Category Archives: Mexico

Inciting Wilson to War, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 58-59:

Although two US merchant vessels had gone down, neither loss seemed unambiguously due to unrestricted submarine warfare. None the less, by late February American freighters were sailing towards the war zone, which meant ‘overt acts’ were just a matter of time, and Wilson acknowledged that only luck had so far prevented them. He was reconciled, in other words, to measures that were virtually certain to lead to shooting war, and primarily in defence of US citizens and commercial interests. What remained unclear was how far public opinion would support him, how extensive America’s participation would be, and how far it would concert with the Allies.

During the following month the answers crystallized, and in the first instance due to the Zimmermann Telegram. Its origins are inseparable from the continuing revolutionary upheaval in Mexico, in which Wilson had already twice intervened. American forces had landed at Veracruz in 1914, and the casualties had preyed on his memory, while for months during 1916 US troops had pursued Pancho Villa across the north of the country. Germany, conversely, assisted the Constitutionalist movement of President Venustiano Carranza. Zimmermann had been involved in this effort and his expertise in subversion was one reason he became foreign minister. However, the idea of a Mexican alliance came from a junior Foreign Ministry official, Hans Arthur von Kemnitz. That of linking an approach to Mexico with one to Japan also had a lineage, extending back to German–Japanese contacts in Stockholm during 1916. Zimmermann and Bethmann approved the scheme with little discussion, and Ludendorff also endorsed it. It testified to the Germans’ cynicism, as they were quite unable to give Mexico serious help and an air of the absurd hung over the enterprise. Regardless, in its finalized form on 13 January the telegram instructed the German envoy in Mexico City, Heinrich von Eckardt, to propose an alliance to Mexico as soon as American entry into the war was considered imminent; to offer financial support and German acquiescence in Mexico’s acquiring territory lost to the United States in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in 1848; and to suggest that Carranza invite Japan to join the combination. The telegram went to Bernstorff to forward to Eckardt, which he did on 19 January. As the British had cut the Germans’ transatlantic cables it could be sent only because the United States—ironically in the interests of facilitating peace negotiations—had permitted Germany to use American diplomatic wires. But as the British were intercepting the communications of the American embassy in London, the message came to Room 40, the decrypting and decipherment unit of the Naval Intelligence Division in the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall. Initially the proposal was presented as a contingency plan, to be pursued if America entered the war, but in a follow-up message on 5 February Zimmermann authorized Eckardt to consult the Mexicans as soon as he thought appropriate. A partially decoded version of the initial telegram went to Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, the Director of Naval Intelligence, as early as 17 January, but Hall delayed before forwarding the information to the Foreign Office, for fear the Americans learned that Britain was reading their traffic. It was Hall’s idea that Balfour should give the decoded text on 23 February to the American ambassador, Walter Hines Page, by which stage the British had obtained a further copy in Mexico City and Balfour could obscure the real source with the half-truth that it had been ‘bought in Mexico’.

What matters here is less the telegram’s provenance than its consequences. Page reported it on 24 February. It showed that even when the Germans had seemed open to American mediation they had already decided for unrestricted submarine warfare and were plotting an anti-American alliance.

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Castaway Healers Without Borders, 1530s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 189-192:

As they traveled, the castaways continued to burnish their reputation as healers. Cabeza de Vaca in particular became more confident in his skills. He became bolder in his interventions; he was no longer content merely to pray and blow. The medical procedures he employed may go some way toward explaining his success. Not far from the Rio Nadadores, he treated a man who had been struck by an arrow below the shoulder. “I touched him and felt the point of the arrow, and I saw that it had passed through the cartilage,” Cabeza de Vaca writes with the precision of a surgeon, “and with a knife that I had, I opened his chest to that place. And I saw that the point had passed through and was very difficult to remove. I again cut deeper, and I inserted the knife point, and with great difficulty, at last I pulled it out. It was very long. And with a deer bone, plying my trade as a physician, I gave him two stitches, and after that he bled a great deal and with scraps of hide I stopped the bleeding.” After the surgery, the patient claimed that he no longer felt pain. The arrowhead was passed around throughout the land, and everyone was amazed by the miraculous cure that Cabeza de Vaca had bestowed. The travelers’ authority over the peoples of central Coahuila became great indeed.

