A Thunder of Cannon
Archeology of the Mexican-American War Battlefield of Palo Alto
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Finding A Face: El Soldado Mexicano 1835-1848
Kevin R. Young, Historian
San Antonio, Texas

A leading authority asserted, "history is explicit in recording the words deeds and likeness of political and military leaders of the period, but the Mexican Conscript, the fighting man, remains blurred and forgotten in the background" (Hefter et al. 1958). Thirty-six years later, despite leaps in historical interpretation, this statement remains valid. In monographs, books, research papers, museums and at battlefield parks, the Mexican soldado remains the faceless participant in the sweeping history that shaped the fledgling American republics between 1835 and 1848.

Imagination and popular culture shaped conventional wisdom. In this world, the soldado emerged as a stereotype serape-clad peon, cowering, yet brutal—unable to act as an individual. Rodolfo Acuna in his work, Occupied America characterized the soldado as "ill-prepared, ill-equipped and ill-fed", a portrait still presented in current Texas history texts (Acuna 1981). American producers, who traditionally steered clear of the Mexican-American War, have filmed at least sixteen major pictures on the 1836 Texas War and its most famous battle, the Alamo. The soldado began in silent films as a cowardly drunkard, often lusting after Anglo-Celtic women. These early treatments fed off a yellow press fostered by the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution. The tradition did not change dramatically until the 1950s when negative portrayals gave way to faceless men who simply became killing machines. Attempts at humanization came in John Wayne's 1960 film, The Alamo, a film infamous for its lack of historical accuracy, but important in its attempt to recognize the bravery of the soldado.

Generals Ruben Garcia Velazquez de Leon and Jose Domingo Ramirez Garrido, along with Lieutenant-Colonel Alberto Guerra y Portugal were among the few modern Mexican soldiers who attempted to document their predecessors. Yet, two names are preeminent: General Miguel Sanchez Lamego and Joseph Hefter, General Sanchez Lamego penned several historical articles and booklets on early Mexican military history, including the excellent history of the Zapadores Battalion. Two of his best works, one on the 1842 Texas War and another on the Alamo, were published in both Spanish and English (Lamego 1972).

Nevertheless, Joseph Hefter, a German-American mining engineer living in Mexico and the most famous historian of the nineteenth century Mexican soldier, surpassed all previous work. Hefter, along with Angelina Nieto and Mrs. Nicholas Brown, published a small booklet in 1958 titled El Soldado Mexicano, a reference to the Mexican Army dating from 1835 to 1848. Because of his limited access to complete documentation, the author admitted in his introduction that the study was far from definitive (Hefter et al. 1958).

The average soldado was a draftee. Mexico used conscription as its principal means of recruitment. This system, used by most of the European nations but considered less enlightened by the U.S., was conducted by lottery every October to draw recruits. These recruits were trained at San Luis Potosi or Mexico City. A long list of "professions" excluded many from the draft, and, consequently, those at the bottom of the social-economic ladder ended up in the ranks. A substitute system existed for those who could afford to hire a replacement. Many ill-informed writers suggest large number of "recruits" gathered for the 1836 Texas Campaign. Hefter et al. (1958) allude to more than three thousand conscripts yanked "out of the fields", including prisoners and convicts, for the Ejercito de Operaciones against Texas. Battalion returns indicate only a hundred replacements were added to each of the various battalions, and these were trained only rudimentarily. Santa Anna's detailed battle orders for the March 6 assault on the Alamo clearly stated recruits were not to be part of the attacking columns (Lamego 1949). As war with U.S loomed in 1846, recruiters combed the countryside for additional manpower to fill the armies of Mariano Arista and Pedro Ampudia.

The Mexican soldier served lengthy enlistment terms under harsh conditions for low pay. Volunteers served eight years and conscripts 10 years. Deserters generally received additional service time for the first offense, and the second absence added service in coastal garrisons. Because of the yellow fever season, this was far from healthy service. In wartime, apprehended deserters faced execution. Pay for line soldados was fifteen pesos a month, from which clothing and food allowances were drawn. Cazadores in the rifle companies and the grenaderos received sixteen pesos (Hefter et al. 1958).

