The Story of Mexico/Chapter 33
On the 18th of February, 1847, General Winfield Scott presented himself before Vera Cruz with a formidable army of American troops. On the 22d Santa Anna lost the battle of Angostura, or Buena Vista as it is better known by Americans, and was forced to retire with his troops upon San Luis. On the 28th the American forces in the north met the Mexicans at Sacramento and beat them, soon after occupying the important town of Chihuahua. These events following close upon one another filled the Mexicans with alarm, but their determination held out, and all the opportunities for peace offered them by the American government were waived as an indignity to their national honor.
To raise money was the great difficulty. Calls were made upon the separate states and upon individuals. The government journals adopted the motto Ser o no ser ("to be or not to be," literally rendered), and were filled with articles urging the hearty support of the war. One plan for raising money was the sequestration of Church property.
As the various religious orders came over to New Spain from the old country they built churches, monasteries, convents, and hospitals; in the early period after the Conquest their work and influence, as we have seen, were most favorable to the establishment of the colony. To the Franciscans, in great part, belongs the honor of establishing the power of Spain on a firm basis in the new country. Their wise course with the Indians, establishing a cordial and even affectionate intercourse with them, engrafting gently the tenets of the new religion upon whatever was good and healthy of the old stock, gave them a strong hold upon their converts, and thus confirmed by love and reason the position won in the first place by arms and superior force. The several orders of Hospitallers established all over the country houses of shelter for the sick, admirably appointed and administered conscientiously with the greatest zeal.
The Jesuits encouraged learning in Mexico, founded colleges and schools, and inspired even the lowest class with the possibility of raising themselves by developing their mental faculties. The Dominicans, by their furious zeal for the Inquisition, doubtless hastened the end of the Spanish rule, for the soil of the New World has never been favorable for the taking root of this institution.
"Broadly speaking," Mr. Janvier says, in his admirable "Mexican Guide," "the influence of the religious orders upon the colony was beneficial during its first century, neutral during its second, harmful during its third." It must always be remembered that Cortés, with all his personal ambition and greed of gold, was deeply religious, and that he never lost general winfield scott
sight of his highest aim in conquering New Spain, which was in all sincerity to plant the cross upon its soil. The impulse given by his determination lasted a long time, but in another century this had lost its force, while with the decline of the power of the Church at home, the ambassadors from Spain had less religious fervor. In the last century all institutions of the Church had deteriorated to a degree fatal to her interests, as well as to those of the country.
By this time so much of the wealth of Mexico had come into the possession of the Church that this locking up of capital really blocked the channels of trade. Money accepted, or extorted, by the priests stopped circulating, and was lost in the coffers of churches, or converted into superb ornaments for altars. The practical thought of the time, in the stress for money required to pursue the war, turned to the scheme of converting all this splendor into funds for the equipment of armies.
The clergy became alarmed at the first sound of such proposals, and used all their powerful influence against them. For this course they were accused by the government journals of want of patriotism, of aiding and abetting the monarchists, and fomenting the discords which were daily becoming more dangerous.
This was not without reason, for although the priests feared and hated the "Northern heretics," as they called the enemy, they feared and hated still more the loss of their property. The monarchical preferences of the great dignitaries of the Church are well known. They have never favored the innovation of the Republic in Mexico.
In spite of the strong opposition of the priests, an attempt was made to carry the plan into effect. Government required a contribution from the property of the clergy to the amount of two millions of dollars, and issued drafts amounting to that sum on the different bishops of the country. These prelates really were not able to pay immediately in ready money, even if they had inclination; they begged for delay, and meantime incited the clergy to defeat further measures in Congress. Nevertheless a bill was passed in January, 1847, "to hypothecate or sell in mortmain Church property" in amounts necessary to obtain fifteen millions for the support of the national war against the United States. Government, determined to carry the matter through, took the first step by seizing a priest who was stirring up an insurrection in the capital, and casting him into prison. Such acts stifled the general outcry, and the clergy were compelled to work in secret. But the property consisted almost entirely of real estate, and, even when seized or mortgaged, it was difficult to raise money on it, for the clergy made it unsafe for individuals to encourage the government by purchase. No great quantity of money was raised at that time, and Congress was induced to consider ways of making the law less obnoxious. In the middle of their conference they broke up, and left government to obtain resources as it might.
Thus the first great blow was struck at the accumulation of Church wealth; the wedge admitted which must weaken the structure in time.
On the 22d of March General Scott, having landed his troops, began to bombard the city of Vera Cruz. At the time of the attack the city was but scantily supplied with subsistence. The governor of the state had endeavored to provide it with provisions, in the little time he had after the appearance of American vessels in the harbor, but amid the clamor at the capital his small voice was unheeded. General Morales, the Commandant, with good courage resolved to keep up the defence as long as possible, trusting for aid to the coming of the vomito, which early every spring makes Vera Cruz unhealthy, rather than to any hope of a relieving army.
