The Conquest of Mexico City

views updated

The Conquest of Mexico City

Eager to expand into the Mexican territories of Texas, California, and New Mexico, and using the excuse that Mexico had shed American blood in the U.S. state of Texas (though Mexico did not recognize it as part of the United States), the United States declared war against Mexico in March 1846. In the months that followed, U.S. troops under General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850; see biographical entry) won several battles against much larger Mexican forces. They were proving that regular army soldiers and volunteers could work together to produce victories. Nevertheless, the war was far from over.

After tricking the U.S. government into allowing him to return to Mexico from Cuba, where he had been exiled, the dynamic Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876; see biographical entry) had gone back on his promise to make peace with the United States. Instead, he had taken over as president of Mexico and gone straight to work on building up the Mexican army. Far from planning peace with the enemy, Santa Anna was promising his people that he would crush the U.S. invaders, whom the Mexicans viewed as brutal, faithless people bent on destroying the Mexican culture and especially the Roman Catholic religion.

General Winfield Scott to lead invasion

U.S. president James K. Polk (1795-1849; see biographical entry) and his advisors were convinced that to win the war, the United States must strike at the heart of Mexico by gaining control of the country's capital, Mexico City. Taylor had achieved much success in the interior reaches of northeastern Mexico, but now Polk turned to a different general to lead the push toward Mexico City.

General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry) was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army and a much-respected veteran of the War of 1812 (1812-14) as well as several major struggles against Native Americans. He was the author of Infantry Tactics, the army's first manual for training soldiers, and he was an expert in military strategy. A tall, strong man of sixty-one, Scott was nicknamed "Old Fuss and Feathers" because he believed in proper dress, formal manners, and strict discipline. He could not have been more different from Taylor, who dressed like a farmer and often reviewed his troops while slouching casually on his horse. It is not surprising that the two generals disliked each other intensely.

Part of their dislike was political. Both were ambitious men who had their eyes on the U.S. presidency. This put Polk in a difficult position, too, because Scott and Taylor were members of the Whig political party, while Polk was a Democrat. Either or both of these generals could become big heroes through their actions in this war, which could put the Whigs back in the White House. Polk would have much preferred to use military leaders from his own party, but none were available. All he could do was hope that neither Scottnor Taylor gained enough glory to get himself elected president after the war.

Scott was to lead an invasion of Mexico City that would begin from the coastal city of Vera Cruz, Mexico's most important port, located 200 miles east of the capital. He planned an amphibious assault (with forces arriving by both water and land) that would turn out to be the largest such operation conducted before World War II (1941-45). To succeed, Scott would need to use some of the troops currently serving under Taylor, so in January 1847, Taylor received an order to transfer most of his regular soldiers and some of his volunteers to Scott's army. Taylor was dismayed, for his army was now reduced by about half to between five and six thousand soldiers, and he would be facing the enemy sooner than Scott. In February 1847, Taylor began pushing his army westward into the interior of Mexico, where the Sierra Madre mountains lay.

The Battle of Buena Vista

Meanwhile, Santa Anna had an army of twenty thousand based at San Luis Potosí, located about 250 miles south of Saltillo, which Taylor's forces had occupied in November 1846. When a U.S. letter was intercepted, Santa Anna learned about Scott's attack plan and also that Taylor's troops had been reduced. Hungry for a victory in northeastern Mexico before he turned his attention to Scott's planned invasion, Santa Anna decided that this would be a good time to attack Taylor. Thus, he marched his army north, losing about five thousand of his men along the way to disease and desertion.

The two armies would meet in an area of very rugged terrain about 150 miles south of Monterrey. The road on which Taylor's troops were traveling went through a narrow pass near a ranch called Buena Vista that would give its name to the battle fought here. There were mountains on one side of the pass and impassible gullies (ditches) on the other, making it difficult terrain for either attack or defense. Taylor's force reached the area on February 22, and took up a defensive position in the pass, beyond which Santa Anna's troops were waiting. The next day, Santa Anna sent Taylor a very formally worded message demanding that the United States surrender. As reported in Don Nardo's The Mexican American War, Taylor responded, "Tell Santa Anna to go to hell!" But the general's more refined and restrained young aide (and future son-in-law), William "Perfect" Bliss, rephrased Taylor's message to read, "I decline acceding [agreeing] to your request."

