The Mexican-American War, fought from 1846-1848, was the climax of America's quest for new territory in the 1840s. Those supporting the war saw it as fulfillment of Manifest Destiny; they believed that the nation had a divine right to stretch from coast to coast. They sympathized with Americans who had moved into lands controlled by Mexico, such as Texas and California, who found the Mexican regime too oppressive, and who rose in revolt. Those opposing the war viewed it as an imperialistic land grab, calling it "the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." And to most Mexicans, the Americans were invaders intent on stealing their territory.
The controversy reached a flashpoint in Texas. Texans had declared themselves independent from Mexico in 1836, although Mexico never officially recognized that independence. When the United States annexed Texas as a state in 1845, Mexico ignited in anger. The U.S. Army sent troops commanded by Zachary Taylor to defend the region. Two companies, C and D of the 4th Infantry, from Fort Scott were included in Taylor's contingent. Taylor positioned his troops in disputed territory along the Rio Grande. After Mexican soldiers crossed the river and fired on American troops, President James Polk claimed "American blood had been shed on American soil." Polk asked Congress to declare war, which it did on May 13, 1846.
While Taylor was racking up victories in northern Mexico, another body of American soldiers, the Army of the West, commanded by General Stephen Kearny, moved toward New Mexico. This force, composed of 1000 volunteer Missouri militia and 700 regulars, included 1st Dragoons, Company C , which had been stationed at Fort Scott from 1842-1843. Kearny and his men had been sent to protect the Santa Fe Trail, to conquer New Mexico and California, and to defend the interests of American citizens living in these areas. Kearny anticipated fierce resistance, for the 525,000 square miles of land that the U.S. coveted constituted 1/3 of Mexico's entire territory. Captain Benjamin Moore, first commander of Fort Scott and part of Kearny's force, seemed to look forward to the impending fight at Santa Fe, which did not transpire. He anticipated that "the American eagle will vie with the Mexican in a hearty grip."
Surprisingly, the New Mexicans gave no resistance to Kearny's army. Many had grown rich from the Santa Fe trade and believed that American rule would bring good fortune. They were also tired of being neglected by the Mexican government, some 1700 miles away. With Company C out in front, the Army of the West marched into Santa Fe, capturing it without firing a single shot.
American forces now occupied northern Mexico and controlled New Mexico and California, but still the Mexican government would not surrender to American demands for territory. Had it capitulated, the Mexican people would have risen in revolt.
General Winfield Scott, commander of all American forces, felt that the only way to force a surrender would be to occupy Mexico City. To do so he proposed an amphibious assault on Veracruz, then an overland march of less than 200 miles from there to Mexico City. Two units who served at Fort Scott after the war, 6th Infantry, Company H and 1st Dragoons, Company F, along with 4th Infantry Companies C and D from Fort Scott participated in this assault. Scott's brilliantly executed plan resulted in success at Veracruz. As his army marched inland toward Mexico City, it won a string of hard fought victories at Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, Molino Del Rey, and Chapultepec.
At Churubusco, Company F, 1st Dragoons, which served as General Scott's mounted escort, pushed a retreating Mexican army all the way to the gates of Mexico City. However, upon reaching the city, the dragoons found themselves surrounded by Mexicans and staring down the barrels of enemy artillery. Dragoon officers Phillip Kearny and Richard Ewell were more uneasy when they noticed that only three other officers and thirteen privates were with them. The rest of the unit had retreated under orders of brigade commander Col. William Harney. Those up front had been too far away to hear the bugle call and continued charging into near disaster. Kearny immediately ordered a retreat, but several dragoons fell as they did so, raked by Mexican fire. Ewell escaped injury, although two horses were shot out from under him. Kearny did not fare as well; canister shot shattered his left arm, which had to be amputated.The campaign for Mexico City proved to be costly, for this time Mexicans were defending the heart of their homeland.
One officer of the Sixth Infantry, who served briefly at Fort Scott stated of one battle, that " the round shot, grape, canister, and musketry fell so thick, and so many dropped around me, killed or wounded, that I feared the chance of my even getting out alive was slim." Many Fort Scott infantrymen lost their lives, including Major William Graham, Fort Scott's second commander. A hail of bullets felled him, yet even as he lay dying, he continued to inspire his men to act with courage, ordering them to "Charge on those fellows, charge!"
Winfield Scott's army captured the Mexican capital on September 13, 1847, ending a war that had taken the lives of many brave soldiers from both countries. The peace treaty ratified on May 30, 1848, gave much of northern Mexico to the United States. Not only did the US gain vast territory, but also the mineral resources from this land created an economic boom that helped transform America into the land of opportunity. The loss of this same territory devastated the Mexican economy and the military defeat dealt a crippling blow to Mexican pride. The results of the Mexican- American War are still being felt today as issues of immigration and economy challenge people on both sides of the border.
- Richard S. Ewell:A Soldier’s Life, by Donald C. Pfanz
- So Far From God: The US War with Mexico:1846-1848, by John S.D. Eisenhower
- Mexican War Journal & Letters of Ralph W. Kirkham edited by Robert Ryal Miller
- My Confession, by Samuel Chamberlain
- Letter written by Benjamin Moore
Last updated: May 5, 2020