Project Gutenberg's The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2), by Justin H. Smith

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Title: The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2)

Author: Justin H. Smith

Release Date: December 16, 2013 [EBook #44437]

Language: English

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Transcriber’s Note

Please consult the notes at the end of this text for a detailed discussion of the various footnotes, endnotes, and navigation through this text, as well as any other textual issues.

Topic descriptions

Right-side page headers contained descriptions of the current topic covered by the two open pages. These were retained and are placed as marginal notes. The choice of that position is not always obvious and should be regarded as approximate.

Illustrations are placed at approximately the point where they were printed. The captions are usually printed on the maps themselves. Where there is no obvious title to the map, the caption has been provided from the table of illustrations, in mixed case.

Larger images of full-page maps are available by using the hyperlink added to the caption. These may be opened in separate windows.

This is the first of two volumes of The War with Mexico. The index, which is contained in Volume II, refers to both volumes. References to Volume II have been included as hyperlinks.

Volume II of can be found at Project Gutenberg with the following address:

The cover image was created by the transcriber, and is placed in the public domain.



Annexation of Texas

Octavo ix + 496 pages
By mail, postpaid, $3.00

This is the only work attempting to deal thoroughly with an affair that was intrinsically far more important than had previously been supposed, and was also of no little significance on account of its relation to the war with Mexico.








New York

All rights reserved

Copyright, 1919,
Set up and printed. Published December, 1919.

Norwood Press
J. S. Cushing Co.–Berwick & Smith Co.
Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.





As every one understands, our conflict with Mexico has been almost entirely eclipsed by the greater wars following it. But in the field of thought mere size does not count for much; and while the number of troops and the lists of casualties give the present subject little comparative importance, it has ample grounds for claiming attention. As a territorial stake New Mexico, Arizona and California were of immense value. National honor was involved, and not a few of the Mexicans thought their national existence imperilled. Some of the diplomatic questions were of the utmost difficulty and interest. The clash of North and South, American and Mexican, produced extraordinary lights and shades, and in both countries the politics that lay behind the military operations made a dramatic and continual by-play. The military conduct of the governments—especially our own—and the behavior of our troops on foreign soil afforded instruction worthy to be pondered. While vast concentrations of forces and complicated tactical operations on a great scale were out of the question, the handling of even small armies at a long distance from home and in a region that was not only foreign but strange, created problems of a peculiar interest and afforded lessons of a peculiar value, such as no earlier or later war of ours has provided; and the examples of courage, honor and heroism exhibited in a conflict not only against man but against nature merited correct appreciation and lasting remembrance.[1][A]

The warrant for offering another work on the subject rests primarily on the extent and results of the author’s investigations. His intention was to obtain substantially all the valuable information regarding it that is in existence, and no effort was spared to reach his end. The appendix of volume II gives a detailed account of the sources. By special authorization from the Presidents of the United States and Mexico it was possible to examine every pertinent document belonging to the two governments. The search extended to the archives of Great Britain, France, Spain, Cuba, Colombia and Peru, those of the American and Mexican states, and those of Mexican cities. The principal libraries here, in Mexico and in Europe, the collections of our historical societies, and papers belonging to many individuals in this country and elsewhere were sifted. It may safely be estimated that the author examined personally more than 100,000 manuscripts bearing upon the subject, more than 1200 books and pamphlets, and also more than 200 periodicals, the most important of which were studied, issue by issue, for the entire period.[B] Almost exclusively the book is based upon first-hand sources, printed matter having been found of little use except for the original material it contains or for data regarding biography, geography, customs, industries and other ancillary subjects.[2]

The author also talked or corresponded with as many of the veterans as he could reach, and he spent more than a year, all told, in Mexico, where he not only studied the chief battlefields but endeavored, through conversations with Mexicans of all grades and by the aid of foreigners long resident in the country, to become well acquainted with the character and psychology of the people. As the war was fought almost exclusively among them, and its inception, course and results depended in large part upon these factors, the author attaches not a little importance to his opportunities for such personal investigations and to his Mexican data in general.[2]

Probably more than nine tenths of the material used in the preparation of this work is in fact new. No previous writer on the subject had been through the diplomatic and military archives of either belligerent nation, for example. Virtually a still larger percentage is new, for the published documents needed to be compared with the originals. In the printed American reports relating to the battles of September 8 and 13, 1847, for instance, over fifty departures from the manuscripts, that seemed worth noting, were found. Nor did the additional documents prove by any means to supply mere details. A great number of unprinted statements from subordinate officers, who were nearer to the facts than their superiors could be, were discovered. The major official reports needed both to be supplemented and to be corrected. Such reports were in most instances colored more or less, and in some radically distorted, for personal reasons or from a justifiable desire to produce an effect on the subordinates concerned, the army in general, the writer’s government, the enemy, and the public at home and abroad; while, as General Scott stated in orders, unintentional omissions and mistakes were “common.” Taylor’s account of the battle of May 9, 1846, for example, failed completely to explain his victory. It has been only by obtaining and comparing a large number of statements that approximate verity has been reached. The same has been true of the diplomatic and political aspects of the subject. The reports of the British, French and Spanish ministers residing at Mexico, to cite one illustration, proved indispensable. In reality, therefore, aside from its broader outlines the field presented ample opportunities for study; and while no doubt so extended an investigation included many facts of slight value, La Rochefoucauld was right when he said, “To know things perfectly, one should know them in detail.”[3]

As a particular consequence of this full inquiry, an episode that has been regarded both in the United States and abroad as discreditable to us, appears now to wear quite a different complexion. Such a result, it may be presumed, will gratify patriotic Americans, but the author must candidly admit that he began with no purpose or even thought of reaching it. His view of the war at the outset of his special inquiries coincided substantially with that prevailing in New England, and the subject was taken up simply because he felt convinced that it had not been studied thoroughly. This conviction, indeed, has seemed to be gaining ground rapidly for some time, and hence it is believed that new opinions, resting upon facts, will be acceptable now in place of opinions resting largely upon traditional prejudices and misinformation.

Some might suggest that only a military man could properly write this work. But, in the first place, the author did not wish to prepare a technical military account of the war. His aim was to offer a correct and complete view of it suitable for all interested in American history, and it will be found that politics, diplomacy and other phases of the subject required as full investigation as did its military aspects.

Secondly, the author took pains to qualify himself for his task. The real difficulty of the commanding general consists in applying the principles of war under complicated, obscure and changeful conditions, and in overcoming “friction” of many sorts. The intellectual side of the art is readily enough understood. “In war everything is very simple,” wrote Clausewitz, the fountainhead of the modern system. “The theory of the great speculative combinations of war is simple enough in itself,” said Jomini; “it only requires intelligence and attentive reflection.” “Strategy is the application of common sense to the conduct of war,” declared Von Moltke. Arnold in his Lectures on Modern History said: “An unprofessional person may, without blame, speak or write on military subjects, and may judge of them sufficiently;” and the eminent military authority, G. F. R. Henderson, endorsed this view. “The theory of war is simple,” wrote another expert, “and there is no reason why any man who chooses to take the trouble to read and reflect carefully on one or two of the acknowledged best books thereon, should not attain to a fair knowledge thereof.” As may be seen from the list of printed sources, the present author—beginning with the volumes recommended by a board of officers to the graduates of the United States Military Academy—did much more than is here proposed.

Finally, during the entire time occupied in writing this work he fortunately enjoyed the advantage of corresponding and occasionally conferring with Brigadier General Oliver L. Spaulding, Jr., of the United States Field Artillery, formerly instructor at the Army Service Schools, Fort Leavenworth, and more recently Assistant Commandant of the School of Fire, Fort Sill, who had distinguished himself not only in the service but as a writer on professional subjects. General Spaulding has kindly discussed with the author such military questions as have arisen, and has read critically all the battle chapters. No responsibility should, however, be attached to him, if a mistake is detected.[4]

A word must be added with reference to the notes. These have been placed at the ends of the volumes because the author believes the best plan will be to read the text of each chapter before looking at the notes that bear upon it, and also in part because he did not wish any one to feel that he was parading his discussions and citations. The notes contain supplementary material designed to make the work a critical as well as a narrative history, and contain also specific references to the sources on which the text is based. These references involved a most annoying problem. When one’s citations are limited in number and proceed in single file, as it were, they can be handled easily. But in the present instance as many as 1800 documents were used for a chapter, not a few of which were cited more than once; and each sentence of the text—to speak broadly—resulted from comparing a number of sources. Under these conditions the usual method would have produced a repellent mass of references, perhaps greater in extent than the text itself, which would have been very expensive to print and from their multiplicity would have been extremely inconvenient. Where that method appeared feasible it was adopted, but as a rule the references have been grouped by paragraphs or topics. In many cases, however, pains have been taken to indicate in the text itself the basis of important statements, and further hints will be found in the notes. The reader can thus always ascertain in general the basis of the text, and will find specific references wherever the author has thought it likely they would be desired. The special student will wish to look up all the citations bearing on any topic that interests him. No doubt the plan is somewhat unsatisfactory, but after studying the subject for a dozen years the author feels sure that any other would have been more so.[5]

To thank all who kindly assisted the author to obtain material is practically impossible; but a number of names appear in the list of MS. sources, and others must be mentioned here. Without the cordial support of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Porfirio Diaz, Secretary of State Elihu Root, Minister of Relations Ignacio Mariscal, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge this history could not have been written; and the author acknowledges with no less pleasure his special obligations to Whitelaw Reid, American Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph E. Willard, Ambassador to Spain; Henri Vignaux, First Secretary of our embassy at Paris; J. J. Limantour, Minister of Hacienda, Mexico; Major General J. Franklin Bell, Chief of Staff; Major General F. C. Ainsworth, Adj. Gen.; Admiral Alfred T. Mahan; Admiral French E. Chadwick; Brigadier General J. E. Kuhn, Head of the War College, Washington; Dr. J. Franklin Jameson, Director of the Department of Historical Research, Carnegie Institution; Dr. Gaillard Hunt, Chief of the Division of MSS., Library of Congress; Dr. St. George L. Sioussat, Brown University; Dr. Eugene C. Barker, University of Texas; Dr. Herbert E. Bolton, Professor Frederick J. Teggart and Dr. H. I. Priestley of the University of California; Dr. R. W. Kelsey of Haverford College; Dr. J. W. Jordan, Pennsylvania Historical Society; Dr. Worthington C. Ford, Editor for the Massachusetts Historical Society; Dr. Solon J. Buck of the Minnesota Historical Society; R. D. W. Connor, Secretary of the Historical Commission of North Carolina; Dr. R. P. Brooks of the University of Georgia; Dr. Dunbar Rowland, Director of the Archives and Historical Department of Mississippi; T. M. Owen, Director of the Historical Department of Alabama; Dr. George M. Philips, State Normal School, West Chester, Pa.; Waldo G. Leland, Secretary of the American Historical Association; W. B. Douglas and Miss Stella M. Drumm, Librarian, of the Missouri Historical Society; Dr. Clarence E. Alvord of the University of Illinois and Mrs. Alvord (formerly Miss Idress Head, Librarian of the Missouri Historical Society); Ignacio Molina, Head of the Cartography Section, Department of Fomento, Mexico; Charles W. Stewart, Librarian of the Navy Department; James W. Cheney, long the Librarian of the War Department; Major Gustave R. Lukesh, Director, and Henry E. Haferkorn, Librarian of the United States Engineer School, Washington Barracks; D. C. Brown, Librarian of the Indiana State Library; Victor H. Paltsits, Department of MSS., New York Public Library; W. L. Ostrander of the library at West Point; Lieutenant James R. Jacobs, 28th United States Infantry; Dr. Katherine J. Gallagher; Dr. Martha L. Edwards. To the widow of Admiral Charles S. Sperry and their son, Professor Charles S. Sperry, the author is particularly indebted for an opportunity to examine important papers left by William L. Marcy. Valuable suggestions were most kindly given by Dr. William A. Dunning of Columbia University and Dr. Davis R. Dewey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who read portions of the text, by Francis W. Halsey, Esq., of New York, who read nearly all of it, and by Dr. Edward Channing of Harvard University, who was so good as to look over more or less closely all of the proofs. To the helpers not mentioned by name the author begs leave to offer thanks no less sincere.

Finally, the author desires to mention the enterprise and public spirit shown by the publishers in bringing out so expensive a work at this time of uncertainty.

The Century Club, New York
     September, 1919.


Maps and Plans in Volume Ixvii
Conspectus of Eventsxix
Pronunciation of Spanishxxi
I.Mexico and the Mexicans1
II.The Political Education of Mexico29
III.The Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1825–184358
IV.The Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1843–184682
V.The Mexican Attitude on the Eve of War102
VI.The American Attitude on the Eve of War117
VII.The Preliminaries of the Conflict138
VIII.Palo Alto and Resaca de Guerrero156
IX.The United States Meets the Crisis181
X.The Chosen Leaders Advance204
XI.Taylor Sets out for Saltillo225
XIII.Saltillo, Parras, and Tampico262
XIV.Santa Fe284
XVI.The California Question315
XVII.The Conquest of California331
XVIII.The Genesis of Two Campaigns347
XIX.Santa Anna Prepares to Strike370
XX.Buena Vista384
Notes on Volume I402
Appendix (Manuscript Sources)565


As equally good sources disagree sometimes, a few inconsistencies are unavoidable. Numerous errors have been corrected. An asterisk indicates an unpublished original. Statements, cited in the notes, have also been used.

1.Mexico in 1919. Based upon standard mapsxxii
2.Profile of the Route between Vera Cruz and Mexico2
 Drawn by Lieut. Hardcastle (Sen. Ex. Doc. 1; 30 Cong., 1 sess.). 
3.Matamoros and Fort Brown159
 Sketch map based on a *map drawn by Luis Berlandier, Arista’s chief engineer (War Dept., Mexico); Meade, Letters, i, 73; McCall, Letters, 444; New Orleans Picayune, June 28, 1846; *sketch by Mansfield, Taylor’s chief engineer (War Dept., Washington); and an anonymous plan (Mass. Hist. Society). 
4.Fort Brown to Brazos Island162
 Sketch map based principally upon the map in Apuntes para la Historia de la Guerra entre México y los Estados-Unidos and a map by Eaton of Third Infantry (Ho. Ex. Doc. 209; 29 Cong., 1 sess.). 
5.Battle of Palo Alto164
 Sketch map drawn by a U. S. army officer. Based on Eaton’s plan (Ho. Ex. Doc., 209; 29 Cong., 1 sess.); a *sketch by Berlandier (War Dept., Mexico); Apuntes; México á través de los Siglos, iv, 562; El Republicano (Berlandier); a map in Campaña contra los Norte-Americanos; a map by Lieut. Dobbins in Life of General Taylor; and Journal of Milit. Service Institution, xli, 96. 
6.Battle of Resaca de la Palma (i.e. Resaca de Guerrero)170
 Sketch map based on Apuntes; New Orleans Picayune, June 25, 1846, from official drawings; a plan by Dobbins in Life of General Taylor; a map in Campaña contra, etc.; a plan by Berlandier in El Republicano; a plan by Eaton (Ho. Ex. Doc. 209; 29 Cong., 1 sess.); French, Two Wars, 52; and Journal of Milit. Service Instit., xli, 100. 
7.From Matamoros to Monterey210
 Based on an official Mexican map prepared by the Fomento Dept. and on Gen. Arista’s map. 
8.Battles of Monterey: General Map232
 Based on *three plans drawn by Lieut. Gardner from surveys of Lieut. Scarritt (War Dept., Washington); Picayune Extra, Nov. 19, 1846 (Lieut. Benjamin); a *drawing by Adjutant Heiman (Tennessee Hist. Society); a map in Apuntes; and a plan by Balbontín (Invasión Americana). 
9.Battles of Monterey. Central Operations240
 Based on the same sources as No. 8 supra. 
10.General Wool’s March271
 Based on reconnaissances of Capt. Hughes, Lieut. Sitgreaves, and Lieut. Franklin (Sen. Ex. Doc. 32; 31 Cong., 1 sess.). 
11.Tampico and Its Environs276
 Based on a sketch by Lee and Gilmer (War Dept., Washington); and a Fomento Dept. Map (see No. 7 supra). 
12.General Kearny’s March to Santa Fe287
 From a sketch drawn by A. Wislizenus (Sen. Misc. Doc. 26; 30 Cong., 1 sess.). 
13.El Paso to Rosales, Mexico305
 From a U. S. War College map, Washington. 
14.Battle of Sacramento 307
 Based on a map in Sen. Ex. Doc. 1; 30 Cong., 1 sess.; and a plan in México á través de los Siglos, iv, 644. 
15.California in 1846316
 Based on a map in Sen. Ex. Doc. 1; 30 Cong., 1 sess. 
16.Northern California317
 From a sketch by Lieut. Derby (Sen. Ex. Doc. 18; 31 Cong., 1 sess.) and recent maps. 
17.Fight at San Pascual341
 From a plan in Sen. Ex. Doc. 1; 30 Cong., 1 sess. 
18.Fight near Los Angeles344
 From a plan in Sen. Ex. Doc. 1; 30 Cong., 1 sess. 
19.General Patterson’s March360
 From a map in Ho. Ex. Doc. 13; 31 Cong., 2 sess. 
20.From Mexico City to Agua Nueva381
 From a Fomento Dept. map. 
21.From Monterey to La Encarnación382
 Based on a map in Rápida Ojeada sobre la Campaña, etc.; and a *sketch by Lee and Gilmer (War Dept., Washington). 
22.Battle of Buena Vista387
 Based on a map drawn by Capt. Linnard from the surveys of Capt. Linnard and Lieuts. Pope and Franklin (Sen. Ex. Doc. 1; 30 Cong., 1 sess.); *two plans by the same officers (War Dept., Washington); a *map based on a sketch by Dr. Vanderlinden, chief Mexican surgeon (War Dept., Mexico); a map by Balbontín (Invasión Americana); a *map drawn by Stanislaus Lasselle (Indiana State Library); a plan by Lieut. Green (Scribner, Campaign in Mexico); *Croquis para la intelligencia de la Batalla de la Angostura (War Dept., Washington). 


March. The United States determines to annex Texas; W. S. Parrott sent to conciliate Mexico.
July. Texas consents; Taylor proceeds to Corpus Christi.
Oct.17. Larkin appointed a confidential agent in California.
Nov.10. Slidell ordered to Mexico.
Dec.20. Slidell rejected by Herrera.
Jan.13. Taylor ordered to the Rio Grande.
Mar.8. Taylor marches from Corpus Christi.
21. Slidell finally rejected by Paredes.
28. Taylor reaches the Rio Grande.
Apr.25. Thornton attacked.
May8. Battle of Palo Alto.
9. Battle of Resaca de la Palma.
13. The war bill becomes a law.
June5. Kearny’s march to Santa Fe begins.
July7. Monterey, California, occupied.
14. Camargo occupied.
Aug.4. Paredes overthrown.
7. First attack on Alvarado.
13. Los Angeles, California, occupied.
16. Santa Anna lands at Vera Cruz.
18. Kearny takes Santa Fe.
19. Taylor advances from Camargo.
Sept.14. Santa Anna enters Mexico City.
20–24.Operations at Monterey, Mex.
22–23.Insurrection in California precipitated.
23.Wool’s advance from San Antonio begins.
25.Kearny leaves Santa Fe for California.
Oct.8.Santa Anna arrives at San Luis Potosí.
Oct.15.Second attack on Alvarado.
24.San Juan Bautista captured by Perry.
28.Tampico evacuated by Parrodi.
29.Wool occupies Monclova.
Nov.15.Tampico captured by Conner.
16.Saltillo occupied by Taylor.
18.Scott appointed to command the Vera Cruz expedition.
Dec.5.Wool occupies Parras.
6.Kearny’s fight at San Pascual.
25.Doniphan’s skirmish at El Brazito.
27.Scott reaches Brazos Id.
29.Victoria occupied.
Jan.3.Scott orders troops from Taylor.
8.Fight at the San Gabriel, Calif.
9.Fight near Los Angeles, Calif.
11.Mexican law regarding Church property.
28.Santa Anna’s march against Taylor begins.
Feb.5.Taylor places himself at Agua Nueva.
19.Scott reaches Tampico.
22–23.Battle of Buena Vista.
27.Insurrection at Mexico begins.
28.Battle of Sacramento.
Mar.9.Scott lands near Vera Cruz.
29.Vera Cruz occupied.
30.Operations in Lower California opened.
Apr.8.Scott’s advance from Vera Cruz begins.
18.Battle of Cerro Gordo; Tuxpán captured by Perry.
19.Jalapa occupied.
May15.Worth enters Puebla.
June6.Trist opens negotiations through the British legation.
16.San Juan Bautista again taken.
Aug.7.The advance from Puebla begins.
20.Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.
Aug. 24–Sept. 7.         Armistice.
Sept.8.Battle of Molino del Rey.
13.Battle of Chapultepec; the “siege” of Puebla begins.
14.Mexico City occupied.
22.Peña y Peña assumes the Presidency.
Oct.9.Fight at Huamantla.
20.Trist reopens negotiations.
Nov.11.Mazatlán occupied by Shubrick.
Feb.2.Treaty of peace signed.
Mar.4–5.Armistice ratified.
10.Treaty accepted by U. S. Senate.
May19, 24.Treaty accepted by Mexican Congress.
30.Ratifications of the treaty exchanged.
June12.Mexico City evacuated.
July4.Treaty proclaimed by President Polk.


The niceties of the matter would be out of place here, but a few general rules may prove helpful.

A as in English “ah”; e, at the end of a syllable, like a in “fame,” otherwise like e in “let”; i like i in “machine”; o, at the end of a syllable, like o in “go,” otherwise somewhat like o in “lot”; u like u in “rude” (but, unless marked with two dots, silent between g or q and e or i); y like ee in “feet.”

C like k (but, before e and i, like [C]th in “thin”); ch as in “child”; g as in “go” (but, before e and i, like a harsh h); h silent; j like a harsh h; ll like [D]lli in “million”; ñ like ni in “onion”; qu like k; r is sounded with a vibration (trill) of the tip of the tongue (rr a longer and more forcible sound of the same kind); s as in “sun”; x like x in “box” (but, in “México” and a few other names, like Spanish j); z like [C]th in “thin.”

Words bearing no mark of accentuation are stressed on the last syllable if they end in any consonant except n or s, but on the syllable next to the last if they end in n, s or a vowel.

Larger image



Mexico, an immense cornucopia, hangs upon the Tropic of Cancer and opens toward the north pole. The distance across its mouth is about the same as that between Boston and Omaha, and the line of its western coast would probably reach from New York to Salt Lake City. Nearly twenty states like Ohio could be laid down within its limits, and in 1845 it included also New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California and portions of Colorado and Wyoming.[1]

On its eastern side the ground rises almost imperceptibly from the Gulf of Mexico for a distance varying from ten to one hundred miles, and ascends then into hills that soon become lofty ranges, while on the western coast series of cordilleras tower close to the ocean. Between the two mountain systems lies a plateau varying in height from 4000 to 8000 feet, so level—we are told—that one could drive, except where deep gullies make trouble, from the capital of Montezuma to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The country is thus divided into three climatic zones, in one or another of which, it has been said, every plant may be found that grows between the pole and the equator.[1][E]

Except near the United States the coast lands are tropical or semi-tropical; and the products of the soil, which in many quarters is extraordinarily deep and rich, are those which naturally result from extreme humidity and heat. Next comes an intermediate zone varying in general height from about 2000 to about 4000 feet, where the rainfall, though less abundant than on the coast, is ample, and the climate far more salubrious than below. Here, in view of superb mountains and even of perpetual snows, one finds a sort of eternal spring and a certain blending of the tropical and the temperate zones. Wheat and sugar sometimes grow on the same plantation, and both of them luxuriantly; while strawberries and coffee are not far apart.[1]


The central plateau lacks moisture and at present lacks trees. The greater part of it is indeed a semi-desert, though a garden wherever water can be supplied. During the wet season—June to October—it is covered with wild growths, but the rains merely dig huge gullies or barrancas, and almost as soon as they are over, most of the vegetation begins to wither away. The climate of the plateau is quite equable, never hot and never cold. Wheat, Indian corn and maguey—the plant from which pulque, the drink of the common people, is made—are the most important products; and at the north great herds of cattle roam. In the mountains, finally, numberless mines yield large quantities of silver, some gold, and a considerable amount of copper and lead.[1]

The principal cities on the eastern coast are Vera Cruz, the chief seaport, and Tampico, not far south of the Rio Grande River. In the temperate zone between Vera Cruz and Mexico lie Jalapa and Orizaba, and behind Tampico lies Monterey. On the central plateau one finds the capital reposing at an elevation of about eight thousand feet and, about seventy miles toward the southeast, Puebla; while on the other side of the capital are the smaller towns of Querétaro and San Luis Potosí toward the north, and Zacatecas and Chihuahua toward the northwest. In the middle zone of the Pacific slope rises the large city of Guadalajara, capital of Jalisco state; and along the coast below may be found a number of seaports, the most important of which are Guaymas, far to the north, Mazatlán opposite the point of Lower California, San Blas a little farther down, and Acapulco in the south.[1]


Exactly how large the population of Mexico was in 1845 one cannot be sure, and it included quite a number of racial mixtures; but for the present inquiry we may suppose it consisted of 1,000,000 whites, 4,000,000 Indians, and 2,000,000 of mixed white and Indian blood.[2] The Spaniards from Europe, called Gachupines in Mexico, were of two principal classes during her colonial days. Many had been favorites of the Spanish court, or the protégés of such favorites, and had exiled themselves to occupy for a longer or shorter time high and lucrative posts; but by far the greater number were men who had left home in their youth—poor, but robust, energetic and shrewd—to work their way up. With little difficulty such immigrants found places in mercantile establishments or on the large estates. Merciless in pursuit of gain yet kind to their families, faithful to every agreement, and honest when they could afford to be, they were intrinsically the strongest element of the population, and almost always they became wealthy.[3]

Their sons, poorly educated, lacking the spur of poverty, and finding themselves in a situation where idleness and self-indulgence were their logical habits, commonly took “Siempre alegre” (Ever light-hearted) for their motto, and spent their energy in debauchery and gambling. To this result their own fathers, while disgusted with it, usually contributed. Spanish pride revolted at the ladder of subordination by which these very men had climbed. They felt ambitious to make gentlemen of their sons, and some easy position in the army, church or civil service—or, in default of it, idleness—was the career towards which they pointed; and naturally the heirs to their wealth, whose ignoble propensities had prevented them from acquiring efficiency or sense of responsibility, made haste, on getting hold of the paternal wealth, to squander it. If the pure whites, with some exceptions of course, fell into this condition, nothing better could fairly be expected of those who were partly Indian; and before the revolution it was almost universally felt in Spain and among the influential class of colonials themselves, that nothing of much value could be expected of Creoles, as the whites born in Mexico and the half-breeds were generally called. The achievement of independence naturally tended to increase their self-respect, broaden their views and stimulate their ambition; but the less than twenty-five years that elapsed between 1821 and 1846, when the war between Mexico and the United States began, were not enough to transform principles, reverse traditions and uproot habits.[3]

The pure-blooded Indians—of whom there were many tribes, little affiliated if at all—had changed for the worse considerably since the arrival of the whites. In their struggles against conquest and oppression the most intelligent, spirited and energetic had succumbed, and the rest, deprived of strength, happiness, consolation and even hope, and aware that they existed merely to fill the purses or sate the passions of their masters, had rapidly degenerated. Their natural apathy, reticence and intensity were at the same time deepened. While apparently stupid and indifferent, they were capable of volcanic outbursts. Though fanatically Christian in appearance, they seem to have practiced often a vague nature worship under the names and forms of Catholicism. Indeed they were themselves almost a part of the soil, bound in soul to the spot where they were born; and, although their women could put on silk slippers to honor a church festival and every hut could boast a crucifix or a holy image, they lived and often slept beside their domestic animals with a brutish disregard for dirt.[3]

Legally they had the rights of freemen and were even the wards of the government, and a very few acquired education and property; but as a rule they had to live by themselves in little villages under the headship of lazy, ignorant caciques and the more effective domination of the priests. As the state levied a small tax upon them and the Church several heavy ones, their scanty earnings melted fast, and if any surplus accumulated they made a fiesta in honor of their patron saint, and spent it in masses, fireworks, drink, gluttony and gambling. When sickness or accident came they had to borrow of the landowner to whose estate they were attached; and then, as they could not leave his employ until the debt had been discharged, they not only became serfs, but in many cases bequeathed their miserable condition to their children. Silent and sad, apparently frail but capable of great exertion, trotting barefooted to and from their huts with their coarse black hair flowing loosely or gathered in two straight braids, watching everything with eyes that seemed fixed on the ground, loving flowers much but a dagger more, fond of melody but preferring songs that were melancholy and wild, always tricky, obstinate, indolent, peevish and careless yet affectionate and hospitable, often extracting a dry humor from life as their donkeys got nourishment from the thistles, they went their wretched ways as patient and inscrutable as the sepoy or the cat—infants with devils inside.[3]


At the head of the social world stood a titled aristocracy maintained by the custom of primogeniture. But as the nobles were few in number, and for a long time had possessed no feudal authority, their influence at the period we are studying depended mainly upon their wealth. Next these came aristocrats of other kinds. Some claimed the honor of tracing their pedigree to the conquerors, and with it enjoyed great possessions; and others had the riches without the descent. The two most approved sources of wealth were the ownership of immense estates and the ownership of productive mines. On a lower level stood certain of the rich merchants, and lower still, if they were lucky enough to gain social recognition, a few of those who acquired property by dealing in the malodorous government contracts. To these must be added in general the high dignitaries of the church, the foreign ministers, the principal generals and statesmen and the most notable doctors and lawyers. Such was the upper class.[4]

A sort of middle class included the lesser professional men, prelates, military officers and civil officials, journalists, a few teachers, business men of importance and some fairly well-to-do citizens without occupations. Of small farms and small mines there were practically none, and the inferior clergy signified little. The smaller importing and wholesale merchants came to be almost entirely British, French and German soon after independence was achieved, and the retailers were mostly too low in the scale to rank anywhere. The case of those engaged in the industries was even more peculiar. Working at a trade seemed menial to the Spaniard, especially since the idea of labor was associated with the despised Indians, and most of the half-breeds and Indians lacked the necessary intelligence. Skilled workers at the trades were therefore few, and these few mostly high-priced foreigners. Articles of luxury could be had but not comforts; pastries and ices but not good bread; saddles covered with gold and embroidery, but not serviceable wagons; and the highly important factor of intelligent, self-respecting handicraftsmen was thus well-nigh missing.[4]

The laboring class consisted almost entirely of half-breeds and Indians. In public affairs they were not considered, and their own degraded state made them despise their tasks. Finally, the dregs of the population, especially in the large cities, formed a vicious, brutal and semi-savage populace. At the capital there were said to be nearly 20,000 of the léperos, as they were called, working a little now and then, but mainly occupied in watching the religious processions, begging, thieving, drinking and gambling. In all, Humboldt estimated at 200,000 or 300,000 the number of these creatures, whose law was lawlessness and whose heaven would have been a hell.[4]


The only church legally tolerated was that of Rome; and this, as the unchallenged authority in the school and the pulpit, the keeper of confessional secrets and family skeletons, and the sole dispenser of organized charity, long wielded a tremendous power. The clerical fuero, which exempted all ecclesiastics from the jurisdiction of the civil courts, reinforced it, and the wealth and financial connections of the Church did the same. In certain respects, however, the strength of the organization began to diminish early in the nineteenth century; and in particular the Inquisition was abolished in Mexico, as it was in Spain. Soon after the colony became independent, a disposition to bar ecclesiastics from legislative bodies, to philosophize on religious matters and to view Protestants with some toleration manifested itself. Ten years more, and the urgent need of public schools led to certain steps, as we shall see, toward secular education. Political commotions, the exactions of powerful civil authorities under the name of loans, and various other circumstances cut into the wealth of the Church; and the practical impossibility of selling the numberless estates upon which it had mortgages or finding good reinvestments in the case of sales, compelled it, as the country became less and less prosperous, to put up with delays and losses of interest.[5]

Moreover the Church was to no slight extent a house divided against itself. Under Spanish rule and substantially down to 1848, all the high dignities fell to Gachupines, who naturally faced toward Spain, whereas the parish priests were mainly Creoles with Mexican sympathies; and while the bishops and other managers had the incomes of princes, nearly all of the monks and ordinary priests lived in poverty. There was, therefore, but little in common between the two ranks except the bare fact of being churchmen, which was largely cancelled on the one side by contempt and on the other side by envy; and the common priests, having generally sided against Spain during the revolution and always been closely in touch with the people, exercised, in spite of their pecuniary exactions, an influence that largely balanced the authority of their heads. Finally, the ignorance of most ecclesiastics and the immorality of nearly all greatly diminished their moral force. A large number, even among the higher clergy, were unable to read the mass; and the monks, who in the early days of the colony had rendered good service as missionaries, were now recruited—wrote an American minister—from “the very dregs of the people,” and constituted a public scandal.[5]

Still, the Church wielded immense power as late as 1845, and this was reinforced by the type of religion that it offered. High and low alike, the Mexicans, with some exceptions, lived in the senses, differing mainly in the refinement of the gratifications they sought; and the priests offered them a sensuous worship. Sometimes, almost crazed by superstitious fears, men would put out the lights in some church, strip themselves naked, and ply the scourge till every blow fell with a splash. It was pleasanter, however, and usually edifying enough, to kneel at the mass, gaze upon the extraordinary display of gold and silver, gorgeous vestments, costly images and elaborately carved and gilded woodwork, follow the smoke of the incense rolling upward from golden censers, listen to sonorous incantations called prayers, and confess to some fat priest well qualified to sympathize with every earthy desire. A man who played this game according to the rule was good and safe. A brigand counting the chances of a fray could touch his scapularies with pious confidence, and the intending murderer solicit a benediction on his knife. Enlightened Catholics as well as enlightened non-Catholics deplored the state of religion in Mexico.[5]

Next after the Church came the “army,” which meant a social order, a body of professional military men—that is to say, officers–exempted by their fuero from the jurisdiction of the civil law and almost exclusively devoted to the traditions, principles and interests of their particular group. As the Church held the invisible power, the army held the visible; and whenever the bells ceased to ring, the roll of the drum could be heard. Every President and almost every other high official down to the close of our Mexican war was a soldier, and sympathized with his class; and as almost every family of any importance included members of the organization, its peculiar interests had a strong social backing. By force of numbers, too, this body was influential, for at one time, when the army contained scarcely 20,000 soldiers, it had 24,000 officers; and so powerful became the group that in 1845, when the real net revenue of the government did not exceed $12,000,000, its appropriation was more than $21,000,000.[5]

Under Spanish rule, although the army enjoyed great privileges, it had been kept in strict subordination, and usefully employed on the frontiers; but independence changed the situation. Apparently the revolution was effected by the military men, and they not merely claimed but commonly received the full credit. Not only did a large number of unfit persons, who pretended to have commanded men during the struggle, win commissions, but wholesale promotions were made in order to gain the favor of the officers; and in these ways the organization was both demoralized and strengthened. Over and over again military men learned to forswear their allegiance, and at one time the government actually set before the army, as a standard of merit, success in inducing soldiers of the opposite party to change sides.[5]


In the course of political commotions, to be reviewed in the next chapter, the armed forces were more and more stationed at the cities, where they lost discipline and became the agents of political schemers; and naturally, when the government admitted their right to take part as organized bodies in political affairs, the barracks came to supersede the legislative halls, bullets took the place of arguments, and the military men, becoming the arbiters on disputed points, regarded themselves as supreme. Moreover, every administration felt it must have the support of this organization, and, not being able to dominate it, had to be dominated by it. Political trickery could therefore bring the officer far greater rewards than professional merit, and success in a revolt not only wiped away all stains of insubordination, cowardice and embezzlement, but ensured promotion. A second lieutenant who figured in six affairs of that sort became almost necessarily a general, and frequently civilians who rendered base but valuable services on such occasions were given high army rank. No doubt some risk was involved, but it was really the nation as a whole that paid the penalties; and anyhow one could be bold for a day far more easily than be courageous, patient, studious, honest and loyal for a lifetime. All true military standards were thus turned bottom-side up, and some of the worst crimes a soldier can perpetrate became in Mexico the brightest of distinctions.[5]

Of course the discovery that rank and pay did not depend upon deserving them set every corrupt officer at work to get advanced, while it drove from the service, or at least discouraged, the few men of talents and honor; and as all subordination ceased, a general not only preferred officers willing to further his dishonorable interests, but actually dreaded to have strong and able men serve in his command. In 1823 the Mexican minister of war reported to Congress, “Almost the whole army must be replaced, for it has contracted vices that will not be removed radically in any other way,” and four years later a militia system was theoretically established with a view to that end; but the old organization continued to flourish, and in April, 1846, the British minister said, “The Officers ... are, as a Corps, the worst perhaps to be found in any part of the world. They are totally ignorant of their duty, ... and their personal courage, I fear, is of a very negative character.”[5]

In 1838, a German visitor stated there were a hundred and sixty generals for an army of thirty thousand, and this was perhaps a fair estimate of the usual proportion; but out of all these, every one of whom could issue a glowing proclamation, probably not a single “Excellency” could properly handle a small division, while few out of thousands of colonels could lead a regiment on the field, and some were not qualified to command a patrol. A battle was almost always a mob fight ending in a cavalry charge; and Waddy Thompson, an American minister to Mexico, said he did not believe a manoeuvre in the face of the enemy was ever attempted. Naturally the general administration of military affairs became a chaos; and, worst of all, a self-respecting general thought it almost a disgrace to obey an order—even an order from the President.[5]

The privates and non-commissioned officers, on the other hand, mainly Indians with a sprinkling of half-breeds, were not bad material. The Indians in particular could be described as naturally among the best soldiers in the world, for they were almost incredibly frugal, docile and enduring, able to make astonishing marches, and quite ready—from animal courage, racial apathy or indifference about their miserable lives—to die on the field. But usually they were seized by force, herded up in barracks as prisoners, liberally cudgelled but scantily fed, and after a time driven off to the capital, chained, in a double file, with distracted women beside them wailing to every saint. When drilled enough to march fairly well through the street in column, clothed in a serge uniform or a coarse linen suit, and equipped with an old English musket and some bad powder, they were called soldiers, and were exhorted to earn immortal glory; but naturally they got away if they could, and frequently on a long expedition half a corps deserted.[5]

Such men were by no means “thinking bayonets,” and as a rule they shot very badly, often firing with their guns at the hip in order to avoid the heavy recoil. Not only did they lack the inspiration of good officers, but in pressing times it was customary to empty the prisons, and place their inmates in the ranks to inculcate vice. The government furnished their wages, upon which as a rule they had to live from day to day, even more irregularly than it paid the officers, and the latter frequently embezzled the money; so that it became a common practice to sell one’s arms and accoutrements, if possible, for what they would bring. Finally, the duty always enjoined upon the troops was “blind obedience,” not the use of what little intelligence they possessed; and their bravery, like that of such officers as had any, was mainly of the impulsive, passionate and therefore transient sort, whereas Anglo-Saxon courage is cool, calculating, resolute and comparatively inexhaustible.[5]

The special pride of all military men was the cavalry; but the horses were small, and the riders badly trained and led. “The regular Mexican cavalry is worth nothing,” wrote the British minister early in 1846; and as the mounts were quite commonly hired merely for the parades, just as the rolls of the whole army were stuffed with fictitious names on which the officers drew pay, it was never certain how much of the nominal force could be set in motion. As for the artillery, Waddy Thompson remarked that in a battle of 1841 between the foremost generals of the country, not one ball in a thousand reached the enemy. On the other hand there were excellent military bands, and one of them dispensed lively selections every afternoon in front of the palace at Mexico.[5]


Third in the official order of precedence and in the actual control of affairs came the government officials, and these, like the army and the clergy, formed a special group with a similar fuero, a similar self-interest and a similar disregard for the general good. Once appointed to an office one had a vested right therein, and could not legally be removed without a prosecution. To eliminate a person in that manner was extremely difficult; and when the government, in a few notorious instances, tried ejectment, the newspapers of the opposition hastened to raise an outcry against it for attacking property rights, and the culprits were soon reinstated.[5]

Offering such permanence of tenure, a “genteel” status, idleness even beyond the verge of ennui, a perfect exemption from the burden of initiative, and occasional opportunities for illegitimate profits, government offices appealed strongly to the Mexicans, and a greed for them—dignified with the name of aspirantism when it aimed at the higher positions—was a recognized malady of the nation. To get places, all the tricks and schemes employed in the army and, if possible, still more degrading intrigues were put in play; and offices had to be created by the wholesale to satisfy an appetite that grew by what it fed upon. The clerks became so numerous that work room—or rather desk room—could not be provided for all of them. Only a favored portion had actual employment and received full pay—if they received any—while the rest were laid off on barely enough to support life. Some were competent and willing to be faithful; but when they saw ignorance, laziness, disloyalty and fraud given the precedence, they naturally asked, Why do right? Idleness is the mother of vice; and so there was a very large body of depraved and discontented fellows, wriggling incessantly for preferment, fawning, backbiting, grabbing at any scheme that would advance their interests, intensely jealous of one another, but ready to make common cause against any purification of the civil service.[5]

How justice was administered in Mexico one is now able to surmise. The laws, not codified for centuries, were a chaos. Owing to numberless intricacies and inconsistencies, the simplest case could be made almost eternal, especially as all proceedings were slow and tedious. A litigant prepared to spend money seldom needed to lose a suit. Some cases lasted three generations. The methods of administering justice, reported the British representative in 1835, “afford every facility” for “artifices and manoeuvres.”[6]

Another difficulty was that the courts lacked prestige. During the revolution the magistrates, practically all of them Gachupines, committed so many acts of injustice in behalf of the government, that people forgot the proper connection between crime and retribution. Punishment seemed like a disease that any one might get. In 1833 the minister of this department complained that for five years Congress had almost ignored the administration of justice; and in 1845, the head of the same department said that for a long time the government had systematically reduced the dignity and influence of the judges and magistrates. Their pay was not only diminished but often withheld; and the official journal once remarked, that the authorities had more important business in hand than paying legal functionaries.[6]

This was obviously wrong, but in a sense the judges merited such treatment, for they seem to have lacked even the most necessary qualifications. To make the situation still worse, the executive authorities had a way of stepping in and perverting justice arbitrarily. Even the Mexicans were accustomed to say, “A bad compromise is better than a good case at law”; but it was naturally aliens who suffered most. “The great and positive evil which His Majesty’s subjects, in common with other Foreigners, have to complain of in this country is the corrupt and perverse administration of justice,” reported the minister of England in 1834.[6]

Criminal law was executed no better than civil. The police of the city are a complete nullity, stated the American representative in 1845. A fault, a vice and a crime were treated alike; and the prisons, always crowded with wrongdoers of every class, became schools in depravity, from which nearly all, however bad, escaped in the end to prey upon society. Well-known robbers not only went about in safety, but were treated with kindly attentions even by their late victims, for all understood that if denounced and punished, they would sooner or later go free, and have their revenge.[6]


Adverting formally before Congress in 1841 to the “notoriously defective” administration of justice, the Mexican President said, “the root of the evil lies in the deplorable corruption which pervades all classes of society and in the absence of any corrective arising from public opinion.” In large measure this condition of things was chargeable to the low state of religion, but in part it could be attributed to the want of education. Spain had required people to think as little as possible, keep still and obey orders; and for such a rôle enlightenment seemed unnecessary and even dangerous. To read and write a little and keep accounts fairly well was about enough secular knowledge for anybody, and the catechism of Father Ripalda, which enjoined the duty of blind obedience to the King and the Pope, completed the circle of useful erudition. In the small towns, as there were few elementary schools, even these attainments could not easily be gained; and as for the Indians they were merely taught—with a whip at the church door, if necessary—to fear God, the priest and the magistrate. Religion gave no help; and the ceremonies of worship benumbed the intellect as much as they fascinated the senses.[6]

When independence arrived, however, there sprang up not a little enthusiasm for the education of the people, and the states moved quite generally in that direction. But there were scarcely any good teachers, few schoolhouses and only the most inadequate books and appliances; money could not be found; and the prelates, now chiefly absorbed in their political avocations, not only failed to promote the cause, but stood in the way of every step toward secular schools. A few of the leaders—notably Santa Anna—professed great zeal, but this was all for effect, and they took for very different uses whatever funds could be extorted from the nation. In 1843 a general scheme of public instruction was decreed, but no means were provided to carry it into effect. The budget for 1846 assigned $29,613 to this field, of which $8000 was intended for elementary schools, while for the army and navy it required nearly twenty-two millions. In short, though of course a limited number of boys and a few girls acquired the rudiments—and occasionally more—in one way or another, no system of popular education existed.[6]

Higher instruction was in some respects more flourishing. Before the revolution the School of Mines, occupying a noble and costly edifice, gave distinction to the country; the university was respectable; an Academy of Fine Arts did good work; and botany received much attention. But at the university mediaeval Latin, scholastic and polemic theology, Aristotle and arid comments on his writings were the staples, and even these innocent subjects had to be investigated under the awful eye of the Inquisition. Speculation on matters of no practical significance formed the substance of the work, and the young men learned that worst of lessons—to discourse volubly and plausibly on matters of which they knew nothing. This course of discipline, emphasizing the natural bent of the Creoles, turned out a set of conceited rhetoricians, ignorant of history and the real world, but eager to distinguish themselves by some brilliant experiment. When the yoke of Spain had been cast off, all these institutions declined greatly, and the university became so unimportant that in 1843 it was virtually destroyed; but the view that speculation was better than inquiry, theory better than knowledge, and talk better than anything—a view that suited Mexican lightness, indolence and vanity so well, and had so long been taught by precept and example—still throve despite a few objectors. Of foreign countries, in particular, very little was commonly known. While elementary education, then, was nothing, higher education was perhaps worse than nothing.[6]

Nor could the printed page do much to supply the lack. Only a few had the taste for reading books or opportunities to gratify the taste, if they possessed it. Great numbers of catchy pamphlets on the topics of the day flew about the streets; newspapers had a great vogue; and there were poor echoes of European speeches, articles and books; but most of the printed material was shockingly partisan, irresponsible and misleading. “Unfortunately for us,” observed the minister of the interior in 1838, “the abuse of the liberty of the press among us is so great, general and constant, that it has only served our citizens as the light of the meteor to one travelling in a dark night, misguiding him and precipitating him into an abyss of evils.”[6]


Only some 300,000 out of 3,000,000 white and mixed people were actual producers—three times as many being clericals, military men, civil officials, lawyers, doctors and idlers, and the rest old men, women and children. The most brilliant of their industries was mining, the annual output of which was about $18,000,000 in 1790, fell during the revolution to $5,000,000, and by 1845 rose again—despite the unwise policy of the government—to about the earlier level. During the period of depression most of the old proprietors and many of their properties were ruined; but English companies took up the work, and although for some time their liberal expenditures went largely to waste, they gradually learned the business, and their example encouraged some Germans to enter the field. How greatly the nation profited from the mines was not entirely clear. About as much silver went abroad each year as they produced, paying interest on loans that should not have been made, and buying goods for which substitutes could usually have been manufactured at home. But the government laid valuable taxes on the extraction and export of the precious metals, and there was also a profit in the compulsory minting of them—though, as all the inventiveness of the nation expended itself in politics, the processes at the mints were about as tedious and costly in 1845 as while Cortez ruled the country.[7]

Little more can be said for the cultivation of the soil. When Mexico separated from Spain, the vine and the olive, flax and certain other plants formerly prohibited were acquired, and coffee soon became important; but on the other hand agriculture had met with disaster after disaster in the course of the revolution. “Up to the present,” said a ministerial report in December, 1843, “agriculture among us has not departed from the routine established at the time of the conquest.” A cart-wheel consisted still of boards nailed together crosswise, cut into a circular shape and bored at the centre; a pointed stick, shod sometimes with iron, was still the plough; a short pole with a spike driven through one end served as the hoe; the corn, instead of going to a mill, was ground on a smooth stone with a hand roller; and no adequate means existed of transporting such products as were raised to such markets as could be found. Most of the “roads” made so much trouble even for donkeys and pack-mules that it was seriously proposed to introduce camels; and the most important road of all, the National Highway from the capital to Jalapa and Vera Cruz, was allowed to become almost impassable in spots. Besides poor methods, bad roads, brigands, revolutions and a great number of holidays, there were customhouses everywhere and a system of almost numberless formalities, the accidental neglect of which might involve, if nothing worse, the confiscation of one’s goods. In short, how could agriculture prosper, said a memorial on the subject, when he that sowed was not permitted to gather, and he that gathered could reach no market?[7]


However, more could be produced than used. The prime requisite was population. So much appeared to be clear; and for that reason, as well as to obtain the profits of the industries and prevent money from going abroad, great efforts were made by independent Mexico to develop manufacturing, which had been prohibited—though not with entire success—by Spain. The year 1830 was a time of golden hopes in this regard. At the instance of Lucas Alamán a grand industrial scheme went into effect, and a bank was founded to promote it by lending public money to intending manufacturers. Cotton fields were to whiten the plains; merino sheep and Kashmir goats to cover the hillsides; mulberry trees to support colonies of silk-worms; imported bees to produce the tons of wax needed for candles; and ubiquitous factories to work up the raw materials. A few men honestly tried to establish plants, but the industry chiefly promoted by the law and the bank was that of prying funds from the national treasury; and when this income failed, as it did in a few years, many half-built mills came to a stop, and much half-installed machinery began to rust. Alamán himself, partner in a cotton factory, became bankrupt in 1841, and the bubble soon burst.[7]

The manufacturers formed, however, a strong political clique, and in their interest a system not only of protection, but of absolutely prohibiting the importation of numerous articles, was adopted by law. This had the effect of making the people pay dearly for many of their purchases. The farmers, who wished raw materials kept out, had influence too, and were always blocking the scheme of the manufacturers to let raw materials in; and, as the cost of producing and transporting made native goods dear, smuggled merchandise undersold Mexican articles even after paying for the necessary bribery and other expenses. In a word, although certain coarse and bulky things continued to be made in the country, the endeavor to build up an industrial population, support agriculture, and thus doubly strengthen the nation was very superficially planned and very unsuccessfully carried out. Nearly all the better manufactures, a large part of the food, most of the clothing, and substantially all the luxuries came from abroad.[7]

The business of importing continued to be mainly in Spanish hands for some years after Mexico became independent, but for reasons that will appear in the next chapter the Spaniard had to retire about 1830. The British then obtained the lion’s share; and as they were Protestants they could not, even when they so desired, identify themselves with the nation, and take a responsible share in public affairs. Commerce was not, in fact, a source of strength. A few raw products were exported, but essentially commerce consisted, as was natural, in merely receiving goods from foreigners and letting the foreigners have money in return. Moreover the volume of commerce dwindled notably, like that of all other business. As for retail trade, when the Spaniards had to retire, it fell mainly into Mexican hands; but it was conducted in a small way, the profits were narrow, and the failures were many.[7]


Even more significant for us, however, than such details were the life and character of the people, and it may be helpful to call back the year 1845 and visit Mexico for a couple of days. First we will stroll along a country road in a fairly typical region. The general aspect is one of semi-wildness, but soon the tops of well-bleached ruins amid the soft green indicate decrepitude instead, suggesting as the national character decay preceding maturity. A long mule team approaches in a waving line, and on a finely equipped horse at the head of it we observe a swarthy man in green broadcloth trousers open on the outside from the knee down, with bright silver buttons in a double row from hip to ankle, and loose linen drawers visible where the trousers open. A closely fitting jacket, adorned with many such buttons and much braid, is turned back at the chin enough to reveal an embroidered shirt; and the costume reaches a climax in a huge sombrero with a wide, rounding brim and high sugar-loaf crown, adorned with tassels and a wide band of silver braid. This gentleman, the arriero, is the railroad king of Mexico, for he and others of his class transport the freight and express. Trust him with anything you please, and it will surely be delivered; but should he be unlucky at cards and out of work, he might rob you the next day.[8]

A group of Indians meet us, little more human in appearance than the donkeys they drive; and we observe how easily they carry loads on their backs, and how quickly and lightly they march. Yonder we see their huts—pigpens, Americans would suppose; and a little apart from these we notice a stone or adobe house. Certainly there is nothing grand about this dwelling, for it contains only a single room, and that half full of implements, horse furniture, charcoal, provisions and what not; but it affords a home for six or eight persons of the two sexes. Presently the master, though not the owner, of the establishment rides up, prodding his active but light and stubby horse with blunt steel spurs almost as large as the palm of one’s hand, to make a dash for our benefit. Swinging his wife from the saddle-bow the ranchero alights, and we find him to be a short, wiry, muscular person, with a bronzed and rather saturnine countenance but friendly and respectful manners. He wears tough leggings, leather trousers, a small rectangular shawl (serape) that falls over his back and breast, allowing his head to protrude through a hole in the middle, and a wide sombrero, while at the saddle-bow hang the inevitable lasso and a bag of corn and jerked beef, one meal a day from which is all he requires. Apparently he does not feel quite at home on the ground, and that is natural, for he spends about half of his waking hours in the saddle. Herdsman, farmer or brigand, according to circumstances, he is also cavalryman at need; and a corps of such fellows, if properly trained and led, would make the best light horse in the world, perhaps. His chief interests in life, however, are gambling and cock-fighting, and he is quite capable of losing all his worldly goods, his wife and even his pony at the national game of monte, and then of lighting a cigarette and sauntering off without a sign of regret.[8]

Now we approach what may be called a village, but one extremely different from a village in the United States. The great things are a handsome grove and in the midst of it one old church of gray stone, full of saints and relics and ancient plate, with a ragged, stupid Indian crouching on the floor. Near by are two or three ranchero cottages with a group of Indian huts in the distance, and yonder stands a large, rambling edifice of stone with a mighty door and heavily barred windows. From the ends of the building run high walls inclosing several acres, and within the protected space may be seen a number of substantial dwellings and what appear to be storehouses and stables, while far away over hill and plain spreads the hacienda, an estate as large as a county. Finally, on a gentle slope not far distant we observe a monastery with a rich garden behind it, and a fat, contented prior riding sleepily up to its arched gateway through a dozen or two of kneeling aborigines.[8]

Toward evening we reach the state capital, and as we cross a bridge on the outskirts, we see a crowd of people bathing. Both sexes are splashing and swimming, all as happy as ducks and all entirely nude. Even the presence of strangers does not embarrass the young women, some of whom are decidedly good-looking; and they even try to draw our attention by extra displays of skill. Looking for an inn we discover two lines of low, rickety buildings alternating with heaps of rubbish, fodder and harness. After some efforts a waiter is found and we obtain a room, with a mule already slumbering in one corner of it and all sorts of household litter thrown about. A wretched cot with a rope bottom, a dirty table and an abundance of saints portrayed in Mexican dress help to make the place homelike. The waiter is amiable, and ejects the mule with a great show of indignation; but when we ask for water and a towel his good nature fails. “Oh, what a man,” he cries, flinging up his hands; “What a lunatic, Ave María Purísima; Ha! Ha! Ha! He wants water, he wants a towel; what the devil—! Good-by.” The dining-room is a hot, steamy cell, fitted up with charcoal furnaces; and for viands we are offered plenty of hard beef, chile (pepper) and tortillas (flapjacks of a sort), besides a number of dishes that only a native could either describe or eat. Chile and tortillas appear, however, to be the essentials; and the latter, partly rolled up, serve also as spoons.[8]

After dinner we look about the town. All is monotonous and sombre. The houses, mostly of one story, form a continuous wall along the street—or along the sidewalk, if there be one—and their projecting, heavily barred windows, in front of which the young fellows have to do their courting, suggest prisons more than homes. Now we come to the massive, crumbling, gloomy church, and wonder where the priest keeps the family which everybody knows he has. Here is the government house, and we stop to picture the wily politicians, who—with noble exceptions—obtain the offices of local grandeur, and the little horde of clerks, many of them rendered prematurely decrepit by their vices, that fawn but cannot be made to work at the nod of authority. In vain we look for a book-store, though somewhere that name doubtless appears on a sign; but we do find the office of the comandante general, an officer who represents the central power, has charge of the military, and often is mining and counter-mining in a sharp struggle with the governor. How intolerably dull it must be to live here! Business of a large sort there is none. The little newspapers are scarcely more than echoes from partisan sheets at Mexico. Religion is a subject that one must let alone, and education a subject that it is useless to discuss. Of science, history, art, nothing is known. The small men in power brook no criticism except from enemies. Affairs in other states, even a famine or a flood, excite little interest. Not much is left except petty intriguing and the gratification of coarse appetites. A revolution is about the only possible escape from this more deadly ennui.[8]


Our second day shall be given to the metropolis. The suburbs of Mexico are mostly ragged and unclean, but some broad avenues lined with fine trees run through them, and entering the city by one of these we make our way to the great central plaza. On the eastern side of this extends the palace, a very long two-storied building of little distinction, and on the northern side towers the huge cathedral, quite in the grand, heavy, Spanish style, seamed with earthquake scars and pockmarked by revolutionary bullets. It is a Sunday morning and still rather early, but the plaza is alive. The usual nightly crop of dead and wounded is being carried to the morgue or the hospital. Sick men, cripples and stalwart beggars are beginning to pose for alms. Prisoners in chains are pretending to put the streets in order; but their guards, with that mixture of good nature and indolence that characterizes the Mexican unless his passions are excited, let them do about as they please, and they take their cue for street-cleaning from the Book of Revelation: They that be filthy, let them be filthy still.[8]

Indians in various tribal costumes, mostly picturesque and all dirty, patter through the square with loads of provisions or babies. As no stoves or fireplaces exist, the charcoal man’s loud “Carbosiú!” (Carbón, señor!) resounds through the streets. So does the plaintive cry of the water-carrier, bending under his great earthen jar, for the houses are all supplied from a few public fountains, the termini of aqueducts. “Orchata, lemon, pineapple, tamarind!” calls out a shrill voice; “What will you take, my darling? This way for refreshment:” and we see a good-looking girl in a short skirt expanded wide with hoops, her arms bare and her bodice cut low enough for a ball, selling “temperance” drinks. Here is a dingy cell stuffed with chin-basins, razors, dental implements, boxes of pomade, a guitar, a fighting-cock tethered in a corner, and sundry pictures of saints, parrots and battles; and there a cigar shop with a slender, black-eyed girl behind the counter, bold enough and handsome enough, even without the red rose in her hair, to tempt St. Anthony. Observe the evangelista, or public letter-writer, with two quills and an inkstand ready on his little desk under a canopy of straw matting; and observe, too, that lépero with his back against a donkey’s pannier, robbing the pannier while he pretends to be buying a knife.[8]

Priests in long shovel hats; lousy soldiers in ragged, ill-fitting uniforms; gaudy officers chatting and smoking; jugglers with snakes and balls; cynical dandies retailing love affairs; half-naked léperos in the corners sleeping off their pulque; lottery venders with long strings of tickets; sellers of flowers, toys, candy, glass, wax-work, mock jewellery, cheap cutlery, and a thousand other things; closed carriages taking ladies to church; more beggars and still more—these and many other sights keep us too busy for reflection; but we cannot help noticing that seven out of ten persons are social drones or parasites, and that vice of one sort or another dims the face and weakens the step of almost every one. Suddenly a light bell tinkles, and the crowd is instantly grave and still. “God is coming,” they whisper, or in other words the viatic is going to a sick man. A coach drawn by two mules and followed by a dozen slovenly friars holding lighted candles and chanting, comes slowly down a street. All uncover and kneel, and we must do likewise or very likely get a pummelling.[8]

This reminds us of duty; and, electing the cathedral in preference to sixty other churches, we enter. Before us is a great throng, chiefly women and léperos, of most devout worshippers. The finest ladies in the city are here, dressed all in black, with no ornaments except a silk mantilla, edged with lace, and a high tortoise-shell comb; and they kneel humbly beside the drudge or the beggar. The church itself—designed in the Spanish style, which places the choir in the middle of the nave and a balustraded walk between that and the great altar—with a cloud of incense filling the air and many hundreds of candles gleaming murkily from the shrines, is most mysterious and impressive. The gorgeousness of the sacred ornaments amazes us. Literally tons of silver are in sight; gold, precious stones and gems abound; and magnificent vestments try to hide the vulgar priests. But the splendor is oppressive, and the stench of the léperos intolerable; let us return to the light of day.[8]

All the streets are laid out at right angles, and most of the houses that line them are in two stories, of which the lower one is reserved for horses, carriages, servants, cows and storage; and the walls, built of rough stone, are very thick. The outside is usually frescoed in white, orange, blue, red or pale green, and often adorned with pious verses or biblical texts. Entering the big double gateway, we find ourselves in a courtyard, upon which doors and grated windows open; and we observe that a covered balcony of wrought iron or possibly bronze, reached by a central stairway and giving access to the rooms of the second story, is built round it. In many courtyards there are flowers and a fountain, and sometimes there are trees. Occasionally we find what looks like a grandee’s residence, for Mexico was called in the Spanish time a city of palaces, and some of these residences, built of superior stone, equipped with gilded balconies and stairs, adorned with artistic sculptures, and perhaps decorated with Dutch tiles in blue and white, have survived in a fair condition the ruin of fortunes and the disappearance of titles; but at their best they were always imperfect, reminding one of the golden image with clay feet, and now most of them are dilapidated.[8]

Here is a gambling place, well filled; but it is only the usual monte, and if we care to watch a game, there will be something like a thousand more opportunities. Already, people are making for the bull-fight; but the upper classes mostly ignore that sport, and we may well follow their example. On the other hand let us drop in at the cock-pit. “Hail, immaculate Mary, the cocks are coming!” the herald is proclaiming. On the benches one may see the most delicate and fashionable young ladies of the city as well as the sharpest gamblers, and everything is quiet and orderly. But a glance is enough; and now as the “quality” will soon have dined, we will stroll on past the stately trees of the Alameda to the New Promenade, and be ready for them.[8]

Here, every afternoon at about five o’clock, and especially on Sunday, may be seen the Mexican élite. About a thousand carriages are in line to-day, many of them heavy, grand affairs from Europe, but some very antiquated and shabby, for the lady, however poor, must have a carriage of some sort. Here one sees the fair sex at their best. Clad in the most sumptuous and brilliant costumes they can possibly obtain and well covered with diamonds—for everybody above the rank of a lépero has diamonds—they sit up straight and handsome, and many of them look almost regal. More horses than mules are to be seen, and many of them have been imported. Guided by postilions instead of drivers, the carriages roll sedately along with an exchange of mutual salutes but not a word of conversation, and after a turn or two draw up and stop side by side, so that the ladies may review some four or five thousand cavaliers, who now ride past.[8]

Each gallant, without appearing to notice the carriage of his choice, pays court to an adored occupant of it by a special show of grace and horsemanship as he goes by. Small fortunes in silver and gold are lavished on the equipment of the steed, and the cavalier is resplendent in his tightly fitting trousers, short jacket, huge sombrero, gilded spurs, silver buttons, silk braid and gold lace. For us the impression is impaired considerably by his manner of riding, for he leans forward, puts barely his toes into the stirrup, and carries his heels far back; but he can ride very showily after all, curvetting and prancing, and the Mexicans are fully satisfied that no other horsemen in the world are their equals.[8]

The promenade over, all go to the play—not that anybody of fashion cares for it, but because that is the style, and few have any other way to pass the time. Let us have a look ourselves at the principal theatre, which travellers have pronounced—after one at Naples—the finest edifice of the kind. It accommodates more than eight thousand persons, and the rent of the best boxes is about $3000 a year. But almost every man and many of the women appear to be smoking; one can hardly see the actors; the noise of conversation is distracting; and as we are not adepts in the play of glances and fans which keep so many ladies in the boxes and so many gallants in the pit fully occupied, we shall find it pleasanter at the British legation ball. Allons! Why, what a clangor the church bells are making! To be sure that opens the gates of purgatory for a while and gives the inmates a respite, but it certainly bears rather hard on the living.[8]

While by nature the most sociable of people, the Mexicans are the least so in practice, wrote an American minister at that capital. This is partly because many of social rank now lack the means to entertain, and partly because society is cut up by intrigues, jealousies and bitter memories; but at a foreign legation one has no expenses, and all meet on neutral ground. As we enter, everything seems fine and even brilliant. Diamonds are in profusion again, and the lustre of the great pearls matches them. But in Mexico it is never wise to look closely, for gross imperfections are sure to be discovered; and here, as we soon observe, the gowns are not really in style, and the musicians are only unshaven, half-blind, tatterdemalion scrapers.[8]

However, the people are what we care for, and they are certainly most interesting. Again we see the dignified ladies; they move now, and with a decided though rather ponderous grace. Conversation is not their forte, for they seldom read and never think; but all have beautiful eyes, teeth and hair; all have small hands and feet; and all are amiable, sincerely kind and by no means wanting in tact. The older ones appear stout and rather phlegmatic, it is true, but those of an earlier age are often fascinating. Look for instance at the girl under the chandelier, plainly all sentiment and senses, not really tall but slender enough to appear so, with a profile of carved ivory, pale cheeks just warmed with crimson, large, dark, languorous eyes, and a voluptuous figure disguised with no stays; and all this poised seemingly on the toe of a dainty satin slipper. What matters it if she and the rest of the ladies passed their day in gazing idly out of windows, smoking, nibbling sweetmeats and chattering trifles, and did not put on their stockings or do up their hair until dinner-time?[8]

But for us the men are more important. That short individual in spectacles, who looks erudite and speaks in a low tone with a gravity and reserve that emphasize his remarks, is Alamán, the most distinguished of the conservatives. The thin-featured, sharp-nosed person, so elegant and cynical, is Tornel, posing now in his favorite attitude as the patron of learning. Smooth-faced Bocanegra, an honorable if not very able statesman, is talking yonder to the British minister with the easy courtliness of a genuine hidalgo. Handsome and brave Almonte—“a good boy,” as Santa Anna calls him—is laying siege to the belle under the chandelier; and Peña y Peña, seemingly rather dry and uninspired, is debating somewhat laboriously with a brother judge.[8]

Let us join a group. How strong, genial, easy, ready and gay, yet dignified and reposeful, they all are! Few indeed of our own countrymen could be so charming. Some one approaches, and they grasp him warmly by the hand, throwing the left arm at the same time round his shoulder and softly patting his back. “Friend,” “Comrade,” are frequent salutations. We are presented to the group, and find ourselves at once among devoted intimates. “My house is yours,” exclaims one with a look that carries conviction. “Remember, I exist only to serve you,” says another. “Only command me and all that are mine,” exclaims a third.[8]

Mexico, however, reported a British minister, “judged merely by outward Appearances, is a perfectly different thing from Mexico seen in the Interior.” One might be presented with a dozen houses and all their contents, yet go to bed on the sidewalk hungry. These friends and comrades are daily intriguing and conspiring against one another. Talk with an eloquent declaimer, and you will find his beautiful ideas vague and impracticable. Discuss them with him, and you will either excite wrath by demolishing his opinions or earn contempt—since he suspects in his heart that he is an ignoramus—by letting him vanquish you. Notice how lightly they speak of religion. That is considered good form. The Church is to be regarded as an institution for the women. But at bottom almost every one is mortally afraid of the hereafter, as a child is afraid of the dark, and when seriously ill is ready to grovel before a priest. The apparent robustness of these men, largely due to their indolence, is too often undermined by Cyprian accidents, which are confessed without hesitation. Hardly one of the husbands is loyal to his vows, while the other sex care only to elude numberless watchful eyes, and observe a strict regard for appearances; and in the lower walks a mother will quite readily sell her daughter’s good name. However, courtesy is delightful whatever lies behind it, and if a person will try to eat a picture of grapes, he should blame himself for his disappointment. Temperament, environment and education make sangfroid and intellectual mastery impossible here; and in a world where passionate men and women grow up in traditions of idleness and self-indulgence they can hardly be expected, especially with the bad example of their priests before them, to be distinguished for self-restraint.[8]

Meanwhile, are the common people at home knitting? Let us walk back to the cathedral. The full moon is out. Almost above us rise the powerful towers against the clear firmament, and on our left is the palace, filling one whole side of the square with its numberless balconies and windows, while in front spreads the great plaza, glittering with innumerable lights against the shadowy arcades that fill the opposite side. The sky is a soft, pale blue; and the stars, fading near the brilliant moon, appear like dust raised by her chariot wheels. Under the trees on our right a huge serpent, the scales of which are human beings, turns, winds, bends, parts and rejoins in a circular promenade.[8]

Some occupy themselves with prosaic thoughts,—business, politics or social events—and a few talk of science and poetry. Yonder goes a millionaire, a real king of gold, at sight of whom all hats come off, while all eyes court his glance; but another, who passes with a triumphant step and bold gestures, appears to the crowd a greater man, for he is the king of the sword, the king of the bull-ring, the matador. But most, perhaps, are talking and thinking of love and of pleasure. Furtive but meaning glances are often exchanged; occasionally hand presses hand under the folds of the cloak; at times a few mysterious words pass quickly; now and then one sees a pretty woman on the arm of her bold lover, showing herself proudly to the world, while the husband follows on behind as best he can; and here and there a scowling, discarded friend looks out from behind a post with a knife clutched behind him.

Would you like to see a little more? Then visit the Barrio Santa Anna, and watch men with bloodshot eyes and women in red petticoats and loose, open chemisettes dancing a wild fandango, or plunge into a lépero’s dive and watch the pariahs gambling sedately with a bloody knife on the table before them, while down in one corner a crouching woman moans and mutters over a prostrate figure. But how lightly all is done, even the tragedies, compared with northern depth and seriousness. In a sense we feel we are observing children.[8]

Of course in so brief a space the subject of this chapter could not be thoroughly treated, but our inquiry seems to make certain facts plain. Little in the material, mental and moral spheres was really sound in the Mexico of 1845. Her population was insufficient, and was badly welded together, so far as it had been welded at all; and while the lower orders of the people lay deep in ignorance, laziness and vice, the upper class, if we ignore exceptions, were soft, superficial, indolent and lax, urbane, plausible and eloquent, apathetic but passionate, amiable and kind though cruel when excited, generous but untrustworthy, wasteful but athirst for gain, suspicious and subtle but not sagacious, personally inclined to be pompous and nationally afflicted with a provincial vanity, greatly enamoured of the formalities of life, greatly wanting in the cool, steady resolution for which occasional obstinacy is a poor substitute, and still more wanting in that simple, straightforward, sober and solid common sense which is the true foundation of personal and national strength. In particular, the Mexican was intensely personal. This made him and his politics very interesting yet was really unfortunate, for in such men principles and institutions could have but feeble roots. Finally, as one result of this awareness of self, every man of any strength had the instincts of a dictator. Authority he instinctively resented; but on the other hand, when some one appeared to be dominant, a consciousness of this inner recalcitrancy and a fear of its being detected, combining with a hope of favors, produced adulation and apparent slavishness.

Evidently, then, Mexico was not intrinsically a strong country. Evidently her people had few qualifications for self-government. Evidently, too, they were unlikely to handle in the best manner a grave and complicated question requiring all possible sanity of judgment and perfect self-control; and, in particular, misunderstandings between them and a nation like the United States were not only sure to arise but sure to prove troublesome.


It was of course the political side of Mexican civilization that had the most direct bearing on our relations with that country, and this can best be explained by approaching it historically. At the same time we shall be aided in studying, not only some of the principal figures in the war and their mutual attitudes, but some of its most important and mysterious events.

The colonial régime of Spain was intended and carefully planned to ensure the safety, prosperity and contentment of her distant subjects, but for certain reasons it worked badly. Like all nations of that period, she believed that her colonies existed for the good of the mother-country, and aimed first of all to control and exploit them. She had to depend upon very human agents that were practically beyond her reach. While theoretically all Mexicans, except the aborigines, enjoyed an equality before the law, the government felt that emigrants from the Peninsula were especially worthy of confidence; and at the same time not a few of these men had friends industriously scheming for them at court. The consequences were, first, the establishment of a powerful Gachupine oligarchy, largely dependent on the royal will, the lowest member of which, even if penniless, felt superior to every Creole, and, secondly, the enthronement of privilege, often gained by ignoble means, in government, army, church and business. The Creoles—overawed by the almost divine prestige of the king, trembling before his power, and convinced that only his troops could protect them against the Indians—submitted; but they hated their insolent oppressors, and the Indians hated both groups. On the principle of “Divide and conquer” the government fomented these dissensions; and, supported by the intolerance of the Church, it did its utmost to bar out foreigners and foreign ideas in order to ensure an unreasoning subordination.[1]

What Mexico owed to Spain, therefore, aside from the remembrance and fruits of an efficiency that she could not hope to equal, was a settled tradition of arbitrary rule based on force, of authority selfishly and often corruptly used, of the government as possessing the sole initiative, of social disunion resulting from privilege and monopoly, of personal successes frequently due to intrigue or purchased favor, of political indifference except among the controlling or aspiring cliques, of apathy concerning all high interests, of ignorance, inertness, fanaticism, hard oppression, blind obedience, passionate feuds and gross pleasures.[1]


Little by little new ideas reached a few of the more intelligent, however. The American Declaration of Independence became known, and also the fact that Spain, by supporting England’s rebellious colonies, had coöperated with heretics long pictured as infidels and fiends. Echoes from Diderot’s encyclopædia and reports of the French revolution crept in; and the natural desire both to share on equal terms in the offices and in business, and to escape from the extra cost of living due to the monopolies, quickened thought. When war with England led to the raising of Mexican troops, a new sense of power began to be felt; when the Spanish monarchy crumbled before Napoleon in 1808, the illusion of the king’s divinity and invincibility faded; when the royal family exhorted the Mexicans to accept the heir of the French revolution as their master, loyalty quivered to its base; and when the people of Spain took up arms to defend their betrayed nationality, the principle of popular sovereignty loomed up as greater than royal prerogatives. Finally the mass of the people, though too apathetic to realize the full meaning of these facts, were roused by a thunder-clap at home.[2]

Struggling with the crisis precipitated by events in the Peninsula, the viceroy—partly to gain support for himself, it is probable, and partly to gain support for the monarchy—showed a disposition to give the Creoles a voice in the government, upon which the leaders of the oligarchy were so amazingly foolish as to depose him by force, and usurp his authority. This conduct proved that much of their boasted loyalty and supposed ability had been shams, that what they really meant was to enjoy the wealth and power, that the cause of the Creoles was not one of subjects against their king, but one of subjects against subjects, and that only force could settle the issue. Dreams of independence immediately crystallized into schemes of insurrection.[2]

Foremost among the conspirators was Hidalgo, commonly described by the Mexicans as a Washington, but in reality a kindly, public-spirited, mockingly irreligious and frankly immoral priest. His plans were discovered; and so on the sixteenth of September, 1810, in the desperate hope of saving himself and his associates, he called upon the Indians, rabid with fanaticism and hatred of their oppressors, to rise against the Spanish, who, he declared, had now allied themselves with infidel Frenchmen against their holy religion. What followed was like the bursting of reservoirs filled with blood and fire. Scarcely a trace of statesmanship was exhibited by the leaders; most of their disciples acted like fiends let loose; and their enemies did little better. Soon many common priests, many Creole military men, and not a few other persons who felt sore under the heel of wealth and power and were ambitious to rise, embraced the cause, and so many of the rest sympathized with Hidalgo’s demand for independence, that probably by good management he could have succeeded; but against a campaign like his the substantial elements of society found it necessary to combine, and when the heads of the insurrection were betrayed, captured and shot in 1811, little of it remained except horrible memories and lessons in conspiracy, treachery, hate, folly, wholesale destruction and wholesale murder.[2]

In a new form, however, the cause of independence lived on. Instead of wild hordes crying, “Death to the Gachupines!” there were now for the most part stealthy but merciless bands of guerillas, and the government soldiers followed close behind them in daring and ruthlessness. On the coast near Vera Cruz an officer named Antonio López de Santa Anna won a captaincy about this time by hunting down insurgents, and on the plateau a handsome, dashing man with brown hair and reddish side-whiskers named Agustín de Itúrbide, who had negotiated with Hidalgo about accepting the lieutenant generalship of the revolutionary army, distinguished himself on the royal side for greed and bloodthirstiness. In 1814 he wrote to the viceroy one Good Friday, “In honor of the day, I have just ordered three hundred excommunicated wretches to be shot,” and the women among his prisoners fared no better than the men. On the other side Nicolás Bravo, whose father had been taken and executed, won a noble distinction by releasing about three hundred captives despite orders to kill them; Guadalupe Victoria, as he named himself, earned renown by living in caves like a wild beast rather than give up; and Vicente Guerrero, operating at the south in unexplored mountains, exhibited great resourcefulness, remarkable knowledge of men and extraordinary courage. The principal hero of this period, however, was Morelos, an Indian priest, who showed himself a consummate partisan leader.[2]

So successful were these and the many other chiefs in terrorism, robbery, slaughter and sack, and so deep a sentiment in favor of independence now existed, that with a little sagacity in counsel and a little concert in action the cause might have triumphed; but ambitions, jealousies, insubordination, disloyalty and political incompetence ruined everything, and by the end of 1819, although Guerrero still made head a little, the second phase also of the revolution was substantially at an end, leaving behind it hot embers of turmoil, fighting, treachery and massacre, and countless examples of making pillage a livelihood, selfishly disregarding the common cause, and grossly blundering in political management. Thought and feeling in Mexico had, however, been so educated by reflection, experience, discussion and foreign comments during the past nine or ten years, that a longer acceptance of the old régime could not be expected. Absolutism, though triumphant, was doomed.[2]


The fatal blow came from its champions. In 1820 a revolution in Spain revived the liberal constitution that had been adopted eight years before and then had been abolished by Ferdinand VII; and Apodaca, now viceroy of Mexico, felt compelled to proclaim the new law. The troops and the people began to dread another civil war; and the oligarchy, especially the Church dignitaries, concluding at once that only separation from the mother-country could save their privileges, looked about for an instrument. One was easily found. Itúrbide’s greed had finally driven him from his post, his fortune had been wasted in self-indulgence, and he was now desperate. Long since, his active mind had seen that if the Creole troops could be seduced, they—supported by the revolutionary sentiment of the people—could overmatch about half their number of Spanish regiments; and he agreed readily to become the champion of autocracy in order to betray it. Cleverly deceiving the government, he obtained a command through the aid of his backers, and, in order to clear the field, attacked Guerrero. To dispose of that wary foe proved, however, no easy task; so he negotiated privately with a public enemy, described himself as “destitute of ambition and self-interest,” and finally inveigled the insurgent leader into joining the conspiracy. Victoria followed that example. Santa Anna, though recently made a lieutenant colonel by the viceroy, came over with his men. Other leaders did the same; and on February 24, 1821, Itúrbide felt strong enough to announce a programme, the famous Plan of Iguala.[2]

This declared for independence, a limited monarchy under a Bourbon king, the Roman Catholic church as the sole form of religion, the old fueros, the right of office-holders to retain their posts, the fraternal union and political equality of Gachupines, Creoles and Indians, and the appointment of a committee (junta) to govern Mexico provisionally. No scheme could have seemed more inviting, and none could have been more delusive, for it ignored insurmountable difficulties and promised incompatible advantages. In all probability Itúrbide knew this; but prelates, troops, officials and people took the shining bait; O’Donojú, the new Spanish general, deciding it would be useless to fight, made a treaty with the revolutionary chief; and on September 27, 1821, Itúrbide carried the tricolor through the gate of the capital, stopped his gallant black charger at the convent of San Francisco, and received the golden keys of the city. Obedience, the sole basis of Mexican society, had been swept away; treachery and perjury had triumphed; and yet the unthinking multitude hurrahed.[2]

The generalísimo, violating the principle of popular sovereignty, now appointed the junta himself, excluding all the old revolutionists; that body in turn elected him and four associates to exercise the executive power as regents; and a Constituent Congress was prematurely summoned to draw up an organic law. The situation soon proved to be extremely difficult. Resentments needed to be healed, jealousies appeased, commerce and the industries put in motion, and the whole edifice of society and politics rebuilt on new foundations out of incongruous elements. Peculiarly urgent was the demand for money—the more so as some of the taxes were abolished in order to sweeten the revolution, while the expenses grew. On entering Mexico Itúrbide had proclaimed, “You see me in the most opulent of capitals;” and every one expected the new government—an independent, Mexican, popular government—to bear an open purse. In October, 1821, some fourteen thousand claims were presented to it.[3]

Itúrbide, whatever his aims and whatever his faults, was the sole Mexican of recognized preëminence, the sole possible rallying point; and patriotism called upon all to support his prestige and patiently correct his errors until society could take shape. Nothing of the sort occurred, however. The army idolized him; the civil officials counted on him; the prelates feared him less than they did his enemies; and the masses, ignorant of what went on below the surface, revered him as the Father of Independence; but the cheated absolutists, disappointed borbonistas, cajoled insurgents, distanced comrades, eclipsed leaders and unsuccessful claimants, the patriots, indignant that a cruel royalist should be the heir of the revolution, the republicans, few in number but increasingly influential, the friends of those he had massacred or plundered, and behind all the Scottish Rite Freemasons, who were liberals yet partisans of Spain—all these hated and dogged him. Honors and emoluments were heaped upon him to excite envy and odium; his weaknesses were baited; his strength was provoked; his administrative blundering was stimulated instead of corrected. When financial necessities compelled him to decree a forced loan, paper money and other arbitrary measures, many began to denounce him as a tyrant. Plausibly enough he was accused of disloyalty to his pledges and of aiming to be king. Finally his enemies, making the most of certain indiscretions that he committed, undertook to remove him from the command of the army. Whatever had been his purpose, he now found it necessary to strike; and a mutiny of the troops—endorsed later by the Congress under military and mob pressure—declared him emperor.[3]

Expenses then increased still more. Jealousies and enmities were embittered. Public sentiment veered sharply. Time, strength and funds were swallowed up in pomps that created no more illusion than a college student in a toga. Encompassed with flatterers, foes and traitors, financially and politically incompetent himself and guided by incompetent advisers, well enough aware that after deceiving everybody he could expect no one to be true, Itúrbide lost his head, sometimes wavered and sometimes tyrannized. Finally he thought it necessary to deprive Santa Anna of an authority that had no doubt been abused; and this interesting young man, who had recently proclaimed that he welcomed Itúrbide’s elevation with a positively uncontrollable exuberance of joy, “pronounced” for a republic, knowing scarcely anything about that system, but knowing a great deal about the Emperor’s unpopularity. This precipitated a revolution; and the movement, soon taken up by Victoria, Guerrero and Bravo, spread rapidly. Itúrbide’s most intimate and trusted general was despatched against the insurgents, but betrayed him. The army went over. The people, who revered the Liberator but not the Emperor, concurred. With bad faith and gratuitous outrages his enemies crowded savagely upon him. Early in 1823 he abdicated; and in May, forsaken by every one of the many he had benefited, the discredited hero sailed for Europe, leaving behind him examples and suggestions of the most demoralizing kind.[3]

The junta, meanwhile, had disgusted the nation with its frivolities, political and fiscal incompetence and usurpation of powers, and there was a feeling of relief when it dissolved in February, 1822, the next day after Congress met. Congress, however, did no better and fared even worse, for it earned much contempt by sanctioning under pressure the elevation of Itúrbide; and then Itúrbide made Congress, and made all popular government, quite ridiculous in the eyes of the people and the army by forcibly sending the members home. When at his wit’s end, he recalled it as if inviting the coup de grace, and soon it not only earned more contempt by pronouncing his elevation illegal and punishing every mark of condolence for the fallen chief, but undertook to outrank omnipotence by pretending that no empire had existed. Soon, too, all the selfish ambitions that had combined against Itúrbide in this body showed themselves so clearly as to add further discredit; and worse yet the Congress, though chosen merely to frame a constitution under the Plan of Iguala, held on after the refusal of Spain to coöperate had put an end to that scheme.[3]

The republicans, who were gaining ground because evidently no other Mexican could stand where Itúrbide had fallen, and the Iturbidistas, who desired to create anarchy in order to force the recall of their hero, clamored for new elections. Five provinces demanded them formally; and at length, despised by every one, Congress, the firstfruit of popular government, fell to the ground. Almost every institution that should have enjoyed respect was now discredited—even the Church, for it had crowned the emperor and shed its benedictions liberally on Congress. The army, however, stood, for it had shown its power both to elevate and to overthrow.[3]

The next Congress, which met November 7, 1823, had a more democratic basis; but the members were personally inferior, intrigue and self-seeking again prevailed, and the young orators—convinced that winning applause from the galleries was the true object of speaking—launched forth on all occasions with that fatal fluency which their intoxicating idiom encouraged. After centuries of enforced silence, men to whom liberty could only mean license were called upon to decide the gravest questions of statesmanship. Naturally they were eager to build before laying foundations; and naturally, too, where nine tenths of the people could not read, it seemed like genuine statesmanship to flourish the novel vocabulary of independence.[3]

Frivolous, fickle, now torpid and now running amuck, Congress found itself compelled eventually to frame a constitution. Under Spanish rule the provinces, each governed by an intendant, had known little and cared less about one another; and now, stimulated by the centrifugal tendency of the Iberian character and the dread of a tyrant, inflamed by transcendental doctrines of liberty, disgusted with the proceedings of the national authorities, and captivated by the thought of offices for all, they began to claim sovereignty; and something had to be done at once. A republic, though alien to all the habits and feelings of the nation, seemed evidently necessary, because no possible monarch existed, and because no other system could make it the interest of a sufficient number of persons to maintain the government; but this did not end the difficulties. The centralized type of republic was ardently desired by the oligarchy as likely to prove controllable, and by all the monarchists as a sloping path toward their goal; but the friends of Itúrbide and the enemies of privilege—strongest at a distance from the capital—fought against it, and at length, as the federal system, about which only the vaguest notions were entertained, promised more offices and seemed more likely to hold the country together, it was decided upon.[3]

To meet the crisis one individual, taking the constitution of the United States as a basis,[4] drafted the required instrument in three days; and so an untrained and uneducated nation found itself provided with a complicated mixture of democracy and privilege, liberty and intolerance, progress and reaction, which paralyzed itself by combining such antagonistic elements, omitted the safeguard of a supreme court like ours, and showed its own inadequacy by providing that in emergencies the President might be given “extraordinary powers,” or in other words become a dictator. In short, the government was organized as a permanent revolution. There was much enthusiasm, however, over this triumph of nationality, and on New Year’s day, 1825, the first constitutional Congress assembled. The treasury was now full of borrowed English gold; and—as every one hoped the new system might be developed in the direction he preferred—all agreed that an era of peace, joy and prosperity had at length arrived.[3]


Victoria was elected President. His frank, ruddy, bronzed face, peering out of gray whiskers and curly gray hair, looked happy and encouraging, but soon the mass of the nation felt once more cheated; for although Bravo had been the candidate of the oligarchy, Victoria—yielding to the pressure of that element—gave it a preponderance in the administration. A multitude of people were exasperated to find the old privileged classes again in control, and the execution of Itúrbide under an illegal law—for he had returned to Mexico—infuriated his partisans. Worse yet, the oligarchy denied the practicability of the federal system for so unwieldy a country, where the states felt so independent, where so many men aspired to hold office and where so few were qualified, and plotted to set up the centralized regime, with monarchy—preferably under a Spanish prince—as the ultimate aim of many; and Victoria, a polite, weak, indolent, easily-flattered man of small abilities, little education and immense vanity, who idolized his country but felt she would always need him as chief-priest, fell in with this plan, because without a change of the constitution he could not be President a second time.[5]

