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Re-examining the Mexican War

by C. F. Eckhardt

If you believe the ‘politically correct historians’ and the novelists who follow their lead, the mighty Norteños attacked poor, defenseless Mexico and raped her of her northern territories. Frankly, that’s a myth, and a simple examination of the various strengths, both military and political, of the two countries will expose that myth. It is, however, considered ‘politically incorrect’ to compare those strengths. Since I make a point of being ‘politically incorrect,’ I have no hesitation in doing this.

First, the political comparison: The United States had, at the time, one of the weakest forms of central government in the world—a limited constitutional republic. The only weaker form of central government is a true confederacy, a form which only the Swiss have ever made work.

In a limited republic the states are supreme within their own borders. The federal government regulates international trade and interstate commerce, provides for the overall defense of the nation, and little else. What occurs within the borders of a state is regulated by the state’s legislative body, not by the central government.

Mexico, while nominally a republic, was in fact a one-man dictatorship—the strongest form of central government outside an absolute monarchy there is. The state— and all its components—served the will of a single individual, the dictator. The dictator, in this case, was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez de LeBron, a man of unbridled ambition—and unimaginable cruelty. Santa Anna referred to himself as ‘The Napoleon of the West” and had ambitions closely akin to those of Bonaparte. He had, in fact, announced that he intended to annex to Mexico all territory surrounding the Gulf of Mexico that had formerly been—or presently was—claimed by Spain. This would include Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Central American ‘republics’—which were as corrupt and dictator-ridden as Mexico—almost the entire north coast of South America, and the American states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, as well as the Republic of Texas, which he fully intended to reconquer.

Militarily the United States was as weak as it was politically. The standing US Army had a nominal strength of 6,000, but an actual strength of about 5,400. Its officer corps, for the most part, was entirely home-grown. The US had not fought a major war since 1812-1814. Only the most senior generals had ever seen a unit as large as a regiment assembled in a single place, and only when they were very junior officers, some thirty years earlier. By far the majority of the enlisted men were foreign-born. In some cases their loyalty to the United States could be considered questionable.

The regular army establishment consisted primarily of infantry. There were only three mounted regiments, none of which was cavalry. This was purely a political choice, as cavalry was supposed to be the arm of the ‘aristocracy,’ and the US was not supposed to have an ‘aristocracy.’ The mounted regiments were the 1st and 2nd Dragoons and the Regiment of Mounted Rifles. There was also a single regiment of artillery, which was scattered in batteries, sections, and half sections at coastal forts along the east and Gulf coasts. Other than support troops, this was the entire army of the United States.

The United States also did not have an organized national reserve force. Each state had a militia force, the effectiveness of which often depended on the proximity of the frontier. Frontier-state militias were usually fairly well versed in Indian-fighting techniques, most of which were useless in a European set-piece type war.

State militias were under the nominal command of each state’s adjutant general, who was often a political appointee with little or no military experience. Each county was supposed to maintain a ready militia under a ‘county colonel,’ who was usually elected, either for his personal popularity or because he furnished more and better whiskey on election day than his opponents did. Nominally each militia was supposed to assemble for a ‘muster day’ at regular intervals. At ‘muster day’ each militiaman was required to present himself with a serviceable weapon, forty rounds of ammunition for it, and rations and clothing for three days. Mostly the latter requirement was ignored. Following ‘inspection’ by the county colonel, each militiaman was given a ‘week’s pay’—usually the equivalent of a single English shilling—and for the most part ‘muster day’ disintegrated into a jolly drunk.

Farther east militias might well be cavalry units, but most of them were more concerned with how they looked than whether or not they could fight. ‘Muster days’ often included a dress-uniform parade and a picnic where the militiamen might impress the local womenfolk with their shiny uniforms—but most of them, ultimately, disintegrated into drinking bouts in the evenings.

The central government of the United States had no control over these state militias. The president could not ‘call up the reserves’ in the event of national emergency. The Adjutant General of the United States had to petition the adjutants general of the various states to request that the governors of their states commit the states’ militias to the national cause. Each state’s governor had the right, if he chose, to refuse to commit his state’s militia. Federal management of state militias did not exist until the National Guard act of 1906. The one military strength the United States had was the right of the president to call for volunteers to augment the armed forces in the event of war.

Mexico, on the other hand, maintained a standing army of 500,000 men, 60% of which was cavalry, the primary offensive arm of the period. This was the largest standing army in the Western Hemisphere. The regular army might not have been well-fed and well-clothed, but it was well-armed and well-trained. Nearly all the enlisted men were natives of Mexico, but the officer corps included many European soldiers-of-fortune who had considerable battlefield experience in European wars. Vicente Filisola was an Italian, Adrian Woll a German, and there were many others.

In addition to the half-million man standing army, Mexico had a nationally- organized, nationally-armed, and nationally-trained reserve force of an additional 750,000 men, 60% of which was cavalry. Santa Anna could field an army of upwards of a million men and still leave a quarter of a million troops at home to handle any uprisings while he was out on conquest—and conquest was what he intended. He didn’t refer to himself as ‘The Napoleon of the West’ just so he’d have a nickname.

Upon examining the relative political and military strengths of the two nations, along with the often-expressed intent of Santa Anna, the all-powerful dictator of Mexico, to reconquer and add to Mexico all former and current Spanish territory on the fringes of the Gulf of Mexico, it is impossible to fail to realize that Mexico constituted, in 1846/47, a very real and present danger to the continued existence of the United States in the form it held at that time. While the ‘politically correct’ may point to the ‘Manifest Destiny’ idea within the US, there is little doubt that the US was extremely ill-equipped—and ill- suited--to pursue ‘Manifest Destiny’ anywhere but in fiery speeches from the floor of the Congress. The military and political wherewithal to do it simply didn’t exist in 1846/47 in the US.

The wherewithal to pursue Santa Anna’s idea of ‘manifest destiny’—the conquest of all current and former Spanish territory within the Gulf of Mexico, on its shores, and within the interior of the North American continent, certainly did. Mexico had the armed forces—and Santa Anna had the intent—to do exactly what Santa Anna wanted.

So what happened? How did this politically and militarily weak country manage to defeat the largest army in the Western Hemisphere? The answer lies in the spirit of the volunteer. The state of Tennessee was asked to provide 1,000 volunteers. It provided 10,000. The situation was repeated in most states. The volunteers, being untrained in traditional military thought, were not hidebound when circumstances went against them. A perfect example is shown in the battle of Buena Vista. The Regular Army considered the battle lost. One of Zachary Taylor’s officers approached him and said “Sir, the battle is lost,” then suggested a retreat.

Taylor replied “You know that and I know that, but the volunteers don’t know that. Let us see what they can do.” The battle of Buena Vista was a US victory.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
February 3, 2008 column

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