Polk's Administration and the Mexican War, 1845-1849
President Polk was a native of North Carolina. In boyhood he removed with his father to Tennessee; entered the legislature of the State; and was then elected to Congress, where he served as member or speaker for fourteen years. In 1839 he was chosen governor of Tennessee, and from that position was called, at the erly age of forty-nine, to the presidential chair. At the head of the new cabinet was placed James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania. It was an office requiring high abilities; for the threatening question with Mexico came at once to a crisis. As soon as the resolution to annex Texas was adopted by Congress, Almonte, the Mexican minister at Washington, demanded his passports and left the country.
On the 4th of July, 1845, the Texan legislature ratified the act of annexation; and the union was completed. Knowing the warlike determination of Mexico, the authorities of Texas sent an immediate and urgent request to the President to dispatch an army for their protection. Accordingly, General Zachary Taylor was ordered to march from Camp Jessup, in Western Louisiana, and occupy Texas. The real question at issue between that State and Mexico was concerning boundaries. Texas claimed the Rio Grande as her western limit, while Mexico was determined to have the Nueces as the separating line. The territory between these two rivers was in dispute. The government of the United States made a proposal to settle the controversy by negotiation, but the authorities of Mexico scornfully refused. This refusal was construed by the Americans as a virtual acknowledgment that the Mexicans were in the wrong, and that the Rio Grande might justly be claimed as the boundary. Instructions were accordingly sent to General Taylor to advance his army as near to that river as circumstances would warrant. Under these orders he moved forward to Corpus Christi, at the mouth of the Nueces, established a camp, and by the beginning of November, 1845, had concentrated a force of between four and five thousand men.
In the following January General Taylor was ordered to advance to the Rio Grande. It was known that the Mexican government had resolved not to receive the American ambassador sent thither to negotiate a settlement. It had also transpired that an army of Mexicans was gathering in the northern part of the country for the invasion of Texas, or, at any rate, for the occupation of the disputed territory. On the 8th of March the American army began the advance from Corpus Christi to Point Isabel, on the gulf. At that place General Taylor established a depot of supplies, and then pressed forward to the Rio Grande. Arriving at the river a few miles above the mouth, he took his station opposite Matamoras and hastily erected a fortress, afterward named Fort Brown.
On the 26th of April, General Ampudia, commander of the Mexican forces on the frontier, notified General Taylor that hostilities had begun. On the same day a company of American dragoons, commanded by Captain Thornton, was attacked by a body of Mexicans, east of the Rio Grande, and after losing sixteen men in killed and wounded, was obliged to surrender. This was the first bloodshed of the war. General Taylor, alarmed lest the Mexicans should make a circuit and capture his stores at Point Isabel, hastened to that place and strengthened the defenses. The fort opposite Matamoras was left under command of Major Brown with a garrison of three hundred men.
As soon as his supplies at Point Isabel were deemed secure, General Taylor set out with a provision train and an army of more than two thousand men to return to Fort Brown. Meanwhile, the Mexicans to the number of six thousand had crossed the Rio Grande and taken a strong position at Palo Alto, directly in Taylor's route. At noon on the 8th of May the Americans came in sight and immediately joined battle. After an engagement of five hours' duration the Mexicans were driven from the field, with the loss of a hundred men. The American artillery was served with signal effect; while the fighting of the enemy was clumsy and ineffectual. Only four Americans were killed and forty wounded; but among the former was the gallant and much lamented Major Ringgold of the artillery.
On the following day General Taylor resumed his march in the direction of Fort Brown. When within three miles of that place, he again came upon the Mexicans, who had rallied in full force to dispute his advance. They had selected for their second battlefield a place called Resaca de la Palma. Here an old river bed, dry and overgrown with cactus, crossed the road leading to the fort. The enemy's artillery was well posted and better served than on the previous day. The American lines were severely galled until the brave Captain May with his regiment of dragoons charged through a storm of grape shot, rode over the Mexican batteries, sabered the gunners, and captured La Vega, the commanding general. The Mexicans, abandoning their guns and flinging away their accouterments, fled in a general rout. Before nightfall they had put the Rio Grande between themselves and the invincible Americans. On reaching Fort Brown, General Taylor found that during his absence the place had been constantly bonbarded by the guns of Matamoras. But a brave defense had been made, which cost, with other losses and suffering, the life of Major Brown, the commandant. Such was the beginning of a war in which Mexico experienced a long list of humiliating defeats.
