Perspective on the Frontier

Houston Institute for Culture 
Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People [3 of 6]
By Richard D. Vogel

The U.S. War on Mexico

The United States War on Mexico of 1846-1848 was the first U.S. war of aggression against a sovereign nation and the defining event in U.S.-Mexico relations. The ruthlessness of the U.S. invasion shocked even the European nations that had been at war with their neighbors for centuries. Ulysses S. Grant, who served in Mexico under both Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, commanded the Union forces in the American Civil War, and later became the eighteenth President of the United States, unconditionally condemned the war in his Personal Memoirs. He denounced it, " one of the most unjust wars ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory."

The U.S. War on Mexico was the culmination of a thirty-year campaign of rapacious American imperialism in the South and Southwest. This invasion was planned and executed by the U.S. to silence Mexico's claim to Texas and to expropriate as much of the southern republic as it could seize by force of arms. It was the war on Mexico that Andrew Jackson failed to provoke in 1836. And last but not least, it was a war intended to extend the U.S. empire of slavery into Mexico. The southern U.S. slave aristocracy instigated and commanded the invasion. The U.S. President at the time, James K. Polk was a political protégé of Andrew Jackson. Both he and General Scott, the supreme U.S. field commander, were from slaveholding families in the South. General Taylor, later to become U.S. president himself, actually owned a slave plantation in Mississippi. The majority of the U.S. Army officers who served in Mexico was from the American South and, if not slave owners themselves, enthusiastically supported the institution. And although the conquest of Mexico did not ultimately extend the U.S. empire of slavery, it did guarantee the survival of the institution in Texas until the U.S. Civil War.

As a direct result of the conquest, Mexico was forced to cede Upper California and the territory of New Mexico (later to become the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming) to the U.S. -- a total land area of 1,370,154 square kilometers (529,017 square miles). Just as disastrous as the loss of land, the U.S. conquest subordinated Mexico to the interests of the United States, a condition that continues to the present day.

The U.S. War on Mexico was inevitable because Mexican officials absolutely refused to sell their northern territory despite repeated offers by the United States to buy it. Once the leaders of the U.S. finally understood that the Mexican people would never sell their birthright in North America, they were committed to war and sought a pretext to justify their aggression. Although Jackson's "disputed" territory strategy failed in Texas in 1836, President Polk employed it to create a pretext for war in 1846. The "disputed" territory this time was the 145-kilometer (90 mile) wide strip of land between the Nueces River and Rio Grande in south Texas.

Historically, the Nueces, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christi, was the northern border of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. President Polk urged the Republic of Texas to claim the Rio Grande, which runs south and roughly parallel to the Nueces and empties into the Gulf at Matamoros, as its southern boundary. Polk knew that Mexico would go to war over the annexation of Texas, and dispatched U.S troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor to Corpus Christi on the edge of the "disputed" territory. In his Personal Memoirs, Grant explained the mission of the U.S. Army in south Texas, "We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it." The plan worked. The U.S. annexed Texas in February of 1846, and Polk immediately ordered Taylor to proceed to the Rio Grande. One of Taylor's patrols skirmished with a Mexican detachment and lost over twenty soldiers, including eleven dead, five wounded, and several captured. Polk immediately called for war. In his bellicose message to the U.S. Congress, the President announced that, "American blood had been shed upon American soil." He got his declaration of war.

Unconditional Surrender

The American strategy was to wage total war against the Mexican people that would only end with unconditional surrender. The U.S. Navy blockaded the ports of Mexico in order to isolate and weaken the nation while the Army staged land operations. The initial invasion of the undefended northern territories of the republic was swift and Machiavellian. U.S. agents were sent ahead of the military forces to infiltrate Mexican communities and bribe key officials in order to divide and conquer. Where resistance to the invasion did occur, it was dealt with by draconian measures. To terrorize the population of New Mexico into submission, the U.S. Army shelled the ancient Pueblo de Taos and two leaders of the local resistance were captured and summarily executed -- a guard murdered Tomás Baca, an Indian prisoner of war, before he could be brought before a military court, and Pablo Montoya, a citizen of Mexico, was illegally charged with treason to the U.S. and hanged.

