Notes on the War with Mexico


The U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848, is a complex and interesting event that can be understood today only by considerable study and reflection. Today's United States and today's Mexico are very different from what they were then, and the war itself is very different from today's wars. Nevertheless, the consequences of this war resonate even today. The partisan politics of the time seems strangely similar to today's.

I heartily recommend the reading of References 1-3 as a basis for understanding the times and the war. The work by Smith (Reference 2) is probably the best general history of the war, though the reader should carefully notice Smith's biases and attitudes, which were typical of his time and position. He calls mestizos "half-breeds," and denigrates them as stupid and worthless, while in fact they were a vigorous and capable class, among which have been found many of the most outstanding Mexicans of those times and afterwards, such as Morelos and Díaz. He copies the attitude of upper-class Spanish and Creoles in this. Blacks appear not at all in his history, except once in an anectode about General Scott's body slave. The relative positions of blacks in Mexico and the U.S. are not explored, nor things like the toleration of slavery in Mexican Texas to appease the U.S. settlers. The niños heroes of Chapultepec appear only in a statement that "most" of the cadets were sent away from the battle.That some died bravely for their country is ignored. In spite of such omissions and biases, the work was very carefully researched and contains copious notes and references. Smith, although a Republican, is probably seldom in error about questions of fact. Unlike many American writers on the war, he could and did read Spanish.

The recent book by Stevens (Reference 3) casts bright light on the actual conditions in the U.S. Army, especially as regards nativism and anti-Catholicism, which not only contaminated the army, but the country as a whole in those times. The story of the Battallón de San Patricio, and the plague of desertion among regular army units, scarcely appears in Smith, but is essential reading for an understanding of the war. Smith alludes to Catholic priests for the army, but there never were Catholic chaplains, and the roles of the priests that were employed is told in Stevens.

DeVoto's very readable account of the year 1846 (Reference 1) gives a look at the times as well, and some of the other events that were taking place, especially in the American west.

In the notes that follow, I will examine a few interesting areas, and arrive at some general conclusions, but cannot treat the war comprehensively. I leave this to the references. The word Mexico refers to the country, México to the city, in what follows. The spelling of Spanish has undergone several reforms since the 1840's. The letter "x" has replaced "j" in local names, as in "Méjico," and "j" has replaced "g" in some places before e or i, as in "muger." Accents were lost on single vowels like "á" but became used more regularly wherever required by the pronunciation. Monterey was then spelled thus, but as it is pronounced Monte Rey, it is now spelled Monterrey. Many place names were changed during the Revolution, and at the time of the war were much as they are now, except those changed to honor later national heroes, such as Juárez. The boundary river is called the Rio Grande in the United States, Rio Bravo in Mexico. Apparently the upper river, the Rio Grande del Norte, acquired its name independently of the lower river. I wish I knew how the lower river became known as the Rio Grande in the U.S. instead of Rio Bravo. Bravo here is used in the sense of Bravo! or excellent, it would appear. I also use American for norteamericano, meaning no offense thereby.

Course of the War

The admission of Texas to the Union, which was final on 29 December 1845, was the event that precipitated the war. On 13 January 1846, General Taylor was ordered to the Rio Grande, reaching there 28 March. A Mexican reconnaissance in force on the northern river bank shot up and captured Captain Thornton's reconnaissance troop on 24 April near Matamoros, and fighting had officially begun. War was not officially declared by the United States until 13 May 1846, after the first battles had been fought on the Rio Grande.