The height of Mexican recruits usually was between 64-68 inches (162-173 cm). Additional research in the Mexican Military Archives reveals details such as religion, age, marital status, trade, as well as color of hair, eyes and skin. The Army was racially mixed; most soldados had some Indian blood (Hefter et al. 1958). In contrast, one so called "pure" organization was the Active Commerce Regiment of Mexico, whose officer corps and ranks were drawn from the professional community as volunteers and whose men contributed to a unit fund that paid for weapons and uniforms (Hefter et al. 1958). Foreign soldados were an exception. Excluding the San Patricio Battalion raised during the Mexican-American War, there were not large numbers of European or North Americans in the ranks, although smaller numbers may have been present. In 1837, some 27 Poles reportedly served in the cavalry of the Ejercito del Norte. The San Patricio Battalion, with its Europeans and U.S. Army deserters, made up the largest single grouping of non-Mexicans to serve (Katcher 1976).

The officer corps was alarmingly disproportionate to the rank and file, with some 24,000 officers in 1847 compared to 20,000 soldados (Katcher 1976). Many of the senior officers were political chieftains, and their subordinates neither well trained nor disciplined. One British officer found them, "totally ignorant of their duty" (Katcher 1976). In 1833, Mexico established a military academy, but it provided only 100 cadets every three years. The younger officers often provided the leadership needed to inspire the soldados, but not all senior officers were unprofessional. At the defeat of Santa Anna's division at the San Jacinto in 1836, General Manuel Fernandez Castrillon refused to turn his back on the enemy. He stood defiantly on an ammunition chest until shot by Texian volunteers. During the same action, Colonel Juan Almonte, realizing the battle was lost, organized some 600 soldados and marched them off the field. Keeping them under cover, he waited until the killing stopped and then surrendered, thus sparing his men the fate of their comrades. Colonels Orihuela and Urriza organized the Activos Puebla and Morelia into a rear guard to cover the rout at Resaca de la Guerrero (Palma). General Nicholas Bravo coolly commanded the defenses of Chapultepec in 1847, despite the absence of reinforcements promised by Santa Anna.

Many still believe the Army was overpopulated with foreign officers, and that former Napoleonic Marshalls were used to help recreate a Latin la Grande Armie for Santa Anna, the self-styled "Napoleon of the West". A survey of the senior officer corps indicates many of the so-called "foreigners" were old veterans of the War for Independence, who were motivated by social and political advancement. Despite their loyalty to the Mexican Republic, many of the nonnative officers were considered privateers even by their fellows. Their involvement in various political uprisings failed to alter this perception. Out of nine senior staff officers in the 1836 Mexican Army, five were foreign born. Nevertheless, all eleven battalion commanders were native born and the two senior military officers, Secretary of War José Mariá Tornel and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, were native, while the second and third in command, Generals Juan Arago and Vicente Filisola were foreign. When Santa Anna was captured following San Jacinto, field command passed to Filisola since Arago was ill and Tornel had remained in Mexico City. Many of the field commanders believed command of the Army should have passed to division commander and native Jose Urrea. Following the painful evacuation of Texas, Urrea led a heated debate concerning foreign born officers holding command functions. Typically, the debate worked into the power struggle between Federalists and Centralists.

A few Germans served in the officer corps. Included in this group were Adrian Woll, who rose from quartermaster to general, and Juan Holzinger, who served as a colonel in José Urrea's command. Woll commanded the 1842 army that recaptured San Antonio. Jean Berlandier, a Swiss officer, had served in various government offices and helped survey Texas in 1828. He later served as General Arista's chief engineer during the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. At least one U.S. citizen served as a field officer, John "Juan" Davis Bradburn, a former resident of Kentucky who had fought for Mexican independence. Bradburn became infamous to Texas historians for his role in the 1812 disturbances at Anahuac. Davis served in the 1836 Texas War as a colonel, commanding the supply base at Copono.

