Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Long Shadow of Mexico

This is the first in a four-part series about the impact of the Mexican War on the American Civil War.
Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

The Battle of Chapultepec

Like so many of the men his age in 1861, the defining moments in Joseph Hooker's life to that point had taken place in Mexico. Mexican War veteran Senator Edward Baker had written him a letter of recommendation to his friend Abraham Lincoln, who had sent it on to Mexican War veteran Brigadier General Joseph Mansfield commanding the Department of Washington, who had in turn forwarded it to Mexican War commander Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. And it was because of the Mexican War that Scott made sure Hooker did not receive a position.

The Mexican War looms so large over the American Civil War for two reasons. The first, was the impact it had in splitting apart the country. If slavery was the force that tore the nation apart, the Mexican War was its wedge. The second, was the impact it had on the lives of young American soldiers who would go on to make up the leadership of both sides in the American Civil War.

Joe Hooker in the 1860s
Not that Joe Hooker was ever typical, but he was not so different that his example is not illustrative. Like many of his peers, Hooker was born to a family with deep American roots (his grandfather had been a captain in Washington's Continental Army, his great-great-grandfather had landed in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1689) in 1814. He left Massachusetts for West Point, graduating 29th of 50 in 1837 (the same year as fellow Massachusetts-native and Scott chief-of-staff Edward Townsend, and one year before G.T. Beauregard) and joining Company F, 1st U.S. Artillery Regiment for its war against the Seminole Indians in Florida Territory (the unit is still around today, called the 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment).

When conflict with the Seminoles died down, Lt. Hooker and the 1st Artillery joined Winfield Scott in East Tennessee as he prepared to forcibly remove the Cherokee from northern Georgia. After their Trail of Tears was completed, Hooker's company went to Maine, where border disputes with British Canada were threatening to break out into open warfare. Hooker continued to bounce between stations, the regiment having been spread throughout New England. Service in the peacetime U.S. Army was mostly protecting convoys of settlers moving west, or fighting the small Indian wars that accompanied that movement, and Hooker lucked out in spending most of his time in well-established places. Even his harder posts were not far enough removed from high society to be considered difficult.

But beneath the surface of the society Hooker enjoyed, social, political, and economic forces were churning. It had begun in 1642, when Massachusetts became the first English North American colony to legalize human slavery (primarily of their native population). In 1662, a year after Virginia followed Massachusetts' lead (its African laborers first purchased in 1619 had been laboring under the sham of "temporary" indentured servitude), it passed a law that children would have the same status as their mothers, and the institution of chattel slavery in the future United States began to take form. The cheap labor allowed the development of agriculture - particularly indigo, tobacco and, later, cotton - on a scale that could be profitable, rather than just on a subsistence scale.

But things were developing differently in the North. There, where the climate and soil were not favorable to cash crops, the colonial economies were developing based on trade, specifically over the sea. Even as late as the Constitutional Convention, the two economic models were not at conflict (in fact, as it has often been argued, they were mutually reinforcing). The only limits on slavery in the nation's founding document was a provision insisted on by Northern states counting no more than 3/5 of a state's slave population towards apportionment in Congress, and a Southern-supported ban on importing slaves (which would increase the price of their native-born slaves).

But by the time the Northwest Territory was organized in 1787 (an area now known as the Mid-West, extending from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River), surplus population who competed with slaves for jobs and saw their wages lowered because of that competition had joined forces with moralists opposed to slavery on principle to turn the politics of the North in favor of "free labor". Congress had added a provision to the Northwest Ordinance organizing the territory that prevented any new states formed from it from legalizing slavery. When waves of German and Irish immigrants began arriving and moving to those territories for economic opportunity, the politics of free labor grew stronger. The Compromise of 1820 settling Missouri's petition for statehood as a slave-state and establishing a nation-wide line for legalized slavery (the southern border of Missouri, plus Missouri) delayed a true crisis, but at the price of turning up the heat over the long run.
Territorial growth of the United States. The Missouri Compromise
line can be seen in the northern border of Arkansaw Territory.

It first began to bubble to the surface while Hooker was still at West Point. A quick look at a map makes clear why. The Missouri Compromise line left only Arkansaw Territory (Arkansas and all but the panhandle of Oklahoma) for a future slave-state. So Americans had begun moving to Mexico and starting plantations, initially to the delight of the Mexican government, who had trouble controlling the native population of their northern territory. But as Texas grew, Mexico City decided to repeal the incentives they had put in place to attract the "Norteamericanos" (such as no property tax), and prohibit slavery in Texas. The immigrant Texans responded by declaring themselves an independent country.

