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The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 41272

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

April, 1845-April, 1846

Strangely enough, although our diplomatic troubles with Mexico would almost certainly have led to hostilities, the war actually came about in a totally different way.[1]

During the spring and early summer of 1845, in view of Mexican threats and of reports from trustworthy sources that an invasion of Texas might be expected,[2] it was decided by our government that when her people should have accepted our annexation proposal, as they were almost sure to do, it would become the duty of the United States to defend her;[3] and this decision made the question where her southern boundary lay a practical matter. It was a thorny subject. In 1834 Mexico herself did not feel sure about the line; and according to the chief technical officer in our state department, sole commissioner to negotiate the treaty of peace with Mexico, if an official demarcation had existed, the war between Texas and the mother-country had rubbed it out. The former now claimed the territory as far as the Rio Grande, but she did not establish her title by occupying completely and effectively the region south of the Nueces. Only by an agreement with Mexico, indeed, could limits have been fixed. So far as it concerned the republic of Texas, this was in effect the situation.[4]

For the United States, however, this was not the whole story. Down to 1819 our government had insisted that Louisiana extended to the Rio Grande. In other language, since the southern part of Louisiana was called Texas, the official view was that Texas bordered on that stream. Such, then, was in effect the contention of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Pinckney, Livingston and Clay, who represented three administrations in upholding the claim. By the treaty of 1819 we did not withdraw from our position, but merely arranged to "cede" whatever possessions we had west of the Sabine for certain valuable considerations. From 1819 to 1845, Texas, considered under its geographical and historical aspects as a district of old Louisiana, appeared to border on the Rio Grande not less truly than before, for no other line became established. Hence it seemed evident from this point of view, that by annexing Texas we revived our old claim, our old official view, and the testimony of all those eminent statesmen. Our government so held. November 10, 1845, in explaining to Slidell the extent of Texas, Buchanan went back to Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Pinckney and the discussion of the Louisiana boundary. Polk, as the head of our government, could not well repudiate, simply on his own authority, the solemn declarations of Presidents and other high officials, in which through a term of years the nation had acquiesced. The fact that for a considerable time the Texans, asserting the Rio Grande line, had maintained themselves against Mexico perhaps had some confirmatory value; and Polk was further bound, not only by his apparently sincere belief in our old claim, but by the pledge he had given to Texas and the pledge our official representative had given her, expressly to promote the cause of annexation, that he would maintain the claim as President. These were grips of steel.[5]


To meet the responsibility thus incurred, we had eight regiments of infantry, four of "artillery" and two of dragoons, including about 7200 men. The "artillery" regiments, which were theoretically expected to serve in fortifications with heavy guns, were armed, equipped and drilled as infantry; but one company of each had a field battery, and under the instruction of excellent officers had reached a high state of skill in using it. The infantry and cavalry, drilled on the French system, were in a good condition generally, though division among coast and frontier stations, besides impairing discipline and efficiency, had prevented manoeuvring in large bodies; and the infantry soldiers in particular, inured on the border to hard service, felt now a reasonable confidence in themselves and their immediate superiors. The forty-five capable engineer officers understood their duties fairly well, except that a lack of men to execute operations had left them, as the head of the corps admitted, too much like theoretical mariners. A few well-trained topographical engineers, a small medical staff, and a quartermaster's department rounded out this miniature army. Nearly all the infantry carried flint-lock muskets, and numerous defects and deficiencies existed; but probably the forces were better equipped for service than has generally been supposed. In view of possible difficulties with Mexico, a disproportionate share of the troops were placed at or near Fort Jesup on the western border of Louisiana; and in June, 1845, these included the Third Infantry, eight companies of the Fourth Infantry, and seven companies of the Second Dragoons.[6]


Their commander was Brevet Brigadier General Zachary Taylor. This child of destiny, born in 1784, had grown up and gained some rudiments of an education amidst the Indian troubles of the Kentucky border. At the age of twenty-three he had been commissioned first lieutenant in the Seventh Infantry, and after showing remarkable coolness and intrepidity in two small affairs during our second war with England and the Black Hawk War, he had won a stubborn fight in 1837 against the Seminoles at the head of some 1100 soldiers. Three years later he was assigned to a supervising command in the southwest, and this included Fort Jesup.[7]

