The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter IV
Part I

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER IV.

THE MEXICAN WAR, 1846-47.

The Mexican War, which began in April, 1846, and ended eighteen months later, was caused chiefly but not solely by the annexation of Texas to the United States in 1845. Except in military record, which is inspiring, the Mexican War is not very creditable history. Polk's policy of annexation was opposed by a majority of the citizens of the Northern States. They had no desire to help in extending the slave-holding states. On the other hand, the south solidly supported the aims of the government, hoping, indeed, to extend the area of slavery far beyond the bounds of Texas. In her revolt, Texas carried into the Union not only the territory to which she was entitled but much more that than had been conveyed by the original Mexican agreement.

New York Attitude to War--the political phases of the Texas question and the resultant war ware referred to in another chapter, but an indication of the attitude of New York is contained in the presidential vote in 1844. That campaign was fought almost wholly on the Texas annexation issue. Ex-president martin Van Buren, who opposed the annexation, was refused the Democratic nomination, which he would otherwise have certainly had, and Polk, of Tennessee, comparatively unknown but who favored the annexation, was the Democratic choice. Out of a vote of 485,000 in New York State Polk was given a plurality of only 5,106. The Whigs would have carried New York State by a good majority had not a new Abolitionist party that centered in New York, take a large number of votes that would otherwise have gone to the Whig candidate, Clay. Polk, in fact, had only a minority of the popular vote of the country, but his electoral majority gave him the presidency. With the election of Polk the annexation of Texas was assured; so, also was war with Mexico made certain.

Mexico had stoutly resisted the separation of Texas from her, for she looked upon it as her rightful domain. However, Texas had to all intents made itself independent, and had chosen to join the United States, and Polk had undertaken that she should. Mexico finally yielded. Soon however fresh trouble arose as to the boundary. Mexico insisted that its sovereignty extended to the Nueces, whereas the United States contended that the territory of the annexed Texas extended to the Rio Grande del Norte. For this considerable tract of land she was prepared to treat with Mexico, or, if necessary, to go to war. Mexico would not compromise.

In 1845 the regular Army of the United States consisted of only 5,000 men, a fact which, perhaps, stiffened the attitude of her Latin neighbor. When Polk, in November, 1845, sent Congressman Slidell to Mexico to negotiate with president Herrera for the purchase of Upper California, in which a few Americans had settled, he also empowered the congressman to offer Mexico an indemnity for release of the disputed Texas territory. Herrera was no longer President, and the new President, Paredes, was a soldier. He refused even to receive Slidell.

American Forces at Rio Grande--so, in March, 1846, the little army of the untied States was set in motion, Polk instructing Colonel Zachary Taylor, who was in command of that part of it which was then in Texas, to march at one to the Rio Grande, to a point opposite Matamoras. Taylor was given a brigadier's brevet, but he thought that the senior officer of the Untied States Army--Major-General Winfield Scott--would soon arrive to take over the field operations. Scott, however, was held at Washington, and Taylor had to take sole responsibility for the initial movements.

Near Matamoras one of his patrols was attacked on April 23 by Mexicans under Arista. Desperate fighting ensued, but the surprised patrol was overpowered. War was on from the moment, the Untied States eventually claiming that Mexico was the aggressor. Opposite Matamoras Taylor built a small fort. Leaving Major Brown, with a small force in it, he went with his column to Point Isabel for supplies. In his absence Fort Brown was attacked. Taylor hurried to its relief. He found his way opposed by Arista, on May 8. The Mexicans were in a strong position at Palo Alto, and numbered 8,000 men. Taylor had only 2,300. Nevertheless, his two eighteen pounders and two light batteries cut such gaps in the massed ranks of the Mexican troops that Arista soon fell back to Resaca de la Palma. Palo alto, the first major battle, was a positive victory for Taylor. The American resumed their march, but when within three miles of Fort Brown they were again attacked. The fighting was desperate, the Mexicans losing 1,000 men. So hard pressed was the Mexican general that he asked for an armistice. Taylor refused, and crossed the Rio Grande. With his little army, which had been expected to do hardly more than patrol the border on the American side of the Rio Grande, Taylor has won two brilliant victories, and now the flag of the United States was unfurled on Mexican soil.