Between 1835 and 1846, the Mexican Army underwent two organizational changes. Before the Zacatecas Campaign of May, 1835, the permanente national army was reorganized from numerical battalions to ones named in honor of the heroes of the Wars of Independence. The national guard, or activo regiments were simply organized into battalions. Having seen action in the 1832 to 1834 Federalist-Centralist Wars, both activo and permanente battalions were veteran units (Hefter et al. 1958).

Battalions were organized into eight companies consisting of some 80 soldados each. Rarely were the battalions or even the companies at full strength. Usually, companies stayed at between 34 and 44 effectives. One company was designated as cazadores or "light" or "preferred", while a second was designated as grenaderos. The cazadore company was the light infantry or rifle company used as skirmishers or flankers, while the grenaderos consisted of veterans normally used as a reserve. The other six companies were the fusilero or the Line or Center companies and did the bulk of the battalion's fighting. The battalion structure was inherited from the Spanish Army following its restructure by the British during the Peninsular War (Hooker 1976).

The Army was reorganized in 1839. One permanente and one activo, were combined to form a new numerical line infantry regiment. The local militia units were made into battalions, who, along with the coastal guards, were designated to serve as garrison troops. Most, however, would see considerable action as field regiments. In 1841, Mexico created ligero or light infantry regiments designed to work as skirmish troops. As campaign losses mounted, light infantry regiments found themselves fighting as regular infantry. Under this system, the Mexican Army fought the Mexican-American War with the U.S. (Hefter et. al 1958). In 1843, a new drill manual by Captain Juan Ordonez was adopted and the following year, Lieutenant-Colonel Jose Lopez Uraga translated the French bayonet drill by Pinette for the Army (Hefter et al. 1958).

Observers criticized the poor marksmanship of the line soldados. One critic remarked that one out of ten recruits never saw a musket and only one out of a hundred had actually ever held one (Olivera and Crété 1991). An efficient supply system hampered Mexican marksmanship. One writer noted Santa Anna's 1847 Ejercito del Norte had been superficially drilled, and not allowed to target fire their weapons because of the lack of ammunition (Robles 1934). Mexican gunpowder was considered poor by most standards, containing too much sulphur and charcoal. Contemporary accounts from both the Texas Campaign and the Mexican-American War noted Mexican cartridges were often overcharged to give the weapon more punch (Lewis 1950). The result was an intimidating flash in the weapon's pan, stinging cheeks and eyes, and a considerable recoil. U.S. and Texian accounts claimed Mexican troops often fired from the hip to reduce the discomfort of the discharging weapon. In 1839, Texian Ordnance Officer George Hockley commented "the French, the Spaniards, the Mexicans, and some others, fire quickly and from the hip" (Hockley 1839). At the 1842 battle of Lipantitian, a Texian was amazed as one Mexican sergeant took nearly point blank aim at him, only to turn his head before firing, causing the shot to go high (Telegraph and Texas Register 1842). Nevertheless, cazadores were competent marksmen, as Texians at the 1835 battle of Bexas could attest. For example, a shot from cazadore Felix de la Garza of the Morelos Battalion killed Texian leader Ben Milam (Creed 1935). Mexican ordnance officers occasionally issued the wrong ammunition. Such foul-ups occurred in all armies, but this fact provided scant comfort to those soldados issued Brown Bess ammunition for their Baker Rifles during the 1847 battle of Churubusco (Hefter et al. 1958).

Mexico's cavalry seemed better prepared. The legacy of horsemanship, dating back to the tough presidial lancers of the colonial period and the frontier ranching traditions, produced a thriving horse culture, reflected in the large numbers of cavalry units. Cavalrymen were designated as regular line units and irregular auxiliaries, primarily made up of local rancheros. Arms for the cavalry consisted of a wide variety of escopetas (short-barreled carbines), swords, espada anchas (short swords), lariats and the lance. The lance was the deadliest and most reliable weapon a horse soldier could carry. In several engagements, lancers almost proved fatal to the Americans, armed with swords and single shot pistols. Indeed, the first skirmish of the Mexican-American War was a Mexican victory, secured by excellent light cavalry tactics. Texians developed a healthy respect for Mexican cavalry. In the 1835-1836 Texas War, Mexican regular cavalry swept the field at Agua Dulce and Encinal del Perdido. They also performed swift and almost decisive service in the skirmish of April 20, 1836 at the San Jacinto. Only at the siege of Bexar, where frontier presidial companies fought as defending infantry and at the San Jacinto on April 21, where the cavalry found themselves unsaddled and walking their horses to water, did the Texians succeed against Mexican cavalry. During the nine years of hostilities between Texas and Mexico, the Texians developed a system of mounted tactics to deal with Mexican cavalry (Hefter et al. 1958).

