During the War of 1812 the Republican Party converted to Federalist military policy. In the war’s aftermath, amid fervid nationalism and with full Republican support, the armed forces prospered. But by the 1820s the magnified nationalism waned, and the Army and Navy entered an era of neglect. Yet these poorly financed and undermanned forces participated in three significant developments. First, the Industrial Revolution’s technological advances transformed the conduct of war. Second, the postwar decades witnessed the beginnings of military professionalization. Finally, the armed forces aided the nation’s territorial expansion and economic development. The Army explored the wilderness, built transportation networks, guarded settlers, and fought wars against Indians who resisted President Andrew Jackson’s removal policy and against Mexico, which contested America’s claim to a “Manifest Destiny.” The Navy, too, advanced national interests by protecting foreign trade and conducting diplomatic-commercial missions abroad.
Postwar Nationalism and Military Policy
In early 1815, in words that Alexander Hamilton might have written, President James Madison told Congress that experience “demonstrates that a certain degree of preparation for war is not only indispensable to avert disasters in the onset, but affords also the best security for the continuance of peace.” The president asked Congress to maintain a defense establishment similar to the one Federalists had long advocated: a strong Navy to protect commerce, fortifications to defend the coast, and a substantial regular Army and a reformed militia to guard the frontiers and repel invaders. Although Congress had no desire to tamper with the militia, it responded favorably to the other items.
In 1816, for the first time, the United States established a peacetime long-range naval building program. Congress voted $1 million annually for eight years to build nine 74-gun ships of the line, twelve 44-gun frigates, and three coastal defense steam batteries—a larger building program than ever before. But by 1820 a movement toward naval retrenchment, spurred by the Panic of 1819, was underway, and in 1821 Congress cut the appropriation in half, although it extended this reduced annual outlay for three years beyond the original 1824 termination date. In 1827 and in 1833 Congress continued the $500,000 expenditure for six more years. Slowly, most of the ships authorized in 1816 were completed, but the Navy Department took many of them out of active service (“laid them up in ordinary,” in the terminology of the time) and depended to a great extent on smaller warships periodically authorized by Congress.
The reliance on small ships was not ill-founded. The Navy’s primary responsibility was to protect America’s expanding commerce. No great nation threatened this trade, but pirates and irregular privateers employing small, fast ships did. Trying to catch these buccaneers with ships of the line and frigates was futile. Thus instead of forming a battlefleet, the Navy Department divided its ships into squadrons that sailed in geographic areas called stations. A squadron normally consisted of one or two frigates or ships of the line and a larger number of smaller but swifter vessels. The first squadron established was in the Mediterranean, where in 1812 Algiers had renewed its depredations. Shortly after Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent, it declared war on Algiers. After the Navy had subdued the petty state, a squadron remained on station in the Mediterranean, and the department periodically established other squadrons in trouble spots around the globe. By 1843 six squadrons existed.7
Between 1815 and 1842 a Board of Navy Commissioners helped the secretary of the navy administer the squadrons. Since the Navy Department’s founding, a civilian secretary, aided by a few clerks, had directed all naval activities. Some experts had urged formation of a professional board to help the secretary, and the War of 1812 demonstrated the navy’s poor administration. Consisting of three captains, the board had authority in such specialized duties as the procurement of naval stores and materials, and the building, repairing, and equipping of ships. The board provided the secretary with technical assistance without impinging on civilian control, since the secretary retained control of policy.
The board had two defects. Its collective nature was, as one secretary said, “extremely unfavorable to that individual responsibility, which it is so necessary to impose upon every public officer.” The board was also extremely conservative and opposed maritime technological innovations. Aware of these problems, Congress abolished the board in 1842, replacing it with five bureaus: Yards and Docks; Construction, Equipment, and Repair; Medicine and Surgery; Provisions and Clothing; and Ordnance and Hydrography. The bureaus inaugurated an era of specialized management, with each bureau chief acting independently and reporting to the secretary. Congress also established a Corps of Engineers to service the Navy’s few steam warships, thereby acknowledging the growing importance of the new motive power, which the Board of Navy Commissioners had been slow to accept.
The bureaus and the Corps of Engineers, while reformist in intent, created problems that bedeviled the Navy for decades. The bureaus carried individual responsibility too far. Without any compulsion to cooperate, they rarely coordinated their activities, resulting in fragmented management. Conflict arose between line and staff officers. Line officers viewed staff officers, such as paymasters, surgeons, and engineers, as socially and professionally inferior and not entitled to equal rank and the privileges and esteem that went with it. Staff officers disliked the line officers’ assumed superiority. Engineers, for example, designed, directed the manufacture of, installed, and operated steam machinery on warships. These were taxing and dangerous tasks, and the men who performed them demanded equal rank and pay.
The Republicans were as favorably inclined toward coastal fortifications—few could forget Fort McHenry—as they were toward the Navy. The new ships would be the nation’s sword, new fortifications its shield. During war scares in 1794 and 1807 the country began fortifications systems, but most of the structures rapidly decayed. In 1816 Congress appropriated more than $800,000 for a fortifications program. Begun after the crisis had passed, the new system, like the new Navy, was to proceed methodically during peacetime and be permanent. Madison appointed a Board of Engineers for Fortifications to deal with seacoast defense. Its first report (February 1821), combined with a supplemental report five years later, outlined a theory of defense that remained in vogue until the 1880s. The board declared that the first line of defense was the Navy, but since it was likely to remain small, it must be supported by seacoast fortifications, an interior communications network, a regular Army, and a well-organized militia. The 1821 report suggested 50 sites for defensive works, and by 1850 the board had recommended nearly 150 more. Long before then, however, congressional enthusiasm for the program had diminished, and the gap between fortifications projected and those completed became a chasm.
The Army also benefited from the postwar nationalism. Not only was its peacetime strength increased, but the army’s bureaucracy underwent an important reorganization. In March 1815 Congress established an Army of 12,000, dwarfing any army the United States had maintained except in wartime or acute crisis. Bureaucratic reforms consisted of the creation of a General Staff and the position of commanding general of the Army. The United States had been no better prepared for war in 1812 than it had been in 1775, and the Revolution’s logistical deficiencies had soon reappeared. Part of the problem stemmed from Republican unwillingness to use the taxing power, but much of the difficulty lay within the War Department, which had developed no support service administrative machinery. An overburdened secretary, aided by a handful of clerks, usually acted as quartermaster general and commissary general, along with all his other duties. At best the department exercised loose supervision over logistical matters, and what services existed were small and decentralized. The casual administration of logistics, troubling in peace, was intolerable in war. In 1812 Congress revived several staff offices that had sporadically existed since the Revolution, such as a quartermaster general and a commissary general of purchases. However, confusion reigned due to overlapping responsibilities. In 1813 the legislature tried to bring order from chaos by creating a General Staff, which was a group of autonomous bureau chiefs, such as an adjutant and inspector general and quartermaster general, with each chief reporting to the secretary of war.8
The General Staff was unable to improve logistical support appreciably during the conflict. But two postwar secretaries—William H. Crawford (1815–1816) and John C. Calhoun (1817–1825)—realized that a peacetime staff organization was essential preparation for war. Two acts, one in 1816 and the other in 1818, expanded and improved the staff and ensured the staff’s permanence; it remained essentially intact until the twentieth century.
Operational command had been as dismal as logistical support throughout the War of 1812. No single officer commanded the entire Army. The War Department divided the Army into districts and departments, with each commander acting independently, coordinated only by the secretary of war. A commanding officer such as Andrew Jackson often failed to cooperate with other commanders and invariably resented the secretary’s “interference” in military matters. In 1821, when Congress reduced the Army’s high command to one major general and two brigadier generals, Calhoun seized the opportunity to create a centralized command system, which might prevent the emergence of a Jacksonian-style warlord in any future war. He ordered the sole major general, Jacob Brown, to Washington and designated him the commanding general.
Most officials considered the Army’s new institutions important reforms. In theory the War Department now had a balanced organization. For technical advice the secretary called on the General Staff, while he directed military operations through the commanding general. In practice three problems arose. First, the commanding general’s responsibilities were unclear. Could he really command the Army? If he did, he would usurp the secretary of war’s constitutional duty as the president’s appointed deputy; but if he did not, his position was meaningless. A strained relationship between the commanding general and the secretary resulted. Second, a line-staff rivalry developed. Line officers wanted preferential treatment because they believed they endured privation while staff officers lived a soft life. Line officers also insisted on the right to command staff personnel in their district, but bureau chiefs asserted that staff officers in the field were responsible only to their superiors in Washington. Finally, Army bureau chiefs did not cooperate among themselves, and even the secretary was often unable to control them. Secretaries rarely stayed in office more than a few years, so power gravitated to the bureau chiefs, who held commissions for life. Chiefs became consummate bureaucrats and extremely knowledgeable about their specialized functions, but they often confused their own bureau’s well-being with the Army’s welfare.
