The Mexican-American War (1846–1848)

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The Mexican-American War (1846–1848)


Manifest Destiny

Since the settlement of Plymouth Colony in 1620, white Americans felt their presence in the New World was their deliverance, reward, and providence. In the nineteenth century, some Americans pushed for the annexation of Texas, New Mexico, California, and Oregon. They claimed that the United States had the God-given right and responsibility to fill the continent, no matter who stood in their way. They called it America’s “manifest destiny.”

From Sea to Shining Sea

From a very early date, the vision of American expansion has motivated U.S. policy. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, saying in his second inaugural address, “Who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? … is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family?” In 1819, the Adam-Onis Treaty acquired Florida and parts of Alabama and Mississippi.

Still, the phrase “manifest destiny” was not widely used until 1845, when John O’Sullivan (1813–1895), editor of the New York Post, used it to support the annexation of Texas. “It is our manifest destiny,” he wrote, “to overspread the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment entrusted to us.”

By “experiment,” O’Sullivan meant federal government and self-rule, also “schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting-houses.” He believed that the political and social systems of the United States offered the best formula for human happiness. He thought that other peoples should be persuaded to adopt American ways.

This attitude grew partially out of the United States’ religious missionary tradition—Christians believed that they possessed the true faith, and they felt called to spread it. Others, like John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), took a more practical approach. Adams said that the United States had a duty to develop the wilderness, since the Indians had failed to do so.

Above all, the mystique of manifest destiny was fueled by the frontier experience. It was the dream of every family who bundled into covered wagons. It drove every grizzled prospector who dug for gold in California. Manifest destiny was the collective expression of a million individual ambitions.

Oregon Country

When James K. Polk (1795–1849) made his bid for the presidency in 1844, he ran on an expansionist platform. He particularly championed the American claim to Oregon Country, which had been jointly owned by Britain and the United States since 1818. Polk demanded that the United States should have sole possession of the northwest, up to latitude line fifty-four degrees, forty minutes north, almost to the southern boundary of Alaska. Democrats rallied behind Polk’s slogan: “Fifty-four forty or fight.”

Great Britain, on the other hand, reacted with scorn, and some fierce saber-rattling ensued. As negotiations with Mexico also broke down, many observers feared that the United States would have to fight two wars at once. However, a compromise was reached with the British government in April 1846. The United States would take Oregon up to the forty-ninth parallel, and Britain would retain Vancouver Island.

The Southwest

Meanwhile, the United States annexed Texas in 1845. The Mexican government, which had never recognized Texan sovereignty, immediately broke off diplomatic relations.

In response, Polk sent John Slidell (1793–1871) to Mexico City as minister plenipotentiary of the United States. Polk did not particularly want war, and he thought that Mexico would be willing to bargain. Slidell was given the authority to buy parts of Texas, New Mexico, and California. The United States would pay with a combination of cash and the assumption of Mexican debt.

Mexican President José Herrera (1792–1854), had indicated that he would talk with an American representative, but hardliners in the Mexican government would not accept losing any Mexican territory. They felt that Herrera was a traitor for even considering it. Neither Herrera nor his successor, Mariano Paredes (1797–1849), would receive Slidell during his visit. Thus, unable to make his case for U.S. purchase of the land diplomatically, Polk set about taking them by force.

All of Mexico Movement

From the outset of the Mexican-American War, Polk intended to claim New Mexico and California as spoils of war. However, many Americans demanded much more. The colorful journalist Jane McManus Storm Cazneau (1807–1878) wrote in favor of “keeping the whole of Mexico.” Why should (white Americans) give away territory, she argued, “when they had paid for it in blood and treasure?”

She was not alone in this opinion. Many Southerners wanted to establish a slave-owning empire in Central America. Some Northerners believed that emancipation was inevitable, but that freed blacks would never fit into white society. They suggested that former slaves could migrate to Mexico, where society would accept them.

Newspapers like the New York Sun supported the annexation of Mexico. But despite their efforts, most white Americans did not want people of “mixed and confused blood” as United States citizens. They also deeply distrusted the Mexicans’ Catholicism.

There were more practical considerations. Union with Mexico meant the assumption of the Mexican national debt—over $10 million.

Interestingly enough, a sizable number of Mexican radicals also advocated annexation by the United States. They hoped that the American government would rid their land of military tyrants and corrupt Catholic priests.

The issue became moot, however, with the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Nicholas Trist (1800–1874), had failed at one attempt to negotiate an armistice with Mexican General Santa Anna (1794–1876), but remained in Mexico and brokered the agreement even after Polk had recalled him to Washington. The treaty maintained the sovereignty of the Mexican nation, but ceded a third of its land to the United States.

Destiny and War

Not all Americans embraced the theory of manifest destiny, and many saw the Mexican-American War as a bald-faced, thuggish land grab. Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), a young officer at the time, labeled the war “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker nation.”

Congressman Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) also opposed the war, a stance that probably cost him his reelection. Lincoln would later say that he “did not believe in enlarging our field, but in keeping our fences where they are.”

The rhetoric of manifest destiny died down during the Civil War, but its influence has persevered in the American psyche. It would reemerge with vigor as American Imperialism in the Spanish-American War. Its echo can be heard in American politics even today.

Major Figures

Stephen F. Austin

Stephen F. Austin (1793–1836) organized the Anglo colony in Texas and then was a leader in the Texas Revolution, which allowed the territory to become free from Mexico. He is often called “the Father of Texas.” Born Stephen Fuller Austin on November 3, 1793, in Austinville, Virginia, he was the son of Moses Austin, the operator of a nearby lead mine, and his wife, Maria Brown. When Austin was five years old, his father moved the family to the frontier territory of Missouri, then under Mexican control. Moses Austin again successfully worked in the mining of lead as well as land speculation.

Early Years

Because of the family’s wealth, Austin primarily received his education out of state after 1804. He attended Bacon Academy and Colchester Academy, both in Connecticut, and Transylvania University in Kentucky. When his father asked him to return home after only a year or two of college, in 1810, Austin went back to Missouri. He went to work in his father’s businesses and soon showed his management abilities. In 1814, Austin was elected to the state legislature, where he served until 1820. He also served in the state militia as an officer, worked for a bank in St. Louis, and was briefly a storekeeper.

Austin had total control over the family’s mining operations by 1817, when his father decided to focus on other businesses. As the mines failed, the family’s debt increased greatly. The family enterprises went bankrupt during the Panic of 1819. Austin then went to Arkansas to try to erase family debts by buying land on credit with the intent of developing a town. This scheme failed, but Austin became an appointed district judge in early 1820. This position did not offer a large enough salary to pay off the money the Austin family owed, which had landed Moses Austin in jail and resulted in the sale of the family mines at auction. By the end of the summer of 1820, Austin was living in New Orleans, Louisiana, and working at a newspaper to help pay the family’s debts. He also studied law.

Austin’s Colony

Moses Austin died in the spring of 1821, but he had already started a new scheme that he hoped would allow his family to repay its debts and restore its wealth. He believed that immigration to Texas and starting a colony there would be profitable. Upon his father’s death, Austin inherited the government permit to found a colony with three hundred families in Texas that Moses Austin had obtained from the Spanish, who controlled the area. With the help of his younger brother Brown, he publicized the venture throughout the United States and moved to Texas himself.

In 1822 and 1823, Austin went to Mexico City to make sure that Mexico, which had won its independence from Spain in 1822, recognized the permit. Mexican authorities did so after he pledged his allegiance to their country. Austin later applied for Mexican citizenship. The Mexican government also gave Austin the title of “empresario,” which meant that he was the official authority of the colony. As empresario, Austin was given large amounts of the best land as well as the ability to collect a fee for land bought, usually on credit, by other settlers.

Austin maximized the permit and brought three hundred families to Texas in 1823 and 1824. Over the next decade, he was able to acquire more permits and found legal loopholes to bring 750 more white families to the colony. To attract settlers, he allowed slavery, though he personally opposed the practice. The number of whites soon surpassed the Spanish Mexicans living in Texas.

Austin spent the rest of his life working to make the Texas colony viable. He served as the leader of the colonists in Texas, taking charge of coordinating the defenses against the Native Americans in the area as well as acting as a liaison to authorities in Mexico. He also created a land system and served as the translator of Mexican laws for the colony. In addition, Austin was able to survey and map what would become the state of Texas.

Texas Independence

Within a decade of the founding of the Texas colony, the white settlers decided they wanted Texas to be an independent state. (It had been named part of a state in Mexico in April 1824.) Continuing to serve the colonists, Austin acted as the president of the first of many conventions to discuss independence and draft a proposal to present to the Mexican government. He also went to Mexico City in 1833 to argue the matter, but he was arrested in early 1834 because such conventions were illegal under Mexican law. Austin was charged with sedition and imprisoned for nearly two years. Released without being tried, he went back to Texas in 1835, and by September, became active in the independence movement. While he was in jail, the Anglo population in Texas had continued to grow.

When the Texas Revolution broke out, soon after his release from jail, Austin supported the military operation to seek independence. He took charge of the armed forces organized by the Texas settlers. Austin’s time at the top of the military order was short-lived because of his poor health. Taking on a diplomatic role by the end of 1835, Austin was in the United States as a commissioner from Texas to ask for American aid in the white settlers’s cause. When Texas declared its independence from Mexico, Austin also asked the American government to recognize Texas’s new status.

In 1836, after Texas won its independence and declared itself a republic, Austin was compelled to run for the new country’s presidency. His opponent was Sam Houston (1793–1863), who was a military hero of the Texas Revolution. Houston won the election and offered Austin an office in his administration. Austin served in the post for only a short time. Austin died on December 27, 1836, in Columbia, Texas, of pneumonia.

Sam Houston

Samuel Houston (1793–1863) was a soldier, governor of Tennessee and Texas, president of the Republic of Texas, U.S. congressman from two states and senator from one, and was instrumental in Texas’s independence from Mexico and annexation by the United States. Houston was the fifth child and fifth son of Samuel Houston and Elizabeth Paxton. He was born on March 2, 1793, at his family’s plantation in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Houston was thirteen years old when his father died. In 1807, he moved with his mother, five brothers, and three sisters to a farm near Maryville, in eastern Tennessee, where they farmed and operated a store.

Early Years

Houston received about six months of basic education while in Virginia. He attended an academy near Maryville for about a year and developed a love for classical literature there.

In 1809, when he could not tolerate his older brothers’s demands that he work both on the farm and at the store, Houston ran away from home. He lived for three years with the Cherokees across the Tennessee River and made occasional visits to Maryville. Chief Oolooteka adopted him and gave him the Indian name “the Raven.” This experience gave him great insight into Indian cultures and traditions, which he would draw on repeatedly in later years.

He left the Cherokees in 1812 and established a private school so that he could repay debts. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in March 1814, and was commended by General Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) for his courage and promoted to second lieutenant. Houston was assigned to Jackson’s command at Nashville and named an Indian subagent, and he assisted in the removal of Chief Oolooteka to the Indian Territory. He resigned from the regular army in 1818 to study law, was admitted to the bar, and opened a practice in Lebanon, Tennessee. He also received Jackson’s assistance with an appointment as a colonel in the state militia, and in 1821, was named major general of the Tennessee militia.

The Tennessean

As a Jacksonian Democrat, Houston was elected to Congress in 1823, was reelected in 1825, and became governor of Tennessee in 1827. He married nineteen-year-old Eliza Allen in January 1829 and announced his candidacy for another term as governor. His marriage lasted eleven weeks. Allen left him and returned to her parents. For the rest of their lives, neither party spoke of the reason for the breakup. On April 16, in the wake of the scandal, Houston resigned his office and moved to Oolooteka’s Cherokee clan in present-day Oklahoma.

The Cherokee

He lived among the Indians again for three years. He was granted Cherokee citizenship, established a trading post near Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, married Cherokee Diana Rogers Gentry under tribal law, and acted as an emissary between tribes. He maintained contact with the non-Indian world outside the trading post with trips east as well as correspondence with various government officials, including his mentor, who was then President Jackson.

The Texan

In 1832, Jackson tasked Houston with presenting peace medals to western Indian tribes. Once he completed this mission, Houston turned his thoughts to Texas. He left Diana and the trading post, and on December 2, 1832, crossed the Red River into Mexican Texas (in the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas) and started a law practice in the present day–east Texas town of Nacogdoches.

Within a few months, Houston was elected as a delegate to the Convention of 1833, which advocated making Texas a separate province of Mexico. Relations between Texians (residents of Mexican Texas) and federal authorities in Mexico City deteriorated, and in November 1835, he was appointed major general of the Texas Army. When volunteers refused to obey his orders, the Texas provisional government gave him the task of negotiating peace with the Indians and given a furlough until March 1, 1836. Returning to the Texas provisional government headquarters on March 1, he arrived in time for the adoption of the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836. At last, Texas was fighting for independence from Mexico. He was again named commander of the army. Four days later, General Antonio López de Santa Anna had approximately 2,500 Mexican soldiers assembled to attack the Alamo. All of the defenders (about 180) were killed. A few weeks later, at Goliad, more than 340 Texas volunteers were killed after their capture. Houston was left with about 400 volunteers at Gonzales facing more than 4,000 Mexican troops on Texas soil.

Houston began a march across eastern Texas, trying to drill the recruits along the way. Additional volunteers joined the Texas Army as the withdrawal continued. Heavy rains and swollen streams slowed both armies. When Houston learned Santa Anna intended to cross the San Jacinto River at Lynch’s Ferry, he knew that was the place to meet the Mexican Army. On April 21, 1836, Houston led about 900 men against an estimated 1,200 Mexican soldiers. In a mid-afternoon silent march, the Texans caught the Mexicans by complete surprise, approaching within 550 yards of Santa Anna’s fortifications before any alarm sounded. The battle lasted eighteen minutes. Nine Texans were killed, and thirty were injured. Houston’s official report listed 630 Mexican soldiers killed, 208 wounded, and hundreds taken prisoner. Santa Anna was captured the next day. With the Treaty of Velasco signed May 14, Santa Anna agreed to remove all Mexican forces south of the Rio Grande.

