Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent

Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent

by David A. Clary

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A war that started under questionable pretexts. A president who is convinced of his country’s might and right. A military and political stalemate with United States troops occupying a foreign land against a stubborn and deadly insurgency.

The time is the 1840s. The enemy is Mexico. And the war is one of the least known and most important in both Mexican and United States history—a war that really began much earlier and whose consequences still echo today. Acclaimed historian David A. Clary presents this epic struggle for a continent for the first time from both sides, using original Mexican and North American sources.

To Mexico, the yanqui illegals pouring into her territories of Texas and California threatened Mexican sovereignty and security. To North Americans, they manifested their destiny to rule the continent. Two nations, each raising an eagle as her standard, blustered and blundered into a war because no one on either side was brave enough to resist the march into it.

In Eagles and Empire, Clary draws vivid portraits of the period’s most fascinating characters, from the cold-eyed, stubborn United States president James K. Polk to Mexico’s flamboyant and corrupt general-president-dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna; from the legendary and ruthless explorer John Charles Frémont and his guide Kit Carson to the “Angel of Monterey” and the “Boy Heroes” of Chapultepec; from future presidents such as Benito Juárez and Zachary Taylor to soldiers who became famous in both the Mexican and North American civil wars that soon followed. Here also are the Irish Soldiers of Mexico and the Yankee sailors of two squadrons, hero-bandits and fighting Indians of both nations, guerrilleros and Texas Rangers, and some amazing women soldiers.

From the fall of the Alamo and harrowing marches of thousands of miles in the wilderness to the bloody, dramatic conquest of Mexico City and the insurgency that continued to resist, this is a riveting narrative history that weaves together events on the front lines—where Indian raids, guerrilla attacks, and atrocities were matched by stunning acts of heroism and sacrifice—with battles on two home fronts—political backstabbing, civil uprisings, and battle lines between Union and Confederacy and Mexican Federalists and Centralists already being drawn. The definitive account of a defining war, Eagles and Empire is page-turning history—a book not to be missed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553906769
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/28/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 697,105
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

David A. Clary, former chief historian of the US Forest Service, is the author of Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution. He has been a consultant to government agencies and has taught history at the university level. He lives in Roswell, New Mexico with his wife, Beatriz.

Read an Excerpt

Chaper One

The history of Mexico since 1822 might accurately be called the history of Santa Anna's revolutions. . . . His name plays the major role in all the political events of the country, and its destiny has become intertwined with his. —Lucas Alaman

Lieutenant General Don Juan de O'Donoju landed in Vera Cruz on July 30, 1821. His job was to implement the Spanish Constitution of 1812, but he turned out to be the last Spanish viceroy of New Spain.

The city was under siege by a small army of insurgents, led by a former royalist officer—New Spain had risen up against Old Spain, because the Criollos (Creoles, native-born descendants of Spaniards) objected to that liberal constitution. Government might be nominally imposed by the king back in the Iberian Peninsula—implemented by native-Spanish officers known as Peninsulares, in America more commonly called Gachupines (an insult suggesting foppishness)—but their numbers were small. The real power was in the hands of greater numbers of criollo soldiers, priests, and landowners. The liberal constitution would deprive them of their privileges, so they rebelled.

The young officer besieging Vera Cruz was famous for unprincipled opportunism. Not long ago he had been a captain in the royal colonial army; a small victory over the rebels earned him the rank of lieutenant colonel, but then he offered to change sides if it gained him another promotion. It did, and he became a colonel among the insurgents. When the whole fray was over he was a brigadier general and right-hand man to the new ruler of independent New Spain, Agustin de Iturbide. The besieging officer arranged a meeting between O'Donoju and Iturbide, and on August 24, 1821, the two signed the Treaty of Cordoba, granting independence to New Spain. The officer next marched against the remaining royalist garrisons inland, obtained their surrenders, and returned to Vera Cruz to finish the insurgent business there. Royalist holdouts, sheltered in the island fortress San Juan de Ullua in the city's harbor, gave up late in October.

O'Donoju got to know this officer well. He was a handsome fellow, born to wear his uniform, blue and red with plenty of gold trim, lace, and sweeping epaulets. Its high Napoleonic collar seemed to raise his head, making it appear somewhat large for his slender body, and making him seem taller than his already impressive five feet ten inches. He had a high forehead beneath a tousled shock of black hair. Below the brow were a Roman nose, a prim mouth, and a squarish chin. His eyes were deep-set and dark, not overly large, but striking because of the way they were always in motion, side to side, over one shoulder, then the next. They were the eyes of a guest looking for something to steal from his host.

