Texas and the Mexican War

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Written for both the specialist and the casual reader, Texas and the Mexican War discusses the pivotal role Texas played in the Mexican War, battles fought on Texas soil, and the contributions—for better or sometimes worse—of Texas troops throughout the war.

Since the opening of hostilities in 1846, the Mexican War has remained controversial. Author Charles M. Robinson III describes how attitudes of the era were influenced by sectional, political, and social differences, and, in recent times, by comparison to conflicts such as Vietnam. Robinson draws on U.S. and Mexican sources to discuss conditions in both countries that he believes made the war inevitable.

Besides examining the political and military differences, he reveals the motivations, egos, pettiness, and quarrels of the various generals and politicians in the United States and Mexico. He also looks at how the common soldier saw the war. The extensive citations include commentaries on the historiography of the war. The book is profusely illustrated with contemporary photographs, sketches, and drawings, many from the author’s own collection.

Besides an account of the war itself, sidebars throughout the book titled “Then and Now” serve as a guide for those who want to visit important Mexican War sites in Texas, northern Mexico, and Louisiana.

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1. Texas, Manifest Destiny, and National Honor

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TEXAS, MANIFEST DESTINY, AND NATIONAL HONOR

THE UNITED STATES FOUGHT a war with Mexico for several reasons: annexation of Texas to the United States, the American belief in Manifest Destiny, political instability in Mexico, and a desire for war in both countries. The last reason is perhaps the most important and, in our time, the most overlooked. The current opinion, which arose even as the war was entering its final phases and has been accepted ever since, was that the United States, a great power, arbitrarily provoked a war with Mexico, a weak power, for territorial aggrandizement.

The idea took hold in Mexico as military disasters followed one another in rapid succession, culminating in the loss of almost half its territory. The situation was further aggravated by the generally condescending attitude of the United States government toward Mexico in the years since the war and by what Mexicans perceive as various and routine U.S. infringements on their national sovereignty.

In the United States, there are several causes for the view that the war was unprovoked and unpopular. Although the antiwar Whig Party was entering the final decade of its existence as the war ended, the American press still was largely Whig controlled. Whig authors, such as Nathaniel Covington Brooks with his exhaustive and appropriately titled Complete History of the Mexican War, and Col. Albert C. Ramsey of the Eleventh Infantry, who translated, edited, and annotated a compilation prepared by a group of Mexican participants in the war, appear to have been more numerous than expansionist authors like John Stilwell Jenkins, whose equally competent History of the War between the United States and Mexico appeared almost simultaneously with Brooks’s work.1 The claim of Whig politicians that the war was nothing more than a Southern conspiracy to create a slave empire in the West seemed validated with the free soil controversies that arose during the following decade, culminating in the Civil War.2 The fact that future notables like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant opposed the Mexican War also lent credence to a modern view of the war as an act of aggression, and in the 1960s and 1970s it became fashionable to compare the Mexican War with the ongoing conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia. Finally, one must not overlook the fact that, in terms of deaths against the number of troops in the field, it was the costliest war in U.S. history. As the casualty lists grew, so did opposition to the war.

 

2. “Hostilities . . . Have Been Commenced”

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“HOSTILITIES . . . HAVE BEEN COMMENCED”

Gen. Zachary Taylor’s camp at Corpus Christi appears placid in this view, belying the months of boredom, rattlesnakes, and generally miserable living conditions as the men waited out events in Washington and Mexico City. John Frost, Pictorial History of Mexico and the Mexican War (Philadelphia: Charles Desilver, 1862), Author’s Collection.

SOON AFTER TAKING OFFICE IN MARCH 1845, President Polk ordered Bvt. Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor to assemble two thousand troops at Fort Jesup, Louisiana, on the presumption that Texas would agree to the annexation terms recently approved by the U.S. Congress. On May 28, Secretary of War William L. Marcy advised Taylor that as soon as the Texas Congress consented to annexation and convened an assembly to accept the U.S. terms, the government in Washington would consider it entitled to U.S. protection “from foreign invasion and Indian incursions.” In the event of Indian depredations, Taylor was instructed to consult with Texas authorities because of their “superior local knowledge,” but would not serve under their jurisdiction.

