IN 1844 THE UNITED STATES IS VERY MUCH A NATION FEELING ITS youth. Since the country was doubled in size by the Louisiana Purchase, there has been a passion for expansion, for pushing the boundaries farther west, a mission to bring the new enlightenment of the "American Ideal" to the entire continent. To politicians in Washington, this expansion is justified not just by an enthusiasm for our system of government, but by official policy. The document is the Monroe Doctrine, and the rallying cry becomes Manifest Destiny, as though it is not only in the nation's best interests to expand our influence, but the best interest of anyone whose culture we might absorb. This practice has already resulted in bloody conflict with several Indian Nations, notably the Seminoles in Florida. It also leads to a showdown with the British over the Oregon Territory, a threat the British defuse by backing away.
In summer 1844 the independent nation of Texas is annexed by the United States. The territory of Texas had been part of Mexico itself, only became independent in 1836 when Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was defeated by Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto. This defeat followed Santa Anna's highly publicized massacre of the defenders of the Alamo, in San Antonio.
To the Mexican government, led by the moderate General José Joaquin de Herrera, the loss of Texas is a severe blow to Mexican pride. While Herrera favors negotiation to resolve differences, specifically the growing border disputes, loud voices of ultrapatriotism within his country consider the loss an outrage, an assault on the sovereignty of Mexico, which must be avenged.
In December 1844, Texas is officially granted statehood. The decision is controversial. Because it was admitted as a slave state, many in the north opposed Texas's inclusion. However, as a necessary ingredient of Manifest Destiny, even opponents concede that the land, and the passion for expansion, make Texas a valuable treasure.
The Texans consider their border to extend to the Rio Grande River. To the Mexicans, Texas stops at the Nueces River, some one hundred miles farther north. The land in between the two rivers is mostly barren and uninhabited, but both sides begin making moves to secure the land for their own cause.
To protect the new wave of citizens that move into the disputed area, President James K. Polk sends a military force of nearly three thousand men, under the command of General Zachary Taylor. This so inflames the spirits of many Mexicans that Herrera cannot hold power, and he is replaced by General Mariano Padredes, an ultrapatriot who immediately declares that Mexico is in a state of "defensive war" with the United States.
As the wheels of war grind forward, neither side seems to understand the forces driving the other. The Mexicans are far from accepting Manifest Destiny as legitimate, and the Polk Administration has no grasp of the nationalism and fiercely proud protectionism that so motivates the Mexicans.
As Taylor's forces move into the disputed territory between the two rivers, Mexican General Ampudia marches troops northward, intending to turn Taylor away. While politicians in both capitals seem helpless to find some middle ground, some way of avoiding the inevitable war, Taylor confronts a sizable Mexican force at Palo Alto, a small crossroads village. The resulting fight is the first engagement of the war, and is a decided victory for Taylor and the Americans. The Mexicans retreat to a strong defensive position at an old riverbed called Resaca de la Palma. Taylor pursues, and defeats the Mexicans again. The Mexican forces have no choice but to retreat below the Rio Grande.
With the spilling of blood, the disputes move beyond the angry protests of politicians. The diplomatic wrangling gives way to the harsh reality that the dispute over boundaries and the inability of each culture to understand the customs and needs of the other, has but one possible outcome. Even the voices of reason in both capitals are powerless to stop the momentum. On May 13, 1846, President Polk convinces Congress to declare war on Mexico.
Excerpted from Gone for Soldiers by Jeff Shaara Copyright© 2000 by Jeff Shaara. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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