By a suggestive coincidence, the practical abandonment of the line of 54° 40' by the administration2 was contemporaneous with the outbreak of the Mexican War. The modified resolution of notice to Great Britain was finally passed in both branches of Congress on the 23d of April, and on the succeeding day the first blood was shed in that contest between the two republics which was destined to work such important results in the future and fortunes of both.
The army of occupation in Texas, commanded by General Zachary Taylor, had, during the preceding winter, been moving westward with the view of encamping in the valley of the Rio Grande. On the 28th of March General Taylor took up his position on the banks of the river, opposite Matamoras, and strengthened himself by the erection of field-works. General Ampudia, in command of the Mexican army stationed at Matamoros, was highly excited by the arrival of the American army, and an the 12th of April notified General Taylor to break up his camp within twenty-four hours, and to retire beyond the Nueces River. In the event of his failure to comply with these demands Ampudia announced that "arms, and arms alone, must decide the question." According to the persistent claim of the Mexican Government, the Nueces River was the western boundary of Texas; and the territory between that river and the Rio Grandea breadth of one hundred and fifty miles on the coastwas held by Mexico to be a part of her domain, and General Taylor consequently an invader of her soil. No reply was made to Ampudia; and on the 24th of April General Arista, who had succeeded to the command of the Mexican army, advised General Taylor that "he considered hostilities commenced, and should prosecute them."
Directly after this notification was received, General Taylor dispatched a party of dragoons, sixty-three in number, officers and men, up the valley of the Rio Grande, to ascertain whether the Mexicans had crossed the river. They encountered a force much larger than their own, and after a short engagement, in which some seventeen were killed and wounded, the Americans were surrounded, and compelled to surrender. When intelligence of this affair reached the United States, the war-spirit rose high among the people. "Our country has been invaded," and "American blood spilled on American soil," were the cries heard on every side.
In the very height of this first excitement, without waiting to know whether the Mexican Government would avow or disavow the hostile act, President Polk, on the 11th of May, sent a most aggressive message to Congress, "invoking its prompt action to recognize the existence of war, and to place at the disposition of the Executive the means of prosecuting the contest with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace." As soon as the message was read in the House, a bill was introduced authorizing the President to call out a force of fifty thousand men, and giving him all the requisite power to organize, arm, and equip them. The preamble declared that "war existed by the act of Mexico," and this gave rise to an animated and somewhat angry discussion. The Whigs felt that they were placed in an embarrassing attitude. They must either vote for what they did not believe, or, by voting against the bill, incur the odium which always attaches to the party that fails by a hair's-breadth to come to the defense of the country when war is imminent.
Prominent Whigs believed, that, as an historical and geographical fact, the river Nueces was the western boundary of Texas, and that the President, by assuming the responsibility of sending an army of occupation into the country west of that river, pending negotiations with Mexico, had taken a hostile and indefensible step. But all agreed that it was too late to consider anything except the honor of the country, now that actual hostilities had begun. The position of the Whigs was as clearly defined by their speakers as was practicable in the brief space allowed for discussion of the war bill. Against the protest of many, it was forced to a vote, after a two hours' debate. The administration expected the declaration to be unanimous; but there were fourteen members of the House who accepted the responsibility of defying the war feeling of the country by voting "no"an act which required no small degree of moral courage and personal independence. John Quincy Adams headed the list. The other gentlemen were all Northern Whigs, or pronounced Free-Soilers.
The Senate considered the bill on the ensuing day, and passed it after a very able debate, in which Mr. Calhoun bore a leading part. He earnestly deprecated the necessity of the war, tho accused by Benton, of plotting to bring it on. Forty Senators voted for it, and but two against itThomas Clayton, of Delaware, and John Davis, of Massachusetts. Mr. Crittenden, of Kentucky, and Mr. Upham, of Vermont, when their names were called, responded "Ay, except the preamble." The bill was promptly approved by the President, and on the 13th of May, 1846, the two republics were declared to be at war. In the South and West, from the beginning, the war was popular. In the North and East it was unpopular. The gallant bearing of our army, however, changed in large degree the feeling in sections where the war had been opposed. No finer body of men ever enlisted in an heroic enterprise than those who volunteered to bear the flag in Mexico. They were young, ardent, enthusiastic, brave almost to recklessness, with a fervor of devotion to their country's honor. The march of Taylor from the Rio Grande, ending with the unexpected victory against superior numbers at Buena Vista, kept the country in a state of excitement and elation, and in the succeeding year elevated him to the Presidency. Not less splendid in its succession of victories was the march of Scott from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico, where he closed his triumphal journey by taking possession of the capital, and enabling his government to dictate terms of peace.
