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The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 51428

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Polk believed in pursuing "a bold and firm course" toward Mexico. In this policy-as her character and methods, the comparative success of England in dealing with her, and the many humiliating failures of the United States indicated-he was right.[1] More and more positive, during his examination of the case before and after the end of April, 1846, became his intention to place the subject before Congress in a strong Message; and when he found that Slidell, who called at the White House on Friday, May 8, held the same opinion, he decided to send that Message "very soon." The next day he and the Cabinet discussed the question at length once more. George Bancroft, secretary of the navy, was not ready to advise the employment of force, unless Mexico should commit a hostile act; but when, at about six o'clock, Taylor's report of the Thornton affair presented itself, this difficulty vanished. In the evening, at the President's request, the Cabinet reassembled, and after another full discussion all agreed that a war Message should be delivered to Congress on Monday. Sunday Polk worked on the paper both before and after going to church, and conferred with leading Congressmen. The military committee of the House, meeting in haste, agreed unanimously to recommend 50,000 men and ten million dollars for the prosecution of hostilities; and the Senators and Representatives gathering in excited and quickly changing groups, anxiously discussed and planned.[4]

About noon on Monday the expected Message arrived at the capitol, and was read to thronged and agitated Houses. Our forbearance has been misconstrued, said the President. "After reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.[2] She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war ... war exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself." "The most energetic and prompt measures and the immediate appearance in arms of a large and overpowering force are recommended to Congress as the most certain and efficient means of bringing the existing collision with Mexico to a speedy and successful termination." Volunteers to serve not less than six or twelve months, with liberal financial provision for the war, were therefore suggested; but at the same time a desire for an "amicable" as well as early settlement of the pending difficulties was expressed, and a pledge was given to negotiate whenever Mexico would either make or hear proposals.[4]

Objections greeted the Message at once. Calhoun in particular strongly opposed the President's fundamental idea. Hostilities have occurred, he said; but as Congress has not acted, there is no war "according to the sense of our Constitution." Archer, a leading Whig Senator, concurred in this view, adding that perhaps the Mexican proceedings had been justifiable, and that first of all a careful investigation of the facts was requisite. Clayton, another Whig, went farther, and said that by having Taylor advance to the Rio Grande Polk had made himself the aggressor. There is no evidence, it was urged, that Mexico has declared war or sanctioned hostilities. Recognition of a state of war would extinguish all treaties with that country, jeopardize the persons and property of our citizens on sea and land, wipe out our claims upon Mexico, expose the nation to untold evils, and perhaps give offence in Europe, objected others; hence let us merely authorize the President to repel invasion. On Benton's motion the Senate divided the subject of the Message, referring the matter of invasion to the committee on military affairs and the broad question of waging war to that on foreign relations.[3] Excellent possibilities of delay seemed to lurk in this decision. Calhoun favored it.[4]


But the House was prompt and positive. Conveniently reposing on the table there was a bill, presumably growing out of the Oregon issue, which proposed that Polk should be authorized to accept volunteers and repel invasion; and this was now modified to fit the President's recommendations. It was also given a preamble, which stated that "by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States." This phraseology displeased most of the Whigs; but they were powerless to change it. In the committee of the whole about an hour and a half were allowed for a partial reading of the Message and the accompanying documents, and thirty minutes for debate. Amidst a great uproar the bill was then reported, ordered without discussion to its third reading, and under the spur of the "previous question" passed. One hundred and seventy-four supported it and fourteen-five from Massachusetts, five from Ohio, and one each from Maine, Rhode Island, New York and Pennsylvania-voted in the negative. The next morning this bill was reported in the Senate.[4]

Calhoun pleaded now for at least a pause of twenty-four hours, and this appeared not unreasonable, since the documents that supported the Message had not yet come from the printer; but the party caucus had resolved upon a course of action, and Benton and Allen, chairmen of the committees on military affairs and foreign relations, announcing that consideration had already been given to both aspects of the war measure, favored immediate action. Cass made an effective speech in the same sense; and, although a test showed that eighteen Senators objected to the preamble, the bill, somewhat amended, was passed finally by a strong majority-forty against only two. Calhoun, Berrien of Georgia and Evans of Maine did not vote. Crittenden and Upham answered to their names, "Aye, except the preamble." Webster and a few others were absent. In the evening the House accepted the amendments, and the next day at about one o'clock Polk received and signed the bill. Later some of the Whig Congressmen pretended that all they had voted for was to save Taylor's army; but the 50,000 soldiers and ten millions of money were not asked for a mere rescue party, and it was pointed out in the discussion that the General's fate would be decided long before the bill would give him troops. By an overwhelming majority in both houses, then, voting in full accord with the President and his Cabinet, war on a large scale was provided for. "The gates of Janus are open," wrote Alexander H. Stephens.[4]


