The U.S.-Mexican War and
    the Peoples of the Year 2000

Conflicts of 1846-48:

Generals for Social Order


Inputs from the Politics of Today  

Inputs from History 

  • Population & Rebellion 

  • Deluded White Chieftains 

  • Conflicts of 1846-48:  
  • Opening Attack on Indigenous Life
  • A Border World Rebels
  • Officers Capitulate: Ampudia and Taylor
  • A Note on Strategy
  • A Note on Severed Heads
  • Leader within Walls:  Santa Anna
  • Generals for Social Order
  • The Sorting of Identities
  • The Future of New/Old Nations 
    Early in the war, the Polk administration issued a series of instructions to Taylor and other invading commanders, setting out their analysis of Mexican conditions, and revealing at the same time their conception of what politics was like anywhere.  Mexico, they thought, was a patchwork of special interests, some of which they hoped to win to the U.S. side.  U.S. forces, among other things, should take care to pay for any supplies they drew from local populations.  When this supposed magnanimous approach did not bring a quick victory, Polk shifted quickly to a hard policy:  commanders should simply treat the people they encountered as enemies in an occupied area.  An early sign of this change was Polk's contemptuous dismissal of the Monterrey capitulation

    The new policy did not take hold either, at least not with Polk's commanders Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, and not even with William O. Butler, whom he later selected from his own party to replace Scott.  Each of these confronted the fact that  indigenous dissent in Mexico was real, that opposed groups sometimes applied to U.S. leaders for help, and that these commanders then had to take sides. 

    A local U.S. commander might toy with the idea of supporting Indian protest.  The top commanders always made the opposite choice.  They knew that their armies depended for their survival on the workings of Mexican society.  They therefore backed the top-level, propertied interests that could supply U.S. forces in the short run.  Ignoring Polk's official hard line, they made their choice among those elements that the administration had sketched in the first place. 

    People in both nations knew that war was a time when military authority would work on local populations to extract soldiers and supplies.   Some people objected and even fought back, against the authority as such.  Many others managed to cooperate.  This tension between authority and community was persisting, for generation after generation, even during periods when the official conflict was that between the two nation-states. 


    The Social Strategies of the Polk Administration

    Polk's instructions to his generals, on how to deal with the Mexican population, started out with two analyses of that society that already contradicted each other.  It then proceeded to shelve both those analyses in favor of plain military coercion.

    The first analysis divided all Mexico into two large groups.

    Between the Spaniards, who monopolize the wealth and power of the country, and the mixed Indian race, who bear its burdens, there must be jealousy and animosity.
    If this analysis suggested any military policy, it would have to be one of  inciting Indian disaffection.  The language implied that incoming Anglo-Americans could somehow be natural allies to the working population in the countryside.   (And there was actually one U.S. officer who thought that way.   George Wurtz Hughes, stuck with occupation duty in Jalapa while the main army moved on into action elsewhere, asked Scott for approval to cooperate with indigenous rebels in his neighborhood.)

    In the administration's second analysis, more detailed and apparently more sophisticated,  Mexico was

    so divided into races, classes, and parties, . . . and with so many local divisions . . . and personal divisions among individuals, there must be great room for operating on the minds and feelings of large portions of the inhabitants, ...
    While the directive mentioned the "political parties into which the country is divided," it said nothing about actual programs or identities.  Rather, it talked about parties as if they were mere factions or interest groups, and it imagined that out of these fragments
    there must be some more liberal and more friendly to us than others; . . . -- there must be openings to reach the interests, passions, or principles of some of the parties, and thereby to conciliate their good will, and make them co-operate with us in bringing about an honorable and a speedy peace.
    All this was the language of the professional politician, ready to see psychological warfare as an exercise of patronage.  Washington knew, of course, that centralist and federalist elements in Mexican politics had been at odds years.  That clash had figured in the Texas question in the first place. Anti-centralist leaders in northern Mexico did sometimes act as if available for conspiracy.  But the Polk directive expressed no clear idea about what kinds of people, in Mexico, might support one ideology or another.  It had no principled way to account for how there might be varieties of people opposed to each other within the land-owning ranks, or varieties within the indigenous side.  It therefore had no sense of what it might have to offer, other than access to a "liberal" world..