That afternoon, the two armies took part in some minor skirmishes, then both spent a rainy night preparing for a bigger clash the next day. In the morning, the U.S. troops watched as the Mexican army—dressed in beautiful uniforms, flying colorful banners, and blessed by priests who walked among the troops—prepared itself for battle. Soon, however, fancy uniforms and colorful banners became unimportant as the air filled with smoke and flying bullets. The U.S. troops had protected themselves well with a system of trenches, and they were able to push back the Mexicans' repeated attacks.

As night fell, the two armies agreed to take a break from fighting. The next morning, the U.S. troops were surprised to find that the Mexican army had left the battlefield. They were making a slow retreat back to San Luis Potosí, probably because they could not afford to lose any more men. The Mexicans had left behind 500 dead bodies, and it is estimated that their total casualties were close to 3,000. The U.S. side also had high casualties with 267 killed, 465 wounded, and 23 missing.

A sigh of relief

The U.S. soldiers were relieved when they saw that the Mexicans had retreated and by the realization that things might have turned out differently. This relief is evident in Fairfax Downey's Texas and the War with Mexico. In this book, Downey recounts the recollections of Lew Wallace, who served as a soldier in the Mexican American War and later wrote the novel Ben Hur :

Lew Wallace">

"I looked up the road and saw distinctly the dust of the retreating column. Oh, what a feeling of relief came over me. I set up a shout of victory. It was a mockery however. I had the day before felt very much as I should suppose a whipped man would feel—and I've no doubt—had it been just as convenient for us as for Santa Anna to vamos [go] we would have been off for Monterrey."

Despite the heavy casualties, the United States counted the Battle of Buena Vista as a victory. Once again, a force made up largely of volunteers had performed well against a much larger army and in very difficult terrain. As a result, important territory had been secured. Taylor could bask in the glow of his now even brighter fame, which would propel him into the White House in 1848, while Scott took up the difficult task of conquering Mexico City.

Scott prepares to invade from the coast

Scott spent the early months of 1847 assembling his "Army of Invasion," a force of almost fourteen thousand that included both regiments raised in the United States and those transferred from Taylor's army. He was eager to get his army moving into the Mexican interior before April, which signaled the beginning of the dreaded yellow fever season. This deadly disease—called el vomito negro, or black vomit, by the Mexicans because that was one of its symptoms—was carried by mosquitoes, although this fact was not yet known. Yellow fever was common along Mexico's swampy coast in the spring and summer, and Scott knew that it could take a devastating toll on his soldiers, who would have no immunity to it.

Finally, the force was ready for action, sailing first from the city of Tampico, which had been under U.S. control since October, at the mouth of the Rio Grande to Lobo Island, midway to Vera Cruz. From there they headed to their landing point, Collado Beach, about 3 miles southeast of Vera Cruz, on March 9. Specially made surf-boats carried about ten thousand soldiers to shore, the first time such a feat had been accomplished. As they arrived, the soldiers and sailors could see the impressive, stately, and very well-fortified city in the near distance.

The attack on Vera Cruz

Against the advice of some of his officers, Scott decided not to launch an infantry (foot soldier) attack on Vera Cruz, knowing that too many lives would be lost in the attempt to climb over the city's high walls. Instead, Scott planned to bomb Vera Cruz. However, before the bombardment began, Scott sent a message to General Juan José Landero (1802-1869), who was leading the Mexican defense of Vera Cruz, offering to allow its noncombatant (nonfighting) residents to leave. Scott received no reply, and on March 22, the army began to bomb the city with its heavy cannons. Soon the navy joined the effort, firing from six heavy guns mounted on ships just off the coast.

The U.S. forces had cut off all supply lines into the city, including its water supply, which quickly began to cause much suffering. In addition, many buildings, including private homes, were being destroyed by the bombs, and civilians (nonmilitary people) were being killed along with soldiers. The weapons and ammunition used by the Mexican defenders were of poor quality, and they were not able to respond effectively to the attack. In fact, on the U.S. side, only 19 soldiers were killed in this battle, with 81 wounded, whereas 180 Mexicans were killed.

Finally, on March 28, Landero handed Vera Cruz over to the U.S. forces. The surrender agreement specified that the city's residents would not be prevented from practicing their religion. As had been shown in previous battles, the Mexicans had a deep-seated fear that the U.S. invaders, whom they considered antireligious and especially anti-Catholic, would punish them for their faith.