Congressional goodwill toward the Army evaporated during the Panic of 1819. In 1820 the House told Calhoun to prepare a plan for reducing the Army to 6,000, and in response he submitted one of the most important military papers in American history. Declaring that reliance on militia was foolhardy and that the nation must depend on regulars, Calhoun proposed a peacetime “expansible” Army that could readily expand in war without diluting its capabilities. His fundamental principle was that when war came, “there should be nothing either to new model or to create.” In peacetime the Army should maintain a complete organization of companies and regiments and full complements of both line and staff officers but a reduced number of privates. In wartime preexistingunits would be augmented by recruiting privates, who would be trained by experienced officers. The transition from peace to war, wrote Calhoun, could “be made without confusion or disorder; and the weakness and danger, which otherwise would be inevitable, be avoided.” Calhoun suggested an Army of 6,316, expansible to 11,558 without adding a single officer or company. With only 288 additional officers the Army could expand to more than 19,000. Calhoun’s proposal made no headway against congressmen such as Charles Fisher, who said he “always thought, that one of the best features of our Government is its unfitness for war.” In March 1821 Congress rejected Calhoun’s expansible Army concept, slashing the Army’s strength to 6,183 by eliminating regiments and reducing the number of officers. Yet the idea lived on, advocated by those who believed regulars should be the foundation for war planning.
Several postwar trends were clear. The armed forces enjoyed a few years of unprecedented peacetime support before economic ills and fading memories of the war led to cutbacks. Both services experienced bureaucratic growth in an effort to give civilian secretaries ready access to professional advice; to ensure long-term institutional stability in technical and logistical functions; and, in the Army, to impose centralized command on a previously decentralized system that had been a breeding ground for disaster. Although the bureau system represented an important administrative development, it ushered in new problems. Extreme specialization within the bureaus and lack of cooperation among them often hamstrung effective management, staff-line squabbles afflicted both services, and the commanding general’s ambiguous position created turmoil in the War Department.
Technology and War
“What hath God wrought?” asked Samuel F.B. Morse in May 1844 in the first message transmitted over the telegraph, a device he had invented. Whether the invention was God’s creation or man’s was debatable, but what had been wrought was a communications miracle that diminished time and distance in the transmission of information. Military communications—for centuries tied to a messenger’s uncertain speed—became almost instantaneous. Dramatic as it was, Morse’s telegraph was only one of the technological innovations that so profoundly influenced warfare as to constitute a military revolution, inducing acute anxiety among strategists needing to discern the impact of a bewildering range of developments. Not the least of the policymakers’ problems was the tremendous expense involved in keeping pace with new technologies. So rapidly did innovations appear, wrote one secretary of war, that a mere decade marked “an epoch in the onward progress of modern invention and improvement. Even five years may modify, materially, plans of defense now reputed wisest and most indispensable.”
During the first half of the nineteenth century armies harnessed the Industrial Revolution’s technology, resulting in dramatic increases in mobility and firepower. Enhanced mobility came from the steamship and the railroad. In 1789 John Fitch built the first successful steamboat, in 1807 Robert Fulton’s Clermont began commercial operations, and by the 1830s hundreds of steamers plied inland waters. Steamboats could defy currents and wind, but low water or ice brought them to a halt, and they had to go where rivers went. Neither drought nor winter stopped the railroads, which had the additional advantage of going anywhere people chose to lay tracks. A group of New Yorkers organized the first railroad company in 1826, and by 1860 there were 30,000 miles of track traversing the United States. Although developed for commercial purposes, steamboats and railroads had benefits equally important for commerce and war: Travel was faster and cheaper.
Increased firepower came from innovations that made infantry weapons dramatically more lethal. The flintlock mechanism gave way to percussion caps, cylindro-conoidal bullets replaced spherical lead balls, rifles superseded smoothbores, and breechloaders and repeaters competed with single-shot muzzleloaders. The development of fulminates in the 1790s led to a replacement system for the notoriously unreliable flintlock mechanism. By 1820 Joshua Shaw of Philadelphia had perfected a copper percussion cap containing mercuric fulminate. An infantryman placed a percussion cap on a hollow cone connected to the breech; when the hammer struck the cap, the fulminate exploded, sending flame through the cone to the main charge. The percussion cap, being simpler and more reliable than the flintlock, meant infantrymen fired at a faster rate than ever before.
Rifles had greater range and accuracy than smoothbores. Yet in 1815 no army had more than a few elite rifle units because rifles were slower to load than smoothbores. In a smoothbore the ball did not have to fit tightly in the barrel, but for a rifle to work, the bullet had to “grip” the rifling inside the barrel. The only way to achieve this “grip” in muzzleloading weapons firing round lead bullets was to force the projectile down the barrel—sometimes by pounding a steel ramrod with a mallet—so that it fit snugly against the rifling. The perfection of the elongated cylindro-conoidal bullet by a French army captain, Claude E. Minie, made it feasible to load rifles quickly. The so-called “Minie ball” slipped easily down the barrel but had a hollow base that expanded under the impact of the powder charge’s explosion, causing the projectile to grip the rifling. In the mid-1850s the Army adopted as its standard weapon a .58-caliber, percussion-cap, muzzleloading rifle firing cylindro-conoidal bullets. Smoothbores were accurate to only about fifty yards, but the new weapon could be deadly at ten times that distance.
By 1861 arms makers had developed breechloaders and repeaters. In 1811 John H. Hall patented a breechloading rifle, and in 1819 he signed a contract to produce his guns at the Harpers Ferry Armory. In manufacturing these rifles, Hall attained the goal Eli Whitney popularized but never achieved: Mass production using precision machine tools that resulted in interchangeable parts. Hall’s production system rapidly spread, spurring America’s economic growth, but his rifle had a fundamental problem. Gas and flame leaked from the breech, which detracted from the bullet’s velocity and endangered the soldier. The self-contained metallic cartridge, developed during the 1850s, solved the difficulty. The thin metal shell casing possessed the property of obturation (when the powder detonated, the casing expanded, sealing the breech). The new cartridge made possible effective breechloaders and repeating rifles. Prior to the Civil War, Samuel Colt, Christopher M. Spencer, and others had patented repeaters; and in 1862 Richard Gatling produced the first machine gun.
Railroads, steamboats, and rapid-fire rifles transformed land warfare. Strategically, armies could be transported long distances with unprecedented speed and be supported logistically with relative ease at a reasonable cost. They could also be controlled from afar by telegraph. At the same time the tactical system utilized by Napoleon lost its ability to achieve decisive battlefield results. Napoleon generally concentrated his artillery close to the enemy lines and, following a furious barrage, sent his massed infantry and cavalry forward in frontal assaults. By 1860 these tactics were suicidal. The longer range, better accuracy, and increased rate of fire of infantry weapons made it difficult to bring artillery near the enemy lines, potentially converting mass attacks into mass butchery.
Changes in naval warfare were no less startling, as steam and iron began to replace sails and wood. Indeed, naval technology seemed to be changing so swiftly that one congressional committee even suggested building a throw-away Navy. Instead of expensive iron construction, the Navy should rely on cheaply built vessels of white oak, sell them when they decayed, and build new ships “so as to keep the Navy up with all the improvements of the day, and in a condition to introduce, without sacrifice, any new invention.”
Robert Fulton built the world’s first steam warship, Fulton, completed in 1814 to defend New York harbor. Although entrepreneurs quickly adopted steam for commercial purposes, the Navy did not rush to embrace it. During the reign of the Board of Navy Commissioners the Navy built only four steamships. In the mid-1830s Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson partially implemented the 1816 congressional authorization for three steam batteries when he ordered construction of one steamer, a new Fulton,completed in 1837. Two years later Congress authorized three additional steam warships. One of these never performed well, but the other two, Mississippi and Missouri (both completed in 1842), were seagoing paddlewheelers representing a high state of technical proficiency.
Why was the Navy so reluctant to convert to steam? Part of the answer was naval conservatism regarding innovations. Many officers viewed the noisy, dirty steamships as ungainly sea monsters. Practical problems also delayed the acceptance of steam. Engines were bulky, weak, and unreliable. It took about one ton of machinery to generate one horsepower, and engines consumed coal voraciously, limiting a vessel’s range. The exposed paddlewheels made the vessel vulnerable, since a single shot into them would be crippling. The paddlewheels and the cumbersome steam machinery also left little room for broadside guns, reducing a ship’s own firepower.
Experimentation gradually produced more efficient engines, and the introduction of the screw propeller to replace the paddlewheels solved the problems of vulnerability and firepower. Placed underwater at the stern, the propeller was secure from enemy fire, allowed the ship’s vital machinery to be placed below the waterline, and freed the broadside for guns. The first screw-propeller warship was Princeton, launched in 1843. Its design made steamships equal to sailing vessels in fighting power, with the additional advantage of machine propulsion, and in the fifteen years preceding the Civil War the Navy increasingly converted to steam.
The steam warships built before the Civil War were actually obsolete. They had unprotected wooden hulls that could absorb a terrific pounding from solid shot, but explosive shells splintered the hulls and set wooden ships afire. Shells had long been used in land artillery because howitzers and mortars, fired at relatively high angles, required low projectile velocities. But naval guns required a flat trajectory to hull enemy ships and hence high velocity and breech pressures. In 1823 a French artillery officer, Henri-Joseph Paixhans, solved the technical difficulties in firing shells from naval guns. In the late 1830s France and England adopted the shell gun, as did the United States.
