The War Begins in Northern Mexico
The War Begins in Northern Mexico
On May 13, 1846, the United States officially declared war against Mexico. Although the war declaration stated that the United States was taking this step because American blood had been shed upon American soil, the real issue was the disputed territory of Texas. Despite the Mexicans' claim that this region belonged to them, the United States had annexed (made it a state) Texas in March 1845. And now the original boundary between Texas and Mexico, the Nueces River, also was part of the controversy, for the United States wanted the Rio Grande river, located much farther south inside Mexico, to form the boundary. The United States also hoped to acquire the Mexican territories of California and New Mexico, and would soon send part of its army marching in that direction.
The San Patricio Battalion
A vocal minority opposed the war with Mexico, but most U.S. citizens agreed with it. Young men were signing up in droves for what they expected to be a fairly harmless adventure that would be over quickly. The rugged frontier general known as "Old Rough and Ready," Zachary Taylor (1784-1850; see biographical entry), already was stationed with several thousand troops on the Rio Grande, just across from the Mexican town of Matamoros. They had been there for several months now, peering curiously across the narrow river at the Mexican citizens and soldiers on the other side. A few soldiers, however, went beyond looking and actually crossed the river.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, military service was not considered a top career choice by most U.S. citizens. In fact, it was often thought of as a last resort for those who could not find other jobs. As a matter of fact, 47 percent of army soldiers at this time were recent immigrants, who often faced prejudice and discrimination when seeking employment, but who could at least find refuge in the military. Of this percentage, many were Irishmen whose Catholic faith often set them apart and marked them for unfair treatment in a society that was predominantly Protestant.
Mexico, on the other hand, was a Catholic society. Mexican leaders were well aware of the situation of Irish soldiers in the U.S. Army. Knowing they might not feel as loyal to their new, adopted country as others, and hoping to lure them over the river to fight for Mexico, they managed to sneak flyers into the American encampment on the Rio Grande. Mexico offered a warm welcome to any and all deserters from the U.S. Army. Each of them was promised not only a chance to practice their faith freely but also more than 300 acres of free land on which to settle. More than two hundred men, most of them Irish, accepted this offer and swam the Rio Grande to Mexico. Led by former U.S. Army sergeant John Riley, these men would form the San Patricio Battalion (see biographical entry) and fight against their former U.S. comrades in several important battles of the war. Condemned as traitors by the United States, they were celebrated as heroes by the Mexican people and are still warmly remembered in Mexico.
The Battle of Palo Alto
On April 26, the first fight of the war—the one in which, supposedly, American blood had been shed upon American land—had taken place when a group of sixty-three U.S. soldiers on a scouting mission had been attacked by Mexican troops. About three weeks later, war would be declared. Even before the official declaration was signed, however, two more significant battles would take place.
On May 1, Taylor marched about twenty-two hundred of his troops from Fort Texas (their base on the Rio Grande) to Point Isabel, a supply depot (a place where weapons, ammunition, and other supplies are stored) about 26 miles away. Hoping to catch Taylor on his return to Fort Texas, Mexican general Mariano Arista (1802-1855) moved his soldiers into position on the wide, flat plain, known as Palo Alto, that lay between Fort Texas and Port Isabel. There, on May 8, the two armies clashed.
The American cannons and "flying artillery" (a kind of light cannon mounted between two big wheels, which could be moved quickly and easily) let loose a deadly rain of fire on the Mexicans. The Mexican cannons, on the other hand, were ineffective because they were fired too low, so that the cannonballs tended to land well in front of the U.S. troops and roll harmlessly toward them, giving them time to dodge the attack. The Mexicans took very heavy losses throughout the day. Toward evening, the high, sharp-edged "saw" grass through which both armies had trudged caught fire, and resulted in a truce being called. In the morning, Taylor's men were surprised to see that Arista's soldiers had retreated from the battlefield.
The two armies meet again at Resaca de la Palma
Historians would later claim that this early battle signaled the beginning of the end for Mexico's Army of the North, exposing their weaknesses. Even though the Mexican army was made up of much greater numbers, the soldiers used cannons and ammunition that were of poorer quality than those on the U.S. side, and the Mexican guns were older and less effective. Despite the considerable skills of the Mexican cavalry (soldiers mounted on horseback), their horses were not as big and strong as those used by the U.S. cavalry, and the Mexican horses did not hold up as well in battle. According to U.S. reports, the Mexicans sustained four hundred casualties (those killed, wounded, or missing) at the Battle of Palo Alto, while the United States had less than ten men killed and about forty wounded. However, among those ten killed was Major Sam Ringgold (1800-1846), the man who, eight years earlier, had championed the idea of the flying artillery and who had trained two battalions in its use.