Most of Mexico's cavalry units were "light" (small men on small horses). The Tulacingo Cuirassiers, created in 1842, were the only true heavy cavalry regiment in Mexican service. Accounting for much of the success of the Mexican cavalry were a series of capable field commanders, including Generals Anastasio Torrejón and Jose Urrea.

Mexican officers normally deployed their artillery as a complete corps. No individual or battalion designations were used until before the Mexican-American War when the National Guard, created by Gomez Farias, designated artillery regiments and batteries. The Mexican Artillery Corps contained some of the better educated and trained soldados, but was hampered by poor equipment. The guns were heavy, and not easily transported. When in defensive positions, Mexican cannon could be quite effective, but on the offensive they became more of a hindrance than a help. Senior officers appeared ignorant of how best to use the corps. Mexican military science did not allow the artillery to experiment with new techniques, while the U.S. had developed light artillery pieces and tactics. The results, particularly at Palo Alto, were devastating for the Mexican military. Perhaps the most professional element of the Army was the Zapadores or engineers. This battalion played a major role in every military engagement during this period except at San Jacinto, and were often used as reserves with the grenadiers.

The appearance of the Mexican Army evoked the Napoleonic dress. The soldado wore a wool tail coat, cut at the waist, with wool pants. Facings, on sleeves and collars, depended on regiments and branch of service. The standard Mexican headgear was a shako. During the 1830s, it was bell crowned and, after 1839, was cylindrical and made of leather or felt. Shakos were designed not merely for a military appearance, but as protection against sword blows and the elements. Some units received a canvas summer or canvas tropical white uniform, and, in many cases, they wore combinations of this uniform and the wools. While brogans or shoes were issued, many soldiers preferred sandals or to go barefoot on the march (Hefter et al. 1958; Katcher 1976; Haythornthwaite 1986). Uniform manufacture took place in Mexico at the textile mills in Queretaro, Puebla and Mexico City. During the reorganization of the Ejercito del Norte by Santa Anna in 1847, clothing and equipment were produced at special factories established at San Luis Potosi.

One lecturer insisted the Mexican Army bought their uniforms directly from France. Regulations, which state the coat shall be of Queretero cloth, do not support such a claim, and although the style was "Napoleonic" it was not necessarily French. The same source also stated the accouterments were purchased from France. Since Mexicans were using .75 caliber weapons, it would be almost impossible to use a cartridge box made for French .69 caliber weapons. Scholars and history buffs hotly debate the nature of Mexican uniforms. Hefter et al. recreated the plates for El Soldado Mexicano using originals and period regulations. A series of color lithographs produced by Claudio Linati illustrate a shako, circa 1828, with a red-white-green "bull's eye" on top and high military wings on the service uniforms. These early drawings influenced the popular cultural view of the Mexican uniform, as almost every Hollywood film shows either this or the presidial lancer uniform, despite Hefter's research and the 1835 painting "The Battle of Tampico" by Manuel de Paris. Currently, there are no known photographs of Mexican troops during the Mexican-American War.

The care of the sick and wounded soldados was a concern of the Government following the disastrous 1836 Texas War, when hundreds suffered needlessly from lack of a proper medical corps. Santa Anna retained the services of a North American doctor on the march from Saltillo, but the doctor later died. The battle of the Alamo turned San Antonio into a garrison field hospital, and the commandant, General Juan Andrade, urgently requested "medical supplies, bandages, thread and medical herbs" as well as an "efficient doctor" (Andrade 1852). Andrade was forced to look elsewhere for medical assistance, bringing three U.S. surgeons spared from the Goliad Massacre to assist. Upon arriving in Bexar one of them observed the "[The Mexican] surgical department is shockingly conducted, not an amputation performed before we arrived...there has been scarcely a ball cut out as yet, almost every patient carrying the lead he received" (Barnard 1912).