After this military victory, Houston was elected president of the Republic of Texas through 1838, and again for 1841–1844. During his terms, he sought annexation of Texas by the United States, peace with various Indian tribes, and low government spending. In 1837, he formally divorced Eliza Allen. He married twenty-one-year-old Margaret Moffette Lea of Marion, Alabama, on May 9, 1840. Houston became a father at age fifty-five when Sam Houston Jr. was born in 1843. He went on to father three more boys and four girls.

In 1845, after Texas was admitted to the United States, Houston served two terms as a U.S. senator. In 1859, he ran for governor and won, becoming the only person to have been elected governor of two states. He opposed secession, and when he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy in 1861, he was thrown out of office. In 1862 he moved the family to Huntsville, Texas. The next year, he contracted pneumonia. Sick and ailing for several weeks, he died July 26, 1863. His last words were reported to be, “Texas! Texas! Margaret!”

William Barret Travis

Early Years

William Barret Travis (1809–1836) was the Texas commander at the Alamo. Travis was born in early August of 1809 near Saluda, South Carolina. He was the first of eleven children born to Mark and Jemima (Stallworth) Travis. He grew up on the family farm and received his first education at home. The family moved to Alabama in 1817, and Travis received formal schooling near Sparta. He also attended school in Claiborne, taught other students there, and apprenticed as an attorney under James Dellet. Once he was admitted to the bar, he practiced for a time with Dellet before opening his own office. Travis married a former student, Rosanna Cato, on October 26, 1828. Their first child, Charles Edward Travis, was born about ten months later.

For a while, it looked like Travis would establish himself in business. He started a newspaper, the Claiborne Herald, practiced law, became a Mason, and joined the Alabama militia as an adjutant. Despite these outward signs of stability, he was falling deeper and deeper in debt. The paper was not getting the advertising he needed, and his legal practice was floundering. Court records show judgments rendered against him. In 1831, he decided to make a clean break and left for Texas, leaving his pregnant wife and son. He promised to send for the family when he was successful in his new location. Shortly after arriving in Texas, he established a legal practice in Anahuac, a small port on the northeast side of Galveston Bay.

Service to Texas

There were few lawyers in this part of the Mexican province, and his practice flourished. In 1832, he had his first brush with the Mexican military. On a pretense, the military commander had Travis and his law partner arrested. When word of the arrest spread, settlers descended on Anahuac to gain the release of the two. Mexican troops were outnumbered, the lawyers were released, and Travis had newfound fame and notoriety.

Travis moved to San Felipe de Austin shortly after being released. San Felipe was headquarters of Stephen F. Austin’s colony and the de facto capital of Anglo settlement. He became more involved with politics and the militia, although his main credentials were his law education and passion for Texas independence. Meanwhile, Rosanna Travis allowed Charles Edward Travis to move to Texas to be close to his father. Travis never sent for Mrs. Travis and his daughter, Susan Isabella, to join him in Texas. Mrs. Travis filed for divorce, citing desertion as the reason in her 1834 pleadings. The divorce became final in the fall of 1835. It is not known if Travis knew this, since he was traveling extensively across the settled parts of Texas as the revolution grew ever closer. He pursued many women, promising one he would marry her.

In June 1835, Travis launched a water-borne attack on Anahuac, capturing Mexican soldiers at the port. Reacting to this affront and other disturbances, General Martin Perfecto de Cos (1800–1854), the Mexican military commander for that part of the country, moved troops from Matamoros, on the southern tip of the Rio Grande river, almost 250 miles northwest, to San Antonio, then the largest town in Texas. General Cos was also the brother-in-law of Antonio López de Santa Anna, commander-in-chief of all the country’s armed forces. Travis learned General Cos wanted the Anahuac participants delivered to him for a military trial.

When Travis finally came close to San Antonio in late October 1835, it was with hundreds of Texas militia who laid siege to the town. He distinguished himself on November 8, when three hundred mules and horses were captured. He then left the siege and returned to San Felipe, where he served as the chief recruiting officer for the Texas army. General Cos surrendered in December, agreeing to march south of the Rio Grande and not return. Once back in Mexico, he met with Santa Anna. The commander-in-chief told Santa Anna that the agreement to not move north was null and void. Santa Anna ordered a force of several thousand soldiers to march on San Antonio.

In January 1836, Travis was ordered to gather volunteers and go to the Alamo, the former mission, because Santa Anna’s arrival there was anticipated. He arrived on February 3 and met commander James Clinton Neill (c. 1790–1848) and James Bowie (1796–1836). On February 8, David Crockett (1786–1836) arrived with a group of volunteers. On February 14, Neill announced he had to take a leave of absence to care for his ill family. After his departure, Travis was voted commander of the members of the Texas regular army, while Bowie commanded the volunteers.

The question of command structure among the different pro-Texas forces took on little to no significance with the arrival of Santa Anna’s advance forces and the start of the battle on February 23. Defenders fell back from the town and moved to the limited protection of the Alamo. The siege had begun. On February 24, Bowie became seriously ill, and Travis assumed command of all forces.

Travis continued Neill’s attempt to fortify the Alamo by bringing in provisions, building gun emplacements, and appealing to the Texas provisional government for reinforcements. After the siege began, the largest contingent reaching the mission, on March 1, was thirty-two volunteers from Gonzales. Travis’s had a total of 190 defenders against Santa Anna’s forces, which eventually totaled almost 2,500 soldiers. As the thirteen-day siege dragged on, Santa Anna moved his cannons closer to the Alamo, crumbling the fortified walls with each shot. On March 3, Travis received word around noon that there would be no reinforcements from Goliad, where James Fannin (1804–1836) commanded almost five hundred Texas soldiers. That same day he wrote a friend, “I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.”

Travis’s Letter From the Alamo

William Barret Travis was an imperfect man, but one talent he did not lack was the ability to write stirring prose. The day after Santa Anna’s forces began their siege at the Alamo, Travis penned one of the most famous heroic appeals for aid ever written. While it did not save him and the other Texas defenders, it rallied support for the Texas cause and the battles yet to come:

Commandacy of the Alamo—Bexar, Feby 24th, 1836

To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World—

Fellow Citizens & Compatriots—

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a considerable Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man—The enemy has demanded surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls—I shall never surrender or retreat.Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism, & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch—The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country—


The History of the Alamo & the Texas Revolution. Texas A&M University < > (accessed April 30, 2007).

At approximately 5:30 a.m. on March 6, 1836, Santa Anna ordered his troops to advance towards the Alamo. The mission defenders ran to their positions, alerted either by shouting Mexican troops or buglers sounding the advance. Travis raced to the northern wall, near the steps of the present-day San Antonio downtown post office, about one block northwest of the front chapel door. As he looked over the side, he saw Mexican soldiers already at the wall, putting up scaling ladders. Travis’s slave, Joe, stood beside him. One of the few survivors that day, Joe later recounted that Travis emptied his shotgun into the crowd below. Shortly after this volley, he saw Travis stumble backwards from the force of a round of ammunition that found its mark. There was a gaping hole in his forehead. The twenty-six-year-old commander still clutched his sword as he fell down an incline, raised up for a moment, and then died. He was one of the morning’s first casualties. After the battle, his body was burned along with that of the other defenders who had been killed. The site of the funeral pyre is not known.

David Crockett

Early Years

David (Davy) Crockett (1786–1836) was a hero at the siege of the Alamo as well as of the American frontier. His backwoods exploits were popularized in print and on stage in his own lifetime, in a 1950s children’s television series, and in folklore. Crockett was born on August 17, 1786, in Tennessee, which was on the frontier of the United States. He was born in a cabin located on the Holston River in Greene County. Crockett was the son of John and Rebecca (Hawkins) Crockett. His family, squatters, regularly moved around Tennessee, where his father, an Irish immigrant worked variously as a farmer, mill operator, tavern keeper, and store manager.

When Crockett was still a child, the family put down roots in northwest Tennessee. He had little schooling. When he was twelve, his father sent him to Virginia to work as a cattle driver to help the family’s always precarious financial situation. Returning to Tennessee that winter, he went to school for four days before getting into a fight. Crockett then stopped going, but did not tell his father he was not attending school and ran away from home to avoid being punished.

Crockett spent most of the next three years in Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland working as a teamster and hatter apprentice as well as traveling. After going back to Tennessee, he determined that he needed some education to find a worthy spouse and spent six months in the employ of a teacher in exchange for a basic education. In 1806, Crockett married his first wife, Polly Findley, and he began farming. Crockett liked hunting better than farming, and in 1811 he began moving west. The family settled in Franklin County, Tennessee, in 1813.

Early Career

From 1813 to 1815, Crockett served two stints in the Tennessee militia during the Creek War, which was part of the greater War of 1812. The battles were fought between Creek Indians and settlers after some frontiersmen ambushed a number of Creek warriors in Alabama. The Creek responded by killing five hundred settlers hiding in the undefended Fort Mims. During the conflict, Crockett served primarily as a mounted scout and hunter, and saw only limited, if any, action.

After nearly dying of malaria, Crockett began a career in politics in Tennessee. His first post came in 1817 when he was an appointed, popular justice of the peace. By 1818, he added three more titles: county court referee, Lawrenceburg county commissioner, and colonel of the state militia. Resigning as commissioner in 1821, Crockett decided to make a run for the Tennessee legislature.

One reason for Crockett’s political success was his storytelling abilities. Though still only partially literate, he used his formidable storytelling abilities in his successful campaigns. His political campaign speeches were often filled with stories that appealed to his audience of frontiersmen. Elected to the state legislature in 1821, he worked to defend the interests of settlers in the west by reducing taxes, providing for debtor relief, and offering solutions to land claim disputes. He served in the Tennessee legislature again from 1823 to 1825, this time representing his new home of Gibson County, Tennessee.

National Politics

After a failed 1824 campaign for U.S. Congress, Crockett ran again in 1826 as a Democrat and was elected to the House of Representatives. He held the seat until 1831. A split with fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, then president of the United States, contributed to Crockett’s losing the 1830 election. He then joined the Whig party and was again elected to Congress by a close margin in 1832. During his congressional terms, he worked to get frontier settlers land for free through his support of the Tennessee Vacant Land Bill and worked on relief for those in debt.

After continued criticism of Jackson, Crockett lost in the 1834 election. By this time, he had become something of a national celebrity. The popular play The Lion of the West popularized his legend while he was a still congressman. He toured the East Coast on speaking engagements, and a number of best-selling books were published based on his life.

Texas Hero

When Crockett lost the 1834 Congressional election, he decided to move to Texas. He traveled with his second wife and neighbors in search of land opportunities. At the time, Texas was in transition as a part of Mexico that was primarily inhabited by white American settlers. The settlers soon began fighting Mexico for the freedom to make Texas an independent nation. Joining the Texas Volunteers in January 1836, Crockett participated in the fight for Texas independence as an officer.

By February 1836, Crockett and other volunteers were in San Antonio, defending the Alamo. The former mission was serving as a fort for the Texans. Mexican troops descended on the fort, and the white colonists were martyred in the battle. Among the casualties of the Mexican siege and capture was the Alamo troop commander, Crockett, who was executed by Mexican troops on March 6, 1836. Journalists of the day embellished his life and death at the Alamo. Crockett’s fame resurged in the mid-twentieth century, when television series and movies loosely based on his life were popular.

James Bowie

Early Years

James (Jim) Bowie (1796–1836) was an important military leader for the Texas Rangers who lost his life during the siege of the Alamo. Born in Kentucky, he was the son of Rezin Bowie and his wife, Alvina Jones. Not much is known about Bowie’s childhood other than the fact that the Bowie family, including Bowie’s four brothers, moved first to Spanish-owned Missouri in 1800 and then to Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, in 1802.

By adulthood, Bowie and his brother Rezin (1793–1841) ran a sawmill and invested in a successful sugarcane plantation. They were the first in Louisiana to employ steam power in the grinding of sugarcane. Bowie was later believed to be in the slave smuggling business with one or more of his brothers, and he also was a land speculator in Natchez, Mississippi, in the late 1820s.

Moved to Texas

By 1828, Bowie was living in Texas. Settling in San Antonio, he spent time looking throughout the nearby region for a lost mine. After becoming a Mexican citizen in October 1830, he obtained large amounts of land by convincing Mexicans to ask for land grants, then buying the land tracts from them at a cheap rate.

Though Bowie married Ursula Martin de Veramendi, the daughter of the governor of the Mexican state Coahuila y Tejas, in the spring of 1831, his allegiance was with the other white American settlers who had been colonizing Texas in greater numbers in the early to mid-1830s. These Americans challenged the Mexican government, which had allowed them to move to Texas, and sought more freedom and independence. Bowie’s wife, two children, and many members of her family had died of cholera in 1833, so he focused much of his time and energy serving in the Texas Rangers as a colonel in support of the settlers’ efforts.

Colonel Bowie

Bowie participated in several battles between the white Texans and the Mexican government. In August 1832, he was part of the conflict at Nacogdoches, Texas, in which Colonel José de las Piedras surrendered. Bowie escorted the prisoners back to San Antonio and then spent most of the next two years in private life, but he also fought in Mexico in support of Monclova as capital of the Mexican Texas state of Coahuila y Tejas in 1833.

Texas settlers continued to call for freedom from Mexico. In May 1835, Bowie was selected to be a member of the first committee of safety, which was organized at Mina. The Texas Revolution broke out soon afterward, and Bowie was named a colonel in the settlers’s military. He was in command of a small number of troops and helped with war strategy. Bowie helped rid Texas of the Mexican military by mid-December 1835.

Early in 1836, the Mexican Army, headed by General Santa Anna, returned to Texas. Bowie and the other volunteer soldiers under his command were forced to retreat to the Alamo. The former mission gave refuge to the soldiers as they made their failed stand against the Mexicans. Ignoring orders to leave, Bowie and his men stayed and fortified the Alamo. Bowie’s command was stymied when he either fell ill with respiratory disease or suffered broken bones while fortifying the Alamo. Thus, he was in bed on March 6, 1836, as the Mexican army besieged the Alamo. Bowie died there, though he managed to inflict casualties on the enemy before he died.