At every stage of these proceedings flowed a tide of real national feeling, but there were also devious currents that need to be mentioned. Probably few, if any, of the chief actors expected very serious trouble with Mexico. Polk for his part assured Benton that if Congress would recognize the war and provide large forces, he believed the affair could speedily be terminated; and he promised to use no more funds and men than should prove "absolutely necessary to bring the present state of hostilities to an end." Many Congressmen, who talked with members of the Cabinet, were told that without firing another gun the United States would have a satisfactory treaty within four months.[5] The Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune, an anti-slavery Whig journal, reported that on learning of the action taken by the House Polk said, "I shall now give you peace-I have the power." "The war was declared as the means of peace"-as a part of the President's policy of intimidating Mexico into making a settlement, wrote the correspondent of the New York Journal of Commerce. So thought the New York Herald. Merely passing the war bill will be enough, it said; and, especially since Polk's Message exhibited the same combination of sword and olive branch as his employing Slidell and Taylor jointly, so to speak, one cannot well reject this view, which is supported also by evidence previously offered.[10]

The Democrats, being the administration party, naturally stood by the President,[6] and a wish to make the attitude of the United States impressive and effective was an additional reason for their urgency and haste. But probably these were not the only inducements. The party was falling into dissensions. The Van Buren group felt indignant that New York should occupy a secondary place in the Cabinet, and be represented there by the Old Hunker, Marcy, while the rest of the Democrats complained that Van Buren's faction, the Barnburners, were dictating everything. A short, inexpensive and successful war-especially one without gunpowder-seemed likely to please the country, provide offices, consolidate the party, and compel the Whigs to lose prestige by endorsing the policy of their opponents, or else to sacrifice popularity by antagonizing it. Moreover it looked as if a discussion of Polk's course in sending Taylor to the Rio Grande, however correct that course had been, might prove at such a juncture dampening and vexatious; and for all of these reasons it seemed expedient that a war bill, with exactly the preamble already quoted, should be rushed through Congress at the quickest pace.[10]

The Whigs were no less perspicacious, and they especially hated to lose the partisan advantage of charging that Polk had been the aggressor. Mexico has not declared war, they insisted; and with more or less honesty they complained that a regard for sacred truth forbade them to endorse the preamble. But their position was exceedingly delicate. Not only had Mexico long threatened hostilities, prepared openly for them, and severed her diplomatic relations with us at both capitals, but she had in effect made a declaration of war. Her only official voice at this time was that of Paredes; and his agent, Arista, an officer of the highest rank, had given Taylor formal notice of hostilities. Arista had been sent but recently to command against the Americans, and nobody could reasonably suppose that he had proceeded at once to transgress or ignore deliberately the wishes of his master in so grave an affair.[10]

Taylor on the other hand had shown the most pacific disposition both in word and in deed. Nothing serious could be alleged against us except the peaceable joint-occupation of territory long claimed by the United States; and in short, unless Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Pinckney and John Quincy Adams were to be disavowed, it seemed legitimate for Polk and for Congress to hold now that Arista's attack upon Thornton had been the first hostile act.[7] The preamble, therefore, could not well be rejected; and nearly all of the Whigs, having before their eyes the doom of those who opposed the war of 1812, choked down some honest though mistaken compunctions and in most cases a probably more troublesome lump of partisan regret, and voted for the bill.[10]

As already has been suggested, however, there was in Congress a third party-John C. Calhoun, and for later as well as for present reasons it is desirable to understand his opinions. To him it seemed highly advisable to forestall European interference, and quite possible to avoid a conflict with Mexico, by adjusting the Oregon question before coming decisively to an issue in the Mexican difficulty, and therefore he thought the United States ought by all means to limit itself now to repelling invasion. Personal reasons also led him to deplore the prospect of a conflict in arms. The culmination of his fiery life, the fulfilment of his brilliant dream, had seemed in April to be drawing near. By his convenient method of bending facts and principles to his purpose, as the sparrow makes a nest for herself, he had found it possible to co?perate with the West in spending great sums on internal improvements, and expected in this way to make the Northeast a helpless minority; but he could easily see that war might empty the treasury and bring about new political alignments. For the same reason it looked as if his project of a low tariff also would vanish; and, as we have seen, contemplating the possibility of secession, he did not wish[8] the youth of the southern states to expend their blood in Mexico.[10]

Before the news of Thornton's encounter arrived he argued with Polk against sending to Congress the proposed Message on our relations with Mexico. During the excitement on that eventful Sunday he not only planned with his partisans in Senate and House to oppose war, but worked for the same purpose with leading Whigs, urging-for example-that Mexico should be given more time to consider the risk of a conflict, as if she had not already been speculating upon it for several years. Then in the Senate he gravely proclaimed the truism that border hostilities do not necessarily constitute war, and turned it into a sophism by applying it in the present case. To compare Arista's attack upon Thornton to an unmeaning border squabble was truly, in view of the long series of preliminaries, ridiculous; and equally ridiculous was the endeavor to support this fallacy with another: that since Congress had not declared war, a state of war with Mexico could not lawfully exist at this time.[9] "Is not Calhoun deranged?" exclaimed our minister at Paris on hearing of this.[10]