A Military Health Corps was established in August of 1836, followed by a Central Military Hospital system in 1837. The Corps had facilities in Vera Cruz, Tamaulipis, San Luis Potosi and Chihuahua. Ernest Friedrich Adolf Hegewisch, a German serving as the chief of the new corps, made steady improvements despite constant shortages (Hefter et al. 1958).

Aside from wounds received on the battlefield, the soldado faced the usual variety of illnesses associated with the nineteenth century military brought on by bad hygiene, fouled water and spoiled rations. Spotted itch, dysentery and yellow fever constantly reduced ranks. Rations in the 1836 Texas War consisted of hardtack, corncakes, beans and flour, and a supplement of meat, which one officer noted was "of poor quality, dry and not very nutritious and even harmful" (Filisola 1985). Like most armies, the Mexican army quickly learned to live off the land, but even this was hampered by ongoing late payment for field troops. General Ramirez y Sesma, commanding the vanguard division of the 1836 Ejercito de Operaciones was so pressed for fresh supplies and currency that he confiscated food stuffs from the villas and haciendas on his route. The division following found inhabitants angry at his impressment (Filisola 1985). During the 1847 march from San Luis Potosi to Satillio, soldados in the Ejercito del Norte faced a shortage of both food and water. The answer to this problem was that water would be obtained after the army defeated the Americans, and that new rations would be secured from captured American stores.

In addition to the ration situation, the elements often conspired to increase the misery of the soldado. On the march into Texas, snow fell on northern Mexico. With only blankets and their uniform tunics for protection many soldados succumbed to the worsening conditions. General Urrea's division, advancing north from Matamoros, also encountered freezing weather. Particularly unaccustomed to the ice and snow were the Mayan Indians of the activo Yucatan and the soldados of the Tres Villas Battalion. Similar experiences were shared during the winter of 1847 by the Ejercito del Norte when Santa Anna marched north from San Luis Potosi to intercept Zachary Taylor's command at Saltillo,

Where the government failed, individual initiative took over. The soldadera or female camp followers helped to supplement rations. A chusmas or mob of such women, often with children, marched with the Mexican military, much to the displeasure of several ranking officers, including General Filisola. These women provided "home-services", which included more than just physical activities. They secured clothing and extra rations, mended and cleaned equipment, and prepared meals. While many soldaderas were wives, others were less legitimate. Officers also brought soldaderas along. Perhaps the most famous was the mistress of Captain Telesforo Alavez of the Cuautla Dragoons. Known as "Panchita", during the 1836 Texas War she used her position to intervene and help save at least 99 Texian prisoners from execution, earning the title, "The Angel of Goliad" (O'Connor 1966). Other soldaderas were to become legends. For example, Maria Josefa Zozaya took water to wounded soldados during the 1846 battle of Monterrey until she was killed by U.S. fire. She earned the title, "The Maid of Monterrey". Maria de Jesus Dosamantes, a 25-year old soldadera, actually served as a soldier in General Pedro Ampudia's army (Salas 1990). Soldaderas were a tough, resourceful lot, and often paid for their unofficial status with their lives. A soldadera prisoner was stabbed to death by a vengeful Colonel John Forbes at San Jacinto. and archeological investigations of a burial trench at Resaca de la Palma battlefield indicate a number of female remains mixed among the soldados.

