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

Ampudia & Taylor: A Note on Severed Heads


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
    Ampudia was supposed to have been "cruel."  He insisted on defending Monterrey, up to a point, even though it would hurt civilians.  Once, he had had an enemy's head cut off, and boiled in oil. 

    The truth of the matter is something that Taylor and Ampudia came closer to sharing.  Neither got along well with civilians.  And this chopping off of heads was something held against leaders when they did it to "civilized" people, hardly when they did it to "savages." 

    These matters came to the surface during earlier wars that had interfered with the ability of the two nation-states to mobilize against each other in Texas.  U.S. strength was drained by the fighting in Florida, as Mexican was in Yucatán. Each local conflict, dragging on in one form or another for years, was frustrating to officers who tried to conduct conventional military operations. 

    In situations like this, Taylor may have been less given to personal rages than was the ill-tempered Ampudia.  At one stage in the fighting of the 2nd Seminole War (1835-1842), he had treated the campaign like a mechanical exercise in police surveillance, dividing the area up into neat little squares that his men  would clear, square by square. Some of Taylor's colleagues, though, were quite capable of "normal" outrages against the persons of indigenous leaders. 

    The 2nd Seminole War was itself a trial run for the officers who later led armies in Mexico.  Only the winding-up of the conflict in Florida released troops for deployment toward Texas and then the Mexican border. 

    Osceola Early in the Florida fighting, while some older Seminoles were acceding to U.S. demands that they move west, the radical resistance was led by the younger warrior Osceola, who was active in working with the escaped slaves who lived with the Seminoles.  To eliminate the Osceola leadership, General Thomas Jesup finally resorted to setting up negotiations under truce flag, then ordered Osceola held prisoner when he came in for the talks.  There was some genuine public outcry about the treachery. Osceola was held captive in St. Augustine and then Charleston, where he died in 1838. 

    Sundry officers and medics took souvenirs from Osceola's things.  His head, cut off soon after death, was taken away by Dr. Frederick Weedon, who used it, among other things, as a scare piece to frighten his children. It later passed through other hands, and confidence was expressed that "the scientific and intelligent" would feel no sentimental qualms about the way it was preserved. 

    About the time Osceola's head went from hand to hand, Pedro de Ampudia was given command of Mexican forces operating against rebels in Yucatán.  While there, he oversaw the arrangement of a capitulation between opposing forces, which may have given him a model for the later action in Monterrey. 

    Shortly after that, in order to find supplies and rest for his troops, Ampudia led them into the neighbor state of Tabasco.  But the governor of that state was Francisco Sentmanat, a personable, aggressive leader who got along well with many local planters.  Already on bad terms with the central government, he objected that Ampudia's men, infected with yellow fever, would bring the disease into Tabasco.  (No one then knew that it is transmitted only indirectly, by mosquitoes.) 

    Ampudia took his army into Tabasco anyway, fought the governor, took over, and sent Sentmanat into exile. In 1844 Sentmanat collected a crew of adventurers in New Orleans and led them back to Tabasco.  While it later turned out that these men were almost all Europeans, Ampudia issued proclamations about the danger of Texans and filibusters from the United States, and used the occasion to force Tabascans into supporting his military measures. When Sentmanat landed, Ampudia hunted him down, gave him the briefest of summary trials, and had him executed, along with many of his crew. 

    After the execution, Ampudia ordered that Sentmanat's head be cut off and displayed in public, as a warning to all rebels.  In the process, someone boiled the head in oil, as if to preserve it. 

    Diplomatic representatives of the European powers (from which the scruffy adventurers had come, originally) objected to the executions, very much in line with the policy of civilized governments at the time.  (Civilized countries maintained files of complaints that might justify intervention in outlying parts of the world.)  The opposition press in Mexico City made a brief fuss about the boiling in oil.

    Francisco Sentmanat 

    Pedro de Ampudia

    Some critics in Tabasco explained Ampudia's temperament by noting that he was "Cuban," not Mexican.  He had arrived in Mexico as a sergeant in the royal army in 1821, and had at once joined the coalition army fighting for independence from Spain.  Unlike many Mexican conservatives, he did not go through the experience of fighting for years on the royal side, before changing to the rebel side at the last minute. He had no local, natural understanding of the standards maintained by "respectable" men. When he tried his hand at severity, what came out was an action by which locals professed to be shocked.

    In truth, hardly anyone in that transitional age had a secure feeling for such subtleties  Ampudia's disgust with uncooperative locals there carried over into his inability to work around locals at Monterrey.

    Zachary Taylor, in his lack of personal involvement with a local society, was much like Ampudia.  Coming  from a family that had land and slaves, and owning some of both himself, he yet fled from rural life, burying himself in the military routine of the frontier.  In Florida, he censured the efforts of local settlers to subordinate the Army to their own ends.  Allying himself to the Whig party in politics, he seemed to accept it for its tone of institutionality, rejecting bondage to the short-term greeds of local politics.

    Taylor, slaveowner though he was, acted the "traitor" to Southern interests when he became President in 1849, working to exclude slavery from newly-acquired western territories.  He had been less concerned to acquire territory during the war, than he now was to conciliate political support outside his own section..

    Of course, Taylor might not have reacted in a conciliatory way if the slaves on his own lands revolted.  As general in Mexico, he paired his willingness to pay for supplies with a threat to confiscate if the locals did not offer products for sale.  While he deprecated the violence that U.S. volunteers inflicted on the Mexican population, he insisted that he could do little to control them. He himself threatened formal violence against communities if guerilla bands in the area attacked his convoys.  He felt outraged that civilians could abuse his magnanimity, much as Ampudia in Tabasco felt outraged that Sentmanat would return from exile with a crew of filibusters.


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