The two armies met again the next day at a place called Resaca de la Palma, about 5 miles south of Palo Alto. Arista had taken his troops to this spot, hoping that the rugged terrain and dense, thorny brush, which the Mexicans called chaparral, would keep the U.S. troops at bay. Nevertheless, Taylor's troops attacked, engaging in what soon became hand-to-hand combat, in which men used knives and bayonets rather than longer-range weapons. The Mexicans stubbornly resisted the attack, but were finally pushed back. The U.S. soldiers overran the Mexican camp and carried off all the cannons and supplies as well as six hundred mules and hundreds of muskets (the old-fashioned kind of gun used by the Mexicans). More tragically, the Mexicans had lost more than eight hundred men, while only about one hundred U.S. soldiers were killed.
Taylor's reputation for coolness under fire was reinforced when it was reported that at one point during the fighting, when urged to take cover, he had said, "Let us ride a little nearer [to the enemy]. The balls will fall behind us." According to Fairfax Downey's book, Texas and the War with Mexico, a popular song also honored the U.S. victory, and Taylor's role in it: "In the thickest of the fight old Zachary appeared. / The shot flew about him as thick as any hail. / And the only injury he there received / Was a compound fracture of his brown coat tail."
A week later, Taylor took control of the town of Matamoros, from which the Mexican troops had already fled. Now the United States was firmly in control of the disputed land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande rivers. However, while the action in northern Mexico would settle down for a time, things were heating up in California.
Californians rebel against Mexico
During the three centuries in which Mexico was ruled by Spain, the area that is now the state of California was called alta (upper) California while the lower part (which is still part of Mexico) was called baja (lower) California. Mexican colonists had proved somewhat reluctant to settle in the remote alta California region, which featured a wide variety of terrains, from desert to fertile valley to forested mountains. By the nineteenth century, there was a network of missions and forts strung along the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and San Diego, but only about eight thousand Mexicans living in scattered communities.
In the decades leading up to the Mexican American War, U.S. settlers were moving by the thousands into the western territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase (the agreement by which the United States bought 800,000 square miles of land from France). They also were moving beyond that area into the Oregon Territory, the boundaries of which were still being disputed with Great Britain. Some of these settlers recognized the rich potential of the land just south of Oregon, and they began to trickle into California in small numbers.
By the time of the Mexican American War, there were about seven hundred U.S. citizens living in California, most of them without Mexico's official consent. News of the conflict developing in Texas and northern Mexico troubled them deeply, for the Mexican government already was hostile to them and a war would only make things worse. Determined to hold on to their land, a group of U.S. citizens living in the Sacramento Valley (east of San Francisco) banded together with some Californios (California residents of Mexican descent) who also were unhappy with their government. In June 1847, they launched a rebellion against Mexico.
Frémont aids the Bear Flaggers
As it happened, an ambitious and dynamic U.S. Army officer, Colonel John Charles Frémont (1813-1890; see biographical entry), was in the area at this time. A member of a branch of the army called the U.S. Topographical Engineers, he had led sixty men on a westward expedition to explore and survey the region. Even though Frémont had not been officially authorized by the U.S. government to do so (although some historians believe he may have been sent on some sort of secret mission to aid the Californians), he offered the settlers not only the support of his troops but himself as leader of their rebellion. Naming themselves the "Bear Flaggers" because of the flag they had adopted (which featured a single star, a grizzly bear, and the words "California Republic"), the group easily and blood-lessly took control of the area, declared themselves an independent nation, and established a government in Sonoma.
Meanwhile, a squadron of U.S. Navy forces were hovering off the coast of California under the command of Commodore John D. Sloat (1781-1867), who had been ordered to guard American interests in California. Learning of the Bear Flag Rebellion and assuming that Frémont's actions must have been ordered by the U.S. government, Sloat moved to block all of the major ports along the California coast. On July 7, his forces took command of the cities of San Francisco and Monterey, then worked their way south to occupy Santa Barbara, San Pedro, and San Diego.
U.S. forces take Los Angeles
When Sloat finally met with Frémont, he was shocked and greatly troubled to learn that Frémont had not been authorized by the U.S. government to lead a rebellion in California. Soon after meeting with Frémont, Sloat became too ill to continue his command. He was replaced by Commodore Robert F. Stockton (1795-1866), who had no qualms about continuing with the naval operations already underway. With the help of the Bear Flaggers, now renamed the California Battalion, Stockton's forces took control of Los Angeles on August 13. These U.S. sailors, now performing the same duties that would normally be the role of infantry soldiers, began to build forts and set up governments in all of California's major coastal towns.