The actions of the war concerned two principal columns of invasion, one from the Rio Grande under General Taylor, and the other from an amphibious landing at Vera Cruz under General Scott. Taylor won his first major encounter at Palo Alto on 8 May 1846, and the aftermath Resaca de la Palma the next day. Starting from Matamoros, he captured Monterey on 24 September, and Saltillo 16 November, in a remarkably dilatory campaign. He met Santa Anna's army on the rough ground at the pass of La Angostura just beyond Saltillo on the way to San Luís Potosí on 22 February 1847. This Battle of Buena Vista was essentially a draw, since Santa Anna withdrew with his outnumbering army without following up the previous day's events, and Taylor never proceeded farther. Both Generals proclaimed victory, but Taylor can be considered to have profited the most, since it led to his Presidency. Units of Taylor's army captured Tampico on 28 October 1846, and held it until the end of the war.

Colonel (soon General) Stephen Watts Kearny was dispatched for the conquest of New Mexico on 5 June 1846, and Commodore Robert F. Stockton assigned to the conquest of California, which was already in revolt and chaos. Stockton was aided by the unreliable John C. Frémont, a protegé of the very influential Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a prominent western Democrat. Kearny went on to help in California, while a bloody revolt against United States rule was put down in New Mexico. Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan (elected by his troops) and his Missouri Mounted Volunteers, 856 in all, left Sterling Price in Santa Fe and marched south, winning victories at the absurd skirmish of El Brazito near El Paso on 25 December 1846, and at the more serious Sacramento, near Chihuahua, on 28 February. They marched forward to join Taylor, reaching Saltillo on 21 May, sailed down the Rio Grande and took ship for New Orleans, finally returning to Missouri, where they were received by Senator Benton and barbecues.

General Wool also began a march to capture Chihuahua earlier that same summer, starting from San Antonio on 23 September with a reconnaissance party, and reaching the Rio Grande on 8 October. On 16 September he proceeded across the river with about 1800 men. The fiery nativist and brutal Captain Harney had raided to the south instead of waiting for Wool at San Antonio, was cut off south of the river, disappointed by his officers of an insane dash to Monterey, and returned to San Antonio leaving three companies and supplies. These forces were set to flight by the Mexicans. Wool reached Monclova on 29 October, and remained there for weeks at Taylor's orders because of the armistice after Monterey was captured. After the halt, he marched southwesterly to Parras, which was on a good road to Chihuahua, reaching Parras on 5 December. On 17 December, he was ordered to make a rapid march to Saltillo to reinforce the army there in preparation for Buena Vista, as troops had been requisitioned for Scott's campaign. It had been a worthless march.

General Winfield Scott, taking much of Taylor's army, landed on the beach of Mocambo Bay just south of Vera Cruz on 9 March 1847. A bombardment of the city followed, and on 29 March the city and the strong fortress of San Juan de Ulúa, on a reef 1000 yards in front of the city and harbor, surrendered, more in view of what would happen than what had happened. Glory due to Commodore Conner for his contributions to this victory unjustly shone by default on Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who replaced him during the campaign. Scott and his army had to reach an altitude of about 4000 ft sometime in May, before the yellow fever season began. Since he had supply wagons, he was constrained to follow the National Road via Jalapa and Puebla. On 8 April 1847 General Twiggs set out with the point party. Santa Anna intended to meet the invasion at Cerro Gordo, but his preparations were inefficient. After losing an army at La Angostura, he had to gather another in little more than a month. On the 18 April, the Mexican army was routed and scattered at this pivotal battle. Though the men fought bravely, the Mexican officers were deplorable. After this, there was little effective opposition because of chaos in the Mexican government. The U.S. army occupied delightful Jalapa, was unopposed at the passes at La Hoya and Las Vigas leading to the Valley of Mexico, occupied Perote and Puebla, whence on 7 August began the march on México. Battles at Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey and Chapultepec then followed 20 August - 13 September. They were bitterly contested and bloody, but Scott prevailed. Finally, México was entered on 14 September 1847, and active campaigning was over.

