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Texas and the Mexican War
A History and a Guide
By Charles M. Robinson III
Texas State Historical AssociationCopyright © 2004 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
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. 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. 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.
But the facts as viewed in 1845 and early 1846 were far different. In territory, Mexico approached the size of the United States (neither country had clearly defined boundaries with the other, and the boundary between the United States and the British possessions to the north was in dispute). In the spring of 1846 the Mexican army was at least twice the size of its U.S. counterpart. It also was more battle- seasoned, having been used to suppress (and often create) insurrections against the national government. The army had suffered a few setbacks; it had been defeated in Texas and was unable to quell the defiance of the great families that ruled Upper California. These provinces, however, were too distant for the military supply system in Mexico, and Texas was conveniently located near major sources of manpower and equipment from the United States. The army remained a major factor of Mexican political development, albeit one frequently on the verge of mutiny.
Outwardly, no two countries could be more dissimilar. Even with the growing sectionalism that eventually led to four years of devastating civil war, the United States had a remarkably stable government that changed by election at fixed intervals according to constitutional means. Mexico, on the other hand, could hardly be said to have a government at all. Its first fifty years of national existence were cursed by coups d'etat that sapped its energy and resources.
Outward appearances are deceiving, however. The political situation in both countries demanded war. Both were new, only recently having broken away from foreign rule. The United States, which achieved independence from Great Britain in the 1780s, was compelled to fight the British again from 1812 to 1815 to attain true respect as a sovereign power. Mexico spent its first twenty years of independence from Spain fending off incursions by European nations. Both the United States and Mexico emerged from these struggles with a xenophobic nationalism that distrusted anything different or foreign. This nationalism quickly developed into national paranoia.
When the ascendancy of the liberal reformers in Spain removed that threat, Mexico turned her nationalist fears to the north. In the 1820s, first Spain, then Mexico, had allowed American colonization of Texas as a buffer against United States expansion. Much of the province was empty because, in three hundred years, neither Spaniard nor Mexican had shown any particular interest in living there. Within the first seven years of colonization, however, Americans had come in such numbers and been so successful that they had all but overwhelmed the local Mexican population. Mexican efforts to restrict this growth and suppress the English-speaking population ultimately led the Texans to armed rebellion and the establishment of an independent republic. The rebellion had been openly supported in the United States, which to the Mexicans was conclusive evidence of a long-suspected American plot to dismember their country.
In the United States, the removal of the immediate British threat brought an overabundance of national self-confidence. American politicians, reflecting and in some cases manipulating the public attitudes of the day, adopted an evangelical attitude that viewed their nation and institutions as the hope of the world. But in order to make converts, evangelists must have enemies; if political evangelists have no enemies, they must be created. In the case of the United States, it was Europe.
As with Mexico, one U.S. quarrel involved Spain. The Louisiana Purchase had grown in the American imagination until it included Texas, under the very dubious notion that La Salle's ill-fated seventeenth-century shadow colony gave France sovereignty in the nineteenth century. This was thought to have been settled in 1819, when a treaty fixed the boundary between American Louisiana and Spanish Texas at the Sabine River. But the United States never completely abandoned the belief that it held lawful title to Texas, which became a preoccupation with various U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Whig, despite the latter party's subsequent claims to the contrary.
Ironically, the first attempt to obtain Texas for the United States was made in 1825 by a Whig president, the same man who only six years earlier had negotiated the treaty recognizing Spanish sovereignty—John Quincy Adams. Adams's action reflected the prevailing American view throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, that Mexicans were incapable of self-government. The logical extension of that view was that Mexico likewise was incapable of developing, or even appreciating, the vast potential of its northern provinces, and that it would be better for all concerned, including Mexico, if they came under U.S. rule. Adams's successor, Andrew Jackson, was even more adamant. He firmly believed that Texas rightfully belonged to the United States under the Louisiana Purchase, had been illegally surrendered to Spain/Mexico, and should be brought back into the fold. The establishment of the Republic of Texas near the end of Jackson's administration only whetted American ambitions. By the same token, Spain and subsequently Mexico viewed the Louisiana claims as "palpable absurdities."
The prime American fear, however, remained Great Britain. Despite the War of 1812, a suspicion of British imperial goals remained in the recesses of the national mentality. A boundary dispute with the British over the Oregon territory and growing diplomatic ties between the new Republic of Texas and the European powers ignited a baseless, but very real, fear of encirclement. The British already had Canada. Might they not also grab Oregon and California and establish a protectorate in Texas? It therefore became necessary for the United States to strike first—to fulfill what many believed was the country's "Manifest Destiny" to expand its institutions throughout the continent to the benefit of those (i.e., Mexicans and American Indians) who were not so enlightened. Most American politicians aspiring to national office echoed this sentiment. If the nation were to reach outward, however, it would be at the expense of Mexico. Consequently, as one contemporary author noted, expansionists saw the Mexican War as "the opening of a new volume of American history."
In Mexico, meanwhile, the government shifted back and forth between various blocs. The Federalist faction, as the name implies, wanted a federated republic with much of the power invested in the states. The conservative Centralists, on the other hand, wanted a supreme national government upholding the privileges of Mexico's small ruling class and operating in close association with the Roman Catholic Church. The Federalists themselves were divided into the moderates, who sought to accept the reality of Texas's independence and accommodation with the United States, and the puros, or purists, an extreme group that opposed any concessions to the north. The Centralists were divided among conservatives, monarchists, and the clerical faction. Playing every faction against the others were the Santanistas, opportunistic supporters of the oft-deposed, but invariably reinstated, dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna.