There, General Taylor waited for the political situation to clear. It was evident that there was trouble in ministerial circles in Washington. Major-General Scott--who, it will be remembered, had fought so valiantly on the Niagara frontier and elsewhere during the War of 1812--was the chief of the Untied States Army at that time, and was eager to command the expedition into Mexico. He was also active politically, and was thought to have presidential aspirations. He was popular throughout the country, and his political enemies did not wish to do anything that would enhance his popularity. So, although he was the logical commander--if the war should develop to anything like major proportions--he was held at Washington; and Polk's ministers--in particular Secretary of War Marcy, who was a former Governor of New York, and, next to Van Buren, the most powerful politician New York had produced in a generation--were quickly freed from embarrassment by the early victories on the Rio Grande. It was decided that Taylor, who was only a blunt, honest old soldier with no inclination or aptitude for politics, should be given the command. He was raised to the rank of major-general, and told to go ahead as quickly as possible.

Plans to Acquire Mexican Territory--Secretary Marcy was probably the mat politician in Washington at the time. The plan by Which the untied States won Texas, and also added New Mexico and California to the Union, was mainly conceived by him. While Taylor was fighting the initial battles on the Rio Grande, Marcy and Bancroft--with the encouragement of President Polk and State Secretary Buchanan--were laying out their political plans for acquiring this vast territory at the expense of Mexico. While they kept General Scott at the capital, they made some more major-generals for operations over a wide field. One of the new major-generals was colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, a gallant New York officer. War having been declared on may 18, and Texas and Louisiana asked to raise immediately 10,000 men, General Kearny was given command of 1,800 men, with which to conquer New Mexico. He took Santa Fe on August 18, without firing a shot. Soon afterwards he formally annexed the State of New Mexico--which was much larger then than now--to the United States.

California also was not forgotten. In May Captain John C. Fremont, who was exploring in that Mexican state, received a message from his father-in-law, Secretary of State Buchanan, hinting that the should remain in California for the present to thwart designs that any foreigners might have upon the region. Fremont took the hint. Returning to Sacramento, he learned that De Castro, the Mexican commandant, was about to expel the American settlers. Fremont acted promptly. On June 15 he seized Sonoma, and then gathered all American settlers from the interior. With their aid he ousted De Castro. Meanwhile, another intrepid New Yorker, Commodore John Drake Sloat, a hero of the War of 1812, had been active along the coast. He had seized several coast towns, as far as Loa Angeles before being superseded late in July by Commodore Stockton. Joining forces with Fremont, Stockton organized an expedition against Monterey, the capital of California. But the New Yorker, Commodore Sloat, was the hero of Monterey. "Under cover of darkness, Sloat stole, in his ship, the 'Savannah,' from the harbor of Mazatlan (California), and reaching Monterey in advance of the British Admiral, compelled its surrender and raised the American flag in the old Mexican capital." On August 13, Stockton and Fremont took formal possession of Monterey. They proclaimed the conquest of the State, and at once formed a provisional government, with Stockton as its head. The California forced were soon strengthened by the arrival of a company of artillery, on the storeship "Lexington," which had taken 200 days to make the voyage around the Horn. And after conquering New Mexico, General Kearny marched to the aid of Fremont only to find that California was already safe in American hands.

