Mexican-American War 170th: “A War Would Probably Be the Best Mode of Settling our Affairs with Mexico”

Mexican War-header

“I regret to say that everything looks unfavorable,” Topographical Engineer 2nd Lieutenant George G. Meade wrote on Feb. 18, 1846.[1] The 30-year old Meade was one of about 4,000 American soldiers and officers encamped around Corpus Christi, Texas, under the command of Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor.

That force had been at Corpus Christi since the previous July, bearing the elements and waiting for orders. While the soldiers waited, politicians talked about Texas. Since its victory in its war of independence in 1836, Texas had been its own Republic, thumbing its nose towards its former mother country, Mexico. As the Lone Star Republic for nine years, Texas maintained open channels with the United States in what ultimately resulted in an offer of annexation from President John Tyler on the last of his administration, March 3, 1845. Inaugurated the next day, President James K. Polk upheld the offer, having aggressively campaigned for the Oval Office under the promise to annex Texas himself. Over the next nine months, Texan politicians debated the offer before agreeing to the proclamation of annexation. Polk signed the legislation approving Texas as the 28th state on Dec. 29, 1845.

To the south, the United States’ annexation of Texas infuriated Mexico. From the first word of the U.S.’ intentions in March, 1845, Mexican ambassadors cried foul. Mexican minister Juan N. Amonte protested that plans for annexation were “an act of aggression, the most unjust which can be found recorded of modern history,” proclaiming that Texas was “an integrant portion of the Mexican territory.” Amonte also made sure to be clear about one thing especially with the talks of annexation, stressing that the U.S.’ plans “in no wise invalidate the rights on which Mexico relies, to recover the above mentioned province of Texas, of which she now sees herself unjustly despoiled; and, that she will maintain and uphold those rights, at all times, by every means which may be in her power.”[2]

President James K. Polk

President James K. Polk (LOC)

Especially corrosive to American-Mexican relations was Polk’s proposed border between Texas and Mexico, the Rio Grande River. This was unacceptable to Mexico. Historian Douglas Murphy explains, “Since Mexico had never officially recognized the independence of Texas, no official border had been established between the two republics. Nevertheless, for years Texans had claimed title to the vast expanse of territory bounded by the Rio Grande . . . . Mexican leaders strongly contested this. . . insisting that the province of Texas retained the border established by the Spanish long ago. They described a much smaller territory, bounded by the south by the course of the Nueces River…”[3] The disagreement over the two rivers established a 150-mile stretch of contested land, known as the Nueces Strip; when Zachary Taylor received orders in July, 1845 to bring American troops to Corpus Christi, he was overseeing the Nueces Strip

An inset of a map showing the Nueces Strip, about 150 miles of contested land between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers. (LOC, full map here: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4410.ct000127/)

An inset of a map showing the Nueces Strip, about 150 miles of contested land between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers.
(LOC, full map here:
https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4410.ct000127/)

Polk’s administration attempted to smooth the waters before annexation by sending John Slidell (who would spark an international incident in 1861 when he and James Mason were snatched off the British mail ship Trent by the U.S. Navy while on their way to Europe as Confederate ambassadors) to try and strike a deal with Mexico. Slidell carried instructions from Washington to offer $25 million to secure not only Texas, but also largely what is today New Mexico and California. But Slidell’s mission failed miserably—the United States’ annexation of Texas had pushed radical Mexican politicians over the edge. Slidell wrote to Sec. of State James Buchanan, “The intention of the [Mexican] government to negotiate with the United States has been made the great theme of denunciation, and the opposition has been gradually maturing its plans of insurrection in every quarter. The arrival of [Slidell] was to be the signal of the outbreak…”[4] For years Mexican politics had been tumultuous, with changes of executive administrations occurring like a revolving door through revolutions and coups, and in December, a month after Slidell’s arrival in Mexico, a new coup struck at the President. Mexican military forces marched into Mexico City, installing Mariano Paredes as president, the seventh man to hold the office in six years (a separate entry in ECW’s Mexican War coverage will cover this in more detail).