The Bowie Knife

James Bowie’s name is often associated with the invention of the so-called bowie knife, though claims that his brother Rezin invented it are supported by letters from as early as 1827. Some sources claim that James Bowie did devise the knife, and that he was inspired by a fight with an Indian in which he was carrying a butcher’s knife. He hurt himself when his hand slipped from the knife’s hilt to its blade. Bowie then is said to have carved a wooden model for a new kind of knife with a guard, a single edge, and an uncurved blade that was fifteen inches long. He showed it to a blacksmith named John Sowell, who made the first one. Sowell named the knife the bowie knife. The weapon became well known after James Bowie used it to kill another man in a fight known as the “Sandbar Fight” in Mississippi in 1827. By 1840, the bowie knife, which was also called the Arkansas toothpick, was being manufactured in England. The bowie knife proved to be a popular weapon in Texas and beyond for mountaineers, Texas Rangers, hunters, and those living on the frontier.

Antonio López de Santa Anna

General Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876) led the Mexican Army to a victory at the Alamo, but he suffered a number of defeats and eventually lost the Mexican-American War. Santa Anna also served as the president of Mexico six times and was generally perceived to be more concerned with gaining glory and advantage for himself than with improving the emerging Mexican nation. Santa Anna was born in 1794 in Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, to Antonio Lafey de Santa Anna and his wife, Manuela Perez de Lebron. His father worked as a mortgage broker and public official, and the family was wealthy. Though Santa Anna longed for a military career from childhood, his family pushed him into an unsuccessful apprenticeship with a merchant.

Early Career

When Santa Anna was sixteen years old, he was finally allowed to join the Veracruz Infantry regiment as a foot soldier. Part of the colonial Spanish Army, he later served in the cavalry as well. When Mexicans began rebelling against Spain as they looked for their independence, he fought in support of Spain. Santa Anna proved formidable in battles, including conflicts in Texas against independence leader Miguel Hidalgo (1753–1811). Santa Anna reached the rank of captain by the early 1820s and had a favorable record of service, despite a gambling scandal and accusations that he had stolen money. In 1821, when the rebellion seemed near victory, Santa Anna defected to the pro-independence, yet conservative, side and joined the army of future–Emperor of Mexico General Agustín de Iturbide (1783–1824). Santa Anna was soon named a brigadier general of his forces.

When Mexico gained its independence in August 1821, Santa Anna soon displayed his political inconsistency by revolting against Iturbide’s self-declared imperial empire in 1823. After taking the port of Veracruz that year, Santa Anna declared himself in support of a republic for Mexico, even though he did not fully understand what that meant. He then retired to his hacienda, Magna de Clavo, until the late 1820s when political events again drew his interest. He put together an army in support of liberal Vicente Guerrero (1782–1831) to oust the elected conservative president Manuel Gómez Pedraza (1789–1851).

Political Prominence

In 1827, Santa Anna gained widespread fame in Mexico when he handled the surrender of Cuba-based Spanish forces that made a feeble attempt to invade Mexico at Tampico. He was regarded as a hero for his actions and became important in Mexican politics. In 1833, Santa Anna became Mexico’s president after its Congress elected him to the post. Claiming personal illness, but actually disinterested in governing, Santa Anna remained at home and allowed his vice president, Valentín Gómez Farías (1781–1858) to serve as provisional president. When Gómez Farías’s actions and reforms proved unpopular, Santa Anna overthrew him in 1834 and labeled himself “liberator of Mexico.”

Santa Anna then became Mexico’s dictator for a time, though there was political instability in the country. Amid the revolts and Santa Anna’s own resignation and resumption of control, he led Mexican troops into Texas in 1836. White Americans had been forming a colony in Texas with Mexican approval but now wanted their independence. Santa Anna achieved some successes in his military maneuvers, including a victorious siege at the Alamo, but he ultimately suffered a humiliating loss to Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.

Captured as a prisoner of war, Santa Anna was forced to sign the Treaty of Velasco, which granted Texas its independence and withdrawal of Mexican troops. Santa Anna was later held prisoner in Washington, D.C., for a brief time. In February 1837, Santa Anna returned to Mexico to find that he had been deposed in favor of a former president, Anastasio Bustamante (1780–1853). Santa Anna was further disgraced when Bustamente declared the Treaty of Velasco invalid, but he would soon emerge again to help his country.

After spending a year and a half on Magna de Clavo, Santa Anna led Mexican troops to a victory over a French squadron bombing a city in Veracruz. The French had attacked Mexico because of unpaid debts owed to their country, in the so-called “pastry war.” Santa Anna lost his leg in the conflict, which demonstrated his courage and only heightened his already growing political attractiveness. By 1839, Bustamente was compelled to name Santa Anna interim president of Mexico, and the general eventually gained the post outright again in 1841. Santa Anna retained the presidency until 1842, then again from March 1843 to July 1844, when he was overthrown once more and imprisoned.

Service in the Mexican-American War

Rather than being charged with treason by the new government, Santa Anna instead was forced to go into exile in Cuba in 1845. He was able to convince the United States that if he was allowed to return to Mexico and regain his post, he would settle the disputed border of Texas and negotiate peace. While the Americans had the Mexican coast blockaded, Santa Anna was allowed to slip through. When he arrived in Mexico he reneged on his word and helped Mexico prepare for war with the United States.

Santa Anna once more became president of Mexico in December 1846, and then took charge of gathering and training twenty thousand Mexican soldiers early in 1847. He soon began attacking U.S. troops with his army, battles which were part of the Mexican-American War. However, his leadership proved to be inadequate, if not inept, and the Mexican army lost key battles to the Americans.

One stinging defeat came in the Battle of Buena Vista, in which the outnumbered Americans displayed their superior artillery skills. They compelled Santa Anna to retreat at night after losing many men in one day of conflict. Santa Anna also suffered heavy casualties at the Battle of Vera Cruz and the Battle of Cerro Gordo. As Mexico lost territory to the Americans, Santa Anna resigned his presidency and later abandoned his troops and his military post. He was forced into exile in Jamaica, then a British territory, before spending two years in Central America as a farmer.

Returned to Mexico

After conservatives, led by Lucas Alamán, (1792–1853) regained control in 1853, Santa Anna was asked to return as interim president. Santa Anna took the post in April of that year and retained the office even after Almán’s death. In April 1854, Santa Anna agreed to sell Arizona to the United States under terms of the Gadsden Treaty.

Because of continued corruption, liberal forces organized a revolt against Santa Anna in August 1855. He fled Mexico, and spent ten years in exile in Cuba, the United States, Columbia, and St. Thomas. He tried to return again in the mid-1860s, but had no support. His banishment lasted until 1873, when he was permitted to return to Mexico because he was not a political or military threat. Already suffering from ill health, Santa Anna died on June 21, 1876, in Mexico City.

James Polk

James Knox Polk (1795–1849) was the eleventh president of the United States, overseeing the country during the Mexican-American War. He was the first president to lead the United States during a foreign war. Born November 2, 1795, in Pineville, North Carolina, he was the son of Samuel Polk, a wealthy farmer, and his wife, Sarah Jane. When Polk was ten, his father moved the family to Tennessee, where he farmed thousands of acres with slave labor. Polk spent the rest of his formative years there.

Early Political Career

After receiving the bulk of his education at home, Polk attended the University of North Carolina, where he focused on the classics and mathematics. Upon graduating in 1818, he began studying law with Felix Grundy, a congressman. In 1820, Polk was admitted to the bar and spent two years in legal practice. He then ran for a legislative office in Tennessee in 1822. Winning the seat in the Tennessee legislature, Polk opposed land speculators as well as Tennessee’s banks.

After fellow Tennessean and family friend Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1824, Polk, who supported Jackson’s campaign, won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Serving seven consecutive terms, Polk supported states’ rights and soon became a Democratic Party leader. By 1833, Polk was serving as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and was a backer of the banking policies espoused by President Jackson.

Polk’s political career continued to rise when he was elected speaker of the House of Representatives in 1835. While holding the post, Polk expanded the speaker’s powers. Because of his actions, his office of the speaker took charge of overseeing organizational matters as they passed through Congress. Polk left the House in 1839 to take on political challenges in his home state.

Polk became governor of Tennessee in 1839. He held the post through 1841. Though he ran for reelection in 1840, he was defeated. He ran again in 1843 but again lost. During these years, Polk made his living as a farmer.

The U.S. Presidency

Though Polk was twice unable to win the governorship of Tennessee, he was nominated by the Democrats to run for U.S. president in 1844. Polk was not the front-runner for the Democrats—divisive Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) was—but a compromise candidate who was able to bring disparate Democrats together during his political campaign. Though the relatively unknown Polk was not expected to win the election against Henry Clay (1777–1852), a more prominent Whig, he was able to capture an upset victory by a slim popular plurality. This victory marked the first time a so-called “dark horse” candidate won the presidential election.

Once in office, Polk proved successful—he had useful administrative organizational abilities and assembled a strong cabinet. In his inaugural address, he defined four goals he wanted to achieve as president—and he was able to achieve them all by the time he left office in 1849. Polk was able to lower the tariff with the passage of the Walker Tariff, and set up an independent federal treasury. Polk also added California to the Union with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, and resolved the Oregon border dispute with Great Britain by getting the British to agree to define the border between Oregon and Canada at the forty-ninth parallel. In addition to these issues, Polk had to deal with political and philosophical differences between slave and free states, an issue brought to the forefront by the acquisition of new territories and the inability of either side to compromise.

The Mexican-American War

Polk inherited a difficult political situation that soon led to war. On the very last day of the presidency of his predecessor, John Tyler (1790–1862), Texas was annexed to the United States. Though Mexico immediately ended diplomatic relations with the United States because of this action—Mexico believed the United States did not have the authority to annex lands located west of the Sabine River—Polk tried to negotiate with the Mexican government. He sent envoys to negotiate with the Mexican government on several matters, including settling boundary disputes. These negotiations failed, and the Mexican government also ejected an American emissary to Mexico, John Slidell, from the country.

In the spring of 1846, Polk determined that the United States had no choice but to go to war with Mexico. On May 11, 1846, the House of Representatives formally passed the war resolution, though battles had already been fought by troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor (1784–1850). During the war, Polk played an active role in overseeing the actions of army, in part for his own political well-being. He regarded both General Taylor and General Winfield Scott (1786–1866), two heroes of the war who were instrumental in the American victory, as political rivals. Polk also directed the details of organizing the troops, helped appoint officers, and directed the United States’s war strategy.

Polk pursued secret diplomacy with Mexico during the war. He still hoped to acquire both California and New Mexico via this method, but failed. It was not Polk’s only disappointment. He had agreed to pay Mexico’s former dictator, Antonio López de Santa Anna, to return home in exchange for an agreement to end the war and begin peace negotiations. Santa Anna backed out of the deal after he returned to Mexico. As soon as Santa Anna was back in Mexico, he became the commander of the Mexican army and joined the conflict.

The U.S. Army won the Mexican-American War with military superiority and a decisive strategy that included the capture of Mexico City. The peace treaty negotiated after the war’s end in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, saw the United States retaining Texas and gaining both California and New Mexico in exchange for $15 million. Because of this treaty, Polk was able to add more than one million square miles to the United States.

No Second Term

Early in his presidency, Polk announced he would not run for a second term. He did this because he hoped it would reduce tensions within the Democratic Party and free him from party politics so that he could represent all Americans. In 1848, he gave his support to Lewis Cass (1782–1866), who became the party’s presidential nominee. General Taylor, the Whig candidate, was able to win when Martin Van Buren left the Democrats, offered himself as a third-party candidate, and split the Democratic vote.

When Polk left office early in 1849, he was already suffering from poor health. He died only twelve weeks later, on June 15, 1849, in Nashville, Tennessee. Years after his death, Polk was considered one of the best presidents the United States ever had.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor (1784–1850) was a hero of the Mexican-American War and the twelfth president of the United States. He was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready” and was known for his tactical and exceptional leadership skills. Taylor was born November 24, 1784, on the Montebello estate about twenty miles from Charlottesville, Virginia, the son of Richard Taylor, an officer who had served during the Revolutionary War, and his wife, Sarah Dabney Strother.

When Taylor was less than a year old, the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where his father had been given land as a reward for his war service. Although his father built a plantation on his land, he also took a job as a customs collector. Taylor received his education from private tutors at home, but it was limited and not of high quality. He also worked on the plantation and learned about agriculture.

Early Career

Though Taylor’s father wanted him to remain on the plantation, Taylor was permitted to act on his interest in the military and enter the U.S. Army after an elder brother died. When he twenty-four years old, he was given a commission as a lieutenant in the Seventh Infantry and sent to New Orleans under the command of General James Wilkinson (1757–1825). After a brief leave when he contracted yellow fever, Taylor was promoted to captain and sent to the Indiana Territory in 1810.

Taylor was put in charge of Fort Harrison during the War of 1812, and was breveted major for the duration of the conflict. While Taylor was in command, the fifty soldiers in the fort survived an assault by four hundred Native Americans led by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh (1768–1813). The victory made him famous. When the war ended, he was demoted to captain. Taylor was insulted by the demotion, resigned, and went home intending to work again in agriculture.

The Indian Wars

Taylor’s retirement was short-lived, because President James Madison (1751–1836) reinstated his promotion to major in 1816. Over the next twenty years, Taylor served in the Wisconsin Territory as the commander of the Third Infantry and as the head of garrisons in Louisiana and Minnesota. After being promoted to colonel in 1832, Taylor was in charge of four hundred soldiers during the Black Hawk War. He was the recipient of Black Hawk’s (1767–1838) surrender.

After Taylor served as the commanding officer of Fort Snelling, in Minnesota, for several years, he was put in charge of the U.S. Army during the Florida-based Seminole Wars in 1837. He was breveted brigadier general after defeating the Seminole Indians in a major victory at Lake Okeechobee. By 1840, Taylor was serving as commander of the Department of the Southwest and was based in Louisiana’s Fort Jessup. He then made Baton Rouge his home, though he also bought a plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1841 and became a slave owner.

Service in the Mexican-American War

By the spring of 1845, Taylor was positioned in the Republic of Texas as the territory was being annexed by the United States. He was under orders to fend off any attempt by Mexico to interfere or reclaim the territory. Taylor led the four thousand men under his command to Corpus Christi, Texas, during the summer of 1845, and a few months later moved his troops to the Rio Grande’s mouth. The Americans wanted the river to be the southern boundary of Texas.

