Military Policy During the Mexican War


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Chapter VII Pages: 79-91

A series of continuous victories such as preceded the entry of the American forces into the City of Mexico would ordinarily be indicative of a faultless military policy. In this instance, however,

"paradoxical as it may seem, official documents establish the fact that they were achieved under the very same system of laws and executive orders which in the preceding foreign war had led to a series of disasters culminating in the capture and destruction of our capital.

"The explanation of this paradox is to be found partly in the difference of character of our adversaries, but more especially in the quality of the Regular Army with which we began the two wars. For the Mexican War, as for the War of 1812, the Government had ample time to prepare." (1)

The secession of Texas from the Mexican federation, (2) the establishment of an independent republic, (3) and its overtures for admittance to the American Union ended in President Tyler's submitting a treaty of annexation to the Senate in April, 1844. It was decisively rejected on the ground that public opinion did not relish such clandestine negotiations, but the matter became a leading political issue and, on March 3, 1845, Texas was definitely annexed to the United States, ratification (4) following on July 4th. (5) The question of boundary and extent of territory being in dispute, this Government undertook to fix upon the Rio Grande as the legitimate frontier (6) and during August orders were sent, by direction of President Polk, to General Taylor (7) to "defend Texas from invasion" which, if it occurred, was to be considered "as an invasion of the United States and the commencement of hostilities." In the event of the latter he was empowered to muster into the United States service such Texan volunteers as were required, and to "cross the Rio Grande, disperse or capture the forces assembling to invade Texas." (8) Instructions were likewise sent to the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana,(9) Tennessee and Kentucky (10) to furnish such militia for the "army of occupation" as General Taylor might specify.

These orders were extremely significant in that they contemplated, not only an invasion of Mexico, but an aggressive war to be waged by the same sort of troops as were used at the commencement of the War of 1812. Furthermore, despite the Constitutional limitation as to the use of the militia, (11) General Taylor's instructions sanctioned his entry into foreign territory with such State troops as had responded to his call. The Government officials were apparently oblivious to the conduct of the Vermont militia in 1813 and 1814 (12) and the possibility of such a recurrence.

On October 4th, Taylor suggested that the vexing question as to the boundary would be brought nearer a solution by taking possession of some point on or near the Rio Grande (13) and, the Administration having concurred, orders were given him accordingly on January 13, 1846. On March 8th he left Corpus Christi, reaching the river at a point opposite Matamoras twenty days later, where he found the Mexicans "decidedly hostile." His own regulars numbered at most 3,554 (14) and, finding himself none too strong and very much isolated, he promptly wrote (15) to the Adjutant-General:

"Under this state of things I must again and urgently call your attention to the necessity of speedily sending recruits to this army. The militia of Texas are so remote from the border...that we can not depend upon their aid. The strength gained by filling up the regiments here, even to the present feeble establishment, would be of very great importance." (16)

Taylor's suggestions were in harmony with those contained in the reports of General Scott and the Secretary of War nearly four months previously. (17) These reports were transmitted to Congress by the President when he sent his annual message on December 2, 1845, but, as usual, that body saw fit to disregard their wise recommendations, and in the four and a half months which elapsed between its convening and the outbreak of hostilities it took no action whatsoever.

On April 25th occurred the first encounter, in which Thornton's dragoons were worsted. Next day General Taylor called upon the governors of Texas and Louisiana for 5,000 volunteers, (18) but obviously it was too late. The Mexicans in large force threatened his line of communications, forcing him to fall back to Point Isabel, (19) but on May 7th he resumed his advance, encountered the enemy (20) at Palo Alto, defeated him and repeated his success next day at Resaca de la Palma. (21)

As Upton remarks: (22)

"The effect of this brilliant initiative was felt to the end of the war. It gave our troops courage to fight against overwhelming numbers, demoralized the enemy, and afforded a striking proof of the truth of the maxim. 'That in war, moral force is to physical as three is to one.' (23) In all of the subsequent battles our troops were outnumbered two or three to one, yet they marched steadily forward to victory, and for the first time in our history temporarily convinced our statesmen, if not the people, of the value of professional education and military discipline."

