In February 1846, the independent nation of Texas was annexed as a state in the United States of America. The citizens of Texas were now American citizens. However, there was one major glitch. Mexico still considered the Texas territory to be part of Mexico. It threatened war over the annexation of Texas, which it refused to recognize.
Believing that it was its manifest destiny to stretch to the Pacific Ocean, the United States had previously offered to purchase the Mexican territories of California, New Mexico, and Arizona for $15,000,000. Mexico had indignantly refused the offer.
After the Texas annexation, U.S. President James Polk decided to send troops into south Texas. But the troops did not stop at the Nueces River, which had been the southern boundary of the Texas territory when it had been under Mexican and Spanish rule. Texas (and now the United States) claimed the Rio Grande as the new southern border of Texas (and new northern border of Mexico). Polk sent the troops into the area now known as Brownsville, which was located at the mouth of the Rio Grande, well within the disputed territory that both Mexico and Texas had claimed since the time of the Texas revolution some 10 years earlier.
Mexico repeatedly warned the United States to remove its troops from the disputed territory. Not only did Polk refuse to do so, he dispatched a naval force to the California coast with instructions to prepare for war.
In April 1846, Mexican troops attacked a small contingent of American soldiers across the river from Matamoros, Mexico, which, each day, had been taunting the Mexican forces by raising the American flag to the fife and drum. Polk advised Congress that American troops had been attacked by Mexico. Congress declared war. The Mexican War had began.
Support for the war, however, was not unanimous. Rep. Abraham Lincoln challenged Polk to prove that the land where the troops had been attacked was truly American territory. Other opponents of the war included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. Were these people patriots or traitors for standing against their own government?
One of the most interesting issues involving patriotism surrounded the St. Patrick’s Battalion. Among the American troops was a contingent of Irish-born soldiers. After the war commenced, 200 of these soldiers concluded that they were fighting on the wrong side. They didn’t like the fact that the United States was using its overwhelming might to invade and conquer a much weaker nation – a nation that was also predominantly Catholic. They deserted the American army and began fighting for the Mexican army.
Were these men patriots or traitors? At first blush, it seems like a fairly easy question to answer. But what about German citizens who took up arms against their own government in World War II? Would they be considered patriots or traitors? Or what about the Russian soldiers who had been captured by the Nazis and who joined up with Germany in the hope of defeating the Soviet communists in World War II? They considered themselves patriots for trying to free their nation from communism, while Stalin and the communists ultimately executed them for being traitors (after the United States and Great Britain repatriated them to the Soviets – see “Repatriation – The Dark Side of World War II” by Jacob G. Hornberger in The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars ).
American military officials at the time considered the soldiers in the St. Patrick’s Battalion to be traitors. When U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott and his troops reached Mexico City, after invading at Vera Cruz, and accepted the surrender of Mexican officials, they captured the St. Patrick soldiers and hanged 50 of them.
Mexico, on the other hand, took a different perspective. Today, there is a Mexican memorial that states:
“EN MEMORIA DE LOS SOLDADOS IRLANDESES DEL HEROICO BATALLON DE SAN PATRICIO
TO THE MEMORY OF CAPTAIN JOHN RILEY OF THE CLIFDEN AREA, FOUNDER AND LEADER OF SAINT PATRICK’S BATTALION AND THOSE MEN UNDER HIS COMMAND WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR MEXICO DURING THE U.S. MEXICAN WAR OF 1846-1848”
Yes, patriotism and treason can sometimes be a very tricky business indeed.
After all, what about the American-Mexican immigrants living in the Mexican territory of California when hostilities broke out? One searches in vain for any criticism of them by present-day American conservatives who believe that immigrants living in the United States today owe unswerving patriotic allegiance to the U.S. government. Yet, there were people who refused to stand by their own government – the Mexican government – in time in war. Instead, they sided with the nation from which they had emigrated and with which their country was at war. Were they patriots or traitors?
The Mexican War ended with the surrender of Mexico and with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Within a short period of time, many of the officers who fought in the Mexican War, such as Lee, Jackson, Grant, McClellan, Davis, Pemberton, Longstreet, Bragg, Thomas, Johnston, and Meade, would become better known among the American people.