Disgusted and alarmed, the Federalists, who included the Iturbidistas, began therefore to scheme gropingly for a new revolution, a new war of independence; but at length, realizing that under the constitution a majority could rule, they established Masonic lodges of the York Rite, and with great skill, activity and perseverance organized their forces. Before long their power showed itself at the voting-urns, and the President, recognizing the logic of events and perceiving he could never supplant Bravo in the favor of the aristocracy, changed the complexion of the government. This in turn angered the faction displaced, and most unwisely—being physically much the weaker side—it massed its power in December, 1827, and revolted under a certain Montaño. Bravo, though Vice-President, placed himself at the head of the insurgents; but the government forces under Guerrero, attacking him during a truce, quickly ended the revolt.[5]

Peace, however, did not return. The newspapers unearthed or invented so many unsavory tales about the leading citizens that, besides proving those men unworthy of confidence, they excited lasting resentments. The Federalists—particularly the Iturbidistas—harshly avenged their past sufferings, for the Mexican idea of justice meant a chance to persecute the oppressor; and every thinking mind saw with dismay that whereas previous insurrections had occurred in a natural revolutionary period, the government legally established by the nation had now been defied by a great party led by the Vice-President himself. This was the letting out of waters, and to palliate it as chargeable to circumstances would be to excuse all political crimes.[5]

Meanwhile another storm had been gathering. The Spanish element, which not only was superior but felt so, had given much offence; and, quite aside from grudges, many thought it unsafe to have so large a number of Gachupines in the country—many of them active and able, not a few of them soldiers, and some occupying high civil and military positions—at a time when Spain was preparing to reassert her authority over Mexico. Others argued that should the Spaniards go, their places in business and the public service would be available for Mexicans. Still others considered this a good way to enfeeble the oligarchy, so as to curtail its privileges. Many demagogues perceived that here lay a splendid opportunity to acquire a following; and the Spaniards, for their part, long accustomed to despise and lord it over the Mexicans, often exasperated the public by offensive and imprudent conduct. The natural consequences followed. Many insurrections, benevolently treated by the government, demanded the expulsion of the Gachupines; some of the states passed laws in that sense; and finally, in 1827 and 1828, Congress did the same. A very large number of Gachupines actually departed and carried away their money. This drew out the strongest fibres of public life, the army, finance, trade and the industries; while the injustice and impolicy of these decrees and the bloody vengeance taken upon a few silly Spanish conspirators embittered feeling in Mexico, and greatly injured Mexican credit in Europe, where few except the Spanish merchants enjoyed any financial standing.[5]

By the time Victoria’s administration drew near its end, Mexico had marked out her downward route. The parties faced each other as implacable foes. Each perpetrated as much electoral fraud and violence as it could; each kept up a savage press; and each worked in the dark through secret societies. Owing to extravagance, peculation, bad management, the backwardness of the states in paying their quotas, and the failure of an English banking house, the treasury was empty in spite of lavish borrowing. “Liberty” had become a by-word, for Victoria had wielded the extraordinary powers for a year and a half, punishments had gone beyond the laws, and the government had been given authority, not only to expel foreigners at will, but even to banish citizens from their states. Corruption was general and profound, commerce feeble, credit extinct, justice perverted, reported the French agent; and, as his British colleague added, the “Name of Patriotism” was used as a “Cloak to cover the greatest Excesses.”[5]

And now came something worse. Well aware they could not elect one of their own number President against the popular candidate, Guerrero, the Centralists looked about for an acceptable Federalist. Gómez Pedraza, Victoria’s minister of war, though narrow, harsh and passionate, was a strict and honest man, a laborious official and a thoughtful, effective orator. He had fought on the Spanish side in the revolution, and naturally favored a conservative, aristocratic régime. He, therefore, was secretly adopted in place of Bravo, now in exile. All those who detested unseemly party strife preferred him, and as the moderate wing of the Federalists also took that side, quite unaware that Centralism lurked in the shadow, Guerrero’s noisy and overconfident supporters found themselves beaten. This result and the open exultation, threats and hostilities of their old enemies, who still controlled the senate and the supreme court, enraged them, for they perceived they had been duped once more, and they hotly charged—no doubt with some reason—that money and Pedraza’s power as head of the war department had frustrated the will of the people; while it disgusted Victoria to be superseded by a man he had looked down upon as merely a useful clerk.[6]


Another individual also took offence. After setting the ball in motion against Itúrbide, Santa Anna had been eclipsed by larger figures, and to shine again he took up arms as Protector of the People; but this enterprise collapsed at once, and he issued a very humble proclamation, closing with the words, “Permit me, permit me to dig myself an obscure grave that my ashes and my memory may disappear.” A fairly comfortable grave was, however, dug for him by removing His Penitence to Yucatan as military commandant, and he proceeded at once to gild its interior by permitting illicit commerce with Cuba. Returning after a while to the proper field of ambition, he was more than suspected of complicity in two insurrections; but in each case he read the omens in season to extricate himself, and virtuously offered his sword to the government. Now, however, he took a bold stand. Not only were he and the successful candidate personal enemies, but he felt that little would be left of himself after four years of Pedraza’s rule; and he knew that Guerrero, in addition to being favored by the army, really had a majority of the people on his side. Accordingly he unfurled his flag in September, 1828, for Guerrero, popular rights and a total expulsion of the Gachupines. In this contest he showed amazing quickness, audacity and resourcefulness, keeping up his motley troops principally by brigandage; but very soon his cause appeared to be doomed.[6]

At this point Lorenzo de Zavala, one of those human meteors that rarely illuminate Anglo-Saxon skies, came forward. His political relations were extremely intense; and now, believing the Centralists intended to place him before a firing-squad, he organized at Mexico, in the hope of saving himself and Santa Anna, the woeful insurrection of the Acordada, which fixed the example of party revolution. Victoria had an understanding with him, though after betraying the government and letting the handful of rioters get a safe start, he lost his nerve and betrayed them also; and in the end, at the cost of some bloodshed and extensive robberies, the insurrection triumphed; “the vile and unnatural Pedraza”—as his foes called him—fled to the United States, and Congress, after having declared Pedraza elected, pronounced Guerrero President on the express ground that revolts had occurred in his favor. In reality this was a revolution of numbers and popular ideas against privilege and oligarchy, and before long the country accepted the situation.[6]


Santa Anna was now a popular hero, the saviour of the nation; and he proceeded to confirm his title. In 1829 came the long expected blow from Spain, and having calmly assumed the military authority at Vera Cruz, he advanced to meet it. Near Tampico the invading army, stricken with fever, desired to lay down its arms; but Santa Anna, eager for laurels, attacked it. Spanish valor accepted the challenge; the Mexicans were repulsed; and their ambitious leader left the field before the battle ended. The invaders were then permitted to surrender, and soon a new cry was echoing through the streets of Mexico, “Viva Santa Anna, the Victor of Tampico!” Clothing himself with modesty and grace he now posed as a sort of benevolent divinity. Rather tall, thin, apparently feeble but capable of great exertions on occasion, with a head that bulged at the top, a swarthy complexion, brilliant and restless eyes, a very clear-cut voice and a voluble tongue, he moved about his estate at Manga de Clavo and the near-by city of Vera Cruz in an easy, affable way, accumulating popularity. “Can read somewhat,” reported our consul in that city; but his thoughts were above literature. “Were I made God,” it was said that he once remarked, “I should wish to be something more.”[6]

Meantime, April 1, 1829, Guerrero assumed the Presidency. In his green jacket edged with fur, red waistcoat bound with a blue sash, brown mantle and heavy sabre, with his thick hair bristling toward all points of the compass, he was a picturesque figure, and as candidate had answered very well. For the role of chief magistrate, however, the British minister justly described him as “totally unfit.” Being mostly of Indian and partly—it was stated—of negro blood, he instinctively distrusted the whites, while the latter utterly despised the class to which he belonged. Though his intuitive judgment was quick and within the range of his experience remarkably correct, he knew nothing whatever of letters and politics, necessarily depended upon the self-seeking flatterers of his party, and veered about like the wind. In military emergencies he could burst his bonds like a Samson, but the things he really cared for were a wench, a bottle, a game of monte and a nap under some spreading tree. Without ideas, knowledge, experience or high character, he faced a terrible inheritance: the laws ignored, the authorities despised, the administration disorganized, the treasury worse than empty, the country in distress and turmoil.[6]

Professions of loyalty to the “sacred” constitution and the laws could not blot out the fact that his authority was based upon a riot; and others would not feel satisfied merely because he was content. The extraordinary powers of the Executive, granted in view of the Spanish invasion, were used oppressively. A multitude of persons clamored for money and he could give them none; a multitude clamored for reforms, and he scarcely knew what they were talking about. As far as possible the rest of the Gachupines were driven out, but this merely added to the confusion. President and nation simply drifted, and the rocks were near. Before long the general government was practically ignored except at the capital, and the heads of the secret societies wielded the real power. Guerrero even allowed the oligarchy, his deadliest foe, to alienate him from the common people, the source of his strength. He became almost as isolated as Mahomet’s coffin; and then—as soon as ambition could disguise itself with a programme—he fell.[6]

Mainly owing to the good-will of Guerrero, the Vice-President was General Anastasio Bustamante, a heavy, dull, rather kindly and fairly honest aristocrat, though nominally a moderate Federalist. When appointed by Guerrero to command the army of reserve at Jalapa, the principal military force in the country, he exclaimed on taking leave of the President, “Never will I unsheathe my sword against General Guerrero,” but within a year (December, 1829) he did it; and, though a beneficiary of the Acordada riot, he revolted against the government in the name of the constitution. As a matter of fact his rebellion was merely another effort of the privileged classes, a revised edition of Montaño’s, and the army received its pay from the money chests of the oligarchs. Little opposition was encountered, for Guerrero had let Delilah shear him, the Acordada episode and much other misconduct had completely discredited the radical Federalists, and the Federalists in general—who had raised Bustamante from a political prison to the second place in the nation—could not believe, after his fresh protestations of loyalty to the constitution, that he would betray them. The President, finding nobody to lean upon, fled to his old haunts in the south, was treacherously captured and was shot; and meanwhile, on the first of January, 1830, Bustamante took up the reins. Greed, corruption, imprudence, evil passions and lawlessness had ruined the cause of democracy, and Victoria’s experiment of letting aristocrats administer a professedly popular system had to be tried again.[6]

Bustamante opened Congress with a bit of the fashionable hypocrisy, asserting that a “sacred Constitution” had placed him in power; but he showed that what interested him was “the wishes of the army,” and the army reciprocated this affection. Alamán, who had been Victoria’s chief adviser at first, now became the real head of the government. More than any other man in Mexico he could claim to be called a statesman, for he knew some history, had observed politics in Europe, and in a superficial yet impressive way could reason; but he was a statesman of the Metternich school, wily and insincere, wholly unable to sympathize with democracy, and profoundly in love with force. Whatever did not suit the government he demolished without regard to law; whoever opposed it was crushed. In administration the government did well, but—attempting to represent democracy and privilege, progress and reaction, the past and the future, a self-governing state and an all-controlling church at one and the same time—it undertook to perform an impossible task by impossible means. Consequently it satisfied neither of the parties and offended both. King Stork proved worse than King Log.[7]

Santa Anna, incensed because Guerrero would not appoint him minister of war, had at first coquetted with Bustamante’s movement; but soon, overshadowed at Jalapa by the Vice-President and by Bravo, whom Guerrero had pardoned, he retired to his estate. On the outbreak of the revolution he took up arms for Guerrero; but when his chief gave up, he followed that example, and patiently awaited, crouching, the time to spring. Now he saw the tide of passion rising, and saw also the best citizens agreeing that Mier y Terán,[F] an able and honorable man, should be the next chief magistrate. Accordingly, to prevent an election if nothing more, he “pronounced” in the name of Federalism at the beginning of 1832, and called for a change of Cabinet, though four years earlier he had battled for the principle that nobody should interfere with a President’s choice of ministers; and then he required that Bustamante should give up his place to Pedraza as the rightful head of the state, though Santa Anna himself had been the cause of Pedraza’s exclusion on the ground of illegal election. Supported by the Vera Cruz customhouse and defended by the pestilence of the coast, he occupied a most advantageous position; and consistency did not signify.[7]

Near the close of the year the two chiefs, brought together by Pedraza, adjusted the affairs of the nation—that is to say, the offices—as private business, and the troops on both sides were liberally rewarded. Congress protested, but was utterly powerless. Bustamante soon found it wise to give up the Presidency; and as the elections were not general enough, at the proper time, to create a Congress, constitutional government vanished. However, though Pedraza had resigned and even left the country, which no President could legally do, Santa Anna and Bustamante now hoisted him into power to complete the term interrupted by Guerrero, while the “best citizens” fell out over offices and personal issues, and so dissipated the brightest prospect seen as yet in Mexican public life.[7]


Under these circumstances, of course, the dominant general, Santa Anna, was elected President. For Vice-President the choice fell upon Valentín Gómez Farías, leader of the radical Federalists. In many ways Farías deserved warm admiration. He was active, indefatigable, fearless, thoroughly honest, and willing—perhaps a little more than willing—to serve the public in the humblest or the highest office. He loved Mexico ardently, and he believed in the supremacy of law and the civil authority. Unfortunately, however, his education was inadequate for the work he undertook to do; and he lacked prudence, patience and common sense. In short, he may be characterized as a fanatical democrat and political idealist.[7]

Santa Anna now had the army at his back, but he desired to have also the privileged classes there, and they had been exasperated by his overthrowing Bustamante. He therefore decided to let them see they needed him; and, retiring early in 1833 to his estate—which in fact he enjoyed much more than bearing the burdens of administration—he left the Vice-President in power. Farías then undertook to transform Mexico, by merely saying “Open Sesame!” to the Federalist majority in Congress, into a modern, liberal, orderly and prosperous nation; and reform projects made their appearance at once. The privileges of the army were boldly attacked and still more those of the Church, which aimed to be in the social order enough to dominate it, yet enough outside to escape from all obligations. Farías proposed, therefore, without having a well-digested plan, to reassert the supreme authority formerly exercised by the king, abolish the clerical fuero and the compulsory tithes, provide for popular, lay education, and bring into productive circulation the immense wealth controlled by the Church; and Congress, fully aware that reforms were necessary, dazzled by the boldness and novelty of his programme, and misled by the Mexican faith in theories and formulæ, supported him.[7]

Naturally such projects and their foreseen consequences roused the clericals and all in that camp to fury, and the proprietors of great estates also grew alarmed. The President felt his time had come, and in May, therefore, he resumed his functions. The progress of reform promptly halted, and soon it was announced that Santa Anna, ingeniously made a prisoner by his own troops, had been proclaimed dictator. Undoubtedly he expected the mutiny that now broke out at the capital to overthrow the government; but Farías, again in power during the President’s absence, quelled the revolt, and Santa Anna found it necessary to “escape” and resume his office.[7]


Pretending still with consummate address to favor both parties—though really a Centralist now—he made both of them court and fear him, and proved his power by breaking down and then restoring the army. Of course, however, these manoeuvres excited suspicion. The privileged classes, though anxious for his support, hesitated to pledge him theirs, and so he returned on a six months’ leave of absence to his figurative plow, leaving Tornel, whom an American minister described as “a very bad man,” to scheme in his interest. The now embittered and excited forces of reform were thus unleashed, and before long the Church and the rich proprietors offered the Cincinnatus of Manga de Clavo absolute power on condition that he should protect them. In April, 1834, therefore, two months before his leave was to expire, he took possession of the supreme power again, and was hailed by the clergy as a new Messiah. Supported soon by the revolutionary “plan” of Cuernavaca, he made himself in effect a dictator. The cause of reform was harshly checked and turned back. Congress found the door of its hall barred; and Farías, covered with abuse, was driven from the country.[7]

Secretly encouraging reactionary insurrections and instigating demands for a centralized régime, though still professing publicly the other creed, Santa Anna ordered the people to surrender their weapons, and crushed with a ruthless hand the state of Zacatecas, which dared to oppose his will. “Worthy son of the father of lies,” “unrivalled chameleon,” “shameless hypocrite,” “atheist and blasphemer,” shrieked his opponents. “With the tranquility of a tiger, which, sated with the flesh of its prey, reposes on what it does not wish to devour, Santa Anna reports his victory,” cried El Crepúsculo. But resentment counted for nothing; Mexico was prostrate. Late in 1835, therefore, a packed Congress of self-seeking politicians decided upon centralization, and it was understood that Santa Anna would be chosen President for ten years, with a longer term and a higher title in prospect. But now the scene was tragically shifted. In March, 1836, the Texans declared their independence. The Napoleon of the West fell into their hands at San Jacinto, where they defeated his army; and, as an inkling got abroad of the unpatriotic agreements made with his captors while in fear of revenge for his cruelties, he thought it wise to announce, on returning to Mexico in 1837, a definitive retirement from public life.[7]

According to the organic law, any proposed constitutional change had to remain under consideration for two years; but the Congress of 1835, not minding a trifle like this, drew up as fast as possible what it named the Seven Laws—called by others the Seven Plagues. By December, 1836, despite the resistance and threats of the Federalists, the new régime was fully organized, and Bustamante soon held the reins again. The Church and the wealthy were now satisfied. The army also felt pleased, for the Federalists denounced its privileges, the cost of the many state offices created by them reduced the amount of money it could get, and an aristocratic government seemed likely to need it constantly and pay it with some regularity; and so the prospect was, especially with Santa Anna eliminated, that the new regime would be stable.[7]

But among the aristocrats it had become unfashionable by this time to meddle with politics. The groups that made up the dominant party, though united against the democrats, had little else in common. Each group desired to enjoy privileges and shun burdens; each aimed to exploit the nation; and there was not enough to satisfy all. The expulsion of the Spaniards had weakened the numbers, ability, energy and wealth of the party; and now, as after every revolution, it proved so impossible to fulfill the promises made to win support, that soon disappointed friends were allying themselves with open enemies.[8]

A new difficulty, too, arose, for under a centralized system the government had to assume financial responsibilities previously borne by the states. A strong treasury was therefore essential; yet the rich, and in particular the clergy, would not pay enough to carry on the government they had established. Consequently funds had to be borrowed, Church property being the only available security; and the clergy, instead of meeting the terms of the money-lenders, busily hid or exported their wealth. Every dollar that could be raised had to be given the army as the price of its allegiance, and for six months not one civil employé, from the President down, received a salary. In October, 1837, the ministry resigned in a body, and would not return to their desks, for nobody cared to support so heavy a load when there was no chance to steal or even to get paid.[8]

Early in November the British representative, although the legation had all along sympathized with the aristocratic party, reported that Centralism had completely failed; and it was notorious that Bustamante himself desired a restoration of Federalism as the only possible expedient. Seeing their enemies divided, the liberals took heart, and petitions for a change of system were soon pouring in from the departments, which had now taken the places of the states. Dissatisfaction spread. Pronunciamientos began, and only the popularity of Bustamante, who had mellowed with age and foreign travel during his period of eclipse, maintained the government. Yet Federalism could not act, for at this juncture the French minister was pressing claims, and the two wings of the party—the moderates led by Pedraza and the radicals led by Farías—disagreed passionately on this foreign issue. A complete state of anarchy prevails, reported our consul at Mexico in December, 1838.[8]


Santa Anna all this time was quietly at work, though he had called heaven to witness that he would be loyal to the existing regime; and, as often happened, chance came to his aid. A French fleet captured the fortress of Ulúa, off Vera Cruz, at this time, and a party of marines landed at the town, destroyed some war material, and then marched back to reëmbark. Santa Anna commanded there, and, being wounded in attacking these troops, had to undergo amputation at the knee. This was his opportunity, and he at once issued a most eloquent address. Already he had outdone opera bouffe, and now he outdid himself. “Probably this will be the last victory I shall give my country,” he said; “I die happy that Divine Providence has permitted me to devote to her every drop of my blood.... May all my fellow-citizens, forgetting my political errors, concede to me the one title that I would leave my children, that of a Good Mexican.” There had been no victory, for the French drove him out of Vera Cruz before he could dictate the address, and he did not dream of dying; but the Mexicans are tender-hearted, and the episode—particularly in contrast with the inaction of the government, which could not afford an efficient regular army and dared not arm the people—gave him a fresh hold on the nation, even though all capable of thinking felt by this time profoundly skeptical about him.[8]

Accordingly he became the power behind the tottering throne in December, 1838, and when Bustamante took the field early the next year to put down an insurgent named Mejía, the Centralist leaders had Santa Anna made temporary President as a bulwark against Federalism. The quality of his penitence quickly showed itself. His power was audaciously used to cripple Bustamante, suppress liberty, gain partisans and benefit himself and his friends. In a word, he achieved the most lawless and shameless administration yet witnessed, and though universally feared, was now execrated by almost all except his personal followers. In July, 1839, the President resumed his functions, but matters only went on from worse to worst—corruption rampant in the administration, public spirit dead. In July, 1840, rioters actually made him their prisoner for a time. False advisers, particularly Tornel, drew him farther and farther into Santa Anna’s net. Corpulent and aging rapidly, he fell into a sort of mental stupor; and in August, 1841, the British minister reported that the government, if left to itself, would soon expire of inanition. As for the nation, it was not merely in anarchy but in chaos. Even the conservatives admitted that the Seven Laws would not do.[8]

This very month rang the bell for the next scene. General Mariano Paredes, another important figure in the history of our war with Mexico, was a brave but rather besotted officer, more honest but less clever than his leading contemporaries. On a mere pretext, though he owed much to Bustamante, he revolted; more or less in collusion with him Santa Anna pronounced as mediator; and General Valencia, correctly described by an American consul as “destitute of every principle of honor or honesty,” treacherously getting hold of what was called the citadel at Mexico, rebelled on his own account: check from two knights and a castle, as Señora Calderón wittily described the situation. Weary, disgusted, indifferent, cynical, men heard unmoved the “Quién vive?” and “Centinela alerte!” of the insurgents at the capital, and between two puffs of their cigarettes gossiped about the revolution as if it had occurred in Europe. It was only a game of chess, and the public were spectators. They understood now that nearly all the pompous phrases of the politicians had meant, as Lara’s Revista Política of 1840 put it, “Move, and let me have your place.”[8]

In this confusion Santa Anna, whom the conservatives had now decided to support instead of the inefficient Bustamante, came rapidly to the front. His triumph was soon foreseen, and the nation acquiesced. Most people knew he was a villain, but felt that at any rate he possessed energy. Probably he could keep order, they said, and perhaps, if entirely trusted, would act well. If not, one big rascal could not be so bad as many little ones; and at the very least any change must be an improvement. In reality this bold, cunning, hungry, sharp adventurer, who knew what he wanted and got it, dazzled the average Mexicans. They saw in him a fulfilment of themselves, and in letting him rule they had the feeling of success without the trouble.[8]

For a while Bustamante, whose government practically faded out in September, 1841, resisted with dignity though with no chance of survival; but at length, in a fit of desperation, he cut the ground of legality from under his own feet by pronouncing for Federalism, and on October 7, Santa Anna, driving rapidly through Mexico behind four white horses belonging to a stockbroker, with a retinue of splendid coaches and an immense escort of cavalry, took up his quarters at the palace in Tacubaya, a few miles beyond. Yet not a single viva greeted his magnificent entry or his address to Congress. Memory paralyzed admiration. In despair, not love, Mexico consented to be his.[8]


By the new arrangement, called the Bases of Tacubaya, a new Congress was to draw a new constitution. Meantime some one, the choice of a junta appointed by the successful chief, was to have the powers “necessary for the organization of all branches of the public service,” and naturally Santa Anna himself received the votes of his junta. This arrangement was regarded by the nation as a mere parenthesis, but the General held a different idea. On October 10, the gloomy old cathedral was as bright as gold, silver, gems and hundreds of candles could make it. Troops entered the sacred precincts, and formed to the music of drums and cornets. The archbishop proceeded to the main entrance in cope and mitre, holding in his hands a crucifix equally beautiful and precious, and there he waited for about three quarters of an hour, when a military officer, who had not even deigned to put on full dress, marched in and seated himself on a splendid throne. A large suite of generals followed, but none of them ventured to sit, though the Te Deum lasted an hour; and finally the man on the throne rose and took this oath: I swear to God—to do as I please; for such was the meaning of the Bases. Hardened by seeing his superior astuteness, audacity and energy balked so many times by circumstances and a lack of confidence in his honor, Santa Anna proposed, now that he once more had the power, to grip it with a hand of steel.[9]

As dictator he indulged himself by running through the entire diapason from childishness to omnipotence, announcing impossibilities and attempting absurdities. The freedom of the press and the freedom of speech were violated. The tariff was juggled with for selfish pecuniary reasons. He ordered the university to give one of his friends a degree and a chair—that is to say, learning and a profession. He closed a bank without allowing it the time to liquidate. He put up a cheap building of rubble work that was merely an eyesore—though Tornel compared it to the Simplon road of Napoleon—and the city government had to fall down and worship it. His amputated foot was dug up and reinterred with extraordinary pomp. On the top of a monument was erected a gilded statue of him pointing toward Texas, though some said it was pointing at the mint. The Church, now governed by the soft Archbishop Posada, drowsy with satisfaction and carelessly fattening on sweetmeats presented to him by adoring nuns, was forced to make “loans”; and payments on public debts, for which revenues had been solemnly pledged, were suspended.[9]

Nothing, one might almost say, was too great or too small for Santa Anna, if it looked auriferous. No coach wheel could turn without first paying a tax. Anybody with a promising scheme to get national funds could find a partner at the palace. Brokers and contractors took the places of politicians; wealthy merchants, able to loan great sums at great percentages, took the places of statesmen. Corruption was rampant everywhere, of course. “An arbitrary system, indeed, must always be a corrupt one,” as Burke said; “there never was a man who thought he had no law but his own will, who did not soon find that he had no end but his own profit.” These words describe Santa Anna’s course. And when his chest was full enough and his army big enough, putting a substitute in his place and shaking off the cares of state, he went down to enjoy his gambling and cockfighting and plan his next political move at Manga de Clavo, secure from observation and protected by troops. Hints of a formal dictatorship began to be heard.[9]

To keep up appearances, however, he summoned the proposed Congress. A majority of the members were Federalists, but he promptly informed it that Federalism would not do, and when they insisted on their notion, Tornel, the minister of war, who was glad to be his lackey and wear the livery of the house, barred Congress out of its hall. Presently, without a sign of protest from any one, it was dissolved by decree; and then eighty persons, chosen by the administration, drew up a new constitution called the Organic Bases. Valencia was president of this junta; and both he and Paredes began to plot against the dictator. Santa Anna forced them to swallow their ambitions for the time being, however, and by dint of military interference—though his enemies were bestirring themselves and he was now increasingly unpopular—he became President in January, 1844, under the new constitution. This appeared like a concession to legality, but no doubt it was intended as a recoil for another spring. His dream of empire still went on, it was fully believed.[9]

Although the minister of justice described this period as “an epoch of glory” and an “era of absolute felicity,” the new Congress manifested a disposition to antagonize the President; but an almost supernatural dread of him paralyzed even his enemies, and he readily bowled them over. Then he was given a special sum of four millions for war with Texas; and after that sum was promptly absorbed, he demanded not only ten millions more but “extraordinary powers” to lay taxes. This meant that he wanted to have every man’s property at his disposal, and it was generally believed that with a foreign war as excuse he would soon try to make himself autocrat. Congress resisted, and before long was suspended.[9]


But now the people took fire. They had trusted Santa Anna completely, and their confidence had been as completely abused. It was felt that he had shown a deliberate intention to ignore the public interest and feed upon the nation—disregarding all personal rights, threatening all fortunes and contradicting all principles. Paredes, who had never forgiven Santa Anna for running him off the track in 1841, pronounced. In November, 1844, war began. The President attempted both to cajole and to terrorize his enemies, and moved against the insurgents with a powerful army; but on December 6 the troops at the capital revolted, and the nation concurred. In the departments he was particularly hated, for he had impoverished them with taxes and spent the money elsewhere; but Mexico itself blazed. “Death to the lame man!” shouted the populace, dragging his foot round the streets. Dazed and overwhelmed, Santa Anna, after moving about irresolutely with his dwindling army, left it with a small escort early in January, 1845, and then took to his heels with only four servants. Before long some peasants captured him, and later in the year he was banished.[9]

At first sight this collapse amazes us. It seems impossible that Santa Anna, whose particular talent lay in discovering the direction of political currents, should have lost so suddenly his tremendous power. But the explanation is readily found. Without a doubt he was the foremost Mexican of his time. Seen at the head of a ragged, undisciplined mob called a regiment, inspiring them with eye, gesture and words, and leading them on with almost electrical energy; seen at a banquet, where he could show himself—despite the six colonels erect and stiff behind his chair—merely a prince of good fellows, dignified but cordial, courtly but unrestrained, brilliant yet apparently simple; seen at the council board, seizing upon a shrewd idea expressed by one of his associates and developing, illustrating and applying it in a way that made its real author marvel at his chief’s wisdom; seen in one of his outbursts of Jacksonian rage, as when he threatened at a diplomatic reception to run the boundary line between Mexico and the United States at the cannon’s mouth; seen at the opera house, in a crimson and gold box with a retinue of crimson and gold officers, dressed in the plainest of costumes himself, and wearing on his countenance an interesting expression of gentle melancholy and resignation, as if he were sacrificing himself for the nation and shrank from the gaze of an adoring public—seen in these and other phases he appeared remarkable, and even, as combining them, extraordinary.[9]

But in reality he was a charlatan. Though head of an army, he knew nothing of military science; though head of a nation, he knew nothing of statesmanship. By right of superiority and by right of conquest Mexico seemed to be his; and, with what Burke described as “the generous rapacity of the princely eagle,” he proposed to take the chief share of wealth, power, honor and pleasure, leaving to others the remnants of these as a compensation for doing the work. It was a cardinal principle with him that the masses could be ignored; and in 1844, having reduced the Church to subservience and formed a combination with the military and the financial men, based on a community of interest in exploiting the national revenues, he deemed himself invulnerable, the more so because the coterie of base flatterers that he loved to have about him reflected this conviction. Of a true national uprising he had no conception; and when this came, finding himself in the presence of a power that amazed and overawed him, seeing his axioms disproved and his pillars going down, he lost heart, and plunged from the zenith to the nadir of his essentially emotional nature.[9]


Santa Anna’s legal successor was General J. J. Herrera, president of the council of state, a fair, pacific, reasonable and honest man; and the new ministry commanded respect. For a time the halcyon days of 1825 returned. This was the first great popular movement since Mexico had become independent. All had united in it, and therefore all were in harmony; every one had assisted, and therefore every one felt an agreeable expectation of reward. Factions laid down their arms. For a few weeks all remembered they were Mexicans. But the situation was extremely difficult. Santa Anna’s constitution, which commanded no respect because neither authorized by the people nor endorsed by good results, was still in force. All who believed in his system, including twenty thousand half-pay—or rather no-pay—officers, dissipated, hungry and reckless, began at once to plot for his return or for some one of the same kind to succeed him. Herrera’s aim to introduce reforms, both civil and military, gave great offence. Paredes, representing the Church and the aristocracy, stood at the head of the main army, and soon showed a disposition to hold aloof. Indeed every prominent man had a busily scheming clique.[10]

The correct course for the new President would have been to declare for the constitution of 1824, and throw himself upon the Federalists; but, fearing that such a step would excite a revolution, he adopted the timid and hopeless policy of trying to balance one party against another. Owing to fear of the army, though he knew he could not rely upon it, he dared not organize militia; and before long a body of troops were allowed to revolt with impunity. Soon, therefore, the government had no prestige and no substantial backing. Every sort of a complaint was made against it. The financial troubles became acute. Confusion and uncertainty reigned, and the President was physically incapable of a hard day’s work.[10]

In March a conspiracy that indicated an ominous combination of Federalists and Santannistas came to light. In May, under strenuous pressure from England and France, the government shrinkingly agreed to recognize Texas if she would bind herself not to join the United States; and this wise though tardy move brought an avalanche of abuse upon it. In June the Federalists rose, but the affair was badly managed and failed. Tornel, the arch-plotter, a general who never had a command, was sent to the northern army; and other turbulent men were imprisoned. But still the government merely drifted—blind, irresolute, vacillating, moribund; and the general public looked on with complete indifference. Going to sleep red and waking up green—for revolutions usually began at night—was no longer a novelty.[10]

In August the ministers resigned; “the chief offices of state were begging in the streets,” wrote the correspondent of the London Times; and the men who finally took them, while personally well enough, had little strength and less prestige. By September the government stood in hourly fear of a revolution; but so little booty could be seen, that although the plots thickened, they were lazily developed, and amounted to nothing. Paredes, the Santannistas and the Federalists became constantly more threatening, however, and the administration more and more afraid to take any step whatever, good or bad. Nobody could guess what it would do to-day from what it did yesterday. The anarchy of weakness constituted the government. A triumvirate of Paredes, Tornel and Valencia was much talked of. Many prayed for some respectable despot, many for a foreign prince; and some of the more thoughtful suggested cautiously an American protectorate. “Sterile, deplorably sterile” has been the movement against Santa Anna, exclaimed the friendly Siglo XIX in October, describing it as “a moment of happy illusion.” By this time the administration was powerless even at the capital; and on November 30 El Amigo del Pueblo, an opposition sheet, announced, “There is no government in Mexico.” This, however, was premature. Before the dénouement of this tragi-farce the United States was to enter upon the scene; and as this new phase of the drama requires to be prepared for, we must here leave Herrera, for a brief space, in the midst of his difficulties.[10]


Sterile indeed and most deplorable was the whole series of events that we have now followed. One is glad to pass on; but let it be noted first that while circumstances promoted, they did not produce it. The Mexicans knew better, far better, than they acted. In 1824 the Constituent Congress pointed out distinctly in a solemn address to the nation, that without virtue liberal institutions would fail, revolution would follow revolution, anarchy would ensue; and as time went on editors and orators frequently traced the causes of Mexico’s downfall in vivid and truthful sentences. The trouble was that a great majority of those who might have advanced her welfare preferred ease to effort, guile to wisdom, self-indulgence to self-control, private advantage to the public weal, partisan victory to national success; and naturally, in such a state of things, the few honorable, public-spirited citizens could seldom command a sufficient following to accomplish anything. Our leading public men, said a contemporary, having been for one reason or another contemptible, have learned to despise and distrust one another, and the public, sick to death of their manœuvres, have learned to despise and distrust them all; yet such persons—demagogues and soldiers—were still permitted to lead. Paper constitutions and paper laws, naturally of little validity in the eyes of such a wilful, passionate race, had been rendered by experience contemptible.

For the consequences, if there be such a principle as national responsibility, the people as a body were responsible; and so they were for the results of this deplorable schooling as it affected the relations between their country and ours. The inheritance from Spain had been unfortunate, but there had been time enough to recover from it; and instead of improving, the Mexicans had even degenerated.[11]


In turning from the domestic to the foreign affairs of Mexico we must beware of carrying prejudice with us. Our minds must be open to all the facts, and see them exactly as they were. But it is right and even necessary, for our guidance in interpreting these facts, to presume that aliens, traditionally disliked by the Mexicans,[1] were treated no more kindly, fairly and honestly than fellow-citizens; and the evidence is conclusive that even the highest authorities were generally unbusinesslike, often unjust or tricky, and on too many occasions positively dishonorable in their dealings with foreigners.[2]

Our first minister to Mexico, received there on June 1, 1825, was Joel R. Poinsett. Apparently a better man for the office could not have been chosen or even created; and the warm interest of the United States in the cause of Spanish-American independence, our prompt recognition of Mexico, and the fact that her political institutions had been modeled upon ours, were additional auguries for the success of his mission. But duty required him to stand for a Protestant power in a country intensely Roman Catholic, to represent democracy where the dominant element consisted of aristocrats hoping more or less generally for a Bourbon king, to support Monroe’s doctrine of America for the Americans against the strength of Europe and the European affiliations of Mexico, to vindicate the equal position of the United States where Great Britain had established a virtual protectorate, to insist upon full commercial privileges when the Spanish-American states favored mutual concessions, and to antagonize other influences possessing no little strength.[3]


His only feasible course was to affiliate with men of the popular, democratic, Federalist party. Largely through his advice they abandoned their plan of rebelling, placed their confidence in organization and the ballot, and so gained the ascendency. They soon fell into excesses of their own, however, which they were glad to charge against a Protestant and foreigner; all the other elements antagonized by him joined in the accusations; envy of the recognized prosperity of the United States assisted; and in the end he came to be almost universally denounced by the Mexicans as the diabolical agent of a jealous, hypocritical, designing government.[3]

Of course, the Poinsett affair planted a root of bitterness in the United States. Our national authorities could but protest against the attacks upon our minister that were made by state legislatures in contempt of all diplomatic usage, against the neglect of the Mexican Executive to shield him, and against the general attitude of distrust and ill-will exhibited by that country. Indeed, our government fully believed that baseless popular clamor had been permitted to exert “a sinister influence” against the Americans in its councils, and pointedly informed Guerrero that unless “a marked change” in the temper of his administration should “speedily” occur, a collision might result; and of course the people of the United States could not fail to notice the abusive and even ferocious treatment accorded to our representative, against whom no charges were made by the Mexican government, and to resent still more keenly the insults that were lavished upon the character and purposes of the American nation. The fact that Poinsett continued to be an important factor in our public life, even becoming a member of the Cabinet at a later day, tended to emphasize these feelings, both official and popular.[4]

Besides all this, official work of his added to the irritation in both countries. As one of his principal duties, he was instructed to make a treaty reaffirming the boundary agreed upon with Spain in 1819, or, if he could, buy a portion at least of Texas. The proposal that our neighbor should sell us territory has been called by partisan writers in the United States, insulting, but as we have made purchases from Spain, France, Russia and Mexico herself, this accusation is evidently unwarranted. On the other hand the suggestion was reasonable. We for our part desired the land, aside from its intrinsic value, as a needed protection to New Orleans and the Mississippi; and Mexico not only appeared to misprize it, but could have strengthened herself somewhat by letting it go. Later it became a fashion with her public men to declaim about its preciousness and beauty; but as late as 1836, according to Santa Anna himself, many officials did not know where Texas was or what nation claimed it. Mexico had ten times the area she could people, and what she needed in that quarter was the means of shielding her northern settlements from the Indians. Moreover, under contracts already made, Texas was filling up with men who, as President Victoria saw in 1825, were not at all likely to assimilate with the Mexicans; and since it was recognized that a mistake had been made in admitting such colonists, it might well have seemed the part of wisdom to cut off the infected section before it should set an example of dissatisfaction, and perhaps cause trouble also with the United States.[5]

Poinsett, accordingly, taking the matter up in July, 1825, stated frankly that the treaty of 1819 was recognized by his country as binding, but expressed a desire to lay it aside, and fix upon a more satisfactory line. This pleased Victoria and Alamán, for they imagined they could push the boundary eastward almost to the Mississippi, but in spite of Poinsett’s urgency and his dropping the plan to extend our territory, a long delay followed. At last, however, on January 12, 1828, a treaty of limits reaffirming the agreement with Spain was duly signed. In the course of April it reached Washington and was ratified. On the last day of the month our secretary of state notified the Mexican representative that he was ready to exchange ratifications, and reminded him that under the terms of the instrument this would have to be done by May 12; but Obregón was not prepared to act, and for that reason the treaty failed.[6]

Yet the Mexicans not only held that the United States caused the miscarriage in order to prosecute designs upon Texas, but charged officially as well as on the street, with neither evidence nor plausibility in favor of the accusation, that our minister stole the paper—entrusted to him on May 10 for transmission—which would have authorized Obregón to exchange the ratifications. So we had in 1830 this extraordinary picture: on the one hand, the United States earnestly desiring the prosperity and friendship of Mexico, and pursuing a just and sympathetic policy towards her; and, on the other, Mexico accusing us of hostile intentions and the basest arts. From that day on, everything we did was viewed with a jaundiced eye.[6] The treaty of limits was, however, revived by fresh negotiations, and in April, 1832, went into effect. By its terms a joint commission to run the line had to be appointed within a year from this date, and presently Mexico received notice, both at her own capital and at ours, that an American commissioner had been named; but she paid no attention to the matter, and the year expired. Our minister was then directed to negotiate a new agreement, labored for more than twelve months, and finally, by addressing strong language personally to the acting President, carried the point. Yet the United States was officially denounced for endeavoring—and by wretched artifices—to delay the fixing of the boundary.[7]

Meanwhile a treaty of amity and commerce, proposed by Poinsett at about the same time as the treaty of limits, had been pursuing a checkered career, though a similar agreement between Mexico and England went rapidly through. At one stage of the proceedings the Mexican plenipotentiaries kept our minister entirely in the dark about an important concession made to Great Britain, falsely assuring him that equally favorable terms were offered to this country. Indeed, Victoria showed a strong disposition to block the business altogether. July 10, 1826, however, the negotiators reached an agreement, but it did not prove satisfactory to the American Senate. A second treaty signed in February, 1828, did not please the Congress of Mexico, and was properly rejected. At a later date negotiations were again resumed; but in 1831 that body held the matter in abeyance for more than nine months. At last, one day before the session was to close, our minister gave notice that unless the treaty were concluded, he would leave the country. The government at Washington also exerted some pressure by insisting that the two matters should fare alike, and postponing the re-ratification of the treaty of limits; and consequently both treaties became law at the same time, April 5, 1832. Yet for nearly a year the commercial treaty was not promulgated by Mexico; and hence, though her citizens residing in the United States could have the benefit of it, Americans in Mexico could not, for the local authorities with whom it was necessary to deal declared they had no knowledge of such an agreement.[8]

Toward the close of 1829 Guerrero, as a desperate throw for popularity, asked for the recall of Poinsett, merely saying that public opinion demanded it; and then for about six years the United States had as its representative a friend of Jackson’s named Anthony Butler, whose only qualifications for the post were an acquaintance with Texas and a strong desire to see the United States obtain it. In brief, he was a national disgrace. Besides having been through bankruptcy more than once, if we may believe the Mexican minister at Washington, and having a financial interest in the acquisition of this Mexican territory, he was personally a bully and swashbuckler, ignorant at first of the Spanish language and even the forms of diplomacy, shamefully careless about legation affairs, wholly unprincipled as to methods, and, by the testimony of two American consuls, openly scandalous in his conduct. One virtue, to be sure, according to his own account he possessed: he never drank spirits; but one learns of this with regret, for an overdose of alcohol would sometimes be a welcome excuse for him.[9]

His particular business was to obtain as much of Texas as possible, an enterprise that lay close to Jackson’s heart; and he began by visiting the province—about whose loyalty and relations with the United States much concern was already felt at Mexico—when on the way to his post. This promise of indiscretion in office was admirably fulfilled. Maintaining a hold on our President by positive assurances of success, he loafed, schemed, made overtures, threatened, was ignored, rebuffed, snubbed and cajoled, fancied he could outplay or buy the astute and hostile Alamán, tried to do “underworking” with Pedraza, plotted bribery with one Hernández, the confessor of Santa Anna’s sister, grossly violated his conciliatory instructions by engaging in a truculent personal affair with Tornel, and was finally, after ceasing to represent us, ordered out of the country. In short he succeeded only in proving that we had for minister a cantankerous, incompetent rascal, in making it appear that our government was eager to obtain Mexican territory, and in suggesting—though explicitly and repeatedly ordered to eschew all equivocal methods—that we felt no scruples as to means. On the ground of Butler’s connection with disaffected Texas, Mexico politely asked for his recall near the close of 1835, and in December Powhatan Ellis, born a Virginian but now a federal judge in Mississippi, was appointed chargé d’affaires.[10]


A few months later Texas broke away from the mother-country, and her former lords felt sure that from beginning to end, in the colonization, rebellion and successful defence of that region, the hand of the American government could plainly enough be seen. Their state of feeling seemed to Butler “a perfect tempest of passion,” and Ellis believed that the Cabinet of Mexico discussed seriously the question of an open rupture with the United States. The Mexican view, however, although supported by a section of the American public, was radically incorrect. Essentially the migration of our citizens across the Sabine formed a part of the great movement that peopled the Mississippi valley. The causes of the Texan rebellion were provided by Mexico herself. That step actually crossed the wish and aims of our administration, which desired to buy the province—not see it become an independent country. From the very first, our national authorities proclaimed and endeavored to enforce neutrality; and they gave the Texans no assistance in their struggle for independence. The British minister at Mexico expressed the opinion to Santa Anna that our government had done all that could be expected, and all that lay in its power; and Santa Anna did not venture to deny this. Individual Americans and sometimes Americans in groups did, it is true, contribute materially to aid the cause of Texas; but in most cases their action was entirely lawful, while in the others it could not be prevented. Moreover, these few trespasses against the law of neutrality were in substance only just retribution for the tyranny, misgovernment and atrocities of Mexico. In reality, therefore, our skirts were as clear as reasonably could have been expected.[11]

One phase of the case, however, which excited special indignation at Mexico, requires notice. Two streams from the north send their waters into Sabine Lake, and it was held by some that either of these could be regarded as the Sabine River and, therefore, as marking the boundary. In October, 1833, Butler urged that we insist upon the western stream, commonly called the Neches, and occupy in force the valuable intermediate region, which included Nacogdoches; and for a time Jackson felt inclined to do so. Near the close of 1835 Mexico was officially warned against encroaching upon our territory while fighting the Texans, and suspected that Secretary of State Forsyth took this action with a view to the Nacogdoches district. She therefore became alarmed, and early in 1836 a special minister hastily set out for Washington to investigate the matter. This minister was Manuel E. de Gorostiza, a witty, agreeable man of the world, Mexican by birth, Spanish by education, the author of some clever dramas, but not professionally a topographer, a lawyer or even a diplomat.[12]


Then a delicate matter became suddenly menacing. On both sides of the Sabine there were Indians, who loved war, whisky and plunder as much as they hated work and the whites. A paper boundary, particularly one in dispute, meant nothing to them. Once roused, they were practically sure, as Gorostiza admitted, to rob and murder wherever they could; and not only the fighting in Texas but at least one Mexican emissary enkindled their passions. United States Indians crossed the line and perpetrated outrages. Homes were abandoned. People fled panic-stricken from the vicinity of Nacogdoches; citizens of the town implored American protection against our own Indians; and evidence of an incipient conflagration was placed in the hands of General E. P. Gaines, who commanded our troops on the border.[12] Now the treaty of amity required each country to prevent its Indians from ravaging the other; but, as Mexico did not wish us at this time to keep our savages from harassing the Texans, and did not request us to act for her in fulfilling her pledge, which she could not fulfil herself, possibly the treaty, though often cited by the United States, had technically no direct bearing. But the American government argued rightly that substance was more important than form; that the intent of the treaty was to require both countries to prevent “by all the means in their power” an Indian war on the frontier; that it was the paramount duty of the Executive to protect our people, who, as Gorostiza virtually admitted, were liable to be endangered by the threatened conflagration; that as it was known to be physically impossible for Mexico to comply with the treaty, she could not complain of us for doing what she had agreed ought to be done, and had undertaken to do; that, should it be necessary to cross what had been commonly assumed to be the boundary in order to perform our duty—particularly in order to prevent our own Indians from perpetrating outrages on the other side—common sense and the spirit of the treaty warranted our doing it; and that, on account of the distance to the Sabine, it was necessary to give the general commanding there a certain credence and a certain discretion. Our government could have reasoned also, and very likely it did, that the strong desire of the Texans, de facto successors to the Mexicans in that region, that we should fulfil the obligation which the treaty created, was an additional ground for so doing.[12]

Accordingly Gaines, while ordered with strong emphasis to maintain a rigid neutrality, was authorized to advance as far as Nacogdoches—an excellent point from which to defend the American frontier and prevent our Indians from operating beyond it—should such a step seem positively necessary; and then, as measures of precaution, Forsyth not only explained our views and intentions personally to Gorostiza, but made in writing what that minister himself described as a “frank and noble” statement, saying that the occupation of the intermediate region, should it occur, would be temporary and for the sole purpose indicated, and would have no significance in regard to the boundary question.[12]

Apparently satisfied by the directness and candor of this policy, Gorostiza at first admitted the right of the United States to enter Texas in order to punish actual or prevent intended outrages, and thus conceded that the frontier could be crossed without offence. But apparently, when he had taken leave of the secretary of state, his distrust returned, and his Mexican subtlety imagined all sorts of ugly possibilities. It disturbed him that Forsyth did not formally commit himself, in advance of a survey, against the Neches claim. It alarmed him to find that the state department could not give him early and exact information as to Gaines’s movements in a remote, unsettled region. He felt angry that Lewis Cass, who was secretary of war but of course had no control over our foreign relations, looked upon Nacogdoches as American territory. Various other things also appeared to him suspicious, when really his lack of judgment was the chief or only reason. Most important of all, no doubt, he thought of public opinion in Mexico, which was entirely unacquainted with American directness as exemplified by Forsyth, intensely suspicious of us, and intensely hostile.[12]


He retracted, therefore, as much as possible of his concurrence, opened a war of notes upon our state department, and near the end of the year 1836, on learning from the secretary that in spite of his objections American troops had gone to Nacogdoches, demanded his passports, and left our shores in wrath. His conduct in so doing was officially endorsed by his government, and anti-American feeling in that country became deeper and hotter than before. Nothing could be seen there except that “sacred” soil claimed and long occupied by Mexico, though now out of her control, had been profaned by Gaines’s troops, and thus, as all Mexicans argued, the way opened for limitless aggressions. To make the case even worse, it was erroneously believed that Houston’s victory at San Jacinto had really been gained by troops then in the service of the United States, and it was said that we were preparing to attack Mexico very soon by sea and by land.[12]

Our recognition of Texas, which occurred early in 1837, was entirely in line with our previous action in similar cases, was less prompt than our recognition of Mexico herself had been, and seemed not only warranted but required by the circumstances. That republic had a government in operation which appeared to be competent, and was thought likely to endure. Santa Anna, the President of Mexico, admitted that she could not hope to gain control of the revolted province, even should its troops be vanquished in the field, and expressed a desire that we should open the way to a settlement of the controversy by granting recognition. After 1836, as the Mexican minister of war stated eight years later, there was no serious talk of attempting to subdue Texas. At the date of recognition, since war between us and Mexico seemed almost inevitable, there appeared to be no great need of considering her susceptibilities; and it was feared that England entertained certain designs, unfavorable to us, regarding Texas, which could be defeated or at least hindered by taking this action. As Mexico was totally unable to protect American vessels in the port of Galveston, we had to establish relations with the power that could do so, or else conduct an important part of our trade under hazardous conditions; and no commercial nation willingly accepts the second alternative in such a case. Finally, the leading powers of Europe endorsed our course by doing the same thing before any material change in the situation occurred.[13]

Mexico, however, would see none of these facts. Our earliest moves toward recognition were looked upon by her, said the British minister, “as the consummation of a design long since entertained” to rob her of that valuable territory, and excited, as he remarked, a “bitter animosity” that no explanation could even mitigate; and our formal action became one more standing ground of complaint and wrath against the government and people of the United States.[13]

In 1842 Mexican feeling was intensified. At this time Santa Anna thought it advisable to rekindle the Texan war, now virtually dormant for six years. Very likely he did not wish to let the case go by default; naturally his recollections of Texan hospitality moved him to reciprocate; and in all probability he believed that any prospect of fighting Texas or the United States in the name of national honor would help to make his autocratic military rule more acceptable. Accordingly, several annoying though ineffective raids beyond the Rio Grande occurred, and a serious invasion was threatened. Upon this, many Texan sympathizers in the Unites States and many who thought they saw England supporting the Mexican operations, held meetings, contributed funds, and even migrated to Texas with guns on their shoulders, all of which they could legally do.[14]

In pursuance of Santa Anna’s policy—probably also to gratify the strong and universal sentiment of his fellow-citizens, aid the anti-Texas and anti-administration party in the United States, neutralize perhaps the good understanding between the United States and England resulting from the settlement of our northeastern boundary, and possibly gain the sympathy not only of Great Britain, but of her friend Louis Philippe—Bocanegra, the minister of relations, now declared war upon us in the field of diplomacy. May 12, 1842, he addressed Daniel Webster, then secretary of state, directly, protesting against the aid given Texas by our citizens, and asking whether the United States could injure Mexico any more, if openly at war against her. “Certainly not,” he said, in reply to his own question. Then he issued a circular to the diplomatic corps at Mexico, in which he charged our government with tolerating aggressions made upon Mexican territory by “subaltern and local authorities,” and announced that while his country did not wish to fight the United States, she would certainly do all that was “imperatively required for her honor and dignity.” Still not satisfied, he wrote again to Webster, though an answer to the first letter was not yet due, accusing the American Cabinet itself of “conduct openly at variance with the most sacred principles of the law of nations and the solemn compacts of amity existing between the two countries,” and threatening that a continuance of this policy would be regarded as “a positive act of hostility.”[14]

In reply to Bocanegra’s first despatch, Webster said that the American government utterly denied and repelled the charges made against it, and then with characteristic power he discussed and refuted them. We shall still maintain neutrality, he concluded, “but the continuance of amity with Mexico cannot be purchased at any higher rate.” To Bocanegra’s second letter his reply was no less positive but a great deal briefer. The President, he wrote, considers the language and tone of that communication “highly offensive,” and orders “that no other answer be given to it than the declaration that the conduct of the Government of the United States, in regard to the war between Mexico and Texas, having been always hitherto governed by a strict and impartial regard to its neutral obligations, will not be changed or altered in any respect or in any degree.”[14]

This compelled Mexico, as the British minister observed, to accept the rebuke invited by her imprudent language or begin hostilities. The former course was chosen; and Bocanegra humbly replied that, relying upon Webster’s “frank declaration” of neutrality, he would not dwell further upon the subject. Even before Webster was heard from, our minister described the state of feeling at Mexico as “most bitter”; and such a correspondence, disagreeable enough to Mexican pride, tended naturally to bring the two countries nearer to the tented field. Richtofen, the Prussian envoy at Mexico, said that Bocanegra’s note led to a distinctly hostile state of things. At one time the President of the United States did not see how war could be avoided; and the Mexican press did about all it could to create a fighting temper.[14]

An opera bouffe sequel followed. Commodore T. A. C. Jones, lying at Callao with our Pacific squadron, received some of Bocanegra’s effusions from the American consul at Mazatlán, who added that war seemed “highly probable.” Jones could not believe that a responsible minister would write so fiercely unless prepared for a conflict, and he felt sure the United States would not flinch. Anxious to provide a port of refuge for American vessels, alarmed lest England should now obtain California under some arrangement with Mexico, as she was thought ready to do, and satisfied that hostilities would actually break out before he could reach that coast, he sailed promptly and arrived at Monterey on October 19. Being a rather self-sufficient and hasty person, he investigated the matter there in but a superficial manner, and the next day politely occupied the town. He now found that war had not begun; and upon this, after hauling down his flag and saluting that of Mexico, he sailed away, while General Micheltorena, the governor, thundered grandiloquent language at him from a safe distance. Naturally the authorities at Mexico flared up at this episode; but they soon found that no charge could be made against our government, and, realizing presently with our minister’s aid that the longest finger pointed toward Bocanegra and the loudest laugh was at Micheltorena, they willingly allowed the matter to fade away. It therefore sharpened Mexican hostility far less than might have been expected, yet no doubt considerably.[15]

Meanwhile fresh trouble arose. The continuance of nominal war between Mexico and Texas and the constant danger of raids interfered seriously with our commercial interests. Near the end of June, 1842, therefore, the American secretary of state, hoping to influence the government of Mexico, observed to our minister that the war was “not only useless, but hopeless, without attainable object, injurious to both parties and likely to be, in its continuance, annoying and vexatious to other commercial nations”; and this line of policy was followed up in January, 1843. Indeed, Webster gave notice that a formal protest would very likely be made, unless the state of war should be ended or respectable forces take the field.[14]

Naturally these remonstrances, however proper, gave much offence; and the translation of John Quincy Adams’s brilliant speech at Braintree, Massachusetts, which made an eloquent but mistaken attack upon the American administration, gave the newspapers of Mexico a fresh opportunity and fresh reason to ventilate their suspicions of us. A merciless warfare upon Texas was now announced; and Santa Anna decreed in June, 1843, that all foreigners taken in arms on Texan soil should be executed. In reply to this, our secretary of state declared that American citizens could not be prevented from serving abroad, as Frenchmen and Germans had served in our own revolutionary armies; and that, if captured in Texas, they must be treated as prisoners of war. “On this point,” he insisted, “there can be no concession or compromise.”[14]


Here our point of view must be shifted. So far we have mainly been concerned with complaints on the part of Mexico, and it will be admitted that in those affairs the United States did not materially injure her in any unlawful way, and exhibited no malicious intentions. We must now take up certain American grievances; and first in order may be mentioned the summary execution of twenty-two of our citizens in 1835. Under the revolutionist Mejía they had left the United States for Texas, but they were conducted to Tampico and there were captured. The minister of relations asserted that they were duly tried, and simply experienced the rigor of the law; but our minister ascertained that no trial took place. In spite of international law and treaty stipulations the government ordered them shot, and shot they were—officially murdered. At the edge of the grave eighteen of them signed a denial, their “dying words,” that any intention to invade Mexico had existed in their minds.[16]

Next may come the systematic endeavor of Mexico, even after signing the treaty of amity and commerce, to hinder our people from crossing the boundary, and in particular to keep them out of Texas. Article III of the treaty said: “The citizens of the two countries shall have liberty to enter into the same, and to remain and reside in any part of said territories, respectively.” All Mexicans were offered the full benefit of this agreement in the United States; but a Mexican law, revived by decree on April 4, 1837, with evident reference to our people, read thus: “Foreigners are prohibited from settling in those States and territories of the Confederacy which border on the territories of their own nations.” This was done on the ground that political mischief was liable to result from their presence. Now some allowance is to be made for this view. But in reality all international relations involve danger, and the country that fears it should use precautions. American sailors make trouble in French ports, but France does not refuse them admission—she appoints policemen. The danger from Americans in Texas was doubtless greater, but so were the advantages to be derived from their coming. Had Mexico governed that region well, their presence would have benefited her immensely; and to make a treaty sanctioning foreign intercourse, and then endeavor to keep the main avenue of that intercourse barred, in order to avoid the legitimate results of her own misgovernment, was an international system decidedly more novel than friendly, more ingenious than straightforward.[17]

In April, 1840, under a verbal order from the governor of upper California, a considerable number of peaceable Americans and other foreigners, residing at scattered points, were suddenly arrested in a brutal and even bloody manner on the pretext of a conspiracy, and their property was confiscated. Even the possession of legal passports did not protect them. After suffering inhuman treatment, they were sent in irons to Mexico. There only the charity of strangers preserved their lives; and at length, after marching under blows and with bleeding feet as far as Tepic, they were thrust into prisons. No doubt they were rough in character and behavior, and the presence of such bold, vigorous foreigners in a weakly governed region obviously involved some dangers; but they had rights. No evidence justifying the treatment they received was brought forward, and the government at Mexico, even while ordering them expelled from the country without compensation, admitted the illegality of their arrest. Finally, as the British minister demanded, they were permitted to go home; but Mexico failed to bear the expense of their journey, as she had promised to do, and paid but a slight, if any, indemnity. Such conduct when she had millions for the army, the civil wars and the pockets of officials, was inexcusable. Justly enough this affair excited the deep indignation of our government and people.[18]

In June, 1841, a Texan expedition set out for Santa Fe, hoping to bring about the incorporation of New Mexico in the new republic, but not planning under any circumstances to make war; and a considerable number of Americans—among them Kendall, editor of the New Orleans Picayune—joined the caravan with commercial or other peaceable aims. After a while the entire body were made prisoners by the Mexican governor. Kendall’s passport, when duly exhibited under a flag of truce, was taken from him; and, although the utmost penalty incurred under Mexican law by the non-combatant Americans was expulsion, they were driven with instances of extreme brutality to Mexico, and compelled to work in chains on public roads. For one reason or another a few of our citizens gained their freedom from time to time; but it was not until well on in 1842—and then as an act of condescension instead of justice—that Santa Anna released the main body of them. Of course this country felt highly incensed again; and the Executive, while disclaiming all desire to screen Americans from any deserved punishment, ordered our minister to protest against the treatment of the prisoners, declaring that Mexico would be required to observe the rules prescribed by modern public law. On the other side of the Rio Grande still more passion was aroused, but in the opposite sense.[19]

Beginning in a humble way, a caravan trade between St. Louis, Santa Fe and Chihuahua grew to large proportions, and eventually interested even the New York and Philadelphia merchants; but this commerce, though sanctioned by treaty, was looked upon by Mexico with disfavor from the very first. Excessive taxes were imposed at the frontier and at Chihuahua; and finally, in August, 1843, Santa Anna arbitrarily locked the door. Possibly there was a baseless notion that political designs upon New Mexico were entertained in the United States; competition with native traders may have been feared; and it was charged that smuggling occurred. But competition and smuggling are unavoidable features of international commerce; and if they afforded an adequate reason for disregarding a formal agreement, international trade arrangements would not be worth making. Our citizens and government objected therefore vigorously and with justice to Santa Anna’s course.[20]

One week after this decree went forth, another prohibited the importation of certain specified articles at any point, and ordered the forfeiture of such merchandise, already in the hands of dealers, if not sold within the ensuing twelve months. The list of articles, printed solidly in small type, filled nearly an octavo page, and apparently was intended to include almost everything embraced in our trade with Mexico. Peculiarly harsh seemed the forfeiture provision. Not only was it ex post facto, but our traders by paying the duty had become entitled to the privilege of selling their goods; and the American secretary of state could do no less than protest against the law, as “a manifest violation of the liberty of trade secured by the treaty.” Yet something still more serious followed it, for aliens were soon prohibited from doing retail business at all. An attempt was made to defend this order on the ground that Americans residing in the country were subject to its laws, usages and statutes; but our government replied that a treaty must be regarded as the supreme law, and that if one solemn agreement with Mexico could thus be made a nullity, all the other privileges accorded us could one by one be abrogated.[21]

These commercial grievances, however, were trifles compared with another of the same halcyon period. In July, 1843, Tornel, the minister of war, instructed the governors of California and three other northern departments to expel all citizens of the United States residing therein, and permit no more of them to enter. Extraordinary precautions were taken to keep this measure secret, and Waddy Thompson, our representative at Mexico, first learned of it on December 23. Four times he inquired in vain whether such an order had been issued; but when he demanded his passports, Bocanegra attempted to justify Tornel’s instructions, arguing that every government is authorized to protect itself against seditious aliens. This was an evasion, for the order had reference to all Americans, however law-abiding. The outcome was that now, after the order had been in force almost six months and after it had been executed in at least one department, directions were given to make it include all foreigners, and apply only to the seditious. Thompson, strongly disposed to please the Mexicans, accepted this as satisfactory; but his country did not, for the governors had authority still to decide what Americans were dangerous, and expel these without a trial. Besides, even the modified order required them to prevent our citizens from entering their jurisdictions, and thus plainly violated the treaty.[22]

All of the grievances thus far mentioned bore directly upon the general government of Mexico, but there were also many others, primarily chargeable to minor authorities, in which our national rights were seriously attacked;[23] and next we reach the question of “American claims”—that is to say, private injuries for which damages were asked. At once the idea occurs to us that perhaps our citizens brought their troubles upon themselves by peculiarly obnoxious conduct. This does not appear likely to have been the rule, however, for the British, although the Mexicans felt anxious to have their goodwill and assistance, complained loudly and long, and their government protested in the most emphatic and sweeping style. Indeed, said Ashburnham, the chargé of England: “There is scarcely one foreign power with whom they have had any relation, which has not had more or less cause to complain of the iniquity and persecution to which its subjects here have been exposed;” and France, though her claims were much smaller than ours, took up arms on this account. Bearing in mind, then, how peculiarly inimical were the people and authorities of Mexico toward us, one can readily imagine what sort of treatment citizens of ours had to endure.[24]


In the next place one desires to be sure whether our actual claims were real or, as some American and Mexican writers have asserted, were simply “trumped-up.” That a few of the less important ones had no basis is apparently true, but it must be remembered that our government was bound to consider any case resting on prima facie support, and ask for an investigation. It could not, like the Mexican authorities, examine the records necessary for the detection of all mistakes and frauds. Moreover, the existence of unfounded claims, if such there were, does not matter to us, for the real question is merely whether substantial sums were justly demanded. On that point one immediately reflects, not only that our national authorities were scarcely capable of conspiring with skippers and traders to pick the pocket of Mexico, but that, had they been silly enough to present a list of imaginary claims, her quick-witted if not profound officials would have delighted to analyze and expose the frauds. Coming then to the question, one can answer it positively in the affirmative. Both national and international tribunals decided that we had well-founded and substantial claims.[25]

It has been urged, however, that our demands required very difficult and extensive investigations, which in the midst of her embarrassments Mexico could not reasonably be expected to enter upon; but many, if not most, of the claims were in fact simple.[26] It has been insisted that as aggrieved Mexicans in the United States appealed to our courts, the proper policy for aggrieved Americans was to appeal to the courts of Mexico;[27] but the assumed analogy did not exist. The Mexican tribunals, in addition to being notoriously bad from every point of view, were sometimes deliberately used to perpetrate iniquities, and could not always enforce their fair decisions.[28]

American writers have also argued that it was contemptible for a strong and rich nation like ours to demand money from a poor neighbor; but the extent of our national resources had no bearing on the rights of individual citizens, crippled or impoverished by Mexican injustice. This, however, is by no means all that should be said. The wisdom and the equity of the civilized world are embodied in its laws, and those laws agree that one’s debts are to be paid. Spendthrifts are not exempted from the effects of this rule, and the poverty of the Mexican treasury was due not only to carelessness but also to crime. Moreover, if an amiable, “siempre-alegre” young man borrows without repaying, wastes his substance in riotous living, and perpetrates outrages on the passers-by, it is the duty of some creditor to bring him before the courts, and convince him in a practical manner that, as a member of civilized society, he is accountable for his acts. The same principle holds of international relations. “All political communities are responsible to other political communities for their conduct,” wrote Canning to the Spanish government; Webster enunciated the same rule; and it was not only the right but the duty of the United States—as a fellow nation, a sister republic and a next neighbor—to bring Mexico to her senses by teaching her what membership in the family of nations involved. Had this been done at the beginning of her wild career, she might have put her house in order before bad practices became habitual.[29]

Again, we shall presently find good reasons to believe, that had Mexico fairly examined our claims and frankly stated her financial difficulties, a lenient arrangement regarding what were after all moderate sums for a nation to pay could readily have been made. Further still, if Mexico was too poor to discharge her debts promptly, it was incumbent upon her, besides recognizing them, to show a certain appreciation of the indulgence accorded her; but instead of so doing she continued to harass American citizens, and showed, as we shall find, a distinct lack of good-will and even of straightforwardness in her dealings with us.

Finally, it has been repeated over and over again by American and Mexican writers that our claims were urged aggressively. But the history of the matter does not read in that way. Our demands for redress began early in Poinsett’s day. In October, 1829, Butler was directed to lay them before the Mexican government, but at the same time to avoid “anything like menace or defiance.” Morning after morning his table was covered with fresh American remonstrances against official conduct, he reported, and for years his efforts met only with rebuffs; yet his instructions were still to maintain amicable relations, and our government set him the example.[30]


In June, 1836, Ellis reported that “daily” acts of “injustice and oppression” continued to be perpetrated, while every application for redress was treated with “cold neglect”; yet the next month he was merely instructed to “make a fresh appeal” to the “sense of honor and justice” of the Mexican government, asking that our grievances “should be promptly and properly examined” and “suitable” redress be afforded. In order, however, to check what the British minister called “their usual system of evasion,” a satisfactory reply of some kind within three weeks was to be required, and should it not be made without “unnecessary” delay, Ellis, after giving a fortnight’s notice, was to withdraw. In October Monasterio, after delaying for weeks to answer Ellis, admitted that his predecessors had neglected this business, and promised he would give his first attention to our claims, many of which, as we know, were very simple, very old and very familiar to the foreign office; but his reply, the following month, was mere evasion. Why, asked Ellis, have not the claims presented during the past ten years been either accepted or rejected? But the mystery was not explained, and at the end of December, 1836—after waiting, not three weeks, but three months—he withdrew. Meanwhile Gorostiza distributed among the diplomats at Washington a pamphlet in which he accused our government of grossly dishonorable conduct in regard to Texas; and the unqualified approval of his superiors turned this impropriety into a grave international issue.[31]

President Jackson had originally felt most sympathetic toward Mexico; and although Butler and Ellis agreed that indulgence was a mistaken policy, and her official journal described all Americans as villains and all our claims as the pretexts of smugglers, yet in a Message of December, 1836, Jackson recommended courtesy and great forbearance. The evasions practised upon Ellis, however, and still more the approval of Gorostiza’s insulting pamphlet, sharpened his feelings, and early in February, 1837, he laid the subject of our claims anew before Congress, as it was his right and his duty to do, proposed to make the next demand for settlement from the deck of a warship, and asked for authority to undertake reprisals in case that step also should prove ineffectual. In the official view of Mexico, Gaines’s advance and Gorostiza’s withdrawal from Washington amounted to a formal rupture, even though Castillo, her ordinary representative, lingered in the United States until March; and in our own official opinion the endorsement of Gorostiza’s conduct, the refusal to examine our claims, and the return of Ellis could signify hardly less. Under such circumstances Jackson’s February Message was perfectly normal and proper.[32]

Congress took substantially the same view as the Executive; but there was some fear of Mexican privateers, a good deal of pity for a sister republic supposed to be the victim of circumstances, a little unwillingness to increase Jackson’s power, a pronounced wish to comply exactly with the treaty of amity, which required formal notice in advance of hostilities, and considerable hope that Santa Anna, who had now been restored alive to his country through the magnanimity of the Texans and the Americans, would reciprocate by endeavoring to adjust our claims. Another consideration, however, was probably still more potent. The administration party felt that should war be declared, the opposition would say its real object was the acquisition of Texas; and so Jackson’s well-known desire to obtain that region prevented in large measure, instead of causing, an outbreak of hostilities. It was decided, therefore, to make the final demand for redress in a peaceful manner, and to show full respect for what the House of Representatives described as our “ancient, though now estranged, friend.”[33]

In March, 1837, Van Buren became President, and found it necessary to take some action. The documents bearing on our claims were critically examined; fifty-seven cases, apparently free from doubt, were made out and proved; and in July, Robert Greenhow, interpreter of the state department, presented them at Mexico with a final demand for redress, adding that we had no desire to cause embarrassment by pressing for payment. On one point, however, he insisted: Gorostiza’s conduct must be disavowed. The minister of relations admitted in reply that certain of the cases did not require long examination, which was indeed true; but he said the President, while “most anxious” not to cause delay, wished that “each” of them should be examined “in its turn” and that “nothing should be left undone” which could promote “the most speedy and equitable” settlement.[34]

In November Martínez, a new minister to the United States, whom we received kindly even though Gorostiza’s action had not been disavowed, presented the answer of his government. Instead of the document officially transmitted by Greenhow, an obsolete, incomplete and necessarily inaccurate list of our claims, obtained nobody knows how, had been used; only four of our fifty-seven living cases had even been considered; and not one of these had been disposed of. Accordingly, when our Congress assembled in December, 1837, the Executive laid the whole subject before it anew, analyzed Mexico’s evasive reply—so different from what had been solemnly promised—announced that fresh outrages of a serious and exasperating sort had been committed, and plainly intimated that no hope of a peaceful settlement could be entertained. Evidently the patience of the United States had nearly come to an end; but before Congress was ready to act, Martínez proposed a scheme of arbitration, which—though formally decided upon by Mexico in May, 1837—it had apparently been her deliberate purpose to hold in reserve until all other dilatory tactics should have been exhausted.[35]


Naturally our government hesitated to adopt a plan which, as the British representative at Mexico wrote when he heard of it, was precisely the one to “gratify the favourite object” of our debtors—“the gaining of time and postponement of the day of reckoning”; but in April, 1838, quite unlike France and much to the surprise of Mexico, we accepted arbitration, and it then appeared that Martínez had no powers to act in the matter. For months, indeed, although our consul at Mexico was assuring that government of our fair and friendly disposition, he did not receive them.[36]

In September, 1838, however, a convention was signed. Martínez stated that it would not have to be ratified by the Congress of his country, but her President ruled otherwise, and then with an extremely poor excuse did not submit it. So the time limit arrived; and, to the intense disgust of our people and administration, the agreement lapsed. The poor excuse was accepted by our government, however, and in April, 1839, after two years had thus been frittered away, another convention was made, providing that each country should name two commissioners, and the king of Prussia select a fifth person to be an umpire; and as Mexico disavowed Gorostiza’s conduct in circulating the offensive pamphlet, our patience appeared to be rewarded.[37]

In the opinion of Pakenham, British minister at Mexico, the arbitration arrangement was “a very fortunate circumstance” for the debtor nation, and one that she ought to observe scrupulously; but the minister of relations, without even a poor excuse, failed to consider seriously the appointment of commissioners until a few days before the treaty required them to be in Washington, and consequently the agreement expired. Mexico, however, could not well take advantage of this fact; the United States waived it; and on August 25, 1840, nearly two and a half years after we had accepted arbitration, the joint commission was organized. The representatives of Mexico were Señores Castillo and León, one of whom, being unfamiliar with business, fell under the control of his colleague, while the other was described by Pakenham as conspicuously dishonest. In eighteen months from that date, according to the treaty, the labors of this body were to end. To kill time was, therefore, to kill claims—or at any rate bury them.[38]

When the subject of the commission was discussed in 1838, Forsyth took the ground that it would be a judicial body, guided solely by the evidence before it; and this principle was apparently accepted as fundamental. Webster, now the secretary of state, pointed out that it was essentially and necessarily such a tribunal. The Mexican commissioners, however, had been ordered to act, not freely according to the evidence, but according to the instructions of their government; and moreover they promptly refused to let the claimants present themselves either in person, by attorney or in writing. Some four months were spent in discussing objections raised by them, and finally, in order to get something done, the American representatives found it necessary to give way. Yet the sailing was not smooth even then. Castillo and León resorted not only to dilatory tactics and unfair methods, but even to express falsehood; and their government violated in a signal manner one of the most fundamental stipulations of the treaty. In short, if we may believe the apparently fair statement of the American commissioners, the Mexicans caused delays that prevented the adjustment of claims amounting to more than five millions, and pursued a course in general that excited great indignation throughout this country. Meanwhile, as our philo-Mexican minister, Thompson, reported, “The rights of American Citizens of every grade and character” were still subjected to “constant outrage.”[39]


In spite of everything, however, some two millions—in 1841 a substantial amount—were awarded, and at once Mexico set at work to devise a scheme for evading the obligation. Urgent advice from the British minister discouraged this plan, however; and finally a new convention was made in January, 1843, expressly for the convenience of our debtor, by which the amount with interest was to be paid within five years, counted from the following April, in equal quarterly instalments of cash. “Such indulgent terms,” was Pakenham’s description of the arrangement. Both governments ratified it; and so after these many years of patience and effort on the one side, evasion and sometimes dishonesty on the other, compensation for a portion of our grievances began to be received. But—after all, Mexico paid only three instalments. At that point she broke her word, and stopped.[40]

For her course in this matter there seem to be only two conceivable excuses; her embarrassed condition and her irritation over the Texas affair. With reference to these it must be said that her condition was itself inexcusable, and at the utmost did not incapacitate her for doing all that we demanded; while her irritation was essentially unfounded, and, even had it been reasonable, would not have justified her making promises and agreements only to break them, or resorting in other ways to dishonorable methods.[41]


In 1843 our decisive difficulty with Mexico began to take shape. The annexation of Texas to the United States was on legal, moral and political grounds entirely legitimate. That republic had defied the arms of the mother-country for nine years. It was recognized as an independent nation by the leading commercial powers of the world; and no well-informed person, even in Mexico, dreamed that it would return to its former connection. To be sure, her pretensions were asserted in 1845 as loudly as ever; but she made them ridiculous by declaring that never, under any circumstances, would the independence of her rebellious daughter be conceded. Besides, Mexico had practically acquiesced in the recognition of Texas by our own and other governments; and, in view of this fact, as good a lawyer and statesman as Daniel Webster, though opposed to incorporating that country in the Union, held that our doing it gave Mexico no ground of complaint.[1]


Annexation was therefore permissible, and grave national interests of the United States appeared to demand the step. All northern Mexico, including California, seemed liable to secede, for the people of that whole region felt profoundly dissatisfied with the administration of their national affairs, and realized the urgent need of a strong and orderly government; there was reason to believe that Sam Houston, the President of Texas, thought of organizing under European auspices a southwestern empire, absorbing Oregon, and thus offsetting the United States; as A. J. Donelson, our minister in Texas at that period, wrote in 1848, “He was not mistaken. This he could have done”; and in that event we should have had a bold, ambitious rival in the rear. The anti-slavery agitation in the United States led many of our southern citizens to long for separation and a union with slaveholding Texas. The possibilities of Texan cotton production, stimulated by the English, who were eager to be independent of the American fields, were keenly dreaded. The logic of the situation seemed likely to render Texas not only a commercial and industrial competitor and a rancorous political enemy, but a source of dangerous complications with Mexico, England and France. Finally, the British, who possessed a powerful influence in her councils and in those of Mexico, were deliberately endeavoring to shape matters in such a way as to do very serious harm, it was believed, to the interests of the United States. Under such conditions no one could reasonably complain because we undertook, employing as means only argument and persuasion, to acquire that important and valuable territory, and ward off these apparently imminent dangers. Albert Gallatin, who opposed our taking the step, wrote later that it was “both expedient and natural, indeed ultimately unavoidable.”[1]

No doubt it was quite natural that Mexico should take offence. To see a handful of poor farmers, nearly all of them foreigners by birth, rebel against their national government, appropriate a large portion of the nation’s territory, rout its army, capture its President, establish a working political system, and gain recognition abroad, had been fearfully trying. To believe, not only on the authority of every Mexican leader but on that of many Europeans and some eminent Americans, that all this loss and chagrin were largely, if not wholly, due to the machinations of a neighbor, allied to Mexico by a treaty of amity and constantly professing friendship, was harder yet. And now to find those Texans, recently so eager to escape from all outside control, preparing as if by a preconcerted understanding to join that seemingly perfidious and aggressive nation, carrying their invaluable territories with them, and bringing its frontier to the very bank of the Rio Grande—this was certainly enough to make any citizen, ignorant of the natural steps by which it had really come about and quite unable to understand American ways, boil with rage. But the United States had labored to explain the affair to Mexico, and was not responsible for her blindness.

For a number of reasons Mexico had anticipated the final outcome of the Texan difficulties, and on August 23, 1843, Bocanegra, her secretary of relations, addressed our minister on the subject. The conduct of the United States regarding that province, he wrote, has “appeared to afford grounds for doubting the sincerity and frankness” of the American authorities, and therefore, while hoping that the republic founded by Washington may be saved “from stain and dishonor,” we announce hereby, “that the Mexican Government will consider equivalent to a declaration of war against the Mexican Republic the passage of an act [by the American Congress] for the incorporation of Texas with the territory of the United States; the certainty of the fact being sufficient for the immediate proclamation of war.” Such a note was of course decidedly offensive to the honor of this nation. Even Thompson felt compelled to be indignant.[2]

The following November Almonte, who then represented Mexico at Washington, informed our secretary of state that should Congress and the Executive decide upon annexation, he should consider his mission at an end. “My country,” he stated, “is resolved to declare war as soon as it receives information of such an act.” In reply, Upshur asserted rather sharply the right of the United States to regard Texas as an independent nation; but early in 1844 he talked the matter over with Almonte in a very frank and amicable way, and the Mexican minister concurred substantially in the annexation policy of our government. The next spring, however, he formally repeated the protests of August and November, 1843.[3]


Probably to gain time and if possible lead us on to acknowledge in some way the claim of Mexico, Almonte encouraged Calhoun, who had succeeded Upshur as the secretary of state, to believe that his government, looking upon Texas as lost, would accept a pecuniary consideration in order to minimize the misfortune; and about the middle of April, 1844, a “bearer of despatches” named Thompson left Washington with certain instructions from the secretary of state to B. E. Green, our chargé at Mexico. These directed him to inform the Mexican government that, while intending no disrespect and feeling an “anxious desire” to maintain friendly relations, the United States had been compelled by a regard for our own security to negotiate a treaty for the annexation of Texas without reaching a previous understanding with it, but had borne its attitude in mind, and was now ready to adjust all difficulties—particularly that of the boundary, which had purposely been left an open question—“on the most liberal and satisfactory terms.”[4]

Thompson landed at Vera Cruz on May 14, and proceeded at once to call on President Santa Anna, then at one of his estates near the coast. He next went on to the capital, and in company with Green had a conference with the acting President, who was, of course, entirely under Santa Anna’s control. No good results followed, however, and Calhoun’s overture for an amicable adjustment of the Texan difficulty, which Green presented officially in a note, was rejected by the Cabinet. The United States, Bocanegra pretended in his reply, though it had injured and outraged Mexico by taking steps toward annexation, had now recognized her claim to the territory; and he not only refused to make any concession, but formally repeated the declaration of August 23. He then placed the Texas affair before the diplomatic corps at Mexico; an unsuccessful attempt was made to obtain from Bankhead, the British minister, some hint of aid against the United States; Almonte received orders to persist in his protests; the newspapers, taking their cue from a journal under the President’s direct control, broke out into what Bankhead characterized as “the most violent strain of invective against the proposed annexation”; and Santa Anna himself, assuming the reins of government, called for 30,000 men and a large sum of money.[5]

It is thus clear that while our government positively and rightfully denied the claims of Mexico to any legal ownership of Texas, it showed—even to the extent of imprudence—a kindly regard for her feelings and a willingness to make her, under cover of adjusting the boundary, a substantial present; and it is equally clear that our overture, instead of being received in a friendly or even a candid manner, was twisted and misrepresented, and was used by Santa Anna not only to advance his personal interests, but even to feed the prevalent hostility against the United States and increase the danger of war. Of course Mexico had a perfect right to repulse our advances, but her method of procedure in the case was unjustifiable.