Personally Taylor possessed a strong character, a very strong character, neither exhausted by self-indulgence nor weakened by refinement and study. He was every inch a man, with a great heart, a mighty will, a profound belief in himself, and a profound belief in human nature. The makings of a hero lay in him, and to a large extent the making had been done. He was gifted, too, with solid common sense, not a little shrewdness and ambition, a thorough knowledge of men-the sort of men that he knew at all-a military eye, and a cool, resourceful intelligence that was always at work in its own rather ponderous fashion. The sharp gray eyes and the contraction of his brows that made the upper part of his face look severe were tempered by the benignity of the lower part; and the occasional glimmer of a twinkle betokened humor.[7]

On the other hand, everything about him suggested the backwoodsman. His thick-set and rather corpulent body, mounted on remarkably short legs, typified barbaric strength. In speech he was rough and ungrammatical, in dress unkempt and even dirty, and in every external of his profession unmilitary. He never had seen a real battle nor even a real army. Ignorance and lack of mental discipline made him proud of his natural powers and self-mastered attainments, and he saw very distinctly the weaknesses of school-taught and book-taught men. West Pointers, trim in person and in mind but inferior to him in strength, practical sense and familiarity with men and things, he felt strongly inclined to belittle; and this feeling went so far that he despised, or at any rate frequently seemed to despise, knowledge itself. He could not, however, fail to recognize on occasions the professional superiority of his trained officers, and no doubt found himself unable now and then to defend his opinions. In such cases, being by temperament extremely firm, he naturally took refuge in obstinacy; and sometimes he appears to have been positively mulish, holding to his own view after he must have seen its incorrectness.[7]

From various logical results of these limitations Taylor was happily saved by Major General Winfield Scott, the head of the army, who purposely gave him Captain W. W. S. Bliss as adjutant general. Bliss was described by a good authority as the peer of any man alive in learning, statesmanship and military capacity; and he felt willing to give the General-later his father-in-law-the unstinted benefit of all his talents and attainments. With him at his elbow Taylor could be sure of trustworthy information, honest and competent advice, a friendly hand to supplement or subtract, and a skilful pen to report, explain and, if necessary, discreetly color the facts. Captain Williams, an able officer, wrote in 1848 that he could not imagine one man's being more indebted to another than Taylor was to his assistant. In other words, "Taylor" in the history of the Mexican War is the name of a double star, one partner in which was the dominating personality of the General, and the other a fine, trained intelligence known as Bliss.[8]

Taylor, then, having been warned by a despatch of May 28, 1845, to hold the troops in readiness, was confidentially ordered on the fifteenth of June to place them at some port where they could readily embark for the Texas frontier, and, after learning that our annexation overture had been accepted, to occupy "on or near the Rio Grande del Norte" such a position, favorable to the health of the men, as would be "best adapted to repel invasion." Accordingly he concentrated his infantry at New Orleans, where official notice that annexation had been accepted by Texas reached him. Further orders from William L. Marcy, the secretary of war, enjoined upon him to "avoid any Acts of aggression," and in particular to refrain from disturbing any Mexican posts on the left bank of the river "unless an actual state of war should exist"; and under these instructions the forces left New Orleans toward the end of July for Aransas Bay, Texas. His troops-counting the dragoons, who set out by land for San Antonio, about 120 miles from the coast, a little later-numbered some 1500.[9]

Taylor himself with a part of the command reached his destination on the twenty-fifth; landed his men, with such rapidity as meagre facilities and heavy surf would permit, on St. Joseph's Island; and then, with row boats and small sailing-craft, conveyed them some twenty-five miles farther to Corpus Christi, a hamlet on the south side of the Nueces River at its mouth. News that Mexico was on the point of beginning hostilities caused great alarm presently; but no enemy came, and by the end of August the General felt secure. The rest of the troops from Fort Jesup were then on the ground. Seven companies of the Seventh Infantry, collected laboriously from a number of points, had arrived. Two volunteer artillery companies from New Orleans had come to the rescue; and a party of Texan rangers were near him. The Mexicans, on the other hand, showed no signs of concentrating.[10]


