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SOURCES FOR A HISTORY OF THE
MEXICAN WAR, 1846=1848



BY
JUSTIN H. vSMITH







Reprinted from THE MILITARY HISTORIAN & ECONOMIST
January, 1916, Vol. 1, pp. 18-32



SOURCES FOR A HISTORY OF THE MEXICAN
WAR, 1846-1848

JUSTIN H. SMITH

Our war of 1846-48 has often been regarded as an isolated
event, merely an episode in our history; and to a considerable
extent so it was. We fought and we made conquests of value;
but neither war nor conquest was an essential part of our
national policy. We can lay our fingers upon the causes of
the war one by one, and its results are equally within com-
pass. No foreign nation became involved, nor did serious
complications of any sort grow out of the affair. In short,
it was much like a small, though vigorous, New England
thunderstorm, made up of local currents and a few black,
tufted clouds, which overwhelms some valley with darkness,
roar and flood, yet is plainly visible in its entirety from the
neighboring mountain. For this reason the subject possesses
a rare attractiveness for the investigator, so often baffled or
embarrassed by the reach of his vistas; while at the same
time, as will presently appear, certain peculiar subtleties create
a special interest of precisely the opposite kind.

However limited in length and breadth, the war had, of
course, manifold aspects, and the fields of inquiry that must
be cultivated are equally manifold. On the diplomatic side
we find the series of causal events, the repeated attempts of
our government to end hostilities, and the final armistice and
treaty, a treaty rendered supremely difficult and almost im-
possible by extraordinary circumstances; and we find also
broader outlooks resulting from the Oregon issue, our blockade
of Mexico's ports, her privateering schemes, foreign attempts
to interfere, the dream of combining the Spanish-American
states against us, and the plans to obtain in one way or another
European assistance for Mexico. The subject of military opera-
tions includes not only marches, battles and sieges, strategy
and tactics, arms and ammunition, camps and fortifications,
but roads, bridges and transportation in a country widely
different from our own, and various questions connected with

[18]



19 SOURCES FOR THE MEXICAN WAR, 1846-1848

the composition, organization and training of the armies. The
navy of the United States had, indeed, no antagonist upon
its own element, but it was compelled to undertake important
military operations and assume fiscal and political functions,
while the principal work in its proper field that of the block-
ade was made especially interesting by the extent of the
coast, the tempests, bars and shoals, and the character of
the rivers. These last facts bring us in turn to geography and
topography, and we discover much here that requires unusual
attention.

Physically Mexico is an astonishing country, and it pre-
sented to our troops very sharp and varied embarrassments:
climates changing in the course of a day's march, mountains,
defiles, deserts, marshes, lava-beds, thorny chaparral, edible
products offering nourishment to some and poison to others,
tropical storms and untropical droughts, animals like ours in
name but not in quality, extraordinary opportunities for self-
indulgence and extraordinary diseases. In the realm of politics
each country shows us in 1846-48, of course its parties and
partisans engaged in cunning and often unscrupulous manoeu-
vres, complicated further by personal and sectional ambitions;
we have to trace out the mysterious ways of legislators and
rulers; and we are also confronted with the problems of gov-
erning a conquered population. Akin to these arise social
questions of a subtle and profound character. The Mexicans
are not only foreign to us but intrinsically peculiar, combin-
ing the Spaniard, the Moor and the Indian, and including
other strains also here and there; and their peculiarities must
be seen and felt. The evolution of the Mexican world of 1846
needs to be understood and its characteristics noted. The
attempts to make the war a conflict of race and religion; the
presence of many Roman Catholics among our people and our
troops; the existence of slavery here and its non-existence
there; and the effects of daily intercourse between Americans
and Mexicans during our occupation of extensive districts, must
all be given due study; and moreover under this head it should
be remembered that the American people were not at that
date precisely what they are now.



JUSTIN H. SMITH 20

Financially, the support of the war involved singular diffi-
culties in both countries. Mexico had to fight on a general
basis of bankruptcy; and the United States prepared for the
extra expense by adopting a low tariff and experimenting with
other important fiscal measures. How both sides got on as
well as they did requires to be ascertained. The personal
characteristics and personal relations of the chief actors in
the drama had, -of course, vital bearings on the events; and,
last but perhaps not least in this partial catalogue, we desire
to know with what sentiments the progress and the conse-
quences of our operations were viewed by foreign governments
and nations. On all these topics information is available, and
we may now take up the sources relating to each of them,
dealing first with the manuscripts.

Many of the diplomatic papers referring to the war have
been published, but many have not; and, aside from the
desirability of collating the former with the originals, in not
a few cases highly significant portions were omitted in the
printing. One has recourse, then, to the archives of the
State Department, and must obtain access "without restric-
tion" to the papers. These include not only communications
between the government and its diplomatic and consular rep-
resentatives, but the instructions to and letters from our con-
fidential agents, notes to and from the foreign legations at
Washington, Report Books, Confidential Report Books, Do-
mestic Letter Books, Miscellaneous Letters and replies, and
the circulars issued to our representatives in foreign parts.
The countries concerned are Mexico, Great Britain, France,
Spain (including Cuba), and the Republic of Texas; and the
period to be covered extends from the beginning of the inter-
national relations of Mexico to 1848 inclusively. 1 Indexes

1 Great Britain, having immense interests in Mexico and feeling appre-
hensive lest the United States should gain large accessions of territory at
the expense of our neighbor, was profoundly concerned about our relations
with that country. In France, the King and Guizot, his chief minister, felt
strongly disposed to oblige England, and also entertained the idea of ex-
tending to this continent the balance-of-power system that reigned in Europe,
while Thiers and others, voicing the popular sentiment, were cold toward
England, friendly toward the United States and anxious to use as a political
weapon the tendency of the government to concern itself in a pro-British
manner with the difficulties between this country and Mexico. Spain and



21 SOURCES FOR THE MEXICAN WAR, 1846-1848

afford some assistance but do not mention everything of im-
portance. One must examine the papers in detail; and this
rule holds good in every other collection of official documents
as well, in many instances, indeed, far more truly. Some
important diplomatic papers are outside the archives of the
State Department. For instance, Mackenzie's reports on his
mission to Santa Anna in 1846 are among the Polk papers,
now belonging to the Library of Congress; and the personal
papers of certain American diplomats are precious supplements
to their official despatches. Among these are Poinsett's (Penn-
sylvania Historical Society), Bancroft's (Massachusetts His-
torical Society), Trist's (Library of Congress), Larkin's (Ban-
croft Collection, University of California) and Wheaton's
(Massachusetts Historical Society). Mexico also has published
a portion of her diplomatic correspondence in this field, but
the archives, although removals and damage resulting from
the political vicissitudes of the country have caused numerous
gaps, afford much additional information. They are found
naturally in charge of the Department of Foreign Relations
(Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores).

Here, however, the inquiry by no means comes to an end.
From 1825 on, Great Britain held a very strong position in
Mexico; and her ministers at that post made frequent and
full reports. Able, comparatively impartial, close to the heart
of things, and for every reason anxious to ascertain and state
the truth, they give us the best "inside" views of persons and
events that we can find; and they not only had a great deal to
say about our relations with that unfortunate country, but
at certain critical times played an important role in its coun-
sels. Besides, England exerted herself at Washington, at Paris
and with our representatives at Mexico; and hence, for the

the Spanish took far less interest in the matter, though hopes were enter-
tained that fear of the United States might draw Mexico, and indeed all
the Spanish-American states, toward and possibly to the mother-country.
They felt sympathy for the Mexicans, but could not forget that Mexico had
rebelled. Prussia had a representative in Mexico but did not wish to become
or have him become, involved in difficulties there. With what indifference
she held aloof may be ascertained conveniently from the Wheaton papers
(Massachusetts Historical Society). The countries of Central and South
America took surprisingly little interest in the war.



JUSTIN H. SMITH 22

best of reasons, these reports, preserved with the other For-
eign Office Papers at the Public Record Office, London, must
be thoroughly studied.