For the first and only time in our political history, an administration conducting a war victorious at every step, steadily lost ground in the country. The House of Representatives which declared war on the 11th of May, 1846, was Democratic by a large majority. The House elected in the ensuing autumn amid the resounding acclamations of Taylor's memorable victory at Monterey3 had a decided Whig majority.
This political reverse was due to three causesthe enactment of the tariff of 1846, which offended the manufacturing interest of the country; the receding of the administration on the Oregon question, which embarrassed the position and wounded the pride of the Northern Democrats; and the wide-spread apprehension that the war was undertaken for the purpose of extending and perpetuating slavery. The almost unanimous Southern vote for the hasty surrender of the line of 54° 40', on which so much had been staked in the Presidential campaign, gave the Whigs an advantage in the popular canvass. The contrast between the boldness with which the Polk Administration had marched our army upon the territory claimed by Mexico, and the prudence with which it had retreated from a contest with Great Britain, after all our antecedent boasting, exposed the Democrats to merciless ridicule. Clever speakers, who were numerous in the Whig party at that day, did not fail to see and seize their advantage.
William Allen Butler, the eminent New York lawyer, author of "Nothing to Wear," in his "Retrospect of Forty Years," published in 1911, gives the following succinct account of the causes of the Mexican War: "The annexation of Texas had been resented by Mexico, but she was not strong enough to make it a cause of war. The Polk Administration, dominated by the Southern slave power, was eager for farther expansion and the acquisition of new territory. Mexico found herself constantly harassed by the demands of the Texans on the western border line for the extension of the boundary of their State to the Rio Grande and the disputes over this question naturally led up to hostilities. General Taylor made a hostile advance which was followed by an invasion of American territory by Mexican troops. A number of American soldiers were killed on American soil. After this, war was inevitable."
3 At Monterey, Mexico, after three days of fighting, General Taylor, in September, 1846, with 6,500 men, defeated the Mexicans, numbering about 10,000.
At the end of another series of arduous and brilliant operations, of more than forty-eight hours' continuance, this glorious army hoisted, on the morning of the 14th, the colors of the United States on the walls of this palace.
This city stands upon a slight swell of ground, near the center of an irregular basin, and is girdled with a ditch in its greater extenta navigable canal of great breadth and depthvery difficult to bridge in the presence of an enemy, and serving at once for drainage, custom-house purposes, and military defense; leaving eight entrances or gates over arches, each of which we found defended by a system of strong works, that seemed to require nothing but some men and guns to be impregnable. . . .
After a close personal survey of the southern gates, covered by Pillow's division and Riley's brigade, and Twigg's, with four times our numbers concentrated in our immediate front, I determined, on the 11th, to avoid that network of obstacles, and to seek, by a sudden inversion to the southwest and west, less unfavorable approaches.
The first step in the new movement was to carry Chapultepec, a natural and isolated mound, of great elevation, strongly fortified at its base, on its acclivities and heights. Besides a numerous garrison, here was the military college of the republic, with a large number of sub-lieutenants and other students. Those works were within direct gunshot of the village of Tacubaya, and, until carried, we could not approach the city on the west without making a circuit too wide and too hazardous.
Both columns now advanced with an alacrity that gave assurance of prompt success. The batteries, seizing opportunities, threw shots and shells upon the enemy over the heads of our men, with good effect, particularly at every attempt to reinforce the works from without to meet our assault. . . .
The broken acclivity was still to be ascended, and a strong redoubt, midway, to be carried, before reaching the castle on the heights. The advance of our brave men, led by brave officers, tho necessarily slow, was unwavering, over rocks, chasms, and mines, and under the hottest fire of cannon and musketry. The redoubt now yielded to resistless valor, and the shouts that followed announced to the castle the fate that impended. The enemy were steadily driven from shelter to shelter. The retreat allowed not time to fire a single mine, without the certainty of blowing up friend and foe. Those who at a distance attempted to apply matches to the long trains were shot down by our men. There was death below, as well as above ground.
