Category Archives: Mexico

A British Colonel in Matamoros, 1863

From Three Months in the Southern States, April-June 1863, by Arthur James Lyon Fremantle (Golden Springs, 2014), Kindle pp. 8-10:

Brownsville is a straggling town of about 3000 inhabitants; most of its houses are wooden ones, and its streets are long, broad, and straight. There are about 4000 troops under General Bee in its immediate vicinity. Its prosperity was much injured when Matamoros was declared a free port.

After crossing the Rio Grande, a wide dusty road, about a mile in length, leads to Matamoros, which is a Mexican city of about 9000 inhabitants. Its houses are not much better than those at Brownsville, and they bear many marks of the numerous revolutions which are continually taking place there. Even the British Consulate is riddled with the bullets fired in 1861-2.

The Mexicans look very much like their Indian forefathers, their faces being extremely dark, and their hair black and straight. They wear hats with the most enormous brims, and delight in covering their jackets and leather breeches with embroidery.

Some of the women are rather good-looking, but they plaster their heads with grease, and paint their faces too much. Their dress is rather like the Andalucian. When I went to the cathedral, I found it crammed with kneeling women; an effigy of our Saviour was being taken down from the cross and put into a golden coffin, the priest haranguing all the time about His sufferings, and all the women howling most dismally as if they were being beaten.

Matamoros … suffers much from drought, and there had been no rain to speak of for eleven months.

I am told that it is a common thing in Mexico for the diligence to arrive at its destination with the blinds down. This is a sure sign that the travellers, both male and female, have been stripped by robbers nearly to the skin. A certain quantity of clothing is then, as a matter of course, thrown in at the window, to enable them to descend. Mr Behnsen and Mr Maloney told me they had seen this happen several times; and Mr Oetling declared that he himself, with three ladies, arrived at the city of Mexico in this predicament.

4th April (Saturday).—I crossed the river at 9 a.m., and got a carriage at the Mexican side to take my baggage and myself to the Consulate at Matamoros. The driver ill-treated his half-starved animals most cruelly. The Mexicans are even worse than the Spaniards in this respect.

I called on Mr Oetling, the Prussian Consul, who is one of the richest and most prosperous merchants in Matamoros, and a very nice fellow.

After dinner we went to a fandango, or open-air fête. About 1500 people were gambling, and dancing bad imitations of European dances.

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What the War on Mexico Taught Grant

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 49-51:

THE MEXICAN WAR did more than just educate Grant in strategy and tactics, it also tutored him in the manifold ways wars are shot through with political calculations. “The Mexican war was a political war,” he would observe, “and the administration conducting it desired to make party capital out of it.” Monterrey’s fall made Zachary Taylor the darling of the Whig press. When this was followed by Whig victories in the November elections, giving the opposition party control of both houses of Congress, President Polk grew leery of Taylor as a Whig rival for president. In a Machiavellian maneuver, he decided to divest Taylor of most of his troops and replace him with Winfield Scott, a Whig lacking Taylor’s brand of popular charisma.

In high-handed fashion, Polk dispatched Scott to Texas without notifying Taylor of what was afoot. When Scott arrived in Point Isabel after Christmas, he informed Taylor by letter that he had taken over the Army of Invasion and was radically revamping the war strategy. …

Grant was with Taylor when he received the shocking news of his demotion and never forgot his hero’s befuddled reaction. … This early experience made Grant tend to view war as a hard-luck saga of talented, professional soldiers betrayed by political opportunists plotting back in Washington.

Between the founding era of the Republic and the Civil War, no figure embodied the American military more splendidly than Winfield Scott, who was promoted to brevet major general by the War of 1812. Straddling two eras, he would serve under presidents as far apart as James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. Mocked as “Old Fuss and Feathers” behind his back, he had never seen a parade ground he didn’t long to tread or a uniform he didn’t wish to wear. With his enormous height, wavy hair, and ample flesh, he loved to flash medals, flaunt plumed hats, and preen before mirrors, a vanity that made him susceptible to flattery. Grant noted how Scott sent word ahead to commanders of the precise hour he planned to arrive. “This was done so that all the army might be under arms to salute their chief as he passed. On these occasions he wore his dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguilletes, sabre and spurs.” Such vainglory was so alien to Grant that it is sometimes hard to say whether he modeled himself after Zachary Taylor or in opposition to Winfield Scott.

