Peace, But at What Cost

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Peace, But at What Cost?

On September 14, 1847, General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry) led U.S. troops in a triumphant march into Mexico City, which they had just taken from its Mexican defenders. The veteran military leader known as "Old Fuss and Feathers," because of his formal dress and belief in manners and strict discipline, had landed on the Mexican coast the previous March. At that time, the United States was already deep in a war over territory that would one day become the states of Texas, California, and New Mexico. Troops led by General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850; see biographical entry) had taken control of northern Mexico, while a combined army and navy force under General Stephen W. Kearny (1794-1849; see biographical entry) and Commodore Robert Stockton (1795-1866) had conquered California and New Mexico.

It had been Scott's role to finish the war by striking at the heart of Mexico, the nation's capital, Mexico City. From the east coast of Mexico, Scott led his Army of Invasion in a campaign that had been victorious at the battles of Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo as well as the bloody conquest of Mexico City. Now the dynamic Mexican military leader, Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876; see biographical entry), had been vanquished from Mexico after he resigned the country's presidency on September 12. His troops had fled Mexico City, leaving its government in chaos and its people in fear and anxiety about the future. The war was over, but now the difficult work of peace would begin.

A long wait for a peace treaty

Traveling with Scott's troops was Nicholas Trist (1800-1874; see biographical entry), a Spanish-speaking representative of the U.S. State Department (the government department that handles relations with other countries). Trist's job was to negotiate a peace treaty with Mexico. The problem was that there was no one on the Mexican side with whom he could meet. Having resigned the presidency, Santa Anna had no power to negotiate a treaty and his role in his country's downfall would soon send him into exile on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Although Manuel de la Peña y Peña (1789-1850) had been chosen as interim (temporary) president, he lacked the approval of the Mexican congress. The atmosphere in Mexico City was tense and uncertain, while in the countryside guerrillas (soldiers operating outside of the army) continued to attack U.S. troops and supply wagons.

Meanwhile, some people called for the United States to take this opportunity to seize the entire country of Mexico, and not just the territory fought over in the war. This "All Mexico" movement included Secretary of State James Buchanon (1791-1869), Vice President George M. Dallas (1792-1864), and Stockton. A majority of U.S. leaders, however, realized that it would be too difficult for the United States to govern such a huge territory, especially one populated by people from a completely different culture, and who spoke a different language. Some critics of the All Mexico movement were motivated by racism (the belief that one's own race is superior to others) in wishing to avoid the "pollution" of white blood by intermarriage with Mexicans, while others pointed out that conquering Mexico would go against the American ideals of democracy and freedom of choice. Thus the All Mexico movement never gained much momentum.

On November 11, a new Mexican congress was elected. Pedro María Anaya, a general who had taken part in the defense of Mexico City, was chosen as the new interim president. Also chosen were commissioners who were to negotiate a peace treaty with the United States. These men began meetings with Trist in the village of Guadalupe Hidalgo, located just north of the capital. At about the same time, Trist received an order from President James K. Polk (1795-1849; see biographical entry) to return to the United States. Polk had grown impatient because it had taken the Mexicans so long to organize a government, and he did not know that the peace talks had finally begun. In a bold move for which he was later praised, Trist decided to disobey Polk's order and continue the negotiations. He did not want to lose what he knew was a good opportunity to work out an agreement with Mexico.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848. It granted to the United States the territories of California and New Mexico, an area of 525,000 square miles and more than half of Mexico's total territory. It established a line about 3 miles south of San Diego as the California border, and the Rio Grande river as the border of Texas. Significantly, the United States agreed to pay Mexico $15 million for this land and to help with rebuilding. The terms of the treaty also forgave debts owed by Mexico to the United States. When news of the treaty reached the United States, a minority of voices screamed that the terms were outrageous. Why should the winner in a war pay the loser? But the treaty's supporters, including most U.S. leaders and newspaper editorial writers, insisted that this generosity would lead to better long-term relations between the United States and its close neighbor.