The news of these two engagements spread rapidly and created such alarm lest Taylor's small force should be over-whelmed that volunteers presented themselves far in excess of the numbers for which he had called. General Gaines, who in almost every disturbance since 1815 had called out troops without sanction of the Government, proceeded on his own initiative to organize and equip an army enlisted for six months, and so energetic was he that more than 8,000 men were sent to Taylor before the Government put a quietus on Gaines by relieving him from his command. (24) Two days after the news reached Washington, President Polk sent a message to Congress, (25) in which he said:

"I invoke the prompt action of Congress to recognize the existence of the war, and to place at the disposition of the Executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace. To this end I recommend that authority should be given to call into the public service a large body of volunteers, to serve for not less than six or twelve months, unless sooner discharged. (26) A volunteer force is beyond question more efficient than any other description of citizen soldiers: and it is not to be doubted that a number far beyond that required would readily rush to the field upon the call of their country. I further recommend that a liberal provision he made for sustaining our entire military force and furnishing it with supplies and munitions of war." (27)

In this message are to be found the germs to which the subsequent delays and extravagance characteristic of this war are directly traceable. Oblivious to the experience of three wars and without taking into account the length of time required to convey troops to the distant Rio Grande without railways, the President expressed his conviction that raw troops could successfully terminate a foreign war in a year, a thing that never has happened and in all likelihood never will happen under our present system. But Congress fell in with his suggestions with extraordinary promptness, authorized a call for 50,000 volunteers and voted $10,000,000, (28) but it manifested a better grasp of the situation than did the Executive by requiring the volunteers "to serve the twelve months after they shall have arrived at the place of rendezvous, or to the end of the war." (29) the sequel demonstrated once again the necessity for wise and comprehensive legislation, for the President, instead of exercising his prerogative, issued his call (30) in the exact letter of the law and thus left it to the discretion each volunteer to decide at the expiration of a year whether he should demand his discharge or continue in service "to the end of the war." (31)

On that same day Congress empowered the President to increase the number of privates in the companies of dragoons, artillery and infantry of the Regular Army to not exceed 100, with the proviso that it should be reduced to 64 when the emergency had passed. (32)

"It will thus be seen that while during peace all discretion to increase the Army was withheld from the President through motives of economy, or of jealousy of the Army, the moment war was declared the power of expanding it was freely committed to his trust, a power that enabled him, without adding an officer to the line, to raise the enlisted strength from 7,580 to 15,540.

"Had this discretion been granted to the President by the law of 1842 (33) the army of occupation need not have been exposed to an attack by an army three times its numbers; neither would there have been any occasion to expose to the ravages of disease the thousands of three months' men (34) who rushed to its rescue." (35)

The remaining military legislation during the year (36) was devoted to the increase of the staff departments during the war, the exception being the Act of May 19th which added a regiment of riflemen destined for service in Oregon. (37)

Meanwhile, so prompt had been the response to the President's call that General Taylor, who had occupied Matamoras, had been joined by so many volunteers (38) as to be at his wit's end how to supply them, but he put them through such a course of drill and instruction that he succeeded in developing a good second line army out of them. (39) As not a wagon had reached him, (40) he was compelled to leave 6,000 volunteers behind when he began his advance from Camargo (41) to Monterey at the end of August. (42) A march of 180 miles through a dreary desert and under a tropical sun brought the army to the outskirts of Monterey on September 19th. The following day was spent in dispositions for the attack, and on the 21st began the battle of Monterey which raged for three days. A brilliant assault upon Fort Independence by General Worth (43) placed the Americans in possession of the dominating heights and the city, with the exception of the citadel, and forced General Ampudia to propose a capitulation on the 24th (44) By virtue of the terms granted, the place was to be evacuated within seven days and a cessation of hostilities to continue for six weeks. (45) The Mexicans withdrew through Saltillo to San Louis Potosi, 300 miles from Monterey, but it was not until December that Taylor pushed forward to the former and, re-enforced by General Wool's command, (46) inaugurated the operations which put him in possession of the provinces of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas within a few weeks.

Continue on  Page: 2 for footnotes 1-46


Website: The History
Article Name: Military Policy During the Mexican War
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my collection of Books: The Military Unpreparedness of the United States- A History of American Land Forces from Colonial Times until June 1, 1915. By Frederic Louis Huidekoper; Publisher: The Macmillan Company-New York 1916
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