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MEXICO the UNITED STATES and WAR (6 of 9)

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The Battles at Monterrey and Buena Vista

On July 6 and 7, 1846, Alexander MacKenzie, an agent of President Polk, met with Mexico's Santa Anna in Cuba. MacKenzie spoke of the United States wanting to buy New Mexico and California. Santa Anna said he hoped for peace and that should he return to power he would negotiate a settlement with the United States. As a gentleman he advised MacKenzie on how best the US could conduct its war against Mexico and said that if the US helped him return to power he would agree to the sale. And soon after, President Polk ordered the Navy to allow Santa Anna to return.

By late July, US troops were moving slowly toward the town of Monterrey, 50 miles (80 km) southwest of the Rio Grande, their arrival there more than a month away. In Mexico City, President Paredes was finding consolation in alcohol. His power was slipping away. Newspapers were denouncing his regime, and on August 4 he was overthrown and imprisoned, his regime replaced by a shaky coalition of liberals and moderates who were awaiting the arrival of Santa Anna.

The national treasure was virtually empty, and with the return of liberals to power there was talk again of seizing Church properties and also of abolishing the Church's privileges. Santa Anna returned to Mexico on August 16 to his home near Vera Cruz (in English, True Cross, later to be renamed Veracruz by a secularist government). On September 14, he entered Mexico City, its streets decorated for the occasion.

On September 21, Taylor and his army began fighting for control of Monterrey. Taylor's army had pushed into the city, and the fighting ending on the third day. Both sides wanted a break, and a two-month armistice was agreed to – to the annoyance of President Polk, who saw Taylor as militarily incompetent in addition to his displeasure over Taylor being a Whig.

By now, Polk was aware that Santa Anna was not going to negotiate a settlement of the war as he had promised, and Polk responded with a plan for a military solution to the war, including an invasion at Vera Cruz. Santa Anna had been organizing a force, and on September 28 he led 2,500 troops out of Mexico City, heading to San Luis Potosi, 327 miles to the north where 4,000 other Mexican troops had gathered. They arrived on October 8, and nine days later, to his dismay, the Mexican army from Monterrey arrived at San Luis Potosi, having crossed 200 miles of desert as the crow flies. Santa Anna's plan was to cross that same expanse again, to confront Taylor's force near Saltillo, where Taylor had been constructing a defensive position.

In November and December, more troops arrived at San Luis Potosi, from the states of Guanajuato and Jalisco, but they were poorly armed. On January 6, captured dispatches told Santa Anna of troops from Taylor's force being sent to join the force that was planning to land at Vera Cruz. Santa Anna was encouraged. Everything at San Luis Potosi was in short supply, including winter clothing, gunpowder and food, but Santa Anna was planning to capture provisions from Taylor's army to help provide for his own army.

Battle of Buena Vista

Battle of Buena Vista  Battle of Buena Vista, enlarged click to enlarge

On January 27, the Mexicans started across the desert, Santa Anna with his Napoleonic hat, riding in a carriage drawn by eight mules, and some prize fighting cocks amid his baggage. To prevent desertions he had given orders to shoot any man found more than 1.5 miles from camp. Moving across the desert he lost something like 4,000 men, about a fourth of his army, while temperatures at night dropped below freezing.

In mid-February, mounted patrols of the two hostile armies met and clashed. Taylor ordered a withdrawal to the more defensible position at Angostura Pass, where a major clash occurred on February 22 – to be known as the Battle of Buena Vista. Taylor's forces numbered around 5,000. The Mexican force was around three times that size. Mounted troops from Kentucky and Arkansas drove back a courageous assault by Mexican cavalry. A Mexican cavalry unit armed only with lances and sabers was cut to pieces at a distance by Mississippians with rifles. US artillery, with a range of 400 yards, struck Mexicans with muskets with an effective range no better than 100 yards. By the end of the second day of fighting the US had lost 267 killed, 356 wounded and 23 missing. The Mexicans had lost 591 men killed and 1,037 wounded.

Santa Anna and his force withdrew, leaving their campfires burning while beginning the journey back across the desert. His men were suffering dysentery from eating spoiled meat. Along the war, wounded men were left behind. Mexico had virtually no medical corps with its armies. Its wounded were dependent upon help from their fellow soldiers or from their wives and children who went with them to war. And, with their caste mentality, Mexico's white officers were little interested in risking their own lives to rescue wounded common soldiers.

Like Napoleon on the march back from Moscow, Santa Anna rushed ahead of his men, to Mexico City. To his vice president he described the Battle of Buena Vista as a victory. He described General Taylor as "so frightened and destroyed that he cannot move in any direction." On March 12, Santa Anna's emaciated army arrived back at San Luis Potosi – Santa Anna having lost more than half of his army in little more than a month.

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