For all that, Grant credited Scott with a brilliantly resourceful mind and strategic daring. To travel from Veracruz to the capital, an army of twelve thousand would quit a secure supply base, traverse 250 miles of mountainous terrain, then face a much larger and well-fortified enemy in a populous capital. To do this, Scott assembled a first-rate team of bright junior officers, including Pierre G. T. Beauregard and George B. McClellan and a rising star on the engineering staff, Robert E. Lee. Throw in a host of other officers who later reappeared in the Civil War—Joseph Johnston, John Pemberton, James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph Hooker, George Thomas, Braxton Bragg, and George Gordon Meade—and the Mexican War seemed a dress rehearsal for the later conflict. With a retentive memory for faces and events, Grant accumulated a detailed inventory of knowledge about these varied men that he drew on later.

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Wild Young Geronimo

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 7351-7381:

MANY YEARS after the Apache Wars were over, Chatto, who was a rising Chokonen leader in the early 1880s, would declare, “I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him.” The daughter of the Chokonen chief Naiche agreed. “Geronimo was not a great man at all. I never heard any good of him. People never say he [did] good.” A reliable interpreter and licensed trader who lived on good terms with the Chiricahuas for two decades said they distrusted and feared Geronimo, especially when he was inebriated. Once while hopelessly drunk, he berated a nephew, “for no reason at all,” so severely that the young man committed suicide. After sobering up, a shamed Geronimo packed up his family and bolted from the reservation for several months.

Army officers otherwise sympathetic to the Apaches detested Geronimo. Lieutenant Bourke found him “a depraved rascal whose neck I should like to stretch.” He was a “thoroughly vicious, intractable, and treacherous man,” agreed Lieutenant Britton Davis, who would come to know him all too well. “His only redeeming traits were courage and determination.”

And “power,” Davis might have added, had he understood the concept. What the whites dismissed as superstition was quite real to the Chiricahuas. That Geronimo possessed mystic attributes uniquely valuable in raids and war, few Apaches doubted. Rifles were said to jam or misfire when aimed at him. Some warriors thought the mere act of riding with Geronimo would render them impervious to bullets, a belief this consummate troublemaker heartily encouraged. Many Chiricahuas also attributed to him the gift of divination. Others thought him able to make it rain or to prevent the sun from rising. Geronimo also enjoyed a reputation as a master herbalist and surgeon. Despite his supposed powers, he was too strongly disliked to ever become a chief. His baleful countenance, locked in a perpetual scowl, probably didn’t help. All told, Geronimo’s personal following never exceeded thirty warriors.

The minatory shaman of the Bedonkohe band was born Goyahkla, meaning “He Who Yawns,” in 1829. Because he was saddled with such a singularly uninspiring name, it is little wonder he assumed the name Geronimo, which the Mexicans had bestowed on him. The Spanish equivalent of Jerome, it lacked the verve of Victorio but certainly was a better name than Goyahkla. Unlike Victorio, Geronimo felt no compelling ties to the place of his birth. He fought not to defend a homeland but to avenge the murder of his mother, first wife, and children by Mexican soldiers and because he enjoyed taking lives. “I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many. Some of them were not worth counting,” he said shortly before his death. If he were young again, Geronimo added, “and followed the warpath, it would lead into Old Mexico.”

Geronimo’s forays into Mexico often led him to the Sierra Madre, home to the Nednhi Chiricahua band of Chief Juh, one of his few real friends. Although a better war leader than Geronimo, Juh lacked the shaman’s gift for oratory. When excited, particularly in battle, Juh stuttered so badly that he had to use hand signals to communicate or rely on Geronimo to make his intentions known. Both men were wary of Americans. Juh had had little contact with them; he was naturally suspicious of everyone. Geronimo’s distrust derived from personal experience—first the murderous betrayal of Mangas Coloradas in 1863, and then his own humiliating arrest at Ojo Caliente and lockup at San Carlos by Agent John Clum in 1877.

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Gen. Kearny, Frontier Diplomat

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 551-568:

Kearny perceived, with a clarity rare among frontier soldiers of his generation, that alcohol was destroying the American Indian. Everywhere he went on the prairies, in his summits with the Plains tribes, he made “firewater” one of his central themes. “You have many enemies about you but this is the greatest of them all,” he once said in council with the Sioux. “Open your ears now and listen to me. Whenever you find it in your country, spill it all upon the ground. The earth may drink it without injury but you cannot.”