To be sure, Congress is the only branch of our central government that can legally declare war; but, for instance, other nations are not hampered by our Constitution, and might attack us in such a manner as to prevent Congress-for a time, at least-from acting. None the less we should fight, and it would be nonsense to describe our resistance as unconstitutional. As a matter of fact Congress did not declare war against Mexico, and on Calhoun's theory we had no lawful war with that country. On that theory, not only our military men, Congress and the President, but our Supreme Court, which fully recognized the war, acted unconstitutionally. Indeed, he himself illustrated the untenability of his idea. In order to avoid the weakness of advocating purely defensive operations a Whig leader, Senator Crittenden, said that by repelling invasion he meant pursuing the enemy until we could be sure that no repetition of the outrage would occur. This programme would have involved substantially all that we did against Mexico. It would have meant a war without a declaration; yet Calhoun endorsed it. In short, even one so acute and so deeply interested as he could not find a real argument against the war bill, and his "friends" abandoned him on this issue. By an overwhelming majority Congress rejected his interpretation of the organic law. War existed. No American who recognized our claim to the intermediate region, formally made by national authorities and never withdrawn, and especially none who recognized the claim of Texas, could logically deny that it existed by the act of Mexico; and in the light of its antecedents, including Arista's declaration of war and attack upon Thornton, the war bill committed the nation properly as well as completely.[10]


We were, then, under arms; but, after all, why? What was the cause of the war? It was not-as will plainly appear in another chapter, it is believed-an unholy determination to obtain California at the cost, if necessary, of fifty thousand lives. It cannot have been a difficulty as to the boundary of Texas, for two nations do not fight over an issue that exists for only one of them-and that one not the aggressor; and for Mexico the question between the Nueces and the Rio Grande had no international significance except when it could be used, as an argumentum ad hominem, to embarrass Americans.[14]

Nor was it a scheme to extend the field of negro servitude. Even a cormorant requires time for digestion, and in 1845 the acquisition of Texas appeared so powerful a bulwark for the peculiar institution, that no strong and widespread craving for additional areas can be supposed to have existed at the beginning of 1846. Besides, as pro-slavery Taylor, Calhoun and Polk, anti-slavery Webster and time-serving Buchanan agreed, free labor was practically sure to dominate California; and hence, in view of the slight probability that much cultivable territory could be obtained in the south against the stubborn opposition of the free states, the war seemed more likely to diminish than to increase the relative strength of slavery. Moreover, the soil south and west of the Rio Grande was unsuitable for cotton, sugar, rice or tobacco. Rich proprietors already owned the land, and had no thought of parting with it. The system of peonage was extremely economical, and it held the ground so firmly that negro slavery, though tried, had been unable to make headway against it. The free laborers of northeastern Mexico would have been, admitted the North American, particularly hostile to our southerners and their methods; and the colored population, it was pointed out, could have escaped gradually from its bonds by amalgamating with the natives. Now the leaders of the "slavocracy" doubtless inquired into the conditions; and, as most of our ministers and probably most of our consuls in Mexico were from their section, they could easily obtain information. Waddy Thompson and A. J. Donelson, for example, believed and said, that slavery would not thrive in northern Mexico.[14]

Polk's diary and papers reveal no evidence that he seriously considered the interest of the peculiar institution in connection with our Mexican problem. The debates of Congress are equally barren. Soon after the war opened, as we shall discover, northeastern Mexico seemed ready to join the United States or accept our protection, and there is no sign that the slavocracy attempted to improve the opportunity. The politicians most eager to acquire Mexican territory were Dickinson of New York, Hannegan of Indiana and Walker, an anti-slavery man. A northern correspondent of Calhoun wrote that many in New York insisted on extending that way "to augment the strength of the non-slaveholding states," while a Mobile correspondent said, "I would let the war continue forever before I would take 697,000 [square miles] of territory, which must be free territory." A meeting in Ohio declared for taking all of that country, and this does not seem to have been paralleled in the South. South Carolina was pre?minently the champion of slavery, yet Governor Aiken publicly opposed making acquisitions in that quarter. Calhoun, the leader of the southern ultras there and elsewhere, did the same. So did Waddy Thompson, Botts, Toombs, Lumpkin, Campbell and many other southerners. W. R. King said that while the South would insist-as a point of pride and right-upon sharing the benefit of any territory gained from Mexico, it was a gross libel to represent her as desiring to increase in that way the strength of slavery.[14]

King deplored the war. One of the South Carolina Senators wrote that it was detested nowhere more than in his state. In Georgia, too, the conflict was bitterly opposed. The people did not desire the war, said Toombs. Half of the slaveholders oppose it, admitted Ritchie, a Virginian, editor of the administration organ. Besides all other objections, it was pointed out that the southern policy of conservatism and her stand for a strict construction of the Constitution would be endangered by absorbing a large area mainly populated by extremely inferior aliens. To combat all this evidence, we find hardly anything[11] except the characteristic hints, imaginings and assertions of certain abolitionists.[14]

