History of the War with Mexico - H. O. Ladd

The Immediate Causes of the War

Political necessity—International quarrels—Claims for damages—Conventions—Reparation delayed—Appeal for admission of Texas to the Union—Act of Congress—Boundary disputes—Appointment of Slidell—The Nueces and Rio Grande—Provocations to war—General Taylor's dispatches—Haste of the Administration—Declarations of war.

Wars carried on by Christian nations must have some justification to the world for all the losses and barbarities which they produce. The immediate causes of the war with Mexico were urged by the supporters of the administration of President Polk as sufficient vindication from blame for the evils involved in it to both countries.

The war was claimed to be a political necessity. It was asserted to be the only way to settle the claims for damages held by American citizens against the Mexican Government, and to vindicate the honor of the American flag. Frequent quarrels had arisen between citizens of Mexico and of the United States, which led to repeated acts of violence and robbery, and insults to the flag of the Union. For these acts the United States Government, with great forbearance, sought reparation. Notwithstanding the most earnest remonstrances these depredations did not cease. American merchants were imprisoned, their vessels seized, and their cargoes confiscated. The frequent changes of rulers in Mexico gave opportunity for new outrages and seemed to remit the responsibility of the Mexican Government for old ones. Though a treaty of amity, commerce, and navigation was made as early as 1831, the injuries and insults complained of were increased rather than diminished. President Jackson, in his message to Congress in the year 1837, declared that they would justify, in the eyes of all nations, immediate war. At length Congress required that a final demand should be made for redress, and the fairest promises were extorted from the Mexican Government. Through a period of eight years, however, decisions upon damages, or their payment, were delayed, till three conventions and many conferences had resulted in the settlement of less that one fifth of the small number of claims that had received any consideration before the annexation of Texas.

President Polk and his Cabinet took advantage of the excitement and indignation prevalent in the United States on account of these outrages and claims. The grievances of American citizens, the hot debates of the Mexican Congress, and the arbitrary and insulting conduct of the Mexican officials toward the representatives of the United States, were used successfully to cover the aggressive designs of the Administration against the weak, miserable and distracted Republic on the western border.

There appears to have been no real justification for the enforcement of these claims by war. It was taking a cowardly advantage of a weak nation to drive its Government to acts of violence by actual invasion of its territory. The United States had never been able to settle similar claims with any other power in the time to which it limited Mexico. Great Britain waited twenty years for the payment of claims on the United States secured by treaty of 1783. The United States had waited eleven years for settlement of claims against Great Britain, and over twenty years for reparation for depredations committed by France.

Before the annexation of Texas full provision had been made by a convention, concluded at Mexico, November 10th, 1843, for ascertaining and paying all claims on which no final decision had been made; and this convention was ratified by the Senate of the United States in January, 1844. The proceedings for the annexation of Texas changed the relations of the two countries, arrested negotiations for a settlement, and were the chief cause of the failure of Mexico to meet her engagements in those conventions.

The number and magnitude of these offences were, moreover, much exaggerated. Fifteen outrages by Mexicans on American citizens and property were placed on the lists of the State Department at Washington as occurring between the years 1831 and 1836. Most of these were the detention of vessels and the imprisonment of crews. The cruelties of Texan border warfare and such tragedies as those of Goliad and the Alamo gave to Mexican character a most hateful reputation in the United States for perfidy and treachery. But there was little difference in this respect between the rough border Texans of those days and their Mexican neighbors. In the wild life of herders, rancheros, and gamblers, a strong type of violence and lawlessness prevailed.

The annexation of Texas gave its citizens just claims upon the United States for protection of life and property. The resolutions providing for annexation passed the Senate March 1st, 1845. The Texan Congress, with great unanimity, accepted the offer June 18th, 1845, and a convention, previously summoned at Austin, Texas, for July 4th, ratified their action.

The annexation was regarded by Mexico as an act of war in itself. The boundary disputes between Mexico and Texas were now transferred to the United States as one of the parties. Texas claimed the territory on her south-eastern boundary, as far as the Rio Grande. Mexico allowed the claim only as far as the river Nueces. Mexico began to form an army on the banks of the Rio Grande at Matamoras, and to collect forces on her northern frontier. Though there had been threats of the invasion of Texas, and Mexico had withdrawn her minister, Alamonte, from Washington, there were no overt acts of violence yet committed against Texas or the United States.

The Government of the United States now pursued a double policy: carrying on war and peace measures at one and the same time, to meet the divided sentiment of the country. On the 15th of September it made proposals to the Mexican Government to adjust all the questions in dispute. Mexico acceded, with the request that the American naval force be withdrawn during the negotiations. Mr. John Slidell was appointed minister plenipotentiary to represent the United States, with ample powers to settle all differences and restore harmony between the two nations. Having received his appointment on the loth of November, Mr. Slidell proceeded immediately to Mexico. He arrived at Vera Cruz on the 30th, but on presenting his credentials at the City of Mexico on the 6th and 21st of December, he was refused a recognition in his official capacity, on the ground that his credentials were those of a resident minister. He remained in Mexico till March 1st, 1846.