Meanwhile, the Mexicans were organizing their own small but formidable resistance to U.S. occupation in California. Along with General José Castro (c. 1810-1860), California's governor Pío Pico (1801-1894) quickly organized an army from among the pro-Mexican forces in the area, particularly around Los Angeles. This task was made easier because the U.S. officer put in charge of Los Angeles, Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie (1812-1873), had made himself very unpopular by forcing the city's residents to follow a number of harsh rules. On September 29, General José María Flores led less than one hundred Californios in successfully recapturing Los Angeles from the forty-eight U.S. troops who had been left to defend it.
General Kearny travels west
At around the same time that the Bear Flag Rebellion was taking place in California, General Stephen W. Kearny (1794-1848; see biographical entry) was in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, preparing what would be called the Army of the West to march toward the Pacific Ocean. Soon after war with Mexico was declared, Kearny had been ordered to open another front (area of conflict or fighting) farther west. The United States was intent on expanding its boundaries to include California and New Mexico as well as Texas, and they needed this extra front to secure those lands.
By July, Kearny had gathered an army of about fifteen hundred, most of them rugged veterans of frontier life and not actual military experience. They set out for their first goal, Santa Fe, and moved quickly, despite intense summer heat and difficult, dusty terrain. Sometimes covering as many as 30 miles per day, they marched 1,000 miles in six weeks, reaching Santa Fe on August 18. The town's Mexican defenders had fled as soon as they heard that U.S. troops were approaching, so Kearny took the town with no resistance. Proclaiming himself governor of New Mexico, Kearny announced that its eighty thousand inhabitants were now U.S. citizens. As a gesture of goodwill towards the residents, Kearny hosted a ball a few days later that was attended by five hundred people.
Kearny did not, however, spend much time dancing in Santa Fe. His next goal was California. Getting there through territory that had rarely been traveled would not be easy. Soon after leaving Santa Fe, Kearny ran into the famous frontier scout Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) and hired him as a guide. Although Kearny had set out with three hundred men, he sent two hundred of them back to Santa Fe after Carson told Kearny that Stockton had control of the situation in California. Kearny would later regret this decision, however.
Doniphan's amazing journey
Kearny's occupation force at Santa Fe included the First Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, led by Colonel Alexander Doniphan (1808-1887). As he was departing for California, Kearny ordered Doniphan and his troops to march south from Santa Fe to Chihuahua in order to help secure that part of northern Mexico. Despite their lack of military experience, this group of tough, determined volunteers clad in buckskins (the simple clothing made of deerskin that many frontier residents wore) made the difficult journey in good time and with little trouble. At Brazito, about halfway to Chihuahua, they were surprised by a huge force of Mexican troops but defeated them in less than an hour. The Mexicans suffered about two hundred casualties, including fifty men killed, while Doniphan's force had only seven wounded. Close to Chihuahua, Doniphan and his men fought and won another battle at which they were outnumbered three to one, killing three hundred Mexican soldiers and losing only three of their own. After the war, Doniphan and his Missourians became famous for having trekked an incredible 3,600 miles during the war, and for proving what effective soldiers volunteers could be.
The fight for Los Angeles
Kearny reached California in early December, still unaware of the turn of events at Los Angeles. When he met with representatives of Gillespie's force and found out that the Mexicans had retaken that town, Kearny regretted having sent two-thirds of his original expedition back to Santa Fe. Nevertheless, he immediately marched his small force into action, attacking Californio troops under Pico at San Pascual. Exhausted by their journey, Kearny's soldiers did not perform well and the battle was a disaster for the Americans, with eighteen killed and about the same number wounded, including both Kearny and Gillespie. None of Pico's troops were killed.
Retreating to San Diego, Kearny joined his forces with the sailors and marines under Stockton, as well as about four hundred men led by Frémont, who had just arrived from Monterey, and spent the next few weeks preparing to take control of Los Angeles again. On January 7, at San Luis Rey, the U.S. troops managed to fend off an attack by Flores's force of about five hundred. The next day, the two armies met again at La Mesa and the United States again emerged victorious. At this point the small Californio force was fatally weakened, and Kearny's troops met no resistance when they marched into and occupied Los Angeles. In a controversial action typical of his career, Frémont took the liberty of negotiating a surrender with Flores, whom he encountered in San Luis Obispo as the Mexican general was trying to escape to the north. Frémont had no authority to negotiate this treaty, but since it was already signed it was deemed acceptable, even though it was unusually favorable to the Mexicans, demanding only that they stop fighting.
Friction between Kearny and Frémont
Although there were no more battles in California between Mexico and the United States, another conflict was now developing there among the U.S. leaders. Kearny had orders from President James K. Polk designating Kearny as governor of California, but Stockton, who was about to leave California for Mexico, ignored these orders and named Frémont governor. Kearny kept quiet in order to avoid trouble, but soon new orders arrived from Washington, D.C., that clearly designated Kearny as the man in charge of California until its people were ready to govern themselves. Much to Frémont's dismay and anger, Kearny took charge of the California Battalion, which soon disbanded after most of its members resigned.
