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America's 1846-1848 War With Mexico Was One Of The Most Important And Most Consequential Events In Our History

Territory Ceded by Mexico to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, c.1848-1853

America's 1846-1848 war with Mexico was one of the most important and most consequential events in our history. It is also the least known and understood of our wars. If not for five words in a patriotic hymn, the climax of the most one-sided victory in American—and arguably world—history would be all but forgotten. When Gen. Winfield Scott marched into Mexico City and stationed a guard of Marines at the National Palace there—the “Halls of Montezuma” of the Marine Hymn— he ended the fighting in the Mexican War without his side having lost a single battle.

It was “the great event—the epoch—of the nineteenth century,” one lieutenant wrote home, an opinion that necessarily lost some validity after the Civil War began 14 years later. But although it might not be much remembered today, it was a day that increased the size of the United States by almost two-thirds.

War with Mexico had been brewing since the 1820s, when Mexico repeatedly spurned overtures by the American government—already bent on expansion to the Pacific-to buy Texas. The situation heated up in 1836 when American settlers declared Texas an independent nation, leading to Mexican general and president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s siege of the Alamo and his later defeat at San Jacinto. The United States annexed Texas in December 1845, defining the border as the Rio Grande and sending 3,600 soldiers to patrol it. Mexico, however, still claimed all the land up to the Nueces River, a difference of thousands of square miles, and resented American troops on its soil. Escalating skirmishes in the disputed zone finally induced Congress to declare war in May 1846.

By early 1847, impatient with Gen. Zachary Taylor’s sluggish prosecution of the war in northern Mexico, President James Polk authorized the first major amphibious military assault in U.S. history. Ten thousand American soldiers rowed ashore just south of the Gulf port of Vera Cruz on March 9 without a single casualty, and over the next two weeks they demolished the formidably fortified city with nearly 7,000 shells. They then set out for their ultimate goal, the capital, 260 miles away.

The odds seemed heavy against the Americans: They were outnumbered nearly three to one in enemy territory, and with no men to spare they were forced to abandon their supply and communications line from Vera Cruz 125 miles before it reached Mexico City. But some factors did work in their favor, such as the continued tactical blundering of Santa Anna (whose tendency to place self-interest above the national interest had earned him the distrust of his congress and had sent him into exile and back). In contrast, the American commanding general was as strategically gifted as Santa Anna was careless. Scott had joined the army in 1808, and his aggressive fighting in the War of 1812 had won him fame and a medal from Congress. He would serve under all fourteen presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln, the last twenty years as a commanding general. Now 61 years old and standing six-foot-five, he was humorless and stuffy (his nickname was “Old Fuss and Feathers”) but an astute mediator and negotiator and a hard-working, capable leader.

On August 12 the American army reached the Valley of Mexico, a basin covered with marshes and lakes and ringed by mountains. Thanks in part to reconnaissance by the supervising engineer, Capt. Robert E. Lee, Scott was able to direct his army away from Santa Anna’s stronghold and later ambush it, at one point sneaking several miles over the crags and crevasses of a hardened lava bed. After suffering defeats at two outlying towns, Santa Anna stalled the Americans’ advance on the capital for two weeks with feints at peace talks. He had months earlier conned a $10,000 bribe out of Scott in exchange for negotiations that never came to pass, but Scott understood that his own objective in Mexico was as political as it was military: He was there not to destroy Santa Anna and his army but to force them to discuss a treaty, or, as Scott put it, to ”conquer a peace.” If he stormed the capital too quickly and Santa Anna fled, there would be no government to deal with.

Still, when talks broke down and Santa Anna was repeatedly seen strengthening his positions in violation of the truce, Scott resumed battle, orchestrating two brutal and bloody victories at fortifications just outside Mexico City on September 8 and in the early hours of September 13. As Mexican troops then fled across the few elevated causeways that were the only entrance to the city through the marshes, the American army, reduced by casualties and illness from more than 10,000 in August to 7,000, pursued them. Battling from behind the arches of aqueducts and digging protected paths through the walls of adobe homes, the Americans overtook the fortified gates to the city by 6 p.m., September 13, and, perilously low on ammunition, steeled themselves to face off against the Mexican army and unknown numbers of the city’s 200,000 residents. Santa Anna, however, decided the situation was hopeless and evacuated north. At 4 a.m. on September 14, a delegation of Mexican officials surrendered Mexico City to Scott.

Amidst the scattered applause of Mexican citizens, Scott led a procession to the National Palace at 8 a.m., escorted by mounted dragoons and a band playing “Yankee Doodle,” only to find the American flag already waving there: One of his generals had gone in ahead of command and beaten him to the palace by an hour. Scott, not missing a beat, assigned that general the job of military governor of the city. Santa Anna himself resigned two days after the city fell and exiled himself to Venezuela. (A few months later, Mexican leaders would ask Scott to be dictator of Mexico; he declined.)