The treaty reached Polk two weeks later, delivered by reporter James L. Freaner of the New Orleans Delta newspaper, who made the journey from Mexico to Washington, D.C., in record time. Although he was initially angry with Trist for disobeying his order, Polk was pleased with the final treaty, and he immediately submitted it to Congress for approval. It was ratified (approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate) on March 10, and signed by Polk on March 16. The Mexican government ratified the treaty on May 30, putting it officially into effect. Since the other remaining border issue, that of where to draw the line between Oregon and the British colony of Canada, had been peacefully resolved in June 1846, the boundaries of the United States were now (except for a few minor adjustments) established as they would remain. As claimed in the traditional song My Country Tis of Thee, the nation now stretched "from sea to shining sea."

Victory: A cause for pride or shame?

On July 4, 1848, the United States received notice that Mexico had ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. On that same day in Washington, D.C., a ceremony was held to dedicate the cornerstone (the first piece of the foundation) of the Washington Monument, the landmark that would honor the first president of the United States, George Washington (1732-1799). According to Donald Frazier's book, The United States and Mexico at War, Massachusetts representative, Whig Party leader, and Speaker of the House (the top leader in the House of Representatives) Robert C. Winthrop claimed in his dedication speech that this day marked "the precise epoch at which we have arrived in the world's history." In other words, because the United States achieved victory in the war, the country must surely have gained respect in the eyes of the world.

The reason for Winthrop's belief was because of the where and how the war was fought. The Mexican American War was the first war that the still-young United States had fought on foreign soil. During this conflict, the United States had successfully moved more than one hundred thousand troops, as well as the huge quantities of weapons, equipment, and supplies needed to wage the war, across great distances, overcoming a myriad of difficulties that included harsh weather, disease, rugged terrain, and harassment from enemy guerillas. In almost every battle, the U.S. Army, with occasional help from the navy, had defeated much larger Mexican forces. Because of the victory, the United States had gained a huge parcel of territory that would eventually comprise the states of California, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as parts of the states of Utah and Nevada. All these factors, many claimed, showed that this nation was no longer an experiment in democracy, a newborn society that might or might not survive.

Yet not everyone agreed that the United States deserved respect for the part it had played in the Mexican American War. For one thing, the financial cost had been high. The country spent $100 million to finance the war. The human cost was even more staggering. Out of 104,556 who had fought in the Mexican American War, 13,768 had died, mostly due to disease. The resulting 13 percent mortality rate was, and still is, the highest of any U.S. war. But some critics argue that the price paid in money and lives is nothing compared to the cost of the honor and integrity of the United States. The nation that trumpeted the ideals of freedom, democracy, and justice for all had invaded and conquered a much weaker country. For no more noble reason than greed, the United States had taken Mexican lives and stolen Mexican land.

Those who had spoken out against the war before it began now predicted that it would take a heavy toll on the international reputation of the United States. The famous essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) predicted that the country would now be seen as militaristic and imperialistic (eager to extend its power over weaker nations). In his memoirs, as quoted in John S. D. Eisenhower's So Far from God, future U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), who served as a young lieutenant during the Mexican American War, would call it "the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

The slavery debate heats up

Related to the question of whether the United States had suffered a moral defeat, even as returning soldiers were welcomed home as heroes with parades and celebrations, was that of slavery. Since the seventeenth century, Africans had been transported under horribly inhumane conditions to North America and forced to work on farms and plantations (very large farms), most of them in the southern United States. Supporters of slavery claimed it was the only way to provide enough agricultural workers to keep the U.S. economy going. Racist attitudes meant that Africans and other people of non-European heritage did not deserve to be treated humanely or offered the same rights as white people.