Meanwhile, from a variety of causes, among which the merits of the question had but a small place, the treaty of annexation failed in our Senate, and the Texans, who had given offence to England, France and especially Mexico by accepting the overture of our Executive, found themselves not only slighted by the United States but ferociously menaced by Santa Anna, and seemed likely, in their resentment and peril, to swing quite beyond our reach—presumably under the shield of England. To counteract this tendency somewhat and in a measure safeguard Texas against the dangers we had brought upon her, Calhoun sent a bold and even audacious despatch to the American representative at Mexico. The United States, he said, is responsible for the annexation treaty, and upon us, not upon Texas, the wrath of Mexico should be visited; moreover the matter of acquiring that territory, which it has long been our policy to do, is pending still, and for that reason, as well as on the score of humanity, we could not allow the question to be decided by fierce Mexican threats of brutal hostilities; Texas is to be treated as an independent power; but should annexation be consummated, the United States will be ready to settle most liberally all resulting difficulties.[6]

In October, 1844, our minister gave the substance of this despatch to the Mexican government; and soon the talented, energetic and audacious Rejón, the successor of Bocanegra, sent him in reply a long but not wearisome review of the Texas affair, that was absolutely a masterpiece in its class. Truths, managed so as to give a wrong impression, clever half-truths and flat falsehoods were skilfully combined, and at last the United States appeared to stand in the dock as a confessed perjurer and thief awaiting sentence. As for Calhoun’s intervening now between Mexico and a handful of rebels, protested Rejón, that could not be tolerated, unless every nation that so chose might fill neighboring territory with its people, incite them to revolt, aid them to resist, and finally offer them annexation. Our minister, Shannon, who had been a useful Democratic stump-speaker in Ohio, blustered, blundered, threatened and undertook to argue, but only drew from Rejón a still more insulting letter, and still more embittered the feeling in both countries.[7]

At the beginning of March, 1845, our President signed the joint resolution of Congress which provided for the annexation of Texas. Almonte, the Mexican minister, at once protested, giving notice that his country would maintain the claim to her ancient province “at all times, by every means ... in her power”; and although James Buchanan, who now became secretary of state under Polk, replied in a conciliatory manner, Almonte broke off diplomatic relations and left our shores. At Mexico the news produced a tremendous commotion, heightened by the report from California that a revolution, decided by the American settlers, had occurred in that department. War at once and war to the knife! cried the press in concert; while the administration, in a note moderated by the British and French ministers yet sufficiently positive, severed official relations with Shannon, and insisted upon this policy even after receiving a conciliatory reply from him. By the action of Mexico there was, therefore, a complete rupture between the two countries.[8]


When it was learned, about the middle of July, that our terms of annexation had been accepted by Texas, passion burst forth again. The leash of Mexican eloquence and fury broke. “August Houses! President of the Republic!” cried El Amigo del Pueblo, “The hour of danger for the country has sounded and she has a right to look to you for salvation. Union and war!” Not merely Texas but all Mexico, the people were told, had been marked as its prey by American greed. In order to save itself before the public the administration, though at heart averse to hostilities, proposed to Congress a declaration of war. Money was asked from the Chambers, and full quotas of troops were summoned from the departments; and by the end of the month, as the agent of our government duly reported, the course of things pointed strongly toward hostilities. The archives of Vera Cruz were carried to the interior; new guns were mounted in the fortress there; steps were taken to raise a loan of fifteen millions; munitions and provisions were said to be going as rapidly as possible to Matamoros; and much was heard about the movements of troops. At the end of July the ministers of Mexico at London and Paris were notified that an appeal to arms would be made. August 8 the Mexican consulate at New Orleans closed; and a few days later our consul at Havana reported that his Mexican colleague had received an official notification of the existence of war.[9]

To be sure, no public declaration to that effect appeared, but there were good reasons for considering this fact unimportant. With Spanish-American subtlety the Mexicans discovered that the threat of August 23, 1843, repeated later, had rendered such an announcement unnecessary, and that it would be shrewder to hold that by annexing Texas we had declared war upon them, since they would then be free to attack or defer attacking us, as might seem expedient. Besides, it was argued, Texas was merely a rebellious province, and hence Mexico could make war there at will, without giving us an excuse for opening hostilities against her seaboard, and without enabling us to seize territory by the right of belligerency. Consequently, as large forces had been ordered to the north, a move across the Rio Grande at any hour seemed more than possible; and the official journal urged, that it should be effected at the earliest practicable moment, in order to prevent the United States from occupying the territory, and making ready there for hostilities.[10]


The American government, on the other hand, undertook to restore friendly relations. The official assurances of good-will given Almonte were supplemented by private representations conveyed to him through a mutual friend by a member of our Cabinet; and Polk took also a step of much greater importance. Before the end of March W. S. Parrott was appointed a confidential agent of our state department, and ordered to reach Mexico, which had long been his place of residence, by the quickest route. Try to convince the Mexican government, ran his instructions, that it is truly for the interest of that country, “to restore friendly relations between the two republics.” If it is found willing, you may reveal your official character, and say that the United States will send a “Minister” on learning that he will be kindly received. The annexation of Texas cannot be undone; but “you are at liberty to state your confident belief that in regard to all unsettled questions, we are prepared to meet Mexico in a most liberal and friendly spirit.”[11]

Thus commissioned, Parrott sought his post without delay, renewed his acquaintance with members of the Mexican Congress, invited them frequently to lunch or dinner, and talked, no doubt in the spirit of his instructions, with all such influential persons as he could reach. In particular, as he reported, he was “very precise in stating, that the Government of the United States could never recognize in Mexico the right to claim an indemnity for the annexation of Texas to the American Union; but that, in a treaty of limits, for the sake of peace and good neighborhood, the United States would, no doubt, be disposed, as had been officially stated, to meet Mexico, in a negotiation, upon the most friendly and liberal terms.” No explanation could have been clearer.[12]

There were good reasons for anticipating a favorable result from this overture. President Herrera, connected by marriage with a leading American merchant at the capital, was an honest, reasonable and patriotic citizen; and, knowing that hostilities with the United States would at best involve many costly sacrifices, and would very likely throw California into our hands, he desired to escape by some method from his public action in favor of war. It was altogether possible, too, that a reverse on the field might upset his administration and injure his friends; and, since the movement that had placed him in power had cost money, his backers, in order to be repaid, felt anxious to curtail instead of increasing the military expenses. Moreover there was trouble with both England and France at this time; the more intelligent part of the nation, cooling a little, were beginning to perceive the advantages of a peaceful settlement with us; a chance could be seen that in the end such a policy, reducing the cost of government, would become popular; and finally it was realized that unless money to pay the troops were obtained from the United States, their fickle allegiance probably could not be retained. Accordingly on August 29, 1845, Parrott reported that in his opinion an envoy from this country would be heartily welcomed; almost at the same time Black, our consul at Mexico, and Dimond, our consul at Vera Cruz, expressed the same view; and private advices tended to confirm these opinions.[13]

Our own reasons for wishing to have diplomatic intercourse restored were almost equal in strength to Herrera’s. Aside from the political and commercial interests that had always led us to seek the friendship of Mexico, we desired to collect the unpaid instalments of our awards, prosecute our claims, guard our citizens residing in that country, adjust the Texan difficulty, counteract prejudicial movements on the part of European states, and cultivate the good-will of the Central and South American peoples, who were sure to be influenced by the sentiments of their kindred next us. In particular, only two or three months later Guizot’s idea of establishing a balance of power in this hemisphere was exciting alarm in Congress; and there is reason to believe that our Executive, already aware of it, desired the support of Mexico in opposing a design so un-American. Besides, Polk felt sure that European governments had an eye upon California, and a minister was needed at the Mexican capital to prevent, if possible, any bargaining on the subject.[14]

Even more important, there were signs that a monarchy headed by a European prince might be set up in Mexico, involving dangerous interference in our commercial and political relations with that country, sure to increase the gravity of a military contest, should one arise, and seriously attacking the “Monroe Doctrine.” As early as 1838 our consul at Mexico reported that Alamán and the conservatives were laboring to establish a monarchy. In 1840 Estrada, one of the ablest and best of their statesmen, was denounced for openly advocating the change. Paredes, now at the head of the army, had favored it for years, and in 1841 had initiated a movement in that direction. In January, 1845, two agents of the Spanish government were said to be laboring in Mexico for the same cause, and the Memorial Histórico announced that Spain, France and England had formed an alliance to set up a new government there. At about the same time the Picayune stated that official documents relating to the monarchical scheme had been received at New Orleans; and early in March our diplomatic representative at London sounded a strong note of warning.[15]

To reinforce all these considerations, England and France felt deeply offended at our absorption of Texas; Polk, who believed “that no compromise [in the Oregon affair] to which Great Britain would accede, could pass the Senate,” now regarded a peaceful adjustment of that controversy as impossible; and Mexico, though as a rule profoundly influenced by the policy of England, might any day take offence at some British move, and wish to approach the United States. For these reasons it was of great importance to have a diplomatic agent near her government ready to take advantage of any promising turn; and, finally, one can easily imagine that in Polk’s opinion the reception of a United States minister would of itself, aside from what he might do, render it more difficult for Mexico to maintain her unfriendly attitude.[16]


Accordingly the letters of Parrott, Black and Dimond were promptly taken up by the American Cabinet, and after a thorough discussion of the subject it was unanimously agreed, although the rupture had been caused by Mexico, to reopen diplomatic relations with her; to keep this intention profoundly secret, lest European ministers at Washington should thwart our aims; to despatch as minister John Slidell of Louisiana, an agreeable man, able lawyer and excellent Spanish scholar—just the sort of person most likely to gain the ear of Mexico—and to pay as much as forty millions, if necessary, for a satisfactory boundary. The next day, however, Polk learned that Mexico had been taking warlike steps as late as August 21. It was therefore concluded, in order to make sure that our envoy would not be rejected, to wait a little for news, and meantime instruct Black to ascertain “officially” whether a “Minister” would be received. No further action on the part of the Mexican government appeared necessary to restore friendly intercourse, for previously, after the withdrawal of a legation, the broken thread had been mended by sending a new representative. Nothing less than such action would have answered our purpose, for only a diplomatic agent of the usual kind, residing near that government, could have handled the existing problems. In consequence exactly this, without qualification or ambiguity, was proposed.[17]

Just at this point a new factor appeared. The British, holding a great amount of Mexican bonds, enjoying a very profitable trade in that quarter, and not at all anxious to see us extend our territory by conquest, did not wish Mexico to challenge the United States; and early in October Bankhead expressed a desire to confer with Peña y Peña, her secretary of relations, concerning the situation. This offer was cordially accepted; and, at an interview between these gentlemen and the President, Herrera said that the “subjects” which an American envoy might bring up would be discussed “with every disposition to terminate them amicably.” Moreover, after frequent conversations and a second formal interview, Peña thanked Bankhead most gratefully in writing for offering to use his influence with Pakenham, now the British minister at Washington, “for the purpose of amicably arranging the differences [las diferencias]” existing between the United States and Mexico, and intimated plainly that Herrera would listen to any “proposals” coming from the American government.[18]


To suppose that such men, discussing a matter of so much gravity, would not in the course of numerous conversations take up its most obvious and most important aspects would be absurd. These must have been considered, and Bankhead reported that not only the annexation of Texas but “the other points of difference, such as Limits and Indemnity,” were to come up, and in particular he understood that whatever sum the United States might agree to pay would be “much reduced by claims arising out of the Convention [of 1839] ... and by others since created.” Such was Polk’s view. The questions of boundary compensation and claims compensation, he said, “naturally and inseparably blended”; and the former existed only as a consequence of annexation. To suppose after the United States and Mexico had so long and beautifully illustrated the scene on Keats’s Greek vase—we forever pursuing and she forever eluding us—that we should hand over to her a large sum without first ascertaining and subtracting the just value of our claims, would have been ridiculous. Moreover our claims counted prominently among the “differences” existing between the two governments, and without a definite adjustment of them a complete settlement and restoration of harmony, such as this plan aimed expressly to accomplish, was impossible.[19]

At this point, however, Bankhead’s agency ended, for another superseded it. On October 13, after having gone over the matter informally with Peña, Consul Black at the minister’s request wrote a confidential letter to him, in which he quoted the following language from his instructions: Ascertain from the Mexican government whether it will receive “an envoy from the United States, intrusted with full power to adjust all the questions in dispute between the two governments”; if so, he will be “immediately” despatched. The secretary of relations now, if he had not already done so, laid this matter before the President, and on the fifteenth he replied thus: My government is “disposed to receive the representative [comisionado] of the United States who may come to this capital with full powers from his government to settle the present dispute [contienda] in a peaceful, reasonable and honorable manner”; but, in order to eliminate every sign of coercion, the American fleet must retire from Vera Cruz. This proposal was sanctioned by the Mexican Congress in a secret session.[20]

Now the American proposition contemplated “all the questions in dispute,” while Peña said in reply, “the present dispute.” But this was apparently an immaterial variation in phraseology, such as is customary with men of independent minds. In the first place, it is an axiom that a whole includes all of its parts, and the American claims were, as we have just observed, an essential feature of the dispute between the two countries. In the second place we know that Bankhead so understood the matter. In the third place this mere difference in phraseology certainly did not indicate with any clearness a rejection of the American proposal and the substitution of an essentially different one, and, if so intended, it involved an ambiguity for which Mexico was bound to pay the penalty. Fourthly, Black’s note was the sequel to a confidential interview with Peña held expressly for a free comparison of ideas. Now the consul must have understood the unvarying refusal of the United States to recognize any Mexican claim to Texas, and therefore he could see that no envoy would be appointed by us to treat directly and exclusively regarding the annexation of that republic. His instructions, moreover, were perfectly distinct; and his understanding of these matters would have been corrected, had correction been required, by Parrott, with whom he was ordered to confer. If, then, it had appeared in his preliminary conversation with Peña that Mexico insisted upon rejecting the American overture and substituting an essentially different and essentially unacceptable proposition, he would have stopped at that point, and reported in substance that Polk’s offer was declined. There would have been no occasion to address the note of October 13 to Peña. In other words the American offer was understood, and it was fairly and squarely met. Herrera’s government desired earnestly, as Peña showed Bankhead, to bring about such a complete settlement as Polk had in mind, and to that end it accepted our overture.[21]

But there is another point worthy of notice. The word comisionado used by Peña—the past participle, employed here as a noun, of the verb “to commission”—has usually been translated “commissioner,” and hence it has often been urged by American writers, that he did not agree to receive a minister. But by good fortune we have a definition of that word from a Mexican secretary of relations. “A comisionado,” wrote Bocanegra, “is a person charged by any community, or private citizen to conduct any business,” and this definition obviously included ministers. On comparing the documents we find minister, envoy, plenipotentiary and comisionado used as equivalents; and Peña called Slidell a comisionado after learning that he came as a resident minister. Besides, the title signified nothing substantial, for the parties agreed that our agent should have full powers to discuss the whole business in hand, and so it follows again that, for the purpose of settling all the points of difference existing between the two nations, Mexico agreed to receive an American minister. November 6 Polk heard as much through Commodore Conner, then off Vera Cruz; and three days later Parrott arrived with Peña’s autograph note, which was similarly understood at the White House.[22]

For good reasons the President felt that no time could be wasted. It was a critical juncture. The controversy with England over the possession of Oregon had reached an acute stage, and our minister at London expressed the opinion that she was trying to make use of Mexico in connection with it. Our relations with Mexico had dragged long enough. If it is intended to do anything, a New York merchant had written some time since to the secretary of the navy, “no time should be lost in sending a person to Mexico, as you can scarcely conceive the feverish excitement in our mercantile community,” due to the dread of privateers. Herrera’s pacific administration was tottering; and our consul at Vera Cruz warned the state department to act promptly, since it might go down at any time. Paredes, the monarchist, was known to be plotting a revolution; and the London Times, then a journal of great importance, had pronounced emphatically for a Spanish throne in Mexico as a bulwark against the United States, and had said that it believed no European power would object. We had promised through Black that a minister would be despatched “immediately,” if he would be received; and Peña not only had made no objection to this, but had shown impatience for his arrival. In anticipation of satisfactory news from our consul, Slidell had been ordered to Pensacola, and instructions for him drafted. By ten o’clock in the evening of November 10 these were ready; Polk signed his commission; and Lieutenant Lanier of the navy set out at once for Pensacola with the documents.[23]


“To counteract the influence of foreign Powers, exerted against the United States in Mexico, and to restore those ancient relations of peace and good will which formerly existed between the Governments and the citizens of the sister Republics, will be the principal objects of your mission,” read Slidell’s instructions; take up the subject of our claims “in a prudent and friendly spirit,” and arrange through an adjustment of the Texas boundary to cast upon the United States the burden of paying them; “exert all your energies” to prevent the cession of California to England or France if it be contemplated, and, if you can do so without endangering the restoration of amicable relations with Mexico and the adjustment of the Texas boundary, endeavor to purchase at least the northern part of California, including San Francisco Bay, but at all events conciliate the good-will of the Mexicans, even should their vanity and resentment prove trying. Fully in sympathy with Buchanan’s instructions, the minister proceeded to Vera Cruz as quickly as possible on a vessel of war, landed there by November 30, and, noting that his way had already been paved by the retirement of our fleet, set out at once for the capital.[24]

Unfortunately, though as prompt as possible, Polk had not been prompt enough. Herrera’s administration, as we have learned, had now sunk to the lowest point in courage, efficiency, prestige and sense of responsibility. Every morning it looked for a revolution, and every night for a mutiny. Its one idea was to hold on until the assembling of Congress on the first of January, in the hope that something favorable might then occur; and it found this last resource threatened by its reasonable and pacific policy in regard to the United States. Earlier in the year it had been denounced for agreeing to recognize Texas on the condition of her abandoning all thoughts of joining the American Union, and now it was menaced for listening to Black and Buchanan. A call for war in the name of honor, territory and independence appeared to be a serviceable oriflamme for its political enemies. Fierce, unsparing cries of treason, ignominy and national ruin therefore assailed Herrera; and under these onslaughts the weak, timid, irresolute administration lost heart.[25]

On December 3 Peña saw Black at the palace and exclaimed, We hear an envoy has arrived from the United States; who can he be, and what has he come for? The consul replied that he supposed he must be the envoy that Mexico had agreed to receive. This ought not to be, answered Peña hastily; no envoy was expected before January; we are not prepared to receive him; the government desires he should not come to the capital or even disembark; “you know the opposition are calling us traitors, for entering into this arrangement with you;” his coming now might produce a fatal revolution. This interview showed that before anything was known regarding Slidell’s quality, credentials or instructions, and purely on account of domestic politics, the government was anxious to break its agreement. So Peña admitted later, for he privately sent word to Slidell that under the circumstances it feared to compromise itself, and would have acted otherwise had it been free. So the matter was understood by Bankhead; and so it has been understood by fair-minded Mexican historians. It only remained to contrive a method of evasion.[26]

The method adopted was to ask the council of state—a quite unnecessary proceeding—whether it would be proper to receive Slidell. In so doing Peña expressed a decided opinion in the negative, advancing, besides arguments of no moment, the more serious objection that receiving a resident minister would imply the existence of friendly relations between the two countries, and would thus condone the annexation of Texas. Even this argument, however, possessed no real value, for, as Peña recognized, Slidell was explicitly commissioned to “restore” friendly relations, which indicated that such relations could not exist until after he should be received and after he should act; and, besides, Mexico could have received him with a declaration of reserve, safeguarding all her claims. Moreover this was evidently a point, if of any importance, which the secretary should have considered before making the agreement.[27]

To avoid this last difficulty, he alleged in his desperation that Black had proposed, and he accepted, the plan of sending merely an envoy ad hoc, a special envoy commissioned to settle with Mexico for the annexation of Texas. His assertion, however, is disproved by the circumstances and correspondence leading to Slidell’s appointment; and a simple argument reinforces the facts. For the United States to offer amends for annexation would have been to deny its repeated protestations that annexation was perfectly proper; would have been to brand upon its own forehead the heinous charges drawn in vitriol by Rejón. Peña could see that no country possessing the eyesight of a mole and the courage of a mouse would so degrade itself. He knew, October 11, that on such a demand the negotiations would end before beginning; would end at once in his study with Black’s bidding him a respectful good-night; and since Herrera desired the negotiations, he could not make such a proposition.[28]


Moreover the council of state, which was a permanent body of notables, brushed aside this contention of Peña’s, and fell back “on the very nature of the affair and on the state of our relations (en la natureleza misma del negocio y en el estado de nuestras relaciones).” Assuming plainly that the United States desired to avoid war and restore friendly diplomatic and commercial intercourse, it declared that we had set a trap [lazo] for Mexico, and undertaken to introduce a regular minister under false pretences, as it were, in order to compel her to be amicable against her will. In furtherance of this design the promise of the Mexican administration cannot be urged, it protested, for the intention must have been merely to let the Texas affair be settled, as a preliminary to the restoration of cordial relations, and it would be an “unexampled humiliation” were Mexico to receive a regular American minister before being satisfied for the outrage and injury inflicted upon her. In other words, Mexico had promised to receive Slidell, but it did not comport with her interest and her dignity to fulfil the agreement. This decision ensured his rejection. December 20 he was officially notified of it, and in reply he wrote what seemed to him a spiritless note, explaining to Buchanan that under his instructions he did not wish to make war inevitable by closing the door finally to negotiations. This done, he withdrew as soon as an escort could be obtained to the city of Jalapa, situated not far from the coast on the Vera Cruz road, to await instructions.[29]

Daniel Webster, a lawyer of no mean abilities, formerly our secretary of state, and at the time when he spoke a resolute opponent of Polk, said, after mature consideration of the matter, that Mexico was “highly unjustifiable” in thus refusing to hear our minister; and the demand upon this nation to repudiate its protestations of honesty, and become the football of Mexican party politics, did seem a bit unreasonable. As for Polk, it was hard indeed to be charged with ruining by his awkward statesmanship the pacific administration of Herrera, when in fact the inherent weakness of that administration ruined his own hopes, and to be denounced in the United States for trying to force war upon Mexico, when the Mexicans denounced him for trying to force peace upon them.[30]

But Herrera’s amiable inefficiency was near its doom. The aristocratic elements—Church, army and monarchists—drew together, and this action forced the Santannistas and the Federalists to overlook their own differences. Paredes, natural leader of the former combination, hated and feared the latter, for Santa Anna had worsted him in more than one clash, and the Federalists aimed not only to reform the Church and support republican institutions, but also to destroy the military order by establishing an effective militia system. Professing allegiance to the administration and extorting from its hopes and fears of him all the money that could be obtained, he disobeyed the orders to divide his army or march to the Texas frontier; and about the middle of December, seeing that the Federalists were likely to control the new Congress, he revolted. The relations of Mexico to the United States afforded a battle-cry helpful to the army and hurtful to Herrera’s administration; and hence the President was accused of “seeking to avoid a necessary and glorious war” and of stooping to negotiate “the ignominious loss of national integrity” with an American envoy.[31]


Herrera fulminated against the traitorous general who was attacking his own country. Both houses of Congress fulminated. The city of Mexico and every department fulminated. But all this was merely eloquence. The officer despatched to require the immediate surrender of Paredes accepted a seat in his carriage. Most of the commanders appointed to defend the capital took their stations under pledges to the enemy. December 29, when Paredes arrived within about a dozen miles of Mexico, the garrison of the citadel, instigated by their chief officer, General Valencia, rose; nearly all the rest of the forces at the capital soon followed that example; and Herrera, giving up the Presidency without firing a gun, left the palace with the entire body of his loyal officers and officials, his mild face and his respectable side-whiskers—in one hired cab.[31]

The only danger of the revolutionary cause had been from treachery. Tornel and many of the officers were at work for Santa Anna, and Valencia, whom nobody would trust, was at work for himself. Paredes, resembling the one-eyed man among the blind, had a certain reputation for honesty; and these plotters, misled by his reiterated declarations that he would accept no office in the new government, thought him simple enough to be used and then thrown over. Valencia in particular, who was president of the council of state and therefore legally the successor of Herrera, felt already triumphant, put on regal style, and helped himself liberally to the public funds. But he and Tornel had enabled Paredes to make himself independent of them, and now found themselves dealing with a master instead of a dupe. The troops at Mexico sided with the majority of the army, and Paredes notified Valencia that he would shoot every one opposing him—“archbishop, general, magistrate, or anybody else.” Then with military pomp, accompanied by officials whose signatures adorned the placards denouncing him, he took possession of Mexico, while the public, long since weary of the incidental music of revolutionary professions, looked on in silence.[31]

The classical farce of an electoral junta appointed by the victorious general was now enacted, and Paredes became temporary President. Apparently, however, he intended to use this ill-gotten power with integrity and force. He drew no salary except that of a general, avoided all display, and surrounded himself with men of the better class; and when a broker, who had fattened on corrupt dealings with the government, offered him a loan, he replied with blazing eyes, “I do not wish money, but I wish to prosecute the robbers of the Treasury.” With equal firmness he took his promised attitude of hostility toward the United States. On the fourth of January he swore publicly to defend the integrity of the national territory; and this had reference to Texas—every foot of Texas to the Sabine—for such was the unqualified claim of Mexico.[31]

With a government based upon a pledge of war against us and swearing to carry out that pledge, it seemed as if the United States could have no amicable dealings; but our authorities were now accustomed to forbear, and all the reasons for desiring a restoration of diplomatic intercourse were still in force. Indeed, one of them had become pressingly urgent, for the European monarchical scheme appeared now to be unmistakable. Remain in Mexico, Buchanan therefore instructed Slidell, so as to take advantage of any opening for negotiations; if you deem it wise to do so, let Paredes know that his financial straits can be relieved by arranging matters with us; present another formal request for a hearing, and make “every honorable effort” in your power to avoid a rupture.[32]


Accordingly, on the first day of March, 1846, our minister addressed a letter to Castillo, the new minister of relations, summarizing the negotiations with Peña, placing clearly in view the alternatives of diplomacy or war as they had now been defined, and asking to be received. Again the council of state was consulted, and again this oracle pronounced for rejection. Castillo then tried to frame a reply to Slidell; but his note, drafted in opposition to his own ideas, proved so weak and halting that he laid it before the Spanish minister. In the view of this diplomat the best solution of the imbroglio seemed to be European arbitration, and therefore he probably thought it well to show the United States that we could reach no understanding with Mexico ourselves. It was also desirable to rally the nation round Paredes by assuming a bold, aggressive tone. And a fiery, offensive note, suited to these conditions, rejected the second American overture.[33]

Here stands an American minister, answered Slidell, “clothed with full power to settle all the questions in dispute between the two nations.” Begone, said Mexico once more.[34]


In tracing the mutual relations of the United States and Mexico, we have often had occasion to note how each nation felt about the other and about a possible conflict; but it is very desirable now to understand as completely as possible what those feelings were at about the beginning of 1846, and this will require the consideration of many additional facts.

Already there were influential and wealthy Mexicans, particularly in the north, who wished or half-wished that the United States would subjugate their country, so that order and prosperity might come; and others reflected that at least our assistance might be desired, should Paredes undertake to set up a European monarchy. But these were selfish calculations. They seldom implied good-will. Friends we have none at the capital, Slidell reported; and our consul at the northern city of Tampico, even though but a faint loyalty to the central government prevailed in that section, wrote in September, 1845: “The most stubborn and malignant feeling seems to exist in the mind of every Mexican against the United States.”[1]


The principal cause of this feeling—the supposed misconduct of our government in the settlement, revolution and successful resistance of Texas, and in the recognition and annexation of that republic—has already been explained; but other strong reasons coöperated. All understood that intense dissatisfaction existed in the northern departments. Now that our frontier had been advanced so far south, further peaceful aggression seemed easy; and it was believed that we intended to pursue the Texas method progressively, until all of Mexico should little by little become ours. “This first invasion is the threat of many more,” said the official journal. It was alleged that we, fearing the competition of that country in the markets of the world, did all we could to hinder its agricultural, industrial and commercial development, and excited the revolutions that paralyzed it; and it was even believed that we incited the Indians to ravage the northern frontiers, and so create discontent against the central government. The privileged classes dreaded the influence of our democratic ideas. The clergy were afraid that Protestantism, or at least free thought, might cross the border, and that so far as Mexican territory should fall under our sway, secular education, the confiscation of their property, and the other anti-clerical plans of the Federalists, who appeared to draw their inspiration and their arguments largely from this country, might be put into force. The numerous misunderstandings and clashes with the United States that we have noted had produced an enduring resentment, and in particular our claims and our efforts to have them settled were commonly deemed artificial and unjust.[1]

Behind all these facts lay the general anti-foreign prejudice; and this, we should now observe, was in our case more than a prejudice. Even in the eyes of the intelligent El Siglo XIX, an American was “a being detestable to the nation on account of the little accord between [him and] the religion, the language, and the gentle, affable, frank, and generous character of the Mexican.” Our directness of thought, speech and action, and the brusqueness of manner that naturally accompanied it appeared inconsiderate and haughty; and no doubt, in dealing with people who seemed to us deceitful, unreliable and unfriendly, our citizens often emphasized these characteristics. In habits and customs there was indeed a profound unlikeness, and below this lay a still more profound racial antagonism. Finally the politicians of all parties, fearing to be outdone in the display of patriotism, encouraged the anti-American feeling. The sharp and rancorous Tornel used every opportunity to speak against us; and Santa Anna, whose prestige was immense—it must not be forgotten—as late as 1844, both fearing the influence of our freedom and wishing his fellow-citizens to consider him essential, represented the United States as a Minotaur eager to devour them. Few were enlightened enough to correct the misconceptions regarding us; no one had the power, courage or wish to do so; and in the end, very naturally, these dominated the public mind—or, to be more precise, created and kept alive a general impression. Americans “scarcely have the look of men,” it was gravely asserted.[1]

In regard to an immediate conflict in arms with us, Mexico by no means felt like the dove threatened by a hawk, as people in this country have generally supposed. To be sure, the national existence was often said to be in danger, but such talk was largely for effect. Castillo asserted that Slidell had been sent in order to obtain a pretext for war; but this was in all probability a bid for Mexican and European support, since he knew that we already had grounds enough, and the council of state evidently believed we did not seek a conflict. Paredes whispered to the British minister at a banquet, “I hope your government does not mean to let us be eaten up;” but this was a plea for English assistance. As we have just said, not American arms but American settlers were the chief danger, in the opinion of Mexico. The very men who clamored that the national existence was threatened by the United States were the ones who called most loudly for war. A circular to the local authorities issued by the central government in December, 1845, invited attention to the prevailing opinion that armed resistance could prevent further usurpations like that of Texas; and another such paper, issued in November of the following year, dwelt strongly upon this point. From military force also there was danger, to be sure. Our superiority in numbers and resources was admitted. But there were many offsets to that superiority, and the Mexicans closely studied and shrewdly counted upon them.[2]


Let us review those offsets. In the first place, while the government of the United States deemed its course honorable and considerate, in the eyes of many, if not all, Mexicans we had been abject as well as knavish, stealing her territory and then trying to buy off her anger, submitting to be gulled, flouted and lashed, and each time going back for more of the same treatment; and it seemed hardly possible that we should suddenly adopt a bold, positive, unflinching course. It was even believed that we dreaded to enter the lists. Almonte, for example, in reporting that his protest against annexation had caused a heavy fall on the stock exchange, observed, “The fears of a war with Mexico are great;” and it was notorious that his departure from the United States created almost a panic in our money market.[3]

Besides, it was assumed that party feeling would go to about the same lengths here as in Mexico, and that our differences over the slavery question and the tariff would probably make it impossible for us to conduct a war vigorously—perhaps, impossible to wage it at all. “The northern states, I again repeat to you, will not aid those of the south in case of war with Mexico,” wrote Almonte while minister at Washington in June, 1844. European journals like Le Constitutionnel of Paris confirmed this opinion;[4] and the London Times remarked, It would be a war, not of the United States, but of a party that has only a bare majority, and “odious” to a “large and enlightened minority in the best States.” Moreover, argued the official journal of Mexico, the injustice of the war would of itself excite American opposition.[5]

From a military as well as a political point of view this country seemed feeble. Our regular army was understood to be numerically insignificant and fully occupied with frontier and garrison duties; our artillery appeared weak in quality as well as in numbers; and our cavalry was deemed little more than a cipher. As for volunteers, our citizen-soldiers were represented in Mexico not merely as unwarlike, but as “totally unfit to operate beyond their frontiers.” Indeed, as competent a judge as Captain Elliot, British minister in Texas—who knew the United States well, and in the spring of 1845 was in close touch with Mexican leaders at their capital—said that the greater their number, the greater would be the difficulty of invading Mexico. “They could not resist artillery and cavalry in a Country suited to those arms,” he believed; “they are not amenable to discipline, they plunder the peasantry, they are without steadiness under reverses, they cannot march on foot.” Nor did there exist in this country, added Elliot, either aptitude or adequate means for a regular military invasion.[6]

“America as an aggressive power is one of the weakest in the world ... fit for nothing but to fight Indians,” declared Britannia, an important English weekly; and apparently the war of 1812, to which the Mexicans referred with peculiar satisfaction, had proved even more than this. The military operations in a war between Mexico and the United States would be “contemptible and indecisive,” said the London Times. As for our navy, it was undoubtedly small; the Mexican consul at New Orleans reported that it lacked the discipline commonly attributed to it; and, however efficient it might really be, Mexico had no commerce to attack.[7]

The Mexicans, on the other hand, were deemed by many observers decidedly formidable. “There are no better troops in the world, nor better drilled and armed, than the Mexicans,” asserted Calderón de la Barca, the Spanish minister at Washington; and some of the generals were thought, even by foreigners, equal to the most renowned in Europe. The Americans would be at a vast disadvantage, was Captain Elliot’s opinion, “in rapidity of movement” and ability to endure “continued fatigue on the hardest food.” The soldiers of the tri-color “are superior to those of the United States,” declared the Mexico correspondent of the London Times flatly in 1845.[8]


If the military power of Mexico was rated in this way by outside observers of such competence, one can imagine how it was rated at home. The Mexicans regarded themselves as martial by instinct, and viewed their troops, inured to war by an almost unceasing course of revolutions, as remarkably good. Santa Anna once boasted that, if necessary, he would plant his flag upon the capitol at Washington; and the results of the wars with Spain and France had tended powerfully to encourage the self-confidence of his fellow-citizens. “We have numerous and veteran forces burning with a desire to gain immortal renown,” said the Boletín Oficial of San Luis Potosí. “Not to speak of our approved infantry,” it was argued, “our artillery is excellent, and our cavalry so superior in men and horses that it would be an injustice not to recognize the fact;” besides which “our army can be rapidly augmented.” Indeed an officer of reputation told Waddy Thompson that the cavalry could break infantry squares with the lasso. In November, 1845, the Mexican minister of war solemnly predicted that his countrymen would gain the victory, even if one third less numerous than their American adversaries. To clinch this matter, the feeling of superior power, which it was known that we entertained, was regarded as an ignorant over-confidence that would ensure our defeat. In short, “We have more than enough strength to make war,” cried the editors of La Voz del Pueblo; “Let us make it, then, and victory will perch upon our banners.”[9]

The clash, it seemed probable, would come first in Texas, far from our centres of strength. On that field Tornel, the keenest public man in the country, insisted that Mexico could triumph over any force we could bring to bear, and Almonte offered some reasons for entertaining such an opinion. The Texan troops, he said, would exhaust their supplies before the campaign would really begin; and consequently, since there would be no way to subsist a large American force in that extensive, poor and sparsely settled region, the greater the number coming, the greater would be their sufferings. Even the cultivated districts, wrote Elliot, could support only a trifling addition, if any, to the resident population. Moreover, even should an American army be able to exist there, a few light troops placed along the frontier would keep it busy on the defensive, said Pakenham; while it was urged by Mexicans that, should our line break, their invading host would soon find itself among the opulent cities of the southern states, where perhaps it could not only exact money, but free two million slaves, obtain their grateful and enthusiastic assistance, enroll the Indians of the southwest, who detested the United States, and draw aid as well as encouragement from the abolitionists of the north. Almonte himself assured his government that the blacks, the savages and the anti-slavery extremists could be reckoned on.[10]

Possibly, of course, their line instead of ours might be the one to give way; but in that case the Americans, instead of meeting with conditions like these, would be confronted by immense distances, great deserts, furious rains, long droughts, and barren, easily defended mountains. “If the war should be protracted and carried beyond the Rio Grande,” said Captain Elliot, “I believe that it would require very little skill and scarcely any exposure of the defending force to draw the invading columns well forward beyond all means of support from their own bases and depots into situations of almost inextricable difficulty;” and a correspondent of Calhoun, referring to such natural obstacles, wrote, “nothing is more certain than your statement that [the] war will have to become defensive [on our part].”[11]

Moreover it was argued, said the Mexican minister of relations in 1849, that the invaders would be unable to obtain resources of any description from the country about them, would be masters of nothing but the ground actually occupied, and would find the difficulty of maintaining themselves, at such a distance from their base, “invincible.” On the other hand should invasion by sea be attempted, the Americans would have to struggle with tempestuous waters, a coast guarded by reefs and currents, lowlands protected by “a terrible and faithful ally”—as Cuevas described the yellow fever, more than one tremendous wall of mountains, and bad roads that could easily be closed; and they would find no vital point of attack within practicable reach. The United States cannot hope to conquer Mexico, was the conclusion of the London Morning Herald, commonly regarded as a ministerial organ; while the Paris Globe, reputed to be Guizot’s personal voice, went farther, and predicted that undertaking to do it would be “ruinous, fatal” to us.[12]

Should we, however, care to make the attempt, Mexico—it was pointed out—would not only fight on the defensive, and enjoy all the advantages of knowing the ground, moving on inside lines, and using fortifications, but would also be able to strike. Nothing would be paid on our claims, either principal or interest. There was considerable American property in the country; and while the means of her citizens were being spent in righteous self-defence, that property could hardly expect exemption. Above all, one “terrible weapon,” as the Mexican consul at New Orleans termed it, could be wielded night and day, near and far, without expense and without risk. This was the issuance of commissions to privateers, for the “nefarious” conduct of the United States in using this weapon, said the London Times, authorized Mexico to do the same. The pursuit of slavers had been so close of late that many fine Baltimore clippers, able to outsail anything but a steamer and to go where a steamer could not, were lying idle in Cuban ports, ready to scour the Gulf and the Atlantic.[13]

No less vulnerable seemed the United States in the Pacific Ocean, where—according to the New York Herald—American property worth fifteen or twenty millions was afloat. Should letters of marque be “actively and prudently distributed on the coasts of the Pacific,” wrote consul Arrangóiz to his government, “the Americans would receive a fatal blow in the captures [of whalers and merchantmen] that would immediately be made in the seas of Asia, where the naval forces of the United States are insignificant and could not promptly be increased”; and he reported in July, 1845, that owing to the prospect of hostilities the insurance companies at New Orleans were refusing to take war risks. Tornel and the other Mexican leaders counted heavily on the value of this weapon. Our own journals were full of the subject, and could find no remedy. American commerce was defenceless against such an attack, the London Times cheerfully admitted.[14]

Under these conditions it was most natural to believe that Mexico could make the war “obstinate and tedious,” as the London Standard said, and therefore extremely expensive for the United States. She could “with trifling inconvenience to Herself,” Pakenham told Calhoun, “impose upon this Country the necessity of employing as large a Naval and Military force as if the War was with a far more powerful enemy.” Obviously a great number of warships would be needed to blockade seven hundred leagues of coast and patrol two oceans, and the cost of soldiers could be figured thus, it was thought: During the war of independence in Mexico eighty thousand royal troops and sixty thousand insurgents were supported by that country; its population and resources had since increased; the United States would therefore have to send probably two hundred and fifty thousand men; and the American soldier was very expensive.[15]

The people of this nation were looked upon as worshippers of the dollar, and it was believed that war taxes would not be endured here long. Consequently, since the United States had no credit—said European journals—the conflict would soon have to end. “The invasion and conquest of a vast region by a state which is without an army and without credit is a novelty in the history of nations,” remarked the London Times in 1845. The war losses were expected to reinforce the effect of war taxes. “War with the United States would not last long,” wrote Arrangóiz, “because the [American] commerce finding itself attacked on all seas would beg for peace.” When the Mexican corsairs have captured a few American ships and the Americans have thrown a few bombs into Vera Cruz, matters will be arranged, predicted Le Constitutionnel of Paris.[16]


Evidently, then, Mexico was not likely to suffer disastrously, and certain benefits of great value could be anticipated. The act of crossing swords with us would fulfil a patriotic duty and vindicate the national honor. Glory and the satisfaction of injuring a perfidious and grasping enemy would more than compensate for the cost. A conflict would prevent this greedy neighbor, as the London Times argued, from imagining that Mexico dared not resist spoliation. The American settlers, whom every effort had been made for many years to keep out of the country, would be driven away, and the danger of American ideas averted. Even if the frontier could not be forced back to the Sabine, a long period of hostilities would render it impossible to practice near the border our arts of political seduction, and merely a short contest would tend to re-Mexicanize thoroughly the northern departments. Indeed the whole country would be re-Mexicanized, for the first effect of the war would be to cure disunion and baptize the nation anew in the fires of patriotism. The necessity of meeting a foreign foe would vitalize the courage of the army, which had grown somewhat lax in battling with fellow-citizens, restore discipline, and perfect the officers in their difficult but noble profession. A blockade, many believed with Almonte and Santa Anna, preventing the exportation of silver and the squandering of good money on foreign luxuries, would be “the best possible thing” for the country. Stimulated by exemption from ruinous foreign competition, the industries would at length flourish, and the boundless natural resources of the country become fountains of wealth.[17]

War is no doubt a great evil, argued the editors of La Voz del Pueblo, “but we recall what Polybius said, to wit: ‘If many empires have been destroyed by war, by war also have many risen from nothing.’” Prussia owes her greatness to the Seven Years War, pointed out El Siglo XIX. The conquest of the Moors cost Spain a struggle of centuries, but what Spaniard would undo it? asked others. “Nations determine their history only in the most dangerous crises,” urged an anonymous but able pamphlet; “and such a crisis, in which posterity will admire us, has arrived.”[17]

So the matter presented itself to many when studied as an exclusively Mexican affair. But could it be regarded as exclusively Mexican? In Central and South America there were countries that naturally entertained a racial prejudice against the “Anglo-Saxon.” They were fully capable of discovering the claim to monopoly suggested by the name United States of “America,” by our considering none except ourselves “Americans,” and by our “Monroe Doctrine”; and moreover our press clamored for the entire continent. Mexico had her eye upon them, and she counted on drawing support from that quarter.[18]

As early as 1836 Cuevas, then minister at Paris, after pointing out to his government how strongly the country was protected by nature against the United States, remarked: “Add to this the interest of the republics of the South to defend Mexico against an always threatening enemy, which with its ever monstrous greed seems a volcano ready to burst upon them.” The next year a Mexican agent at Lima reported that the alleged unlawful interference of this country in Texas was the subject of general conversation and of just alarm in the Spanish-American states. In 1842 Dorsey, bearer of despatches from our legation at Mexico, stated at Savannah that Santa Anna had sent envoys to all the South American republics with this message: “Unless you enable us to resist such aggression as will be perpetrated by the United States, she will proceed to embrace in her mighty grasp the whole of the southern continent;” and Dorsey added that Colombia had already promised financial aid and two thousand men. At the close of that year, as a letter from Caracas mentioned, steps were said to have been taken toward forming a league to support Mexico against American encroachments. In 1843 Almonte made up a pamphlet of extracts from John Quincy Adams’s brilliant though unfounded speech at Braintree, in which he accused our government of greed and unrighteousness in the Texas business; and this telling document was distributed in the principal cities of South America. During the following years the menace of our ambition to all of the Spanish race in this hemisphere continued to be discussed in the Mexican press. “Republics of South America,” cried La Aurora de la Libertad, for example, “your existence also is in danger; prepare for the combat;” and it was easy to believe that official appeals for assistance, in the event of actual invasion, would not fall upon deaf ears.[18]


And there were still better grounds, it was reckoned, for expecting aid from abroad. In the first place, holding more or less honestly that we had trampled on the law of nations, the Mexicans persuaded themselves that every civilized country would feel an interest in their cause. The justice of our case against the United States, declared the official Diario, will be recognized at once by all governments to which “public faith and honor are not an empty name.” This view was encouraged in Europe. The cause of Mexico, said the Liverpool Mail, is that of all just and honest governments. The Mexicans have good ground to complain, proclaimed the sympathetic Journal des Débats, for “they have been tricked and robbed.”[19]

Covered with so noble a sentiment as devotion to the cause of justice, more practical considerations could be expected to exert their full influence. In Mexico as well as in the United States, the monarchies of Europe were believed to view with jealousy the success of our republican institutions. Our policy of “America for the Americans,” which the British minister, Ward, had turned against Poinsett at Mexico, was contrary to the interest of every commercial nation beyond the Atlantic. The United States, exclaimed Le Correspondant of Paris, assumes to exclude Europe from the affairs of that continent—as if Europe had not had rights and possessions there before the United States began to be! as if the United States did not owe its existence to Europe! as if the ocean could change the law of nations; and leading journals in London expressed similar indignation.[20]

As the whole world understood, great Britain had not yet forgiven us for becoming independent, and viewed with great repugnance our extensions of territory, our commercial development and our control over raw cotton; and it was obvious that she would be glad to stop our growth. Sooner or later, warned the British press, the course of this monster will have to be checked. Guizot, the premier of France, regarded the United States as a “young Colossus,” and earnestly desired to apply in this hemisphere the principle of the balance of power. Polk was by no means popular at the Tuilleries, and the Journal des Débats, commonly regarded as the mouthpiece of the government, courteously described his Message of December, 1845, as bellicose, passionate, full of vain and ludicrous bravado, arrogant, detestably hypocritical, brutally selfish and brutally dishonest.[21]

The plan to annex Texas had greatly disturbed these two governments, and they had not only exerted to the utmost against it their diplomatic strength, both separately and in concert, but, as Mexico knew, had been disposed to take up arms in that cause. Aided by circumstances, the courage and skill of the United States had completely foiled them, but they could not be supposed to view the result with satisfaction; and there was good reason to believe that they contemplated a possible further extension of this country, not only with alarm, but with a strong desire to prevent it. Said the London Morning Herald in March, 1845: Mexico will turn to good account the support of her powerful protectors and their intense repugnance to the annexation of Texas; and the London Times predicted that our greed in the Texas affair would be punished.[22]

Gifted at vaticination, the Times predicted also that our next aim would be the mines of Mexico, and asked the nations of Europe how they would like to find their monetary circulation “dependent on the caprice of the President of the United States.” In September, 1845, it printed the assertion of its Mexican correspondent, that England must interfere or be prepared to see not only those mines but also California in American hands. There is a general feeling, announced the London Standard, that only the interposition of England and France can check the United States. The United States will absorb Mexico unless foreign powers avert this, preached the London Journal of Commerce. “The conquest of Mexico would create perils for the political balance of the world,” said the Journal des Débats; and hence “the immense aggrandizements” contemplated by the United States “could not take place without giving umbrage to several nations.” Europe would certainly forbid a conquest of Mexico, threatened Le Constitutionnel. The Mexicans were fully capable of seeing all this for themselves. The Monitor Constitutional, for example, gave currency to the idea that certain powers would prevent the invasion of their country. Indeed they could see even more. “Enlightened nations of Europe,” exclaimed La Aurora de la Libertad, “a people consumed with ambition and covetousness is already taking up arms to conquer the American continent, lay down the law to your interests and possessions, and some day disturb your peace at home.”[23]

Another source of possible trouble for the United States abroad was the idea that any territory obtained from Mexico would be given up to slavery. This point came out strongly in the Journal des Débats, for example. Considerably more serious was the danger that in coping with Mexican privateers we should offend other nations. In this way, so the British minister warned our secretary of state, the Americans were likely to become involved in “complications of the gravest character”; and it was believed by the Mexicans that a blockade of their coast, in addition to being extremely difficult, was almost or quite certain to have that effect.[24]

To these points they added characteristically that fear of their power, as well as antipathy to us, might lead foreign nations to espouse their side; and all the supporters of the monarchical plans now entertained by the government and the upper classes, felt that if carried out these would pave the way for European assistance. In fact the British minister himself believed that such a change of regime would guarantee Mexico against the United States, and it is reasonable to suppose that in talking with her public men he disclosed this conviction. Being a jealous nation, thoroughly given up to politics, and not industrial or commercial, Mexico could not fail to exaggerate the probable effect of all these influences upon England and France, and to underestimate the factors that were tending to keep them at peace with us.[25]


The strongest basis of hope for effective aid from abroad was, however, none of these considerations, but our dispute with England over Oregon. In January, 1846, Bankhead and Slidell agreed that Mexico’s policy toward the United States would depend mainly or wholly upon the outcome of that issue, and to the Mexican eye the outcome was already clear. Each country had rejected the proposition of the other, and Polk’s Message of December 2, 1845, committed him afresh to an extreme position. The course of England tended to confirm the natural inference. Her perfectly excusable intention was to hold the Mexicans ready to coöperate with her, should war become her programme, while restraining them from engaging us alone. Bankhead replied with an encouraging vagueness to Mexican hints that British assistance was desired, and Lord Aberdeen talked with the Mexican agent at London of a possible alliance against us. Indeed that agent reported that he believed Aberdeen would like to see Mexico fight the United States and win.[26]

For superficial, touch-and-go people here was enough to build upon, and the long entertained hopes of British aid struck root anew. January 14, 1846, our minister Slidell stated that the idea of an approaching conflict over the Oregon question was assiduously nursed, and seventeen days later the correspondent of the London Times reported, that it had become a general conviction. Aberdeen’s possible alliance seemed therefore like a certainty, and he himself admitted to our minister at London that Mexico had counted upon a war over Oregon. With France, as we know, Mexico did not stand on the best of terms at this juncture; but in addition to the other reasons for looking to her, Guizot and Louis Philippe were strongly pro-English, and in fact, so Bankhead reported, Paredes hoped for assistance from that country also.[27]

From high to low, as we have learned, the Mexicans were inveterate gamblers, passionately fond of calculating probabilities and accepting chances, and a situation like this appealed most fascinatingly to their instincts and their habits. But in the eyes of many—indeed most, it is likely—the outlook seemed more than promising. Vain and superficial, they did not realize their weaknesses. “We could not be in a better state for war,” the Diario announced in March, 1845. If any one thought of the empty treasury, he assured himself that patriotism and the boundless natural wealth of the country would afford resources. Enthusiasm would supply everything, it was believed. Equally unable were the Mexicans to perceive the frailty of their hopes for European aid. With few exceptions they saw through a veil, darkly. Even Almonte, a military man and better acquainted with the United States than any other prominent citizen, assured his government that in such a conflict the triumph of Mexico would be “certain.”[28]

Here and there one doubted. Some drew back. But the nation as a whole—if Mexico really was a nation—felt convinced that pride and passion could safely be indulged. We shall dictate our own terms, thought many. At any rate, argued others, our honor will be vindicated by a brilliant stroke beyond the Rio Grande; European intervention will then occur; the United States will have to pay a round sum for Texas; and we shall obtain a fixed boundary, guaranteed by the leading powers of Europe, that will serve as an everlasting dike against American aggression. The press clamored for war; the government was deeply committed to that policy; and the great majority of those who counted for anything, panting feverishly, though with occasional shivers, to fight the United States, were passionately determined that no amicable and fair adjustment of the pending difficulties should be made.[28]

“For us [Mexicans],” Roa Bárcena admitted, “the war was a fact after Shannon’s declarations of October, 1844, and the fact was confirmed by the admission of Texas to the North-American Union.” “Since the usurpation of Texas no arrangement, no friendly settlement has been possible,” said La Reforma. Besides, a faith in eventual triumph, strong enough to survive a series of disasters, burned in the heart of the nation. The Mexican correspondent of the Prussian minister at Washington—regarded by our secretary of war as entirely trustworthy—reported that the people were bent upon war. But for the procrastination and vanity of Mexico, no conflict would have occurred, said J. F. Ramírez, who stood high among the best public men of that country. “The idea of peace was not popular,” states one Mexican historian; the nation was responsible for the war, confess others. Mexico desired it, admitted Santa Anna in 1847 and the minister of relations in 1849, both speaking officially.[28]


In the United States a strong feeling against the dominant elements in Mexico had been created by events that did not directly concern us. The atrocious massacres perpetrated at Goliad and the Alamo during the Texan struggle for independence made an indelible impression on the public mind. Said Buchanan on the floor of the American Senate: “I shall never forget the deep, the heart-rending sensations of sorrow and of indignation” which pervaded this body when we first heard of Santa Anna’s “inhuman butcheries.” The decimating of Texan prisoners for trying to escape from their guards, as they had a perfect right to do, and the cruelties, or at least excessive hardships, which they were made to suffer in confinement, deepened the feeling. The official threats of ruthless war and even extermination against the Texans, and the belief that Indians were incited to fall upon their women and children, sharpened it still more. In 1844 one Sentmanat went from New Orleans to Tabasco on a revolutionary mission but was unsuccessful; and his party surrendered to the Mexican leader, General Ampudia, on the promise of good treatment. Most of the men, however, were shot; the rest of them disappeared in prison; Sentmanat was summarily executed; and his head, fried in oil to make it last longer, became the chief decoration of the public square at San Juan Bautista.[1]

Such acts—naturally though incorrectly supposed to represent the character of the Mexican, and linked with the apparent cowardice of Santa Anna and his army in the Texan war of independence—caused the nation in whose name they were perpetrated to be looked upon by not a few Americans as a nest of poisonous reptiles, fit only to be stamped upon. Referring to one of the Texan outrages, the Indiana State Sentinel exclaimed: “Should that blustering, cowardly nation ever have the temerity to declare war against the United States, think you not that the remembrance of such scenes will make every soldier feel himself ‘thrice armed’?” When people of our own became the victims, when they were robbed and deported without cause on the shores of the Pacific, when they were shot without trial at Tampico, when they were threatened with the death of pirates for joining the Texans, and especially when the newspapers told how Americans among the Santa Fe prisoners were insulted, abused and forced to work in chains on the road to Santa Anna’s palace, so that he might feast his cruel, cowardly eyes upon their sufferings, fury burned like a flame in many a heart. Time appeased the fire, but in 1846 the embers were still red.[1]


With less poignant but no less real indignation the American public noted in a general way the entire long series of our grievances: our flag insulted, our minister traduced and threatened, our consuls maltreated, our government officially maligned, agreements broken, treaties ignored or violated, citizens persecuted and imprisoned, property confiscated, trade hampered and ruined, complaints more or less politely mocked, positive demands adroitly evaded, valid claims fraudulently defeated; and heard that such offences were not merely committed now and then, but repeated over and over again with apparent deliberation and malice. The highest Mexican authorities were found encouraging prejudice and ill-will against our citizens, exerting themselves to make foreign nations distrust and hate us, misrepresenting our efforts to conciliate them, and describing our honest wish to be on friendly terms as hypocrisy and craft. Our people saw the legitimate results of Mexican misgovernment charged against this country; proceedings of our authorities, fully warranted by the facts, protested against; threats of war freely made to influence our national conduct; and measures looking toward hostilities openly advocated and adopted in the most offensive manner. Just how fully the details were noted by the public, and how long the incidents were remembered, it would obviously be impossible to say; but in all probability they sank into the general consciousness, and produced a certain state of mind.

In February, 1847, the Virginia House of Delegates declared that the war had been “most unrighteously provoked ... by a long series of acts of injustice and outrage towards the United States,” and this is only one of almost countless equivalent expressions, which no doubt were fairly sincere.[2]

On the other hand certain factors tended to neutralize our indignation. There was a disposition, traceable to natural good-heartedness, political expediency and commercial interests, to maintain friendly relations with our neighbor. Much of what seemed like misconduct was attributed to circumstances. We had a rather conceited notion that Mexicans could not be expected to know very much or do very well. More or less faintly the idea glimmered, that perhaps it was easy for them to misunderstand the Texas affair, and natural for them to be angry about it. Many felt inclined on general principles to suspect that our aggrieved citizens were not entirely exempt from blame. Money was used by the agents of Mexico to influence our press. Domestic politics warped public opinion in her favor sometimes; and finally the anti-slavery people went great lengths in championing her government and accusing their own, for every suggestion of war upon Mexico was suspected of aiming at the acquisition of territory and the reinforcement of a hated institution.[3]

The northeastern states, on account of the strong anti-slavery sentiment existing there, were not a little disposed to heed these influences, but elsewhere they signified much less, and were quite unable to offset the prevalent feeling that Mexico had insulted, outraged and cheated us, and the growing conviction that, in dealing with her, forbearance had proved to be a mistake. As early as 1830 Count Lillers wrote from New Orleans: It would be “impossible” to speak of Mexico with “more bitterness and desire of vengeance than is done by certain persons whose words must not be neglected,” and by 1837 many agreed with Jackson that satisfaction ought to be required; yet nothing positive was done, and the impatience grew. The lenity of our authorities began to be denounced, and the New Orleans Picayune in particular attacked what it called “the known imbecility which has for years marked our government at home as regards its external relations with Mexico.”[4]

The proceedings of her claims commissioners had a signally bad effect. “The conduct of the Mexican government towards the American claimants under the treaty between the two countries,” declared the Picayune, “has been the most infamously perfidious ever practised by one country and submitted to by another.” “Many earnest remonstrances and complaints,” wrote Webster, our secretary of state, officially to the Mexican commissioners, have been made to me against your proceedings and those of your government in this affair; and though he refrained from expressing any opinion as to the justice of them, such a declaration was evidence of an indignation both deep and general. At the same time fresh grievances accumulated; and the Mexicans, instead of showing any appreciation of what our people regarded as kindness toward them, appeared even less willing to grant effectual redress than ten or fifteen years before. “Forbearance and lenity toward such creatures,” protested the Jeffersonian Republican of New Orleans in August, 1845, “are all lost and worse than lost,” for they are thought signs of weakness, and lead to greater atrocities.[5]

The decision of Herrera’s administration to reject Slidell, our minister of peace, was generally regarded—except by the partisan opponents of our government—as a crowning proof of the vanity of forbearance and a loud call for action. This nation, said the St. Louis Republican, “owes it to herself and her character, and the just appreciation of her ministers and her standing in all foreign countries not to suffer so open an insult to her representative to pass unnoticed.” “The indignity to our Minister requires atonement,” was the crisper utterance of the Picayune, which was widely recognized as the best informed authority on Mexican affairs among our newspapers. The revolution of Paredes appeared to be a further evidence of hostility. The government of Mexico, observed the Delta of New Orleans, has been overthrown with no pretext except the necessity of active war against the United States; so let war be waged. Finally, the definitive rejection of our peace overture, announced in Castillo’s defiant and offensive note, supplied a conclusive argument in the opinion of many against further hesitation. “We have borne and forborne long enough, and a resolute stand should be taken at once,” was the comment of the Missouri Reporter. “The United States,” declared the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, “have borne more insult, abuse, insolence and injury, from Mexico, than one nation ever before endured from another ... they are now left no alternative but to extort by arms the respect and justice which Mexico refuses to any treatment less harsh.”[6]


Another consideration that intensified public sentiment was the suspicion, which in many cases deepened into something more, that she was to be used against us by the monarchies of Europe, and in particular by Great Britain. In 1842, when she made forays into Texas and threatened a serious invasion, it became a very prevalent opinion in the United States, reported the Mexican consul at New Orleans, that England stood behind these movements; and later that country was justly believed to be working in Texas to defeat and injure us. Her influence at Mexico was understood to be powerful; and the Americans, not aware what elements of strength Mexico felt able to count upon, thought she certainly would not defy us unless assured of foreign support. “Our people are prone to the opinion, whether well or ill-founded,” said the Commonwealth of Lexington, Kentucky, in February, 1846, “that that ambitious and mischievous government [of Great Britain] is at the bottom of Mexican hostility towards us.” This was provocation enough. “To fight the Britishers, all the States are one,” complained the London Times, and on this point it was doubtless much closer to the fact than in most of its deliverances on American affairs.[7]

England was not supposed to be alone, however. Our people understood that France had coöperated with her against the annexation of Texas, and not a few suspected her of pursuing the same course to bring about the rejection of Slidell and the anti-American revolution of Paredes. In February, 1846, the Courrier des Etats Unis of New York, which could be regarded as of considerable importance, made this rather startling announcement: “The latest intelligence from Mexico leaves no doubt that the new Government of that country is resolved to reject all peaceful overtures from the United States and solicit the intervention of European powers to obtain from the Union indemnification for the loss of Texas and a boundary line under the protecting guaranty of France and Great Britain. We know personally that this was an idea entertained by General Almonte when he left New York, on his return to Mexico, where he now occupies an influential place in the government.” The statement that Almonte expressed such a view early in 1845 must have become known somewhat widely, for apparently it signified much; and the scheme could not fail to give offence to as many of our people as heard of it. Even more disagreeable were the plans for a European monarchy now looming up so boldly south of the Rio Grande, for they defied the “Monroe Doctrine,” and threatened to bring some great power—perhaps more than one—directly into the lists against us. During February, 1846, the New Orleans papers, especially the Picayune, invited the attention of the country vigorously to this phase of the situation.[8]

All things considered, it seemed imperative to stop drifting, and to settle our affairs with Mexico before the monarchs of Europe could mature plans to injure us; and evidently, from that point of view, no further delay could be afforded. At this time, therefore, the people of the southwest, the region most deeply interested in the situation and consequently best entitled to speak, demanded very seriously and very positively a definitive adjustment of our relations with Mexico. As matters were, the thought of armies and privateers appearing on the horizon as the first announcement of war hardly allowed nervous people to sleep. Actual fighting, it was often argued, would be less injurious than passive hostility with its threats and possibilities. The desirability of Mexican friendship on the score of commercial and political interests was not forgotten, but many believed that good relations could not be had without first giving her a lesson. Finally, urged the Picayune with reference to the monarchical designs of Paredes, it was now the most critical time since the Spanish colonies had revolted; the future of republicanism and the independence of America were at stake; and as matters stood, European powers had the battlefield, Mexico, wholly to themselves.[9]

These broad views were strongly supported by more limited and often by less justifiable ones. The trade interests of the entire Mississippi valley required not only to be freed from danger, but also to have the plan of non-intercourse, which Mexico had practically put into force, given up. A Mexican army would march into Texas, it was remarked, “as avowed abolitionists,” and slaveholders may naturally have preferred to meet this peril in the enemy’s territory. Political considerations of a personal sort, and one especially, doubtless had an influence. Calhoun, the dominant figure of the South, contemplating a possible withdrawal from the Union, desired the people of that section to husband their strength. “We need our young men for other troubles,” he said with reference to their fighting Mexico. Besides, he naturally could not welcome a great disturbance that would interfere necessarily with his plans, and lead to political results of an unpredictable sort. Now there were men, particularly in Mississippi, by no means unwilling to embarrass and possibly unhorse that overshadowing leader by forcing him to antagonize a popular movement; and a war with Mexico seemed obviously well-suited for such a purpose.[10]


A wish to extend the Union was undoubtedly a factor.[11] As the American Review said, Burr had planted in the lower Mississippi valley the seeds of ambition for southern conquest, and the soil proved very fit for their germination and growth.[12] As early as 1830 the British consul at New Orleans believed the people would support an attack upon the territory of Mexico. In 1835 a French visitor of some prominence concluded that every American held two ideas firmly: that our prosperity resulted from our republican institutions, and that Providence intended the new world for the Anglo-Saxon. In 1843 Captain Elliot, mistaking an instinct for a determination, felt satisfied that the United States had resolved to push south. By 1845 the appetite for more territory was pronounced. “There appears to be no limit to the insatiable lust of territorial acquisition which pervades the minds of many of our citizens,” lamented the New Orleans Tropic. When the annexation of Texas appeared to be certain, the New York Morning News exclaimed, “Who’s the next customer, California or Canada?” To this question the Tribune replied, that its neighbor had tasted blood and growled for more. No, we don’t growl, retorted the News; more “will come soon enough—come of its own accord,” for our destiny is to possess the whole continent. Believers in this convenient theory felt bound to go forward, and should Mexico oppose the decree of Heaven, so much the worse for her.[13]

Behind our voracity and largely responsible for it were a restlessness and a dissatisfaction resulting from energies that found no adequate outlet. In all parts of the country this was the case. As a people “we are restless, fidgety, discontented, anxious for excitement,” confessed the New York Herald. In Illinois times were hard. Every attempt at commercial or industrial enterprise had failed; farmers could not sell their crops at paying rates; with boundless force in heart and brain the young man could find nothing worth while to do. The state of mind in other parts of that section appears to have been similar. Indiana gave up all attempts to pay interest on her debt as early as 1840. All over the western border, said the American Review, “are great numbers of bold and restless spirits, men gathered out of all the orderly and civilized portions of society as its most turbulent members, and ready for any enterprise that can minister to their reckless manner of life and love of danger and of change;” and the West was already powerful in our national affairs. “Our people,” wrote Calhoun, “are like a young man of 18, full of health and vigour, and disposed for adventure of any description.”[14]


Such an intoxication of animal vitality demanded a fight, of course. “The multitude cry aloud for war,” admitted the New York Herald in August, 1845. “Nine-tenths of our people, ceteris paribus, would rather have a little fighting than not,” was the opinion of its neighbor, the Morning News. “let us go to war,” began a leader in the New York Journal of Commerce; “The world has become stale and insipid, the ships ought to be all captured, and the cities battered down, and the world burned up, so that we can start again. There would be fun in that. Some interest,—something to talk about.” If such was the feeling in a high latitude, it must have burned hot at the south; and the young men of the Mississippi valley had special reasons for their ardor. The region of western Tennessee had been settled by revolutionary soldiers, and they had left a rich inheritance of military traditions. Jackson towered above all other figures at the southwest, and his chief distinction was that of the sword. Everybody talked still of the war of 1812 and his brilliant exploit at New Orleans. Indeed, when the mind wearied of the continual hunting, there was little else to fasten its eye upon. Military glory became the young man’s dream. All aspired to be soldiers, and to win renown by fighting for their country. This was their inborn and incessantly cultivated ambition; and it need not be added that all the young ladies felt that only a military hero, or at least the makings of such a hero, deserved their attention.[15]

Reasons enough why this feeling concentrated upon Mexico have already been given, but certain others are in order here. That “is indeed the garden spot of the Americas and presents allurements more tempting than did the sunny plains and vineyards of Italy, when the northern hordes swept down and drifted like a snowstorm over the south of Europe”—such was the picture of “that magnificent region” held up by the Commercial Bulletin of New Orleans before thousands of young sparks bored nearly to death by the commonplace. Besides, greatly exaggerated notions of Mexico’s wealth got abroad. Young fellows overstocked with energy were not willing to hoe corn at five shillings a day, or dig potatoes for every tenth bushel when the mountains of a near and hostile country were understood to be packed with silver, and her churches to be radiant with diamonds and gold. Stronger than all else, perhaps, the vague but romantic idea of “revelling in the halls of the Montezumas” exercised a perfect fascination. A letter from New York published in August, 1845, declared that fully twenty thousand volunteers could be raised in that city alone “without fee or reward, who would jump at the chance of marching to Mexico” simply to enjoy this diversion. In short, said the New York Morning News, all the “young and ardent spirits that throng the cities and are spread over the face of the Union want but a direction to their restless energies, and their attention is already fixed on Mexico.”[16]

What made this outlook peculiarly inviting was the belief that only one bold, swift dash would be needed—no dull, plodding, grimy campaigning year after year. Six sevenths of the people in Mexico were said to be Indians, half-breeds and negroes—“mere slaves,” and the rest of them degenerate Spaniards; and the keepers of that paradise, the guardians of those treasures, were represented as “a feeble and degraded soldiery, who would be scattered like chaff by the first volley from the Anglo-Saxon rifle, the first charge of the Anglo-Saxon bayonet.” “An adventure full of fun and frolic and holding forth the rewards of opulence and glory,” was therefore the Commercial Bulletin’s golden picture of a war with Mexico, and such became the common idea.[17]

In the summer of 1845 this magnificent dream of sport, glory and opulence appeared to be on the point of realization, and the war spirit flamed high. Even journals that had stood firmly against annexing Texas took fire. “What more inspiring strain can strike the ears of freemen,” demanded the Richmond Enquirer, “than the trumpet note which summons our people to the punishment of tyrants?... We utterly mistake the spirit of republicanism in America, if there be not one voice for a full and thorough chastisement of Mexican arrogance and folly.” The prospect of “coercing” out of Mexico her “spirit of depredation, perfidy and aggression” and thus inaugurating the sweet and commercially profitable reign of peace excited hot zeal. West of the Alleghanies the feeling was peculiarly strong. At Nashville the Union promised that “any number” of volunteers the government might call for would be forthcoming. At St. Louis, in the opinion of the Reveille, only a prospect of service in the field was needed to induce “the most active volunteering” among the “enthusiastic population.” “Go where you will,” recorded the Picayune, “’tis war and nothing but war;” and Buchanan wrote, “You can have no adequate conception of the military ardor which exists” in the west and southwest; “It will be easy to bring 100,000 volunteers into the field from those States.”[18]

When Mexico seemed to be slow about striking, the New York Morning News declared that “a feeling of disappointment” began to be shown by the public, though still, it added, “At every spring of the whelp, at every mail from the Gulf, the national pulse moves quicker.” When the prospect of immediate hostilities appeared to be over, the Mobile Herald and Tribune announced, “After all the visions of glory and honor which have been dancing through the popular brain for the last six months” nothing has been done. But in reality something had been done. Such a state of passion could not simply go out of existence, especially since the causes of it still remained. The people had become yet more thoroughly inoculated with the idea of fighting Mexico, and the country had not advanced far into the new year 1846 before all were again talking about it, said a Mississippi journal. “Sunday editors” in particular, it added, “shriek out ‘War! War! War!’” Will Polk be able to withstand the clamor? asked the Memphis Enquirer; “We fear not.” The final rejection of Slidell naturally intensified the martial feeling. “The almost unanimous voice of the American people,” wrote even Governor Hammond of South Carolina, insisted upon war. So much for the attitude of the public.[19]


Turning now to the attitude of the government, we are told at once that Polk deliberately intended to attack Mexico, and are offered various reasons for so believing. One accuser says that he was ambitious for personal glory; another, that he desired to perpetuate the power of his party; a third, that he felt anxious to cover up the humiliating result of the Oregon negotiation; still another, that he wished to be reëlected; and more than one allege that he was determined to obtain California. For this last view there is just evidence enough to create a suspicion. For example, Bancroft remarked more than forty years after the event that Polk said the acquisition of that province would be one of his aims, and this remark has been cited as if it proved the charge. But there was not the slightest impropriety in his desiring an immensely valuable territory that Webster had endeavored a few years before to acquire, and in 1845 Bancroft himself represented the President’s feeling toward Mexico as “most conciliatory.” Indeed, after the conflict had begun, Bancroft wrote privately to Samuel Hooper, “We were driven reluctantly to war.”[20]

Again, certain facts are cited and aligned: Polk wanted California, a war occurred, and he promptly took advantage of the war to occupy the desired territory. But the existence of several points in line does not prove the existence of a path connecting them, and there is weighty evidence against the suspicion which these facts naturally excite. While directing Slidell to obtain the cession of northern California, if he could, Buchanan intimated, as we have seen, that he should not press this matter, if so doing would prevent the restoration of amicable relations with Mexico. In other words, instead of desiring to precipitate a war for the sake of obtaining California, Polk was ready to let California go—or at least wait—for the sake of maintaining peace. Besides, as we shall find when we come to the operations on the western coast, Polk had a policy for the acquisition of that region, and this policy did not contemplate war. With nothing solid to stand upon, then, and much to stand against, this theory must be given up.[20]

The other explanations of Polk’s alleged intention to fight Mexico are evidently mere conjectures, and prove nothing. The idea that contracts and offices could strengthen the administration and build up the party is mainly, or perhaps entirely, fallacious. There were not enough to satisfy more than a small percentage of the hungry patriots, and the rest were likely to take offence. Moreover, if given to Democrats, these favors could make no converts; while if given to Whigs, the Democrats were sure to complain, and few of the recipients could change their party for such a reason. Many of Polk’s chief troubles, as his diary shows, came from dissatisfied applicants for commissions, and any person well versed in public affairs could have foreseen that it would be so.[21] And yet, after all, the charge that he purposely brought on the war has been so commonly believed, or at least so frequently repeated, that it can fairly demand a more extended examination.[22]


First of all, then, we must form an estimate of Polk. For this purpose his diary is extremely useful. No doubt, like other documents of the sort, it colors some things and omits others; but so extremely busy a man could not have practised systematic misrepresentation in his daily record without hopelessly enmeshing and entangling himself and incurring the risk of detection at many points, while—occupying, as he did, a position where his every word and act were noted by others—he would have exposed himself often to documentary refutation. Besides, the marks of good faith are without number. The diary should therefore be accepted, and has been accepted, as essentially truthful; and the man it shows us—revealed also by a large amount of other evidence—is a cold, narrow, methodical, dogged, plodding, obstinate partisan, deeply convinced of his importance and responsibility, very wanting in humor, very wanting in ideality, very wanting in soulfulness, inclined to be sly, and quite incapable of seeing great things in a great way. All know the type. It is the leading citizen and schemer of the small town, who marches up the centre aisle on public occasions with creaking shoes and a wooden smile, and takes his seat with a backward, all-embracing glance.[23]

Such a person—lean, stiff, angular, with sharp gray eyes in a sad face, and long, grizzled hair brushed straight back behind his ears—makes no appeal to our sympathies, and for that reason is almost sure to be judged unfairly. For example, Polk has been called the “Mendacious”; but that is unjust. Many things are done in good society which, if thrown upon a screen before two thousand people, would be recognized instantly as mean; and the same is true in the world of affairs. As a lawyer and politician of Nashville, Polk no doubt resorted to devices of this kind, and he was not the man to realize the difference between a provincial town and a nation, and adapt himself to his new position. Compelled to act, he acted as he could; used the tactics with which he was familiar. In this manner he deceived men or permitted men to deceive themselves, and those accustomed to broader and larger and nobler methods thought he lied. In reality he was not Polk the Mendacious, but simply Polk the Mediocre.[23]

Yet he was mediocre only as compared with great standards. He could by no means be called insignificant. George Bancroft, secretary of the navy, has testified that he surpassed every member of his Cabinet in ability—not as high a distinction, perhaps, as might have been wished, but still high. His will-power was ample, and his output of mental energy large. In seriousness, industry and fidelity he left nothing to be desired. Though strongly inclined to be positive, he would listen patiently to others, discuss weighty matters at length, and if convinced would yield. He reflected long, and yet when the time for decision came, he did not shrink from taking a stand. He intended to do his duty as he, Polk, was able to see it, and spent himself liberally in that cause. He certainly was religious, and no doubt—though blind to the beauty of uprightness and unresponsive to the delicacy of honor—he fully believed that he was conscientious.[23]

To regard such a man, uninspired and uninspiring, as capable of playing the brilliant villain’s rôle in a grand international tragedy, of dreaming the conqueror’s dream and sacrificing his fellow-citizens on the altar of gory but gorgeous ambition, of smelling the battle from afar like the war-horse and crying, “Ha, ha!”—this is out of the question. It was not in him. Neither intellect, conscience nor imagination permitted it. The Cabinet, which he selected with care, hampered by no preëlection agreements, was much like him; and as Benton said, it is “impossible to conceive of an administration less warlike, or more intriguing.” “Mr. Polk never dreamed of any other war than a war upon the Whigs,” admitted Robert Toombs, then a Whig member of Congress, in February, 1846.[23]

A number of circumstances almost committed him to a peaceable course toward Mexico. During the discussions of the annexation project one of the strongest objections had been that it would involve the country in war, and its advocates had strenuously denied this allegation. The President belonged to that group, and Webster said: “That Mr. Polk and his Cabinet will desire to keep the peace, there is no doubt. The responsibility of having provoked war by their scheme of annexation is what they would greatly dread.” Though many plain citizens desired a fight, an influential body of merchants, financiers and conservatives did not; and in the view of a still greater number a vital discrepancy between the predictions of the annexationists and their later conduct would surely have been damaging. The Oregon question threatened to prove serious; and it is hardly credible that Polk, even if quite willing to meet an attack from Mexico, would have desired to attack her before settling this controversy with England. The secretaries of state, war and the navy did not hail from fire-eating communities. The head of the army, General Scott, was a Whig and a recognized candidate for the Presidency; and the chiefs of the Democratic party had fully sense enough to understand that a war might enable him to succeed Polk. In fact the President’s diary exhibits painful writhings due to such a possibility. Finally war, no matter how successful, would mean taxes, and even those who demanded a fight might not be willing to pay for it. Certainly Polk was not self-sacrificing enough to desire the odium of laying war taxes for the sake of bringing Scott into the White House. Besides, it looked as if war expenses could not fail to strengthen the tariff system, and that was obnoxious to a great number of the Democrats.[24]


Polk’s professions were every way most pacific. The assurances conveyed to Almonte after he made his protest have already been mentioned. In August, 1845, Polk wrote confidentially to a Senator, “We will not be the aggressors upon Mexico.” A month later Buchanan declared in a “Private and Personal” letter to our minister at London: “The President does not intend to proceed beyond a just and righteous self-defence, and he is ready to present the olive branch to Mexico the moment he knows it will be accepted.” It is hardly supposable that our secretary of state intended to deceive our most important representative abroad, or that he was deceived himself by Polk in so vital a matter.[25]

The confidential orders of the government were emphatically unwarlike in tone. To Conner, commanding in the Gulf, the secretary of the navy wrote in March, 1845, “The disposition of the President is to maintain the most friendly relations with the Mexican Republic,” and in substance this declaration was repeated in the following July and August. “Take special care,” the department said to Stockton, who had a few vessels on the Texas coast, “to avoid every act that can admit of being construed as inconsistent with our friendly relations” with Mexico. Commodore Sloat, in the Pacific, was told in “Secret and Confidential” instructions dated June 24, 1845, “The President hopes, most earnestly, that the peace of the two countries may not be disturbed ... do everything consistent with the national honor” to avoid a rupture; and these instructions to Sloat were most noteworthy, for the commander on the Pacific station was liable to be out of touch with the government for a year at a time, and he needed to be sure as to its general policy.[26]

For the guidance of our chargé in Texas, where many feared a Mexican invasion and called for American troops, a clear statement of our intentions was equally necessary, and Buchanan wrote to Donelson at about the same time, “The Government will studiously refrain from all acts of hostility towards that republic [Mexico], unless these should become absolutely necessary in self-defence.” Quite in line with all this was the order cancelling Frémont’s second exploring trip to the far west, because he had equipped his party in a military style—an order that was decidedly over-strict, since precautions against the Indians could not be neglected. In his Message to the Senate, March 24, 1846, the President declared it his “settled purpose” to maintain peace with Mexico, and it is believed that no expression of his indicating a desire to provoke a conflict can be found.[26]

The measures of the administration corresponded with its professions. In the first place this was true negatively. It would not be easy to deny that Mexico’s refusal to pay the instalments of our awards could have been handled by our government in a way to enrage this nation, already so eager for the fray, and probably her severance of diplomatic relations might have been used to precipitate an issue; but no advantage was taken of either opportunity. Another instance is even more signal. One can hardly doubt that Polk might have brought on a war in the summer of 1845, had he so desired. Not only had Mexico grossly insulted us, refused to pay those awards, and severed relations with us both at her capital and at our own, but she had solemnly announced that our annexing Texas would be regarded as equivalent to a declaration of war, notified her agents privately and the world at large publicly that she was going to fight, and begun preparations for immediate hostilities. Had Polk summoned Congress and laid all the facts before it, a declaration of war, or at least an ultimatum that Mexico would in all probability have rejected, must certainly, or almost certainly, have been the response; and if one may judge from the state of mind existing in the United States at the time, our people would in the main have supported such a course. “The current of public opinion,” said the St. Louis Republican, “seems now strongly inclined in favor of a war with Mexico.” “All the better portions of the press of the country,” was the summary of the New Orleans Picayune, “are urgent for the adoption of the most energetic measures” against that country. Almost every Democratic journal and a vast majority of the Whig journals, declared the Washington Globe, were for crushing Mexico at once. “The people will approve” of vigorous action, admitted even the Charleston Courier.[27]


But Polk did not adopt a course of that sort. He took no such steps to settle matters with England as a President of ordinary common sense would have taken, if anxious to fight Mexico; and no serious measures were adopted to increase our nominal army or our insufficient fleet. In September, he requested the members of the Cabinet to make their estimates for the coming year on “the most economical scale,” and in fact only twenty-six hundred additional men were asked for the army—none for the navy. A note from the secretary of the navy to Captain Perry—“We are jogging on quietly this winter, not anticipating war”—well represents our military and naval programme; and a letter to Conner explains it: “We all hope Mexico will agree to a peace.” Knowing, as Polk must have known, the deep and widespread fear of Mexican privateers, he would have been prevented by a merely selfish regard for the good opinion of the public from planning war without making some dispositions to protect, or at least warn, our millions of floating property. And apparently even the ardor of our young men for combat did not seriously move him.[28]

In the second place, Polk’s action pointed the same way as his non-action. No one could think of any rational method to conciliate Mexico that he did not put into operation. The chief object of Parrott’s mission, which was private and therefore could not have been intended for effect upon the world, was understood by Parrott himself to be, “preventing a declaration of war, by Mexico, against the United States.” In appointing Slidell, as even the American Review admitted, the President was evidently sincere. At the end of March, 1846, Polk received advices from Slidell which made it seem quite possible that he would finally be given a hearing, and immediately he set on foot a plan to furnish Paredes with funds, enable him to keep the army faithful, and thus encourage him to settle matters amicably. Indeed, all that is known of this mission from beginning to end, including Slidell’s private letters to Buchanan and numerous details that it would be wearisome to hear specified, show that Polk strongly desired—as the Mexicans accused him of desiring—a restoration of friendly intercourse; and when the purpose had evidently failed, Slidell gave final evidence of that disposition by writing: “I am greatly mortified at the total failure of a mission commenced under auspices apparently the most flattering, but that mortification is much mitigated by the consciousness, that no fault of omission or commission, can justly be attributed either to the Government or to the Legation.”[29]

In short, then, we find that Polk had the gravest reasons for desiring friendly intercourse with Mexico, and probably felt none for plotting war; that a variety of personal and political circumstances naturally inclined him toward peace; that his declarations, both public and private, pointed consistently in that direction as long as any hope of an amicable settlement remained; and that what he did in repeated and most significant ways, as well as what he refrained from doing, had the same meaning. We must therefore give up the idea that he desired, and from the first intended, to have a war with Mexico.