These were great achievements by few men and at small cost. In the meantime, the Polk government had been very actively expanding its military means. Even before war was declared, they had called for 50,000 volunteers. Three hundred thousand responded. The southern and Western States furnished more men than the Eastern, but one New Yorker--the veteran General John E. Wool--along raised and equipped a volunteer force of 12,00 men in six weeks. General wool was the dashing New York captain of that name who, with a few companies of regulars, almost won the battle of Queenston in the first attack on the Niagara frontier in 1812. He was still an energetic soldier, and, for his recruiting effort, was given command of an expedition against Chihuahua. He penetrated Mexico as far as Parras, and later came to the rescue of General Taylor at a very critical moment.

After the brilliant opening of the Rio Grande operations the ministers at Washington were eager to hear of more victories by Taylor. Indeed, they were impatient. They asked "Old Zack," as General Taylor was affectionately known to his men, not to wait for reinforcements, but to "take foot in hand and off for the Halls of Montezuma," they would have him make a "bee-line' for Mexico City, 500 miles away, as the crow flies, passing with his little army through the most thickly populated part of a military nation and attacking a capital which had not been assailed for 300 years by a foreigner. Taylor, indeed, could hardly have spread his little force over a line of communication 100 miles long. Fortunately, wise counsels prevailed, and Taylor was saved from plunging into that expedition which could have ended only disaster.

Washington was a city of intense political intrigue at the time. Taylor knew little of politics, but he had no confidence in the President or in Secretary Marcy, or indeed, of any of the ministers. He had a vague idea that they liked him as commander "only because they liked Scott less,' "On to the Capital!" was the cry, but Taylor knew as well as Scott that the purpose of the northern expedition would be served by an operation against another Monterey (in Nuevo Leon), ninety miles away, or perhaps by going as far as Saltillo. This would cripple; the enemy's line of communication. As soon as Taylor had achieved this, the offensive against Mexico City should begin at Vera Cruz. This was Scott's plan, and its logic was unhesitatingly admitted by Taylor. Eventually, the politicians had to stand by while Scott himself carried it through.

Advance on Monterey and Buena Vista--So General Taylor held closely to the plan of northern operations, quite content to leave the glory and glamour of Mexico City to General Scott. In July Taylor was joined by Brigadier-General Worth, another distinguished New York officer. A statute of General Worth was later erected on Madison Square, New York City. The Rio Grande army now consisted of three brigades, the other brigadiers being Generals Twigg and Butler. With 6,000 men, half of whom were regulars, Taylor began his advance on Monterey on September 5. On the 19th he was before the fortified city. Next day worth's division passed beyond it, cutting the enemy's line of retreat. Taylor carried the outer defenses, and on the 23rd Worth's division was in the streets of the city. Severe fighting had been continuing since the 19th, and the enemy outnumbered the Americans by two to one; nevertheless, on the 24th the Mexican commandant, Ampudia, capitulated. It was a thrilling victory. "Old Zack" was on everybody's lips. The American people everywhere sang his praises. And he deserved it. As the American poet Hoffman wrote:

Many a gallant spirit would
Give half his years if he but could
Have been with us at Monterey.

