Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fighting With Old Zach in Mexico

This is the second part of a four-part series on the influence of the Mexican War on the American Civil War.  
Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

The Battle of Monterrey

First Lieutenant Joe Hooker, departed on a leave of absence from the U.S. 1st Artillery Regiment stationed in Pensacola, Florida on June 11, 1846. He was bound for the Texas-Mexico border and, he hoped, glory with the Army of Occupation under Major General Zachary Taylor.

President James K. Polk had originally been nominated for president by the Democrats because they couldn't agree on any of the front-runners in their party. He had won the presidency promising fiscal reforms, annexation of Texas and Alta California, and settlement of the dispute with Britain over Oregon Country in favor of the United States (the famous "Fifty-four Forty or Fight", in reference to the American claim to own the territory along the Pacific all the way up to the tip of Russian-owned Alaska). It was a balanced platform designed to appeal to Northerners and Southerners.

But while pushing his war with Mexico in 1845 and the first half of 1846, Polk had negotiated and signed a treaty that established the northern border of the United States at the 49th parallel, ceding nearly all of the disputed Oregon Territory to Britain. The Southern Democrat dominated Senate quickly ratified it around the same time Hooker left for Texas, to the outrage of Northern Whigs and Democrats in the Northwest (today known as the Mid-west). They rightly assumed Polk had settled with the British to be better prepared for a war with Mexico.

In back-to-back battles before Congress had even declared war Taylor's 2,300 strong army had driven the 6,000 man Mexican army back to the south bank of the Rio Grande, thanks largely to well directed U.S. artillery (and the excellent map-making of Lt. George Meade). Meanwhile, in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, Colonel Stephen Kearny set off with 1,700 men to achieve Polk's real objective: Alta California. By late June, Kearny (whose brother had been a founder of the New York Stock Exchange, and whose nephew, Phil, would become one of Joe Hooker's closest friends in the American Civil War) was a brigadier general and his little force was the Army of the West, well on its way to seizing Santa Fe.

Hooker reached Taylor's army in early July, along with a huge collection of volunteer soldiers. Taylor had two divisions of "regulars" (professional soldiers), but he also had two divisions of volunteers with commanders that were more often political allies of Polk than military men. A regular army officer like Hooker could help Taylor keep control of them, so he was sent to be the chief of staff for Thomas Hamer, a former Congressman from Ohio, who had resigned to command a brigade of volunteers (Hamer holds the distinction of bungling the name of a nominee for West Point on his letter, making sure history would know Hiram Ulysses Grant as Ulysses Simpson Grant - in keeping with the Civil War leader tradition, he always went by Sam anyway).

July saw opposition to the war growing as Mexico City belatedly declared war on the United States. Hooker's fellow Massachusetts native Henry David Thoreau was arrested for not paying his taxes in protest to the Polk Administration's aggressive expansionist policies and (after his aunt paid his bail) went on a speaking tour that would eventually coalesce into the theory of civil disobedience (a copy of Thoreau's book inspired by the topic would be inspirational to Martin Luther King, Jr., heavily influencing his Letter From Birmingham Jail).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy seized Monterrey and Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in Alta California, unbeknownst to Kearney, who arrived in Santa Fe on August 18. The next day, Taylor left from his camp on the Rio Grande and started a campaign to damage the Mexican army badly enough that Polk could complete a peace treaty. He left one division of volunteers behind to guard his supplies under Brigadier General Robert Patterson (the same that would later give Charles P. Stone such fits in Maryland).

In Washington, Polk was scheming. He had been in communication with the Mexico's former dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, exiled in Cuba. Santa Anna had signed a favorable treaty with Sam Houston back in 1836, and assured Polk that if he could be returned to Mexico City, he would convince his people to accept a treaty that would sell Alta California to the United States. Of course, at the same time Santa Anna was writing the Mexican government swearing if they brought him home, he would respect the civilian government and lead their army to victory against the Norteamericanos. Polk gave orders to allow Santa Anna to sail through the U.S. Navy blockade and land on the Yucatan. By the time he entered Mexico City on September 14, he would be dictator again, and making plans to raise a massive army against Taylor.

On their march through Mexico, Taylor's volunteers were behaving very badly. George B. McClellan, then an engineer on Taylor's staff, filled page after page of his letters with complaints. They got bad enough that the general-in-chief of the army, Major General Winfield Scott based in New York City, heard about them. "But, my dear sir," he wrote to the secretary of war, "our militia and volunteers, if a tenth of what is said to be true, have committed atrocities - horrors - in Mexico, sufficient to make Heaven weep, and every American, of Christian morals, blush for his country." Taylor had given up trying to punish the volunteers, perhaps because he was distracted by the Whigs, already putting out feelers about his level of interest in running for president (particularly, Thurlow Weed, the man who would mastermind both Lincoln's campaigns).

By the second week of September, Taylor's 6,650 men were faced off against a Mexican army of about 10,000 holed up in Monterrey (the one still in Mexico, as opposed to the one seized by the Navy in modern California). On the 19th, Taylor sent a division of regulars (including Grant with the 4th Infantry) behind the division of volunteers straight into town, while the final division (of regulars, including Longstreet with the 8th Infantry) marched the long way around, through a mountain pass. For four days, beginning on the 21st, Joe Hooker turned Hamer's ideas into orders in vicious street-to-street fighting in Monterrey. The Mississippi Rifles, a volunteer regiment led by Colonel Jefferson Davis, did particularly well, but the Mexicans still held the town. Finally, though, the Second Division of Regulars succeeded in forcing the mountain path and occupied the high ground south of Monterrey, surrounding the city and training a battery of Hooker's old 1st Artillery comrades on the city (the battery included future Union generals James Ricketts and Abner Doubleday, the man who did not invent baseball).

Facing annihilation, The Mexican general asked Taylor for a cease-fire. Taylor agreed on very generous terms, and sent the news to Polk triumphantly, sure that this was the military victory needed to negotiate the peace. Hooker, meanwhile, received a brevet to captain for his part in the battle. His name was mentioned in Taylor's official report (a sure way to earn promotions with the staff at the War Department back in Washington, including the newest guy on the staff, Brevet Captain Edward Townsend).

Hamer mentioned him too:
I am under particular obligations to the chief of my staff, Lieutenant J. Hooker... by his soldierly conduct and fine military acquirements, [he] has been invaluable to me through the whole campaign; and his coolness and self-possession in battle set an example to both officers and men that exerted a most happy influence.
The Mexican army abandoned the town (without having to surrender their arms), and many of the Mexican residents left with them, to avoid the dreaded Norteamericanos. Exhausted from the hard fighting, the volunteers broke out into a spree of debauchery, which Hooker remembered as some of the best days of his life, while carefully omitting the crimes his men committed (the Whigs in Washington did not, and found a strong ally in Winfield Scott for bludgeoning the Polk Administration politically).

The only person really unhappy about Monterrey, turned out to be James K. Polk. Kearny was not yet half way to the Colorado River and Taylor appeared to have whipped the Mexican army, which would mean that Polk would have very little claim to demand Alta California. It was almost guaranteed that the Whigs wouldn't support a treaty that transferred it to the United States, even if such a treaty could be negotiated with Santa Anna. Added to that, Taylor's victory would make him a sure candidate for Whigs in the 1848 election, taking the White House out of Democratic hands (though Polk had pledged not to run for a second term).

But Polk believed he had the perfect answer to his problems, one inadvertently provided by Winfield Scott.

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