Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

War with the United States

[A. D. 1846.] "We believe," says that gifted writer on ancient and modern Mexico, Brantz Mayer, "that our nation and its rulers earnestly desired honorable peace, though they did not shun the alternative of war. It was impossible to permit a conterminous neighbor who owed us large sums of money, and was hostile to the newly-adopted State, to select unopposed her mode and moment of attack. Mexico would neither resign her pretensions upon Texas, negotiate, receive our minister of war, nor remain at peace. She would neither declare war, nor cultivate friendship, and the result was, that when the armies approached each other, but little time was lost in resorting to the cannon and the sword."

In January, 1846, General Zachary Taylor (who became, subsequently, President of the United States) was ordered to move with his men to the mouth of the Rio Grande, where he commenced fortifications opposite the Mexican city of Matamoros.

The first decided act of hostility was a skirmish with rancheros, and on the 24th of April Colonel Thornton, with sixty-three dragoons, fell into an ambuscade and was obliged to surrender, after his little band had lost sixteen killed and wounded. Palo Alto  was the point at which the first actual engagement between the rival forces took place, between Point Isabel, General Taylor's base of supplies, and Matamoros. The Mexicans, 6,000 strong, under General Arista, opposed the passage of the Americans, about 2,300 in number. After a stubborn fight the former withdrew, with a loss of about one hundred. This was on the 8th of May; on the ninth the fighting was renewed at the ravine of Resaca de la Palma, three miles north of Matamoros. After but a short engagement, though the Mexicans outnumbered the Americans three to one, the latter were routed and retreated across the Rio Grande. Our garrison at the fort—since called Fort Brown, in honor of its commander, who was slain at that time—was relieved, and on the 18th of May General Taylor crossed the Rio Grande and occupied Matamoros. He had now, indeed, crossed the Rubicon. There was no retreating, to advance was perilous, for the invaded country (disorganized as it was) was hurrying troops to the rescue of its northern provinces. He had been instructed to, act with caution, to commit no act of aggression, but to protect Texas effectually from invasion. Spreading his army along the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande, General Taylor leisurely advanced from this extended base of operations, at the same time setting every energy in motion to recruit forces, and to arm, equip, and provision an army sufficient for defence. By September he had advanced as far as the neighborhood of Monterey, the capital of the State of New Leon. This was the key to the northern provinces. In this important fastness the Mexican General, Ampudia, had collected an army of 10,000 men, and awaited attack, expecting to annihilate the bold invaders. The city of Monterey is the oldest in the northern portion of Mexico, having been founded in 1590. Lying in the centre of a fertile plateau, 1,600 feet above the sea, surrounded with groves and gardens, it is a well-built city of stone, with large and handsome public buildings.

Zachary Taylor.


The American army appeared before this strongly fortified place 6,500 strong, and on the 21st of September commenced the assault. On the 22nd a commanding position, called the Bishop's Palace, was carried by storm by General Worth, and the next day the city was taken. From house to house and from street to street, our brave soldiers fought their way, carrying on a deadly, hand-to-hand conflict with the enemy, who assailed them also from housetops and terraces, until the great central square was reached, and Monterey was theirs! Owing to the small numbers of the attacking party, General Ampudia was allowed to capitulate with conditions that permitted him to withdraw his forces intact. The first great battle had now been fought; seven thousand Americans, without heavy guns, had defeated nearly ten thousand Mexicans in their own chosen stronghold, and defended by forty pieces of artillery„


"We were not many,—we who stood

Before the iron sleet that day;

Yet many a gallant spirit would

Give half his years if but he could

Have been with us at Monterey.

Now here, now there, the shot it hailed

In deadly drifts of fiery spray,

Yet not a single soldier quailed

When wounded comrades round them wailed

Their dying shout at Monterey.

And on, still on, our column kept,

Through walls of flame its withering way;

Where fell the dead the living stept,

Still charging on the guns which swept

The slippery streets of Monterey.

The foe himself recoiled aghast,

When, striking where he strongest lay,

We swooped his flanking batteries past,

And, braving full their murderous blast,

Stormed home the towers of Monterey.

Our banners on those turrets wave,

And there our evening bugles play;

Where orange-boughs above their grave

Keep green the memory of the brave

Who fought and fell at Monterey.

