Wars

The Mexican-American War from Lincoln and Grant's Perspective

The Mexican-American War from Lincoln and Grant's Perspective

The Mexican-American War provided both Lincoln and Grant with their first exposure to the complexities of war. When the fighting ended, Grant was a twenty-six-year-old captain who had been decorated for his bravery; Lincoln was a thirty-eight-year-old freshman congressman. While Grant heroically fought in the war and at least retroactively criticized it, Lincoln's involvement with the war was political. As a new congressman just after the fighting ceased, he faced the difficult task-common in American history-of criticizing the origin of the war without faulting or undermining the troops or appearing unpatriotic. By different paths, both men developed a solid skepticism about the war's purposes combined with support for America's military actions and its soldiers. Grant's military experience and personal contacts would prove invaluable during the Civil War. Lincoln's political experience was less useful and threatened his political future.

LINCOLN'S MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR POLITICAL EXPERIENCES

The most controversial political issue of 1844 was the annexation of Texas, which Democratic President-elect James K. Polk convinced President John Tyler to push through in December 1844. In October 1845 comments to a friend, Lincoln supported the Whig Party indifference to national expansion, said the Texas annexation probably would not affect slavery, and added a telling note of caution: “It is possibly true, to some extent, that with annexation, some slaves may be sent to Texas and continued in slavery, that otherwise might have been liberated. To whatever extent this may be true, I think annexation an evil.” He added that free states should not interfere with slavery in slave states, but explained: “I hold it to be equally clear, that we should never knowingly lend our- selves directly or indirectly, to prevent that slavery from dying a natural death… ” By 1845, therefore, Lincoln was opposed to the expansion of slavery but believed it was prudent to await a more propitious moment to accomplish anything in regard to its demise.

By 1846 Polk had provoked a war with Mexico in order to expand the nation-and the area available for expansion of slavery. When war broke out and patriotic rallies were held across the country, a reluctant Lincoln was called upon to speak. He unenthusiastically said that since he was not going to war, he would not tell others to do so but rather told them to do what they thought their duty called for.2 Thus, Lincoln was not an early opponent of the Mexican-American War and did not make it an issue in his successful congressional election campaign in 1846, when fighting was ongoing in Mexico.

In August 1846 Lincoln was elected to Congress to represent Springfield and its environs. With crossover support from many Democrats, he won impressively: 6,340 votes to 4,829, over his major opponent, Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright-with 56 percent of the total vote. His friend Joshua Speed claimed he gave Lincoln $200 raised by fellow Whigs for his campaign expenses and that Lincoln gave it all back except for seventy-five cents. A former governor commented that the large majority was “the finest compliment personally and the highest political endorsement any man could expect.”

Under the strange practice of the day, his term did not begin for another sixteen months-in December 1847. While many Whigs began to criticize the Mexican-American War as Polk's war of conquest, a frustrated Lincoln remained silent for fear of the usual criticisms about lack of patriotism and failure to support the troops that usually result from anti-war opinions. While in Kentucky in November 1847 on his way to Washington, Lincoln heard Henry Clay, his idol of many years, criticize the origins of the war as he launched his 1848 presidential bid. Lincoln, however, saw that Clay was fading and joined many other Whigs in support of the successful candidacy of General Zachary Taylor, one of the military heroes of the Mexican-American War.

Lincoln, his wife Mary, and two young sons arrived in Washington in late 1847 and took up residence in a boarding house used by both Whigs and Democrats. Lincoln became the great conciliator when political discussions boiled over.

Representative James Pollock of Pennsylvania said that Lincoln “never failed to… restore harmony and smiles, when the peace of our little community was threatened by too earnest or heated controversy on some of the exciting questions of the hour.” Slavery and the treatment of slaves in Washington were some of the acrimonious issues that divided the congressmen. After four months, Mary tired of the boarding-house lifestyle and moved temporarily with the boys to her family home in Lexington, Kentucky.

In December 1847, as a Whig representative in Congress, Lincoln criticized Polk's justification for the war. Polk had argued that Mexico had started the war by invading the U.S. and “shedding American blood on American Soil.” In his first month in Washington, Lincoln introduced his famous “spot” resolutions demanding to be shown the spot on American soil where fighting had first occurred. He argued that the bloodshed was that of American soldiers invading a disputed area to which Mexico had a legitimate claim and in which the residents had no allegiance to the U.S. The next month Lincoln further criticized Polk for “the sheerest deception” as to the war's origin and for the open-ended approach to the war's termination (apparently to maximize U.S. territorial gains).

Lincoln's votes reflected his criticism of Polk and the origins of the war. He voted against a resolution calling the war just and necessary. In January 1848, he provided a crucial vote in supporting the Ashmun Amendment, which declared the Mexican-American War “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President” and was passed 82 to 81.

Lincoln's criticisms of the manner in which Polk had provoked the war raised immediate concerns among Lincoln's political allies, including his law partner William Herndon. In fact, his allegedly “unpatriotic” comments and votes provided grist for Illinois Democrats to use in the 1848 congressional elections against Lincoln's would-be Whig successor (who lost), against Lincoln himself throughout the 1850s (including the Lincoln- Douglas Debates of 1858),8 and even in the 1860 presidential campaign.

In 1848 Lincoln abandoned his long-time support for Henry Clay and instead worked for the nomination of Zachary Taylor as the most electable Whig candidate for president. After Taylor's nomination, Lincoln actively campaigned for him and gained Eastern exposure with speeches in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. After Taylor's election, Lincoln was offered but declined the governorship of the Oregon Territory. Honoring an informal agreement with other Whigs to serve only a single term in Congress, Lincoln did not seek reelection. He returned to Springfield in March 1849 after his single congressional term. In fact, “After fifteen years in politics, Lincoln enjoyed no one's endorsement, held no worthwhile political office, and had discovered that the drudgery of work in Congress was 'exceedingly tasteless to me.'” He decided to return to the law and seek advancement elsewhere.

GRANT'S MEXICAN WAR EXPERIENCES

Meanwhile, the Mexican-American War provided West Point graduate Ulysses Grant with the opportunity to gain military experience and possibly fame. It was the highlight of Grant's pre-Civil War career. Grant went to the war early (he even was pre-positioned in Louisiana in expectation of war) and fought in two theaters of that war under two very different commanding officers. He remained in Mexico until the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848.

After proposing to Julia Dent in 1844, Grant left almost immediately for Louisiana and four years of separation because of the growing dispute and ultimate war with Mexico.10 Pre-positioned in Louisiana for Polk's preemptive war of aggression, Grant later wrote in his memoirs that he had no romantic illusions about the nature of his country's conduct that led to the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico:

For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the annexation of Texas, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation… Even if the annexation itself could be justified, the manner in which the subsequent war was forced upon Mexico cannot. The fact is, annexationists wanted more territory than they could possibly lay any claim to… The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican-American War. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.

Even at the time, then, Grant was skeptical of his nation's motives. He commented, “We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico commence it.” He noted with dismay that many of his peers longed to fight in order to win glory and promotion. On May 6, 1844, he wrote to Julia, “The officers are all collected in little parties discussing affairs of the nation… Some of them expect and seem to contemplate with a great deal of pleasure some difficulty where they may be able to gain laurels and advance a little in rank.” While others were glad to head south for a fight with the Mexicans, Grant viewed such a fight quite differently-as a necessary pre-condition to returning to Julia.

On his way to the war, Lieutenant Grant and his Fourth Infantry regiment took a boat down the Mississippi to New Orleans. As part of the Regular Army, Grant stayed in the Jackson Barracks-quarters more comfortable than those of the volunteer militiamen, who camped on the fields where Andrew Jackson had defeated the British in 1815.

During that war, Grant served under both Winfield Scott (“Old Fuss and Feathers”) and Zachary Taylor (“Old Rough-and-Ready”). He clearly preferred Taylor. Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson concluded that Grant and Taylor shared several characteristics: opposition to plundering, willingness to work with available resources, informality of uniform, attention to detail on the battlefield, reticence in conversation, ability to quickly compose clear and concise written orders, and calmness in the face of danger and responsibility.14 Grant retrospectively praised the quality of Taylor's army: “A more efficient army for its number and armament, I do not believe ever fought a battle than the one commanded by General Taylor in his first two engagements on Mexican-or Texan soil.”

Perhaps in part because of a famous incident in which Grant rode a wild horse for three hours and thereby tamed it-though probably more because of his ability with horses and mules-Grant was selected as regimental quartermaster and commissary officer. Grant unsuccessfully protested the appointment because he feared it would remove him from combat. However, the military logistics experience (procuring and organizing such essentials as transportation, tents, uniforms, saddles and supplies) proved invaluable: “During the Civil War Grant's armies might occasionally have struggled, discipline might sometimes have been lax, but food and ammunition trains were always expertly handled. Grant's victories depended in no small measure on his skill as a quartermaster.”