The war ended when the treaty of peace was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo on 2 February 1848, though active campaigning had been over for some time, and General Scott occupied the capital, México. The treaty was a remarkable piece of work by Nicholas P. Trist, who had begun negotiations the preceding summer, even before Scott's occupation of México on 14 September 1847. It brought the war to an early close without a protracted and agonizing guerrilla resistance, and without the absorption of Mexico into the United States, as the extreme views proposed. Mexico retained her independence, most of the territory over which she had effective control, and received a desperately needed $15,000,000. This amount was roughly equal to a year's government revenue for Mexico, and half that of the United States, so it was no trivial amount.

Remarkably, the treasure of Mexico's churches was not looted during the war, surviving intact because of explicit protection by the U.S. authorities. The looting was later to be done by Mexican forces. The U.S. militia forces were a plague--murdering, looting, raping and brewing a zone of debauchery and crime around themselves, to the dismay of the regular army. General Scott's General Orders No. 20 went a long way to ameliorating this problem, establishing tribunals for crimes done by, on and among U.S. military personnel. Revenge for Goliad and the Alamo was amply carried out by Texans on anybody they could find in the dark.

This was the last of the classic modern wars, without the telegraph or the railway, which were soon to change warfare radically. Steam power had just come to the navy (the U.S. Navy had three when the war began), so reliance was still largely on sail. Most casualties were due to disease and accident, not to enemy fire. The greatest concern of any campaigning army was supply, which was always extremely difficult in this war, whether of water, subsistence, forage or ammunition. Mexico was more suitable to pack mules than to wagons, because of bad roads (the U.S. was not very different, but had more water transport), but the U.S. Army insisted on using wagons, often with bad results.


Mexico possessed a tier of northern states or departments--Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas--distant from the center of government in México, poor and agricultural, and often in insurrection or revolt. They received very little from the center, not even effective protection from marauding Comanches, but sent there what taxes they could not evade. The population lived frugally on what they could grow, enjoying their traditional pastimes and not striving for more.

Beyond these were states even more remote and isolated, with less interaction still with the center: California, New Mexico and Texas. They managed to evade most taxes, and received as little from México. Indians made parts of New Mexico and Texas uninhabitable, and terrorized the rest. All were equally subject to a new threat, the irrepressible creep of Americans to all points west, in search of land or booty.

Texas, as the easternmost, was the first to feel this migration. Aaron Burr seems to have been part of a movement to acquire Spanish territory, but his was not the only scheme, famous only because it encouraged his political enemies to attack and ruin him. The method was for entrepreneurs to settle on land acquired by grant, either through becoming naturalized Spanish or Mexican citizens, or under special grants to foreigners, if possible. If not, one could just squat on the thinly-guarded land and claim adverse possession, enforced by powder and ball. The authorities, Spanish or Mexican, were often hungry for settlement of any type to develop the territory. Spanish customs of land ownership did not encourage development. The grants were usually of a large hacienda to some influential person, who then had to find rancheros to manage the land, who were effectively sharecroppers, who had in their turn to find and persuade péons to do the actual labor with little in return.

American settlers, on the other hand, operated under very different principles. They were individual owners, and brought slaves with them to work the land, neatly solving the péon problem. Where the land was unsuitable to slave labor, others could be convinced with suitable threats to accept employment as herders and hands. The number of Americans soon exceeded the number of Mexicans (orgin was more important than citizenship), formed militias, and became the most influential part of the population. Then they would throw off the Mexican government, and seek admission to the United States. This plan and process was clearly evident to the Mexican government from an early date.

There was such an attempt in Texas in 1812, as described in The 1812 Revolution in Texas, shortly after the Mexican Revolution began in 1810. Hayden Edwards led the Fredonian Rebellion in 1826. These were unsuccessful, but the Texas Revolution that began on 2 October 1835 at Gonzales, led by Sam Houston, succeeded. Independence was declared on 2 March 1836. Although Santa Anna, who had arrived to suppress the revolt, was successful at Goliad and San Antonio (the Alamo), Houston defeated and captured him at San Jacinto on 21 April 1836, guaranteeing the independence of Texas.