They never traveled alone. Since crossing into northern Tamaulipas, they, and their string of indigenous hosts, had worked out a system that was part processional, part doctor’s visit, and part plunder. It must have been a marvel to behold. When the strangers arrived in each new Indian community, it set an elaborate series of rituals in motion. The natives would offer shelter, food, and gifts to the four men in exchange for access to their healing powers. Festivities would follow, sometimes for days. Then, reluctant to see the medicine men go, the Indian hosts would insist on traveling with them to the next settlement.

The four survivors had set ideas about where they wanted to go: first due south toward Pánuco, and then due west toward the metal-working peoples. They could not, however, simply dictate their route. Their Indian sponsors had their own notions and constantly tried to steer the drifters toward their friends and away from their enemies. The route actually taken by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions was often the result of complicated negotiations, and occasionally of deception. A native group by the Sierra de Pamoranes, for instance, tried to dissuade the four men from going inland by falsely claiming that there was neither food nor people in the direction the healers wished to travel. In that case the wanderers paid little attention and pursued their inland course. Yet in general they were not immune to such subtle manipulation, as they depended entirely upon their indigenous followers for information and knowledge about the terrain and geography of the region.

Each time the explorers approached the next indigenous settlement on their journey, a curious exchange would ensue. Those who had accompanied the medicine men would pillage the new hosts, entering their huts and plundering whatever possessions or food they could carry back to their own encampment. In return, they left the medicine men. A certain sense of reciprocity undergirded the entire transaction, yet the details were unsettling for the explorers. They were initially taken aback by this custom when they first witnessed it in northern Tamaulipas. They were distressed by how badly the new hosts were treated and feared that the widespread sacking would lead to serious altercations. Yet their fears turned out to be unfounded as the plundered Indians offered reassurance. “On seeing our sadness,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “[they] consoled us by saying that we should not be grieved by that because they were so content to have seen us that they considered that their possessions had been well employed, and that farther ahead they would be compensated by others who were very rich.” And indeed, a few days later the erstwhile victims would plunder the villagers that followed, “and the ones always sacked the others, and thus those who lost, like those who gained, were very content.”

Precise instructions about how to deal with the healers were also passed down from group to group. The hosts were told to lead the foreigners onward, always treating them “with great respect and being careful not to anger us in anything,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “and to give us everything they had, and to take us where there were many people, and that wherever we arrived to steal and loot what the others had because such was the custom.” Soon the “new custom” became so entrenched and so well known that native villages on the way began to take precautions like hiding their most valuable possessions in advance of the procession’s arrival. Reverence and intimidation were closely intertwined. An approaching band bent on plunder could easily cower villagers into surrendering their possessions and venerating the four outsiders.

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Fates of Mexican Revolutionaries

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 325-327:

THE LEADERS of the Mexican Revolution all died violent deaths. Venustiano Carranza assumed the presidency in mid-March of 1917 and returned to Mexico City. Emiliano Zapata, who had carried on his fight for agrarian reform in nearby Morelos, had continued to taunt Carranza, writing insulting letters to him that were published in the daily newspapers. In an intricate plot, Carranza succeeded in having Zapata and his bodyguards assassinated on April 10, 1919.

The relationship between Carranza and Álvaro Obregón grew strained as the presidential elections of 1920 drew near. Obregón, who had done more than anyone else to ensure Carranza’s triumph, expected Carranza to step aside so that he could become president. But Carranza was reluctant to give up power, especially to a military man like Obregón. The Mexican Constitution banned the reelection of the president so Don Venustiano, unable to run again, did the next best thing and threw his support to Ignacio Bonillas, a minor politician whom he thought he could control. In response, Obregón’s home state of Sonora declared that Carranza was no longer Mexico’s legitimate president and named Adolfo de la Huerta, the Sonoran governor, as the interim leader. Other leaders throughout Mexico joined the revolt.