In the summer of 1847, after the war was over, Kearny and Frémont returned to Washington, D.C., where the latter was court-martialed (tried in a military court) for his actions during the war, including disregarding the orders of his superior officers. Frémont was found guilty. Pardoned by Polk, Frémont nevertheless resigned from the army. Although he would go on to become one of California's first two senators and even run for president of the United States, Frémont never really recovered from what he viewed as an unfair turn of events. Meanwhile, he watched as Kearny received all the credit for conquering California.
Santa Anna returns to power
Frémont might have looked to General Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876; see biographical entry) for an example of how to bounce back from adversity. Exiled to Cuba after the humiliating defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto, when the small but scrappy army of the Republic of Texas had not only beaten the Mexican forces but captured Santa Anna himself, the dynamic Mexican general was on the comeback trail. And he was being helped, at least at first, by the United States government. After the disastrous battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, Mexican president Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga (1797-1849) became very unpopular. In July, Paredes was taken prisoner after part of the Mexican army staged a rebellion against his administration. Mexico was once again in desperate need of leadership. Sensing an opportunity to regain power, Santa Anna convinced Polk that if the United States would allow him to travel back to Mexico, he would take over the presidency and begin peace talks immediately. He also promised to sell the United States the disputed territory for $30 million. The fact that Polk agreed to Santa Anna's proposal is a testament to the persuasiveness of this flamboyant man.
Santa Anna arrived in Mexico City in September and soon installed himself as president. Instead of starting peace talks with the United States, however, Santa Anna began to put together a huge army, which he based at the town of San Luis Potosí. He spent the next several months gathering together what would be a force of twenty-five thousand men, not an easy task when they had not only to be fed and equipped, but also outfitted in fancy uniforms. (In fact, more money was actually spent on the uniforms.) It was not until February 1847 that Santa Anna would send his troops on a 300-mile march to the Battle of Buena Vista, where they would have a disastrous encounter with the U.S. Army.
U.S. troops prepare for more battles
News of the victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma reached the United States in late May, bringing relief and excitement to a population that was still unsure about the enemy it faced and what the outcome of the war might be. Now, most people were sure that the United States would win the war. Taylor not only became a hero to the general public but received a promotion to the rank of major general. Military recruiting officers were flooded with volunteers. The volunteer units received little training and elected their own leaders, often basing their decisions on factors other than military skill or experience. The realities of fighting in Mexico would turn out to be much harsher than most had expected, and many would quit as soon as their short terms of service were finished. Still, many of the volunteers were generally men who had grown up on the frontier. They were used to hardship, and they knew how to handle guns. As a result, they turned out to be fairly good soldiers.
The biggest risk that U.S. troops faced was not bullets or cannonballs. It was disease. Of the nearly thirteen thousand U.S. deaths resulting from the Mexican American War, only about seventeen hundred came in battle. More than eleven thousand men died from infectious diseases that included malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, measles, mumps, smallpox, and dysentery. Even more died after returning to their homes. In addition to the poor sanitary conditions and the threat of sickness, soldiers had to face difficult journeys either by ship, in which case they were packed like sardines in small spaces, or on foot through dust, heat, or even torrential rains.
Given these conditions, perhaps it is understandable that there was a lot of rowdy behavior in Matamoros, where fourteen thousand U.S. soldiers were stationed in the summer of 1847. Much to the dismay of the veteran army officers, the troops, especially the volunteers, did a lot of drinking, gambling, and fighting. Members of the regular army considered the volunteers an undisciplined, ill-behaved group, while the volunteers sneered at the regulars for acting superior.
The Battle of Monterrey
Meanwhile, U.S. government leaders were assessing the war situation to determine their next step. They agreed that to achieve their goal of acquiring a large piece of Mexican territory, they would have to strike at the heart of Mexico: its capital, Mexico City. The very experienced and competent General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry) would take a leading role in that effort. For the time being, however, Taylor focused his efforts on targets closer to his own army. The first was the town of Monterrey, located about 100 miles south of the Rio Grande.
Taylor headed toward Monterrey with 6,640 troops, arriving on September 21, in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. They were met by more than 5,000 Mexican soldiers under the command of Major General Pedro de Ampudia (1805-1868), who had been ordered to defend the town. The U.S. Army went into battle with a low opinion of the enemy's fighting spirit and ability, and they were surprised when the Mexicans fiercely resisted giving up Monterrey. The U.S. forces had to overrun two strongly fortified hills as well as a formidable building called the Bishop's Palace that stood just outside the city. Once they had done that, they had to wage a hand-to-hand fight toward the central plaza, with people firing at them continuously from rooftops and windows. Among the U.S. soldiers taking part in this grueling three-day battle were several men who would later gain fame as generals and leaders on both the Confederate and Union sides of the American Civil War (1861-65). These men included Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), George Gordon Meade (1815-1872), and Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862). The U.S. Army deserters who made up Mexico's San Patricio Battalion also were present at the battle, heading an artillery attack against their former comrades.
