A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair
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A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair

Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War

Paul Foos

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eBook - ePub

A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair

Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War

Paul Foos

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The Mexican-American War (1846-48) found Americans on new terrain. A republic founded on the principle of armed defense of freedom was now going to war on behalf of Manifest Destiny, seeking to conquer an unfamiliar nation and people. Through an examination of rank-and-file soldiers, Paul Foos sheds new light on the war and its effect on attitudes toward other races and nationalities that stood in the way of American expansionism. Drawing on wartime diaries and letters not previously examined by scholars, Foos shows that the experience of soldiers in the war differed radically from the positive, patriotic image trumpeted by political and military leaders seeking recruits for a volunteer army. Promised access to land, economic opportunity, and political equality, the enlistees instead found themselves subjected to unusually harsh discipline and harrowing battle conditions. As a result, some soldiers adapted the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny to their own purposes, taking for themselves what had been promised, often by looting the Mexican countryside or committing racial and sexual atrocities. Others deserted the army to fight for the enemy or seek employment in the West. These acts, Foos argues, along with the government's tacit acceptance of them, translated into a more violent, damaging variety of Manifest Destiny.

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The Regular Army and Antebellum Labor: SERVICE AND SERVITUDE
The regular army—that is, the United States Army—bore the brunt of the Mexican War fighting and also, as an institution that many Americans mistrusted, received more than its share of criticism; journalists and politicians reserved most of their praise for volunteer soldiers. Republican tradition saw regular army soldiers as excessively servile, an institutional anomaly in a democratic society. Going beyond the rhetoric, it is essential to examine how the regular army functioned during the Mexican War era, and how the army both reflected, and was an integral part of, the labor system of antebellum America. Individuals and social practices passed in and out of military life during wartime and peacetime; the regular army retained archaic forced labor conditions but also was an innovator in modern management and organization techniques. This chapter examines the situation of laboring Americans in the 1840s and shows how the U.S. Army was an integral part of that society.
The most striking feature of military life in the Mexican War was the sharp distinction between regular and volunteer organizations. It was not so much that they were composed of different men; in fact, as the Mexican War progressed over its relatively short span, the two branches of service came to resemble each other in significant ways. The self-conception of the soldiers and the differing standards of discipline marked the two branches as distinct. Regular army officers were notoriously quick to resort to the lash or other humiliating physical punishments against miscreant soldiers. In the volunteer regiments, soldiers elected their officers, and expected to be treated as citizens, if not heroes. The politicians who launched the Mexican War celebrated the volunteer soldier as the bulwark of national policy, but the despised regulars were the chief instrument of those same politicians in launching and prosecuting the Mexican War.

Wage Labor in the Antebellum Period

Employment-at-will was as yet an emerging concept in the 1840s, and wage work was often synonymous with binding contracts for a year or six months. This sort of arrangement was prevalent in textile factories and for agricultural laborers. In the textile mills of southern New England, increasing production and high demand for labor led to greater mobility among operatives and a tendency for employers to forgive workers’ breaking of contracts. These workers came from a variety of rural, urban, and immigrant backgrounds, and their skills were in demand by both small and large manufacturers. The late 1840s and early 1850s were a transitional time for textile labor. The millowners built their fortunes upon the labor of rural New En-glanders, the mill “girls” of Lowell and, in “Slater” type mills, entire families from neighboring farm communities. There had always been a significant component of immigrant labor, particularly skilled operatives from the British Isles, but in the late 1840s booming immigration transformed the demographics of the mill population.1
While archaic forms of bound labor—except slavery—were fading away in the 1840s, manufacturers and employees negotiated newer forms of wage labor in the American workplace. In the antebellum era wage earners became a large segment of society, and their legal and economic rights the subject of great contention. Important Whig thinkers, notably Abraham Lincoln, viewed wage labor as a temporary station for free laborers: in a free economy, according to Lincoln, opportunities for economic self-sufficiency were available to all.2 In the 1840s this opportunity was limited for lower-class natives and immigrants. A mobile and restless laboring class moved from construction and mining, to manufacturing work, farm labor, and, sometimes, military service. Some native-born Americans also drifted into wage work, to supplement family farms, or as a result of failed artisan and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Immigration softened up the labor market, and helped textile capitalists fend off worker demands for a ten-hour day and an end to speed ups and wage cuts. The Irish who poured into the New England mills were not necessarily docile employees: militant strikes and political demonstrations continued through the 1850s.3 But the growing association of immigrant and waged status acted to stigmatize labor in the minds of natives, creating further divisions among workers.
Large capital projects like railroads and canals also had a work force saturated with immigrant labor. Natives began to shun this type of work in the 1830s; wages and working conditions deteriorated despite militant strikes and organization. Large canal projects in the first half of the nineteenth century, enjoying a surfeit of laborers, treated them as waged servants. The canals were typically joint private-state projects, with funding coming from contractors, investors, and state bonds. Like regular soldiers, common laborers on canals and railroads were increasingly isolated from native, middling society. The historian Peter Way observes that “republican freemen soon lost their appetite for canalling, making it one of the first truly lumpen proletarian professions in North America.” Centers of mining, canal, and railroad labor, like military camps, were set apart from the rest of society and tended toward internal conflicts; except in cases of strikes they were isolated from friendly or unfriendly encounters with the rest of society. Canal workers’ daily lives were consumed with backbreaking labor, drinking, and the rough-and-tumble sociability of the camps.4
By the 1840s as canal investment and construction fell off dramatically, lower profits for contractors prompted a new system of subcontracting, in which contractors extracted their profits in advance and the subcontractors drove the workers ever harder to squeeze marginal returns from their labor. The scarcity of work in the depression years after 1837 meant that benefits like free food or whiskey were eliminated. On the Illinois and Michigan canal, wages dropped from forty dollars a month in 1836 to sixteen dollars in 1843. This was barely double the wage of the common soldier and included fewer extra compensations. Employers broke a strike on the I&M in 1847, and many workers drifted off to farm labor. These sort of floating laborers were also prime candidates for military recruiters.5
Although the regular army and canal labor drew from the same desperate and despised labor force, the evolution of group action, through strikes, during the 1830s and 1840s on canal projects smashed the kind of paternalism and individual coercion that persisted in the regular military. Gone were the head shavings and corporal punishment on the diggings; but canal laborers lost wages, benefits, and control over their work environment; the soldiers’ lot remained servile, with continued personal degradation, but some guarantees of income and sustenance. While manufacturing workers and, increasingly, laborers rejected the designation “servant,” the regular soldier found himself mired in servitude.6 His officers routinely called on him to act as valet or manservant.
The Mexican War brought into conflict various theories on how a republican military should compose and comport itself, and in that instance the regular army with all its archaic customs was superior for the task of fighting the war but inferior for creating a broad political coalition around the war.
Some critics of the Mexican War advocated an end to military servility along with an end to slavery. Abolitionists and peace advocates championed free labor, not necessarily on terms of full equality but with the elimination of vile relics like flogging. The lash was the crowning symbol of servility, and its use upon whites in civil society was disgusting to those who both advocated and opposed slavery.7
In 1843 Congressman (later Senator) John Hale put forward legislation calling for the abolition of flogging in the navy, but it was rejected by the House. Hale labored against significant opposition from the navy and politicians for the next seven years. Hale and other antiflogging advocates argued that American citizens should not be subjected to the lash: the opposing camp retorted that most sailors were recent immigrants and thus not capable of appreciating democratic society. An antiflogging bill passed Congress narrowly in 1850. Herman Melville’s White Jacket, a fictional narrative of service in the U.S. Navy, was published the same year and included fifty pages of condemnation of the lash. Popular sentiment against corporal punishment had reached a peak in the North, where it was also under attack or defunct in factories, farms, and prisons.8 Flogging in the army remained legal until 1861 and seems to have fallen drastically out of favor in the Civil War, despite the persistence of other brutal punishments, such as bucking and gagging.9
William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery paper, the Liberator, commented on reports of Massachusetts officers flogging volunteer soldiers during the Mexican War. An editorial dismissed the indignation of the Boston press over the flogging incidents as hypocritical: “Flogging is as essential to the discipline of an army, as to that of a plantation. And it is as absurd for people who hold to armies and to fighting, to find fault with military flogging as it is for those who justify Slavery, to make wry faces about slave-flogging.” Furthermore, said the Liberator, it was quite logical to impose slave-driving methods when the army was “in the field for the purpose of extending the domain of the whip-power.”10
Political spokesmen with a working-class and immigrant constituency were more likely than abolitionists to offer principled objections to corporal punishment. Democratic editor Walt Whitman commented on an incident in 1846, in which a sea captain flogged a German immigrant for some refractory conduct on shipboard, “as if he were a seaman.” The German sued with the help of an emigrant society and won damages from the captain. Americans despised tyranny in social relations, whether they blamed the rapacity of the tyrant or the servility of the oppressed. Clearly, public indignation seized upon these cases of corporal discipline of free individuals, not voluntarily bound to any sort of labor contract, while the lot of seamen, laborers, and soldiers was a more ambiguous one, deplorable, but perhaps necessary, and involving some degree of consent. Immigration and unruly masses in the cities spurred class violence as urban police forces routinely inflicted beatings for “disorderly conduct.”11
Manufacturing operatives and laborers were subject less and less to punitive violence in the workplace in this period; with a swelling labor supply, however, work rules and industrial discipline, the brutality of foremen and overseers, and dangerous, unhealthy work conditions all served to impose increasing degrees of violence on the working classes, albeit not administered with the unrepublican means of flogging.12 In the regular army, soldiers were precluded from organizing to better their lot: individual desertion remained the most common means of redress for soldiers, and the quest for more independent, better-paid employment the incentive for desertion.

Corpus Christi, 1845: The Regular Army to the Front

In June 1845 about 4,000 regular army soldiers under General Zachary Taylor landed near Corpus Christi, Texas. President Polk ordered them to this position to back up the newly annexed state’s tenuous claims to the territory between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River. These troops remained in this inhospitable location until March 1846, when they moved forward to the bank of the Rio Grande, across from the Mexican town of Matamoros. In that month, skirmishes with Mexican troops, in the disputed region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, gave President Polk the pretext for declaring war. “American blood” had been shed on “American soil.” By the time of these fateful skirmishes Polk had already sent a military expedition overland to California and instituted a naval blockade of the Rio Grande.13 The small group of regulars in South Texas was the first wave of an invading army that would eventually include 90,000 men, as many as 43,000 of whom were in service at one given time.
During the months before the declaration of war Taylor’s regular soldiers experienced extremes of hardship and disease. Dysentery and fevers raged through the camp until one-sixth of the men were on sick report, and about one-half suffered from some degree of infirmity. The tents provided by the Quartermaster’s Corps were worn and rotten and had been condemned by a board of survey. The border region suffered from frequent “northers,” fierce storms that could drop the temperature from ninety degrees to below freezing in a matter of hours. The men slept in mud and cold water, the quartermaster having neglected to provide floors for the tents.14
Corpus Christi at this time was composed mainly of the ranch of Henry L. Kinney. In 1845 the ranch was a major trade depot surrounded by fortified works and manned by a private army. “Colonel” Kinney and his partner, a Mr. Aubrey, were the beneficiaries of a vast trade; they brought in huge droves of horses and mules laden with Mexican “saddles and bridles, Mexican blankets and silver, and in return take back the common unbleached [cotton goods] and tobacco.” Mexican teamsters took care of transporting these goods back and forth across the border. A Texas Ranger estimated the value of trade passing through Corpus Christi to be $2 million in 1848.15
When the troops arrived the ranch was “as quiet and peaceful as a village in New England.” But soon hordes of liquor sellers, gamblers, prostitutes, pimps, “all the cut-throats, thieves and murderers of the United States and Texas” congregated in an improvised shantytown around Kinney’s ranch. These professional camp followers robbed, assaulted, and murdered soldiers, and General Taylor was unable to do much to disperse them, it being a point of military law that civilian crimes be handled by a civil authority. The soldiers, too, were constrained from taking vengeance against the camp followers, by the disciplinary strictures of their service.16
It should be noted, however, that in another instance, a few years after the Mexican War, when residents of a Texas border town pursued a campaign of harassment against U.S. soldiers, the soldiers retaliated clandestinely. After breaking up a filibustering ring in Rio Grande City, U.S. soldiers faced beatings and reprisals from citizens.17
A correspondent in the town reported that this “was something that they were not disposed to submit to; so about a dozen of them, without the knowledge of their officers, provided themselves with good stout shillalahs, walked into town,” attacked the responsible parties, “and ran them completely out of town.”18
Whether or not the regulars at Corpus Christi retaliated against their persecutors, their officers praised the good order of the troops, under the difficult circumstances. However, hard times in the camp persisted and a small but steady flow of desertions continued in the prewar months. The men suffered from a lack of wood for fires, and there were no beasts of burden or carts with which to gather wood. The sparse grasslands provided little but mesquite in any event, and gathering wood was a time-consuming and exhausting chore. In addition, mounted troops were provided with no fodder for their horses, and so they were ordered to cut their own from the surrounding dry scrub. The recruits “neglected drill and training to attack the prairie with scythes.”19
For regulars the Mexican War was quite literally a “waged” war: unfortunately the service offered very little of wages or honor; the wages, in fact, were the same as those paid to volunteers. Infantry privates were paid $7.00 a month plus $3.50 for clothing, and with bread and other staples provided. During the Mexican War paymasters were often abysmally tardy in reaching the troops, though the regulations of the service required soldiers to be paid at least every two months.20 In the interim a network of sutlers extended credit to enlisted men, and they charged generally twice the market rate. Sutlers were independent merchants, sometimes former soldiers, who followed...

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