All prospects of negotiation came to an end, however, and the administration found itself confronted by a crisis. The dignity of the United States had certainly been outraged in a defiant and contemptuous manner. By the acts of Mexico, diplomatic relations had been completely severed, and she would not renew them on any terms which the United States could think of accepting. Commercial intercourse was practically at an end, and the interests of our citizens were so gravely prejudiced, that from this point of view even a London paper, the Examiner, admitted reluctantly that the situation was becoming “intolerable to the United States.” Our claims and our awards were still facts. “The honor of this government is pledged to our own people for the diligent and proper prosecution of these claims,” our secretary of state had said in 1843, and it was perfectly true. To let them go unpaid, in addition to being internationally immoral, would have wronged our aggrieved citizens; and to pay them from our own revenues, besides being immoral, pusillanimous and ridiculous, would have been unfair to all of our tax-payers. We had observed no more willingness, although the Mexican government had nearly always been sufficiently strong, to do us justice before annexation became an issue than afterwards; and in fact Ashburnham, a British representative at Mexico, did not exaggerate when he wrote, “They will not pay but on compulsion.” There was therefore no way to collect our due except by force.[30]

If our long forbearance appeared to American editors a mistake, much more reason had the administration to entertain that opinion, for our ministers and consuls in Mexico had repeatedly urged it, and Slidell had summed up his experience there in the following words, amply justified by the sequel: “We shall never be able to treat with her on fair terms until she has been taught to respect us ... here all amicable advances are considered as indicative either of weakness or treachery.” “Be assured,” he added privately to Buchanan, “that nothing is to be done with these people, until they shall have been chastised.” The solemn declarations of a succession of trusted agents that our forbearance was a tactical error were facts that our government was bound to consider; and by way of confirmation it had not only our complete failure to get on with Mexico, but the success of a power which seemed to have pursued a very different course, for in October, 1845, our consul at Vera Cruz had given the state department a specimen of England’s tone. Mexico, said she to the minister of relations, must fulfil to the letter every contract with a British subject.[31]

Furthermore our government felt seriously concerned about the European monarchical schemes. Early in January, 1846, the London Times printed a letter from its correspondent at Mexico in which the opinion was expressed that a foreign prince, if “seconded by any leading European power,” could gain a Mexican throne. A week later the same journal, recommending a Spanish king as the only possible cure for the ills of Mexico, had remarked that the United States could not oppose the “united policy of the European Powers”; and at about the same time the Picayune had announced, that it was proposed to give Cuba to England for her coöperation in the monarchical plan. Our government had, and could have, no intention of submitting to such European manoeuvres. Any attempt of England and France to place a king on the throne of Mexico, wrote Buchanan, “would be resisted by all the power of the United States;” and the best way to oppose it was to effect a definitive settlement of our difficulties with Mexico at once—first, because this of itself would very likely make the development of the rather complicated scheme appear, in view of the “Monroe Doctrine,” impracticable, and, secondly, because no European power could, with any show of decency, interfere in the domestic affairs of that country, while she was actually at war.[32]

Chivalry does not govern international relations even at the present day, and in 1845 sentiment was perhaps less tender on the subject than it now is. Vattel, the recognized authority on the law of nations, wrote thus: “Every nation ... has, therefore, a right ... to preserve herself from all injuries.... When the evil is done, the same right to security authorizes the offended party to endeavour to obtain a complete reparation, and to employ force for that purpose, if necessary.”[33]

Moreover, the United States could appeal, not only to strict law, but still more forcibly to broad equity. To sum up the case in one sentence, Mexico, our next neighbor, on no grounds that could be recognized by the United States, repudiated her treaties with us, ended official relations, aimed to prevent commercial intercourse, planned to deprive us of all influence on certain issues vitally connected with our declared foreign policy, seemed likely to sell California to some European rival of ours, made it impossible for us to urge long-standing claims or watch over citizens dwelling within her borders, refused to pay even her admitted debts to us, claimed the privilege of applying to our government publicly the most opprobrious epithets in the vocabulary of nations, designed to keep our people in a constant state of uncertainty and alarm, intended to cause us the expense of maintaining for defensive purposes a large army and a large navy, planned to destroy our commerce by commissioning privateers, claimed the right to harry Texas, a part of the Union, at will, threatened and prepared for war, and proposed to assume such an attitude that, whenever encouraged by foreign support or any other circumstances, she could open fire upon us without even giving notice. She had informed the world that it was her privilege to keep on harrying Texas from generation to generation; and on a broader scale, but in a manner precisely analogous, it was now proposed to hang upon the flank of the United States. Foreign mediation could not be invoked, for all the American states were naturally supposed to be prejudiced, and it was contrary to our interest and avowed policy to allow European intervention in the affairs of this continent; and no end of what had become truly an intolerable state of affairs could be seen, for Mexico declared she would never give up her pretensions until she had recovered Texas, which it was now beyond her power to do.[34]


It rested with our government, therefore, as the agent of national defence and the representative of national dignity and interests, to apply a remedy. Of course, too, all the pressure of warlike sentiment among our people, especially in the President’s party, and even the pressure of motives distinctly selfish, had to be recognized more or less, for such is the nature of popular government. Very likely Polk’s abandoning a part of our Oregon claim rendered it the more necessary to avoid flinching in the Mexican affair; and accordingly on April 21, 1846, after long consideration of the matter, he informed the Cabinet that our relations with Mexico “could not be permitted to remain” as they were, and that he thought he should recommend to Congress the adoption of energetic measures for the redress of our grievances, which meant also of course a full settlement of our differences with that power. In truth no other course would have been patriotic or even rational.[35]

April, 1845—April, 1846

Strangely enough, although our diplomatic troubles with Mexico would almost certainly have led to hostilities, the war actually came about in a totally different way.[1]

During the spring and early summer of 1845, in view of Mexican threats and of reports from trustworthy sources that an invasion of Texas might be expected,[2] it was decided by our government that when her people should have accepted our annexation proposal, as they were almost sure to do, it would become the duty of the United States to defend her;[3] and this decision made the question where her southern boundary lay a practical matter. It was a thorny subject. In 1834 Mexico herself did not feel sure about the line; and according to the chief technical officer in our state department, sole commissioner to negotiate the treaty of peace with Mexico, if an official demarcation had existed, the war between Texas and the mother-country had rubbed it out. The former now claimed the territory as far as the Rio Grande, but she did not establish her title by occupying completely and effectively the region south of the Nueces. Only by an agreement with Mexico, indeed, could limits have been fixed. So far as it concerned the republic of Texas, this was in effect the situation.[4]

For the United States, however, this was not the whole story. Down to 1819 our government had insisted that Louisiana extended to the Rio Grande. In other language, since the southern part of Louisiana was called Texas, the official view was that Texas bordered on that stream. Such, then, was in effect the contention of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Pinckney, Livingston and Clay, who represented three administrations in upholding the claim. By the treaty of 1819 we did not withdraw from our position, but merely arranged to “cede” whatever possessions we had west of the Sabine for certain valuable considerations. From 1819 to 1845, Texas, considered under its geographical and historical aspects as a district of old Louisiana, appeared to border on the Rio Grande not less truly than before, for no other line became established. Hence it seemed evident from this point of view, that by annexing Texas we revived our old claim, our old official view, and the testimony of all those eminent statesmen. Our government so held. November 10, 1845, in explaining to Slidell the extent of Texas, Buchanan went back to Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Pinckney and the discussion of the Louisiana boundary. Polk, as the head of our government, could not well repudiate, simply on his own authority, the solemn declarations of Presidents and other high officials, in which through a term of years the nation had acquiesced. The fact that for a considerable time the Texans, asserting the Rio Grande line, had maintained themselves against Mexico perhaps had some confirmatory value; and Polk was further bound, not only by his apparently sincere belief in our old claim, but by the pledge he had given to Texas and the pledge our official representative had given her, expressly to promote the cause of annexation, that he would maintain the claim as President. These were grips of steel.[5]


To meet the responsibility thus incurred, we had eight regiments of infantry, four of “artillery” and two of dragoons, including about 7200 men. The “artillery” regiments, which were theoretically expected to serve in fortifications with heavy guns, were armed, equipped and drilled as infantry; but one company of each had a field battery, and under the instruction of excellent officers had reached a high state of skill in using it. The infantry and cavalry, drilled on the French system, were in a good condition generally, though division among coast and frontier stations, besides impairing discipline and efficiency, had prevented manoeuvring in large bodies; and the infantry soldiers in particular, inured on the border to hard service, felt now a reasonable confidence in themselves and their immediate superiors. The forty-five capable engineer officers understood their duties fairly well, except that a lack of men to execute operations had left them, as the head of the corps admitted, too much like theoretical mariners. A few well-trained topographical engineers, a small medical staff, and a quartermaster’s department rounded out this miniature army. Nearly all the infantry carried flint-lock muskets, and numerous defects and deficiencies existed; but probably the forces were better equipped for service than has generally been supposed. In view of possible difficulties with Mexico, a disproportionate share of the troops were placed at or near Fort Jesup on the western border of Louisiana; and in June, 1845, these included the Third Infantry, eight companies of the Fourth Infantry, and seven companies of the Second Dragoons.[6]


Their commander was Brevet Brigadier General Zachary Taylor. This child of destiny, born in 1784, had grown up and gained some rudiments of an education amidst the Indian troubles of the Kentucky border. At the age of twenty-three he had been commissioned first lieutenant in the Seventh Infantry, and after showing remarkable coolness and intrepidity in two small affairs during our second war with England and the Black Hawk War, he had won a stubborn fight in 1837 against the Seminoles at the head of some 1100 soldiers. Three years later he was assigned to a supervising command in the southwest, and this included Fort Jesup.[7]

Personally Taylor possessed a strong character, a very strong character, neither exhausted by self-indulgence nor weakened by refinement and study. He was every inch a man, with a great heart, a mighty will, a profound belief in himself, and a profound belief in human nature. The makings of a hero lay in him, and to a large extent the making had been done. He was gifted, too, with solid common sense, not a little shrewdness and ambition, a thorough knowledge of men—the sort of men that he knew at all—a military eye, and a cool, resourceful intelligence that was always at work in its own rather ponderous fashion. The sharp gray eyes and the contraction of his brows that made the upper part of his face look severe were tempered by the benignity of the lower part; and the occasional glimmer of a twinkle betokened humor.[7]

On the other hand, everything about him suggested the backwoodsman. His thick-set and rather corpulent body, mounted on remarkably short legs, typified barbaric strength. In speech he was rough and ungrammatical, in dress unkempt and even dirty, and in every external of his profession unmilitary. He never had seen a real battle nor even a real army. Ignorance and lack of mental discipline made him proud of his natural powers and self-mastered attainments, and he saw very distinctly the weaknesses of school-taught and book-taught men. West Pointers, trim in person and in mind but inferior to him in strength, practical sense and familiarity with men and things, he felt strongly inclined to belittle; and this feeling went so far that he despised, or at any rate frequently seemed to despise, knowledge itself. He could not, however, fail to recognize on occasions the professional superiority of his trained officers, and no doubt found himself unable now and then to defend his opinions. In such cases, being by temperament extremely firm, he naturally took refuge in obstinacy; and sometimes he appears to have been positively mulish, holding to his own view after he must have seen its incorrectness.[7]

From various logical results of these limitations Taylor was happily saved by Major General Winfield Scott, the head of the army, who purposely gave him Captain W. W. S. Bliss as adjutant general. Bliss was described by a good authority as the peer of any man alive in learning, statesmanship and military capacity; and he felt willing to give the General—later his father-in-law—the unstinted benefit of all his talents and attainments. With him at his elbow Taylor could be sure of trustworthy information, honest and competent advice, a friendly hand to supplement or subtract, and a skilful pen to report, explain and, if necessary, discreetly color the facts. Captain Williams, an able officer, wrote in 1848 that he could not imagine one man’s being more indebted to another than Taylor was to his assistant. In other words, “Taylor” in the history of the Mexican War is the name of a double star, one partner in which was the dominating personality of the General, and the other a fine, trained intelligence known as Bliss.[8]

Taylor, then, having been warned by a despatch of May 28, 1845, to hold the troops in readiness, was confidentially ordered on the fifteenth of June to place them at some port where they could readily embark for the Texas frontier, and, after learning that our annexation overture had been accepted, to occupy “on or near the Rio Grande del Norte” such a position, favorable to the health of the men, as would be “best adapted to repel invasion.” Accordingly he concentrated his infantry at New Orleans, where official notice that annexation had been accepted by Texas reached him. Further orders from William L. Marcy, the secretary of war, enjoined upon him to “avoid any Acts of aggression,” and in particular to refrain from disturbing any Mexican posts on the left bank of the river “unless an actual state of war should exist”; and under these instructions the forces left New Orleans toward the end of July for Aransas Bay, Texas. His troops—counting the dragoons, who set out by land for San Antonio, about 120 miles from the coast, a little later—numbered some 1500.[9]

Taylor himself with a part of the command reached his destination on the twenty-fifth; landed his men, with such rapidity as meagre facilities and heavy surf would permit, on St. Joseph’s Island; and then, with row boats and small sailing-craft, conveyed them some twenty-five miles farther to Corpus Christi, a hamlet on the south side of the Nueces River at its mouth. News that Mexico was on the point of beginning hostilities caused great alarm presently; but no enemy came, and by the end of August the General felt secure. The rest of the troops from Fort Jesup were then on the ground. Seven companies of the Seventh Infantry, collected laboriously from a number of points, had arrived. Two volunteer artillery companies from New Orleans had come to the rescue; and a party of Texan rangers were near him. The Mexicans, on the other hand, showed no signs of concentrating.[10]


Naturally the public inquired whether the occupation of Corpus Christi, and especially the words “on or near” the Rio Grande, could be justified. But, as the London Times—a witness by no means prejudiced in our favor—observed, “When the United States Government, with the full sanction of the American people, consummated the annexation of Texas, ... they should, according to all the usages of civilized Governments, have proceeded to take military means for the protection of their new frontier.” The performance of this duty involved giving the commander a somewhat liberal discretion, for southern Texas was a region of which the Washington authorities knew very little, and what steps it would be proper for the General to take, should the Mexicans launch a raid at San Antonio, was known there even less. It would have required about a month to send information and receive orders based upon it. Authority to occupy such a post as might seem necessary, in view of the ground, the vicinity and the news, had to be given. Taylor understood that Corpus Christi, which belonged to Texas by the same right of effective occupation as Nacogdoches or Galveston, satisfied the terms of the order; the government accepted that interpretation; and the country acquiesced.[11]

Gradually his forces assumed rather formidable proportions. Some of the troops had to come from Detroit, and some from Florida; but it was feared in all quarters that a heavy Mexican body might cross the Rio Grande any day, and the reinforcements made quick time. October 13 the army included General W. J. Worth’s command, called the first brigade, which comprised the Eighth Infantry and twelve companies of the so-called artillery consolidated as a battalion; the second brigade, consisting of the Fifth and the Seventh Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel J. S. McIntosh; the third brigade under Colonel William Whistler, which included the Third and the Fourth Infantry; the Second Dragoons, commanded by Colonel D. E. Twiggs; some United States and New Orleans field artillery, and the Texas rangers. In all, officers and men, there were about 3900.[12]

Taylor, accustomed to frontier conditions, described his troops as healthy, remarkably well-behaved and very comfortable. But in reality the tents could scarcely keep out a heavy dew; for weeks together every article in many of them was thoroughly soaked; and much of the time water stood three or four feet deep in some. The weather oscillated sharply between sultry heat and piercing northers, so that one lay down gasping for breath and woke up freezing. As hardly enough wood could be obtained for the cooks, camp-fires were usually out of the question; and only brackish drinking water could be had. At one time nearly twenty per cent of the men were on the sick list, and half of the others more or less ill. Taylor knew so little of military evolutions that he could not get his men properly into line, and few of his chief officers excelled him very much. Despite orders from the President, military exercises were given up after a time; a sullen torpor and silence reigned in the camp, and many deserted. Meanwhile a horde of gamblers and liquor-sellers opened booths near by; and the soldiers, driven to desperation, paid what little money they had to be drugged into insensibility or crazed into brawls and orgies. Some, if not many, of the officers gave up acting like gentlemen, and one at least even forgot how to be honest.[13]

Then a dispute regarding precedence brought the camp to the verge of battle. Twiggs had the honor of seniority as colonel; but Worth, as a brevet brigadier general, insisted that should Taylor cease to hold the command, it would fall to him. The question was referred to Washington; and Scott, directed by Marcy to settle it, gave a ruling in favor of brevet rank. This decision did not, however, end the controversy. More than a hundred officers joined in an appeal to Congress, while Worth declared he would maintain his rights “to any extreme.” Taylor, instead of using his personal and official strength to enforce a modus vivendi until the issue could be properly decided, or at least refraining from all accentuation of it, ordered a general review, and in spite of the ruling announced by his superior officer, assigned Twiggs to command on that occasion; and then, finding that serious trouble would ensue, proved himself, by countermanding the review, unable to maintain even his own authority. After all this, discipline could hardly be said to exist. Moreover, a general want of confidence in the commander prevailed. “Whether an idea, strategic or of any other description, has had the rudeness to invade the mind or imagination of our chief is a matter of doubt,” said Worth; “We are literally a huge body without a head.” If Taylor succeeds, it will be by accident, concluded Lieutenant Colonel Hitchcock, now commanding the Third Infantry, who had studied and taught at West Point.[14]


Toward the end of August Marcy wrote: “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.” This declaration called forth protests, but was quite fair. By stationing troops peaceably in the “intermediate region” between the Nueces and the Rio Grande we only placed ourselves on an equality with Mexico; and, as we ordered Taylor to leave her posts undisturbed, we showed a friendly recognition of the principle of pacific joint-occupation during negotiations. Our forces, to be sure, outnumbered hers, but her attitude made it unsafe to despatch a smaller representation. Unlike us, Mexico had no occasion to send an army into that region for defensive purposes. The United States had shown every sign of desiring peace and none of desiring war, and at this time was endeavoring to bring about a friendly settlement. Such an army could not have prevented us from entering the intermediate region, for at Corpus Christi Taylor was already there; and it could not have saved the Mexican posts and citizens, for they were not menaced. Mexico, on the other hand, had threatened us and made open preparations to strike; it was now understood at Washington that no declaration of war should be expected to precede a blow; her generals had proclaimed that hostilities were on the point of beginning; and it was only common sense to assume that, should a Mexican army cross the Rio Grande, it would come to execute the announced intention of those who sent it.[15]

During the evening of January 12, 1846, despatches from Slidell and Black arrived at Washington, and made the rejection of our pacific overture look almost certain. This unexpected turn of affairs gave new seriousness and fresh urgency to the Mexican issue; and the next day Taylor was ordered to encamp on the Rio Grande at whatever point he should consider most advantageous. He was cautioned, however, against regarding Mexico as an enemy, unless war should be declared or hostilities be undertaken by her, and against provoking a conflict by insistence upon the joint navigation of the river, which our claim implied.[16]

February 3 the General received these instructions, and replied that he should lose no time. Three days later the army was formally ordered to “be prepared for a field movement at short notice.” But, although Taylor had been on the ground for six months, he was “utterly ignorant”—said Hitchcock—of the way to Matamoros, and had now to investigate the matter. By February 24 he possessed the necessary data, and ordered the troops to be in readiness to set out “at forty-eight hours notice”; yet it was not until the eighth of March that his cavalry, led by the impetuous Twiggs and accompanied by Ringgold’s handsome battery, actually moved off. The infantry brigades followed at intervals of a day with Duncan’s and Bragg’s field artillery; and transports prepared to remove the convalescents, extra baggage and Major Munroe’s artillery company to Point Isabel, near the mouth of the Rio Grande.[17]


Soon after receiving the instructions to advance, Taylor had given notice of his orders to influential citizens of Matamoros then at Corpus Christi, explaining that his march would be entirely pacific, and that he expected the pending questions to be settled by negotiation; and similar assurances were conveyed to the Mexican customhouse office at “Brazos Santiago,” near Point Isabel. March 8 a more formal announcement appeared in General Orders No. 30. Taylor here expressed the hope that his movement would be “beneficial to all concerned,” insisted upon a scrupulous regard for the civil and religious rights of the people, and commanded that everything required for the use of the army should be paid for “at the highest market price.” These orders, which merely anticipated instructions then on their way from Washington, were translated into Spanish, and placed in circulation along the border.[18]

To the troops the march proved a refreshing and beneficial change. The weather was now fine, the road almost free from mud, and the breeze balmy. Frequently the blue lupine, the gay verbena, the saucy marigold and countless other bright flowers carpeted the ground. The cactus and the cochineal excited and gratified curiosity. Ducks and geese often flew up from the line of advance. Many rabbits and many deer scampered across the plain; and occasionally wolves, catamounts and panthers were frightened from cover. Wild horses would gaze for an instant at their cousins in bondage, and then gallop off, tossing their manes disdainfully; and once a herd of them, spaced as if to allow room for cannon, were taken for Mexican cavalry. Innumerable centipedes, tarantulas and rattlesnakes furnished a good deal of interest, if not of charm. The boundless prairie had somewhat the fascination of the sea; and occasionally, when a mirage conjured up a range of blue mountains—clothed with forests and reflected in lakes—that melted presently into the air, one had a sense of moving on enchanted ground.[19]

To be sure, the march was not entirely agreeable. For about 196 miles it stretched on and on, and most of the way it lay through deep, sandy plains, here glistening with salt, and there varied with briny marshes or sticky black dirt. In some places Mexicans had burned the herbage; and the light ashes, raised by the tramp of many feet, settled on the soldiers’ faces till they could scarcely recognize one another. Tortured with thirst, they would occasionally break ranks pell-mell at the sight of water; but as a rule they found it brackish. All suffered alike; and we have a picture of Taylor himself breakfasting at the door of his tent with a mess-chest for table, his rugged countenance flaming with sunburn, his long lips cracked and raw, and his long nose white with peeling skin. But the experience, even at its worst, proved a wholesome tonic after the degeneration of Corpus Christi.[19]

March 20 the army came to the Arroyo Colorado, a salt lagoon about a hundred yards wide and three or four feet deep. Here General Mejía, the commander at Matamoros, who knew all about our troops and their movements, had intended to win a sheaf of laurels; but orders from his government, not quite ready for action, arrived in time to curb this ambition. He concluded then to try the effect of a ruse, and his officer convinced the Americans, with solemn warnings, bugle-calls here and there, and a clever showing of heads among the bushes and trees on the southern side of the lagoon, that a hard fight would result from attempting to cross it. But without the least hesitation Taylor prepared for battle. Ringgold’s pieces were made ready. Worth dashed into the stream at the head of an advance party; and on gaining, unopposed, the opposite bank, he saw—dust in the atmosphere, and far away a dozen small black specks rapidly growing smaller. But morally it was a victory; and the troops, though cheated, felt encouraged.[20]

March 23, after making fifteen miles across a clear, dry prairie, the army came to a road that led to Matamoros, about eighteen miles away on the right, and to Point Isabel, distant nine or ten on the other side; and Taylor, ordering Worth and the infantry to camp and watch for the enemy at a suitable place in the former direction, proceeded to the coast with his cavalry. There he found the transports in sight and the wind favorable. Defences were planned at once; and on the 27th, leaving an engineer, supported by a guard under Munroe, to superintend the construction of them, the General returned to the army, then some ten miles from Matamoros. The next morning all advanced, and soon came to rough defiles. On each side bristled what a soldier described as an irregular, impenetrable mass of “scraggly, scrubby, crooked, infernally illegitimate and sin-begotten bushy trees loaded with millions of thornpins”—that is to say, chaparral. Passing this and a few cabins in the midst of corn, cotton and pomegranates, the troops found themselves at the end of their march, Río Bravo, the “Bold river of the North,” brown with mud, rolled swift and boiling at their feet; and in plain view about half a mile distant—black with crowded house-tops, gay with flags, and noisy with bugles and barking dogs—lay Matamoros. A rude pole was soon raised; to the music of our national airs the colors went up; and a small masked battery of field guns was planted near them.[21]

A singular political game then took place between Taylor and Mejía. The former did everything possible to convince the Mexican general that his movement was entirely pacific, and offered to “enter into any arrangements to secure the peace and harmony of the frontier” during negotiations between the two governments; but the latter insisted over and over again that a state of war had been created by the American advance. In spite of this Taylor reminded his officers of the “essentially pacific” and “conciliatory” intentions of the army; yet at the same time he reported the Mexican attitude as distinctly hostile, asked for reinforcements, mounted four 18-pounders to command the city, and about April 7 began what came to be known as Fort Brown, a large, bastioned “field-work” opposite the lower end of the city.[22]


On April 11 General Ampudia, the assassin of Sentmanat, arrived at Matamoros to assume the chief command, accompanied by cavalry and followed, as the Americans understood, by two or three thousand more troops. The next day he signalized his advent by ordering Taylor to decamp at once for the other side of the Nueces—a proposal to which a courteous negative was returned—and by compelling all the Americans in the city, “under open threats of violence,” to leave town within twenty-four hours. Taylor retaliated by requesting our naval commander off the Rio Grande to stop the use of that stream. As the Mexican attitude made it impossible for us to have the joint navigation implied by our claim, this appeared reasonable; but essentially the measure was defensive, since without supplies coming by water a large force could not remain long at Matamoros. When Ampudia complained, the General pointed out that sealing up the river was only the “natural result of the state of war so much insisted on by the Mexican authorities as actually existing,” and offered to reopen it if Ampudia would join him in maintaining an armistice during the negotiations of the two governments; but this led to no result.[23]

Ampudia’s orders and intention had been to attack the Americans as soon as possible, but his glorious prospects darkened immediately. Though given the place of Major General Arista, long at the head of military affairs in this quarter, because he supported the revolution of Paredes while Arista not only frowned upon it, but seemed to aim at making northeastern Mexico independent, Ampudia was detested and thought incompetent—an opinion he did not share—by not a few in the northern army, whereas Arista stood high in his caste, and, as a person of wealth and position, had strong friends well able to make trouble for the central government. Consequently an order dated April 4 made Arista commander-in-chief with Ampudia as lieutenant. The latter was immediately forbidden to shine on the field of glory, and, finding his officers would not support him in disobedience, he submitted.[24]

Arista, however, bearing instructions dated April 4 to attack the Americans, reached the scene on the 24th, and ordered his cavalry general, Torrejón, to cross above Matamoros with about 1600 men. Hearing a rumor of this movement, Taylor sent Captain Thornton and about sixty dragoons late that afternoon to reconnoitre; and the next morning, some twenty-eight miles from camp, finding himself completely shut in by overwhelming forces, the Captain tried to break through, lost several men killed and wounded, and then with all the rest surrendered. This was war. “Hostilities have begun,” announced Arista on the day of his arrival. “Hostilities may now be considered as commenced,” reported Taylor on the 26th; and—besides advising Polk to organize twelve-months volunteers—he at once called upon Texas and Louisiana for about 5000 men.[25]


It was a tragic and most regrettable dénouement; yet, on a close review of all the data now accessible, one does not find it easy to censure Polk. If he had wished and meditated war from the first, why did he work for an amicable settlement through Parrott, Black and Slidell? For the sake of appearances, many said. But in the first place we have found that Polk was honest in those negotiations; and, in the second, had war been his aim and appearances his care, he would not have permitted the order of January 13 to be issued that day. On January 12 it looked at Washington as if the question of receiving Slidell would soon be decided. The President could afford to wait a little, and he would have done this, for it was clear that an unnecessary military step, taken while he was extending the olive branch, would needlessly make him appear either treacherous or ridiculous. Moreover if he sought a war, he knew on January 12 that matters were shaping themselves to his taste; that Mexico was almost sure to close the door of negotiation soon; and consequently that he would soon be able to demand of Congress the forcible redress of our grievances.[26]

Here lay a casus belli amply endorsed by international law, the practice of civilized powers, and the general opinion of the world. It was a ground, too, that Polk himself, as we have seen, felt entirely satisfied to stand upon, and one that our people, feeling as they did, would almost certainly have accepted. Having, then, apparently within his reach a pretext for war that almost everybody thought good, he would not have exerted himself to obtain one that almost everybody thought bad; and in fact—evidently expecting no event of decisive importance to occur near the Rio Grande—he went on day after day with his plan to lay our grievances before Congress, until news of the attack on Thornton burst upon Washington like a rocket. On the hypothesis that he had wished and meditated war from the first and merely stuck at appearances, his conduct was therefore irrational; and, besides, we have seen adequate reasons for believing that he desired peace.[26]

Discarding that hypothesis, however, leaves us the important question, How did the idea of sending Taylor forward present itself to Polk? First, then, from his point of view it seemed entirely permissible. A proprietor is not debarred from going where a squatter has built a cabin; and in the light of our official claim and arguments Mexican occupation above the Rio Grande was merely by sufferance. The so-called “provocative act” of pointing guns at Matamoros could not be charged against the government, for Marcy had suggested other points also for Taylor’s camp, leaving the choice to him. It was a defensive measure adopted by the General for military reasons in conjunction with pacific assurances and proposals; and we learn from Arista and others that it had a sedative effect on the property owners of that flimsily built city and on the army authorities.[27]

No encroachment upon the powers of Congress appeared to be involved. Had Polk’s aim been, as Calhoun alleged, to establish a boundary, he could not have tolerated Mexican posts, for the troops of foreign states cannot be permitted to sojourn within our officially defined limits. Besides, Polk had sent Slidell to treat on this very question, and Slidell had not given up the task. Though it rested with Congress to declare war, a President could legally, in the exercise of his discretion, take steps liable to bring about hostilities. Moreover Congress appeared to have authorized Taylor’s movement. Corpus Christi, claimed by Tamaulipas, had been made an American port of delivery. A collection district had been established in the intermediate region. The declaration of Polk’s Message, December, 1845, that our jurisdiction had been extended to the Rio Grande, and Marcy’s appended report, which announced that Taylor’s instructions were to regard that stream as our boundary, had raised no storm. For six months, admitted the chief Whig organ, our doings in this field not only had appeared to be endorsed by the people, but had gone on openly without calling forth “a single question from any public authority.” Officially notified of the military occupation of Corpus Christi, Congress, instead of protesting, had voted supplies for the troops. Finally, Congress had instructed the Executive, in the resolutions for annexing Texas, to reach an agreement with Mexico regarding the boundary; it was his duty to persevere in the attempt until convinced he could not succeed; and Taylor’s advance, as will presently be seen, appeared to him a proper step in the discharge of this obligation.[28]

Familiar precedents and principles were believed to sanction the movement of our troops. In 1794 Washington had ordered Wayne to conduct hostilities in disputed territory, and had threatened to destroy a British fort there. In accordance with a resolution of Congress, Madison had seized the “Florida parishes” claimed by Spain. Just before Taylor was ordered to move, Hilliard informed the House of Representatives that England had magistrates in the southern part of Oregon; and John Quincy Adams proposed to take military possession of that disputed territory before concluding negotiations. If such a method could be employed in dealing with countries willing to treat, very naturally—in the case of one that had pronounced for war—pacific occupation, leaving the competing jurisdiction undisturbed, seemed fully justifiable.[29]

Taylor’s advance appeared also to be highly expedient. For one thing, our claim upon the intermediate region would have been weakened, had we refrained from sharing with Mexico in the occupation of it. For another, it seemed wise to place ourselves in a strategic position that would be of great value, should Mexico’s threat of war be carried into effect. And for a third it was believed that a bold military attitude, indicating that at last the United States had made up its mind, would count with Mexico as a strong argument for negotiation. Such was the opinion of Parrott, Slidell, Worth, Taylor, Scott, Archer, now chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, Brantz Mayer, formerly secretary of legation at Mexico, Polk himself, the administration circle in general, and well-informed persons outside it. January 17 Conner was ordered to assemble all his vessels and exhibit them off Vera Cruz—evidently in pursuance of this design. The government organ stated, and opposition writers conceded, that such a purpose was in view.[30]

But essentially, as already has been suggested, Taylor’s advance rested on the necessity of military defence; and indeed there is reason to consider Scott the prime factor in the business, for the order of January 13 was based upon, and in part verbally reproduced, a “projet” submitted by him, whereas Polk’s diary for January 12 and 13 does not even allude to the subject. Now not only were defensive measures called for on general principles, as we have just been informed by the London Times, but the Texans actually and urgently needed a sheltering arm. During the latter part of 1845 the chief Mexican engineers drew detailed plans for crossing, not only the Rio Grande, but the Sabine. Merely the refusal of Paredes, growing out of his revolutionary designs, to reinforce the troops on the frontier with 2400 men prevented an attack at this time. Almonte, who had particularly recommended incursions into Texas, held the post of war minister in January, 1846. The Mexican troops were extremely mobile. Ampudia’s main force, at the end of a long march, did 180 miles in four days. Screened by rancheros and living on a little corn and jerked beef carried in their pouches, a body of light cavalry could have reached San Antonio by way of Laredo, ruined the town, and been well on their way toward home before their movement would have been suspected at Corpus Christi. The government received warnings of this danger from Dimond and from Parrott in 1845; Marcy and Polk feared it; and the probable rejection of Slidell—which meant a triumph of the war party—seemed likely to accentuate the peril. In fact Mejía ordered irregulars into Texas on February 16 and March 17, though, as their commander aspired to execute a revolution with American aid, he did us no harm.[31]

Nor were only such formal incursions to be guarded against. The war of 1836 in Texas had shown what outrages Mexicans were capable of committing, and similar affairs had now begun to occur. In one instance a party of fifteen, including women, after having been induced to surrender, were all butchered except a single person, who survived though seriously wounded. In April, 1846, the Mexicans opposite Matamoros confessed that bloodthirsty guerillas were abroad. Ampudia, whose murderous record had been his chief distinction, commanded there. May 13 the British consul in that city reported that licensed bands of assassins, “caressed, rewarded, and encouraged” by the authorities, were committing atrocities near the Rio Grande; and, had the way been open, such gangs might have robbed and murdered in the settlements of Texas.[32]

The position selected by Taylor was admirably suited to this emergency. Scott, though a Whig, wrote out a long explanation, showing that on the Rio Grande the army had a more healthful camp than before, better drinking water, more abundant fuel, better grazing and a better port. Information could be obtained more quickly; the border watched more closely; an invading force pursued more promptly; and its line of retreat cut more certainly. Besides, the river amounted to a great breastwork, for this part of it could be crossed with safety at only certain points, and a body of men, even though comparatively small, could not cross anywhere on its lower course without peril. It was not, however, simply that the Rio Grande position seemed far the best. The nature of the region made it essential. Taylor had to be in that vicinity or else near Corpus Christi, and for purposes of defence the latter point could not be deemed satisfactory. Now the necessity of defence was entirely due to the threatening conduct of Mexico. Therefore she could not reasonably complain of our precautions; and if she could not complain, then no one could do so in her name.[33]

But the challenge was triumphantly thrown out: Can it be denied that our taking a position on the river did in fact cause the war? In view of the data it can and should be denied. First, joint occupation of the disputed region might have gone on peaceably, as occupation of that character has continued elsewhere, but for a distinctly aggressive step on the part of Mexico; and, secondly, for her the Rio Grande had no particular significance. She claimed all of Texas, and intended to drive us from it, if she could. Furthermore, the crass vanity and ambition of Mexican generals and the exigencies of domestic politics would probably have led to an attack upon us, had Taylor remained at Corpus Christi, or even pitched his camp at San Antonio. In spite of express orders, Mejía actually attempted an offensive in the intermediate region. When the Mexican government gave formal notice to England and France in the summer of 1845 that war had become inevitable, our army lay far from the Rio Grande. Taylor’s advance to the Bold River no more produced the war than Pitcairn’s march to Lexington produced the American revolution. It was an effect and an occasion, but not a cause.[34]


Finally, as a matter of fact, the hostilities were deliberately precipitated by the will and act of Mexico. The circumstances proved this and testimony illuminates them. In October, 1847, a pamphlet written by Mariano Otero, editor of El Siglo XIX and Senator from the state of Jalisco, appeared. His object was by no means to defend the United States, but he said: “The American forces did not advance to the Rio Grande until after the war became inevitable, and then only as an army of observation.... The military rebellion of San Luis [Potosí] gave rise to a government [that of Paredes] pledged to resist all accommodation [with the United States] ... which government ... began hostilities.” Arista declared in December, 1847, “I had the pleasure of being the first to begin the war.” In short, Polk told only the truth when he said the conflict was forced upon us. Mexico wanted it; Mexico threatened it; Mexico issued orders to wage it; and on April 18 her President, no doubt in view of his political difficulties, insisted upon those orders. “It is indispensable,” he wrote urgently to Arista, “that hostilities begin, yourself taking the initiative.”[35]

“If in a litigious affair,” declared Vattel, “our adversary refuses the means of bringing the right to proof, or artfully eludes it; if he does not, with good faith, apply to pacific measures for terminating the difference, and above all, if he is the first who begins acts of hostility, he renders just [even] the cause which was before doubtful.” Every condition of this judgment fitted the course of Mexico.[36]

May, 1846


The Mexico of 1845 had an elaborate military organization. In addition to the comandantes general—regularly one in each department or state—there were six generals at the head of the six military Divisions in which the political divisions of the country had been grouped. The college at Chapultepec provided a full course of instruction for officers; and though it seemed hardly worth while to spend three years there in order to become a second lieutenant, when one could leap at once into a captaincy or something better by acting as the tool of a revolting general, there were never less than one hundred students.[1]

At the head of the army stood a sort of general staff called the plana mayor; but the duties of this inefficient body fell mostly to the engineers, some of whom possessed excellent qualifications, while others—admitted to the corps for political or personal reasons—did not. The artillery, which included nominally four brigades with fourteen batteries, suffered from this all-pervading evil and also from defects of its own. Many of the guns had come down from olden times, though a large number of the field pieces equalled any the United States possessed; not a few were honeycombed; and the carriages were mostly of the old Gribeauval pattern. To convey ammunition, carts had to be obtained when needed. For the transportation of ordnance, mules or oxen were usually hired by contract; and, as the drivers had no acquaintance with artillery drill and tactics, battery evolutions were out of the question, and guns could be moved but slowly, if at all, during an engagement.[1]

The so-called Permanent infantry consisted substantially of three Light (Ligero) and twelve Line regiments, and there were also twenty-five Active (Activo) corps, large or small, which, though originally designed as a sort of reserve to be called out in emergencies, were now constantly under arms. Owing to the great extent of the country the regiments were broken into sections, which assumed to be independent; and for this reason drill, discipline and esprit de corps suffered greatly. Training and equipment left much to be desired. When four simple manoeuvres were understood, soldiers were pronounced perfect. For arms almost all the infantry had flint-lock muskets, many of which had been discarded by the British army. Firing from the hip to avoid the recoil marred their aim; and, partly in consequence of using too much powder, they generally fired high. Of horse there were ten Permanent and five Activo regiments besides numerous minor units. The cavalry included also nearly fifty Presidial companies, originally designed to guard the frontier against Indian raids; but these had almost vanished except in name, and the remnants were extremely inefficient. The mounted men carried in general a sword and a sort of blunderbuss called the escopeta, but many used lances instead of swords. About 3000 Coast Guards are also to be mentioned, but as a rule they were expected merely to defend the ports where they lived and the immediate vicinity. In all there may have been 32,000 men under arms in 1845.[1]

The medical corps suffered at all times from the low quality of its personnel and from its defective equipment; and the accommodations for surgeons in a campaign were so poor that many found pretexts for remaining behind when their corps took the field. The commissaries had peculiar difficulties to meet. A Mexican army drew supplies from places near it and not from government dépôts; and when money failed, as it often did, payments had to be made with drafts on the treasury, which possessed an uncertain value. Hence people often would not part with supplies, the troops went hungry, and the natural tendency toward inefficiency and desertion was accentuated. In order to release the army from service in the interior, when hostilities became imminent in 1845, it was decided to organize volunteer corps; but almost every one, however anxious to see the United States chastised, preferred to let somebody else do the work.[1]

Mexico, then, did not exactly rise en masse to sweep Taylor away,[2] yet the forces gathered at Matamoros could be termed respectable. Arista seems to have had about 175 artillerymen, 3500 infantry, 1100 cavalry, 425 irregular horse under General Antonio Canales and some 500 Matamoros volunteers—in all, say, 5700 men including officers and ineffectives. His first brigade consisted of infantry led by García, a fine man and officer; the second, also infantry, had Vega, a brave and patriotic soldier, for commander; and the third brigade, cavalry, was under Torrejón, who possessed one excellent quality—the instinct of self-preservation. Canales could be described succinctly as a border ruffian and conspirator; and Ampudia, second in general command, was about the same thing plus a cosmopolitan varnish.[3]


After news of Taylor’s intention to advance reached Matamoros, the Mexicans worked most zealously in constructing fortifications there, and by the end of April had a series of earthworks. Just above the city was erected Fort Paredes, laid out in regular style for 800 men, which guarded the ferry of Las Anacuitas. Two redoubts, crossing their fires, were planted opposite Fort Brown at a distance of seven or eight hundred yards; and two or three minor forts commanded approaches. Gabions or wicker-work strengthened the embrasures, and fascines and sand-bags were freely used. No guns heavier than 12-pounders defended the works, and no platforms were laid; but in general the ordnance was of brass, well cared for though somewhat honeycombed.[4]

For a number of reasons the garrison felt confident. Through deserters and spies they knew as much as they were capable of understanding about the American army. To Mejía our general seemed “more contemptible than the lowest of Mexican tailors,” and to Ampudia “an absolute nullity.” The martial Worth, who did impress them, left the front at the beginning of April because Polk decided against him on the question of brevet rank. Hitchcock had been compelled to go north on sick leave. For some good reason every infantry colonel and many others in high positions were absent. One regiment had not a field officer, and in another only a single company could boast a captain. Personally the officers in general were believed to lack harmony and zeal, and the men to be discontented, hopeless, unwilling to fight, and enfeebled by their hardships and misbehavior at Corpus Christi. According to Mexican reports our cavalry could neither shoot nor control their hard-bitted horses, and our infantry, chiefly composed—except the officers—of needy foreigners, came short in discipline, training and every other soldierly qualification save appetite. “Those adventurers cannot withstand the bayonet charge of our foot,” said Mejía, “nor a cavalry charge with the lance.”[5]


No very alarming degree of intelligence had appeared to direct the American operations. Our troops were on a point exposed to a convergent fire; Fort Brown enfiladed none of the hostile batteries, though it might have been planned to do this; near the cavalry camp stood thick groves offering shelter to assailants; behind our main position was a lagoon forming—with a bend of the river—almost a circle; and the enemy, once in possession of the single road, which ran for seven or eight miles through rough country, would have had the army in a bottle. All the ammunition and provisions were brought by wagon from the coast, exposed to attack at every step. The imperfectly fortified base at Point Isabel, stored with indispensable supplies, had a garrison of only two companies aside from two or three hundred sutlers, clerks, teamsters and the like; and vessels could approach the landing only by a narrow passage between two islands, which could have been closed by a few 6-pounders. Yet we should have encouraged Mexico beyond calculation, and might have been injured greatly in Europe, had we now given up Fort Brown.[6]

A number of small disasters overtook the Americans. Colonel Cross, chief of the quartermaster’s department, went out and never came back. April 22 Lieutenant Porter and ten men, operating against the banditti, allowed their arms to get wet, and were scattered with loss by a party of Mexicans. Twenty of the Texas rangers commanded by Captain Walker permitted themselves to be surprised, and half of them were either killed or driven beyond recall. Taylor attributed these mishaps to a lack of experience, but the enemy regarded them as proofs of inferiority; and when Thornton’s party succumbed, the enthusiasm burst all bounds. “Honor and glory a thousand and one times” to the “brave men” of the army, cried a Tampico leaflet, and a triumph in the anticipated battle appeared certain.[7]


From another source also the Mexicans drew encouragement. While Taylor’s officers were nearly all West Pointers and perhaps quite all native Americans, many of the privates were in fact of European birth and a large percentage Roman Catholics. To these Mejía, Ampudia and Arista issued moving appeals based upon religious prejudice and alleged foreign condemnation of our course toward Mexico, gilded with generous promises of rewards for deserting, supported by the luring voices of gayly dressed sirens who lined the opposite bank of the river all day, and reinforced by two captured American dragoons, who were given back, and reported that deserters received handsome treatment. A considerable number of men, largely veteran offenders from the British army, stole across; most of the Seventh Infantry were believed ready to change sides; and the Mexicans boasted exultingly that “Old Taylor” himself would soon be over.[8]

Arista, who had spent several years in the United States, did not feel very sanguine. Ampudia’s predictions of glory he regarded as “castles in the air,” or as perhaps intended to raise expectations that Ampudia’s successor would be unable to satisfy. But the officers and the troops felt impatient for combat. So loudly and so long had the charges of haughtiness, perfidy, aggressiveness and greed been reiterated against us, that all believed them true. The Americans were in their eyes accursed heretics, eager to trample under foot their holy religion: and they were also barbarians, capable of everything rough and cruel. In the event of their success the family hearth was to be polluted, the glorious, dearly-bought independence of the nation crushed, and the adored accents of the mother-tongue stifled. To the Indian rank and file the word “patriotism,” indeed, meant little; but they loved their villages, and could imagine even worse tyrants than Mexicans. The name “foreigner” had a terrible sound in their ears, and fanatical devotion to the Roman church set their passionate natures aflame. At the first sight of the “detestable” Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze, they had loudly demanded battle, and later the confident hope of triumph gave a still keener edge to their enthusiasm. Taylor evidently despised the enemy, believing there was no fight in them; but those tawny fellows, though miserably clothed and apparently spiritless, were trained to “blind obedience,” could fight like devils while their strength and fury lasted, and had now reached a good state of discipline. Even Captain Hardee of Thornton’s command, a prisoner at large in Matamoros, believed the Mexicans would gain the coming battle.[9]

One of Taylor’s most obvious needs in taking post on the Rio Grande was a light corps available for scouting, and in ordering him to advance, Marcy had expressly authorized him to call upon the Texans—by whom legs were valued chiefly as the means of sticking to a horse—for assistance; but nothing was done about the matter. On April 11 a friend in Matamoros warned him that an attempt might be made to cut his line to Point Isabel, but he did not seem to feel concerned. His troops were merely drawn beyond the effective range of Ampudia’s artillery; the work of fortifying was quickened; on the 23d he described the fort complacently as “in a condition of defence”; and a week later he contented himself with having the road inspected for seven miles. Point Isabel, he said as early as April 12, could withstand attack.[10]

Fort Brown to Brazos Island

Arista, for his part, decided quite naturally, while on his way to Matamoros, that he would plant himself on the American line of communication, and prevent our army from receiving ammunition, provisions and reinforcements. Accordingly the 1600 men under Torrejón, after disposing of Thornton’s command, passed Fort Brown, held the road for some days without the knowledge of Taylor, and then by a grave blunder were drawn away, and concentrated on the Rio Grande opposite Longoreño, eight or ten miles below the city, to protect the crossing of the other troops, who proceeded to that point by several routes in order to deceive the Americans. The last day of the month Ampudia with his brigade and four guns went over; and on May 1 Arista—leaving Mejía with about 1400 men to hold Matamoros—followed with his other brigade and eight pieces. Unfortunately for him three scows of little capacity were the only boats available; and as these had been taken to Longoreño in carts by a circuitous route nearly fifteen miles in length, so as to avoid exciting our suspicions, they were not in good order. One or two, in fact, seem to have been almost useless, and hence many precious hours were lost; but at any rate the army succeeded in crossing a swift river without injury almost under the eyes of the Americans.[11]


By about one o’clock in the afternoon on the first of May Taylor heard that Mexicans were below him, and awoke. He saw now that Fort Brown required munitions and food, and that Point Isabel could not, even yet, resist a serious attack. Tents came down in haste; the wagon train was made ready; and at about half-past three—leaving behind the Seventh Infantry commanded by Major Brown, with Captain Lowd’s four 18-pounders, Lieutenant Bragg’s field battery and the sick, under orders to hold out as long as possible—Taylor marched for the coast. No time was lost in getting there. The troops bivouacked that night on the damp, chilly plain without fires, and early the next morning set out again. The shallow, greenish-brown lagoons rimmed with broad, flat, oozing banks of mud, the marshes full of tawny grass, and the low ridges mottled with patches of herbage and bald surfaces of gleaming dry dirt, seemed interminable; but as hours passed the now sultry air began to be streaked with salt odors, and by noon the panting troops caught the sparkle of blue waves. Fortunately they could not hear the shouts of joy in Matamoros over what was called their precipitate flight.[12]

As it was necessary to strengthen the defences, all the troops now exchanged their muskets for picks and shovels. May 6 the engineer in charge was authorized to continue the work by employing a hundred laborers; and at about three o’clock the next day, escorting more than 200 loaded wagons, the little army, preceded by a body of dragoons, moved out on the return march. As the small garrison of Fort Brown had provisions for at least three weeks, and the Mexicans could not be expected to attack it seriously with Taylor approaching their rear, whereas they were practically sure to be met on the road, Taylor’s best officers entreated him to gain freedom of action by leaving the train behind, which at most would have delayed it only a day or so; but he would not. No fears disturbed his mind. Reinforced with perhaps 200 men just landed at the Point, the army now with him numbered 2228, all told. Recent exercise and drill had left it in a splendid physical condition. Recollecting how long popular orators had been mocking at the “regulars,” it longed to do something. The attacks upon Cross, Walker, Porter and Thornton had exasperated its temper; nothing could have pleased the great majority of the soldiers better than a fight; and the General felt very much the same way.[13]

When it had made about seven miles the army bivouacked, and early the next day it resumed the march. Soon after noon, when some ten or twelve miles more had been covered, a low, dark line could be seen across the plain in front, some two or three miles away. It was the Mexican army. As the pond or water-hole of Palo Alto lay near, the tired and thirsty troops were permitted to halt, rest a little, drink and fill their canteens; and then Taylor had them posted in order of battle. At the extreme right the Fifth Infantry led by Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh was placed, and on its left in succession came Major Ringgold’s battery, the Third Infantry (Captain Morris), two 18-pounders on siege carriages under Lieutenant Churchill, and the Fourth Infantry (Major Allen). The Third and Fourth made up a brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Garland; and all the troops just mentioned, together with Twiggs’s dragoons, some 250 strong, in two squadrons led by Captains Kerr and May, formed the right wing. The other wing, known as the first brigade and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Belknap, consisted of the Artillery Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Childs, Captain Duncan’s battery, and the Eighth Infantry, posted in this order from right to left. The wagons were then assembled near the pond at the side of some woods, and Kerr was detached with his squadron to guard them.[14]

May 8, 1846


During these days Arista had waited for Taylor’s return; but, in order to hasten that and perhaps accomplish direct results, he had ordered the guns of Matamoros to begin cannonading Fort Brown on the morning of May 3, and two days later, believing the garrison were near starvation, sent Ampudia to invest it. For the sake of water and to cover all of the roads that might be taken by the American army, he placed himself at Los Tanques del Ramireño; and about noon on the eighth, learning of Taylor’s approach, he set out for Palo Alto, some five miles away. Shortly before gaining that point he saw through his glass blue American dragoons in the far distance, and, as quickly as he could, put his troops in position. At the extreme right were placed about 150 horse under Noriega, and then came a 4-pounder, a corps of Sappers, the Second Light Infantry, the Tampico Veteran Company and Coast Guards, five 4-pounders, the First, the Sixth and the Tenth Infantry, and finally, beyond an interval of about 400 yards and somewhat in advance, Torrejón and the rest of the cavalry—their front extended, their right strengthened with two small guns, and their left reaching beyond the Point Isabel road to a piece of chaparral on a slight elevation beside a swamp. In the rear of the line were some thickets; just behind the right wing an eminence eighteen or twenty feet high rose above chaparral; protected by this lay a watering-place; and in front there were some boggy pools and wide fields of stiff grass almost shoulder-high.[14]

As soon as formed, the Americans advanced in silence—the 18-pounders, drawn by oxen, following the road—while Lieutenant Blake reconnoitred the Mexican line within musket range to look for artillery. At about two o’clock Ampudia came in sight with the Fourth Infantry, commanded by Colonel Uraga, a company of Sappers, two 8-pounders, and about 400 irregular horse under Canales. Upon this Arista and his staff, a blaze of gold lace, passed rapidly down the line. It seemed strange to find in his position a tall, raw-boned man with red hair and sandy whiskers; but he showed the martial bearing of his nation, and harangued the troops with genuine Mexican eloquence. They were found ready for battle. Answering him with loud vivas they made ready their arms. The silken banners fluttered; the bands played; and at about half-past two or three o’clock, by the General’s order, his artillery opened. The hostile armies were then approximately half a mile apart; and the Mexicans—drawn out, except the cavalry, only two deep on a front about a mile in length without reserves—seemed to number 6000, though probably not more than two thirds as many.[14]

Apparently Taylor’s plan had been to force a passage by charging, for his aim was to reach Fort Brown, and his infantry had been instructed, the day before, to rely mainly on the bayonet; but he now halted. All his infantry except the Eighth regiment deployed into line. At strange words of command—“Haw, Brindle!” “Whoa, Brandy!”—ten yoke of oxen wheeled each ammunition wagon into its place; and the cannon advanced. At this juncture Ampudia’s column approached the field. Canales led his men a considerable distance forward into the scattered chaparral on the Mexican left, probably with a view to cutting off Taylor’s retreat, and thus put himself entirely out of the battlefield; but the rest of the command proceeded toward their appointed place between Torrejón and the infantry, and as this movement appeared to mean a charge, the American fire was turned in that direction. Without faltering, however, they moved up to the line and deployed, but their route was marked with the fallen.[14]

Now ensued about an hour of cannonading, supported by our troops with shouts that often drowned the roar of the guns, and endured by the Mexicans with unfailing constancy. Arista’s pieces, though bravely and skilfully served, were mostly too light. The balls generally fell short, and as they ricocheted, our men stepped aside. But the American practice met every hope. Sometimes a single shot appeared to mow down a whole platoon of mounted men; and here, there, everywhere gaps opened in the infantry. With vivas the gaps instantly closed, but they would not stay closed.[14]

Arista, a bold and experienced officer, expecting Taylor to act on such a plan as Taylor seems actually to have formed, intended to charge both flanks of the advancing Americans with cavalry supported by infantry; but the American artillery surprised him almost as much as if Taylor had used shooting stars. Probably the right course for him would have been to attack anyhow, for his men were still eager to fight, a cannon could be discharged only about once a minute, and our batteries would not have done much more harm at 70 than at 700 yards. But apparently it seemed impracticable to wallow slowly for such a distance through the grass, the sharp edges of which would have cut the legs of his poorly dressed soldiers badly, under so withering a fire. Something had to be done, however, for the troops grew impatient. He therefore directed his right wing to prepare for a charge, and ordered Torrejón and his two small guns to attack the American right, rear and wagons. Reluctantly Torrejón obeyed. Passing to the left, his “red lancers”—probably a thousand strong and “portentous” with trumpets, banners and lance points—advanced through the scattered chaparral and across a slough, becoming somewhat broken on the way, and found themselves at another small morass. Evidently the nature of the ground on which he was likely to operate had not interested Torrejón.[14]

Taylor, sitting unconcernedly with one leg over the pommel of his saddle, writing, was notified of this movement and simply replied, “Keep a bright lookout for them.” But some one—probably Twiggs, who commanded the right wing—had the Fifth Infantry march rapidly more than a quarter of a mile to the right and rear, and throw itself into a square. Torrejón awkwardly approached this body in column instead of line with some of the worthless Presidials in the lead, fired ineffectively, was answered with a disconcerting though not very injurious volley, and recoiled some 300 yards. He then sent word to Arista that a morass rendered his movement impracticable; but on receiving instructions to persevere, he made a circuit, advanced upon the second front of the square, and once more exchanged a volley. Now, however, he found our Third Infantry moving to defend the wagons, and saw two of Ringgold’s cannon hurrying to the scene at a gallop, while his own pieces had not come up. As rapidly as possible, therefore, and quite willingly, he retreated, but not without a salute from our two cannon, which he was unable to return. This unsuccessful manoeuvre exhausted Arista’s ingenuity, and he only waited now for darkness, hoping to get away and find a better position.[14]

During these operations a wad from Duncan’s battery had fired the grass. The wind from the Gulf, nearly parallel to the American front, drove a wall of roaring, crackling flame and a cloud of thick smoke across the plain; and, as the armies could see each other only now and then and in spots, firing had to be suspended for nearly an hour. Meanwhile, believing the Mexican left had given way, Taylor shifted his position behind the screen with a view to advancing. Churchill pushed on by the road nearly to where Torrejón had been; the Fourth Infantry moved up to support him; the Fifth went ahead on the extreme right; the rest of the army made corresponding changes; and as a whole the line diverged now thirty or forty degrees from its original direction, while the wagons came nearly up to it.[14]

But the Mexican left had not yielded, and so Taylor found when he sent a squadron of dragoons to open the way. To avoid being enfiladed, Arista swung his line forward in excellent order, using the Fourth Infantry as a pivot, and again it stood firm under an artillery fire more destructive than at first. Indeed our Fourth Infantry began to suffer a galling cannonade, and Torrejón again assumed the offensive. Canister from the 18-pounders checked him, however, and after sharp musketry exchanges between the Mexican line and our Artillery Battalion, which had advanced and formed a square, serious infantry operations in this quarter came to an end. As for the artillery, Arista had now used up his 650 cannon balls; but the Americans kept at work until nightfall.[14]

On our left, however, important events occurred. From the first Captain Duncan’s battery, which made two fire-units because handled in sections, played a brilliant and effective rôle, supported by the Eighth Infantry and either Kerr’s or May’s dragoons, and advancing or retiring as the course of the battle dictated. When Arista’s change of front threw his right forward nearly 700 yards and seemed to threaten a flank attack, these pieces became more active and more daring than ever, and under their blasting discharges, aided more or less at this time by the 18-pounders, the Mexicans fell rapidly. Again they grew impatient—not principally because they were suffering so terribly, but because they were inactive, and because hints that Arista had sold them began to arrive from Ampudia’s quarter; and finally the extreme right wing broke.[14]

After a time some of the officers and Arista, who exposed himself bravely throughout the battle, induced these troops to go back, and as they were still in much confusion, the remnants of Noriega’s corps, reinforced with 200 men from Torrejón, were ordered to support them. The cavalry, however, badly demoralized themselves, dashed blindly at a trot against the infantry; the resulting disorder extended even to the Tampico men; and these desperate corps, ordered to charge as the only possible way to prevent them from bolting, moved forward aimlessly in succession. Duncan, when he saw this large force advance, withdrew a little, still firing; but soon under cover of the smoke he came up again, and gained an enfilading position. Suddenly with a sharp crack his guns opened, and against the fading horizon his shells and shrapnel could be seen bursting, with almost the regularity of signal rockets, over those dark masses. Driven like sheep by this fire, the Mexican right wing turned toward the left and hurried across the entire field, presenting their flank and to some extent their rear to the Americans at a distance of 200 paces or even less, while, in a somewhat more orderly manner, the First Infantry, which stood next in line, followed them. Now was the time to decide the battle; but, though Taylor had come to this part of the field, nothing could be done, for it was feared that should a charge be made, the enemy’s cavalry might reach the wagons, and cripple our army by destroying the provisions. Indeed, the Americans appear to have drawn back a little toward the train; and the disordered Mexicans, having reached the extreme left and finally the rear of their line, were re-formed.[14]

It was now about seven o’clock. The Americans had lost five killed and forty-three wounded, and the Mexicans probably seven times as many. The afterglow of sunset lighted up the dun clouds of smoke. Darkness was close at hand. Necessarily, therefore, the struggle ended; and while the Mexicans retired through the chaparral to the low eminence behind the original position of their right wing, and there camped in order of battle, the Americans bivouacked where they stood, or in the fitful glare of the still burning grass gave attention to such of both armies as could be discovered lying on the field. At last the prairie fire burned out; the smoke of battle drifted away; the full moon appeared; and the tired troops, watched over by pacing guards, slept between the stacks of arms like images.[14]

Important moral results had been gained by the Americans, but they were not aware of the fact, and expected the battle to be resumed. At about seven o’clock the next morning, however, as the light mist slowly dissolved, their astonished eyes beheld the Mexican line gliding off into the road; and presently, like the tail of a huge serpent, its rear wound away into the chaparral, and vanished. Taylor gazed and reflected, moved a short distance, waited to ascertain through a party of dragoons that it was a genuine retreat, consulted with some of his principal officers, and then decided on pursuit; but the forenoon had to be spent in erecting breastworks and planting four heavy cannon to defend the train, which he now saw should be left behind; and he merely sent forward a composite force of 220 men, under Captain McCall of the Fourth Infantry, to harass the Mexican rear.[15]



Arista turned this delay to good account. The chaparral and woods that his troops had been seen to enter extended with some interruptions to the Rio Grande, a distance of approximately seven miles; and two hours before noon, after marching about halfway through it, he stopped at the Resaca de Guerrero. The Resaca was an ancient channel of the river, but it now consisted merely of a shallow, muddy ravine somewhat in the shape of a bow, several hundred feet wide and three or four feet deep at the banks, lying substantially east and west across the route, with its concave side toward Palo Alto. At the bottom of it, both to the right and to the left of the road, lay narrow ponds, and the space between the water and the banks was rather closely filled with bushes and small trees. Facing round here, Arista planted three or four guns at the right, or east, of the road from Palo Alto where it approached the Resaca, two at least—hidden with branches of trees—on the southern bank of the Resaca, and other pieces at suitable points toward his left. The infantry were placed in two wings divided by the road, with much the greater weight on the right hand, some of the troops taking position just in the rear of the ravine, some behind its northern bank, and some in the chaparral still farther forward. The headquarters tent was pitched in a small clear space or placeta about 500 paces back on the left of the road, and Torrejón’s cavalry halted in the same road still farther away; while Canales with two guns, placing himself on the left a considerable distance back from the Resaca, guarded a cross-road leading to Arista’s rear.[16]

The Mexican position, besides covering every line to Fort Brown, offered a number of other advantages. It did not call for much use of artillery, and therefore neutralized Arista’s deficiency in cannon ammunition. The woods made it impossible for the Americans to employ that dreaded arm effectively. The bank of the Resaca formed a natural breastwork, and it seemed likely that the troops, protected in this manner, would be confident and firm. But evidently a bold and enterprising enemy could take advantage of the woods to conceal his movements; and evidently, too, Arista’s main batteries could fire only in the direction of the road, since there were Mexicans in advance of the Resaca both to right and to left. Another handicap lay in the impossibility of surveying the field and manoeuvring troops—particularly the cavalry; the soldiers, unable to see far, lacked that sense of union and support which Mexicans peculiarly needed; and the want of reserves, though to a certain extent a part of the Fourth Infantry stationed on the right behind the Resaca could act as such, was an additional source of weakness.[16]

A still more serious feature of Arista’s situation was the condition of his troops. Many, and probably most of them, had not eaten for more than twenty-four hours. The sufferings they had witnessed and the neglect of their fallen comrades had worked upon their feelings. The dreadful effectiveness of the American artillery had been profoundly discouraging; many of their officers had proved unworthy of confidence; and above all, accustomed to the duplicity of Mexican leaders and unable to understand their general’s inactivity the day before, many concluded that Arista, who was accused of seeking American support for his alleged revolutionary scheme, had betrayed them. This idea, if we may trust common sense and Mexican intimations, was suggested or at least encouraged by Ampudia himself; and the coöperation of all these depressing influences had spread a general conviction through the army by the forenoon of May 9 that a great disaster would befall it that day. A few, it was said, broke their weapons in despair; and utter dejection could be read in the faces of every corps. Some reinforcements were drawn from the city, but they did not materially improve the situation.[16]


Taylor, then, advancing at about two o’clock, after detaching most of the Artillery Battalion and perhaps Kerr’s dragoons to guard the train, moved forward to the edge of the woods, and halted at what was called the Resaca de la Palma to await information. The advance corps under McCall, which consisted principally of the light companies of the first brigade under Captain C. F. Smith, was now feeling its way toward the enemy. At a little after two o’clock, turning a bend in the road, it found cannon in front. Instantly they fired. About half a dozen Americans fell, and the rest quickly withdrew. At three o’clock McCall’s report arrived at headquarters. Taylor pushed on immediately, and in about an hour came up with the advance party. Ringgold’s battery, now commanded by Lieutenant Ridgely, was sent forward on the road, and McCall’s command, thrown into the chaparral on both sides, began a slow and painful advance through the bushes. Almost immediately it found itself in contact with the enemy.[16]

Under such circumstances McCall could give the battery no support, of course, and the only reasonable expectation was that Ridgely’s men and horses would be shot from the woods, and his guns be taken. That, however, made no difference to him. His orders were to advance, and advance he would. Once a body of lancers charged his guns, but by a combination of courage, skill and good luck he routed it. Some of the Mexican artillery seems to have moved up the road a little way after McCall retired; but Ridgely, pushing on even into the very smoke of the enemy’s cannon, drove them in spite of stubborn resistance beyond the edge of the Resaca, and then sent back for troops to help him capture them. When the battle became more general he continued to fire upon the Mexican batteries; and, as far as he could without endangering Americans, he also swept the woods with canister, frightening the enemy with a terrible noise in the tree-tops that reminded them of the slaughter at Palo Alto.[16]

To right and to left the battle soon raged. All the Americans on the ground, numbering about 1700, were put in. No general guidance could be exercised. “Chance was the lord of all save the good right arms” of the troops, wrote an officer. In such woods and thickets lines could not be formed. Even companies found it impossible to remain intact. A field officer was no more than a captain, and a captain no more than a subaltern. All got into the work promptly, and all did their best when there. As fast as they could, singly or in little squads, they pushed on, cheering and shouting. Often it required one’s utmost exertions to squeeze through or hack through the dense and thorny chaparral under pelting showers of bullets. Now there was shooting, and now the cold steel struck fire. “My orders was to make free use of the bayonet,” said the General afterwards, and the orders were borne in mind. Here Lieutenant Meade, the future victor of Gettysburg, had a chance to win his spurs; and he was but one of many heroes, though perhaps the most conspicuous in his quarter.[16]

Nor did the Americans have it all their own way. Those Mexicans who fought at all this day, fought like tigers. On the right near the road the Second Light Infantry, which had been placed there in ambush just before the real battle opened, stood firm; but most of its field officers were struck down, and it had to give way. A company of Uraga’s regiment did nobly close by, and every man of it, we are told, was either killed or wounded.[16]

Farther toward Arista’s left, however, our men pushed forward rather easily, though it seemed evident from the firing that Mexicans were in front. Gaining ground in this direction some Americans probably came upon a path which led round the western end of the pond, and gave access to the Mexican flank. Just before the battle began Ampudia learned of the path, and stationed a company of the Sappers and a company of the Fourth Infantry in this quarter; and later he sent another detachment from the Fourth with a gun. Besides these meagre forces probably no corps guarded the left except a few Tampico troops. These also fought well; but the splendid silk banner of the Veterans, the bravest corps in the army, was captured, and only at heavy cost could they fight their way back. Meantime the rest of Uraga’s regiment came over from beyond the road, but it could not stop the Americans; and brave Captain Barbour, followed by a small party, soon approached the placeta. The effect was electrical. Nobody knew how many troops were following him. Canales took flight. The sense of defeat, already imparted by hurrying soldiers of the Second Light, spread across the road from the broken left, and at about half-past five o’clock Arista’s right wing, the strength of the army, crumbled like a sand fort struck by a wave. Except perhaps one, all the corps dissolved; and in a moment, as it seemed, nothing was left but a mob of fugitives.[16]

During all this, Taylor, exposing himself as much as any one, had been fighting at the centre. The proper course to adopt there was to charge the Mexican guns on the road with infantry, but for some reason he sent May’s dragoons against them. In a way the effort succeeded. Slashing as they galloped, the horsemen quickly ran over the batteries—more than a quarter of a mile beyond them, in fact; and then, coming back in a scattered condition, had a chance to slash again, for the batteries had been reoccupied. But the thickets on both sides were full of Mexican infantry. Against their muskets the dragoons were mere targets—broad ones, too; and before long the squadron, much the worse for its charge, recrossed the Resaca. Taylor was disgusted. Turning to Belknap and the Eighth Infantry he exclaimed, “Take those guns, and by —– keep them!” A part of the Fifth joined Belknap; and these men, rushing in furiously all together, yelling like fiends, after a brief though sharp struggle with the artillerymen—for the supporting infantry had now abandoned their position—captured the pieces. But the battle had already been won.[16]

Before McCall had shown himself Arista, dazed perhaps by his reverse at Palo Alto, valuing too highly his new position, and probably overestimating the injury inflicted on Taylor the day before, had made up his mind that no immediate attack was to be expected, and after placing the army had withdrawn to his tent, and busied himself in writing. Even when firing began, he said it was only a skirmish; and after our troops reached his left flank, he merely ordered Ampudia and the rest of the Fourth Infantry to go and settle things in that quarter. When Americans appeared at the placeta, however, he awoke. Pouring curses on the cowards of his army, he hurried to the cavalry, and taking the place of Torrejón, who had refused to charge, dashed up the road. His men lanced a few lingering American dragoons and helped a few comrades to escape, but the battle could not be saved. On one side of the road at least, Americans already held the chaparral, and like May he could not stand against protected infantry.[16]

At the head of the cavalry he retreated, therefore, and turning to the left crossed the Rio Grande by one of the lower passages. Other fugitives got over at various points; and a great number, passing Fort Brown, which was about three miles from the battlefield, crowded to the Anacuitas ferry. Here they found a couple of scows; and some troops, that had been engaged all this time in annoying Fort Brown, stood on guard. But the fleeing soldiers were panic-stricken, the boats moved slowly, and the Americans were looked for at every moment. Men fought for places. Clothing and arms were thrown away. Many tried to swim or fell accidentally into the water, and an unknown number perished in the swift current.[16]

“Rio Bravo! Rio Bravo!
Saw men ever such a sight
Since the field of Roncesvalles
Sealed the fate of many a knight?”

But the Americans did not come. Taylor had scarcely any fresh troops except those guarding the wagons nearly or quite five miles in the rear. May’s dragoons had been used up. Apparently no effort had been made to communicate with Fort Brown, and have its defenders—now tired but not exhausted—sally forth to help reap the fruits of the expected victory. Taylor only claimed to have captured “a number” of this utterly broken army facing a difficult river. Even badly wounded men got safely across, it would seem; and very soon, in spite of everything, nearly four fifths—that is to say, about 4000 besides those under Canales—of the troops commanded by Arista on the first of the month appear to have been in safety on the south shore. He lost on May 9, according to his official report, 160 killed, 228 wounded and 159 missing, but the accuracy of the figures may be doubted. Fourteen officers, eight guns and a large amount of property were captured by the Americans, while their casualties were only 33 killed and 89 wounded.[16]

During the whole week so dramatically concluded, Fort Brown had been under attack.[17] On May 3 it replied vigorously, though with trifling results, to the guns of Matamoros; but as Taylor, with more than a month of good weather and about 300 wagons at his disposal, had neglected to bring up a stock of ammunition, it fired only occasionally after that in order to notify both friend and foe that its courage still held good. On the 4th Canales occupied the road, and on the next day Ampudia arrived with four guns and nearly a thousand men. Arista, however, believing his cannon were not heavy enough to breach the wall and confident that hunger would soon reduce the garrison, forbade assault. The besiegers made themselves extremely disagreeable; but by this time the Americans had bomb-proofs and “gopher holes,” and, aside from the death of Major Brown, met with no serious losses. Taylor’s profound silence, after as well as before the battle of Palo Alto, caused intense anxiety; but when the cannon began to “bark” again on the 9th, and especially when a throng of panic-stricken fugitives could be seen rushing past, haggard faces put on smiles. Finally a solitary messenger approached at a gallop with his reins on the horse’s neck, waving cap and sword, and shouting “Victory!” and the long strain ended in exultation.[18]


The Mexican army was now hanging like a plum, overripe, shaken by the wind and ready to fall. To the British consul it seemed utterly demoralized, and beyond the possibility of reorganization. Yet there it was permitted to rest and recuperate undisturbed. The official explanation said that although a pontoon train had been proposed a long time before, the dim prospect of hostilities had not seemed to warrant that expense; but like numerous other official statements put out in the course of the war, this explanation hid more than it told.[19]

A bridge might have been in readiness; but, though several officers had been laboring for more than a month to focus Taylor’s mind upon the subject, “the old gentleman,” wrote Meade, “would never listen or give it a moment’s attention,” Flat-boats and scows, towed by the light steamers belonging to the army, might have been sent from Point Isabel into the river, and the troops, reinforcements and light batteries, crossing at the much-used ferry of Burrita, less than twenty miles from Matamoras, and by land appearing at the town, say, in early morning, could probably have taken army, cannon and ammunition substantially complete. Instead of doing anything of this description, Taylor now sent down to Point Isabel for mortars and for plank to make into boats, and went there himself. A slight illness delayed him further; and in eight days nothing was accomplished in the direction suggested beyond placing at Burrita a battalion of the First Infantry and some 200 volunteers just landed at Point Isabel.[19]

Still, though let alone, Arista occupied no enviable position. He was commonly charged with incompetence, treason or both. Many of the officers had forsaken their troops in the hour of danger, and were now viewed with distrust and contempt. The men felt exhausted and profoundly disheartened. Even the dogs kept still. Provisions, ammunition and funds were scant. Fierce complaints and recriminations became rife. Panic brooded over all. Taylor’s inaction seemed an encouraging sign, however, and on the 17th a request for a suspension of hostilities, accompanied with hints of a peaceful settlement, was made by Arista. This petition Taylor rejected. But, not aware that a general’s first duty in war is to eliminate the fighting strength of the enemy, he said that Arista might retire with his army, the sick and the wounded, if he would give up all public property. In fact, as if anxious to fight these men again after letting them get nicely rested, he threatened to bring Matamoros down about their ears, unless they would move to a safer place.[20]

Arista had been ordered to hold the city as long as possible, but a council of officers pronounced it indefensible; and, besides feeling no violent wish to sacrifice himself, he doubtless realized that nobody was ready to stand by him. He therefore ordered now an immediate retreat, and a wild scramble ensued. The transportation facilities were entirely inadequate. Some of the guns and ammunition had to be thrown into the river. The troops of Canales were dismissed. A large number of men deserted; and the rest, leaving four or five hundred sick and wounded in the town, hurried away. Fatigues and miseries almost unspeakable were their lot, and also for some time a terrible fear of pursuit. Heat, cold, thirst, famine, tempest, sickness, desertion, a route lined with dead animals, sleep in the mud as profound as the sleep of the grave, troopers carrying their horse furniture, deaths from exhaustion or broken hearts, and even suicides—these made up the record. Finally, almost at the end of the month 2638 men, according to an officer, crawled painfully into Linares, and a week later Arista received orders to place Mejía in command.[21]

Taylor, all this while, had been proceeding in his deliberate way. Boats were made and put on the river two or three miles above the town, and early on the eighteenth troops began to cross; but when the first of them were over, a report that Arista had retreated was confirmed, and the greater part of the army, retracing their steps, used the regular Anacuitas ferry. As they approached Fort Paredes the city officials—dressed all in white, bearing white flags and riding white horses—came forth to surrender Matamoros. No terms of capitulation were granted, but the General said he would protect persons and property, and allow the civil laws to continue in force; and already he had promised to respect the religion of the people. To their surprise the Americans appeared to find themselves among friends, for the lately implacable but seldom tactless Mexicans came up smiling, cried “Amigo, amigo!” and with sunny enthusiasm offered their hands; and although a feeble pursuit of Arista produced only insignificant results, the victors felt well content. Their superiority as fighting men had been demonstrated. Their artillery had evidently surpassed the Mexican artillery in both mechanical and personal qualities. The officers had exhibited the finest courage, esprit de corps and skill. An army supposed to outnumber ours three to one had been scattered, and a prestige of the utmost value at home, in Mexico and in Europe, had been gained.[22]


Regarding Taylor, thoughtful officers did not feel enthusiastic, however. The General had shown himself slow, unskilful, wanting in penetration and foresight, and poorly grounded professionally. Nine tenths of the regular officers felt that no talents had been displayed by him, even in the battles. He had shown, said Meade, “perfect inability to make any use of the information” given him. In the opinion of another excellent officer he seemed “utterly, absurdly incompetent to wield a large army.” He had failed to realize the difficulties of his position; had undervalued the enemy; and, as Bliss admitted, had had “no conception” of the Mexican preparations. This last fact dimmed his credit, even for courage, in the minds of discerning critics. But, after all, his resolution had been superb and inspiring. He had succeeded; and among us Americans “Nothing succeeds like success.” The reports written for him read admirably. Terse remarks of his, often tinged with soldierly humor, delighted the general taste at home, and mere questions of tactics or strategy signified in comparison rather less than zero. Besides, he was so democratic—no military stiffness, no West Point “aristocracy” about him. A tidal wave of popularity rose in his favor, and soon Thurlow Weed of New York, the Warwick of the Whig party, came out for him as Presidential candidate. A commission as brevet major general and other official honors did not fail to arrive.[23]

At Mexico the news of these events produced utter amazement and consternation. The public, reported the British minister, had been assured “in the most inflated Tone that Victory would follow the steps of the Mexican Army and that annihilation and dishonour would be the portion of their enemies.” Even General Vega, a man of sense, had predicted a victory that would end the war. Now, alas, the cards had fallen badly. “Profound and bitter sorrow,” as it privately admitted, was the feeling of the government. Down like a plummet went expectations, confidence and courage; down went the plausible hope of Paredes that all the nation, glowing with pride and enthusiasm over a victory, would rally about him; and down also, reported Bankhead, went his monarchical scheme, which four out of five on the Congressional committee appointed to draft a new constitution had favored.[24]


Polk believed in pursuing “a bold and firm course” toward Mexico. In this policy—as her character and methods, the comparative success of England in dealing with her, and the many humiliating failures of the United States indicated—he was right.[1] More and more positive, during his examination of the case before and after the end of April, 1846, became his intention to place the subject before Congress in a strong Message; and when he found that Slidell, who called at the White House on Friday, May 8, held the same opinion, he decided to send that Message “very soon.” The next day he and the Cabinet discussed the question at length once more. George Bancroft, secretary of the navy, was not ready to advise the employment of force, unless Mexico should commit a hostile act; but when, at about six o’clock, Taylor’s report of the Thornton affair presented itself, this difficulty vanished. In the evening, at the President’s request, the Cabinet reassembled, and after another full discussion all agreed that a war Message should be delivered to Congress on Monday. Sunday Polk worked on the paper both before and after going to church, and conferred with leading Congressmen. The military committee of the House, meeting in haste, agreed unanimously to recommend 50,000 men and ten million dollars for the prosecution of hostilities; and the Senators and Representatives gathering in excited and quickly changing groups, anxiously discussed and planned.[4]

About noon on Monday the expected Message arrived at the capitol, and was read to thronged and agitated Houses. Our forbearance has been misconstrued, said the President. “After reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.[2] She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war ... war exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.” “The most energetic and prompt measures and the immediate appearance in arms of a large and overpowering force are recommended to Congress as the most certain and efficient means of bringing the existing collision with Mexico to a speedy and successful termination.” Volunteers to serve not less than six or twelve months, with liberal financial provision for the war, were therefore suggested; but at the same time a desire for an “amicable” as well as early settlement of the pending difficulties was expressed, and a pledge was given to negotiate whenever Mexico would either make or hear proposals.[4]

Objections greeted the Message at once. Calhoun in particular strongly opposed the President’s fundamental idea. Hostilities have occurred, he said; but as Congress has not acted, there is no war “according to the sense of our Constitution.” Archer, a leading Whig Senator, concurred in this view, adding that perhaps the Mexican proceedings had been justifiable, and that first of all a careful investigation of the facts was requisite. Clayton, another Whig, went farther, and said that by having Taylor advance to the Rio Grande Polk had made himself the aggressor. There is no evidence, it was urged, that Mexico has declared war or sanctioned hostilities. Recognition of a state of war would extinguish all treaties with that country, jeopardize the persons and property of our citizens on sea and land, wipe out our claims upon Mexico, expose the nation to untold evils, and perhaps give offence in Europe, objected others; hence let us merely authorize the President to repel invasion. On Benton’s motion the Senate divided the subject of the Message, referring the matter of invasion to the committee on military affairs and the broad question of waging war to that on foreign relations.[3] Excellent possibilities of delay seemed to lurk in this decision. Calhoun favored it.[4]


But the House was prompt and positive. Conveniently reposing on the table there was a bill, presumably growing out of the Oregon issue, which proposed that Polk should be authorized to accept volunteers and repel invasion; and this was now modified to fit the President’s recommendations. It was also given a preamble, which stated that “by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States.” This phraseology displeased most of the Whigs; but they were powerless to change it. In the committee of the whole about an hour and a half were allowed for a partial reading of the Message and the accompanying documents, and thirty minutes for debate. Amidst a great uproar the bill was then reported, ordered without discussion to its third reading, and under the spur of the “previous question” passed. One hundred and seventy-four supported it and fourteen—five from Massachusetts, five from Ohio, and one each from Maine, Rhode Island, New York and Pennsylvania—voted in the negative. The next morning this bill was reported in the Senate.[4]

Calhoun pleaded now for at least a pause of twenty-four hours, and this appeared not unreasonable, since the documents that supported the Message had not yet come from the printer; but the party caucus had resolved upon a course of action, and Benton and Allen, chairmen of the committees on military affairs and foreign relations, announcing that consideration had already been given to both aspects of the war measure, favored immediate action. Cass made an effective speech in the same sense; and, although a test showed that eighteen Senators objected to the preamble, the bill, somewhat amended, was passed finally by a strong majority—forty against only two. Calhoun, Berrien of Georgia and Evans of Maine did not vote. Crittenden and Upham answered to their names, “Aye, except the preamble.” Webster and a few others were absent. In the evening the House accepted the amendments, and the next day at about one o’clock Polk received and signed the bill. Later some of the Whig Congressmen pretended that all they had voted for was to save Taylor’s army; but the 50,000 soldiers and ten millions of money were not asked for a mere rescue party, and it was pointed out in the discussion that the General’s fate would be decided long before the bill would give him troops. By an overwhelming majority in both houses, then, voting in full accord with the President and his Cabinet, war on a large scale was provided for. “The gates of Janus are open,” wrote Alexander H. Stephens.[4]


At every stage of these proceedings flowed a tide of real national feeling, but there were also devious currents that need to be mentioned. Probably few, if any, of the chief actors expected very serious trouble with Mexico. Polk for his part assured Benton that if Congress would recognize the war and provide large forces, he believed the affair could speedily be terminated; and he promised to use no more funds and men than should prove “absolutely necessary to bring the present state of hostilities to an end.” Many Congressmen, who talked with members of the Cabinet, were told that without firing another gun the United States would have a satisfactory treaty within four months.[5] The Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune, an anti-slavery Whig journal, reported that on learning of the action taken by the House Polk said, “I shall now give you peace—I have the power.” “The war was declared as the means of peace”—as a part of the President’s policy of intimidating Mexico into making a settlement, wrote the correspondent of the New York Journal of Commerce. So thought the New York Herald. Merely passing the war bill will be enough, it said; and, especially since Polk’s Message exhibited the same combination of sword and olive branch as his employing Slidell and Taylor jointly, so to speak, one cannot well reject this view, which is supported also by evidence previously offered.[10]

The Democrats, being the administration party, naturally stood by the President,[6] and a wish to make the attitude of the United States impressive and effective was an additional reason for their urgency and haste. But probably these were not the only inducements. The party was falling into dissensions. The Van Buren group felt indignant that New York should occupy a secondary place in the Cabinet, and be represented there by the Old Hunker, Marcy, while the rest of the Democrats complained that Van Buren’s faction, the Barnburners, were dictating everything. A short, inexpensive and successful war—especially one without gunpowder—seemed likely to please the country, provide offices, consolidate the party, and compel the Whigs to lose prestige by endorsing the policy of their opponents, or else to sacrifice popularity by antagonizing it. Moreover it looked as if a discussion of Polk’s course in sending Taylor to the Rio Grande, however correct that course had been, might prove at such a juncture dampening and vexatious; and for all of these reasons it seemed expedient that a war bill, with exactly the preamble already quoted, should be rushed through Congress at the quickest pace.[10]

The Whigs were no less perspicacious, and they especially hated to lose the partisan advantage of charging that Polk had been the aggressor. Mexico has not declared war, they insisted; and with more or less honesty they complained that a regard for sacred truth forbade them to endorse the preamble. But their position was exceedingly delicate. Not only had Mexico long threatened hostilities, prepared openly for them, and severed her diplomatic relations with us at both capitals, but she had in effect made a declaration of war. Her only official voice at this time was that of Paredes; and his agent, Arista, an officer of the highest rank, had given Taylor formal notice of hostilities. Arista had been sent but recently to command against the Americans, and nobody could reasonably suppose that he had proceeded at once to transgress or ignore deliberately the wishes of his master in so grave an affair.[10]

Taylor on the other hand had shown the most pacific disposition both in word and in deed. Nothing serious could be alleged against us except the peaceable joint-occupation of territory long claimed by the United States; and in short, unless Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Pinckney and John Quincy Adams were to be disavowed, it seemed legitimate for Polk and for Congress to hold now that Arista’s attack upon Thornton had been the first hostile act.[7] The preamble, therefore, could not well be rejected; and nearly all of the Whigs, having before their eyes the doom of those who opposed the war of 1812, choked down some honest though mistaken compunctions and in most cases a probably more troublesome lump of partisan regret, and voted for the bill.[10]

As already has been suggested, however, there was in Congress a third party—John C. Calhoun, and for later as well as for present reasons it is desirable to understand his opinions. To him it seemed highly advisable to forestall European interference, and quite possible to avoid a conflict with Mexico, by adjusting the Oregon question before coming decisively to an issue in the Mexican difficulty, and therefore he thought the United States ought by all means to limit itself now to repelling invasion. Personal reasons also led him to deplore the prospect of a conflict in arms. The culmination of his fiery life, the fulfilment of his brilliant dream, had seemed in April to be drawing near. By his convenient method of bending facts and principles to his purpose, as the sparrow makes a nest for herself, he had found it possible to coöperate with the West in spending great sums on internal improvements, and expected in this way to make the Northeast a helpless minority; but he could easily see that war might empty the treasury and bring about new political alignments. For the same reason it looked as if his project of a low tariff also would vanish; and, as we have seen, contemplating the possibility of secession, he did not wish[8] the youth of the southern states to expend their blood in Mexico.[10]

Before the news of Thornton’s encounter arrived he argued with Polk against sending to Congress the proposed Message on our relations with Mexico. During the excitement on that eventful Sunday he not only planned with his partisans in Senate and House to oppose war, but worked for the same purpose with leading Whigs, urging—for example—that Mexico should be given more time to consider the risk of a conflict, as if she had not already been speculating upon it for several years. Then in the Senate he gravely proclaimed the truism that border hostilities do not necessarily constitute war, and turned it into a sophism by applying it in the present case. To compare Arista’s attack upon Thornton to an unmeaning border squabble was truly, in view of the long series of preliminaries, ridiculous; and equally ridiculous was the endeavor to support this fallacy with another: that since Congress had not declared war, a state of war with Mexico could not lawfully exist at this time.[9] “Is not Calhoun deranged?” exclaimed our minister at Paris on hearing of this.[10]

To be sure, Congress is the only branch of our central government that can legally declare war; but, for instance, other nations are not hampered by our Constitution, and might attack us in such a manner as to prevent Congress—for a time, at least—from acting. None the less we should fight, and it would be nonsense to describe our resistance as unconstitutional. As a matter of fact Congress did not declare war against Mexico, and on Calhoun’s theory we had no lawful war with that country. On that theory, not only our military men, Congress and the President, but our Supreme Court, which fully recognized the war, acted unconstitutionally. Indeed, he himself illustrated the untenability of his idea. In order to avoid the weakness of advocating purely defensive operations a Whig leader, Senator Crittenden, said that by repelling invasion he meant pursuing the enemy until we could be sure that no repetition of the outrage would occur. This programme would have involved substantially all that we did against Mexico. It would have meant a war without a declaration; yet Calhoun endorsed it. In short, even one so acute and so deeply interested as he could not find a real argument against the war bill, and his “friends” abandoned him on this issue. By an overwhelming majority Congress rejected his interpretation of the organic law. War existed. No American who recognized our claim to the intermediate region, formally made by national authorities and never withdrawn, and especially none who recognized the claim of Texas, could logically deny that it existed by the act of Mexico; and in the light of its antecedents, including Arista’s declaration of war and attack upon Thornton, the war bill committed the nation properly as well as completely.[10]


We were, then, under arms; but, after all, why? What was the cause of the war? It was not—as will plainly appear in another chapter, it is believed—an unholy determination to obtain California at the cost, if necessary, of fifty thousand lives. It cannot have been a difficulty as to the boundary of Texas, for two nations do not fight over an issue that exists for only one of them—and that one not the aggressor; and for Mexico the question between the Nueces and the Rio Grande had no international significance except when it could be used, as an argumentum ad hominem, to embarrass Americans.[14]

Nor was it a scheme to extend the field of negro servitude. Even a cormorant requires time for digestion, and in 1845 the acquisition of Texas appeared so powerful a bulwark for the peculiar institution, that no strong and widespread craving for additional areas can be supposed to have existed at the beginning of 1846. Besides, as pro-slavery Taylor, Calhoun and Polk, anti-slavery Webster and time-serving Buchanan agreed, free labor was practically sure to dominate California; and hence, in view of the slight probability that much cultivable territory could be obtained in the south against the stubborn opposition of the free states, the war seemed more likely to diminish than to increase the relative strength of slavery. Moreover, the soil south and west of the Rio Grande was unsuitable for cotton, sugar, rice or tobacco. Rich proprietors already owned the land, and had no thought of parting with it. The system of peonage was extremely economical, and it held the ground so firmly that negro slavery, though tried, had been unable to make headway against it. The free laborers of northeastern Mexico would have been, admitted the North American, particularly hostile to our southerners and their methods; and the colored population, it was pointed out, could have escaped gradually from its bonds by amalgamating with the natives. Now the leaders of the “slavocracy” doubtless inquired into the conditions; and, as most of our ministers and probably most of our consuls in Mexico were from their section, they could easily obtain information. Waddy Thompson and A. J. Donelson, for example, believed and said, that slavery would not thrive in northern Mexico.[14]

Polk’s diary and papers reveal no evidence that he seriously considered the interest of the peculiar institution in connection with our Mexican problem. The debates of Congress are equally barren. Soon after the war opened, as we shall discover, northeastern Mexico seemed ready to join the United States or accept our protection, and there is no sign that the slavocracy attempted to improve the opportunity. The politicians most eager to acquire Mexican territory were Dickinson of New York, Hannegan of Indiana and Walker, an anti-slavery man. A northern correspondent of Calhoun wrote that many in New York insisted on extending that way “to augment the strength of the non-slaveholding states,” while a Mobile correspondent said, “I would let the war continue forever before I would take 697,000 [square miles] of territory, which must be free territory.” A meeting in Ohio declared for taking all of that country, and this does not seem to have been paralleled in the South. South Carolina was preëminently the champion of slavery, yet Governor Aiken publicly opposed making acquisitions in that quarter. Calhoun, the leader of the southern ultras there and elsewhere, did the same. So did Waddy Thompson, Botts, Toombs, Lumpkin, Campbell and many other southerners. W. R. King said that while the South would insist—as a point of pride and right—upon sharing the benefit of any territory gained from Mexico, it was a gross libel to represent her as desiring to increase in that way the strength of slavery.[14]

King deplored the war. One of the South Carolina Senators wrote that it was detested nowhere more than in his state. In Georgia, too, the conflict was bitterly opposed. The people did not desire the war, said Toombs. Half of the slaveholders oppose it, admitted Ritchie, a Virginian, editor of the administration organ. Besides all other objections, it was pointed out that the southern policy of conservatism and her stand for a strict construction of the Constitution would be endangered by absorbing a large area mainly populated by extremely inferior aliens. To combat all this evidence, we find hardly anything[11] except the characteristic hints, imaginings and assertions of certain abolitionists.[14]

On the other hand, the evidence that the annexation of Texas was essentially the cause[12] of the war is impressive both in quantity and in quality.[13] Benton, Clay, Robert C. Winthrop, Stephen A. Douglas, Andrew Johnson and many other public men agreed on this point. As Van Buren and substantially all the Whig organs had predicted that immediate annexation would entail war with Mexico, they must be counted in the same class. Charles Sumner drew up a resolution declaring that such was the primary cause, and it passed the legislature of Massachusetts, where the subject was rather closely studied, by overwhelming majorities. The House committee on foreign affairs took that ground in its report of February 24, 1847. All agree upon this, was Winthrop’s declaration. Paredes expressed the same view in the most formal manner. The Mexican minister of war under the government that overthrew Paredes publicly endorsed it; and at least two well-qualified foreign observers, Duflot de Mofras and the biographer of Lord Aberdeen, took the same view. Indeed, the proposition seems demonstrated by the plain course of events.[14]

The mere annexation of Texas cannot, however, be regarded as the sole cause of the war. But for the loudly expressed wrath of the Americans, due mainly to Mexican barbarities in Texas and outrages upon the persons and property of American citizens, Mexico would have been far less irritable, and the annexation difficulty, which came so near to being patched up, might have been adjusted; while, as Polk maintained, if the policy of the United States regarding our claims had been firm, consistent and strong from the first, Mexico would not have dared to risk so much in dealing with us later.[14]

The general cause of hostilities was, therefore, the series of unpleasant incidents occurring in the mutual relations of the two countries from the scandalous treatment of Poinsett down to the scandalous treatment of Slidell, from the first mutterings of discontent in Texas down to the setting of her one fair star in the broad sea of the American Union; and in this long series the annexation of Texas was the chief event.[14]

But one can speak much more definitely. For a term of years, mainly in consequence of the use made of these affairs by self-seeking politicians, the people of Mexico had fed on the ideas of despising, fearing, hating and fighting the United States; Paredes had gained supreme authority on this basis; public sentiment demanded that he should pursue the route marked out by his professions; to beat the small and apparently demoralized American army, led by a backwoods general, seemed quite feasible; it appeared likely that a victory would confirm the dictator’s power, while a failure to strike would ensure his doom; and hence an attack upon our army was ordered. This was the precise cause of the war.[14]


Let us now return to Congress. The war bill of May 13 gave the President authority to use the army, the navy, the militia and not more than 50,000 volunteers—to serve twelve months after reaching the rendezvous “or to the end of the war, unless sooner discharged”—to expend not more than $10,000,000, to complete the vessels of war already authorized, and to purchase additional vessels. By other Acts he was authorized (May 13) to increase by enlistment the number of privates in the regular army from sixty-four to not over one hundred per company, thus bringing the rank and file up to 15,540; a company of sappers, miners and pontoniers and a regiment of mounted riflemen, originally intended to protect emigrants and traders on the Oregon route, were created (May 15 and 19); and numerous details concerning organization were either prescribed or entrusted to the Executive (June 18 and 26).[15] Under the last head authority was given to appoint all the necessary general officers.[16] Meantime (May 13) the President issued a war proclamation, modelled upon that of 1812, in which he announced that an appeal had been made to “the last resort of injured nations”; and the state department (May 14) sent a confidential circular to our agents abroad, explaining that we had taken up arms reluctantly, and “solely for the purpose of conquering an honorable and permanent peace.”[17]

“The war sense of the United States,” it has been remarked, “seems to be in inverse ratio to its war spirit;” and in general the military measures of the government exhibited more zeal than discretion. In particular they put into action the very system that had proved disastrous a generation before. For this Taylor was primarily responsible, for after having seen the war of 1812 and that of Florida languish and crawl, he strongly urged that volunteers be called out for one year of service. Polk’s Message deepened the mischief by expressing confidence in raw troops, although in 1838 the secretary of war had assured him that the difference in expense between volunteers and regulars was “at least as four to one,” besides the waste resulting from their total ignorance of administration, the cost of marching to and from distant points for short periods of service, and the disproportionate growth of the pension list.[18] The President was indeed authorized to increase the number of privates in a regular company, but the roll of officers remained as before; and enlistment was not stimulated, as it might have been, by adding something to the pay.[19]

Having a choice between a definite and an indefinite period, the volunteers were sure, as Marcy foresaw, to elect the former, although—as the sequel appeared to show—a sufficient number would almost certainly have engaged for the war, had that been the only proposal. The Mexicans were commonly regarded as cowardly and inefficient. Very few Americans expected them to hold out as long as they did; and intending volunteers would naturally have counted, therefore, upon returning soon. There were also the enthusiastic feelings natural at the opening of a war, and a deep interest resulting from the supposed peril of Taylor’s army. Yet the government chose to accept gratuitously the risk, which in due time became a certainty, of embarrassing itself, disappointing the country and encouraging the enemy by offering a brief term of service.[19]

Instead of retaining control of the organization and officering of the regiments, it entrusted this work to the states, and as a rule the men chose their own officers;[20] but in these features of the system, as in our governmental methods generally, there was some advantage as well as much loss. Webster, for example, held that volunteers ought to have the right of electing for leaders men whom they knew and could trust; and if they preferred, to sicken and bleed under captains as ignorant as themselves, whom they knew and could trust, rather than fare otherwise under trained officers whom they would have had to obey without fully understanding them, they were perhaps entitled to the privilege, and no doubt they learned something from exercising it. Anyhow, said Webster, the other method would have been degrading; and American citizens must not be degraded. As for generals, the law of June 18 compelled the Executive to take them from the militia, although they would be under no obligation to serve more than three months, and might withdraw in the midst of a campaign. There was no provision for filling vacancies resulting from death or discharge; and finally the appropriations were so poorly arranged that the quartermaster’s office had to juggle with funds as even Polk himself could not lawfully have done.[19]

Such as it was, however, the system went promptly into effect. Beginning on May 15, the secretary of war sent requisitions for volunteers to the governors of the states, deeming this method of application advantageous as well as due to their official position, since they were supposed to know the troops of their jurisdictions and the best places from which to draw them. In general the plan was to summon about 25,000 from the northeastern states, to be enrolled and await orders, and to call out nearly as many from the other states for immediate service. The former were all to be infantry; the latter, horse and foot in the ratio of about one to three. It was expected that existing militia organizations—regiments or parts of regiments—would offer their services, and that new men would fill the ranks as they felt moved to come forward. Not only privates but officers were to approach the national service by that portal, and then be mustered into the army at the appointed state rendezvous by a United States officer detailed for the purpose.[21] In four days the calls were nearly all on their way.[24]

The purpose of distributing requisitions over the whole country was to interest every state, Polk explained; and to stimulate the executive officials he urged upon the secretary of war the most prompt and energetic action and personal attention to each detail, insisting for his own part upon being kept “constantly advised of every important step that was taken.”[22] This charge Marcy accepted with all seriousness.[23] Whether bowing his massive head ponderously over a big desk, sifting callers with keen glances through shaggy brows, or giving instructions to subordinates in a voice roughened with snuff, he devoted his faculties to his task with a rare power of concentration. But he preferred the quiet of his home; and there, comfortably wrapped in his dressing gown with a box of the brown powder and an old red handkerchief on the table, he did his best work.[24]

Polk believed, or tried to believe, that “multitudes” were eager to volunteer, but others feared it would not be easy to raise troops after so long a peace. Strong influences were at work, however. Though evidently the fireside was not in danger, patriotism urged men to take the field, for did not the nation call?