Naturally the public inquired whether the occupation of Corpus Christi, and especially the words "on or near" the Rio Grande, could be justified. But, as the London Times-a witness by no means prejudiced in our favor-observed, "When the United States Government, with the full sanction of the American people, consummated the annexation of Texas, ... they should, according to all the usages of civilized Governments, have proceeded to take military means for the protection of their new frontier." The performance of this duty involved giving the commander a somewhat liberal discretion, for southern Texas was a region of which the Washington authorities knew very little, and what steps it would be proper for the General to take, should the Mexicans launch a raid at San Antonio, was known there even less. It would have required about a month to send information and receive orders based upon it. Authority to occupy such a post as might seem necessary, in view of the ground, the vicinity and the news, had to be given. Taylor understood that Corpus Christi, which belonged to Texas by the same right of effective occupation as Nacogdoches or Galveston, satisfied the terms of the order; the government accepted that interpretation; and the country acquiesced.[11]

Gradually his forces assumed rather formidable proportions. Some of the troops had to come from Detroit, and some from Florida; but it was feared in all quarters that a heavy Mexican body might cross the Rio Grande any day, and the reinforcements made quick time. October 13 the army included General W. J. Worth's command, called the first brigade, which comprised the Eighth Infantry and twelve companies of the so-called artillery consolidated as a battalion; the second brigade, consisting of the Fifth and the Seventh Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel J. S. McIntosh; the third brigade under Colonel William Whistler, which included the Third and the Fourth Infantry; the Second Dragoons, commanded by Colonel D. E. Twiggs; some United States and New Orleans field artillery, and the Texas rangers. In all, officers and men, there were about 3900.[12]

Taylor, accustomed to frontier conditions, described his troops as healthy, remarkably well-behaved and very comfortable. But in reality the tents could scarcely keep out a heavy dew; for weeks together every article in many of them was thoroughly soaked; and much of the time water stood three or four feet deep in some. The weather oscillated sharply between sultry heat and piercing northers, so that one lay down gasping for breath and woke up freezing. As hardly enough wood could be obtained for the cooks, camp-fires were usually out of the question; and only brackish drinking water could be had. At one time nearly twenty per cent of the men were on the sick list, and half of the others more or less ill. Taylor knew so little of military evolutions that he could not get his men properly into line, and few of his chief officers excelled him very much. Despite orders from the President, military exercises were given up after a time; a sullen torpor and silence reigned in the camp, and many deserted. Meanwhile a horde of gamblers and liquor-sellers opened booths near by; and the soldiers, driven to desperation, paid what little money they had to be drugged into insensibility or crazed into brawls and orgies. Some, if not many, of the officers gave up acting like gentlemen, and one at least even forgot how to be honest.[13]

Then a dispute regarding precedence brought the camp to the verge of battle. Twiggs had the honor of seniority as colonel; but Worth, as a brevet brigadier general, insisted that should Taylor cease to hold the command, it would fall to him. The question was referred to Washington; and Scott, directed by Marcy to settle it, gave a ruling in favor of brevet rank. This decision did not, however, end the controversy. More than a hundred officers joined in an appeal to Congress, while Worth declared he would maintain his rights "to any extreme." Taylor, instead of using his personal and official strength to enforce a modus vivendi until the issue could be properly decided, or at least refraining from all accentuation of it, ordered a general review, and in spite of the ruling announced by his superior officer, assigned Twiggs to command on that occasion; and then, finding that serious trouble would ensue, proved himself, by countermanding the review, unable to maintain even his own authority. After all this, discipline could hardly be said to exist. Moreover, a general want of confidence in the commander prevailed. "Whether an idea, strategic or of any other description, has had the rudeness to invade the mind or imagination of our chief is a matter of doubt," said Worth; "We are literally a huge body without a head." If Taylor succeeds, it will be by accident, concluded Lieutenant Colonel Hitchcock, now commanding the Third Infantry, who had studied and taught at West Point.[14]