U.S. soldiers behave brutally in Monterrey
Finally, amid fears that the U.S. forces would soon begin blowing up Monterrey's churches, the city surrendered. On the U.S. side, 128 soldiers had been killed and 368 wounded, while the Mexicans reported 430 total casualties (killed, wounded, and missing). In a treaty agreement that seemed too lenient to some people, the Mexican troops were allowed to march out of the city with their horses and small arms (pistols and other personal guns) and an eight-week ceasefire was declared. After the Mexican troops had left, one of the most shameful incidents of the war occurred, as U.S. soldiers began to run wild through the city. They burned homes, stole goods, raped women, and even killed some civilians before their officers could get them under control.
These brutalities were reported in U.S. newspapers, causing widespread revulsion and sparking renewed protests against the war. In the Liberator, a newspaper founded by abolitionist (a person who fights for an end to slavery) William Lloyd Garrison, an editorial condemned this as a conflict "of aggression, of invasion, of conquest, and rapine—marked by ruffianism and other features of national depravity." Taylor admitted that some horrible things had happened, but pointed out that his soldiers had themselves endured very harsh conditions and fierce, brutal fighting. No, he admitted, this did not excuse their behavior, but at the same time, he took no disciplinary action against them.
Despite the misgivings of a minority of war protesters in the United States, Taylor's army had now brought northern Mexico under stronger U.S. control. After the next major battle, which would take place at Buena Vista in five months, the stage would be set for a total U.S. victory over Mexico.
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.
Butler, Stephen R., and Lawrence R. Clayton. The March to Monterrey: The Diary of Lt. Rankin Dilworth. El Paso: The University of Texas at El Paso, 1996.
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.
Ferrell, Robert H., ed. Monterrey is Ours! The Mexican War Letters of Lieutenant Dana, 1845-1847. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Hogan, Michael. The Irish Soldiers of Mexico. Guadalajara, Mexico: Fondo Editorial Universitario, 1997.
Miller, Robert Ryal. Shamrock and Sword: The St. Patrick's Battalion in the U.S.-Mexican War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Nardo, Don. The Mexican-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books,1991.
Nevin, David. The Mexican War. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.
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).
One of the highest ranking officers in the Mexican army at the start of the Mexican American War, the stocky, redhaired Mariano Arista played a prominent role in the first two battles of the conflict. He is often cited as an example of the weak leadership that contributed to Mexico's repeated battle losses, despite the fact that their troops far outnumbered that of the United States.
Born in the central Mexican town of San Luis Potosí, Mariano Arista joined the Spanish colonial army as a cadet (the lowest rank) when he was fifteen. A few years later, he joined the army of Agustín Iturbide, who was leading a revolt against Spanish rule. By 1821, the year that Mexico won its independence, Arista had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was soon promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the new Mexican army.
Due to his participation in failed political rebellion in 1833, Arista spent three years in exile in the United States. He returned to Mexico in 1836 to serve under the dynamic general and leader Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna, who had established himself as a conservative dictator. Arista regained his general's rank and served in various high military positions for the next few years.
Arista had retired from the military when, in 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. President Manuel Paredes y Arillaga called him back into military service, giving him command of Mexico's Army of the North. By this time, the U.S. Army, led by General Zachary Taylor, had entered territory that both countries claimed as their own (the land between the Nueces River, which had been the traditional boundary between Texas and Mexico, and the Rio Grande river, located about 100 miles south).
General Pedro de Ampudia had been commanding the Mexican troops stationed at Matamoros, directly across from the fort that Taylor's troops had just built. Known for his harshness and cruelty, Ampudia was very unpopular with the people of Matamoros, so they requested a change of leadership. Paredes sent Arista to take over for Ampudia, who now became second in command. This resulted in constant quarreling between the two rivaloffices, which helped to weaken the Mexican war effort.
The Mexican and U.S. armies met for the first time even before the U.S. war declaration had been signed. On May 8, Arista led an attack on Taylor's troops at Palo Alto. The United States had superior artillery (large guns, such as cannons) that was devastatingly effective, and the Mexicans were finally forced to retreat. They set up a new position at a place called Resaca de la Palma and another battle took place on May 9, but again the Mexicans were outgunned. Arista ordered a retreat to Matamoros, then quickly moved his army farther south.
