Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Mexico's War with the United States

The annexation of Texas by the United States aroused a sense of injury and a sentiment of hostility in Mexico too vigorous to be easily allayed. Annexation had been applied for by the new republic in 1837 and became the leading feature in the Presidential campaign of 1844. It was carried and Texas admitted to the Union as a State in December, 1845. The leaders and statesmen of Mexico were convinced that the revolt and independence of Texas had been due to American instigation, and the final act of annexation appeared to them the concluding phase of a well-considered scheme. At any rate, indignation in them was far stronger than prudence and they broke hastily into hostile movements that were sure to provoke reprisals. They knew that the act of annexation had been carried by Southern votes, with a view to the extension of the area of slavery, and that opposition to it existed in the North, and this may have given them false hopes of dissension in the councils of their powerful neighbor.

As for Mexico itself, it was then in its normal state of revolution. Herrera, the president at the end of 1844, was ousted in 1846 and replaced by General Paredes. The latter held the office for six months, when another revolutionary movement broke out, and General Bravo reached the presidential chair. There were no strong and wise leaders at the head of affairs. During these rapid changes Santa Anna, who was just then in exile at Havana, offered his services against the United States. Mexico had threatened war if the treaty of annexation with Texas was ratified, and this was no sooner done than troops of the republic were in the field, thirsting for victory and revenge.

In this rash movement the Mexicans were inspired with an ill-placed confidence in their ability as fighters and the supposed lack of similar qualities in the United States. The latter had long been at peace, its army was small and without experience in war, and the fact that such a war was unpopular in the North seemed to the Mexican leaders an augury in their favor. As for the Mexican soldiery, many of them had had practice in the field, they were men of great powers of endurance and accustomed to little subsistence, while there was no lack of courage in their hearts. Properly led, they might be depended upon to give a good account of themselves. The cavalry had an excellent reputation, due to the wonderful expertness of the Mexicans in general as horsemen. The infantry also were fairly well drilled and severely disciplined, while the artillery had many experienced foreigners among its officers.

On the other hand, the arms, both of the infantry and artillery, were inferior, and the carbines of the cavalry were of an old model, far from being up to date. Of worse augury still was the corruption that existed among the officers, extending from the highest to the lowest grades. Many of them, indeed, were utterly unfit for their positions, having been placed in them by some of the rapidly changing presidents as rewards for discreditable services, and lacking any training or ability in army tactics. Such was the character of the army which marched forward inspired with high hopes of vanquishing the hated gringos, and with little dream of the fate that awaited it.

Mexico opened the fight. General Zachary Taylor, of the United States army, had been sent with a small force, in the spring of 1846, to the banks of the Rio Grande, which was claimed as the border line of Texas. The fighting began with the capture of a small body of dragoons by a Mexican ambuscade, a number of the Americans being killed. The Mexicans next crossed the river to the Texas side, where two minor engagements took place, in both of which the invaders were worsted. These took place at a locality known as Palo Alto on May 8th, and at Resaca de la Palma on the 9th. In the latter the Mexicans were decisively defeated, the tide of battle being turned by a splendid charge made by Captain May at the head of his battalion of dragoons, which drove the enemy from the field in a wild flight, all their equipment being left in the hands of the Americans, while their loss in killed and wounded was estimated at more than a thousand men. We have given elsewhere an illustration of this impetuous charge. To indicate how closely cavalry charges resembled each other in the past and present, we append here an illustration of a charge of Cortes and his men against their Indian foes. The engagements described were followed by declaration of war by the United States, which was made on May 13th, on the plea that the Mexicans had begun the war by their shedding of American blood on American soil.

The war might have quickly ended if the Mexicans had been open to negotiation. But they were then changing presidents so rapidly that it was difficult to find a stable government to deal with. Mexico had no less than four presidents in 1846, and five in 1847, a case of extraordinary rapidity in changes of government. One of these presidents agreed to negotiate with a special envoy sent from Washington, but before the conference could be held another president had ousted him and an audience was refused. Under such conditions the war which Mexico had begun could not fail to go on, bills were passed by the American Congress voting more money and munitions, and the President was authorized to call for volunteers, not to exceed fifty thousand. Similar action was taken by Mexico. Soon the war was in full swing.