    Since the initial U.S. campaigns did not induce Mexico to sue for peace, and since local interests did not flock to the U.S. side, the Polk administration abandoned any plans it had for conciliation, directing commanders instead to treat Mexicans simply as an enemy population.

    Polk's later shift to a hard line fitted easily into the same frame as his quiet effort to simplify his social base at home.  He had won the presidency on an expansionist platform that derived much of its drive from the campaign to annex Texas.  Strong support for this outlook came from upwardly mobile whites, not all of them slaveholders.  The secretary of state in the previous administration, John C. Calhoun, had also worked for Texas, but from a much more defensive point of view.  Representing the "old" South, he feared that an independent Texas on the U.S. border would become a focus for anti-slavery agitation.  All during the 1844-46 period, he criticized Polk's manipulative tactics.  People who were anxious about the security of slavery felt uneasy about taking a mixed-race population into the United States. Taylor's agreement with Ampudia was in keeping with this defensive outlook.

    Polk, when he rejected the Monterrey capitulation, was working both sides of this situation:  pulling away from the defensive outlook, but also away from any complicated dealings in Mexican society.  He could now call his critic Calhoun to the White House for a personal conference in which they agreed, very generally, on prosecuting the war. The aggressive white settler and the defensive planter had reached an understanding.

    The Popular/Indigenous Challenge

    Indigenous initiatives and protests, which continued strong all during the 1830s and 1840s, became critical during the War itself.  While the Mexican Army would have liked to blame this on U.S. subversion, most of it was an ongoing conflict between government authority and indigenous communities.

    Some of the indigenous resurgence was a straightforward reclaiming of land that had belonged to communities in earlier generations.  Much, though, and especially in the crisis of war, was political protest against conscription and emergency taxes.  Both the property questions and the legal questions would be alive at the end of the 20th century.
    Comanches continued their raids in the north -- in both Texas and Nuevo León. As Taylor moved from Texas into Mexico during the early months of the invasion, he had to respond to two separate demands that he detach some troops to repress Indian raids:  the Texan demand, for troops to protect their frontier settlements; and the northern Mexican demand, for the same thing.

    People in the Yucatán, in the Huasteca of eastern Mexico, in the Sierra Gorda north of the capital -- like people all over the country -- had long been subjected to sudden conscription to fight in conflicts in which they had little interest, whether in far-off Texas, or against some faction in a civil war, or simply against any enemy who did not threaten the immediate neighborhood that they were willing to defend.  The desertion rate was always high among these unwilling conscripts, and went even higher when an army suffered the hardships of defeat, as Santa Anna's did at Buena Vista.  Deserters then had to deal with any hardships in the community to which they returned.  Rebellion by Maya Indians in the Yucatán -- long called "the" Caste War of the period  -- was only one of many outbreaks.

    Popular rebellion kept intersecting with conflicts among rival élite factions.  In areas like Sonora and then Guanajuato, conservatives found themselves in a position to bid for indigenous support against liberal interference with community life.  In Yucatán and the Cuernavaca area, conservatives and liberals did manage to unite against indigenous threats,  while continuing their own quarrels.

    The entry of U.S. force into any area gave local groups a source of outside support to which they could appeal.  In the Huasteca, some appeals to a U.S. commander came from both sides at once.  In the Sierra Gorda and around Cuernavaca, the opening surfaced when rebels appealed to U.S. commanders for help.  In the Yucatán, on the other hand, and especially during the period when U.S. troops were demobilizing and leaving Mexico, it was local whites who sought outside support, even offering to bargain away sovereignty to get it.

    At the same time, U.S. supply operations in many parts of Mexico were subjected to running attack by groups who did not fit neatly into the landowner/Indian distinction.  These were people who, whatever their racial background, were individual operators, people who had gained enough resources that they could operate on horseback, yet had not the kind of conservative position that gave them an incentive to profit from selling supplies to the invader.  Scott, describing "those atrocious bands called guerrillas or rancheros," had no place in his scheme of things for that kind of small operator who was trying to fight ahead in a supposedly idyllic, patriarchal society.