Taylor prepared for war by building Fort Brown (sometimes called Fort Texas, in present-day Brownsville, Texas) in March 1846. After the Mexican army struck the Americans, Taylor fought back even before war was declared by the United States. At the Battle of Palo Alto in May 1846, Taylor’s troops won a victory over a much larger Mexican force. Two reasons for the win were the precision of the artillery’s and Taylor’s own courage and inspiring leadership. A day later, Taylor won another victory at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. With these victories, Taylor’s troops were able to occupy Matamoros, the Mexican town across the Rio Grande from Fort Brown.

After the two battles, Taylor received other honors. He was named commander of the Army of the Rio Grande by President James K. Polk. Taylor was also breveted general and given gold medals by Congress. In September 1846, Taylor led six thousand soldiers to Monterrey, Mexico, and was able to capture the city after a four-day battle. But only Taylor’s increasing popularity prevented his being removed as commander by President Polk, who was unhappy with Taylor’s merciful attitude toward the Mexicans.

Taylor briefly remained at Monterrey with three thousand troops while General Winfield Scott led the rest of the U.S. Army in the area on an invasion at Veracruz, Mexico. Though Taylor was supposed to stay on the defensive in Monterrey, he soon took his men and marched south to engage the bigger Mexican army—15,000 to 20,000 strong—led by Antonio López de Santa Anna. The Battle of Buena Vista took place on February 22 and 23, and again, the stronger artillery compelled a U.S. victory and a Mexican retreat.

Elected U.S. President

After returning from Mexico in November 1847, Taylor was ready to run for the U.S. presidency. Though his supporters considered his political skills abysmal, and he had never voted in a presidential election, Taylor won the nomination of the Whig party in 1848. He unexpectedly defeated Democrat Lewis Cass and took office in 1849.

As president, Taylor’s lack of political skill made his short-lived presidency essentially unsuccessful, especially in the areas of foreign policy and congressional relations. Taylor dealt with the growing issue of slavery, however. Though he did own slaves, he wanted California and New Mexico admitted as free states and strongly opposed Texas’s claims on lands east of the Rio Grande as well as any talk of secession by southern states. He was also the last Whig president, in part because he created division within the party.

Taylor developed cholera or gastroenteritis and fever on July 4, 1850, probably as a result of drinking large amounts of water on a hot day. He died shortly thereafter, on July 10, 1850, in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Louisville, Kentucky.

General Winfield Scott

General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) was a hero of the Mexican-American War and eventual general in chief of the U.S. Army. He led U.S. troops to significant victories in Mexico during the conflict. Scott was born on June 13, 1786, near Petersburg, Virginia, the son of William Scott and his wife Ann Mason. The family had inherited significant wealth. William Scott was also a Revolutionary War veteran who worked as a farmer, but died when Scott was six years old. Scott’s mother died when he was seventeen, but she had raised him with a strong sense of manners and a love of books.

Scott chose to go to college after his mother’s death, attending William and Mary College for a year. Deciding to pursue a legal career, he studied law with well-known attorney David Robinson and was admitted to the bar of Virginia in 1806. Scott practiced law until his military career began.

Early Military Career

Scott’s military experiences began in 1807 when he heeded President Thomas Jefferson’s call for volunteers for a militia to keep British ships away from the American shore. Scott volunteered as a lance corporal and was in charge of a patrol that watched over a small amount of coastline. He soon asked Jefferson for a permanent commission in the military.

In 1808, Scott was appointed a captain in the U.S. Army and stationed in New Orleans. Within a short amount of time, he faced difficulties. He served under a commanding general, James Wilkinson, for whom he had little respect. Scott was court-martialed after he called Wilkinson a traitor to the United States. He was convicted and spent the year 1810 suspended from the Army. He resumed his legal career during this time.

After being reinstated to the Army, Scott was promoted to lieutenant colonel by the time the War of 1812 began. He was in charge of recruiting what came to be the Second Artillery. On the battlefield in Canada, he showed himself to be a superior soldier, both courageous and able to make solid judgments despite being captured at the battle at Queenstown. Scott later led troops to victory at Niagara, Stoney Creek, and Fort George. Scott’s valor led him to be promoted first to brevet brigadier general and then brevet major general. He also received congressional thanks and a gold medal.

Though Scott was asked to become President James Madison’s secretary of war, the general turned down the offer. Instead, Scott left the army from 1815 until 1821. He returned as the commander of the Army’s Eastern Division until 1825, when he was temporarily relieved of his duties after being court-martialed for refusing orders. In addition to training officers under his command, Scott also wrote military manuals on infantry and tactics, both of which became accepted standards. He twice went to Europe to learn about other countries’s military tactics as well.

Leading American General

Beginning in the late 1820s, Scott participated in several significant military operations. He took part in the Black Hawk War in 1828 and then was stationed in South Carolina during the nullification controversy of 1832. Scott here showed his burgeoning negotiating skills, which prevented civil war—one of several times his expertise proved effective in preventing battles. Scott was on his way to becoming the leading military mind in the United States.

By 1835, Scott was in Florida to combat the Seminole and Creek Indians under President Andrew Jackson’s orders. Because of the lack of material support, Scott’s effectiveness was limited, however. Though Jackson relieved him of his command and ordered him to go in front of a board of inquiry, Scott was not only absolved of any wrongdoing, but also praised for his handling of the situation. Scott continued to show his military and negotiating skills in various military operations during the late 1830s, including bringing peace to the Niagara region after the failed Canadian revolt of 1837, overseeing the removal of Cherokee Indians to the Indian Territory in 1838, and helping negotiate peace in the 1839 Lumberjack War.

Such successes led to Scott being named the Army’s general in chief in 1841. He would remain in the post until 1861. Scott was personally responsible for making the U.S. Army more efficient and effective. He also enforced high standards of discipline and dress on troops, including a personal crusade against the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Service in the Mexican-American War

Though General Zachary Taylor had been in charge of U.S. troops through the early part of the Mexican-American War, Scott was brought in by President James K. Polk in 1847 to seal the victory Taylor had been unable to achieve. (Polk had not appointed Scott the head of U.S. forces in the region for political reasons. Scott had already been considered as the Whig nominee for president in 1838, 1840, and 1844, and Polk did not want to heighten Scott’s visibility.)

Scott proved effective in the conflict. Beginning in March 1847 with his landing at Veracruz, Mexico, Scott reeled off a succession of victories. He won battles at Cerro Gordo, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec before securing Mexico City six months after his initial landing in Mexico. While the peace treaty was being negotiated, Scott commanded the U.S. troops occupying and keeping order in Mexico City. Some Mexican citizens even asked Scott to become their country’s dictator, but Scott soon returned home and left General William O. Butler (1791–1880) in charge of the troops.

Failed Political Ambitions

After coming back to the United States, Scott continued to serve as general in chief of the Army while General Taylor was elected to the White House in 1848. Scott’s own political ambitions took hold when he received the Whig nomination for president in 1852. Though he desperately wanted to be president, Scott lost by a wide margin, in part because of the arrogance displayed in his campaign.

While his political career had essentially ended, Scott continued to distinguish himself as a military officer. In 1855, he was promoted to lieutenant general, a rank last held by George Washington (1732–1799). Remaining with the Union Army during the Civil War, Scott proposed the policy of dividing the South to contain it. President Abraham Lincoln adopted the measure, which proved successful. It was one of Scott’s last acts as general in chief. He chose to retire on November 1, 1861, at the age of seventy-five. Scott died less than five years later, on May 29, 1866, at West Point, New York. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Major Battles and Events

The Alamo

The two-week siege at the Alamo saw the Anglo and Mexican Texans fortified therein to stand up to their Mexican colonial overlords. The Texans wanted their independence but suffered a devastating defeat at the Alamo at the hands of the Mexican army on March 6, 1836. Texans had begun organizing militarily after the Mexican president, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, sent Mexican troops in 1835, under the command of General Martín Perfecto de Cos, to the forts located along the Rio Grande River, the border of the Texas colony with Mexico. Cos was attempting to administer new Mexican federal laws in the colony, but failed.

Setting the Stage

White settlers began firing on the Mexican troops under General Cos, and the troops fired back. The Texans soon organized their own small militia, which took over two small towns in Texas, Goliad and Gonzales. By the end of October 1835, the Texans’s militia had arrived in the fortified city of San Antonio, where General Cos had made his headquarters with four hundred Mexican troops.

The Texans’s militia, which now included about three hundred new members, then spent six weeks exchanging fire with the Mexican army in San Antonio. In early December, the Texans grew bold and besieged the fort. By December 10, Cos had lost 150 of his 400 men, and he surrendered San Antonio, to the Texans. Though the victors let the Mexican army, including Cos, go back home without their weapons and with a promise not to return, they knew there would be reprisals. The Texans fortified the Alamo and waited for an attack.

Furious, General Santa Anna decided that the Texas colony must be put in its place. He led six thousandMexican troops himself to the area in early 1836. The Texans in the militia in San Antonio did not expect an attack from Mexico until spring. Because some of the volunteers in San Antonio had grown restless during the winter and sought battles in other cities, only about one hundred militiamen remained there, though others joined those waiting in San Antonio. By the time Santa Anna arrived in February 1836, there were about 150 militia members in San Antonio, including David Crockett and Jim Bowie. Bowie and another new arrival, Colonel William Barrett Travis, were the joint commanders of the militia’s volunteers.

The Siege Begins

On February 23, 1836, a sentry for the Texans saw 1,500 members of the Mexican cavalry nearing San Antonio. With that warning, Travis ordered that all in San Antonio should move into the Alamo. (The Alamo was once the San Antonio de Valero mission, which had later served as a fort, but had been deserted until shortly before the battle.) Surrounded by high walls, the Alamo consisted of several buildings that surrounded a three-acre plaza. To protect themselves, the Texans mounted the fourteen cannons in their possession along the walls. They also set up rifles.

Santa Anna’s army did not directly attack the Alamo right away but instead controlled San Antonio and surrounded the Alamo. That same day, February 23, Santa Anna sent a messenger to the Texans demanding their surrender. He and his troops were appalled when the Texans released a cannon shot that nearly hit the messenger.

The Siege Reaches a Stalemate

For the next two weeks, the Mexican army laid siege to the Alamo. From the Alamo, the Texans were able to use their superior Kentucky rifles and other weapons to injure and kill a many Mexican soldiers. The Mexican troops used muskets and cannon fire on the Alamo—to much less effect because the Texans’ weapons had much longer range. Reinforcements for the Mexican army continued to arrive during the siege.

While the siege was essentially a stalemate, with no injuries inside the Alamo, the Texans were hoping to hold on until reinforcements arrived. On February 24, Colonel Travis sent a message to Sam Houston, who was organizing a Texas army. Travis told him about conditions inside the Alamo and asked for more troops.

By March 1, thirty-two additional volunteers were able to sneak inside the Alamo. Travis realized that the situation was still dire and that no more reinforcements were arriving. The fewer than two hundred defenders inside the Alamo were no long-term match for the thousands of well-trained Mexican soldiers. Travis informed the defenders on March 3 that they would have to fight to their deaths, but if they wanted to leave now, there would be no loss of honor. At most, only one man left, though even one man leaving is the subject of historical debate.

Final Showdown

On March 6 at 5 a.m., Santa Anna ordered a degüello attack (no prisoners to be taken) on the Alamo. The battle began with Mexican cannon fire creating two enormous holes in the walls of the Alamo. Through these holes, about three thousand Mexican soldiers entered the fortified mission. The Texans defended themselves with a hail of bullets and cannon fire, but they could not hold their positions for long. The battle soon turned to hand-to-hand combat using knives and bayonets. The entire confrontation lasted less than ninety minutes.

Before the end of the March 6 battle, Travis, Crockett, and a bed-ridden Bowie were already dead. Only five of the Texas defenders survived the attack. Though the remaining defenders surrendered to the Mexicans, they and nearly everyone who had sought refuge in the Alamo were killed by the Mexican army. Only Susanna Dickinson (c. 1814–1883), the wife of a Texas soldier, her baby, a few female Mexican nurses, and two slave boys were allowed to live and leave the Alamo. Approximately six hundred Mexican soldiers died in the final siege.

With the Alamo under control, Santa Anna pursued the fleeing Texas army east. The Texans lost again to the Mexican army at Goliad. “Remember the Alamo!” became the inspiring rallying cry as Texas fought for its declared independence from Mexico and began the Texas Revolution.

San Jacinto

The Battle of San Jacinto was fought on April 21, 1836. It was the definitive engagement in the Texas revolution against Mexico. Fought on a slightly crested peninsular plain near present-day Houston, the battle and resulting events created a viable Republic of Texas and set the stage for the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845. It also helped produce the Mexican-American War of 1846 and led to the eventual transfer of more than one million square miles of territory from Mexico to the United States.

After his victory at the Alamo on March 6, Mexican commander Santa Anna split his army into thirds. He planned to sweep down from the north, secure the coast with a detachment moving northeast from Matamoros, and command forces east across the middle of the Texas from San Antonio, destroying any rebel resistance along the way. His combined army of almost 3,500 troops would either eliminate any military threat in Texas or push all opposition across the Sabine River and into the United States. Mexico would again control its northernmost province.


Texas commander-in-chief Sam Houston needed time to gather strength, train volunteers, and concentrate his forces as he fell back across Texas before the advancing Mexican army. He ordered Goliad commander James Fannin and more than four hundred defenders to leave their garrison and join him on the march east. Fannin delayed and was captured with most of his men. On March 27, Santa Anna ordered the execution of the 342 prisoners. This order was in keeping with a law the Mexican legislature had approved in December 1835 that provided for the execution—as pirates—of all foreigners taking up arms against Mexico. The Mexican commander at Goliad saved as many Texans as he could and spared anyone with beneficial skills and prisoners captured without weapons. The message to Texas volunteers was clear. After the Alamo and Goliad, any future Mexican victory meant almost certain death.