Mexico had forced the hand of the United States by its invasion of Texas. The bordering river was quickly crossed and an invasion of Mexico followed. The plan of operations devised at Washington was to seize and occupy New Mexico and California, the frontier provinces of Mexico on the north, and hold them as an indemnity for the expenses of the war, while an effort to force Mexico into an agreement for peace was to be made by an invasion of the heart of the country.

The northern movement was made at three points. General Taylor crossed the Rio Grande near its mouth and took possession of the town of Matamoros. General Stephen Kearney led an army overland to New Mexico, penetrating it and capturing Santa Fe, its capital city. Captain John C. Fremont invaded California, and, with the aid of the Pacific fleet of the United States, made a conquest of that province.

The occupation of New Mexico and California, sparsely settled provinces, was accomplished almost without resistance. All the fighting of importance in this northern invasion was done by General Taylor and the small army under his command. From Matamoros he traversed the State of Nuevo Leon towards Monterey, its capital, the first place of importance on his route. A town of about 2,000 inhabitants, it was occupied by General Ampudia with an army over 10,000 strong. He was well supplied with ammunition and artillery, had food enough to bear a short siege, and had little dread of Taylor's army, it being little more than half his own in strength.

As it proved, the American onslaught was made with irresistible vigor. For four days the fight continued, the American forces steadily making their way into the town, tunneling through the walls of houses to gain cover for their advance. The bishop's palace, on a hill near the town, had been fortified by Ampudia, and was the center of the fight. It was stormed and taken on September 22nd, and on the 25th the Mexicans evacuated the town and retreated to Saltillo, having lost more than a thousand men. The American loss in killed and wounded was little more than four hundred.

This victory had an important effect. It taught the Mexicans that they were sadly mistaken in their estimate of the Americans as soldiers and tacticians. While they were discouraged, the encouragement in the United States was equally marked. Taylor and his men were regarded as heroes, their courage and skill were highly praised, and the popularity of the war greatly increased.

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma,


Mariano Paredes was at this time President of Mexico, a man who had it in mind to change the government to a monarchy, and who was so occupied with his political schemes as to neglect the necessary preparations for war. The result was a revolt of the garrison at Vera Cruz in favor of the exiled Santa Anna. The garrison at the capital next revolted and Paredes was imprisoned. Santa Anna at once returned from exile, made his way like a conquering hero to the capital, and was offered the supreme power in the state. He declined this offer, saying that he preferred to serve his country` in the army. He put himself at the head of the Mexican forces, and on the 8th of October reached San Luis Potosi, whither Ampudia had retreated, and where troops were gathering from various quarters. Here he gave himself the task of organizing the army, supplying money from his private estate to help out the depleted government funds.

On the 22nd of February, 1847, the opposed forces met on the famous field of Buena Vista, a mountain ravine to which Taylor had fallen back from Monterey, his regulars having been taken from him to reinforce the new army forming under General Scott. Taylor had but 5,000 men when he was attacked here by Santa Anna with over 20,000. But the spot was a natural stronghold and Taylor held his ground so vigorously that in the end the Mexicans were obliged to retreat, their loss being three times that of the Americans. This was the final exploit of Taylor in the war. But his victory against such odds made him a national hero and won him the nomination and election as President of the United States in the following year.

These successes on the frontier were preliminary to the decisive campaign of the war, which struck at the heart of the country through its seaport of Vera Cruz. Early in March, 1847, shortly after the Battle of Buena Vista, General Winfield Scott, at the head of an army of about 12,000 men, sailed into the harbor of Vera Cruz and summoned that city to surrender. General Morales, in command of the garrison, refused, saying that he would defend the city to the last extremity. Scott accordingly landed his troops and began a bombardment of the city on the 22nd.