“Arm! arm! your country bids you arm!
Fling out your banners free—
Let drum and trumpet sound alarm,
O’er mountain, plain and sea;”

thus wrote Park Benjamin the day Polk signed the war bill. A longing to escape from the dulness of bare existence, ambition to see the world and test one’s powers, a passion for adventure and frolic in a far clime believed to be all glitter, beauty and romance, the prospect of revelling in the Halls of Montezuma, a feeling that one who was not “in it” would have to spend the rest of his days explaining why, the expectation of honors and popularity that would make success easy in any pursuit, quarrels with sweethearts or hopes of becoming irresistible to the “girls,” were among the motives. For the high officers it was a “political tour,” said one of them; and with everybody the barbarities perpetrated by the Mexicans in Texas counted for much. The hardships of campaigning were unknown. While every one understood that some would fall, it was practically impossible for an ardent young fellow, well and strong, to imagine his particular person stretched lifeless on the ground; or, if such an end was ever contemplated, it appeared as something quick, unfelt amidst the excitement, and sweetened by the greatness of one’s cause.[24]

Behind all of this lay certain facts too deep for the soldiers themselves to perceive, but not too deep for them to feel. One instinctively shunned that “misery of cowardice,” which—as Pericles told the Athenians—is more dreadful to men of spirit than death in battle. As the ages have demonstrated, man is naturally a fighting animal, and therefore he finds in war the keenest sense of his vital selfhood. It is our chief glory to will and to do; and in mortal combat this glory is more intense, if not more real, than in peaceful occupations. Besides, if a man comes to his end in being supremely himself, he triumphs over death, and indeed he wins another victory, too, for life—so rich in menaces—can threaten him no longer. The validity of nearly all these motives was more or less transitory. When, for example, a man had proved that he could face a cannon, it seemed unnecessary to keep on facing it. But while they lasted, they were strong.[24]

In almost every section, therefore, except New England, where the annexation of Texas could not yet be forgiven, the war spirit rose high, astonishing even the most sanguine. At New York the walls were covered with placards headed, “Mexico or Death,” or “Ho, for the halls of the Montezumas!” and the streets echoed to the song:

“Come all ye gallant volunteers
Who fear not life to lose,
The martial drum invites ye come
And join the Hickory Blues:
The gallant Hickory Blues,
The daring Hickory Blues—
To Mexico they proudly go,
The gallant Hickory Blues.”


At Philadelphia 20,000 citizens of all parties gathered “to sustain the country.” In the central states banks advanced money without security, farmers’ wives issued free rations, ladies made clothing and flags by the wholesale, roads turned black with men. Ohio looked with disfavor on the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, regarding them as measures favorable to slavery; yet in less than two weeks after the requisition for volunteers arrived, three thousand of her sons were marching to the rendezvous. At Indianapolis Lew Wallace hung out a flag and a four-sided transparency inscribed, “For Mexico; fall in”; and in three days his company was full. “Illinois must rally now and win a character,” James Shields wrote to Koerner; and fourteen regiments volunteered instead of the four that could be taken.[24]

In Kentucky, said reports, the quota of the state was complete by May 26, and the governor had to stop the volunteering by proclamation. Tennessee was called upon for about 3000 men, and nearly 30,000 came forward. None would retire, and the selection was made by lot or ballot. At Memphis troops organized before the call arrived. “May glory and honor await them!” cried the Daily Eagle. St. Louis began to drill on May 12, and in a few days the excitement was so deep and universal that the courts adjourned. North Carolina offered more than three times her quota.[24]

In the Gulf states many feared that not enough citizens would remain at home to police the negroes. “Governor, do—if possible—get them into the service,” was the tune in Alabama. Mississippi complained bitterly that so few of her sons had a chance. At New Orleans the roar of business was almost drowned by a still more clamorous roar:

“The drums, the drums, the busy, busy drums,
The drums, the drums, the rattling, battling drums,
The drums, the drums, the merry, merry drums!”

As rapidly as possible Brigadier General Wool and other officers mustered the regiments into service; and, leaving the rendezvous and the crowds of praying, cheering people amidst the saddest good-bys and the warmest good wishes, the volunteers bravely set out for the war.[24]

Before very long new views of military life began to dawn upon the soldiers. At the old battlefield below New Orleans, where many of the troops camped, mud and water covered what was below their boot-tops while mosquitos covered what was above. Going down the river they brightened at the sight of sycamores and live-oaks, draped with Spanish moss, and of the ducks, jays, mocking-birds and Virginia nightingales, that seemed to find life so merry. But soon the lighthouse of the Southwest Pass was gleaming astern, the muddy water became blue, and these landsmen were on the deep. Sharks, diving porpoises, squadrons of nautili and shoals of little flying-fish gave them some pleasure; but the motion, especially to men packed like sardines in the dirty holds of schooners and small brigs or lying spoon-fashion—if there was even room to do that—on deck, seemed horrible. On the slow voyage the water, which was often impure, fermented sometimes, and ten cents was the price of a wholesome drink.[25]

And then the Gulf storms! The wind howled; the sea opened its jaws; the heavens were now like ink, and now one burst of flame; thunders rolled; ropes hissed and shrieked; spars cracked, snapped and were swept away; the vessel tossed from beam-end to beam-end; the maddened horses almost kicked the planking from the ribs, and the men cursed, prayed or stolidly awaited their fate. But sooner or later nearly all of them perceived on the horizon a line of sandy beach spotted with tents. It was Brazos Island off Point Isabel, and they anchored about four miles from it in the open sea. Meanwhile Brevet Major General Gaines, commanding the military department of the West, had begun on May 3 at his own instance to requisition troops for the relief of Taylor, and a considerable number of these men also set out for the Point.[25]


The question of a commander now had to be decided. Polk felt little confidence in Taylor. The General’s separating his army so far from his base and exposing both to imminent peril seemed inexcusable; and furthermore General Scott, not only the head of the army but the famous hero of Lundy’s Lane, was the natural chief of the large forces now called out. Certain facts, however, injured Scott’s chances. He was now almost exactly sixty years old, and many thought him, as did Senator Fairfield, “too much of an old granny.” In 1839 he had been given 57 votes at the Whig Presidential convention, and of late the brilliancy of his political anticipations had made him look “ten feet high,” said Corwin. His want of reverence for the President’s decision respecting brevet rank had led Polk and Benton to think of banishing him to a post on the northern frontier. General Gaines and his many friends had long hated him; and Mrs. Gaines insisted that no one was “much,” whose lips could be covered with a button. Finally, he was called vain, and so he appeared to be.[30]

But the ostentation that won him the nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers,” in addition to being much exaggerated by report, was doubtless attributable in large measure to military policy and respect for his rank. No one ever saw it interfere with serious affairs, and one who could remark on the weak point of his own personal appearance, the point ridiculed by Mrs. Gaines, was not so extremely vain after all. The right word for Scott was egotism. Now egotism—in others—is doubtless a shocking trait; yet merely to seem aware of what everybody knows, does not, as many think it does, convert merits into demerits. General Scott had a magnificent presence—fully six feet and four inches of height and a corresponding weight—the brightest fame as an intrepid soldier, the honor of a long and eminent career, the first place in our army, a high social position, superior talents and attainments, unusual knowledge of the world, charming personal graces, and a character of rare quality—powerful, gentle and true. That he did not dissemble nor cloak his value was a fault; but those who felt entitled to censure him, merely because they had no such merits to be aware of, were somewhat in error.[30]

Besides, almost every great artist is egotistical, and Scott was a great artist. In more ways than one this was true. He could instruct the baker in the mysteries of making bread, and superintend ably the roasting of a ham; damn his delighted black body-servant for hiding everything and then hiding himself; rave at an admiring guest for cutting lettuce instead of rolling it round his fork, or lament in tragic tones at whist that he had to play against three; and the next moment he would be analyzing a campaign of Turenne, monologuing inimitably about the great men he had met in Europe, or criticizing and comparing the best authors of French prose. His foibles—particularly a sensitiveness of temper, an ambition for the Presidency and a fondness for relieving heavy thought with light words, as Marcy did with light snuff—were numerous; the openness of his large and generous nature, superior to the prudence of smaller minds, prevented his concealing them; certain peculiarities of language and manner, from a delicacy about commas to a fondness for literary effects, were easily ridiculed; and in non-military affairs his indiscretion was now and then glaring; but he must be described emphatically as a soldier, a gentleman, a “character,” a great general and a great man.[30]

Distrusting Taylor, and profoundly alarmed about the situation on the frontier,[26] Polk sent for Scott on May 13, and conferred upon him verbally the chief command in Mexico; yet, while admitting that he saw proofs of experience in the General’s remarks, he pronounced him too “scientific and visionary,” as the master of a difficult business must always appear to the tyro.[27] Probably he knew that a man could not become a soldier overnight, as he could become a militia colonel or a “statesman,” or—in Santa Anna’s opinion—a professor of jurisprudence; but he believed that, should fighting really need to be done, even an improvised army would make “a brisk and a short war of it,” as the administration paper neatly said, and, if necessary, dictate a peace “in the Halls of the Montezumas.” Under circumstances like these prevision and science appeared rather superfluous. The only things needful were to march now and triumph to-morrow.[30]

Scott, however, felt that waging war might involve military operations. He undertook to prove by elaborate calculations that the greater part of the volunteers could not at the best arrive on the Rio Grande before the first week in August; and, since that would be the rainy season, when the hoofs of mules and horses would be unfit for hard use, and various other difficulties would arise, he recommended that most of the new troops, after remaining under instruction at salubrious points in the United States during the summer, should be placed upon that river by September 25, so as to make, with the volunteers and regulars already there, 25,000 or possibly 30,000 healthy, properly equipped and more or less trained soldiers, ready to invade Mexico in a decisive manner. In the execution of this plan he did not intend to shirk or dally.[28] May 15 he gave the chiefs of the general staff directions about throwing supplies of all kinds upon the various rendezvous in advance of the volunteers, prompted the quartermaster general to obtain wagons, and even called attention to the necessity of seasonably obtaining light boats for the navigation of the Rio Grande.[30]

His feeling was, however, particularly after news of what he called Taylor’s “great and brilliant victories” arrived, that it would not seem proper—especially to military men—for him to supersede that officer except with heavy reinforcements; and no doubt he saw it would scarcely enhance a prestige that was dear to him personally and invaluable to him as the commander-in-chief, to lie idle in hot mud for several months. He therefore proposed to leave Washington about May 30, give his personal attention to the troops and supplies en route and at the rendezvous, and reach the scene of action a little before them.[30]

Such procrastination disgusted Polk, and such “schemes” annoyed Marcy, both of whom doubtless had an eye on political considerations. Democratic members of Congress protested that Scott was slow, and also that, if successful in Mexico, he would be the ruin of their party. In short, it seemed necessary to get rid of him.[29] May 19, therefore, without saying a word to Scott, the secretary of war had a provision attached to the bill which finally became the law of June 18, enabling the Executive to appoint an officer new to the army as commander-in-chief of the volunteers, and at the end of the war eliminate Scott entirely. This led to sharp language between Marcy and Scott.[30]

Marcy, the politician, intimated that the militia, who had gone to Taylor’s assistance and were to serve only three months, must have a chance to do something, and Scott, the soldier, declined to take the field if liable to be fired on from the rear. In one of his notes the General remarked that he had taken for lunch merely “a hasty plate of soup”—a fact that really proved his extreme devotion to the business in hand; and in another he specified a number of the reasons why a summer campaign was not feasible. At this juncture, too, a private note of his, to the effect that no eastern man, Whig or West Pointer was likely to be given a commission, turned up at the White House. Polk regarded the note as disrespectful, and also thought the expression “fire upon my rear” was a reflection on the Executive. Scott protested that his words referred to Marcy and the members of Congress, and apparently did all he could, without sacrificing his professional convictions, to satisfy the President; but his efforts were in vain.[30]

The army on the Rio Grande was now out of danger; Taylor seemed not so extremely incompetent after all; and Scott was still a scientific, visionary schemer and a promising candidate for the chair of state, whom it was more politic to disgrace than to honor. Polk decided therefore that he was meddlesome, insubordinate, hostile, foolish, vindictive and untrustworthy, a procrastinating obstructionist, and above all a “violent partisan”; and on May 25 he received orders to stay at Washington and hasten the preparations. His correspondence with Marcy was published. The big dogs and little—Blanche, Tray and all—began to bark. He was called a farrier general for speaking of hoofs, and “Marshal Tureen” for admitting that he took soup. His off-hand remarks were termed flippant, his close calculations fussy, and his deliberate plans dilatory. His allusion to the “rear,” fully justified by what had occurred and what was to follow, seemed even to some friendly critics disrespectful and uncalled for. Political intrigue, not war, was said to occupy his mind. The General has “committed suicide with a goose-quill,” announced the Boston Courier; Marcy himself confided to a friend that Scott had lost a position he would never be able to regain; and Taylor, assigned to duty with his new brevet rank,[31] was continued in the chief command.[30]


All this while the administration felt extremely anxious, on both domestic and international grounds, regarding the Oregon issue. The West, which Representative Graham called “the ruling star” in Congress, clamored for “fifty-four forty or fight.” Cass admitted that he found it necessary to sacrifice to its demand his preference for a boundary at the forty-ninth degree, and Polk’s yielding to the same pressure is readily understood.[32] It was believed that England’s interest in peace would forbid her fighting the United States for a small area of unrecognized value, and the Democratic leaders probably had no expectation of getting into a war. The British Cabinet, however, had its public to deal with, and felt that it could not live a day should it appear submissive to American “bullying.” Hence on February 4, 1846, when the United States finally rejected arbitration, the two nations were almost at the grips.[9.33]

Yet each contained powerful elements favorable to accommodation. The strong tone of the American government impressed England, and Polk realized that while compromising on the lower line would anger the Northwest, an opposite course might throw upon him the responsibility of disrupting his party, ruining his administration, and plunging the country into an abyss. The American Congress, like the people, took a more and more serious view of the situation; and the roar of the “fifty-four forty” men subsided into a growl. On a hint from the United States Great Britain presented in May a compromise practically similar to that which her minister at Washington had rejected the previous year. The Senate, whose advice Polk asked in order to escape from his radical declarations, recommended the acceptance of it on June 12, and the crisis ended.[33]

During the same anxious period a less public negotiation also was on foot. There were signs of a revolution in Mexico, and it behooved Polk to consider who might come to the front. Farías and Almonte had many partisans, and both were hostile to the United States; but Santa Anna, now living in exile near Havana and spending his time on gamecocks, monte and a huge mail from Mexico, seemed quite likely to regain the power; and it was believed that his intelligence, ambition and knowledge of his country’s weakness, combining in favor of peace, were more than enough to offset any stirrings of patriotic enthusiasm in his breast. Reports from trustworthy sources—particularly from Slidell, Consul Dimond at Vera Cruz, and Consul Black at Mexico—tended to support this belief;[34] and it was understood also that past actions and present circumstances bound Santa Anna to oppose all European and monarchical designs upon Mexico. Not having begun the conflict with the United States, he could pronounce peace a necessity, it was thought, and throw upon Paredes all the odium of the abortive war. Moreover A. J. Atocha, a naturalized American citizen, who had been a confidant and tool of Santa Anna, had assured Polk in February that the General, should he regain power, would be ready to treat.[35] From the despatches of the Spanish minister at Mexico we know that it was impossible, as Polk asserted, to prevent a man possessing large resources from landing on the Mexican coast; and it seemed evident that Santa Anna’s presence in the country, should he fail to regain power and make a treaty, would in all probability lead to a distracting civil war. On the day Polk signed the war bill, an order[36] to let him pass through our blockading squadron off Vera Cruz was, therefore, issued to Commodore Conner.[38]


And this was not all. Though deeply distrustful of Atocha, Polk seems to have derived from a conversation with him the idea of despatching a secret emissary to Santa Anna, and on the evening of July 5 Commander Mackenzie of the United States navy arrived at Havana.[37] Two days later he passed three hours with the ex-dictator, informing him of the order to let him pass, and giving him the substance of a conversation with Polk, in which the President had expressed these interesting sentiments: first, a hope of seeing the General once more in authority; secondly a desire for peace—on the basis of a boundary via the Rio Grande and thence west, ample payment in cash for the territory thus transferred, and permanent friendly relations with Mexico; and, thirdly, a willingness to stop military operations and send a minister, should Santa Anna, on regaining his former position, be willing to negotiate.[38]

In reply the General drew up a note, which was copied by Mackenzie and then destroyed. In this he professed liberal intentions regarding commerce and politics, anti-monarchical and anti-European principles, and a disposition—in case the United States would promote his “patriotic desires”—to respond with a treaty of the desired sort. Taylor, he said, must promote the scheme by marching to Saltillo, forcing Paredes to fight, defeating him, and then advancing perhaps to San Luis Potosí, so as to constrain the Mexicans of all parties to recall the Hero of Tampico; and he offered valuable hints about attacking Tampico and Vera Cruz, which seemed to attest his sincerity. Mackenzie then took his leave, and, impressed by Santa Anna’s military suggestions, transcended his instructions by visiting Taylor on the way home—thus rendering himself and his mission unduly conspicuous.[38]

In these ways, combining diplomacy and force as he loved to do, Polk imagined that our Mexican crisis had been fully met.

THE LEADERS ADVANCE May—September, 1846

On taking possession of Matamoros Taylor pitched his tent in the shade of a small tree about half a mile from town, and there he remained. Dressed in attakapas pantaloons and a linen roundabout he sat enthroned on a box cushioned with an Arkansas blanket, and for dinner-table had a couple of rough blue chests. The slight pursuit of Arista and the search for concealed ordnance, arms and munitions did not require his personal attention. June 6 Lieutenant Colonel Wilson with his four companies of the First Infantry, Price’s company of rangers and two of Bragg’s guns under Lieutenant Thomas, the future “Rock of Chickamauga,” marched for Reynosa, about sixty miles distant by the road, which had asked for the protection of American troops,[1] and on the fifteenth Captain McCulloch and his company were sent off on a scouting expedition; but the General had ample time for reflection, and his thoughts were not entirely agreeable.[2]

Despite newspaper glorification, the low opinion of his abilities that was entertained by the officers must have impinged somewhat upon his consciousness. Captain Larnard, in fact, believed that he not only realized his inadequacy, but longed to retire; and certainly Taylor’s private letters exhibited the profoundest mental discomfort. Scott should come, he insisted over and over again; the campaign would be a failure, and the officer conducting it would be ruined. He distrusted the intentions of the administration, and he condemned its policy. As early as May 9 he feared too many volunteers—whom he disliked—were coming; by May 20 he knew what Gaines had done; and Scott’s letter of May 18 informed him that about 20,000 such troops were “to march upon Mexico.”[2]


Under this head all his fears were realized. First, three-months men (militia) sent for by himself in April, then six-months men called out by Gaines, and then twelve-months men raised under the war bill poured in. By June 3 his army had risen to nearly 8000. Three weeks later the First Tennessee Infantry—advance guard of the Congressional troops—appeared, and it found on the scene six regiments from Louisiana, one from St. Louis, one from Kentucky, seven companies from Alabama and twelve or fifteen from Texas. All of these had come in response to the calls of Taylor or Gaines; and some had been on the ground more than a month. In all about 8000 of these two classes arrived, and in accordance with Taylor’s desire nearly all of them—except a very few, who agreed to serve twelve months—were sent home about the first of August.[3] Before they took their leave, at least 20,000 American soldiers were on the Rio Grande, besides an inevitable number of American civilians more or less directly connected with the army or not connected at all; and by far the greater part of their subsistence had to come, of course, from the United States.[4]

The men were stationed in a series of camps. The best of all these was probably at Point Isabel, where the dry, undulating ground and fresh breezes made for health and comfort. Fort Polk, as the station was now called, included about fifty acres. The shallowness of the harbor impaired the convenience of the Point somewhat, however; and the primary camp lay three or four miles away at the north end of Brazos Island, which consisted of low hills on the side toward the mainland, a swamp in the centre, a wreck-strewn beach on the outer side, and in general three blades of grass to fifty square feet of sand, as Lieutenant George B. McClellan wrote home. Here, too, the air was excellent; but the brackish water caused many complaints, and the sand blew into everything—hair, nose, eyes and food. Marching the entire length of the island the soldiers found themselves, at its southern end, about eighty yards from the mainland, waded across the bayou or strait known as Boca Chica, and after going about seven miles farther came to another camp and group of storehouses, ten miles or so from their point of departure, called Mouth of the Rio Grande, where the river steamers tied up or anchored.[5] Here, as at Camp Brazos, the ground was “working A live with magotes and land crabs,” as a soldier put it; but the same breezes usually tempered the heat. Eight miles from the Gulf by land—twenty-five or thirty by water—one came to Burrita, a cluster of huts on a ridge close to the stream, and this high ground was made the site of a roomy camp. On the opposite side of the river and separated from it by a mile of swamp lay Camp Belknap, a spot fit only for the snakes, tarantulas, centipedes, fleas, scorpions and ants that infested it. Above this point lay several more camps,[6] and still others enveloped Matamoros.[7]

Except Belknap all of these places were fairly salubrious for men of reasonable prudence, and several of them distinctly healthful; yet considerable sickness prevailed. At Brazos Island a sort of dysentery made trouble, and by some the water of the Rio Grande itself was thought injurious. Until May 13 no funds available for tents had been within the reach of Quartermaster General Jesup; and after this difficulty was removed, feeling that he could not wait for duck, he used, common muslin, which let the rain through; and many of the troops, even regulars, had no protection against the weather except a screen of brush or a blanket thrown over a bush. Measles invaded the camps, and lying on the damp ground made the disease fatal in many instances. What was worse, the heedlessness and homesickness of the volunteers caused much sickness even at Point Isabel. The regulars, however, were comparatively healthy and contented.[7]

The heat, softened by constant breezes, was thought by many less oppressive than in Tennessee and Kentucky, though sometimes men fainted at the drills. Bathing proved a valuable resource; and on the seashore there were oysters, crabs and a large variety of beautiful fish to catch and eat. Stately processions of herons and scarlet-winged flamingos and the chatter of jackdaws and many other birds amused the soldiers; and some of those addicted to sport discussed the project of crossing the mosquitos with gamecocks, we are told. The roar of the sea and the mirages along the river, innumerable flowers, the solemn burros (donkeys) almost buried by their loads, the Mexicans vending eatables at exorbitant prices, the long lines of tents where such a luxury as tents existed, target shooting, and now and then the muffled drum helped occupy one’s attention. On July 5 occurred a Sunday and a sermon—the last of the campaign. At sunset a tremulous orange haze in the west was due, followed by the twinkling lights of the camp, that were so agreeable to view from a distance, and then by the howling of wolves, the tenor chorus of the swamps, and the agonized baritone fugues of the donkeys. It was now time for singing, story-telling and, above all, gambling—perhaps Old Sledge on a blanket, perhaps Chuckle-luck, perhaps monte, perhaps faro; and now and then came a fandango (dance) on the hard ground with such American and Mexican women as there were. The camp life was “a rough furnace and a hot fire,” wrote Sergeant Miller; but the novelty of it soon wore off, and the volunteers grew discontented.[7]


They had come for glory and a good time, and were having neither. They wanted to do something, and to do it at once or go home. One at least of them believed that assignment to garrison duty would have led to general desertion. Wherever they were, they panted to be somewhere else. Having come to gamble, with their lives for a stake, they clamored to have the game begin. If there was no enemy to fight, they were ready to fight friends; and in one of the many brawls and riots Colonel Baker was shot in the neck. Four or five months of training under expert officers and strict discipline were necessary to prepare regulars for the field;[8] and naturally these volunteers, almost wholly alien to the habits, feelings and efficiency of the real soldier, often felt at liberty to thwart and even defy their commander, and were unable to coöperate with him intelligently when really disposed to do so. In spite of positive orders they wasted ammunition recklessly, and Lieutenant Meade thought a day passed in his tent no less perilous than a stiff battle.[11]

The officers were very similar. One brigadier general came with a light buggy, in which he proposed to make the campaign. Another had enlisted as a private, and, not being deemed worthy to command the company, had been elected a lieutenant; but the executive fiat provided him with qualifications. “In the name of God,” wrote a soldier to Senator Allen, don’t let Hamer be a brigadier general; he is talented, but doesn’t dare undertake to drill a squad; yet the commission was issued.[9] Pillow, another of the same rank, ambitious to figure but not acquainted with his proper work, did what was not proper. Some of the volunteer generals on horseback reminded Lieutenant Jamieson of the line,

“Woe to the mullein-stalk that came in our way.”

Persons of a mature age, who had bulked large at home, would not stoop to plod through the rudiments of a new profession. Even good officers were in fear of the letters written by their men and the revenge that might be taken later, should real discipline be enforced; while those less conscientious threatened to resign if kept in the background, stood in the way of superiors belonging to the opposite political party, in order to prevent them from making a reputation, or even took part with the men in the hope of getting into Congress by and by.[11]

In short, the volunteers were all one costly mass of ignorance, confusion and insubordination, said Meade; while the regular officers felt discouraged, not merely by discovering that civilians were preferred to educated soldiers for high appointments, but by finding themselves in the shadow and even under the command of men who had been discharged from West Point for incapacity or from the army for gross misconduct.[10] At the height of this, General Taylor, who was disqualified by lack of experience and mental discipline for organizing an efficient staff, and therefore needed to use his own eyes and his own voice, held aloof. “I very seldom leave my tent,” he wrote on July 25, adding helplessly, “How it will all end time alone must tell.” Besides, every mail brought letters about the Presidency to distract his attention.[11]

Probably he saw he had blundered. On April 26 he knew that war had begun, and called upon Louisiana and Texas for soldiers with a view to the invasion of Mexico, which he must have believed, under the circumstances, that his government wished. By the rules of the service it was then his duty, as he well knew, to make requisitions for everything the campaign would require,[12] and a zealous commander, gathering—as Taylor had been instructed to do—all the information he could find regarding the local conditions, might reasonably have sent on to Washington with it an able officer to assist the department. With a scorn, however, for science and vision that should have delighted Polk, Taylor did neither; but, assuming that the Mexicans would not fight—if at all—north of the mountains beyond Monterey, he determined to advance with about 6000 men. Unfortunately he neglected to have his engineers inspect the three steamboats on which his plan depended, and these proved to be worm-eaten and practically useless.[13]


About the middle of June, boats for the Rio Grande began to be despatched from New Orleans, but—in addition to mishaps at the coast resulting from gales and the freaks of the shifting bars—a serious embarrassment soon occurred above. A direct advance against Monterey by land was deemed impracticable, because the route lacked water. Taylor had therefore planned to have his troops march to Camargo, the head of navigation toward that city, and send their supplies to that point by the river; but during the first eleven days of July rain fell heavily and flooded the country. The freshet, however, ensured a sufficient depth in the Rio Grande, and on July 6 the Seventh Infantry set out for Camargo. The distance, called about 120 miles by land, was more than twice as long by water; and the river wandered about so much that according to humorous natives a bird could never get across—always alighting on some projection of the bank from which it had risen. It proved a hard task for the light and feeble steamboats, with only green wood for the boilers, to stem the fierce current; the pilots were unacquainted with the difficulties of such navigation;[14] and in making one of the sharp turns a boat was frequently caught by the current, and swept downstream or against the bank—breaking the rudder perhaps.[16]

But in one way or another the steamers puffed ahead past great cornfields, and occasionally there was a small village, where the people stared in wonder at the strange craft, and the girls laughed and shouted to see the soldiers throw kisses to them. After some 200 miles of this came Reynosa on a high limestone point, dominated by a heavy, stunted church tower like an ancient castle; and, farther along, the mouth of the Alcantro was passed. The country became still better now, with fertile valleys running back to the tablelands; and not only corn but potatoes, wheat, beans, and cotton could be seen. Forty miles of such a landscape, and the steamboats entered the San Juan; and after struggling on for three or four more they stopped early on July 14 at Camargo, where Captain Miles, who commanded the regiment, sent at once for the alcalde, an official who acted as mayor, judge and pater familias in a Mexican town, and formally took possession. The rest of the regular infantry pursued the same route as fast as possible, and on July 30 most of the volunteers were ordered to do so.[16]

From Matamoros to Monterey

August 4 Taylor himself embarked, and the next day artillery and infantry began to advance by the southern shore of the river. The road was in places deep with mud or covered with water; thick chaparral cut off the friendly breeze; the intense heat felled many a soldier, and thirst tormented all who retained their senses; but after a time the plan of moving by night lessened the suffering, and at last the painful march was achieved. The cavalry and wagons also proceeded in due course to the general rendezvous;[15] and meanwhile Mier, a hill town only a short distance from the Rio Grande, was occupied without resistance on July 31.[16]


Camargo, a place of perhaps 5000 inhabitants, was said to be some 400 miles from the Gulf by water. It stood well up on the right bank of the river, here about one hundred yards in width; but the recent freshet, rising to an unprecedented height, had nearly destroyed it, replacing houses and gardens with about a foot of mud. This was dug away, and the banks were cleared of vegetation; “acres and acres” of tents rose; and by the end of August some 15,000 men were encamped along the San Juan for a distance of three miles or so up and down and several hundred yards back, while a quantity of stores that dumfounded the Mexicans and satisfied Taylor, was gradually piled up. Worth, who had returned to his brigade at the end of May, commanded the place and insisted on firm discipline. No American trader was tolerated; and all persons caught smuggling liquor into camp suffered “a punishment cruel to use on tender skins.”[17]

This was well, but it did not redeem the situation. Natives regarded Camargo as the sickliest point in the region, and the freshets had made it worse. Every breath of air raised a stifling cloud of dust from the dried and pulverized mud. Barren hills of limestone cut off the breeze to a great extent and concentrated the fierce heat, frequently sending the mercury in “this hottest of all hot places,” as a soldier called the town, to 112 degrees. Scorpions, tarantulas, mosquitos and centipedes abounded. There was a plague of small frogs. “Last night the ants tried to carry me off in my sleep,” wrote a soldier. The only drinking water came from the San Juan, and it made trouble. The ignorance of the volunteers about caring for their health was fairly matched by that of their officers and medical men. Days of sweltering under a cruel sun, with nothing to do and apparently nothing to hope for, were followed by cool nights and heavy dews, the heart-rending groans of the sick, and the yelping of numberless prairie wolves. In almost all the volunteer regiments at least one third of the men were ill, wrote Meade, and in many of them, one half. The three volleys at the graves became well-nigh a continuous roll; and the “dead march” was played so often that, as an officer said, the very birds knew it. The First Tennessee, originally 1040 prime young fellows, was reduced by deaths and discharges to less than 500. “Oh, what a horror I have for Camargo,” exclaimed one of the generals; “it is a Yawning Grave Yard”; a thousand soldiers torn and mangled on the battlefield would be nothing to its suffering and dying regiments.[17]

And all this appears to have been unnecessary. As we have seen, Taylor had no intention of using more than about 6000 men in the near future; and there were salubrious places not only near the Gulf but near Camargo. No local maladies prevailed in the Rio Grande valley, said Meade. “There are no causes for disease,” wrote Captain Henry. The climate of that region, said an Illinois officer, equalled in salubrity the climate of “any Western state.” Reynosa was described by the General Sedgwick of Civil War days as perfectly healthy. Mier, selected the following year, with a particular view to salubrity, as the site of a camp for instruction, lay near by on the road to Monterey; and Cerralvo, farther along on the same route, was a kind of Eden. The best comment on what the General did is what the General himself said. His first duty, he told Senator Crittenden, was to place the troops in a healthful situation.[17]


During all this while, Mexico, too, had been preparing for the war, and preparing characteristically. Paredes began with good intentions, a serious and fairly honorable Cabinet, and sound ideas of economy. Though he did not seem to be very strong either physically or intellectually, his many scars and the bull-like expression of his face inspired respect and caution. He lived quietly and honestly, and the correspondent of the London Times thought Mexico had a better prospect of being well governed than at any previous period since 1821. It was the dictator’s hope that such a policy and a bold campaign against the Americans would rally the country to his banner.[20]

About April 1, as we already know, he gave orders to attack Taylor. In May he severed all consular relations with the United States.[18] June 6 the new Congress met; and Paredes, in opening the session, announced that the time had come to declare war, and summoned all Mexicans to the support of the country. Six days later he was elected President as a matter of course, and the action of the American government regarding war with Mexico was made known by the official Diario. On the sixteenth Tornel—the enemy of the United States and worse enemy of his own country, who had now wormed himself into the war department in place of Almonte—proposed to Congress a declaration of war; and on July 6 Paredes proclaimed, as Congress had voted five days before, that Mexico would repel the aggression and invasion of the Americans. It was further stated that besides completing the Permanent and Active corps, the government would create additional forces to serve during the war. A million dollars were supplied by the clergy to pay for a campaign. Paredes obtained permission to command the army in person, and his intention to do so was publicly announced.[20]

But as usual the war plans ended mostly in talk. Except at the far distant north, denunciation of the United States moderated somewhat, and even at Mexico bragging lost a part of its flavor;[19] yet, though really discouraged, people would, not recognize the war as anything very serious. After news of Arista’s defeat arrived at the capital, the shiver of astonishment and disgust lasted for a time; but the glib fellows in the cafés were soon remarking, “Well, that’s over; that won’t happen again.” Explanations abounded. After all, Arista was only making a reconnaissance in force, it was pointed out. “Such is the fortune of war; a defeat to-day and glory to-morrow,” remarked one of the generals. The hour chosen by Providence to give the world a lesson by terribly punishing the aggressive Americans has not yet arrived, explained the governor of San Luis Potosí. Reverses have occurred, but they can easily be repaired and will be, the minister of war assured Congress airily; and moreover the enemy had suffered most severely, it was believed. Even the evacuation of Matamoros was eclipsed by domestic politics. The triangular difficulties between Scott, Gaines and the American government were cited as illustrating the state of discipline in our army. The wreck-strewn coast near the mouth of the Rio Grande and the billows laden with boxes and barrels afforded no little encouragement; and editorials from the London Times, proving in detail the hopelessness and risk of an American attack upon Mexico, were translated and printed by the official journal.[20]

So the nation took heart. Its case did not look desperate after all. Heroics appeared unnecessary. The military men have seized the country, thoughtful citizens reflected; let them defend it. The people did not fly to arms. The departments opened their strong boxes by only a chink or not at all. “A dreadful and cruel lethargy has buried the Republic,” exclaimed El Indicador. How the Mexicans could be roused, nobody knew. To proclaim a levée en masse and place a weapon in every hand seemed politically dangerous. Paredes, observing that his plan to go north received the cordial endorsement of his enemies, and fully warned that his departure would be the signal for an uprising, dared not set out; and as for the idea of British aid, upon which great expectations had been erected, the minister of England gave lectures instead of promises.[20]


Indeed, Paredes found himself struggling, not merely to achieve, but even to survive. Knowing well that his political existence depended upon paying the army, he devoted all the revenues to it from the first, and made every exertion to solve the all-important problem of money. In March he tried to borrow heavily on the security of Church property, but failed. In May the payment of all treasury obligations was suspended, and a cut in pensions and salaries made; but the principal results were to anger multitudes already offended by his economies, destroy credit, paralyze business, and call forth an emphatic protest from the British legation. On the principle, perhaps, of setting a thief to catch a thief, the cynical Iturbe, one of the corrupt jobbers in government contracts, was appointed minister of the treasury; and extraordinary powers to raise funds were conferred upon the President by Congress. But this very law shielded private and Church property, and there was no help in laying taxes that could not be collected. Besides, the army was now but a fragile staff. The defeats of the north had smitten its confidence and prestige; being badly paid it was unreliable; and it really preferred Santa Anna, the natural chief of its unprincipled and rapacious officers.[22] Paredes counted upon the monarchical party. Beyond a doubt he aimed to place it in power.[21] Alamán, an avowed advocate of that policy, was not only his principal adviser but the chief editor of a monarchist newspaper, El Tiempo, set up at this time and protected by the government; and the convocatoria summoning the new Congress, prepared by Alamán, pointed in the same direction. But his party had no “substantial plan,” as the British minister well said, and the idea commanded no popular support. To the army it meant a permanent throne in the place of a Presidential chair to which every successful general might aspire, and imported troops instead of Mexicans behind the foreign prince; while the departments, under the pretence that local interests were neglected but mainly to facilitate access to the public treasury, turned away from even the idea of a centralized republic toward a revival of Federalism. The convocatoria, which denied Congressional representation to six sevenths of the people, was generally and furiously denounced as an open rupture with the nation; and Archbishop Posada, the strongest support of the monarchists, fell sick and passed away. Paredes found it wise, therefore—in fact, unavoidable—to declare for the Republic. But his action seemed a confession of weakness, dishonesty and inconsistency; and this impression was deepened by a futile decree against the freedom of the press and a vain endeavor to gain the support of Pedraza, who led the conservative wing of the Federalists.[22]

Numerous other difficulties embarrassed the President. Like all the successful revolutionary leaders, he found it impossible to keep the promises he had made. It was complained that he did not protect northern Mexico against the Indians. His adjustment of the foreign debt raised a loud clamor. Many charged that his bringing the principal military forces to the capital had laid the frontier open to the Americans, and he was accused of using them still as his personal bodyguard. The Army of Reserve is too much reserved, cried the Monitor Republicano; and over and over again the opposition press demanded that he should take the field, which nobody believed he intended to do.[22]

By June the spirit of revolt, which had shown itself early in February, seemed formidable. Almonte, who had left the Cabinet ostensibly because opposed to monarchical designs, was believed to be at work for himself, and Santa Anna was known to be plotting. The President’s ability fell conspicuously short of his needs, and he clouded with drink such talents as he possessed. His weak and vacillating course fortified every enemy, and estranged almost every sensible friend; and it came to be felt, even by those hostile to the monarchical idea, that a more energetic ruler must be found. In short, six months after taking the reins Paredes had no real strength whatever. The door stood actually ajar for a new revolution.[22]

Preparations for such a change had then been going on for a long while. In the London Times of February 10, 1846, its correspondent at Mexico had said that Santa Anna’s coming into power again “would be regarded by all classes as the greatest affliction that could befall the nation,” and other good observers entertained similar opinions. The Federalists in particular disliked him. But on February 20 a protest of his against monarchical schemes appeared in print at Mexico, and newspapers were soon advocating his return.[23] Farías, leader of the radical Federalists, was easily won over by a patriotic letter full of penitence and unselfish zeal, and with Rejón as intermediary an alliance of his faction and the Santannistas, based upon the idea of uniting army and people, was at length, with much difficulty, brought about. Almonte joined the combination; by the first of April it planned to “pronounce” at Vera Cruz; and although disagreement regarding the terms of the plan and a dispute whether Santa Anna or Almonte should be named the leader prevented this action, Juan Alvarez, who had been a turbulent partisan fighter in the Acapulco region ever since 1821, and was cognizant of this conspiracy, inaugurated a revolution, April 15, in favor of a provisional triumvirate: Santa Anna, Herrera and Rincón.[26]

Santa Anna insisted upon his own views, and Almonte, whom Paredes appointed minister to France in order to get rid of him and then obligingly detained at Havana by withholding funds for the journey, yielded. In May Paredes put Farías and fifteen other suspected men into prison, and this enabled them to plot at their leisure. On the twentieth of that month all the scheming came to a head at Guadalajara, where the people cried, “Viva la República! Death to the foreign prince!” The officers despatched against them proved unsuccessful.[24] The country was soon like a tossing sea; and insurrections, attempted or planned, showed themselves at various places.[26]


The government now proceeded to commit suicide. Paredes announced that he was going to make his long deferred campaign against the Americans. About 4000 troops marched for the north—really destined, it was believed, for Guadalajara—and near the end of July Vice President Bravo reluctantly accepted the reins of government. It was hoped to rally the conservatives to his support, and to that end he proclaimed on August 3 the revival of the constitution (Organic Bases) that had been in force during the Presidency of Herrera, while urgent appeals for union and harmony were put forth by the new ministers. It was hoped also to conclude the war. Paredes had wished to do this in May, and a member of the Cabinet had indirectly proposed to Consul Black that a minister should be sent by the United States; but the government finally concluded that the matter was “too delicate.” The new Executive, however, had not committed himself in favor of war as the President had, and it was understood that his administration fully intended to end the conflict.[26]

Bravo’s course alarmed the conspirators, for many of the Federalists, besides distrusting Santa Anna, believed the Organic Bases could be made over into a satisfactory constitution. Nobody felt sure, however, that such was the real intention of Paredes; the new Cabinet did not please the radicals; the revolution had gone so far it could not easily be stopped; and when word came on the third of August that the garrison of Vera Cruz had pronounced for Santa Anna, General Salas, the comandante general at Mexico, who was believed to be a firm supporter of the government, declared at the “citadel” the following night—with the concurrence of Farías—for Santa Anna and federation, citing particularly as excuses the monarchical designs of the administration and its failure to prosecute the war. Paredes, who had remained secretly in town, hastily set off now to bring back his troops; but the second in command of his escort betrayed him, and, overtaken by a cavalry regiment despatched by Salas, the man who had boasted that at any rate his fall would be no comedy, was brought back to town by the ear, so to speak, like a truant schoolboy.[26]

Bravo, having few men and no artillery, could not resist, and his retirement on the sixth of August left Salas in supreme de facto command,[25] pledged only to carry on the war against the United States and assemble Congress, but really destined, as his organ modestly assured an indifferent public, to open “a new epoch, an epoch of liberty, of movement and of life, an epoch of deeds and realities and not of fraudulent and vain promises.” “Federation, Santa Anna and Texas,” was his motto. An abundance of reassuring laws, and especially the annulment of all edicts repressing the liberty of the newspapers, a restoration of curtailed pensions and salaries, and the proclamation of a political amnesty relieved anxious minds; and the spring of patriotism was touched by summoning all Mexicans to unite against the invader. Salas, however, counted only as a herald; it was time for the hero to appear.[26]


Early in the forenoon on the sixteenth of August, a salvo of artillery from the fortress of Ulúa at Vera Cruz announced the advent of something unusual. At about nine o’clock a “crack” regiment, the Eleventh Infantry, marched down to the customhouse, and after manoeuvring for some hours was formed by dint of cuffing into two lines, which faced each other and extended to the “Palace”; and finally, at a quarter before one, a well-groomed and somewhat portly man in the full uniform of a Mexican major general came up from the wharf between the lines. He stood about five feet and ten inches in height, looked forty years old though really fifty-one, seemed capable of great endurance, and bore himself with an air of blended suavity and command. “The Flower of Mexico,” a very young and very pretty little blonde, his wife, preceded him on the arm of an officer, and a retinue followed in his wake.[28]

The guns of Ulúa boomed again; such of the soldiers as chose, fired their muskets or saluted; but not a viva was heard. The young and pretty woman pouted at the cool reception. The glittering dark-gray eyes of her husband clouded; his dignified and courtly manner seemed a little disturbed; and his tawny face, whereon a studied graciousness and self-control could not hide from a close observer the marks of duplicity, treachery, avarice and sensuality, seemed to grow black. But he went on to the palace; and presently, as he sat there surrounded by officers in more or less brilliant uniforms, a tinman, speaking in the name of the people, lectured him roundly on his past misdeeds. Such was the home-coming of “The Illustrious General, Benemérito de la Patria, the Most Excellent Señor, Don Antonio López de Santa Anna,” “Champion of Independence, Hero of Tampico, Immortal Commander,” as he was officially styled;[27] and such was “the most pronounced enthusiasm” with which, according to Almonte, the people received him.[28]

Santa Anna put forth at once an allocution to the troops, which exhibited in proper style the ecstatic joy that he experienced on finding himself among such devoted patriots; and a manifesto, composed by Rejón, laid his programme before the public. The latter address rambled somewhat, and even J. F. Ramírez said he could not gather its meaning; but it declared plainly against monarchy and ecclesiastical domination. “Habits of passive obedience no longer exist,” the paper said; “and if there remains a sentiment of religion, time has undermined the power of the directors of consciences.” Peace, democracy and “the concert of the army and the people” were said to be the General’s political principles, and he declared himself “the slave of public opinion.” As for the past, his mistakes as a ruler had been due to circumstances and errors of judgment; and in regard to the future, “Mexicans,” he exclaimed, “there was a day, and my heart expands with the recollection, when, leading forward the popular masses and the army to demand the rights of the nation, I was hailed by you with the enviable title, Soldier of the People. Allow me again to take it, nevermore to be given up, and to devote myself, until death, to the defence of the liberty and independence of the republic.” At the same time, as a pledge of sincerity, he advised restoring the federal constitution of 1824, and giving the new Congress full control over the executive.[28]

Having thus placed himself before the country, Santa Anna proceeded to his pretty house at Manga de Clavo, about sixteen miles from Vera Cruz, and thence to his more pretentious country-seat, El Encero, a little way below Jalapa. By this time—so it was reported to excuse the suspension of his journey and perhaps to remind the public of his part in the war with France—the stump of his leg had become painful; but in reality he paused to consider the situation. In that he did well. His position was extremely critical.[28]

Santa Anna did not merely enjoy an occasional game of chance; he was a gambler through and through. He did not merely stoop now and then to see two game birds prove their mettle; he was essentially a “sporting man.” Not without reason did the London Atlas refer to him as “that very sorry hero but most determined cock-fighter.” Possessing the strong, he possessed also the weak points of this type. He was not only uneducated, but incapable of study. He could improvise variations on a given theme with astonishing volubility, throwing back—wonderfully elaborated—an idea suggested to him; but he was not a thinker. He could shuffle and deal current political notions most shrewdly, but his only principle, either political or moral, was that having accidentally proclaimed the republic of Mexico, he owned it. He understood the shallow and selfish manoeuvres in the midst of which he lived, but had no deep insight, and found it much easier to do things than to perceive what needed to be done. His power to dupe others grew mainly, perhaps, from being a dupe himself. He was in statesmanship only by force of circumstances; and he always hated a business like that, for it perplexed and wearied his passionate, untrained character. In a critical Mexican situation his narrow but intense perspicacity, his unreflecting but unequalled quickness, his reckless but ingenious adaptation of means to ends, and his magnetic skill in “reaching” and combining men governed by self-interest gave him for the time being an immense advantage, and, when viewed under the dazzling arc lights of prestige and power, seemed truly brilliant; but his ability was essentially thin, short-sighted and weak. Indeed Consul Campbell, who saw him at Havana without his trappings, declared that in any American village of a thousand persons he would be thought intellectually feeble. Intellectually undeveloped he certainly was.[29]


In the present instance he had supposed in the Mexican style that a phrase was a philosophy, that a catchword was a magical formula, that an eloquent peroration would be as mighty after he had been found out as it had been before, that a profession of repentance would erase long years of deliberate bad conduct;[30] and from the hour of setting foot upon Mexican soil his mistake had been growing every hour more evident. Only the army felt confidence in him, and that not altogether, for he now called himself a Federalist, and the Federalists aimed to substitute for the army a citizen soldiery called the National Guard.[31] After the experience of many sad years, “people” and “army” could no more unite than oil and water. Owing to suspicions that resembled those of the army, the moderates also held aloof; and although the country in general, aware of his preëminent energy and resourcefulness and reduced to the unhappy necessity of fighting fire with fire, consented to his resumption of power, it did not, even when somewhat reassured by his connection with Farías, trust him.[32] How can he speak truth who has no truth in his heart? men asked; and he himself could feel what the answer was.[41]

As to Farías and his party of extreme democrats, who were good enough in Santa Anna’s opinion for servants but not for masters, they evidently intended to control him, which could not be tolerated long; and as to relations with the United States, the people seemed far more bent upon war than a mere gamester could have supposed. Moreover, to declare now for peace[33] looked very much like playing into the hands of ex-President Herrera, the champion and martyr of that cause, round whom an opposition party of citizens, military men and journalists was gathering at the capital; and to do this appeared even to endanger Santa Anna’s personal safety, for as yet he was only a returning exile, expelled but yesterday from the country like a felon, and ordered never to come back. The civil authorities of the nation in general seemed to be unfriendly; and the second city, Puebla, which lay across his road to Mexico and had the power to wreck his cause, was found to be ill-disposed. Not only famous and rich, but hardened by extraordinary reverses—especially that of December, 1844—he was no longer the hopeful, daring adventurer. His wish now, as he told an American at this time, was to play a safe game. At Havana, so Campbell said, he had not fathomed the crisis, but he now realized that he was treading the crust of a volcano. His plans collapsed; and when the government,[34] which had become alarmed by accounts of his hesitation, deputed Baranda to act as his escort or custodian, he refused to move.[41]

He did, however, send Rejón and Almonte forward to help guide Salas, who did not relish the tutelage of Farías; and on August 22 with proper solemnities and a lavish ringing of bells the federal constitution of 1824 came forth from its tomb.[35] The people then felt a little more confidence in the future, though Santa Anna, if at all able to forecast that future, would probably have felt less. About a week later, at his instance, Rejón was appointed minister of foreign affairs, Almonte minister of war, Farías minister of the treasury, and Pacheco minister of justice;[36] and a broad scheme of war measures went into effect.[37] A levy of 30,000 troops was assigned to the states in quotas; Guardians of the Peace were decreed, so that all the regulars might be able to take the field; every Mexican between the ages of sixteen and fifty was ordered to be ready for service; and steps were taken to buy up the weapons belonging to citizens as well as promote the importation of arms. The apprehensions of the military class had recently been assuaged by declarations that the army stood in no danger of abolition; and they now tolerated not only an order to enroll National Guards, but an offer of pardon to all deserting from the regular corps within three months.[41]

While these events were taking place, the sort of ability that Santa Anna possessed and the sort of advice that he could obtain enabled him to decide firmly upon a policy for the immediate future. He knew that no way could be seen to meet the present embarrassments of the government; he knew that the hot-headed radicals, if given a chance, would soon discredit themselves; he knew that whoever should control the army would be safe and strong; and he knew that one victory over the Americans would make him omnipotent. He determined, therefore, to accept no public share in the government, pose as the single-minded patriot-soldier, and ask only the privilege of fighting at the head of the troops. At one time he refused even to enter the capital, but he was notified by the administration that such marked aloofness from the government would be regarded as an open breach.[41]

September 14, therefore, after several delays on his part, the bell of the cathedral and a salvo of artillery announced at half-past one that the professional saviour of Mexico, who never saved her, had entered the city. Everything possible was done by the authorities to give an appearance of concord and enthusiasm.[38] Watched as he knew he was by ostensible friends, Santa Anna played out his distasteful rôle, and so did the rest of the actors. Emblems abounded. Eloquence overflowed. The cathedral chanted Te deums. “Immense multitudes” (hardly perceived by ordinary observers) cheered incessantly—in the official journal. Not only public but private edifices were lavishly decorated—by order. A hired band perambulated the streets. The General listened patiently to a lecture from another man of the people, and replied with edifying humility; and he asked that a well-known statue of himself should be replaced with the national arms. But it was noticed that he and Farías, facing each other in the carriage of honor under a huge picture of the Constitution, looked more like victims than victors; and he would not be present at the grand banquet.[41]

Having complied with the ultimatum of the government, Santa Anna was now, September 17, appointed commander-in-chief of “The Liberating Army.” “Every day that passes without fighting at the north is a century of disgrace for Mexico,” he then exclaimed; and although he remained in Tacubaya, a suburb of the capital, and was said to be ill, he exerted himself to forward troops, hoping to concentrate 25,000 rapidly at San Luis Potosí. Tidings from the seat of war foreshadowed a battle at Monterey, and increased his anxiety. He exhorted the war department unsparingly.[41]

But the government was exceedingly poor. According to the Diario only 1839 pesos (dollars) lay in its treasury on September 6. Voluntary offerings for the war took mostly the form of eloquence.[39] The million raised by Paredes had nearly vanished in his preparations and the Citadel revolution. Pressure was applied to the clergy, and the Diario asked, Is it not worth while for the merchant to give 100,000 pesos in order to save 900,000? But both of these classes held back stubbornly, and managed the affair so as to escape. One brigade formed on three successive days to march, but had to wait for funds. At length, however, with extreme difficulty about 90,000 pesos were borrowed; and on September 28, after piously seeking the Divine Blessing at Guadalupe,[40] Santa Anna with some 2500 men set out. About 3000 were already on their way, and he expected to find a large force at San Luis Potosí.[41]

As he rolled along in his coach for about 380 miles, drawn by relays of fleet mules, the General probably congratulated himself upon his policy. He was on living terms with the radicals, had been accepted by the Church, had soothed the army, and through Pedraza—recently his enemy and still the enemy of Farías—had reached an understanding with the Moderados. Unquestionably he stood much better with the public than a month before; and he probably did not perceive that his recent course had ensured for himself and the nation a series of most unpalatable surprises.[41]

Through it all, however, the capital managed easily to be gay, and six “arrogant bulls” were artistically sacrificed in the Plaza de Toros on one of these anxious days.[42]


Arista had scarcely reached Linares when he began, though he knew his military standing had been destroyed, to rebuild the army. Mejía followed in his predecessor’s footsteps, adopted a policy that was both conciliatory and stern to check desertion and bring offenders back to the colors, kept guards out on the roads leading to the Rio Grande, and exerted himself to improve the morale of his troops. Though Linares was a central point within easy reach of all the principal towns of northeastern Mexico, he justly regarded Monterey, a city of twelve or fifteen thousand inhabitants and capital of Nuevo León, as the vital spot, and about the ninth of July transferred his army to that place. Desertion had now ceased, he reported; morale had been restored; and the troops were described as eager to avenge the disasters of May 8 and 9, which in their opinion “they had suffered but not caused.”[1]

This view of the situation, however, must be described as rather imaginative and extremely incomplete. It was hard to find money and hard to find mounts. As late as August 19 Mejía admitted that neither Mexicans nor foreigners would advance him funds, and even after paying for horses he could not obtain them. Two of the governors in this quarter would give him no aid, and still less were the people inclined to rise for the national defence. Both troops and artillery came far short of the requirements. Though Arista had called for reinforcements on April 24, not a man from the south had arrived by August 20. Including the scattered and almost worthless Presidials, the total number of soldiers in the region—outside of Tampico—was less than 3000, and about one third of these could not easily be concentrated at headquarters. Ill-fed, ill-clothed, soured by misfortune, smarting under the general contempt, some desiring Mejía and some Ampudia for commander, still more wishing Arista back, and all wrangling bitterly, even if less bitterly than at first, over the conduct of their generals and officers, the army had for chief a little, pockmarked man in blue glasses, who looked like a sot, and thus far in the campaign had been distinguished only for bad health and a pompous vocabulary.[2]

Mejía’s plan was to conduct a guerilla warfare, save the army from further disgrace in the field, and make a stand at Monterey. General Canales and the irregulars were, therefore, his first line; but the “Chaparral Fox,” who entertained revolutionary designs for which he desired American support, had managed so as to do us no harm in the battles of May 8 and 9, and proposed to continue that policy. Mejía suspected his intentions, yet could not prove him a traitor, and sent him funds and horses grudgingly; whereupon Canales, protesting that his loyal aims were paralyzed by Mejía’s personal ill-will and stinginess, made the cause of Mexico odious by robbing and outraging the people under cover of her flag. At length, early in August, Mejía concluded to give him about a thousand men, and ordered him to annoy the Americans in every possible way; but the General reported that his horses were too weak to trot three miles, and that he saw little prospect of injuring or even delaying the enemy. In the northeast, therefore, to all intents and purposes no aggressive Mexican army existed. The business of the nation at this time was changing masters.[3]


Taylor intended to invade Mexico, and having been favored by Providence and the government with enough men and supplies, his next need was information regarding the enemy, the roads and the towns. Plenty of this he could easily have obtained, one must believe. A strong feeling against the government and even in favor of joining hands with the Americans now prevailed in this quarter; and a large number of the inhabitants on the border, long engaged in smuggling operations, had the training, as well as the natural gifts of disloyalty, daring and secretiveness, needed by the spy. A well-informed Mexican of this region stated that some of his fellow-citizens were quite ready to serve the Americans faithfully. Taylor could have made it for their interest to do so, and in addition the circumstances gave him countless hostages for their fidelity. Scott advised him to employ a large force of secret agents in a systematic way. But this was not done, and his information continued to be meagre.[4]

Another subject of prime importance was, of course, the means of transportation. Taylor had, as we have seen, a large outfit of wagons, but not enough of them for the expedition in view. A train of pack-mules was the natural supplement. Those animals were almost universally employed in Mexico; the country abounded in them; and it was the General’s obvious duty to use the facilities within his reach. At Washington the practice of the region was understood, and it could only be inferred that good wagon roads did not exist. Besides, Taylor intimated that he expected to follow the usual system, and indeed he was not aware until August that army wagons could be used where he intended to go. There is no reason to doubt that by the first of that month fully 3000 pack-mules could have been at his command. Under such circumstances, to suppose the war department would expend a million dollars or so in the manufacture of wagons, without having a requisition from the army or even definite information as to Taylor’s plans, went beyond reason. But the matter was overlooked at the front; and finally, gathering barely 1700 of those animals Taylor complained loudly, though he himself recognized that the fate of the administration depended upon the success of the war, that departmental neglect had inexcusably delayed and crippled his advance.[5]

Still, the General decided to move, for he knew the public demanded action; and he wished—as he said—to sustain the government. Indeed, he now declared it necessary to go forward immediately, “be the consequences what they may.” “I must attempt something,” he wrote privately. The government, however, had not requested him to support the administration or to incur such a risk; and Taylor—who stood conspicuous now in the Whig party, and suspected that “Polk, Marcy and Co.” were aiming to discredit and ruin him—can scarcely have felt a passionate desire to sustain them. In short, as may be inferred from his correspondence, he understood that he himself was the person chiefly blamed by the country for inactivity; and, assuming that no serious resistance would be encountered, he determined—primarily, it would appear, for his own sake—to occupy Monterey and Saltillo. For the head of an invading army, both the motive and the assumption were somewhat improper.[6]

He understood, however, that resistance might possibly be offered, and for that his plan seems to have been ready. As early as the middle of June there were at his disposal ten 18-pound siege guns, two 10-inch mortars and four 24-pound howitzers; and we know that at least the mortars and half a dozen of the 18-pounders were then at Fort Brown. Before July some of the howitzers were certainly at Point Isabel. It was entirely feasible to carry heavy ordnance to Monterey, for Santa Anna did a much harder job of the same kind; and Engineer Sanders had warned Taylor that field pieces would not be effective against the stone houses of Mexican towns. But, probably quite unaware how much the moral effect produced by his guns on May 8 had contributed to his victory the following day, he seems to have retained his low opinion of artillery. Even while Taylor was protesting against the number of volunteers thrown upon him, Ridgely complained bitterly that he could not get enough men for his battery. The cold steel—simple, direct, positive, unflinching—was a weapon such as Taylor could understand. One required no book learning to use that. And no doubt he already intended, as we know he intended later, to overcome resistance at Monterey, should any be offered, “pretty much with the bayonet.”[7]


Careful attention was paid to the choice of a route. That through Cadereita offered the better grazing; but the General wisely determined to march by way of Mier and Cerralvo, a distance believed to be 140 miles but in reality only about 125. This route was a little shorter and better provided with water. The roads were much more satisfactory. The problem of crossing the San Juan without boats or graded approaches did not present itself. The groves and ravines where an enemy could make trouble were few, and but one stream had to be forded. On August 19, therefore, Brevet Brigadier General Worth, commanding the Second Division of regulars, crossed the river with his first brigade over a bridge of steamboats, and moved off to establish a dépôt at Cerralvo, about sixty miles away. All the pack-mules, which were to return under escort and make a second trip, accompanied the troops. Brigadier General Persifor F. Smith and the second brigade, Brigadier General Twiggs with the First Division of regulars and about 180 wagons, and Major General W. O. Butler with a “Field Division” of volunteers followed. September 5 headquarters moved, and in a day or two the last of the men belonging to the expedition set out.[8]

The advance to Cerralvo did not prove entirely agreeable. At first there was trouble because the mules could not be loaded until after daybreak, and it was hard for the troops to march during the hot hours; but after a little experience the troops moved off at about three o’clock in the morning, and the train proceeded later under escort. The road proved to be full of sharp stones most of the way; and everything—even the frogs and the grass—had thorns, reported the soldiers. Although, as Worth said, there was no dangerous lack of water, the men suffered not a little during a part of the time. Some almost raved from thirst, and brushing the yellow scum aside, would drink eagerly from any pool. The heat baked them, and in spite of wet cotton in their caps a considerable number were overcome. Mier, the only town of any importance on the route, proved to be the roughest and gloomiest sort of a place. Gloomy, too, was the long line of wooden crosses beside the road, for every one marked a grave, and not a few signified a murder. After a while, however, came the inspiring sight of distant mountains—the fantastic, pale-blue summits of the Sierra Madre, which rose higher and stood out more boldly day by day; and the occasional inhabitants appeared, as Worth reported, “cordial in the highest degree.”[9]

Particularly sunny were the Mexican smiles at beautiful Cerralvo, where the advance arrived at noon, August 25; and there were still more substantial reasons for satisfaction. The town, a place of some 1800 people, was built of stone, and hence formed a strong military position. It had enough springs of excellent water to supply New York City, declared Taylor. Standing, all in white, on a ridge at the foot of a spur from the Sierra Madre, surrounded with groves, pastures and fields, it gave promise of abundance and kept the promise. Sheep, cattle and goats, watermelons, pecans, half a dozen delicious fruits, ample grazing, and large stores of corn were to be had, and plenty of oak, walnut, ebony, cypress and willow for the cooks’ fires. By the morning of September 15, with the exception of the Texas contingent, which had marched by way of China and Cadereita, all the troops concentrated here.[10]


Mexico, anticipating Taylor’s advance, had now taken steps to meet it. In July Paredes had sent three brigades of regulars from the capital to operate against the revolutionists of Guadalajara, and on August 6 these were ordered to Monterey. Ampudia, who was to supersede Mejía, received instructions to make haste; and the commander of the third brigade, on leaving San Luis Potosí, went so far as to destroy all baggage that could hinder the march. News of the revolution, which overtook these forces tardily, delayed the advance, for of course many of the officers felt they must “pronounce”; and almost the whole of one brigade, abandoning their general, went back to Mexico. The number deserting was quite serious, for besides the usual reasons for leaving a distasteful service, the troops were alarmed by the prospect of real fighting, and the sombre monotony of the deserts that had to be crossed disheartened them.[11]

But on August 29 the first brigade, about 1400 infantry with three 8-pounders, arrived at Monterey. The second came on September 6, and the third only a few days later. The garrison was now strong. Mejía had concentrated some 4000 regulars and auxiliaries, and according to the detailed official report there were in all, on September 10, 7303 officers and men. The arrival of the new forces greatly encouraged the soldiers of Palo Alto and the Resaca—who had felt little desire to meet the Americans again—and hence checked their deserting. As the cavalry had now been re-mounted, it seemed likely to be efficient; and when the Señorita Dosamantes, equipped as a captain, volunteered to fight the invader, and was exhibited on horseback to the entire army, its enthusiasm rose high.[11]

From the forced march of Ampudia and his troops one might infer that the government had positively decided to make a stand at Monterey, but such was by no means the fact. Before leaving Vera Cruz and again later Santa Anna warned both Salas and the minister of war emphatically against this idea, and on August 20 Ampudia was therefore notified that unless Mejía’s troops and the fortifications were certainly of sufficient strength to check the enemy, he should “on no account risk an action.” Three days later the department informed him that the general-in-chief was “convinced” that Monterey could not be defended, and that his forces were “not strong enough to resist the Americans”; and in view of this opinion he was directed to halt at Saltillo, and order Mejía by special express to demolish his fortifications, and remove his army and military effects to that city “without loss of time”—the purpose of the government being “to gather an army capable of winning a victory without risking the honor and great interests of the nation.”[12]

The new commander at the north, however, was doubtless thinking for himself. In view of Santa Anna’s purpose to organize a grand army under his personal orders, this was Ampudia’s last opportunity to shine independently, and he did not wish to lose it. On learning the strength of Mejía’s and Taylor’s armies and the condition of the fortifications, he believed he could not only repulse the Americans but drive them beyond the Rio Grande. Mejía took the ground that it would be dishonorable to give up Monterey and the pass between that city and Saltillo without a fight, and that it might be very hard to recover the road through the mountains after giving the Americans an opportunity to fortify it. His officers, who met by Ampudia’s order in a council of war, appear to have shared this opinion; and the comandante general of Nuevo León, “as a Mexican and an officer in the national army,” protested “before God and men” against the instructions to retreat, leaving twenty guns that could not be taken away, and permitting the enemy to triumph “without hearing a shot from the Mexican arms.” So the die was cast; and on learning of Ampudia’s decision, together with his reasons, the war department endorsed it.[13]


On reaching the ground, Ampudia proceeded to inspect Mejía’s works. The importance of erecting fortifications at Monterey had been clearly seen. May 27 the minister of war gave orders accordingly, and Mejía promptly sent an engineer there to reconnoitre and draw a plan. Since, however, he could not afford to hire or even feed laborers, only soldiers carried on the work, and little was accomplished before the end of July; but people were then required to labor without pay, and the progress became more rapid. Ampudia now brought men from the neighboring towns also; and Monterey, excited by the news of Taylor’s advance, became a hive of industry.[14]


The opportunities for defence were excellent. Lying encompassed—except on the north and east—with steep, high spurs of the Sierra Madre, where the Saltillo road and the small but swift Santa Catarina River debouched from Rinconada Pass, the city formed a sort of rectangle somewhat more than a mile in length from east to west and about nine squares wide at the broadest. Only a short distance from the western end rose high and steep foothills, and some of these were now crowned with redoubts. Along the southern side the river and its high, rough bank were almost a sufficient protection; but they were supplemented with fortified buildings and yard walls, barricades at the ends of the streets, and for about half the way a solid parapet.[15]

The eastern part of the town was given special attention, for here entered the principal roads from the north. In the city proper nearly all the streets ran straight either at right angles or parallel, and in each of the central ones now rose a double line of overlapping barricades or breastworks of masonry, provided with embrasures and with ditches. Outside these a series of redoubts was constructed; and wherever the enemy seemed likely to come, the houses—almost always one story high—were loopholed and provided with ammunition. As they had been constructed very solidly of rubble-work, were protected with strong doors and iron-barred windows, and had flat roofs (azoteas) defended with sand-bags in addition to their stone parapets, they were veritable fortresses. At the heart of the town stood the cathedral with its elaborately carved façade, a chime in one spire and in the other a clock. This became the general magazine. In front of it was the main plaza, bounded on the western side by the prison; and beyond the prison lay the market square.[15]

The north side of the town had even stronger protection. Within 12-pounder range of almost every part of the city stood a solid pile of masonry, twenty-five or thirty feet high, blackened by time. This was an unfinished cathedral; and, taking it as a donjon, Mejía’s engineers threw round its columns and buttresses a quadrangular bastioned earthwork, intended for about thirty guns. The high parapet, eleven and a half feet thick, was faced on both sides with a soft gray tufa, in which cannon balls were expected to embed themselves. The ditch, though not wide enough and not completely excavated, was twelve feet deep. A garrison of four hundred with eight guns occupied the position; and although the two small magazines were not adequately protected against falling projectiles, and still other faults could be pointed out by an expert, this fort, commonly known as the citadel, was a powerful work, and, standing on a slight elevation, it could sweep the roads and the plain east and north of the town. A sort of telegraph enabled its commander, Colonel Uraga, to communicate with headquarters.[16]

Plenty of ammunition and an adequate store of provisions were accumulated. General Requena labored indefatigably in repairing discarded cannon, and about forty guns were found available. American deserters, who either had been or had become skilful gunners, were on hand to point some of them. There was one capital, underlying defect in the whole plan of defence. To hold all the works firmly required a much larger garrison than Ampudia had. More or less clearly the mistake was understood; but the active coöperation of the cavalry and the reserves was expected to offset it.[17]

Santa Anna’s policy was not merely to give up indefensible towns, and he ordered Ampudia to drive away all cattle that the Americans might otherwise obtain, destroy provisions and make the water supply useless whenever a place had to be abandoned, besides urging the inhabitants to leave their homes on Taylor’s approach, so as to show the Americans and the world that Mexico could never be subdued; and Ampudia not only endeavored to execute these instructions, but adopted measures of his own to supplement the efforts of his troops. The people were ordered to intercept messengers and convoys, capture small parties, and in every possible way imitate the royalists of Spain, who had made the soldiers of Napoleon so much trouble. Martial law went into effect, and thus in addition to other advantages the authority of the indifferent or disloyal governor was obliterated.[18]

Disloyalty and indifference among the people were combated at the same time, as Ampudia informed the government, by a twofold policy of “moderation” and “decisive energy,” in which the second ingredient appeared the more conspicuous. All the citizens of the region received a summons to come and help defend the nation. Notice was publicly given that any person voluntarily affording the enemy direct or indirect aid would be shot; everybody was required to denounce offences of this kind; and all authorities were ordered to inflict the penalty. A circular in English inviting Americans to desert met our troops, and the inhabitants were directed to succor and protect all such repentant foes. Taylor had but a few regulars, Ampudia proclaimed, and the rest of his army was “a mob of adventurers without valor or discipline.” Moreover the sacred cause of independence itself appealed for support, and could not be ignored. “Soldiers,” he cried, “Victory or death must be our only motto.” Thanks to this vigorous policy and the increased numbers of the army at Monterey, by the middle of September the temper of the people towards the Americans noticeably changed.[19]


In other respects, however, the General did not feel so well pleased. In person large and strong, with a soldierly mustache and goatee and a martial bearing, he figured well on horseback; but he was really small and mean, and his measure had been taken. His obtaining the command of the army—first at Matamoros and again recently—through political intrigue was fairly well understood. Many attributed the disaster of May 9 to his machinations against Arista. A dominant regard for personal safety was known to be one of his characteristics. His chief distinction, said the British minister at Mexico, arose from acts of violence done in abuse of power, and he now acted out his disposition. However the general public might be deceived, such a man could not impress the officers by talking about a sacred cause and “victory or death”; and old personal animosities against him supplemented the want of confidence based on public grounds. One of the officers wrote bluntly to him that the disgust and discouragement produced by the news of his appointment could be seen plainly on the faces of nearly all. Complaints against him were forwarded to the government. The press voiced this hostile sentiment, and fresh enmities were rapidly engendered.[20]

Nor did military affairs prosper very well. The funds were scanty, and that state of things could not fail to cause dissatisfaction. Ampudia’s appointing Ramírez, who understood tactics but not engineering, to supervise the construction of works met with disapproval. Numerous changes of policy had a similar reception. At first he adopted Mejía’s plan of attempting nothing serious in the field, and then he decided to meet the enemy at Marín, some twenty miles from the city. A council was held; and finally, as most of the officers opposed this project, it was given up. Then another council decided to abandon certain incomplete fortifications between the citadel and the western defences; and at the instance of Ramírez a very important fort, the Tenería redoubt at the eastern end of the town, was demolished. Such vacillation and such waste, both moral and material, undermined the courage and confidence of the garrison and stimulated its dissensions.[21]

At Cadereita, August 31, there were a thousand regular cavalry, and they were ordered to attack five hundred Texan horse then at China; but they accomplished nothing. The Americans march carelessly and in small bodies, observers reported; they loosen their arms and stoop down to drink at the first water; they sleep as if at home; they carry little ammunition; and their muleteers are hoping the train will be attacked. With such opportunities the six hundred troopers now under Canales were expected to do something; but that astute leader merely gave reasons why they could not. “Nothing, absolutely nothing will either the regular cavalry or the auxiliaries do against the enemy,” exclaimed Ampudia bitterly; and on September 18 the whole mounted force of about three thousand meekly retreated to the town, leaving the roads practically open.[21]


Early on September 12 all the pioneers of Taylor’s army advanced from Cerralvo to prepare the road for his artillery and wagons. Ahead of them went a strange-looking company. Mounted on quick, tough horses and marching at will, the men were dressed as they pleased; but they agreed substantially on leggings, trousers belted round the waist, coarse red or blue shirts, and either a buckskin cap or a soft felt hat. Each carried a heavy rifle, a pouch of bullets, a large powderhorn and a bowie knife, and some had Colt revolvers. At every saddle-bow hung a braided lariat for a tether; and a bag of parched and pounded corn, together with whatever else the rider thought he needed, was bound to the saddle with thongs. This company was Captain McCulloch’s rangers—a part of the First Texas regiment—Taylor’s finest body of scouts; and they, assisted by a squadron of dragoons, covered the pioneers. On the following three days the First, Second and Field Divisions moved successively, carrying forty rounds of ammunition and rations for eight days, besides what went as freight; and only the sick, with a guard of two Mississippi companies, remained at Cerralvo.[22]

The spell of Mexico, that was to charm away so often the pains of a hard existence, now fell upon the soldiers. The country became more fertile. One broad plain shone with Spanish dahlias, and curious trees and plants could be seen on all sides. Every few miles a stream of cool, sparkling water leaped across the road. In the morning a curtain of gray, thinning little by little, went slowly up at last, and revealed a world of hills, edged with burnished gold, where one or two, catching the sun aslant on a bare, crystalline side, would flash out amidst the lingering shadows in all the colors of a diamond; while, farther on, lilac mountain rose above lilac mountain and purple range looked over purple range until the crowning peaks touched the firmament. In one town after another grapes, figs and pomegranates delighted the eye, and, as an officer quoted to himself,

“The air was heavy with the sighs of orange groves.”

And finally, as night came on, the jagged blue sierras, growing almost black, were silhouetted perhaps against a pale yellowish-green streaked with crimson. A spice of danger added zest, for about a thousand Mexican cavalry hovered constantly in the front, and once near Ramos McCulloch’s rangers got near enough to exchange shots with a party of them. But Torrejón’s men employed themselves principally in driving the Mexicans from their homes under Santa Anna’s and Ampudia’s instructions; and on September 17, after passing through Papagallos, the Americans now marching with Taylor concentrated near Marín.[23]

Very early the next morning a bugle broke the silence of the camp; other bugles answered it; the drums awoke; the fifes joined in; the army sprang to its feet. As soon as possible the advance guard moved off. The First Division followed at eight o’clock, and the others at intervals of an hour. After sleeping that night at San Francisco the army, completed by the arrival of the Texas Division, set out again at about sunrise on the nineteenth. Since reaching Marín Taylor had rather come to the conclusion that he would scarcely reach Saltillo on time—that first he would have something to do at Monterey; and this opinion was now confirmed. At about nine o’clock, accompanied by his staff and an escort of Texas mounted men, he came to the edge of the plain, and passed on down the gentle slope of the San Juan valley.[21]

In front lay a stretch of broken ground. Beyond it cattle were feeding peacefully in green fields, and corn was ripening under a hot sun. Farther away still lay Monterey, the holy city of the frontier, as if in a niche of the vast sierra, its white houses partly hidden with green and the spires of its cathedral soaring above; and now and then the music of a bell, a bugle or a drum came faintly across the plain. A little at the right could be seen the long, low line of the citadel wall, surmounted by the dark bulk of the “donjon” and its flag of red, white and green. But suddenly the tranquillity of the scene was broken. A white puff rose from the fort, and a 12-pound ball tore up the dirt in front of the General. Another dropped near him, and a body of Mexican cavalry advanced. Hays’s regiment of horse was ordered to charge; but seeing the enemy retire as if to lure the Americans under the guns of the fortress, Taylor recalled him.[24]

Meanwhile the rest of our troops, excited by the rolling echoes from the mountains, pressed on. Some threw away their packs of cards, but mostly the men joked, laughed, cheered each report from the citadel guns, and shouted that they were going to a grand fandango at Monterey. “No one discussed depots of supplies, base of communications, lines of retreat, or strategic positions,” we are told by General S. G. French, then a lieutenant of artillery; “but every one knew that the brave old soldier would fight the enemy, wherever he found them, to the end.” The victories at Palo Alto and the Resaca had filled the men with confidence; and in this happy mood the army encamped about three miles from the city at Walnut Grove (Bosque de San Domingo), an extensive and beautiful group of pecans and live-oaks, watered by large, pure springs, where pleasure parties of well-to-do Mexicans were accustomed to enjoy themselves. The army now consisted, all told, of some 3080 regulars and 3150 volunteers. About 1350 of the troops were mounted men; and for artillery there were four field batteries, and a pair of 24-pound howitzers, but no real siege ordnance except one 10-inch mortar. In the front lay a city of stone, protected with strong and rather skilfully planned works, and guarded by an army larger than Taylor’s.[25]

September, 1846


At once American reconnoitring parties accompanied by engineers hurried out (September 19), and both ends of the city were examined. Despite the fire of the citadel, particular attention was paid to the western fortifications, for the idea of turning them had already presented itself. By ten o’clock that night Brevet Major Mansfield, the chief engineer, returned to camp with five prisoners to be questioned and with satisfactory evidence that the Saltillo road could be gained in spite of the forts; and then a council decided to make the attempt.[1]


Evidently, however, this meant a severe struggle. Going three quarters of a mile west from the main plaza of Monterey by the Saltillo route, passing a cemetery, and keeping on about a mile and a quarter farther, one found on a low eminence at the right a dilapidated but massive stone building known as the Bishop’s Palace, close below which stood now a half-moon battery facing and commanding the town. Beyond this redoubt, called La Libertad, the eminence became an ascending ridge, and some three hundred yards from the Palace the ridge ended sharply as the summit of an extremely steep height known by the Americans as Independence Hill (Loma de Independencia), where a small sand-bag redoubt had been constructed. Immediately west of this hill, what was known as the Topo road left the Saltillo highway and struck off toward one’s right, and near the farther edge of this road a spur of the mountain began to ascend. On the other side of the highway flowed the Santa Catarina, passing by the city and joining the San Juan some distance below. Farther to the left and parallel to the river rose a high, bristling hill named Federation Ridge. At the western end—the summit—of this ridge, which extended some distance beyond La Libertad, stood a redoubt occupied by some eighty men; and about six hundred yards to the east, in a depression of the ridge, was a substantial masonry fort called El Soldado, armed with two 9-pounders, which were dragged, before the fighting began, to the redoubt on the summit.[2]

Meantime the Mexicans also were observing. It was generally believed that Taylor had thirty guns, which meant a hard fight; but the soldiers were excited and ready for battle. “The enthusiasm is great, the determination greater, the desire to sacrifice ourselves for the sacred rights of the nation unbounded,” wrote the comandante general of Nuevo León. But Ampudia—“the Culinary Knight,” as Worth called him, who had fried Sentmanat’s head—already trembled. We have food for barely twenty days, he reported to the government; the troops at San Luis Potosí are few in number and little inclined to advance; through spies the enemy are aware of these facts; they will gain the pass between here and Saltillo, and from that position “it will be almost impossible to dislodge them.”[3]

Sunday morning all was bustle in the American camp, and at length, a little before two o’clock, Hays and about 400 mounted Texans rode away. A long sky-blue line of infantry followed them, and then another line of men in dark-blue jackets and trousers with a red stripe down the leg—Lieutenant Colonel Childs’s Artillery Battalion. Blanchard’s Company of Louisiana volunteers, dressed in every sort of clothes and carrying every sort of weapon, and Duncan’s and Mackall’s batteries with their gleaming pieces and clattering caissons completed the detachment, which included some 2000 men, all told. The rest of the army watched their departure with keen interest, for their design looked well-nigh desperate, and yet the fate of the campaign was believed to depend upon it.[4]

Especially they watched the commander. In the usual undress uniform but on a splendid horse, which he managed with consummate address, rode Worth. He was a man of average height but noticeably strong, with a trim figure and a strikingly martial air. Conversing easily with his staff he seemed the elegant gentleman; but his face was stern, and his restless dark eyes flashed. In war he found his element; and at present behind his natural ardor burned a new flame. His withdrawing from the army in April had injured both his prestige and his relative position, and his motto now was, “A grade or a grave.” His orders were to turn Independence Hill, occupy the Saltillo highway, and so far as practicable carry the works in that quarter; and no doubt he intended to do more rather than less.[4]

Soon taking leave of the road, this command plunged into cornfields and chaparral. Progress was difficult and slow. For the benefit of the artillery, ditches had to be bridged or filled and brush fences opened. The enemy promptly observed and understood the movement, and a body of cavalry embarrassed it somewhat. Once they nearly surrounded the General and his staff, who were some distance in advance; but after a time, fearing his artillery, they withdrew to the citadel. Ampudia himself rode to Independence Hill, watched the blue line a while, ordered one hundred infantry to the summit, and had a 12-pounder and a howitzer planted there.[5]

By six o’clock Worth made nearly or quite seven miles. He was now on the Topo road; and, halting just beyond the range of the battery on Independence Hill, he pushed a reconnoitring party toward the Saltillo highway. Infantry and cavalry had now been posted, however, in that vicinity. The party was fired upon; and, owing to this, to nightfall and to the torrents of rain, its purpose was not accomplished until the lateness of the hour prevented further operations. With great difficulty the Americans were placed in a fairly defensible position; and without fires, food, blankets or shelter, they lived through the stormy night as best they could. By this time the rest of the Mexican cavalry had been withdrawn from its position between the Bishop’s Palace and the citadel, and a part of it retired into the town.[6]


Monday, a day of fate, broke heavy, dark and ominous. Dense clouds covered the sky, and for a time a thick mist cut off the outlook. By about six o’clock Worth moved, however, and, saluted occasionally with harmless grape from Independence Hill, advanced by the Topo road. Anticipating trouble, he arranged the column so as to be ready for prompt action. The Texans led; Captain C. F. Smith and the light companies of the Artillery Battalion, deployed as skirmishers, came next; Lieutenant Colonel Duncan’s battery was third; and the rest of the command followed. Two or three hundred yards or so from the Saltillo highway, at a turn round the mountain, some two hundred lancers could be seen approaching. It was a gallant sight. The horses, though small, showed plenty of spirit; many of the saddles were silver-mounted; the cavaliers wore brilliant uniforms, and green and red pennons fluttered gayly from their poised lances. At the head of the advance rode Lieutenant Colonel Nájera, a tall, fine-looking trooper with a fierce black mustache. Smith’s corps and a part of the Texas riflemen were thrown behind a strong fence; Duncan halted and unlimbered; and then, like a whirlwind, Nájera struck McCulloch.[7]

The shock was terrible; and like a lion and a tiger grappling the two bodies writhed and fought. The weight of the American horses proved a great advantage, but numbers were on the other side. Nájera, after running a Texan through with his lance, fell; but a gallant successor took his place, and the soldiers proved worthy of him. Many lances were shivered, and others, useless at close quarters, were dropped; but sword and escopeta served instead. On our part Smith’s infantry fired well, and the Mexicans could not break through the fence.[7]

After recoiling a little they formed to charge again. Other troops of Worth’s came up, took post beside the road, and began work. A minute or two more and Duncan, on higher ground, was firing over the Americans. By this time Nájera’s squadron was nearly accounted for; but behind it were the rest of Romero’s cavalry brigade and a party of infantry. However, Mackall’s battery was now coöperating with Duncan’s and both did splendidly. The Mexican foot withdrew instead of advancing. A part of the cavalry soon retreated toward Saltillo and a part into the town; and the brief but important struggle ended. Probably more than one hundred Mexicans had been killed or wounded, while our own casualties appear to have numbered about a dozen, and the way to the Saltillo highway lay open. By a quarter past eight Worth’s command was on this road; and he reflected with exultation that the Mexican line of communication, supply, reinforcement and retreat had been cut. Nor was that all or even the best of it, he believed. “The town is ours,” he scrawled in pencil to the commander-in-chief. The battery on Independence Hill now became active, however; and as Federation redoubt, of which the Americans had not heard, began to drop round shot among our troops, they had to be withdrawn about half a mile in the direction of Saltillo.[7]

Worth’s courage and spirit were inflexible, but he was a little wanting in steadiness. His impetuous, restless mind would leap to a decision without fully grasping all the facts, and then it was necessary to reconsider and re-decide. In the face of the present unexpected situation he changed his plan several times, and fatigued the troops perhaps with some unnecessary movements; but by noon he concluded to storm Federation Ridge first, and Captain C. F. Smith was assigned to this task with four Artillery and five dismounted Texan companies—about three hundred or three hundred and fifty effectives. Riding up to the command Worth exclaimed in his bold, magnetic way, which went straight to the soldier’s heart, “Men, you are to take that hill—and I know you will do it.” “We will,” they answered, and the detachment, followed by the most anxious hopes of all the other corps, moved off. It seemed like charging the clouds, but it had to be done.[8]

The intention was to gain the rear of the fort, and hence a circuitous route leading to the southern flank of the ridge was chosen. After hurrying through cornfields and sugarcane to the river and then upstream a considerable distance to find a crossing place, the men slid down the rough bank of the Santa Catarina, and plunged in. The swift stream, waist-deep, was hard to resist, especially as one could not help slipping on the loose round stones, and the water hissed and boiled with grape and bullets; but by good luck no casualty occurred, and the men clambered up the opposite bank. Pushing on then, after pausing for breath under the cover of thickets, they came at length to a low eminence, and concealed themselves behind a hedge while the captain reconnoitred. The main hill, which appeared to be nearly four hundred feet high, was rough, steep and covered with chaparral. The garrison seemed to be strong and resolute. The two guns made heavy odds. For quite a while Smith studied the hard problem, doubting whether it was practicable to assault the position, but finally he ordered the men forward; and soon lines of dark blue Mexican skirmishers, descending from the redoubt, stationed themselves at favorable points to meet him.[8]


Meanwhile, noting this delay and certain preparations of the enemy, Worth despatched the Seventh Infantry under Captain Miles to support Smith; and then, worried at the sight of reinforcements on their way to the redoubt, he sent the Fifth Infantry (Major Scott) and Blanchard’s Company in the same direction, with General Smith to take charge of all these forces. Miles had not only the voice of a trumpet but the eyes of a hawk, and striking at once upon a direct line of march, he promptly reached the main ridge; and soon General Smith found him supporting the wary but steady charge already launched. Discovering now El Soldado and believing he would not be needed at the redoubt, General Smith moved to his right along the southern side of the ridge with all the troops except Captain Smith’s. Like a fiery serpent, these now forced their way up in a winding but ever advancing line. The hill blazed and smoked. The sharp crack of the rifles punctuated the duller reports of the muskets. Soon the Mexican skirmishers were driven back; the 9-pounders could not be depressed enough to be effective; the Texans and “red-legged infantry” conquered the slope; and finally, struggling breathlessly to the redoubt, they found the garrison already in flight, carrying off one of their guns.[8]