When the news of the battles on the Rio Grande was borne through the Union, the war spirit was everywhere aroused. Party dissensions were hushed into silence. The President, in a message to Congress, notified that body that the lawless soldiery of Mexico had shed the blood of American citizens on American soil. On the 13th of May, 1846, Congress promptly responded with a declaration that war already existed by the act of the Mexican government. The President was authorized to accept the services of fifty thousand volunteers, and ten million dollars were placed at his disposal. War meetings were held in all parts of the country, and within a few weeks nearly three hundred thousand men rushed forward to enter the ranks. A grand invasion of Mexico was planned by General Scott. The American forces were organized in three divisions: The Army of the West, under General Kearny, to cross the Rocky Mountains and conquer the northern Mexican provinces; the Army of the Centre, under General Scott as commander-in-chief, to march from the gulf coast into the heart of the enemy's country; the Army of Occupation, commanded by General Taylor, to subdue and hold the districts on the Rio Grande.
The work of mustering the American troops was intrusted to General Wool. By the middle of summer he succeeded in dispatching to General Taylor a force of nine thousand men. He then established his camp at San Antonio, Texas, and from that point prepared the gathering recruits for the field. Meanwhile, Taylor had resumed active operations on the Rio Grande. Ten days after the battle of Resaca de la Palma he crossed from Fort Brown and captured Matamoras. Soon afterward he began his march up the right bank of the river and into the interior. The Mexicans, grown wary of their antagonist, fell back and took post at the fortified town of Monterey. To capture that place was the next object of the campaign; but the American army was feeble in numbers, and General Taylor was obliged to tarry near the Rio Grande until the latter part of August. By that time-re-enforcements had arrived, increasing his numbers to six thousand six hundred. With this force the march against Monterey was begun; and on the 19th of September the town, defended by fully ten thousand troops, under command of Ampudia, was reached and invested.
The siege was pressed with great vigor. On the 21st of the month several assaults were made, in which the Americans, led by General Worth, carried the fortified heights in the rear of the town. In that part of the defenses only the bishop's palace--a strong building of stone--remained; and this was taken by storm on the following day. On the morning of the 23d the city was successfully assaulted in front by Generals Quitman and Butler. In the face of a tremendous cannonade and an incessant tempest of musket balls discharged from the house tops and alleys, the American storming parties charged resistlessly into the town. They reached the Grand Plaza, or public square. They hoisted the victorious flag of the Union. They turned upon the buildings where the Mexicans were concealed; broke open the doors; charged up dark stairways to the flat roofs of the houses; and drove the terrified enemy to an ignominious surrender. The honors of war were granted to Ampudia, who evacuated the city and retired toward the capital. The storming of Monterey was a signal victory, gained against great superiority of numbers and advantage of position.
The famous general Santa Anna returned from his exile at Havana and again became president of the country. In the course of the autumn a Mexican army of twenty thousand men was raised and sent into the field. General Taylor, acting under orders of the War Department, again moved forward. On the 15th of November, the town of Saltillo, seventy miles southwest from Monterey, was captured by the American advance under General Worth. In the following month, Victoria, a city in the province of Tamaulipas, was taken by the command of General Patterson. To that place General Butler advanced from Monterey on the march against Tampico, on the river Panuco. At Victoria, however, he learned that Tampico had already capitulated to Captain Conner, commander of an American flotilla. Meantime, General Wool, advancing with strong re-enforcements from San Antonio, entered Mexico, and took a position within supporting distance of Monterey. It was at this juncture that General Scott arrived and assumed the command of the American forces.
The Army of the West had not been idle. In June of 1846 General Kearny set out from Fort Leavenworth, on the Missouri, for the conquest of New Mexico and California. After a long and wearisome march he reached Santa Fe, and on the 18th of August captured and garrisoned the city. The whole of New Mexico submitted without further resistance. With a body of four hundred dragoons Kearny then continued his march toward the Pacific coast. At the distance of three hundred miles from Santa Fe he was met by the famous Kit Carson, who brought intelligence from the far West that California had already been subdued. Kearny accordingly sent back three-fourths of his forces, and with a party of only a hundred men made his way to the Pacific. On that far-off coast stirring events had happened.
For four years Colonel John C. Fremont had been exploring the country west of the Rocky Mountains. He had hoisted the American flag on the highest peak of the great range, and then directed his route by Salt Lake to Oregon. Turning southward into California, he received dispatches informing him of the impending war with Mexico. Determined to strike a blow for his country, he urged the people of California, many of whom were Americans, to declare their independence. The hardy frontiersmen of the Sacramento Valley flocked to his standard; and a campaign was at once begun to overthrow the Mexican authority. In several petty engagements the Americans were victorious over greatly superior numbers. Meanwhile, Commodore Sloat, commanding an American fleet, had captured the town of Monterey, on the coast, eighty miles south of San Francisco. A few days afterward Commodore Stockton took command of the Pacific squadron and made himself master of San Diego. Before the end of summer the whole of the vast province was subdued. In November General Kearny arrived with his company and joined Fremont and Stockton. About a month later the Mexicans rose in rebellion, but were defeated on the 8th of January, 1847, in the decisive battle of San Gabriel, by which the authority of the United States was completely established. A country large enough for an empire had been conquered by a handful of resolute men.