 

3. The Opening Guns

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THE OPENING GUNS

ON PAPER, THE MEXICAN ARMY was formidable, yet its effectiveness was hampered by the generally chaotic conditions that prevailed in Mexico. Not only was the service divided by the various political rivalries among the generals, the vast size of Mexico and its lack of infrastructure fragmented the army to the point that drill, discipline, and a sense of mission were difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The military academy at Chapultepec Castle, outside Mexico City, provided a thorough education, but had no program of recruitment or retention. Most young Mexican men were not interested in the military profession, and those that were found it easier to gain a commission by supporting a particular general in a political crisis than sitting through the three-year curriculum. Consequently, Chapultepec never instilled the level of training or purpose of its U.S. counterpart.1

Militarily, the United States was not prepared, because it suffered from a popular suspicion of standing professional armies and a misplaced confidence in the citizen-soldier concept. The army’s authorized strength, 8,613 officers and men, was small enough, but at the beginning of 1846 it had more than three thousand vacancies. A generation had passed since the War of 1812, and veterans of that war were now late middle age or older. Such fighting as the U.S. Army had seen since then had been more in the nature of police actions against Indians. It was increasingly obvious that the war would be taken into Mexico, and the country had never mounted a major campaign beyond its own boundaries or immediate capabilities of support. Additionally, the American system of war management—if indeed a system really existed—depended more on political loyalties than on competence.2

 

4. Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma

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PALO ALTO AND RESACA DE LA PALMA

BROWN’S SIGNAL GUNS CREATED a new sense of urgency in Point Isabel. At 3 P.M. on May 3 Taylor issued orders to march for Fort Texas. He told the troops that they might have to drive the Mexicans from the route of march, but that he had every confidence in their abilities and knew the outcome of any battle would be victory.1 The orders encouraged the troops. According to Henry, “The order, in advance, announced a victory. There was no doubt expressed by it. Commanding a much inferior force, composed of troops few of whom had ever ’smelt gunpowder,’ our brave general, nevertheless, speaks to them as old veterans.”2

Arista, meanwhile, was unfamiliar with the terrain and tried to find the best spot to cut the road Taylor would use between Point Isabel and Matamoros. The Mexican army camped on high ground overlooking the plain of Palo Alto the night of May 7. The following morning, scouts brought word that the Americans were coming. Arista broke camp, made final preparations, threw a line across the road, and waited. Despite an outward bravado borne of numerical superiority, morale in the army was low. Three changes in command inside of a month had undermined the average soldier’s faith in his leaders. General Ampudia, resentful of his subordinate status, undermined Arista at every turn. Arista himself was under pressure from the government to take early, decisive action and was not certain that he was ready.3 As one contemporary Mexican writer noted, “The spirit of discord raising its head, grew rapidly, and these shameful dissensions were, as we will see, one of the principal causes of the disasters which precipitated the long series of our defeats.”4

 

5. Occupation

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OCCUPATION

Recruits drill on the beach as volunteers arrive to augment Taylor’s army. The United States relied heavily on ill-trained and poorly disciplined citizen volunteers for the bulk of its fighting power. John Frost, Pictorial History of Mexico and the Mexican War (Philadelphia: Charles Desilver, 1862), Author’s Collection.

EVEN AS THE TWO ARMIES were fighting at Resaca de la Palma, President Polk met with his cabinet. Unaware of events on the Rio Grande, the main concern was breaking what appeared to be an impasse between the United States and Mexico. “I said that in my opinion we had ample cause of war,” Polk wrote in his diary, “and that it was impossible that we could stand in statu quo, or that I could remain silent much longer; that I thought it was my duty to send a message to Congress very soon and recommend definite measures.” All agreed that if the Mexicans committed any hostile act, the president would ask Congress for a declaration of war. At 6 P.M. the same day, however, Adjutant General Jones arrived with dispatches from Taylor describing the attack on Thornton’s men several weeks earlier. Polk now had his justification, and immediately summoned the cabinet, which unanimously agreed that a war message should be sent to Congress. When the meeting broke up at 10 P.M., the president set to work on his message. It was submitted to Congress at noon on Monday, May 11. The same afternoon, the House of Representatives approved a declaration of war by a vote of 173 to 14, with 20 abstentions. On Tuesday, the Senate approved the declaration by a vote of 42 to 2.1