On the day General Scott summoned the city to surrender, General Morales returned a peremptory refusal, saying that he would make good his defence to the last, informing his Excellency that he could commence operations in the manner which he might consider most advantageous. Soon after, the bombardment began. For four days a shower of shells poured upon the city, and the violence instead of diminishing daily increased. The inhabitants for protection crowded upon the mole, and into the northern part of the town. For twelve days the place was closely invested. Many poor people who, without the necessaries of life, were prowling about the streets in search of food, fell before the American fire, as well as women and children, who were not safe even in their houses. On the 28th the city surrendered. The Mexican troops were permitted to
march out of the city with the honors of war, to the field where the surrender of arms was to take place, and to salute their flag when it was struck. The civil and religious rights of Vera Cruz were guaranteed to its inhabitants. The troops laid down their arms, and General Worth's command entered and took possession of the city and the neighboring Castle of San Juan d' Ulóa.
By this capture, General Scott obtained a base of operations for direct advance upon the city of Mexico, and, moreover, inflicted another blow upon the courage of the Mexican nation.
Santa Anna, who, by the way, had been made President, leaving political affairs in the hands of Governor Farias, Vice-President, hastened from the defeat at Buena Vista to the encounter of another American army, met General Scott between Jalapa and Vera Cruz, and sustained a new defeat at Cerro Gordo. He himself escaped and fled to Orizaba, where he made strenuous efforts to assemble anew an army, for his troops were utterly dispersed, and not a barrier remained between the enemy and the capital. The Americans, in fact, slowly advanced, occupying the country as they went towards the capital. Santa Anna arrived first at Puebla with all the force which he had collected at Orizaba. He found the Poblanos indifferent, and tried to rouse their patriotism, telling them, with good reason, that he knew they could fight if they chose, for not three years before they had beaten him, Santa Anna, off the town although he was backed by an army of 12,000 men. Notwithstanding his eloquence, the American army marched into Puebla without any fighting at all. The Ayuntamiento of the city met General Worth outside the city, and favorable terms were agreed upon.
The American troops arriving in Puebla were quartered at first in the Plaza Mayor, where they stacked their arms, and laid themselves down to rest. They had passed the night in the open air in a pouring rain, and were tired and dirty with a long march all the morning. The Poblanos could not understand that these ill-conditioned soldiers were the terrible conquerors who were invading their homes. Some one expressed the belief that five hundred good men could cut them down, as they lay at their ease in the Plaza, but the attempt was not made.
Puebla was thus quietly occupied, but the inhabitants showed no good-will to the invaders.
Fort Loreto, on the hill of Guadalupe, was occupied by a part of the American command. This hill is famous in the annals of Mexican history. In the old times when it was crowned by the Church of Guadalupe, religious processions used to go up and down on the days of sacred ceremony. The fort was destined to a glorious triumph later, but at the time of the American investment it had not yet won its reputation. Then, as now, from the heights was to be seen one of the great views of the world: three snow-covered volcanoes, with Malintzi rising 13,000 feet above the level of the sea, and the lofty crest of Orizaba, and nearer at hand the pyramid of Cholula. The city of Puebla spreads out below like a map. It is very pretty, built like all the Mexican cities, with streets running at accurate right angles, straight and regular. Many churches are scattered over the city; the frequent use of colored tiles in building furnishes a great many colors, for red, yellow, and blue are employed in the domes, which glow with bright tints or glitter in the reflection of the sun.
The American troops had full opportunity to enjoy this scene while they occupied Puebla, awaiting at first the arrival of General Scott, and afterwards reinforcements sufficient to warrant an advance. Santa Anna returned to Mexico, where, as usual with beaten generals, his reception was the reverse of cordial. He took what measures he could to win back popularity, and as one step towards this, resigned the presidency. Pending a new election, Congress created him Dictator until the next year, and armed with this authority he began the work of fortifying the capital, since this was evidently the next and last point of attack for the enemy, General Taylor's army finding no hindrance in coming from the north, and General Scott close at hand in the City of the Angels.
Patriotism, the desire to defend the capital, was fully aroused, and battalions poured in from the different cities and states of the Republic; each sent its guns to contribute to the defence, and by the end of June the Mexican Dictator had at his disposal over 25,000 men and sixty pieces of artillery. Pronunciamentos ceased for the time, and the spirits of the Mexicans again rose, leading them to hope that the final struggle would be successful, and that the troops of the United States would meet with an overwhelming defeat at the gates of their capital.