In the mean time, Colonel Doniphan, who had been left by kearny in command of New Mexico, had made one of the most brilliant movements of the war. With a body of seven hundred fearless men he began a march through the enemy's country from Santa Fe to Saltillo, a distance of more than eight hundred miles. Reaching the Rio Grande on Christmas day, he fought and gained the battle of Bracito; then, crossing the river, captured El Paso, and in two months pressed his way to within twenty miles of Chihuahua. On the banks of Sacramento Creek he met the Mexicans in overwhelming numbers, and on the 28th of February completely routed them. He then marched unopposed into Chihuahua--a city of more than forty thousand inhabitants--and finally reached the division of General Wool in safety.
As soon as General Scott arrived in Mexico he ordered a large part of the Army of Occupation to join him on the gulf for the conquest of the capital. By the withdrawal of these troops from the divisions of Taylor and Wool these officers were left in a very exposed and critical condition; for Santa Anna was rapidly advancing against them with an army of twenty thousand men. To resist this tremendous array General Taylor was able to concentrate at Saltillo a force numbering not more than six thousand; and after putting sufficient garrisons in that town and Monterey, his effective forces amounted to but four thousand eight hundred. With this small but resolute army he marched boldly out to meet the Mexican host. A favorable battle-ground was chosen at Buena Vista, four iles south of Saltillo. Here Taylor posted his troops and awaited the enemy.
On the 22d of February the Mexicans, twenty thousand strong, came pouring through the gorges and over the hills from the direction of San Luis Potosi. Santa Anna demanded a surrender, and was met with defiance. On the morning of the 23d the battle began with an effort to outflank the American position on the right; but the attempt was thwarted by the troops of Illinois. A heavy column was then thrown against the center, only to be shattered and driven back by Captain Washington's artillery. The Mexicans next fell in great force upon the American left flank, where the second regiment of Indianians, acting under a mistaken order, gave way, putting the army in great peril. But the troops of Mississippi and Kentucky were rallied to the breach; the men of Illinois and Indiana came bravely to the support; and again the enemy was hurled back. In the crisis of the battle the Mexicans made a furious and final charge upon Captain Bragg's battery; but the gunners stood at their posts undaunted, and the columns of lancers were scattered with terrible volleys of grapeshot. A charge of American cavalry, though made at the sacrifice of many lives, added to the discomfiture of the foe. Against tremendous odds the field was fairly won. On the night after the battle the Mexcians, having lost nearly two thousand men, made a precipitate retreat. The American loss was also severe, amounting in killed, wounded and missing, to seven hundred and forty-six. This was the last of General Taylor's battles. He soon afterward returned to the United States, where he was received with great enthusiasm.
On the 9th of March, 1847, General Scott began the last campaign of the war. With a force of twelve thousand men he landed to the south of Vera Cruz, and in three days the investment of the city was completed. Trenches were opened at the distance of eight hundred yards; and on the morning of the 22d the cannonade was begun. On the water side Vera Cruz was defended by the celebrated castle of San Juan d'Ulloa, erected by Spain in the early part of the seventeenth century, at the cost of four million dollars. For four days an incessant storm of shot and shell from the fleet of Commodore Conner and the land batteries of Scott was poured upon the doomed castle and town. Life and property were swept into a common ruin. An assault was already planned, when the humbled authorities of the city proposed capitulation. On the night of the 27th terms of surrender were signed, and two days afterwards the American flag floated over Vera Cruz.
The route from the gulf to the capital was now open. On the 8th of April General Twiggs, in command of the American advance, set out on the road to Jalapa. The main division, led by General Scott in person, followed immediately. For several days there was no serious opposition; but on the 12th of the month Twiggs came upon Santa Anna, who, with a army of fifteen thousand men, had taken possession of the heights and rocky pass of Cerro Gordo. The position, though seemingly impregnable, must be carried, or further advance was impossible. On the morning of the 18th the American army was arranged for an assault which, according to all the rules of war, promised only disaster and ruin. But to the troops of the United States nothing now seemed too arduous, no deed too full of peril. Before noonday every position of the Mexicans had been successfully stormed and themselves driven into a precipitate rout. Nearly three thousand prisoners were taken, together with forty-three pieces of bronze artiller, five thousand muskets and accouterments enough to supply an army. The American loss amounted to four hundred and thirty-one, that of the enemy to fully a thousand. Santa Anna escaped with his life, but left behind his private papers and wooden leg.