Coming Together

In mid-April, Santa Anna learned the Texas government was in Harrisburg (now Houston). He thought he could move swiftly and capture the civilian rebels and then deal with General Houston. Favoring speed over numbers, he marched with roughly 650 soldiers, about 50 cavalry, and one piece of artillery, leaving his remaining force of 2,800 soldiers and numerous artillery pieces forty miles southwest of Harrisburg at Fort Bend (present-day Richmond) on the Brazos River. When he got to Harrisburg, he found the government was now at New Washington, 20 miles east. He arrived there on April 18, just in time to see the Texas government sailing away across the bay, heading for Galveston Island. On the same day, Texas scout Erastus “Deaf” Smith (1787–1837) captured a Mexican courier, and General Houston (with 1,200 troops) arrived in Harrisburg. Documents in the courier’s saddlebags gave Houston Santa Anna’s troop strength, overall strength and location of other Mexican forces, and Santa Anna’s planned movements. He also knew Santa Anna would soon get about six hundred reinforcements led by his brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos. Even counting these additional troops, after the Alamo, Goliad, and the overwhelming desire of his volunteers to avenge these defeats, Houston was ready for a fight against 1,300–1,400 Mexican soldiers. Santa Anna had to cross the San Jacinto River at the Lynchburg ferry in order to move east. Houston raced for the ferry crossing.

On April 19, Houston left almost 250 sick or wounded soldiers in Harrisburg and marched his remaining army northeast on the Lynchburg road, crossing Vince’s Bridge along the route. On the morning of April 20, about nine hundred Texans moved onto the plain at San Jacinto, about fifteen miles from Harrisburg. They established their camp on high ground in a grove of oak trees near the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. Santa Anna learned of the Texas troop movements, burned New Washington, and after marching northwest about eight miles, established camp in front of the Texans—about 1,200 yards away. Because of high grass and a small rise in the San Jacinto plain between the two forces, neither army could see the other’s encampment. The Texas forces had water to their back (Buffalo Bayou), water to their left (the San Jacinto River), hundreds of Mexican troops in front of them, and General Cos and his troops coming on their right. The Mexicans had the river to their right, swamps and a lake to their back, and the Texans in front. They also had a long plain heading off toward the coast on their left back to New Washington, and the bridge to Harrisburg to the southwest.

There was a short cavalry skirmish on the afternoon of April 20. The main effect of this parry was the demotion of Sidney Sherman back to command of the Second Texas Infantry (240 men) and the elevation of private Mirabeau B. Lamar (1798–1859) to commander of the cavalry (50 men) the next day. Sherman wanted to fight the Mexicans so much that his cavalry movements threatened to start a full battle.

April 21, 3:30 p.m.

On April 21, Texans heard reveille at 4 a.m. The sleep of the previous night was their first good rest in days. On the Mexican side, there was little to no sleep. During the night, Santa Anna had his soldiers throwing together hastily built breastworks (above-ground trenches) of boxes, luggage, saddles, and other items. At about 9 a.m., General Cos arrived via Vince’s Bridge, not with 600 battle-hardened soldiers as Santa Anna had ordered, but with about 540 new recruits. Santa Anna now had approximately 1,300 troops. Cos’s men had marched all night and through the morning to reach the camp. They were dispersed on the extreme right side of the Mexican lines. To their right was the San Jacinto River; behind them were a series of marshes, a small lake, and more river. They were beyond what little protection was afforded by the breastworks to their left (which were supported by about 240 men), the single piece of Mexican artillery in the middle of the defenses, more breastworks and about 340 soldiers, and finally about 50 cavalry completing the left flank. The entire line stretched more than 1,000 yards in an arc that bulged slightly towards the Texas camp.

Aware of growing unease in the Texas ranks, Houston called a council of war around noon that lasted until 2 p.m. He also ordered Deaf Smith to destroy Vince’s Bridge. There would be no more reinforcements from the Harrisburg road, and the Texans’s only way out of San Jacinto would be through the Mexican defenses. At approximately 3:30 p.m., Houston ordered the officers to parade their commands and advance across the open plain. On the left flank was Sidney Sherman (1805–1873) and 260 members of the Second Texas Infantry. To his right was the First Texas Infantry with 220 men commanded by Edward Burleson (1798–1851). Volunteers brought their own equipment, usually a musket or rifle. On this day, many also had two or three loaded pistols and a bowie knife or sword. Next to Burleson were thirty-one soldiers, commanded by George Hockley (1802–1854), manning the artillery, two “six-pounders” (cannons that fired six-pound balls) known as the “Twin Sisters.” To the right of the artillery marched Henry Millard (c. 1796–1844) (240 men) and the Texas Regular Army. Unlike the volunteers, these soldiers were supplied with 1818 Harpers Ferry flintlock muskets and bayonets. Some also had more recently issued U.S. hardware. Millard had been the chief Army recruiter in Nacogdoches. His group had a large concentration of volunteers with recent U.S. military experience. There were several U.S. Army deserters and recently released soldiers who joined the Texas cause after leaving their posts with the regular army in nearby Louisiana. Next to Millard was Mirabeau B. Lamar at the lead of about sixty cavalry. The combined forces stretched more than one thousand yards from left to right in two lines.

Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!

At approximately 4:30 p.m., the Texans were within five hundred yards of the Mexican line when they crested the slope and emerged from the tall grass. In a document written after the battle, Santa Anna stated he ordered sentries posted; on that afternoon, there were no sentries. He planned to attack April 22 and did not think the Texans would attack fortified positions across an open plain. Most of the soldiers were resting or asleep. As Santa Anna wrote in his official report, “I yielded to repose.” Bareback cavalry horses were feeding on grass or being led to and from water. A bugler saw the Texans approaching and sounded the alarm. The Twin Sisters were wheeled within two hundred yards of the Mexican defenses and opened fire. Cannon fire flew through the front lines. Mexican troops got off one organized volley, but their aim was high and few attackers fell. Texans waited until they were within pistol range and then opened up with muskets and rifles. The results were devastating. After this exchange, the lines fell apart as individual clusters of Texans raced to breach the defenses.

Sherman’s infantry hit first. With shouts of “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” ringing out, the Texans smashed into Cos’s men, throwing the recruits into disarray. Those who were not killed in the initial sweep ran into the wetlands to their rear or fled to the left through the rest of the Mexican army, followed closely by attacking Texans. This caused more confusion as seasoned veterans tried to form up and fight. For Santa Anna’s army, it was already too late. The Twin Sisters were wheeled within seventy yards of the Mexican lines, fired again, and then fell silent. After these shots, any Texas artillery would hit Texans, because Texas First fighters were already over the breastworks on the left and Millard’s Texas Regulars seized the Mexican’s only cannon and more breastworks to the right. Lamar’s cavalry engaged the far right of the Mexican defenses, against a largely insignificant mounted response. Once at and over the lines, Texans continued inflicting injuries with pistols, swords, knives, captured Mexican weapons, and the butts of their long guns.

Active fighting lasted eighteen minutes. Afterward, Texans continued killing Mexican troops until nightfall. Most of these deaths occurred in the swamps and lake behind the Mexican encampment. Individual soldiers were killed where they stood or were shot in the water.

Aftermath and Prelude

Texas losses were nine killed and thirty injured, including Houston, who was shot in the ankle. Reports of Mexican losses are inexact, with generally accepted figures of more than six hundred killed and almost seven hundred taken prisoner. Santa Anna was captured the next day and brought before Houston. Rather than kill the self-described “Napoleon of the West,” Houston used Santa Anna to order his remaining forces to fall back to San Antonio and await further instructions. On May 14, with the public Treaty of Velasco and a secret side agreement signed the same day, Santa Anna agreed to move all Mexican troops south of the Rio Grande, to establish the Texas border with Mexico at the Rio Grande, and to not invade Texas again. The Mexican government refused to abide by the treaty, the Texans seized Santa Anna as a prisoner of war, and Mexico would not recognize the Rio Grande as its northern border until it signed the Treaty of Hidalgo in 1848.

Battle of Palo Alto

Though skirmishes between Mexican and U.S. troops occurred before war was officially declared, the Battle of Palo Alto was the first battle afterward. It was fought before the declaration of war was signed by President James K. Polk and is generally considered the first major battle of the war. President Polk had put General Zachary Taylor in charge of bringing about four thousand members of the U.S. Army to the Rio Grande River across from the Mexican town Matamoros. This encampment irritated the Mexicans, who stationed their own troops in Matamoros.

From Fort Brown (also known as Fort Texas), across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Taylor marched about 2,300 of his soldiers on May 1, 1846 to the U.S. supply depot at Port Isabel, about thirty miles away. At the time, Taylor and his men were in dire need of supplies, and they took advantage of the chance to breach Mexican lines in order to reach their supply depot. After Taylor arrived at Port Isabel on May 2, he had his troops take everything they could transport, including all the cannons that the arsenal could do without.

Arista’s Offensive

Mexican General Mariano Arista learned of Taylor’s supply trip and wanted to engage the American general and his troops in a battle as they made their way back to Fort Brown from Point Isabel. To that end, before the Americans returned, Arista positioned his six thousand men on Palo Alto, the flat, broad plain between the two locations. Taylor and his army reached Palo Alto early on May 8, 1846. After the two armies saw each other and formed battle lines in the early afternoon, fighting began.

The combat started with and consisted primarily of cannons and other artillery fire. The Americans gained the upper hand within an hour. Mexican cannons fired low to the ground, and many of their cannonballs landed far in front of the American soldiers. Because U.S. forces could easily dodge the poor-quality Mexican cannons, gunpowder, shot, and musketry, they were able to hold them off.

Superior American Firepower

American artillery inflicted heavy damage on the Mexican army. Using siege guns, howitzers, cannons, and the highly maneuverable “flying artillery” (a light, mounted mobile cannon consisting of a howitzer mounted on caissons, used for the first time in battle), American soldiers bombarded the Mexican army with great success.

During the afternoon, other strategies were tried by the Mexicans and by the Americans. Less successful than bombardment was each side’s attempt at a cavalry charge, though the Mexican horses were of better quality than their armaments. The Mexicans also tried an infantry charge, but this, too, was repelled by American artillery. By the end of the afternoon, the Mexican army could not gain ground on the Americans.

Fire Ends the Day’s Battle

Near twilight, the high grass of Palo Alto, which had been trampled all day by both sides, caught fire. The fire emitted a large amount of smoke. Though the smoke temporarily stopped fighting, the Americans used it as an advantageous cover to ambush Mexican soldiers. A truce was later called for the day, and both armies camped for the night. The next morning, the Americans returned to the battlefield. They found that the Mexican army had retreated and was nowhere to be seen. Only 10 Americans were killed and 40 injured during the Battle of Palo Alto, while there were 257 to 400 Mexican casualties.

The Americans found the Mexicans at Resaca de la Palma, five miles from Palo Alto, and again engaged in battle on May 9. The U.S. Army’s infantry and cavalry routed their Mexican counterparts, and the Mexican army continued to retreat as U.S. forces, led by Taylor, occupied much of the northeastern part of Mexico.

Battle of Buena Vista

One of the most significant battles of the Mexican-American War, the Battle of Buena Vista, was also the first involving General Antonio López de Santa Anna in a decade. Shortly before the battle, Santa Anna had taken over the Mexican presidency and raised an army of 25,000. Based in San Luis Potoí, Santa Anna ordered about twenty thousand Mexican troops to march for three hundred miles to Buena Vista in February 1847. After learning of the American war plan from an intercepted letter, Santa Anna made the journey in order to engage U.S. forces commanded by General Zachary Taylor.

For much of the Mexican-American War, American troops were headed by General Zachary Taylor. Primarily for political reasons, President James K. Polk decided to split the command of the U.S. forces in Mexico between General Taylor and General Winfield Scott. Polk gave Scott orders to launch an invasion of Mexico City from the port city of Veracruz. The American troops previously serving under Taylor were split in half, with Scott taking about five thousand to six thousand men. Nearly all of the regular soldiers, as well as a number of volunteers, were transferred to Scott as he prepared to invade central Mexico.

Santa Anna’s Plan

Santa Anna learned of the plan for Scott’s invasion and decided to attack Taylor first, in part because he seemed more vulnerable because of the troop division. By February 1847, Taylor was moving his remaining men—primarily volunteers—westward into the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. Taylor was putting his troops into a defensive position. Santa Anna marched twenty thousand of his troops northward with the intent of intercepting Taylor and pushing the Americans back to the Rio Grande. Over the course of the journey, five thousand Mexican soldiers deserted or died of disease before reaching the battle site.

On February 22, 1847, Taylor’s men passed through a narrow mountain pass that had mountains on one side and treacherous gullies on the other. (A nearby ranch was called San Juan de Buena Vista and lent its name to the battle.) Though the pass area was difficult to either defend or attack, the U.S. forces knew of Santa Anna’s nearby army and took up a defensive position. Santa Anna’s troops were stationed beyond the pass, lying in wait for the Americans, who were far fewer in number than their Mexican counterparts.

Santa Anna sent a message to Taylor on February 23 that formally asked for the surrender of Taylor and the Americans. Taylor’s response to the message was harshly negative. The first clashes of the Battle of Buena Vista happened later that afternoon, but these were only minor engagements between the Mexican light infantry and American volunteer soldiers who were riflemen and unmounted cavalry. During the rainy night that followed, both sides readied themselves for the primary clash the next day.

The Battle Begins

The next morning, the Battle of Buena Vista began in earnest, primarily consisting of gunfire supported by aggressive artillery action. The Americans relied on cavalrymen and riflemen on nearby heights. Santa Anna repositioned his soldiers in order to add to the light infantry soldiers stationed on the mountainside. Artillery was placed in attack position near the pass, ready to strike the Americans. Assault columns and artillery were prepared to hit the American left flank.

The first shots came from the Mexican army as a column traveled up Saltillo Road, which cut through the area. Their efforts were stymied by a battery of Americans. Two divisions of the Mexican army on the right flank had more success early on against the second Indiana Regiment and several pieces of artillery. The regiment’s commander became confused during their exchange and ordered a retreat, which forced the artillery commander, Captain John Paul Jones O’Brien, and the troops on the mountain, to back off as well. Though the American left flank could have fallen apart, reinforcements in the form of volunteers from Illinois and Kentucky halted the Mexican advance.

American Momentum

U.S. forces slowly found the battle going their way. Troops at the center of combat under General John E. Wool (1784–1869) were forced to withdraw, but did so with a fight. General Taylor rallied all his troops and inserted some fresh soldiers into the battle, including the First Mississippi Regiment. These men, plus the reorganized Second and Third Indiana Regiment, formed the new left flank. Using a “V” formation, the Americans were able to rout the Mexicans, who tried to repel the enemy with a lance attack.