On the other hand, the evidence that the annexation of Texas was essentially the cause[12] of the war is impressive both in quantity and in quality.[13] Benton, Clay, Robert C. Winthrop, Stephen A. Douglas, Andrew Johnson and many other public men agreed on this point. As Van Buren and substantially all the Whig organs had predicted that immediate annexation would entail war with Mexico, they must be counted in the same class. Charles Sumner drew up a resolution declaring that such was the primary cause, and it passed the legislature of Massachusetts, where the subject was rather closely studied, by overwhelming majorities. The House committee on foreign affairs took that ground in its report of February 24, 1847. All agree upon this, was Winthrop's declaration. Paredes expressed the same view in the most formal manner. The Mexican minister of war under the government that overthrew Paredes publicly endorsed it; and at least two well-qualified foreign observers, Duflot de Mofras and the biographer of Lord Aberdeen, took the same view. Indeed, the proposition seems demonstrated by the plain course of events.[14]

The mere annexation of Texas cannot, however, be regarded as the sole cause of the war. But for the loudly expressed wrath of the Americans, due mainly to Mexican barbarities in Texas and outrages upon the persons and property of American citizens, Mexico would have been far less irritable, and the annexation difficulty, which came so near to being patched up, might have been adjusted; while, as Polk maintained, if the policy of the United States regarding our claims had been firm, consistent and strong from the first, Mexico would not have dared to risk so much in dealing with us later.[14]

The general cause of hostilities was, therefore, the series of unpleasant incidents occurring in the mutual relations of the two countries from the scandalous treatment of Poinsett down to the scandalous treatment of Slidell, from the first mutterings of discontent in Texas down to the setting of her one fair star in the broad sea of the American Union; and in this long series the annexation of Texas was the chief event.[14]

But one can speak much more definitely. For a term of years, mainly in consequence of the use made of these affairs by self-seeking politicians, the people of Mexico had fed on the ideas of despising, fearing, hating and fighting the United States; Paredes had gained supreme authority on this basis; public sentiment demanded that he should pursue the route marked out by his professions; to beat the small and apparently demoralized American army, led by a backwoods general, seemed quite feasible; it appeared likely that a victory would confirm the dictator's power, while a failure to strike would ensure his doom; and hence an attack upon our army was ordered. This was the precise cause of the war.[14]


Let us now return to Congress. The war bill of May 13 gave the President authority to use the army, the navy, the militia and not more than 50,000 volunteers-to serve twelve months after reaching the rendezvous "or to the end of the war, unless sooner discharged"-to expend not more than $10,000,000, to complete the vessels of war already authorized, and to purchase additional vessels. By other Acts he was authorized (May 13) to increase by enlistment the number of privates in the regular army from sixty-four to not over one hundred per company, thus bringing the rank and file up to 15,540; a company of sappers, miners and pontoniers and a regiment of mounted riflemen, originally intended to protect emigrants and traders on the Oregon route, were created (May 15 and 19); and numerous details concerning organization were either prescribed or entrusted to the Executive (June 18 and 26).[15] Under the last head authority was given to appoint all the necessary general officers.[16] Meantime (May 13) the President issued a war proclamation, modelled upon that of 1812, in which he announced that an appeal had been made to "the last resort of injured nations"; and the state department (May 14) sent a confidential circular to our agents abroad, explaining that we had taken up arms reluctantly, and "solely for the purpose of conquering an honorable and permanent peace."[17]

"The war sense of the United States," it has been remarked, "seems to be in inverse ratio to its war spirit;" and in general the military measures of the government exhibited more zeal than discretion. In particular they put into action the very system that had proved disastrous a generation before. For this Taylor was primarily responsible, for after having seen the war of 1812 and that of Florida languish and crawl, he strongly urged that volunteers be called out for one year of service. Polk's Message deepened the mischief by expressing confidence in raw troops, although in 1838 the secretary of war had assured him that the difference in expense between volunteers and regulars was "at least as four to one," besides the waste resulting from their total ignorance of administration, the cost of marching to and from distant points for short periods of service, and the disproportionate growth of the pension list.[18] The President was indeed authorized to increase the number of privates in a regular company, but the roll of officers remained as before; and enlistment was not stimulated, as it might have been, by adding something to the pay.[19]

Having a choice between a definite and an indefinite period, the volunteers were sure, as Marcy foresaw, to elect the former, although-as the sequel appeared to show-a sufficient number would almost certainly have engaged for the war, had that been the only proposal. The Mexicans were commonly regarded as cowardly and inefficient. Very few Americans expected them to hold out as long as they did; and intending volunteers would naturally have counted, therefore, upon returning soon. There were also the enthusiastic feelings natural at the opening of a war, and a deep interest resulting from the supposed peril of Taylor's army. Yet the government chose to acc

ept gratuitously the risk, which in due time became a certainty, of embarrassing itself, disappointing the country and encouraging the enemy by offering a brief term of service.[19]