The corresponding French documents (kept in the Archives
du DSpartement des Affaires Etrangres, Paris) are much less
valuable, for the agents of France were inferior men, their
relations with the Mexican government in addition to suffer-
ing from quarrels and a war were seldom intimate, and the
reports for 1846-48, being in the same volume as papers not
open to the public, cannot be seen; but on several matters,
particularly while Poinsett was the American minister at that
capital, they present valuable information. Spain did not
recognise Mexico until 1836, and for a long time after that
date was looked upon with just suspicion; for a strong mon-
archical party existed in Mexico, leaning naturally toward the
mother-country, and she not only entertained hopes but made
efforts to set up a Bourbon prince in her one-time colony;
but there was no difference of sentiment in regard to the
United States and kinship counted for much. The reports of
the Spanish legation, therefore, especially since it had charge
for a considerable time of French interests also, cannot be
ignored. Space may perhaps be taken for a single illustration
of this fact. Wonder has often been felt that Castillo y Lanzas,
the Mexican Minister of Relations, who was known to favor
a peaceful settlement with this country, should have addressed
the hostile and insulting note of March 12, 1846, to our min-
ister, Slidell, the last important communication received by
us from his government before the outbreak of hostilities; but
it appears from the despatch of Senor D. Salvador Bermudez
de Castro, the Spanish minister, No. 218 (Res.), of March 29,
that he himself put order and iron into the irresolute and
almost incoherent draft of Castillo, and that he did so with
the expectation, not of a war, but of arbitration. These des-
patches are at the Archivo Particular del Ministerio de Estado,
Madrid. As regards Cuba, some interesting documents may
be found in the National Archives of that Republic. 2

2 The author extended his inquiries to Colombia and Peru, but with only
negative results.



23 SOURCES FOR THE MEXICAN WAR, 1846-1848

Next we come to the field of military operations. Although
numerous works have been written upon the Mexican War,
none of their authors has gone through the military archives
of either government, but it does not by any means follow
that the archives are of slight significance. To be sure, a
great number of the papers were made public; but a great
number were not, while omissions and the printer's inaccu-
racies impair the value of too many published reports. 8
The historian must go, therefore, to the War Department at
Washington, and examine one by one the following papers,
most of which are in charge of the Adjutant General: Secre-
tary of War's files, Adjutant General's files, Military Book,
Adjutant General's Miscellany (principally Discontinued Com-
mands), General Orders, Order Books, Quartermaster General's
files, Judge Advocate General's files, Records of Courts Martial
and Courts of Inquiry, and Engineer's files, going back in
certain cases as far as the early part of 1845. The number
of these documents is large; and to them must be added not
only the records and archives of State governments, but the
papers of officials, officers and soldiers (especially diaries),
reposing in archives, libraries, the vaults of historical socie-
ties and the closets of private individuals all over the country.
This last branch of the investigation is naturally most slow
and tedious, and it requires the kind co-operation of many
personal and professional friends. 4 Among those which may
be discovered are unpublished papers of such men as Marcy,
Taylor, Conner, Pillow, Duncan, Quitman, Pierce, Hitchcock,
Jefferson Davis, Braxton Bragg, Robert Anderson, S. E.
Chamberlain, P. G. T. Beauregard, D. H. Hill, G. B. Mc-
Clellan, W. B. Campbell, B. S. Roberts and W. R. Caswell.
For the southwest, particular recourse must be had to the
Bancroft Collection.

3 See a brief article by the present writer in the American Historical Review
of October, 1915.

4 The present writer advertised and also addressed a letter to every Mexican
War survivor with a view to learning of documents, and in these ways ob-
tained valuable results.



JUSTIN H. SMITH 24

Still more numerous are the Mexican military documents. 5
The chief body of these exists in what is known as Fracci6n
I. of the War Department archives (National Palace, Mex-
ico), imperfectly arranged in thick bundles called Legajos or
else piled without any classification at all in a heap upstairs; 6
but other important papers are in charge of the General
Staff, in the Archive General (particularly the proceedings of
many courts martial), and the National Library; while nearly
all of the maps that one desires to see belong now to the
Cartographical Section of the Fomento Department. The
State archives also are to be consulted. While those of Puebla
and of Vera Cruz (the latter kept at Jalapa) seem to be nearly
or perhaps quite complete, others have suffered more or less
from accident and revolution; but the custom of sending dup-
licates of official communications to all the States affords a
ground for believing that little has really been lost. The city
archives, especially in the districts entered by our forces,
must likewise be searched. In all, the present writer probably
examined more than 80,000 such Mexican documents and
found some 8,000 of them valuable. In addition to the Amer-
ican and Mexican sources, the diplomatic and consular reports
of the British, French and Spanish agents have something to
say regarding the military operations.

For the work of our fleets one studies the archives of the
Navy Department, particularly the Squadron Letters, Cap-
tains' Letters and Confidential Letter Books. In Mexico the
navy was an insignificant concern, and its affairs were con-
trolled by the same department (Guerra y Manna) as those
of the army. Some details are discovered in the local Mexican
archives also, and in the foreign diplomatic and consular
reports; the papers of the British Admiralty Office, preserved
in the Public Record Office at London, throw light upon Cali-

fi A word should be said here with reference to the broadmindedness of
President Porfirio Diaz, without whose assistance a thorough examination
of the Mexican papers would have been impossible. When assured that
the results of the investigation would be stated impartially, he promised
me all the aid in his power. This meant everything; and not only were the
national archives thrown open, but I was able to travel about with a certifi-
cate that I had the approbation of the government, which gave me access
to State and city archives and all the contents of the public libraries.

6 The arrangement may have been changed since my visit,



25 SOURCES FOR THE MEXICAN WAR, 1846-1848

fornia affairs, the capture of Vera Cruz, the blockade and some
other matters; and in the National Archives at Madrid may
be found correspondence relating to the blockade and to
rumors of privateering enterprises in Cuban ports.

On both sides, the political aspects of the war are remark-
ably interesting. With reference to American affairs the in-
quirer should examine the files of the national Senate and
House, and the House manuscripts turned over to the Library
of Congress, though to tell the truth he will find them
disappointing. The reports of the British minister at Wash-
ington, who stood in close relations with leading Whigs, afford
a good deal of information at times; and still more can be
derived from the papers of Jackson (though he died before
the war actually began), Van Buren, Crittenden, Hammond,
Polk, McLean, Clay, Fairfield, Clayton, Webster and Welles
(all of which are accessible at the Library of Congress), Ban-
croft (Massachusetts Historical Society), Buchanan (Penn-
sylvania Historical Society) and other more or less prominent
politicians. As for Mexico, the Department of Gobernacion
(that is to say, Relaciones Interiores) has many documents
relating to the internal affairs of the country. Among them,
for instance, is a full official account of the meeting of the
Governors called by the President in 1847 to discuss the ques-
tion of making peace. In this field also the diplomatic and
consular reports already several times mentioned are positively
invaluable. The present writer was permitted to examine the
papers most of them belonging to the distinguished historical
author, Senor D. Genaro Garcia of such persons as Santa
Anna, Paredes and Anaya; and still others exist in public
libraries, like those of P6rez de Acal at Guadalajara. On the
state of things in California the Bancroft Collection has much
to give. For the political aspects of the American occupation
the reports of our officers and the local Mexican archives are
requisite. On the social and financial sides of the war much
is to be learned from the political sources already mentioned,
but these topics will be taken up more fully below. For the
views and sentiments entertained abroad one examines first



JUSTIN H. SMITH 26

of all the diplomatic correspondence, and then one supple-
ments this with published material.

We come now to the printed sources, which it is obviously
impossible to describe adequately within the limits of this
article. The most important class is naturally books, and
these it need not be said are of every kind and every degree
of merit. At the head stand our Congressional publications,
the President's Messages, the proceedings of the Legislative
branch and the Executive Documents, Reports and Miscellany
of the Senate and House. In these many and bulky volumes
one finds official, though not for that reason necessarily cor-
rect, data upon every phase of the conflict with Mexico. The
debates of Congress were almost interminable and full of repe-
tition, errors and unreason, but they must be sifted, and they
repay the trouble. Not less important are such biographies
as Colton's Clay, Coleman's Crittenden, Meade's Meade and
even Claiborne's Quitman, for they include many first-hand
documents; but it must be remembered that we cannot collate
these with the originals. On the same plane stand volumes
like McCall's Letters From the Frontiers, Sedgwick's Correspon-
dence, Buchanan's Works (edited by J. B. Moore), and Rami-
rez' Mexico durante su Guerra con los Estados Unidos. Several
histories of the war contain similar material, and a few,
though based upon a very incomplete knowledge of the
sources, were composed by participants and therefore to a
certain extent may be classed as themselves first-hand.
These, however, were very likely like Ripley's, which aimed
to exalt Pillow and discredit Scott, or Semmes's, written under
the magnetic influence of Worth to be tinctured with the
personal and political prejudices and passions of the day, and
it is frequently impossible to determine where the author's
observation ended and hearsay began. On the Mexican side
there are numerous volumes of Memorias, official reports of
the executive departments, often accompanied with documents,
and other publications issued by authority; and there are
numerous biographies, autobiographies and histories of more
or less value. Negrete's Invasion de los Norte- Americanos
en Mexico contains more documents than any other work



27 SOURCES FOR THE MEXICAN WAR, 1846-1848

on the subject, but they were carelessly printed. The book
of Roa Barcena, that issued by fifteen collaborators under the
title Apuntes para la Historia de la Guerra entre Mexico y los
Estados-Unidos, and the first-hand narrative of Balbontfn are
of much worth.

On the political side we find histories, biographies and
special studies in profusion, and while many are generous
with mistakes and prejudices, few indeed are destitute of
value, and in proportion as one advances in his mastery of
the subject, the danger of using them diminishes. On strategy
and tactics the list of works is large, but those recommended
to graduates of West Point by a board of officers, in addition
to some of later dates, Scott's Tactics the knowledge which
a competent historian would naturally possess, that derived
from the Mexican War material itself and that obtained by
consulting military experts, may be deemed sufficient. The
forces engaged were small and the operations comparatively
simple. Most of the reports were prepared for and many
by persons but slightly versed in the art of war, and nearly
all of the necessary criticism has already been offered by
military men. Vattel's Droit des Gens embodies the ac-
cepted international law of the period. Books of travel from
Humboldt's down, with maps, geographical treatises and mili-
tary reports particularly those of the American engineers,
many of which are still in manuscript at the Engineer's Office,
War Department, Washington give an excellent if not ade-
quate view of the physical features of the country; and his-
tories, biographies and books of travel, supplemented with
the American, British, French and Spanish reports, our mili-
tary accounts of the occupation and incidental points in other
material, present an abundance of data out of which, if one
be properly grounded to interpret them, the necessary social
atmosphere can be manufactured.

With books go pamphlets, which were far more important
in Mexico than among us, and contained military and political
facts and views not elsewhere to be discovered. Such tran-
sient publications, which fell in the streets of Mexico at cer-
tain crises like autumn leaves, perish easily; but a great many



JUSTIN H. SMITH 28

have found safe lodging places in the National Library and
the National Museum of that city, in municipal libraries, in
the Bancroft Collection and in private hands. The list of
books and pamphlets which the thorough historian would feel
bound to study includes about 1,000 or 1,100 titles according
to one's method of reckoning, though naturally others would
be examined.

Pamphlets bring us to periodicals. These include the long
list of magazines published in all the countries mentioned, in
which many first-hand papers and not a few interesting facts
and ideas are presented; but the only periodicals of which
it is necessary to speak at any length are the newspapers,
Many diplomatic, military and naval documents of an offi-
cial character appeared in their columns, but these will
have been discovered elsewhere in a more authentic form.
Such is not the case, however, with an almost endless number
of unofficial communications from the army and the navy.
It hardly need be said that careless, designing and boastful
persons walked about and wrote letters two generations ago
as actively as now. We of today could not reasonably hope


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Online LibraryJustin Harvey SmithSources for a history of the Mexican War, 1846-1848 → online text (page 1 of 2)