Mexico WWII Era

Mexico organized the great 201st Fighter Squadron when it declared war on the Axis powers on June 11, 1942. The squadron was a select group of exceptional Mexican pilots with Carlos Faustinos amongst the ranks. Thirty-five officers and 300 enlisted men received extensive training in Mexico. The pilots then were sent to Pocatello Air Base in Idaho to be given additional training by the U.S. military. These pilots managed to destroy machine gun nests, drop 181 tons of bombs, and made significant progress in the war. These pilots proved themselves to be valuable assets to America with their skill and bravery. Seven of their pilots were killed in action, a sacrifice that will not go forgotten.

Opposition candidate General Juan Andreu Almazán lost the presidential election in July 1940. The inauguration of president-elect Ávila Camacho did not take place until December 1940. The interval offered the right-wing opposition forces almost five months to change the course of Mexican history. As expected in 1939, Almazán did not accept defeat in the presidential election without a serious challenge. He left for the Caribbean, as his supporters organized a publicity campaign in the United States and Central America, challenging the outcome of the election. Inside Mexico, a small number of his followers who had lost races for local and regional offices staged limited uprisings. Another group, in contact with former Mexican president-in-exile Calles, bought arms on the U.S. market to supply a larger military uprising. From Spain, Serrano Suner announced the departure of Spanish Falange agents to promote subversive activities in Mexico. Germany was approached to contribute a small number of tanks, heavy weapons, and airplanes. Delivery to the Pacific Coast of Mexico was supposed to be made via Japan.

Fortunately, this effort failed, because of unprecedented cooperation between U.S. and Mexican security forces, the reelection of President Roosevelt, and the German refusal to act at that particular moment. Presidentelect Ávila Camacho’s supporters systematically enlisted the help of the U.S., asking for early diplomatic recognition by that country and therefore giving international legitimacy to Ávila Camacho as the official winner of the 1940 presidential election. His campaign manager, Governor Miguel Alemán, succeeded in obtaining this recognition in the early fall of 1940. The White House and the State Department recognized Ávila Camacho even before the U.S. presidential elections and the Mexican inauguration.

After losing the political battle over recognition, the Almazanistas moved toward large-scale armed rebellion. These conspirators in the United States, along the U.S.–Mexican border, and inside Mexico were systematically shadowed and their preparations disrupted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. military intelligence, and agents supplied by the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of the Interior, and the military. The military quashed local uprisings in the north and patrolled both coasts to prevent the landing of revolutionary troops or weapons deliveries. When Almazán wanted to slip into the United States to spearhead his rebellion, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service gave him a public welcome. The White House and the State Department refused to meet with the Almazanistas, who wanted to make their case in favor of their candidate. The German Foreign Ministry decided against joining Spanish efforts opposing Mexico, because Ávila Camacho seemed to be more pro-German than the outgoing Cardenas. Hitler himself preferred a neutral Mexico over a revolutionary one at that time. Consequently, the Almazanistas never received the military hardware necessary to mount and sustain a serious military operation inside Mexico.

Finally, the reelection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in November 1940, guaranteed a continuation of the pro-Mexico policy in the White House over the next four years. To make this point, President Roosevelt appointed U.S. vice president-elect Henry Wallace to represent the United States at the Mexican presidential inauguration in December 1940. This was the first public demonstration of how close the Ávila Camacho and Roosevelt administrations had become during the joint U.S.–Mexican battle against profascist forces during the past five months. It also suggested a major break with the Cárdenista foreign policy that had preferred Mexican cooperation within a multilateral Latin American framework against the United States. In the end, defeated presidential candidate Almazán recognized reality, publicly admitted his defeat, and returned home to profit as a member of the economic elite. The last major regional revolutionary warlord turned entrepreneur. Revolutionary politics and development had finally completely replaced the era of violent revolution.

As early as 1936, Mexican domestic observers had suggested that during the next global war, U.S. and European military powers would be more dependent than during World War I on Latin American raw materials to sustain a long-term fight. Therefore, Mexico might find itself in the unique position of being able to sell its raw materials more expensively than in peacetime and generate new state income to finance domestic development. Petroleum sales after 1938 had confirmed the expected effect that international rearmament was having on the international oil trade. It took until the spring of 1939 for Mexico to return to more planned national industrial development. A few months later, Europe and Asia were ablaze in war. Now, the engine that would fuel the industrialization of Mexico would be the external stimulus of rearmament and wartime raw materials needs. As soon as the Roosevelt and British administrations would accept Cardenas’s offer of supplying democratic countries with petroleum, planners could use the money to acquire U.S. know-how and technology to expand the manufacturing base. If everything went according to plan, at the end of the war, new factories could satisfy the pent-up demand for consumer and durable goods, freeing foreign currency for other developmental needs.