Some of the victors then joined the rest of General Smith’s command, which could be seen winding through a gorge toward the other fort. Those who did not, quickly remounted the second piece, which the Mexicans had upset in trying to drag it away, and at the first shot, luckily knocking the El Soldado gun out of position, sent the garrison flying. At the double-quick the attacking column reached that position an instant later, and brave Captain Gillespie, followed by other brave men, despising the grape from Independence Hill that shrieked above their heads, clambered over the parapet. The Mexican piece, quickly righted, saluted the fugitives and then offered its compliments to the Palace works. The other captured piece was then brought down to El Soldado; and Miles’s command, moving still farther east along the ridge with one of the guns, took a third fortification; and thus by about the middle of the afternoon, at a trifling cost, we had three forts, intended to protect the rear and flank of Monterey, fighting for us.[8]

But a still harder task now confronted the Americans. Shortly before nightfall three companies of the Artillery Battalion, three of the Eighth Infantry and some two hundred Texas riflemen—in all about five hundred—accompanied by Captain Sanders, Lieutenant Meade and a Mexican guide and commanded by Childs, were sent forward to the skirt of Independence Hill. The peak before them was almost or quite as high as the summit of Federation Ridge; and in addition to the redoubt, guns and garrison on the top, a stronger position, more guns and a larger force were just below at the Palace. The Mexican generals regarded the point as unassailable.[9]

The night was tempestuous. The men were tired out. Few had eaten for thirty-six hours—none since breakfast. The rain fell in torrents, and they had not even blankets. Small rivers flowed down the slope. Sometimes heavy stones, loosened by the water, rolled upon them. The darkness was absolute. Most of them sat up, holding their firearms, covering the locks, and dozing when they could. At three o’clock the sleepers were roughly shaken, and a hoarse whisper, “Fall in,” passed along. The storm was still raging. There was a chill in the wet air. Muscles were stiff. Teeth actually rattled. Strict orders to make no noise under any circumstances were circulated. Then came another whisper, “Forward!” and in two columns—one under Childs and the other under Captain Vinton—the almost vertical climb began.[9]

Feet were placed cautiously but firmly. Despite the thorns, bushes had to be seized for support. Sometimes the men crawled. Above all, the gun-locks were to be kept dry. Now and then a stone, pried out by the rain, would go clattering down; and with beating hearts, expecting to be challenged, the men would pause. If discovered, they could have been annihilated with rocks. But the storm drowned all the noise except its own, and kept the Mexicans under cover. Slowly but steadily the ragged line mounted. The night began to look grayish. The outline of the summit could be made out.[9]

Suddenly burst forth a blaze and a roar. It came from a picket-guard about a hundred yards down, that had been sheltering themselves among some rocks. The hasty fire was ineffective, except that some of the Americans were burned. Not a musket answered it—only a yell and a rush. Finally, sixty feet or so from the top it was time to fire, and the musket and rifle spoke. Real fighting began now, give and take; and the Mexicans had the advantage of position. But there were only about fifty or sixty of them. The line closed in. There was a fierce grapple; the Mexicans broke, and as the rising sun glimmered faintly through the clouds, the Stars and Stripes were unfurled. Then the victors cheered and cheered. Cheers came up from their comrades in the valley. Taylor’s men, who had watched the double line of fire and smoke go higher and higher till it crowned the top and ceased, cheered and threw their caps into the air; and the echoing mountain seemed to cheer back.[9]

But the work was not yet done. Indeed the Americans only had the bull by the horns. Too exhausted to pursue effectively at once, they had to let the Mexicans escape. Seeing how the fight would end, some of the garrison had removed the guns of the redoubt—accidentally throwing one of them down the hill; but the saved piece and two 6-pounders now opened fire on our men, and a counter-attack from the Palace garrison was to be expected. That garrison probably numbered two hundred and fifty and perhaps more. Some fifty dismounted dragoons reinforced it now; and probably not less than two hundred and fifty horse occupied the slope below.[9]

But Worth had no intention of losing his prize. Three companies of the Seventh Infantry were already moving down Federation Ridge, and they took post near enough the Palace to menace any troops going from that point against the summit, cheering loudly to attract attention. The Fifth and Blanchard’s Company reinforced Childs; and about noon “with infinite difficulty,” as Worth said, a 12-pound howitzer, taken apart, was dragged up with straps. As the Palace had no roof and the windows were poorly barricaded, the interior could be searched with shrapnel. The Mexicans reciprocated, and desultory fighting continued all the morning. In the afternoon Mexican reinforcements were seen in the distance, and a prompt, decisive stroke appeared to be necessary. One body of Americans therefore went about halfway to the Palace, and concealed themselves among some rocks and bushes in a small ravine, while another were placed out of sight on the slope. Then the howitzer opened, and a force of skirmishers advanced in full view.[9]

Ampudia’s policy was a strict defensive, and Lieutenant Colonel Berra, who commanded at this position, had been forbidden to take the aggressive. But the howitzer had made itself extremely disagreeable; his artillery had become disabled; his only chance lay in charging; and this appeared to be the time. Foot and horse, the Mexicans therefore sallied out, and gallantly they moved up the ridge, closing their ranks when the howitzer opened them. Then the signal was given, and the men in ambush, springing up like a flight of blackbirds, fired. The enemy broke and ran; many of them did not stop till they reached the city; and the massive gate of the Palace was closed. The howitzer soon broke the gate, however, and the Americans poured in. For a time the struggle was fierce yet indecisive; but suddenly the cry was heard, “Throw yourselves flat!” and instantly over the prostrate Americans the howitzer belched a double charge of canister. This was enough; and soon the Mexicans, harassed with grape by Duncan and Mackall, who arrived now at a gallop, by the fire of a piece captured at La Libertad and by that of El Soldado, were fleeing into the city, spreading consternation on every hand. It was now about four o’clock.[9]


Leaving Worth and his gallant men thus in full possession of the western gate of Monterey, we will now trace Taylor’s operations at the opposite end of the town. Sunday afternoon, observing the Mexican reinforcements hastening to the summit of Independence Hill and fearing Worth might be overpowered, he displayed most of his troops before the city until dark as a menace. During the night his 10-inch mortar and two 24-pound howitzers were planted about seven eighths of a mile from the citadel, near the forward edge of a depression which screened them from the enemy, and at seven o’clock the next morning these pieces fired for twenty minutes, doubtless encouraging rather than alarming the enemy by their ineffective work.[10]

At the same time, to divert attention from Worth, as a note from that officer had suggested, all the available infantry were drawn out before the citadel as if to assault it. The First Division (regulars) stood at the left of this line; Quitman’s brigade—the Tennesseeans under Campbell and the Mississippi riflemen under Davis—came next it, and Hamer with the Ohio regiment occupied the extreme right. Meanwhile the work of reconnoitring continued. Believing that he would meet with no serious resistance at Monterey, Taylor had apparently felt little or no anxiety to ascertain how the town had been fortified; but now he may have realized that such information was desirable.[10]

In a general sense we are already aware what defences had been prepared in this quarter—particularly the barricaded streets and the stone houses turned into forts; but the situation must now be investigated more closely. West of the grand plaza and toward the northern edge of the city there was a large spring. The outlet of this flowed toward the east, widened into a pond, then contracted into a stream, passed under Purísima bridge—a heavy structure of stone by which the Marín road entered the city proper—veered a little toward the right, and finally left the town at its northeastern corner. On the inner side of this watercourse below Purísima bridge there were two simple redans capable of holding fifty or seventy men each; and some distance farther down, on the top of a rather steep slope, stood a strong earthwork named El Rincón del Diablo (The Devil’s Corner), commonly known by the Americans as El Diablo, which had two or three guns, and could accommodate a garrison of one hundred and fifty or two hundred.[10]

On the outer side of the watercourse an irregular but strong fortification (tête de pont), armed with a 12-pounder, defended Purísima bridge. East and northeast of this lay a confused suburban district occupied in part with streets, lanes, houses and huts, and in part with orchards, gardens and yards enclosed with high stone walls. Near the edge of it all, some four hundred yards in front of El Diablo, was the most advanced Mexican position. This, occupied by about two hundred men, consisted of a stone tannery building, often spoken of by the Americans as a distillery, the flat roof of which, protected with sand-bags in addition to the parapet, was held by a competent garrison, and of an earthwork in front of it called the Tenería (Tannery) redoubt, which, after having been erected and demolished, was rebuilt with desperate exertions during Sunday night.[10]

This fortification consisted of two short parallel sides prolonged and drawn together in front so as to meet at a sharp angle; and the north side was similarly prolonged and drawn in toward the rear so as to protect partially the opening or throat. The approaches were not cleared; the ditch was neither sufficiently deep nor sufficiently wide; steps used in the process of construction made it easy to scale the face (scarp); the parapet was completed with sand-bags made with ordinary cotton cloth; and the guns, mounted in barbette without platforms, were hard to manage on fresh dirt soaked with rain; but the redoubt, armed with a 4-pounder and an 8-pounder—its northern side protected by the guns of the citadel, its southern face by the tannery building, and its throat by El Diablo—was a serious obstacle for infantry.[10]

Why Taylor did not plant his mortar in front of it Sunday night—for it was plainly visible and there was a transverse ridge within short grape-shot range—drive the garrison out with half a dozen well-aimed bombshells Monday morning, and repeat the operation the following night and morning with El Diablo, is rather hard to understand. But it must be remembered that he had probably never seen, and had certainly never attacked, a scientific earthwork; these “mud-forts,” as the soldiers termed them, did not look impressive; and his plan to capture Monterey “pretty much with the bayonet” had been determined upon. He was nothing if not stubborn; and he doubtless believed that his officers and men, given a chance at the Mexicans, would certainly whip them somehow.[10]

Accordingly, as Twiggs, commander of the First Division, was too ill for battle, Taylor gave Lieutenant Colonel Garland this verbal order, written down by one of Garland’s aides: “Colonel lead the head of your column off to the left, keeping well out of reach of the enemy’s Shot, and if you think (or you find) you can take any of them little Forts down there with the bay’net you better do it—but consult with Major Mansfield, you’ll find him down there.” Garland then advanced with the First and Third regiments and the Washington-Baltimore Battalion, about 800 men, and made his way forward a considerable distance over broken and obstructed ground. He soon came in sight of Mansfield, and before long that officer galloped back to meet him. Garland no doubt communicated Taylor’s orders at this time; and Mansfield, supported by some skirmishers, then went forward again.[10]

The responsibility now resting upon the engineer was extremely heavy. A map prepared by Meade from data brought by a spy probably showed the Mexican works fairly well, but of course did not fully reveal the intricacies of the situation. Taylor had seen this map, and must have known everything thus far discovered by the reconnoitring officers, and he evidently saw nothing to forbid an infantry attack. Under the fire of the citadel and other fortifications, a close and detailed examination of the ground, screened not only by the maze already alluded to but by hedges, bush fences, trees and cornfields lying just outside the suburb, was impossible; and to send the troops back without an overwhelming reason in the face of the two armies, and look “Old Rough and Ready” in the eye, was unthinkable. Taylor’s order was therefore to all intents and purposes an order, not merely for a demonstration, but for an assault.[10]


So Garland, after marching for some time over and through all manner of obstructions, as Mansfield directed, kept on for a considerable distance under the fire of the citadel and redoubts, and at length saw that officer running ahead on foot at the northeastern angle of the town, and waving the troops on with his spy-glass. To obey this order involved turning to the right and then to the left—movements that disconcerted and scattered the raw Washington-Baltimore corps—and finally charging at a venture into the maze already described, but it was done; the Mexicans reinforcing the redoubt meanwhile with 150 men and an 8-pounder. Owing to the trend of the streets the Americans, now greatly reduced in numbers, took a course that led them to the right instead of the left, and failed to discover the throat of the redoubt, Mansfield’s objective. Caught in the maze and falling rapidly under an artillery and musketry fire that seemed to come from everywhere, they found themselves totally helpless. Bragg’s battery was thrown in, but it could accomplish nothing; and on Mansfield’s recommendation Garland fell back.[10]

Shortly before this, judging from the heavy fire that a serious engagement was on, Taylor had ordered Butler to advance with his Field Division. By a sad blunder three companies of the Fourth Infantry, which had been covering the mortar and howitzers, were sent ahead of this corps against the redoubt, and “almost in a moment”—as the official report admitted—a third of the men fell. The rest, including Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, then retired; and Quitman’s brigade, which now formed the left of the line, was ordered to support the regulars—in other words, renew the attack.[10]

With ample courage and enthusiasm the men advanced nearly a mile under the fire of the citadel—which, as Taylor privately admitted, “done considerable execution”—and before long under the worse fire of the redoubt in front; but they staggered in the smashing blast of lead and iron, their formation became very irregular, and after a time, though not within effective musket or rifle range, they began to fire at will. Colonel Davis, then some distance in advance on his iron-gray, Pompey, grew impatient at the waste of time, ammunition and life, and as the redoubt stopped firing just then, he cried, “Now is the time. Great God, if I had fifty men with knives I could take that fort.” Then he waved his sword, and called on his men to charge. Colonel Campbell, equally ignoring his brigade commander, did the same; and both regiments hurried on as groups and individuals, each man trying to outstrip the rest.[10]

Fortunately the time was ripe. Worn down by several hours of excitement and exertion—for noonday was now approaching—the Mexicans felt a reaction. The stubborn perseverance of the Americans daunted them. Captain Backus and about 100 men of the First Infantry, not receiving the order to withdraw, had climbed to the parapeted roof of a building about 130 yards from the redoubt and now persistently annoyed them. They looked for the reserves; but perhaps Garland’s operations prevented sending them, and certainly none came. Ammunition began to fail. The muskets were hot and foul. The cloth of the sand-bags took fire, and made the parapet extremely uncomfortable. Carrasco, the commander, who had run away at the Resaca, now openly took flight again; and a part of the garrison, formed to charge upon the Americans, were seen, or at least were supposed, to be retreating. A panic seized the troops, and almost in an instant the guns were abandoned and the redoubt stood nearly empty. A few minutes more, and tall, powerful McClung of the Mississippi Rifles leaped upon the parapet and waved his sword. By the same way or bursting through the sallyport, equally brave men of both regiments came close after him. Thirty or thirty-five prisoners were seized. An American flag went up; and after a brief conflict the tannery also—practically abandoned by the enemy—was taken.[10]

During Quitman’s advance the First Ohio approached the city farther to the right. It was well officered, for besides its colonel, Brigadier General Hamer, the Hooker of Chancellorsville, the Johnston of Shiloh, Major General Butler and Major General Taylor accompanied it; but it failed to accomplish anything. A second attempt was equally unfortunate, but when Taylor—evidently despairing of success—had ordered it out of town, word came of Quitman’s achievement. The regiment was then sent into the fight again. Garland’s remnant, still in the outskirts of the city, came up; Quitman’s troops were ordered to coöperate; and a determined effort was made to gain the rear of El Diablo. Both grand and pitiful that effort was. As an exhibition of pluck it could hardly have been surpassed. Taylor, fighting on foot, matched Richard Coeur de Lion storming Front de Boeuf’s castle; and his intrepidity was so flawless and unforced that courage appeared to all round him the easy and only way. To die under such a leader seemed the acme of living. It was not war, but it was grand fighting.[10]

“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.
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.”

But the enemy, seldom visible, appeared to be everywhere. A large part of the groping Americans got in front of Purísima bridge, and went down fast under a rain of bullets from the tête de pont, while Captain Gutiérrez, who had now masked his gun on the opposite bank, poured grape and canister upon them at short range. Ridgely came up and fired several times at the bridgehead, but without effect. Among our troops, as one of the surgeons wrote, “All was confusion.” Smoke hid the outlook; and the Mexican shots, breaking the limestone, mortar and adobe, raised a blinding dust. The assailants did not know where to turn or what to do. Taylor, Butler, Hamer, Quitman and other officers shouted orders that few could hear amidst the uproar, and perhaps fewer could reconcile. It was proposed to cut through from house to house, but the necessary implements had not been brought. Ridgely’s and Bragg’s batteries and the captured Mexican guns fired on El Diablo, and finally the 24-pound howitzers were brought in; but nothing could be accomplished in that way. Many of the best and the bravest fell; and eventually, at about five o’clock, the Americans retreated from all of Monterey except the Tenería redoubt and a few adjacent buildings.[10]


So the fight ended. It had been one long scene of gallantry, confusion, mistakes and waste. Lieutenant D. H. Hill, afterwards General Hill of the Confederate army, wrote in his journal on learning the details: “It seems that every sort of folly was committed.” To pitch handfuls of infantry into an unknown maze of obstacles, fortifications and cannon as if they had been fighting Indians in a Florida swamp, and to send field batteries into narrow streets—in the suburb crooked, too—against heavy stone works and roofs filled with protected marksmen was extraordinary. And, it was credibly reported, Taylor did more. He ordered Ridgely out into the open to try conclusions with El Diablo. Ridgely was absolutely fearless. To satisfy the General he went out himself and reconnoitred, but he would not lead his battery to destruction. The Tennessee regiment was needlessly taken back and forth six times within range of the citadel.[10]

Now—to get shelter, food, ammunition—the troops had to march separately or in groups all the way to camp, exposed for a long distance not only to the citadel guns but also to the lancers, who nearly caused a disaster and might have done so, had all, instead of but a part of them, obeyed the order to charge. A howitzer, aided by the captured guns, still exchanged compliments now and then with El Diablo, but the battle of the day was over. A redoubt had been won, and Worth’s operations against the Federation Ridge redoubts had been assisted; but these advantages might have been gained far more cheaply.[10]

The Tenería position was garrisoned for the night by Garland’s exhausted command, the Kentucky regiment (Louisville Legion), which had been on guard at the mortar, and Ridgely’s battery. This was not an agreeable task. The rain fell in torrents, and the interior of the fort was so thoroughly searched by the guns of El Diablo, that a part of the men had to lie on their backs in the mud. Some defences were thrown up, however; Tuesday morning Quitman’s brigade relieved the garrison; and Taylor’s men, cheered now by the sight of their comrades taking Independence Hill, were given a necessary rest. Both sides used their artillery to some extent, and in spite of the Mexican fire our position was further strengthened; but on this day nothing was done at the eastern end to assist Worth.[10]

During Tuesday night the enemy seemed to be in motion. They should have made an attack; and the Americans—without blankets, overcoats or food, soaked with rain, and chilled by a north wind—passed the hours reconnoitring or standing in water behind their breastwork. Far, however, from Ampudia’s mind was the thought of a vigorous offensive. Dismayed by the cutting of his communications and by the stubborn valor of the Americans, and weakened by the cowardice of certain officers, he ordered all the outworks abandoned, and concentrated his forces in and near the grand plaza. Such a change could not be made at night without much confusion. Many of the troops, too, were indignant; some refused to leave their posts; all felt disheartened, and a few broke out in riotous disorder. The work of fortifying the inner line went on, but the loss of morale far more than offset this advantage.[10]

At daybreak Wednesday, suspecting that the Mexicans had left or were leaving El Diablo, Quitman advanced, and found that both men and guns had been withdrawn; but other works not far distant were still held too strongly to be captured. Attempts were made to gain ground in various directions; and finally, an hour or two before noon, with assistance from the Second Texas regiment, dismounted, and the Third and the Fourth Infantry, extensive and well-supported operations began to be undertaken. In particular, a systematic plan of breaking through the continuous line of houses and firing from the roofs was adopted. At each cross-street vigorous fighting had to be done, for the Mexicans, though inferior as marksmen, resisted obstinately at every favorable point; and the musketry and artillery behind their barricades swept the approaches fiercely. Five out of the twelve commissioned officers of the Third Infantry were killed, says General Grant. Two sections of field artillery came up, but the gunners were shot down rapidly in spite of all precautions; and at length, finding the pieces too light for effective service, Taylor ordered them to retire. A gun at the Tenería redoubt was tried, but after a time the advance of the Americans made it dangerous to fire toward the plaza.[10]

The infantry pushed on, however, and by three o’clock were only one square from the grand plaza. Here ammunition began to fail, and Lieutenant Grant, hanging over the side of his horse by an arm and a foot, dashed across the streets too swiftly to be fired at, and went in search of it. With a view to preparing for a general assault, however, or for some other reason Taylor ordered the troops, now working safely inside the houses, to withdraw—under fire, of course. Reluctantly, though many of them had not eaten for thirty-six hours, they marched back to the redoubts and thence after dark to Walnut Grove; and the Ohio and Kentucky regiments went on duty at the captured redoubts.[10]

Strangely enough, Taylor seems to have made no effort, after the storming of the Bishop’s Palace, to arrange with General Worth for concerted action or to give him fresh orders, although he could easily have done so, and knew that all the work assigned to that division had been completed. Wednesday morning, therefore, after the long, deep slumber of exhaustion, Worth’s men found themselves mostly in idleness, and a large part of them, concentrated near the Palace, gazed upon the city at their leisure as the dissolving mists revealed it. Not far away in the suburb were General Arista’s gardens, full of orange, lemon, pomegranate and fig trees, bananas, grapes and flowers, watered by canals that sparkled in the sun. Once in a while a blue-frocked monk, girded with a white cord and tassel, could be seen; and flashes from the streams that ran through almost every street were caught here and there. Beyond lay the white or lightly tinted houses with leafy squares here and there, dominated by the cathedral spires. At due intervals the clock bell peacefully tolled the hour or the quarter. On the left the dark citadel belched occasionally a cloud of white smoke. On the right the Santa Catarina hurried along between the city and the picturesque villas on its opposite bank. Farther away, but still near, the twisted strata and the vast, splintered buttresses, battlements and pinnacles of the Sierra Madre, thinly draped with soft clouds, towered aloft; and overhead great birds that seemed to be eagles travelled like dark planets round their orbits in the blue.[10]

But though they gazed with deep interest, these haggard fellows with bloodshot eyes were not in a mood to enjoy the scene. No orders came from Taylor. Hardly a shot had been heard this morning from the lower town. Mexicans boasted of gaining a victory on that side, and “Your turn will come next,” our men were told. Heavy reinforcements from Saltillo, it was rumored, would soon arrive by the pass. Worth, nervous and anxious, climbed to the Palace tower with his glass, and searched every quarter for news. Meantime the cannon were planted at more commanding points. A howitzer opened on the town. Preparations to make an assault were continued; and, as Mexicans from the south were now said to be approaching, a detachment went about three miles up the Saltillo highway to a strong position. An hour or two before noon, however, the roar of battle began to come from the lower town; and Worth, judging that it meant a serious attack, ordered a column forward by each of the two main streets.[10]


With a cheer that sounded like a roar the troops hurried down the slope, and burst into the suburb. For some time the work was easy, for in fear of the Libertad guns all the western section had been evacuated; and raising a fierce cry that afterwards came to be known as the “rebel yell,” which began with a growl and rose to a falsetto scream, the Americans dashed on at a run. Beyond the cemetery, however, Mexican troops opened fire, and until some of Duncan’s and Mackall’s guns came up, fought like demons. Barricaded streets and garrisoned roofs were next encountered, and again the Americans dived into the houses. Making a small hole in the wall that divided two dwellings they would drop through it a six-inch shell with a three-seconds fuse lighted, and throw themselves flat. Results followed promptly. The aperture was then enlarged; and crawling through, they repeated the operation, while the best marksmen fought from the roof.[10]

Taylor’s withdrawal from the city, however, supplied the Mexicans with reinforcements. The enemy fairly seemed to swarm, and their courage seemed to rise. “Cannons and small arms flashed, crashed and roared like one mighty storm of wind, rain, hail, thunder and lightning,” wrote a soldier; while the thud of planks against heavy doors and the blows of pickaxes on walls of stone swelled the uproar. Once the advance was halted. But Colonel Hays, a shy man with a broad forehead, a Roman nose, brilliant, restless hazel eyes, and the courage of twenty lions packed in his delicate frame, had been a prisoner in the Monterey post-office once, and had sworn a great oath to sleep this night in the post-office or in hell, and nothing could stop him. By dark the Americans were only a square from the market-place, and the Colonel had the postal accommodations at his command.[10]

Ampudia’s case was by no means desperate even now. His losses had been small—twenty-nine officers and 338 men killed and wounded, according to his report. There were provisions, ammunition and artillery enough; the strong buildings round the plaza and market-place, defended with resolution by a large garrison, could not easily have been taken; and the division of the Americans into widely separated commands invited a sortie.[10]

The situation was, however, by no means agreeable. After nightfall the Americans planted two howitzers and a 6-pounder on the top of a high building close to the western side of the plaza. Taylor’s mortar had been carried to Worth during the day, and after sunset it began to fire now and then on the cathedral, where tons of gunpowder were stored. The citadel undertook to reply, but the mortar, planted behind the stone wall of the cemetery, was not likely to be struck, and a single one of its bombs might conceivably have blown the Mexican army to pieces. In fact so might a shot from Taylor’s 24-pound howitzers, which delivered two shells effectively after dark. On the southern side of the river, opposite the town, the Fifth Infantry had planted one of the El Soldado guns at the third work on Federation ridge, where it could at least have proved annoying. The horses of the cavalry were in the way. The garrison of the citadel could not promptly coöperate with the troops in town, for it had sealed up the exit. Ampudia’s defensive policy discouraged the soldiers, for even though some of them flanked the retiring Americans on Wednesday afternoon, they were not permitted to reoccupy the houses abandoned by Taylor, and still less to attack the redoubts. Despondency was general; some of the leading officers urged surrender; and Ampudia, it was reported, keeping the choicest corps near his person, shut himself up in the cathedral until a shell dropped near it, and then fled to a private house.[10]


Naturally, then, early on Thursday morning one of his aides carried to the American general a proposition to give up the city, and retire with the troops and military material. Taylor replied with a demand for unconditional surrender, and insisted upon having an answer by noon. Instead of complying Ampudia sent a request for a personal interview. The result was a joint commission. Vexatious negotiations followed. The tedious and wily methods of Mexican diplomacy were thoroughly tried; but at length an ultimatum from Taylor’s representatives ended the affair, and the terms of capitulation were signed. These provided that the citadel should be given up immediately, that within a week the Mexican troops with their arms, accoutrements and six field pieces should retire—without giving their parole not to fight again—beyond the line of Rinconada Pass, Linares and San Fernando de Presas, that before this evacuation of Monterey the town should be occupied by the Americans for hospital and storage purposes only, and that for eight weeks—“or until the orders or instructions of the respective governments can be received”—the Americans would not cross the specified line.[11]

As Polk asserted and the General himself admitted, Taylor violated his orders in granting such terms, and his excuses for doing so were signally unconvincing, while some of them involved perhaps the virtual assumption on his part of a political authority superior to the President’s. But substantial reasons for the terms did exist. “Considering our situation,” explained the General privately, they were not over-liberal; and that was true. Being very short of ammunition and provisions, he could only negotiate, assault or retreat. According to his spokesmen in the Senate, his effectives numbered only some 5000 and probably they did not reach those figures. About one third of them had no bayonets. The First Division of regulars had been crippled; the Second was tired out; and the volunteers had been so far demoralized, that in Meade’s opinion they could no longer be depended upon. Worth, chief American representative on the joint commission, had not “the slightest confidence” left in Taylor’s leadership, and wrote privately that “many others” shared his opinion, while a still greater number felt doubtful.[12]

With such troops, feeble artillery and scant ammunition, to attack an enemy of proved fighting quality, now at bay in stone houses, fully supplied with guns and munitions, and comparatively fresh, was not an inviting proposition. In short, as Crittenden and Clayton stated in defence of Taylor on the floor of the Senate, it was not feasible to storm the city; and to retreat with sick and wounded over such a route, pursued by mobile infantry and sleepless mounted men, and harried by an exultant population, would have meant ruin. It was a wise course to escape from this dilemma as he did, and the truth could not be told.[12]


September 25 the citadel was evacuated, and the next day with drums beating and banners flying the first brigade of Mexicans left the city—all noting with curious interest the difference between their trim uniforms and freshly pipe-clayed belts and the unkempt appearance of the victors, who, as an American said, were as dirty as they could be without becoming real estate. The second brigade followed on the next day, and the rest of the troops on the twenty-eighth. Monterey, with a quantity of indifferent gunpowder and a number of cannon, many of them bad, was ours, and soon the people of the United States, whom a costly but valorous battle impressed far more than orderly, scientific operations could have done, were again acclaiming Taylor. By distance, by his courage, by his picturesque individuality, and by his very position as commander of the one American army fighting the Mexicans, he was idealized. His excellent reports—the work of Bliss—confirmed every favorable impression; and the writers of the day, fully aware that he was already a popular hero and anxious to suit the prevailing taste, colored the facts until these could hardly be recognized. Men on the ground, in contact with the crude realities, felt otherwise. Taylor’s want of prevision and of generalship was in fact bitterly censured there. Worth “is the high comb cock of the army,” wrote one officer. He has won all the laurels, though Taylor will have the glory at home, remarked a surgeon.[13]

As for the conduct of the troops in general, however, there could be only one opinion. “Three glorious days,” was General Scott’s description of the struggle. War is—war. Dreadful things were done, splendid men were cut down. Yet if there be glory in fidelity and courage, in meeting extraordinary hardships, and in triumphing over extraordinary difficulties, then Scott’s description was correct.[13]

SALTILLO, PARRAS, TAMPICO August—December, 1846

For men supposed to have won a splendid victory, Taylor and his army seem to have been rather low in their spirits after the capture of Monterey. Taylor admitted that his forces had been “greatly reduced.” Learning that a part of the Second Infantry had arrived on the Rio Grande, he described this trifling reinforcement as “most welcome.” The Texas troops wished to go home and were discharged. To replace them he counted on the Tennessee and Kentucky horse; but these regiments, having been ordered to San Antonio, were long in reaching the front. October 15 he estimated his aggregate effective strength as less than 12,000.[1] Chills and fever, a depressing malady, was extremely prevalent; and a strong tendency to desert appeared to indicate a generally unsatisfactory state of things.[2] Not only priests but Mexican officers remaining at Monterey to convalesce or to care for the sick, stimulated this tendency; and about the middle of November all such officers, not indispensably needed by the sick and wounded, received peremptory orders to go south. A little later, it was reported, the alcalde was imprisoned for the same offence. Moreover bands of Mexicans, not dismayed by the American triumphs, hung upon Taylor’s lines to rob and kill.[6]


The General had other troubles also. There was a plan at Washington, promoted by reports of his inefficiency and by letters from certain ambitious officers left in the rear, to put in his place one of the new brigadier generals. Scott, however, protected his interests, and by having him assigned to duty with his brevet rank, threw a great obstacle before the schemers. They encountered other difficulties as well, and finally Polk sent him word confidentially that he need have no fear of displacement. This, however, did not prevent a serious clash between him and the administration over another matter. Perceiving that Mexico could not defend effectively the remote and disaffected provinces of the north against even our volunteer forces, realizing that the possession of territory would be an advantage in making a treaty, and wishing particularly to impress the Mexican Congress, which was to meet on December 6, Polk felt extremely anxious to extend our occupation as much as possible at once, and with all this in view it was proposed to Taylor on September 22 that, should he see fit, he should have General Patterson,[3] who was now the commanding officer at Camargo, occupy the chief points in Tamaulipas.[6]

As Taylor had bitterly complained of receiving hordes of volunteers for whom there was nothing to do, it was naturally presumed at Washington that such an expedition could be organized without interference with his plans; and, supposing also that Patterson was at Matamoros, far from Monterey, Marcy instructed that general to begin his preparations while awaiting definitive orders from Taylor on the subject. Such a movement, however, not being permissible under the terms of the armistice, a plan in which the government felt deeply interested came to nothing; and Taylor, perhaps to divert attention from this aspect of the case, not only vetoed the expedition, but protested violently against the course of the government in addressing one of his officers.[4] Polk was naturally and properly incensed, but he believed Taylor was now in the field for the Whig Presidential nomination, and wanted to force a quarrel upon the administration; and hence Marcy replied mildly to the General that the right of the commander-in-chief to offer mere “suggestions” could hardly be denied.[6]

On another point also there was a clash. Polk and his Cabinet condemned at once and unanimously the Monterey armistice; but, shrewdly or charitably suspecting that undisclosed reasons for it might have existed, they decided to end it in such a manner as to express neither approval nor censure. Marcy therefore directed on October 13 that it should be terminated, explaining that it stood in the way of prosecuting the war vigorously and forcing Mexico to seek peace. As by its terms the agreement was subject to the approval of the respective governments, no difficulty stood in the way of cancelling it; and on November 5 Taylor notified Santa Anna, that since the Washington authorities disapproved of the armistice, he should consider himself at liberty to resume offensive operations on the fifteenth, since by that date he reckoned that his despatch would reach San Luis Potosí.[6]

In reply the wily Mexican attempted to convey an insinuation of bad faith on the part of the American government. This Taylor properly noticed in his rejoinder, expressing at the same time a hope that Mexico would accept the offer of the United States to negotiate, and that permanent friendly relations between the two republics might ensue. Santa Anna had now a better opening; and he protested that his country would do all she could to justify her title to sovereignty and independence, and would never listen to any proposal of peace, until the American army should evacuate her soil, and the American vessels lay aside their hostile attitude.[5] The correspondence was published of course in the Diario, and obviously tended to unite the nation, as well as to enhance the prestige of its leader.[6]


The termination of the armistice enabled Taylor to occupy Saltillo, upon which his eye had long been fixed. For several reasons he deemed the town, a place of some 18,000 souls, important. It was the capital of the state of Coahuila, a support for Monterey and the chief pass through the Sierra Madre, a station on the high road to the south, and the dominating point in a region full of corn, wheat, cattle and other supplies. At this time the city was entirely without protection. Mejía had been ordered in May to fortify it, but had not been able to do so; and Santa Anna’s first thought, on learning that Monterey had capitulated, was to bring Ampudia back to San Luis Potosí with his demoralized soldiers.[10]

Accordingly General Worth received orders on November 8 to march for that place four days later with Lieutenant Colonel Duncan’s battery, the Artillery Battalion (eight companies), the Fifth and the Eighth Infantry, and Blanchard’s Company—in all about 1000 men;[7] and Taylor with two squadrons of the Second Dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel May determined to accompany him. The morning of the twelfth brought a despatch from Marcy dated October 22, expressing the wish of the government that, in view of Santa Anna’s threatening posture and the increasing unfriendliness of the people, no attempt should be made to hold territory beyond Monterey, or at most beyond the mountains; but the decision was confided to the General, and he set out the next day.[10]

Advancing, then, by the left bank of the swift Santa Catarina River, at this time of the year but an insignificant stream, the column ascended gradually, passed the village of that name, and after marching nearly 28 miles came to a small bridge and a group of handsome live-oaks. Next the road descended a little, and, enclosed much of the way by lines of trees and maguey,[8] pursued the same general direction until it reached the hacienda of Rinconada, a mile or so farther on. Up to this point the majestic ranges of the Sierra Madre, nearly destitute of vegetation, though here and there brightened by a white thread of water, had stood about six miles apart; but now they closed in, and the road, turning sharply to the left, plunged into a grand and sombre gorge known as the Pass of Rinconada. For three miles or more it ascended steeply between gray and frowning walls of stone decorated only with a few hardy and prickly growths, and sometimes partly hidden by the clouds; but finally the summit was gained, and before long the farm of Los Muertos (The Dead) came in sight with its bare, vertical cliffs and its huge cairn of cobble-stones—probably a memorial to some party of travellers murdered by robbers—which gave a grim significance to the name.[10]

Here the Americans gazed with special interest at Mexican works intended to check their advance. Not willing to give up this natural fastness Ampudia, in spite of the orders to withdraw, had undertaken to fortify it; but soon, discovering that more extensive defences than he possessed the means to erect and equip would be needful, to prevent the position from being turned, he had prudently concluded to dismantle his fortifications and retreat. The gorge now expanded, and gave place to a long, wide, open valley extending to Saltillo. Here gardens, fields and crops were seen once more, but how different! Instead of the orange and lemon groves, the bananas and figs of Monterey, with the languid smokes of sugar-houses rising in the distance, the soldiers beheld fields of wheat and oats, and orchards of cherries and apples. In short, a march of 65 or 70 miles had transported them to New England.[10]

Gathered with great difficulty on November 15, the legislature of Coahuila had elected and inaugurated J. M. de Aguirre as governor, and on approaching Saltillo the following day Taylor received from him a formal protest against the American advance.[9] The General kept on, however, without replying, and leaving Worth’s command in the city square, pitched his tent on the farther side of the town. There was little to make the place agreeable. Saltillo lay on the southeastern side of a slightly concave plain, with mountains close behind it that looked, in the afternoon of a sunny day, like immense drifts of dusty snow. The city itself, consisting mostly of low adobe houses—protected with grated windows—clinging to steep, narrow streets, wore the aspect of dilapidation and age that was characteristic of provincial Mexico; and the common people, apparently less intelligent then the populace of Monterey, probably more dominated by the priests, and certainly more secluded from contact with Americans, looked sullen and hostile.[10]

Some of better standing attempted to charge exorbitant prices; but the General promptly seized whatever supplies he could lay hands upon, ascertained the owners, and proposed to pay what had been the current rates or nothing. He treated the chief magistrate well, however, assuring him that his desire was to see peace restored as soon as possible, and good order preserved meanwhile at Saltillo; and after ordering certain reconnaissances made in the surrounding region, he set out for Monterey about the twenty-first. His gruff, unpolished ways did not entirely please the Mexicans, and they were glad to find themselves now under the courtly Worth, to whom they ascribed “better feelings.”[10]


Meanwhile two other American commands, one on each side of Taylor, were conducting aggressive operations. If the occupation of Tamaulipas was likely to influence Mexico and facilitate the negotiation of a treaty, so was that of Chihuahua; and the western as well as the eastern of these provinces was believed to be disaffected toward the general government on account of the overthrow of the federal constitution. As early, therefore, as the middle of May, Polk proposed to the Cabinet an expedition against Chihuahua, and the suggestion was immediately accepted. Naturally such a diversion of strength from an effective line of attack to a remote section, where the people were hardly strong enough to cope with the savages, occasioned both at the time and later much criticism; and not only on this, but on other grounds as well, the President’s action in the matter could be criticized fairly.[11]

Indeed, in almost every case that required a thorough comprehension of the Mexican problem, he blundered. Yet this was not his fault. He did his best; and one is tempted to lay the charge against a system of government which confers on politicians, ignorant or poorly informed regarding vital matters, the honors and responsibilities of statesmanship. So broad a censure is, however, unjust, as one scarcely needs to say. At all events we do not place in power, as others have done, mere fainéants or persons qualified only for social functions and palace intrigues. Very few Americans reach a high public station unless they have ability of some kind, a more or less healthful ambition to achieve, and much force of character; and thus we stand about as well perhaps as the Chinese, who used to reason that a man who could surpass a multitude of rivals in memorizing—and thus absorbing more or less fully—the best thought and language of his race, would be able to perform the commonplace duties of a magistrate. In reality our troubles arise from the infirmities of human nature and the defectiveness of all human institutions, no doubt, and this reflection may help us feel the proper resignation as we view the blunders of the Mexican war; yet one cannot quite forget the opinion of Meade: “Well may we be grateful that we are at war with Mexico! Were it any other power, our gross follies would have been punished severely.”[11]

About the middle of June Brigadier General Wool, then at Louisville, received instructions to take command at San Antonio, Texas—for which point certain troops were already under orders—report to Taylor, and prepare for an expedition against Chihuahua. He proceeded to New Orleans, accordingly, and from there he wrote on the twenty-eighth of July that within twenty days, he hoped, the whole of his force would be at the rendezvous. In this he was disappointed. La Vaca, Texas, about 160 miles from San Antonio, was the chief base on the coast,[12] and wet weather made the so-called roads almost impassable. To get 1112 heavy loads of supplies through bottomless mud, churned by about 500 wagons going and returning, was an almost inconceivable task. Though excessive rains had been falling, the troops, marching under an August sun, were tormented by thirst; an occasional bunch of delicious grapes or slice of prime venison could hardly solace them for the abundance of rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions and centipedes; and sleep was broken by the screaming of panthers and howling of wolves—positively unearthly when near, one of the soldiers wrote, and resembling, when distant, the wail of some terrible monster gasping for life. In spite of hardships and labors, however, men and wagons finally reached San Antonio, and on August 14 Wool himself arrived at that point.[26]

Here the troops had time to rest, and they found much of interest. The old Mexican town—where one could still see now and then a fig tree spreading itself in the patio (courtyard) of a crumbling house, or gaze at the heavy, earth-brown or moss-covered walls of the Alamo, pitted by Santa Anna’s cannon balls—looked in their eyes like some ancient oriental city “just dug up,” as one of them said; and the cactus, the live-oaks, the mocking-birds, the pellucid river and the many varieties of grapes extinguished soon the memory of past fatigues.[26]

For Wool, on the other hand, there was no repose. Now, as always during the Mexican war, operations were unspeakably embarrassed by the necessity of drawing supplies from so great a distance and by sea, and naturally San Antonio, a town of only some 2000 persons, could furnish much less than cities like Vera Cruz or even Matamoros. Each particular article that would be necessary on the expedition had to be provided now; and departmental errors, like delaying arms and misdirecting parts of wagons, were therefore peculiarly unfortunate. But the greatest difficulty was disorder. The command was a chaotic mass like that on the Rio Grande, turbulent, impatient, insubordinate. Wool, however, attacked the problem without shrinking, and what a soldier called “the iron hand” of military discipline soon began to set things right.[26]


Highly unfortunate, therefore, in this as well as in other regards, was an escapade of Brevet Colonel Harney, a man as brave as a lion and also as untamable, who had been occupying San Antonio for some time with three companies of the Second Dragoons. Obtaining permission to ask for Texan troops to defend the frontier against the Indians,[13] he called for eight companies, and shortly before Wool’s arrival, on the pretext of a threatened Mexican invasion of which he entertained little or no fear, he moved off with his entire command, although he knew of the intended concentration at San Antonio, and advanced to the Rio Grande.[14] Imprudently crossing the river, he was cut off by one of its quick rises. Only the refusal of his officers to follow him prevented a ridiculous dash against Monterey. Finally, near the end of August, he obeyed the order to return, but left three companies behind; and a part of this detachment, engaged in procuring a large supply of grain and flour in Mexico, lost the supplies and three of their number, killed or wounded. The rest of the three companies escaped under fire in a disgraceful manner, burning public stores to prevent the Mexicans from taking them; and of course news that Americans had been repulsed flew like fire through the border.[26]


Such presumption on the part of a regular officer, such imprudence, and above all such disregard of his government’s known intentions were intolerable, and Wool felt them with peculiar intensity. He was a high-strung person. Being devoutly pious he loathed swearing, for example; but on special occasions his feelings got the better of his tongue, and when this occurred he would instantly raise his eyes to heaven and implore forgiveness. While not a great man, and apparently incapable of inspiring soldiers or gaining their sympathetic support, he understood his profession and lived up to it. When campaigning he seemed to sleep—if he slept at all—with both eyes open, and the outposts were liable to receive a visit at any hour of the night. Never sparing himself, he was equally stern with others; and towards officers, presumably more intelligent and responsible than privates, he seemed especially exacting. So now he treated Harney with such rigor that some of the volunteer officers, little disposed to favor strict discipline, sympathized with the culprit, and Wool came to be regarded by not a few as a narrow martinet, jealous and harsh in temper and weak in judgment. Possibly some ground for these opinions could be found, but substantially they were unjust.[15]

Finally, on September 23, a topographical party went forward to study routes, inquire about wood, water and forage, and select halting places; and two days later some 1400 men, the first section of the “army,” advanced into an almost unknown region with about one hundred and seventy-five wagons and provisions for two months.[16] The distance to Presidio del Rio Grande, a small Mexican town five or six miles beyond the river, was about 175 or possibly 185 miles. Much of the country proved to be rough and wild, but there were also barren prairies, deep “hog-wallows,” rich bottom-land and one fine, broad valley. Several streams had to be crossed, and among these were counted the Medina and the Leona, not less beautiful than their names. Population there was almost none, though on the first day’s march Castroville, a German town planted on American soil by a Frenchman bearing a Spanish name, offered quite cosmopolitan suggestions. A drought of several weeks had made the roads hard and the streams fordable, and no serious difficulty was encountered until on October 8 the advance came to the Rio Grande.[26]


The river was here swift and rather more than four feet in depth; but with the aid of boats and a pontoon bridge, provided beforehand by Wool, the troops effected a crossing safely during the next few days, established a small fort at each end of the bridge—to hold it and to guard the boats for the second section under Colonel Churchill, which was still waiting at San Antonio for the means of transportation—and then camped three or four miles beyond the town for rest and repairs. Some of the teams had come all the way from La Vaca, 330 miles, without stopping for a day. As the small Mexican border force had retired and the citizens were friendly, there was nothing to fear; and Wool’s amicable assurances, reinforced with strict orders to molest no one, promoted kind relations. The government had left him without specie, and the people would accept only hard cash; but with private means and by dint of borrowing he obtained half-rations of corn. This brightened the outlook noticeably, for subsistence was to be, of course, the greatest problem; and the arrival here of Brigadier General Shields,[17] who brought not only another body of the troops but news that Monterey had fallen, and took command of all the infantry, together with a small force of mounted men, appeared to strengthen the expedition materially.[26]

Wool had received no definite instructions from Taylor, and on October 16 with about 1800 men he struck out according to his own judgment for Monclova, taking a circuitous route practicable for wagons and artillery. This brought the army soon to San Fernando de Rosas, a garden of roses lying in a beautiful plain on the cool and limpid Hidden River (the Escondido), surrounded with trees and encompassed at a distance with superbly grand peaks.[18] Here the road turned more toward the south, and the country soon became broken. Formidable mountains upreared themselves ahead, and before long the troops were among them, traversing valley after valley in order to turn their huge flanks.[26]

The San José range, some 4000 feet high, had to be climbed. It was a hard task; but when the mists dissolved, Wool and his men gazed with delight over two beautiful valleys, where meandering lines of dark foliage marked the watercourses, while on the west, like a battlemented wall, towered the Sierra de Santa Rosa, its precipitous buttresses festooned with white and purple clouds. Descending then through a gorge to the plain of San José, the army next encountered the Alamos and Sabinos Rivers, each about four feet deep and racing like a torrent. To get the wagons across looked at first impossible; but with incredible exertions and the aid of ropes and improvised bridges the feat was accomplished.[26]

At the foot of the next range lay Santa Rosa, a town of some 2500 people, where the troops arrived on October 24. All were Federalists here. Their interests had suffered greatly from the dishonesty and inefficiency of the central government, and the presents of cake, fruit and confectionery offered to the Americans told their own story. Beyond this point the road entered a sterile region, where almost the sole inhabitants were sheep and goats. Now and then water could only be obtained by scooping it from holes in salty ground, and sometimes there was hardly fuel enough to boil the coffee. At length coffee and sugar gave out, but the magnificent range on either side helped the men keep up their spirits. A protest against the American advance was received, and some 2500 men gathered under Colonel Blanco to enforce it;[19] but as the loss of Monterey had cowed the people, and there were no funds to stimulate them, Blanco dissolved his army; and on October 29 Wool formally occupied Monclova without opposition. A week later Churchill with a hundred wagons and nearly all of the rear section came up.[26]

At this town, a place of about 5000 population, lying amid hills on the fine Monclova River, Wool remained almost four weeks, for on account of the armistice Taylor forbade a further advance toward the south; and the army, camping a mile or so from the city, had time to drill, recruit, reconnoitre and make repairs. It was a pleasant sojourn. Rivulets of pure water freshened the streets; highly cultivated fields, mostly planted with corn, filled the wide valley, and far mountains clung to the horizon like azure clouds. Being now almost 600 miles from La Vaca, Wool sent for the last supplies waiting with escorts at San Antonio, prepared to break up his communications with that point, and opened a connection with Camargo, not more than 200 miles distant. At the same time he collected some local provisions, though most of the surplus had already been drawn away by Ampudia, and he studied the routes. Strict rules were made for both officers and men about entering the town; the sale of liquor to soldiers was prohibited under penalty; and the arrival of some gold aided materially.[26]


Things went substantially well, in fact, yet they did not go smoothly. Considerable sickness prevailed among the troops. For a time the daily ration per man had to be fixed at nine ears of corn, ground in the portable steel mill of each company; and the soldiers grumbled. Orders were issued requiring every man to shave, as the regulations provided; and beardless young fellows, lacerating their faces in order to prove themselves “men,” grumbled again. The volunteers abominated the “tarnal regulars,” who were naturally the chief reliance for enforcing rules, and when an opportunity came, retaliated. Many of their officers were outspokenly dissatisfied with the conduct of the expedition. Wool’s bearing was denounced as harsh; but perhaps their own deportment had something to do with that, for the punctilious Mexicans thought his manners good. Officers as well as men chafed under the discipline; but the General could easily reply that good-will on the part of the Mexicans was essential, and that not a single complaint had yet been made by the people.[20] In all probability it was argued that a flying column of half Wool’s numbers would have been far preferable; but it could be answered that wastage from disease and battle had been anticipated, that so small a column would probably have been attacked by Colonel Blanco’s irregulars and by other forces,[21] and that after the conclusion of the armistice Ampudia might have to be reckoned with.[26]

Certainly the dissatisfied officers ridiculed unmercifully the number of wagons. Here their ground was somewhat firmer. Jesup himself had taken the position that such a train could neither reach Chihuahua nor be sent back to the base. But in this matter Wool stood at the centre and the quartermaster general stood at the circumference. It seems very doubtful whether an adequate mule train could have been organized at San Antonio in season. Without the wagons the army would probably have been compelled to live more or less upon the country; and this would have led to the concealment, or even the destruction of supplies, to bloodshed, to a state of things not compatible with the conciliatory methods ordered by Taylor and the government, perhaps to a serious lack of rations, and possibly to the ruin of this isolated command. Moreover artillery was essential; and Wool may have reasoned that where cannon could go, wagons could follow.[26]

The wagons and guns were, however, a serious embarrassment, and while at Monclova Wool satisfied himself that he could not march from there to Chihuahua by the direct route. A lack of water also was a grave difficulty. Besides, a large force appeared under the present circumstances unnecessary. Ampudia retreated to San Luis Potosí; and although Santa Anna had taken steps, before the American expedition left the Rio Grande, to prepare for the defence of Chihuahua, the military forces holding that point had fallen back on Durango. There was indeed nothing for Wool to conquer now but distance, and he felt that five or six hundred men could do this as well as more. In his opinion, therefore, the proper course was to proceed about 180 miles in a southwesterly direction to Parras, where he would be on a good road to Chihuahua and only about 90 miles from Saltillo; and indeed he thought it advisable to join the main army. His views were duly expressed to his superior officer, and Taylor concurred. The government, concluding that the revival of the federal system at Mexico would change the sentiment of the northern states, and that Chihuahua was in effect already in our grasp, took a similar position;[22] and accordingly on the twenty-fourth of November, leaving four companies to guard the stores at Monclova, Wool set out for Parras.[26]

The long march, generally through deserts and rugged mountains, was cheered by a halt at a fine estate belonging to gentlemen who had received their education in Kentucky, and still cherished the most cordial recollections of their American experiences; and on December 5 the army pitched its gray tents in front of the town. By many Parras, a place of about the same size as Monclova, was called an Eden. It lay where a wide plain and a long hill met, and most of the streets were extremely narrow and crooked; but streams of clean water flowed through them, and most of the residences were buried in gardens or vineyards. But even amidst the luxury of romantic nature firm discipline continued. The soldiers were kept at their drills and parades; their arms and clothing had to be ready at all times for a close inspection; as at Monclova, a system of calls and signals made surprises impossible; and Wool busied himself in procuring corn and flour and in reconnoitring.[26]


All the while he looked for orders, and finally the summons came. December 17, at a little before two o’clock in the afternoon, he rode hastily into town with staff and escort, holding despatches in his hand; and at once the aides and men hurried through the markets crying out, “Soldiers, to the camp instantly!” As will appear in due time,[23] the call was urgent. But it found Wool ready as usual, and in two hours his army—leaving the sick under guard and taking with it 350 wagons, provisions for 60 days, 400,000 cartridges and 200 rounds for the cannon—set out. No blundering occurred. Thanks to his reconnaissances Wool knew which of the routes to pursue. And there was no loitering. Once the troops made thirty-five miles in twenty-four hours; and in four days they shook hands with General Worth’s brave men, then some twenty miles beyond Saltillo and 110 or perhaps 120 from Parras.[26]

“An entire failure,” was Taylor’s comment on Wool’s expedition, and in a sense his judgment appeared to be correct.[24] But this was Polk’s fault. Where there is nothing to do, nothing can be done.[25] Before laying out the campaign the government should have seen what it had now seen—that Saltillo was the key of Chihuahua, and that a properly equipped expedition could not reach the latter city without passing rather close to the former. But in reality Wool accomplished a great deal. He showed how a real soldier, without fear and without political yearnings, could lead an expedition through an enemy’s country. Nine hundred miles this army marched. Swift rivers were quickly crossed, ravines filled, hills cut down, mountains climbed. Provisions never failed. No wreckage marked the route. Not a drop of blood was shed; not a shot fired. Wool made enemies only among those who were under obligations to be friends, and made friends among those who were under obligations to be enemies. And out of a crude, heterogeneous mass he forged a keen, tough, highly tempered blade, that was to prove its value soon in a terrible crisis.[26]


Tampico and Its Environs

The other lateral expedition moved against the city of Tampico. This place, the principal town in the state of Tamaulipas, and after Vera Cruz the chief port of Mexico on the Gulf coast, was physically remarkable. Land and water are perhaps nowhere more freakishly intermingled. But for practical purposes one may describe it adequately as on a low ridge—with the immense lagoon of Carpintero on the one hand and the deep, wide, heavy, greenish-brown Pánuco on the other—a little more than five miles from the Gulf, as the river flows. For ten years beginning in 1835 political upheavals and vexatious commercial regulations had militated against its prosperity; but the port was highly prized by the government, and in April, 1846, was taken into its particular care.[38]

All the old fortifications having been demolished lest they should be turned to account by insurgents, Parrodi, the comandante general, was ordered to prepare the town for defence, and a number of badly planned and badly constructed works—particularly a redoubt equipped with two 8-pounders on the north side of the Pánuco at the bar—gave a semblance of security. Some twenty-five light or fortress guns were placed; but efforts to obtain additional heavy ordnance from Vera Cruz were frustrated by the blockade, and when Ampudia, going north in the summer, was directed to give his first attention to reinforcing the garrison, circumstances again intervened. The people were spirited, however; and the daily Eco voiced their sentiments by exclaiming, “With such officers, with such troops, with such citizens let the Yankees come whenever they please!”[38]

As a matter of fact the Yankees had thoughts of coming quite soon. Possession of the town seemed to be desirable, in the first place, because for some time it was supposed to be the starting-point of a carriage-road to San Luis Potosí, and apparently could be made a more convenient base than the Rio Grande for a deep advance into Mexico; but the war department found before long that wagons and artillery could not cross the mountains by that route. In the second place occupation of Tampico appeared to be a logical feature of the Tamaulipas movement, in which Patterson was expected to play a leading rôle;[27] and moreover, Santa Anna himself had explained to Mackenzie that it would be advantageous as well as easy to make this conquest.[38]

Conner had his eye upon the place, of course; but, aside from the question of overcoming its defenders, he felt considerable hesitation. It was regarded as the most dangerous port on the coast, and vessels could not ride out a gale at anchor off the shore. The bar, on which eight feet of water stood normally, had only a fathom in August, 1846; and as the fleet would have to rendezvous and prepare for battle in the open roadstead, he was afraid that one of the frequent northers would assail him before he could assail the town. September 22, however, when deciding upon the Tamaulipas expedition, Polk and his Cabinet agreed that Conner should attack Tampico, and the order was issued that day.[38]

Santa Anna seems to have remembered the advice given to Mackenzie, and while at Mexico he instructed Parrodi to retire, if attacked, unless he could be sure of resisting successfully. On his way to San Luis he evidently received Marcy’s intercepted letter of September 2, which announced that a movement upon Tampico was contemplated.[28] Hence on October 3, with a view to the confirmation of those instructions, he directed the war office to notify Parrodi of the American plan. Two days later the comandante general reported to Santa Anna that he could not defend the town victoriously, and explained in detail why. His garrison, including some 200 sick, consisted of less than 1200 men besides 200 available National Guards, ignorant of the use of arms. Only 870 of these men could be employed, according to a later statement of his, at the town and the bar, and having but 150 regular gunners he could not man the numerous and widely separated positions. Indeed he would not be able to subsist the garrison more than eleven days longer.[29] The enemy, on the other hand, it was said, included a shore party of 3000, and could attack by water and by land at the same time.[38]


In response, Parrodi received from Santa Anna on October 14 an order, confirmed three days later, that all the heavy guns, the stores, and his three gunboats, light but effective craft, should be sent up the river, and that he himself with his troops and what field pieces could be taken along, should withdraw to Tula, a place behind the mountains. Parrodi, who did not believe in the war, liked these instructions, and proceeded to execute them. The government, however, seemed unwilling to abandon Tampico, and the comandante general, perplexed by this difference of sentiment and by the protests of the governor, troops, people and foreign consuls, offered to Santa Anna some arguments against his instructions: but the latter, annulling without ceremony the government’s action, impatiently ordered immediate evacuation. His reasons were, in brief, that he could not reinforce the garrison adequately without dividing the army in a manner incompatible with his plans; that, even should he undertake to do so, this aid could not arrive in time; and that, since a victorious defence could not be expected, it was important not only to save the men and material, but especially to avoid the moral effect of another American triumph; and no doubt, on the assumption that Conner was prepared to make a strenuous, unflinching attack with such forces as Parrodi described, these reasons were sound.[38]

Excited by the urgency of his instructions, which were received on the twenty-second, the comandante general now endeavored to atone for the time lost, and executed a flight instead of an evacuation.[30] The redoubt at the bar was destroyed; large quantities of war material were thrown into the river; with the aid of the British consul a pretended sale of the gunboats was effected; and on October 27 and 28 the troops hastily withdrew.[38]

While these events were taking place, timely notice of them was forwarded to Conner. Chase, the American consul, had been expelled and had taken refuge on a blockading vessel; but his wife, who was a British subject, remained in Tampico, and on October 20 she wrote to the Commodore that Parrodi would evacuate the town on the following day, and that no resistance would be made against an American attack. By November 5 Conner received this news, but a lack of provisions made it impossible for him to set out the next day, as he desired to do. On the tenth, eleventh and twelfth, however, eleven vessels made sail from Antón Lizardo with orders to rendezvous fifteen miles from the shore on a certain east and west line a little south of Tampico. The frigates Raritan and Potomac did not appear there; but as the weather was fine, Conner decided to proceed, and at break of day, November 14, the Mississippi, Princeton, St. Mary’s, three small steamers—the Spitfire, Vixen and Petrel—and three schooner-gunboats joined the blockading vessel off Tampico bar. By this time the Commodore knew that Parrodi had not evacuated the city on the twenty-first, and, supposing the garrison was still there, expected some hard work;[31] but the weather looked favorable, and he prepared at once to attack.[38]

Lieutenant Commanding Hunt, the blockading officer, had examined the bar; and piloted by him the three small steamers towed the gunboats across it. By ten o’clock the river was entered successfully, and the Commodore advanced immediately toward the city. The low shores were covered with rich vegetation; the huts, thatched with palmetto leaves, appeared cosey if not grand; broad-leaved bananas and loaded orange-trees grew beside them; tall cocoanut palms languidly waved their graceful fronds above; and the long line of steamers and schooners, followed by nine boats from the frigates packed with officers, marines and sailors, made an impressive spectacle as they moved slowly up the smooth but rapid Pánuco under an azure sky.[38]

Conner himself was on the Spitfire. As he approached the town, he was met by a deputation from the ayuntamiento (city council), who stated that having neither the means nor the disposition to resist, they desired to capitulate. Perry and two other officers then went ashore with the deputation to arrange terms; but after a long conference, finding this impossible—though of course the expediency of surrendering was not in debate—all returned to the Spitfire, and at length an informal agreement was reached. Next morning the chief points of this were embodied in the following declaration:[32]

“United States Steamer Spitfire. Off the City of Tampico, November 15, 1846. Commodore Conner declines a Capitulation with the Authorities of Tampico as he considers it unnecessary. He accepts the surrender of the City, and takes military possession of it. He assures the Inhabitants, at the same time, that he will not interfere with their Municipal Regulations, or their Religion; and that private property shall be respected, provided that the public property of all kinds, be delivered up at once, and in good faith. Should an assault be made by the Inhabitants of the City, on the American Forces, the Inhabitants will be held responsible for the consequences. Commodore Conner, so long as the Authorities and Inhabitants of the City observe good faith towards him, will consider them under his protection;—a different course will expose them to serious evils.”[38]

The danger of an assault was not imminent, for the National Guards could find but one hundred serviceable muskets, and all the people of the town, who usually numbered about 15,000 but were now perhaps half as many, lined the streets and gazed at the Americans as mere spectators. All the public property that was movable had been carried away, but the public buildings were now occupied; and, as the fraudulent sale of the gunboats was detected, three much needed vessels, built at New York, were added to our navy.[33] Steps were then taken to recover what Parrodi had transported up the river.[34] November 18 Tattnall set out with the Spitfire and Petrel, and the next forenoon he reached Pánuco town, the head of navigation, some eighty miles from Tampico, where it was known that heavy guns had been left. Everything had been concealed but the concealment proved ineffectual. He disabled nine 18-pounders, threw into the river a quantity of balls, and burned some camp equipage; and a 24-pounder was taken aboard.[38]


In ordering the capture of Tampico, the American government had intended that Patterson should be at hand to occupy the town, and as this calculation had been upset by Taylor, it now became a question how to retain the prize. The place of the squadron was at sea; without the help of every man it looked almost impossible to manage the vessels in bad weather; and officers of nearly all grades were actually wanting. So Perry in the steamer Mississippi sailed from Tampico on the evening of November 15 for Brazos Island, and the next day left an officer there to explain the situation. Without delay the news was forwarded to Patterson at Camargo, and he directed that men and cannon should go “forthwith” to the captured city. His instructions were not waited for, however. Lieutenant Colonel Belton, who occupied Camp Belknap with six companies of the so-called artillery, embarked for the mouth of the river on hearing from Perry; and on November 21 Colonel Gates and about 500 men sailed from the Brazos in the Neptune, leaving two more companies to follow the next day in the Sea.[35] Both vessels were driven ashore, but fortunately the troops were saved in both cases. By the twenty-third Tampico had therefore a garrison of about 650 good regulars. Some ordnance also arrived; and Conner, besides landing a pair of carronades, remained in the harbor with four or five gunboats. Fortunately the only land approaches were by a neck at each end of the town between Carpintero Lake and the river; and the work of fortifying these, begun at once, was prosecuted night and day.[38]

Perry, meanwhile, kept at work. November 21 the Mississippi, bearing the red pennant of a vice commodore at the masthead, appeared at New Orleans.[36] Announcing the capture of Tampico, Perry conferred with General Brooke and the governor of the state, and obtained sixteen cannon—half of them borrowed from the Louisiana arsenal—and with these, an engineer officer, 110 regular recruits and a quantity of ammunition, he arrived off Tampico on the twenty-ninth.[37] Before long the Alabama regiment came from the Rio Grande, and the government, which heard of the capture of Tampico on November 28, ordered about 460 additional regulars to be sent from the United States. There was great anxiety at Washington to make the port secure, for, as will soon be discovered, a particular reason for holding it had now arisen. Gates issued stringent regulations to govern the citizens in case of a Mexican attack; and by December 19 Brigadier General Shields was in command there with an adequate and fairly well-protected garrison. Yet the Mexicans endeavored to feel cheerful. No battle had been lost, for none had been fought, said the government with convincing logic; and the Americans had not triumphed, for they had merely taken what had been abandoned; but the governor of Tamaulipas recalled bitterly that “in former times Tampico, almost by herself, had repulsed more than 4000 veterans.”[38]


Substantially all of northeastern Mexico was now in American hands, and the question of Taylor’s future operations, which had long been under consideration, became urgent. On that matter the General himself entertained a definite opinion. He was for adopting a boundary line that would include enough territory to pay all just American claims, and standing there on the defensive. As already drawn, the line ran from Parras, where he expected Wool to remain, and Patos, a rich hacienda on the Parras route about thirty-five miles from Saltillo, to Saltillo itself, to Camp Butler, six miles north of that city toward Rinconada Pass, and to Monterey. Between Monterey and Tampico lay a wide gap, but the General proposed to fill this now by occupying certain points in Tamaulipas. Victoria, the capital of that state, was exposed to attacks proceeding from Tula, and there he planned to have a large force.[41]

How many troops were available is not precisely known; but according to Meade, who seems to have been in rather close touch with headquarters, Worth was to have some 2500 at Saltillo and eight guns, Butler 1500 at Monterey, Taylor and Patterson about 5000, to be divided between the posts in Tamaulipas and a new position in advance of Saltillo, and the commanders on the lines of communication about 2000; which meant that some 14,500 men, including Wool’s 2400 or 2500 and about 1000 occupying Tampico, were to hold lines approximately 800 miles long in an enemy’s country.[39] Over against them stood the Mexicans under Santa Anna, who in Taylor’s opinion were potentially, if not actually, more than 50,000 in number, and were occupying before Christmas a position only about sixty miles from the Americans;[40] and in addition to these it was necessary to consider the large bands of irregulars, like those of Colonel Blanco, who were liable to gather suddenly almost anywhere.[41]

When Taylor reported his plan to the war department, a good deal of anxiety and perhaps distress was felt there. To be sure, he pointed out that artillery could be moved north by way of Saltillo only, and that water and provisions were scanty on that road, while doubtless he as well as others considered the Mexicans too deficient in vigor and enterprise to be feared. How just were these calculations will appear in the sequel, and they failed now to satisfy the government. Though not informed by Taylor precisely how many posts he intended to establish in Tamaulipas, Marcy was afraid that widely separated forces and lines of communication would be assailed, and it was clear that a small Mexican success, doing us no actual harm but diminishing our prestige materially, might rouse the people against us. Even the line to Monterey was long, the Secretary feared. Taylor evidently had no thorough knowledge of the passes, for he was now preparing to take a very hasty look at a few of them. Besides, it had been Marcy’s expectation of late that Wool’s column would be drawn back to Monterey; and at the end of the year, as well as earlier, he said he did not wish to occupy territory in advance of that city. Polk appealed in his diary to the General’s own opinion that he could not safely advance beyond it. Scott, as well as Marcy and the President, believed the troops were being scattered too much. Officers on the ground also held that view; but such was Taylor’s deliberate policy.[41]

June-September, 1846


Not only Tamaulipas and Chihuahua but New Mexico lay within the scope of the government’s war policy, and certain features of the situation made the outlook in that quarter peculiarly inviting.

The province was cut into an eastern and a western section by the Rio Grande, which ran approximately north and south; and usage divided the best settled part of it into the Río Arriba (Upstream) district near Santa Fe, the capital, which lay some twenty miles east of the great river, and the Río Abajo (Downstream) district, which had for its metropolis Albuquerque, a small town on the Rio Grande about seventy-five miles to the southwest. According to a recent census the population was 100,000, of which the greater part belonged in the lower district; and more than half the wealth also was attributed to that section. The caravan trade, which made its way from Independence,[1] Missouri, to Santa Fe, Chihuahua, Lagos and even Mexico City, gilded the name of the province, for it had advanced rapidly from the humble beginnings of 1821, and now employed 1200 men, involved a capital of some two millions, and usually paid a net profit of thirty or forty per cent on the goods transported. The favorable climate believed to prevail in New Mexico was an additional source of interest.[2]

The political situation appeared singularly promising. In March, 1845, the war department of Mexico admitted publicly that the northern sections of the country were “abandoned and more than abandoned” by the general government. Sensible Mexicans held that the connection of the province with their miserable system involved injury instead of benefit. The people received no protection against the ravages of the Indians. The national troops were a constant menace to the citizens. If a man desired to give his note for $3000, he was compelled to pay eight dollars for stamped paper. The duties and extortions levied upon the caravan merchants increased the price of their goods; and of late the central government had been trying to deprive the provincial authorities of money and the people of comforts by stopping that business entirely.[2]

The citizens appeared weary of oppression. They would not pay the taxes. It was found necessary in 1845 to excuse them from one of the most profitable but most annoying imposts. Indifference toward the general government—a natural return for its neglect and its vexations—prevailed, and the continual changes in that government aggravated the lack of patriotism. Indeed, there was more than indifference. A move to follow the example of Texas had been made in 1837, and the idea of joining the United States, which had existed in that year, became so strong by the early months of 1846 that representatives of the province in the national Congress openly avowed it. Finally, a revolution against misgovernment, that had recently occurred in the neighboring state of Sonora, appeared to offer a strong hint.[2]

All power, civil and military, lay in the hands of Manuel Armijo, governor and comandante general; and that of itself was an ample ground for insurrection. Born of disreputable parents, this precious adventurer had achieved a career still more disreputable. A man of unusual energy, though now a mountain of flesh, he could assume at will an air of ingenuous affability; could threaten, bluster, brag, intrigue or coax; and when dressed up in his blue frock coat, with blue striped pantaloons, shoulder straps, a red sash, and plenty of gold lace, could look—although at heart only a cunning and cowardly robber—quite impressive. His personal habits were said to be grossly immoral; his only principle was to succeed; and his type of mind, shrewd though low, was indicated by one of his favorite sayings, “It is better to be thought brave than to be so.” Such force, cleverness and lack of scruple had naturally made him rich. His family now owned Albuquerque and the neighboring estates. His position and close relations with the priests gave him a firm hold on the ecclesiastical arm; it was believed that an understanding with the savages enabled him to use them against his enemies; and he engaged rather deeply in the American trade. Yet his ambition was not yet satisfied; and he entertained the idea, it would seem, of making the province an independent country.[2]

At St. Louis, Missouri, the New Mexican situation was doubtless fairly well understood, and a deep interest in the caravan business existed. The merchants, it was felt when the war became probable, deserved to be protected, and many urged the prompt despatch of an expedition for that purpose. Other arguments for such a step were, that it would forestall Indian troubles on the border, would incline the enemy—by laying open their weak side—to make terms, would encourage the people of New Mexico to rise in our favor, and would secure the key to Chihuahua and California; and in all probability influential men brought these ideas to the President’s notice.[4]

The occupation of Santa Fe was in fact decided upon as one of the very earliest war measures—primarily for the sake of the traders, but also with a view to the permanent retention of the province. The move was intended to be pacific, however. Polk doubtless expected that no serious opposition, if any at all, would be offered by the people; and there seem to have been hopes that Chihuahua and her sister states could be persuaded by arguments backed with force to let the caravan trade go on despite the war. In that case the burdensome duties imposed at Santa Fe would no longer have had to be paid, and the discrimination in favor of Mexican competitors, that had prevailed there, would have ceased. On May 13, therefore, the governor of Missouri was directed to raise eight companies of mounted troops and two of light artillery for an expedition to New Mexico, and Colonel S. W. Kearny of the First Dragoons was directed to command them.[4]

So fine an opportunity for adventure appealed instantly to the bold, hardy and energetic young fellows of Missouri, and as early as June 6 volunteers were hurrying into the service at Fort Leavenworth—a square of wooden buildings, with a blockhouse at each corner and a plot of grass in the middle—which crowned a high bluff on the Missouri River about 312 miles from St. Louis; and about 1660 troops were soon assembled at that point. Of Kearny’s dragoons there were some 300. The First Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers—which chose Alexander W. Doniphan as colonel—numbered about 860. The artillery, including nearly 250 men, consisted of “Battery A” of St. Louis under Captain Weightman and a company under Captain Fischer, a graduate of the Prussian artillery service, and formed a battalion commanded by Major M. L. Clark, a West Pointer.[3] There were also two small companies of volunteer infantry, a St. Louis mounted body of about one hundred called the Laclede Rangers, which Kearny attached to his regulars, about fifty Delaware and Shawnee Indians, and finally, though by no means last in importance, a Roman Catholic priest familiar with the Spanish language.[4]



Without lingering to complete the outfit, Kearny sent the command off by sections. June 5 a detachment of the dragoons advanced. By the twenty-eighth all of Doniphan’s regiment were on the march for Santa Fe and—none of them cared how much farther; and two days later Weightman’s fine brass cannon, gleaming radiantly in the bright sunshine, wheeled into the trail. For several days the troops had to break their way through a rough country, but about fifteen miles south of the Kansas River they struck the Santa Fe road, a broad, well marked, natural highway running toward the southwest.[6]

Council Grove, the famous rendezvous of Indians and frontiersmen, was the last place from which a single person could safely return; and now for nearly four weeks not one “stick of timber” was to cheer the eye. After pressing on in the same direction to the Arkansas, the troops left the main trail, marched wearily along the northern bank of the river—ascending about seven feet in each mile—till they were beyond the great bend, and finally, crossing the shallow stream, turned their faces toward Bent’s Fort, a protected trading post, which stood near the present site of Las Animas, Colorado, about 650 miles from Fort Leavenworth. Belts had been tightened over and over again by this time. Drinking water that no horse would touch had sickened many a tough rider. Mosquitos and buffalo gnats had tormented the flesh day and night. Faces had been scorched by siroccos, and tongues had swollen with thirst. Many had become so tired that a rattlesnake in the blanket seemed hardly worth minding, and so utterly wretched that in blind fury they sometimes raved and cursed like maniacs. Out of one hundred fine horses belonging to Battery A sixty had perished. Yet in places there had been cool breezes, carpets of brilliant and spicy flowers, great herds of buffalo, curious mirages, and inspiring glimpses of Pike’s Peak, the towering outpost of the Rockies.[6]

At length on July 29 Kearny escorted by Doniphan’s regiment gained the rendezvous, a grassy meadow on the Arkansas about nine miles below the Fort. There within a few days the Army of the West assembled,[5] and two additional companies of the dragoons, which had made an average of twenty-eight miles a day from Fort Leavenworth, joined their regiment. Nor were the troops alone. Several merchants had left Independence about the first of May. Notified by order of the government that war had begun, they had stopped here; and the Colonel found under his protection more than four hundred wagons and merchandise worth upwards of a million.[6]

Armijo, for his part, had received ample warnings. In March the central government informed him that war might be expected, and authorized him to make preparations for defence. By June 17 news of the coming invasion reached Santa Fe, and nine days later the first caravan of the season confirmed it. Manuel Alvarez, the American consul, endeavored now to persuade Armijo that it would “be better for himself and the people under his government to capitulate, and far preferable” to become Americans than to be citizens of a country so disordered and so impotent as Mexico; but while his advisers and subordinates fancied they could obtain offices under an elective system, and “were rather easily won over,” the governor himself probably could not believe that people so long robbed and oppressed would choose the wolf as their shepherd. Besides, he doubtless had some national spirit and some desire to justify his gratuitous title of general. After confirming the news further by a spy, he sent south on July 1 an appeal for aid—representing the Americans as 6000 in number—and began to prepare for defence. A letter from Ugarte, the comandante general of Chihuahua, stating that he could set out on a moment’s notice with five hundred cavalry and as many infantry, seemed encouraging, and no doubt Armijo was aware that Durango, too, had been ordered by the authorities at Mexico to aid him.[7]

Meanwhile reinforcements for Kearny were gathering in his rear. On the third of June Marcy informed the governor of Missouri that if Sterling Price, then a member of the Missouri legislature, and certain other citizens of the state would raise and organize a thousand mounted men—that is to say, a regiment and a battalion—to follow Kearny promptly, they would be appointed to the chief commands. This method of getting troops aroused considerable opposition among the people, for it ignored the militia system and the aspirations of the militia officers, and many felt that a politician like Price was unfit for the command; but young men were ready to volunteer under any sort of conditions that promised a chance to reach the front, and about the time Kearny left Fort Bent this new force, including artillery under regular officers, was mustered into the service at Fort Leavenworth.[8]

At the same time steps were taken to obtain reinforcements of a totally different character. A large number of Mormons, recently driven from Nauvoo, Illinois, had gathered at Council Bluffs, and were planning to settle in California. It was important that feelings of hostility toward this country should not prevail among them, and apparently their assistance, not only on the coast but in New Mexico, might be valuable. Kearny was therefore authorized to accept a body of these emigrants not larger than a quarter of his entire force, and about five hundred of them were enlisted in June and taken to Fort Leavenworth by Captain Allen of the First Dragoons. Allen soon died, but under Lieutenant Smith of the same regiment this party marched for Santa Fe.[8]

On July 31 Kearny issued a proclamation, which declared that he was going to New Mexico “for the purpose of seeking union with, and ameliorating the condition of its inhabitants,” urged them to follow their usual vocations, and promised that all who should pursue this course would be protected in their civil and religious rights; and the next day he addressed Armijo in the same strain, telling him that resistance would not only be in vain, but would cause the people to suffer, and adding that submission would be greatly for his interest and for theirs.[9] Captain Cooke of the dragoons was made the bearer of this communication, and with an escort of twelve picked men he went forward under a white flag.[16]

August 1 the “long-legged infantry,” who were almost able to outmarch the cavalry, left the rendezvous, and on the following day the so-called army was all in motion. After crossing the Arkansas a little way above the Fort, it soon turned off to the southwest, and followed in general the line of the present Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Before long the troops found on the right a high range of mountains, thrusting up twin peaks into the region of perpetual snow, while the gleaming wall of the far Rockies came every day nearer; and on the left gazed over wide plains—broken with ridge, plateau or butte—which stretched away toward the east, until one could not say where earth and sky met. Near the present boundary of New Mexico began the ascent of Raton Pass; and the men, winding up the rugged valley, discovered most beautiful flowers. But they were hardly in a condition to enjoy them, for the rations—cut down one half or more—consisted of flour stirred up in water, fried, and eaten with a little pork; and the implacable Kearny, an embodiment of energy and resolution, hurried them along by marches that were almost incredibly hard. What lay ahead nobody knew. It was not even certain that the present scanty rations would hold out. But the watchword was always, Forward; and even the magnificent views at the summit of the Pass, where Raton Mountain upreared a series of castellated pinnacles somewhat like those of the Ichang gorge on the upper Yangtse River, attracted but little attention.[16]


August 15, at the new and unimportant village of Las Vegas began Kearny’s political work. From the flat roof of a house the General—for his commission as brigadier general had now overtaken him—said to the people substantially this: “For some time the United States has considered your country a part of our territory, and we have come to take possession of it. We are among you as friends—not as enemies; as protectors—not as conquerors; for your benefit—not your injury. I absolve you from all allegiance to the Mexican government and to Armijo.[10] They have not defended you against the Indians, but the United States will. All who remain peaceably at home shall be safeguarded in person and in property. Their religion also shall be protected. A third of my army are Roman Catholics. I was not brought up in that faith myself, yet I respect your creed, and so does my government. But listen! If any one promises to be quiet and is found in arms against me, I will hang him. Resistance would be useless. There are my soldiers, and many more are coming. You, then, who are in office will now take the oath of allegiance to the United States, and I will support your authority.”[16]

Tecolote also, at the bottom of the valley, witnessed a scene of this kind; and the next day, crossing the swift Pecos, Kearny followed a similar course at the red adobe town of San Miguel. Here the alcalde said he would rather wait until after the capture of Santa Fe. “It is enough for you to know, Sir, that I have captured your town,” was the stern reply. Doubtless, in their muddled way, the people wondered at this first illustration of liberty; but with characteristic politeness, timidity and guile they wrinkled their faces as if pleased. In spite of orders and sentinels the fields of waving corn, full of ears just prime for roasting, suffered a little; but Kearny paid for the damage, and that at least was appreciated.[16]

By this time officers sent forward to learn the state of public sentiment at the city of Taos, an important seat of the Pueblo Indians, and at Santa Fe had returned with unwelcome reports, and several American residents had brought warnings of danger. The activity of Mexican spies—kindly treated when captured, and in some cases released at once with friendly messages—proved that Armijo was alert; and on August 14 his reply to the note sent by Cooke, while proposing that Kearny halt and that negotiations be opened, informed the General that the people were rising en masse to defend the province, and that Armijo would place himself at their head.[11] Fifteen hundred dragoons had reached or were near Santa Fe, it was reported; and at a natural gateway, cutting a ridge about four hundred feet high, a hostile force was said to be waiting. On hearing this news all the weary men and their drooping steeds came to life. The banners and guidons were unfurled. “To horse!” blared the trumpets; “Trot! Gallop! Charge!” And with sabres glittering under a brilliant sun the troopers dashed round a sharp turn into the pass, while the artillery thundered after them, and the infantry scrambled over the ridge. Not an enemy was found; but the reports agreed that Apache Canyon, some distance farther on, would be stiffly and strongly defended.[16]

This was extremely serious news. To march nearly 2000 soldiers eight or nine hundred miles through a wilderness involved fearful risks, and the expedition was now at the breaking point. The men had become travel-worn and half-starved; many, if not all, were suffering from the effects of the water, loaded with acrid salts, which they had been drinking; the horses generally were on their last legs; and hundreds of horses and mules actually could not march another day. It had already been necessary to attach cattle to the ammunition wagons, and the cannon were now dragged along with extreme difficulty. The provisions had practically been exhausted. And here lay a defile seven or eight miles long, guarded by several thousand militia, a force of regulars and considerable artillery.[16]


As these facts indicate, the New Mexicans did not seem willing to justify Polk’s expectations. Whatever Armijo’s own opinions, public sentiment appeared to demand action. There existed a good deal of warlike spirit in the province, and naturally the prospect of an armed invasion excited resentment. The ignorant and suspicious people were easily persuaded, after their hard experience under Mexican rule, that the Americans were coming to take their property; and the priests added, that besides abusing the women these ruffians would brand them on the cheek as mules were branded. August 8 the governor therefore issued a proclamation, summoning the people to take up arms in the cause of “sacred independence”; the prefect of Taos and presumably other local authorities followed his example; and several thousand of the people,[12] Mexicans or Indians, many of them armed only with bows and arrows, clubs or lariats, but all apparently eager to fight, were placed at Apache Canyon under Colonel Manuel Pino.[16]

At this juncture, however, Cooke, a Chihuahua merchant named González and one James Magoffin, a jovial and rich Kentucky Irishman, prominent in the caravan trade and long a resident of Chihuahua, arrived at Santa Fe. Magoffin had been introduced by Senator Benton to Polk, and after some talk had consented to act as a sort of informal commissioner to Armijo in the interest of peaceful relations. He now argued, according to the very reasonable statement of the governor, that American rule would enhance the price of real estate and make New Mexico prosperous.[13] Undoubtedly he dwelt upon the impossibility of successful resistance; and probably he suggested—though Armijo’s avarice required no hint on this point—that should cordial feelings prevail, the duties on the approaching merchandise, a fortune in themselves, would be paid at the Santa Fe customhouse, where the governor could handle them.[16]

On the other hand, no aid was coming from the south. The 1500 dragoons were not even phantasmal. Ugarte’s cheering statement that he could bring 1000 men to New Mexico had no doubt been intended, and no doubt was understood, as mere stimulation. According to the latest returns, New Mexico, Chihuahua, Durango and Zacatecas together had less than 2000 poorly equipped and poorly subsisted troops, the greater part of whom were the scattered and almost worthless Presidials. The general government, when officially notified of the coming invasion, merely issued a few nugatory orders and expressed “profound regret.” The people’s loyalty to the government and especially to the governor appeared uncertain. Armijo understood that he was not a general, and no doubt understood also that he was a coward; and for all these reasons he decided—though wavering to the end—that hostilities were to be avoided, should that be possible. Diego Archuleta also, one of the chief military officers, was approached by Magoffin, and under genial manipulation proved to be much less bloodthirsty than had been supposed. Consul Alvarez, it will be recalled, had previously found the subordinate officials tractable, and it may safely be supposed in general that very little desire to fight the Americans existed in the governor’s entourage.[16]

Pino seems to have felt differently, however, and when Armijo was on the road to the canyon, August 16, with two or three hundred soldiers and about eight guns, he received a message from that officer threatening to come and fetch him, if he did not join the militia. This augured ill, and the augury proved correct. The people demanded to be led against the enemy, but Armijo said the Americans were too strong. Pino offered to attack if he could have a part of the regulars, but the governor was determined to keep them all for his own protection. Then he was called a traitor, and retaliated by calling the people disloyal and cowardly. They threatened him; and he, more afraid of his own army than of Kearny’s, urged the militia to go home and let the regulars do the fighting. Threatened again, he forbade the people to come near his camp; and finally he turned his cannon in their direction.[16]

In reality the people themselves had no great hunger for battle. Besides detesting Armijo, they were doubtless influenced by much lurking anti-Mexican or pro-American sentiment; had probably learned to question the diabolical intentions attributed to Kearny’s troops; were fully aware in a general way of American superiority; and felt deeply impressed by tales about the great number of the invaders, their long train, their many guns, their enormous horses and the terrible men themselves—an army, in short, such as they had never dreamed of before. The quarrels of their leaders both disgusted and disheartened them; and they began to think, too, of their lives, families and property. August 17, therefore, they broke up, and went every man his own way. A council of the regular officers favored retreat. The Presidials deserted or were dismissed; the cannon were spiked and left in the woods; and in about two weeks Armijo—though offered personal security and freedom at Santa Fe—turned up at Chihuahua with ninety dragoons. He had proved not exactly a traitor, perhaps;[14] but certainly not a patriot, and still more certainly, if that was possible, not a hero.[16]


The result was that on August 17 a fat alcalde rode up to Kearny on his mule at full speed, and with a roar of laughter cried, “Armijo and his troops have gone to hell and the Canyon is all clear.” The news was confirmed; and early the next day, instead of turning the pass by a difficult and circuitous route, of which the General had learned, the Americans advanced boldly, though still with caution, on their last hard march—twenty-eight miles to Santa Fe. Just beyond the defile, at a position that might easily have been made impregnable, were found light breastworks, a sort of abatis, a spiked cannon, and tracks which guided some of Clark’s men to the rest of Armijo’s ordnance. At three o’clock, after receiving a note of welcome from Vigil, the acting governor, General Kearny, riding at the head of the troops, came in sight of the town. Neither man nor beast had been allowed to stop for food that day, and the column dragged heavily; but the rear was up three hours later, and then, leaving the artillery on a commanding hill, the rest of the troops eagerly entered Santa Fe.[16]

Alas, the Mecca of so many dreams and hopes was promptly rechristened “Mud Town,” for it proved to be only a straggling collection of adobe hovels lying in the flat sandy valley of a mountain stream, where a main line of the Rockies came to an end amidst a gray-brown, dry and barren country.[15] Even the palace, a long one-story adobe building, had no floor; and after partaking of refreshments, addressing the people in his usual tone of mingled courtesy and firmness, and listening to the salute of thirteen guns which greeted the raising of the Stars and Stripes, Kearny had to sleep on its carpeted ground, while most of the troops, too exhausted to eat, camped on the hill.[16]


The next day Kearny delivered a more formal address, but the style of his remarks was the same as before; and his kindly, simple, determined manner produced an excellent impression. Thundering vivas answered him; and then Vigil, basing his remarks on the conviction that “no one in the world has resisted successfully the power of the stronger,” expressed a joyless yet hopeful acceptance of the situation. We now belong to a great and powerful nation, he said, and we are assured that a prosperous future awaits us. Such of the officials as desired to retain their places then took an oath of allegiance to the United States. The following day chiefs of the Pueblo Indians came in and submitted, and on the twenty-second Kearny issued a proclamation. This embodied the same assurances and warnings as the addresses, but it added that western as well as eastern New Mexico was to be occupied, that all the inhabitants were claimed as American citizens, and that a free government would be established as soon as possible.[17]