The answer to incendiary shell guns was iron. Two related innovations occurred simultaneously: iron construction and the use of iron plates as armor. The first armed vessel built of iron was Michigan, launched on the Great Lakes in 1843. The previous year Congress authorized Robert L. Stevens to build a “shot and shell proof” ironclad screw-propelled warship, the first modern ironclad9 authorized for any navy. Initially the vessel was to have 4 to 6 inches of armor, but inventors soon built guns that could penetrate it. Designers planned to install thicker armor, but even more powerful ordnance was soon available. The metallurgical advances permitting thicker, more resistant armor could also be used to build stronger guns capable of hurling larger projectiles at greater velocity. Stevens never filled his contract, and France launched the first seagoing ironclad, La Gloire, in 1859. The British countered the next year with Warrior, the first seagoing iron-hulled ironclad. Both ships were theoretically obsolete, since they carried only four and a half inches of armor. The fate of Stevens’s ship and the instant obsolescence of La Gloire and Warrior were indicative of the “race” between guns and armor—between penetration and protection—that lasted into the post–Civil War era.
The ascendancy of steam over sail and iron over wood had not been achieved by 1860. Steam warships carried full sail rigging, and most naval officers considered steam auxiliary to sails. The American Navy boasted no large iron-hulled ships or ironclads. Yet the implications of iron and steam were discernible. Steam completely altered maritime strategy and tactics. Ships could travel in direct lines rather than in sweeping deviations necessitated by prevailing winds and currents. Steam increased travel speed, allowed for a precise calculation of how long a voyage would take, and made in-shore maneuvering easier. However, steam also acted as a tether, binding warships to their coal bases. Previously the wind had been all-important in battle, but now its influence was negligible and speed became a more significant factor. The effects of iron construction were equally profound. It made possible ships that were larger, stronger, and more variable in design than wooden-hulled ships, providing more stable gun platforms capable of carrying enormous weapons. Iron hulls were more durable than wood and could be divided into watertight compartments that contained damage. In terms of initial cost and economy in repairs, iron was also cheaper than wood.
Schools of War
On September 16, 1871, an elderly man committed suicide by leaping into the paddlewheel of a Hudson River steamer. Melancholy for some time, Dennis Hart Mahan became morbid when the Military Academy’s Board of Visitors recommended his mandatory retirement from the West Point faculty. For Mahan, life without the Academy was not worth living. He had arrived at West Point in 1820 as a cadet, graduated first in the class of 1824, and served as an instructor there for two years. Then Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer sent him to France to study military engineering and fortifications. He resumed teaching duties at the Academy in 1830—and left again only in death. During his more than four decades at West Point, no one was more influential than Mahan in the transition of officership from a craft into a profession.
All professions exhibit three characteristics: specialized expertise attained by prolonged education and experience; a responsibility to perform functions beneficial to society; and a sense of corporateness, a collective self-consciousness that sets professionals apart from the rest of society. A professional officer’s expertise is the management of violence, and his responsibility is to provide national security. A sense of corporateness flows from the educational process, the customs and traditions that develop within the profession, and the unique expertise and responsibility shared by group members.
No nation had a professional officer corps in 1800, but all the European powers and the United States did by 1900. The impetus for professionalization came from changes in warfare foreshadowed by the American Revolution but made more obvious by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Fundamentally, as armies became larger, they created new administrative, operational, and tactical problems and possibilities. To deal with these, an ever-larger number of more highly skilled officers was necessary. Thus the magnitude and complexity of Napoleonic warfare gave birth to two elements essential for training such professional officer-specialists: military schools and a literature on warfare to guide officers in their studies. These developments appeared first in Prussia, crushed by Napoleon in 1806–1807. Lacking a genius like Frederick the Great to counter the French genius Napoleon, Prussian leaders established a school system—culminating in the Kriegsakademie—to forge the nation’s officers into collective competence. From the Kriegsakademie and lesser schools came studies dealing with the theory and principles of war. The most important was Karl von Clausewitz’s abstract commentary on the Napoleonic Wars, On War (1831). Although the most profound treatise on war ever written, Clausewitz’s book remained unknown to Americans until translated into English in 1873.
France emulated the Prussian schools, since military genius appeared so erratically that France could not depend on the timely arrival of another Napoleon. But the French and Prussian institutions had important differences. Prussian officers studied strategy and its relationship to policy, while the French emphasized military engineering, fortifications, and tactics. The Prussians wrestled with Clausewitz’s metaphysical discourse, while the French studied Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini’s The Art of War (1838). Clausewitz and Jomini, the two major commentators on Napoleonic warfare, tried to discover universal elements in war. They examined the same campaigns but presented different interpretations. Clausewitz understood the bloody, violent, and often chaotic style of war unleashed by the French Revolution and Napoleon. Jomini, however, found unrestrained war repellent and stressed decisive geographic points, speed, movement, and lines of supply and communication. These concerns missed the central point of Napoleonic warfare: the quest for decisive battle.
West Point followed the French example. The most obvious deficiencies during the War of 1812 had been well-trained officers and basic strategy. The two were not unrelated, since able officers could devise appropriate strategy, which required competent officers to implement. Thus postwar Republicans supported improvements at the Military Academy, which was near extinction in 1815. The revival began in July 1817, when President James Monroe ordered Captain Sylvanus Thayer, who had studied French military schools and fortifications, to become superintendent. During his superintendency (1817–1833), Thayer sought to transplant French professional standards to the banks of the Hudson, using Mahan as his conveyor. Mahan was professor of civil and military engineering and—as he insisted on adding to his title—of “the Art of War.” Textbooks were not available for either the engineering or the warfare course, so Mahan wrote his own. Known as Outpost (1847),10 his military text was a pioneering American study of war that relied on Napoleon (as interpreted by Jomini) to convey its lessons. In 1846 Mahan’s former student Henry W. Halleck had written Elements of Military Art and Science, a more original discussion of military theory than his mentor’s book, although still dependent on Jomini’s (and Mahan’s) portrayal of Napoleon. Mahan and Halleck initiated American strategic studies and consciously promoted professionalism, arguing that military science was a specialized body of knowledge understandable only through intense study, especially of military history.
Devoting only a fraction of the curriculum to military theory and history, West Point could instill only a limited professionalism in officers. A complete professional education required higher military schools. West Point would introduce cadets to military art and science, but graduate schools would give special preparation for service in the three line branches (infantry, cavalry, artillery) and in staff positions. In 1824 Calhoun established the Army’s first postgraduate school, the Artillery School of Practice at Fortress Monroe, and three years later his successor founded an Infantry School of Practice at Jefferson Barracks. But the movement was abortive. The Artillery School closed in 1835, and the Infantry School existed in name only. A permanent postgraduate system emerged only after the Civil War.
The Navy had no West Point equivalent until 1845, when Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, temporarily also serving as secretary of war, transferred Fort Severn, Annapolis, from the Army to the Navy. Bancroft then ordered midshipmen returning from sea, as well as a small instructional and administrative staff, to report there. The new school began to nurture naval professionalization and in 1850 was named the Naval Academy. However, the Navy also lacked postgraduate schools to hone its officer corps’ expertise, responsibility, and corporateness.
Despite savage criticism of West Point (and later the Naval Academy), professionalization continued during the age of Jackson, an era known for its emphasis upon egalitarianism and amateurism. Critics deemed the Academy unnecessary and extolled the natural martial ability of citizen-soldiers—a trait personified by Jackson himself. They denounced the Academy as un-American, claiming it established a military aristocracy that monopolized the officer corps and degraded enlisted men. Critics also charged that West Point was expensive and produced more officers than the Army needed.
The clamor against West Point had little effect, as the proportion of West Point graduates in the officer corps grew from less than 15 percent in 1817 to more than 76 percent in 1860. And because of accelerating professionalization, the officer corps in 1860 was far different from what it had been a generation earlier. Between the 1st American Regiment’s formation in 1784 and the end of the War of 1812, the officer corps had been characterized by administrative instability, amateurism, high turnover (because men considered military service little more than a brief interruption in their civil careers), and internal dissension. Indeed, few armies had ever been led by such an unruly, contentious group of officers; as one general wrote in 1797, the Army was an “Augean stable of anarchy and confusion.”
But after 1815 a distinct military subculture emerged, aided by the comparative political harmony that prevailed immediately after the War of 1812. Military careers became dramatically longer as men increasingly viewed officership as a lifelong commitment; in 1797 the median career length for all officers was only ten years but by 1830 it had extended to twenty-two years. The expanded, permanent General Staff developed formal regulations and methodical procedures that brought stability to military administration, a structure later emulated by private corporations. The nascent educational system socialized aspiring officers into their craft and instilled values that united men from different regions and social classes. Professional officers believed that the Army should avoid strident political partisanship and instead be a neutral instrument of government policy. Perceiving themselves as distinct from the civilian world, they developed a near-unanimous contempt for citizen-soldiers and collectively wallowed in self-pity, convinced that the public showed little appreciation (but much apathy) for the Army’s difficult and dangerous task of policing the Indian frontier.
After the War of 1812 military planners realized that no matter how often politicians glorified citizen-soldiers or how severely Congress cut the Army, regulars would provide the first line of land defense. They also knew that reliance on the common militia to reinforce the regular Army was chimerical. In 1808 Congressman Jabez Upham had argued that the notion of prosecuting a war with militia “will do very well on paper; it sounds well in the war speeches on this floor. To talk about every soldier being a citizen, and every citizen being a soldier, and to declaim that the militia of our country is the bulwark of our liberty is very captivating. All this will figure to advantage in history. But it will not do at all in practice.” The War of 1812 proved Upham a prophet. Aside from Baltimore and New Orleans, the militia performed badly, and after the war it lived on only in Fourth of July oratory. Presidents stopped urging, and Congress ceased debating, militia reform, and the number of states submitting militia returns to the War Department declined precipitously.
Volunteer militia units partially filled the void left by the common militia’s demise. To preserve the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and other traditional volunteer units, a section of the Uniform Militia Act permitted states to incorporate volunteer companies. Under this clause a volunteer militia movement swept the country after 1815, providing an outlet for men who still took citizen-soldiering seriously. Despite the myth of a “militant south,” the volunteer phenomenon was particularly strong in the north, with earnest amateurs in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut representing a substantial military force.
In his second annual message President Franklin Pierce praised “the valuable services constantly rendered by the Army and its inestimable importance as the nucleus around which the volunteer force of the nation can promptly gather in the hour of danger.” Perhaps unknowingly the president acknowledged that a crucial change in military policy had occurred since the War of 1812. Militia no longer figured in the commander in chief’s calculations, an admission no president would have made just a generation earlier. Professionalized regulars reinforced by enthusiastic volunteers had replaced the common militia as the foundation for national defense.
Military Forces and National Development
The hallmarks of the age were territorial expansion and the westward movement. Florida, Texas, Oregon, the Mexican Cession, and the Gadsden Purchase increased the national domain, and settlement reached the Pacific. In this surge of national development, the Army served as an advance agent of a continental empire. Soldiers explored the west and built, improved, and protected transportation networks. Communities arose in the vicinity of forts where bluecoats provided security and consumed goods and services. The Army was also a law enforcement agency, especially in Indian affairs. West Point graduates were well suited for developmental activities. Under Thayer’s guidance the Academy not only produced officers with professional ideals but also became the nation’s finest scientific and engineering school, and graduates readily utilized their scientific and engineering skills for national development.
Army explorations began before the War of 1812, halted during the war, and then scoured the west after 1815. Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark led the most noteworthy prewar expedition, which departed St. Louis in 1804, crossed the continent to the Pacific, and returned in 1806. The expedition was the first direct federal aid in developing the west, setting a precedent for the future. Perhaps the most famous postwar army explorer was Lieutenant John C. Fremont, whose three long reconnaissances, between 1842 and 1845, won him the nickname “the Pathfinder.” But Fremont was only one of dozens of officers who helped unlock the region’s geographic mysteries. The Army also cooperated with civilians. Scientists, scholars, and artists normally traveled with Army expeditions, and civilian-led parties depended upon Army assistance. Although the trans-Mississippi west was unknown to Americans in 1800, sixty years later people understood its geography and knew much about its geology, flora and fauna, and native peoples. Pioneers did not blindly enter the wilderness.
Army personnel made the west increasingly accessible by assisting with internal improvements. Distinguishing the military from the commercial significance of roads, improved rivers, canals, and railroads was impossible, and in the General Survey Act of 1824 Congress authorized the use of military engineers for transportation improvements of commercial or military importance. Under this act Army engineers worked on state and private projects as well as federally sponsored improvements. The War of 1812 had demonstrated the handicaps imposed by inadequate transportation, and Army efforts to remedy the situation began immediately after the war. Soldiers began work where the war had shown the greatest need, building, for example, “Jackson’s Military Road” from Tennessee to New Orleans. As the nation expanded, the soldier-roadbuilders followed the moving frontier. In many cases troops did the construction, but in other instances military engineers supervised civilian crews working under War Department contracts. Army engineers improved rivers and harbors and assisted in the construction of canals, such as the Chesapeake and Ohio. They worked with railroad companies, beginning in 1827, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company asked for and received government engineering aid. By the mid-1830s, between ten and twenty companies were receiving Army engineering assistance every year.
Army posts offered economic opportunity, often making the difference between a stagnant local economy and a prosperous one. Although soldiers spent much of their time farming, building barracks, doing maintenance work, and cutting firewood, few forts achieved self-sufficiency. They depended on the local community for building materials, corn, beef, hay, and firewood. Garrisons employed civilians as clerks, teamsters, and skilled laborers, and soldiers primed the economy by spending their pay in the immediate vicinity.
Troops made the west reasonably safe. Since colonial times forts had been built to control the fur trade, impress the Indians, deter potential foreign enemies, and protect settlers. The fur trade remained profitable and the Indians belligerent, Britain retained Canada, Spain held the southwest, and settlers wanted to keep their hair. Thus the War Department built new forts at strategic locations as the frontier swept westward. In 1817 a loose cordon of forts ran from Fort Mackinac at Lake Michigan’s eastern tip, to Fort Howard on Green Bay, to Forts Crawford, Armstrong, and Edwards on the Mississippi, and to a post at Natchitoches in central Louisiana. By the early 1850s the military frontier ran along the Columbia River, the California coast, and the Rio Grande. Army posts dotted the west, leaving only a handful of troops east of the 1817 perimeter.
One of the Army’s most onerous duties was enforcing the trade and intercourse laws in Indian country. Beginning in 1790 Congress passed a series of acts, codified in 1834, to regulate trade with the Indians and preserve peace by eliminating Indian grievances. The laws forbade settlement on Indian lands, licensed the Indian trade, and prohibited liquor in Indian Territory. Upholding the law’s majesty made the Army unpopular with avaricious settlers, traders, and whiskey vendors. Troops were too few, lawbreakers too numerous, and the frontier too vast for bluecoats to be effective policemen. Violators could not be tried by courts-martial but had to be remanded to civil courts, which rarely convicted alleged offenders. When the Army expelled intruders and seized liquor, aggrieved parties frequently filed civil suits against commanding officers, and the prospect of court actions deterred rigorous enforcement.
The Navy played a vital role in national development by laying the foundations for America’s overseas commercial and territorial empire. Antebellum naval missions presaged a post–Civil War global commitment, especially to the Pacific. Between 1838 and 1861 maritime expeditions combining scientific objectives with commercial and diplomatic purposes explored the Amazon River and the Rio de la Plata, searched the Isthmus of Darien for an interoceanic canal site, reconnoitered the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, sailed the Arctic seas, charted Africa’s west coast, and ranged over the Pacific.
The most spectacular examples of the Navy’s commercial-diplomatic role concerned China and Japan. Although the United States remained neutral during the Opium War in China (1839–1842), a naval squadron commanded by Lawrence Kearny was posted to protect American merchants. Kearny’s astute diplomacy paved the way for the Treaty of Wanghia (1844), which opened five ports to American merchants on a most-favored-nation basis. The treaty placed American economic relations with China under diplomatic protection for the first time and heralded an American entrance into Far Eastern international politics. Equally significant was Matthew C. Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1853–1854. Perry purchased land for a coaling station at Port Lloyd in the Bonin Islands and negotiated the Treaty of Kanagawa (1854), which opened two Japanese ports to American commerce, promised humane treatment to shipwrecked sailors, and permitted an American consul to reside at Shimoda. This treaty was Japan’s first step in a meteoric ascent from feudal isolation to great power status.
The Navy also participated in numerous punitive expeditions to protect American lives and property, suppress piracy, uphold national honor, and enforce treaties. During the antebellum era dozens of landing parties composed of sailors and marines supported American interests in Asia, in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas, along both coasts of South America, and along the East African coast. Most of the expeditions were brief and bloodless, but occasionally fighting did occur. For example, the first official American armed intervention in Asia took place in February 1832 at Quallah Battoo, Sumatra, to avenge an attack on a merchant vessel. President Jackson, who feared the incident might presage other attacks on America’s growing Asian commerce, ordered John Downes, commanding the frigate Potomac, to the scene. After a cursory investigation, Downes sent sailors and marines ashore, where they destroyed the town and several forts and probably killed at least 100 Sumatrans.
The unofficial alliance between the Navy and American commercial interests produced astounding results. Between 1790 and 1860 total exports (including reexports) increased from $20 million to $334 million; this helped to transform the United States into one of the world’s foremost economic powers by the end of the nineteenth century. So stupendous was this antebellum maritime commercial expansion that one astute foreign observer, contemplating “the ardor with which the Anglo-Americans prosecute commerce,” predicted that America would “one day become the foremost maritime power of the globe.”
The armed forces played indispensable roles in national development despite acute manpower problems. Conditions in both services were often deplorable, featuring low pay, coarse and monotonous rations, primitive medical facilities, and near-sadistic discipline. Army recruits were predominantly northern laborers or immigrants, many of the latter unable to speak or understand English. In 1840, for example, only four recruits came from the Deep South but 1,444 came from New York alone, and between 1850 and 1859 two-thirds of the enlisted men were foreign born. Economic factors were often foremost in a man’s decision to enlist. Laborers who lost their jobs during economic depressions sometimes turned to the Army in desperation, while immigrants were frequently destitute when they arrived at a seaport. Isolated in small frontier posts, many with fewer than 100 officers and men, soldiers had few opportunities for martial glory and none for becoming officers. Instead, they performed manual labor, building and maintaining forts and roads, farming, caring for livestock, and cutting wood. Since they had enlisted to be soldiers rather than laborers, they found these conditions onerous, often resorting to the bottle and to desertion to escape them. Deserting sometimes reached absurd proportions: In 1830 1,251 out of 5,231 men fled the Army!
Conditions in the Navy were no better. Like soldiers, sailors were isolated, floating on distant stations in tiny, cramped warships where the work was hard, life was boring, and an atmosphere of brutality prevailed. Common punishments included confinement in irons, informal floggings with the end of a rope, and formal lashings with a cat-o’-nine-tails that could leave the flesh “fairly hanging in strips” on a man’s back. Such conditions attracted few high-quality American citizens, and by 1860 the Navy’s foreign-born component approached 50 percent. Those Americans who did enlist, said one naval officer, came from “the most worthless class of our native population.” As in the Army, drunkenness and desertion were frequent occurrences; charges relating to these crimes composed 25 percent of all charges at Navy courts-martial between 1799 and 1861.
Reform movements tried to ameliorate conditions, especially in the Navy. Humanitarians, who often unfavorably compared sailors to slaves, focused on the abolition of flogging and the grog ration. The Army abolished flogging in 1812, though it was reinstated as punishment for desertion in 1833, and ended the daily liquor ration in 1830. The Navy clung to both. Most naval officers and their conservative congressional allies argued against “hyperphilanthropy,” maintaining that the lash held crews in line and the grog ration was healthful. Although reformers eventually achieved success against flogging in 1850 and against liquor in 1862, overall conditions aboard ship improved only slightly.
Officers had to deal with truculent men and endured the same general milieu, but they also had a special problem. Guided only by seniority, promotion was slow. It often took twenty or thirty years for an Army officer to become a major, and fifty-year-old naval lieutenants were commonplace. Shut away in frontier posts or distant ships, scanning the news for deaths or resignations among more senior officers, men became quarrelsome and inordinately sensitive about personal honor. To escape the boredom, low pay, lack of esteem, and pettiness, many officers resigned, especially from the Army, because they could exploit their West Point education in civilian pursuits. Yet some good officers remained, proud of their profession and their role in national development.
The Army and Indian Removal
In the west, President Jackson told the Indians, “Your white brothers will not trouble you; they will have no claim to the land, and you can live upon it, you and all your children, as long as the grass grows or the water runs, in peace and plenty. It will be yours forever.” The president’s promise of a permanent Indian Territory was important in Indian removal, which meant trading land in the Louisiana Purchase to Indians living east of the Mississippi in exchange for their traditional homelands. After the War of 1812 the government informally pursued a removal policy until 1830, when Congress finally authorized the president to negotiate land-exchange treaties. Four years later Congress defined Indian country as land west of the Mississippi except for Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas. The government adopted removal as official policy for several reasons. Increased trans-Appalachian settlement made eastern territory more desirable, while humanitarians, motivated by an arrogant paternalism, argued that removal would save the Indians from extinction, the inevitable fate for people who resisted “superior” white civilization.
The Army had several duties under the removal policy. Initially civilian contractors organized Indian traveling parties, but they were so corrupt that in 1832 the secretary of war assigned these tasks to the Army. Army personnel helped the emigrants settle in their new lands and protected them from the Plains Indians. Operating from forts along the border of Indian country, the bluecoats tried to preserve peace between whites and Indians. Most important, when Indians resisted removal, the Army went to war. Removal was supposedly voluntary and a few tribes went west without opposition, but most preferred to remain. To persuade them to emigrate, Jackson employed wholesale fraud and deception, and when chicanery failed, he used force. In 1836 three Creek bands went on the warpath, but more than 11,000 regulars, citizen-soldiers, and friendly Creeks quickly ended the resistance. When most Cherokees also opposed removal, force again compelled submission.
Although the Creek and Cherokee troubles were hardly wars, removal did provoke two genuine conflicts, the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War. The Sac and Fox tribes occupied prime Illinois real estate, and in 1827 the state petitioned the War Department for the Indians’ removal. When nothing had been done by 1831, Governor John Reynolds mobilized volunteers and forced Black Hawk, an aged Sac chief, to sign an agreement to stay west of the Mississippi. But during the winter Black Hawk received false assurances of assistance from Canada and from other tribes. In April 1832 he and his followers, including women and children, recrossed the river. The resulting war was a deadly farce, “a tissue of blunders,” as one colonel called it. Learning that he would receive no British or Indian support, Black Hawk tried to surrender three times, but on each occasion the whites rejected the peace overture. The Black Hawk War ended in early August at the so-called “Battle of Bad Axe,” where the whites slaughtered men, women, and children.
Seminole removal was more difficult. The United States first tangled with the Seminoles in 1817–1818 when Jackson, under War Department orders, invaded Florida. The motives behind the invasion were complex. Seminoles were raiding the Georgia frontier and escaping to safety under the Spanish flag, and Spanish authorities appeared powerless to restrain them. Florida was also a sanctuary for escaped slaves, who participated in the Indian forays. The hope of extending United States territory and removing a proximate foreign influence reinforced the desire to eliminate the sanctuary and recapture the slaves. With typical zeal, Jackson destroyed Indian villages, captured Spanish towns, and deposed the Spanish governor. Although Jackson eventually withdrew from Florida, Spain realized it would ultimately lose the territory and decided to negotiate. The Adams-Onis Treaty, ratified in 1821, ceded Florida to the United States. The Seminoles also negotiated, signing a treaty in 1823 calling for them to concentrate on a reservation in central Florida. Few had done so by the early 1830s, and Jackson’s administration negotiated new treaties, which it claimed obligated the Seminoles to emigrate. The Indians maintained the treaties were invalid.
When the Second Seminole War began in December 1835, defeating the Seminoles seemed relatively easy. Fewer than 5,000 Indians lived in Florida, and the 1,200 warriors often fought with bows and arrows. Several factors made the task difficult, and the war became the Army’s longest, most costly Indian conflict. The terrain and climate proved formidable, and the black fugitives stiffened Seminole resistance. Removal for the Indians meant a new western home, but blacks feared they would be returned to slavery. The Seminoles and their black allies were adept guerrillas. A frustrated War Department even authorized the use of bloodhounds to track the elusive Indians, prompting an antiwar congressman to ask for a report on the “natural, political, and martial history of bloodhounds, showing the peculiar fitness of that class of warriors to be associates of the gallant army of the United States.”
Eight commanders tried to remove the Seminoles. Although their cumulative effect was to sap Seminole strength, by the time the eighth commander, Colonel William J. Worth, took charge in April 1841 the war seemed interminable. Determined to end the conflict, Worth conducted the war ruthlessly. With more than 5,000 regulars under his command, he launched the war’s first summer campaign, preventing the Seminoles from raising and harvesting their crops. The regulars suffered a high incidence of disease, but striking at the Indians’ villages and means of subsistence reduced the Seminole population to about 250 by the next spring. President John Tyler sent Congress a special message saying “further pursuit of these miserable beings by a large military force seems to be as injudicious as it is unavailing.” He authorized Worth to proclaim the war ended, which the colonel did in August 1842. The original goal of complete removal had not been achieved despite great manpower and monetary costs. Approximately 10,000 regulars and 30,000 citizen-soldiers served, at a cost of more than 1,500 deaths and $20 million. Yet enough Seminoles remained to wage a comparatively minor Third Seminole War during the 1850s.
By the mid-1840s Indian removal was nearly completed. In 1820 an estimated 125,000 Indians were living east of the Mississippi; twenty-five years later fewer than 30,000 remained. But removal of the eastern Indians did not end Indian-white conflicts. After the Mexican War white settlement reached the Great Plains and leaped across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast, igniting new confrontations. Between 1850 and 1861 the Army clashed with the Sioux, Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Comanches on the Plains; with the Apaches, Navajos, and Utes in the deserts and mountains of the southwest; and with the Yakimas, Rogues, Walla Wallas, and other small tribes in the Pacific northwest. Despite Jackson’s promise, no Indian territory was permanent. Most whites believed they needed the entire west in order to fulfill the nation’s Manifest Destiny.
The Mexican War, 1846–1848
The “re-occupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period,” read the 1844 Democratic Party platform, “are great American measures.” This shrewdly contrived plank appealed to both southern and northern expansionists and averted charges of imperialism by implying that the United States had once occupied Oregon and owned Texas, neither of which was true. Despite the political opportunism and historical fabrication, the plank captured the spirit of Manifest Destiny sweeping the nation and expressed the avid expansionism of the Democratic presidential candidate, James K. Polk. Polk interpreted his narrow election victory as a mandate to acquire Oregon and Texas, as well as California and New Mexico. Pursuit of these territorial ambitions almost provoked a two-front war. Britain, whose claim to Oregon was as good as America’s, resented Polk’s assertion that the United States had a “clear and unquestionable” right to all Oregon. It seemed that a third Anglo-American war might explode over Oregon, but a powerful England could accept a compromise without loss of dignity and, despite some vociferous Democratic sentiment for all Oregon, so could Polk. In June 1846 the two nations split Oregon by extending the 49th Parallel to the Pacific.
The settlement with England was fortunate because the United States had gone to war with Mexico the previous month. Many issues soured United States-Mexican relations, but the war began over Texas, which had gained independence in a brief but bitter war in 1835–1836. The United States and other nations recognized the new country, but Mexico refused to accept the results of the Texas revolution and warned the United States that it would consider annexation an act of war. When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, Mexico broke diplomatic relations and threatened reprisals against Texas. A final diplomatic effort by Polk delayed hostilities, but war was inevitable after annexation. Mexico believed it could not accept territorial dismemberment and maintain national honor. Determined to have Texas and the Mexican provinces of New Mexico and California, Polk was willing to fight for them.
The question of Texas’s southern boundary aggravated the annexation issue. Texas claimed the Rio Grande, but Mexico insisted the Nueces River was the border. Accepting the Texans’ interpretation, Polk ordered Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to assume a position “on or near” the Rio Grande. Taylor stopped at Corpus Christi at the mouth of the Nueces, which was neither on nor very near the Rio Grande, but Polk acquiesced. However, on January 12, 1846, Polk learned his special envoy had failed to persuade Mexico to accept the Rio Grande boundary and to sell New Mexico and California. The next day he ordered Taylor to the Rio Grande. By late March the general’s Army of Occupation had concentrated opposite Matamoros. From Polk’s perspective Taylor had assumed a forward defensive position; the Mexicans considered Taylor’s advance an invasion.
In late April the Mexican commander, Major General Mariano Arista, sent his cavalry across the Rio Grande, and some of his horsemen ambushed two dragoon squadrons. Unbeknownst to either Arista or Taylor, Mexico’s president had already declared a “defensive war,” and even before Polk learned of the incident, he had also decided on war. On May 9 Polk told his cabinet that he wanted to send Congress a war message. Taylor’s report of the ambush arrived that evening, and with unanimous cabinet approval Polk delivered his message on May 11. Mexico, he said, “has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood on American soil.” War, Polk insisted, “exists by the act of Mexico herself.” Although these assertions were half-truths, the United States declared war on May 13.
Two major battles had already occurred. On the last day of April Arista’s army crossed the Rio Grande, and on May 8 it confronted Taylor at Palo Alto. Taylor told his men “that their main dependence must be in the bayonet,” but American artillery bore the brunt of the battle and forced the Mexicans to withdraw. Just south of Palo Alto the open prairie gave way to dense chaparral sliced by ancient river beds known as resacas. At Resaca de la Palma, Arista’s army assumed a strong defensive position. The tangled growth made it difficult for American artillery to deploy, and the resaca formed a natural breastwork. The battle was a melee as the chaparral shattered unit cohesion. The Mexicans again lost and were sent fleeing across the Rio Grande. In two battles Taylor’s smaller army had inflicted 800 casualties and sustained fewer than 200.
The battles stunned Mexico, which believed it would win the war. Many leading Mexicans judged the United States politically and militarily weak. Slavery and the tariff were such divisive issues that some Mexicans thought that northern states would not aid the south in a war against Mexico. Two fifth-column elements would make a war difficult for the gringos: Slaves would rebel, and Indians would seek revenge for removal. The U.S. regular Army was small, and Mexican officials considered citizen-soldiers worthless. Even if Americans mounted an offensive, logistical support would be impossible across Mexico’s arid expanses. An amphibious invasion would confront tempestuous waters, bad roads leading inland, and Mexico’s staunch lowland ally, yellow fever. By contrast, Mexico seemed powerful. European observers considered its armed forces superb, an opinion shared by most Mexicans. Privateers would swarm to sea, feasting upon American commerce. Mexico also believed it would receive European aid, especially from England, since an Anglo-American war over Oregon seemed imminent. “We have more than enough strength to make war,” exhorted the editors of La Vox del Pueblo. “Let us make it, then, and victory will perch upon our banners.”
The only accurate aspect of Mexico’s assessment was its belief that the war would divide American society. Antiwar movements—Loyalists during the Revolution, Republicans in the Quasi-War, and Federalists in 1812—had become traditional, and the Mexican War was no exception. Four major groups criticized the conflict. Abolitionists believed the war was a southern plot to extend slavery. Pacifists argued that war violated every Christian principle and that “false and pernicious principles,” such as “our country, right or wrong,” had subverted the people’s moral character. Whig politicians believed Polk had provoked Mexico in order to launch an imperialistic invasion. A small group of “Conscience” Whigs voted against military appropriations, but the larger number of “Cotton” Whigs, though critical of the war, affirmed their loyalty by praising American soldiers, eulogizing their commanders, and voting for the men and money Polk requested. By denouncing “Mr. Polk’s War” while loyally supporting it, the Whig Party avoided political suicide. Democratic followers of expresident Martin Van Buren and of John C. Calhoun, now a South Carolina senator, joined their Whig opponents in castigating the war. Van Burenites disliked Polk and opposed the expansion of slavery. Calhoun hoped his stand would lead to the presidency in 1848 but feared the impact of slavery’s expansion on the nation’s political stability. He also thought the seemingly unrestrained war power Polk exercised was unconstitutional, presaging a dangerous consolidation of power in the executive branch.
The antiwar movement had little impact. Diverse critics never united, and no civil rights issue allowed militant dissenters to become martyrs. Since military service was voluntary and government loans rather than direct federal taxes financed the war, activists could not resist a draft or refuse to pay taxes. Nor could they decry government censorship: Polk never suppressed critics despite their vicious attacks on him. However, the president questioned his critics’ loyalty. He referred to the Whigs as “Federalists” and claimed the antiwar agitation encouraged the enemy, thus protracting the war.
Although Polk had no military experience, he acted as not only commander in chief but also as coordinator in chief for the war effort. In the country’s first example of prewar strategic planning, after consulting with his cabinet Polk had contingency war plans drafted more than six months before Arista’s cavalry attacked Taylor’s dragoons north of the Rio Grande. Once the war began he exercised tight control over every aspect of it, setting precedents that subsequent presidents built upon to make the White House, not the Capitol, the center of wartime authority. No problem perplexed Polk as much as the senior Army commanders, Scott and Taylor, who were as different as their nicknames implied. “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor rarely wore a uniform and had limited strategic and tactical abilities. His interest in military intelligence and planning for campaigns was so deficient that Scott assigned Captain William W. S. Bliss as his chief staff officer. Considered the Army’s brightest intellect, “Perfect” Bliss would compensate for Taylor’s own conception of warfare, which rarely went beyond marching, firing, and charging. Taylor’s strength was his battlefield imperturbability. Sitting atop Old Whitey, one leg crossed over the pommel and chewing on a straw, he never panicked. “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott, who became the commanding general in 1841, loved fancy uniforms and had considerable strategic and tactical abilities. Although not a West Pointer, he had a keen interest in military affairs, read widely on the subject, and wrote tactical manuals. A meticulous planner, he insisted upon a thorough military reconnaissance before maneuvering or fighting.
Taylor and Scott were both Whigs with presidential ambitions. Since Polk had no desire to win the war with a Whig general who might capitalize on his military reputation to become president, he tried to circumvent them. He proposed creating the position of lieutenant general, last held by Washington, and intended to nominate an ardent Democrat for the post. But Congress refused to establish the lieutenant generalcy, and so Polk waged war with commanding officers whom he distrusted. The generals feared a conspiracy to deprive them of success and felt, as Scott put it, doubly endangered by “a fire upon my rear, from Washington, and the fire, in front, from the Mexicans.”
Polk oversaw many details of manpower mobilization. Three options were available, one being to call out the common militia. When the war began, Taylor, with War Department authorization, called out 1,390 three-month militia; and General Edmund P. Gaines, without authority, mobilized 11,211 more for six months. Also, on May 13, 1846, Congress extended the militia’s term of service from three to six months and authorized the president to call militiamen into service, although no one believed the nation could rely on common militia. Even a six-month term was too brief for a distant conflict, and the constitutional question about foreign service remained. Most of the militiamen mobilized by Taylor and Gaines were demobilized before they did any fighting.
Another possibility was to increase the regular Army. In the War of 1812 Congress created many new regiments, forming an impressive paper army. However, the understrength units composed of raw men and officers usually lacked proficiency. The government avoided repeating this mistake because after the Seminole War the Army had been reduced to 8,600 men along expansible lines, eliminating privates but not regiments. In May 1846 Congress authorized Polk to increase the number of privates, doubling the Army’s authorized strength. New recruits, placed among veteran soldiers and under experienced officers, soon marched and fought like veterans themselves. Only in February 1847 did Congress vote for ten additional regiments.