The step from policy idea to economic reality was much more complex. Even before Ávila Camacho’s inauguration on December 5, 1940, U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and Mexican government representatives had agreed in principle to use the coming months to reach comprehensive settlements on the most critical unsolved bilateral issues. Indeed, from December 1940 on, an unprecedented degree of Mexican–U.S. diplomacy unfolded. Bilateral committees negotiated terms of cooperation in the areas of military, naval, and air defense. A planned exchange of Mexican raw materials for U.S. manufactured goods and industrial technology was organized according to Washington’s bureaucratic war economy rules. One commission resolved the continuing oil expropriation conflict with U.S. oil multinationals. Additional groups discussed bilateral water rights, agrarian expropriation, agricultural labor, revolutionary claims, the joining of U.S. armed forces by Mexican citizens, and other wartime financial issues. By November 1940, most of the major U.S.–Mexican conflicts of the previous twenty years had been resolved. War in Asia and Europe had given the U.S. government unprecedented clout to pressure unpatriotic multinationals into complying with national war needs. Exceptional diplomatic goodwill on both sides had cleared the road for even deeper bilateral cooperation in the years to come.

Mexican developers organized their concessions to the United States in such a way as to produce the greatest economic benefit for their developmental vision. For example, an April 1940 flight agreement opened access to U.S. Lend Lease funds and brought military planes to modernize Mexico’s air force. The seizure of German and Italian boats in Mexican harbors brought, overnight, previously unavailable, nationalized tanker space to export Mexican oil to the United States and earn foreign currency. The enactment of the Allied Blacklists in July 1940 provided a powerful legal smokescreen to move Germany’s chemical and pharmaceuticals industrial facilities and patents into national guardianship and to prepare for the later final expropriation of the German monopoly after the war. On July 15, 1940, Ávila Camacho’s negotiators signed an all-encompassing U.S.–Mexican commercial treaty guaranteeing Mexican goods a U.S. market at protected prices for the surplus production of strategic materials. From the beginning of the depression, Mexico had not enjoyed a similar preferential situation. In addition, Mexico reached special silver purchase agreements and gained access to U.S. currency stabilization funds. The agreement over the nationalization of the oil industry in November 1940 made the Mexican action legally irrevocable. More important, it further isolated the British oil claims and confirmed Cárdenas’s idea that the expropriation had been a sound risk. War had forced the multinational corporations to give in to economic nationalism. Critical petroleum technology and expertise were again allowed to enter Mexico, helping with the development of the nationalized property. The Roosevelt administration also provided Ávila Camacho with a much-needed overhaul of the expropriated railway system, as well as financing for the continuation of the Pan American Highway, Baja California road projects, and harbor modernization.

Most important, from a long-term perspective, the national foreign debt was reduced by almost 90 percent. Minister of Finance Suárez decided that Hitler’s complete control over Europe warranted the cancelation of most of Mexico’s European debt. As expected, the external stimulus of the war was providing financing for vital national infrastructure projects and the equivalent of Works Progress Administration job programs. If Mexico could escape the war without experiencing fighting on its own territory, it would emerge with a strong national infrastructure and an attractive financial position vis-à-vis international investors and banks. Brilliant negotiators were repositioning Mexico’s international macroeconomic position to accelerate development with foreign loans after the end of the war.

The creation of advantageous macroeconomic features did not translate into improvement for workers and peasants. On the contrary, in some agricultural sectors the United States requested crop changes that caused famine and regional economic dislocations lasting for years in previously functioning local markets. Only the determined personal intervention of U.S. Ambassador George Messersmith avoided a more serious hunger disaster and a public relations nightmare. A torrent of financial flight from the United States and Europe, as well as massive financial reimbursements for raw materials, created an expanding inflation that ate away at the already meager purchasing power of workers. Labor rights were even more restricted, and many of the political freedoms that union members had gained in the 1930s were repressed. In short, the war became a pretext to attack the political left. U.S. government bureaucrats were far less demonstrative in their support of Mexico than were the White House and the U.S. ambassador. The relocation or construction of manufacturing plants and sophisticated technology failed to materialize. U.S. war needs remained more important than Mexican development. Few U.S. planners acknowledged that Mexico’s raw-materials deliveries fueled 40 percent of the U.S. war industry. It was the most significant Latin American contribution to the fight against the Axis powers. Finally, U.S. military support for financing projects in Mexico ended overnight when victory in the Battle of Midway made a landing of Japanese troops on Mexico’s Pacific Coast unlikely.

