Our militia & volunteers, if a tenth of what is said to be true, have committed atrocities — horrors — in Mexico, sufficient to make Heaven weep, & every American, of Christian morals, blush for his country.
— Gen. Winfield Scott to the Secretary of War (January 1847)
The American Army’s invasion of Mexico was justified by a lie, overtly aggressive, and unnecessary. In that sense it bore striking resemblance to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Yet, even more so than the Iraq occupation that followed, the conduct of large segments of the U.S. Army in Mexico was exceptionally ruthless throughout the two-year campaign. While a comprehensive military history of this war would be extraordinarily fascinating and worthy of contemporary study by army officers, the length of such an analysis and the existence of exceptional existing works on the subject preclude its inclusion in this piece. Rather, a focus on the inherent military mismatch between the two sides, as well as the brutality of the invasion and subsequent occupation by American troops is more relevant for our purposes.
From an operational perspective, the American invasion and resultant war had three distinct (though often concurrent) phases. First, after following Polk’s intent and sparking a violent enemy response along the Rio Grande, was General Taylor’s campaign in Northern Mexico. This lasted more than a year and consisted of fixed battles — usually against numerically superior Mexican forces — and limited occupation duty. Second, was Brigadier Stephen Kearny’s march, with a remarkably small force, through what is now New Mexico and Arizona, en route to the conquest of California. Finally, the climactic campaign consisted of Gen. Winfield Scott’s amphibious invasion of southeast Mexico, the battle-ridden advance to the capital, and the sustained occupation of the Mexican heartland. Each phase involved conquest, aggression, and rather difficult pacification of an occupied Mexican populace. All three were unique, complex, and highly challenging experiences for the U.S. Army.
The conquest of New Mexico, Arizona, and California — on the basis of the numbers engaged on both sides — appeared, on the surface, as a peripheral campaign. However, the accession of California had, largely, been Polk’s main goal from the start. This campaign, full of adventure and daring, had a certain romance, but also mirrored many of the complications inherent in invasion and occupation that the main American armies would face in the Mexican heartland. New Mexico, and its main settlement of Santa Fe, fell to Kearny first. In his haste to march on to the real prize of California, he left a token volunteer force behind with “sympathetic” native Hispanics running the local government, unaware of the simmering local hostility to American rule.
The old Santa Fe elite and Catholic clergy, jealous of their former power positions, and alienated by the banal brutalities of the undisciplined American volunteer troops, joined (paradoxically) with Pueblo Indians and rose in revolt in January 1847. Finally suppressed and captured, sixteen of the rebellion’s leaders — rather than being treated as prisoners of war — were summarily tried for murder, convicted, and hanged. So disturbed by the proceedings was one young American observer, that he wrote, “I left the room, sick at heart. Justice! Out upon the word, when its distorted meaning is the warrant for murdering those who defend to the last their country and their homes.” The coda to the New Mexico story demonstrated the racial component of American conquest and accession to democracy. Although, the province’s population greatly exceeded that of California or Texas at the time, Hispanic Mexico, with its Indian majority, would have to wait more than sixty years longer than the former for statehood.
In California, by contrast, American adventurers on a Polk-approved “scientific expedition” that set out a year before the outbreak of war, led by Capt. John C. Frémont (later the unsuccessful 1856 Republican candidate for president), had seized control even before Kearny’s modest army arrived. Although the Mexican authorities in the region had seen through Frémont’s suspicious activities and motives and had previously ordered him out of the country, the adventurer promptly returned as U.S.-Mexican tensions rose. After fighting a few brief skirmishes, his band emerged victorious, raised a hastily drawn flag bearing a bear’s image, and declared California an independent republic on (naturally) July 4, 1846. When word reached the American insurgents that an official state of war finally existed between the two nations, Frémont lowered the Bear Flag, raised the Stars and Stripes, and welcomed Kearny’s relief force.
As in New Mexico, while the initial bloodshed in California was minimal, the wanton intimidation, robbery, and brutality by the American volunteers quickly soured the existing population on the Yankee invaders. In late September 1846, as the locals had in Santa Fe, the Californios revolted. The outnumbered rebels held on for nearly four months, but finally signed a regional peace treaty in mid January 1847. As for the enormous Indian population of California, they were ethnically cleansed to near extinction in the uncannily brief span of just a decade, in what most historians now label a genuine genocide. Indigenous peoples were decidedly not envisaged as part of the newly U.S.-annexed “paradise” of California. Hardly a trace of this once-prominent civilization exists today on America’s “Left coast.”