Instead of retaining control of the organization and officering of the regiments, it entrusted this work to the states, and as a rule the men chose their own officers;[20] but in these features of the system, as in our governmental methods generally, there was some advantage as well as much loss. Webster, for example, held that volunteers ought to have the right of electing for leaders men whom they knew and could trust; and if they preferred, to sicken and bleed under captains as ignorant as themselves, whom they knew and could trust, rather than fare otherwise under trained officers whom they would have had to obey without fully understanding them, they were perhaps entitled to the privilege, and no doubt they learned something from exercising it. Anyhow, said Webster, the other method would have been degrading; and American citizens must not be degraded. As for generals, the law of June 18 compelled the Executive to take them from the militia, although they would be under no obligation to serve more than three months, and might withdraw in the midst of a campaign. There was no provision for filling vacancies resulting from death or discharge; and finally the appropriations were so poorly arranged that the quartermaster's office had to juggle with funds as even Polk himself could not lawfully have done.[19]

Such as it was, however, the system went promptly into effect. Beginning on May 15, the secretary of war sent requisitions for volunteers to the governors of the states, deeming this method of application advantageous as well as due to their official position, since they were supposed to know the troops of their jurisdictions and the best places from which to draw them. In general the plan was to summon about 25,000 from the northeastern states, to be enrolled and await orders, and to call out nearly as many from the other states for immediate service. The former were all to be infantry; the latter, horse and foot in the ratio of about one to three. It was expected that existing militia organizations-regiments or parts of regiments-would offer their services, and that new men would fill the ranks as they felt moved to come forward. Not only privates but officers were to approach the national service by that portal, and then be mustered into the army at the appointed state rendezvous by a United States officer detailed for the purpose.[21] In four days the calls were nearly all on their way.[24]

The purpose of distributing requisitions over the whole country was to interest every state, Polk explained; and to stimulate the executive officials he urged upon the secretary of war the most prompt and energetic action and personal attention to each detail, insisting for his own part upon being kept "constantly advised of every important step that was taken."[22] This charge Marcy accepted with all seriousness.[23] Whether bowing his massive head ponderously over a big desk, sifting callers with keen glances through shaggy brows, or giving instructions to subordinates in a voice roughened with snuff, he devoted his faculties to his task with a rare power of concentration. But he preferred the quiet of his home; and there, comfortably wrapped in his dressing gown with a box of the brown powder and an old red handkerchief on the table, he did his best work.[24]

Polk believed, or tried to believe, that "multitudes" were eager to volunteer, but others feared it would not be easy to raise troops after so long a peace. Strong influences were at work, however. Though evidently the fireside was not in danger, patriotism urged men to take the field, for did not the nation call?

"Arm! arm! your country bids you arm!

Fling out your banners free-

Let drum and trumpet sound alarm,

O'er mountain, plain and sea;"

thus wrote Park Benjamin the day Polk signed the war bill. A longing to escape from the dulness of bare existence, ambition to see the world and test one's powers, a passion for adventure and frolic in a far clime believed to be all glitter, beauty and romance, the prospect of revelling in the Halls of Montezuma, a feeling that one who was not "in it" would have to spend the rest of his days explaining why, the expectation of honors and popularity that would make success easy in any pursuit, quarrels with sweethearts or hopes of becoming irresistible to the "girls," were among the motives. For the high officers it was a "political tour," said one of them; and with everybody the barbarities perpetrated by the Mexicans in Texas counted for much. The hardships of campaigning were unknown. While every one understood that some would fall, it was practically impossible for an ardent young fellow, well and strong, to imagine his particular person stretched lifeless on the ground; or, if such an end was ever contemplated, it appeared as something quick, unfelt amidst the excitement, and sweetened by the greatness of one's cause.[24]

Behind all of this lay certain facts too deep for the soldiers themselves to perceive, but not too deep for them to feel. One instinctively shunned that "misery of cowardice," which-as Pericles told the Athenians-is more dreadful to men of spirit than death in battle. As the ages have demonstrated, man is naturally a fighting animal, and therefore he finds in war the keenest sense of his vital selfhood. It is our chief glory to will and to do; and in mortal combat this glory is more intense, if not more real, than in peaceful occupations. Besides, if a man comes to his end in being supremely himself, he triumphs over death, and indeed he wins another victory, too, for life-so rich in menaces-can threaten him no longer. The validity of nearly all these motives was more or less transitory. When, for example, a man had proved that he could face a cannon, it seemed unnecessary to keep on facing it. But while they lasted, they were strong.[24]

In almost every section, therefore, except New England, where the annexation of Texas could not yet be forgiven, the war spirit rose high, astonishing even the most sanguine. At New York the walls were covered with placards headed, "Mexico or Death," or "Ho, for the halls of the Montezumas!" and the streets echoed to the song:

"Come all ye gallant volunteers

Who fear not life to lose,

The martial drum invites ye come

And join the Hickory Blues:

The gallant Hickory Blues,

The daring Hickory Blues-

To Mexico they proudly go,

The gallant Hickory Blues."