On the next day the victorious army entered Jalapa. On the 22d the strong castle of Perote, crowning a peak of the Cordilleras, was tkaen without resistance. Here another park of artillery and a vast amount of warlike stores fell into the hands of the Americans. Turning southward, General Scott next led his army against the ancient and sacred city of Puebla. Though inhabited by eighty thousand people, no defense was made or attempted. The handful of invaders marched unopposed through the gates, and on the 15th of May took up their quarters in the city. The American army was not reduced to five thousand men, and General Scott was obliged to pause until re-enforcements could be brought forward from Vera Cruz.
By the 7th of August General Scott had received re-enforcements, 2400 men under the command of a future President of the United States--Franklin Pierce. Leaving a small garrison in Puebla, he again began his march upon the capital. The route now lay over the summit of the Cardilleras. At the passes of the mountains resistance had been expected; but the advance was unopposed, and the army swept through to look down on the Valley of Mexico. Never before had the American soldiery beheld such a scene. Clear to the horizon stretched a most living landscape of green fields, villages and lakes--a picture too beautiful to be torn with the dread enginery of war.
The army pressed on to Ayotla, only fifteen miles from the capital. Thus far General Scott had followed the great national road from Vera Cruz to Mexico; but now, owing to the many fortifications and dangerous passes in front, it was deemed advisable to change the route. From Ayotla, therefore, the army wheeled to the south, around Lake Chalco, and thence westward to San Augustine. From this place it was but ten miles to the capital. The city could be approached only by causeways leading across marshes and the beds of begone lakes. At the ends of these causeways were massive gates strongly defended. To the left of the line of march were the almost inaccessible positions of Contreras, San Antonio, and Molino del Rey. Directly in front, beyond the marshes and closer to the city, were the powerful defenses of Churubusco and Chapultepec, the latter a castle of great strength. These various positions were held by Santa Anna with a force of more than thirty thousand Mexicans. That General Scott, with an army not one-third as great in numbers, could take the city seemed an impossibility. But he was resolved to do it.
On he 19th of August the divisions of Generals Pillow and Twiggs were ordered to storm the Mexican position at Contreras. About nightfall the line of communications between that place and Santa Anna's reserves was cut, and in the darkness of the following midnight an assaulting column, led by General Persifer F. Smith, moved against the enemy's camp. The attack was made at sunrise, and in seventeen minutes six thousand Mexicans, commanded by General Valencia, were driven in utter rout from their fortifications. The American storming party numbered less than four thousand. This was the first victory of that memorable 20th of August. A few hours afterward General Worth advanced against San Antonio, compelled an evacuation and routed the flying garrison. This was the second victory. Almost at the same time General Pillow led a column against one of the heights of Churubusco where the enemy had concentrated in great force. After a terrible assault the position was carried and the Mexicans scattered like chaff. This was the third triumph. The division of General Twiggs added a fourth victory by storming and holding another height of Churubusco, while the fifth and last was achieved by Generals Shields and Pierce, who defeated Santa Anna, coming to re-enforce his garrisons. The whole Mexican army was hurled back upon the remaining fortification of Chapultepec.
On the morning after the battles the Mexican authorities sent out a proposition to negotiate. It was only a ruse to gain time, for the terms proposed by them were such as conquerors would have dictated to the vanquished. General Scott, who did not consider his army vanquished, rejected the proposals with scorn, rested his men until the 7th of September, and then renewed hostilities. On the next morning General Worth was ordered to take Molino del Rey and Casa de Mata, the western defenses of Chapultepec. These positions were held by fourteen thousand Mexicans; but the Americans, after losing a fourth of their number in the desperate onset, were again victorious. The guns were next brought to bear on Chapultepec itself, and on the 13th of the month that frowning citadel was carried by storm. Through the San Cosme and Belen gates the conquering army swept resistlessly, and at nightfall the soldiers of the Union were in the suburbs of Mexico.
In the darkness of that night Santa Anna and the officers of the government fled from the city; but not until they had turned loose two thousand convicts to fire upon the American army. On the following morning, before day-dawn, forth came a deputation from the city to beg for mercy. This time the messengers were in earnest; but General Scott, weary of trifling, turned them away with contempt. "Forward!" was the order that rang along the American lines at sunrise. The war-worn regiments swept into the beautiful streets of the famous city, and at seven o'clock the flag of the United States floated over the halls of the Montezumas. So ended one of the most brilliant campaigns known in modern history.