Kearny’s experience with Plains Indians was vast and yet, so rare in the brutal history of the West, his encounters were happily uneventful. Among the Plains tribes he was known as Shonga Kahega Mahetonga, Horse Chief of the Long Knives. He’d dealt with the Crows, the Blackfeet, the Chippewa, the Mandan, the Pawnee, the Winnebagos, the Potawatomi, the Sac and Fox, and scores of other tribes and moieties—almost always without bloodshed. Sometimes he fought against them, but more often he tried to referee the various Plains tribes in their time-honored wars against one another—or in their newer wars against the freshly arrived Cherokees, Chickasaws, and other so-called “civilized tribes” that the United States had force-marched from the East in the 1830s to live in the immense, if vaguely defined, Permanent Indian Frontier. Not surprisingly, the tragic U.S. policy of transplanting woodland Indians with an entirely alien culture and grafting them by fiat onto the unfamiliar world of the prairie had pried open a Pandora’s box of tensions—tensions that Kearny spent the bulk of his years as a young officer trying to understand and, to the extent possible, resolve. As one historian succinctly put it, Kearny and his contemporaries in the frontier army were charged with the thankless task of “imposing a Pax Americana on the entire artificial, ill-amalgamated Indian nation which the government had created.”

A diplomat by nature and an officer possessed of a Job-like patience, Kearny was the right man for this kind of work. His career was marked by persistence, discretion, and tolerance. There was about all his actions a distinct “absence of swashbuckling,” as biographer Dwight Clarke phrased it. It was that quality, perhaps more than anything else, that kept his invasion of New Mexico in 1846 from devolving into a disaster.

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Gen. Sherman vs. the Comanches

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 332-333:

For federal Indian officials, the Comanche situation was a stinging embarrassment: half a decade after the Civil War had eradicated institutionalized slavery, Comanches were trafficking in human merchandise on U.S. soil and with U.S. agents. The distressed settlers, sheep and cattle magnates, and government officials directed their frustration at the Peace Policy, which in their view had weakened rather than strengthened the United States’ hold on the Indians. They found a powerful ally in the military elite, who had opposed the Peace Policy from the beginning for strategic and personal reasons: the end of the Civil War and the reduction of the army had closed avenues for promotion, which only another war could reopen.

The opponents of the Peace policy found their opportunity in May 1871, when a Comanche and Kiowa raiding party attacked a supply train near Fort Richardson, killing and mutilating seven teamsters. The raiders narrowly missed General Sherman, who was on an inspection tour in Texas. Hearing of the attack, Sherman implemented a policy change, ordering four cavalry companies to pursue the raiders and, if necessary, to continue the chase in the Fort Sill reservation [which had until then been demilitarized]. He then stormed to Fort Sill to confront agent Tatum. The flustered agent conceded that the Quaker experiment was failing. On the next ration day, Tatum authorized the soldiers to arrest three Kiowa chiefs—Satanta, Satank, and Big Tree—and send them to Texas for civil trial. His Quaker ideology crumbling, Tatum asked the army to pursue the Kwahadas and Kotsotekas into Texas, confiscate their stolen stock, and force them to enter the reservation “as kindly as the circumstances will admit.” Although the Peace Policy remained the official policy, by fall 1871 if had become a dead letter on the southern plains. Tatum was replaced in early 1873 by an agent more committed to Quaker principles, but by that time hard action had become the norm.

When fighting Comanche campaigns, the U.S. Army was able to draw on its rapidly accumulating experience in fighting the Plains Indians. The Lakota wars had revealed that regular soldiers, although armed with Colt revolvers and Winchester repeating rifles, were a poor match for the highly motivated and mobile Indian warriors. convincing the military leadership that the army needed a decisive numerical advantage to defeat Plains Indians on the battlefield. But numbers were exactly what the army lacked. The eastern public, weary of war and eager for normalcy, was unwilling to finance Indian wars in the West. Young men were equally unenthused: the prospect of fighting Indians for meager pay and under vigorous discipline on the Great Plains drew few volunteers. The army’s main instrument in Indian wars was therefore the light cavalry, composed of ten regiments, approximately five thousand men in total.

Short of troops and wary of open battles, the army set out to deprive the Comanches of shelter and sustenance by destroying their winter camps, food supplies, and horse herds. By the early 1870s this kind of total warfare against entire populations was an established practice in the U.S. Army. Sherman had pioneered it against the Confederacy in his “March to the Sea,” and Sheridan had introduced a stripped-down version of it to the plains in his 1868–69 winter campaign against the Cheyennes. Culminating on the Washita River where the Seventh Cavalry [under George Armstrong Custer] killed nearly a hundred noncombatants and eight hundred horses and mules, Sheridan’s campaign broke Cheyenne resistance on the central plains. This success convinced the army that targeting civilians and economic resources was the most efficient—and since it shortened the conflict, the most humane—way to subdue the Indians. But the army could not simply duplicate Sheridan’s straightforward offensive against the Comanches, who ranged over a vast territory and had a more diverse subsistence base than the Cheyennes. To subdue the Comanches, the army was forced to launch the largest and most concentrated campaign of total war in the West.