Texas was recognized as an independent state by the United States, Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland. Unlike the later Confederate States of America, it succeeded in becoming a country under international law, not simply a rebel government. The idea was to be admitted to the Union, however, not to be independent. When this route was blocked, it had to go it alone for a while, and both Great Britain and France desired that it be separate and independent, and promised it aid.

Mexico, of course, did not recognize the independence of Texas and continued to regard it as a rebellious province. However, no military action was taken at once to recover it, largely because of continual chaos in the government. Texas, for its part, made paper claims to large areas of poorly-defined territories extending into Mexican possessions. The sandy, unpopulated desert between the Nueces and the Rio Grande was claimed as part of Texas, when it had always been part of Tamaulipas, possibly on the basis of the ill-defined borders before the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, or even the Louisiana Purchase, although the boundary of Louisiana could not be considered to extend beyond the Sabine in any circumstances. Parts of New Mexico were claimed as well, and even a panhandle extending well into what is now Colorado. None of these territories could remotely be considered part of Texas, and were included only to make the area as large as possible.

Texas was, however, admitted to the Union on 29 December 1845 as a result of complicated politics in which the slavery elements behind Tyler and Polk finally had their way. There was some idea of making five states out of Texas, which would give 10 new slave senators, but this ridiculous idea was never realized.

Other Things Taking Place

The Mexican War was by no means the only event of interest in this busy period. The Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1847, sent many immigrants to the United States, where they were met with hostility and prejudice, even by earlier Irish immigrants. A number of these enlisted in the Army. Nativism, with its virulent anti-Catholicism, was widespread and popular, both in the Army and in civilian life.

The Oregon Question surfaced in 1843 with the Democratic War Cry of "54-40 or Fight." The boundary with Canada had been settled at 49° years earlier, but it extended only to the Rockies. The Oregon Territory, from 42° to 54° 40' west of the Rockies, was little settled, but the British carried on an active fur trade there. Since the War of 1812, there had been joint occupancy. The first wagons over the arduous Oregon Trail arrived in 1842 with American settlers, proving as valuable as an army of occupation. The southern Democrats sold out, to the chagrin of the western Democrats, and the Oregon Treaty of 1846 extended the 49° line to the west, with some adjustments around Puget Sound. If it had come to war, as many noisy Americans urged, Great Britain's overwhelming naval superiority would have prevailed, and the boundary would be the 42nd parallel. Polk fortunately avoided this national humiliation. No war with Mexico was possible while this matter hung in the balance.

Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, on the south fork of the American River at Coloma, on 24 January 1848, almost precisely at the end of the war. This released a flood of Argonauts and '49-ers that would have inundated California in any case. Up to this time, the United States had been devoid of any useful accumulation of precious metals, very much in contrast to Mexico. This had meant a severe lack of capital, and of money to lubricate the economic system, most of which had to come as European loans before this time. Gold had no effect on the war, of course, but much on its sequel.

Causes of the War

The "cause" of the Mexican War was disputed hotly and with partisan vigor at the time, as it has been ever since. It seems clear that antagonistic feelings had been growing for years. The war was touched off by Texan statehood and its territorial claims. Mexico assembled an army at Matamoros on Rio Bravo, and the United States sent an opposing army to Corpus Christi, on the Nueces. The U.S. army advanced into disputed territory and collided with Mexican forces there, initiating the active war.

It cannot be disputed that the general public of the United States was eager for territorial expansion and delighted with the outbreak of war. Volunteers were itching for a fight, and regular army officers hungry for glory that fighting Indians could not give them. The additional annoyance of Mexico's tardy and insulting responses to demands for the settlement of claims against it also seemed justification for war. Many said it was "manifest destiny" that the U.S. should spread across the continent. Nevertheless, these urges did not precipitate the declaration of war. President Polk, as Smith (2) takes care to establish, was not a "war hawk" bent on war, but had the fact thrust upon him by events. Later, many people, chiefly Whigs, thought the war a bullying action, like hitting someone wearing glasses. Mexico did not feel inferior, but appreciated the recognition of unfairness.