From the beginning of the invasion, America's overwhelming advantage was manifest -- the U.S. possessed superior firepower that field commanders were willing to use against both military and civilian targets. The United States had been born in blood in 1776 and had been preparing for war since the U.S. Military Academy was established at West Point in 1802. After studying the results of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the American high command realized that conflicts of the future would be decided by artillery and set about developing the latest in guns and tactics. The invasion of Mexico served as a proving ground for the new American war machine.

Superior firepower proved decisive in every major engagement of the U.S. War on Mexico. Equipped with inferior arms and insufficient supplies, the Mexicans forces offered spirited resistance, but long-range artillery shells battered their fortifications and barrages of shrapnel and grapeshot mowed the defenders down. Despite heavy losses, the Mexican army was able to halt the American invasion in northern Mexico. It was the siege of Veracruz that broke the spirit of the Mexican republic.

The Siege of Veracruz

With American forces checked in the north, President Polk decided to strike at the heart of Mexico. Veracruz, the primary seaport on Mexico's Gulf Coast and the gateway to Mexico City, was the initial target of General Scott's campaign in the South. In America's first major sea invasion, over 200 vessels landed more than 10,000 soldiers, three batteries of field artillery, and thousands of tons of ammunition and equipment on Mexican soil. Scott encircled the city of 15,000 people, including a garrison of 3,360 Mexican soldiers, cut off the food and water supplies, and began a devastating 21-day siege.

Unwilling to risk American lives in an infantry assault, General Scott decided to bombard Veracruz with his massive artillery batteries. The cannonade commenced at 4:15 P.M. on March 22, 1847, when a barrage of 250-millimeter (10 inch) mortar shells from the shore batteries showered down on the Plaza de Armas in the center of the city. At 5:45 P.M. the U.S. assault was augmented by artillery fire from a flotilla of two steamers and four schooner-gunboats anchored safely a mile away near Point Hornos. To hasten the fall of the city, Scott had a naval battery of three12 kilogram (32 pound) cannons and three 200-millimeter (8 inch) guns brought ashore and put into position the following day. When the battery opened fire on the morning of the 24th the effects of the heavy cannon balls could be seen at once. The walls of the fortress at Veracruz began to crumble and shrapnel from the bursting shells raked both the military and civilian population inside the city. It was a terrible sight but the worst was yet to come.

The terror of the siege increased later in the day when American rocketeers launched forty Congreve's rockets into the city in an attempt to set it on fire. On the 25th, they followed up with a barrage of ten new Hale rockets. Highly inaccurate, these experimental missiles rarely hit the intended targets but, upon impact, ricocheted randomly through the city streets causing many civilian causalities and substantial collateral damage.

The destruction and carnage inside the walls of Veracruz were extensive. Firing ceased temporarily at 5:00 P.M. on the 25th when a Mexican officer emerged under a flag of truce and delivered a proposal for the evacuation of the women and children from the city. Scott denied the request and resumed the bombardment that continued undiminished through the driving wind and rain of a particularly vicious storm that occurred during the night. On the morning of the 26th, Scott again refused a request to allow the evacuation of civilians but did begin negotiations for the capitulation of the city. He continued to demand surrender on American terms and got it on March 27.

Veracruz was in shambles. During the four-day bombardment, American shore artillery had fired 6,700 shot and shell, total of over 173,000 kilograms (463,000 pounds) of munitions, into the city. Nearly one-third of the missiles (half of the total weight) were massive 25-millimeter (10 inch) mortar shells that impacted haphazardly or exploded in the air, showering razor-sharp shrapnel on soldiers and civilians alike. The American navy had fired another 1,800 rounds of heavy artillery at the city. The final tally of death and suffering at Veracruz was as lopsided as the battle itself. Mexican officials estimated 400 to 500 civilian and 600 military casualties inside the city -- the Americans lost thirteen men killed and fifty-four wounded.