It was only now, twenty-three years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that Comanches came to feel the depth of the United States’ expansionist power. They had been exposed to that power before—most tangibly through Texas, whose territorial expansion into Comanchería was a corollary of the South’s economic expansion into Texas—but its full force had been curbed by several factors: relative American disinterest toward the Great Plains, the Civil War, and finally the Peace Policy. It was therefore all the more shocking when the United States unleashed its military might on Comanchería in 1871. Whatever difficulties the army may have faced in mobilizing soldiers for Indian wars, the troops that were mustered could draw on their nation’s enormous resources—superior technology; bottomless supply lines; an elaborate communication system; and a strong, tested central state apparatus. More important perhaps, the troops formed the vanguard of an ascending nation-state driven by a civilizing mission and bent on expanding its frontiers through conquest and exclusionary borders. The U.S. Army that moved into Comanchería was an adversary unlike any Comanches had encountered.

The invasion began from Texas, the state with the longest list of grievances against the Comanches. Comanche raids had taken a heavy toll in Texan lives and livestock since the late 1850s, stunting the state’s projected economic growth. Blocked by a wall of Comanche violence, the expanding Texas cattle kingdom had bypassed the Great Plains, extending instead toward less desired regions in New Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. By 1871, Texans considered the situation intolerable.

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Emancipation Comes to the U.S. Southwest, 1860s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 318-319:

It was an open secret that the livestock and laborers that fueled New Mexico’s economic growth during and after the Civil War years were looted from Texas and northern Mexico.

The contraband cattle and captive trade and the violence it fueled in Texas were a stinging embarrassment for the federal agents in New Mexico, Kansas, and Indian Territory. They had failed to restrain the Comanches, who ignored the reservation boundaries as defined in the Treaty of Little Arkansas, refused to relinquish slave traffic, and yet frequented Fort Larned, their assigned agency near the Big Bend of the Arkansas, to collect government supplies. Shameful reports of “lives taken and property stolen by Indians … fed and clothed and armed by the representatives of the U.S. Gov” poured out of Texas, putting enormous pressure on the Indian Office and its agents. Determined to extend emancipation from the South to the Southwest, federal agents repeatedly demanded that the Comanches and Kiowas relinquish their captives. But instead of eradicating slavery and captive trade, such interventions ended up supporting them. Comanches and Kiowas did turn numerous captives over to U.S. agents, but only if they received handsome ransoms in cash or goods. As one federal agent despaired: “every prisoner purchased from the Indians amounts to giving them a license to go and commit the same overt act. They boastfully say that stealing white women is more of a lucrative business than stealing horses.” The United States’ emancipation efforts had created a new outlet for slave trafficking for Comanches, and its punitive reconstruction policies in Texas opened a deep supply base: the demilitarized western part of the state lay wide open for Comanche slaving parties.

The struggle over the captives epitomized the collision between the Comanches and the United States and precipitated its progression to open war. The persistence of slavery and captive traffic convinced U.S. policymakers that the Southwest was not big enough for both traditional borderland cultural economics and the new American system of state-sponsored, free-labor capitalism. Perplexed and put off by their own involvement in the captive business, U.S. authorities, most of them Civil War veterans, started to call for tougher policies and, if necessary, the extermination of the slave-trafficking Indians. In 1867, when presented with the case of a thirteen-year-old Texas boy for whom Comanches demanded “remuneration,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, the commander of the U.S. Army, responded that the officials should no longer “Submit to this practice of paying for Stolen children. It is better the Indian race be obliterated.”

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Depleting the Bison Herds before Buffalo Bill, 1830–1860

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 294-297:

It has been estimated that full-time plains hunters needed a yearly average of 6.5 bison per person for food, shelter, and clothing, which means that the Comanches and their allies were killing approximately 175,000 buffalos a year for subsistence alone. Moreover, although first and foremost horse traders, Comanches also produced bison robes, meat, and tallow for the market. In the early nineteenth century, their commercial harvest probably rarely exceeded 25,000 animals, but their hunting practices seriously aggravated the damage. Like most Plains Indians, Comanches did their market hunting in winter, when the robes were the thickest and most valuable, and they preferred killing two- to five-year-old cows for their thin, easily processed skins. Since bison cows produce their first calves at the age of three or four and their gestation period usually extends from mid-July to early April, Comanches slaughtered disproportionate numbers of pregnant cows, thus impairing the herds’ reproductive capacity.