By the middle of nineteenth century, however, attitudes were beginning to change, especially in the more industrial North. In fact, a division was growing between the northern and southern states, as more northerners began to express the view that slavery was morally wrong. An abolitionist movement, whose members worked to end slavery, had emerged and was growing in numbers and influence. In the South, however, the economy was still based on agriculture, and farmers and plantation owners still depended on slaves to work their fields and harvest the cotton, rice, and other crops. White southerners felt pride in their own customs and lifestyle and did not want anything to change, and they resented the interference of northerners in their affairs.

A delicate balance of power

Throughout the nineteenth century, new states were being formed. Some of them allowed slavery and some did not, and this was an important difference because it meant that the balance of power between slave and free states (or, as it worked out, southern and northern states) could shift. Southerners wanted the new states to allow slavery so that the South, as a whole, would have more power in Congress. Northerners wanted the new states to make slavery illegal, to give the North more power. In 1845, Texas had been admitted as a slave state, which displeased northerners but made southerners happy.

Slavery was an important issue from the earliest days of the Mexican American War. Many of those who opposed the war, especially northerners, had seen slavery as the major reason for the conflict. They called attention to the fact that Polk had been willing to compromise with Great Britain on where to draw the border between Canada and Oregon, but insisted on going to war with Mexico over the border of Texas. To northerners, this meant that Polk favored the southern states and wanted to expand slavery to whatever new territories might be acquired through the war.

Now that the war was over and at least two new territories had been won for the United States, a debate about whether or not they would allow slavery quickly developed. In 1848, Zachary Taylor's fame as a hero of the Mexican American War led to his election as president of the United States. He had run as the candidate of the Whig Party, winning the nomination over his old military rival, Winfield Scott. Although Taylor was a southerner and a slave-owner, the Whig Party was generally dominated by northerners who opposed slavery. Although he urged both California and New Mexico to apply for statehood, it was uncertain whether or not he wanted them to be admitted as slave or free states.

An uneasy compromise

In 1850, a compromise drafted by Kentucky senator Henry Clay resolved the debate, at least temporarily, by offering something to both the North and the South. California would be admitted as a free state, while both slaveholders and those who opposed slavery would be allowed to settle in the new territories of New Mexico and Utah. Slavery would be abolished in the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), but the Fugitive Slave Law, which benefited slave-holders by allowing them to recapture slaves who had escaped to the North, would be strictly enforced.

Despite the compromise, the slavery debate would become increasingly heated over the next decade. In 1861, the tension between the North and the South would lead to the outbreak of the Civil War, the bloody struggle that would divide the nation for four years and that would decide the slavery issue once and for all. The Mexican American War had been one of the key events that brought about that devastating and decisive conflict.

Future leaders gained experience and fame

The impact of the Mexican American War was felt in other ways as well. Historians have called the war an important training ground for men who later became important U.S. military and political leaders. Zachary Taylor gained so much fame and popularity as "Old Rough and Ready," the brave and unpretentious general who led his troops to glorious victory in Mexico, that, despite a complete lack of political experience, he was elected president in 1848. (Taylor died unexpectedly two years later.) Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), who had commanded twenty-four troops during the attack on Mexico City, became the nation's fourteenth president in 1853, serving for one term. Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), who had served with distinction under Taylor in the Battle of Buena Vista, later became president of the Confederate States of America. This short-lived nation formed by eleven slaveholding states unsuccessfully opposed the Union Army during the Civil War.

The Mexican American War played a crucial role in producing a crop of extremely competent officers who served on both sides of the Civil War. The most distinguished are undoubtedly Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) and Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), who served side by side in Mexico but led armies against each other during the later conflict. In the Mexican American War, Lee was an army engineer who contributed to the U.S. victory at the Battle of Cerro Gordo (see Chapter 5), while Grant was a young lieutenant who marched through Texas under Taylor (see Chapter 4). Each of these two old military comrades rose to the top ranks of their respective armies during the Civil War, and Grant also served two terms (1869-77) as president of the United States. Other Mexican American War veterans who made names for themselves in the Civil War included Union generals George McLellan (1826-1885) and George Meade (1815-1872) and Confederate generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824-1863) and George Pickett (1825-1875).

