ADVANCE PLACEMENT
AMERICAN HISTORY

THE MEXICAN WAR

*By the time Polk was inaugurated, there were several points of contention between the United States and Mexico.

1. American settlers were trying to imitate the Anglos in Texas out in California—fewer than 1,000 Americans (compared with about 13,000 Hispanics and many more Indians) there were considering wresting the area from Mexico to be a new country or state of the Union.
2. The US had $3 million in claims against the Mexican government for damages done to American businesses and property during Mexico’s various revolutions, but the poor country was unable or unwilling to pay and defaulted on the debt.
3. The annexation of Texas, still claimed by Mexico, had led to Mexico recalling her ambassador to the United States.
4. Texas (and by extension, the US)claimed the Rio Grande for a s southern border, while Mexico acknowledged, at best, the Rio Nueces.

*As long as there was a possibility of settlement, Polk tried to be conciliatory, and kept American soldiers out of the disputed region.

*Under the misapprehension that Britain was trying to buy or capture California from Mexico, Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico City, empowered to offer up to $25 million and the forgiveness of Mexico’s debt if they would sell the territory to the United States, but the Mexicans were so offended they would not even speak to Slidell.

*13 January, 1846, Polk sends General Zachary Taylor across the Rio Nueces with 4,000 men.  Expecting an incident, Polk was disappointed with nothing happened, and he began to prepare a proposal for war based on the unpaid debt and the insult to Slidell.  Even his cabinet felt this was a bit far-fetched.  Before he presented it to Congress, however, word arrived that 16 America soldiers had been killed or wounded in a skirmish with Mexicans.  Now that they had shed ‘American blood on American soil,’ the Mexicans would face war with the United States.

*Congressman Abraham Lincoln (W-IL) called this trickery.  He introduced resolutions in Congress demanding to see the spot where American blood was spilt; these were known as the ‘spot resolutions.’  Lincoln was praised by anti-slavery and Free Soil men, and by conscientious objectors throughout the country who accused Polk of unjustly provoking a war, but most Americans supported the war, and said that as far as they were concerned, ‘spotty Lincoln’ could die of the ‘spotted fever.’  Most Americans at the time felt that Mexico was the aggressor and the US the wronged party (and many Mexicans had wanted war, hoping to avenge their loss a decade before), although there was a sizable minority of Americans that disagreed with the war, including Henry David Thoreau, the famous Transcendentalist writer.

*Santa Anna, Samuel Houston’s old adversary, had been exiled to Cuba shortly after signing away Texas ten years before.  He let it be know that if the US would get him back into Mexico, he would betray the country to the US.  Instead, he betrayed the US, when he once again took command of the Mexican Army and led it against that of the USA.

*In the West, General Stephen Kearny took 1,700 troops to Santa Fe, planning to then head to San Diego and take California.  However, Captain John C Frémont was already there, and, with the help of the US Navy, organized the local American settlers into the ‘Bear Flag Republic’ in 1846.

*In Mexico, the US Army had a two-part strategy:  distract Santa Anna in the North, and invade Mexico from the sea in the South, marching to Mexico City if possible.

*In northern Mexico, General Zachary Taylor, called ‘Old Rough and Ready,’ won a number of victories for the United States.  At Buena Vista on 22-23 February, 1847, his 5,000 men were attacked by 20,000 Mexicans led by Santa Anna, and, though vastly outnumbered, defeated them, preventing Santa Anna from invading Texas or any of the other United States.

*On 9 March, 1847, American forces landed at Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast, and began to march towards Mexico City.  This campaign was commanded by General Winfield Scott, also known as ‘Old Fuss and Feathers.’  This is one of the most brilliant campaigns in American military history, constantly advancing through hostile and mountainous terrain, in the face of a more numerous enemy fighting on his own land, while enduring expiring enlistments, disease, and political infighting back home.  This campaign was planned in part by a young captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, Robert E. Lee.  This campaign is very important for America, not only because of its success, but because it gives field experience to a whole generation of young West Point graduates, many of whom would go on to fight in the Civil War on both sides.   In addition to Robert E. Lee, famous men such as Jefferson Davis, U.S. Grant, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, George McClellan, P.G.T. Beauregard, James Longstreet, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, George Thomas, George Meade, Edmund Kirby Smith, Braxton Brag, Joe Hooker, George Picket, and dozens of others all served in Mexico.

*After the battle of Chapultepec (in which Mexican military academy cadets fought to the death against the Americans, for which they are memorialised in a statue) on 13 September, 1847, American troops entered Mexico City on the 14th and completely possessed it by the 15th.  When the Marine Corps sings of the Halls of Montezuma, this campaign, and particularly the investment of Mexico City, is the inspiration.

*With the capture of Mexico City and the independence of California, Polk was ready to end the War.  Among other things, the Conscience Whigs (or Mexican Whigs) had gained control of the House of Representatives and were threatening to stop paying for supplies for the Army in the field.  Furthermore, Polk had everything he wanted, and meant to quit while he was ahead.

*Polk sent Nicholas Trist to arrange an armistice.  Trist and Scott gave Santa Anna a bribe of $10,000, but once again he double-crossed the US, pocketed the money, and threatened to keep fighting.  Polk recalled Trist, but Trist refused to go, writing a 65-page letter home explaining why not.  He then turned around and negotiated a deal getting Mexican recognition for America’s annexation of Texas as well as possession of all the land west to California.  In exchange, the US would pay Mexico $15 million dollars and assume the $3,250,000 owed to American citizens by the Mexican government.  This is called the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and was concluded on 2 February, 1848.

*Like all treaties, this had to be ratified in the Senate, where it was condemned all around.  The Conscience Whigs hated it, because they did not want to add any of Mexico to the United States.  Expansionists hated it as well, because the US could easily have taken all of Mexico, or at least all of it north of Mexico City.  However, Free Soilers would never let that much land south of the Missouri Compromise line enter the Union unopposed, and they were reluctant enough as it was to accept any part of Texas or Mexico.  The treaty eventually passed by a vote of 28 to 14.
 

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This page last updated 22 October, 2003.