Doubts as to Taylor's ability to carry through the larger operations of the war began to take hold of Polk's ministers. Taylor had chivalrously granted the brave but vanquished Mexicans seven days in which to evacuate Monterey. Moe important, still, he had agreed to an armistice of eight weeks' duration. A treacherous enemy could do a lot in eight weeks, thought Washington. However, Taylor had put his name to the armistice, and he would stand by his word, even though he knew that his campaign would not be satisfactorily ended until he had take Saltillo. Secretary Marcy was displeased with the terms of capitulation. He knew the character of the average Mexican soldier-politician better than Taylor did. Washington was well aware that the average Mexican general's strategy was likely to be warped by politics, that military integrity was subservient to political expediency, that Mexican politicians could be just as wily as Americans. Polk, Buchanan and Marcy paid dearly in the lives of American soldiers, for the political craftiness that induced them to aid one Mexican exile--General Santa Anna, a capable but crafty Mexican soldier-politician--to re-enter his country to foment revolt. Santa Anna did so, and the internal affairs of Mexico soon became chaotic. Then, "to create a feeling that his war was just," Polk at once "sent a proposition to negotiate for peace, knowing that, in the disturbed condition of Mexican affairs, it was not likely to be entertained." Santa Anna soon made himself dictator of Mexico, but his "Napoleon of the West,' as he was called in his own country, proved to be a most wily foe of America. When Washington heard of the armistice granted by Taylor, they instinctively new that the only side that would gain by it would be the Mexican. So General Taylor was ordered to terminate it forthwith, but Marcy's order did not reach Monterey until the armistice ad almost run its full course. Soon afterward Taylor received another communication from the War Department. He was order not to advance towards San Luis Potosi, but to strengthen the defenses of Monterey. It was also intimated that 4,000 of his troops would be detached for an expedition from Tampico. Soon thereafter the bewildered Taylor received a letter from General-in-chief Scott stating that he, himself, would head an advance on Mexico City from Vera Cruz. Further, that, although by the latest plans Scott would take 10,000 of Taylor's troops for the Vera Cruz operation, and Taylor would be left at Monterey, the general-in-chief hoped that Monterey commander would not for a moment think that he had been superseded, but that he would act strictly on the defensive until Congress could meet and raise another army for the northerly campaign.

By that tine, however, Taylor was already on the march to Saltillo. Three weeks later, at San Luis Potosi, he learned that Scott himself has visited the Rio Grande bases and, without consulting him, had ordered the withdrawal of 9,000 of the Rio Grande troops.

Slowly it began to dawn upon "Rough and Ready" Taylor that his embarrassments were the outcome of political scheming. By his brilliant military successes of the previous year "Old Zack" had become the most popular man in the Union. Politicians who were looking forward to the next presidential year were uneasy. They now saw in Scott's Vera Cruz plan not only the logical way to Mexico City, but a chance to "take the wind" out of Taylor's presidential sails. "Old Zack" was not thinking of the presidency. His thoughts were concentrated upon his military task; an, as he wrote, he determined 'to carry out the purposes of the government which had brought him thither."

Before him was the skillful Mexican General, Santa Anna himself, with a well-trained army of 20,000 horse and foot. Taylor's force now consisted of only 7.500 men for the purposes of the invasion, and also to guard a lime much more than a hundred miles long. Nevertheless, he resolved to push on to Saltillo. On February 22, 1847, he was eighteen miles beyond that place, but fell back to Buena Vista, a stronger position. There he awaited Santa Anna, who advanced confident of victory, knowing only too well how weak his adversary had been made. The Mexican general urged Taylor to surrender, to "avoid being rousted and cut to pieces.' But "Old Zack's" mind worked slowly and he as dogged by nature. He laconically declined, fighting began that afternoon and continued savagely throughout the whole of the next day. Once General Wool, of New York, went forward to meet a Mexican deputation that had advanced under a flag of truce. He was fired upon. But thereafter Taylor's' men know how to treat the white flag. Fighting went on desperately. There were many critical moments when it seemed that the little detachments of fighting American would be swept away by the oncoming masses of Mexicans. However, the American artillerists behaved wonderfully. Their guns were hot and smoking, but their heads were cool and their nerves steady. Grape shot chained its way through the masses, and the magnificent Mexican cavalry melted away as they charged; but there were many more to take their places. At one of the most critical moments, when, through a mistaken order, the Indiana regiment fell back, imperiling the whole American position on the plateau, the coolest man on the field was "Old Zack." "Give them a little more grape, Captain Bragg," said the general calmly, when he saw the Mexicans waver, as the Americans recovered. The "little more grape" was enough--enough also to carry Taylor into the White House two years later, for it became the most popular catch phrase of the presidential years.

when morning broke on the 24th only the small American army remained on the plateau. Santa Anna's army of 20,000 had disappeared during the night--at least, all save 2.000 who had been killed or wounded. But by the time Santa Anna reached his base at San Luis Potosi his army had dwindled to 10,000.