At Philadelphia 20,000 citizens of all parties gathered "to sustain the country." In the central states banks advanced money without security, farmers' wives issued free rations, ladies made clothing and flags by the wholesale, roads turned black with men. Ohio looked with disfavor on the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, regarding them as measures favorable to slavery; yet in less than two weeks after the requisition for volunteers arrived, three thousand of her sons were marching to the rendezvous. At Indianapolis Lew Wallace hung out a flag and a four-sided transparency inscribed, "For Mexico; fall in"; and in three days his company was full. "Illinois must rally now and win a character," James Shields wrote to Koerner; and fourteen regiments volunteered instead of the four that could be taken.[24]

In Kentucky, said reports, the quota of the state was complete by May 26, and the governor had to stop the volunteering by proclamation. Tennessee was called upon for about 3000 men, and nearly 30,000 came forward. None would retire, and the selection was made by lot or ballot. At Memphis troops organized before the call arrived. "May glory and honor await them!" cried the Daily Eagle. St. Louis began to drill on May 12, and in a few days the excitement was so deep and universal that the courts adjourned. North Carolina offered more than three times her quota.[24]

In the Gulf states many feared that not enough citizens would remain at home to police the negroes. "Governor, do-if possible-get them into the service," was the tune in Alabama. Mississippi complained bitterly that so few of her sons had a chance. At New Orleans the roar of business was almost drowned by a still more clamorous roar:

"The drums, the drums, the busy, busy drums,

The drums, the drums, the rattling, battling drums,

The drums, the drums, the merry, merry drums!"

As rapidly as possible Brigadier General Wool and other officers mustered the regiments into service; and, leaving the rendezvous and the crowds of praying, cheering people amidst the saddest good-bys and the warmest good wishes, the volunteers bravely set out for the war.[24]

Before very long new views of military life began to dawn upon the soldiers. At the old battlefield below New Orleans, where many of the troops camped, mud and water covered what was below their boot-tops while mosquitos covered what was above. Going down the river they brightened at the sight of sycamores and live-oaks, draped with Spanish moss, and of the ducks, jays, mocking-birds and Virginia nightingales, that seemed to find life so merry. But soon the lighthouse of the Southwest Pass was gleaming astern, the muddy water became blue, and these landsmen were on the deep. Sharks, diving porpoises, squadrons of nautili and shoals of little flying-fish gave them some pleasure; but the motion, especially to men packed like sardines in the dirty holds of schooners and small brigs or lying spoon-fashion-if there was even room to do that-on deck, seemed horrible. On the slow voyage the water, which was often impure, fermented sometimes, and ten cents was the price of a wholesome drink.[25]

And then the Gulf storms! The wind howled; the sea opened its jaws; the heavens were now like ink, and now one burst of flame; thunders rolled; ropes hissed and shrieked; spars cracked, snapped and were swept away; the vessel tossed from beam-end to beam-end; the maddened horses almost kicked the planking from the ribs, and the men cursed, prayed or stolidly awaited their fate. But sooner or later nearly all of them perceived on the horizon a line of sandy beach spotted with tents. It was Brazos Island off Point Isabel, and they anchored about four miles from it in the open sea. Meanwhile Brevet Major General Gaines, commanding the military department of the West, had begun on May 3 at his own instance to requisition troops for the relief of Taylor, and a considerable number of these men also set out for the Point.[25]


The question of a commander now had to be decided. Polk felt little confidence in Taylor. The General's separating his army so far from his base and exposing both to imminent peril seemed inexcusable; and furthermore General Scott, not only the head of the army but the famous hero of Lundy's Lane, was the natural chief of the large forces now called out. Certain facts, however, injured Scott's chances. He was now almost exactly sixty years old, and many thought him, as did Senator Fairfield, "too much of an old granny." In 1839 he had been given 57 votes at the Whig Presidential convention, and of late the brilliancy of his political anticipations had made him look "ten feet high," said Corwin. His want of reverence for the President's decision respecting brevet rank had led Polk and Benton to think of banishing him to a post on the northern frontier. General Gaines and his many friends had long hated him; and Mrs. Gaines insisted that no one was "much," whose lips could be covered with a button. Finally, he was called vain, and so he appeared to be.[30]

But the ostentation that won him the nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers," in addition to being much exaggerated by report, was doubtless attributable in large measure to military policy and respect for his rank. No one ever saw it interfere with serious affairs, and one who could remark on the weak point of his own personal appearance, the point ridiculed by Mrs. Gaines, was not so extremely vain after all. The right word for Scott was egotism. Now egotism-in others-is doubtless a shocking trait; yet merely to seem aware of what everybody knows, does not, as many think it does, convert merits into demerits. General Scott had a magnificent presence-fully six feet and four inches of height and a corresponding weight-the brightest fame as an intrepid soldier, the honor of a long and eminent career, the first place in our army, a high social position, superior talents and attainments, unusual knowledge of the world, charming personal graces, and a character of rare quality-powerful, gentle and true. That he did not dissemble nor cloak his value was a fault; but those who felt entitled to censure him, merely because they had no such merits to be aware of, were somewhat in error.[30]

