California - preliminary to
annexing it, of course.
He ordered the American Army under General Zachary Taylor
to move beyond the Nueces River, which practically every expert and
politician except himself and the Texans considered to be the boundary
of the United States, so as to take up positions 150 miles to the South
on the Rio Grande. The Mexican population was astonished
to see the American troops. Several bloody incidents occurred.
Fearful of "ethnic cleansing," those who could,
fled across the Rio Grande.
Polk was preparing a message to Congress, putting forward
various rationalizations for declaring war against Mexico,
when the best kind of excuse was afforded:
Mexican troops had attacked an American detachment North of the
Rio Grande,and killed or captured them all.
A call for thousands of militia went to the governors of Texas and
Louisiana, and Taylor sent a message to Polk saying that
"Hostilities may now be considered as commenced."
Polk had already pen in hand, concocting arguments for
going to war, like: Mexico owes us money for
damages to American citizens; and, Mexico has refused to receive
my negotiator John Slidell who was sent to buy up disputed lands.
But now he could declare that Mexico had "invaded our territory
and shed American blood upon American soil." He had the
gall to exclaim that "the cup of forbearance has been exhausted."
Congress promptly panicked and voted for war,
174-14 in the House, 40-2 in the Senate.
The debates were negligible. Opponents of the war
felt that they could not raise their voices. Congressman Joshua
Giddings of Ohio was one of a half-dozen who stuck it out, refusing to
vote appropriations for the troops, declaring that he would have no
part "in the murder of Mexicans upon their own soil, or in robbing
them of their country."
It must be said that Congress was sobered up when
Polk began to ask for money to carry on the War. Then the real
debate on the merits of War and expansion could be heard. Feeding
the flames was the eternally bobbing-up rider, the "Wilmot
Proviso," practically sure death for a money bill, since it forbade
using any funds to buy land in which slavery would be allowed.
(At this point in our history, both the Senate and the House
were fairly evenly divided between representatives
from the slave and from the free states.)
Walt Whitman, the poet, rationalized the war,
but poet James Russell Lowell spoke out against it,
and wondered why relations with the slave states
could not be severed. Henry Thoreau then wrote his famous
essay in favor of civil disobedience and went to jail for a night
(until his friends bailed him out - no Socrates he)
rather than pay taxes that would go to support the war.
The Anti-Slavery Society also denounced the War.
The press was gung-ho for conquest and expansion.
It mattered not to Americans that their country could not properly use
the vast lands that it already possessed. They wanted more, even
without end, to hear some versions of the expansionist dream. John
O'Sullivan, who coined the famous term in 1845, had said it was
"our manifest destiny to overspread the continent
allotted by Providence
for the free development of our
yearly multiplying millions."
The expansionist ideology took several forms. The sane propositions
dealt straight-out with the profits of land-grabbing, precious metals,
trade, and communications from coast to coast. They were, of course,
morally impermissible. The insane ones, morally more permissible in
American and some European minds, dealt with providential mission,
"laws" of national development, social duties, will of God, the
rightness of "Anglo-Saxon" rule over inferior peoples, and the desire
to extend the benefits of American liberty to peoples everywhere. Very
few talked of the costs in blood, destruction, and permanent hatred.
Not to mention delusion and wickedness.
Over 100,000 men were enlisted as volunteers in the American armed
forces, some thousands of them for longer terms as regulars, including
sailor and marines. At first, half were foreigners. (As usual, a promise
of land was made, and an immediate cash payment to
keep a family alive.)
The discipline, training, and conduct of the men were on the whole
bad. Many decided after a while that they had made a mistake;
desertions were at the high rate of 5% in the field; several mutinies
were aborted; insubordination was normal. One sizable group of
deserters, Irish Catholics, thought they might find a better life on
the Catholic premises of Old Mexico, but they were captured
hobnobbing with Mexican troops and shot offhand.
For the most part the Americans fought more savagely than the
Mexican troops, who outnumbered them generally but could
complain also of bad leadership, non-exploding ammunition, and
outmoded guns. Of the factors in morale, only the American food,
often rotten, was worse. Disease and accidents and friendly fire
accounted for more casualties than the actual fighting, which went to
make this war, and most other American conflicts, the more
disgusting for those who were near or into it.
The armed forces clashed in large and small engagements, all
bloody and for real. Taylor's Army won two victories North of the
river and then crossed the Rio Grande to occupy the town of
Matamoros. He marched upon Monterrey and took it after a brief
siege. There he had been joined by a column that had come from
Santa Fe via El Paso.
Damage to civilian property was great. A number of civilians were
killed. A large amount of killing, rape and looting was reported by
Mexican and religious sources, and by shocked American officers
and men. None of this was to be unusual; it occurred wherever
armies were engaged. Not alone in this war, as we have learned
from the colonial, Indian, and Revolutionary wars; but more would
occur, in wars to come.
Taylor had already given up his best troops, on orders from
President Polk, to reinforce General Winfield Scott in a new
strategy: to land an army near Vera Cruz, take the town, and from
there march up the highway to Mexico City. Taylor, who was a
stout-hearted man, instead of standing in place, advanced Southward,
there to encounter before long General
Santa Anna, Houston's old foe.
It seems that Santa Anna proposed to President Polk that he be
allowed to enter Mexico from his exile and ride to Mexico City,
where he would set up matters for a settlement in which America
would pay Mexico money in return for much territory. Instead,
Santa Anna's genius was once more recognized by his countrymen:
he was named President, and he led an army hastily North to strike
at Taylor. The two armies fought to a stand-off at Buena Vista, and
the front stabilized. Taylor went home on leave.
Scott's army met Santa Anna and the Mexican army at Cerro Gordo,
where the Americans evaded a trap and won the field, taking
many prisoners and much booty. Next the important town of Puebla
was captured. Time out was called, because here one-third of the
American Army disappeared, their periods of enlistment ended.
After several months, his forces doubled to 7,000 men by
reinforcements, Scott resumed his invasion and, although losing
contact with his base, was able to outflank the Eastern defenses of
the City and, in several sharp clashes, conquered it. The National
Palace, the "Halls of Montezuma," flew the Stars and Stripes.
Santa Anna resigned and again left the country. Polk's emissary,
Nicholas Trist, appeared on the scene to negotiate a peace treaty, but
could find no one with whom to deal. Polk, impatient with him,
dismissed him, but by the time Trist received his letter of recall, the
Mexican Congress named an interim government and appointed
commissioners to deal with him. So he went ahead anyway, sending an
explanatory report back to Polk, who just became angrier.
However, from Guadelupe Hidalgo village, there emerged in
January a treaty by that name, signed on
February 2, 1848, whereby Mexico gave up
all claims to all of its lands North of the Rio Grande,
including besides the greatly expanded Texas, the
territories of New Mexico (which included the now Arizona) and
California. The United States was to pay Mexico $15 millions and
to assume no more than $3.5 millions of claims of
American citizens against Mexico.
Nothing was said about the destruction of Mexican towns,
or deaths and injuries to Mexican citizens.
They had simply gotten in the way.
Polk accepted the Treaty, so did the Senate.
The fleet that had been blockading the Mexican Pacific ports
was disengaged, and American forces cleared out of
what was left of Mexico that summer.
There seemed nothing much that General Taylor and General Scott
could do anymore, unless it was to run for President.
So they did.