Mike Flanagan, in his wonderful little book IT’S ABOUT TIME: How Long History Took, tells us that The Mexican War lasted 1 year, 9 months and 27 days during 1846-1848. This war has part of its history with the Republic of Texas. In 1836, Texas won independence from Mexico and became its own country, but from the beginning, Texans planned to become part of the United States. “Due to internal disputes over slavery and continuing international arguments with Mexico,” Texas was not annexed into the U.S. until 1845, according to THE UNITED STATES: A Brief Narrative History. This annexation did not sit well with Mexico, who recognized neither the boundaries between the two countries nor the annexation of Texas.
Moreover, President James Polk very much wanted to add both New Mexico and California territories to the United States. Efforts to buy the territory from Mexico failed and Polk realized he could only achieve his goal by force. He knew, however, that he would not gain favor from his own countrymen or the international community if he started the conflict. Instead, Polk sent American troops to the disputed Texas-Mexico border. As a young Ulysses S. Grant later said, “We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico commence it.” And commence it they did. On May 9, 1846 Mexican troops crossed the border and attacked the Americans. Eleven soldiers were killed, five wounded and the rest taken prisoner.
Polk immediately asked Congress to declare war on Mexico.
Both Mexico and the U.S. were ill-prepared for the war. Though Mexico had 32,000 soldiers, they were mostly pressed into service or recruited from prisons. At the start of the war, the U.S. had only 7,000 troops. By 1849, that number had increased to 104,000, with most being volunteers signed up for only six- to twelve-month stints. Ill-trained and ill-equipped, the troops often rebelled against the discipline of the military and committed plunder, rape and murder.
The obedience of the Mexican army wasn’t any better and the U.S. army consistently defeated the larger Mexican armies.
General Zachary Taylor (later President Taylor) scored two major victories North of the Rio Grande and on May 19th his army crossed the border into Mexico. They quickly captured Matamoros and achieved Polk’s goal of conquering the northern provinces of Mexico.
Taylor’s popularity and folk-hero status grated on Polk and he soon replaced Taylor with Winfield Scott as field commander. Upset about his reduction in command, Taylor ignored orders and took the offensive himself. Once again the American army met up with a much larger Mexican force. Santa Anna offered for the Americans to surrender, but Old Rough and Ready Taylor replied, “Tell them to go to hell.” The hard fought two-day battle ended in a stalemate.
Meanwhile, Scott started the long-planned move on the Mexican capital by landing his forces at Vera Cruz. After a week-long siege, the Mexican commander surrendered and Scott’s troops started the 260-mile journey to Mexico City. On September 13, 1847, the U.S. Marines occupied the “Halls of Montezuma” when they hoisted the Stars and Stripes over the National Palace.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was drawn up on February 2, 1848. Mexico gave up all claims to land north of the Rio Grande as well as ceding California and New Mexico to the United States. For this, the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on March 10, 1848, officially ending the war.
AMERICA: A Narrative History outlines the legacy of this often forgotten war: 1,721 killed, 4,102 wounded and 11,155 dead of disease. “Out of every 1,000 American soldiers in Mexico, some 110 died.” This is the deadliest combatants-killed ratio in U.S. History. In other words, the percentage of those who died compared to those who fought is higher than in other war. The ratio in the U.S. Civil War was 65 dead out of every 1,000 who fought.
The landing of Scott’s forces in Vera Cruz was the first major amphibious military operation by American forces. The military and naval costs came to $98 million. For this price plus the $15 million Mexico was paid, the U.S. acquired over 500,000 square miles of territory and truly stretched “from sea to shining sea.”
Also of historical interest is the list of junior officers who would later serve as commanding officers during the Civil War: Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy), Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Jackson, George B. McClellan, George Pickett, Braxton Bragg and George Meade. It was on the battlefields of the Mexican War that these soldiers gained significant combat experiences, later used against each other during The War Between the States a mere 12 years later.
The Mexican War had a huge impact on the United States, evoking “a growing spirit of patriotic nationalism that increasingly characterized the American people,” says THE UNITED STATES. In contrast, it also aggravated growing tensions which featured prominently in the sectional conflict, leading to the Civil War.
AMERICA: A NARRATIVE HISTORY by George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi
IT’S ABOUT TIME: HOW LONG HISTORY TOOK by Mike Flanagan
THE UNITED STATES: A BRIEF NARRATIVE HISTORY by Link Hullar and Scott Nelson
Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats