The Mexican-American War

The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Have you ever bothered to read anything about it? Ever heard about it? Perhaps a more basic question should be posed: ever heard of it? This event has a long shadow in the American experience. Here’s how.

event(Winfield Scott and his US force near Mexico City)

The Iraq War, or Gulf War II as I call it, wasn’t the first conflict that produced internal divisions in the United States. Nor was the Vietnam War. No, among the earliest such conflicts was the Mexican-American War. President James Polk sought to add large swaths of land to the United States, especially territory along the Pacific coast and the Republic of Texas, a former possession of Mexico. With Polk’s approval, US military forces under the command of General Zachery Taylor became embroiled in a murky exchange of gunfire near the Rio Grande River. The United States responded with a declaration of war on Mexico.

The war divided the American nation. One of the leading criticis of the war was a skinny young congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. He demanded to know precisely where US forces had been fired upon by Mexican soldiers. Lincoln and the political party to which he belonged, the Whigs, criticized Polk and his Democratic Party as reckless war-mongers. Congress and Polk clashed frequently on conduct of the war and the two major political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, did so as well.

The treaty negotiations that ended the war resulted in massive American expansion. Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah were states carved from the territorial gains related to the war. The addition of land pushed forward a question that would destroy the Union as it then existed—whether or not these new lands would be open to slavery. The spinning of this dynamic unleashed disputes that, ultimately, defied compromise and required resolution through the bloodiest war in American history.

Those who fought that war had molded much of their military identity in the Mexican-American War. Officers on both sides of the Civil War—including such top commanders as Ulysses Grant, William Sherman, George McClellan, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—had their foundational combat experience in 1846-1848. Both Presidents from the Civil War—Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis—had deep imprints from the Mexican-American War. This was the basis for their individual approaches to war in 1861-1865.

One of the key military operations of the war was General Winfield Scott’s invasion of Mexico. His force landed in Vera Cruz and invaded west through the heart of Mexico, making it as far inland as Mexico City. That campaign was still studied at the United States Military Academy as late as the 1940s. Part of the insights used in planning World War II’s Operation Overlord in 1944 reflected lessons learned in 1846-1848.

I constantly urge my clients and alumni to be aware of their own history. Much of what they do and believe today is a reflection of an important event in their past. Like the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, a previous major event in their lives will influence their leadership now.