Back in northern Mexico proper, Taylor’s army, after its first victory, seized the city of Monterrey, and, his troops exhausted, agreed to an eight-week armistice with his Mexican counterpart. It was a prudent tactical move for a fatigued, logistically stretched U.S. force, but Polk was furious. Taylor, along with Scott and most of the military’s top officers, were sympathetic to the Whigs. That made practical sense, since that party favored increased federal power and investment in the regular army to which they had all dedicated their professional lives. Nonetheless, the exceedingly jealous and insecure Polk had no intention of sharing the glory of war with anyone, especially a triumphant general who had (through no effort of his own) already been short-listed as a (Whig Party) presidential candidate for 1848. Polk immediately vetoed Taylor’s armistice.
In Taylor’s defense, he’d assumed the war was now over. He’d defeated the major Mexican Army before him, seized — with significant casualties, though — the major provincial city, and secured the Rio Grande as the boundary between the United States and its southern neighbor. Had the war actually been about Texas, Taylor’s assumption might have been valid. Only, unbeknownst to him, Polk’s aspirations had always been grander. Around the same time, when Secretary of State James Buchanan (far from a dove on these matters) counseled Polk against the risky wholesale dismemberment of Mexico, the president rebuked him. Polk, by then, “preferred the 26 degree [latitude] to any boundary north of it,” which, had it come to pass would have included a third of modern-day Mexico, in addition to the massive concession north of the Rio Grande between Texas and California. It went without saying that Polk’s (and all the Democrats’) assumption was that all acquired lands would be slave territory.
Through the war, in all three major theaters, the U.S. Army — then an awkward amalgamation of regular and volunteer regiments — suffered from varying (but significant) degrees of indiscipline and brutality. As a general rule of thumb, the less professional, more scantily trained, volunteer soldiers engaged in more wanton savagery and wholesale debauchery than the regulars. Taylor, along with even rank-and-file regulars, was simply exhausted and exasperated by the volunteers’ foibles. Insufficiently trained, and fiercely individualistic, the volunteer regiments — at least at first — were less reliable under fire, were more susceptible to (highly deadly) communicable disease (owing to their notoriously poor sanitation practices), and had a disturbing propensity to commit atrocities (read: war crimes) against Mexican prisoners and civilians.
Even privates in the regular regiments were appalled at the capricious wickedness of the volunteers. Almost all enlisted active-duty soldiers were destitute, uneducated, and unskilled. Forty percent were recent immigrants and 35 percent couldn’t sign their own names. The volunteers, by contrast, hailed from the middle and upper classes of American society and looked down upon the lowly professionals. The hatred was reciprocated. Raised in the regular army culture of steadfast discipline and adherence to orders, many young active-duty troopers criticized the volunteers’ propensity for counterproductive violence against Mexican civilians. One regular Army private wrote to his father, “The majority of the Volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman washing on the bank of the river — merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.”
Educated, West Point-trained, regular officers were even more likely to denigrate the venality of the volunteers. Lt. Ulysses S. Grant wrote his wife, just after taking part in Taylor’s occupations of Matamoros and Monterrey, of the “great many murders” and “weak means made use of to prevent frequent repetitions.” He expanded on his clearly disturbing observations, telling her,
Some of the volunteers and about all the Texans seem to think it perfectly right to impose upon the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by the dark. And how much they seem to enjoy acts of violence too! I would not pretend to guess the number of murders that have been committed upon the persons of poor Mexicans and the soldiers, since we have been here, but the number would startle you.
The initially sympathetic press eventually picked up on some of the atrocities, especially in the aftermath of the bloody battle and occupation of Monterrey. The litany of reported atrocities probably only scratched the surface of the dismal, on-the-ground realities. On October 6, 1846, the New Orleans Picayune reported that “eight Mexicans, including two women, had been killed … the murder attributed to some volunteers.” The next week, the Charleston Mercury described how, in Monterrey, “As at Matamoros, murder, robbery, and rape were committed in the broad light of day…. [The Volunteers] burned many of the thatched huts of the poor peasants. It is thought that 100 of the inhabitants were murdered in cold blood.” Soon, the news of volunteer atrocities reached the reading audience in London.
Many Mexican civilians consequently fled Monterrey when U.S. troops arrived. They’d heard stories about the earlier excesses in Matamoros. Grant wrote his wife in October 1846 that the volunteers “have made themselves so terrible by their previous outrages as to have inspired in the Mexicans with a perfect horror of them.” According to Taylor, in the North Mexico theater, the Texan volunteers were the most uncontrollable. As early as late June 1846, he expressed regret, in a letter, for “outrages committed by the Texas volunteers on the Mexicans and others,” and called them a “lawless set.”
