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Overshadowed by the cataclysmic Civil War only thirteen years later, the Mexican War has been practically forgotten in the United States. Through the years, despite our growing interest in Mexico, it is rarely mentioned. And when the subject comes up, it nearly always deals with the questionable manner in which it came about. More specifically, was the United States right in sending Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande in early 1846, thus provoking war with Mexico? Opinions vary.
Ulysses S. Grant, for one, was certain that the United States was wrong. He did, in fact, call the Mexican War “the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.… an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies.…”
Grant’s statement was no passing reference. His words of condemnation, in his celebrated Memoirs of 1885, are emphatic. In contrast to much of the text, in which Grant exhibits remarkable serenity, he repeats his disapproval of the Mexican War several times, with heat.
Not everyone agrees with Grant. Indeed, some students of the war have justified the United States’ actions with the same fervor. Professor Justin Smith, for example, who was indisputably the most thorough researcher of the war, wrote in 1919, “… as a matter of fact, the hostilities were deliberately precipitated by the will and act of Mexico.… Mexico wanted [war]; Mexico threatened it; Mexico issued orders to wage it.” Smith concludes that when Mexico refused to “apply pacific measures” to the differences between the two countries, such refusal “rendered just the cause which was before doubtful.”
But Justin Smith, despite the thoroughness of his research, has not convinced later scholars such as Bernard DeVoto, who considers his judgments “consistently wrongheaded.” And without a doubt, the preponderance of American opinion has agreed with Grant that the United States treated Mexico unjustly.
Actually, the issue is not simple, and opinions on it are colored by its role in accelerating the growth of animosity between the Northern and Southern states of the Union which eventually led to the Civil War. The North feared the expansion of slave territory. Thus the facts regarding the conflict that extended the borders of the continental United States from the Rio Grande to the Pacific have been submerged in the slavery issue.
The omission of such events as the Mexican War from the American consciousness does history injustice. Wars as such may best be forgotten, but the period of the Mexican War was an important era, one of upheaval, of passion, of heroism, of bitterness, and of triumph. Respectable men called one another “traitors”; politicians orated; volunteers flocked to the recruiting stations; generals feuded, fumed and grimly disobeyed orders. The cost in American lives was staggering. Of the 104,556 men who served in the army, both regulars and volunteers, 13,768 men died, the highest death rate of any war in our history. The period between 1844 and 1848 was a significant time, not something to be relegated to the attic of memory.
Contrary to common understanding, the war with Mexico was supported with enthusiasm by most of the population for at least the first year, by the end of which the necessary armies were recruited and supplied. Volunteers flocked to the colors to rescue “Old Rough and Ready,” Zachary Taylor, from the menace of the Mexicans on the Rio Grande. And as the result of his remarkable series of victories, that same “Zack” Taylor was later elected president, an honor rendered only to victorious generals in popular wars. Boredom and impatience set in among the American population toward the end of the war, but moral disapproval was confined largely to a few New Englanders and some New England settlers in the Midwest.
The fact is that Mexico stood in the way of the American dream of Manifest Destiny. Although that dramatic, pious term was of relatively recent coinage in 1845, the idea of expansion westward to the Pacific had long been in the American mind. As far back as his first inaugural address in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson referred to a vast territory that would provide “room enough for our descendents to the thousandth and ten thousandth generation.” And Jefferson did much to make that dream a reality by purchasing the great Louisiana territory from Emperor Napoleon of France and sending exploratory expeditions to the West, first under Zebulon Pike, later under Lewis and Clark.
In the course of the next four decades other expeditions followed, and Americans became aware of the “Oregon territory,”* occupied jointly by the United States and Britain. They also learned of the lands to the southwest, under the shaky control of Spain until 1821 and thereafter under that of Mexico. Migrations of American settlers to the west were well under way as of 1844, when the annexation of Texas, long an objective of American diplomacy, became an acute issue in the United States.
It is generally assumed that the annexation of Texas to the Union, finally accomplished on July 4, 1845, was the cause of the war between the United States and Mexico in 1846. To the extent that the long border war between Texas and Mexico affected American thinking, it was. But the act of annexation itself was an artificial issue, and even after annexation had been accomplished, war might have been averted. True, Mexico had never recognized the “treaty” of Velasco of 1836, in which Mexican President Santa Anna, a captive of the Texans, had agreed to Texan independence; but from that moment the United States and most European nations recognized Texas as a sovereign nation, though domestically no Mexican politician could ever concede that independence. The Mexican government thus broke relations with the United States in 1845, when Congress offered annexation, but war did not come for another year. By that time Taylor’s army was on the Rio Grande, occupying territory that many Americans, at least privately, considered Mexican.
During the nine years between the Battle of San Jacinto and the U.S. offer of annexation to Texas, the government of the United States always maintained a proper neutrality between Texas and Mexico. The American people, however, observed no such inhibitions. They openly sympathized with the Anglo-Saxon émigrés whom they now considered Texans; they supplied Sam Houston’s army with weapons; and though brutality occurred on both sides, the Americans sided with the Texan version on every controversial issue. As a result the American public grew progressively more antagonistic toward Mexico as a nation. Mexicans came to be considered less than “civilized” people, undeserving of rights generally accorded to Europeans. It is not surprising, therefore, that rationalizing unjust acts against Mexico would become easy.
To the student of today the fate of Mexico is sad, for the Mexicans were victims of both their history and Yankee expansionism. But that sadness need not be exacerbated by excessive shame for the conduct of the United States, because Mexico’s disorganization, corruption, and weakness created a power vacuum that would inevitably have been filled by some predator—if not the United States, then Britain, less likely France, and even, remotely, Russia. American haste to occupy California, for example, was prompted more by fear of British action than by concern of what Mexico would do. After all, the United States and Britain were threatening war over the Oregon territory just north of California. Mexico’s weakness stemmed from nearly three centuries of autocratic Spanish rule and from its own devastating war of independence, not from the actions of the United States.
It may be of some use to the reader to present here a general sequence of events of the Mexican War. As in so many of our wars, the United States entered it woefully unprepared, so much so as to encourage many Mexicans with hopes of easy victory. However, Taylor’s quick victories on the Rio Grande removed the immediate Mexican threat to Texas. The United States, therefore, was given time to mobilize, equip, and train a civilian army. Money and volunteers were provided eagerly by a previously reluctant Congress, prodded by an anxious public, mobilized by the announcement that “American blood has been shed upon American soil.” It then fell to the President to decide how to use them.
It is important to realize that, from the beginning to the end, President Polk always prosecuted the war with a hope of achieving a negotiated peace. To save American lives and to avoid overly injuring Mexican pride, Polk first pursued limited military objectives. In the beginning he hoped that the occupation of the northernmost provinces of Mexico, coupled with a lack of Mexican will, would bring the two countries to the peace table. Accordingly, Polk sent Taylor from the Rio Grande toward Monterrey (in Nuevo León); General John E. Wool, also from Texas, toward Chihuahua; and Colonel Stephen W. Kearny from Missouri to Santa Fe (New Mexico) and then to California. Occupation of those territories, Polk gambled, might be enough.
That plan, however, failed because it underestimated Mexican pride, determination, and hatred of the gringo. As a result, Polk replaced that limited strategy with a major undertaking, an expedition to seize Mexico City by way of an amphibious landing at the Mexican port of Veracruz. Only by taking Mexico City itself, he concluded reluctantly, could military force bring Mexico to its knees.
The strategy worked, but the road turned out to be fraught with hardship and danger. To occupy Monterrey, Saltillo, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and, later, Mexico City cost dearly, as the statistics show.