(Mexico, the United States and War – continued)

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Guerrilla War and the Push to Mexico City

In December 1846, 856 Missourians led by Alexander Doniphan had left Santa Fe and skirmished against Mexicans at the Rio Grande near El Paso. On February 28, fifteen miles north of Chihuahua, they fought a Mexican force, and the next day they rode into Chihuahua unopposed. In late May they joined Taylor's forces. Then, with their period of enlistment completed, they returned to Missouri.

Meanwhile, guerrilla forces were harassing Taylor's supply lines. Small armies of hacienda-owning warlords had entered the fighting, some of them hoping for independence from Mexico City. Some were interested in negotiations with the US, and some were interested in maintaining economic ties with the United States.

Fighting in the north of Mexico was occasionally brutal, especially that conducted by Texas Rangers, who exercised a grudge against Mexicans and attacked with little regard for civilian lives or property. General Taylor complained that they were "too licentious" and in need of discipline.

Weakening Mexico's cause in the north was more rebellion. The former president, Anastasio Bustamente, was put in command of an expedition that was supposed to counter US intrusions into California, but before Bustamente's force got as far as Guadalajara insurrection intervened. And at Mazatlán, the port from which Bustamente's force was supposed to debark, civil war erupted, making departure impossible.

US Troops from Vera Cruz to Mexico City

Invasion at Vera Cruz

Vera Cruz, 1847 (click to enlarge)

Mexico's acting president, Valentín Gómez Farías, remained in conflict with the Catholic Church. The Church in Mexico had been blessing troops before they went into battle, praying for a Mexican victory and organizing religious processions. The Church was ignoring government requests for donations of money. In Congress it was argued that the war effort could not continue without financial help from the Church, and Congress voted 46 to 32 to seize church property. Across Mexico and in the streets of Mexico City, priests and lay people protested against attacks on the Church. Regiments in Mexico City revolted, and, because these were regiments known to enjoy festivities and dancing the polka, it was called the Polko (sic) Rebellion. In the streets were leaflets reading "Death to Congress" and "Death to Farías." Farías mobilized a militia with which to combat the revolt, and the unrest continued into February (1847), with newspapers on the side of the revolt. The government ordered the arrests of some military leaders. Moderates joined in opposing the government, and on March 5 the government arrested the leader of the moderates, Gómez Pedraza. Santa Anna returned to Mexico City and ordered an end to hostilities. Farías resigned, complaining of broken health, and was replaced by a supporter of the Church, Pedro Anaya. And the Church extended two million pesos to Santa Anna in exchange for the repeal of anti-clerical laws.

At Vera Cruz on March 9 the US landed a force of 12,000 under the command of General Winfield Scott. The landing was unopposed. US forces asked the city of Vera Cruz to surrender, and following its refusal there were four days of bombardment from land and US warships. On March 28 the US captured the city, losing 20 killed.

On March 31 news of the invasion reached Mexico City – twenty-two days after the event. A wave of patriotism swept through the city, and it was decreed there that any Mexican who sought peace with US troops on Mexican territory would be charged with treason. Santa Anna went eastward with a force to confront the US invasion, hoping to hold the US forces to the lowlands and exposure to the yellow fever.

The supplies that Scott was waiting for did not arrive, and rather than wait longer he left troops at Vera Cruz and moved the rest of his force inland to a higher elevation and toward Mexico City. In mid-April Scott and his army found Santa Anna's army waiting for them at a narrow pass by a hill known as Cerro Gordo. The Battle of Cerro Gordo began on April 17, to viewed as the most important battle of the war.

Santa Anna had 32 artillery pieces, elite cavalry units and a total of about 12,000 men. He didn't array his forces well. Captain Robert E. Lee and his associates found a route around Santa Anna's flank. The attack Santa Anna's force from an unexpected direction at the rear of his army. General Scott's army captured around 3,000 men and 43 heavy guns. Scott lost 63 killed and 353 wounded. An estimated 1,000 Mexicans were killed or wounded. The remainder of Santa Anna's army fled along the national roadway inland.

Santa Anna returned to Mexico City, where by now news had arrived that the Battle of Buena Vista back in February. The news described something other than the success that Santa Anna had described. But a national hero remained as national hero. Mexicans were going with celebrity. Santa Anna was still looked to as the only man who could save Mexico. A force under Santa-Anna went toward the city of Puebla on the national roadway between Vera Cruz and Mexico City to confront the US forces.

Puebla was occupied by General Scott, who tried to treat the inhabitants of Puebla well while he awaited reinforcements and supplies. Some of his force returned home, their enlistments over. In June an English delegation arrived at Scott's headquarters and announced Santa Anna's willingness to end the war. The message from Santa Anna was that it was essential that the US advance no farther and that it send him $10,000 in cash so that he could influence the necessary people. The money was given to Santa Anna, but it was another ruse.