    Whatever Polk still thought, U.S. commanders in many parts of Mexico found themselves faced with challenges like those envisioned in his earlier analysis.  They never treated the smallholder, ranchero group as anything except an enemy, even though it was objectively similar to the white-settler group that Polk represented within the United States.  They also had little occasion to arbitrate among the factions within Mexican élite politics.  But they did have a broad choice to make between white and indigenous groups.

    The Generals Respond

    Taylor's preference in the north was plain, whether or not he could do anything to implement it.  He was making supply deals with local hacendados, and he was willing to support them the same way he would Texas planters:
    I regret to report that the Camanche Indians have been committing extensive depredations upon the Mexican inhabitants near Mier.  This circumstance, taken in connexion with our recent treaty with those Indians, is calculated to give much embarrassment; but I deem it a paramount duty to protect the Mexican citizens from these ravages, and to apprehend and punish them if possible.  . . .  Should we exhibit any lukewarmness in this matter, the cry would instantly be raised that the Indians are our allies -- an impression already carefully disseminated by the Mexican chiefs.
    Scott's needs, even more critical, pushed him in the same direction.

    As his army moved inland from Veracruz, losing regular supply connections to the outside, it had to become what he called a "self-sustaining machine." It had to gather food locally, especially through the supply networks of the successive cities he took:  Jalapa, Puebla, and finally Mexico City.  He depended on the fact that each city had its supply system, within which he could situate his forces.  But the supplying of Scott's army aroused resentment among city people. He was quick to impose punishments on civilians who attacked his men, and to impose some discipline on those men if it would maintain order. (Whether in army camps, or urban sweat-shops, or plantation field-gangs, the growing city-like groups of the period seemed to a Scott to justify the same kinds of regulation that he wrote into his army manuals.)

    Further, Scott aimed to seize and hold the capital itself as a counter in negotiations. He needed to confront a well-defined government, which he could defeat but leave intact, able to negotiate.  Food and treaty were alternate goals of the same political process.

    Both the city population and the occupying troops were dependent on food supplies from the surrounding area, with its mix of haciendas and indigenous communities. Merchants, who overlapped with the hacendados as a class, were the coordinating element.  All that the U.S. Army had to do, then, was insert itself into a "wholesaler" role in this network, making sure of its ability to siphon off supplies for itself. U.S. officers in Mexico City did cooperate with political liberals who set up a puppet city government, but that did not get to the heart of the question. The deepest Mexican "treason" of 1847 was the simple indispensability of the capital as an organism, to all people who entered the area.

    The occupying commanders had a choice.  They could dicker with the people who worked on the land and actually produced the food, or they could deal with the large land-owners.  It was a matter of scale.  Peasants might bring vegetables to market. Only the larger property-owners could offer herds and granaries.

    And that raised the question of race conflict.  Peasants in the area had grievances.  Among other things, hacendados paid them in private scrip, which kept them from establishing direct links to the market. When Indians made technical complaints of this kind, landowners accused them of wanting to exterminate the white race.
    Scott had neither the time, nor the political ability, nor the social imagination to deal with peasants.  He dealt with hacendados, just as Taylor dealt with large landed proprietors in the area around Monterrey.

    Nor did it make any difference when Polk relieved Scott, replacing him early in 1848 with the Democrat William O. Butler. To Butler came the final appeals from rebels in Cuernavaca and the Sierra Gorda, for help against Mexican authorities. He turned them down.

    When it came to the Yucatán, the same choice never even arose.  It was not just that the planters of Yucatán, asking for U.S. help against Maya rebels, got no official help.  More to the point, it occurred to no one that the United States might help the indigenous side.  Sam Houston, he who had once seemed to defend Texas Cherokees, was now a U.S. Senator.  Still a man of action, he advocated giving aid to the Yucatán planters.  Polk considered the proposal, made a statement of sympathy for the planters, and dropped the idea. After all, the U.S.-Mexican War was over, and Washington did not want to commit resources.

    Government aid?  No.  Private aid?  Investment?  In time.


    Home | Site Map | Inputs from Politics | Inputs from History | The Future of New/Old Nations

    Copyright 1998 The Intermountain History Group, All rights reserved.