We are not many,—we who pressed

Beside the brave who fell that day;

But who of us has not confessed

He'd rather share their warrior rest

Than not have been at Monterey?"

The note of alarm was sounded throughout the United States at the first tidings of bloodshed on the Rio Grande. Congress, then in session, immediately voted ten millions of dollars to carry on the war, and ordered the raising of fifty thousand volunteers. The whole country, especially the Southern States, quickly responded, and soon regiments and battalions were hurrying forward to the scene of conflict. Owing to the almost incredible exertions of the veteran General Wool, three large bodies of troops were soon in motion towards the southwest. An ARMY OF THE WEST was placed under the command of the brave Indian fighter, Kearney, to march westward upon New Mexico and then cross to California. The ARMY OF THE CENTER,, under General Wool, was to invade the more northern provinces, and then finally join the ARMY or OCCUPATION,, under General Taylor.

Battle of Montery.


The brave Kearney, with 1,600 men, left Fort Leavenworth, on the Missouri, the Both of June, and, after a severe march of nearly nine hundred miles, captured Santa Fe, capital of New Mexico, without a blow being struck in defence. Possession was thus obtained, and has ever since been held, of those northern territories of Mexico which have since yielded us such vast stores of gold and silver. After organizing a new government, Kearney pushed on, through the almost trackless wilderness, for California. Meanwhile, in that far-distant province of Mexico, the drama of independent war had been enacted with vigor. On the 14th of June the few Americans who had straggled into that country banded together and took Sonora, and on the 25th they were joined by the intrepid Fremont, who was doing topographical work for government in that territory. July 5, raising an independent flag, the patriots declared their independence of Mexico. On July 8 Commander Montgomery of the American navy took possession of San Francisco, and on August 13th Fremont and Stockton captured Los Angeles. The first news of actual war between Mexico and the United States reached this isolated band of Americans on the 7th of July, when they also learned that Commodore Sloat had raised our flag at Monterey.

Kearney, with his small band of troopers, entered California in December, worn and wasted by their long and fatiguing march. They were soon attacked by the native Californian cavalry, and he lost twenty or thirty men at a place called San Pascual; but they succeeded in reaching the American camp by the middle of the month.

By the last of December, 1846, the American party, after enduring privations and trials of great magnitude, had obtained possession of the greater portion of Upper California, and by the middle of January, 1847 had subjugated this valuable Mexican province, which, a year or two later, opened to the world its subterranean treasure of gold.

The Navajo Indians, who threatened an outbreak, were quelled by a force of Missourians under Colonel Doniphan, who subsequently marched southward into the State of Chihuahua, where, after several engagements, he entered the capital, the large and substantial city of the same name. Then, after a rest of several weeks, he set his troop in motion for the headquarters of General Taylor, which he reached in the spring of 1847, having accomplished a toilsome journey of over five hundred miles, and traversed nearly all the frontier states of Mexico.

In the latter months of 1846 an expedition was planned by the War Department of the United States that was destined to strike at the very heart of the Mexican nation. Under General Scott (whose valuable services are too well-known to need recapitulation here) proceedings went actively forward for an invasion of Mexico by the port of Vera Cruz, whence it was determined to march direct upon the capital. Our squadrons were already blockading the eastern and western ports, our armies (as we have already seen) had successfully invaded the northern states and provinces. The fatal blow was to he aimed at the central power of the Republic.

Our forces were in great strength in the valley of the Rio Grande, under such able generals as Taylor, Butler, Quitman, Worth, Patterson, and Pillow, but the demands of General Scott, which withdrew the greatest number to a different region, weakened General Taylor's command at a moment most critical. Though successively beaten at every point of attack, the Mexicans had promptly rallied after each encounter. Fresh hordes were pouring down upon the little American army, now so reduced by the levies of the imperious Scott as to be compelled to assume only the defensive. By the end of December a force of twenty thousand men had assembled at San Luis Potosi, south of Monterey, and the centre of one of the richest mining regions of the country, under the command of General Santa Anna.

