The First Civil War, 1830-1842


Real War  
    Grounded Networks  
    Control Networks  
A Note on Then and Now  
What They Called "Civil War"   
   Liberal Projects  
      J.R. Poinsett   
      Levi Woodbury   
      Francisco Morazán   
      V. Gómez Farías    
      Wm. Lyon Mackenzie   
   Conservative Demagogues  
      Andrew Jackson   
      A. L. de Santa Anna  
   Fight Scenes    
      El Gallinero   
      Puebla & Charleston    
      Guanajuato & Bravo   
      Loot & development   
      Texas & Florida   
  Grounded Reaction  
      Guatemala & Carrera   
      Lower Canada   
      The Huasteca, & North   
      The Costa Grande    
Outcomes, and Vision
The "Civil War" of the 1830s, fought in Mexico, and feared in the United States, was a clash between liberal and conservative factions.  Both sides had the capability to field militias and even European-style armies.  The very similarity between the "opposing" sides, within each region, led them into bitterness and blood.  It also showed them a way out, into compromise and hypocrisy.  In all that, this First Civil War was not too different from the second round of Civil Wars, those of the 1860s. 

A single tactical detail can point up the unity over time.  Early in 1863, after the U.S. Army in Virginia met disaster in the Battle of Fredericksburg, General Ambrose Burnside tried to retrieve its honor by sending it off on a midwinter attack toward Confederate lines. This operation turned into the humiliating, much-lampooned "Mud March."  It revealed, not just the folly of one commander, but the limits of modern, sophisticated military technique.  It would be necessary to study brilliancy less, and reality more.  Ideals suffered, too, since the Mud March coincided with the first steps in the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

So it was also, thirty years earlier, when Antonio López de Santa Anna undertook the military campaign that coincided with his vice-president's political campaign to secularize the California missions.  In this1833 case, the weather challenge came from mid-summer rain, not mid-winter.  But it still meant mud up to the hip, and a hundred miles from Querétaro to Guanajuato, where conservative rebels thought they had a strong defensive position. 

And more:  cholera , which had hit European cities the year before, and had hit Winfield Scott's little force near the Great Lakes, now struck both Santa Anna's army (4000) and the conservative rebel forces (3000).  In the first wave of disease, Santa Anna lost half his men.  He had to fall back on Querétaro to regroup.  Much then depended on who had the power to summon up new men, and new morale. 

And much of morale depended, in the face of natural disaster, and for Mexico at large, on which could summon up the greater confidence --

This was the confrontation fought out through that campaign, and other campaigns to follow.  Many of the battles were brutally serious.  Others were so much armed negotiation at the expense of soldier lives.  At times it all began to look phony, because --


Through mud and disease, and factional squabbling, the forces in this First Civil War moved toward some resolution.  Because they were acting out pressure from deep within the social forces around them then, they were already anticipating the balance of forces that would emerge after the wars of the 1860s. Santa Anna's Guanajuato March of 1833 was a model for the problems of Reconstruction in the United States of 1873.  

Pacific Intentions and Phony War

Against the background of conflict between landowners and workers, with its ominous threat of "race war," many leaders in the 1830s thought they could make society safer by making it more "liberal," avoiding the dangers that arose from imposing harsh authority. They would break up large landholdings, giving lands to individuals.  They would allow citizens freedom of speech, and of religion, and of travel.  They would allow citizens of all countries to trade freely in the international market, and to exchange influences in the market-place of ideas. They would reduce tension by promoting a more individualistic, commercial society.
Up to a point, this was little more than what sane conservatives admitted as part of keeping their system flexible.  Beyond some point, though, the liberal program threatened to put new people into control, with new economic interests and new ideas. Many conservatives feared that the program was a threat to all social order.
The criollo class had achieved independence for its component nations, as against the mother countries.  It then had to confront the spirit of centralism within itself:  the Federalists and later Whigs in the United States; the Iturbide party and later anti-"federalists" in Mexico.  These believers in strong government were trying to channel strength from the "backward" core of the continent toward its "civilized" rim.  The economic network on which they relied existed without distinctions of party, and without politicians taking much trouble to strengthen and service its connections.
Atlantic society could survive on the strength of its somewhat free trade, whether in ideas or commodities.  Serious centralists feared that such trade would leave power in the hands of local caudillos and landholders, without enough concentration of capital to promote investment and culture.  To block this social dispersion, conservatives wanted to strengthen religion, the military, central government, and any concentrations of wealth.  In all parts of the continent, conflict emerged, between policies of dispersion and policies of concentration.

There were well-meaning libertarians on the liberal side, and well-meaning paternalists on the conservative side. But:
Liberals and conservatdives shared a common attitude toward working people.  Church leaders in Mexico were quite ready to cut back on the number of saint's-day celebrations, which their Indian parishioners used for "excesses."  Many "liberal" whites were ready to take a moralistic, regulatory line against workers who resisted control.  As in the 1860s, much of the "Civil War" of the 1830s was a fight over which culture would get to exercise its own kind of discipline over workers.

Conflicts between "old" property and "new" property, combined with differences of political creed, made it look as if the continent would spiral downward into a great transnational war between liberals and conservatives.  Newspapers and mainstream histories long took this widespread conflict as the struggle they should talk about: the Santa-Anna wars in Mexico, the Nullification Controversy in the United States, Mackenzie's rebellion in Canada, the Morazán movement in Central America. Subscribers wanted to hear about conflicts within their own class.

Patterns of Alliance

The First Civil War took over the foreground of events after the executions of Vicente Guerrero and Nat Turner. Some non-white leaders, like the victorious generals in Haiti, or Vicente Guerrero earlier, or the modernizers within the "Civilized Tribes" of the U.S. South, had feet in both the popular and liberal camps.  In day-to-day experience, there was much moral and tactical overlap between the two types of conflict.

The conflict was being turned into a three-way fight, between old property, new property, and outsiders -- roughly, between conservatives, liberals, and non-whites.  This made possible three different kinds of alliance, depending on which party was left out as the enemy.  All three patterns did appear, at one time or another, and the choices of alliance partner were unstable:

These possibilities were realized in a series of fights.  Some of these were critical battles in the Real War .  Some were set-pieces in the narrower "First Civil War":  


Site Map | About

Copyright 1999-2002 The Intermountain History Group, All rights reserved.