Santa Anna marches north

News of the Mexican army's defeat at Vera Cruz came as a huge shock to the residents of Mexico City, creating great worry and anger against the Mexican leaders who had allowed this to happen. All that now lay between them and the U.S. forces was 225 miles of the National Highway, the road that led straight from Vera Cruz to their doorsteps. Like the people of Vera Cruz, those of Mexico City feared that the godless U.S. soldiers would destroy churches, murder priests, and rape nuns. It was essential that Mexico crush the invaders before they reached the capital, and this was just what Santa Anna and his army of twenty thousand promised to do. Meanwhile, anxious to get his troops out of the dangerous coastal region, Scott set out on April 8, with a force of eighty-five hundred soldiers. They were bound for Mexico City.

The National Highway was a good example of the unexpected beauty and achievement that U.S. soldiers and officers, most of whom considered Mexico's people and culture inferior to their own, witnessed as they marched through the Mexican countryside and paused in its towns and cities. Originally built by the Spanish, who had conquered Mexico in the sixteenth century and occupied it for almost three hundred years, the National Highway was generally well paved, evenly graded, and equipped with gutters to drain off rain water. It was certainly far superior to most U.S. roads of the period. And it provided a convenient route for the U.S. Army as it began its march toward its first goal on the way to Mexico City, the town of Jalapa.

The Battle of Cerro Gordo

Determined to halt the U.S. advance, Santa Anna positioned his army at a narrow mountain pass near the village of Cerro Gordo, only 12 miles west of Vera Cruz. Nearby were many extremely steep hills. The Mexicans chose to fortify only one of them, called El Telégrafo, because they assumed the U.S. troops would not be able to make these nearly vertical ascents with their heavy guns. Arriving on the scene on April 17, however, U.S. Army engineers led by Lieutenant Robert E. Lee (destined to become the leading general of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War; 1861-65) devised a special conveyer system to move both equipment and men up the steep hills. They did so rapidly and without the Mexicans detecting them. The next day, the U.S. forces were able to attack the Mexicans from three sides in a movement that soon caused great losses among Santa Anna's troops.

Realizing that his army had been out-maneuvered and unwilling to sustain more losses, Santa Anna ordered a hasty retreat. Many Mexican soldiers had already begun to flee, and Santa Anna himself left in such a hurry that he had to abandon many personal belongings, including his wooden leg (perhaps a spare). In this short battle, only 63 U.S. soldiers were killed and 353 wounded, while the Mexicans sustained an estimated 1,000 casualties. The United States captured 3,000 Mexican soldiers, who were released after their guns were taken and they had promised not to fight again, as well as 43 cannons, 4,000 smaller weapons, and a big load of ammunition and other supplies.

The U.S. troops were surprised to find the bodies of many Mexican women among those left on the battlefield at Cerro Gordo. These women were called soldaderas —mothers, wives, and girlfriends—who followed the Mexican army, providing a great service to its leaders by feeding, clothing, and nursing the soldiers and sometimes even taking part in battles. Once again, the U.S. soldiers were astounded to find this evidence of Mexican bravery, devotion, and patriotism.

Back in the United States, those who opposed the war were growing both in number and volume. They wanted to know why it was necessary to attack Mexico City, since they believed that enough blood, especially Mexican, had already been shed. Among those making strong antiwar statements at this time were former slave Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and well-known writer and activist, and abolitionist (person who wanted to end slavery) William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879). In fact, as quoted in Howard Zinn's People's History of the U.S.A., Garrison's Liberator newspaper published a statement that might even have been considered treasonous (disloyal or traitorous to one's nation) since it seemed to call for a Mexican victory. The statement read: "We wish [Scott] and his troops no bodily harm, but the most utter defeat and disgrace."

The army pauses at Puebla

With the Mexican army now retreating to the south, Scott could continue on his way to Jalapa, which the U.S. forces occupied with no fighting on April 19. Troops under General William Worth (1794-1849) also took the town of Perote, and Puebla was occupied about a month later. The Army of Invasion would rest here for most of the summer of 1847, waiting for replacements for the seven regiments of volunteer soldiers whose terms of service had ended. One new arrival on the scene was state department representative Nicholas P. Trist (1800-1874; see biographical entry), a Spanish-speaking diplomat sent by Polk to try to negotiate a peace treaty with Santa Anna. Scott strongly objected to this move, causing a major feud with Trist that was only overcome later, when the two men became good friends. In any case, Santa Anna did not respond to the offer.