Toward the end of August Marcy wrote: "Should Mexico assemble a large body of troops on the Rio Grande and cross it with a considerable force, such a movement must be regarded as an invasion of the United States and the commencement of hostilities." This declaration called forth protests, but was quite fair. By stationing troops peaceably in the "intermediate region" between the Nueces and the Rio Grande we only placed ourselves on an equality with Mexico; and, as we ordered Taylor to leave her posts undisturbed, we showed a friendly recognition of the principle of pacific joint-occupation during negotiations. Our forces, to be sure, outnumbered hers, but her attitude made it unsafe to despatch a smaller representation. Unlike us, Mexico had no occasion to send an army into that region for defensive purposes. The United States had shown every sign of desiring peace and none of desiring war, and at this time was endeavoring to bring about a friendly settlement. Such an army could not have prevented us from entering the intermediate region, for at Corpus Christi Taylor was already there; and it could not have saved the Mexican posts and citizens, for they were not menaced. Mexico, on the other hand, had threatened us and made open preparations to strike; it was now understood at Washington that no declaration of war should be expected to precede a blow; her generals had proclaimed that hostilities were on the point of beginning; and it was only common sense to assume that, should a Mexican army cross the Rio Grande, it would come to execute the announced intention of those who sent it.[15]

During the evening of January 12, 1846, despatches from Slidell and Black arrived at Washington, and made the rejection of our pacific overture look almost certain. This unexpected turn of affairs gave new seriousness and fresh urgency to the Mexican issue; and the next day Taylor was ordered to encamp on the Rio Grande at whatever point he should consider most advantageous. He was cautioned, however, against regarding Mexico as an enemy, unless war should be declared or hostilities be undertaken by her, and against provoking a conflict by insistence upon the joint navigation of the river, which our claim implied.[16]

February 3 the General received these instructions, and replied that he should lose no time. Three days later the army was formally ordered to "be prepared for a field movement at short notice." But, although Taylor had been on the ground for six months, he was "utterly ignorant"-said Hitchcock-of the way to Matamoros, and had now to investigate the matter. By February 24 he possessed the necessary data, and ordered the troops to be in readiness to set out "at forty-eight hours notice"; yet it was not until the eighth of March that his cavalry, led by the impetuous Twiggs and accompanied by Ringgold's handsome battery, actually moved off. The infantry brigades followed at intervals of a day with Duncan's and Bragg's field artillery; and transports prepared to remove the convalescents, extra baggage and Major Munroe's artillery company to Point Isabel, near the mouth of the Rio Grande.[17]


Soon after receiving the instructions to advance, Taylor had given notice of his orders to influential citizens of Matamoros then at Corpus Christi, explaining that his march would be entirely pacific, and that he expected the pending questions to be settled by negotiation; and similar assurances were conveyed to the Mexican customhouse office at "Brazos Santiago," near Point Isabel. March 8 a more formal announcement appeared in General Orders No. 30. Taylor here expressed the hope that his movement would be "beneficial to all concerned," insisted upon a scrupulous regard for the civil and religious rights of the people, and commanded that everything required for the use of the army should be paid for "at the highest market price." These orders, which merely anticipated instructions then on their way from Washington, were translated into Spanish, and placed in circulation along the border.[18]

To the troops the march proved a refreshing and beneficial change. The weather was now fine, the road almost free from mud, and the breeze balmy. Frequently the blue lupine, the gay verbena, the saucy marigold and countless other bright flowers carpeted the ground. The cactus and the cochineal excited and gratified curiosity. Ducks and geese often flew up from the line of advance. Many rabbits and many deer scampered across the plain; and occasionally wolves, catamounts and panthers were frightened from cover. Wild horses would gaze for an instant at their cousins in bondage, and then gallop off, tossing their manes disdainfully; and once a herd of them, spaced as if to allow room for cannon, were taken for Mexican cavalry. Innumerable centipedes, tarantulas and rattlesnakes furnished a good deal of interest, if not of charm. The boundless prairie had somewhat the fascination of th

e sea; and occasionally, when a mirage conjured up a range of blue mountains-clothed with forests and reflected in lakes-that melted presently into the air, one had a sense of moving on enchanted ground.[19]