Captain Robert E. Lee, a young American artillery officer who would later command the Confederate forces during the American Civil War, participated in the siege of Veracruz and recorded his memories of the event:
The shells thrown from our battery were constant and regular discharges, so beautiful in their flight and so destructive in their fall. It was awful! My heart bled for the inhabitants. The soldiers I did not care so much for, but it was terrible to think of the women and children.
Captain Lee was not the only one horrified by the siege of Veracruz. The nations of Western Europe condemned both the savagery of the siege and the naked imperialism of the United States. But the U.S. wasn't deterred by international outrage; the invasion immediately headed inland towards the heart of Mexico.

To The Halls of Montezuma: The Fall of Mexico City

After the fall of Veracruz, Scott directed his massive invasion force toward Mexico City. Mexican defenders engaged the American invaders at various points along the march but were always out-gunned and unable to stop the advance. Constant guerrilla harassment delayed Scott's forces, but could not prevent the assault on the capital of the Mexican republic.

The fate of Mexico City was decided at Chapultepec castle, located 3 kilometers (2 miles) west of the city gates. In order to demoralize the Mexican defenders and terrorize the inhabitants of the nearby capital, Scott moved four artillery batteries into position and bombarded Chapultepec throughout the day of September 12, 1847. The actual assault began the next morning with a concentrated two-hour shelling of the castle, followed by a storm of grape, canister, and shrapnel aimed at the Mexican soldiers stationed outside the walls. Units from four U.S. Army divisions participated in the attack on the citadel that was defended by only 832 infantrymen plus some artillerymen and engineers and a handful of teenaged military college cadets. The castle fell on September 13th after a fierce hand-to-hand battle. Mexican causalities included many wounded whose throats were cut by the Americans and six youthful cadets of the military college at Chapultepec -- Francisco Márquez, Agustín Melgar, Juan Escutia, Fernando Montes de Oca, Vicente Suárez, and Juan de la Barrera -- who fought the good fight and leapt to their deaths from the tower of the citadel rather than surrender to the Americans. They became known as the legendary Los Niños Héroes, martyrs of the unrighteous war.

Los Niños were not the only martyrs to the Mexican cause who died at Chapultepec. At 9:30 A.M. on the last day of the siege, at the very moment that the American stars and stripes replaced the Mexican tri-color over the castle, U.S. Colonel William Selby Harney gave the order to hang thirty Irish-Americans and Irish immigrants of the Batallón de San Patricio who had deserted from the U.S. Army to fight on the Mexican side and had been captured at the Battle of Churubusco. The bodies of these men, who been kept waiting on the gallows in full view of the castle with nooses around their necks since dawn, were later cut down and buried by other San Patricios who had been flogged and branded. A marble plaque honoring these Irish American soldiers overlooks the San Jacinto Plaza in the Mexico City suburb of San Angel where U.S. authorities had earlier court marshaled the San Patricios and had executed and buried sixteen of them.

After the fall of Chapultepec, Scott moved his forces to the gates of Mexico City proper where American artillery again won the day. Scott's campaign of shock and terror worked -- the citizens of Mexico City realized that they were at the mercy of an enemy who didn't believe in mercy. On September 14th, in order to spare the city the fate of Veracruz and Chapultepec, Mexican authorities persuaded General Santa Anna to withdraw the Mexican army and appealed to the American general for favorable terms of capitulation. Scott, with his mighty guns aimed at the heart of Mexico, demanded unconditional surrender. Fully informed of the tragedy at Veracruz, and with the carnage of Chapultepec within sight, the Mexican officials yielded. To celebrate the conquest of the city, Scott staged a triumphant military parade to the Grand Plaza the following day. When Mexican resistance fighters fired on U.S. troops headed to the plaza, American artillerymen shelled the houses from which the fire originated with a 200-millimeter (8 inch) howitzer. Sporadic sniper fire against the invaders in the city continued until September 17th when the last resisters were rooted out and killed. Again, American artillery prevailed -- in the battle for the heart of Mexico the U.S. lost only 130 men compared to the deaths of over 3,000 Mexican defenders.

