The Mexican-American War
Republic of Texas
American President John Quincy Adams tried to buy Texas from Spain for one million dollars in 1819. Texas is as large as France but was only inhabited by 4,000 Spanish subjects.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, it claimed Texas as part of its new empire. Since Texas was nearly devoid of people, and decades of efforts to entice people from Spain or Mexico to settle there had failed, Mexico invited Yankees (Anglo-Americans) to buy land and reside in Texas, with the condition that they agree to embrace Mexican citizenship, and convert to Roman Catholicism.
By 1831, there were 30,000 Yankees living in Texas along with 1,000 African slaves. The family of Stephen Austin alone had purchased 15,000 acres of Texas land from the Mexican government. The population of Mexicans in Texas totaled 5,000—they called themselves Tejanos.
The people of Texas were allowed to govern themselves until 1834, when the new government of Mexico revoked their autonomy. Stephen Austin went to Mexico City to plead the case of Texans to direct their own affairs, but instead he was imprisoned for a year. He came home a rebel who favored independence for Texas.
American President Andrew Jackson attempted to buy Texas from Mexico for five million dollars, and might have succeeded had he not sent the arrogant, Mexican-hating Anthony Butler to make the offer, who offended everybody in Mexico City.
Texas declared its independence in 1836, after the President of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, had become a dictator.
Texas was not alone: eleven Mexican states rebelled against Santa Anna. Texas was one of three Mexican states that declared independence, but the only state that was successful at winning independence from Mexico. Texas was far different from the other Mexican states in that 20,000 Anglo-Americans owned ranches there.
President Santa Anna led an army north to punish Texas. He arrived at San Antonio with perhaps 4,000 soldiers, and surrounded 200 or so Yankee settlers inside a mission called the Alamo. In the fighting, all but one of the Texans was slain. The Mexicans counted 1,544 dead.
Word circulated around Texas that Santa Anna had executed prisoners at the Alamo. It is doubtful there were any prisoners, as the men inside the Alamo fought to the death. Santa Anna did execute 350 Texan prisoners three weeks later, who had surrendered after the Battle of Goliad, and the two events may have been confused. In any event, "Remember the Alamo" became the battle cry of Texas. The United States remained neutral in this conflict, and even refused to loan money to Texas for armaments.
One month later, the Texans defeated the army of Santa Anna in the fifteen minute Battle of San Jacinto, and captured him. In exchange for his freedom, Santa Anna acknowledged Texas as an independent republic, and skulked back to Mexico City in disgrace. Sam Houston was elected the first president of the Republic of Texas.
In the meantime, Anastasio Bustamante was elected president of Mexico (again) and his new government refused to accept the independence of Texas. Texas would remain an independent nation for the next nine years.
In 1850, a census of Texas revealed a population of 212,000 Americans; 58,000 African slaves; and 11,000 people of Mexican descent. 90 percent of the Americans had come to Texas from the southern United States. They put on aristocratic airs, but they were proud and violent men who loved to gamble, drink, duel, and race horses. Many of them were Scots-Irish.
Texans were the loneliest people in America. Few of them had access to schools, churches, or courts. Their education came from the family Bible; their justice from the Colt 45. In legend Texas is western; in reality it is southern.
In 1861, Texas voted to secede from the United States. By 1865, King Cotton had become King Cattle.
After his disgrace, General Santa Anna redeemed himself in 1838, when he defeated French troops that had invaded Mexico. He lost his leg to a French cannon during the battle, and he once again became the national hero of Mexico.
Santa Anna was installed as dictator of Mexico for the fifth time, and put down a rebellion led by two Mexican generals. In 1842, he attacked Texas again, which gained him nothing but intense anti-Mexican feelings by Texans, who from then on sought to become part of the United States for protection. In 1844, Santa Anna was deposed, and went into exile in Cuba.
The United States did not think highly of Mexico. In its view, Mexico started out with an equal land mass and 2/3 of the population of the United States, as well as incredible natural resources, when it became a nation. But it was not a success story, as was the United States.
Mexico was a basket case that was full of impoverished people in a stagnant economy, and rife with banditos. The only commodity of Mexico was silver. Mexico did not encourage foreign investment and in fact was known to declare "Death to foreigners!"
Liberal Mexicans wanted war against the Yankees, thinking this would help forge a national identity. In 1844, Mexican President Jose Joaquin Herrera accepted that Texas was lost, and declared Mexico's intention to make peace with Texas as long as it remained an independent country.
In 1845, Mexico severed diplomatic relations with the United States because the people of Texas had made it known they now wanted to join the United States.