 

6. Monterrey

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MONTERREY

AS TAYLOR MOVED AGAINST MONTERREY, Polk wrestled with the problems of heading a nation at war. Although the halls of Congress might echo with anti-war talk, the American people greeted the conflict with unbridled enthusiasm, and there had been little problem raising volunteers. Nevertheless, dissent remained. The war accelerated the national debt, adding a tremendous burden to a government that only recently had been forced to enact an unpopular tariff in order to ease its financial problems. The country was divided not only between sectional interests, but by the continuing animosity between nativists and Protestants on the one hand, and immigrants and Roman Catholics on the other. Northern abolitionists stepped up their complaint that the war’s primary aim was to expand Southern slavery. While most were Whigs, the occasional Democrat added his voice to the outcry. Perhaps the most notable was Rep. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, initially a Polk Democrat, who became increasingly uneasy about the president’s policies. In August, as Congress considered a war appropriation bill, Wilmot introduced an amendment drafted by an Ohio abolitionist. Assuming that new territory would be acquired from Mexico at the end of the war, the amendment, known to history as the Wilmot Proviso, proposed to prohibit the extension of slavery into this territory. Although the Wilmot Proviso ultimately was defeated, the debate carried into the next session of Congress, deepening the divisions between parties and regions, as well as boosting feeling against the war.1

 

7. Buena Vista

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BUENA VISTA

WHILE TAYLOR CONSOLIDATED his position around Monterrey, the buildup of troops and supplies continued along the Rio Grande. A substantial depot had grown up at Brazos Santiago opposite Point Isabel and across the channel from Padre Island. One officer described it as “a few houses, great piles of stores, immense number of wagons and mules and a good deal of business in loading, unloading moving and moving [sic] stores, etc.” A Mississippi riverboat had been run ashore as a hotel and served “steamboat fare” for twenty dollars a month. The heavy activity was not only to supply Taylor’s troops in Monterrey, but also a column under Brig. Gen. John C. Wool, which was marching southwest from San Antonio to Chihuahua. Steamers pushed as far as possible upriver in order to lessen the overland distance to Wool’s troops, although beyond Camargo the level of the river was erratic.1

The various unfamiliar tropical illnesses continued to plague the troops who were unused to the semi-tropical climate. Col. Samuel Ryan Curtis of the Third Ohio Volunteers, himself only recently recovered from fever, recorded a retreat ceremony in Matamoros on September 24. “The regiment is improving a little in health,” he wrote. “This parade was better attended than many have been. Still there is 135 on the sick report for the 8 companies located on this side [of the river].” The following day he commented, “The regiment of Illinois troops are directed to proceed on their way up to Comargo [sic]. They leave an additional number of sick. The number in the public hospitals, not including my sick who are in camp, are said to be 800!” And on September 29 he added, “Our army in fact [is] daily diminishing by sickness and death.”2

 

8. Texans with Scott

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TEXANS WITH SCOTT

SAMUEL WALKER MISSED THE BATTLES of Monterrey and Buena Vista. On May 27, 1846, he had been commissioned a captain in the Regiment of Mounted Rifles, although he was not formally mustered out of the Rangers until October 2. Newspaper coverage of the war had made the Texas Rangers into national icons, and Walker was seen as the Ranger sans pareil. Shortly after he was mustered out, he reported to Washington, where the government used his popularity for a recruiting drive in Maryland. Once that was completed, he met with Samuel Colt to discuss purchasing weapons. As a Ranger, Walker had used Colt’s Paterson revolver with a five-shot cylinder that gave the Texans an edge in Indian fights. Now Colt had the prototype for a vastly improved model and, after testing, Walker enthusiastically endorsed it. This brought Colt a desperately needed government contract, and together the two men worked out final specifications. It fired six .44-caliber balls and, at four pounds nine ounces, was designed to fit a saddle holster. Tooling for the Walker Model, as it was formally designated, began in January 1847, and Texas troops would be the first to receive it.1

 

Appendix: “U.S. Forts in Texas Named for Mexican War Personalities”

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