To be sure, the march was not entirely agreeable. For about 196 miles it stretched on and on, and most of the way it lay through deep, sandy plains, here glistening with salt, and there varied with briny marshes or sticky black dirt. In some places Mexicans had burned the herbage; and the light ashes, raised by the tramp of many feet, settled on the soldiers' faces till they could scarcely recognize one another. Tortured with thirst, they would occasionally break ranks pell-mell at the sight of water; but as a rule they found it brackish. All suffered alike; and we have a picture of Taylor himself breakfasting at the door of his tent with a mess-chest for table, his rugged countenance flaming with sunburn, his long lips cracked and raw, and his long nose white with peeling skin. But the experience, even at its worst, proved a wholesome tonic after the degeneration of Corpus Christi.[19]

March 20 the army came to the Arroyo Colorado, a salt lagoon about a hundred yards wide and three or four feet deep. Here General Mejía, the commander at Matamoros, who knew all about our troops and their movements, had intended to win a sheaf of laurels; but orders from his government, not quite ready for action, arrived in time to curb this ambition. He concluded then to try the effect of a ruse, and his officer convinced the Americans, with solemn warnings, bugle-calls here and there, and a clever showing of heads among the bushes and trees on the southern side of the lagoon, that a hard fight would result from attempting to cross it. But without the least hesitation Taylor prepared for battle. Ringgold's pieces were made ready. Worth dashed into the stream at the head of an advance party; and on gaining, unopposed, the opposite bank, he saw-dust in the atmosphere, and far away a dozen small black specks rapidly growing smaller. But morally it was a victory; and the troops, though cheated, felt encouraged.[20]

March 23, after making fifteen miles across a clear, dry prairie, the army came to a road that led to Matamoros, about eighteen miles away on the right, and to Point Isabel, distant nine or ten on the other side; and Taylor, ordering Worth and the infantry to camp and watch for the enemy at a suitable place in the former direction, proceeded to the coast with his cavalry. There he found the transports in sight and the wind favorable. Defences were planned at once; and on the 27th, leaving an engineer, supported by a guard under Munroe, to superintend the construction of them, the General returned to the army, then some ten miles from Matamoros. The next morning all advanced, and soon came to rough defiles. On each side bristled what a soldier described as an irregular, impenetrable mass of "scraggly, scrubby, crooked, infernally illegitimate and sin-begotten bushy trees loaded with millions of thornpins"-that is to say, chaparral. Passing this and a few cabins in the midst of corn, cotton and pomegranates, the troops found themselves at the end of their march, Río Bravo, the "Bold river of the North," brown with mud, rolled swift and boiling at their feet; and in plain view about half a mile distant-black with crowded house-tops, gay with flags, and noisy with bugles and barking dogs-lay Matamoros. A rude pole was soon raised; to the music of our national airs the colors went up; and a small masked battery of field guns was planted near them.[21]

A singular political game then took place between Taylor and Mejía. The former did everything possible to convince the Mexican general that his movement was entirely pacific, and offered to "enter into any arrangements to secure the peace and harmony of the frontier" during negotiations between the two governments; but the latter insisted over and over again that a state of war had been created by the American advance. In spite of this Taylor reminded his officers of the "essentially pacific" and "conciliatory" intentions of the army; yet at the same time he reported the Mexican attitude as distinctly hostile, asked for reinforcements, mounted four 18-pounders to command the city, and about April 7 began what came to be known as Fort Brown, a large, bastioned "field-work" opposite the lower end of the city.[22]


On April 11 General Ampudia, the assassin of Sentmanat, arrived at Matamoros to assume the chief command, accompanied by cavalry and followed, as the Americans understood, by two or three thousand more troops. The next day he signalized his advent by ordering Taylor to decamp at once for the other side of the Nueces-a proposal to which a courteous negative was returned-and by compelling all the Americans in the city, "under open threats of violence," to leave town within twenty-four hours. Taylor retaliated by requesting our naval commander off the Rio Grande to stop the use of that stream. As the Mexican attitude made it impossible for us to have the joint navigation implied by our claim, this appeared reasonable; but essentially the measure was defensive, since without supplies coming by water a large force could not remain long at Matamoros. When Ampudia complained, the General pointed out that sealing up the river was only the "natural result of the state of war so much insisted on by the Mexican authorities as actually existing," and offered to reopen it if Ampudia would join him in maintaining an armistice during the negotiations of the two governments; but this led to no result.[23]