The United States annexed Texas in 1845, because Texans begged it to do so. Texas sought to join the United States because Santa Anna—back from exile and presidente yet again—had publicly sworn to drown Texans in their own blood. The terms of the annexation included five million dollars of American money given to Texas, which it needed to defend itself against the feared coming onslaught by Mexico. But the annexation outraged Mexico.
In 1846, upon rumors that Mexico was planning an attack to retake Texas, the United States declared war on Mexico. The Mexican government soon returned the favor.
Indeed the Mexican government was under pressure to stand up to the hated Yankees. 63 American soldiers were ambushed and killed by Mexicans on the north side of the Rio Grande prior to the declaration of war.
Many Americans opposed the war. Those in favor viewed the territories of New Mexico and California as only nominally Mexican possessions with very tenuous ties to Mexico, and as actually unsettled, ungoverned, and unprotected frontier lands.
The Mexican-American War
Mexico and the United States approached the Mexican-American War unprepared. 70 percent of the American forces were volunteer militias of raunchy frontier toughs, devoid of uniforms, equipment, and discipline. They wore dirty, torn shirts, had uncombed hair and unwashed faces, they hollered and cursed like fiends. Some of them were not above plunder, rape, and murder.
The Mexican army lacked training, discipline, and munitions. Most Mexican troops were forced into the army, many from Mexican prisons, which made them less than enthusiastic fighters. Mexican artillery pieces were obsolete and faulty. Their cannonballs traveled so slowly that there were reports of American soldiers dodging them as if it were a game of dodge ball.
Mexico had an empty treasury, a corrupt bureaucracy, no navy, a demoralized, poorly equipped, unpaid army, and no arms industry. But the Mexican army was battle-hardened, featured a magnificent cavalry, and was far larger than the American army. Mexico hoped the Tejanos and African slaves in Texas would join their side in the conflict.
The U.S. Army under General Zachary Taylor moved into northern Mexico with 2200 soldiers, won two quick victories, and occupied Matamoros. In the battle for Matamoros the Mexicans had 1500 killed; the Americans 35.
General Taylor then marched on Monterrey, the metropolis of northern Mexico, which was guarded by mountains, a river, and 10,000 troops. Military manuals dictated it would take 20,000 soldiers to take such a fortification, but Taylor had only 6,645. Taylor won anyway, thanks to his skilled artillerymen and engineers.
The Mexicans responded by making Santa Anna their fourth president in two years. He marched north with 20,000 men to vanquish the 4,700 soldiers Taylor had left. Santa Anna was met by the "Mississippi Rifles" of Jefferson Davis, who sounded a banshee howl later called a "Rebel Yell." Santa Anna withdrew from the fight and beat a hasty retreat.
General Winfield Scott invaded Mexico with a 2nd U.S. Army, and the first amphibious craft—shallow-draft gunboats. General Scott safely landed 8,600 men at Veracruz without a single casualty—an incredible military feat.
Winfield Scott was an honorable man who forbade the mistreatment of civilians, and insisted that his men purchase, rather than simply take, provisions. Among his officers were Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, George McClellan, George Pickett, and George Meade.
General Scott quickly captured Veracruz despite its three formidable forts manned by 135 cannon and 3500 men. The Americans lost 73 men in the assault. Scott then marched toward Mexico City, 250 mountainous miles away.
While Scott made his way to Mexico City, Santa Anna offered to surrender for a $10,000 bribe. General Scott paid him but Santa Anna reneged on the surrender part.
Scott descended out of the mountains to Mexico City with 10,000 men. The capital was defended by 30,000 soldiers. Scott overcame heroic resistance, even from desperate civilians.
Mexico City fell in 1847. 10,000 Mexican soldiers were killed in action defending their capital. The United States lost 1,000 men.
Again Santa Anna went into exile. After this victory, the Duke of Wellington, a man not given to hyperbole, called Winfield Scott "the greatest living soldier."
The unsung hero of the Mexican-American War was Quartermaster General Thomas Sidney Jesup. He was in charge of purchasing for the army; managed 23 federal arsenals that produced tens of thousands of weapons, uniforms, boots, and tents; and transported those supplies to distant, primitive locales.
The United States suffered 1,548 men killed in action in the Mexican-American War. In every battle they were outnumbered, but not outgunned. 10,970 American troops succumbed to dysentery, influenza, smallpox, measles, venereal disease, snakebites, and tarantula bites. It was the first war led by graduates of West Point; and the first reported by modern war correspondents.
The Peace Treaty
In 1848, a peace treaty was signed by which Mexico agreed to sell the United States its northernmost territories for just over eighteen million dollars ($500,000,000 in today's dollars). This land included the future states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and California.