The skills Grant learned as a Mexican-American War quartermaster may have enhanced his willingness and ability to efficiently use railroads and rivers for supply and maneuver in the Civil War.

Grant's 1846 service with Taylor's high-quality army gave Grant an opportunity to perform well, in battles at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, and even heroically, as the Americans captured Monterrey. After the first two battles, he wrote to Julia, “There is no great sport in having bullets flying about one in every direction but I find they have less horror when among them than when in anticipation.” In the latter battle, he volunteered to ride through the city streets under enemy fire to carry a message requesting a resupply of ammunition.

In his memoirs, Grant described his admiration for Zachary Taylor in words that may just as well have applied to Grant himself:

General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given him. He felt his responsibility as going no further. If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and left them to determine what should be done. If the judgment was against him he would have gone on and done the best he could with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress, he was possibly too plain… but he was known to every soldier in his army and was respected by all.

Brian John Murphy concluded that the no-nonsense leadership style of the “direct, aggressive, methodical, and unflappable” Taylor deeply impressed the young Grant.

Because President Polk feared that Taylor would capitalize on his battlefield victories to win the presidency as a Whig candidate in 1848, Polk decided to spread out the laurels and shifted most of Taylor's force, including Grant's regiment, to another Whig general, Major General Scott. Early in 1847, therefore, Grant's Fourth Infantry Regiment joined Scott's famous campaign from Vera Cruz, on the coast, to Mexico City. After Vera Cruz surrendered, Grant fought in the major campaign battles of Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, Chapultepec, and Mexico City. Just outside Mexico City, Grant outflanked causeway-blocking Mexican artillery with a small detachment, hauled a disassembled mountain howitzer to the top of a church, enfiladed the Mexican position, and thereby opened the way into the city. His heroism, about which he wrote nothing in his correspondence to Julia, earned him two brevets (temporary) promotions.

His duty in Texas and the Mexican-American War compelled the previously sheltered Grant to live outdoors for a couple of years, a way of life that Grant believed saved his life and restored his health. His extensive correspondence with Julia between 1845 and 1847 is filled with almost desperate pleas that her father approves their marriage. Finally, in the midst of the Mexico City campaign, Grant learned that Julia's father had given his consent. After Mexico City surrendered, Grant did a great deal of sightseeing in Mexico in 1847 and 1848 while attempting to get permission to return to Julia.

During periods of boredom in Mexico when there were lulls in the fighting, Grant and many of his peers engaged in drinking. Grant himself wrote, “Soldiers are a class of people who will drink and gamble let them be where they may, and they can always find houses to visit for these purposes.”

An incident occurred during the Fourth Infantry's return to the United States that created a black mark on Grant's military record. Someone stole $1,000 in quartermaster's funds from the trunk of a friend of Grant's, and Grant, as quartermaster, was held accountable. Although a board of inquiry convened at his request cleared Grant, he was still legally required to reimburse the government for the loss-a requirement that would prove difficult to meet. Grant would spend the next several years trying to get that debt invalidated.

What military lessons did Grant learn from his experiences in the Mexican-American War? From both Taylor and Scott, he learned that aggressiveness on the offensive could lead to victory. This was a useful lesson for Grant, whose side in the Civil War would have the same offensive strategic burden as the United States had in the Mexican-American War. According to Jean Edward Smith, Grant “saw how time and again Taylor and Scott moved against a numerically superior foe occupying a fortified position, and how important it was to maintain the momentum of the attack.” Particularly from Taylor, he learned that speed and maneuver were real assets. From both, he learned the value of being cunning and deceptive about planned offensives.

From Scott's abandoning his supply line midway through his march on Mexico City, Grant learned that an army could live off the countryside- a lesson that he applied during his 1863 Vicksburg Campaign. Grant also learned that death was a normal occurrence among soldiers at war. Of the 78,718 American soldiers engaged in the Mexican-American War, 13,283 (16.8 percent) perished-10.4 percent from disease alone. This was the highest death percentage of any war the United States Army has fought (including the Civil War and both World Wars). Grant's personal experience with death was quite real; only four of the twenty-one officers originally assigned to his regiment survived the war.

Overall, the Mexican-American War proved to be an invaluable experience for the young and impressionable Grant. His observation of his fellow officers and his participation in the logistics and fighting components of war would serve him well in the Civil War.