By this time a fort, named after Marcy, had begun to be visible on the hill. The site was not well adapted for a regular work; but as it commanded the town perfectly at a distance of about six hundred yards from the palace, and was not commanded by any eminence, it served the purpose admirably. One point, however, still caused anxiety. There seemed to be danger that the Río Abajo district, supported by troops from the south, might rise against the invaders; and reports came that pointed toward precisely such an event. Kearny went down the river, therefore, on September 2 with seven hundred men. But he found no enemy. The Americans were everywhere well received and entertained. Ugarte had indeed left El Paso del Norte for New Mexico on August 10, but his troops numbered only four hundred; they had little ammunition and no artillery; Armijo discouraged him by saying that 6000 Americans were on their way south; the prospect of marching eighteen days—a part of the time in a desert—was not inviting; and so the expedition went home. Kearny returned to Santa Fe on September 11, and about noon on the twenty-fifth he set out with his effective dragoons for California, dreaming of a new conquest.[17]

December, 1846—May, 1847

Foreseeing that more troops would go to Santa Fe than New Mexico would require, Kearny had written to General Wool on August 22 that he would have the surplus join that officer at Chihuahua,[1] and shortly before marching for the coast he gave orders that Price with his command, Clark’s artillery, a part of the Laclede Rangers and the two companies of infantry should hold Santa Fe, and that Doniphan’s men should execute this plan; but on October 6 an order was received from him that Doniphan should first ensure the security of the people by settling matters with the Eutaw and Navajo Indians. September 28 Price arrived, and by the twentieth of October, 1220 new Missouri volunteers and 500 Mormons were on the scene. The Eutaws had now been reduced, it was believed, to a peaceable frame of mind; and while the warlike and superior Navajos proved a harder problem, a remarkable seven-weeks campaign amid snow and mountains, which ended with a treaty, seemed to ensure their good behavior. The caravans bound for Chihuahua, becoming alarmed, had now stopped at Valverde, a point not far south of the wretched settlement named Socorro, and begged for protection. Without losing time, therefore, Doniphan concentrated his force at Valverde by December 12, and with 856 effectives, all mounted and armed with rifles, prepared to set out on a long, adventurous march into an unknown and hostile country.[6]


No less extraordinary than such an undertaking were the commander and the men who undertook it. Doniphan was a frontier lawyer, entirely unacquainted with military science, but a born leader. When in Washington during the civil war he stood back to back with Abraham Lincoln, it is said, and overtopped that son of Anak by half an inch. The only distinguished man he had ever met that “came up to the advertisement,” was the President’s comment. High cheek bones, a prominent chin, thinnish and tightly closed lips, a mop of carroty hair parted well down on the left, a beard of the same hue under his chin, small, deep-set eyes, a strongly built nose, spare cheeks and a ruddy complexion told of enterprise, daring, endurance, wary judgment and kind, sincere impulses. In council he was shrewd and in danger fearless, with always a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his lips, and a cheering, well-timed pleasantry on his tongue.[6]

His men, recruited from the rural districts, had felt they were scorned a little by the St. Louis contingent, and had vowed to show them what “country boys” were made of; but they proposed to do it in their own way. While the city men had uniforms and military discipline, the riflemen neither had nor wanted such embarrassments. As every officer was a man of their own choice, they felt at liberty to choose also how far to respect and obey him. Doniphan, who loved his “boys” like a father, was loved in return, and they were ready to do anything for him; but a minor authority who meddled with their reserved rights, whatever these might happen to be, was likely to hear some vigorous cursing. Any form of manly dissipation was to their taste, as a rule; and they despised all carefulness, all order, all restraint. Yet they were “good fellows” at heart, and as full of fight as gamecocks; and now—on half rations, no salt and no pay[2]—they felt ready for whatever Mexico could offer.[6]

At Valverde Doniphan heard that forces were coming from Chihuahua to defend El Paso, some two hundred miles from Socorro, and sent an order to Santa Fe that Major Clark with six guns and one hundred men should march as soon as possible to his assistance; but without waiting for him the command advanced in three sections on the fourteenth, sixteenth and eighteenth of December. Below Valverde the Rio Grande makes a great bend towards the west, and runs through a wild, mountainous region; and hence travellers bound for the south left it on the right. Adopting this course, the Americans now marched for ninety or ninety-five miles through the dreaded Jornada del Muerto (Dead Man’s Journey), where they found no settlements except some prairie-dog towns, little vegetation except sage brush, and no water at all. At the coldest season of the year, when sentries at Santa Fe were having their feet frozen, to make such a march at an elevation of more than a mile and a quarter without fuel or tents[3] was clearly a good beginning. At Dona Ana, the only settlement between El Paso—sixty or sixty-five miles farther on—and Valverde, the straggling command was supposed to concentrate; but the concentration seemed rather nominal. Dirty, unshaven and ragged, the troops marched almost as they pleased. They were determined to survive, go ahead and fight, but little else appeared to them requisite. It was now reported that seven hundred soldiers and six guns were awaiting them at El Paso; but on December 23 the command moved on.[6]

The likelihood of invasion from the north had long been foreseen by the authorities of Chihuahua, and the expediency of making a stand at the threshold was obvious. But the citizens of El Paso, the border town, who were practical, industrious and thrifty people, had been greatly influenced, like those of New Mexico, by interest in the caravan business, contact with American traders and wagoners, and acquaintance with the ideas and methods of the United States. Almost openly, men said the town would thrive more under American rule, argued that it was the intention of the government at Mexico to sacrifice the people for the aggrandizement of its partisans and the privileged classes, pointed out that no substantial forces had come north, and asserted that what soldiers had arrived were under orders to withdraw without fighting, and leave the citizens to be punished for their loyalty.[6]

Public spirit fell to a low ebb, and there it remained. No one thought it endangered health to shout “Viva México!” But it was believed by many that in a community so honeycombed with treason, active, determined efforts in her cause would be liable to bring on an attack of cold steel or lead in some dorsal area; and when the governor of Chihuahua sent the prefect instructions on September 19 to retire, on the approach of the enemy, with all the armed forces, cattle and provisions, collect the resources of the district, and fight stubbornly on the guerilla system, no intention of obeying this order could be observed. October 12 an expedition designed to forestall invasion set out for the north; but at Dona Ana some of the troops—covertly stimulated by officers—became insubordinate; the commander understood public sentiment well enough to take their side; the whole body returned at full speed to El Paso; and the prefect dared not, or did not wish, to discipline anybody.[6]

There were now on the scene and in arms about four hundred and fifty troops and apparently about seven hundred National Guards with four guns.[4] In general two accepted schools of thought divided the soldiery. Some were for not fighting hard, and some—including most of the Presidials and National Guards—for not fighting at all; while the few and unpopular zealots felt paralyzed by a want of confidence. Colonel Cuylti, the commander, belonged to the second school of thought; and on the evening before he was to move against Doniphan, whose march had been reported about a week before, he fell sick with a subjective disability officially diagnosed as brain fever, and set out for Chihuahua with his accommodating surgeon. Lieutenant Colonel Vidal succeeded to the command and also, it would seem, to the disability, for after proclaiming martial law and pitching his camp some three miles from El Paso, he concluded to halt. The American van, described as consisting of about three hundred straggling countrymen in tatters without artillery, could be surrounded and lanced like so many rabbits, he said; but he was not personally in the mood for sport, and hence conceded this pleasure to the second in command, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Ponce de León, assigning to him at least five hundred men[5] and a 2-pound howitzer.[6]


At about three o’clock on Christmas afternoon Doniphan, with less than five hundred of his careless, confident volunteers, reached a level spot on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande named Temascalitos, though often called El Brazito, approximately thirty miles from El Paso. Pickets and sentries—but not supper—being superfluous, the men scattered in search of water, fuel and other conveniences. Mexican scouts were observing their operations; but, strong in conscious rectitude, the Missourians neither knew nor cared what the enemy were about. Suddenly armed men could be seen in fine order on a hill about half a mile distant. The rally was sounded. The volunteers rushed for their arms, and with all speed they were loosely formed as a line of infantry, bent back at the extremities toward the river, and resting at the left on the wagons of the caravan.[6]

With graceful consideration Ponce gave them time by sending a lieutenant with a black flag to demand that Doniphan should present himself. Otherwise, added the messenger, we shall charge and take him, neither giving nor asking quarter. “Charge and be damned!” was of course the reply; and the Mexicans then advanced, opening fire at about four hundred yards from our line. Several volleys were delivered while the Americans, either lying down or standing firmly with cocked rifles, withheld their fire. But the powder of the Mexicans was mostly bad, they shot high, and their little gun was mismanaged.[6]

By this time they had come within easy range. At command the American volunteers now fired with great effect, and a flanking movement against the wagons was received with equal spirit by the traders and their men. Evidently there was a mistake. These fellows were not rabbits; and the Presidials and El Paso militia, candidly recognizing Vidal’s blunder, retired in disorder, compelling the rest of the body to do the same. Speed now compensated for any possible want of courage; and a party of fifteen or twenty mounted Americans, who pursued the enemy for miles, could not bring any of them to a stand. Doniphan’s loss amounted to seven men slightly wounded; that of the Mexicans to a howitzer captured and perhaps a hundred men killed or wounded; and this farcical brush, lasting thirty or forty minutes in all, has figured in American annals as the “battle” of Brazito.[6]


The Mexican troops now evacuated the district; the National Guards disbanded; and presently a humble deputation from El Paso was explaining to Doniphan that arms had been taken up by the citizens under compulsion. Two days after the skirmish, therefore, amid a general appearance of satisfaction, he and his rough troopers concluded they had reached paradise. Along the Rio Grande, mostly on the southern side, ten or twelve thousand people occupied settlements extending downstream for many miles. Above, there was a dam; and artificial streams from that point not only irrigated the rich fields and vineyards, but watered the orchards, in which many of the houses were buried, and freshened the long and regular streets, which not only were shaded by lines of trees full of lively and tuneful birds, but were kept neat by daily sweeping. To drill, practice twice a day at the targets, and feast on the abundant fruits in such a place was a most agreeable change from the Jornada del Muerto.[11]

El Paso did not prove, however, to be exactly a paradise. Unlimited self-indulgence led to considerable sickness, and several men died. It led also to disorders and to outrages on the people, and before long two lieutenants, both intoxicated, fought with dirks. Moreover it was now learned that Wool had not gone to Chihuahua,[7] that great preparations for resistance were making there, and that a serious insurrection—purposely exaggerated by the Mexican reports—had occurred in the rear.[8] The boldest appeared therefore to be the wisest course—to push forward, and conquer or die.[9] But without cannon only the second alternative was possible, and the artillery did not arrive. Price was in fact extremely unwilling to part with it, and owing to this and other difficulties Clark was unable to set out for El Paso until January 10. Then his men encountered even more painful hardships than Doniphan’s had undergone, for they had to struggle with snow—to say nothing of almost perishing with hunger, and being nearly buried in a sandstorm; and it was not until February 5 that men, guns and wagons joined the impatient command.[11]

Three days afterwards the belated expedition set out on its march for Chihuahua—nearly three hundred miles distant—with 924 effective soldiers, besides about three hundred traders and teamsters, who were sworn into the service by Doniphan and elected a merchant named Owens as their major. About seven hundred of the troops belonged to the First Missouri regiment, about one hundred to Clark’s artillery, and about one hundred to a body named the Chihuahua Rangers, made up at Santa Fe.[10] There were four 6-pounders, two 12-pound howitzers, and about 315 goods-wagons besides the wagons belonging to the companies and the commissary department, each with its quota of attendants; and as the column, with every banner unfurled, wound into the distance as far as the eye could see, it made a gallant and picturesque sight. It was exposed to a rear attack from Sonora; but that state, while alive to the opportunity, had not the means to take advantage of it.[11]

Troubles enough presented themselves, however. The country was bare and monotonous, producing little except the crooked mezquite and an occasional willow. A desert sixty-five miles wide and another nearly as large had to be crossed. Heat alternated with cold, and one day it was necessary to kindle fires repeatedly to warm benumbed limbs. Tents were blown down by storms. More than once no fuel and no water could be had for days. Antelopes and hares could frequently be seen; but the tarantulas, rattlesnakes and copperheads were far more numerous, and far more willing to be intimate. One day, when the army was in camp at a lake, the grass took fire, and in an instant a small flame went scudding off, burning a narrow trail. Soon this was driven by a whirlwind up the mountain side, spreading into a vast blaze; and then, gathering force, it rolled back upon the camp like a tidal wave. By arts known to the plainsman almost everything was saved; but with a fearful roaring and crackling a surge of fire swept over the encampment, proving how great the danger had been.[11]

The state of things in the country farther south could not easily be ascertained, for the authorities at Chihuahua had cut off all communication with the north; but there were hostile spies, and some of them, taken prisoners, had to give instead of obtaining information. About seven hundred Mexican cavalry—said to be twice as many—were discovered in front looking for a favorable opening, which they did not find. At length, crossing a handsome plain on February 27, the expedition came at nightfall to the hacienda of El Sauz, and learned that strong fortifications had been erected at the Sacramento River, fifteen miles farther on. That was the next watering-place, and evidently it would have to be fought for; so a halt was made and a plan devised. “Cheer up, boys,” said Doniphan with a twinkle; “To-morrow evening I intend to have supper with the Mexicans on the banks of a beautiful spring.”[11]


As early as August, 1846, Chihuahua had expected this visit; and the governor, saying that Kearny’s army had occupied New Mexico “as easily as it would have pitched its tents in the desert,” seemed ready to let the operation be repeated in his own state. Perhaps he was merely weak, but the same pro-American influences of a commercial nature that we have observed at El Paso and Santa Fe were rife about him, and there was also much sentiment in favor of establishing the northern provinces as an independent republic under the protection of the United States. Over against these ideas, however, and possibly because of them, existed a peculiarly intense hatred of us, exasperated now by the loss of New Mexico and the fear of American outrages.[13]


Near the end of August the governor was forced out, and Angel Trias, an active, ambitious man, rich, and most unfriendly to the Americans, took his place; and the great body of the citizens, either anxious to defend themselves against invasion or dreading to be thought disloyal, rallied about him. The central government became interested, ordered several northern states to aid Chihuahua, and instructed Reyes, comandante general of Zacatecas, to assume the defence of New Mexico, Chihuahua and Durango. But embarrassments then arose; delays ensued; and Santa Anna, according to his policy of concentrating the military strength of the country under his own command and disregarding non-essential territory, frowned upon all national efforts to defend the northern frontier. It was now November; and the government, appointing the unpopular Heredia comandante general at Chihuahua, yielded to Santa Anna’s views.[13]

Trias, however, did not abandon hope. The resources of the state were scanty indeed. The effective colonial method of protecting the border had long since been given up, and Indian raids, beginning about 1831, had fast impoverished the haciendas. During the past year, perhaps because the savages believed the Mexican troops would be required for the war, these incursions had been worse than ever before. A single party of Comanches had numbered more than eight hundred. It was indispensable, therefore, to employ some of the military forces in the protection of the settlements; but more than 10,000 men were enrolled in the National Guard, and Trias felt sure that Chihuahua state was inherently strong enough to defeat Doniphan, whose approach was duly reported.[13]

The chief needs were money and armament. Artillery had been practically unknown in that region, but it was found possible to cast and mount a number of pieces, and infantry soldiers learned to use them. Arms were gathered and repaired; ammunition and clothing were manufactured; and by dint of local borrowing the expenses were met. Santa Anna finally had 255 men sent from Durango; and in the end nearly 1200 mounted troops (many of them Presidials), some 1500 infantry including about seventy regulars of the Seventh Regiment, 119 artillery, probably more than 1000 rancheros armed with long knives (machetes) and rude lances, ten brass cannon ranging from 4-pounders to 9-pounders, and nine musketoons on carriages appear to have been assembled.[12] The men were enthusiastic and eagerly obedient, and the leaders—Heredia for chief and Trias as second in command—felt proud of their army. As for the Brazito affair, which had caused much discouragement, it seemed now like a bad dream.[13]


Feb. 28, 1847

February 10 a portly, handsome officer arrived at Chihuahua. This was General García Conde, and the next day he and the other chiefs, after reconnoitring the pass at the Sacramento River, fifteen or eighteen miles to the north, decided to make a stand at that point. It was a wise decision. The stream, running here toward the east, was crossed at a ford by the route from El Paso, which had a north and south direction. Rather more than two miles north of the river and approximately parallel with it, there was a broad watercourse, now dry and sandy, known as the Arroyo Seco, which after crossing the El Paso highway continued in its easterly course about a mile and a half, turned then toward the south, and joined the river about a mile and a half below the ford. Along the northern bank of the Arroyo lay a road, which extended on the eastern side of the highway to the junction of this watercourse with the Sacramento, while on the western side, bending toward the south, it crossed that river three miles or so above the ford, passed the hacienda of El Torreón, penetrated a defile in the steep and rocky foothills thrust out here by the western cordillera, and rejoined the highway about six miles farther on toward Chihuahua. A triangular block of rugged hills lay thus between this road, the highway and the river, the northeastern corner of which (called Sacramento Hill) almost reached the solid adobe buildings of Sacramento hacienda near the ford.[13]

Between the river and the Arroyo lay elevated ground cut straight across by the highway. The portion west of the highway was a fairly smooth plateau ascending very gently toward the western cordillera, but the other part rose immediately east of the highway about fifty feet, and formed—roughly speaking—a square one and a half miles on a side, with a broad, smooth hollow in the middle that debouched at the southeastern corner toward the Sacramento, and a dominating hill called the Cerro Frijoles at the northeastern corner, toward which the square sloped up. On the north and west edges of the square the Mexicans constructed a series of well-planned and well-executed redoubts alternating with breastworks—which extended from Cerro Frijoles at the northeast to what we may call Fort N at the southwest—supplemented near the ford with fortifications on both banks of the river, and finally with a redoubt halfway up Sacramento Hill; and these works commanded perfectly the highway, the Arroyo road and the valley of the river. The Torreón route seemed impracticable for the American wagons, but even here fortifications were erected; and still others guarded the Arroyo near its junction with the Sacramento. The principal camp lay in the hollow of the square, which not only protected the troops but concealed both their numbers and their movements.[13]

In a word, the position consisted essentially of a tongue of land crossed near its elevated tip by the El Paso highway, with the Sacramento River and the Arroyo Seco on its edges, a series of fortifications round its tip, and an answering fortification beyond the river on a hill. It seemed to bar the way of the Americans completely. The Mexicans felt sure that it did so, and on the evening of February 27, jubilant and boastful, they even talked of recovering New Mexico. Anyhow these presumptuous and contemptible Yankees were to be cut up, and the booty would include a caravan worth a million. Yet influential Chihuahuans had a financial interest in that caravan,[13] and one may be sure they were not asleep.[14]


Next morning the Americans awoke early. Already the horses had been carefully inured to explosions of powder. Now swords were filed, rifles loaded afresh, straps tested, and even the linch-pins of the wagons inspected; and by daybreak the command set out. To make it compact, ready for attack from any quarter and perplexing to hostile observers, the wagons were formed in four well-separated columns of about one hundred each; the artillery and most of the troops marched between these columns, and the companies of Reid, Parsons and Hudson—regarded as proper cavalry and not simply mounted men—rode in front as advance guard and screen; and in this formation, with banners and guidons flaunting to impress the enemy, it rolled forward through a valley about four miles wide, bounded on each hand by a massive, barren cordillera,[15] until at about half-past one the troops, coming in sight of the Mexican works, noticed a quick, sharp flash there: the Mexican cavalry drawing their sabres.[17]

Doniphan and his principal officers now galloped ahead, and at a distance of two or three miles reconnoitred most carefully with glasses the Mexican position. It looked impregnable; and when the command was about a mile and a half distant from it, the Colonel—first ordering his cavalry screen to keep on advancing—turned the main body sharply to the right, intending to cross the Arroyo Seco higher up, and gain the plateau there. It was a brilliant scheme but perilous. Good troops, not encumbered with artillery or baggage, might undertake such a manoeuvre even in the face of the enemy, but with four hundred wagons, most of them extremely heavy, it seemed impossible for untrained volunteers to cross the Arroyo, and mount the high bank of the plateau; yet not only was it a chief part of the soldiers’ business to protect the wagons, but it looked as if the wagons might soon be needed to protect the soldiers. Hence this desperate attempt had to be made. Heredia observed it immediately; and, concluding that the Americans were aiming, as a last hope, to avoid his works and follow the Torreón route, he instructed García Conde, the chief cavalry officer, to hold them in check until the artillery and infantry could arrive and finish them.[17]

But these Americans were no ordinary men; and while they had little fear of death, it was their belief that defeat would mean dungeons and torture. After marching for some distance with all possible speed up the Arroyo road, they stopped at the point selected. Instantly shovels, pickaxes, crowbars and ropes were out of the supply wagon, and for a few moments the sand flew as if electrified. Then the drivers yelled like Apaches; the mules were stimulated by every art known to drivers; and the swaying wagons headed for the ravine. At the brink many of the frightened animals, twisting their necks back till they almost broke, stopped short; but the men pushed them along, and down they all plunged, floundering, biting and kicking. Across the deep, sandy bottom they were driven or dragged amid shouts, curses and “hell let loose,” as a soldier put it; and then came the real struggle—the opposite ascent, forty or fifty feet high. Wild with excitement, pain and fright, the animals exerted every nerve, scrambling, jumping, rearing and panting; the teamsters yelled and flogged; and the soldiers tugged and lifted at the wheels, or pulled with hundreds of ropes. In a few minutes, as it seemed, the incredible was done, and the command, forming on the plateau as before, advanced. Already the Mexican horse were dashing on, brandishing their lances in the sun, fluttering their bright pennons, and waving a black flag decorated with a skull and crossbones; but, as Doniphan did not appear to be making for El Torréon, they concluded to halt, and let the infantry and artillery overtake them.[17]

It was now a little before three o’clock, and when enough ground had been gained so that the traders and teamsters could make the caravan into a fort, Major Clark’s trumpeter sounded “Trot!” and Battery A emerged from the masking wagons. “Form battery, action front, load and fire at will!” rang out Weightman’s clear voice; and at a range of about half a mile solid shot, chain-shot and shells, perfectly aimed, saluted the lancers, who had never listened to such music before. Three rounds, and they broke. With great efforts they were rallied, but the fourth round sent them flying to the camp; and Ponce de Léon, the hero of El Brazito, who had led the advance, also led the flight. The infantry, now exposed to the American fire, caught the panic, and at the sound of the cannon-balls men crouched or lay down.[17]

An artillery duel followed. Most of the Mexican projectiles, falling short and bounding once or twice, lost enough velocity to become visible, and the Americans—laughing till the tears furrowed their dusty cheeks—quickly became expert in dodging them. After a time, however, the Mexicans discontinued their fire; and Doniphan, as the last of the wagons had come up, did the same, wishing to form again and advance. Heredia now reoccupied his works; but the original defensive attitude could but very imperfectly be resumed, and the former confidence was gone. The whole plan of the battle had been blown to pieces, it was seen. The splendid fortifications now meant very little; the boasted cavalry were demoralized; the prospect of plundering the wagons had vanished, and the Brazito rout became a fact once more. Heredia ordered two guns to occupy the fort on Sacramento Hill, and rake the Americans from that elevated point; and several other pieces went there without orders, abandoning the redoubts. A great portion of the infantry leaked away, and soon Heredia did the same.[17]

The Americans felt correspondingly elated; and, obliquing toward the right in order to avoid the principal mass of the works and approach the ford, they moved on toward Forts N and O, into which Trias, observing their approach, now threw the best of his troops—the regular infantry and a part of the Second Durango squadron. “Storm the fort, storm the fort!” shouted the Americans; and at the proper distance Weightman and the howitzer section were ordered to charge the work at N, supported by the companies of Reid, Parsons and Hudson.[16] This order failed to reach Parsons and Hudson, but Reid and others advanced all the same. Unfortunately a deep gully was soon encountered in front of the fort, and the assailants found themselves at a loss. With a few backers Major Owens, who seems to have desired to die, rushed across, emptied his pistols into the midst of the enemy, and fell. Still others dismounted and skirmished. The howitzers, galloping to the left, succeeded in turning the gully, and unlimbered within fifty yards of the enemy, while a part of Reid’s troopers, now supported by Hudson’s, did the same, and then charged at O. Entrance to the fort was gained.[17]

But the enemy there and in the adjacent breastworks, proved too strong, and the Americans, veering again to the left, passed along the front of the fortifications, drawing their fire and shooting with some effect, but discovering no place for a serious blow. The fall of Owens, who was supposed by the Mexicans to be our leader, and the failure of the attack upon the fort encouraged the enemy. Trias and García Conde managed to rally some lancers for a charge, and artillerymen with two guns prepared to follow them. Before such odds a few of our howitzer force gave way.[17]

The rest did not. A round of canister scattered the lancers, and then a large body of Americans, rushing in at a gallop, threw themselves from their horses. Parsons’ and Hudson’s men joined them, and all pressed up the slope of O together, firing at will. The Mexicans learned quickly not to show their heads. Raising their muskets above the parapets at arm’s length and blazing away without effect, they soon used up their ammunition. By this time the Americans, bravely aided by the howitzers, were near their goal. Rifles were dropped. A rush was made. “With a whoop and a yell and a plunge,” wrote a soldier, “we were over into their fort, man to man, grappling in a merciless fray, neither giving nor receiving quarter.” Six-shooters, knives and even stones were made to serve, and in a moment the fort was taken.[17]

Meantime Clark’s guns had repulsed a body of cavalry that were making for the wagons, and then, in coöperation with Parsons and the force of dismounted troopers, he silenced and captured the works north of Fort O, while other troops took N, went down into the valley, and occupied the fortifications near the river. It was now five o’clock, and the battle had been gained. Yet not quite. The guns on Sacramento Hill, where many of the Mexican infantry and cavalry had taken refuge, were annoying, even though aimed so high as to do no actual harm; and Clark turned some pieces in that direction. The range was 1225 yards; but the first shot dismounted a cannon, and, as a soldier remarked, every shell knew its place. Soon Weightman took the howitzers across the river. A part of the Americans flanked the redoubt on one side by scaling the mountain, and then a wild gallop up the road on the other side to its rear ended the fighting. Pursuit followed, but under the first beams of the moon Doniphan’s command re-assembled on the field of victory. Not a man had lost his life except Owens, and only five had been wounded. Of the Mexicans three hundred had been killed, it was thought, and an equal number wounded. Forty at least were captured, and also great numbers of horses, mules, sheep and cattle, and quantities of provisions and ammunition.[17]


Further resistance was out of the question, for the Mexican army scattered, and the Presidials and National Guards fled to their homes;[18] and the next day Chihuahua, a city of about 14,000 inhabitants, was peaceably occupied. Obviously, however, this triumph did not end the difficulties of the Americans. To remain in the enemy’s country with no prospect of reinforcement was perilous, yet the traders and their merchandise could not be left without protection, and the Mexicans were said to be in great force near Saltillo. Doniphan therefore undertook to make an arrangement with the state and city authorities that would free him from responsibility. But the negotiations failed, for while the officials did not refuse protection, they would not promise to remain neutral during the war, as Doniphan insisted; and Heredia proved no less obstinate.[19]

Doniphan then determined to retaliate and also appeal to their fears by marching for Durango, and by capturing on his way the town of El Parral, where Heredia and the state government had taken refuge. April 5, leaving about three hundred men to protect the merchants, he set out with the rest of his command, and in three days made fifty miles. Then he received notice that large Mexican forces were approaching, and at once retraced his steps. Concluding soon, however, that Doniphan had been hoaxed and no Mexicans were coming, the men grew impatient. Their term of service was to end on May 31; and as they had been poorly fed nearly all of the time, and for nine months had received no money from the government, they naturally felt dissatisfied.[19]

Doniphan seems to have renewed his negotiations, therefore, with the state authorities; but as large quantities of the merchandise had already been sold regularly or smuggled into circulation under the cover of night, he doubtless cared less about the matter than before. A Missouri trader named John Collins, who had undertaken with a party of thirteen fearless men to reach Wool and obtain instructions, returned on April 23 from his daring journey of more than a thousand miles, and in two sections the command set out for Saltillo a few days later. May 21, after a series of hardships and perils, a certain amount of lawlessness, and a little fighting with the Indians, they arrived near that point.[20] The next day Wool reviewed them. In honor of the occasion they tried to improve their appearance, but it still suggested a classic line, “The beggars have come to town.” Some were dressed like the Mexicans and some like the Comanches, and all were described by their commander as “ragged.”[21]

A few days later they were greeted by Taylor at Monterey; and finally, after passing down the Rio Grande and sailing to New Orleans, they regained Missouri, where they had for rewards a speech of congratulations from Senator Benton, the unstinted admiration of their fellow-citizens, a series of banquets and barbecues, and the consciousness of having aided certain American, Mexican and European traders to dispose of their wares. They had, however, done more than promote commerce. They had built a large stone into the edifice of American prestige in Mexico, and had gained for themselves a notable place in military history.[21]


Under Mexican rule California, the Golden West, was anything but golden. It was poor, shiftless and pitiful; unprotected, undeveloped, unenlightened, unconsidered; helpless and almost hopeless. Although the province extended from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountains, only a strip some fifty miles wide was occupied by white men, and but a small part of that fraction consisted of farms regularly owned. The famous missions, wrecked by the Mexican government, lay in ruins. In ten degrees of latitude there was but one considerable seaport, Monterey, a village of about one hundred small houses; and the only other sizable town, Los Angeles, contained some 1500 persons, with perhaps an equal number in places depending upon it. The total population in 1845 amounted probably to something like 10,000 whites, 5000 Indians in the stage of civilization represented by the breech-clout, and 10,000 other savages. The real inhabitants were the countless horses and cattle, which roamed for the most part at will. More than half bore the mark of a branding iron; but probably the greater number even of these rendered no service to humanity, and many had not even a technical owner.[4]


The Californians were genial, kindly, hospitable, faithful in their married life and gracefully polite; but in the view of many, if not the majority, courage and truthfulness were either follies or luxuries, and no element of practical efficiency entered into their composition. A man got up some time before noon. He would not work or even walk. He neither read nor thought. A monotonous diet of beef, beans, wine, brandy and chocolate, supplemented with cigarettes and a guitar, satisfied his appetite perfectly. What he demanded next was a horse. As an infant he had begun life with a ride to be baptized, and the saddle was his real home.[4]

Given a dashing steed with a long, flowing mane, an arching neck, a broad chest, full flanks, slender legs and the gentle but fiery eye that proved its Arabian descent, the Californian was fairly on the road to happiness; and when dressed up in his dark, glazed sombrero with a conical crown, wide brim and betasselled silver cord, his close blue jacket, flashy shawl (serape) and red sash—possibly fringed with gold—his loose trousers, decorated like his jacket with silver buttons and slashed below the knee to reveal snow-white drawers, his buckskin leggins and his mammoth spurs—as big as a small plate—he felt completely satisfied.[4]


He could lasso the foot of a running steer, ride one hundred and forty miles a day for a week at a time, or check a full gallop and turn round on a bullock’s hide; and anybody less polite, gaudy, dexterous and lazy he pitied. That a cow could be milked without the aid of a calf, he was unable to imagine; but he could ride five hundred miles to a family reunion, and dance two days and nights without stopping except for something to eat and drink. A glass window and a board floor were usually beyond his means; but he could afford to pay 24 per cent interest, and throw his borrowed money away on cards and horse-races. The women were counterparts to the men. They were affectionate, loyal, generous. An orphan had its choice of mothers. But, had you entered the open door of a California house, you would probably have found its mistress either smoking on the bed with two or three dirty children about her, or dressed up with an extravagance that made her lord’s game of monte seem economical.[4]


There was, however, a very different element in the population, composed of several nationalities but commonly named, and naming itself, “the foreigners.” Some French and Germans could be found among them; the British—almost all of them naturalized—were still more numerous; but at the end of 1845 about three out of four were Americans. In 1822 a Boston trading vessel had, so to speak, discovered California, and from that date the business of collecting hides and bartering for them such manufactured articles as the people needed or could be induced to buy, was almost monopolized by New Englanders.[1] This naturally led a few shrewd, enterprising Americans—among whom were Thomas O. Larkin of Monterey, Abel J. Stearns of Los Angeles and Jacob Leese of Sonoma—to establish themselves in this new country as traders. Runaway sailors from the ships, hunters and trappers from the mountains, and occasional adventurers from almost anywhere, gradually introduced themselves.[4]

By 1836 the foreigners had become an important, if not always highly esteemed, element. In the autumn of 1840 some two hundred emigrants are said to have gone there from the Platte country, and in May, 1841, we know that about one hundred men and thirty women and children set out in that direction from Independence, Missouri. Many who undertook to settle in Oregon decided to exchange that wilderness for the more hospitable region close at hand. By August, 1844, our people were described by Larkin as “flocking” to California; and Whittier sang,

“By many a lonely river, and gorge of fir and pine,
On many a wintry hill-top, their nightly camp-fires shine.”[4]


Probably by the end of 1845 there were about eight hundred American residents—men, women and children—in the province.[2] Quite a number pushed on to the shore of San Francisco Bay, but most of them lived in the Sacramento valley, because immigrants from the United States naturally came to that region first, and because the Mexicans were too much afraid of the savages to settle there; and as a sort of base they had the fortified trading post of New Helvetia,[3] situated about a hundred miles from the coast on the site of the present Sacramento City, where Captain John A. Sutter—a German naturalized in Switzerland—received the wayfarers with an open purse, an open countenance and an open, hazy head.[4]

Some of the Americans took the trouble to go through the process of acquiring citizenship, and so could become the legal owners of land; but far the greater number were mere squatters, or else hung about the ranches of other Americans, working a little, hunting or trapping more, but mainly waiting for something to turn up. They were in general a rough-looking set: the vicious, devil-may-care sailor, the gaunt, awkward, ragged immigrant, and the heavily bearded, leather-coated hunter with his long hair turbaned in a colored handkerchief; and while some had excellent brains and hearts of gold, the scale ran down to a very low point. Little work and less law was the motto of not a few. Some of the lowest were out-and-out for blood and plunder; some of the best had practically the same thought—regarding California as a new Canaan, out of which they were appointed by Providence to drive the new Hittites, Hivites and Jebusites; and probably almost all agreed in despising the inefficiency of the native, his passion for dress and dancing, his guitar, his bland smile and his dainty politeness.[4]

With such and so meagre a population, scattered from San Diego to Sacramento, an air-line distance of about four hundred and fifty miles, the outlook for progress appeared uncertain enough; and California was also hampered by a state of chronic misgovernment and rebellion. In 1836 the people, aided by a few Americans and other foreigners, took up the same battle-cry as Texas, and raised the same blue flag illumined with a single star. The Mexican troops were expelled; and J. B. Alvarado, M. G. Vallejo and José Castro, all of them natives, assumed the control of the province. Two years later Bustamante recognized their government; but in 1843 Santa Anna sent up General Micheltorena, with soldiers that were mostly convicts and officers that were mostly debauchees, to restore the national supremacy. Countenanced and protected by their commander these men, instead of repressing the savages, harassed the people with insults, outrages and murders. At length, in November, 1844, Alvarado and Castro took up the sword;[5] and the following February, after some almost bloodless fighting, the Mexicans were driven out.[9]

Once more the government abjectly accepted a revolutionary situation, recognizing as governor the senior member of the provincial assembly, Pio Pico, and as comandante general José Castro, who had appointed himself to that position; and meantime her destroying the missions and selling their property (1835–44) seemed to emphasize these hints that California was virtually to be thrown away. It has practically been abandoned, wrote the German traveller, Löwenstern, in 1843; and this fact was rendered still clearer by the proposal of May, 1846, that England should take military possession of the province, which Bankhead, the British minister, described as “an indirect offer of sale,” and by an explicit suggestion that Prussia occupy it. Mexico had substantially abdicated.[9]

In such a state of things the country could not advance. Indeed it was going backwards. The only source of revenue was the duties collected at Monterey, and this—amounting to $80,000 or $100,000 a year, and signifying the virtual confiscation of about one third of all the property in California—mostly disappeared in official pockets. No military force able to cope with the savages was maintained. In consequence of their incursions farms were being abandoned, and they even raided within the settlements. The laws were openly disregarded. There were practically no courts and no police, and each man had to defend his own person and property. No sort of regular postal facilities existed, and even communication with Mexico was rare and mostly by chance. The only carriage in the country had been one belonging to Micheltorena. There were no real schools, not a single newspaper, and of course hardly any books except in a very few hands.[9]

With gold in sight and actually seen, people did not look for it. In a region where the wild clover grew several feet high and a single grapevine would yield a barrel of juice, the government did nothing, and the citizens could do little, to promote the cultivation of the soil. With all the boundless coast of the Pacific waiting for horses, beef and lumber, droves of unbroken colts tossed their manes in a wilderness, beeves were slaughtered for their hides, and huge trees crashed to the ground amidst the stillness of an untenanted forest. Six-cent muslins cost fifty cents, and the coarsest of straw hats paid a duty of three dollars. If a man wanted a kettle mended, he looked for some one trained abroad; and even a child’s torn skirt could not be patched without first getting a hank of thread from Boston.[9]


Naturally the people felt dissatisfied, and their complaints reached far beyond the misbehaving soldiers. Every official professed intense loyalty in public, but that signified nothing. The people were determined to shake off Mexican authority. California will soon declare its independence, wrote the British minister at Mexico in 1841, while his French colleague, who was in close touch with the situation, believed it would merely be a question between England and the United States. California is almost ready to separate from the mother-country, concluded Sir George Simpson, governor-in-chief of the Hudson Bay Company, who was there a year later. As a rule the people are disaffected, it was directly reported in June, 1844. The principal men have decided, wrote Forbes, the British vice consul, in September, 1844, that progress under Mexican rule is impossible, and they will not have it. The Californians are unanimously determined to be rid of the Mexican military government, declared the British consul at Tepic, under whom Forbes acted, a few months later; and of course all Mexican rule was military. A separation is probably inevitable, concluded Lord Aberdeen, head of the British Foreign Office, at the end of the year. California “must change owners,” said a letter from that coast in July, 1845. “The people hardly care what Flag is exchanged for their own,” stated a competent American observer two months later, while a Californian was predicting that the Stars and Stripes would certainly go up there.[9]

“The situation of Upper California will cause its separation from Mexico before many years,” predicted Wilkes’s book in 1845. The people of southern California are agreed to cut loose from Mexico, wrote a British admiral. “Mexican rule had become intolerable,” concluded Walpole, a British officer in 1846. It had long been “only a shadow,” said a young American, afterwards famous as General William T. Sherman; but it was a shadow that blighted. Another Mexican expedition would not be tolerated, said Larkin; and in fact a commissioner from California so notified the government. To get on at all with the people, a Mexican had to become Californian in head and in heart, and even then he was less welcome than an Englishman or an American.[9]

Nor were such opinions merely expressed—they were made known to Mexico. Many warnings, both official and private, went from California, and the province maintained commissioners at the capital, who presented information regarding the wholly unsatisfactory conditions existing there. That part of the country has been “forgotten for more than twenty years,” wrote one of these commissioners to the war department in 1844; and the following year he said that it had been “injured by every one of our administrations.” Alarms were sounded publicly in such newspapers as the London Times and London Chronicle. Notices regarding the danger of American encroachment—particularly by the method of emigration, a declaration of independence and early annexation—were received over and over again from the Mexican minister at Washington, the Mexican consul at New Orleans, Pakenham, the British minister, and Bankhead, who succeeded him. This peril was notorious, declared General Mora y Villamil near the close of 1845; and the government itself recognized the gravity of the situation. In March of that year the minister of war and the minister of relations admitted publicly that California had been grossly misgoverned and was liable to slip away.[6] Yet the government did nothing, and confessed that nothing could be done.[9]

Virtually, we say again, it was abdication. Both morally and physically Mexico had thrown away and forever lost her control of the province. She had nothing left except the bare thread of legal proprietorship; and in certain cases legality is, according to enlightened modern ideas, nothing. It is our conviction that human welfare is the supreme test; and the welfare, not merely of California but of all the world, certainly required that so rich a portion of the earth should be developed and occupied. In our opinion a child, neglected and abused by drunken parents who are always fighting each other, has good grounds for leaving home, though not legally independent. We believe in the right of revolution, which means that when a country misgoverns persistently a considerable part of the population, it forfeits all claims to domineer over them; and California, though her weakness led officials to practice a lip service that deceived nobody, had more than once rebelled, had made good her cause, and entertained no thought of accepting Mexican rule again.[9]

She was, therefore, being in every way unable to establish herself as an independent nation and gain the recognition of the world as such, quite adrift. The province is now “at the mercy of whoever may choose to take possession of it,” wrote the nearest British consul in 1845. Californians, Mexicans, Britons, French and Americans, who were qualified to judge, agreed on that. She was the homeless child, whom any kind, intelligent and well-to-do person may, and some kind, intelligent and well-to-do person should, provide for. Any one of the nations then leading the march of civilization, if disposed to perform a parent’s duty toward California, could rightfully have taken charge of her, and some one of them was under obligation to do so.[7] Of those nations the United States was more favorably situated than any other to fulfil the trust,[8] and she felt ready to accept it.[9]


Indeed our people were profoundly interested in the matter. As early as 1839 a Congressional report on Oregon said enough about the territory farther south to excite attention; and Forbes’s history of California, published the same year, did much to fix it and create the fear that European powers might encroach there. The seizure of American residents in 1840, the appearance of Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast,” and the incidents connected with Jones’s landing at Monterey deepened these impressions. By 1842 glowing letters from American settlers began to appear in our newspapers, and the suspected purposes of England received ample notice. Gold existed there, it was reported; the country was attractive, salubrious and rich; the port of San Francisco had a value that words could not represent, and the British already held a mortgage on the country. Our Pacific whaling fleet was said by the New Bedford member of Congress to include before the end of 1844 six hundred and fifty vessels, which had cost twenty millions and employed 17,000 men; and not only was this harbor most important, since the bar at the Columbia River hampered navigation, but American control was needed there, for the uncertain and vexatious Mexican regulations caused great annoyance. Besides, it was pointed out, we required a fortified port on that coast, else in case of war with England our whalers would be unable to avoid capture.[10]

All these ideas took root, and in the spring of 1845 the press from New York to St. Louis and New Orleans broke into quite a furore about California. Its value became a popular subject; the known fact that English holders of Mexican bonds had their eyes upon it was recalled; the designs of the British government seemed to be clear; and annexation was not only urged, but represented as near at hand. So keen became the fear that England would forestall us, that in January, 1846, the ease with which she could acquire California was dwelt upon in our national Senate, while in the House the enormous advantages of our holding the territory attracted attention.[10]

Our government was even in advance of the people. In 1835 an attempt was made to purchase the Bay of San Francisco. The next year Ellis, who represented the United States at Mexico, expressed the opinion that northern California would be of “immense importance” to us. Four years later a personal letter to President Van Buren pointed out that England, as a great creditor of Mexico, was likely to appropriate the territory, and steps were taken to obtain information regarding it for the use of Congress and the Cabinet. Daniel Webster felt strongly by this time that we should acquire it. In 1842, while he was secretary of state, our minister at Mexico not only expatiated on the value of the territory, but reported that England had taken steps to anticipate us; and the minister was instructed to ascertain whether an offer from this country would be acceptable. Our strained relations with Mexico and especially Jones’s occupation of Monterey made it unwise to follow up the matter that year; but after an interval, Tyler and Webster planned an arrangement which—had it been carried through—would have given us the port of San Francisco.[11]

The expansive course of Great Britain, remarks dropped by English writers, repeated warnings from our diplomatic and consular agents at Mexico, and the consensus of opinion in California, Mexico, France and the United States were quite enough to warrant suspicions of England, and the circumstances connected with the visit of Duflot de Mofras, attaché of the French legation at Mexico, to California, and the publication of his book by order of the king, hinted of danger from another quarter; but neither country took any positive action, and our government—doubtless noting that a tide of emigration to the far west had begun—refrained from every move that could excite the jealousy of Mexico or Europe. Early in 1843 Larkin, who was deficient in education but not in shrewdness, activity or patriotism, was appointed consul at Monterey; but the value of American commerce fully justified the step. During 1845 he did not receive one letter from the state department, and for a long time no American war vessel could be seen on the coast.[11]


Early in 1845, owing to the annexation of Texas, a breach with Mexico had seemed probable, and the danger that she would somehow dispose of California in order to place it beyond our reach had been deemed acute. But our government did not intend to have war, the tide of emigration to that quarter was rising, and Polk warned off European interference by re-asserting the “Monroe Doctrine.” On July 10, 1845, however, Larkin wrote that England was maintaining there a vice consul without consular business, and that, according to the universal belief in his vicinity, she was promoting a new Mexican expedition to California; and at about the same time as this letter, news of an extensive British plan to colonize in that province arrived from London.[11]

The question was then maturely considered at Washington. Apparently the American emigrants, unless checked, were sure to bring California into the Union. That was natural and logical; such a peaceful invasion had given us Texas; and in the opinion of the best qualified observers it seemed likely to be efficacious again. Larkin, the Californians, the British vice consul, the Mexican consul at New Orleans, the Mexican minister at Washington, and Mexican, British, French and American journals agreed on this. Larkin believed the matter would be settled in that way by 1848. “Without striking a blow and without incurring any expense,” wrote Vice Consul Forbes, the United States will obtain a secure foothold in the coveted region. The Americans do not need to fight for California, said Le Constitutionnel of Paris. “No more convenient mode of conquest was ever devised,” remarked the Baltimore American. To suppose that Polk and the Cabinet failed to see what was not only obvious but often pointed out, would be absurd. The condition and political feeling of California, which were quite well known through Larkin and others, fully warranted a procedure so amicable and so beneficial; and it only remained to guard against European interference, which our government now considered a real danger.[11]

On October 17, 1845, therefore, confidential instructions, based upon the fact that British and French consuls having no commercial business were maintained in California, were issued to Larkin, who was now to be confidential agent as well as consul. “The interests of our commerce and our whale fisheries in the Pacific Ocean demand,” he was informed, “that you should exert the greatest vigilance in discovering and defeating any attempt, which may be made by foreign governments to acquire a control over that country,” Against such an attempt the United States would “vigourously interpose”; but “should California assert and maintain her independence, we shall render her all the kind offices in our power”; and “whilst the President will make no effort and use no influence to induce California to become one of the free and independent states of this Union, yet if the people should desire to unite their destiny with ours, they would be received as brethren, whenever this can be done without affording Mexico just cause of complaint. Their true policy for the present in regard to this question, is to let events take their course, unless an attempt should be made to transfer them without their consent either to Great Britain or France.” On the same day instructions to ascertain the designs of those powers were issued to Commodore Sloat, commanding the Pacific squadron, and Lieutenant Gillespie of the Marine Corps was ordered to California as a co-agent with Larkin.[11]

All this has been called an intrigue; but, if that word is in fairness applicable, the “intrigue” was only designed, so far as it concerned Mexico and California, to rescue with a gentle hand the neglected, abused and lost; so far as it concerned England and France, to ward off an interposition which, if attempted, would probably have led to war; and, so far as it concerned the United States, to safeguard and advance most important national interests while promoting the general good of the world. Such “intrigues” are among the most legitimate achievements of true statecraft.[11]

This leads us to the more serious charge, that Polk brought upon two nations the curse of war and endangered the peace of the world, for the purpose of tearing California from the parent stem; and we find ourselves here at the best point of view from which to consider it. Not only, then, have we no sound evidence in support of the charge; not only was he personally unfitted to play the rôle of conqueror; not only did he exert himself to restore friendly relations with Mexico; not only did he virtually forbid Slidell to work for the sale of California, if so doing would militate against this endeavor; not only did his taking certain other important steps and refraining from still others imply the same intentions; but it appears that he looked forward to obtaining the territory without war, should he be unable to purchase it, by a method peculiarly suited to his characteristics and to those of Buchanan. We therefore do not need to consider one of our Presidents a wretch unhung, as many Americans have seemed eager to do, and should finally dismiss the charge.[12]


While the instructions to Larkin were on their way, the year 1846 came in, and to California it brought fresh perplexities. The desire to escape from what a citizen described as “a positive state of anarchy” was more pronounced than ever. One plan contemplated a French protectorate; but the men of that nationality were few, their government did nothing, and their consul exerted himself only to acquire unpopularity. A much greater number favored American control. Probably all of the foreigners thought such a régime preferable to the existing state of things. Even the British vice consul admitted that his personal judgment pointed in that direction. Some of the Californians also leaned our way. They recognized the merits of our institutions and the growth of our power. The good order maintained by Commodore Jones’s forces had left a favorable impression, and so had the conduct of our naval officers who went ashore from time to time.[16]

But the participation of Americans in the California revolts had excited suspicion and fear. Our acquisition of Texas, as described by Mexicans writers, had been resented, and probably it was known that Mexicans residing there had fared none too well. American hunters—or men believed to be such—had sometimes helped themselves to property. In consequence very likely of misdeeds committed by our sailors the Americans were generally disliked at Monterey. The constantly increasing immigration despite Mexican laws appeared intrusive and menacing. All the faults of our people, who were better known than other foreigners, came to be understood. Their brusque, overbearing, strenuous ways impressed the polite, indolent Californians as almost ferocious. Indeed a natural antipathy—social, religious and racial—made harmony well-nigh impossible. Finally, doubts were felt whether we should be able to offer immediate and effective protection against Mexico and the Indians, and whether our flag would not go down after a time, as when Jones had raised it, leaving our friends to settle with the mother-country as best they could.[16]

The British, on the other hand, while in every way as free and as responsible as the Americans, were comparatively exempt from such objections; their government had a strong fleet in the Pacific; and hence, as was natural, most of the substantial citizens—especially in the south—desired the shelter of her flag. But Forbes could not meet their views. Warned not to meddle, save to hinder any other nation from establishing a protectorate, he could make no promises and give no encouragement. He conveyed to the government of California the declaration of England that she would feel greatly displeased to have the province pass under the control of any other power, but his only advice was to elude American rule by declaring unqualified independence; and this plan, as all thoughtful men understood, could not be carried out.[16]

Governor Pico, a fat, swarthy, good-natured farmer of tolerably good sense but little ability, and educated only about enough to write his name, was the chief of the British party, and wanted no Americans in the country. Vallejo—who was now inactive but had great influence—favored the Americans, for he believed that we held the winning cards, and foresaw, like many other landowners, that American rule would enhance the value of real estate. Castro, a man of quick but not profound intelligence and more ambitious for power and fame than for wealth, probably desired independence with himself as the autocrat; but he knew the time had not arrived, and felt that his grip on the customhouse must not be loosened. For the present, therefore, while he showed much amiability toward the Americans and occasionally masked his real views behind cordiality toward France, he posed at Mexico as an ardent patriot. In order to save his responsibility, whatever might happen, and perhaps fortify his position, he urged the need of preparing for war against the United States, and called for plenty of money and a few soldiers—not more than he could be sure of handling. At the same time, holding that Pico was only an acting governor, he recommended that during the crisis, at least, the civil authority should be united with the military. In March he invited a number of leading citizens to discuss the situation with him,[13] but no agreement on a line of action could be reached.[16]

Forbes congratulated himself that no American of commanding influence, familiar with the language, customs and prejudices of the people, resided in California; but Larkin seems to have been on good terms with all the officials at least. His firm chin, ample brow and correct side-whiskers inspired respect, while his notable energy, hospitality and public spirit gained him esteem; and when Gillespie, after crossing Mexico to Mazatlán in the guise of a mercantile agent and then sailing perforce to the Hawaiian Islands,[14] arrived at Monterey on April 17, and repeated to him from memory Buchanan’s instructions of precisely six months before, which it had not been thought safe to bring in writing, he promptly bestirred himself. The main points of his instructions were transmitted in confidence to friends at other towns; here and there an official had an opportunity to see a good argument, written out in Spanish, for American rule; and Castro was assured that he and his friends might derive personal advantages from such a change.[16]


As if all these currents and cross-currents did not produce commotion enough, civil war now loomed up. Both Los Angeles and Monterey desired to be the capital and possess the customhouse. Herrera had assigned two thirds of the revenue to Pico and one third to Castro; but Paredes reversed this arrangement, and Castro improved still further upon it by taking the whole. In April the comandante general and his officers repudiated Herrera, on whom Pico’s authority depended, came out for Paredes, and resolved to propose, on the ground of Mexico’s threatening relations with the United States, that the governor should place himself in Castro’s power by coming to Monterey—the latter, in case of a refusal, to act according to his discretion.[16]

Pico, who doubtless knew as well as others, that Castro was aiming to upset him, appealed to the people and summoned a general convention, which was to meet at Santa Barbara on June 15, and avert the “external and internal disasters” that were threatening California. The promoters of the scheme intended to audit Castro’s use of the public funds, declare for independence, and invite foreign protection—preferably that of England. Castro denounced it as treasonable, defeated it by preventing the northern delegates from going to Santa Barbara,[15] and proclaimed martial law; and about the middle of June Pico advanced against him with all the forces he could raise. It seemed as if a crash would have to come; and a crash did come.[16]


In December, 1845, Brevet Captain John C. Frémont of the United States army, who was engaged with a party of about fifty or sixty men—necessarily armed but not soldiers—in looking for a satisfactory road to the Pacific, reached New Helvetia, and at the end of January he presented himself at Monterey to obtain funds and supplies, and ask for permission to recruit his followers and horses in California. Castro gave this permission; but unfortunately one of the two men either misunderstood or violated the terms of the agreement, and when the surveying party was discovered early in March near Monterey, Castro denounced Frémont as having invaded Mexican territory and aiming to excite a revolt.[1]

It was an admirable opportunity to figure at home and at Mexico as a dauntless patriot, and the comandante general made the most of it. His narrow but high forehead, framed with curling black hair, seemed to expand, and his brilliant black eyes darted fire, as he galloped about the countryside rallying militia. Frémont placed himself in a strong position, built some fortifications, raised the American flag and announced that he would perish fighting; but after cannon were seen in the distance he retired under cover of darkness, and slowly proceeded toward Oregon. Castro then put out a bombastic proclamation, of course, declaring that he had driven the American intruder away.[1]


Far to the north Frémont was overtaken early in May by Gillespie, and went back to the Sacramento.[17.2] On June 6 he decided to act. At his instance Americans captured a drove of horses that Castro had sent for. Some days later a sizable company took Sonoma, a military post north of San Francisco Bay, seized the cannon, arms and munitions, appropriated horses, cattle and miscellaneous property, carried away Vallejo and other leading citizens as prisoners, and raised a home-made flag decorated with a particularly home-made semblance of a bear. Some hostilities then occurred; some blood was shed; and early in July the tragi-comedy reached its climax in a declaration of independence, which probably not one Californian acclaimed.[6]

What could have precipitated such an astounding performance? Clearly no directions from our government.[3] A policy calculated, not to outrage and affright, but on the other hand to conciliate and win the people, had been enjoined upon Sloat, Larkin and Gillespie; and under Buchanan’s order Gillespie had acquainted Frémont with Larkin’s instructions. But Frémont, like the others, was to counteract foreign designs, and knowing—for Larkin was aware of the fact on April 17 and hence Gillespie knew it—that Slidell had been rejected, he said and presumably believed, that war had by this time begun; and he doubtless feared that England, supposably in collusion with Mexico, would try to occupy California before the United States could act there. Forbes, on behalf of the British, could see that a declaration of independence would keep the Americans out. Hence possibly Frémont argued that such a step would help to do as much for the British; and evidently a flag put up by himself could be lowered any day.[6]

Besides, as we learn from the President, Gillespie had secret instructions; and these, while not contradicting the others, very possibly stated that Polk was determined to have a complete settlement with Mexico, and in case of war to acquire California, for such was soon his policy; and presumably they ordered that Frémont should hover about, and be ready to coöperate at the proper time. These circumstances, taken together, presented to his roving imagination a brilliant vista of achievements and glory; and, as he said, he “resolved to move forward on the opportunity.”[4] Moreover many of the Americans in the Sacramento valley, believing that Castro intended to expel them shortly from the country, appealed to Frémont for aid;[5] and, finally, that officer probably burned to vindicate himself as a soldier from the imputation of having run away in March. Hence the determination to overthrow the government. Cannon, munitions and horses were logical necessities; and it seemed likely that Vallejo and his friends could be used to influence the public or possibly at the worst as hostages.[6]

The Californians, however, did not relish Frémont’s total disregard of their feelings and rights. They viewed the Bear uprising as an inexcusable outrage—predatory, murderous and cruel, and, since Frémont was an American army officer, as fully justifying every suspicion and fear entertained against our government. The exasperation was intense; the resentment bitter. Who could think his person or property safe under the law of the rifle enforced by robbers? they asked. To make the situation worse Frémont, under the pretence that he was getting ready for the long journey home, obtained munitions and supplies from the United States vessel of war Portsmouth, anchored at San Francisco; and this fact became publicly known. Larkin was kept entirely in the dark, but probably not one Californian thought so. In short, the plan of the government was completely upset. Moreover Frémont’s operations tended to defeat his own aim also, for they enabled Pico to solicit British protection on a definite and substantial ground.[6]

These events, however, were soon eclipsed. June 24, 1845, instructions for his guidance, in view of our strained relations with Mexico, had been issued to Commodore Sloat of the Pacific squadron. He was told that he should be “assiduously careful to avoid any act, which could be construed as an act of aggression”; yet, should he ascertain “with certainty”—“beyond a doubt”—that Mexico had “declared war,” he was to occupy San Francisco and occupy or blockade such other ports as he could. In consequence of this order Sloat, so he reported in November, proceeded to Mazatlán as the likeliest place to receive information;[7] and on May 17 he learned from United States Consul Parrott of Mazatlán, then at Guadalajara, of Thornton’s defeat. Upon this he decided to execute his orders immediately; but on considering the June instructions again, he thought action was not warranted.[8] May 31 came news of Palo Alto and the Resaca, and on June 5 confirmation of the news. That hostilities had begun he felt no doubt; but, “sicklied o’er” with something that resembled thought “as the mist resembles rain,” and with an anxiety about his personal fortunes that obscured national interests, his resolution still wavered. On the seventh of June, however, he learned from Surgeon Wood, recently of the squadron but now on his way home with Parrott via Mexico City, that the Mexican government admitted the battles had occurred, and learned also that an American fleet was blockading Vera Cruz. The next day he sailed; and on July 2 he was in Monterey harbor,[9] fourteen hundred miles to the northwest, where for some strange reason he made the usual call on the authorities.[15]

Larkin, with whom the Commodore had been instructed to confer, soon hastened aboard, and opened Sloat’s astonished eyes to the situation. They agreed—for their instructions agreed—that kindness toward the people was to characterize all action; but Larkin, who did not believe war had begun, wanted action postponed, hoping that American rule would be invited, or at least welcomed, by the Californians,[10] while Sloat—though doubtless he now learned of the government’s plan to acquire the province through immigration and a period of independence—remembered that he was under orders to occupy or blockade the ports without unnecessary delay, and perceived that the state of things called upon him to take immediate possession of the interior also, regarding which no instructions had been given him.[11] News that an American officer, to whom another officer had recently been sent from Washington, was apparently conducting hostilities at a distance from the sea appeared like a clue to the maze;[12] and, finally, after several days of anxious and wavering deliberation, the idea that Sir George Seymour, admiral of the British Pacific fleet, who had seemed to be watching his movements,[13] might appear at any hour and raise the British flag, drove him into action.[15]

July 7, as the sun rose above the mountains on the east, Monterey in its amphitheatre of pine-clad hills, with trim-looking white and balconied houses dotted along its two parallel streets among the trees and along the waters of the broad cove, which lay rippling at its very feet, presented a very attractive appearance, but certainly was insignificant enough. Not so, however, what occurred there. Old Captain Silva, the commandant, when invited at half-past seven to give up the town, replied that he and the troops had left the place, and there was nothing—not even a flag—to surrender; and at about half-past ten Captain Mervine with some two hundred and fifty sailors and marines landed from boats.[15]


Marching to the little customhouse Mervine read a proclamation drawn by Sloat and Larkin. The United States and Mexico being now at war, I take possession of upper California, said the Commodore in effect, but I do so as her best friend; the territory becomes a part of the United States, and the people shall be protected in all their present rights; they may stay here as neutrals, or depart; they may choose their own officials; products of the United States will come in duty-free, and other articles pay one quarter of the Mexican rate; civil security, religious freedom and material prosperity will be the fruits of American rule.[14] The Stars and Stripes were then run up on the customhouse flagstaff, our men—both afloat and ashore—cheered, the boom of twenty-one guns from the Savannah filled the amphitheatre of hills, and the great province of California had a future. By July 14 our colors were flying at every important point, and the Bear ensign had vanished. Stringent orders to prevent misbehavior and plundering were issued; measures were adopted to support the flag and repress the Indians; and Frémont was earnestly invited to coöperate.[15]

Both Sloat and Larkin endeavored to bring Castro in, but he would not come; and he retorted by demanding an explanation of the Sonoma affair. Doubtless that episode had thoroughly angered him, and he felt besides that a man in his official position would not be forgiven by the people, should he condone it. Alvarado and Pico, both of whom were cordially addressed, held entirely aloof; and before long the governor and the comandante general, forced into a reconciliation by Frémont’s operations, united their commands. But as the people of northern California generally, thankful to escape from the clutches of the Bear and pleased with Sloat’s proclamation, appeared willing to accept the change of flags, these two leaders withdrew to the vicinity of Los Angeles, where with about eight hundred men and ten cannon they supported—or pretended to support—the cause of Mexico; and the situation was further clarified by Admiral Seymour, who arrived at Monterey on July 16, and a week later, admitting that he could not interfere, sailed away.[15]

July 23 Sloat, who felt ill and probably felt worried, turned over the command on shore to Robert F. Stockton, who had arrived in the Congress about a week before,[16] and some days later, giving up the squadron also, left the coast. The new Commodore seems to have been a smart, but vain, selfish, lordly and rampant individual, thirsting for glory; and little glory could be seen in following after his predecessor under so mild a policy. Besides, another character was now on the stage. July 19 about one hundred and sixty horsemen entered Monterey from the north—men with gaunt bodies, frames of steel, shaggy beards, and an air of indomitable courage and endurance, armed with a long, heavy rifle on the shoulder and a big knife on the hip, and speaking a lingo sometimes hard to understand. These were the youngest and hardiest of the Sacramento men, reinforced with the pick of the immigrants just arrived. At their head rode a short, slender, active man in buckskin blouse, leggings and moccasins, a blue shirt open at the neck, and a cotton handkerchief in lieu of a hat, with plenty of hair, a small, bearded face, and therein eyes—“such eyes.” This was Frémont.[20]

He was a counsellor far more to Stockton’s taste than Larkin; and, in addition to believing the Californians dangerous and unreliable, and entertaining deep resentment on account of the March episode, he doubtless could see that California, reposing contentedly under the American flag, would make a poor background for his violent operations. The outcome was a ridiculous address,[17] which ranted at length against Castro, especially for his treatment of Frémont, explained Sloat’s action as due to this, declared that Stockton’s only object was to protect life and property, and announced that when Castro should be put down and the duties of government be assumed by responsible officials, he would remove the American forces.[20]

July 23, with a view to the conquest of the whole province, Frémont’s men were taken into the naval service as the California Battalion, with himself as major and Gillespie as captain; and they sailed promptly for San Diego to gain Castro’s rear. A few days later Stockton followed in the Congress, raised the American flag at Santa Barbara, and anchored at San Pedro, some eighteen miles from Los Angeles. Larkin, still most anxious to bring about a peaceful arrangement, came with him. Believing that war had not been and would not be declared, he urgently recommended through Stearns of Los Angeles that Pico and the legislature meet the dubious emergency, prevent the country from falling a prey to disorder, save the interests of all officials, and ensure lasting prosperity by declaring California independent under American protection; and Castro proposed that Stockton halt at San Pedro with a view to negotiations.[20]

Alvarado said later that a satisfactory arrangement could probably have been made, but the Commodore haughtily insisted that Castro should begin by accepting independence and the American flag.[18] To do this would have left him nothing to trade upon; and hence, apparently overestimating Stockton’s military strength, lacking money, and finding round him no popular enthusiasm or even genuine harmony, he retired hastily on August 10 with a handful of men toward Sonora, leaving behind him a cloud of eloquence;[19] and the governor also left the country.[20]


On their disappearance all military opposition vanished. Larkin with a couple of friends took Los Angeles on the twelfth of August; the Commodore with his marines and sailors, headed by a brass band, and Frémont with a part of his battalion arrived the next day; and on the seventeenth, when positive information that war had begun reached the town, Stockton issued another proclamation. California now belongs to the United States, he announced in effect, and is under military law; all who adhere to the new régime will be protected, but no others may remain in the country. Some of the Californian leaders were arrested and a number surrendered, but all of them were given their liberty on parole. Friends rallied of course to the winning side; the Commodore became attentive and kindly toward the people; and Larkin soon reported that matters were settling down.[20]

Stockton realized that under the law of nations and the law of humanity a conqueror had the right and the duty of softening military rule, and felt that pursuing such a course here would tend to confirm the victory. Already, with his assistance, the first schoolhouse and the first newspaper of California had made their appearance; steps were now taken to establish postal facilities; and this very proclamation announced, that officials elected by the people might govern according to the prevailing usages. In September regular municipal elections took place, and good results were obtained.[20]

The reign of justice began to dawn. Chaplain Colton, appointed alcalde of Monterey, gave general satisfaction. American officers recovered a large number of horses driven off by the Indians, and astonished the Californians by returning them to their owners. The Commodore, besides adjusting disputes in a manner that gratified the people, made and forwarded to Washington for approval what he called laws; announced that a legislative council would be created, and called himself governor. This office, however, it was not his intention to hold long. The fantastic idea of landing at Acapulco and moving upon the capital had taken possession of his mind. He therefore sent Frémont north to enlist men for him on the Sacramento, proposed to set out for Mexico in October, and promised to inaugurate that officer as governor on leaving California.[20]

But he did not leave so promptly. In arranging for the security of the country he divided it into three military districts, appointing Frémont commandant at the north and Gillespie at the south. Gillespie’s task was peculiarly important, because news and troops from Mexico would arrive first at Los Angeles, and because that section had the largest percentage of restless people, the smallest percentage of Americans, and the weakest pro-American sentiment. He seems to have been an elegant, precise man with a stiff, pointed beard and a temper of the same description; but at any rate he was a soldier, understood his responsibility, and knew what military government signified.[27]

Larkin urged that a respectable command should be given him, but Stockton had neither men nor funds for land service, and only about fifty of the disdainful and intolerant volunteers, perhaps including some of the detested Sonoma “brigands,” could be spared for Los Angeles. A garrison of that strength, far from support, was almost an insult and certainly a provocation to the people. Though told by Stockton to temper military law, Gillespie doubtless felt that his only safety lay in maintaining strict order; and if, unfamiliar with Californian character and ways, he extended his discipline too rigidly over the free and easy natives, as he seems to have done, the mistake was but natural. Stockton himself had given the cue, declaring in his proclamation of August 17 that men found in arms outside their houses were to be banished, ordering that all must be at home from ten o’clock at night until sunrise, and indulging in a general tone that has been thought supercilious. Here were causes enough of trouble; and behind them lay an inevitable clash of races, temperaments and customs, unavoidable friction resulting from a forcible change of flags, and a restlessness due to the ambition of would-be leaders.[27]


As the signs of disaffection began to show themselves, Gillespie naturally arrested suspicious persons, and punished those whom he deemed conspirators. This precipitated an outburst. In the night of September 22 some turbulent fellows made an attack on the American quarters. In a military way it was contemptible; but, as such affairs often do, it crystallized popular sentiment. Within a few days about four hundred Californians were in arms; and when the surrender of Lieutenant Wilson with some twenty-five men at the Chino farm to about one hundred and ten insurgents heightened confidence, the movement spread still more. Some of the malcontents were persons of standing, who felt that self-respect called upon them to break a lance against the invader, even though sure to be defeated; but the great majority appear to have been irresponsible characters ready for anything except work. Lieutenant Colonel Flores, the leader, and nearly all of his officers had violated their paroles, of course; but breaking an oath seemed to them a trivial matter, for they knew they could make another equally good on a moment’s notice.[21] Without fortifications, adequate equipment or supplies, Gillespie could see no hope of resisting such odds, and September 29 he capitulated on favorable terms.[22] The next day he proceeded to San Pedro with his men, and they soon embarked there on a merchant ship, the Vandalia.[27]

About the first of October Stockton, then at San Francisco, learned of the insurrection. By his order Mervine sailed promptly for San Pedro in the Savannah, and on October 7 with sailors, marines and Gillespie’s command—all on foot—the captain marched for Los Angeles. Stockton, however, had provided him with no artillery, while the Californians were supported by a small field piece. When the Americans charged, this gun was hurried beyond their reach by mounted men with lariats; but as soon as the Americans halted from exhaustion, it was drawn back and set at work. The case appeared hopeless, and after losing about a dozen men, killed or wounded, Mervine found it necessary to retreat. Naturally the Californians felt immensely encouraged, and large numbers gathered on the hills behind San Pedro.[27]

Late in October Stockton, after lingering a while at San Francisco to attend a glorification meeting and stopping at Monterey to land ordnance and men for the defence of that point, arrived at San Pedro and undertook to accomplish something; but the attempt proved a failure, and he sailed for San Diego, at that day a small group of adobe houses about four miles northeast of the present city.[23] Insurgents were now besieging the place, and neither provisions nor horses could be obtained in the vicinity; but Stockton procured both from lower California, and began to make ready for land operations.[27]

By this time Flores had been elected provisional governor and comandante general by the legislature, and martial law had been declared; but the insurgent leader found himself without adequate resources. Foreigners aided him with a little money at an exorbitant rate of interest, but on October 24 he stated that only some forty rounds of cannon ammunition remained, and a thousand for the muskets of his four hundred men. Campaigning without supplies or funds and driving stock to the interior were found extremely irksome by the indolent Californians; a general discouragement prevailed; and the legislature could not obtain a quorum. Soon disaffection showed itself; and being a Mexican, Flores dared not adopt strong measures. Finally, in the night of December 3 he was imprisoned by malcontents; and although the legislature and people soon extinguished the revolt, much confusion grew out of it. Moreover, Stockton’s troops outnumbered his; other Americans were gathering in northern California, he knew; and thousands of immigrants were expected at New Helvetia, he was informed.[27]


None of these forces, however, gave him the first blow. May 26 Polk had proposed an overland expedition to California, and a week later it was decided upon. Accordingly Kearny was ordered to advance after securing New Mexico, should the season permit; and on September 25, as we have seen, he left Santa Fe for the coast. Soon meeting Stockton’s bearer of despatches, he learned that California had been occupied, sent back all but about one hundred of his dragoons, and with these and a pair of mountain howitzers marched on. At the beginning of December he reached Warner’s ranch (Agua Caliente), the frontier settlement of California, and, having learned of the insurrection, wrote on to Stockton for aid and information. Gillespie was therefore sent forward with a brass 4-pounder and thirty-eight men, met him December 5, and told him among other news that a party of insurgents lay at San Pascual, about eight miles distant on the road to San Diego. Probably the force numbered rather less than one hundred. A capable man, however, Andrés Pico, brother of the ex-governor, commanded them.[24]

Fight at San Pascual

Kearny sent off a scouting party, which not only saw but was seen, and reported to him at two o’clock the next morning. An attack upon the Californians was highly inadvisable. The Americans and the pack-mules that many of them rode were almost worn out. Some horses recently bought or captured were accustomed to the terrible Mexican bits, and could not be controlled by their new riders. Kearny had had no experience in fighting lancers or California horsemen, and did not know how many were before him. It was clear that the enemy were aware of his presence. The dampness of the night made firearms unreliable, and the men were so chilled they could not use them quickly. Finally, it would not have been difficult to hold the insurgents off with his three cannon, and march safely in a compact body to San Diego, now only about forty miles distant. Kearny decided, however, to attack before daybreak, and advanced.[24]

Pico had not desired nor expected a battle; but, perceiving what kind of troops were in his front, he did not flinch. Kearny’s advance guard fared very badly, and when his main body came into action, the enemy adopted the familiar ruse of a pretended flight. In pursuing, the Americans became separated according to the speed of their mounts; and then Pico turned furiously upon them. The net result was that Kearny, Gillespie and thirteen other Americans received ugly wounds, and eighteen were killed, while the enemy’s loss appears to have been trifling. After ten or fifteen minutes, however, the Californians drew off, expecting guns and large reinforcements, which Flores had promised. As one consequence of the revolt against his authority, these did not arrive. Hence Pico, who had not been prepared for either the fight or the revolt, made no serious efforts to follow up his advantage; and Kearny, though he lost his cattle, had to live on mule meat, and was burdened with his wounded, succeeded, with additional aid sent him by Stockton, in reaching San Diego on December 12.[24]

Stockton’s preparations to do something were then resumed. Sailors felt strongly averse to shore duty, but he overcame their repugnance. The ships furnished them pikes, carbines and pistols, and shoes were manufactured out of canvas; and so with Kearny’s dragoons, Gillespie’s detachment, some friendly Californians and about four hundred sailors and marines, drilled somewhat for their new work, the Commodore had a respectable force.[25] It was not, however, his intention to attack the main body of the insurgents, for he felt afraid the enemy would then get behind him. His plan was to move up the coast and make a diversion, expecting Frémont and his riflemen to take the bull by the horns; but Kearny urged him to march for Los Angeles, about one hundred and forty miles distant, and at length on December 29, after having brushed away the Californians operating against San Diego, he set out, greatly embarrassed by having to drag miserable ox-carts through the deep sand. Kearny declined the chief command, but finally asked for and was given the post of lieutenant or executive officer under Stockton.[27]

Flores now found himself in a desperate situation. Naturally officers who knew they had violated their paroles dreaded to give up; but most of his troops felt half-hearted, people hid to avoid serving, and some of the Indians were in arms against him. In order to gain time for a blow at Frémont, he tried to inveigle Stockton into a truce, holding out as a reason that Mexico and the United States had probably adjusted their differences; but the Commodore refused to treat with an officer guilty of breaking his parole. Then, having some four hundred and fifty badly armed men, though not enough powder for a long fight, he set an ambuscade where he supposed the Americans would pass; but Stockton avoided it by turning to the right, and made for the Bartolo ford of the San Gabriel River, twelve miles from Los Angeles, where the stream was only knee-deep. The Californians followed suit, and occupied an eminence fifty feet high, parallel to the stream and about six hundred yards beyond it.[27]

As the Americans crossed—the first of them deploying and waiting behind the bank, here breast-high and masked with trees—Flores greeted them from the top of the hill with four small guns; but his inferior powder and sometimes ill-fitting balls proved ineffective.[26] When the Americans were mostly across the river and formed in a square, he undertook to charge. But the movement seems to have been rather faint-hearted or badly managed; his left was demoralized by hearing one of the aides—who seems to have been seized with a panic—shout “Halt!” as it was advancing; and his right accomplished nothing. Stockton then cannonaded the hill, particularly with his two 9-pounders, for about forty minutes, while most of his troops lay down; and finally he charged. Crying “New Orleans!” in memory of Jackson’s great victory, gained on the same day of the year, January 8, the men rushed on, and easily took possession of the ground. The Californians made a fruitless attack on their rear, and then most of them dispersed.[27]


The next morning Stockton, leaving the road in order to avoid the danger of ambuscades, pushed slowly on toward Los Angeles; and after a time some three hundred Californians, whom Flores had managed to rally, placed themselves upon his line of march. An ineffective cannonade from a ravine used up the rest of their ammunition, while the Americans replied with equally meagre results. As a last effort, Flores now ordered a charge, giving the signal for it—as he himself reported—by sending forward a white flag.[27]

Fight near Los Angeles

The attack was made with considerable spirit but no success at all on both of the American flanks, and then Flores took post at a point on the road to Mexico, where Pasadena now stands. He admitted losing only five killed and twenty-two wounded during the two days, but probably these figures needed to be multiplied by three; while Stockton lost one killed and fourteen wounded. That night the Americans encamped near Los Angeles; and the next day, January 10, after a deputation had come to arrange matters, they took possession of the town—annoyed a little by drunken bullies—and replaced Gillespie’s flag on the government house. Most of the California troops now scattered, and those who remained were insubordinate. Flores could see there was no hope; and the following night, leaving to Andrés Pico the chief command and probably about one hundred men, he set out hastily with a few others for Sonora.[27]


Up to this time nothing had been heard of Frémont’s operations during almost three months. Probably that officer did not wish to take part in the hostilities. Expecting to be governor and seeing before him a prospect of brilliant opportunities, he desired to conciliate the people. Stockton, on learning of the revolt in the south, had ordered him back from the Sacramento, and about October 12 he sailed for Santa Barbara with instructions to march from that place to Los Angeles. Learning on the way, however, that Mervine had been defeated, and that all the horses and cattle had been driven away from Santa Barbara by insurgents, he returned on his own responsibility to the Sacramento, and began to collect not only horses but men.[28] By the end of November he found at his back about four hundred mounted riflemen and at least three guns, the strongest force in California.[32]

The Savannah had been sent north expressly to assist him;[29] but, with little reference to his army commission or his naval obligations, he now proceeded slowly by land to San Luis Obispo, where he fortunately captured Jesús Pico, a cousin of Andrés; and after his prisoner had been sentenced to death for breaking parole, he assumed the authority of pardoning him. Then, for no discoverable reason unless to spare about sixty insurgents, whom he could have scattered in ten minutes, he led his command through the mountains, where it suffered terribly in the stormy weather. At Santa Barbara he took a week for repose; and finally, with a nicety of calculation or felicity of luck that excites wonder, he arrived near the scene of action—three months after receiving orders to go there—precisely as the Americans were entering Los Angeles.[30] Then with his devotee, Jesús Pico, he betook himself to the camp of Andrés, and finally, although he knew that American forces had beaten the Californians and entered Los Angeles, and understood that a superior officer was near, he arranged with the insurgents a capitulation, which Stockton had refused to grant.[32]

This capitulation, the “treaty” of Cahuenga, conceded substantially all the insurgents could have asked. They promised to give up the public arms, go home, obey the laws of the United States, and help restore tranquillity; but on the other hand they and the rest of the Californians were to be protected in person and property, to enjoy the same rights as Americans, to be excused from serving under arms or taking an oath of allegiance during the war, and to leave the country freely should they wish to do so.[31] Naturally such a settlement was displeasing to Stockton, but he felt extremely anxious to resume his proper work as a naval officer, and of course was glad to have this difficult business off his hands; so after hesitating for a time he confirmed the pact.[32]

It was a singular dénouement. Men defeated, without a hope left, and in danger of execution for breaking parole, virtually dictated terms to the conquerors. A brevet captain, just blossoming into a lieutenant colonel, eclipsed a commodore and a brigadier general; and the arch-ruffian of the Bear cult reappeared as a fairy godmother to save and bless the Californians, who detested him. But the ending was after all a happy one. The Americans felt a new respect for the people, and they were able to see that, although destitute of gunpowder, the insurgents, if driven to extremities, could have done much harm with lance, dagger and torch, and could have sown the seeds of perennial hate.[32]

On the other hand, while the Californians felt well pleased with their own audacity and valor, they not only realized that it was impossible to fight the United States, but were thoroughly disgusted with Flores, who took away hundreds of horses and mules belonging to his friends, and with Mexico, which in three and a half months had sent neither a man nor a peso to encourage and sustain them. Indeed, as their agent in Mexico frankly said, their political attitude had completely changed. Most of them intended to abide by the terms. They were disposed to look forward instead of back. And the curtain was already beginning to rise on the Golden West that we know.[32]

July, 1846—February, 1847

The operations described in the preceding chapters were all favorable to American arms, and they placed under our control a very large portion of the territory belonging to Mexico; but as they proceeded, it became evident that she had no thought of consenting to negotiate. Indeed Santa Anna’s course and the utterances of the press were unflinchingly warlike; and our consul at Mexico wrote, “Nothing but some very severe blow will ever bring them to their senses.” The policy and expectations of the American government were therefore palpably wrong. The programme of a short and a brisk war was a mistake and a failure. The nation found itself in a contest of unforeseen duration and extent.[4]

Heedless enthusiasm was consequently sobered, if not exactly chilled. By the end of September, 1846, Pakenham, the British minister at Washington, reported that a growing distaste for the war could be seen more clearly each day. Large expenses had to be faced, and heavy losses of men seemed inevitable. Many believed that neither troops nor money enough could be raised; many, besides deploring the loss of precious lives, complained that needed laborers had already been drawn away; and many others asked themselves whether the outlay would be really worth while. Taylor’s famous letter to Gaines expressed the opinion that even complete success would be of no advantage; and his idea of simply fixing and holding a boundary north of which there would be enough territory to pay all fair claims for indemnity, and throwing upon Mexico the responsibility for offensive operations naturally appealed to not a few. Moreover, he argued, no other sort of a peace could be made, since the enemy had no government sufficiently stable to treat with. Calhoun took up eagerly the defensive idea. Buchanan favored it; and Polk himself, dreading to alarm the country by demanding great numbers of men and fearful that the credit of the nation would not bear the strain of active warfare, did the same.[4]

On the other hand such a plan was clearly unsuited to the enterprising temper of the American people, and precisely what the Mexicans, whose ancestors had fought the Moors of Spain for hundreds of years, desired. It reminded one of the menaces and forays that had been the policy of Mexico against the Texans. It would have been received by her as a cheering confession, on our part, of military impotence. Had it been adopted, her people would have found a chain of profitable markets established for them; and at any time she could have dashed either with regular or with irregular troops upon any part of our line, done what harm she could, and retired like a wave on the beach, to prepare fresh assaults in a perpetual series. Only one campaign of the sort now proposed was on record, said Cass—that of Sisyphus. Besides, every mile of the boundary would have required its guard; even at that a broad space along the frontier would have become practically uninhabitable; expenses approaching those of offensive operations would have mounted up; we could have laid no contributions upon the enemy; national honor would have been tarnished and national spirit exasperated by a succession of small defeats; and no progress whatever toward conquering a peace would have been made.[4]

Politically and commercially the unfavorable condition of things which the United States had been so anxious to end, would have become chronic. European nations would soon have gained a monopoly of trade and influence in Mexico; they would have protested against an endless blockade; and what further steps they would have taken in regard to a vexatious and apparently aimless contest it was easy to imagine. Furthermore, simply to seize and hold, with no legal title, provinces which Mexico had not been able to protect against the Indians would have seemed to place the United States in the class of mere pilferers. Honor—at least military honor—demanded that we should meet the enemy, whom we had challenged, at the centre of their pride and power. Finally, the weakness exhibited in “backing out” of a war with Mexico, begun without a question of triumph, would have excited ridicule abroad, and compromised our international position. Confronted with such objections to the defensive plan, Polk was “extremely distressed,” said Pakenham. Evidently some decisive achievement was needed to save the administration, the party and the country; but he dared not face the cost nor incur the risk of a still more signal failure.[4]


There was, however, no lack of bolder ideas. Not only did every newspaper come forward with a “cut and dried” plan, as Marcy rather bitterly said, but the government itself knew what needed to be done. In fact mere animal instinct was enough to suggest that a blow should be struck at the enemy’s heart, and as the project of maintaining a line of operations from the Rio Grande to the capital—more than 800 miles—was out of the question, the idea of attacking Mexico City by the way of Vera Cruz came forward early. On July 4, 1846, Benton formally suggested landing beyond the range of Ulúa, the island fortress which guarded that port, attacking the town in the rear, and after its fall advancing to the capital. Santa Anna advised through Mackenzie almost exactly that method of approach, adding that three or four thousand men could easily capture the port; and at nearly the same time a letter from Taylor, arguing that a lunge from the Rio Grande base would be unwise, reinforced this project;[1] but there was no certainty that an army could be placed in the rear of Vera Cruz, and a number of other difficulties had to be considered.[4]

In 1838 a French squadron had been unable in six hours to injure Ulúa seriously, though it had been permitted to choose its positions unmolested. Such an advantage could not be expected now, and besides, as Conner reported, the number of guns in the fortress had been increased fourfold. The parapet of the main work had an elevation of forty feet above the water; three 10-inch guns throwing shells were twenty feet higher, and there were outworks—connected with the principal fort only by drawbridges—commanded so thoroughly by the gun and musketry fire of the garrison that it would be fatal to enter them, reported the Commodore.[2] In short, said that prudent officer, Ulúa could certainly, if well garrisoned, resist successfully any naval force brought against it; while in the opinion of Pakenham, formerly the British minister to Mexico, a combined army and naval attack on Ulùa and Vera Cruz would be “a very hazardous undertaking,” and, in consequence of “the deadly nature of that Climate to foreign constitutions, success would probably prove in the end as disastrous as failure.” Moreover, Conner pointed out, Vera Cruz would be of value solely as a dépôt, and from that point of view he considered Tampico preferable. Consequently, although at the end of August Polk brought up the subject of attacking Mexico City by way of Vera Cruz, nothing was done about it save to ask the Commodore for additional information.[4]

Not long before October 10, however, it was ascertained beyond a doubt that Vera Cruz could be approached in the rear by a landing force, and beginning immediately Polk and his advisers, aided by Dimond, recently our consul at that city, and by other experts, labored on the question of future operations for nearly two weeks. The result was, first, a decision that since a farther advance in the north would be hazardous and would accomplish nothing towards bringing about peace, Monterey and its vicinity should be the limit of serious operations in that quarter. Such was the deliberate and unanimous conclusion of the President and his official family after long discussions. Instructions to General Taylor were then carefully drafted, studied, amended and agreed upon. To make sure that he should understand their significance, Major McLane, son of the minister to England and a graduate from West Point, was taken into the full confidence of the Executive regarding this matter, and was then despatched to Monterey with the letter of October 22, which, as well as the explanations of the envoy, Taylor interpreted, we have already learned, according to his own ideas. So much for the first point.[4]

The second was a decision to attack Vera Cruz. This did not mean, however, a decision to proceed against the capital. Though Scott argued, as Conner had, that gaining possession of the city and then reducing or starving out Ulúa would practically be sterile triumphs, unless the army should go farther, it was intended at this time to do no more in that quarter, and three or four thousand men were thought sufficient for the undertaking.[4]


November 7, however, Benton made an evening call at the White House, drew the President’s attention to the unfavorable results of the Congressional elections, declared that a bold stroke must be delivered upon the Mexicans at once, and urged that after capturing Vera Cruz and Ulúa the army should execute “a rapid crushing movement” against the capital. Two days later he repeated the lesson, and on the tenth he amplified it. Polk began to realize now that while it might be dangerous to call for men and funds, it was even more dangerous not to do so.[4]

Benton kept on calling, and finally he submitted a written plan. Scott presented a memorial of the same tenor. Taylor wrote that in order to strike a decisive blow troops must land at Vera Cruz or near that point; and Conner reported that a descent could be made under cover of the fleet, batteries could be planted on sand-hills behind the city, and Ulúa, if not Vera Cruz also, could probably be reduced by starvation. As early as November 14 Polk decided to call out 6750 men—that is to say, nine volunteer regiments—for the duration of the war, and to capture Vera Cruz immediately.[3] Yet even this involved no determination to strike at the capital. Polk was distinctly in favor of so doing, should that course be necessary to obtain peace; but Buchanan strongly opposed it, insisting upon the cost of such an expedition, the chances of failure, and the danger that by leading to a national, racial and religious conflict it would militate against a settlement; Marcy had no faith in the project; others of the Cabinet agreed with him; and hence this question remained open, to be answered by circumstances.[4]

The next problem was the choice of a commander. In October Patterson, a good Democrat, had been selected; but it had been found that, as he was not a native American, he could not be developed into a Presidential candidate, that his experience had not been adequate, that his appointment would involve the retiring of both Taylor and Scott, and that, as Buchanan learned at this time from Slidell, he did not possess the confidence of the army. Butler, another Democrat, was Polk’s next choice, but he clearly held no titles to the position.[9]