By 1943, experienced economists recognized that the enthusiastic U.S.–Mexican wartime economic cooperation of the last three years was becoming less and less justified. Minister of Hacienda Suárez reminded the cabinet that bilateral wartime cooperation had been a temporary exception, not the beginning of a long-term U.S.–Mexican relationship. To the political left, former Cárdenistas and more radical politicians resumed their criticism that U.S.–Mexican wartime cooperation was little else than a simple pretext for U.S. imperialists to establish a lasting hegemony over Latin America. As early as the course of the war allowed, Minister Suárez and the head of the Bank of Mexico, Eduardo Villaseñior, resumed their prewar outreach toward their European, Asian, and Soviet economic partners, exploring alternatives to U.S.–Mexican economic exchanges. The traditional Mexican diplomatic stance between the United States and Europe was being reconstructed, only now within the context of the expected winners of World War II: Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, and the soon-to-be-reconstituted countries of France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Scandinavia.

Reacting to the growing nationalist frustrations in Mexico, Presidents Roosevelt and Ávila Camacho made determined personal efforts to continue the early positive wartime cooperation into the postwar era. During a presidential exchange visit in 1943, a special bilateral study commission was created that sought solutions to the problems that came with uneven wartime development. The bilateral bureaucratic rules and inertia were more powerful. Still, Mexico was the only Latin American country that received such special attention and genuine U.S. goodwill from the White House.

With the majority of Mexicans continuing to be apprehensive about wartime cooperation, President Ávila Camacho and Foreign Minister Ezequiel Padilla could not push openly for a declaration of war against the Axis powers. In the fall of 1941, the German decision to close Latin American consulates in occupied Europe had given the National Palace the opportunity to close Axis consulates in Mexico. This step eliminated many clandestine bases for Axis subversive operations. Following the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the German declaration of war against the United States later in the same month, the Ávila Camacho administration broke diplomatic relations, but did not declare war against Germany. The smaller Latin American countries did declare war against all the Axis powers; it took repeated German submarine attacks against Mexican ships in the Gulf of Mexico after February 1942 to create a strong enough case for Padilla and Ávila Camacho to overcome popular reservations and convince Congress to enter the war, formally, on the side of the Allied powers.

Ávila Camacho strengthened this fragile domestic front by inviting former president Plutarco Elías Calles to return from exile in California, by naming the nationalist former president Lázaro Cárdenas as minister of war, and by entrusting the defense of the Gulf of Mexico to conservative former president Abelardo Rodriguez. The labor union caudillo Vicente Lombardo Toledano was further constrained through restrictive labor-government agreements that forced him to become active outside Mexico, certainly a project doomed to fail, in light of the continuing political conservatism of the rest of Latin America.

By then, popular cultural exchanges, nurtured by a relentless Allied propaganda in the media—print, radio, movies, even postage stamps—brought some sense of wartime emergency to the small but important Mexican urban middle class. U.S., British, and French propaganda machines took over the reporting of all foreign affairs. Those who could not read learned about the war in public spectacles, such as dramas performed in the Zócalo (central plaza) in Mexico City following the sinking of the Mexican tanker Potrero de Llano by a German submarine. Special propaganda aimed at priests enlisted the small number of pro-Allied priests to influence their local parishes. Almost surreal civil defense “emergencies” and real-life military war games engaged Mexicans against the Axis powers long after the Axis forces had the resources to launch a sustained attack against Latin America. Never before had the revolutionary elite and its foreign supporters enjoyed so much influence over the political opinions of its citizens. The threat of an Axis invasion gave the Ávila Camacho administration the opportunity to promote a new conservative national consensus that tried to bridge serious divisions of geography, race, and class.

The administration feared a possible German or Japanese landing on Mexican soil, a surprise act that would have been answered immediately with an invasion by Allied forces and that would have turned the country into a battlefield. To ensure that the Axis powers would stay away from Mexico’s shores, Ávila Camacho allowed extensive operation by U.S. secret forces. Under the leadership of FBI agent Gus Jones, U.S. advisors trained and cooperated with Mexico’s counterintelligence forces. These advisors also helped in writing Mexico’s first law against espionage, subversion, and sabotage. In addition, a stream of U.S. undercover agents from naval military intelligence and the Office of Strategic Services toured every bay along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, investigating rumors of German and Japanese landing preparations. None of these searches found foreign troops on the beaches.