Carranza, realizing his time had come, decided to leave Mexico City. But first he systematically looted the government treasury, exhibiting the “quiet, tireless sleepless greed” that Edith O’Shaughnessy had once spoken of. (During his tenure, theft was so common that a new verb, carrancear, was coined.) Onto a long train, he loaded millions of dollars in gold and silver, priceless antiques, presses and ink used to print paper money, and even disassembled airplanes. As the train chugged toward Veracruz, it was attacked by insurgents and smashed by a locomotive loaded with dynamite. High in the mountains, the presidential entourage was finally halted at a point where the tracks had been torn up. Carranza proceeded on horseback, carrying what he could on pack mules and leaving millions in gold and silver behind. In the remote village of Tlaxcalantongo, he took refuge in an earthen hut. He ate with his usual deliberateness and then retired for the evening. At four o’clock on the morning of May 21, 1920, he awoke to the sound of gunfire and the cries “Viva Obregón!” and “Muera a Carranza!” He screamed at his guards to save themselves as multiple bullets slammed into his chest, killing him. He was sixty years old.

The Mexican legislature appointed Adolfo de la Huerta to serve as interim president until the elections could be held. An urbane and friendly man, de la Huerta wanted to heal the wounds of the revolution and granted amnesty to numerous revolutionaries. To Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, de la Huerta seemed like “a virgin lost in a crowd of rabid and shrewd old hags who think they can become young again by rubbing against her.”

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Travails of U.S. Cavalry Horses

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 189-192:

The horses suffered the most. They were not the tough little ponies that the Villistas rode, but large-boned thoroughbreds or crosses between several breeds. They were big and powerful, but fragile, too. Nearly all of them were classified as “bays,” a stingy army description that failed to capture the many hues of a brown horse. In actuality, they were the color of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves; rich, warm chocolate, coffee, and the watery tannic of tea. Only their eyes were the same, huge dark pools revealing an animal capable of great fear and great courage.

Horses have a grazing animal’s nature; they are self-reliant and content enough to live alone, in the middle of a great plain, with only the wind and crows for company, but happier still with another horse that they can stand parallel to in the buggy months of summer, noses and rumps reversed, the tail of one swatting the flies from the face of the other. They are creatures of habit and thrive on the monotonous turning of day into night, looking forward to a pat of hay for breakfast, a pat of hay for lunch, a pat of hay for dinner, and grass in between. They become cantankerous when their feeding time is altered, startle at loud noises and sudden movement, and are made uneasy by changes in their environment. Yet these were precisely the travails that they would have to endure on the expedition.

Soldiers are expected to stand and fight, but everything in a horse tells it to flee when confronted with danger. Horses are gentle and unaggressive by nature, but their dispositions can turn rebellious in the hands of the wrong rider. Their mouths open willingly for the bit, which sits at the corners of their lips. If this most intimate of spaces is violated, if the reins are jerked or pulled repeatedly, horses can become tough mouthed and nonresponsive, or even worse, clamp the bit between their teeth and run away with their passenger. Their flesh is extremely sensitive—who has not seen a horse shudder under a fly’s weight?—yet ignorant riders think it necessary to pummel them with whips and spurs until the animal retreats into some reptilian corner of its brain and refuses to move at all.

A horse’s back—the beautiful curve that begins at the top of the head, slopes down across a smooth plain, and gently rises into the tail—must be carefully tended. Horses that experience pain and discomfort while being saddled learn to jig and prance and fill their bellies with air so that the girth strap needs to be repeatedly tightened. The long, twisting rivers of muscle covering the leg bones are susceptible to strains and microscopic tears, and an injury in one leg often means the other three have to compensate, with one injury frequently leading to a second. Even more impractical are a horse’s ankles, dainty as a ballerina’s and prone to wind puffs—swollen tissue that subsides only with rest and liniment.

