The First Civil War, 1830-1842  

El Gallinero

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Outcomes, and Vision 
They rode down from the north with silver in their saddle-bags, and the spirit of silver in their minds. They were the young men who managed the mines of Zacatecas, or who wrote newspaper copy to please the mine-owners, or whose families were in fact the mine-owners.  They had ready capital, and confidence in their own ability to plan for Mexico's future.  They were going to meet the Army of a tired conservative government, defeat it in battle, then take over Mexico City.  They would enjoy the city as soldiers, and rule it as politicians. 

And they had support from within the Army.  General Esteban Moctezuma, middle-aged but unruly, was bringing a force in from Tampico.  Moctezuma defeated government supporters near San Luis Potosí, then joined up with the Zacatecas people.  They had confidence in their resources, and in his bravura.  With the promise of success and booty, they had little difficulty recruiting large numbers of soldiers, some 8,000 of them. 

Down through the passes they came, to a gap in the hills a scant 20 miles west of Dolores Hidalgo, the town where Mexican independence had begun, two decades earlier. The gap, opening into a balcony of land above the town, was called El Gallinero -- literally, the chicken-roost, but also meaning the "peanut gallery." 

This would soon be the field where they met a smaller government force commanded by Anastasio Bustamante.  They charged into a trap.  Bustamante slaughtered thousands, drove the surviving Zacatecas men back north in flight, and returned in triumph to Mexico City. Moctezuma, people said, only escaped by throwing out handfuls of coin that his pursuers stopped to gather. 

The civil war seemed to be over.  It was not, but the battle had settled something more important than the war itself.  It crushed, for a whole generation, any likelihood that the "new" silver and frontier interests of the north could take the lead in moves against the conservative center. Even in the short run, though Moctezuma raised another force of sorts, the initiative in the rebellion passed to other men, and other regions. 


Why the Battle Mattered in Mexico

And there are those who say that the Battle of El Gallinero was "indecisive."  That is a little like saying that the confrontation between Jackson and the South Carolina Nullifiers was "indecisive," because it did not yet settle the question of military strength between North and South.

This was the line-up, at the beginning, in the summer of 1832:

The war was a four-way struggle, in which the parties could always make new coalitions, precipitating new conflict.  The four parties were primarily social groups, although each group had a territorial center of gravity, which showed often in the physical pattern of military campaigns.

The north, with its silver, offered itself as an alternative source of wealth, and therefore of military power.  It had its own potential allies, in frontier landed interests yet farther north, and even (remotely) in Juan Álvarez with the peoples of the Costa Grande -- "the South."   (In much the same way, at the end of the century, silver interests in the United States would form a shaky political alliance with "Populist" farmers.)  Underneath this possible alliance lay the option that the people who had money capital, derived from silver, might invest it in economic development, and thus ultimately in military strength.

The war moved on a crooked trajectory, from:

El Gallinero stated the final outcome, in advance.  By exposing the weakness of the Zacatecas forces, it set the stage for the Santa Anna's later conservative shift.  The two Zacatecas defeats together decided, for that generation, the question of whether the traditional ruling classes around Mexico City would have to make some real room for newer mining and frontier interests from the north.

The center won at the outset, seemed briefly to lose, and then won in the end. It was now allied to the mercantile interests of Veracruz, not just because Santa Anna was from Veracruz, but because the center could not maintain armies without taxes on commerce with the outside world.

The result postponed for a full generation -- until the Revolution of Ayutla in 1855 -- the possibility that the moneyed North and the populist South might form an alliance against the conservative center.  While nothing guarantees that victorious silver interests would have used their capital in a constructive way, their defeat guaranteed that they would not.

How Bustamante Did It

At El Gallinero, Anastasio Bustamante accepted the northern challenge, in person.  Resigning as acting president, he took field command.  Though he could bring on little more than 2,000 men, some of these few were the disciplined soldiers that the term "regular army" implies.

Bustamante now accomplished what Santa Anna had attempted, unsuccessfully, at Tolomé.  He confronted an enemy force that seemed to control lines of communication, exploited local knowledge in order to reverse that control, and forced battle on terms that made up for his numerical inferiority.

This was not a feat that he embraced hurriedly, or with any obvious arrogance about the outcome.  When he first brought troops to the area, he stopped at Querétaro, where he put out feelers to negotiate with leaders opposed to the government.  When these efforts failed, he confronted the fact that the Moctezuma forces had established themselves in San Miguel Allende, with two secure lines of communications back north, one direct through Dolores Hidalgo to San Luis Potosí, and another through the mountain pass northwest of Dolores.

Here is where local knowledge became important -- or simply the willingness to search out local information.  First, Bustamante took advantage of the secondary roads in the area, leading his little force over into the river valley that included both San Miguel Allende and Dolores Hidalgo, but using a route that by-passed San Miguel to the north. He now occupied Dolores, near Moctezuma's life-lines back through El Gallinero to the north. He could cut either route. But which? He did not have enough soldiers to block both.

Next, he found a pobre indio, whom he sent in to San Miguel as a spy, to find out what Moctezuma's army was going to do. He questioned the man after he returned.  But no, nobody in San Miguel had told him what their orders were.  He was in no position to ask.  Nothing?  Well, soldiers did talk on about the area, and the phrase they kept dropping was "El Gallinero," "El Gallinero."

[As in the U.S. Civil War, a generation later, "local knowledge" could turn on which side was most successful at extracting deference from local, non-white workers.]
It was up then to the peanut gallery with Bustamante's forces, and quickly, to cut Moctezuma off at the pass.  They took up position in a box between two rises, as if putting themselves into a trap.  Of course, they also put men and artillery on the rises.  They were inviting Moctezuma in, daring him to attack.  This was a tactic that Moctezuma had himself used against earlier government forces outside San Luis Potosí, and there was no reason to think he would fall for it.

But Moctezuma was not the sole commander of the expedition.  He shared command with xxx Castillo, the leader of the forces from Zacatecas.  The Zacatecas men, eager to demonstrate their intrepidity, charged.

The final assault and pursuit left some 2,000 dead on the field:  the bloodiest formal engagement anywhere in the continent, since the consolidation of the new nations, and a far cry from the myth of "bloodless" civil wars in Mexico.


  • Josefina Zoraida Vázquez, "Iglesia, ejército y centralismo," Historia mexicana (1989)
  • Noticias interesantes que sobre el acontecimiento del Gallinero escribe en su defensa el ciudadano capitan Ignacio Escalada (1832)
  • Ignacio Álvarez, Estudios sobre la historia general de México (1875 -1877)
  • José María Bocanegra, Memorias para la historia de México independiente (1892-1897)
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