The Mexican War is considered by most Americans as a relatively minor blip in American history. Not so with the Mexican people. The war and its consequences had a catastrophic effect on Mexico and the Mexican people, an emotionally wrenching experience whose impact continues to this day.
Imagine the following scenario after North Vietnam defeated the United States in the Vietnam War. A peace treaty is entered into in which the United States agrees to surrender to North Vietnam the entire western half of the United States. Americans living in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, and the rest of the western half of the United States are given the choice of staying in North Vietnam-America or moving east in order to remain under the jurisdiction of the United States. Who could doubt that the effect upon the American people – both those who chose to become American-Vietnamese and those who chose to remain Americans – would continue for many, many generations? After all, there are some who would argue that America’s Civil War continues to have a deep psychological effect on Southerners more than 100 years after the end of that war.
The effect of the Mexican War on Mexico and the Mexican people was enormous. By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico lost one-half of its territory. The United States ended up paying what it had previously offered Mexico – $15,000,000 and the assumption of Mexican debts – for California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and a part of Colorado. Additionally, Mexico relinquished all claims to Texas, and the international boundary was set at the Rio Grande.
The peace treaty gave the inhabitants the option of remaining citizens of Mexico or becoming American citizens. Most elected U.S. citizenship. But a few were not exactly excited about becoming Americans. My hometown – Laredo, Texas, located on the Rio Grande – petitioned to remain part of Mexico. The petition was not granted. Another group of people in New Mexico moved south and established a new community in Mexico just below the new border. A few years later, they must have been somewhat chagrined to find that the territory in which they had settled was sold by Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase.
In their book Mexican Americans-American Mexicans, Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Ribera write:
With the stroke of a pen the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo extended the borders of the United States to include 80,000 people with a culture that was different not only from that of the United States but also from that of the traditional European immigrant. Without moving, these people became foreigners in their native land. This unique experience inevitably led to misunderstanding, problems, and conflict.
“Following the war, the Far Southwest remained culturally much as it has been under Mexican rule. Popular reaction to the new conditions was mixed; some accepted, some resisted, and most were simply unconcerned or indifferent. There was little immediate change in language; Spanish continued to predominate. Traditional Mexican living patterns persisted except in east Texas and in northern California, where an immediate and massive influx of Anglos brought far-reaching change.”
Animosity and conflict were inevitable. For example, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed that the inhabitants of the newly acquired lands would be secure in their property rights. In many cases, however, the guarantee turned out to be hollow. Many Anglo-Americans treated the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the way they treated Indians – as an inferior, conquered, and subjugated people. For example, American squatters would sometimes trespass and settle onto properties owned by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. When lawsuits were brought, it was often impossible for the legitimate owners to prove a clear chain of title to their property; after all, this was not something with which they had had to be concerned when they lived in Mexico. And even when the property owners ultimately prevailed in the legal battles, attorney’s fees and court costs would force them to sell their property anyway.
The American Civil War 12 years later – 1860-1864 – raised interesting questions about patriotism and treason. Was Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, a patriot or a traitor? At the conclusion of the war, he was arrested and almost executed for being a traitor. Sam Houston, the first president of Texas and the man who had led the Texas army that defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto, stood against secession. Was he a traitor or a patriot? Santos Benavides, a Mexican-American in Laredo (a relative of the husband of my legal secretary in Laredo) was a famous Civil War hero who fought for the Confederacy. I guarantee that no one in Laredo considers Benavides to have been a traitor.
The south Texas border areas were the scenes of interesting experiences during the Civil War. There were battles along the Rio Grande between Yankee and Confederate forces. But things were not peaceful on the Mexican side of the river either. The French army had invaded Mexico for nonpayment of foreign debt and had installed Hapsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico. The Mexican army attempting to oust the French invaders was led by Benito Juárez, the duly elected president of Mexico.
Thus, Mexican-Americans along the Rio Grande, who not long before had been citizens of Mexico and who now were citizens of the United States, were torn in different directions by the battles that were taking place on both sides of the river. It would be safe to say that they felt a bigger connection and certainly more pride over the Mexican defeat of the French in 1867 than over the North’s defeat of the Confederacy.
Travel across the border after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was not difficult because the border was completely open and remained open for some 75 years. It was this open-border policy of our American ancestors that would continue to affect deeply the lives of the people along the southern border of the United States, especially during the Mexican Civil War that began in 1910.