On leaving his conquered capital Santa Anna, with his usual treachery, turned about to attack the American hospitals at Puebla. Here about eighteen hundred sick men had been left in charge of Colonel Childs. For several days a gallant resistance was made by the feeble garrison, until General Lane, on his march to the capital, fell upon the besiegers and scattered them. It was the closing stroke of the war--a contest in which the Americans, few in number and in a far-distant, densely peopled country, had gained every victory.
The military power of Mexico was now completely broken. Santa Anna was a fugitive. It only remained to determine the conditions of peace. In the winter of 1847-48 American ambassadors met the Mexican congress, in session at Guadalupe Hidalgo, and on the 2d of February a treaty was concluded between the two nations. The compact was ratified by both governments, and on the 4th of the following July President Polk made a proclamation of peace. By the terms of settlement the boundary line between Mexico and the United States was fixed as follows: The Rio Grande from its mouth to the southern limit of New Mexico; thence westward along the southern and northward along the western boundary of that territory to the river Gila; thence down that river to the Colorado; thence westward to the Pacific. The whole of New Mexico and Upper California was relinquished to the United States. Mexico guaranteed the free navigation of the Gulf of California, and the river Colorado from its mouth to the confluence of the Gila. In consideration of these territorial acquisitions and privileges the United States agreed to surrender all places held by military occupation in Mexico, to pay into the treasury of that country fifteen million dollars, and to assume all debts due from the Mexican government to American citizens, said debts not to exceed three million five hundred thousand dollars. Thus at last was the territory of the United States spread out in one broad belt from ocean to ocean.
A few days after the signing of the treaty of peace an event occurred in California which spread excitement through the civilized world. A laborer, employed by Captain Sutter to cut a mill race on the American fork of Sacramento River, discovered some pieces of gold in the sand where he was digging. With further search other particles were found. The news spread as if borne on the wind. From all quarters adventurers came flocking. Other explorations led to further revelations of the precious metal. For a while there seemed no end to the discoveries. Straggling gold hunters sometimes picked up in a few hours the value of five hundred dollars. The intelligence went flying through the States to the Atlantic, and then to the ends of the world. Men thousands of miles away were crazed with excitement. Workshops were shut up, business houses abandoned, fertile farms left tenantless, offices deserted. Though the overland routes to California were scarcely yet discovered, thousands of eager adventurers started on the long, long journey. Before the end of 1850 San Francisco had grown from a miserable village of huts to a city of fifteen thousand inhabitants. By the close of 1852 the territory had a population of more than a quarter of a million. The importance of the gold mines of California, whose richness is not yet exhausted, can hardly be overestimated.
In the first summer of President Polk's administration the country was called to mourn the death of General Jackson. The veteran warrior and statesman lived to the age of seventy-eight, and died at his home, call the Hermitage, in Tennessee. On the 23d of February, 1848, ex-President John Quincy Adams died at the city of Washington. At the time of his decease he was a member of the House of Representatives. He was struck with paralysis in the very seat from which he had so many times electrified the nation with his eloquence.
In 1848 Wisconsin, the last of the five great States formed from the Northwestern Territory, was admitted into the Union. The new commonwealth came with a population of two hundred and fifty thousand and an area of nearly fifty-four thousand square miles. By establishing the St. Croix instead of the Mississippi as the western boundary of the State, Wisconsin lost a considerable district rightfully belonging to her territory.
Another presidential election was at hand. Three well-known candidates were presented for the suffrages of the people. General Lewis Cass, of Michigan, was nominated by the Democrats, and General Zachary Taylor by the Whigs. As the candidate of the new Free Soil party, ex-President Martin Van Buren was put forward. The rise of this new party was traceable to the question concerning the territory acquired by the Mexican war. In 1846 David Wilmot, of Pennsylvania, brought before Congress a bill to prohibit slavery in all territory which might be secured by treaty with Mexico. The bill was defeated; but the advocates of the measure, which was called the Wilmot Proviso, formed themselves into a party, and in June of 1848 nominated Mr. Van Buren for the presidency. The reat contest, however, lay between Generals Cass and Taylor. The position of the two leading parties on the question of slavery in the new territories was as yet not clearly defined, and the election was left to turn on the personal popularity of the candidates. The memory of his recent victories in Mexico made General Taylor the favorite with the people, and he was elected by a large majority. As Vice-President, Millard Fillmore of New York, was chosen. So closed the agitated but not inglorious administration of President Polk.
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