For four days shot and shell were poured into the devoted city, the violence of the fire daily increasing. The citizens sought the mole and the part of the city out of the line of fire for protection, though many of the poorer people, who prowled about the streets in search of food, were killed. Surrender took place on the 27th, the Mexican troops being permitted to march out with the honors of war and to salute their descending flag, while civil and religious rights were guaranteed to the inhabitants. The garrison then laid down its arms and marched is away, while the command of General Worth marched into and took possession of the city and of the neighboring fortress of San Juan de Ulna.

The continued successes of the Americans filled the Mexican authorities with alarm. Their northern provinces occupied from the Gulf to the Pacific, and entrance forced into the gateway to their capital, there was abundant warrant for gloom, despite the fact that they proudly repulsed, as an indignity to the national honor, all propositions for peace made by the American government. Need of money was their great source of trouble, and as the most promising means of obtaining it the Church was asked to contribute from its large accumulation of property.

The Church established in Mexico, a great power for good in the early days of the province, had deteriorated in the later period. To quote from the "Mexican Guide" of Thomas A. Janvier: "The influence of the religious orders upon the colony was beneficial (luring its first century, neutral during its second, harmful during its third." During these centuries the Church had gathered into its coffers so much of the wealth of the country as to interfere with the ordinary progress of business, and these clerical hoards were now called upon to aid in the country's defense.

The first demand was for a sum of two millions of dollars. This the bishops declared themselves unable to pay, and took steps to defeat legislation of this kind in Congress. In January, 1847, a bill was passed "to hypothecate or sell in mortmain. Church property" to the amount of fifteen millions of dollars. But the Church property consisted almost wholly of real estate, on which it was difficult to raise money either by mortgage or sale in face of the opposition and great influence upon the people of the clergy. As a result Congress failed to raise the money it demanded, and the government was left very poorly equipped with funds for the expenses of the war. Yet the blow struck at the accumulations of the clergy in these demands opened the way for much more drastic measures in the near future.

Vera Cruz taken, General Scott had a convenient base of operations for his projected march upon the city of Mexico. It was from this point that all invasions of the country have been made from the time of Cortes downward. An event of this kind of which we have not spoken was an assault by a French fleet in 1838 to settle by force certain old claims for damages. One of these claims had been made by a French cook for pastry stolen from him by revolutionists. He estimated his loss at the modest sum of sixty thousand dollars. On this occasion the castle of San Juan and the city were occupied by the French, but Santa Anna, who had offered his services to the nation, forced them to leave the city, though at the cost of the loss of a leg from a wound. From that time forward this redoubtable warrior was forced to wear a wooden leg.

We may briefly summarize the career of Santa Anna after this episode. Revolutions were of annual occurrence and he, with his well trained body of followers, was always in the thick of them. He held the position of Dictator in 1841 and again in 1843, was duly installed as President in 1844, and in 1845 was banished, his star declining. We have told of his return in 1846, his promotion to commander-in-chief and his repulse by General Taylor at Buena Vista in February, 1847. From this place he marched to encounter another American army, that of General Scott, now advancing from Vera Cruz.

The two armies met on the field of Cerro Gordo, a mountain fastness of great strength and defended by an army of 15,000 men. Yet once more Santa Anna was routed, his army being so utterly broken and dispersed that the route to Mexico lay freely open. The Mexican leader fled to Orizaba, there collected what men he could get together, and advanced to Puebla, towards which city Scott was making his way up the steep slope of the Sierra Madre. He sought earnestly, but in vain, to rouse the people of Puebla to his support, telling them Ghat they could beat the Americans if they would, since they had beaten himself in one of his revolutionary movements, though backed by an army of 12,000 men. But they had not the spirit to face these terrible gringos and the city was occupied without a shot being fired. At this healthful altitude Scott's army halted until August, awaiting reinforcements and supplies before making its final march.

Santa Anna had meanwhile returned to the city of Mexico, where his reception was by no means enthusiastic, he having completely failed to check the enemy. As a step toward regaining popular favor, he resigned the presidency, and was at once made Dictator by Congress. As such he began to fortify the capital, while every effort was made to rouse{ patriotic fervor in the people. Evidently Mexico City was the last point of defense for the republic and troops and munitions of war began to pour in rapidly, more than 25,000 men being collected, with sixty pieces of artillery.