Additional troops arrived in June, and in the first week of August, future U.S. president Major Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) brought more, boosting Scott's army from somewhere between six and seven thousand to about fourteen thousand. Unfortunately, due to the great toll of disease, about two thousand soldiers were too ill to fight, and many more were recovering from illness but still very weak. Besides disease, another problem that Scott faced had to do with his supply line from Vera Cruz. Although the bulk of the Mexican army had retreated to Mexico City, many guerilla (small groups of soldiers who operate outside of the regular army) fighters were still around, and they continually attacked the transports carrying men and supplies between Vera Cruz and Puebla.

Scott makes his move

Against the advice of many, Scott decided that now was the time to stop worrying about the supply lines, gather his available troops together, and move. Between August 7 and 10, almost eleven thousand U.S. troops once again set out for Mexico City.

The U.S. army entered the Valley of Mexico on August 11. Located 7,000 feet above sea level, Mexico City was situated in a volcanic crater 46 miles long and 32 miles wide, and surrounded by six swampy lakes as well as marshes and villages. A city of about two hundred thousand residents, the capital was defended by nearly thirty thousand soldiers and many fortifications. Ruling out other approaches as too easily attacked, Scott chose to reach the city from the south, the muddiest and most difficult route. He stopped the army at San Agustin, located 9 miles from Mexico City. Then he sent his trusted army engineer Robert E. Lee to scout out the area and find a good way to get the army into the city.

"I almost despair…"

Lee found that a 15-square-mile expanse of jagged lava rock known as the pedragal lay just south of the city. The Mexicans would never expect the U.S. forces to try to cross it, for it was full of treacherous bumps and dips. Lee, however, discovered an old mule trail that could be adapted to the army's uses. Work began immediately on expanding the mule trail into a road, while the U.S. soldiers gazed with nervous apprehension at the majestic city in the distance. Their fears are evident in an excerpt from a letter written by the Fifth Infantry's Captain E. Kirby Smith to his wife and quoted in David Nevin's The Mexican American War : "I almost despair when I reflect upon the destitute situation in which you will be left, with the three children dependent upon you, should I fall in the coming battle."

The Battles of Contreras and Churubusco

Just as Lee had foreseen, the troops were able to cross the pedragal successfully. After reaching the other side they took their positions, and on August 19, attacked a Mexican force near the village of Contreras. The United States won this battle as well as another the next day at the very well-fortified town of Churubusco. There the U.S. soldiers had to storm a convent that the Mexicans had been using to store weapons. These two battles were extremely costly for the Mexicans, who suffered 4,000 casualties, or about one-third of their total force. The United States had about 150 killed and a little more than 800 wounded.

Among the defenders of the convent at Churubusco was the two-hundred-and-sixty-member San Patricio Battalion, which was down to only seventy-five men (including its leader, John Riley) by the end of the fight. At a hearing held immediately after the battle, fifty members of the battalion were given the death penalty for treason (betraying or being a traitor to one's own country). Riley and the others, who had joined the Mexican army before war was officially declared, were sentenced to be whipped and branded with a "D" to mark them as deserters. The fifty who were to be executed would be hanged on a hill overlooking Mexico City, just after U.S. troops had conquered the capital.

On August 21, as the U.S. forces prepared to attack Mexico City and the Mexican army prepared to defend it, Scott sent a letter to Santa Anna proposing that the two nations begin peace negotiations. As quoted in The Mexican American War by Don Nardo, Scott stated that "Too much blood has already been shed in this unnatural war between the two great Republics of this Continent. It is time that the differences between them should be amicably and peacefully settled." Santa Anna agreed to the ceasefire, and a truce went into effect the next day. At Santa Anna's request, former Mexican president José Joaquín de Herrera led a team representing Mexico in peace talks. However, the talks were halted because of Santa Anna's unreasonable demands, and the truce ended on September 7.

The U.S. Army takes El Molino del Rey and Casa Mata

On September 8, Scott ordered an attack on El Molino del Rey, located only about 2 miles from Mexico City. Part of Santa Anna's elaborate system of fortifications, this group of stone buildings was rumored to house a cannon factory. Worth led 3,400 soldiers in the attack, meeting unexpectedly fierce resistance before they were finally able to overcome the Mexican defenders. The U.S. force also quickly took nearby Casa Mata. The assault, however, proved very costly for the U.S. side, especially since it turned out that there was no cannon factory in El Molino del Rey. After the battle, it was reported that 23 percent of those fighting for the United States had been killed, wounded, or were missing. This was the highest rate of casualties of any single battle of the war, and resulted in Worth being criticized for poor planning.