He had a rich voice and a commanding manner for one so young, but he was friendly, polite, and deferential when he should be, and he loved a joke. He was thoroughly likable—and completely untrustworthy. It was apparent to anyone who met him that he had many cards hidden up both sleeves—he was, in fact, also an inveterate gambler. After their last meeting, O'Donoju said of the other: "This young man will live to make his country weep." The young man was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.1


Santa Anna's country, New Spain, claimed between a third and a half of North America late in the eighteenth century, from Panama in the south far to the northwest, where the British and the Russians claimed Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska; almost due north to beyond the Great Salt Lake; and, east of the Rocky Mountains, up the Great Plains and along the Mississippi River to British Canada, not to mention the two Floridas along the Gulf Coast. Those far-flung boundaries were colonialist fantasies—over half of New Spain was in the possession of Indios barbaros. If there was a Spanish colonial northern frontier, it started on the lower Rio Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande) and tracked roughly westward to the Pacific Coast, with many wild, vacant spaces along the way. Scattered small outposts in Texas, in New Mexico, and in Alta California did not represent real possession. Spain might claim that vast realm, but its presence was too sparse to ward off anyone determined to enter and stake a counterclaim.

The government of New Spain grew increasingly nervous about its hold on its northern territories. The greatest threat came from the United States of America. The Spanish crown had been an ally of the United States' ally France during the war of independence, but it never overcame its nervousness about having a rival on the Mississippi River. Spain dragged its feet on recognizing the new North American power, closing the great river to its commerce until 1795. Then came "the great betrayal." The first consul of revolutionary France, Napoleon Bonaparte, pressured Spain into returning Louisiana to his own country in 1800. Three years later he sold the territory to the United States. Spanish opinion was outraged. A buffer between New Spain and the Yankee republic had been jerked away, and the colonial governors felt threatened. They established new presidios—frontier military outposts—in Texas and New Mexico, but not with enough manpower to prevent an invasion. Dread of the United States festered.

There were many people in the United States who objected to the purchase of Louisiana by President Thomas Jefferson. They worried that the sudden expansion of national territory would disperse the country's people and energies into an area too vast to hold. Jefferson sent a military expedition—a tiny one, but who knew?—to cross northern Louisiana to the Pacific Ocean. The president assured the Spanish ambassador that there was nothing hostile in what he called a scientific exploration. Authorities in Mexico City ordered the governor of New Mexico at Santa Fe to send out troops to capture the expedition and its leaders, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, but several small parties missed their quarry. From then on Spain and Britain had a mutual interest in containing "expansionism" on the part of the United States.

That expansionist tendency became even more alarming in 1806 when the United States Army commander in southern Louisiana, Brigadier General James Wilkinson, sent Major Zebulon Montgomery Pike out to explore that part of the territory. Wilkinson acted without authority, sending Pike to make peace with the nomadic Indians of the Great Plains, then proceed on to the headwaters of the Rio Grande ("Grand River," Wilkinson called it) in New Mexico—a deliberate invasion of Spanish territory. "Your conduct," Wilkinson wrote, neatly handing the bag to Pike, "must be marked by such circumspection and direction as may prevent alarm or conflict, as you will be held responsible for consequences."

Word of Pike's plans leaked to Spanish agents before he marched out. When Pike held his first parley with Pawnee Indians on the plains he learned that a Spanish column had been prowling for him. In fact, the governor of New Mexico had ordered out several detachments. One of them found Pike and his men nearly starving in what is now southern Colorado in January 1807, and took them prisoner. They were freed and returned to the United States after a few months. Spanish troops made every effort to stop Yankee interlopers over the next few years. They bagged a variety of explorers, fur hunters, and merchants, confiscated their goods, and either sent them home or afforded them the hospitality of Spanish prisons.

Adding to official Spanish anxiety were claims by successive United States presidents that Louisiana included Texas. But what was Texas? It was a vaguely defined region somewhere north and east of the Rio Nueces and west of the Sabine River on Louisiana's western border. The French had maintained that Texas was part of Louisiana, but the Spanish never acknowledged that. Yankee efforts to take over the territory ran up against Hispanic pride. Following on the "betrayal" of the Louisiana Purchase, the Anglo habit of infiltrating and squatting on Spanish-Mexican territory made conflict inevitable. There could not be two dominant powers on one continent, especially when their cultures and outlooks were so different. The hispano culture, moreover, appeared even to its own leaders to be stagnant or declining, while the United States was growing and dynamic. Honor and self-esteem were at work, so there was no chance that hispano leadership would surrender gracefully to "expansionism."

The difficulties were partly of Spain's own doing. The acquisition of Louisiana in 1763 had prompted a need for settlers to colonize the northern provinces, but residents of New Spain were reluctant to pull up stakes and make new homes in the north. The Spanish government invited French Canadians and Irish Catholics, and even some Protestant Prussians, Dutch, and Anglo-American Tories, to settle in Louisiana in 1786; there were few takers. The government closed the borders of New Spain after 1803, but Anglo adventurers and traders were already crossing them freely. Spanish efforts to colonize Texas as a buffer against the invaders failed.

