The Mexican-American War

Battle of Monterey, Mexico by Daniel P. Whiting, 1847

Battle of Monterey, Mexico by Daniel P. Whiting, 1847

The Mexican-American War was an armed conflict that occurred after the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas. It lasted from 1846 to 1848.

Despite the 1836 Texas Revolution, Mexico still considered her part of its territory. The Mexican Congress never recognized Texan independence, seeing the Republic as a rebellious territory that would eventually be retaken. After the annexation of Texas as a state in December 1845, Mexico immediately broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and disputes arose as to the southern boundary of Texas, which had now become the southern boundary of the United States. The Mexicans said that Texas extended only to the Nueces River, while the Texans declared that it extended to the Rio Grande.

The Texas Revolution Ends after the Battle of San Jacinto

The Texas Revolution Ends after the Battle of San Jacinto

Territorial expansion of the United States to the Pacific Coast was the goal of President James K. Polk, who proceeded to defend the territory of its new state. Though the war was highly controversial, with the Whig Party and anti-slavery elements strongly opposed, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead his forces to the Rio Grande.

In January 1846, Taylor and 4,000 soldiers, marched to the Rio Grande but, were ordered not to attack the Mexicans. However, Taylor’s orders also required that he defend himself and his troops if the Mexicans instigated an assault. The troops initially spent their time patrolling the new border and scouting to see if any Mexican soldiers had crossed the Rio Grande.

On April 25th, a company of some 70 Dragoons, commanded by Captain Seth Thornton, was scouting parts of the disputed area about 20 miles northwest of what is now Brownsville, Texas. Their mission was to determine whether or not the Mexican Army had crossed the Rio Grande for a possible attack on Fort Texas (later called Fort Brown.) Acting on the advice of a local guide, the troops went to investigate an abandoned hacienda. What they found were 2,000 Mexican soldiers under the command of Colonel Anastasio Torrejón encamped in and around the hacienda.

Fighting immediately broke out and though the vastly outnumbered U.S. troops fought ferociously, they were forced to surrender after several hours of resisting. Known as the Thornton Affair, Thornton Skirmish or Thornton’s Defeat, 16 U.S. Dragoons were killed and five wounded, including Captain Thornton. One U.S. cavalryman; however, was able to escape and made it back to camp, reporting of the Mexican opening of hostilities. Fifty men, including Captain Thornton, were taken prisoners and held at Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Upon learning of the incident, President Polk asked for a declaration of war before a joint session of the United States Congress and on May 13, 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico.

The first battles were fought in Texas, which included the Siege of Fort Texas, the Battle of Palo Alto, and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. After these decisive victories, General Taylor began a campaign invading Mexican territory.

Battle of Palo Alto

Battle of Palo Alto

In Mexico, Taylor and Mexican leader, General Santa Anna, fought a desperate battle at Buena Vista in February 1847. Though the U.S. troops were greatly outnumbered, General Taylor placed his men so skillfully, that he won a victory that put an end to the campaign in northern Mexico. However, this defeat, as well as other skirmishes, did not serve to induce the Mexicans to give up all the territory that the United States demanded, so it was determined to send an army directly to the enemy’s capital in Mexico City.

Battle of Buena Vista

Battle of Buena Vista

President Polk sent a second army under General Winfield Scott, which was transported to the port of Vera Cruz by sea, to begin an invasion of the Mexican heartland. On March 9, 1847, Scott landed at the chief Mexican seaport on the eastern coast and captured the city.

From there, Scott and his army marched to Cerro Gordo, where the road to the capital city passes through the mountains. His plans were so skillfully made and carried out that the Mexican army was defeated at that place and again at Pueblo. The Americans were now in the heart of Mexico, far away from their base of supplies and opposed by an army of many times their own numbers, but they pressed on and captured the defenses of the city.

StephenKearny, Conquest of New Mexico

Stephen Kearny, Conquest of New Mexico

In the meantime, citizens in California, which was still a part of the Mexican Republic, also began to rebel. Unhappy with the way that the Mexicans treated them, they established a republic of their own and asked the U.S. Government for help. Under the command of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, several naval vessels were sent to the Pacific Coast. Captain John c. Fremont of the U.S. Army also arrived to aid the Californians.

And, in New Mexico, General Stephen W. Kearny with a strong expedition was sent to capture the old Spanish-Mexican town of Santa Fe, which he did with little trouble, before marching on to California. With the help of U.S. troops, the last battle was fought in California on January 9, 1847, and on January 12th, the last significant body of Californians surrendered to U.S. forces, marking the end of resistance in California.

After a series of United States victories, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, ended the two-year war. In return for $18,250,000, Mexico gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, with its border at the Rio Grande, and the U.S. agreed to withdraw her armies from Mexico.  The treaty also required Mexico to abandoned her claims to California, New Mexico, and other lands that are now included in the states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.

When the boundary line came to be surveyed, the American and Mexican commissioners could not agree. In the end, in 1853, the United States paid Mexico ten million dollars more and got in return a strip in the extreme southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico,  thus making the southern boundary of the United States as it is today.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

Bragg, Lee, Grant, and Davis in the Mexican War

For the first time in the Mexican War, graduates of the U.S. Military Academy held a majority of field and staff officer positions. General Scott later commented that without these officers the war would have lasted longer and been much more costly. The West Pointers vindicated themselves and the academy in the eyes of many average Americans. The Mexican War also proved to be a training ground for men like Braxton Bragg, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jefferson Davis, who thirteen years after the conflict in Mexico led large armies during the Civil War.

Also See: 

Mexican-American War Timeline

The Mexican-American War on the Plains

Texas Revolution

American Wars and Military Photo Print Galleries