But these efforts at a peaceful settlement of difficulties were only palliations of the aggressive acts which had preceded them. Provocations of war had been offered which inflamed the Mexican people and Congress, and prevented any patient consideration of proposals such as those with which Mr. Slidell was intrusted.

Under date of June 15th, General Zachary Taylor was ordered to embark at New Orleans with his troops for a point on or near the Rio Grande del Norte in Texas, to protect what in event of annexation would be the western border of the United States. The order was immediately obeyed, and on the 2nd and 4th of July a portion of the force was embarked on steamers. These orders were given before the annexation of Texas was ratified. Under order of July 8th, 1845, General Taylor was informed that Mexico had some military establishments on the east side of the Rio Grande, "which," he was instructed, "are and for some time have been in the actual occupation of her troops. The Mexican forces at the posts in their possession and which have been so will not be disturbed as long as the relations of peace between the United States and Mexico continue."

It should be noticed that Texas did not exercise jurisdiction over this territory between the Rio Grande and the Nueces. Up to the time of the annexation there was only a claim to it. The United States had, therefore, no ascertained title to it. That of Mexico had not even been examined. It was the object of Mr. Polk's administration to extinguish the title by force of arms before the annexation was ratified.

General Taylor's later instructions, of date August 23rd, were as follows: "Should Mexico assemble a large body of troops on the Rio Grande, and cross it with a considerable force, such a movement must be regarded as an invasion of the United States and the commencement of hostilities." According to the same order, after such hostile act he was not to confine his action within the territory of Texas.

The Administration now called for the support of the south-western States in these war measures. General Taylor, in his instructions of August 23rd, was authorized by Secretary Marcy to accept volunteers from the States of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and by circular letters to the Governors of these States they were informed that General Taylor, appointed to the command of the Army of Occupation then at Corpus Christi to repel the invasion of Texas by Mexico, was thus authorized to draw aid from them. At the same time one thousand regular United States troops were sent from New York to General Taylor, and naval vessels were ordered to co-operate with him.

Still more vigorous orders by the war-loving Government at Washington were issued October 16th. By these General Taylor was instructed to drive all Mexican troops beyond the Rio Grande, and to select and hold Point Isabel on the banks of the river. Still later, January 13th, 1846, he was directed peremptorily to march to the Rio Grande opposite Matamoras, maintain the use of the river for navigation, and if attacked or threatened by the Mexican forces to cross the river, disperse them, and capture Matamoras and other places in the country west of the Rio Grande.

The responsibility of these orders rested wholly on the Administration. There was no pressing danger to require them. Secretary Marcy's instructions of October 16th declare that the United States had no reason to apprehend the immediate invasion of Texas. General Taylor's last communication to the Government, received before the issue of the orders of January 13th, reported "the pacific disposition of the border people on both sides of the river;" and so late as February 16th he again declares the exaggerated statements of preparations for invasion made by Mexicans as without foundation.

The object of the Administration in these orders appears in a letter from Mr. Buchanan, Secretary of State, to Mr. Slidell, under date of January 10th, 1846. "In the mean time the President, in anticipation of the final refusal of the Mexican Government to receive you, has ordered General Taylor to advance and take position on the left bank of the Rio Grande, and has directed that a strong fleet shall be assembled immediately in the Gulf of Mexico. He will thus be "prepared to act with vigor and promptitude the moment that Congress shall give him the authority. "

But Mr. Slidell expressed to the Government in reply, February 19th, that he was still confident of being received by the Mexican Government, though these movements might have a salutary effect on negotiations.

These were not such measures as the circumstances required for self-defence. They were plainly designed to be provocative of war.

Mr. Slidell failed in his mission. The warlike Mexican, General Paredes, had become President, instead of the more peaceably disposed General Herrera. General Taylor finally left Corpus Christi March 21st, and marched to the Rio Grande, heedless of the warning of a Mexican officer that the crossing of a small stream, the river Colorado, would be considered an act of war. The Government of Mexico now declared that war was the only settlement of the existing disputes, and Mr. Slidell, who up to the first of March expected recognition, immediately demanded his passports.

The Mexican Government sent orders April 4th, to General Arista, in command of the Mexican forces on the Rio Grande, to attack the troops under General Taylor by every means at his disposal which war permits. President Paredes wrote the same general at about the same time, "It is indispensable that hostilities be commenced, yourself taking the initiative against the enemy."

The Government of the United States was the first to begin the war, and Mexico was the first to declare it.

There seems to have been no sincerity on the part of the United States Government in efforts to avert collision. They provoked the outbreak of the war by compelling Mexico either to relinquish her claims and forfeit her self-respect, or take up arms in a hopeless contest with a nation of commanding resources and power.