The only remaining obstacle between Scott's army and Mexico City was the famous landmark, Chapultepec Hill, located on the western edge of the capital. A 600-yard-long, 195-feet-high slab of volcanic rock, this hill was home to the National Military Academy (housed in a palace that had once belonged to the Spanish rulers of Mexico) and a source of great pride to the Mexicans. Chapultepec had been a symbol of their history and heritage since the days of Montezuma, the great Aztec leader who had once ruled over this land and these people's ancestors. Scott knew that capturing the hill was the next, and most inevitable, step in conquering Mexico City.

The fight for Chapultepec Hill

On September 12, Scott's troops began bombing both Chapultepec Hill and the city beyond it. The heavy cannons kept up their devastating work throughout the whole day and night, causing much damage and many deaths (both military and civilian). The next morning, the bombing stopped and the infantry set out on foot. Troops led by Worth, General Gideon Pillow (1806-1878), and General John A. Quitman (1799-1858) attacked Chapultepec Hill from the north, west, and southeast, respectively. Since most of Santa Anna's soldiers were inside the city wall, the hill was defended by only about eight hundred troops, who were under the command of General Nicolás Bravo. Most of Bravo's soldiers were experienced veterans, but about fifty of them were cadets from the National Military Academy. These cadets were thirteen-to seventeen-year-old boys clad in their traditional gray uniforms and tasseled blue hats. Although they had been ordered to leave, this dedicated group had stayed to defend their school and their nation.

As the U.S. soldiers charged toward the hill, the Mexicans fired down on them until they were at the hill's base, out of the range of the Mexican guns. There the U.S. troops waited until tall ladders were brought to allow them to climb up the hill. As they ascended, many were shot down or fell to the ground when the Mexicans above pushed the ladders backwards. At about the same time that the U.S. soldiers began making it up to the top of the hill, the Mexicans were running out of ammunition, and the hand-to-hand fight that then took place was brutal.

Soon almost all of the Mexican defenders of Chapultepec Hill had fallen even though they outnumbered the U.S troops. Among the last to die were six cadets who fought ferociously until they were killed, earning for themselves a lasting place in Mexico's history. Finally only one of Los Ninoes Heroes (the boy heroes), Juan Escutia, was left. After being shot, he pulled down his country's flag and wrapped it around himself before he either jumped or fell from the palace roof. Two hours after the attack on Chapultepec Hill began, the surviving Mexicans surrendered to the U.S. troops.

The United States takes Mexico City

It was not long after this battle that U.S. troops launched a full-scale attack on Mexico City. By the end of the day, the U.S. side had suffered 850 casualties, while the Mexicans had sustained 3,000, including 800 taken prisoner. During the night, anticipating an even more disastrous battle the next day, Santa Anna and what was left of his army fled the city, retreating to the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo, just north of the capital. Scott rode into Mexico City in triumph at dawn on September 14. Two days later, Santa Anna resigned the presidency, stating that others were to blame for the country's bad fortune.

Technically, the war was over, but that did not mean that all of the trouble had disappeared. Still in charge of the Mexican army, Santa Anna made one last show of force on September 22, with an unsuccessful attack on the U.S. garrison at Puebla. U.S. supply lines were still harassed by guerillas, and snipers in Mexico City and elsewhere continued to shoot occasionally at the invaders who had overrun their country. Scott was now faced with the difficult task of setting up a temporary government in Mexico City, which had been left virtually leaderless and in chaos. In fact, the last U.S. troops would not leave Mexico until June 1848. However, the news that reached the United States, and caused the greatest rejoicing there, was that the war had ended and that the United States was triumphant.

For More Information

Books

Downey, Fairfax. Texas and the War with Mexico. New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1961.

Eisenhower, John S. D. So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. New York: Random House, 1989.

Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

George, Isaac. Heroes and Incidents of the Mexican War. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1982.

Hogan, Michael. The Irish Soldiers of Mexico. Guadalajara, Mexico: Fondo Editorial Universitario, 1997.

Nardo, Don. The Mexican-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books,1991.

Nevin, David. The Mexican War. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.

Robinson, Cecil, ed. and trans. The View from Chapultepec: Mexican Writers on the Mexican-American War. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Web Sites

Descendants of Mexican War Veterans. The U.S.-Mexican War: 1846-1848. [Online] Available http://www.dmwv.org/mexwar/mexwar1.htm (accessed on January 31, 2003).

The Mexican-American War Memorial Homepage. [Online] Available http://sunsite.unam.mx/revistas/1847/Summa.html (accessed on January 31, 2003).

PBS Online. U.S.-Mexican War: 1846-1848. [Online] Available http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/ (accessed on January 31,2003).