The final assault, led by Santa Anna, to the center of the American troops met with some success. A few U.S. units of infantry and artillery troops from Illinois and Kentucky mistakenly advanced at the same time as the Mexican forward thrust. The Americans found themselves surrounded by the larger Mexican army but were saved by the arrival of more U.S. troops.

The battle continued through the afternoon, but at nightfall both sides agreed to a break and the Mexican Army began retreating. On February 25, the Americans unexpectedly found that the Mexican Army had completely retreated. They could see that Santa Anna’s men were on their way back to San Luis Potoí, primarily because of heavy troop loss. About 3,400 Mexican troops were dead, injured, or missing. More Mexicans lost their lives as they marched away.

The Americans lost 267 men, while 465 were wounded and 23 were missing as a result of the battle. Despite the heavy loss of life, the U.S. forces considered the Battle of Buena Vista to be a victory—and an important one—because a prime piece of Mexican territory had been secured. Santa Anna also believed that his army won the Battle of Buena Vista, though many Mexicans disagreed with his assessment, and morale was low among his men.

Battle of Veracruz

During the Mexican-American War, the Battle of Veracruz was a crucial American victory that allowed the United States to control important territory in Mexico and helped lead to the beginning of the end of the conflict. At the beginning of the war, the U.S. Navy blockaded the gulf city of Veracruz as well as the rest of Mexico’s port cities. By late 1846, President James K. Polk believed that occupying Veracruz and then marching to Mexico City could bring about the war’s end.

Under Polk’s orders, General Scott had spent the first months of 1847 preparing for the invasion of Mexico. He had about 14,fourteen thousand troops at his disposal, including five thousand to six thuosand men who were transferred from the command of General Zachary Taylor. The rest of Scott’s force was comprised of new soldiers recruited in the United States.

Landing at Collado Beach

On March 9, the U.S. troops headed by Scott landed on Collado Beach. The forces had first sailed from the American-controlled Tampico to Lobos Island on February 21, and had then arrived at the American naval base at Antón Lizardo on March 3. They used surfboats, which had been constructed for this landing, to transport ten thousand soldiers to Collado Beach, which was about three miles southeast of Veracruz. Naval ships soon moved off the coast as well in order to support the Army’s effort. When the American men arrived on the beach, they were attacked by Mexican lancers who rode along nearby sand dunes. The lancers were soon repelled by gunfire from American ships. The ten thousand American soldiers were able to land without incident or loss of life.

As the Americans continued to organize their operation and bring more supplies ashore on March 10, the three thousand Mexican soldiers stationed at Veracruz remained inside the city under the orders of General Juan Morales. Morales was the Mexican military officer in charge of defending Veracruz. His forces watched as the Americans prepared for a siege. Scott had three divisions of soldiers form a half-moon around Veracruz.

Bombing of Veracruz

Because Veracruz, a vital port for Mexico, was highly fortified with high walls and protected by heavy guns, General Scott decided that bombing would be a more effective strategy than an infantry attack on the city, which some had suggested. Scott believed that a bombing siege would result in fewer casualties. As a courtesy, Scott informed General Morales on the day before the bombing began that the city’s citizens who were not involved in the fighting could leave. Scott did not receive a reply.

On March 22, Scott ordered the beginning of the bombing of Veracruz. The U.S. military used heavy cannons to shell the city. Other forms of artillery and mortars had been stationed around the city and were also used in the attack. U.S. naval ships contributed to the assault with six heavy cannons located off shore. American naval forces also brought some heavy guns ashore that were operated by naval personnel. Mexican troops responded with their own armaments, but because of their relatively poor quality, the response was ineffective.

U.S. Forces Take the City

The American bombings were extremely effective, however, destroying both public buildings and private homes. U.S. forces also had cut off supplies, including water, to Veracruz, further harming those inside the city. Both Mexican soldiers and civilians were killed in the American assault. Over the course of the attack, 180 Mexicans lost their lives. The United States only suffered one hundred casualties, nineteen dead, and eighty-one wounded.

On March 28, after six days of bombing, General Juan Landero surrendered Veracruz to the United States. (Landero had replaced General Morales after his resignation a few days earlier.) Mexican soldiers then marched out of the city and laid down their arms. Mexican authorities in Mexico City were stunned by the loss of Veracruz.

As part of the surrender agreement, American forces specifically stated that the Mexican citizens who remained in Veracruz would be allowed to practice their Roman Catholic faith. Mexicans believed that the Americans were anti-Catholic and would chastise them for their religious beliefs, perhaps even desecrate their churches and physically harm their religious leaders. This provision was expected to improve relations between the American invaders and Mexicans in the land they were conquering. The United States remained in control of Veracruz until the end of the Mexican-American War and used it as a supply port in support of its war effort.

March into Mexico City

General Winfield Scott’s ultimate conquest of Mexico City sealed the American victory in the Mexican-American War. On April 8, 1847, after he won the Battle of Veracruz, he began marching his men towards Mexico City. It was 225 miles from Veracruz to Mexico City, and Scott’s men primarily used the paved National Highway, which ran directly into the city. Scott first wanted to reach Jalapa, about seventy-five miles inland, and then prepare for the assault on Mexico City. On their way, the Americans were forced to engage the Mexican Army in a number of minor battles.

Battle of Cerro Gordo

The Mexican forces, led by General Santa Anna, tried to stop the Americans at a narrow mountain pass near Cerro Gordo, which was twelve miles to the west of Veracruz. In an attempt to surprise the U.S. forces, who were weighed down by their heavy guns, the Mexicans fortified one large, steep hill, El Telégrafo, in preparation for an attack on what they hoped would be slow U.S. troops. The Americans were able to evade the Mexicans on April 17 and successfully convey their equipment and men.

On April 18, the Battle of Cerro Gordo broke out when the Americans attacked the Mexicans on three sides. Santa Anna retreated after sustaining heavy losses, about one thousand casualties and three thousand captured as prisoners of war. The Americans lost only 63 men, and 353 were wounded. The U.S. forces also gained forty-three cannons as well as other armaments and supplies from the Mexicans. The Americans released the Mexican soldiers after taking their guns and extracting promises that they would cease fighting in the conflict.

Time of Rest

As the Mexican Army retreated to Mexico City, American forces led by General Scott continued their march to the city. On April 19, Scott was able to reach his short-term goal of Jalapa. The U.S. forces were able to occupy Jalapa without engaging in battle. Within a month, the Americans also controlled two additional nearby towns, Perote and Puebla. American troops remained in these communities for several months because more soldiers were needed to replace the volunteers whose commitment terms had ended. By the beginning of August, Scott’s army had increased to fourteen thousand men due to the thousands of new arrivals.

This time period was not easy for the Americans. Disease left thousands of soldiers weak and unable to engage in combat. The supply line came through Veracruz, but Mexican guerrilla soldiers sometimes successfully interrupted the arrival of supplies. Scott was able to garner some food supplies from the local area, which was heavily agricultural. All of these problems ended when Scott’s troops finally began moving again towards Mexico City on August 7. They traveled between twelve and fifteen miles per day, marching by divisions having a one-day interval between one another.

Nearing Mexico City

Mexico City was well protected by its location (in a volcanic crater encircled by lakes, marshes, and villages), by its fortifications, and by thirty thousand Mexican troops. When Scott reached the nearby Valley of Mexico and stopped at San Agustin on August 11, he believed the best way to attack the city was from the south. Scott noted that the eastern gate to the city was blocked by the Mexican army, and an attack from the north would require a longer march and increased vulnerability to Mexican attacks on his rear lines. An attack from the south based in San Agustin allowed the Americans several paths into the city that Santa Anna would have to defend.

Using reconnaissance gathered by engineer (and future Confederate leader) Robert E. Lee and others, the Americans began turning an old mule trail Lee found into a wide road that could support artillery movement. This new road would give the U.S. forces access on the edge of the Pedregal, a large field of rough lava rock. There was much uncertainty if this means of attack would work, but the Americans created the road and crossed the Pedregal with ease.

After traversing the Pedregal, U.S. forces successfully attacked Mexican troops at Contreras on August 19 and Churubusco on August 20. During these two battles, the Mexican Army saw its casualties reach 4,000, while the United States saw only 150 men dead and 800 wounded. On August 21, Scott contacted Santa Anna and suggested the beginning of peace negotiations. Though Santa Anna agreed to a truce and to start negotiations, his excessive demands led to the end of peace talks on September 7.

Scott’s attacks on the Mexican Army continued the next day. On September 8, 3,400 U.S. forces, led by General William Worth, successfully took El Molino del Rey and Casa Mata, both only a few miles from Mexico City. The first of these battles was the most costly battle for the United States during the Mexican-American War. About a quarter of all American troops in the area were casualties in the battle, and there was no cannon factory there, which the Americans expected to find.

Taking Chapultepec Hill

On September 12, American troops led by Scott began bombing both Chapultepec Hill, an important symbolic landmark located at the edge of the city, and Mexico City itself. The bombing continued for about a day and inflicted death and destruction on the population. September 13 saw American infantry troops, led by General Worth, General Gideon Pillow, and General John A. Quitman, begin their attack on Chapultepec Hill, which was defended by only eight hundred Mexican troops, including fifty teenaged cadets.

The Americans suffered casualties as they charged the hill and attempted to climb it using tall ladders. They were shot at by the Mexicans and had their ladders pushed down. The limited amount of Mexican ammunition soon led to hand-to-hand combat with the Americans in a harsh battle. The U.S. forces triumphed, and nearly all the Mexican soldiers were killed. The remaining Mexican troops surrendered to the Americans about two hours after the battle began.

Mexico City

After securing Chapultepec Hill on September 13, the U.S. forces began attacking Mexico City. Two divisions attacked fortified city gates, including San Cosme. Mexican forces again suffered greater losses than the Americans in the fight, with three thousand casualties, including eight hundred who were taken prisoner. The United States counted only 850 dead and wounded. On the night of September 13, Santa Anna took his remaining troops and retreated from Mexico City to Guadalupe Hidalgo. He left at the request of city officials who hoped his retreat would save the city and prevent further loss of life.

General Scott accepted the city’s surrender on September 14, and his troops officially marched into the city triumphantly. They then began the American occupation of what was now a chaotic Mexico City. On September 16, 1847, Santa Anna resigned as president of Mexico, though he remained head of the army for some time and used what remained of the Mexican forces to harass the Americans and affect their supply lines. U.S. troops remained in Mexico until June 1848, when negotiations for the peace treaty were completed.

The Home Front

The Annexation of Texas

In 1836, American settlers in Texas declared their independence from Mexico, and in 1845, the United States annexed Texas, triggering the Mexican War.

Mexican Territory

Since Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the territory of Texas had seen a wave of immigration from the United States. Hundreds of Americans packed their belongings, hung a sign on the door reading “Gone to Texas” (or simply “GTT”), and moved out. Soon Anglo-Americans settlers formed the majority of the Mexican Texas’s population.

This led to some friction with the Mexican authorities. Many of the newcomers defied national laws—squatting on land, smuggling, trading in slaves, and refusing to convert to Catholicism. Sporadic government crackdowns and rebellious outbreaks continued through the early 1830s.

However, the real breach did not come until 1834, when Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna got the legislature to approve the Siete Leyes (or Seven Laws), which amended the 1824 constitution. The laws abolished the Mexican states, consolidating power in the centralist government. They also lengthened the presidential term of office and severely limited suffrage.

Angry protest against the new regime rose up all across Mexico. Santa Anna brutally suppressed a popular uprising in the state of Zacatecas, killing thousands. In Texas, a disorganized but determined resistance movement began. Texians, ethnically Mexican Texans (Tejanos) and white settlers in the area, joined to form a rag-tag rebel army under Stephen F. Austin.

In October 1835, a Mexican cavalry unit tried to reclaim a cannon from a fort at Gonzales, Texas. The Texians refused. Instead, they raised a flag that read: “Come and take it.” Hostilities soon began.

In 1836, Santa Anna fitted out an army of 6,000 men and headed north. He was convinced, not unjustly, that the United States had incited these difficulties in Texas. Should the Yankees get in his way, he said, he would storm Washington, D.C., and raise the Mexican tricolor flagover the capitol.


At first, the Texian rebels could not agree on their war aims. Some parties simply wanted a return to the 1824 Mexican Constitution. However, on March 2, 1836, a convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos declared Texan independence. On the same day, Tennessee volunteers slipped through Mexican lines to reinforce the besieged fort at San Antonio, the Alamo.

Days before the siege of the Alamo started, Lieutenant Colonel William Travis wrote to the provisional Texas council. In the letter, Travis swore that he “would never surrender or retreat … victory or death.” On March 6, Santa Anna’s army stormed the Alamo. Ordered to take no prisoners, the Mexicans killed all the defenders, including the legendary David (Davy) Crockett.

A few days later, almost four hundred Texians surrendered to Mexican troops near Goliad, Texas. The rebels expected to be treated as prisoners of war. Instead, they were declared under Mexican law to be foreign pirates. They were all summarily executed.

On April 21, Sam Houston and his army fell on Santa Anna’s main force at San Jacinto. Caught by surprise, the Mexicans put up a feeble resistance. The Texians continued the slaughter much longer than was necessary, crying, “Remember the Alamo!” Santa Anna signed the “treaty” of Velasco, which recognized Texan sovereignty. The government in Mexico City, however, neither recognized Santa Anna’s authority to make such an agreement nor the treaty itself.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Texas elected Sam Houston as its first president. Despite recognition from most world powers, the new nation faced a precarious future. The war had left the government in debt, and the Texas economy was shaky. Internally, Indians and Tejanos rebelled against Texian rule.

Moreover, the Mexican government never acknowledged Texan independence and frequently sanctioned border raids. In 1841, the irrepressible Santa Anna returned to power and promptly swore to retake Texas.


The American presidential election of 1844 was practically a single-issue contest. James Polk entered the race as a virtual unknown. He won primarily because he supported the annexation of Texas. Nevertheless, he faced determined opposition, especially from the abolitionist movement. Slave-owning Texas would tip the balance of power in Washington in favor of the South.