This irrepressible revolutionist, whom we have seen suffer defeat after defeat, and finally exiled to Cuba, had returned to his native land under peculiar circumstances. Believing that his presence in Mexico would aid the forming of a speedy peace, the Government of the United States had given orders to the blockading squadron off Vera Cruz to permit the returning exile to land in peace. He had no sooner done so than he issued a manifesto, proclaiming to the people that he had radically changed his views, and no longer believed in a central government, to the exclusion of the outside states, and recommended the adoption of the liberal constitution of 1824. When he arrived at the capital, on the 15th of September, the people hailed him with frantic demonstrations of joy. There was, indeed, no man to whom they could turn to deliver them from the northern invaders as to Santa Anna. They thought they saw in him their savior and their liberator. With characteristic energy, he immediately commenced organizing the bands of recruits that poured in upon him from every quarter. The people, for a short time, seemed united, but their rulers were not; they still thirsted for power, they were divided into bitter factions. While the enemy was pounding at their gates these foolish demagogues wasted precious time in quarrelling over a vanishing power! At last the hero of many pronunciamientos  posted off towards the field of action, to the north. He reached San Luis Potosi, and organized an army of twenty thousand men. But his efforts were for a while paralyzed by the quarrels of the foolish factions; he merely stood at bay. At last, however, his observant eye noted the decimated ranks of his opponent, and he resolved upon action.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


Battle of Buena Vista

[A. D. 1847.] About ninety miles southwest of Monterey is the little hamlet of Buena Vista, now famous for the important and decisive battle fought there between the forces of General Taylor and Santa Anna. Becoming aware that a movement of importance was about to be made against him by the enemy, General Taylor withdrew his forces to a strong natural position in the pass of Angostura. On the 22d of February his pickets were driven in and skirmishing ensued. On the 23d an attack was made in force, and a most desperate and sanguinary battle followed. The command of General Taylor was scant five thousand strong, while the force of Santa Anna was full four times that number. But numerical superiority on the part of the enemy was balanced by the strength of the American position—a small plateau surrounded by almost inaccessible hills, and further defended, by impassable ravines and barrancas. Santa Anna's large army, by being obliged to concentrate in the gorge, could not make available one half its strength, and as it poured through the narrow defiles its ranks were swept by the murderous fire of artillery. Desperate efforts were made by the Mexicans to break the American line of defence; again and again they valiantly charged up to the guns. But all in vain. The wisdom and sagacity of the leader that had chosen this strong natural position, and the valor of his soldiers, were more than a match for the fiercest charges of the furious foe. Once they almost succeeded in turning our flank, but at the appearance of the brave Taylor himself at the opportune moment, the advance was checked and our flying troops halted. Night fell upon the scene of conflict with the bloody struggle still going on; but under cover of its darkness the Mexicans effected a retreat. The field was covered with the slain, the Americans losing 750 men and the Mexicans about 2,000.

General Scott.


With the remains of his shattered army the unfortunate Santa Anna retreated to San Luis Potosi; but though defeated he was not dispirited, and by his pompous bulletins he almost made the Mexicans believe that they had won and the Americans had lost. This was, as yet, the most decisive battle of the war; it forever crushed the power of Mexico in the northern provinces.

But though our gallant soldiers had gained a mighty victory they were not permitted to advance and occupy the country, but were compelled to remain idle, while the forces of Scott were marching on to final triumph. Santa Anna reached San Luis Potosi with but half his army remaining, and this force in a thoroughly demoralized condition. He had no time for rest, for the enemy was already at Vera Cruz and he must turn upon a new army of the dreaded North Americans. He dispatched a portion of his troops in that direction, and hastened to the capital. There all was strife. For a month the idiotic men in power had been wasting their energies and the energies of the nation in senseless contentions. Santa Anna calmed the tumults, and impressed the combatants with the necessity of rousing themselves to meet a foreign foe. Unprincipled and unscrupulous as was this man, Santa Anna, he was unquestionably the animating spirit of the defence. The troubles in the capital had arisen from acts of the Puros, or the advanced party, in trying to induce the church to part with a portion of its large revenue in aid of the defenders of the nation. True to its principles, it had refused, and its adherents had precipitated the capital into the midst of civil strife.

We will not confuse the memory with the names of ambitious men who were temporarily in power at this period, since none of them attained to more than local celebrity. Six changes occurred in the executive alone during the year 1847. It is a wonder that the people knew on which side they were fighting. Few, in reality, did know; and many welcomed the coming of the North Americans as a relief from the perils of civil war.