These two disastrous battles were very discouraging to the Mexican leaders and public, and Arista took much of the blame. He had gone into the conflict with too much confidence in his own army, and too little regard for the U.S. troops. In addition, it was said that he had stayed away from the fighting, writing letters in his tent as the battles raged. Thus Santa Anna transferred command to General Francisco Mejía and had Arista court-martialed (called before a military court). At the trial, Arista successfully defended his actions and was excused from blame for the losses.
After the war, Arista became Mexico's Secretary of War and Marine Affairs. In 1850, he was elected president and was inaugurated in 1851 in the first peaceful transition of power the country had seen since independence. Like his predecessor, José Joaquín Herrera, Arista ruled as a moderate, and his administration was known for its honesty. But in 1853, Arista was forced from office when the Mexican army rebelled against him, and Santa Anna once again took power.
Now in poor health, Arista moved to Spain. In 1855, while traveling to France on an English steamboat, he died. He was buried in Spain but, according to his wishes, his heart was removed from his body and buried in Mexico. About twenty-five years later, Arista was declared a national hero and his remains were returned to his native country.
Sources: Crawford, Mark. Encyclopedia of the Mexican American War. Santa Barbara: CA: American Bibliographical Center-Clio Press, 1998; Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Three Women of the Mexican American War
Not much is known about the early life of this woman, who was born Sarah Knight in Tennessee or Missouri in 1812. It is thought that as a young woman she married a soldier in the U.S. Army, traveling with him as wives often did in those days, cooking his meals and washing clothing for both him and other soldiers. Remembered as a strong woman who stood six feet, two inches tall, Borginnis was nicknamed "the Great Western" after a famous steamship of the period.
What is definitely known about Borginnis is that she was with the troops of General Zachary Taylor when they were sent first to Corpus Christi, Texas, and then to the Rio Grande in the disputed Mexican territory. During the early battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, the Mexicans also were bombarding nearby Fort Texas. Reportedly issued a gun, Borginnis was among the fort's defenders. She also nursed the wounded, and set up a tent to serve food and coffee to the soldiers. At one point, it is said, a bullet pierced the bonnet she wore on her head, while another knocked a tray out of her hands.
Borginnis also was present at the Battle of Buena Vista. In honor of her bravery and contributions, Taylor made her a brevet (honorary) colonel, the first woman to receive this rank from the U.S. Army. In the years following the war, Borginnis married and lost a series of husbands and operated hotels or taverns in Texas and New Mexico.
She ended her life in Yuma, California, where she may have worked as a prostitute. She died in 1866 of complications from a tarantula bite, and was buried with full military honors in the Fort Yuma cemetery.
Called by some the "heroine of Tampico," Ann Chase served as a spy for the United States during the Mexican American War.
Born in 1809 in northern Ireland, Chase lived in the United States for ten years before marrying Franklin Chase, a merchant who was serving as the U.S. Consul (government representative) in the coastal city of Tampico, Mexico. When the United States declared war against Mexico in 1846, all U.S. citizens were required to leave Mexico. Her husband returned to the United States, but because of her British citizenship, Ann Chase was able to remain in Tampico to run the family's trading company.
Chase's house was located on the same plaza as the Mexican army barracks and she often overheard comments and statements from military officials. Sometime around July 1846, she started reporting what she heard to the U.S. Navy Gulf Squadron, which had ships positioned off the Mexican coast. These messages were probably delivered by British naval officers.
In November 1846, the United States captured Tampico. Chase played akey role in this event by providing a plan of the port as well as information on the fortifications (protective systems) the Mexicans had in place. Visited by a Mexican who she believed was a spy, she deliberately gave the man misinformation, telling him that the United States would soon invade with up to thirty thousand troops. This led to the Mexicans evacuating their troops from Tampico, at which point Chase sent word that the U.S. forces could now easily take the town. On November 14, Chase flew an American flag from her roof as the United States conducted its bloodless capture of Tampico.
The only adult Anglo (white) survivor of the Mexican attack on the Alamo, Susana Dickinson was born Susana Wilkerson in Tennessee around 1814. When she was fifteen, she married Almaron Dickinson, and in the early 1830s she moved with him to join the colony of U.S. settlers at Gonzales, Texas. Her daughter Angelina was born in 1834.
In the fall of 1835, determined to establish Texas as an independent republic, the residents of Gonzales chased the Mexican army from their town. Dickinson's husband subsequently left to join the volunteers gathered at San Antonio; she and Angelina joined him a few months later. When news arrived that the army of Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna was on its way to San Antonio, the Dickinsons and other volunteers moved into the Alamo, an old Spanish mission.