In 1834, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led a military coup against the Mexican government and made himself dictator. Two years later, he led an army to reassert control over the rebellious Texans (beginning with the bloody massacre of the Alamo) until his army was defeated by Texans under Sam Houston. Santa Anna was captured and signed a treaty recognizing the Republic of Texas, but when he returned to Mexico City, he learned he had been deposed and the government refused to recognize his treaty.

For the next ten years, the status of Texas was ambiguous, with the Mexican government insisting it was in rebellion, and the Texas government appealing to the United States for a guarantee of protection (a promise to declare war on Mexico in the event Texas was invaded). Meanwhile in the United States, both Northerners and Southerners were pushing for expansion to the Pacific Ocean, the Northerners wanting to assert U.S. control of Oregon Territory, the Southerners to annex Texas and Alta California. Both sides saw that expansion as key to creating a government more favorable to their economic model.

In 1845, while Hooker was stationed with the 1st Artillery at Pensacola, Democrats (by now clearly led by Southerners, but still very strong in the urban North, especially among immigrants) were finally successful in annexing Texas. The Mexican government broke diplomatic relations and President James K. Polk sent Brigadier General Zachary Taylor, also from the Upper South (Polk was from Tennessee, Taylor from Virginia), to Texas in June. In order to secure Senate approval for the Treaty of Annexation, the text had been left ambiguous as to the southern border of the new state. Taylor deployed his force to defend Polk's preference of the Rio Grande as the border (the border recognized by Santa Anna back in 1836), to the fury of his political opponents, the Whig Party (even those who had supported annexation), who believed it should be further north at the traditional Mexican provincial border of Rio Nueces.

It didn't help that a rogue expedition of American military and volunteers following John C. Fremont had briefly led a revolution in California under the American flag, before abandoning his men to their fate and returning east. Nor did it help when it gradually became known that Polk had sent then-Congressman John Slidell (later Beauregard's patron as Senator from Louisiana) to secretly negotiate purchase of Texas and California. The Mexican government was in too much turmoil to negotiate such a deal, even if they had wanted to. And exposure of the president's plan to sell Texas to Slidell had brought on another coup in Mexico City.

By April 1846, Zachary Taylor had about half the entire U.S. Army with him on the Rio Grande. On the twenty-fifth he sent a squadron of 70 riders from the 2nd U.S. Dragoons (cavalry that dismounted in order to fight - the unit would later switch to cavalry and be commanded by Robert E. Lee - it still exists today as the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment) to investigate reports that a Mexican army had crossed the Rio Grande. Sure enough, around 2,000 had, and they managed to ambush the dragoons.

It became known as the Thornton Affair after the squadron commander, who was wounded and captured. Taylor didn't find out until two days later, but when he did immediately sent word to Polk, who heard on May 10. The president sent a message to Congress the next day, along with proposed legislation to fund Taylor's army for combat:

But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war.
Polk wanted it to be called "An Act for the Prosecution of the Existing War Between the United States and the Republic of Mexico", insisting that the Mexicans had invaded U.S. soil by crossing the Rio Grande and that therefore a state of war already existed. Further, because the appropriation for the Army (and for an additional 50,000 volunteers) was made the de facto declaration of war, opponents had to face the political pressure of supporting the troops in harm's way.

Former president John Quincy Adams led the Whigs in opposing the bill in the House of Representatives, but when it came time for the final vote, he lost out 174-14, with 20 abstentions. The Senate was considered to be trickier, since Polk allies Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina were in opposition (both were Democrats). But Benton and Calhoun couldn't form a unified opposition, with Calhoun demanding a full examination of facts about the location of the border and Benton opposing an offensive war, but supporting money for the troops. In the end, 40 Senators (including Benton) voted for the measure, two Whigs opposed, and Calhoun and two more Whigs abstained.

Polk's battle for war against Mexico was won, at the cost of turning it into a Democratic war. In Washington, Secretary of State James Buchanan sent out a message to embassies that the United States would protect its sovereignty, but did not seek Alta California, despite the fact that Polk had made it clear he wanted California. In Texas, Taylor began planning to avenge the 2nd Dragoons. In New York City, general-in-chief Winfield Scott began preparations for war that he believed would take much longer than his over-eager president believed. In Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was frustrated with his friend Congressman Edward Baker for supporting the war. And in Pensacola, Lt. Hooker was ecstatic that a chance for glory was finally in his reach.

Look for the next part of the Mexican War's impact on the Civil War on July 3.

The following books have been sources for this post (read them!):

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