The American army occupied Mexico City for the nearly seven months it took to draft and ratify the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially ending the war. The treaty ceded present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California and parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah to the United States and gave America the span of the continent for the first time, thus allowing all the virtues and vices of our manifest destiny. So why is this victory so forgotten today? Perhaps because it was so one-sided as to seem undramatic to us today, or possibly because it cast the United States in the unflattering role of empire-builder rather than defender of Union or democracy.

In any case, it did provide a training ground for the major players of the looming war that would come to overshadow it. In addition to Robert E. Lee, Scott’s army included Lt. George Pickett, who rescued an American flag from its fallen bearer on the morning of September 13 and carried it to much more success that day than he would leading his charge at Gettysburg, and the young quartermaster Sam Grant, who found a church belfry from which to shoot protective gunfire as his countrymen fought along the causeways, and who would later rise to fame under his first name, Ulysses. The Civil War may have given him fame, but the Mexico City campaign gave him and his cohort their first thrill of victory.

Under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848, Mexico ceded most of what is now the southwest quarter of the United States, including all of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona, and large areas of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. It also abandoned all claims to Texas east of the Rio Grande River. It amounted to a territorial acquisition of 529,017 square miles, about 14 percent of current U.S. territory.

In exchange, the United States paid Mexico $15,000,000 and assumed the claims of U.S. citizens against the Mexican government amounting to $3,250,000. It was, to be sure, a fabulous bargain, some of the most beautiful, fertile, and resource-rich land on the planet for $34 a square mile. It is quite impossible to imagine the present United States without it: No Hollywood, no Grand Canyon, no Las Vegas, no Yosemite. But was it imperialism?

To be sure, we were able to make the bargain because we had militarily defeated Mexico in a war that an expansionist United States had in large measure initiated. Mexico didn’t have much choice. But that, in itself, doesn’t make it imperialism if that term is defined as one nation assuming political hegemony over another. Had the United States followed the wishes of Secretary of State James Buchanan and many others, we would have taken all of Mexico. That would have been imperialism with a capital I.

The territory that we did acquire was largely unpopulated by Mexicans. Except for the California missions and a few settlements in New Mexico, such as Taos and Santa Fe, it was empty. (Like the people of the 1840s, Mexicans and Americans alike, I am, of course, ignoring the Indian population. That, I think, is best treated as a separate issue.) The total Mexican population of the Mexican Cession was about 15,000 people. Few if any decided to leave after the United States acquired the territory, which would indicate that their ties to Mexico were as weak as the Mexican hold on the land.

The area we acquired from Mexico was “Mexican” because that country had inherited Spain’s claim to the territory. But that was all it was, a claim. It is a settled principle of international law that claims to territory have little validity unless backed by occupation. No one thinks that England violated Spanish sovereignty in settling the east coast of North America, despite Spain’s claim to the whole of the New World except Brazil. In effect, we bought Mexico’s claim to this territory for a considerable sum (about what we had paid for Louisiana, a far larger area, four decades earlier, and twice what we would pay for Alaska, slightly larger, two decades hence). Over the next 60 years the United States proceeded to do what Spain and Mexico had not, occupy the territory and make it its own.

Compare this with Britain’s acquisition of Quebec in 1763 after victory in the Seven Years’ War. It took it by right of conquest, and nearly two and half centuries later, the divide between English- and French-speaking Canadians is still the principle fault line in that country’s politics. Or consider the German acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War. That, perhaps the stupidest single act of international politics in world history, caused deep, bitter resentment in France (the figurative statue of Strasbourg in the Place de la Concorde in Paris was draped in mourning until 1918) and was a prime cause of the First World War, because it made impossible the resumption of friendly relations between Germany and France.

But there has never been a serious irredentist movement in Mexico regarding the Mexican Cession. Indeed, when in 1853, it seemed that a railroad to California from the Eastern United States would need to take a southern route, Mexico, no longer under the gun of military defeat and occupation, agreed to sell the United States an additional 29,640 square miles of what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico, the so-called Gadsden Purchase. That would have been a very strange action for a country that felt it had been territorially raped.

Christine Gibson. America Defeats Mexico, Wins the West. American Heritage. September 14, 2007.
John Steele Gordon. The Mexican Cession. American Heritage. December 5, 2006.

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Attempts To Secure Mexican Agreement | Largest Assembly Of American Troops Since 1812 | America's Hold On Mexico's Northern Provinces Was Secure | The First Major Amphibious Landing In The History Of The U.S. Army | The Treaty Of Guadalupe Hidalgo | A Novelty In The History Of Nations | War With Mexico Was One Of The Most Important And Most Consequential Events In Our History | The Civil War Was Largely The Outgrowth Of The Mexican War | From Tripoli To The Halls Of The Montezumas | North America's Westernmost Province | The Pacific Squadron | The San Patricio Battalion | A Precious Set Of Scoundrels
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