United States Volunteers in the Mexican-American War
The Mexican-American War was the result of a long history of conflict and border tensions, culminating with the fall of the Alamo in 1836. In 1844, the United States annexed the Republic of Texas from Mexico with the intention of establishing a southern border along the Rio Grande. In November of 1845, President James K. Polk sent negotiators to Mexico City to finalize the sale of Texas to the United States and to confirm the new southern border. Upon Mexico's refusal, President Polk sent the United States Army under General Zachary Taylor to occupy Corpus Christi, Texas and construct Fort Texas. On May 3, 1846, the Mexicans opened fire on the fort and the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma followed. The Mexican Army of more than 5,000 troops was defeated by Taylor's army of 2,000. The United States responded to these hostilities by declaring war with Mexico on May 13.
During August 1846 orders were sent, by direction of President Polk, to General Taylor 7 to " defend Texas from invasion" which, if it occurred, was to be considered " as an invasion of the United States and the commencement of hostilities." In the event of the latter he was empowered to muster into the United States service such Texan volunteers as were required, and to " cross the Rio Grande, disperse or capture the forces assembling to invade Texas." Instructions were likewise sent to the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky 10 to furnish such militia for the "army of occupation " as General Taylor might specify.
These orders were extremely significant in that they contemplated, not only an invasion of Mexico, but an aggressive war to be waged by the same sort of troops as were used at the commencement of the War of 1812. Furthermore, despite the Constitutional limitation as to the use of the militia, General Taylor's instructions sanctioned his entry into foreign territory with such State troops as had responded to his call. After the War of 1812 it seemed to be accepted as a settled policy that under existing constitutional limitations the militia should not be regarded as available for general military purposes. Militiamen could not be sent abroad, and the government hit upon the happy expedient of "United States Volunteers." On January 12, 1847 Congress, acting on the recommendation of the Secretary of War, passed a measure permitting recruits to join the Regular Army for " five years " or " during the war," and granted a bounty of $12. Had this been done nine months earlier the existing difficulty in securing recruits 48 would have been largely obviated. On February 11th, the Army was increased by ten regiments,49 to be enlisted " for the war," a major added to each regiment, a bounty given to all soldiers, regular or volunteer, upon honourable discharge at the expiration of one year's service, and the Quartermaster and Pay corps augmented. Like its predecessor, this act was passed too late to secure the results desired, and the new regiments were consequently unable to reach the front until the summer was nearly over.
In the conflict with Mexico, an admirably managed war in every respect, there were thirty volunteer regiments. This revolution in American military methods was established and confirmed by the excellent behavior of the newly devised force. A force of some 12,000 militia was called out for three months in the first stages of the war, but they were returned to their homes without having fired a shot.
A blunder of Congress failed to specify absolutely the length of enlistment for the 50,000 volunteers authorized on May 15, 1846, and thethe President neglected to fix the term "to the end of the war," as he was given latitude to do. The result of these mistakes soon became apparent. Months of training had consumed most of the year for which the majority of the volunteers had bound themselves, and General Scott found himself in the unenviable predicament of discovering that nearly every man intended to exercise the alternative offered him upon enlistment and to terminate his service at the end of twelve months. As many of the enlistments were on the eve of expiration, General Scott did not wish to expose these men needlessly to the deadly climate, and on May 4th, 1847 he was forced to part with seven out of his eleven volunteer regiments, amounting to 4,000 men, who were despatched to Vera Cruz, whence they were to be conveyed to New Orleans and discharged. As a result of this loss, coupled with the detachments necessary to guard the line of communications and a large number of sick, his army was reduced to 5,820 effective troops. In the midst of a hostile country and only three days' march from the capital, with virtually no enemy to oppose him, Scott found himself unable to budge for more than three months.
From the Rio Grande to California, and from Vera Cruz to the enemy's capital, the volunteers marched and battled by the side of the regulars with a long-winded patience, obedience, and steadiness wholly unknown to militia. They recognized and showed that they were United States troops, under the same statutes and the same rules of honor with the permanent army, and able to abide by them. They proved that the American citizen needs but a rational military organization to become in a short time an excellent soldier. They took the heart of the people, as they took the heights of Monterey, by storm. Henceforward the republic was in possession of an idea full of military power and of the promise of national unity.
On February 2, 1848, was concluded the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and on June 12th the last of the American troops evacuated the City of Mexico. At the close of the War, Mexico gave up the territory that is present day Texas, New Mexico and California, and the border between the United States and Mexico was set at the Rio Grande. The War further proved the abilities of the state volunteer regiments, which comprised more than seventy percent of the United States forces. In the Mexican War the Regular Army, supported by a Volunteer Army of national troops, achieved a series of victories unmarred by a single defeat. The battle of Buena Vista, fought at a time when nearly all the regular troops had been dispatched to take part in the campaign under Gen. Scott against the City of Mexico, was a triumph for the Volunteers.
This war is principally notable for the marked change in the military policy as evinced by the abandonment of the militia as the " great bulwark of national defense " and the increased use of regulars and volunteers, especially the latter. When it is remembered that the military organization and operations were conducted under laws almost identical with those prevailing in the War of 1812, it is the more surprising that such remarkable successes should have characterised the later war in contrast to the ignominious failures of the earlier struggle. On the other hand, it must be distinctly borne in mind that the failure of Congress and the President to fix the term of enlistment "for the war" narrowly escaped being fatal to Scott's ultimate success,114 and it involved the totally unnecessary death and wounding of nearly 2,000 men, for both of which the Government was alone to blame.
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