The hooves, which are hard as stone, seem to be perfectly adapted to withstand the enormous impact of walking and trotting and cantering. At their center, though, is a wedge-shaped “frog” prone to drying and bruising. The wrong kind of food can flood the thick horny material with heat and cause permanent damage. Regular trimming and properly fitted shoes are essential. Unfortunately, the animals ridden into Mexico received neither, and their hooves grew long and added to their fatigue and the strain on their legs. The cavalrymen were considerate of their horses and tried to lessen their suffering. They brushed them twice a day and turned them loose to graze whenever possible. (The young Patton was adamant about the need for grazing and wrote scorching memos whenever he saw horses standing on the picket line.) But even the most tender, loving care could not make up for the lack of rolled oats and green alfalfa. The horses chewed up leather bridles, saddlebags, halters, and ropes. The soldiers purchased native corn, but before the grain could be fed to the horses, it had to be dumped onto blankets and the many small pebbles found in the mixture laboriously picked out. Starved though they were, many horses simply stopped eating if their teeth struck a rock. As the flesh melted from their bones, extra blankets were needed under the McClellan saddles to protect their backs. “Great care was taken of the horses’ backs,” remembered Sergeant Converse. “Blankets were folded carefully, saddles packed so the weights were distributed evenly and the men not allowed to lounge in the saddle.”

Many of the horses taken into Mexico were debilitated from the trauma of being boxed up and transported in railroad cars and they suffered from shipping fever and lice. During the campaign, they developed constipation, diarrhea, and life-threatening colic. Some fell to their deaths when they lost their footing on the mountain trails, or were dragged off a cliff by the wagon they were pulling. Many more were killed in the running gunfights, for they were always the largest targets on the battlefield. The majority, though, died of exhaustion and hunger. Quickly, like the little Villista ponies, they gave up their lives. A few were let go on the trail, to fend for themselves, but most were put out of their misery by a merciful bullet to the head. The soldiers grieved their deaths. Poor beasts, they muttered as they passed the huge, ungainly forms, bloated and barrel shaped, a blasphemy of the graceful creatures that they had been in life. With each one lost, Pershing’s challenge became greater. And the fighting had not yet begun.

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U.S. Army Units in the Villa Expedition

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 175-176:

The initial cavalry regiments tapped for service included the men of George Custer’s fabled Seventh, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth, the horse soldiers of the Eleventh, and the troopers of the Thirteenth. Accompanying these mounted regiments would be the Sixth and Sixteenth infantries and two batteries of the Sixth Field Artillery. The heavy artillery hardly seemed worth the trouble: “To transport one gun required ten animals, which needed shoeing and forage, plus a dozen men to look after the mules as well as assemble and fire the gun,” points out military historian Herbert Molloy Mason. Supporting the combat troops would be a signal corps to establish communication, an ambulance company and field hospital for the wounded, engineers to build roads and bridges, and two wagon companies to haul supplies. (A wagon company consisted of 36 men, 27 wagons, 112 mules, and 6 horses.)

Army quartermasters from around the country worked frantically to locate supplies and ship them to Columbus. A boxcar of Missouri mules was requisitioned from Saint Louis. Twenty-seven new trucks were purchased from the White Motor Company in Cleveland and the T. B. Jeffreys Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Newly broken horses were entrained at Fort Bliss. Strange-looking vehicles that were actually the military’s first tanks were loaded onto railroad cars. Wagon parts, ordnance, radio sets, medical supplies, rations, and forage were also hunted down and shipped to Columbus.

Troops were sent from Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. At the request of President Wilson, Congress passed emergency legislation to increase the strength of the regular army from 100,000 to 120,000 men. Nearly all the additional men would be assigned to guard duty on the border or the expedition itself. Also dispatched to the border were Captain Benjamin Foulois and the country’s entire air force, which consisted of the First Aero Squadron and its eight Curtiss JN-3s, or Jennies. Flimsy as negligees and notoriously unreliable, the planes were dismantled and shipped by train. Captain Foulois posted ten riflemen at the front of the train and scattered more soldiers armed with rifles and pistols throughout the sleeping cars and the rest of the compartments.

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U.S. vs. Germany in Mexico, 1915

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 64-65:

Villa left the civilized comforts of Juárez and began the arduous march across the Sierra Madre. It took his men twenty-five days to get through the mountains with their horses, forty-two cannons, and pack mules. Men and horses perished when they lost their footing on the narrow passes and plunged headlong into the deep canyons. Especially treacherous was the Cañón del Púlpito, a name taken from a towering rock shaped like a church pulpit.