Ampudia's orders and intention had been to attack the Americans as soon as possible, but his glorious prospects darkened immediately. Though given the place of Major General Arista, long at the head of military affairs in this quarter, because he supported the revolution of Paredes while Arista not only frowned upon it, but seemed to aim at making northeastern Mexico independent, Ampudia was detested and thought incompetent-an opinion he did not share-by not a few in the northern army, whereas Arista stood high in his caste, and, as a person of wealth and position, had strong friends well able to make trouble for the central government. Consequently an order dated April 4 made Arista commander-in-chief with Ampudia as lieutenant. The latter was immediately forbidden to shine on the field of glory, and, finding his officers would not support him in disobedience, he submitted.[24]

Arista, however, bearing instructions dated April 4 to attack the Americans, reached the scene on the 24th, and ordered his cavalry general, Torrejón, to cross above Matamoros with about 1600 men. Hearing a rumor of this movement, Taylor sent Captain Thornton and about sixty dragoons late that afternoon to reconnoitre; and the next morning, some twenty-eight miles from camp, finding himself completely shut in by overwhelming forces, the Captain tried to break through, lost several men killed and wounded, and then with all the rest surrendered. This was war. "Hostilities have begun," announced Arista on the day of his arrival. "Hostilities may now be considered as commenced," reported Taylor on the 26th; and-besides advising Polk to organize twelve-months volunteers-he at once called upon Texas and Louisiana for about 5000 men.[25]


It was a tragic and most regrettable dénouement; yet, on a close review of all the data now accessible, one does not find it easy to censure Polk. If he had wished and meditated war from the first, why did he work for an amicable settlement through Parrott, Black and Slidell? For the sake of appearances, many said. But in the first place we have found that Polk was honest in those negotiations; and, in the second, had war been his aim and appearances his care, he would not have permitted the order of January 13 to be issued that day. On January 12 it looked at Washington as if the question of receiving Slidell would soon be decided. The President could afford to wait a little, and he would have done this, for it was clear that an unnecessary military step, taken while he was extending the olive branch, would needlessly make him appear either treacherous or ridiculous. Moreover if he sought a war, he knew on January 12 that matters were shaping themselves to his taste; that Mexico was almost sure to close the door of negotiation soon; and consequently that he would soon be able to demand of Congress the forcible redress of our grievances.[26]

Here lay a casus belli amply endorsed by international law, the practice of civilized powers, and the general opinion of the world. It was a ground, too, that Polk himself, as we have seen, felt entirely satisfied to stand upon, and one that our people, feeling as they did, would almost certainly have accepted. Having, then, apparently within his reach a pretext for war that almost everybody thought good, he would not have exerted himself to obtain one that almost everybody thought bad; and in fact-evidently expecting no event of decisive importance to occur near the Rio Grande-he went on day after day with his plan to lay our grievances before Congress, until news of the attack on Thornton burst upon Washington like a rocket. On the hypothesis that he had wished and meditated war from the first and merely stuck at appearances, his conduct was therefore irrational; and, besides, we have seen adequate reasons for believing that he desired peace.[26]

Discarding that hypothesis, however, leaves us the important question, How did the idea of sending Taylor forward present itself to Polk? First, then, from his point of view it seemed entirely permissible. A proprietor is not debarred from going where a squatter has built a cabin; and in the light of our official claim and arguments Mexican occupation above the Rio Grande was merely by sufferance. The so-called "provocative act" of pointing guns at Matamoros could not be charged against the government, for Marcy had suggested other points also for Taylor's camp, leaving the choice to him. It was a defensive measure adopted by the General for military reasons in conjunction with pacific assurances and proposals; and we learn from Arista and others that it had a sedative effect on the property owners of that flimsily built city and on the army authorities.[27]