A devastating impact on Mexico

It should come as no surprise that the Mexican American War had a huge and negative impact on Mexico. This impact was both immediate and long-lasting. What may be more surprising is the contrast between the place of this war in the U.S. memory and its place in the Mexican memory. Most U.S. citizens know little about the conflict that so profoundly changed both their nation's boundaries and its character. Mexicans, on the other hand, have kept close to their hearts the bitter memory of what they considered a brutal, illegal invasion of their country. The war caused thousands of deaths and widespread destruction of property, and disrupted the normal flow of trade and agricultural production. It led to political chaos (Mexico had seven presidents and ten ministers of foreign affairs during the two years of the war), but its damage went even deeper than that.

As in all wars, it was ordinary Mexicans who bore the heaviest burden of suffering, particularly in those areas that became part of the United States. When the Mexican American War ended, there were about seventy-five thousand Mexican citizens living in the territory that had been ceded to the United States. They were given the choice of moving farther south into Mexico or staying where they were. If they stayed, they could keep their Mexican citizenship or become U.S. citizens, but if they did not make a choice within one year they would automatically become U.S. citizens.

What this meant was that many families were torn in half, and that many more felt stranded between two countries, belonging in neither. In a dialogue recorded as part of the documentary The U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848, produced by KERA Dallas-Fort Worth and the Public Broadcasting System, scholar Antonia J. Casteña notes that these people's "lives, cultures, languages, livelihoods, governments, structures, and ways of being were totally altered, changed, turned upside down within a very short period of time." Those who stayed in the United States faced prejudice and discrimination from a society that would continue, well into the twentieth century, to favor those of white European heritage. Those who left the place they considered home and settled inside the new Mexican border would share in the years of turmoil their nation still faced.

A long-lasting resentment

The Mexican American War cost Mexico a great deal in material ways, through the loss of lives, land, and property, but it also took a heavy psychological toll on the country. Soon after the war ended, a group of young men, all Mexican army veterans who had fled with Santa Anna when the U.S. forces overtook Mexico City, came together to write a book. Collecting both documents from the war and notes on their own experiences and reflections, they published Apuntes para la historia de la Guerra entre México y los Estados Unidos (Notes on the History of the War Between Mexico and the United States). These former soldiers wanted to understand what had taken place and try to determine why Mexico had been defeated, so the country could learn from its mistakes. The same men would one day take part in a civil war (1858-60) that would bring liberal president Benito Juarez (1806-1872) to power. (This conflict would be followed by an armed struggle against France from 1864 to 1867 and by the Mexican Revolution [1910-11], when the harsh thirty-five-year reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz [1830-1915] was brought to an end.)

Mexicans had been a proud people, but now they felt a new sense of shame and insecurity. They also felt a deep resentment against the nation and people who had invaded Mexico, killed so many Mexicans, and taken away nearly half of its territory. That resentment would last for more than a hundred years, even as the United States and Mexico became close friends and trading partners. In The U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848, contemporary Mexican Jesús Velasco-Márquez, a professor at the Instituto Technológico Autónomo de Mexico, reflected on his feelings about the Mexican American War: "I feel tremendously sad that we lost our original territory, and that the experience of having an invader in our country was so brutal. But on the other hand, I do believe that as Mexicans, this painful experience forced us to reevaluate our country."

A time of change in the United States

The Mexican American War took place at a time of great change in the United States. Advances in technology and communication, the growth of cities, and the great flow of immigrants from Europe made the middle-to late-nineteenth century both an exciting and a confusing time. As these dramatic changes occurred, the people of the United States were reaching out and expanding both their physical borders, as they moved westward to explore and settle the great expanses of their land, and their view of the world and the role of their country in it. U.S. citizens believed it was their "manifest destiny" (see Chapter 1), or their God-given right, to impose their beliefs and way of life on others. This philosophy had been used to justify the declaration of war against Mexico. It would be used again in the coming decades as thousands of U.S. settlers streamed into the American West, shoving aside the Native Americans who had lived in those lands for centuries.