Trouble was expected on the event of Texan statehood, so President Polk sent an emissary, Slidell, to negotiate the various questions of boundaries and claims, but Mexico rejected his overtures. In fact, Mexico was quite ready to fight and thought it could do well, overlooking its precarious monetary resources and wealth of incompetent military commanders. Its idea was that one decisive stroke against the invading barbarians would end the danger and make the U.S. listen to reason. The Herrera government was quite unwilling to fight at all, a fact which led to its overthrow by the Paredes party that desired war. General Arista at Matamoros was authorized to begin hostilities at the first violation of Mexican territory. This occurred when General Taylor crossed the Nueces, but no action was taken until later.

The role of the strong slavery faction in the United States with respect to the Mexican War must be carefully analyzed. In Congress, this party was headed by John C. Calhoun, who supported the doctrine that states should secede from the Union when it interfered with their interests. There was strong, and often silent, support from the numerous individuals whose capital was principally in slaves, and who were conceiving of a society that would make good use of them as a laboring underclass. Wasteful agricultural practices had worn out the soil of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas, so unless one simply raised slaves for sale, additional land was needed and desperately sought. It had been found in Mississippi, Texas and other places, but also Cuba and Mexico were eyed as rich possibilities. The idea of a Caribbean slave empire was enticing them, and they foresaw reintroducing slaves where the practice had been abolished, and extending it to areas where it had never existed. This was actually carried out, on a smaller scale, by William Walker and other filibusters.

This party was well aware of the deep moral opposition to their views, that would not let them alone, and strove to overturn the basis for their society by making the United States a free country. Opposition depended on maintaining a majority in Congress that was opposed to such an action. Since the opinions generally went by state, "free" and "slave" states and territories were identified. A "free" state could hinder the operation of slavery within its borders, but could not interfere with the property rights of slaveholders. Any argument over this was settled by Justice Taney a few years on. The Underground Railroad had to get fugitives to Canada, not just across the Ohio. The whole of the United States was a slave country. If it had actually been "half slave and half free," as Lincoln said, it might have stood, contrary to his statement, but it could not remain all slave, as was proved at the end of the next decade, when the slaveowners finally felt mortally endangered and rose in rebellion.

The slavery party could profit from any addition of territory, and indeed they did, but they did not have the strength actually to declare a war for that purpose, and slaveowner Polk was not a dupe. They did have the strength to defeat the Wilmot Proviso that would have removed slavery from any conquered territory, and a few years after the war to declare all unorganized territory open to slavery by popular choice. These congressional battles were closely fought and contentious, leading eventually to the Civil War in 1861.

The Armies

This was the first war in which West Point officers were prominent, most of them graduated after the reform of West Point following the War of 1812. They formed a small, elite clique who were educated and greatly superior to the rough, ignorant militia officers that were either political appointees or elected by their men. Some were good, like U. S. Grant and R. E. Lee, and some were very bad, but a large proportion were vain and arrogant, treating their men as some species of inferior vermin. All who did not morally object to slavery, and these were the majority, had black body slaves. The leaders, Taylor and Scott, were, of course, not West Point graduates. Both were excellent generals of differing qualities. Both could win battles, but Scott would know why he won.

The regular soldier was afraid of his officers, while the militia officer was afraid of his soldiers. This war probably began the American military custom later known as "fragging," when a bomb with lighted fuse was thrown into the tent of an unpopular officer. This was a means of un-electing an officer who had become annoying to free militiamen. West Pointers liked the "buck and gag," a punishment in which a soldier was tightly tied in a sitting position with a stick between his knees and arms with a filthy gag stuck in his mouth. Such cruelty amazed European officers that witnessed it. Flogging and branding were also entertaining. These tortures were often inflicted for very minor offenses, and unjustly against Irish and German immigrants, greatly contributing to the astonishingly high rate of desertion.