One United States president after another tried to get hold of Texas. The Anglos' reach exceeded their grasp—Jefferson was the first president to seek a western border for Texas on what North Americans today call the Rio Grande. Jefferson did not know what he was talking about, and neither did many other people at the time. The southern and western borders of Texas had never been fixed. If a line had to be drawn, history suggested it would fall along the Rio Nueces (the next river north and east of the Rio Grande), because settlements along both sides of the Rio Grande answered to provincial governments farther south. The few along the Nueces were governed out of San Antonio de Bexar, the capital (when there was one) of Texas.

The North Americans, however, developed a fixation on the Rio Grande as the "natural" or even "legal" border of Texas. They did not know what to call it—Bravo, Grande, del Norte, and a few other labels bounced around. Spanish authorities had at least sorted that question out. The stream first showed up in their records as the Rio de las Palmas (River of the Palms) in 1519, and over the next century it was also called the Rio de Nuestra Senora (River of Our Lady, meaning the Mother of God), Guadalquivir (after another river in Spain), Turbio (Turbid), and several others referring to the lower river. Far upriver, the first explorers of New Mexico encountered the Rio Bravo del Norte (Bold River of the North) in the 1540s, sometimes shortened to Rio del Norte or expanded to Rio del Norte y de Nuevo Mexico. Rio Grande (Great or Grand River) and Rio Grande del Norte also appeared in the records, as did such localisms as Rio de Tiguex (after a New Mexico Indian pueblo). It was clear in New Spain if not in the United States by the eighteenth century that the river that began in New Mexico was the same one that entered the Gulf of Mexico near Matamoros. In New Spain, people usually called it Bravo, sometimes Grande or del Norte. All the Anglo politicians knew was that if they got their hands on Texas, they wanted to float their boats on that stream, whatever it was called.

The sparring between Spain and the United States could not go on forever. General Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida without authority in 1817, to put down marauders raiding across the border. Spain had to face facts—it could not hang on to Florida. In 1819 the Spanish minister to the United States, Luis de Onis, approached Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who had recently negotiated a treaty fixing his country's boundary with British Canada. Onis proposed a trade—the United States could have Florida if it gave up its claims to Texas. What the Spanish wanted was a defensible buffer against Anglo encroachment. The wily Spaniard countered Adams' demands for a Rio Grande boundary by dangling before him a wider western territory for the United States, perhaps all the way to the Pacific Ocean, in return for setting the border between the countries on the Sabine River. From there it would run west along the Red River, then north along the Rocky Mountains, then west to the Pacific. Adams swallowed the bait, so enamored of a widened Louisiana that he agreed that his country would assume $5 million worth of U.S. claims against Spain. The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 was a deal.

The two diplomats separated much pleased with themselves. Adams had gained his country a much larger Louisiana Territory than it had previously conceived. Onis and his government hoped that this wedge-shaped concession, widest at the north, would divert Anglo-American encroachment that way.

The Spanish government readdressed its failure to colonize Texas, where the sparse population was under fierce attack from Comanches. Moses Austin petitioned to allow him to bring 300 families to colonize Texas, and in 1821 the Spanish Cortes (parliament) in Madrid approved. Santa Fe was opened to trade with United States merchants from Missouri in the same year. Spanish North America had just handed her enemy the means of her own destruction.


The bishop of Valladolid described this endangered realm in the twilight of Spanish rule to King Carlos IV. "The population of New Spain is composed of three classes of men: to wit, whites or Spaniards; Indians, and castes," he explained. "All property and wealth are in Spanish hands. The Indians and the castes till the soil; they serve the upper class, and live only by the labor of their arms." Here is where he heard the bell tolling for his country: "This puts, between Spanish and Indians, contrary interests and mutual hate, which easily arises between those who have everything and those who have nothing—between masters and slaves."

When Spanish conquistadores invaded the country early in the sixteenth century, they brought no Spanish women with them, so they produced children by native wives. Spanish women did land in America over the following decades, along with more Spanish men, from laborers and convicts to governors; slaves were imported for a few decades from Africa; and the intermingling grew more complex. The colonial government prepared an official classification of races reflecting the many ways boy could meet girl. There were two groups of whites of European stock, Peninsulares and Criollos. The children of a white and an Indian were Mestizos, those of a white and an African were Mulatos, and the various crosses between pure and mixed heritages produced a staggering catalog. All that was aside from the pure descendants of the people who had been there to begin with. By the late colonial period, they were Indios (those who could speak some Spanish and were at least nominally Christianized), Indigenas (mostly farmers in isolated areas who spoke little or no Spanish, lived on communal lands, and were more dutiful to the Church's festivals than its beliefs), and Indios bÄrbaros (or in the north, bravos), the "wild" Indians of frontier areas. To make it more confusing, Indigenas sometimes included Indios, which sometimes included Indigenas.

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