you believe the ‘politically correct historians’ and the novelists
who follow their lead, the mighty Norteños attacked poor,
defenseless Mexico and raped her of her northern territories. Frankly,
that’s a myth, and a simple examination of the various strengths,
both military and political, of the two countries will expose that
myth. It is, however, considered ‘politically incorrect’ to compare
those strengths. Since I make a point of being ‘politically incorrect,’
I have no hesitation in doing this.
the political comparison: The United States had, at the time, one
of the weakest forms of central government in the world—a limited
constitutional republic. The only weaker form of central government
is a true confederacy, a form which only the Swiss have ever made
In a limited republic the states are supreme within their own borders.
The federal government regulates international trade and interstate
commerce, provides for the overall defense of the nation, and little
else. What occurs within the borders of a state is regulated by
the state’s legislative body, not by the central government.
Mexico, while nominally a republic, was in fact a one-man dictatorship—the
strongest form of central government outside an absolute monarchy
there is. The state— and all its components—served the will of a
single individual, the dictator. The dictator, in this case, was
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez de LeBron, a man of unbridled
ambition—and unimaginable cruelty. Santa Anna referred to himself
as ‘The Napoleon of the West” and had ambitions closely akin to
those of Bonaparte. He had, in fact, announced that he intended
to annex to Mexico all territory surrounding the Gulf of Mexico
that had formerly been—or presently was—claimed by Spain. This would
include Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Central American ‘republics’—which
were as corrupt and dictator-ridden as Mexico—almost the entire
north coast of South America, and the American states of Florida,
Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas,
and Missouri, as well as the Republic of Texas, which he fully intended
the United States was as weak as it was politically. The standing
US Army had a nominal strength of 6,000, but an actual strength
of about 5,400. Its officer corps, for the most part, was entirely
home-grown. The US had not fought a major war since 1812-1814. Only
the most senior generals had ever seen a unit as large as a regiment
assembled in a single place, and only when they were very junior
officers, some thirty years earlier. By far the majority of the
enlisted men were foreign-born. In some cases their loyalty to the
United States could be considered questionable.
The regular army establishment consisted primarily of infantry.
There were only three mounted regiments, none of which was cavalry.
This was purely a political choice, as cavalry was supposed to be
the arm of the ‘aristocracy,’ and the US was not supposed to have
an ‘aristocracy.’ The mounted regiments were the 1st and 2nd Dragoons
and the Regiment of Mounted Rifles. There was also a single regiment
of artillery, which was scattered in batteries, sections, and half
sections at coastal forts along the east and Gulf coasts. Other
than support troops, this was the entire army of the United States.
The United States also did not have an organized national reserve
force. Each state had a militia force, the effectiveness of which
often depended on the proximity of the frontier. Frontier-state
militias were usually fairly well versed in Indian-fighting techniques,
most of which were useless in a European set-piece type war.
State militias were under the nominal command of each state’s adjutant
general, who was often a political appointee with little or no military
experience. Each county was supposed to maintain a ready militia
under a ‘county colonel,’ who was usually elected, either for his
personal popularity or because he furnished more and better whiskey
on election day than his opponents did. Nominally each militia was
supposed to assemble for a ‘muster day’ at regular intervals. At
‘muster day’ each militiaman was required to present himself with
a serviceable weapon, forty rounds of ammunition for it, and rations
and clothing for three days. Mostly the latter requirement was ignored.
Following ‘inspection’ by the county colonel, each militiaman was
given a ‘week’s pay’—usually the equivalent of a single English
shilling—and for the most part ‘muster day’ disintegrated into a
Farther east militias might well be cavalry units, but most of them
were more concerned with how they looked than whether or not they
could fight. ‘Muster days’ often included a dress-uniform parade
and a picnic where the militiamen might impress the local womenfolk
with their shiny uniforms—but most of them, ultimately, disintegrated
into drinking bouts in the evenings.
The central government of the United States had no control over
these state militias. The president could not ‘call up the reserves’
in the event of national emergency. The Adjutant General of the
United States had to petition the adjutants general of the various
states to request that the governors of their states commit the
states’ militias to the national cause. Each state’s governor had
the right, if he chose, to refuse to commit his state’s militia.
Federal management of state militias did not exist until the National
Guard act of 1906. The one military strength the United States had
was the right of the president to call for volunteers to augment
the armed forces in the event of war.
Mexico, on the other hand, maintained a standing army of 500,000
men, 60% of which was cavalry, the primary offensive arm of the
period. This was the largest standing army in the Western Hemisphere.
The regular army might not have been well-fed and well-clothed,
but it was well-armed and well-trained. Nearly all the enlisted
men were natives of Mexico, but the officer corps included many
European soldiers-of-fortune who had considerable battlefield experience
in European wars. Vicente Filisola was an Italian, Adrian Woll a
German, and there were many others.
In addition to the half-million man standing army, Mexico had a
nationally- organized, nationally-armed, and nationally-trained
reserve force of an additional 750,000 men, 60% of which was cavalry.
Santa Anna could field an army of upwards of a million men and still
leave a quarter of a million troops at home to handle any uprisings
while he was out on conquest—and conquest was what he intended.
He didn’t refer to himself as ‘The Napoleon of the West’ just so
he’d have a nickname.
examining the relative political and military strengths of the two
nations, along with the often-expressed intent of Santa Anna, the
all-powerful dictator of Mexico, to reconquer and add to Mexico
all former and current Spanish territory on the fringes of the Gulf
of Mexico, it is impossible to fail to realize that Mexico constituted,
in 1846/47, a very real and present danger to the continued existence
of the United States in the form it held at that time. While the
‘politically correct’ may point to the ‘Manifest Destiny’ idea within
the US, there is little doubt that the US was extremely ill-equipped—and
ill- suited--to pursue ‘Manifest Destiny’ anywhere but in fiery
speeches from the floor of the Congress. The military and political
wherewithal to do it simply didn’t exist in 1846/47 in the US.
The wherewithal to pursue Santa Anna’s idea of ‘manifest destiny’—the
conquest of all current and former Spanish territory within the
Gulf of Mexico, on its shores, and within the interior of the North
American continent, certainly did. Mexico had the armed forces—and
Santa Anna had the intent—to do exactly what Santa Anna wanted.
So what happened? How did this politically and militarily weak country
manage to defeat the largest army in the Western Hemisphere? The
answer lies in the spirit of the volunteer. The state of Tennessee
was asked to provide 1,000 volunteers. It provided 10,000. The situation
was repeated in most states. The volunteers, being untrained in
traditional military thought, were not hidebound when circumstances
went against them. A perfect example is shown in the battle of Buena
Vista. The Regular Army considered the battle lost. One of Zachary
Taylor’s officers approached him and said “Sir, the battle is lost,”
then suggested a retreat.
Taylor replied “You know that and I know that, but the volunteers
don’t know that. Let us see what they can do.” The battle of Buena
Vista was a US victory.
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
3, 2008 column
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