When the Villistas had exited the mountains and were toiling toward Agua Prieta, Villa learned that President Wilson had recognized Venustiano Carranza as the de facto leader of Mexico. To Villa, who had professed himself a friend of the Americans early on, Wilson’s decision was an unthinkable betrayal.

FOR WILSON, the decision had as much to do with the deteriorating geopolitical conditions as it did with Villa. In Berlin, the German high command had continued to watch with interest the tension between the United States and Mexico, hoping against hope that war might break out between the two countries. Such a conflict, they theorized, would slow the U.S. supplies going to Great Britain and discourage the United States from entering the European war. An even more delicious scenario involved manipulating Japan, which had allied itself with Great Britain, into joining Mexico in a war against the United States, thereby diverting resources from that potential enemy as well.

The Germans had hoped to use Victoriano Huerta as their catalyst and had offered to supply him with arms and money to return to Mexico, regain control of the country, and attack the United States. Huerta accepted the German offer and arrived in New York City on April 13, 1915, almost a year to the day after the Veracruz invasion. Two months later, he boarded a train for the border and was arrested a few miles west of El Paso. By then, Huerta was extremely ill from cirrhosis of the liver, and was eventually allowed to spend his remaining days with family members, who were now living in El Paso. He died on January 13, 1916, his bed facing his convulsed country and his parlor filled with old generals who wept openly and smoked corn-husk cigarettes. Thousands attended his funeral, where he lay in a coffin covered with flowers, wearing his full-dress uniform. Worried about further German attempts to destabilize Mexico, the United States decided to recognize the bellicose Carranza. The War Department’s chief of staff, Hugh Scott, had gotten wind of the administration’s plan and did everything he could to stop it. “The recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of the man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion and of making an outlaw of the man who had helped us.” But the American decision was a pragmatic one. Carranza had the upper hand, Villa’s fortunes were in decline, and stability in Mexico mattered most.

The United States had even gone beyond simply recognizing Carranza as Mexico’s legitimate leader. The government allowed Carranza’s troops to travel by train through the border states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to reinforce Agua Prieta. On the thirty-first of October, as the yellow plume of dust signaling the advance guard of Villa’s army appeared on the horizon, three infantry brigades consisting of five thousand Carrancistas arrived in the little town.

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Pancho Villa’s Boxcars

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 47-48:

Villa used long trains to transport his soldiers from city to city. On top of the boxcars rode pigs, chickens, children, and soldaderas—wives, daughters, and even grandmothers who served as helpmates and nurses and fellow fighters. His pride and joy was his hospital train, which consisted of forty enameled boxcars staffed with Mexican and U.S. physicians and supplied with the latest surgical appliances. With its bright blue crosses and the words Servicio Sanitario stenciled on the sides, the hospital train followed Villa’s troops into battle and transported the most severely wounded back to hospitals in the cities. He had a boxcar for correspondents, a boxcar for moving-picture men, a boxcar for his cannons and extra railroad ties, and a caboose, which he used for his headquarters. Painted gray and decorated with chintz window curtains, the caboose was big enough for a couple of bunks and a partitioned area for his cook. In the early days, Villa would sit in his caboose in his blue underwear while as many as fifteen generals lounged at his feet to argue and plot strategy for their next campaign. Hanging on the walls above them were pictures of Villa on one of his frothing horses; the querulous Don Venustiano; and Rodolfo Fierro, Villa’s handsome and ruthless friend, who was christened el carnicero—the butcher—after he had made a sport of shooting three hundred prisoners as they tried to escape over a corral wall.

If Fierro represented the dark side of Pancho Villa’s nature, then the aristocratic and exquisitely mannered Felipe Ángeles represented the good. Ángeles, the army general who had been detained along with Madero and his vice president, had been educated at the Colegio Militar and excelled at mathematics and artillery science. He was in the federal army when the revolution broke out and offered to fight against the revolutionaries. But he soon became personal friends with Madero during the latter’s brief presidency. After Madero was killed, Ángeles joined Don Venustiano’s counterrevolution. Disgusted by Carranza’s opulent lifestyle and the preening sycophants who surrounded him, Ángeles eventually aligned himself with Pancho Villa’s División del Norte. Villa revered Ángeles’s intellectual and military capabilities and his rigorous honesty. While he considered himself far too ignorant and uneducated to govern a turbulent country like Mexico, Villa often thought Ángeles could be the next president.