Nevertheless, U.S. secret forces and representatives of the Mexican ministries of government and Treasury, the military, and the presidential security service unmasked Germany, Italy, and Spain’s sophisticated network of agents and saboteurs north of the Panama Canal before Hitler could change his mind and order large-scale sabotage operations in the Americas in 1941 or cooperate in a Pearl Harbor-like attack on the Americas. Because Axis subversion systematically exploited ethnic groups’ discontent to prepare military invasions, the Mexican government removed the Japanese, Germans, and Italians from Mexico’s coastal zones. As long as Spain remained neutral, the presence of pro-Franco Spaniards along the coasts had to be tolerated. Following the arrest in 1942 of the Japanese naval attaché and German spies, U.S. and Mexican investigators learned of contingency plans to attack and conquer the port of Acapulco, damage U.S. airplane production in San Diego, and attack the Panama Canal. Indeed, after the 1942 Mexican declaration of war, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop angrily suggested sabotaging the oil fields. After 1942, Mexican vigilance kept the remaining Axis amateurs from trying to inflict serious harm on the country. Just as Venustiano Carranza had protected Mexico from the dangerous consequences of German subversion and sabotage during World War I, Ávila Camacho’s cooperation with U.S. and British secret forces protected the nation and everyday Mexicans from German designs for the second time in this century.

The declaration of war in June 1942, following the sinking of the Potrero de Llano, embarrassed U.S. military leaders in Washington into taking Mexico’s military dedication more seriously and to admit at least a symbolic fighting force to a European or Asian war theater. The development of a modern Mexican air force emerged as a compromise that accommodated continued popular hesitation to fight abroad and promised respect and legitimacy to all of Mexico’s professionalized armed forces. At a time when Brazilian forces were preparing for deployment in Italy and the Mexican military’s official role in politics was being eliminated, World War II offered high Mexican officers much-desired glory. President Ávila Camacho himself expressed a personal wish to fight abroad, saying that only the presidency was keeping him from action.

Mexican air force pilots received training in the United States during 1944 and fought valiantly in Pacific air battles in 1945. The pilots who died in the campaign and the air force squadron itself came to personify Mexico’s unwavering commitment to the cause of the Allies during World War II, and, just as important, Mexico’s rightful claim to sit at the side of the victors. In the United States, the bad memories of Carranza’s World War I policy were being replaced by a recognition that without Mexican raw materials in U.S. factories, Foreign Minister Padilla’s Latin American diplomacy, Mexican bracero workers in U.S. agriculture and industry, and Mexican soldiers, as well as Mexican–American volunteers in all branches of the U.S. armed forces, the war effort of the United States against the Axis would have been less strong and self-assured. Most likely, a politically weaker Mexico would have been tolerant of German anti-American activities carried out from its territory. In Spanish-speaking Latin America, the Ávila Camacho administration’s relentless prodemocracy action justified Foreign Minister Padilla’s demand to act as mediator between the United States and Latin America, but also came as a distinctly Latin American voice within the newly formed United Nations. Mexico’s experiences and lessons from the Pan American Union of the 1920s and the League of Nations in the 1930s were now translated into the United Nations.

Then, the sudden retirement of Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and the death of President Roosevelt removed the staunchest pro-Mexico advocates from Washington. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and other members of the U.S. State Department resumed the Cold War against the Soviet Union within the Western Hemisphere as early as 1943. They revived unilateral pressure politics that failed to comprehend the particularities of Mexico’s leftist political culture. The departure of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Messersmith removed the last remaining pillar of the special U.S.–Mexican wartime relationship. Ezequiel Padilla continued his tenure as Mexican foreign minister and represented Mexico with distinction during the creation of the United Nations at the conference in San Francisco in 1942. His lone determination was not enough to avoid negative change.

Those in the United States who preferred to see the Western Hemisphere as one regional block, not as a set of discrete political entities with their own unique political agendas, were gaining ground in Washington. In the Western Hemisphere, World War II evolved into the Cold War. Miguel Alemán defeated Padilla easily in the 1946 presidential election and established his own relationship with the Truman administration.