Before and during the Mexican American War, critics had claimed that this territory being fought over was too full of deserts, rocks, and mountains to be of much use to people looking for good farmland. However, there was much lush and fertile land waiting there, especially in California, and other treasures hiding beneath the rocks. In January 1948, gold was found at Sutter's Mill, located near Sacramento, the present-day capital of California. The discovery led to the California Gold Rush, when adventurers and fortune-seekers known as Forty-Niners (named for the year in which most of the action took place) headed west, hoping to become millionaires. During the next century, additional discoveries of other mineral deposits—including silver, copper, uranium, and, much later, oil—would greatly increase the value of the Southwest's vast expanses.

A war worth remembering

The Mexican American War has been called a war of "firsts" for the United States. It was the first war in which graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point participated, allowing these young men their first taste of combat and giving many of them experience that would serve them well in the coming Civil War. This was the first of any war, anywhere in the world, that was photographed and the first on which newspaper correspondents (many of them soldiers hired by hometown newspapers) regularly reported from the battlefields. The recent development of faster presses and the telegraph made this work possible, and it meant that people knew more about what was really happening, and what soldiers were really experiencing, than they ever had before.

Perhaps most profoundly, though, the Mexican American War marked the first time that the young nation had fought a war on foreign soil, and one that was seen by many as a war of aggression rather than defense. Perhaps it is true that the United States was simply destined to expand, and that this war helped establish its dominance in world affairs. Or perhaps it was true that the honor of the United States had been forever tarnished when U.S. military forces crossed Mexico's borders and claimed its land. Historians would continue to debate these questions, while the majority of U.S. citizens forgot all about them. But for those who understand its importance, as well as the historical, cultural, and social impact of the southwestern United States on the entire nation, the Mexican American War is worth remembering.

For More Information


Bauer, Karl J. The Mexican War. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Butler, Stephen R. A Documentary History of the War with Mexico 1846-1848. Richardson, TX: Descendents of Mexican War Veterans, 1994.

Conner, Seymour V., and Odie B. Faulk. North America Divided: The Mexican War 1846-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Del Castillo, Richard. The Treaty of Gaudalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

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.

Meyer, Michael C., and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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 (accessed on January 31, 2003).

The Mexican-American War Memorial Homepage. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

PBS Online. U.S.-Mexican War: 1846-1848. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

A Journalist's First-Hand Account

The Mexican American War was the first conflict that was brought to the doorsteps of U.S. citizens by reporters from city and hometown newspapers, many of whom actually joined the army and then chronicled the war first-hand. Below is an article by journalist George Kendall, whose account of the fall of Mexico City on September 14, 1847, appeared in the New Orleans Picayune.

Another victory, glorious in its results and which has thrown additional luster upon the American arms, has been achieved today by the army under General Scott—the proud capital of Mexico has fallen into the power of a mere handful of men compared with the immense odds arrayed against them, and Santa Anna, instead of shedding his blood as he had promised, is wandering with the remnant of his army no one knows whither.

The apparently impregnable works on Chapultepec, after a desperate struggle, were triumphantly carried; Generals Bravo and Mouterde, besides a host of officers of different grades, taken prisoners; over 1000 noncommissioned officers and privates, all their cannon and ammunition, are in our hands; the fugitives were soon in full flight towards the different works which command the entrances to the city, and our men at once were in hot pursuit.

General Quitman, supported by General Smith's brigade, took the road by the Chapultepec aqueduct toward the Belén gate and the Ciudadela; General Worth, supported by General Cadwalader's brigade, advanced by the San Cosme aqueduct toward the garita of that name. Both routes were cut up by ditches and defended by breastworks, barricades, and strong works of every description known to military science. Yet the daring and impetuosity of our men overcame one defense after another, and by nightfall every work to the city's edge was carried.

Source: American Eras: Westward Expansion, 1800-1860. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2001.