The Mexicans attacked on March 6, 1836, killing all of the Alamo's 189 defenders. On the day of the attack Dickinson had been nursing Jim Bowie, a famed frontiersman and leader of the volunteers, who had fallen ill with pneumonia and who was killed in his sickbed. One of very few inside the Alamo who were allowed to live, Dickinson was questioned by Santa Anna and released. Carrying her baby, she made her way toward Gonzales and was picked up by Texas scouts. Arriving in the town, Dickinson informed Sam Houston, leader of the Texan army, of the massacre at the Alamo.
Twenty-two years old, illiterate, and now a widow, Dickinson was denied a request for a $500 donation from the Texas government. In late 1837, she married Francis Williams, but the two divorced the following spring. Dickinson went through three more husbands before achieving a stable marriage with Joseph Harnig in 1857. She died in Austin, Texas, in 1883.
Sources: Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997; Nevin, David. The Mexican War. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978; "Susana Dickinson (1814-1883)." Lone Star Junction. [Online] Available http://www.lsjunction.com/people/dickinson.htm (accessed on January 31, 2003); Women Were There: The Wars of 1812 and 1846 and the Spanish American War. [Online] Available http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/femvets3.html (accessed on January 31, 2003).
Doniphan's Incredible Journey
One of the most celebrated leaders of the Mexican American War, Alexander Doniphan led the First Regiment of Mounted Missouri Volunteers on an incredible land and sea journey that covered more than 5,000 miles and included two battles.
Born in Kentucky in 1808, Alexander Doniphan was the son of a Revolutionary War (1775-83) veteran. In 1830, Doniphan moved to Missouri and established a law practice. Big and tall with reddish hair, a ready smile, a calm manner and a good sense of humor, he won many friends. Known for maintaining a moderate stance on controversial issues, Doniphan served three terms in Missouri's state legislature.
In May 1846, when the Mexican American War began, Missouri's governor asked Doniphan to organize a military unit of volunteers (due to the relatively small size of the U.S. Army, Congress had authorized the calling up of fifty thousand volunteer soldiers to help fight the war). Doniphan enlisted eleven hundred men, who elected him to the rank of colonel even though he had signed up as a private (the lowest rank). Doniphan immediately marched his men to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where General Stephen W. Kearny was assembling the Army of the West and preparing to march into and conquer New Mexico and California.
Like their leader, most of Doniphan's regiment had little or no military experience, but they were tough veterans of frontier life. With their mismatched uniforms and casual attitude toward military discipline, they did not much look or act like soldiers, but they were ready for whatever might lie ahead. After a brief two-week training period, they set out with Kearny in early June to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a journey of nearly 1,000 miles across a harsh, desert landscape that was made even more difficult by a shortage of food and water. Kearny's army arrived at Santa Fe on August 18 and easily occupied the town, since its Mexican defenders had already fled.
Over the next month, Kearny had to establish a civil government and set of laws for New Mexico. Doniphan's legal background proved helpful for this task, and he was the main author of the territory's new constitution and laws. In late September, Kearny departed for California, leaving Doniphan in charge of the military forces still in Santa Fe.
In December, Doniphan was ordered to proceed with his regiment to Chihuahua, Mexico, where they were to meet up with troops under General John E. Wool. The first stop on their three-month journey was El Paso del Norte (now the city of Juarez, Mexico), which they reached by taking a shortcut across a treacherous 95-mile wide desert called the Jornada del Muerte (Journey of Death).
On Christmas Day, when about half of Doniphan's regiment (the group had been split and traveled by two different routes) was 30 miles north of El Paso del Norte, they heard that Mexican troops were approaching. They quickly organized themselves into defensive positions, from which they were able to defeat a Mexican force of about twelve hundred. The Mexicans suffered two hundred casualties in the battle, while Doniphan's force had only seven men wounded and none killed. Doniphan' regiment took control of El Paso del Norte on December 27.
Learning that Wool had given up the plan to meet in Chihuahua, Doniphan decided to proceed there anyway. The regiment set out on February 8, marching south through deep sand, surviving on very little water, and fighting off prairie fires along the way. When they were 15 miles north of Chihuahua near the Rio Sacramento ranch, they fought another battle against a much larger Mexican force. Again the casualties were lopsided, with the Mexicans losing six hundred men to death or injury, while only one U.S. soldier was killed and eleven wounded.
Having occupied Chihuahua on March 2, Doniphan's regiment was ordered to return to the United States. After a 750-mile march to the coastal town of Matamoros, they boarded ships that carried them to New Orleans, then took steamboats up the Mississippi River to Missouri. The regiment had made a circular journey of 5,500 miles, enduring many hardships without complaint and winning two battles in which they were far outnumbered. They were famous both at home and across the rest of the United States. Doniphan was acclaimed as a great leader, but he never used his celebrity to gain political office, as other heroes of the Mexican American War had done. Instead he settled near St. Louis and spent the rest of his career as a lawyer and bank president. He died in 1887.