In his last few days in office, John Tyler signed a joint congressional resolution that offered American statehood to the Republic of Texas and stipulated that slavery should be illegal above the Missouri Compromise line. To no one’s surprise, Mexico immediately broke off diplomatic relations with the United States.

Tyler’s emissary, Andrew Jackson Donelson (1799–1871), went to Houston with the treaty. Surprisingly, he found that Texan leaders were at best ambivalent towards statehood. Sam Houston and his successor, Anson Jones (1798–1858), would have preferred to retain Texas sovereignty, which they had fought hard to achieve.

Accordingly, Jones sent a message to Mexican President José Herrera (Santa Anna had been ousted again, in 1844). Jones asked Mexico to recognize the Republic of Texas. In return, Texas would promise not to be annexed by any other nation. Herrera agreed to this proposition.

Jones then turned the issue over to the Texan people. Would they prefer independence and recognition, or United States statehood? In June of 1845, the Texas Congress voted unanimously for annexation.

Anticipating trouble (or perhaps to instigate it), Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to Corpus Christi, Texas, and then south to the banks of the Rio Grande River. Americans claimed the Rio Grande as the border of Texas. Mexicans designated the border at the Nueces River, to the north. From their point of view, Taylor’s advance represented an invasion of their country and a clear act of war.

The American army waited at the Rio Grande for months, glaring at the Mexican troops across the water. Meanwhile, Taylor exchanged scarcely veiled threats with the Mexican commander, General Pedro de Ampudia.

Ampudia had a reputation for incompetence and cruelty (apparently, he had once fried a man’s head in oil for public display).General Mariano Arista took over Ampudia’s command in April of 1846, days after Herrera declared a “defensive war” against the United States. Arista sent an advance force across the Rio Grande north of the American position. Captain Seth Thornton was to intercept them, but his party of sixty-three dragoons was ambushed. Eleven Americans were killed, and the rest were captured.

A cry went up in the American press. Polk declared that, “Mexico has … shed American blood on American soil.” On May 12, Congress declared war.

The Missouri Compromise

In 1819, the Missouri Territory applied for United States statehood, prompting an explosive debate over slavery and states rights. The furor was quieted for a time by the adoption of the Missouri Compromise in 1820.


Slave-owning French colonists had originally settled Missouri in the eighteenth century. By the time Missouri applied for admission into the United States, slaves made up 16 percent of the territory’s population. At the same time, eleven existing American states prohibited slavery, and eleven states allowed it. The admission of Missouri would upset the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and give an advantage to the pro-slavery block.

Still, the statehood measure might have passed easily if Congressman James Tallmadge (1778–1853) had not proposed an amendment. Under his plan, Missouri would be admitted, but no new slaves would enter the state. Missourians would retain possession of their existing slaves, but slave children would be freed at the age of twenty-five. In this way, Tallmadge hoped to gradually abolish slavery in Missouri.

The southern states reacted with outrage. Tallmadge’s amendment amounted to a moral condemnation of slavery, the first to be presented by the U.S. government since the Constitutional Convention.

On February 6, 1819, the House voted to prohibit the future importation of slaves into Missouri. It also approved Tallmadge’s gradual emancipation scheme. Both measures failed in the Senate.


The case was further complicated by the fact that Maine, formerly part of Massachusetts, had also applied for statehood. Henry Clay (1777–1852) of Kentucky suggested that if Maine entered the Union as a free state, Missouri should be admitted as a slave state.

For white Americans of the early nineteenth century, slavery posed an extremely complex question, and they developed equally complex answers. Clay owned slaves, yet he was a dedicated member of an abolitionist group. At the same time, Clay highly valued the union of the states. Perhaps because of his own diverse views, he tried to promote solutions that everyone could accept. He would later be known as “the Great Compromiser.”

The actual author of the Missouri Compromise, however, was Illinois Senator Jesse Thomas (1777–1853). Thomas did not own slaves, but did not disapprove of those who did. He proposed that Missouri should enter the country as a permanent slave state, and that Maine should come in as a free state. After that, a line would be drawn at Missouri’s southern border—latitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes north. North of that line, slavery would be prohibited in all other American territories.


The Missouri issue sparked venomous debate in Washington. The press reported an exchange of angry tirades daily, tirades whose fury caught the country off guard. From retirement at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the argument, “like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror.”

The issue of slavery had long festered beneath the surface of American politics, however. But now, for the first time, abolitionists brought their agenda into the open. Senator Rufus King (1755–1827) delivered an emotional speech that condemned the institution of slavery everywhere, not just in the new territories. King and his supporters opposed the Thomas compromise. They argued that a showdown over the slavery issue could not be avoided indefinitely.

Southern congressmen responded with equal fervor. In the past, southern politicians had admitted the inherent evil of slavery but denied that there was a practical solution to the problem. Now slavery’s defenders lauded the institution as a positive good. South Carolina Senator William Smith (1762–1840) made a biblical case for slavery, saying, “The Scriptures teach us that slavery was universally practiced among the holy fathers.” North Carolina Senator Nathaniel Macon (1757–1837) argued that the practice was perfectly morally acceptable.

Prophetically, Georgia Representative Thomas Cobb (1784–1830) warned that “we have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish.”


On March 1, 1820, largely because of Clay’s efforts, Congress adopted the Missouri Compromise. For a moment, the storm receded.

The accord nearly disintegrated shortly afterward, however, when Missouri submitted its new state constitution. The draft forbade free blacks from traveling into Missouri territory, even though Massachusetts recognized African Americans as citizens.

Clay managed in 1821 to push through the Second Missouri Compromise. This law declared that Missouri could not pass any laws that violated the rights of American citizens. Nevertheless, Missouri defied Congress and passed laws prohibiting black immigration.

The Missouri Compromise maintained the balance of power in the United States for the next few decades. Whenever a slave state was admitted to the country, Congress had to also admit a free state. For example, when Arkansas was admitted as a slave state in 1836, Michigan, a free state, followed in 1837.

The Mexican-American War

Many Americans saw the annexation of Texas as an opportunity for the pro-slavery faction to seize power. Indeed, both Texas and Florida were both made states in 1845, giving the South a two-state advantage.

Abolition and sectarianism motivated much of the opposition to the war. As poet James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) wrote:

They jest want this CalifornySo’s to lug new slave-states inTo abuse ye, an’ to scorn yeAnd to plunder ye like sin.

In August 1846, President James K. Polk asked Congress to appropriate $2 million for a peace settlement with the Mexican government. Everyone understood that he wanted the money to purchase territory. Representative David Wilmot (1814–1868) of Pennsylvania proposed an amendment that stated that slavery would be banned in any lands taken from Mexico. The measure—known as the Wilmot Proviso—narrowly passed the House but was filibustered and killed in the Senate.

From that point on, sectarian squabbles became more frequent and more intense. Southern legislators, including South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, (1782–1850) denied the right of the federal government to outlaw slavery anywhere in the country.


In 1850, Henry Clay once again tried to calm the waters. Congress passed a series of his compromises: California was admitted as a free state, and New Mexico and Utah were given the right to choose for themselves. In addition, the Fugitive Slave Act went into effect. By this time, however, the national differences could no longer be smoothed over.

In 1857, in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise deprived slave owners of their property without due process and was thus unconstitutional.

International Context

The Irish Potato Famine

In 1845, the potato crop in Ireland suffered a devastating blight. The resulting famine prompted one of the larges exoduses in world history. Millions of Irish men and women left their home country, and a majority of them relocated to the United States.

The Blight

Ireland had never been a particularly wealthy country. In 1729, Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) satirically proposed that a cannibalism of starving Irish babies could kill two birds with one stone: feeding the hungry and reducing their number. By the early nineteenth century, the island’s people eked out only a meager existence. Historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) made a tour of Ireland in 1835. “You cannot imagine,” he wrote, “what a complexity of miseries five centuries of oppression, civil disorder, and religious hostility have piled on this poor people.”

Nevertheless, the Irish clung to their country, maintaining their identity by means of their language, their tight communities, and their deep Catholic devotion. Very little industry developed. For the most part, the people lived off the land.

In June 1845, the land failed them. A fungus attacked the potato fields, wiping out the remainder of that year’s harvest. The next year’s crop would fail entirely. The potato had been the staple crop of Ireland since about 1580, when Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) first brought it from the New World. Potato plants grew well in cool and boggy terrain, and their roots provided far more calories than grain. It was largely due to potato cultivation that the population had almost tripled since 1700. By 1845, about 8.5 million people lived in Ireland, making it one of Europe’s most densely populated regions. Over the next decade, more than a million would die of starvation or disease, and two million would leave.

The British

The prime minister of England, Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), eventually bought 100,000 pounds of corn from The United States. This stock was held in reserve and sold at cost to relief societies. His quick action somewhat reduced the severity of the disaster. Nevertheless, the availability of cheap corn created some longer-term problems. Thousands of Irishmen left their farms and poured into urban slums and poorhouses, relying on soup kitchens for their survival.

Not everyone approved of the government’s actions. Though the island was technically part of the United Kingdom, many English blamed the famine on the Irish, and called Peel’s relief efforts a waste of British time. The Times of London wrote, in 1847: “The Celt is less energetic, less independent, less industrious than the Saxon.… [England] can, therefore, afford to look with contemptuous pity on the Celtic cottier suckled in poverty which he is too callous to feel, and too supine to mend.”

Accordingly, after Peel fell from power, Britain withdrew any material aid to the stricken island. The chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Charles Wood (1800–1885), justified the action, saying that it would “force [the Irish] into self-government … our song … must be—‘It is your concern, not ours.’” Furthermore, the legislature amended the Irish Poor Law to penalize small Irish landowners. Thousands of farmers were forced to abandon their land or starve. Entire villages were evicted.

Britain’s stubbornness was to stir Irish hatred, and to haunt English consciences, for years. John Mitchel (1879–1918), an Irish patriot, said later that “the Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

The Ships

The potato crop would fail again in 1846, 1848, 1849, and the early 1850s. In addition, Asiatic cholera spread quickly throughout the starving and weakened population. Mass graves were dug across the country, but many of the dead were just left by the side of the road. In desperation, one man wrote to his relatives in the United States: “For the honour of our lord Jesus Christ and his Blessed mother, hurry and take us out of this.”

Thousands of Irish poured into the port of Liverpool, trying to flee the country. If they could scrape together four pounds, they could procure a transatlantic fare. The ships to the United States were so overcrowded that the emigrants, packed in like cargo, hardly had space to breathe. Sickness, starvation, and misery accompanied the Irish across the ocean.

The Settlers

The Irish were not new to American shores. Since the eighteenth century, large numbers of Scotch-Irish Protestants had settled in Canada and the southern part of the United States. In 1817, many young Irish men had sought work digging the Erie Canal. Their poverty made them hard workers and cheap labor. As such, they were both sought after and despised by Anglo-Saxon Americans.

Nativist groups wrote increasingly against the Irish settlers, who were seen as drunken, rowdy, and illiterate. Inventor Samuel Morse (1791–1872) repeatedly warned the public against Catholicism. He and many others believed that the Irish shantytowns harbored a papist conspiracy, which menaced free society. As Irish immigration increased, anti-Catholic violence escalated. A Charleston convent was burned to the ground in 1834. In 1844, a Philadelphia Nativist riot left about a dozen dead.

Negative reaction only increased when thousands of starving, diseased, poverty-stricken Irish men and women descended upon American ports in 1845. Massachusetts Governor Henry J. Gardner (1819–1892) compared the newcomers to a “horde of foreign barbarians.” Boston and New York passed laws making it more difficult for immigrants to disembark.

The American Party, formed in 1854, tried to block the entry of foreigners and Catholics into the United States. They also worked to convert immigrants to Protestantism, especially in schools.

Nevertheless, the new arrivals settled in and eventually grew strong. Working at a variety of menial jobs, the Irish often sent money back to the “old country” to buy their families passage to the United States. The immigrants regrouped around the Catholic Church, which created a network of social services. After a century and a half, the Irish had been completely accepted by American society, to which they had contributed many outstanding members.

One Irish immigrant, Herman Melville (1819–1891) wrote this in praise of his new home: “On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and people are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearth-stone in Eden.”

The Revolutions of 1848

In the fateful year of 1848, a spate of revolutions broke out Europe, beginning in Sicily, exploding in France, and then spreading across the continent. Popular uprisings broke out in Italy, Prussia, Austria, and Poland. The causes were varied and complex. Working people, suffering from food shortages and displaced by new technologies, demanded economic reform. The bourgeoisie (middle class) hounded their aristocratic rulers for political liberalization. In the meantime, nationalists attacked the crumbling empires of central Europe, seeking autonomy and self-determination.

Conservative forces managed to reverse or crush all of the revolts. Even defeated, however, the bloody struggle inspired a new generation of radical European thought. Socialism, communism, and anarchism came to maturity behind the barricades. Nationalist feelings were brought to a flood tide, and they set the stage for the unification of Germany and Italy twenty-two years later. The revolutions of 1848—sometimes called “the springtime of nations”—represented a turning point in European history.


The French democratic revolution had proved less stable than its American equivalent. Since 1787, France had been ruled by a constitutional monarchy, a republic, a committee, an emperor, and had returned to a monarchy in 1814. In 1830, the ultraconservative Charles X (1757–1836) was overthrown in the July Revolution. Louis-Philippe (1773–1850), the so-called “bourgeois monarch,” ascended to the throne in his place.

King Louis-Philippe was popular with the lower classes—he dressed in modest clothes and frequently strolled around Paris talking with workers. Nevertheless, as time went on, his rule became more authoritarian. Critics began to accuse the court of rampant corruption. In order to secure his power over Parliament, the king resorted to censorship.

Opposition to the monarchy was twofold. Moderate reformists pushed for political reform only. More radical leaders, like socialist Louis Blanc (1811–1882), advocated drastic social and economic change.

In February 1848, the monarchy tried to prevent an opposition banquet in Paris. The workers began to riot in the streets of Paris, and some members of the National Guard joined them. Violence escalated, until Louis-Philippe dismissed François Guizot (1787–1874), his highly unpopular (to liberals) education minister. The king himself stepped down on February 24. The moderates formed a provisional government, and shortly afterward declared the Second French Republic.