No encroachment upon the powers of Congress appeared to be involved. Had Polk's aim been, as Calhoun alleged, to establish a boundary, he could not have tolerated Mexican posts, for the troops of foreign states cannot be permitted to sojourn within our officially defined limits. Besides, Polk had sent Slidell to treat on this very question, and Slidell had not given up the task. Though it rested with Congress to declare war, a President could legally, in the exercise of his discretion, take steps liable to bring about hostilities. Moreover Congress appeared to have authorized Taylor's movement. Corpus Christi, claimed by Tamaulipas, had been made an American port of delivery. A collection district had been established in the intermediate region. The declaration of Polk's Message, December, 1845, that our jurisdiction had been extended to the Rio Grande, and Marcy's appended report, which announced that Taylor's instructions were to regard that stream as our boundary, had raised no storm. For six months, admitted the chief Whig organ, our doings in this field not only had appeared to be endorsed by the people, but had gone on openly without calling forth "a single question from any public authority." Officially notified of the military occupation of Corpus Christi, Congress, instead of protesting, had voted supplies for the troops. Finally, Congress had instructed the Executive, in the resolutions for annexing Texas, to reach an agreement with Mexico regarding the boundary; it was his duty to persevere in the attempt until convinced he could not succeed; and Taylor's advance, as will presently be seen, appeared to him a proper step in the discharge of this obligation.[28]

Familiar precedents and principles were believed to sanction the movement of our troops. In 1794 Washington had ordered Wayne to conduct hostilities in disputed territory, and had threatened to destroy a British fort there. In accordance with a resolution of Congress, Madison had seized the "Florida parishes" claimed by Spain. Just before Taylor was ordered to move, Hilliard informed the House of Representatives that England had magistrates in the southern part of Oregon; and John Quincy Adams proposed to take military possession of that disputed territory before concluding negotiations. If such a method could be employed in dealing with countries willing to treat, very naturally-in the case of one that had pronounced for war-pacific occupation, leaving the competing jurisdiction undisturbed, seemed fully justifiable.[29]

Taylor's advance appeared also to be highly expedient. For one thing, our claim upon the intermediate region would have been weakened, had we refrained from sharing with Mexico in the occupation of it. For another, it seemed wise to place ourselves in a strategic position that would be of great value, should Mexico's threat of war be carried into effect. And for a third it was believed that a bold military attitude, indicating that at last the United States had made up its mind, would count with Mexico as a strong argument for negotiation. Such was the opinion of Parrott, Slidell, Worth, Taylor, Scott, Archer, now chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, Brantz Mayer, formerly secretary of legation at Mexico, Polk himself, the administration circle in general, and well-informed persons outside it. January 17 Conner was ordered to assemble all his vessels and exhibit them off Vera Cruz-evidently in pursuance of this design. The government organ stated, and opposition writers conceded, that such a purpose was in view.[30]

But essentially, as already has been suggested, Taylor's advance rested on the necessity of military defence; and indeed there is reason to consider Scott the prime factor in the business, for the order of January 13 was based upon, and in part verbally reproduced, a "projet" submitted by him, whereas Polk's diary for January 12 and 13 does not even allude to the subject. Now not only were defensive measures called for on general principles, as we have just been informed by the London Times, but the Texans actually and urgently needed a sheltering arm. During the latter part of 1845 the chief Mexican engineers drew detailed plans for crossing, not only the Rio Grande, but the Sabine. Merely the refusal of Paredes, growing out of his revolutionary designs, to reinforce the troops on the frontier with 2400 men prevented an attack at this time. Almonte, who had particularly recommended incursions into Texas, held the post of war minister in January, 1846. The Mexican troops were extremely mobile. Ampudia's main force, at the end of a long march, did 180 miles in four days. Screened by rancheros and living on a little corn and jerked beef carried in their pouches, a body of light cavalry could have reached San Antonio by way of Laredo, ruined the town, and been well on their way toward home before their movement would have been suspected at Corpus Christi. The government received warnings of this danger from Dimond and from Parrott in 1845; Marcy and Polk feared it; and the probable rejection of Slidell-which meant a triumph of the war party-seemed likely to accentuate the peril. In fact Mejía ordered irregulars into Texas on February 16 and March 17, though, as their commander aspired to execute a revolution with American aid, he did us no harm.[31]