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Mexico Before Its Revolution

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 21-23:

By the end of Díaz’s reign, Mexico had a population of fifteen million. The majority were mestizo—individuals of mixed blood—but one-third were of pure Indian stock. Chihuahua and Sonora, two of the northern states that lay along the U.S. border, were home to the Tarahumara and the Yaquis. The Cora, Huichol, and Tarascans lived along the Pacific coast and in the hills and valleys west of Mexico City. The Mazahua, Nahuatl, and Otomí had settled in the central highlands. The Gulf state of Veracruz was home to the Huastec and Totonac. The Zapotecs, Mixes, Zoque, Huave, and Mixtec, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Chontal, and Tzotzil lived in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And in the Yucatán peninsula, remnants of the ancient Maya had survived.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlán, the great center of the Aztec civilization and the site of what was to become Mexico City. For the next three centuries, Mexico lived under Spain’s rule, which could be harsh, benign, or indifferent, depending upon the financial needs of the mother country and the temperament of the monarch who happened to be in power at the time. When Mexico finally gained its independence, in 1821, political chaos, internal revolts, and repeated clashes with foreign powers ensued. Texas was lost in 1836 to English-speaking colonizers who had been encouraged by Spain to settle the far reaches of its empire. A decade later, following a war with the United States, Mexico lost another huge chunk of territory to its hungry neighbor—millions of acres that one day would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Exhausted and humiliated, struggling under a huge debt load, Mexico found itself in 1863 once again under the yoke of a European power. This time it was France and Napoleon III, who installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The monarchy survived less than five years, defeated by an army led by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian. Afterward, Maximilian was executed, Carlota went insane, the republic was restored, and Juárez was elected president. Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872, after winning a new term in office, and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Four years later, Porfirio Díaz toppled Lerdo from power and began a thirty-year authoritarian regime known as the Porfiriato.

In order to bring Mexico into the twentieth century, Díaz had opened the doors of his country to foreign investors and through them came the Guggenheims, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge, and hundreds of other, smaller land speculators, wildcatters, miners, ranchers, and farmers. The Americans built railroads and sank mine shafts, the Spaniards opened small retail shops, and the French established factories and banks. Vast cattle ranches emerged along the northern tier of states, and huge farms devoted to single crops such as sugar, cacao, coffee, and rubber were carved from the tropical lowlands. For his efforts, Díaz garnered admiration from industrialists, politicians, and even great literary figures, such as Leo Tolstoy.

His popularity was greatest in Mexico City, where wealthy foreigners and daughters and wives of native hacendados lived in walled compounds fragrant with roses, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. The melancholy cries of tamale women and scissors grinders dropped like birdsong into the somnolent quiet of late afternoons, and in the distant recesses of the lovely old homes, legions of cooks and nannies and cleaning girls worked soundlessly, faceless and nameless to the lady of the house. With its colonial languor and lingering Victorian mannerisms, Mexico City seemed like a metropolis enclosed in a shining glass bubble, drifting in its own time. Wearing Paris gowns, London-made tuxedos, or hand-sewn lace, the wealthy shuttled to luncheons and teas and dinner parties in horse-drawn carriages and chauffeur-driven cars. They went horseback riding in Chapultepec Park, organized group outings to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and in the evenings flocked to the opera.

Pouring through their salon windows was a golden sunlight that made everything seem like a dream. So dreaming, the wealthy foreigners and their Mexican friends failed to see the horrors in their midst: the women crouching behind the waiting carriages picking undigested corn kernels from horse manure; the press gangs who snatched husbands and sons and young girls off the street, the men destined for the army and the women for gunpowder factories; the tubercular Indians who clogged the charity wards and were fodder for medical experiments; the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood.

The modernization and prosperity that Díaz had presided over caused grave dislocation among the country’s peasants, factory workers, and even Mexico’s elite ruling class. By the time the Mexican Revolution erupted, foreigners controlled most of the country’s vast natural resources, its railroads and businesses.

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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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