John Slidell, about 15 years after the Mexican-American War. (LOC)

John Slidell, about 15 years after the Mexican-American War.
(LOC)

Slidell’s credentials as an ambassador were denied, and the shunned Louisianan congressman left Mexico City. He wrote to President Polk on Dec. 29, 1845, the same day Polk signed Texas into statehood, “I have endeavored, (& I hope that you will think that I have succeeded) to throw all the responsibility & odium of the failure of negotiations, on the Mexican Government. “A war would probably be the best mode of settling our affairs with Mexico,” Slidell continued.[5] Added to Minister Amonte’s threat of war months earlier, conflict now seemed inevitable.

Orders went out to Taylor at Corpus Christi on Jan. 13, 1846, directing him to “advance and occupy, with the troops under your command, positions on or near the east bank of the Rio [Grande], as soon as it can be conceivably done,” Sec. of War. William Marcy wrote.[6] Taylor planned to wait for the weather to improve and then he would march south, moving through the Nueces Strip and towards the contested border at the Rio Grande.

Which brings it all back to 2nd Lieutenant George Meade. “Paredes has succeeded in his revolution, and now we must either look for war, or delays, and dilly-dallyings; for negotiations and then long parleys, before this question is settled. I hope for a war and a speedy battle, and I think one good fight will settle the business; and really, after coming so far, and staying so long, it would hardly be the thing to come back without some laurels.”[7] And on March 5, Meade wrote another letter, detailing, “Everything here is hurry-scurry, preparatory for the march. The orders are out.” Meade promised to send a few more letters to his wife, and then remarked, “my next letter will be from the banks of the Rio Grande.”[8]

Taylor’s 4,000 men left in details starting on March 4, 1846 from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. One year had passed since Polk’s inauguration and the continuance of the offer for Texas annexation, and now the politicians turned to the soldiers.

General Francisco Mejia (LOC)

General Francisco Mejia
(LOC)

Almost 170 miles to the south, Taylor’s opponents prepared. Across the Rio Grande General Francisco Mejía commanded the troops in Matamoros. On March 18, as Taylor’s men marched south, Mejía issued a call to arms. “The annexation of the department of Texas to the United States, projected and consummated by the tortuous policy of the cabinet of the Union, does not yet satisfy the ambitious desires of the degenerate sons of Washington,” he began. “Fellow-countrymen: With an enemy which respects not its own laws, which shamelessly derides the very principles invoked by it previously, in order to excuse its ambitious views, we have no other resource than arms. We are fortunately always prepared to take them up with glory, in defence of our country; little do we regard the blood in our veins, when we are called on to shed it in vindication of our honour, to assure our nationality and independence. . . We will fight and the crown of triumph shall be the merited reward of your valor and discipline”[9]

At first Mejía contemplated opposing Taylor north of the Rio Grande, but on March 19, he decided to pull back. His men splashed across the river and took up positions in Matamoros. The Mexican forces began to build fortifications in the city, waiting for Taylor. Waiting for war to come to the Rio Grande.

Note: Throughout ECW’s coverage of the Mexican-American War, the word ‘American’ will be used to designate citizens or soldiers of the United States.

______________________________________________________________

[1] The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade: Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 48.

[2] William R. Manning, editor, Diplomatic correspondence of the United States: Inter-American affairs, 1831-1860: Vol. 8 (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1937), 700.

[3] Douglas A. Murphy, Two Armies on the Rio Grande (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015),15-16.

[4] Messages of the President of the United State with the Correspondence, Therewith Communicated, Between the Secretary of War and Other Officers of the Government, on the Subject of the Mexican War (Washington: Wendell and Van Benthuysen, 1848), 34.

[5] Wayne Cutler, editor, Correspondence of James K. Polk: Vol. X, July—December 1845 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2004), 449.

[6] Messages of the President of the United States with Correspondence, 90.

[7] Meade, Vol. 1, 48.

[8] Ibid., 51.

[9] Messages of the President of the United States with Correspondence, 127-128.

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