Reinforcements arrived and Scott drilled his troops until August 7. Then, with an army of 10,700 men he left a garrison force at Puebla and started for Mexico City. With about 7,000 infantry and youthful volunteers from Mexico, Santa Anna marched to a fortified hill seven miles southeast of Mexico City, at El Penón. Scott's army swung to the south around Lake Chalco and Lake Xochimilco, and Santa Anna hastily repositioned his forces and relocated his headquarters at a monastery at Churubusco, five miles south of Mexico City, near the main road to the city. Santa Anna still had some hope in his cavalry, although the cavalry was ineffective against a standing line of riflemen. Santa Anna's cannon were antiquated, the powder they used was of poor quality and the gunners inadequately trained. The weapons of his infantry were discards from Europe.

The US forces slogged over roads that were mud, and on August 20 a major battle ensued. With Santa Anna were 204 deserters from the US Army, mostly Irish Catholics who had decided that this was in part at least a religious war – Catholics against Protestants. They formed what was called the Batallón San Patricio (Saint Patrick's Battalion) and are said to have rebelled against abusive treatment by Protestant officers. Meanwhile, the war had inflamed anti-Catholic sentiment among some Protestants in the US.

Scott's force feigned a frontal attack in one area while others swung around toward the rear of Santa Anna's force. Santa Anna was demonstrating again that he was something less than a gifted tactician. Scott lost 60 dead and wounded. His force counted 813 prisoners taken, including four generals. An estimate of Mexican casualties is 700.

Among the prisoners taken were men of the St. Patrick's Battalion. Military trials were held and 70 of them sentenced to death. General Scott pardoned five of them and reduced the sentences of fifteen others to fifty lashes and the letter D (for desertion) branded on their cheek. The remaining fifty were hanged on September 12.

U.S. Army at Chapultepec

The US Army at Chapultepec  U.S. Army at Chapultepec, enlarged
click to enlarge

On September 13, 1847, Scott's army reached Chapultepec Castle – the Halls of Montezuma (Moctezuma) – two miles southwest of the city. A force of 832 Mexican National Guardsmen made a stand there, joined by 43 cadets from a military academy, some as young as thirteen. Rather than surrender, the cadets fought to their deaths, and September 13 was to be a day celebrated every year in Mexico: the Day of the Boy Heroes of Chapultepec.

Members of a city council negotiated with General Scott, and a guarantee for the safety of the people of Mexico City was established, but it came to naught as outraged Mexicans launched attacks against US forces as they entered the city and US forces fired back in self-defense. Late on the second day in the city the US forces celebrated their victory with music and alcohol while civilians were tending their dead. Soon, business-starved shopkeepers in Mexico City opened their coffee shops, photography studios, dance and pool halls and other manner of commerce to US soldiers.

Santa Anna had fled with an army of around 9,000, intending to carry on the war, attack the US garrison at Puebla to cut Scott's supply line. But before he reached Puebla his demoralized army disintegrated. Guerrilla operations continued against Scott's lines of supply but dwindled by November, the month that the US Navy captured Mazatlán and the port town of Guaymas. Santa Anna took up residence in the town of Tehuacán about one hundred miles southwest of Puebla, and there, on January 23, 350 Texas Rangers arrived intending to capture him in order to exact revenge upon him for the Alamo. But Santa Anna fled two hours before they arrived, and soon the US gave him safe passage into exile – to Jamaica.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

A provisional government for Mexico had been established at Querétaro, about 100 miles northwest of Mexico City, with a former chief justice of Mexico's Supreme Court, Manuel de la Peña, as interim president – while some states remained in rebellion against the central government and some, including monarchists, wanted to continue fighting the United States. In November enough support was given to the national government that a quorum was considered to have been obtained and legitimacy established, allowing Peña's government to move toward a settlement with the United States.

Negotiations began in January, and on February 2 (1848) the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. Those who had wanted the United States to acquire Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila and other northern states and Yucatán were disappointed. But from Mexico the United States won recognition as having gained Alto California, New Mexico and Texas. Mexico was given a guarantee of rights for the Mexican people living in these areas who had remained loyal to Mexico. The US agreed to prevent attacks by Indians across the new border into Mexico. In exchange for its great gains in territory, the United States agreed to pay 15 million dollars for damages, to assume responsibility for 3 million dollars in claims against Mexico by US citizens and to relieve Mexico of its monetary debt to the United States. President Polk received the signed treaty on February 19. Mexico's Congress went into session in May and ratified the treaty. And that month so did the US Congress – a treaty that was to remain active into the twenty-first century.

In the war, the United States lost 1,721 killed and 11,550 deaths from other causes, mainly disease, and the war cost the federal government 100,000,000 in 1848 dollars.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.