Two Lines in the Sand–Mexican/American War, Part III

By Jay Holmes

When President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to occupy and defend Texas up to the border of the Rio Grande, he was utilizing a well-defined line in the sand to demark his demand that Mexico honor its treaties of Velasco, signed by Mexican Dictator Santa Ana on May 14, 1836. Unfortunately for Taylor, Mexico drew its own line in the sand further north along the bank of the Nueces river.

Mexico 1840 Golbez wikimedia

image by Golbez, wikimedia commons

The USA counted on two significant advantages in its decision to enforce the Treaty of Velasco. The first advantage was clear and voluminous intelligence emanating from Mexico. Given the rampant factionalism and lack of unity in Mexico, extracting actionable intelligence was about as challenging as coaxing heat from the sun. The information consistently portrayed a lack of political stability and rampant corruption.

This gave the USA a second advantage. President Polk calculated that US forces would not face strong resistance from the inhabitants of Mexico, and he knew that the Mexican army, although well-trained and numerous, would likely be undermined by the lack of effective government. He was right.

In the early skirmishes with the Mexican Army, Taylor’s forces refined a new and useful tactic. A young US Army officer named Samuel Ringgold had dutifully researched major and minor European battles and studied the use and effects of artillery. Ringgold concluded that, while throw weight, accuracy, and loading rates were indeed important, the speed at which artillery could be properly placed and set up was just as important. He conceived a “flying artillery” tactic and developed equipment to make it possible.

On May 8, 1846, Ringgold and 2,400 US soldiers were moving south toward Fort Brown at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Mexican general Mariano Arista and his 3,900 soldiers intercepted them.

Arista was a skilled general with a well-trained army. He ordered that the US artillery be flanked and attacked. His tactic was a reasonable one, but the Flying Artillery was able to set up and fire on the Mexican cavalry before Arista’s heavier artillery could be deployed. That tactic played a key role in defeating the Mexicans in what we call the Battle of Palo Alto.  Ringgold was badly wounded during the battle and died three days later, but his influence on artillery remains today.

Map Battle of Palo Alto US Government wikimedia

Map of Battle of Palo Alto, image by US Government

Taylor’s forces fought a series of battles, and he entered Mexico proper and maneuvered toward Monterrey in Northeastern Mexico in the state of Nuevo Leon. As General Taylor’s army moved south, they elongated their supply lines. Though some guerilla activity ensued against his long supply lines, it did not slow Taylor’s progress. It helped that there was no popular resistance on the part of the Mexican people, which was precisely what Polk and his advisors had predicted.

By August, the US Navy had captured Monterrey, California and Los Angeles, California while continuing to successfully blockade Mexican ports.

In September, Taylor attacked Monterrey in Nuevo Leon, and after a bloody three-day battle against Mexican forces led by General Ampudia, Monterrey was captured. No, you’re not lost. There were two Monterrey’s captured. One in California, and the other in Mexico.

Mexico and the USA agreed to a truce. Polk and Taylor both hoped Mexico would be amenable to a peace treaty that included the sale of south Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California to the USA. Unfortunately for Polk, Mexico was not ready to give up. The old and often despised general Santa Ana returned to Mexico from exile and organized an army of 20,000 additional troops.

By December of 1847, it was evident to Polk and his war cabinet that Mexico would not agree to a treaty without suffering further defeats. Rather than reinforcing Polk for an attempted march southward toward central Mexico, General Winfield Scott proposed an amphibious assault against Veracruz on the east coast of Mexico.

The US Navy landed Scott and 12,000 troops on beaches near Vera Cruz. US Navy ships bombarded Veracruz artillery positions, and Scott attacked with his troops. He captured Veracruz after a twenty day siege. In a series of battles, Scott worked his way inland toward Mexico City.

Normally, the notion of a 12,000 man army marching on Mexico City would seem ludicrous. Such a small force should have been easily swallowed up in the difficult terrain as their supply lines extended away from the coast. But like the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez had done a few centuries earlier, Scott relied on the unpopularity of the central government in Mexico.