The American casualties at Buena Vista reached almost to 750. Taylor had won his greatest victory. Had not a New Yorker--General Wool---arrived with his Chihuahua column of 2.500 men just before the battle, it is doubtful whether Taylor's little army could have withstood the attack of the great army that Santa Anna had raised and led.

Taylor's campaign was now over; his talk was done--and well done. Soon afterwards, the unassuming general returned to his home with his military prestige too strong to be again endangered by poetical intrigue. As a mater of fact, nowhere in the United States was Taylor's victory more joyously received than in Polk's cabinet, for they had fully realized their culpability. The whole country--cabinet ministers included--had passed through a period of breathless suspense,. Dreading that when news reached them it would be that Taylor's army had been cut to pieces--sacrificed to political intrigue, it would seem.

The March from Vera Cruz--Now the while country could turn expectantly and hopefully to the other war front. General Scott was now facing Santa Anna. On March 9 Scott landed at Vera Cruz with an army of 12,000 men. On the 23rd they invested the castle of San Juan de Ulloa. On the 27th the city and castle surrendered, General Worth of New York leading his division into the city on the 29th, the garrison marching out as the American troops entered. By the middle of April, the invaders were fifty miles inland. Confronting them was the resourceful Santa Anna, now again in strong force and occupying a good position. On the 18th of April the Americans attacked Cerro Gordo. After one part of the Mexican army had been cut off and captured, the enemy fled to Jalapa. Scott took that place quickly, and advanced rapidly to Puebla, which he occupied without opposition on May 15. There he awaited reinforcements.

During the lull peace negotiations were tried. But the only man who profited by them was Santa Anna, to whom Scott paid $10,000, the first installment of $1,000,000, which was to be the personal emolument of the dishonorable Mexican general if he should succeed in bringing about a peace satisfactory to the Untied States. The Mexican Congress would not follow his counsel and decided to fight the quarrel out to the death. So the invasion proceeded..

With 14,000 men General Scott resumed his march, and on August 10 passed over the crest of the Rio Frio Mountains. The City of Mexico was not insight, but many lives were still to be lost before the Star and Stripes could fly over the "halls of Montezuma," Santa Anna had chosen an excellent position, most difficult to approach, five miles from the city; and had General Valencia obeyed his command and withdrawn from a position he held at Contreras, the defense of the city might have been more stubborn. As it was, it was quite desperate enough. The Mexicans had their backs to the wall, and fought with ferocity and heroism worthy of their great past. In the fighting at Contreras, the Mexican loss was 2,000 killed and wounded. Santa Anna retired to Curubusco before the onslaught of Worth's divisions. There another bloody battle was fought; indeed, Worth gained the victory only at the cost of a thousands of his men killed and wounded.

Overtures fro peace followed. An armistice was arranged; but when Scott learned that Santa Anna was using it only to strengthen the defenses of Mexico City, he instantly declared the armistice ended. The fighting was desperate and bloody on September 7 and 8. Worth lost one-fifth of his officers and men at Molino Del Rey, but he forced the Mexicans out. They retreated to Chapultepec

Capture of Mexico City--The Rock of Chapultepec, rising 150 feet and accessible only on the southwestern and western sides, seemed to be a most formidable obstacle.. Upon the rock was a historic castle, and its frowning parapets bristled with guns. Its garrison of 2,000 guarded every approach, and its guns commanded the city. Reconnaissances disclosed that Mexico City could not be safely occupied until Chapultepec had been taken. The storming of this stronghold was at once decided upon, and the scaling of its almost unclimbable walls was a fitting climax to a great campaign. The Americans were irresistible. Passing over almost insurmountable obstacles, the American troops, buoyed for the final supreme effort, converged from all directions, the parapets were scaled, and at least the castle was in American hands. The garrison fled into the city, hopelessly beaten.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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