Mexican War and the Austrian Succession War

The two nations that wrestled in the Mexican War were both ill prepared and ill-equipped to fight.   The United States, whose population largely did not expect a war with the Mexicans almost immediately following the independence struggle in Texas, naturally did not arm its soldiers.    Though Congress voted to declare war in an overwhelming majority, it did not readily act to enlarge the army or navy until after the declaration.   Indeed, there were less than 10,000 troops on any of the few expeditions launched by the government in Mexican territory.

If the United States was not prepared for a struggle with the Mexicans, the latter was less than suited for the conflict.   At the time, Mexico was languishing under the on-again, off-again rule by the war hero and tyrant Santa Anna.   He had fought against the Texans, lost and was ejected by an angry mob, leaving only a general or another to stand in his place.  When the latter became unpopular, Santa Anna would return and rule Mexico anew.  Prior to the Mexican War, the dictator was again toppled by mutinous soldiers, a General Paredes, and his own capital, Mexico City.   When the Mexican government did declare war against the United States, several factions throughout the country “declared” themselves against the government.  In the midst of this, Santa Anna was called in again to take the reins.

Thus it was that the Mexican War utilized a small number of troops, and its subsequent major engagements involved less than 5,000 troops at any one time.   The objectives of the Americans, at the outbreak of the War had been to force the annexation of California and resolve the border dispute between it and Mexico.   These were the initial goals, and it was only out of sheer paralysis in Mexican politics that the war was dragged on and led to the long American march to Mexico.

This was not at all different from any of the wars fought among the major powers of the 17th and 18th century for dynastic succession, particularly the Austrian Succession.   In idea it was the challenge of the succession of Maria Theresa as Empress of Austria.  In practice, it was primarily the Prussian goal of seizing the Austrian province of Silesia.  Dynastic wars like this were limited to regions of conflict, and were soon ended once an army of one power had been decisively defeated, or had reached their objectives.   Oftentimes, allies would agree to a separate peace with their enemies, and the war would only be prosecuted to its totality if the sovereignty of one nation were endangered.

At the outbreak of war the Mexicans had 20,000 men on the roles, and 24,000 officers.  Most were not even prepared to go to war, and were hundreds of miles away from the fighting. The subsequent American punitive expeditions in California were reminiscent of the engagements between Prussia and Austria during the Austrian Succession.  Much of the initial fighting in that war occurred in Silesia, and gradually spread, but was mostly limited to the southern German territories.

The fighting in California was mostly between armies in the mere hundreds; the decisive battles of Rio San Gabriel, and La Mesa were fought off between Americans in the hundreds and native Californians with less than that number.   In the former, the Californian artillery failed them, and in the latter the Californians had mere cavalry lancers to the American rifles.

The fighting, meanwhile, in Northeastern Mexico, and on the road to Mexico itself, was harder fought.   Zachary Taylor fought a hard-fought, stalemate in the city of Monterrey, where the able Mexican commander General Pedro de Ampudia held off 2,638 American troops to his 3,140, for two days with great losses.   Eventually the fighting degenerated to the city streets, and Taylor, rather than have to go through the effort of a protracted battle against the enemy, agreed to an armistice with the Mexicans.   The general soon broke this agreement, and resumed the march to Mexico.

The rampant demoralization of Mexico made the American campaign easier, as the Mexican military command was disjointed, and divided.    Like Maria Theresa going off herself into the field of battle, Santa Anna, after being forced out of exile by his government, promptly took its reins, levied 16,000 troops by sheer will, and marched off to meet Taylor himself in Buenavista.   When General Taylor finally faced the Mexican army, in the Battle of Buena Vista, 4,000 of Santa Anna’s troops had died of hunger, disease and desertion.

They were exhausted when they faced the enemy.   Nevertheless, through the discipline of the ranks, the Mexican forces had at one point outflanked and near to routing the enemy, but for the timely reprieve of American artillery that drove the Mexican chargers off.    Defeated, Santa Anna was forced to march humiliatingly all the way back to Mexico City.

These were the only major battles in the war that involved armies of thousands, and they were concentrated on the cities and employed siege warfare.   The battles that were fought before that time were greatly smaller in scale as to the battles fought between the Austrians and the Prussians in Silesia, or the Austrians against the Prussian ally in Bavaria. Like the Austrian Succession War, however, these Mexican-American engagements involved sweeping cavalry attacks.   The necessity of battle would compare Santa Anna with the despairing Queen of Austria, but the tactics he wielded were reminiscent of the Prussian Frederick.

California having been occupied by the Americans, and Santa Anna having been defeated, the Americans would have assumed the Mexicans would sue for peace.   Indeed, Mexico fragmented yet again upon news of the defeat.   However, like Maria Theresa before him, who faced the Prussians alone and with no European ally left both during and after the First Silesian War (which was part of the Succession War), Santa Anna and his government refused to make peace, forcing the sending of another American expedition this time to force peace upon the capital.

This was the army of General Winfield Scott, opening the campaign by an ambitious amphibious assault on the city of Vera Cruz.   Following the city’s surrender after a violent trade-off of artillery fire, Scott marched off to Cerro Gordo, where Santa Anna with a force of 12,000 men prepared to ambush them.   A forward regiment of the American commander discovered the hidden location, and Scott moved away from the line of ambush and outflanked the enemy, killing 1000 to 3000.

The dynastic, limited wars of Europe were prone to disunity in command.   France and Prussia had been united in an alliance against Austria, in the second phase of the war; when Prussian troops had been used to siphon off the Austrian invasion in France, the latter country’s army refused to aid their allies.   So, too, in the course of the American campaign leading to the capture of Mexico City, General Gabriel Valencia, who held numerical superiority over the Americans, was ordered to withdraw just as the Battle in Contreras was already set.  Santa Anna promptly left the general and his army to be sizably crushed by the Americans.   The subsequent battle of Chapultepec where a greatly outnumbered enemy force was abandoned by Santa Anna.

Finally, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded almost half of Mexico to the Americans.   Like Austria acceding to the Silesian loss, Mexico resigned to the loss of Texas.   Unlike the Austrian War, however, they also lost the California territory, as well as land that would comprise New Mexico.   It was a limited, set-piece campaign by the Americans, though it was not the first in the latter’s history.  The lack of discipline and unity of command of the armies of 17th and 18th century Europe haunted the Mexican army; Santa Anna acted more of a mercenary than a general.

Had he prosecuted the war more competently, he would at least have forced better concessions from the Americans, for at the time of Buena Vista, most of California had already been lost.   The Mexican general could at least have fought battles that would have shaped the terms on the bargaining table.  As it was, brilliant though he might have been, Santa Anna lacked the fiber of integrity that Maria Theresa had.

Ritchie, D. A.  & Altoff A. & Wilson, Dr. R.   (1985).  Heritage of Freedom: History of the United States.  New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Simpson, L.B.  (1966).  Many Mexicos.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Durant, W. (1965).  The Age of Voltaire.  New York: Mahony & Roese.

Mexican-American War. (n.d.) Retrieved April 9, 2008 from Wikipedia.



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