In early August the American army, amply reinforced and equipped, began its final march, no opposition being made until the near vicinity of the city was reached. The route followed was not far from that taken by Cortes more than three centuries before. It led south of Lake Chalco and Xochimilco, and thence northward towards the capital city. The first fortified point encountered was at Churubusco, a village four miles from the city. Here the armies met on August 18th and a severe battle was fought, the Mexicans stoutly defending a convent which they had occupied. Their courageous defense was in vain. The Americans fought their way into town and convent, and took as prisoners all who had not fallen.

This battle was followed by a brief armistice, but fighting began again on September 8th, the new battleground being Molino del Rey, a place near the city and within the range of the guns on the hill of Chapultepec. A night attack was made here, continued into the next day when the place was taken after a furious resistance and despite the fire from the guns upon Chapultepec, which was kept up from daybreak until the end of the action. During the fight the bells of the city rang joyous peals, indicating a hopeful expectation of victory which was not realized.

The Mexicans, indeed, had great faith in their stronghold, the Castle of Chapultepec, which they looked upon as wholly impregnable. It was commanded by General Bravo, Santa Anna being elsewhere occupied. The hill was steep and high and its ascent had to be made in face of a furious fire. Eight hundred young men, pupils of the military college of Chapultepee, were among its defenders. It is said that one of these young braves, when the fall of the place was assured, wrapped the colors around his body and leaped from the summit, to be crushed into death at the foot.

It seemed a task of desperation to storm the fortified hill, yet the American troops scaled it in an impetuous rush, taking the castle and military college by storm. The struggle was fearful and the bloodshed great, both sides being wrought into fury and quarter rarely given. The city was held in terrified suspense while this fierce contest went on, the roar of artillery and rattle of musketry filling the air. But hope changed to despair when the Mexican colors were seen to descend and the standards of the American regiments to float in their place.

This final struggle took place on September 13th. It signified the end of the war. Early the next morning the American army marched into the city in triumph, and at seven A. M. the American flag displayed its stars and stripes on the walls of the national palace of Mexico.

The army remained in the city until the 2d of February, 1848, on which day a treaty of peace was signed at Guadalupe-Victoria, a suburb of the city. In this Mexico signed away a territory of sufficient area for an empire. This was given the aspect of a purchase, the United States paying the defeated nation $15,000,000. Mexico did not value the vast territory very highly. New Mexico and California, as the provinces were then called, were very thinly settled, and no conception of their real value was entertained.

It was not long, however, before the Americans, who had been equally ignorant of the actual value of their new possessions, were astonished and gratified to learn that they had obtained possession of one of the great gold centers of the world. In the very year of the treaty, 1848, gold was found. It proved to exist in great abundance, immigration poured in from the states, San Francisco, then a little Mexican port, grew to be a flourishing city, and California in time developed into an important state.

So much has been said of the part played by Santa Anna during and previous to the war, that a glance at his later career may be of interest. After the evacuation of Mexico an attempt was made by General Lane, then operating against guerrillas on the high-roads, to capture this Mexican worthy. Hearing that he was at Tehuacan, near Puebla, a night march was made to that place. A few miles out a carriage was met escorted by an armed guard. It was stopped, but its occupant soon proved that he was not Santa Anna, and that he had a safe-guard signed by an American general. Day had just broken when Lane entered Tehuac, but he came too late. A friend of the Mexican leader had seen the stopping of the carriage and ridden back to warn him at top speed, giving him just time to escape with his family, but without his effects. With these Lane's troopers made free.

The war over, Santa Anna returned to Jamaica, to "pass his last days in tranquillity." He was back again in 1853, and was now appointed dictator for life. Two years of this satisfied the Mexicans, and he went into exile again. In 1867 he returned, made an attempt against the republic, failed, and was taken prisoner. He survived in obscurity nine years longer, dying in 1876.