Mexican War: Northern Campaign


Figure 1.--

President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to move his army into the disputed territory to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Anti-slavery forces criticised Polk for ordering Taylor to the Rio Grande, seeing it as a nove to provoke Mexico into a war that would add even more slave states. Even before Taylor moved his army to the Rio Grande, Parades began mobilizing the Mexican Army and restated his intention of attacking the United States. Parades ordered his commander stationed at Matamoros on the Rio Grande to attack the Americans (April 4). When the commander hesitated, Parades replaced him. Parades then declared war (April 23) and ordered the new commander to attack. The War began when Mexican units crossed the Rio Grande and attacked a U.S. dragoon patrol commanded by Capt. Seth B. Thornton in the dispured territory (April 25, 1846). It was a small engagement. Taylor reported that Thorton's patrol had been ambushed. Mexican forces staged two more attacks north of te Rio Grande, at Palo Alto (May 8) and Resaca de la Palma (May 9). American forces repulsed both attacks. Taylor's report of the first attack arrived in Washington (May 9). The following Monday, Polk presented a declaration of war to Congress (May 13). There was vocal opposition to war from the anti-slave forces, but Congress voted the declaration of war (May 13). Parades and his supporters were shocked when Taylor's numerically smaller army repulsed the initial Mexican attacks accross the Rio Grande. He ordered the new commander to move back from the Rio Grande thinking that the Americans would not persure the war in the difficult terraine of northern Mexico. The rest of the northern campaign took place south of the Rio Grande in northern Mexico. President Parades had though American divisions would impair the war effort. In fact, news of the Mexican attacks across the Rio Grande had the impact of increasing popular support for the War although a vocal opposition continued. Taylor finally began planning a campaign south to seize the principal northern city of Monterrey. Monterrey was fortified and had a garrison of over 10,000 men. Taylor's army reached Momterrey (September 19). He began his attack (September 21). After intense fighting, Mexican commander General Pedro de Ampudia requested an truce which Taylor accepted. Taylor permitted him to withdraw his battered forces from Monterrey (September 25) A key factor in the War proved to be Mexican domestic divisions. Santa Anna established his headquarters at San Luis Potosi, far to the south. It was there that he leaned of the Anerican redeoloyments through captured dispatches. Santa Anna began moving his 20,000 man army north to engage Taylor's weakened force of only about 7,000 men (January 1847). Despite having a much smaller force, Taylor decided to give battle. He set up defensive positions at Buena Vista. Santa Anna launched his attack (February 22). In two days of heavy fighting, Santa Anna almost overwealmed Taylor's inferior force. When he failed, he disebgaed and moved south to deal with political disorder in Mexico City and Scott's invasion. Buena Vista was the last iportant engagement fought in the north.

Mexican Expectations

The enormous differences between Mexico and the United States did not exist in the 1840s. America was not yet an industrial nation, alouth manufacturung had begun in the northeast. America had a larger population, but not enormously so. Most of the American population lived east of the Mississppi, far from Texas where Parades thought the war would be fought. Mexico at the time the war occured had a larger and more experienced army than the United States. It was a32,000 men which Santa Anna had formed and used a considerable portion of governmeent revenues to arm and maintain. He used it to quel uprisings in various Mexican states, often with considerable brutality. The Mexican army was about five times the size of the United States army at the time war broke out. Parades thought that the logistics involved would favor the Mexican army. The Americans would have a hard tome reaching Texas and would find it even more difficult to move into Mexico. He also was aware of the American slavery debate and thought this would prevent Polk from taking decisive action. Parades and other Mexican leaders were convinced that their military superority would enable them to win back Texas. Parades even talked about continuing east and taking New Orleans and Mobile, the two most important American ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Some Mexicans thought a Mexican invasion of the United States would precipitate a slave uprising would leave the United States encapable of continuing the war.