A complete view of the complex series of events that led to war is beyond the scope of this work. Of immediate concern is the annexation of Texas, finalized in 1845, which prompted Mexico to break off diplomatic relations and go on a war footing. When Mexican moderates suggested recognizing the political realities, they drew almost universal opposition from the other factions, as well as the army, the public, and the press. Each group accused its enemies of betraying the nation by seeking reconciliation with the United States. In the face of public outcry throughout Mexico, even those who previously had supported the moderate position now considered war the only viable alternative. Although the moderate Jose Joaquín Herrera was elected president in September 1845, a much larger coalition was prepared to accept war and possible defeat rather than compromise. As in the United States, any Mexican politician who proposed sacrificing national honor in the face of reality did so at his peril. This position would cost Mexico dearly in the long run.
The previous March, James K. Polk had assumed the presidency of the United States. President Polk's initial goal was to complete the process of annexing Texas, begun under his predecessor, John Tyler, and he hoped to do it without bloodshed. He likewise hoped to acquire the western part of New Mexico, which at that time included Arizona as well as northern California. To that end, Polk appointed John Slidell minister plenipotentiary to Mexico to negotiate a Texas boundary settlement with a border along the entire Rio Grande and the purchase of California and New Mexico west of the Rio Grande. Believing the region vital to the nation, Polk considered the potential cost to be "of small importance." He thought he could get it for $15 or $20 million but was prepared to go as high as $40 million if necessary.
Slidell arrived in Veracruz on November 30, 1845, to the surprise of the Herrera government, which did not believe an envoy would be appointed until after the U.S. Congress convened on December 1. Politically, Herrera was too weak to establish any sort of mandate or consensus, and the fact that Slidell was even allowed to land was viewed as treason in many circles. In San Luis Potosi, north of Mexico City, the commander of the Army of the North, Maj. Gen. Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, opposed any effort at reconciliation, and on December 14 he declared against the government. His stand, while self-serving, drew widespread support even among the puros of Herrera's own party, and on December 30, 1845, the Herrera government fell. Three days later Paredes assumed the presidency. Although Slidell remained in Mexico a few more months, Polk and his advisors had totally underestimated the sense of outrage among the Mexican people. If the United States meant to have Texas, it would have to fight.
The Mexicans' enthusiasm was matched by the average citizens of the United States. Despite later Whig arguments about slavery and aggrandizement, many shared Polk's view that expansion into new territory would scatter the population and dilute any potential for centralized, and thereby abusive, political and economic power. Once war began, the ease with which the United States was able to field an army of volunteers to support its regular troops demonstrated the exhilaration of the day. Even those tempted to question Polk's justification were prone to accept his explanation for the war and initially supported his position, although they later turned against it. The fourteen northern Whigs of the House of Representatives who voted against the declaration of war ultimately came to be called the "Immortal Fourteen," but in the beginning they were vilified, particularly in western states like Ohio and Illinois.
The popularity of Mexican War memoirs until the eve of the Civil War illustrated pride in the achievement. So did Polk's triumphant tour of the supposedly antiwar New England states in the summer of 1847, as the conflict entered its second year. So did the tendency to name or rename towns and counties after Mexican War victories, resulting in countless Cerro Gordos, Palo Altos, and Buena Vistas. Given the popular mood in both countries, war became inevitable.CHAPTER 2
"HOSTILITIES ... HAVE BEEN COMMENCED"
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.
The possibility of an invasion "by a foreign power" (specifically Mexico) was far more ticklish, because Texas itself would remain a foreign nation until formal U.S. jurisdiction was established. In that case, Marcy told Taylor to immediately deploy his forces according to his own judgment, but indicated he should do so only "after her convention shall have acceded to the terms of annexation."
The sixty-year-old Taylor was a veteran of the War of 1812, where he had been the first U.S. soldier ever to earn a brevet promotion. He also had served in numerous Indian conflicts, developing into a tough, no-nonsense soldier with little regard for hierarchy or for military polish and ceremony. "In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer," 2d Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, Fourth Infantry, recalled. But he added that Taylor "was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all." Sloppy and overweight, Taylor was nonetheless an outstanding field commander and the first choice of presidents in times of potential crisis. With the possibility of a confrontation with Mexico over annexation, he was the logical choice.
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THEN AND NOW
To follow Taylor's route from the vary beginning, the best place to start is Fort Jesup State Commemorative Area, six miles east of Many, Louisiana, on Louisiana Highway 6. The highway itself formerly was known as the San Antonio Road, because It connected San Antonio with Natchitoches, Louisiana. Although the fort once had eighty-two structures, the only original building is an old kitchen/mess half restored to its original appearance. An officer's house has been reconstructed as a museum, and locations of other structures are marked. Ironically, the annexation of Texas and the subsequent Mexican War negated the need for frontier defense in Louisiana, and Fort Jesup was abandoned in 1846.
Excerpted from Texas and the Mexican War by Charles M. Robinson III. Copyright © 2004 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
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