Several future US Civil War generals took part in the expedition. While Robert E. Lee and many of his future confederate senior officers fought in the siege at Chapultepec and in other key battles, one officer had the inglorious and thankless task of keeping supply lines open to Veracruz. When you are trying to capture Mexico City, an army of 12,000 is much too small for the task. When you are trying to feed an army far from the nearest port with poor roads and no railroad, an army of 12,000 is much too big.

Given the distance, terrain, climate, and conditions of the times, as well as the obvious opportunity for guerrilla attacks, the task was monumental. The poor schlep stuck with the job was a hard-drinking army officer named U.S. Grant. The seemingly plain and undistinguished Grant rose to the occasion and employed ingenuity to keep Scott’s army fed and supplied.

Panaderia Mexicana JEDIKNIGHT1970 wikimedia

Panaderia Mexicana, image by JEDIKNIGHT1970, wikimedia

Grant used his “horse trading sense” in the most literal way and managed to acquire enough native mules and horses at fair prices without aggravating the local Mexicans. He used good judgment in selecting reliable Mexicans to work for him, and managed to open a highly successful bakery operation that actually turned a profit for the US Army while increasing the food supplies for the local families.

The last major obstacle in Scott’s path was Chapultepec Fort. The stronghold was on high ground and had an excellent natural defensive position. The outpost there had served as Mexico’s military academy, a sort of Mexican West Point. When Scott’s forces approached the fort, the Mexican commander ordered a retreat, leaving Mexico City exposed.

Six cadets ranging in ages from thirteen through nineteen refused to leave. It no doubt took a good deal of courage for any cadet to make such a decision. These cadets faced the decision with the knowledge that Mexico lacked a government that demonstrated any loyalty to Mexicans, and they chose to stay and fight to a certain death.

Chapultepec was captured on September 13, and the US army entered Mexico City. Some inhabitants continued to fight a guerrilla war against the American occupiers, but by mid-October the US Army had complete control of Mexico City.

Santa Ana continued to resist and encouraged as much guerrilla activity as he could against the US Army’s supply lines, but Grant’s masterful administration of those lines completely foiled him. On February 2, 1848, Mexico and the USA signed the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. It was ratified by the congress of each nation.

It has been alleged that several members of the Mexican congress betrayed Mexico, and worked closely with agents of the USA to help get the treaty ratified. I have never seen enough historical evidence to prove or disprove this allegation.

The USA agreed to Mexico’s right to maintain free trade with any nation. It lifted the blockades of Mexican ports and paid $15,000,000 for the vast territories that it gained, half of what it had offered prior to the war. In turn, the USA lost about 14,000 lives and $100,000,000. In costs, it was a huge sum at the time. The Mexican casualties are more difficult to estimate, but were likely less than those of the defenders.

Los Ninos Heroes Thelmadatter wikimedia

Los Ninos Heroes, image by Thelmadatter, wikimedia

And those six young cadets? They are remembered today in Mexico as “Los Heroes Ninos.” A huge monument in Mexico City is still one of Mexico’s most popular shrines. There are no huge monuments to Santa Ana or the forgettable and most often lamentable politicos who fought for power in the halls of the Mexican congress. James K. Polk is all but forgotten in the USA, as well. Winfield Scott shunned politics. General Taylor replaced Polk as the President of the United States. But the six boys still remain a symbol of selflessness to Mexico today.

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6 comments on “Two Lines in the Sand–Mexican/American War, Part III

  1. mairedubhtx says:

    Your panaderia photo looks like the bakery of my local HEB supermarket here in south Texas. Some things never change. Thanks for posting about the US-Mexican War, which most people know little about, except here in Texas and maybe California.

  2. tomwisk says:

    Love the history lesson. We won the war. It was a crucible for Lee, Grant and others who would be fighting in thirteen years. Oh yeah, Winfield Scott Hancock was and is an asshat.

  3. Jay Holmes says:

    Hi tomwisk. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Dave says:

    History taught in school? Can’t have that…the kids might grow up with good judgement and start thinking for themselves.

    Thanks for sharing the history that the never taught in school…I may not have learned it when I was a kid, but it’s never too late.

  5. Interesting stuff, Holmes. It’s funny to think of Grant setting up a bakery. Perhaps bread is mightier than the sword?

    Cheers!

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