Militiamen, who might have roundly deserved such treatment, usually escaped it. They satisfied their boyish spirits against the civilians in the area, who supplied them with alcohol, women, gambling and other simple country pleasures. In México, they frequented what became known as the Hells of Montezuma. Taylor was appalled that he could not control the militia in his army, and took care to station them as far from the locals as possible. When a militiaman's enlistment was up, it was up, and he insisted on going home, whatever the needs of his country. A large number did so in the midst of Scott's advance on México, seriously embarrassing the operation. Militiamen enlisted, it appears, more for the pay and the chance of pillage than out of duty. Militia regiments usually ate up more rations, and consumed more supplies, than they were worth. Militia commanders followed the old custom, familiar from the War of 1812, of bivouacking with sleep as the first priority, and not posting guards or pickets. Many woke up surrounded by Mexicans. Although there were militia regiments of honor and capacity, they were not the rule. The greatest skill of most was the panicky rout. This war demonstrated yet again the uselessness, inefficiency and disproportionate expense of untrained Second Amendment militia.

American regular infantry and artillery gave good accounts of themselves in the war. The infantry could make assaults on a fortified position that militia would not attempt, while the artillery could maneuver and fire accurately while themselves under attack. Infantry uniforms were sky blue at this time, a color that is still symbolic of the infantry. American cavalry was little more than mounted infantry. The purely cavalry units were clumsily armed and could not ride well. Mexican cavalry, although the horses were smaller, was generally better, though not up to the standards reached a genertion earlier by units like the glorious Fiéles de Potosí of the Viceroy's army.

Mexican infantry was always good in endurance and on the march, because these were innate qualities of the men, almost all of whom were mestizos or indios. They were poorly uniformed and poorly armed, usually poorly paid and poorly fed to boot, and nearly always poorly led, though the bands were excellent. The British surplus Brown Bess muskets they carried were good muskets, but were old and often in poor condition. There was very little training, so that maneuvers were difficult and often more like mob surges. Tactics consisted of bombardment by massed artillery at the start of a battle, a general charge, followed by cavalry evolutions to confirm a victory or to cover a retreat. Mexico had been fighting practically continually since 1810, and common soldiers were very sick of it indeed. The very worst aspect of the Mexican army was its officers, who were far too numerous and too ignorant. There had been legions of brave, capable officers in the years past, but they were all dead, and had not been respected when they lived. A commander like Santa Anna would desert his defeated soldiers again and again, leaving them prey to wolves, out of contempt for those who had loved their country. What a disgrace and misfortune he was to Mexico!

The United States had a contemptibly small navy, while Mexico had none. American attempts to establish a blockade were inconclusive, and Mexican efforts to foster effective privateering failed utterly. Therefore, there was not an important naval side to the war. The principal success was the landing of Scott's army at Vera Cruz by Commodore Conner's small fleet. Fortunately, there was no interference by European navies, since they were annoyed by Mexico's habitual interference with trade and intransigent behavior, and looked for improvements under United States control.

The U.S. Marines had no regimental organization, and consisted of 1283 privates, doubled on 2 March 1847 to 2293, with 12 commanding officers. A battalion of this force marched to Puebla with Franklin Pierce's troops in July and joined Quitman's division, seeing action at Chapultepec, and were among the first to enter the Belén gate. They formed the guard at the Palacio Nacional on the plaza, the "Halls of Montezuma." They wore cross-belted uniforms and the characteristic leather throat piece on parade. They looked probably a good deal smarter than the typical American soldier.

History and Politics

Both American and Mexican politics at the time are so involved and complex that even a superficial sketch cannot be made here. The references will fill in some of the details, but an extended study is required for any useful comprehension of the dynamics involved. A few notes on Mexican history can, however, be given.

