The Story of Mexico/Chapter 31

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We now come to the disastrous period of the war with the United States. Nothing more unfortunate could have befallen the struggling Republic of Mexico than to become involved in a foreign quarrel.

For three centuries the country had been under the hands of the Spanish government which though arbitrary, oppressive, and sometimes tyrannical, was in general firm and equable, and above all, safe. Laws, such as they were, were enforced. Personal property, perhaps ill-gotten, was respected. In spite of plenty of abuses and defects, the daily life of the inhabitants of Anahuac under the viceroys was comfortable and secure.

Suddenly, imbued with the ideas of the centuries, the Mexicans began to play at independence, like children lighting matches. At the instigation of a few leaders, some of them it is true with high aims, actuated by the desire of doing good for their country, they drove away their viceroys, rejected the strong arm of the Spanish authority, and undertook the difficult task of governing themselves. The trouble was, not one of them understood the rudiments of the art. There were plenty of applicants for the highest post of office. Many were tried, but all were found wanting. Some gave it up themselves; others returned again and again to the futile task of making stable the shifting sands of popular opinion.

The only appeal was to arms. Blood was shed, powder and ball were spent, and a crop of military heroes sprung up, full of ardor, ready to pronounce at the slightest occasion, and bring an army to the field at a moment's notice. The sound of rolling cannon was familiar to every ear in Mexico. The smell of powder had nothing alarming about it. The very children were satiated with the sight of soldiery, and scarcely troubled themselves to run to the door to see a regiment go by.

But this was not warfare, real and serious. These armies were not thoroughly trained to the discipline of battle, and the generals were not educated in the science of war. Brave they undoubtedly were, and familiar with scenes of danger and bloodshed; too familiar, it may be, to value at its proper cost the waste of life and property caused by so much fighting. Exaggerated ideas of honor and glory, inherent to the Latin race, pervaded society, and the impression prevailed throughout the country that the Mexican arms were invincible, because every regiment and every general had, in turn, put to rout every other in the country.

In this game of independence, the Mexican peoples had exhausted their resources, destroyed in a great measure the industries of the country, spent their money, and wasted rivers of blood. Many TSOM D335 Map of the Valley of Mexico.png

of their best generals were either driven from the country, or dead upon the field. They might have gone on, it is true, pronouncing and killing each other indefinitely, but for the sharp lesson that was taught them by the cruel exigencies of a foreign war.

That some lesson should come was perhaps inevitable, like a quick, sharp box on the ears, to bring such naughty children to their senses, and stop their foolish trifling with life and reputation. But it was hard that the blow should come from the hand of a nation which ought to have taken the place of an elder brother to these foolish and heedless children,—a hand which should have gently led them to peace and reconciliation instead of promoting discord.

The Mexicans, undoubtedly, helped to bring upon themselves the misfortunes that came swiftly upon them. Like all people whose own folly has put them on the wrong track, they were sure to do the wrong thing. They were heavily punished accordingly.

The United States had in a hundred years spread over the great western lands of North America with surprising rapidity, and now approached the regions which Cortés had laid claim to three centuries before. This claim was but vague, for the deserts and plains of the north were not accessible or inviting; still some posts were established, while the boundary line which should put a stop to the encroachments of either country was still unsettled. The territory west of the Sabine River and east of the Rio Grande came under discussion.

Moses Austin, born in Durham, Connecticut, a southwestern pioneer, applied to the Mexican Commandant-General in Monterey in 1820 for permission to colonize three hundred families in Texas. Without waiting for his answer, he set out towards the Sabine River, was robbed and abandoned in that deserted waste, and died of the disease he caught by exposure soon after finding his way back to Louisiana. The grant was made, and given to his son, who had it confirmed in the city of Mexico, and it was he who founded the colony which has since become the capital of Texas, named Austin after him. More grants of land were willingly made by the Mexican government, who thought well of encouraging settlers as protectors against the savage hordes that infested the northern part of their country; and colonization went on, chiefly by people of the United States, until these emigrants to Texas far outnumbered the Mexicans. The difference of race and education was strongly marked between these sturdy settlers of Anglo-Saxon origin, and the chance stragglers from Mexico, not the best specimens of the Latin race. This population had no sympathy with the pronunciamentos and jealousies of the capital, and the result, as we have seen, was a revolt against Mexican rule in 1835, in consequence of the acts of the Federal government.

Santa Anna hastened to the scene with his army, but the rebellious forces, under the brilliant command of "Sam" Houston, General, Governor, and afterward President, were everywhere triumphant, and Texas declared herself an independent Republic, which maintained its separate existence between the two great powers on each side of it till 1844, recognized not only by these, but by the European states.

The subject of the annexation of Texas to the United States began to be spoken of and strongly urged by the Texans themselves; but the movement was wholly disapproved by the party in that country opposed to the extension of slavery, since by the agreement then existing, all new territory south of a certain line permitted slavery, while the States north of it abjured it. In spite of the opposition of the North, however, Texas was admitted into the American Union by an act ratified in Congress in March 1845.