Nor were only such formal incursions to be guarded against. The war of 1836 in Texas had shown what outrages Mexicans were capable of committing, and similar affairs had now begun to occur. In one instance a party of fifteen, including women, after having been induced to surrender, were all butchered except a single person, who survived though seriously wounded. In April, 1846, the Mexicans opposite Matamoros confessed that bloodthirsty guerillas were abroad. Ampudia, whose murderous record had been his chief distinction, commanded there. May 13 the British consul in that city reported that licensed bands of assassins, "caressed, rewarded, and encouraged" by the authorities, were committing atrocities near the Rio Grande; and, had the way been open, such gangs might have robbed and murdered in the settlements of Texas.[32]

The position selected by Taylor was admirably suited to this emergency. Scott, though a Whig, wrote out a long explanation, showing that on the Rio Grande the army had a more healthful camp than before, better drinking water, more abundant fuel, better grazing and a better port. Information could be obtained more quickly; the border watched more closely; an invading force pursued more promptly; and its line of retreat cut more certainly. Besides, the river amounted to a great breastwork, for this part of it could be crossed with safety at only certain points, and a body of men, even though comparatively small, could not cross anywhere on its lower course without peril. It was not, however, simply that the Rio Grande position seemed far the best. The nature of the region made it essential. Taylor had to be in that vicinity or else near Corpus Christi, and for purposes of defence the latter point could not be deemed satisfactory. Now the necessity of defence was entirely due to the threatening conduct of Mexico. Therefore she could not reasonably complain of our precautions; and if she could not complain, then no one could do so in her name.[33]

But the challenge was triumphantly thrown out: Can it be denied that our taking a position on the river did in fact cause the war? In view of the data it can and should be denied. First, joint occupation of the disputed region might have gone on peaceably, as occupation of that character has continued elsewhere, but for a distinctly aggressive step on the part of Mexico; and, secondly, for her the Rio Grande had no particular significance. She claimed all of Texas, and intended to drive us from it, if she could. Furthermore, the crass vanity and ambition of Mexican generals and the exigencies of domestic politics would probably have led to an attack upon us, had Taylor remained at Corpus Christi, or even pitched his camp at San Antonio. In spite of express orders, Mejía actually attempted an offensive in the intermediate region. When the Mexican government gave formal notice to England and France in the summer of 1845 that war had become inevitable, our army lay far from the Rio Grande. Taylor's advance to the Bold River no more produced the war than Pitcairn's march to Lexington produced the American revolution. It was an effect and an occasion, but not a cause.[34]


Finally, as a matter of fact, the hostilities were deliberately precipitated by the will and act of Mexico. The circumstances proved this and testimony illuminates them. In October, 1847, a pamphlet written by Mariano Otero, editor of El Siglo XIX and Senator from the state of Jalisco, appeared. His object was by no means to defend the United States, but he said: "The American forces did not advance to the Rio Grande until after the war became inevitable, and then only as an army of observation.... The military rebellion of San Luis [Potosí] gave rise to a government [that of Paredes] pledged to resist all accommodation [with the United States] ... which government ... began hostilities." Arista declared in December, 1847, "I had the pleasure of being the first to begin the war." In short, Polk told only the truth when he said the conflict was forced upon us. Mexico wanted it; Mexico threatened it; Mexico issued orders to wage it; and on April 18 her President, no doubt in view of his political difficulties, insisted upon those orders. "It is indispensable," he wrote urgently to Arista, "that hostilities begin, yourself taking the initiative."[35]

"If in a litigious affair," declared Vattel, "our adversary refuses the means of bringing the right to proof, or artfully eludes it; if he does not, with good faith, apply to pacific measures for terminating the difference, and above all, if he is the first who begins acts of hostility, he renders just [even] the cause which was before doubtful." Every condition of this judgment fitted the course of Mexico.[36]

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