Nueva España was the richest part of the Spanish empire, ruled under the House of Austria as a collateral kingdom, but under the Borbons as a colony, though all inhabitants were considered Spanish subjects with all the rights and privileges of that status. Indians were specially protected, and lived somewhat traditional lives immune from military duty and many taxes, though of course exploited for labor under that peculiar hypocrisy so typical of Christianity. Silver was the glory of Mexico, extracted from sulphide and chloride ores in huge amounts, although unknown to the pre-Columbian natives (except for minor amounts of elemental silver), who had no metallurgy. A complex trading system with the mother country forbade certain industries and agricultural pursuits, while favoring others, in a rigid system. Mexico traded only with Spain, and only by means of the official convoys. Silver flowed to Cádiz, luxuries to Vera Cruz. México was the largest and richest city in the New World, the English colonies poor and struggling.

In 1808 Napoleon deposed the King of Spain, Charles IV, and placed Joseph Napoleon on the throne. Spain revolted, and with the help of bitter guerrilla war and the English army under Wellington, eventually threw out Napoleon, and the vicious young Ferdinand VII ascended the throne. These events ruptured the peace of Nueva España. The country was violently opposed to anything French, and Ferdinand was acclaimed, his rotten character unknown to the Mexicans. The viceroy was overthrown when he proposed giving government places to Creoles. There were plots and counter-plots in the next few years, influenced by events in Spain towards liberalizing the constitution, arresting the power of the clergy, and introducing a limited monarchy. All these liberal moves were deplored in Mexico by the predominating conservative influence of the upper classes and clergy.

The population of Mexico was divided into Europeans born in Spain (who monopolized the state and church offices and the army officer corps), called derogatively gachupines, from an Indian word referring to their pointed shoes; Europeans born in Mexico, called criollos, also a depreciative term suggesting servility; a large majority of indios, often descended from allies of Cortez; an increasing number of mestizos, the offspring usually of a Spanish man and an Indian woman, since Spanish women were rare; blacks, imported as slaves to work jungle plantations, but soon to be largely free as they served both sides in the revolution; and various other mixtures, for which there are definite names in Spanish. The greatest division was between the whites and all the others, called castos, the castes. The only legal disability by birth was slave ancestry, but this was gradually eliminated. Social distinctions, however, were marked and important.

The indios, in particular, seethed with suppressed anger against the whites, of any description, and as the largest part of the population represented a boiler ready to explode. The creoles, especially descendants of the conquistadores, hated the Spanish with a great hatred. They held most of the inferior offices, and looked up to the insolent Spanish. Miguel Hidalgo of Dolores, a creole priest of some education, high intelligence and wit, and considerable liberal tendency, recognized the opportunity to throw off the domination of the Spanish-born whites with the power of the indios and the leadership of the creoles. When his plotting appeared to have been discovered by the authorities, he rose on the night of 16 September 1810, gathering a horde of indios under the cry of ¡Viva la virgen de Guadalupe y mueran los gachupines! (May the virgin of Guadalupe live, and the gachupines die), and going on to sack nearby towns and collect still more indios, until he despoiled glittering Guanajuato, murdering the Spanish-born and looting their property in a disgusting butchery.

Hidalgo's army was a mere mob without training, supported by the hate of the indios, which he could not control. The fire he started spread to other locations, and there were many risings in his support. The government was terrified, but resolute, and took steps to oppose him. His hope was that his untrained, unmilitary forces could simply overwhelm opposition by superior numbers. They were not properly armed, except by the tools that the peasants brought with them, and what could be captured in battle. He was eventually defeated at Guadalajara, when his mob failed to stand against artillery and cavalry, then he turned back through Valladolid (now Morelia) and with a replenished army threatened the capital. He was repulsed, and fled north to be betrayed by those he trusted, and was shot at Chihuahua after a trial in 1811. The first phase of the Revolution was over, but much of the wealth of Mexico had been ruined.