Outbreak of War (May 1846)

General Zacary Taylor after the American annexation of Texas was ordered into Texas and he set up his headquarters on the Nueces River (Fall 1845). He did not atvfirst ebter the disputed territory between the Rio Grande and the Nueces. President Polk when the Slidell mission failed did not declare war (January 1846). Polk did order General Zachary Taylor to move his army into the disputed territory to the mouth of the Rio Grande. His orders were to defend Texas, not to invade Mexico. Polk neve explained why he did not ask for a declaration of war, but the reason is presumably the fact that the annexation of Texas had been controversial, primarily because it added a slave state to the Union. Polk probably realized that he could not get firm support from Congress. Taylor reached the Rio Grande (March 28, 1846). Anti-slavery forces criticised Polk for ordering Taylor to the Rio Grande, seeing it as a nove to provoke Mexico into a war that would add even more slave states. Parades and the Centralists did not see the Texas question as a boundary issue. They wanted all of Texas back and like Santa Anna they saw the American annexation of Texas as reason for war. Even before Taylor moved his army to the Rio Grande, Parades began mobilizing the Mexican Army and restated his intention of attacking the United States. Parades ordered his commander stationed at Matamoros on the Rio Grande to attack the Americans (April 4). When the commabder hesitated, Parades replaced him. Parades then declared war (April 23) and ordered the new commander to attack. Wiser consul might have convinced Prades that Santa Anna had failed to defeat a small, poorly armed Texas militia that he was unlikely to defeat the United States. But he had seized control by appealing to Mexican nationalism and exerting Mexico's clim to Texas and was determined to make good his appeal. The War began when Mexican units crossed the Rio Grande and attacked a U.S. dragoon patrol commanded by Capt. Seth B. Thornton in the dispured territory (April 25, 1846). It was a small engagement. Taylor reported that Thorton's patrol had been ambushed. Mexican forces staged two more attacks north of te Rio Grande, at Palo Alto (May 8) and Resaca de la Palma (May 9). American forces repulsed both attacks. Taylor's report of the first attack arrived in Washington (May 9). The following Monday, Polk presented a declaration of war to Congress (May 13). Ther was vocal opposition to war from the anti-slave forces, but Congress voted the declaration of war (May 13).

Mexican Withdraw South (May 18, 1846)

Parades and his supporters were shocked when Taylor's numerically smaller army repulsed the initial Mexican attacks accross the Rio Grande. Their initial assessment was that the American success was largely due to more effective and mobile artillery. Parades blamed the Mexican commander and appointed yet another general. He ordered the new commander to move back from the Rio Grande thinking that the Americans would not persure the war in the difficult terraine of northern Mexico. The rest of the northern campaign took place south of the Rio Grande in northern Mexico.

Amercan Delay (May-August, 1847)

Taylor occupied Matamoros after the Mexicans evacuated the city (May 18). He did not, however, persue the Mexican army south. He still had a relatively small force with limited transport--a critical factor for a campaign into nothern Mexico far from supply bases. Taylor stayed in Matamoros several months. Critics began questioning his competence. Taylor moved his headquarters inland up the Rio Grande to Camargo (July). Reinforcements poured into Texas. As Taylors force swelled to about 20,000 men. They were largely volunteers without precious military experience. Training and equipping these men largely explains Taylor's reluctance to immediately move south. Taylor also experieced medical problems. Sanitation was primitive and even without Mexican attacks there were substantial casualties due to disease, dysentery, and other health problems. A determined Mexican attack before the volunteers had been trained might well have suceeded The Mexicans after the initial engagements were unwilling to resume the offensive, this was largely because of the politicl situation in Mexico.

Mexican Political Developments

President Parades had though American divisions would impair the war effort. In fact, news of the Mexican attacks across the Rio Grande had the impact of increasing popular support for the War although a vocal opposition continued. A key factor in the War proved to be Mexican domestic divisions. The Mexicans did not attack Taylor south of the Rio Grande in large part because Parades Centralist government was falling. Unlike the situatiin in the United States, the war news increased donestic divisions. The Federalists that Parades had ousted saw an opportunity to regain power. From an early stage, some Federalist leaders had been in contact with Taylor. They offered supplies in exchange for Taylor's assistance in outsting Parades and the Centralists. This is important because supplies and lofistics were a major problem Taylor faced. And the Federalists were especially string in northern Mexico where Taylor would fightbhis battles. The Nexican defeats at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma (May) not only shocked Parades, but it precipitated open revellion throughout Mexico. Rising occurred at Acapulco and Guadalajara (July). The military garrison at Veracruz mutinied (August 3) and Mexico City itself (August 4). Parades decided he could no longer maintain control. He resigned and went into hiding, fearing for his life (July 28. his vice-president was unable to mauntain order and he also resigned (August 6). The Federalists quickly seized power in Mexico City. They restored the Constitution of 1824. Valentin Gomez Farias, the former vice-president who the Centralists had deposed in 1834, attempted to organize a new government.