Soon after, a sergeant in the Arkansas volunteers admitted that “a portion of our regiment … have been killing, I fear, innocent Mexicans as they meet them.” Matters worsened when, after an Arkansas volunteer was killed, the state’s cavalry took retribution, and commenced “an indiscriminate and bloody massacre” of 25–30 Mexican men in the presence of their families, who were then left “butchered on the floor,” and, according to an Illinois volunteer witness, “most of them [were] scalped.” Taylor, horrified, considered sending the whole lot home, but he desperately needed all the troops he could get. Given the reports from within the U.S. Army expeditionary force, it is hardly surprising that widespread guerrilla warfare promptly broke out in occupied Mexico — greatly complicating the task of occupying American soldiers in the distant land.
Polk had hoped that a few quick victories from Taylor’s army in Northern Mexico would promptly end the war. When, after a few defeats, the Mexican army refused to quit, and realizing that the route straight south to the capital of Mexico City was a daunting distance, Polk had no choice but to turn to another senior, Whig-sympathizing, general. Winfield Scott was the man of the hour. He had an audacious plan for an amphibious assault at Veracruz along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, followed by a shorter overland approach to seize the capital — the very same route the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés had taken to conquer the Aztecs in 1519. Thus, Taylor, stripped of four-fifths of his troops, and many of his most talented subordinates — including Grant — commanded only a skeleton force in the north. It was with that paltry force that he would fight, and barely win, the largest battle of the war at Buena Vista.
On March 9, 1847, Scott’s army landed. It was the first major amphibious landing in American military history — and the most ambitious until D-Day in World War II. Faced with the formidable fortified port city of Veracruz, the general decided to surround the city, cut off water and food supplies, and bombard it into submission. Over two full days, 6700 shells indiscriminately rained down on Veracruz. Foreign consuls in the city begged Scott to allow the women and children to evacuate. He refused. Some subordinate officers disagreed with the general’s decision. Capt. Robert E. Lee — though he obediently directed much of the artillery fire — wrote, “My heart bled for the inhabitants, it was terrible to think of the women and the children.” Veracruz eventually capitulated. A young South Carolina volunteer wrote his family that the inhabitants “were nearly starved to death when they surrendered … they had gotten to eating their donkeys.”
Scott’s decision to sacrifice Mexican civilians rather than risk his own troops in an assault was quite costly. Nearly 500 civilians and enemy soldiers were killed. After the city fell, embedded American journalists reported that U.S. troops immediately rioted, raping and robbing the inhabitants wholesale.
After the capitulation of Veracruz, Scott turned westward and marched towards Mexico City. American atrocities continued across the route. In Guadalupe, after a U.S. soldier was shot by a partisan, his comrades retaliated through the deliberate murder of 24 Mexicans. In another instance, Texas Rangers hanged more than 40 Mexicans. So brutal were the reports of the American retaliations, that Sen. Thomas Corwin, shocked, rose to the floor and defended the actions of the enemy partisans. “If I were a Mexican,” he declared, “I would tell you, ‘Have you not room in your country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hands, and welcome you to hospitable graves.’”
Scott, however, faced more-pressing tactical concerns. His army plagued by sickness and fatigue, and with many of its regiments’ one-year enlistments up, he found himself deep in Mexico — cut off from his supply chain — with fewer than 5,000 troops fit for duty. Guerrillas harassed the army’s rear, and, for Scott, there was no retreat. So dire was the American situation, that the British Duke of Wellington (the famed victor of the Battle of Waterloo) predicted that “Scott is lost — he cannot capture [Mexico City] and he cannot fall back upon his base.” That Scott defied the odds, pushed forward — his army living off the land — and made it to the outskirts of the capital, must stand as one of the great operational achievements in the annals of American warfare.
One of the last obstacles in Scott’s path was Chapultepec Castle, home of, and defended by, the cadets of Mexico’s national military academy. The young cadets put up a valiant defense but were overwhelmed. Six refused to surrender, even after the main army fell back, and fought to the death. Legend has it that one of the cadets wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leapt to his death rather than risk the banner’s capture. To this day, Los Niños Héroes are venerated as Mexican martyrs. The enemy’s conventional army had been vanquished, but Scott had no choice but to settle in for a lengthy, brutal — rape, robbery, and murder were rampant among his volunteers also — occupation of Mexico City. Even as bands of guerrillas continued to harass the American supply lines, he was befuddled by the continued unwillingness of the Mexican people or government to accede to defeat or negotiate peace. Army morale quickly declined. Stuck in a stagnated impasse, the general had little choice but to rely on Polk’s appointed peace emissary — Nicholas Trist — to work out an acceptable settlement … and fast!.
This article was originally published in the July 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.