Besides, almost every great artist is egotistical, and Scott was a great artist. In more ways than one this was true. He could instruct the baker in the mysteries of making bread, and superintend ably the roasting of a ham; damn his delighted black body-servant for hiding everything and then hiding himself; rave at an admiring guest for cutting lettuce instead of rolling it round his fork, or lament in tragic tones at whist that he had to play against three; and the next moment he would be analyzing a campaign of Turenne, monologuing inimitably about the great men he had met in Europe, or criticizing and comparing the best authors of French prose. His foibles-particularly a sensitiveness of temper, an ambition for the Presidency and a fondness for relieving heavy thought with light words, as Marcy did with light snuff-were numerous; the openness of his large and generous nature, superior to the prudence of smaller minds, prevented his concealing them; certain peculiarities of language and manner, from a delicacy about commas to a fondness for literary effects, were easily ridiculed; and in non-military affairs his indiscretion was now and then glaring; but he must be described emphatically as a soldier, a gentleman, a "character," a great general and a great man.[30]

Distrusting Taylor, and profoundly alarmed about the situation on the frontier,[26] Polk sent for Scott on May 13, and conferred upon him verbally the chief command in Mexico; yet, while admitting that he saw proofs of experience in the General's remarks, he pronounced him too "scientific and visionary," as the master of a difficult business must always appear to the tyro.[27] Probably he knew that a man could not become a soldier overnight, as he could become a militia colonel or a "statesman," or-in Santa Anna's opinion-a professor of jurisprudence; but he believed that, should fighting really need to be done, even an improvised army would make "a brisk and a short war of it," as the administration paper neatly said, and, if necessary, dictate a peace "in the Halls of the Montezumas." Under circumstances like these prevision and science appeared rather superfluous. The only things needful were to march now and triumph to-morrow.[30]

Scott, however, felt that waging war might involve military operations. He undertook to prove by elaborate calculations that the greater part of the volunteers could not at the best arrive on the Rio Grande before the first week in August; and, since that would be the rainy season, when the hoofs of mules and horses would be unfit for hard use, and various other difficulties would arise, he recommended that most of the new troops, after remaining under instruction at salubrious points in the United States during the summer, should be placed upon that river by September 25, so as to make, with the volunteers and regulars already there, 25,000 or possibly 30,000 healthy, properly equipped and more or less trained soldiers, ready to invade Mexico in a decisive manner. In the execution of this plan he did not intend to shirk or dally.[28] May 15 he gave the chiefs of the general staff directions about throwing supplies of all kinds upon the various rendezvous in advance of the volunteers, prompted the quartermaster general to obtain wagons, and even called attention to the necessity of seasonably obtaining light boats for the navigation of the Rio Grande.[30]

His feeling was, however, particularly after news of what he called Taylor's "great and brilliant victories" arrived, that it would not seem proper-especially to military men-for him to supersede that officer except with heavy reinforcements; and no doubt he saw it would scarcely enhance a prestige that was dear to him personally and invaluable to him as the commander-in-chief, to lie idle in hot mud for several months. He therefore proposed to leave Washington about May 30, give his personal attention to the troops and supplies en route and at the rendezvous, and reach the scene of action a little before them.[30]

Such procrastination disgusted Polk, and such "schemes" annoyed Marcy, both of whom doubtless had an eye on political considerations. Democratic members of Congress protested that Scott was slow, and also that, if successful in Mexico, he would be the ruin of their party. In short, it seemed necessary to get rid of him.[29] May 19, therefore, without saying a word to Scott, the secretary of war had a provision attached to the bill which finally became the law of June 18, enabling the Executive to appoint an officer new to the army as commander-in-chief of the volunteers, and at the end of the war eliminate Scott entirely. This led to sharp language between Marcy and Scott.[30]

Marcy, the politician, intimated that the militia, who had gone to Taylor's assistance and were to serve only three months, must have a chance to do something, and Scott, the soldier, declined to take the field if liable to be fired on from the rear. In one of his notes the General remarked that he had taken for lunch merely "a hasty plate of soup"-a fact that really proved his extreme devotion to the business in hand; and in another he specified a number of the reasons why a summer campaign was not feasible. At this juncture, too, a private note of his, to the effect that no eastern man, Whig or West Pointer was likely to be given a commission, turned up at the White House. Polk regarded the note as disrespectful, and also thought the expression "fire upon my rear" was a reflection on the Executive. Scott protested that his words referred to Marcy and the members of Congress, and apparently did all he could, without sacrificing his professional convictions, to satisfy the President; but his efforts were in vain.[30]