Taylor had to be considered then; but he was regarded by the Executive and his advisers as professionally unequal to the task and personally unfitted for it, and both of these opinions were fully warranted. While events had proved him a born leader of men and a splendid fighter, they had also demonstrated plainly his lack of generalship and executive efficiency. He distrusted, loathed and misconstrued the administration, failed to supply it with plans and information, endeavored to throw upon it the responsibility for mistakes of his own, lectured it harshly for misdeeds it had not committed, and frustrated the cardinal intent of its policy and orders by failing to press the campaign with all possible vigor during the summer and autumn.[5] “I have not the slightest respect,” he wrote, for any member of the Cabinet except the secretary of the navy. “Evil men bear sway,” was another of his remarks.[9]

Indeed, the General’s natural kindliness and sober judgment seem to have become largely perverted by this time. He knew that for several months friends of his had been at work to gain for him the political place long occupied by Scott, and to use him as a battering ram against the party in power;[6] and it was easy to assume that he would be repaid in kind. Stories of intrigues and machinations, doubtless exaggerated in his mind through inexperience and remoteness from the scene, must have been a constant subject of thought, and he seems to have fallen gradually into an abnormal state of sensitiveness and suspicion.[9]

His private correspondence contained the harshest opinions regarding nearly all of the chief men thus far prominent in the war. Of Commodore Perry he entertained “a contemptable opinion.” Shields, who was a good man and officer as men and officers went, he described as “without one particle of principle to restrain him, save the laws of his country and ready to minister body and soul to the vilest passions of a vile administration.” Quitman, who deserved high respect, appeared to him unreliable, of mediocre ability and “afflicted with unbounded vanity.” The quartermaster general, he said, was partially deranged. Of Scott he had written in August, “He means well on all occasions,” but now he was able to view his superior officer as a military “humbug” and low politician, eager to advance himself and ruin others by the most nefarious arts; and he could no longer see, what the administration fully recognized, that it was essentially for its advantage to have the generals win victories. So far as the government was concerned, Taylor had some grounds for apprehension, perhaps. In all probability it entertained by this time unfriendly feelings toward him. The veteran F. P. Blair had warned Marcy distinctly that, as even the novice could see, a Democratic administration was waging war to make a Whig President, and under our system it was legitimate as well as natural to look for an avenue of escape. Scott, however, seems to have been his friend, privately exerting a strong influence in his favor on several occasions; and while the lawful rights of superior rank were made use of by the commander-in-chief, the same thing was done by Taylor himself with far less considerateness.[9]

Finally Taylor had a particular moral disability, for he did not believe in the Vera Cruz expedition actually contemplated. The season of yellow fever—in his opinion a worse enemy than 100,000 Mexican bayonets—was now too near, he wrote, and an army besieging that port would be swept away by the pestilence.[7] He lacked, therefore, some of the most necessary qualifications, and was not in a state of mind to work harmoniously and effectively with the administration, the commander-in-chief or his own principal subordinates in the exceedingly difficult and delicate situations which the proposed expedition was liable to create.[9]


Gaines being out of the question, there was but one man left, and he moreover, as an officer of experience and the head of the army, possessed exceptional claims to the appointment. Scott seems to have accepted his professional and political reverses of May very quietly, illustrating that fine aphorism of King Stanislaus, “A man greater than his misfortunes shows that he does not deserve them.” Friends fell away rapidly, yet he kept up his courage. To one of them indeed he wrote, “Perhaps you might do well to imitate the example of that heathen who touched his hat to the fallen statue of Jupiter—saying, ‘Who knows but he may be replaced upon his pedestal?’” and about the middle of September, having learned through several channels that his presence in Mexico had been desired by Taylor, to whom he generously referred as “that gallant and distinguished commander,” he reminded the government that he was ready still to serve at the front.[8] This merely brought him another curt rebuff; but when the Vera Cruz expedition became a practical question he took part in the discussion without pique, and he suggested incidentally that he, as the highest officer in the service, was the proper individual to divide the troops between the two fields of activity, and to command personally in the more important one.[9]

Taylor having pronounced it Scott’s duty after the battles of May to assume the leadership in the field, could not logically object now to his acting according to his rank; but, though time had vindicated Scott’s military policy and he now was viewed—Marcy admitted—as politically harmless, Polk still deemed him scientific and visionary, and still resented his allusion to fire from the rear. Long discussions were held, but Marcy felt satisfied that Scott was the only fit commander in sight. By rather cunning management he brought Senator Benton to that opinion; others of the Cabinet reached the same conclusion; and finally the President admitted with “reluctance” that such was “the only alternative.” Very likely, too, as many believed, Polk saw a chance to play one Whig leader against the other. Anyhow, after demanding “Scott’s confidence,” which—in view of the intention to grant his dearest wish—Scott easily gave, he appointed him on the eighteenth of November to command the expedition. An apparently heartfelt and complete reconciliation followed. Scott almost shed tears of emotion, recorded the President; and he received assurances in turn that his confidence would be reciprocated, and that bygones were to be considered bygones. A new David and a new Jonathan seemed to have discovered each other.[9]


Scott believed that Ulúa, if properly garrisoned, could not be taken with naval batteries, or even with naval batteries and an escalade, except at a disproportionate sacrifice of life, and a loss of time that might subject the troops to the yellow fever, quadruple the waste of men, and ruin the campaign. He therefore planned to make a landing near Vera Cruz, capture the town, reduce the fortress—unless, as appeared quite probable, it could soon be starved out—by naval operations and land attacks based upon the city, and then escape the pestilence by advancing promptly toward the capital. In his opinion the Mexicans were likely to have 20–30,000 troops on the ground, and therefore he thought 15,000 men desirable. Relying necessarily on the figures of the adjutant general, he reckoned (November 16) that 7000 regulars and 13,500 volunteers were, or soon would be, under Taylor’s command, making with the new volunteers and recruits for the regular army over 27,000,[10] and he therefore proposed (November 21) to take about 5000 of these regulars, 6000 of the volunteers, and the first 4000 of the new regiments. But he deemed 10,000—to be increased later to double that number—an adequate minimum, and he felt willing, for the sake of gaining time, to launch the campaign with the first 8000 soldiers that could be set afloat off Brazos Island. Anticipating a stubborn resistance at the point of disembarkation, he desired to have 140 surf-boats in order to land 5000 men and eight guns at once, and he made ample requisitions for transports, ordnance and ordnance stores.[11] As for Taylor, the General proposed that he should retain forces enough to defend Monterey and his communications,[12] and stand for a time on the defensive.[16]

Scott of course desired official instructions of this tenor, and even drafted them, but Marcy only wrote as follows (November 23): You have been ordered by the President himself to go to Mexico, take command there, and set on foot a Gulf expedition, “if on arriving at the theatre of action you shall deem it to be practicable. It is not proposed to control your operations by definite and positive instructions, but you are left to prosecute them as your judgment, under a full view of all the circumstances, shall dictate. The work is before you, and the means provided, or to be provided, for accomplishing it, are committed to you, in the full confidence that you will use them to the best advantage. The objects which it is desirable to obtain have been indicated, and it is hoped that you will have the requisite force to accomplish them. Of this you must be the judge when the preparations are made, and the time for action has arrived.”[16]

Marcy seldom laughed, but occasionally he shook like a bowlful of jelly, and as he signed this letter he must have shaken prodigiously. Assuming no responsibility, making no promises, the government simply unloaded the whole burden of the expedition upon Scott.[13] Should he succeed, a Democratic administration would reap a great profit; should he fail, a Whig general would have to bear a great reproach. In order to obtain the essential troops it would be necessary for him to incur the odium of taking many of them from Taylor, who in Polk’s opinion was not willing to give them up; and thus not only would Taylor’s rising star become clouded, but a bitter quarrel between these two Whig leaders and their friends would almost certainly be precipitated. Besides, Taylor might throw up his command in a fit of temper, and relegate himself to obscurity. No wonder the President felt remarkably in spirits just after this.[16]


Scott, however, was determined to forestall the danger of a quarrel. Immediately on suggesting to the government that as head of the army he was the proper individual to command the Vera Cruz expedition, he notified Taylor of this action, and only two days after receiving his appointment he drafted a letter informing that officer about the matter; but the President, regarding absolute secrecy as a prime requisite, would not permit him to mention it.[14] A few days later (November 25) he wrote from New York to this effect: I am going to Mexico and shall conduct operations in a new field; where that is to be I cannot safely state, but with the aid of advices received from Washington you can imagine; new forces have been called out, yet—as the season of yellow fever is at hand—I shall have to take most of your troops; your victories, however, have placed you on such an eminence that you can afford to act on the defensive for a time, and before spring I think you will be able to resume active operations; I desire to consult with you, and plan to be at Camargo for that purpose about the twenty-third of December.[15] The letter was confidential and cordial; and having now done what he could to conjure the tempest, as well as to prepare for his work, the General sailed from New York the last day of November. The voyage to New Orleans, hindered by the weather, took nearly three weeks. He made a brief and busy stay in that city, and two days after Christmas he reached Brazos Island.[16]

Certain steps tending to facilitate his enterprise had now been taken by General Taylor. December 10 the temporary Field Division organized at Camargo was broken up—the Georgia, Mississippi and First Tennessee regiments reporting to Quitman, and the Ohio and Kentucky regiments to Butler; the First Division (regulars) under Twiggs was reorganized;[17] on December 13 and 14, a day apart, this division and Quitman’s brigade set out for Victoria, nearly 200 miles distant; and on the fifteenth Taylor himself, leaving Butler behind to command at Monterey, followed them.[23]

It was not pleasant marching, for a long drought had burned everything up, the sun blazed with intense heat, and the road, when not covered with small, sharp stones, was ankle-deep in light dust; but the inspiring Saddle Mountain seemed to keep company with the troops all day, Cerralvo Mountain hung like a dark shadow on the left, the cool blue line of the Sierra Madre extended on the right farther than the eye could see, and the town first reached—Cadereita, about twenty-five miles from Monterey—burying its white houses in orange groves, looking out over gardens, and looking down from a low bluff into the clear waters of the Topo Grande, was delightful. December 17 the infantry arrived at Montemorelos, a small town at the foot of the sierra, planted beside a swift, cool stream, full of trout, that watered a beautiful valley, and suggesting at a distance under the blue sky—wrote a surgeon—a pearl set in an azure stone. Here the command absorbed the Second Infantry and the Second Tennessee; and it now amounted to some 3500 men, of whom rather more than a third were regulars.[23]

But Santa Anna was not asleep. Learning of Taylor’s proposed march and believing that Wool had left Parras for Chihuahua, he determined to advance about December 24, strike at Saltillo and Monterey in person with 9000 picked infantry, 4000 cavalry and twelve guns, despatch troops from Tula against the Americans at Victoria, and finally close in upon Taylor with his own forces; and a large part of these troops actually set out. Worth got wind of danger, however, on December 16; in accordance with instructions previously given he called for help;[18] and in the evening of the next day four grimy troopers burst upon Taylor at Montemorelos with the startling intelligence, that Santa Anna would attack Worth in three days. Ordering Quitman to proceed, Taylor therefore set out on December 18 with his regulars for Saltillo. Butler, calling a regiment from Camargo to Monterey, reached the front with his own forces on December 19, and Wool arrived there two days later. Santa Anna, discovering Wool’s march by December 24, countermanded his orders; and Taylor, learning on December 20 while between Monterey and Saltillo, of Wool’s advance and the non-appearance of the Mexicans, and concluding there was no danger, turned back.[23]

On the twenty-third he again left Monterey, and the next day he received Scott’s New York letter.[19] His presence with the forces was not at all requisite. No serious fight was in prospect, for Quitman had reported nothing of the sort. There was at least one topographical engineer in the command, who could make better notes of the country than he.[20] Probably his military engineers also, among whom figured Robert E. Lee, afterwards the famous Confederate leader, were there; and as for disposing of the troops, General Scott’s letter gave him reason to believe, that a superior officer was now on the ground with new plans. His obvious duty was therefore to report at Camargo, the place mentioned by Scott, or at least await instructions at Monterey. But the stout old gentleman in the loose olive-brown frock-coat, wool socks and Mexican sombrero had a temper and several ideas of his own. Probably he did not wish to arrange matters amicably; and he kept straight on for ten days, plunging farther and farther toward the remotest portion of his field, inaccessible from any and every point where Scott might by any reasonable possibility chance to be. Indeed, Scott’s letter was not answered for two days, and eight more passed before the answer, which stated that General Taylor was going to Victoria, reached Camargo.[23]


Beyond Montemorelos a great deal of the country was rough, and it was intersected with chilly streams, waist-deep, that cut like a knife as the hot soldiers plunged in; but an incessant variety of novel scenes kept up their spirits. Groves of ebony sheltered bears and wolves. Wild turkeys and wild hogs abounded; and almost every evening ten or twelve deer were brought in. Here flourished pecans, live-oaks and immense trees of lignum vitæ; there an endless procession of ants wound along their smoothly worn trail; yonder towered a mountain of gleaming porphyry set off with dark green foliage, and at all times fleecy clouds could be seen drifting languidly across the slopes of the curiously wrought sierra. Finally the troops entered the rich valley of Linares. On the one hand lay wide cornfields or perhaps a thousand acres of sugarcane in a single, well-irrigated lot; on the other apple and peach orchards, orange and lemon groves with tempting gleams amidst their dark leaves, and half a mile or so of fig-trees. Then came the gardens and flat houses of the town itself, a dull place, with some smiling and some tearful eyes looking out from the grated windows.[23]

Then forward again marched the troops, passing out of the valley into wild country full of chaparral and mesquite, where sometimes wolves trotted along the road ahead of them like dogs. The need of water determined the length of the daily march; but usually there was enough of it, shaded sometimes by noble cypresses dripping with Spanish moss. Once a real norther set in, and the troops choked for twenty miles in a driving cloud of dust;[21] but through it they caught glimpses of a high cliff that looked like an immense pink and yellow dome, and another cheering bit of color now and then was Señor Don So-and-so, the alcalde, dressed in white and a red sash, with silver coins all over his clothing, saddle and bridle. Usually the weather held fair, and a blanket supported by four stakes answered the purpose of a tent well enough.[23]

But the faces of the people grew dark occasionally, and once they muttered something like “Fandango poco tiempo,” which signified, “You’ll be fighting pretty soon.” Then the soldiers cheered till they were hoarse. Fatigue and supper were forgotten. “Turn out, turn out!” was the cry. The column formed, and dashed down the hill at a double quick; but for enemy it found only the trim white cottage of a Frenchman, planted beside a rippling stream amid laden orange trees gilded by the setting sun. There had been rumors of Mexican cavalry ahead, but no cavalry could be seen;[22] and as for irregulars, both funds and arms were lacking, and the close wall of prickly pear five or ten feet high, which ran on each side of the road almost without a break for nearly two hundred miles, would have kept them off as it did the breeze. And so on January 4 Taylor and the regulars entered Victoria, a small, neat city at the foot of wooded mountains, which Quitman had occupied with some formality six days before. “Victoria is taken. It was a bloodless victory. But where is Victoria?” said the New York Herald.[23]


Indeed, Victoria was very much taken.[24] October 13, when ordering Taylor to cut short the armistice, Marcy notified Patterson of this order, and again directed him to occupy southern Tamaulipas as soon as he could—before December 6 if possible; but Patterson was not able to set out until General Taylor gave him definite instructions, on the twenty-eighth of November, to march with the two Illinois regiments and the regiment of Tennessee horse, about 1500 men, for Victoria. Further delays occurred because transportation was not promptly furnished him, and because vessels conveying supplies were lost; and although a detachment advanced some fifteen miles about the middle of December, the movement from the point then reached did not begin until one day before Christmas.[26]

General Patterson’s March

The distance to be covered was nearly 210 miles,[25] and all found the march hard. The chief engineer said his task was “to make an impassable road practicable.” Sometimes it seemed to contain every possible stone. Difficult streams had to be crossed, and once the only feasible method was to cut a straight ramp on each of the nearly vertical banks, which stood about one hundred feet high, and get the wagons down and up again with ropes—a prodigious task. The usual thorns were peculiarly troublesome, and some of the water contained salt. Sweat and dust almost hid the skin of men’s faces at more than one time; and not only did soldiers drop far behind from exhaustion, but in some cases water could be given to the faint only by prying their jaws open. Once the drinking water was so muddy it could scarcely run, we are assured—to say nothing of an odor derived from dead horses. On the very first day the troops were ordered to march without breakfast, and they went hungry more than once afterwards, with cattle, hogs, and actual clouds of wild turkeys plainly in sight.[26]

Some of these facts appear to reflect upon the commanding officers, and other facts point the same way. Patterson had an impressive person, somewhat in the style of the English squire, it was thought, and certain very agreeable qualities of his Irish race, when he chose to display them; but although Polk felt disposed to make him generalissimo, he seems to have lacked a familiar acquaintance with his profession as well as experience in practising it. He also lacked initiative, and he lorded it over the troops, they felt, with all the severity of a satrap.[26]

Pillow, the second in command, had come to the war like many others for his personal advantage; and having been the President’s partner in a law office, having contrived through cunning and secret management at the Baltimore convention in 1844 to secure Polk’s nomination, and being now in confidential correspondence with the White House, he felt specially authorized to slake his intense ambition. On the score of ill-health Pillow had left his command at Monterey for a trip to the United States; but, finding in this expedition a chance of becoming prominent, he suddenly recovered. No one could fail to see his determination to be conspicuous, and it was not commended by all. “Ho for the embryo hero! Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” exclaimed Captain Caswell, a brilliant officer. Naturally Pillow felt inclined to look upon the soldiers as merely coal for his furnace, and they in turn generally detested him. In one stormy scene he called upon them to shoot him, if they dared, adding grandly, “I’m not afraid to die!” And after that, when angered by unnecessary harshness on his part, they obtained some comfort by growling to one another, “He’s some!” “He isn’t afraid to die”; but they remembered the scourge none the less, and when Taylor came over on a mule to visit their camp the very day he and they reached Victoria (January 4), looking as plain as they and perhaps no less dirty, the contrast between his democratic simplicity and the pomp and pomposity they had been contemplating made them burst forth—when they finally realized that his more impressive orderly was not the General—into an ecstasy of delight and admiration.[26]

While these marches were taking place, General Scott, leaving the coast on December 29, proceeded to Camargo in order to arrange matters amicably with Taylor, if he could; but on January 3, finding it would be impracticable to get into touch with that officer, he sent instructions to Butler, carefully explaining why they were given to him directly, to place at the mouth of the Rio Grande about 4000 regular infantry under Worth, 4000 volunteer infantry, 500 regular cavalry, the best 500 volunteer cavalry and two field batteries—deducting, however, from these numbers the troops then at Victoria, except an escort for Taylor, all those at Tampico except about 500 for a garrison, and one volunteer regiment at Matamoros. Scott added that he hoped eight new volunteer regiments would be at the Brazos by the end of January, and that three or four of these would remain in northern Mexico.[27]


At the same time he notified Taylor of this action, pointing out that his inaccessibility and the extreme pressure of time had rendered necessary the orders given to Butler. Taylor was instructed to concentrate in Tampico all the troops of Patterson, Quitman and Twiggs except an escort for himself and, if necessary, a garrison for Victoria, and return then to Monterey. Scott further explained that on account of the yellow fever he could not wait for the new volunteers, and stated plainly that, although he greatly wished the Vera Cruz expedition could be aided by a diversion in the north, Taylor would have to act “for a time” on a “strict defensive.”[27]

These orders were the inevitable sequel of past occurrences. Taylor had suggested that it was advisable to transfer serious operations to the south, and that a large body of regulars would be needed for a campaign there; the government ordered the Vera Cruz expedition; Scott—not at all, however, because he so desired—was appointed to command it; he possessed full authority over all the troops in the field under one condition proposed by himself—that Taylor must be left sufficiently strong for defence—and, as Taylor admitted, this condition was met; Scott could only obtain an adequate army in season by taking a large part of it from the field; he endeavored to effect the necessary division in a kind and friendly manner, spending ten days in travel for that purpose, although extremely pressed for time; and, when Taylor went deliberately beyond reach, he simply made such use of his authority as duty required, taking for the offensive a relatively smaller army—in view of the prospect, recognized by Taylor himself, that Santa Anna would meet him at the beach—than he left with that officer for a strict defensive.[27]

Taylor, however, was furious. He alleged that Scott had “wormed himself” into the command by promising to kill Taylor off as a Presidential candidate. Of Scott’s New York letter he said, “A more contemptible and insidious communication was never written.” Although it was his own suggestion that volunteers were unfit for the mainstay of an expedition against Vera Cruz, and that regulars for it should be drawn from the northern army, he complained now that an underhand “intrigue” had stripped him of his regulars; and, not satisfied with describing himself as outraged and degraded “in the most discourteous manner that could be devised” by “Scott, Marcy and Co.” for the purpose of accomplishing his ruin, he charged, though really not expecting an attack, that he was in danger of being “sacrificed” on the soil of Mexico. Policy concurred with fury; political strategy with personal resentment. The idea of brave Taylor, the People’s Pride, thrown to the merciless Mexicans by partisan Polk and scheming Scott was one to fire the masses; and thus we see concocted a bit of electioneering melodrama that contributed powerfully, and perhaps decisively, to bring about one of the chief consequences of the Mexican war—the overthrow of the Democratic party and the accession of Taylor to the Presidential chair.[27]

Scott now returned to the Brazos, where he arrived on January 8, about a week before the date fixed by him for the assembling of his expedition off that point; and there he was forced to endure nearly six weeks of what he well termed “cruel uncertainties.” To combine in haste the men and material for such an expedition; to do so when the necessary elements had to be drawn from distant and widely scattered points; to do it while the waterways, largely relied upon for transportation, were to a considerable extent frozen; and to do it without the telegraph and mainly without railroads—this was a most difficult and hazardous undertaking; and accidents, misunderstandings and errors of judgment were additional embarrassments.[30]


The prime need was troops; and Worth, acting with notable energy—even precipitation—placed the first of the regulars at the mouth of the Rio Grande about three weeks after Scott issued the orders to Butler. But here the second need, that of vessels, checked them. Scott’s requisitions had been timely and ample; but there was an active commercial demand for ships, rates were high, and the government, anxious to economize, did not allow sufficiently for delays and other contingencies.[28] A considerable number of vessels were chartered at New Orleans, but a month of heavy rains, a scarcity of sailors, a demand for higher wages from those engaged, a week of fog, and a series of northers, which were usually only about four days apart, prevented the first of the vessels from arriving off Brazos Island before February 11, and the storms, frequently very sudden, as well as the loss of not a few of the indispensable lighters hampered operations there. “This terrible coast,” wrote the General; and for days together ships would lie off shore, pitching “like mad” and fortunate if they did no worse, quite unable to communicate with the island. For a week and a half no mails arrived from New Orleans. As the Rio Grande water proved unsuitable for the troops, extra casks were ordered to be made and filled at New Orleans; and this consumed additional time.[30]

Minor affairs, too, created trouble for Scott, and one of these deserves to be mentioned. Care has been taken to bring out the quality of Colonel Harney, and it only remains to add that for some time his feelings toward Scott had been openly and unreasonably hostile. As he was among the men ordered by Butler to the mouth of the Rio Grande, he proceeded in that direction; but Scott, who knew of his excursion to the Rio Grande and preferred to have a more efficient and reliable man for his chief cavalry officer, and one more disposed to coöperate heartily with the commander-in-chief, directed him to place at the orders of Major Sumner the dragoons that had come down with him, and rejoin those of Taylor’s army. Harney refused positively to do so. Upon this Worth laid a formal charge of disobedience against him, and a court martial of officers, chosen—as General Scott proposed—by Harney himself, sentenced him to be reprimanded in orders. Harney then wrote a submissive letter to Worth; and Scott, remitting the sentence of the court, gave him the position he coveted.[30]

This was magnanimous, and tended to promote good-will; but there is more to tell. On learning of Scott’s order that Harney should return to Monterey Polk, though he insisted that his own subordinates in the army must be in cordial sympathy with him, became very angry that “a Democrat” and “one of General Jackson’s personal friends” should “be sacrificed to propitiate the personal and political malice of General Scott,” and insisted upon countermanding the order, thereby violating the confidence promised that general and disregarding the broad instructions issued to him by the war department.[29] However, the trouble with Harney was comparatively but a pin-prick. What racked the General was the conviction that Santa Anna must be gathering a great army to confront him at Vera Cruz; and on February 15, about half of the surf-boats and a small part of the ordnance and ordnance stores having been heard from, he sailed for Tampico, leaving Worth to complete the embarkation as rapidly as he could.[30]

While these events were taking place on the Rio Grande line, the troops under Taylor lay for ten days at Victoria, growing more and more languid under the hot sun; and the General realized that his coming to this remote place had embarrassed himself as well as Scott. Finally something had to be done, for provisions were becoming short, and on January 12 he ordered the regular infantry and Patterson’s men to set out for Tampico, supposed to lie about 168 miles distant by the road.[31] On the night of the fourteenth, a duplicate of Scott’s despatch of January 3—the original of which had been intercepted by the enemy—arrived, and then, selecting an escort for himself, Taylor directed Quitman’s brigade to proceed in the same direction as Patterson’s. The three bodies, which marched at intervals of twenty-four hours, beginning on that day, made an aggregate of 4733, of whom the rank and file numbered 1400 regulars and 3000 volunteers. The rule was to sound reveille at three o’clock and set out at dawn—the regiments of each column taking turns in leading it; and the engineer company, usually known as “the pick and shovel brigade,” marched in advance of all to mend the road.[32]

There was need enough of its work. The meaning of “Tamaulipas” is high mountains; and while the blue of the Sierra Madre grew daily fainter, the principal range of the state rose constantly higher in front, until the summit was crossed, and the troops began to descend into the tropical region of the coast. Much of the route was boggy or rocky or steep; the drinking-water often came from stagnant pools; and for nearly three days the only chance to see human beings outside of one’s own column was when, on surmounting a hilltop, the gleaming steel and white wagons of another brigade could be made out, one day’s march away—perhaps only six or eight miles—on another eminence.[32]

But as the troops approached their destination they felt repaid for every hardship and effort. The road became deep sand, indeed, but near it spread a sunny and many-hued lake full of emerald islets, pirogues laden with odorous fruits, and myriads of noisy widgeon, teal and other water-fowl; while on the other hand the live-oak, the bay-tree, the rubber-tree, the banyan, the palm, the flag-leaved aloe, and many a nameless tree, bush and vine made a dense forest, illumined with brilliant orchids and more brilliant parrots and macaws, each of which seemed like a year of sunsets epitomized. A soft, salubrious breeze from the Gulf caressed their faces; and when, surmounting the last hill on the tenth day of their march, they saw the grand, leisurely Pánuco rolling luxuriously on through fields and forests, a wilderness of spars and masts filling the harbor of Tampico, and the American flag—dear emblem of country, home and kindred—waving proudly over white walls and green gardens, a tear of delight ran down many a tanned cheek.[32]


Stationed mostly at some distance above or below the town according to the usual policy of the American commanders, they now devoted themselves to drilling and counting the days. “Shall we ever see that big fandango in the halls of Montezuma?” they had been asking for some time, and to wait four weeks on the qui vive for Scott seemed very hard. February 19, however, he arrived in town looking very anxious, and, declining the superb horse made ready for him, walked unpretentiously to his lodgings. The impatience to be off was now intense, and the General did all in his power to gratify it; but he found himself in a hornet’s nest. At this time he enjoyed no popularity among the officers, for he was personally known to very few. One or two attempts to check rather pushing young men had been resented; and now the suspicion that he would give regulars the post of honor at Vera Cruz threatened serious results. At a recent banquet the toast necessarily offered to the name of the commander-in-chief had been coldly received, and Worth had been ignored. Indeed, some of the leading volunteer officers were disposed to mutiny unless assured of “a place in the picture.”[35]

Scott diplomatically declared there would be fighting enough for all, but as the tardiness of the transports threatened to delay a part of the troops, that assurance failed to give satisfaction; and apparently only the arrival of an unexpected steamer or two averted the danger of trouble. One officer, however—a trim, agile man with a handsome face, quick black eyes, a poorly educated but most ingenious mind, a ready tongue, and a conscience that gave him no trouble—was content.[33] For him Taylor’s harsh rule had ended; and soon, making the most of his own crafty talents, the urgent recommendations of Polk and Scott’s determination to keep faith with the President,[34] Pillow—for Pillow it was—established himself at headquarters on a basis of intimacy and importance.[35]

Tampico would have been a delightful resting-place for a while. The markets were full of good things; it possessed excellent cafés; and the troops coming from Monterey had brought along a theatrical company; but Scott tarried there only thirty hours. At New Orleans some information had been obtained with reference to the Lobos Islands, which lay fifty or sixty miles to the southeast of Tampico and seven or eight from the coast, offering a broad, safe anchorage; and Scott had written to Conner for additional facts. These proved to be favorable, and such of the new volunteers and freight vessels as could be reached in time had been ordered to go directly there, instead of sailing to the Brazos. Indeed these islands were fixed upon as the general rendezvous. Some of the troops had reached it, and word now came to Scott that an outbreak of smallpox had occurred among them.[37]

He set sail therefore on February 20, and making a swift voyage in the midst of a “screaming” norther, found at the rendezvous the First and the Second Pennsylvania, two thirds of the new Louisiana regiment, the “Palmettoes” of South Carolina, and parts of the New York and Mississippi regiments.[36] Twiggs followed him when the bar off Tampico was quiet enough to permit, and the other troops did the same as rapidly as they could. Patterson got away on the twenty-ninth, but even on the fourth of March Quitman and Shields were chafing beside the Pánuco, and the latter at least had no definite notion when they would be able to sail. “Days are months now,” he exclaimed; but he and many others had still to wait. Worse yet, perhaps, not a few of those who got off were packed in small trading craft, picked up by good luck and unfit for the service; and the skeletons of ships rotting near the bar gave them ample cause for anxiety. Worth’s troops meanwhile were embarking at the Brazos; but when he left that quarter on February 25, six companies of dragoons were still in want of transports.[37]

Taylor for his part, escorted by a squadron of dragoons under May, the Mississippi regiment and two field batteries, left Victoria on January 16 and reached Monterey in eight days. His first impulse on receiving Scott’s orders had been to leave the country, but he concluded not to do so, and soon—apparently satisfied that he now had an issue on which to challenge both Polk and Scott[38]—he distinctly informed his friend, Senator Crittenden, that he was a candidate for the Presidency.[39]


He then shaped his plans accordingly. The government had notified him quite plainly that it wished him to hold no territory beyond the vicinity of Monterey, and Scott instructed him to concentrate there. What these men wished, he believed, was that he should be effaced or play a humble rôle, and he was determined not to accept their plan. He would be as prominent as he possibly could be. Though not able to fight the Mexicans, he would at least seem willing to do so, and throw upon Scott and Polk all the odium of his inactivity. Hence, instead of burying himself and his aspirations in Monterey, he advanced at the end of the month to Saltillo, and a few days later took post, with nearly all of the troops not required on the line of communication, still farther toward the enemy. The dictates of prudence recognized by himself, the advice and order of his commanding officer, and the wishes and instructions of the government were all disregarded. He showed himself, in fact, both unwise and insubordinate.[39]

September, 1846—February, 1847

While these events were taking place north of the mountains, the Americans at Saltillo were having a somewhat agitated experience. At the end of December a great cloud of dust, raised towards the south by a drove of Mexican horses, convinced Worth he was again in danger, and preparations were made at once to conquer or die. Butler, who succeeded him in command, and even the more experienced Wool felt disturbed by rumors of impending attack, which considerate Mexicans, anxious to entertain their American visitors, frequently set afloat, though some of our officers believed that Scott’s movement ensured them against molestation.[4]

Finally, the rather approved idea of thorough scouting presented itself; and on January 19 Major Gaines of the First Kentucky cavalry, with Captain Cassius M. Clay, Lieutenant Davidson and thirty or forty men, was detached for this purpose by General Butler.[1] After making a circuitous journey and meeting with only bland, inoffensive Mexicans, from whom—naturally enough—no important news could be obtained, he found himself on the twenty-first at the hacienda of La Encarnación, a point on the main road from San Luis Potosí to Saltillo, and about fifty-three miles distant from the latter place. Here quite unexpectedly he lighted upon forty or fifty of the Arkansas cavalry under Major Borland, whose orders from Wool had been to visit the hacienda and immediately return. If, however, Taylor could do as he pleased about instructions, why should not Borland? And when obliging Mexicans told him of a small force lying at El Salado, only thirty-five or forty miles farther on, he determined to have the glory of capturing it, and sent back to his colonel for reinforcements. Gaines’s party, added to his own, seemed adequate, however, and early on the night of the twenty-second the troopers rode gayly forward.[4]


Before long it appeared that the distance was sixty miles and the Mexican force mythical—besides, rain began to fall; so the Americans returned to La Encarnación for the night. “The general and the soldier of each side should ... be always expecting to fall into danger,” as Thucydides wrote long ago, and of course our officers understood that in a hostile country picket guards were sometimes deemed advisable; but, operating on the higher plane of action, they felt that a comfortable sleep was what all needed most, and accordingly at daybreak they found themselves in the midst of Miñón’s cavalry brigade of, say, 1200 men, magnified in their opinion—doubtless by the fog—to 3000. The Mexican general was, however, a most accomplished and elegant gentleman, and he at once relieved their embarrassment by taking them under his full—indeed, close—protection.[4]

Not aware of this comforting fact, Brigadier General Lane detached eighteen men under Captain Heady of the Kentucky cavalry, two days later, to look up their comrades. These men found liquor at a ranch and perhaps—as a letter from Saltillo stated—a fandango, too. Firmly persuaded that joy should be unconfined, they “got drunk,” and so without using up a grain of powder they ascertained by ocular proof the fate of the other detachments. Apparently there was some ground for Wool’s remark that the volunteers, though now almost eight months old in the service, could not easily be made to obey instructions on such duty. Indeed, even after Borland’s mishap and in spite of strict orders, two outposts now went to sleep without a picket or a sentry.[4]

To be sure, the men were ready enough to fight. “Why we have no more fear of a Mexican than if they were [prairie] Wolves,” wrote a soldier. Wool’s men felt particularly keen. On the way from La Vaca to San Antonio they had passed a spot where about 400 Texans had been massacred by Santa Anna’s order in 1836. A fire had lighted up their faces that meant, “No mercy,” said one of them; and exhausted though they were after their wonderful march from Parras, they felt very much dissatisfied on reaching the front, “there being no prospect of a fight.” But the recent disasters had made it seem as if the mountains were full of the enemy, and one of Gaines’s men, who contrived to escape, brought fearful tales. Even those Americans who did not care to do picket duty felt little desire to wake up some foggy morning as prisoners. Signs of a panicky feeling could be observed, and Wool found it necessary to invoke Taylor’s aid.[4]

The General’s position in his army was now extraordinary. To the troops, while they gloried in his courage, his achievements had seemed at the time commonplace enough; but sentiment at home as exhibited in the newspapers—reacting from painful anxiety, indulging in the common taste for exaggeration, and instinctively demanding a national figure for this national crisis—had not only done justice to his great qualities, but, partly in order to explain victories clearly marked with errors, made him out a genius and worker of miracles; and all this laudation, read by the army, created an impression which both duty and interest forbade the more discriminating to impair.[4]


The General, moreover, though nursing the mammoth conceit that he was qualified to be President of the United States, was careful to spare the self-love of all who came in contact with him; and while no one could enter Scott’s presence without feeling himself before a superior man aware of his superiority, probably most of Taylor’s visitors had an agreeable sense of excelling him in personal appearance, dress, education and talents, and enjoyed also a flattering conviction of their insight, because they recognized that he possessed high merits after all. How the soldiers, oppressed by the lordliness of many generals, adored his plainness we have seen. They felt they could bow down to such a man without losing self-respect, since the obeisance was due to their own choice, not his demand; and when he welcomed one to his unguarded tent and talked with him about home and friends, or shook a delinquent by the two ears with a kindly warning not to do so again, he established a positive dominion over their minds and hearts. It has been said that no woman loves a man unless she can despise him for something, and the saying may be extended to the rest of humanity. Taylor had thus a double hold on his troops. His black body-servant referred to him as “De ole hoss,” but would have died for him; and while the army would probably have expressed itself about him as lightly as did the street urchins of Philadelphia:

“Old Zack’s at Monterey,
Bring out your Santa Anner;
For every time we raise a gun,
Down goes a Mexicanner;”

yet in reality he was now enthroned in the hearts of the soldiers generally as a father, a hero and almost a fetich.[4]

Invoked by Wool, then, Taylor—instead of drawing him back, as the government wished—appeared at Saltillo on the first or second of February with about 700 men, and proceeded to occupy the advanced position already mentioned. Believing, as we have seen, that a lack of water on the road from San Luis would prevent any strong body of Mexicans from coming north at that season, and hearing that a great part of Santa Anna’s troops had gone toward Vera Cruz, he scouted alarms; and in addition to his other grounds for pushing forward, he thought so doing would tend to restore confidence among the troops and the people of Saltillo. Moreover, although he had ridiculed Scott’s intimation that he might be able to manoeuvre toward San Luis in the early spring, he was now planning to do so.[4]

Scrambling out of Saltillo by the southern route, which makes a short but sharp ascent as it leaves the town, Taylor found himself on a rather smooth plateau elevated nearly or quite 6000 feet above the sea, and after a ride of about five miles discovered on the left, near the road, four or five mean adobe buildings, headquarters of the Buena Vista ranch, where Wool’s command had recently been in camp. The southern outlook from this point was desolate but noble. On both sides rose high, barren mountains. Those on the west, formed of many rather thin horizontal slabs of rock, slightly concave toward the sky and separated by thicker deposits of a softer material eroded at the edges, formed reddish, flat-topped pyramids like the pictured hanging gardens of Babylon; while those on the other hand were a true sierra, a line of saw-tooth peaks buttressed with sharp spurs. Descending easily for about a mile and a half, the General came to a narrow place called by Mexicans La Angostura (The Narrows), and then traversed lengthwise for a distance of about three and a half miles the approximately north-and-south valley of Buena Vista. At the end of this came the windy, dusty farm of La Encantada, where Butler had stationed Wool for a time; and then began the smiling valley of Agua Nueva, which broadened gradually for about seven miles, and ended at the farm or hacienda of that name. This lay near the mountain on the eastern edge of a wide plain, generously supplied by nature with fuel and water.[4]

Here Taylor pitched his tent on the fifth, and by the fourteenth substantially all the troops were on the spot—about 650 camping with him and some 4000 lying with Wool a mile or so away. The General ordered no scouting, and took about the same precautions against surprise that Gaines and Borland had taken. On the ground that spies could not be kept out, he let the Mexicans come and go with perfect freedom. The engineers, reconnoitring on their own responsibility, concluded that the mountains were “passable in every direction” by routes familiar to the enemy but of course blind to the invader.[2] Parallel roads lay beyond the heights on each side. Yet here Taylor decided that he would meet the enemy, should they care to attack him;[3] and he said to the correspondent of the New York Tribune; “Let them come; damned if they don’t go back a good deal faster than they came.” In reality the troops had more reason than ever to feel alarmed; but Dagon was again in the midst of them, and they stood like mountains. Taylor might be old and slow and inefficient, and he might know little about the art of war, but he could stiffen the courage of soldiers. “Every man feels that the honor of his country is now placed in his hands,” wrote Lieutenant Posey on the nineteenth.[4]


This takes us back to Santa Anna, who left the city of Mexico for the north on September 28. When his carriage had rolled on for about thirty miles, he received word that Monterey had fallen, and the news occasioned many bitter reflections; but there were enough other matters to divert his thoughts. He understood well the superior strength of the United States; but from Mackenzie’s mission and the conviction that war expenses would be extremely unpopular in this country, he doubtless felt sure that we earnestly desired peace. It was therefore clear to him that his problem was to gain one victory. This would so discourage us, he seems to have calculated, that he could end the war on fairly satisfactory terms.[7]

To gain this victory, it seemed only necessary to gather large forces, bar the road from the north with fortifications, make no defence of outlying sections, worry the Americans perhaps with feints and forays, await and repulse them should they advance, and at the end of the winter season, should they not, fall upon some fraction of their army with full power. One difficulty in this programme was the general hatred which he must have known the northern provinces entertained for him, because his policy had always sacrificed their interests; and he thought it wise to despatch a proclamation to San Luis Potosí, calling upon the people to see in him only a Mexican soldier fighting for the common country. The appeal was effectual. A committee met him about a dozen miles from the city, and on October 8 he entered a town decorated with tapestries and pots of flowers, and resounding with salvos of artillery, peals of bells and enthusiastic vivas from the entire population.[7]

A number of circumstances occurring now and later appeared favorable. The government engaged that he should have an adequate remittance of funds every month, and instructed the heads of seven states to supply his general wants. A medal was promised to all taking part in the campaign. The National Guards, now ordered to obey the central instead of the state authorities, apparently came within his reach. The fight at Monterey was pictured as creditable to Mexican arms and costly to the enemy. Every life sacrificed there on the altar of nationality, proclaimed the government, called to heaven for vengeance, and the outrages perpetrated by the insolent invaders proved how they would trample on the whole country, if they could.[7]

Once more our wicked administration and its horde of “adventurers” were denounced in the good old blood-curdling style, and once more the forays of the savage Indians were laid to our charge. Detestable wretches like the Americans could not wage war long. Their beloved money-bags were already feeling pinched. Volunteers did not flock to the banner. Noble orators like Webster were enlightening the better people. The slavery question could not fail to paralyze the country. Already the elections had turned against the administration, and signs of a revolution could be seen. European countries were certainly preparing to interfere. Merely by uniting, the Mexicans could “tear from the invader’s flag the symbol of Texas,” and at last—so it was declared—union had actually been achieved. On all sides patriotism had burst into flame. The nation was rising. It would take account of every injury, great or small, inflicted by the barbarians of the north, and the day of settlement would soon arrive. In this fashion talked the government, the orators and the newspapers; and many observers in Europe and the United States believed the overdue national movement had now begun.[7]

But this radiant picture was only paint-deep. Don Simplicio, the satiric weekly, announced: It is proposed that all give, that all lend, that all rise, that all go to the field; but “few give, few lend, few get in motion, few take up arms.” The states, restored to a measure of sovereignty by the adoption of the federal system, became conscious of their powers. Durango would not help, because threatened by the Indians, and even denounced the Hero of Tampico. Michoacán held aloof because Ocampo, her brilliant governor, who could voice his opinions in five languages, hated Santa Anna even more than he did the Americans. The great state of Jalisco promised much and did little; and Zacatecas, which Santa Anna had crushed and robbed in 1835 because it dared to oppose his ambition,[5] not only withheld all aid, but attempted to form a combination of states against him. A multitude of officials preferred the triumph of a foreign invader to that of a native tyrant, and their constituents endorsed their course.[7]

The decree taking the National Guards from state control had to be substantially qualified. Members of that organization could not be impressed. The law pardoning—that is to say, authorizing—desertion from the regular army was extended for three months. A secret society called The Red Comet, which sprang up among the military men at San Luis, took for motto, “Nobody is bound to obey one that has no right to command,” and annoyed the General constantly. Requena, one of the best qualified officers, who entertained little respect for the Liberator’s professional ability or plans, made so much trouble that he was sent away; and General Valencia, a member of the Red Comet society, who had been refused permission to attack the Americans at Victoria and was believed now to covet Santa Anna’s place, openly defied the commander-in-chief and left the army.[7]


Still more serious were financial difficulties, for the Executive did not supply the promised funds. The reason was obvious. “Our treasury is as poor in money as it is rich in obligations,” explained the minister. Santa Anna did not spare the government, however. “I do not consider myself nor should I be considered by the gentlemen who compose the provisional administration of the Country as a mere General, commanding a corps of the army, but as the one leader of the Nation, to whom the direction of its destinies has been entrusted,” he wrote; and in this tone he conducted the financial correspondence—demanding, reproaching, protesting, threatening; yet the needful remittances did not arrive. Popular support was equally unfruitful. “Santa Anna lacks three things—to wit, money, money and money,” announced Don Simplicio; “Very well, let us have a public meeting. What is the result? Nothing.” But somehow, through remittances from the capital and the states, forced loans, arbitrary seizures and the use of his personal credit, the General worried along, and built up an army of some 25,000 men.[6] Extensive shops were established for the manufacture of clothing and the repair of arms; and energetic measures were taken to provide muskets, ammunition and cannon.[7]

Santa Anna’s operations were not, however, entirely sagacious. As was usual in Mexican armies, number outweighed quality. Consisting mostly of impressed men and to a considerable extent of criminals, the troops were unreliable. They were drilled in no larger bodies than brigades; many had no practice in firing; and most of them were very imperfectly disciplined. The artillery did no manoeuvring. There was no school for officers. Persons of a notoriously bad reputation as soldiers occupied high posts. Santa Anna showed marked favoritism toward certain regiments and certain men. Never visiting the drill-ground, he could not estimate the relative qualities of the various corps, and he was too much engrossed in politics and personal interests to concentrate his attention upon the work in hand. All of the generals who tried to do their duty gave too much time to the details, and studied the plans of campaign too little. What was hardly less important, Santa Anna, instead of instructing the troops regarding the national issues at stake, talked much about the booty to be stripped from the Americans, and in particular about an alleged blue wagon containing their military chest. Still, the army took shape, and the General looked hopefully toward spring.[7]

But now came one of those whirls of fortune that always hover about leaders of dubious antecedents. November 26 an influential newspaper of the capital, El Republicano, copied from the New York Herald a letter of September 22, written from Mexico City, which stated that Santa Anna, acting in collusion with the United States, would abandon the invaded provinces, resist the enemy feebly, satisfy the nation of its impotence, bring about a peace agreeable to the United States, and become the dictator of Mexico.[8] Already there had been suspicions, and now they crystallized instantly round this definite accusation. Why had the Americans allowed the ablest citizen of Mexico to pass through their fleet? Why had Tampico and Saltillo been evacuated? Why had not the passes of the Sierra Madre been fortified? And why had Valencia been forbidden to attack the enemy at Victoria? The government denounced the story as a scheme to create discord and break down the national champion. Santa Anna does not need to become a traitor in order to be the first Mexican, it was said. Had he made such a bargain, the United States would have kept it secret in order that he might be able to do his work. Has he not shed his blood for the country? Has he not recently declined the supreme power? The defence was plausible, but the facts looked more than plausible.[10]

And the situation had other aspects, too. As Governor Olaguíbel of México state informed Santa Anna, more things were said against him than even a long letter could specify. San Luis was described as changing under his influence into a new Capua, where he was wasting the funds of the country on his vices—not only gambling, but inducing the officers to gamble with him. His political attitude was viewed with distrust, and familiar signs indicating an intention to overthrow the government were believed to be discernible. Even the correspondent of the London Times described his policy as “dark and tortuous,” and the British minister deemed it an “enigma.” Many said his troops were more dangerous to Mexico than to the United States. The wide extent of his military jurisdiction was described in the press as alarming. By January each day brought fresh rumors of an approaching dictatorship. Olaguíbel’s letter spoke the word frankly. Then came news that the troops at Mazatlán had pronounced for it, and Santa Anna’s repudiation of their course only convinced the public that he preferred to wait for a time.[10]

The military phase of the situation gave equal offence. “Where now,” it was demanded, “are those great generals of ours, who—covered with ribbons and crosses from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot—insulted with their luxuriant splendor the misery of the people?” “Predictions for 1847,” announced Don Simplicio: “The officers of our army will be divided into fugacious and permanent;” and the same journalistic scorpion asked why the commander-in-chief did not, while calling for money, “eliminate the superfluous, useless, burdensome, incapable and cowardly.” At the beginning of December Salas had promised with a flourish that Santa Anna would “very soon” meet the odious Yankee, and before long the people were inquiring why he did not. “We are invaded, time presses, and what has Santa Anna done?” demanded a pamphleteer; “Ah, the silly fellow is waiting for the Americans to come and hunt him up.” At the General’s demand, three newspapers were established to defend him; but the scorpion disposed of them all with one sting: “Napoleon answered his detractors with victories.”[10]


Under these attacks the army shivered with rage and mortification from top to bottom. The soldiers deserted in astonishing numbers. The officers and their infuriated commander felt they must either do something or sink to perdition in a burning lake of distrust, hatred and contempt; and therefore Santa Anna decided precipitately to hurl himself against the Americans.[9] Scott’s intercepted letter of January 3, which probably found its way to the Mexican headquarters, showed how Taylor’s army had been depleted, and Taylor’s volunteers, it was believed by Santa Anna, would hardly resist a single onslaught; while their inferiority in numbers, their distance from heavy reinforcements, their scattered condition, and their isolation in the midst of a hostile people were other factors offsetting the great difficulty of crossing deserts to reach them.[10]

January 23 Santa Anna ordered the mint of San Luis to work night and day on ninety-eight bars of silver forcibly appropriated by him. A few days later, after issuing a manifesto in self-defence, he addressed the army in eloquent language, pointing out the hardships, the plunder and the glory that awaited it. On the twenty-eighth, to the plaintive strains of a popular air called the Adios, the troops began to leave the dust-brown city. The rear guard set out three days later; and on February 2 headquarters moved.[11] Only useless remnants of the army stayed behind; but on the other hand a great number of adventurers of both sexes, drawn forward by various motives but especially by the prospect of booty, accompanied the march.[15]


For about thirty miles the route lay through a cultivated region; but after it bade farewell to the heavy old Spanish church that crowned the hill of Las Bocas, the country became sterile, and between mountains now lumpy, now conical, usually rich in silver and always poor in vegetation, each division rolled on in a billowy cloud of dust, at one time chilled with icy blasts, and at another melting under an insupportable sun; cheered only by the prickly cactus, the crooked mesquite and an occasional group of dwarfish palms. Reckless from fatigue and unaccustomed to such a burden, the soldiers threw away thousands of sacks containing food.[15]


To Matehuala the distance was about 140 miles, and beyond that point lay a broad flinty desert. Here provisions and good water began to fail; and many, though well enough supplied with the poor meat and water that now composed the rations, grew sick and weak.[12] Weather of unusual severity set in. For several days a storm of snow or chilling rain buffeted the struggling troops; and at night, destitute of all shelter, they could only huddle and shiver at a few small fires. Many died from exposure, and a great number, though expressly warned that death would be the punishment, risked all the chances of deserting. But the army as a whole pressed forward, and on February 17–21 arrived at La Encarnación, nearly 200 miles from San Luis.[13] Several thousand men had been lost from death, sickness or desertion on the way. Others had been detached at various points, and Miñón had now placed himself at Potosí hacienda behind the mountains on Taylor’s left; but on February 19 the figures for the army were 15,142 officers and men[14]—in general the strongest and most determined that had set out—and a brilliant review, held the next day, showed no lack of confidence and enthusiasm. A triumph was considered certain.[15]

Santa Anna had supposed that a part of the American army occupied La Vaquería, some eight or ten miles west of Taylor’s actual position, and his intention had been to surprise it; but by February 11 he learned that all had concentrated at Agua Nueva. He now had the choice of three routes. One was the direct road to that point; the second would have taken him via La Hedionda to the rear of Buena Vista; and the third ran by the way of La Vaquería to the north of Agua Nueva.[16] Santa Anna desired, he said later, to pursue one of the lateral routes, and place himself between Taylor and Saltillo; but both of these routes were said to be circuitous, difficult if not impracticable for artillery, and perhaps inadequately supplied with water and provisions. He decided therefore to surprise Agua Nueva, believing that should his forces be seen, they would be regarded as a part of Miñón’s brigade.[17]

That general was ordered to proceed via La Hedionda to the American rear, and a little after noon on February 21—every soldier having been ordered to drink his fill, carry all the water he could, and take rations for the next two days—Santa Anna advanced. Agua Nueva was only some thirty-five miles away, and he expected to overwhelm it early the next morning. The march continued well into the night. At Carnero Pass, five or six miles from Taylor, the troops lay down by columns as they arrived—the cavalry still holding their reins. It was too cold for sleep, but they rested; and at six in the morning they rose in the deepest possible silence, and resumed their march.[17]


The Americans had at last awakened, however. By February 19 Santa Anna was expected “hourly,” wrote Lieutenant Posey, and the next day Major McCulloch with his party of Texan scouts was despatched in the direction of La Encarnación, while Brevet Lieutenant Colonel May with about 400 dragoons and some field pieces proceeded toward La Hedionda.[18] The latter saw a cloud of dust in the direction of Potosí, fell in with a Mexican deserter[19]—who said Miñón was near and Santa Anna at La Encarnación—and reported at Agua Nueva before sunrise, February 21. At first his party were taken for Mexicans; and when the alarm subsided, it was followed by a solemn stillness, amidst which groups of officers could be seen talking eagerly in low tones with mysterious gestures.[22]


Suddenly at about noon a solitary horseman on a jaded steed came down from the mountain, and made straight for the General’s tent, bringing word that a great Mexican army had been seen at La Encarnación. The combination of this report and May’s was understood to mean that Santa Anna intended to turn Agua Nueva, and before two o’clock the Americans took flight—that is the polite phrase—for Buena Vista.[20] Colonel Yell with his mounted Arkansas regiment was left behind to guard the stores, should Santa Anna permit this, until they could be removed;[21] the Second Kentucky and some guns were detached at La Encantada to support him; and the First Illinois under Colonel Hardin was posted at La Angostura. About midnight Yell’s pickets at Carnero Pass were driven in. Upon this, firing the buildings and the last of the stores, and abandoning some wagons, the troops hurried off, lighted on their way by roaring flames that filled the air with piles of lurid smoke and the mountains with fantastic shadows; and by morning all except Hardin’s command and the advanced pickets were at Buena Vista. Taylor, meanwhile, entrusting to Wool the disposition of the troops, marched with a strong escort of the three arms for Saltillo, to provide at this late day for the defence of that city against Miñón.[22]

February, 1847


Early the next morning (February 22) Santa Anna, hurrying down from Carnero Pass, learned that Agua Nueva had been evacuated, but on arriving there he discovered signs, as he justly believed, of a precipitate flight. Miñón, he thought, was already between Buena Vista and Saltillo, in a position to hinder the American retreat; the state of the Mexican supplies, in his opinion, did not allow time for strategic operations; and therefore, hardly permitting the troops to drink,[1] he dashed ahead with some 2500 horse and a few light battalions of infantry, swept away the American pickets at La Encantada, and thundered on down the valley.[8]

By this time Wool knew the enemy were at hand; the long roll sounded; the soldiers leaped to their work; the camp was cleared; and a section of Captain Washington’s battery hurried down the slope toward La Angostura. It was a beautiful morning; the mountains on the east flung long shadows across the valley; a gentle breeze languidly stirred the flags. What was more to the point, this was the twenty-second of February. The bands struck up Hail Columbia. The watchword, “Honor of Washington,” passed among the men; and they shouted for joy to see the great cloud of dust, full of galloping Mexicans, approach. None the less they were unprepared for combat. Had Santa Anna risked a daring charge, he would probably have triumphed in short order.[8]

But he found the American position and the guns at La Angostura impressive. His bugler sounded “Halt!” just beyond range; and after reconnoitring a long time he decided to wait for infantry. In fact there seemed to be danger that his van might be attacked and overpowered; and hence at about eleven o’clock he sent Dr. Vanderlinden, his chief medical officer, to General Taylor, who had now returned from Saltillo, with a note inviting him, on the ground that he was now surrounded by more than 20,000 Mexicans, to lay down his arms, and probably with secret instructions to amuse the American commander as long as possible.[2] Very likely, as he intimated later, he would have been glad to retire from what he called a Pass of Thermopylæ, and operate strategically; but the American retreat had in effect lured him on, his provisions were scant, and at this point therefore the issue had to be decided at once.[8]

With good reason Santa Anna disliked the field of battle selected by Wool,[3] for it strongly favored the defence. Running north along the western side of the road there was a creek, which had excavated near La Angostura an amazing network of gullies with almost vertical banks twenty feet or so high, that practically vetoed the passage of troops; and west of this obstruction the ground rose more and more steeply until it became a line of high hills, parallel to the creek, which resembled a huge wave ready to break. On the other side, between the road and the sierra, there was a space varying from three quarters of a mile to a mile in width, and this was roughly divided by two east-and-west ravines—the more northern of which may be called the long and the more southern the broad ravine—into three parts: the north field, as we may name it, extending to Buena Vista, the middle field or plateau, and the south field extending to La Encantada.[8]

Of these divisions the plateau was the most distinctive. Along the base of the sierra there were two or three benches, presumably made of débris from the mountain; and lighter débris had been washed almost down to the road, forming a stony plain seamed by a number of minor ravines—torrents during the rainy season—which grew deeper as they progressed, until at the western edge of the plateau they descended to the floor of the valley as ragged gulches, leaving between them several tongues or spurs, extremely steep and about forty or fifty feet high. The longest, highest and bluntest of the spurs, which may be called the first of them, was at La Angostura; and a space of only some forty feet, through which passed the road, intervened between its point and the network of gullies. The plateau, some 400 yards wide, north-and-south, at the base of the mountains, had perhaps twice that width at the opposite end, toward which it very gradually sloped. Both of the two main ravines, the long and the broad, were extremely difficult for cavalry and still more difficult for artillery. Obviously in such a spot large numbers—and especially large numbers of horse—lost a great percentage of their value.[8]


The centre of the American position was the first spur, on which Hardin’s men threw up a slight breastwork during the night, with Captain Washington’s battery on the road below, protected now with a ditch and a parapet, that ran from the gullies nearly to the spur;[4] and at this point, or in reserve just north of it, Wool gathered most of the Americans, who numbered 4759 officers and men, placing near the mountain under Colonel Marshall the Kentucky and Arkansas horse and Major Gorman’s rifle battalion (four companies) of the Indiana foot.[5] Over against these forces, the principal body of the Mexicans formed two lines with heavy reserves behind them and cavalry in the rear, while Mexican artillery was planted on the road and also on the high ground east of it; and Miñón’s brigade, the duty of which was to cut off the American retreat, showed itself early in the day at the rear of Buena Vista.[6] On each side the engineers reconnoitred actively, and both Taylor and Wool visited and addressed the various American corps.[8]

Apparently there was an opportunity to outflank our left, and without waiting for all his tired troops to come up, Santa Anna despatched Ampudia with a considerable force of light infantry, well supported, to seize a promising bench at the foot of the mountain. To defeat this movement the Americans attempted to occupy the point first, but they blundered and failed. Colonel Marshall then had a part of his force ascend a spur of the mountain which joined near the summit a spur leading down to the Mexican position, hoping in this way to outflank the enemy; but the Mexicans, who were gradually reinforced, adopted the same tactics.[8]

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At about three o’clock a shell from a Mexican howitzer planted on the road gave the signal for combat; and the troops on the mountain opened fire, climbing higher and higher until finally the Mexicans, getting the better of Marshall, reached the crest. Meanwhile Captain O’Brien, with three of Washington’s eight guns and the Second Indiana under Colonel Bowles for support, was posted well forward on the plateau, and a movement on the left wing of the Mexican army led Taylor to place the Second Kentucky under Colonel McKee, two guns under Bragg and a detachment of horse on the opposite side of the valley; but after a time, concluding that Santa Anna would attempt nothing more that day, he returned to Saltillo,[7] escorted by the Mississippi regiment and a body of the Second Dragoons.[8]

At nightfall the roar of musketry on the sierra, answered by the sharp crack of the American rifles, subsided, and Marshall’s troops were recalled to the foot of the mountain. Aside from losing a number of men, while on our part none were seriously injured, the Mexicans clearly had the best of it so far. Santa Anna delivered a stirring harangue to his troops; and the enthusiastic vivas and triumphant music that followed it, softened by distance, floated down to the Americans on the evening breeze in wondrously sweet and haunting tones. Pleasure ended, however, when they died away. Though so many strong men, soon to fight for their lives, were present, the solitude of the desert seemed to reign. The night air was bitterly cold. A drizzling rain fell. Except at the mountain there was no fuel. The tents of the Americans were now in the wagons, and the Mexicans had none; and long before daybreak the troops on both sides felt ready for anything that would stop their teeth from chattering. For our men especially it was a dismal situation, and the reported statement of a captured Mexican that Santa Anna had 21,000 troops gave Taylor’s army no mental comfort.[8]


Early the next morning, February 23, Santa Anna had the reveille sounded in his various corps one after another, in order to give an impression of great numbers. Mass was then celebrated. All his infantry and cavalry were drawn up in one long line. The bands, massed in front, rendered the sacred music with grand effect; the smoke of incense mounted to the clear, radiant sky; and a body of priests in splendid robes passed along the line, bestowing their benedictions.[19]

The troops then moved to their places with deliberation and precision, for whether they could shoot or not, Mexican soldiers were always able to march and wheel. Evolution followed evolution. Eminence beyond eminence bristled with steel. All the colors of the rainbow—red, green, yellow, crimson, sky-blue, turkey-blue—clothed the troops. Even the horses appeared to be in uniform, for those of a corps were alike in color. Silken banners and plumes of many bright hues floated on the breeze. Handsomely dressed aides dashed from point to point. Tremendous vivas rolled in mighty echoes from the mountain. And while Santa Anna thus built up the morale of his army, most of the dingy Americans had time enough—as the quartermasters were knocking in the heads of the cartridge casks and the sergeants gruffly dealing out flints—to view this grand pageant through the wonderfully clear atmosphere, and reflect. Out of the desert, as if by magic, had come a great and brilliant army. It was not what they had expected to see. The mere breath of its approach had blown the Americans from Agua Nueva like dust. In comparison with its deliberation and confidence their own hasty movements appeared ridiculous. The Mexicans had already been successful at the mountain, and the General was plainly alarmed about the rear. They began to question his infallibility; and many felt in their hearts that religion was on the other side.[19]

At an early hour a large part of Marshall’s command, supported presently by Major Traill with two companies of the Second Illinois and Conner’s Texas company, reascended the mountain and, favored by the nature of the ground, maintained for several hours a brisk fight with Ampudia, who, reinforced with heavy infantry, succeeded at last in outflanking though not in repulsing the Americans. To aid his operations in this quarter, perhaps, by creating a diversion, Santa Anna ordered General Blanco to advance down the road with a heavy column, strongly backed with cannon placed in battery near the mouth of the broad ravine; but at every discharge of Washington’s guns whole lines of Mexicans appeared to sink, and the column, unable to deploy, soon fled for shelter to the hilly ground on its right.[19]

A stronger attack, however, was now launched. Pacheco and Lombardini received orders to advance, unite on the plateau, and force the American left; and a strong battery was planted on the Mexican right near the head of the broad ravine to coöperate with them.[9] Both infantry and horse marched forward boldly at parade step; and the Americans could but admire the showy uniforms, the arms which gleamed like silver, the belts white with pipeclay, and the freshly polished brasses. Pacheco soon became engaged with the Second Indiana, which—perhaps half a mile from any support except O’Brien’s three guns on its right—was the corps nearest Marshall and farthest forward on the plateau; and after about half an hour of gallant fighting General Lane, in the hope of both driving Pacheco back and relieving the Indianians from the enfilading fire of the Mexican artillery, determined to have them and O’Brien advance. The latter did so; but Colonel Bowles gave and repeated an order to retreat. His retreat soon became flight,[10] and four companies of Arkansas mounted riflemen joined in the stampede.[19]

O’Brien, though he loaded with double canister, now found himself compelled to withdraw, sacrificing a 4-pounder—which had neither a sound man nor a sound horse left—but firing the other pieces as he drew them back with ropes (prolonges). The Second Illinois, commanded by Colonel Bissell, a born soldier, which was actively engaged on the plateau a long distance to O’Brien’s right and rear, was then outflanked by Pacheco, and it had to retire, though in the most orderly manner, toward the edge of the plateau. Marshall’s troops were now entirely separated from the rest of our army. Discovering their exposed situation they hurried from the mountain, escaped with considerable difficulty and some loss from Ampudia and the Mexican cavalry that pressed on with him, and took refuge at Buena Vista, over three miles from their position. Here, not long afterwards, a part of them helped other fugitives defeat a body of lancers under Torrejón, that attempted to raid their asylum and the wagon train;[11] but only a few would return to the field, and some of them rushed panic-stricken to Saltillo, crying out that all was lost.[19]

McKee and Bragg now made all speed from the other side of the valley to the plateau. Blanco having been repulsed, four of Hardin’s companies came from the first spur. The squadron of the First Dragoons arrived; and Bragg, Sherman and O’Brien, handling their eight guns in a masterly style, drew a line of fire from the first gulch to the long ravine. La Angostura and the first spur, the double key to the American position, were thus well defended; but our left had been crushed, the way to our rear lay open, and in spite of our incessant fire Ampudia, Pacheco and Lombardini advanced. “One more charge!” cried the Mexicans. Apparently Santa Anna was to triumph.[19]

At this point, about nine o’clock, Taylor and his escort appeared most fortunately on the scene.[12] The General, mounted on Old Whitey, stationed himself conspicuously on the plateau near the first spur with the dragoons that accompanied him; but the Mississippi men, to whom Colonel Bowles and a part of his regiment now attached themselves, marched from the road in their duck trousers with red shirts outside of them, swinging along with the light step of hunters, threw themselves against Ampudia and the cavalry with him in the north field, repulsed them although greatly outnumbered, and, aided by the Third Indiana, which had been standing in reserve behind Washington, and by one of Bragg’s guns under Lieutenant Kilburn, forced them back by a withering fire toward the mountain.[19]

By this time a strong Mexican battery had been moved round the head of the broad ravine by dint of extraordinary exertions, and planted near the mountain, where it commanded the entire plateau; but in spite of the skilful San Patricio company—American deserters—who partly or wholly manned it, the Pacheco-Lombardini column broke almost in the middle under the American fire, the larger part of it advancing into the north field and reinforcing Ampudia, while the other part—bearing with it Santa Anna, whose horse had been killed by a canister ball, and suffering terribly from our cannon and the close pursuit of Hardin, Bissell and McKee—shrank back toward the broad ravine. The situation on the plateau thus became easy. Shelter from the Mexican artillery could be found in the minor ravines; bread, water and ammunition were brought up; and the wounded were removed. But there was great danger now that the large Mexican forces north of the long ravine would either fall upon Washington’s rear or, joining hands with Miñón, capture the American stores and ammunition at Saltillo. Leaving O’Brien’s two guns and one each of their own on the plateau, therefore, Bragg and Sherman were ordered to the north field.[19]

Here, soon after noon, a brigade of Mexican cavalry supported by infantry pushed resolutely forward to gain the Saltillo road near the long ravine. In order to find a better position and avoid the danger of being enveloped, the Mississippians retired some distance; but soon they halted, and with the Indiana men, who now rejoined them, formed an obtuse angle opening toward the mountain. Upon this obstacle the Mexican cavalry, drawn up in a close column, rushed down at an easy gallop in the most beautiful style, drawing small circles in the air with the glittering points of their lances. These men, too, were brilliantly uniformed, the horses were lavishly caparisoned, and all the plumes and flags and pennons were fluttering. Had they maintained their impetus, they could have carried all before them; but the attitude of the Americans, who made no attempt to form a square and merely stood still with shouldered arms, puzzled the Mexican leader. He wondered, probably, what there might be in the ravine close by them, and slackening speed he almost halted, about seventy yards away, at the very focus of their angle.[19]

But suddenly the muskets and rifles were levelled. Each man picked his target, and at the word “Fire!”—just as the Mexican bugler sounded the charge—two sheets of flame converged on that splendid brigade. The head of it fell to the ground, and the rest were thrown into confusion. Then the Mississippi men leaped forward, yelling wildly, seized horses by the bits, threw them back on their haunches, and finished many a helpless rider with the 18-inch bowie-knife, while the Indianians fired and plied the bayonet, and Sherman, coming up with a howitzer, blasted out wide, red gaps. The onslaught was irresistible; the whole brigade with its infantry support recoiled; and the victors pressed on in pursuit.[19]

A deafening thunderstorm of rain and hail now burst upon the contending armies, but the battle in the north field hardly paused. While Sherman accompanied the right of the Mississippi and Indiana men, Bragg and a body of dragoons flanked their left;[13] the American artillery on the plateau, having little to do there, turned its attention upon the same dense masses; and gradually this whole force of Mexicans was driven back to the mountain. Retiring then into a recess of the sierra, they became more and more closely concentrated, and the American fire more and more destructive; but as the lancers had been stabbing their wounded enemies, no pity was felt on our side now.[19]

Nothing but annihilation appeared to await the panic-stricken mass; but precisely at this juncture—about one o’clock—several Mexican officers, who had been separated from their troops, galloped up to Taylor in the desperate hope of saving their lives, and asked in the name of Santa Anna what the American general wanted.[14] Upon this Wool himself rode with a white flag toward the spot where Santa Anna was supposed to be, in order to ascertain the meaning of this extraordinary question, and to a considerable extent the American fire ceased. As the Mexican guns, however, kept at work, Wool returned; but during this lull the troops imprisoned in the recess passed rapidly along the base of the mountain, girdling it with a belt of shining steel, toward the San Patricio battery. Their escape was deeply regretted, but at all events the north field was now clear of them.[19]

From the first, Santa Anna had been determined to gain the American rear, doubtless believing that if taken in reverse the volunteers would certainly give way, and he had succeeded in completely outflanking us; yet Ampudia’s light brigade, the heavy infantry, Torrejón’s cavalry, and the brilliant corps of lancers that attacked the Mississippi and Indiana troops had all failed. Upset, perhaps, by this disappointment, he threw away his chance of triumph, for he should have coöperated with his brave troops in the north field by hurling upon the American centre all the forces that could be gathered on the south field and the plateau.[15] But now, for a last and crowning effort, he assembled these forces, placed them under the command of General Pérez, and advanced the battery on his right flank to an elevated position.[19]

Unwittingly Taylor played into his hands, for now—about four o’clock—he ordered Hardin to charge;[16] and the brave colonel, whose finely cut, virile face, jet-black eye and tightly closed lips told what he was, advanced promptly with his six companies. This movement brought him before long into contact with the Mexicans from the recess, who, observing the smallness of his command, rallied against him. Bissell and McKee, seeing that he was overmatched, hastened to his aid, and all three pushed vigorously forward; but suddenly queer objects appeared to be moving along the surface of the plateau at their right, and in another moment out of the ground rose a forest of muskets. This was the corps of Pérez emerging from the broad ravine. Hardin, Bissell and McKee poured upon it a hot fire. So did O’Brien with his two 6-pounders, and Chickamauga Thomas with one of Sherman’s pieces. But the fire of the Mexicans, one terrific blaze and roar, was this time low and true. The air seemed thick with their bullets. Some of the Kentucky men dropped to the ground to escape them. “Up, up and on!” cried McKee, and with frantic cheers they sprang again to their work.[19]

But they fought in vain. The odds were too great, and the Americans too exhausted. “Retreat or you are lost!” was the order; and the three regiments, enveloped by the left wing of Pérez, rushed and rolled in headlong flight down the second gulch toward the road. Here the fearless Hardin, defending himself to the last with a sabre, his only weapon, sank to the ground. Here the son of Henry Clay, wounded in the thigh, refused to let his men imperil their lives by trying to carry him farther, and bravely met his fate; and here fell the gallant McKee, covered with wounds. Indeed, all seemed to be doomed alike, for lancers hurried on to close the mouth of the gulch; but suddenly Washington’s guns opened with spherical case shot, and under this driving, hissing blast of iron the Americans ran breathless to La Angostura.[19]

On the plateau, during this catastrophe, the right wing of Pérez bore down upon Taylor’s position at the centre. Nothing formidable stood in its way except O’Brien, for Thomas was fully occupied about one hundred yards to O’Brien’s left and rear. Understanding the crisis and ready to sacrifice everything if he could only gain a little time, O’Brien fired canister till not one of his gunners was left, and the Mexicans could almost lay hands on the pieces, and then just managed to hobble away. The Mexicans now swept on at a run. The fragments at our centre were on the point of giving way. The day seemed lost.[19]

But by this time Bragg and Sherman, lashing and spurring their tired horses, came up from the north field; and the Indiana and Mississippi regiments, hurrying over the ridges and ravines with trailed arms, appeared on their left some distance away. Without support Bragg whirled his guns into battery only a few rods from the enemy, and Sherman followed his example, while the infantry charged the Mexican flank and rear; and quickly, but none too soon, canister and bullets told. Round followed round, and volley pursued volley. The infantry shook with fatigue; the men at the cannon, grimy with powder-stains, gasped for air as they rammed the charges home; but they all kept at work.[19]

Bravely fought the Mexicans, too; but such a staggering fire could not be resisted, and soon the dark masses of Pérez’s column reeled back in confusion to the broad ravine. It was now about five o’clock. Our artillery continued to play for a while on the San Patricio battery, but even Miñón, who had been making feeble demonstrations against Saltillo, was by this time thoroughly repulsed,[17] and the roar of battle subsided. The terrible conflict was in fact over. Both armies were too exhausted to fight longer, and in the narrow valley day was already waning.

“The guns still roared at intervals; but silence fell at last,
And on the dead and dying came the evening shadows fast;
And then above the mountains rose the pale moon’s silver shield,
And patiently and pitying she looked upon the field.”[19]


It was an extraordinary battle. On the part of the Americans it began in flight and ended in success. Marred by mistakes and failures, it exhibited even more strikingly both skill and moral grandeur. Taylor seems to have had but little to do with directing it, and that little seems to have been poor work; but he did more than engineer success—he created it. Huddled rather than mounted, a great part of the time, on Old Whitey, with arms folded and one leg unconcernedly thrown across the pommel of his saddle, the conspicuous target of the Mexican artillery yet utterly unmoved even when his clothes were pierced, he was a fountain of courage and energy.[18] In other words, the victory of Buena Vista was due primarily to Taylor’s prestige, valor and gift of inspiring confidence. Others contributed essentially, however. Wool, who commanded on our left, played the rôle of the fearless professional soldier that he was. Many other officers and certain corps exhibited a heroism of the noblest quality. Our artillery was beyond praise for both daring and skill. As Wool said in his report, the army could not have stood for “a single hour” without it; and the batteries served indispensably, moreover, as rallying-points for the infantry. The lancers, cantering over the plain and finishing the American wounded, gave great assistance by exasperating and warning our men; and even Miñón helped us, for he made it look extremely dangerous, during much of the time, to set out for Saltillo.[19]

Nor should our foes be undervalued. While it was said afterwards that a number of the higher officers did badly, the troops earned by their wonderful march, their endurance of hunger and especially thirst, and their valiant fighting under the terrible fire of the American artillery, a liberal mead of praise. In fact, when due allowance is made for the numbers of their almost valueless cavalry and for the position, equipment, supplies and comparative freshness of the Americans, one finds the two armies not very unevenly matched, and so far as fighting was concerned, the engagement proved almost or perhaps quite a drawn battle.[19]

Then followed a night almost as hard as the day. In killed and wounded Taylor had lost 673 officers and men,[20] and in spite of his personal influence 1500 or 1800 appear to have quit the field. Those who remained, fatigued not only by their exertions but in consequence of the rarefied atmosphere, found themselves at the end of their strength, both physical and moral. Evidently the Mexicans were not so contemptible. Only one of our regiments had kept its face always toward the enemy. Some of the bravest leaders had fallen. The death of so many comrades depressed all. In too many cases officers had lost confidence in their men, or men in their officers. Many home letters were written that night, and they were all despondent. The howl of the wolf and the creaking flap of the buzzard reached the very souls of the sleepless men shivering in the cold. Wool felt compelled to use the flat of his sword on some of the officers, and even that did not make them stir. Officer after officer assured Taylor that no more fighting could be done, or that it would mean defeat if attempted.[24]

Not for a moment, however, would the General admit this. He was determined to hold the ground, querying only whether Santa Anna would turn the American position during the night or make another frontal attack in the morning.[21] The Mississippi regiment was ordered to Saltillo, while most of the troops holding the city were drawn to the front; and a detachment of the Kentucky mounted volunteers with four heavy guns, marching that night from Rinconada Pass, thirty-five miles distant, could be reckoned on. But the General felt deeply mortified by the skulking, and wondered how many men would give him the slip before morning.[24]


Still more bitter were the reflections of Santa Anna. His passionate nature ebbed and flowed, and a reverse always depressed him extremely. He was tired out, and his old wound had begun to make him trouble. Probably not less than 1800 of his men had been killed or wounded; 294 had been captured; and he was probably not far from the mark when he said that more than 4000 had left him during the battle.[22] He felt that the American position, defended by men whose fighting compelled his admiration, was impregnable. Mexican troops always lacked morale for long, and especially for unsuccessful, operations; and the troops under his command were now spent in every way. Confidence in their leader and in the hope of booty failed them. They remembered how they had been forced into the ranks and then abused. Surprised by an infantry that seemed to recognize no defeat, they were dumfounded by an artillery that seemed to be everywhere at once and always blazing. Hunger, thirst, and cold tormented them.[24]

Such conditions meant wholesale desertion; and, as a Mexican officer wrote that evening, it was a grave question whether the troops, if left overnight in their present loose and scattered state, would not disband.[23] The country would then be without a disciplined army to oppose either Taylor or Scott; and Santa Anna knew what his enemies would say in that case. If, on the other hand, he should lead back an organized force bearing the recognized fruits of victory, two banners and three cannon, he could claim a success even if not a positive triumph. So, leaving behind the wounded that were not within easy reach or could not well be transported, he closed up his ranks not long after nightfall, and set out for Agua Nueva. At first the march was like a funeral procession, except that dead men appeared to be celebrating their own obsequies. Nobody spoke; the bands were silent; the groans of the wounded and the rumble of the artillery and wagons took the place of conversation and music. But before long the slender crescent of the moon sank behind the mountain; and then in the greatest confusion the men stumbled and hurried along, eager to find a resting place.[24]

Of this movement the American outposts were not aware. A Mexican brigade kept fires burning along the whole front, and pickets rode steadily to and fro singing to themselves a strange, sad air. When the first pale gleam was visible above the sierra, our soldiers bestirred themselves for another battle. But as the day began to grow, only the backs of a Mexican rearguard could be seen. A joyous murmur ran from group to group. Soon it was confirmed; it swelled to a shout; hard-featured, battle-worn men became boys again; and Taylor and Wool threw themselves, with moist eyes, into each other’s arms.[24]


About 860 officers and 9000 men gathered round Santa Anna that forenoon at Agua Nueva. Temporary supplies of food were available,[25] and the troops were at once reorganized by combining companies from different corps. Before the day was out Major Bliss arrived to propose an exchange of prisoners and suggest an end of hostilities.[26] To the former proposition Santa Anna acceded, but he rejected the latter; and, ordering the eyes of the American commissioner to be unbound, he exhibited to him an army prepared for battle. In general orders he stated that his purpose in retiring had been to draw Taylor upon ground where Mexican cavalry could operate; but, as the prospect of resuming the offensive was extremely slight, provisions were scanty, the dysentery had already broken out, and the presence of so many wounded men—more than 700 poor fellows in the most wretched condition—seemed liable to produce other diseases, a council of war decided the next day upon retreat, and February 26 in the afternoon the troops moved south.[27]

Now came their real defeat. Like Napoleon returning from Russia, Santa Anna hurried on in advance, and owing to complications there was actually no general-in-chief. Divisions and corps marched and lived as they could. Officers obeyed or disobeyed as they chose. Dysentery, typhus and all sorts of minor distresses prevailed. The condition of the troops was enough to make nature shudder, wrote an officer; and the march was “worse than three retreats from Matamoros put together.” Probably not less than 3000 men were lost in one way or another on the road; and when the miserable survivors—less than half the number that had left San Luis full of enthusiasm—began to arrive in that city, the sensation among the people was described by a witness as “most profound.” Santa Anna, however, had already been accorded triumphal honors there. By this time a wave of jubilation, soon to break in plaudits on the far-distant shores of Tabasco River, was in motion; and he took pains to ensure proper testimony by having a cross of honor decreed to every officer distinguished in the battle, and by distributing twenty-seven promotions in the three highest grades.[27]

For Taylor also the battle of Buena Vista had a sequel. Impressed, very likely, by the report of Bliss, he allowed his army to rest where it was for three days; but late on the twenty-seventh, having ascertained Santa Anna’s retreat through a reconnaissance, he reoccupied Agua Nueva, where he found a number of Mexican wounded, and on March 1—though his troops were not yet fresh enough to pursue the enemy or he did not think it safe to do so—he pushed a detachment on to La Encarnación with a like result. Provisions and surgical assistance were freely given to the disabled foemen, but their comrades were evidently beyond reach.[29]

Taylor’s rear, however, caused him rather serious trouble. The long shadow cast by Santa Anna’s army had spread alarm and confusion all over northeastern Mexico, and the approach of troops from Tula deepened it. Even the people of Monclova and Parras, despite their promises to be neutral, took up arms. The Americans were now to be driven across the Rio Grande and perhaps the Sabine, it was threatened. Preparations for defence were made at all our chief posts, and for this reason they were hardly molested; but the lines of communication could not be maintained, detachments en route were menaced or assailed, and on the day following the battle Urrea, a polished ruffian of the distinctive Spanish-American type, broke up a large wagon train with signal atrocity.[28] The rancheros coöperated eagerly in this profitable work, and the result of the battle had little effect upon them, for they had seen the Mexican army come and go at will, and doubtless thought it might appear again. Taylor therefore proceeded to Monterey about the eighth of March, and endeavored to restore order. On the twenty-eighth he reported that quiet had returned; but three weeks later, though he believed that Urrea and his regulars had withdrawn beyond the Sierra Madre, he admitted that bands of robbers were still very numerous.[29]

Nor was the panic limited to this region. Almost equal alarm prevailed in the United States. “The sympathy of every human being is elicited,” wrote Brooke at New Orleans; and the government itself, hurrying off recruits and authorizing Brooke to accept new volunteers, awaited in “painful suspense” the result of Santa Anna’s advance. The tidings of his failure, exaggerated of course into news of a brilliant and overwhelming triumph won by a general robbed of his troops, caused a tremendous rebound. Polk, holding that only Taylor’s blundering and violation of orders had created the peril, and that his brave men had rescued him from it, would not permit a general salute in the army; but the nation saluted, and the General’s nomination for the Presidency became inevitable.[29]



In most cases it will not be difficult to determine where the MS. sources are preserved. Despatches to or from a military or naval officer, a diplomatic or a consular agent may be understood, if there is no indication to the contrary, to be in the corresponding archives of the government addressed. (The connection of the author of a despatch may be ascertained by looking up his name in the index.) This direction may seem vague, but the officials at the archives will be found able to supply the needful details. The principal foreign agents in Mexico were (U. S.) Poinsett, Butler, Ellis, Thompson, Shannon, Slidell, and (consuls) Jones, Black, and Dimond; (England) Morier, Ward, Pakenham, Ashburnham, Bankhead, Doyle, Thornton, and (consul) Giffard; (France) Cochelet, Martin, Deffaudis, and Cyprey; and (Spain) Bermúdez de Castro and Lozano. Mexican documents cited in the form “To S. Anna, Apr. 20” or “S. Anna, Mar. 4,” are in the archives of the War Dept. of Mexico, National Palace. Many unofficial letters can readily be traced by means of the list of MS. sources. When it has seemed desirable, however, particularly at the beginning of a chapter, heavy figures referring to that list have been prefixed to the citation, and also to many citations of official documents. The MS. sources are given in the appendix of each volume; the printed sources in the appendix of the second volume.

A formula like “Ho. 60; 30, 1” means House Executive Document no. 60, of the Thirtieth Congress, first session; and “Cong. Globe, 30, 2” refers to the Congressional Globe, Thirtieth Congress, second session. In some cases it has been found best to cite a document broadly by mentioning the first page of it; and the same remark applies to passages in other publications. The year in the date of a cited document is omitted when it is the same as that of the events referred to in the corresponding paragraph of the text. E.g. a document dated Oct. 15, 1847, attached to a paragraph dealing with Scott’s landing at Vera Cruz (March, 1847) or capturing Mexico City (Sept., 1847) is cited as of “Oct. 15,” not “Oct. 15, 1847.” This is done to save space. The abbreviations are plain. “Gov.” means governor; “comte. gen.,” comandante general; “comte. mil.” comandante militar. “Gov. Puebla,” etc., means governor of Puebla, etc. “Diario” means the official newspaper. For fuller titles of books the list of sources may be consulted.

The want of definiteness and the lack of statistics in numerous cases (particularly Mexican affairs) may be charged to a dearth of trustworthy data.



1. Another reason for the neglect of the Mexican War has been its unpopularity. But for that, it would no doubt have been thoroughly studied sooner.

2. A second reason for preparing this history was that a number of important topics—such as the conditions existing in the two countries just before the war, the war in American politics, our conduct and methods in occupied territory, the finances of the war, its foreign relations, etc.—had been treated most superficially or not at all. In the third place it was hoped to handle more carefully the material previously used. The bound volumes entitled “Archivo de Guerra” in the Archivo General y Público at Mexico occupy some 200 feet of shelf room, and the papers examined in the Archivo de Guerra y Marina, which had to be examined one by one, would probably, if placed one on another, make a pile sixty feet high.

As will be seen from the detailed account of the MS. sources (appendix), the author did not visit the archives of all the Mexican states and cities. This was because nothing further of local value could be hoped for, and because the practice of communicating from state to state copies of important documents made it seem unnecessary to continue in those directions. The results in Peru and Colombia were negative, but this fact had a positive significance, for there were reasons to look for an active sympathy and correspondence with Mexico in those quarters. The author planned to examine the Prussian archives, but the outbreak of the great war prevented him from doing so. From other trustworthy sources, mostly unpublished, he fully understood the attitude of that government, however (chap. xxxv). The reports of the Prussian representative at Mexico cannot have been reliable, both because of his personal characteristics and because for several reasons he did not stand within the inner circle, and probably, since his government felt scarcely any interest in the war, they were not full. Hence it is not believed that anything of material value has been lost through the impossibility of examining them. Of some of the newspaper files only scattered portions were found. Many newspapers, as well as many books and pamphlets, were read to ascertain the general temper, social state, and political conditions of the two countries, and it appeared unnecessary to set down references—which would have been almost innumerable—to such literature. The author contemplated at one time a critical discussion of the sources, but he soon found that this would require too much space. It would in fact make a volume. For additional information regarding the sources one may consult an article of the author’s that appeared in The Military Historian and Economist, vol. i, no. 1.

3. The printed versions of diplomatic and military documents, when substantially correct, are usually cited in the notes, because they are easily accessible; but so far as possible they have been collated with the originals. On the value of official military reports the author presented some remarks in the American Historical Review, vol. xxi, p. 96. Gen. Worth said privately that Scott’s report on the battle of Cerro Gordo was “a lie from beginning to end,” and in a sense different from what this language would at first sight appear to mean, it was fairly correct (chap. xxiii, note 33). Subordinate officers not infrequently brought all possible influence, both personal and political, to bear upon the general whose report they knew would be printed. A general naturally favored in his report the regiment and the officers with whom he had been formerly associated. An undue regard for rank was often felt. Taylor asked a promotion for Brig Gen. Twiggs after the capture of Monterey though Twiggs had been ostensibly ill at the time and had taken no material part in the fight. Captain (later General) Bragg wrote: “The feelings succeeding a great victory caused many things to be forgotten and forgiven which would sound badly in history, and which will never be known except in private correspondence” (210to Gov. Hammond, May 4, 1848). An important document issued by our government was privately described by the adj. gen. as “full of inaccuracies” (117R.Jones to B. Mayer, Oct. 10, 1848).

A special reason for leaving no stone unturned has been the consideration that the omission of a significant fact is even worse than a positive error, sinc