This act was regarded by the Mexicans as an act of aggression. As Texas was at the time wholly independent of Mexico, its right was undoubted to annex itself to another country; but on the part of the United States the act is scarcely to be justified according to the laws of honor and international good faith. It was at any rate approved only by one section of the country, the other regarding every additional step leading to a foreign war with a neighboring government hitherto friendly, with regret and displeasure.

The party which favored the measure began to make preparations for hostile demonstrations with alacrity. The American Republic had now long been at peace. Prosperous, safe from enemies abroad, peaceful at home, with plenty of money in her treasury, her military schools training a small body of officers in the latest science of the art of war, she was in perfectly good condition to resist an attack, and had the cause been a popular one, every State in the Union would have offered with alacrity volunteer troops for the field.

The correspondence between the two countries grew embittered, and as time went on more and more unfriendly. During the negotiation of the treaty for annexation, war was permitted to go on in Texas; the government of the United States protested. In the war of words which followed, the Mexicans made and unfortunately reiterated the declaration that they should consider the ratification of the treaty as equivalent to a declaration of war.

During this period of agitation and irritation, the Mexicans went on with "Plans" and pronunciamentos. Herrera was President during 1844, during which short period Congress decreed the destruction of Santa Anna. Farias returned to the Republic from a voluntary exile abroad. General Paredes on his way to the north with an army to check the approach of United States forces pronounced a revolution and "Plan" at San Luis, and returned to Mexico to enforce it. He was made President, and remained in office six months, giving way then to a pronunciamento against him which resulted in putting General Don Nicholas Bravo at the head of government.

In all this confusion, hurrying to and fro to find a government, there was no true leader of affairs to dictate wise and moderate steps in such an emergency. Santa Anna, the military genius of the country, was ready to serve it in his own way, by placing himself at the head of an army. Troops were not wanting, for popular indignation was roused, and popular vanity stimulated by the idea of a war with the powerful neighboring Republic. It was pretty generally thought in the cities and towns that the result of the combat would be an easy victory. The one thing Mexicans were sure of about themselves was that they could fight, and the popular impression about the United States on the other hand, was that they could not. They had long been at peace, and without practice in arms, while it was well known that the war was unpopular in the Northern States.

The Mexicans therefore rushed to arms with their usual alacrity, little fearing the result. The Indians, all unconscious of the horrors of an invading army swarming over their villages and devastating the country, saw armies marching towards the north through their pueblos with indifference. Their eyes and ears were but too familiar with the sound of drum and the flying colors of the national flag. Their interests, their liberty, had little to do with the tempests that raged over them.

The Mexican army was characterized by many of the necessary qualities of good soldiery. Patient and suffering, requiring but little subsistence, with great capacity for enduring fatigue, and with enough physical courage to enable them to encounter danger without fear, the Mexican soldiers when properly led compared well with the troops of other nations. But corruption existed among their officers from the highest to the lowest grade; commissions were sometimes given by the functionaries of government as rewards for private services, discreditable to the giver and recipient. The army included, besides the troops of the line, the active battalions of the different states and the local national guards of the cities.

The cavalry had a high reputation, both at home and abroad. Many other corps were well disciplined, and the men were expert in all feats of horsemanship, since riding is now a universal accomplishment in the country where, three hundred years ago, the horses of the Conquistadores were regarded as supernatural creatures. Those of Mexico are considered inferior in speed and power, though possessing endurance in a remarkable degree. The carbines with which the cavalry were armed were, for the most part, of a model behind the times, and useless when accuracy of aim was necessary.

The Mexican artillery contained many foreigners among its officers; its juniors were the pupils of the Military College at Chapultepec, where they were well taught the theory of arms. Mexican revolutions had given them plenty of practice, and in gunnery they were exceedingly proficient. Their guns were fine, but clumsily mounted, and therefore hard to move. Light artillery, as practised by modern troops, was but little known or used among the Mexicans until it was taught them by the enemy.

The infantry was in many respects tolerably well drilled, and severe discipline was enforced with the privates. Ceremonious etiquette and detail duties were punctiliously observed. The muskets of the infantry were inferior, and the men were by no means proficient in their accurate use. The organization of the staff depended much on the general who happened to be in command. There existed an enormous disproportion of generals, and their number was so great that it was said at the time they had rather a brigade of generals than generals of brigade. The country was full of arms and munitions of war, such as they were, of ancient manufacture; but for replenishing the supply, Mexico had no resources, beyond the repair of partial damages. Such an establishment as a national armory was unknown in the country.

Of maritime power Mexico was and is utterly destitute. A few steamers and sailing-vessels were on her list at the beginning of hostilities, but they were not put upon a war footing, and no attempt was made at naval warfare.

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