The army on the Rio Grande was now out of danger; Taylor seemed not so extremely incompetent after all; and Scott was still a scientific, visionary schemer and a promising candidate for the chair of state, whom it was more politic to disgrace than to honor. Polk decided therefore that he was meddlesome, insubordinate, hostile, foolish, vindictive and untrustworthy, a procrastinating obstructionist, and above all a "violent partisan"; and on May 25 he received orders to stay at Washington and hasten the preparations. His correspondence with Marcy was published. The big dogs and little-Blanche, Tray and all-began to bark. He was called a farrier general for speaking of hoofs, and "Marshal Tureen" for admitting that he took soup. His off-hand remarks were termed flippant, his close calculations fussy, and his deliberate plans dilatory. His allusion to the "rear," fully justified by what had occurred and what was to follow, seemed even to some friendly critics disrespectful and uncalled for. Political intrigue, not war, was said to occupy his mind. The General has "committed suicide with a goose-quill," announced the Boston Courier; Marcy himself confided to a friend that Scott had lost a position he would never be able to regain; and Taylor, assigned to duty with his new brevet rank,[31] was continued in the chief command.[30]


All this while the administration felt extremely anxious, on both domestic and international grounds, regarding the Oregon issue. The West, which Representative Graham called "the ruling star" in Congress, clamored for "fifty-four forty or fight." Cass admitted that he found it necessary to sacrifice to its demand his preference for a boundary at the forty-ninth degree, and Polk's yielding to the same pressure is readily understood.[32] It was believed that England's interest in peace would forbid her fighting the United States for a small area of unrecognized value, and the Democratic leaders probably had no expectation of getting into a war. The British Cabinet, however, had its public to deal with, and felt that it could not live a day should it appear submissive to American "bullying." Hence on February 4, 1846, when the United States finally rejected arbitration, the two nations were almost at the grips.[9.33]

Yet each contained powerful elements favorable to accommodation. The strong tone of the American government impressed England, and Polk realized that while compromising on the lower line would anger the Northwest, an opposite course might throw upon him the responsibility of disrupting his party, ruining his administration, and plunging the country into an abyss. The American Congress, like the people, took a more and more serious view of the situation; and the roar of the "fifty-four forty" men subsided into a growl. On a hint from the United States Great Britain presented in May a compromise practically similar to that which her minister at Washington had rejected the previous year. The Senate, whose advice Polk asked in order to escape from his radical declarations, recommended the acceptance of it on June 12, and the crisis ended.[33]

During the same anxious period a less public negotiation also was on foot. There were signs of a revolution in Mexico, and it behooved Polk to consider who might come to the front. Farías and Almonte had many partisans, and both were hostile to the United States; but Santa Anna, now living in exile near Havana and spending his time on gamecocks, monte and a huge mail from Mexico, seemed quite likely to regain the power; and it was believed that his intelligence, ambition and knowledge of his country's weakness, combining in favor of peace, were more than enough to offset any stirrings of patriotic enthusiasm in his breast. Reports from trustworthy sources-particularly from Slidell, Consul Dimond at Vera Cruz, and Consul Black at Mexico-tended to support this belief;[34] and it was understood also that past actions and present circumstances bound Santa Anna to oppose all European and monarchical designs upon Mexico. Not having begun the conflict with the United States, he could pronounce peace a necessity, it was thought, and throw upon Paredes all the odium of the abortive war. Moreover A. J. Atocha, a naturalized American citizen, who had been a confidant and tool of Santa Anna, had assured Polk in February that the General, should he regain power, would be ready to treat.[35] From the despatches of the Spanish minister at Mexico we know that it was impossible, as Polk asserted, to prevent a man possessing large resources from landing on the Mexican coast; and it seemed evident that Santa Anna's presence in the country, should he fail to regain power and make a treaty, would in all probability lead to a distracting civil war. On the day Polk signed the war bill, an order[36] to let him pass through our blockading squadron off Vera Cruz was, therefore, issued to Commodore Conner.[38]


And this was not all. Though deeply distrustful of Atocha, Polk seems to have derived from a conversation with him the idea of despatching a secret emissary to Santa Anna, and on the evening of July 5 Commander Mackenzie of the United States navy arrived at Havana.[37] Two days later he passed three hours with the ex-dictator, informing him of the order to let him pass, and giving him the substance of a conversation with Polk, in which the President had expressed these interesting sentiments: first, a hope of seeing the General once more in authority; secondly a desire for peace-on the basis of a boundary via the Rio Grande and thence west, ample payment in cash for the territory thus transferred, and permanent friendly relations with Mexico; and, thirdly, a willingness to stop military operations and send a minister, should Santa Anna, on regaining his former position, be willing to negotiate.[38]

In reply the General drew up a note, which was copied by Mackenzie and then destroyed. In this he professed liberal intentions regarding commerce and politics, anti-monarchical and anti-European principles, and a disposition-in case the United States would promote his "patriotic desires"-to respond with a treaty of the desired sort. Taylor, he said, must promote the scheme by marching to Saltillo, forcing Paredes to fight, defeating him, and then advancing perhaps to San Luis Potosí, so as to constrain the Mexicans of all parties to recall the Hero of Tampico; and he offered valuable hints about attacking Tampico and Vera Cruz, which seemed to attest his sincerity. Mackenzie then took his leave, and, impressed by Santa Anna's military suggestions, transcended his instructions by visiting Taylor on the way home-thus rendering himself and his mission unduly conspicuous.[38]

In these ways, combining diplomacy and force as he loved to do, Polk imagined that our Mexican crisis had been fully met.

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