Sources: Crawford, Mark. Encyclopedia of the Mexican American War. Santa Barbara, CA: American Bibliographical Center-Clio Press, 1998; Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War . New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997; Launius, Roger D. Alexander William Doniphan: Portrait of a Missouri Moderate. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
The Soldiers' Lives: Not What They Expected!
Before the Mexican American War began, the U.S. Army numbered only about eighty-six hundred officers and soldiers. Because the military profession was not much respected by most U.S. citizens, becoming a soldier was often a last resort for those who could not find other jobs. Thus about 40 percent of the army was made up of recent immigrants, who often were discriminated against when it came to finding work.
When the United States declared war on its southern neighbor, however, it suddenly became desirable, and maybe even fashionable, to join the military. Congress was immediately authorized to call up fifty thousand volunteers, and young men signed up in droves. They were inspired to join the military by the prospect of defending their country against what they considered foreign aggression. They also were attracted to the idea of traveling to an exotic place and enjoying, what they envisioned to be the romantic and adventurous life of a soldier. Many of the men who signed up had never been away from home before.
The realities of military service
The young men who enlisted in the military were in for a big surprise when they finally received their orders. The first troops began arriving in Texas and northeastern Mexico in early 1846, camping first at Corpus Christi on the Nueces River (the traditional border between Texas and Mexico) and later moving south to the Rio Grande river, which the United States was now claiming as the border. It was not long before the realities of military service in this difficult environment began to emerge.
These realities included harsh weather—that included either stifling heat or driving rain—dust, and insects. The soldiers' food was generally bad, and their tents inadequate for the climate and terrain. Army discipline was harsh and in some cases even cruel, especially as tensions arose between volunteers and "regulars," the term used for professional soldiers. Waiting around for battles to begin was boring. When ordered to march, soldiers had to carry 30 pounds or more of gear on their backs over a landscape that featured jagged rocks, treacherous ditches and holes, and sharp saw-grass. Of course, when the soldiers began to fight a whole new set of realities confronted them, for they were surrounded by the terror, confusion, blood, and pain that occur in all wars.
Disease takes a high toll
Perhaps the worst hardship faced by troops who served in the Mexican American War was illness. While a little more than fifteen hundred soldiers and officers were killed in battle, another eleven thousand or so lost their lives to various diseases. In addition, ten thousand men were discharged from the army with various types of medical conditions, and many of these probably died in the months following the war. Both the ignorance of individual soldiers—especially the volunteers, who had little or no military experience—about how to take care of themselvesunder difficult conditions and unsanitary camp conditions led to widespread disease.
Use of the same water for drinking, cooking, and bathing created ideal conditions for the spread of water-born diseases like cholera and typhoid fever. In the swampy coastal areas, malaria (which no one yet realized was spread by mosquitoes) and dengue fever were common and, all across the country, the men also contracted yellow fever, dysentery, measles, mumps, smallpox and tuberculosis.
Once a soldier was sick or wounded, he was not assured of proper medical care. Doctors and other medical staff were in short supply and often poorly trained. They were sorely overworked, especially in the heat of battle, and lacked both adequate supplies and knowledge of effective techniques. Thus men waited long periods for attention, damaged limbs were often hastily amputated, and instruments were used for many patients without being cleaned. Medical staff often used old-fashioned treatments, like bleeding and blistering, which not only did not help but increased the suffering and sped up the deaths of many sick and wounded men.
Mexican soldiers face even worse hardships
Mexican soldiers endured even worse conditions than those in the U.S. Army. While most officers in the Mexican army came from the ranks of the country's wealthy criollos, (those of pure Spanish ancestry), most of the regular troops were poor
mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and Native American heritage) or Indians. The wide disparity between officers, many of whom displayed much more concern for gaining personal glory than for the welfare and comfort of their troops, and soldiers created an atmosphere of distrust and resentment.
Punishments for misdeeds both great and small were harsh. Food, pay, medical care, and even uniforms were scarce and sometimes nonexistent. In fact, the Mexican army depended very much for its survival on a group of women called soldaderas, made up of soldiers' wives, sisters, and girlfriends, who fed and nursed the men and kept their clothing and quarters clean. These women also took part in battles, and the U.S. troops were shocked to find their bodies among the dead.
Despite these conditions, the Mexican army fought with remarkable bravery. In their view, the United States had a deep hatred for the Mexican culture and especially for the Catholic religion, the state religion of Mexico. The Mexicans also believed that the United States had invaded their country and meant to bring it into submission. However, the Mexican soldiers were not going to let that happen without a fight. It is true that most U.S. troops did, indeed, have a low opinion of the Mexican people, and they were surprised by the courage that the Mexicans displayed on the battlefields.
Sources: Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997; Nardo, Don. The Mexican-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1991.