Making matters worse, Comanches’ commercial ambitions induced them to open their hunting grounds to outsiders. For much of the eighteenth century, Comanches had restricted outsiders’ access to their hunting ranges, but that environmental policy became increasingly difficult to maintain as their trading links multiplied. One by one, they disposed of the neutral buffer zones skirting Comanchería, inadvertently depriving the bison of their crucial sanctuaries. Particularly inauspicious in this respect was the 1835 Treaty of Camp Holmes, in which Comanches granted the Osages and the populous immigrant tribes of Indian Territory access to their lands in exchange for trading privileges. Discouraged by the poor lands of Indian Territory, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks—all numerous groups—embarked on active bison hunting, and many Delaware, Shawnee, and Kickapoo bands became specialized hunters. Together with the Osages, the removed Indians did most of their hunting in the prime bison range between the upper Canadian and Red rivers, in the heart of eastern Comanchería. By 1841 the region’s bison populations were thinning rapidly.

At the same time on Comanchería’s western edge, ciboleros, the New Mexican bison hunters who had won hunting privileges in Comanchería in the aftermath of the 1786 Spanish-Comanche treaty, made animal hunting expeditions to the Llano Estacado, harvesting an estimated 23,000 animals per season. Even more pressure fell on the bison herds with the peace of 1840 among Comanches, Kiowas, Naishans, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes, which unlocked northern Comanchería for Cheyenne and Arapaho hunters, who embarked on a large-scale robe trade at Bent’s Fort and probably harvested a large portion of them in Comanchería. In all, in the early 1840s tens of thousands of Comanchería’s bison died every year in the hands of people not living in the region.

The combined toll of Comanches’ and their allies’ subsistence and market hunting probably neared, and in some years exceeded, the sustainable yearly rate of killing of 280,000, placing Comanchería’s bison herds on a precarious balance. This balance was rendered even shakier by the Comanches’ burgeoning horse herding economy. Horses and bison have an 80 percent dietary overlap and very similar water requirements, which makes them ecologically incompatible species. Even more critically, both animals could survive the harsh winters of the plains only by retreating into river valleys, which provided reliable shelter against the cold, and cottonwood for emergency food. But suitable riverine habitats were becoming increasingly scarce. To meet the expansive grazing needs of their growing domestic herds, Comanches had turned more and more bottomland niches into herding range, gradually congesting Comanchería’s river valleys. By the mid-nineteenth century, huge winter camps and horse herds could be seen stretching for dozens of miles along key wintering sites, covering the prime foraging and watering spots, and forcing the bison to retreat to poorer areas.

Most such areas were at the headwaters of major rivers and far from Comanches’ principal hunting and wintering grounds, but when the bison gravitated toward these perpheral habitats, they were blocked there as well. Southern Comanchería near the Texas frontier was the home for massive herds of wild horses, which had virtually taken over the region’s river valleys and resources. On the western portion of the Llano Estacado, at the headwaters of the Canadian, Red, and Brazos rivers and their tributaries, the bison had to compete for grass, water, and shelter with thousands of sheep driven there each winter by New Mexican herders, pastores. Perhaps most disastrously, freighting along the Santa Fe Trail grew into a large-scale industry in the early 1840s. A typical trade caravan consisted of some two dozen freight wagons and several hundred oxen and mules, and each year hundreds of such caravans trekked back and forth along the Arkansas corridor, destroying vegetation, polluting springs, accelerating erosion, and driving out the bison from their last ecological niches in the valley. It is also possible that the traders’ livestock introduced anthrax, brucellosis, and other bovine diseases to the bison herds….

In 1845 a long and intense dry spell struck Comanchería. The rains resumed briefly around 1850, but the drought returned and lasted in varying degrees until the mid-1860s. As the rains failed or came only as drizzles, springs, ponds, and creeks dried up and rivers shrank to trickles….

Although an unexpected climatic swing brought on the bison crisis, the Comanches’ actions had contributed to the shortage. By monopolizing the river basins for their horses, by slaughtering vast numbers of bison for subsistence and for trade, and by opening their hunting grounds to outsiders, Comanches had critically undercut the viability of the bison population, rendering it vulnerable to ecological reversals.

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