Santa Anna

With the fall of Parades, Santa Anna reenters Mexican politics. He had been living as an exile in Cuba, at the time still a Spanish colony. Santa Anna was the most respected Centralist in Mexico and a string proponent of recovering Texas, which he had earlier lost. Even so, he managed to convince President Polk that he could achieve a truce. Polk ordered the U.S. Navy to allow Santa Anna through the blockade on Mexican ports. Santa Anna reached Veracruz (August 16). H had duped Polk. Upon reaching Mexico, all talk of a possible tuce disappeared. Talk of a truce was forgotten. Despite thefiasco in Texas (1836), Santa Anna was the most respected Mexican military figure. He was quickly command of the Mexican army, a force he had largely created. Santa Anna after his exile in Cuba was spoiling for a fight. He hoped to regain his claim to military brilliance lost in the Texas War for independence. The War, however, proved to be another exercise in Santa Anna's incompetence. Congress voted to make him president (December 1846). He asumed office (March 1847).

Monterrey Campaign (September 1846)

Taylor finally began planning a campaign south the seize the principal northern city of Monterrey. Monterrey was about 100 miles south of the Rio Grande, but 200 mile west of Matamoros, the cloest port through which the U.S. Navy could deliver supplies. Taylor started moving south (August). Monterrey was fortified ad had a garrison of over 10,000 men. Taylor's army reached Momterrey (September 19). He began his attack (September 21). Gen. William J. Worth commenced the attack with a force of about 2,000 men. Worth in the morning took the road connecting Monterrey with Saltillo to the west. This was an important step in isolating the Monterrey garrison. Worth then attacked the important Mexican defensice position on g Federation Hill. Texas Rangers charged up the hill and seized the Mexican artillery there which was then used n the Mexican defenders. On the eastern side of the city, Taylor launched a diversionary attack whichbunexpectedly managed to enter the city itself although the military situation was somewhat confused. Taylor consolidated his forces (September 22). He attacked again (September 23). Vicious street fighting ensued. Mexican commander General Pedro de Ampudia requested an truce which Taylor accepted. Taylor permitted him to withdraw his battered forces from Monterrey (September 25). They agreed on an 8-week armistice. Both sides had suffered casualties, the Mexicans 367 men and the Americans 488.

Taylor's Political Situation

Taylor had been criticized for delaying his attack on Monterrey several months. Both Polk and Army Chief-of-Staff General Winfield Scott objected to the armistice. Taylor and Scott disliked each other and were polar opposites. There knicknames reflected the difference between them. Taylor was known as "Old Riugh and Ready". Scott was knon as "Old Fuss and Feathers". The differences are imoortant because they made up Polk's mind to divert resources for an amphibious attack on Veracruz to reach Mexico City. Fighting through to Mexico City from the north seemed an impossible undertaking given the distances and terraine.

American Position (November-December 1846)

Taylor informed Santa Anna who was now in commabd of the Mexican Army that his superiors had not approved of the armistice and that it would have to be ended. Taylor occupied Saltillo (November 16). Another American force commanded by Gen. John E. Wood took Parras (December 5). This would have left the Americans in a strong position in the north. President Polk decided to detach a sizeable part of Taylor's force, including some of the best trained units. This left Taylor dangeroudly exposed as Santa Anna was amassung a sizeable force an San Luis Potosi.