A Few Voices Speak Out Against the War

Despite the general popularity of the Mexican American War, there was a small but significant group of voices that spoke out against it. Some of the most prominent are described here.

Henry David Thoreau

A native of New England, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a prominent essayist who urged people to cast off society's conventions and commune with nature to achieve peace and enlightenment. After the war, Thoreau would gain fame as the author of a famous book called Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) in which he chronicled his experiences living for two years in a small cabin on Walden Pond, near his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.

It was during his time on Walden Pond, in the summer of 1846, that Thoreau made a dramatic antiwar protest. Like many U.S. citizens, Thoreau believed that the war was closely linked with slavery, which he believed was morally wrong. In order to protest, Thoreau refused to pay his taxes because he did not want any of his own money to be used to finance a war associated with slavery. He did not pay taxes for six years. While walking into Concord one day to have a shoe repaired, Thoreau happened to meet the town's police officer, Sam Staples. When Staples told Thoreau that if he did not pay his taxes soon he would be sent to jail, the writer replied that he had no intention of paying until the war was over and slavery abolished. In regard to jail time, said Thoreau, as quoted in Catherine Reef's Henry David Thoreau: A Neighbor to Nature, he could spend it "as well now as any time, Sam."

Staples did indeed take Thoreau to jail. During the night, someone (probably one of Thoreau's relatives) paid his taxes and, much against his wishes, he was released in the morning. The experience later inspired Thoreau to write "Civil Disobedience," an important and very influential essay in which he stresses the necessity of following one's own conscience even if it means breaking laws that one considers unjust. Thoreau's contention that this is an effective and peaceful way to bring about positive change in society has since inspired other leaders, such as India's Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) and U.S. civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968).

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A celebrated essayist and poet, as well as Thoreau's friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) also disapproved of the war. Although they were of the same opinion, Emerson did not condone Thoreau's action, and contrary to popular belief, is not the person who bailed Thoreau out of jail. It is said that when Emerson later asked Thoreau why he had taken this action, Thoreau replied, "Why did you not?"

Abraham Lincoln

An Illinois Congressman who was destined to become president of the United States during one of the most turbulent periods in its history, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) opposed the Mexican American War even after others loudly proclaimed that this made him a traitor. In December 1847, Lincoln introduced to Congress a series of resolutions that challenged President James K. Polk (1795-1849) to prove "whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed was, or was not, our own soil." Lincoln was referring to the claim found in Polk's war message to Congress that American blood had been shed on American soil; in fact, the area in which several U.S. soldiers had been killed by Mexican troops was claimed by both countries. Polk never responded to what would become known as Lincoln's "spot resolutions."

Lincoln also spoke out against the war in January 1848 (when peace negotiations were underway), questioning why the United States had gotten into the conflict in the first place. He was not re-elected to Congress, and many believed that his opposition to the war had made him unpopular. Nevertheless, Lincoln was elected president in 1860, presiding over the bloody Civil War (1861-65) which pitted the northern states against the southern Confederacy and even cost Lincoln his own life when he was assassinated by a southern sympathizer.

Joshua Giddings

An Ohio congressman and an ardent abolitionist, Joshua Giddings (1795-1864) felt that the war was the result of a conspiracy by southerners to expand the practice of slavery into any new territories that might be gained through the conflict. He was one of only fourteen members of Congress (all of them from the Whig Party, whose members generally condemned slavery) to vote against the war. Convinced that the war was one of pure and unjustified aggression, Don Nardo's book, The Mexican American War, quotes Giddings as stating that "In the murder of Mexicans upon their own soil, or in robbing them of their country, I can take no part either now or hereafter."

William Lloyd Garrison and Horace Greeley

A Massachusetts journalist and abolitionist with extreme views about the immorality of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) agreed with those who believed the war was just an excuse to expand the practice. He published many antiwar editorials and poems in his magazine, The Liberator. Another journalist who spoke out against the war was Horace Greeley (1811-1872), who wrote in the New York Tribune that "We can easily defeat the armies of Mexico, slaughter them by the thousands but what then? Who believes that a score of victories over Mexico will give us more liberty, a purer morality?"

Sources: Crawford, Mark. Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War. Santa Barbara, CA: American Bibliographical Center-Clio Press, 1998; Nardo, Don. Mexican-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1991; Reef, Catherine. Henry David Thoreau: A Neighbor to Nature. Frederick, MD: Twenty-first Century Books, 1992.

About this article

The Conquest of Mexico City

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article