Spain had utterly failed in its attempt to colonize these lands as it had done successfully in Mexico proper. The largest town north of the present border of Mexico was Santa Fe, with only 6,000 people, followed by San Antonio with 1500. The Spanish were not that interested in this territory because it appeared to lack precious metals, and it had a far larger population of fierce Amerindians than they wanted to handle.
Mexico was in no position to argue. The previous decade had seen it wracked by numerous and massive revolts by its Indian population, especially the Mayans in the Yucatan, who were determined to turn their backs on the "white world," and throw out white sugar farmers that threatened their corn culture.
The Indians of Mexico demanded that land be confiscated by the Mexican government from landowners and farmers to be redistributed to peasants. Mining states were also facing revolts; bandits ravaged estates in central states; peasants pillaged towns and haciendas in the north at will. Mexico was disintegrating from within.
There were plenty of voices in America that wanted to annex all of Mexico—for the sake of the miserable Mexicans. They thought Mexico would benefit from Yankee law, religion, and enterprise. They did not win the day.
Republic of California
When Mexico became independent in 1821, California was a remote and nearly uninhabited land. It had no schools or industry; life was lived in chaos and anarchy. The Spanish only occupied California with soldiers, farmers, and missionaries in the late 18th century because they had received reports that the Russians had their eye on it.
Spanish missionaries established 21 bucolic adobe plantations along the El Camino Real (the "royal road") from San Diego to Sonoma, one day's journey apart. Spanish soldiers established presidios at eight of these locations. Spain awarded huge tracts of land to ex-soldiers in California, which had been made into successful cattle ranches.
Disease carried by the Spaniards killed off 75% of the 75,000 Native Americans in California. By 1800, only 2,000 Hispanics lived in what is now the American state of California, which the Spanish called Alta (upper) California (as opposed to Baja [lower] California, which is a state in Mexico today).
Andrew Jackson unsuccessfully tried to buy northern California. The fledgling Republic of Mexico had neither the resources nor the inclination to do anything with this immense piece of land. This was the era that inspired the "Legend of Zorro."
What Mexico did do was pass a colonization act in 1824 that granted 700 Mexicans vast estates of 4,500 to 50,000 acres of California land. These men became known as rancheros. They treated Native Americans like slaves—in fact the death rate for Indians working for rancheros was double that of African slaves in the American South. The rancheros lived the high life, gambling, horse-racing, bull-baiting, riding the range, and dancing.
In 1834, the rancheros convinced the Mexican government to confiscate the lands of the California missions, expel the Franciscan friars, and divide the land up amongst the rancheros.
In 1845, U.S. President James K. Polk offered to buy California and New Mexico for what is today over $800,000,000. Britain was also interested and Polk did not want the British to have them. Many Americans believed it was the Manifest Destiny of America to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.
Everybody knew Mexico was strapped for cash, and had no real interest in the land itself. But the offer was refused, in large part because the government of Mexico was in total chaos. In 1846 alone, the presidency changed hands four times, the war ministry six times, and the finance ministry sixteen times.
In 1848, the entire population of California was 40,000—10,000 Americans; 10,000 Mexicans; 20,000 Native Americans. An independent California Republic was declared that year. Californios of substance saw no advantage to any connection with Mexico. On the other hand, they greatly admired the United States.
No one foresaw the discovery of gold in 1848 at Sutter's Mill. Sutter had purchased 49,000 acres at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, with a dream of building a little Switzerland. After the discovery of gold, 100,000 Americans rushed out to live in California in just two years. Then, California applied to become a state of the United States, and was accepted in 1850.
Aftermath of the Mexican American War
Some Americans look back at these events as dark days in American history. Their voices may have been summed up best by Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs:
"I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. . . . The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times."
American veterans of the Mexican–American War suffered from debilitating diseases contracted during war, long after the war itself was over. If the post-war deaths of these soldiers are considered, this was proportionately the most deadly in American military history.
Mexico lost half its territory after this war. The lost territories were essentially unsettled and ungoverned. The 30,000 Hispanics who lived there mostly stayed on, though some moved south into Mexico. The tiny populations of these immense areas had become substantially American.
A quarter of the population of America lives in these lands today. Due to massive legal and illegal immigration from Mexico, over a third of these people are of Hispanic origin, and of those 33 percent were born in Mexico. Perhaps the land is being reconquered through immigration. It is infinitely more valuable today than it was in 1848.
This article is a companion piece to my article The History of Mexico. These articles were preceded by a look at Mexico before it became an independent nation: Colonial Mexico. Next time, I am going to write about Modern Mexico, and explore why Mexicans are leaving their homes and towns to pour into the United States.
My sources include: The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson; Latin America: A Concise Interpretive History by E. Bradford Burns and Julie A. Charlip; Throes of Democracy by Walter A. McDougall; and America by George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi.