World Defense Review


Published 13 May 06
[Originally published in The State, 13 May 06]

W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Beyond the DropZone

W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Echoes of the 19th century's forgotten conflict

On May 13, 1846 exactly 160 years ago the U.S. declared war on Mexico. It was a declaration that put the official seal on the fighting that already had been taking place since U.S. and Mexican forces first clashed on the Rio Grande a few weeks prior. It would continue for the next two years.

War with Mexico was inevitable an outgrowth of America's "Manifest Destiny" policy of expansion and would impact the North American continent in ways felt even today.

Friction had existed since Texas was welcomed into the Union in 1845, and actually long before that. Having established itself as a sovereign republic ten years earlier, Texas had defeated Mexico in a war of independence. But the Mexican government, viewing Texas as a Mexican province, refused to recognize Texas sovereignty. Thus, when the Lone Star republic became the Lone Star state, Mexico perceived that as an act of war by the U.S.

In early 1846, Pres. James K. Polk dispatched an expeditionary force to the border hoping to provoke hostilities. It worked.

In April, Mexico declared war. The American Army won two back-to-back victories. The U.S. formally declared war in May, and after a series of very bloody battles Mexico was defeated in 1848.

America's victory resulted in the vast acquisition of new U.S. territories stretching to the Pacific: A bone of contention for some Mexicans (and other Hispanics) in the current immigration reform debate.

Yet for many Americans, the Mexican War is a forgotten struggle: vastly overshadowed by the American Civil War that would erupt less than 15 years later. So it is not surprising that many South Carolinians whose ancestors were directly impacted by the Civil War might find it difficult to embrace the significance of the Mexican War. Not to mention the fact that the Mexican border is well over 1,000 miles from anywhere in South Carolina

Still the war has had tremendous impact on both our nation and state.

Consider the following:

When Congress granted the declaration of war back in 1846, it called for the raising of regiments for the U.S. Army, one of which was S.C.'s famed Palmetto Regiment.

The following year, after heavy fighting at such places as Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo and Churubusco where Col. Pierce Mason Butler, the regimental commander was killed the Carolinians were among the lead elements storming Chapultapec Castle: The Halls of Montezuma. With them were U.S. Marines (who earned their famous trouser "blood stripes" and the first-five words of their now-familiar hymn) and a handful of future Civil War commanders like George Pickett and Ulysses S. Grant. Other Civil War officers who cut their teeth in the Mexican War, included Robert E. Lee, Winfield Scott Hancock, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, George Meade, James Longstreet (born in S.C.), and South Carolinians Barnard Bee, Richard Anderson, D.H. Hill, Arthur Manigault, and Joseph B. Kershaw.

The war also produced a number of American firsts, including the first large-scale amphibious operation (Vera Cruz) and the first major invasion of a foreign country.

Then there is the issue of territory. Mexico lost, and lost big; about half of what it claimed was its country after achieving its own independence from Spain in 1821. The U.S. gained territories, which, in addition to Texas, would ultimately become the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. This has given rise to the 2006 immigration protest chant, "We didn't cross the border. The border crossed us."

True, in the sense that Mexico's economy suffered with the loss of its more productive northern territories. But if the borders had actually crossed the ancestral lands of those who are today protesting, the protesters would already be American citizens, as would their parents, grandparents and a few generations of their great-grandparents.

Nevertheless, on this anniversary of America's declaration of war against Mexico, what we should see as the important particulars are not so much who landed where or stormed what, but why the war is one of the most important conflicts in our history, who won, who lost, and why today some 24-million Mexican-Americans and Mexicans living in the U.S. (about 53,000 in S.C.) might not be too happy about it.

W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at

© 2006 W. Thomas Smith Jr.

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