The Mexican-American War of 1846 until 1848 had profound effects on the future geographical and political make-up of both the United States of America and Mexico, with its reverberations still felt to this day. The war was provoked by President James Polk as a way of furthering his aims of American expansion in North America. Two important factors in the success of the US forces in the conflict were their advantage in artillery, and the way that they were able to utilise the US Navy to help General Winfield Scott capture Mexico City. This paper will analyse the impact on the war of those two particular advantages, as well as examine the results and consequences of the war.
The Mexican War was a short and violent conflict which brought tensions between the two relatively new Republics of the United States of America and Mexico. It came about as a result of an ongoing tension between Hispanic and English-speaking Americans which has included the ‘Revolution’ in Texas of the previous decade. It ended in victory for the forces of the USA, who were able to exploit technological as well as tactical advantages over the poorly led but very brave Mexican forces. The Americans had provoked the conflict, with a incursion by an American force commanded by Zachary Taylor finally being fired on by Mexican troops in May 1846. President James Polk’s determination to start a conflict with the Mexicans had worked, though not to the liking of all Americans, and the results of the ensuing conflict would be far-reaching.
The contending forces in the war were relatively small in number, especially compared to European armies of the time. Although the quality of the troops was fairly well-matched, the Americans did have certain advantages, especially when it came to technology. One particularly important tactical advantage which worked in the Americans’ favour was their artillery. Artillery up until this point in history had been largely fixed into positions onto a battlefield, with little mobility. This limited its effectiveness, as it could rarely be shifted and brought to bear where it might have been more badly need once battle had commenced.
At the Battle of Palo Alto, in May 1846, a new artillery tactic was used by the American forces commanded by Zachary Taylor. Using a military theory developed and honed by Major Samuel Ringgold, the American artillery advanced rapidly in fron of their own lines, before retreating to move to another part of the field as required. This modern and speedy tactic was complemented by the effectiveness of their guns and powder, which were of a much superior quality to that of their Mexican opponents.
Zachary Taylor became a hero with these victories, both for his own soldiers and among the general public back at home. This was an unlikely outcome for a man who had seemed so unmilitary in his bearing and dress. “His uniform often consisted of whatever he found handy at the moment. He often donned an old straw hat, patched gray trousers, and borwn overcoat, and he mended his own clothes.” (Tindall and Shi, 1989, p.347). That appearance though was not too dissimilar to his own troops, who were described thus by a Briton who observed them in Mexico: “wild-looking, hairy-faced savages…who galloped along the streets and plazas mounted on mules and Mexican ponies and armed with sabres, bowies and revolvers.” (quoted in Tindall and Shi, 1989, p.346). They may not have looked great, but they certainly proved that they could fight, as well as adapt to new tactics such as that of the ‘flying artillery’.
These new tactics proved successful at Palo Alto, where the Americans were able to use the mobile striking power of their artillery to great effect. His men inflicted 200 casualties on the Mexican army, compelling them to retreat. Only five American soldiers were killed, with 43 wounded. Sadly, one of the wounded was the innovator who had come up with the mobile army tactics, Samuel Ringgold. He would die three days later. Artillery would again play a vital role in Taylor’s next battle, at Resaca de la Palma, where the Americans would also capture large quantities of Mexican artillery. The artillery would actually struggle in their next engagement though, at Monterey, where the Mexican fortifications would prove too strong for their light guns. It was not until the Americans captured some of the heavier Mexican guns that they were able to break into the city and take it. (Hickman, retrieved 2013)
Another encounter at which the American forces were able to bring tactical advantages to bear was at the invasion at Veracruz, when the first amphibious landing by United States forces took place. This occurred becuase the Americans wanted to open another front, and drive through to the heart of Mexico itself. Veracruz itself was guarded by four forts, which could work to prevent the Americans from landing. Rather than face these extensive fortifications directly, and leave his transport and warships to the mercy of land-based artillery batteries, General Winfield Scott used the US Navy to transport his troops and equipment several miles to the south of Veracruz. The Mexicans decided that they did not want to leave their fortifications, and so did little to disrupt what was a potentially haazardous landing. The potential logistical problems were overcome by the skill of Scott’s soldiers and sailors. (Minster, retrieved 2013)
The fleet would play another important role too, as they helped Scott to cut off the city. The fleet stayed near the harbor, but out of range of the Mexican fortresses’ batteries. By spreading his men around the city’s perimeter in positions which were roughly half-circular shaped, Scott was able to lay an effective siege. Thanks to the tactical advantages the presence of the Navy gave him, he managed to pound Veracruz into surrender by March 27, 1847. This success would make for a positive start to a very successful campaign, which ended in the capture of Mexico City on September 6. Before that success, Scott routed the Mexican General Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo, out-maneuvering his opponents with a clever flanking attack. His force would fight further bitter actions, at Contreras and Churubusco, and finally at Chapultepec, where six Mexican cadets earned immortal status as they mounted a heroic stand against the invaders.
The capture of Mexico City marked the end of the war, beyond some guerrilla actions by the Mexicans. Its legacy was enormous. The United States had spent $98million by the end of the conflict, and had acquired more than half a million square miles of territory, a figure which rises to a million if you choose to include Texas in it. (Tindall & Shi, p. 351) Included in that territory were the Pacific ports of San Diego, Monterey and San Francisco, as well as great reserves of mineral wealth. This territory still forms the basis of much of the western United States. Other legacies included military ones; many of the officers who performed well in Mexico would go on to enjoy distinguished Civil War careers in the 1860s. As well as the first amphibious landing, the war also marked the first time the United States had carried out a successful offensive war, and was also the first of its conflicts to be covered by war correspondents. Overall, it was perhaps the most significant conflict in America’s frontier history other than the America Civil War, and there would be many conflicts fought with Native Americans in the territory the war secured.
Hickman, Kennedy, ‘Mexican-American War: Taylor’s Campaign, First Shots to Buena Vista’ retrieved from: http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/mexicanamericanwar/a/MexicanTaylor.htm, 05/24/2013
Minster, Christopher, ‘The Siege of Veracruz’, retrieved from: http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/thehistoryofmexico/p/The-Siege-Of-Veracruz.htm, 05/24/2013
Tindall, George B. and Shi, David E, ‘America’, Brief Second Edition, 1989