Mexican soldiers demonstrated commendable courage and remarkable ruggedness. Critics often assert the soldado did not have the stomach to fight, and exposure to prolonged combat produced instant morale problems and desertion. One foreign observer noted that Mexicans could not manage a bayonet assault (Olivera and Crété 1991). He obviously did not witness Major Juan Andonaigui's 1832 bayonet charge at Tolome, or the battle of the Alamo, which was not only a bayonet assault, but executed at dawn by the permanente Battalions Matamoros, Jimenez and Aldama, the activos of San Luis, and Toluca supported by the Zapadores. Bravery was a common trait among soldados. The Mexican line regiments at Palo Alto withstood a terrible pounding as their cavalry tried to outflank the U.S. light artillery. Several Mexican standard bearers were wounded or killed trying to save battalion standards. Sub-Lieutenant José Maria Torres of the Zapadores was mortally wounded while raising the Jimenez colors over the Alamo; Captain Suajo of the Mina Battalion, although severally wounded, saved his battalion's standard by wrapping it around his waist at Molino del Rey. Under U.S. artillery fire, First Lieutenant of the Marine Sebastian Holzinger mounted the parapet of the Battery Santa Barbara and nailed the national standard to the staff during the 1847 bombardment of Vera Cruz. The last stand of the Niños at Chapultepec and the Activo San Blas attest to the individual heroics and courage of the soldados. Unlike the United States, Mexico rewarded its troops with medals and badges for military service. These included the "Star of Texas" for the 1835 to 1836 campaigns as well as service medals for Lipantitian, the Defense of Mier, the Defense of Tampico, Palo Alto, Buena Vista and Chapultepec (Perez-Maldonado 1942).

Like most armed forces, the Mexican Army had its share of infamous moments. The rout of the Ejercito del Norte following the defeat at Resaca de la Guerrero (Palma) mirrored similar incidents at San Jacinto and Cerro Gordo. The collapse of organized resistance, particularly when the officer corps abandoned the fight, created a massive morale problem among the soldados, who often simply threw down their weapons and equipment and fled the field. This not only halted resistance but often created conditions that greatly contributed to casualties. The rout of Santa Anna's division by the Texian forces pushed many soldados into an impassable lake, where they bogged down, then were slaughtered by vengeful Texians. Following the defeat at Resaca de la Guerrero (Palma) in 1846, elements of the Army of the North literally drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande (Alcaraz 1850).

National policies often made the soldado the instrument not only of a military campaign, but jailer and executioner. Perhaps nowhere was this more keenly felt than the 1836 Texas War. In the initial phases of this war, Mexican and Texian forces treated each other's prisoners with due consideration, particularly following the defeat of General Cos at San Antonio. His forces were paroled and allowed to retire under arms and with provisions to the Rio Grande. The conflict took a different turn in 1836. Alarmed at the large number of U.S. volunteers immigrating to assist the Texian colonists, the Mexican Congress passed the Tornel Decree, which ordered anyone who was not a Mexican citizen and who was captured on Mexican soil under arms, to be treated as a pirate and dealt with accordingly. The Decree did not find its way into U.S. and Texian newspapers until March of 1836, and most fighting in Texas were not aware of it. Nevertheless, Santa Anna used it to execute the surrendered garrison of Goliad, despite reassurances to the prisoners they would be paroled. Combined with the earlier massacre at the Alamo, the decree had the reverse effect. Regardless of its repeal in April, the decree and its enforcement made the entire civilized world regard the Mexican nation and its Army as "savages". The Texian army smashed Santa Anna's division at San Jacinto, slaughtering more than 600 soldados. Combative relations between the Mexican military and the Texians remained brutal well into the Mexican-American War, and, fueled by later events, such as the 1842 Dawson Fight and the execution of the Texian prisoners taken at the invasion of Mier. In the Mexican-American War, Mexican lancers were often accused of being brutal to wounded Americans, but many of these crimes actually may have been committed by the mounted irregular forces used during the war. Mexican cavalry manuals of the 1840s carried the bugle call, El Deguello, which was to be blown at the climax of a cavalry charge to signify no quarter to the enemy. Some traditional accounts state the deguello also was sounded during the Alamo assault (Potter 1860).

The creation of the Palo Alto Battlefield NHS opens an entirely new opportunity for study of the Mexican soldado on both sides of the Rio Grande. It also provides us with a chance to interpret and commemorate his service. Perhaps as researchers are able to explore newly recovered evidence they may at last pull the Mexican soldado from the shadows, exposing him to the light of historical research and at last be able to see the features of his face.

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Last Updated: 25-Feb-2009