Parisians had always held more extreme political views than the rest of France, and Paris had a proud tradition of violent insurrection. Bearing these factors in mind, the new moderate government made some concessions to radical demands. They created the National Workshops, which offered relief to the unemployed. They also established the Luxembourg Commission to discuss issues relating to workers.

However, the radicals hoped for much more sweeping changes, such as workers’ associations, state-provided medical insurance, and old-age pensions. To these ends, they staged massive demonstrations in the capital, hoping to stir support. The tactic backfired. Alarmed by Parisian extremism, the French countryside voted overwhelmingly for a moderate liberal government.

Armed with a popular mandate, the Republic disbanded the National Workshops. On June 23, furious Parisians erected barricades throughout the city. The army put down the revolution after three bloody “June Days.”

The June revolution led to a sweeping conservative victory in the next elections. However, the Second Republic did not last long. A few years later, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808–1873) seized power and proclaimed himself Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.

Communist Manifesto

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

Great Britain did not experience any violent revolt in 1848. However, that year the island witnessed the birth of an even more significant revolution. In January 1848, German immigrants Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) published the Communist Manifesto in London.

Marx wrote the pamphlet as a the mission statement of his secret society, the “Communist League.” In the tract, he described the European unrest as a class struggle between the workers and the bourgeois. He prophesied that capitalism would only cause increasing suffering for the people, and that the people would inevitably overthrow their oppressors. The new revolution that he proclaimed would haunt Europe—and the world—for well over a century.


In the mid-nineteenth century, the Italian peninsula was a patchwork of small city-states ruled by feudal princes. The northern part of the country, Venice and Milan, fell under the rule of the Hapsburg Austrian Empire.

Revolution gripped Italy in 1848, beginning with a January revolt in Palermo, Sicily. Ferdinand II (1810–1859), King of the Two Sicilies, acceded to pressure to create a constitution in Naples. This sparked liberal rebellions throughout the kingdoms of Italy. By March, radicals in Rome, Sardinia, Tuscany, and Piedmont had demanded democratic constitutions and individual freedoms. Venice and Milan threw off Austrian rule, and the king of Sardinia, devoted to the cause of Italian unity, declared war with Austria.

Pope Pius IX (1792–1878) could not bring himself to condone war with Catholic Austria. He was forced to disguise himself as a common priest and flee to the south. In his absence, radicals declared the new Roman Republic.

By May, Ferdinand II had revoked his reforms and regained absolute control of the Sicilies. Austria counterattacked and eventually squelched the nationalist movement. France sent in troops to restore the Pope in 1850.


In March 1848, inspired by the Paris Revolution, riots also broke out in Berlin, the seat of King Frederick William IV of Prussia. As in France and Italy, the king initially bowed before the sudden storm and permitted the creation of a constitution and legislature. However, when the nationalist Frankfurt Assembly offered him the crown of a united Germany, Frederick William flatly refused. He recalled troops to Berlin, dissolved the liberal government, and set up an ultraconservative ministry in its place.


At the same time, students and workers also staged an uprising in Vienna. Emperor Ferdinand I (1793–1875) complied with many of their demands, including the dismissal of the brilliant arch-reactionary Klemens Metternich (1773–1859). Metternich, as Europe’s preeminent diplomat, had encouraged the traditional powers to band together against the forces of change. He had further advocated that revolutions should be put down by force. “Order alone can produce freedom,” he proclaimed grimly.

Radicals throughout Europe rejoiced at Metternich’s removal. Vienna insurgents were not satisfied, however, and Ferdinand was forced to flee. In October, the Austrian army entered the city, killing thousands and ending the rebellion.

At the same time, an independence movement flared in Bohemia (part of today’s Czech Republic), but it was also quelled by Austrian troops. In Hungary, a republic was declared, but civil war broke out shortly afterward between the various ethnic groups. That conflict continued until czarist Russia helped Austrian forces to reclaim the country.



Before the Civil War, American antislavery sentiment took a number of forms. Some people merely wanted to make slavery more humane; others wished to limit its spread into new territories. Abolitionism was a radical movement calling for the total elimination of slavery. Many of those who opposed the Mexican-American War did so for antislavery or abolitionist reasons.

Origins of Abolitionism

Many of the founding fathers condemned the practice of slavery, even those, like Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves themselves. Enlightenment philosophy generally described slavery as an affront to natural law and human liberty.

Most antislavery activism, however, came from the religious establishment, especially from the Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends). Quakers were primarily responsible for the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society (PAS), founded in 1775, and the New York Manumission Society, founded in 1785. In the northern states, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian ministers also eventually declared slavery to be incompatible with Christianity.

In the beginning, northern abolitionists mainly tried to abolish the African slave trade. They believed that if blacks were no longer brought into the country, slavery would die a natural death. Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, but antislavery advocates could not agree on how abolition should be brought about.

Most advocated a gradual emancipation scheme, in which slaves would be freed at a certain age. Others advocated “colonization”—sending freed slaves back to Africa or to the Caribbean. Yet others, such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), wrote numerous tracts insisting on an immediate and complete end to slavery. The Liberator, Garrison’s newspaper, circulated widely in the North and gained a number of converts to his cause.

The Turner Rebellion

In 1831, Nat Turner (1800–1831), believing himself chosen by Christ, led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. He and six fellow-conspirators set out early in the morning of August 22, murdering his owner and his family and taking the house’s weapons. Gathering support as they went along, the insurgents killed every white family they came across, including women and children in their beds. The uprising was quelled by white militia troops the same day. Turner was captured and tried, and was executed a few months later.

The incident shook Virginia whites; they made sweeping reprisals. Legislation clamped down on slaves’s religious observances. Many southerners grew increasingly suspicious and hostile towards northern activists. Abolitionists, they claimed, incited violence.


In the early nineteenth century, abolitionism represented a fringe political group. However, the movement witnessed a revival in the 1830s. Reorganized abolitionists distributed tracts and newspapers to spread their message. They also used the techniques of the Great Awakening, the eighteenth-century religious revivalist movement. Young men and women were appointed as missionaries. They spoke at meetings around the country, founding small antislavery societies as they went. Some of the most famous of these were Theodore Dwight Weld (1803–1895), James G. Birney (1792–1857), and the sisters Angelina Grimké (1805–1879) and Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873).

Possibly the most influential voices were those of black Americans. In 1841, former slave Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) spoke at the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, describing his life enslaved. Though he began by stuttering, his impassioned speech was roundly cheered at the conclusion. Douglass became a world-famous orator, touring England and Ireland with his message of universal freedom.

Sojourner Truth (c.1797–1883) spoke with more humor and gentleness that did Douglass, but her message was the same: God loves his children, and his children should love each other. She preached women’s rights and an end to slavery throughout the North.

Their efforts met with strong opposition. Starting in 1836, Congress imposed a gag rule, forbidding all congressional debates about slavery. Church authorities often condemned abolitionist meetings as divisive and improper. In the south, riots broke out at antislavery rallies. Many blacks and some white abolitionists were killed.

These incidents helped garner sympathy for the antislavery movement, which claimed that their freedom of expression was under attack. In addition, from 1839 to 1841, legal furor over the slave ships Amistad and Creolebrought attention to the international plight of African slaves.

Free Soil

Many politicians did not believe that it would be possible, or even desirable, for the federal government to outlaw slavery in the southern states. They saw the religiously motivated emancipation movement as hysterical and impractical. Instead, they concentrated their efforts on preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. The Free Soil Movement, as it was called, gained widespread support. A growing American middle class viewed slavery as a threat to white labor in the territories. Politically, northern states opposed the creation of pro-slavery states, which would increase the South’s representation in Congress.

Benjamin Lundy (1789–1839), a prominent Quaker abolitionist writer and publisher, believed that the southern states had orchestrated the entire movement for Texas independence. In 1836, Lundy published War in Texas, in which he argued that the American-backed Texas Revolution was nothing but a plot to extend the slave-trading empire.

James K. Polk and other Democrats blasted the opposition as traitors, who were giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” His critics reacted with scorn, arguing that they had a patriotic duty to oppose injustice. Stephen S. Foster (1809–1881) went so far as to say, “Every true friend of the country … will be found fighting in defense of freedom—under the banners of Mexico.” Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) refused to pay taxesto support the war in protest. His essay “Civil Disobedience” would inspire antiwar movements to this day.

The anti-annexation forces failed, however, with Polk’s election as president in 1844. Despite the efforts of John Quincy Adams, Horace Greeley, and Daniel Webster, they also failed to stop the Mexican-American War. Abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) bitterly described the conflict in these terms: “Christian America, thanking God that she is not like other nations … goes out, Bible in hand, to enslave the world.” Disillusioned, some abolitionists began advocating a total break with the southern states. “My motto is, ‘No union with the slaveholder,’” Frederick Douglass said, “because, I believe there can be no union between light and darkness.”

Indeed, union within the United States was impossible, and the abolitionist movement grew in fervor and influence over the next twenty years—as did its opposition.

The Gold Rush

Immediately after the Mexican-American War, gold was discovered in the hills of California, prompting the Gold Rush of 1849. A mass immigration began; prospectors and miners filled the territory, and the “Golden State” of California was born.


In March 1848, Congressman Daniel Webster (1782–1852) staunchly opposed the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and the acquisition of new territories. An abolitionist and a powerful orator, he stormed at the Senate:

I have never heard of any thing …, more ridiculous in itself, more absurd, and more affrontive …, than the cry that we are getting indemnity by the acquisition of New Mexico and California. I hold they are not worth a dollar.

Webster did not know it, but his words had already been proven wrong. In January of that same year, James Marshall (1810–1885) found some soft yellow flakes along the American River, near the sawmill in northern California where he worked. He took the gold to his employer, John Sutter (1803–1880). Sutter received the news with excitement, but also with alarm. He had procured his land grants from the Mexican government some ten years before and did not think he could protect the find from greedy speculators.

Sure enough, despite his best attempts at secrecy, word leaked out. California prospectors, squatters, and thieves poured onto his land. “They left honesty and honor at home,” Marshall said bitterly. Neither Marshall nor Sutter would profit much from their historic discovery. Sutter would later comment sadly on his new neighbors: “There is a saying that men will steal everything but a milestone and a millstone. They stole my millstones.”

Gold Fever

The news traveled slowly across the United States. The New York Heralddid not print the news until August. President Polk confirmed the news in his second inaugural address, and pandemonium seized the country.

Thousands of men made their travel plans. Some went alone; others formed companies to defray the cost. The wealthy boarded ships that would take them around the southern tip of South America. Others sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus by train, and then continued to San Francisco. Most took overland routes, often following paths that the U.S. Army had so recently tread.

All of the roads to California were long and difficult. The travelers risked storms around Cape Horn, Chile, and tropical disease across Panama. By land, they had to deal with harsh conditions, poorly charted trails, and hostile Native Americans. So many people suffered in one desert, on the doorstep of southern California, that the place was named Death Valley.

The Forty-Niners, as they were called, crowded into hastily constructed camps around San Francisco, Sacramento, and other small cities. New towns with colorful names like Poker Flat, Hell’s Delight, and Whiskey Bar sprang up almost overnight. Within one year, the population of California jumped from less than 20,000 to over 100,000. San Francisco changed from a sleepy port village to a bustling metropolis.

In September 1849, a California constitutional convention met and applied for U.S. statehood. Its petition was accepted in 1850.

The New Culture

At first, “placer” gold—gold on the surface—could be found throughout California, especially in the streams and rivers. As these deposits were snatched up, individual panning gave way to larger mining operations. Everyone tried to tap the Mother Lode, a belt of quartz-encased gold almost two miles across and 120 miles long.

Mine temperatures could reach 150 degrees, and the mines were cramped, poorly ventilated, and dangerous. Nevertheless, a miner could make good money. At a time when the average American farm laborer made about ten dollars a month, a skilled or lucky miner could make sixteen dollars a day for an ounce of gold.

Many of the new arrivals set up businesses to exploit the new fortunes. By 1850, Sacramento housekeepers could make $150 a month. One woman made $100 a week by doing laundry. At the same time, the cost of living soared out of control. The average daily wage may have been ten dollars, but expenses could reach eighteen dollars a day. It is true that some vast fortunes were made in the gold rush, but most miners barely managed to survive.

Mining communities constituted a new, strangely egalitarian society. Almost exclusively male, this ragged band of adventurers lived on the edge of civilization. There was no way to distinguish between the newly wealthy and the newly destitute. The mayor of Monterey wrote of receiving a wild mountain man who looked like he had just crawled out of an animal lair and who held $15,000 of gold dust in his fist.

This equality did not extend to non-whites, however. The new settlers harassed Native Americans and Mexican-Californians (Californios), chasing them from their land. Later, miners would riot against Chinese laborers who were brought to work on the transcontinental railroad.

The miners’s camps were rough places, filled with rampant theft and vigilantism. One immigrant’s wife, Louise Clapp (1819–1906), wrote letters (later published) to her sister in New England under the pseudonym Dame Shirley that described “murders, fearful accidents, bloody deaths, a mob, whippings, a hanging, an attempt at suicide, and a fatal duel.” Yet California exerted its own kind of charm. As Clapp wrote to her sister, “I like this wild and barbarous life.”

Feminist Movement

The hard life on the frontier stripped Americans of many artificial social niceties, not the least of which was the attitude that women were dependent. Women had to work hard to survive in the West, and they learned to value their abilities and their independence. Recognition of those abilities on a personal level led to demand for similar recognition on a public level.

In 1848, a group of women met at Seneca Falls, New York, for the first American convention on women’s rights. Radical feminists, including Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), demanded women’s equal rights to education, property, and the vote. Stanton compared the feminist movement to the European revolutions of that year, saying, “Most cunningly [man] entraps [woman], and then takes from her all those rights which are dearer to him than life itself—rights which have been baptized in blood.”

Some western states granted women the vote before the twentieth century, but American women did not win that right as a group until the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1920. Since then, movements for women’s social, economic, professional, and personal freedoms have continued.

Metal Madness

The California Gold Rush slowly died down. Mines went deeper, and it became more and more expensive to extract the ore. But smaller migrations for precious metals cropped up periodically over the next decade. Between 1858 and 1859, almost 100,000 people rushed to Colorado, founding a shantytown called Denver. Another California rush happened in 1859, with the discovery of the Comstock Lode in the Sierra Nevada.



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The Mexican-American War (1846–1848)

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