Now began a bitter conflict between revolutionaries and royalists, with neither predominant. Spain sent troops in useless dribbles, many eager to desert to the rebels. Spanish commanders were much more effective, especially the new viceroy. There was a central revolutionary council, like a Congress, but it was ineffective and ridden with discord, dominated first by one general, then another. Royalist troops defected to the other side in the heat of battle. Anyone that was captured was shot as a rebel, bandit or deserter, by either side; the courtesies of war were neglected. Rich haciendas were reduced to ruins and ashes, and crops destroyed. Out of this destruction, which extended to the mines, Mexico's future poverty was born. Then there rose the remarkable figure of Juan María Morelos, a mestizo, a priest, and an excellent general and organizer, who knew how to win battles. In spite of the bickering of rival revolutionaries, Morelos came close to bringing the revolution to a successful conclusion, when he was captured and executed in 1815.

Now the revolution slowly wound down, as its leaders were eliminated one by one, most surrendering when promised immunity, and by 1819 only one band, that of Guerrero, an indio, remained in inaccessible jungle in the southwest. The revolution was over, and the royalists had won, though Mexico was prostrate. Spain, however, experienced a liberal revolt in 1820, and a new, democratic constitution was promulgated, together with religious reforms, such as the elimination of monasteries and holy orders. This horrified the conservative elements in Mexico, who rose under the general Itúrbide, who proclaimed the Plan de Iguala for the independence of Mexico, under a king to be of the house of Borbon if possible. This revolution succeeded almost bloodlessly. Itúrbide, the hope of the monarchists, was named Emperor of Mexico in the lack of a Borbon prince, overthrown and exiled, in which Santa Anna played a part, returned, and was executed. When the restoration of Ferdinand in 1824 brought with it the most mindless tyranny and repression, Mexico decided not to follow.

A Federal constitution, based loosely on the American one with elements from the liberal Spanish constitutions of 1812 and 1820, came into power in 1824, and Mexico was recognized as independent by the United States and other powers, although not by reactionary Spain for some years yet. Mexico was attacked by Spain, who had kept the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa after the royalist forces had left Mexico, and also by France, in the battle where Santa Anna lost part of his leg to grapeshot in 1838. There were three principal parties in Mexico, dominated by military figures--the Federalists, the Centralists, and the Monarchists, each with subdivisions. The Federalists, the democratic party advocating state governments and a weak central government, were divided into puros insisting on democratic reforms, and the moderados of a more pragmatic bent. Centralists, who advocated a powerful central government in México, and departments as in France, included the Santannistas. Monarchists, such as Luís Alamán, looked back to the sunny days of the Spanish empire of their youth, and deplored the chaos of the Mexico they knew.

Government replaced government as shifting loyalties and treacheries now predominated, now subsided. The colorful Guerrero became President, then was overthrown and treacherously shot. A centralist government replaced the federal, and at the time of the war, Mexico was divided into departments. The Spanish-born were brutally expelled from the country in 1828, a self-mutilation as damaging as the expulsion of the Jews by the Reyes Católicos in 1492 was to Spain. Instead of developing, Mexico degenerated, its earlier glories dissolving one by one in the bubbling cauldron of revolution and counter-revolution, of coup and counter coup. Financial affairs were in eternal crisis, with the government not able to cover its expenses and contracting unwise loans. In fact, most business, mining and trade was now in the hands of the British, as it had been in the hands of the Spanish earlier. Mexico had driven out all of its native expertise in these fields. The chaos was in full bloom when the war with the United States erupted. Thus was a proud and rich nation reduced to petulant beggary that would require another hundred years to overcome by an incompetent military-dominated government.


  1. Bernard deVoto, The Year Of Decision 1846 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942)
  2. Justin H. Smith, The War With Mexico (New York: Macmillan, 1919)
  3. Peter F. Stevens, The Rogue's March (Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1999)

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 19 May 2002
Last revised