The final option was to mobilize the volunteer militia, and on May 13, 1846, Congress called for 50,000 volunteers to serve for twelve months or the duration of the war at the president’s discretion. The War Department understood that it was to enlist volunteer militia units under the call for 50,000 volunteers. The president erred when he delegated to the states, or even to the units, the decision of whether the newly raised troops would serve for a year or the duration; states and volunteer units almost unanimously chose the former. The mass infusion of volunteers led to traditional problems associated with citizen-soldiers. Ill-disciplined, they murdered, robbed, rioted, and raped with such abandon that Mexicans considered them “Vandals vomited from Hell.” Regulars and volunteers viewed each other with contempt. A regular described Louisiana volunteers as “lawless drunken rabble” who emulated “each other in making beasts of themselves.” In turn, a volunteer complained that even if he captured the entire enemy army single-handedly, “it would not be deemed a deed worthy of remark, being done as it would be, by a man not a graduate of West Point.” Volunteer regiments drained recruits from the regulars. Finally, volunteers were expensive since, invariably, land and monetary bounties had to be offered in order to entice them to enlist.
It became harder to fill the ranks as the war progressed. Antiwar criticism dissuaded some potential recruits, but increased knowledge of conditions in Mexico did more to dampen enthusiasm. Said one young man:
No sir-ee! As long as I can work, beg, or go to the poor house, I won’t go to Mexico, to be lodged on the damp ground, half starved, half roasted, bitten by mosquetoes and centipedes, stung by scorpions and tarantulas—marched, drilled, and flogged, and then stuck up to be shot at, for eight dollars a month and putrid rations.
Compensating for the lack of quantity was the troops’ fighting quality, which resulted primarily from competent officers, especially West Pointers. Academy graduates did not dominate the regular Army high command but served brilliantly in the junior ranks as skillful troop instructors, combat leaders, and military engineers. Professionally educated officers also served with the volunteers. Many West Point graduates who had resigned received volunteer commissions, as did men who had attended the Academy but never graduated. Mexican War volunteers occasionally performed badly, but normally they fought as tenaciously as regulars, demonstrating anew what Scott had proved at Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane: that good leaders could quickly transform ordinary citizens into excellent soldiers.
No matter how brave and well led, troops need logistical support to fight effectively. Three staff departments shared logistics responsibility. The Ordnance Department provided weapons, the Subsistence Department rations, and the Quartermaster Department clothing, equipment, and transportation. No one (except staff officers) thought the supply bureaus worked efficiently. Polk believed staff officers had become too accustomed to easy living, displayed little energy but great extravagance, and were “Federalists.” He held numerous conferences with staff officers, maintaining that he and Secretary of War William L. Marcy had to “look after them, even in the performance of the ordinary routine details in their offices.” Taylor and Scott agreed with Polk about the staff’s incompetence. Both generals complained about inadequate logistical support, as did nearly every private. Suppliers joined in the critical chorus because staff officers sliced profit margins too thin.
Most of the complainants hindered rather than helped the supply bureaus. Polk, who wanted to conquer an enormous empire at small cost, followed a parsimonious policy that crippled procurement and transportation. Taylor was usually tardy in submitting requisitions, and Scott demanded more of everything no matter how much he already had. Wastefulness characterized the troops, and contractors engaged in unscrupulous price gouging, made doubly criminal by the shoddy goods they often supplied. In truth, logistical support excelled that of any previous war. Steamships and railroads helped make the logistical effort reasonably successful. Wherever possible the railroads moved supplies and troops to ports, and steamboats ferried them to Mexico. Although room for improvement existed, the bureaus performed creditably considering the vast distances and difficult geographic and climatic conditions.
Initial strategy, which Polk discussed with his cabinet and Scott, was obvious: blockade Mexico’s east coast and seize the provinces west and south of Texas, including Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, New Mexico, and California. Economic pressure and conquest, Polk hoped, would force Mexico to yield to his territorial demands. The Home Squadron, commanded by David Conner and his successor, Matthew C. Perry, conducted the blockade. From a strictly military viewpoint blockade duty was not dangerous, since the United States enjoyed unchallenged naval superiority. Not a single enemy warship entered the Gulf, and the privateering threat never materialized. Yet the duty was not easy. Men and ships were in short supply, scurvy struck many sailors, vicious northerly gales appeared between October and April, and yellow fever raged from April to October. Boredom reigned most of the time, except during infrequent moments when lookouts spotted a strange sail or when naval forces attacked enemy ports in an effort to make the blockade more effective. The Navy unsuccessfully assaulted Alvarado twice but captured Frontera and Tampico.
Taylor’s army invaded Nuevo Leon after occupying Matamoros without a fight. Old Rough and Ready’s objective was the capital of Monterrey, but he advanced slowly, not arriving there until September 19. Monterrey stood on high ground on the north bank of the Rio Santa Catarina, which effectively guarded its rear. To the west were two fortified hills. The citadel, an uncompleted cathedral surrounded by bastioned walls, protected the city from the north, and two smaller fortifications anchored the defenses on the east. The stone houses were loopholed, the streets barricaded, and General Pedro de Ampudia, who had replaced Arista, had 7,500 men and forty-two artillery pieces to defend the city.
Monterrey’s defenses would have given pause to a less resolute commander than Taylor, who had only 6,200 men and lacked proper siege guns. But Taylor, displaying serene confidence, ordered a daring double envelopment. He sent Colonel William J. Worth’s division around the city to the west; the army’s other two divisions would batter into Monterrey from the east. Aside from the problem of coordinating the two wings, Taylor’s plan invited defeat in detail. But the Mexican commander failed to grasp the opportunity, and between September 21 and 24 Taylor’s forces fought their way into the city. Ampudia and Taylor then signed an eight-week armistice, allowing the Mexican army to withdraw intact and giving the Americans Monterrey without further bloodshed.
When Polk learned of the armistice, he was irate. Had Taylor persevered, captured Ampudia’s army, and pushed farther into the country, “it would have probably ended the war with Mexico.” He obviously did not understand Taylor’s critical situation. The enemy army could not be captured without vicious street fighting and heavy casualties. Taylor’s army had already suffered more than 500 casualties and was tired and demoralized, barely capable of further combat. Ammunition was in short supply, and Taylor had no plans for restocking. In any event, convinced of Taylor’s ineptitude, Polk ordered the armistice abrogated. Old Rough and Ready wondered whether Polk was trying to discredit him for political reasons, but he followed the order and marched to Saltillo, the capital of Coahuila. Taylor had no desire to advance farther, since San Luis Potosí, the next potential target, was 300 miles to the south across rugged terrain.
In both New Mexico and California the pattern was one of conquest, revolt, and reconquest. Commanding the Army of the West, Stephen W. Kearny departed Fort Leavenworth in June, marched 850 miles in less than two months, and took Santa Fe without firing a shot. Kearny then continued westward with 300 men to aid in California’s conquest. En route he met Kit Carson, who reported that California was already in American hands. The conquest involved American settlers engaged in the Bear Flag Revolt, the navy’s Pacific Squadron, and John C. Fremont’s “exploring” party of sixty-two heavily armed men. Kearny sent most of his command back to Santa Fe and marched westward with a mere hundred men. Unbeknownst to Carson or Kearny, Californians loyal to Mexico revolted against the American conquerors in late September, as did loyal New Mexicans in mid-December. Kearny’s weary troopers arrived in California just in time to help Fremont and the Pacific Squadron quell the rebellion in late December and early January. Colonel Sterling Price, Kearny’s successor at Santa Fe, defeated the New Mexicans at Taos in early February 1847, ending their uprising. In neither province was American authority challenged again.
Meanwhile, two columns advanced on Chihuahua, the capital of Chihuahua Province. Commanding three volunteer regiments and a few regulars, John E. Wool departed San Antonio in late September, and Alexander W Doniphan’s 850-man 1st Missouri Mounted Volunteers left Valverde, New Mexico, in mid-December. Wool occupied Monclova, where he received reports that Chihuahua’s garrison had fled. Since he believed it made little sense to continue toward Chihuahua, Wool asked for and received permission to advance farther south. When Wool’s men eventually joined Old Rough and Ready in late December 1846, they had marched 900 miles and not fired a shot. Doniphan’s horsemen traveled more than twice as far and won two battles: El Brazito, just north of El Paso; and Rio Sacramento, fifteen miles from Chihuahua. Upon entering the city they found themselves isolated in a hostile community. Doniphan wrote Wool asking for instructions and received orders to join the main army. The Missourians reached Taylor in mid-May; thus they had missed the Battle of Buena Vista. Wool’s men had not been so lucky.
Buena Vista resulted from Polk’s new strategic approach. During the summer and fall of 1846 he received good news from the war zones. The blockade grew tighter, Taylor was deep into enemy territory, and initially New Mexico and California easily succumbed. Yet Mexico rebuffed peace initiatives. Successful on the battlefield, the initial strategy failed because it did not bring Mexico to terms. Polk and his advisers rethought their strategy and in October 1846 decided to capture Veracruz and send an expedition from there to Mexico City.
Designed to force Mexico to the negotiating table, the new strategy raised two difficult questions: Who should command the expedition, and where could the troops be found? The invasion of the enemy heartland would make the commander a war hero and a presidential prospect. Polk considered five men for the position. Congress prevented Democratic Senator Thomas H. Benton from being named the commander when it refused to establish the rank of lieutenant general. Major Generals Robert Patterson and William O. Butler were Democrats and thus potentially excellent choices; but Patterson was ineligible for the presidency because of foreign birth, and Polk did not know Butler very well. Taylor was a winning general, but the cabinet agreed with Polk “that he was unfit for the chief command, that he had not mind enough for the station, that he was a bitter political partisan and had no sympathies with the administration.” By process of elimination the command devolved on Scott, who at least would keep all the glory from Taylor.
Scott was an excellent choice. Since the war began he had argued that only a repetition of Cortes’s march to the Valley of Mexico would end the war. When the administration first contemplated the expedition, Scott wrote the planning papers detailing the military requirements and establishing the operation’s feasibility. He estimated that 4,000 regulars and 10,000 volunteers would be needed and insisted that the Veracruz assault had to take place before the yellow fever season began. Since little time remained to raise new regiments, Scott took more than half Taylor’s men, including almost all his regulars, and prudently ordered Old Rough and Ready to remain on the defensive. The expedition was a double blow to Taylor. Denied the opportunity to command it, he also lost most of his army. Polk and Scott, he fumed, had conspired to cut short his military career and deprive him of the 1848 Whig nomination.
A copy of Scott’s order listing the troops withdrawn from Taylor fell into enemy hands. Santa Anna, the new Mexican commander, decided to attack the weakened army at Saltillo; he massed an army at San Luis Potosí and trekked across the desert wastelands. Taylor did not believe Santa Anna would attempt such an arduous march, and to demonstrate his confidence he advanced to Agua Nueva, disobeying Scott’s defensive orders. By February 20 Santa Anna’s 15,000-man army reached Encarnacion, thirty-five miles from Taylor’s army. Major Ben McCulloch of the Texas Rangers infiltrated the Mexican encampment, accurately estimated enemy numbers, and hastened to Taylor with the bad news. Taylor immediately retreated from Agua Nueva to a strong defensive site just south of Buena Vista. He had only 4,500 men, almost 90 percent of them volunteers who had never been in battle.
On February 22 Santa Anna sent Taylor a message inviting him to surrender, since he could “not in any human probability avoid suffering a rout, and being cut to pieces.” When Taylor declined, the Mexicans attacked late in the afternoon and some inconclusive skirmishing resulted. Santa Anna renewed the attack early the next morning, and by nine o’clock the American situation was critical. Taylor assumed a conspicuous position near the center of the battlefield, while Bliss reconnoitered the deteriorating American lines. The battle, Bliss reported, was lost. “I know it,” replied Taylor, “but the volunteers don’t know it. Let them alone, we’ll see what they do.” What they did was fight like veteran regulars. Everywhere the Mexicans outflanked or staved in the defenses, but the volunteers repeatedly rallied, oftentimes behind regular artillery batteries that heroically supported the citizen-soldiers throughout the day. By nightfall Taylor’s army had not been routed, but it had been cut to pieces. About 14 percent of his men were dead, wounded, or missing. Although Mexican losses had been severe and Santa Anna retreated, Old Rough and Ready took little joy in the victory. “The great loss on both sides,” he wrote, “has deprived me of everything like pleasure.”
The day before Buena Vista began, Old Fuss and Feathers arrived at Lobos Island, staging area for the Veracruz assault. By early March enough troops, transports, and naval vessels had reached the island, and the expedition commenced. On March 9 Scott made the first major amphibious landing in American history, the troops going ashore in surfboats specially requested by Scott. The Mexicans did not contest the landing, and 10,000 troops came ashore without loss of life. In less than a week siege lines spanned the city’s landward side, while the Home Squadron maintained a sea blockade. Isolated and defended by only 4,500 men, Veracruz capitulated on March 29. The surrender was not a day too soon, as Scott expected the dreaded vomito (yellow fever) to strike soon. He had the bulk of his men heading inland on the national highway during early April.
Fifty miles from the coast the highway ran through a rocky defile at Cerro Gordo. Here Santa Anna, who had traveled a thousand miles and raised a new army since Buena Vista, established defenses manned by 12,000 soldiers. If he stopped the advance, the Yankees would have to remain in the vomito-ridden lowlands. For the Americans to attack the fortifications head-on would be bloody business. Captain Robert E. Lee found a path skirting the Mexican left flank, and on April 18 the Americans attacked it. After three hours of tough fighting the Mexicans fled, and the next day the Americans entered picturesque Jalapa above the yellow fever zone.
At Jalapa the enlistment of 3,700 twelve-month volunteers expired. Apparently without a qualm about leaving a depleted army deep inside enemy territory, they refused to reenlist and marched back to the transports at Veracruz. Scott now had only 7,100 men left, but he continued to Puebla, where he paused to await reinforcements. By early August he had 10,700 effectives, and the advance toward Mexico City began. Resolving “to render my little army a self-sustaining machine,” Scott abandoned his supply and communication lines, a sensible though risky solution to a difficult situation. Guerrillas infested the region between Veracruz and Puebla, and Scott did not have spare manpower to guard the road. Following the war from afar, the Duke of Wellington said that “Scott is lost. . . . He can’t take the city, and he can’t fall back upon his base.”
The indefatigable Santa Anna raised 30,000 men to defend the capital and built strong fortifications facing eastward, assuming Scott would attack along the road from Puebla. Scott reconnoitered the city’s various approaches and, as at Cerro Gordo, executed a flanking maneuver that promised success without an all-out battle. He avoided Santa Anna’s prepared defenses by assaulting Mexico City from the south. The Mexican commander rushed troops into new positions, resulting in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco. The Mexicans lost 10,000 men; Scott’s casualties were a tenth that many.
Having twice battered the enemy, Scott agreed to an armistice, believing Mexico would negotiate a favorable peace rather than allow the invaders into the capital. But Santa Anna used the cessation of hostilities to revitalize his shattered army. Realizing he had been duped, Scott renewed his offensive in September, defeating the Mexicans at Molino del Rey and Chapultepec. Molino del Rey was particularly costly for Scott, who had received reports that it contained a cannon foundry. Contrary to his normal flanking tactics, he ordered a headlong assault by Worth’s division. Two hours and 781 casualties later, Worth captured Molino del Rey only to learn that Scott’s intelligence about a cannon foundry was erroneous. Chapultepec fell after an artillery bombardment on September 12 and a well-planned hour-long attack on the 13th. Seeing the American flag flying over Chapultepec, Santa Anna exclaimed that “if we were to plant our batteries in Hell the damned Yankees would take them from us.” Meanwhile, American troops rushed down two narrow causeways toward Mexico City and captured the Belen and San Cosme Garitas (gates), thereby gaining access to the city. The next day Scott’s army, numbering fewer than 7,000 effectives, occupied the Mexican capital.
When Wellington learned of Scott’s victory, he declared that the American commander was “the greatest living soldier” and urged young English officers to study the Veracruz–Mexico City campaign, which he considered “unsurpassed in military annals.” Old Fuss and Feathers deserved the praise, having brilliantly conducted an audacious campaign. Yet, like Taylor’s victories, Scott’s expedition did not result in immediate peace. Mexican national pride made it difficult to accept defeat, and political turmoil frustrated the government’s decision-making process. The growing American antiwar movement also indicated that continued resistance might secure more favorable terms. Intense guerrilla warfare, the traditional recourse for a nation with limited conventional military power, involved the occupation forces in constant patrolling and numerous clashes.
With its armies defeated in every battle, its northern provinces conquered, and its capital occupied, Mexico’s refusal to negotiate frustrated Polk and his supporters. As the war’s toll in blood and treasure had increased, Polk believed the United States should take as an indemnity more territory than he originally demanded. Some Democrats even demanded “All Mexico.” In April 1847 Polk had dispatched the State Department’s chief clerk, Nicholas E Trist, to accompany Scott’s army with an offer to the Mexican government to negotiate. Trist’s instructions embodied Polk’s original territorial goals. By October 1847 the president not only wanted more land but also believed Trist had performed badly and, even worse, had become Scott’s political ally. Polk recalled Trist, but the diplomat refused to obey. On February 2, 1848, Trist signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which he negotiated on the basis of his original instructions. Under the treaty’s provisions the United States would pay Mexico $15 million and assume the damage claims of its own citizens against Mexico totaling $3.25 million. In return Mexico would recognize the Rio Grande boundary and cede New Mexico and California.
Few people liked the treaty. Polk was appalled that Trist had ignored his recall, avid expansionists believed the United States would gain too little territory, and war opponents thought the country had taken too much land. Yet on March 10 the Senate ratified the treaty. “The desire for peace, and not the approbation of its terms,” wrote Calhoun, “induces the Senate to yield its consent.” Direct war costs amounted to $58 million, plus the money paid under the treaty’s terms. The human price was also high: American deaths were approximately 14,700. As usual, disease and accidents, not bullets and bayonets, were the big killers: Only 1,733 men were killed in action or died of wounds.
Like most wars, the conflict with Mexico yielded glaring ironies. Polk, the staunch Democratic partisan, waged war both militarily and politically. In military terms he was spectacularly successful against Mexico, but he lost the political battle against popular Whig generals. In 1848 the Whigs nominated for the presidency Old Rough and Ready, who led them to victory. More fundamentally, the vast territorial expansion of America’s western empire precipitated the Civil War. Although historians do not agree on all the war’s fundamental causes, few deny that the immediate question of whether the newly acquired land would be slave or free played a significant role in shattering the nation. Manifest Destiny had made disunity manifest.