Buena Vista (February 1847)

Santa Anna established his headquarters at San Luis Potosi, far to the south. It was there that he leaned of the Anerican redeoloyments through captured dispatches. Santa Anna began moving his 20,000 man army north to engage Taylor's weakened force of only about 7,000 men (January 1847). Taylor did not learn of Santa Anna's approach until (February 21). Despite having a much smaller force, Taylor decided to give battle. He set up defensive positions at Buena Vista, this was a hacienda with massive walls near Saltillo. Santa Anna launched his attack (February 22) The attack was led by Ampudia who had been the garisson commander at Monterrey. Ampudia pressed the attack and took key American defensive positions. Santa Anna then committed his main force (February 23). The Mexican attack almost overwealmed the American defenses. The Mexicans were stopped, however, when Col. Jefferson Davis led a charge to maintain the American line. (Davis was Taylor's son-in-law and as a resuly to the engagement emerged as a war hero. After the War he would be elected senator from Misiisippi and Secretary of War. It was these credentials that launched his selection as Confederate President.) Another key factor in stopping the Mexican advance was a devestating use of artillery executed by Capt. Braxton Bragg (another important future Confederate commander). Buena Vista was the most costly battle of the Northern Campaign. The Americans suffered about 700 casualties, but the Mexivans about 1,800 casualties. Santa Anna still had vastly superior forces. It is unclear why he did not persue the battle, but he did not. Instead that night he desengaged and began a long treck south. Of course he knew that Scott was going to land and move inland from the coast to take Mexico City. There were also political disorder in Mexico City to deal with. Yet another day at Buena Vista very likely would have brought him victory.

End of the Campaign (November 1847)

American possession of cities in northern Mexico was clearly not going gto end the War. Building Scott's invasion force left Taylor with an inadequate force to push south. Santa Anna shifted his forces to defend Mexicio City. Thus there were no further engagements of any consequence in the north. Taylor remained there several months with his battered force. Hecfinally returned to the United States (November 1847).

Taylor Presidency

Taylor quarled with President Polk. The President through his support behind Army Chief of Staff of Staff Winfield Scott. Polk ordered some of Taylor's best units to be transferred to Scott's command. Taylor was left with only a small force in northern Mexico. It was thus Scott's force which labded at Vera Cruz and took Mexico city. Taylor's run for the presidency was in large part due to anger over how he as treated by Polk and Scott. Both Scott and Taylor emerged as war heros. It was Scott who actually won the War by leading the campaign that seized Mexico City. Yet is was Taylor who managed to parlay his war service into a successful presidential campaign.

Military Assessment

By all reasonable paper comparisons, the Mexican should have won the northern campaign. They had a much larger and more experienced army and they were fighting on their own territory. Why then did they lose all of the major engagements? The standard explanations are 1) inferior ordinance, 2) poor leadership, and 3) internal political divisions. First, military historians have found that the powder used by Mexicam artillery gunners was inferior, limiting range. Also the Americans has perfected flying artillery, giving them the ability to rapidly deploy light artillery to devestating affect. Second, the Mexican military leadership was less effective than the Amercan leadership. I am not sure just why this was. Here Santa Anna is the prime, but not the only example. Third, the confkict between Federalists and Centralists clearly weakened the Mexican war effort. We believe another factor needs to be considered, the fighting spirit of the individual soldier. This is not a popular factor to discuss, as many historians are affected by the desire to be politically correct. And any questioning of the fighting spirit of Mexican soldiers will be taken as casting racial aspersions. We do not suggest that race is involved at all, but we think social factors may be involved. Why for example did Mexico not settle Texas, New Mexico, and California in any numbers? Mexico was at the time an agricultural country doinated by large haciendas and an almost feudal peasantry. We suspect that such individuals do not make as effective soldies as the much more independent amd motivated American soldiers. This is not to say that Mexican soldies did not fight with great bravery. Battkle accounts clearly suggest that they did. But American oldiers seem to have fought with greater ferocity and commitment, allowing them to precail even when outnumbered. At any rate this is our initial impression. We do not know of any historian who has specificaly addressed this question.







HBC







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Created: 5:20 AM 10/3/2006
Last updated: 5:20 AM 10/3/2006