The war was essentially over, but resistance continued after the fall of the capital. Mopping-up activities took several more months and claimed more Mexican lives. In Puebla, four thousand guerillas attacked the U.S. Army and kept them under siege for twenty-eight days -- but again the contest was decided by American firepower. Widespread acts of resistance continued but were ruthlessly suppressed. Throughout the entire U.S. campaign in Mexico, guerrilla actions against the invaders met tough measures -- initially Scott had issued standing orders that local Mexican officials be held responsible for the apprehension and delivery to American forces of any and all Mexicans who killed or wounded an American. If the guilty parties were not delivered, a $300 fine was levied on the personal property of the nearest mayor. After the fall of Mexico City, Scott toughened his policy against resistance even more. American soldiers were ordered to show no quarter -- captured guerrilla suspects were to be put to death with "due solemnity" after a mock trial by three U.S. Army officers. These summary executions took place all over Mexico and helped extinguish the last flames of resistance.

Scott's ruthless campaign that began in Veracruz and penetrated the Valley of Mexico to the Halls of Montezuma won the war. The Americans inflicted more than 7,000 casualties on the Mexican army and took over 3,700 prisoners. In addition, the invading army seized at least 75 cannon and 20,000 small arms, effectively disarming the young Mexican republic. American historians who chronicle the conquest do not offer estimates of the number of civilian casualties or the extent of the collateral damage of the U.S. War on Mexico.

Los Diablos Tejanos

No history of the U.S. conquest of Mexico is complete without an account of the atrocities committed by the notorious Texas Ranger companies, dubbed Los Diablos Tejanos by the Mexicans they terrorized. These paramilitary gangs conducted a campaign of death and destruction in the Mexican countryside which left a legacy of hate that survives to this day. The vast majority of the 700 Rangers who volunteered for service in Mexico were jobless desperados from the Texas frontier who would do anything for money. They were recruited and led by Texans who were seeking revenge for what they considered wrongs committed by Mexicans at the Alamo, Goliad, Santa Fe, and Mier.

Los Diablos killed and pillaged indiscriminately. Armed with the latest rifles and revolvers, and wielding vicious Bowie knives, the Rangers operated beyond the control of the U.S. Army from the day they reported for duty. Dispatched as scouts in northern Mexico by General Taylor, the Texas mercenaries roamed the countryside, raiding villages, plundering farms, and shooting or hanging unarmed Mexican citizens.

On July 9, 1846, George Gordon Meade, a young army officer who, like Grant and Lee, served as a general during the U.S. Civil War, wrote a scathing report on Ranger misconduct in his area of responsibility:
They have killed five or six innocent people walking in the street, for no other object than their own amusement.... They rob and steal the cattle and corn of the poor farmers, and in fact act more like a body of hostile Indians than civilized Whites. Their officers have no command or control over them.
The Corpus Christi Company of Texas Rangers under the command of "Mustang" Gray, the man who murdered Agapito De Léon at Victoria, was among the worst of Los Diablos. Dr. S. Compton Smith, an outspoken critic of the Texas Rangers, was unsparing in his denunciation of Gray and his company:
Texas Rangers... were mostly made up of adventurers and vagabonds.... The gang of miscreants under the leadership of Mustang Gray were of this description. This party, in cold-blood, murdered almost the entire male population of the rancho of Guadalupe, where not a single weapon, offensive or defensive, could be found! Their only object was plunder!
When General Taylor learned of the massacre at the rancho Guadalupe and other atrocities committed by the Rangers, he tried to rein in the Texas volunteers by threatening to arrest all 700 of them. The Rangers, to a man, ignored the general, and he backed off. After all, the reign of terror conducted by Los Diablos Tejanos against the Mexican people helped paralyze resistance to the invasion and aided in the conquest of Mexico.


Copyright © 2004 by Richard D. Vogel.

Richard D. Vogel is a retired teacher who writes about current social and political issues. Other articles by the author are available at