At length the ditch and wall of the main work were reached; the scaling-ladders were brought up and planted by the storming parties; some of the daring spirits first in the assault were cast downkilled or wounded; but a lodgment was soon made; streams of heroes followed; all opposition was overcome, and several of the regimental colors flung out from the upper walls, amid long-continued shouts and cheers, which sent dismay into the capital. No scene could have been more animating or glorious. . . .
At a junction of roads, we first passed one of the formidable systems of city defenses, and it had not a gun!a strong proof: 1. That the enemy had expected us to fall in the attack upon Chapultepec, even if we meant anything more than a feint; 2. That, in either case, we designed, in his belief, to return and double our forces against the southern gates, a delusion kept up by the active demonstrations of Twiggs and the forces posted on that side; and 3. That advancing rapidly from the reduction of Chapultepec, the enemy had not time to shift gunsour previous captures had left him, comparatively, but fewfrom the southern gates.
Within those disgarnished works I found our troops engaged in a street fight against the enemy posted in gardens, at windows, and on housetopsall flat, with parapets. Worth2 ordered forward the mountain-howitzers of Cadwalader's brigade, preceded by skirmishers and pioneers, with pick-axes and crowbars, to force windows and doors, or to burrow through walls. The assailants were soon in an equality of position fatal to the enemy. By eight o'clock in the evening, Worth had carried two batteries in this suburb. According to my instructions, he here posted guards and sentinels, and placed his troops under shelter for the night. There was but one more obstaclethe San Cosme gate (custom-house) between him and the great square in front of the cathedral and palacethe heart of the city; and that barrier, it was known, could not, by daylight, resist our siege guns thirty minutes. . . .
At about 4 o'clock next morning (September 14) a deputation of the ayuntamiento (city council) waited upon me to report that the Federal Government and the army of Mexico had fled from the capital some three hours before, and to demand terms of capitulation in favor of the church, the citizens, and the municipal authorities. I promptly replied, that I would sign no capitulation; that the city had been virtually in our possession from the time of the lodgments effected by Worth and Quitman3 the day before; that I regretted the silent escape of the Mexican army; that I should levy upon the city a moderate contribution, for special purposes; and that the American army should come under no terms, not self-imposedsuch only as its own honor, the dignity of the United States, and the spirit of the age should, in my opinion, imperiously demand and impose. . . .
At the termination of the interview with the city deputation, I communicated, about daylight, orders to Worth and Quitman to advance slowly and cautiously (to guard against treachery) toward the heart of the city, and to occupy its stronger and more commanding points. Quitman proceeded to the great plaza or square, planted guards, and hoisted the colors of the United States on the national palacecontaining the halls of Congress and executive apartments of Federal Mexico.
1 From Scott's official report, written at the National Palace in Mexico, September 18, 1847. Scott, a native of Virginia, died at West Point in 1806. He entered the army as a captain in 1808, served in the war of 1812, as already set forth in Volume V; became a brevet major-general in 1814 and commanded in South Carolina during the Nullification troubles of 1832. He served afterward against the Seminoles and Creeks, became Commander-in-Chief in 1841, and commanded in Mexico during the war with that country. Scott captured Vera Cruz in March, 1847, won the battle of Cerro Gordo in April, Contreras and Churubusco in August, Molino del Rey and Chapultepec in September, and entered the city of Mexico in the same month. Scott was now made brevet lieutenant-general. He commanded the Northern army at the outbreak of the Civil War, but retired from active service in the autumn of 1861. In 1852 Scott was the Whig candidate for President, but was badly defeated.
2 General William J. Worth, who had been second in command at Monterey, and afterward served under Scott in the campaign ending in the city of Mexico. He died in Texas in 1849. To his memory was erected the Worth monument that stands on Fifth Avenue, New York, facing Madison Square.
3 General John A. Quitman, a native of Rhinebeck, N. Y., and afterward Governor of Mississippi.