Fueling the popular Mexican love–hate relationship with its neighbor to the north, the war had given new proof of the financial possibilities of mass tourism. The closure of the Pacific and Atlantic, the overhauling of the railway system, and the opening of the Pan American Highway had brought an unprecedented number of U.S. tourists south of the border. The penetration of Mexican movie houses by Hollywood films also continued after 1945. There was no alternative. Great Britain was bankrupt. The economies of Germany, France, Italy, and Japan were destroyed, and the Soviet Union was not interested in industrializing Mexico. Raw materials from other Latin American countries continued to compete with those from Mexico. More so than after World War I and the Revolution, the United States was the focus of Mexican foreign relations. From then on, the new context of the cold war produced a new variation on an all-too-familiar theme.


Mexican War I

Clockwise from top left: Winfield Scott entering Plaza de la Constitución after the Fall of Mexico City, U.S. soldiers engaging the retreating Mexican force during the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, American victory at Churubusco outside Mexico City, U.S. marines storming Chapultepec castle under a large American flag, Battle of Cerro Gordo

The United States had conquered California once before. In 1842, American Navy Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones sailed to Monterey and demanded surrender from the Mexican governor. He did so under the mistaken impression that Mexico and the United States were imminently to be at war. When he was assured this was not the case, he returned the Mexican governor to the seat of power and sailed away.

This interesting precedent did not do much to encourage pro-American feeling in the Mexican government, and the Mexicans spurned President Polk’s attempts to buy California. But it would appear that affronted pride rather than practicality guided Mexican policy, for if Commodore Jones could sail into Monterey once, he could do it again. California was sparsely populated with Mexicans and pacific Indians. More important, it already had a few American settlers—and Mexico should have known what that meant.

Polk certainly did. In 1845, he was encouraging the Americans in California to emulate their cousins in Texas and shake the sleepy territory with calls for liberty and annexation by the United States. Urgency was required not so much because of any aspect of Mexican policy, but because Polk feared the intentions of Britain—the Royal Navy appraisingly eyed the California coastline—and the Russian bear, who had established trading posts in California.

Meanwhile, Polk moved Zachary Taylor and the United States Army to protect Texas’s southwestern border with Mexico. Mexico had broken off diplomatic relations with the United States because of the annexation of Texas. Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico anyway demanding that Mexico pay off its debts (from bonds and other obligations) owed to the United States. But, of course, Slidell—rather the perfect name for a diplomat—had a deal. The debts could be cancelled if Mexico would affirm the Rio Grande as the Texas-Mexico border. In addition, if Mexico ceded the territories of New Mexico and California to the United States, the American government was willing to pay five million dollars for the former and many more millions of dollars—Mexico could set the price—for the latter.

The Mexican president José Joaquin de Herrera huffily refused to see Slidell, but was swiftly overthrown by General Mariano Paredes. General Paredes was adamant: any more yanqui talk about debts and purchases and annexations meant war. Polk’s response was: don’t mind if I do. He ordered Zachary Taylor across the Mexican-established Texas border (along the Nueces River) to a position 150 miles south along the Rio Grande (the border claimed by Texas). Taylor trained his guns on Matamoras, Mexico, which he blockaded. The American challenge was clear: come and get me. The Mexican army took the bait, ambushing a detachment of American dragoons, killing eleven of them. Polk now had the casus belli he wanted. The president, who noted in his diary that he regretted disturbing his Sabbath reflections working out the proper response, announced that Mexico had precipitated a war against the United States. This was truer than Polk knew, because the war was already under way. Neither the Mexican army nor Zachary Taylor waited for official word from Washington. President Polk requested a congressional declaration of war on 11 May 1846—after two major battles: Palo Alto (8 May) and Resaca de la Palma (9 May).

Much of America—especially the North—was skeptical. Polk, they thought, had manufactured an unnecessary war; it was an act of aggression to add more slave states to the Union. A young congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln was one of the doubters. In the event, congressional authorization for the war passed overwhelmingly in both houses. But it was the southern states closest to Texas that were full of enthusiasts and volunteers. They remembered the heroism of the Alamo, the outrage at Goliad, and the victory at San Jacinto. They brought down their muskets, kissed their sweethearts good-bye (or, if more rustic, packed up a big supply of chewing tobaccy), and mustered themselves into militias or volunteer units. Equally enthusiastic were the generals of the Mexican army, who hankered to repel Zachary Taylor, regain Texas, and even attack Louisiana.

The Mexican army numbered more than 30,000 men, while the American regular army was less than one-fourth that size. But what the Americans lacked in numbers, they made up for in the quality of their units and in the tens of thousands of volunteers who already knew how to handle a gun and weren’t afraid of nothin’—neither Indians, nor bears, nor Mexicans—and in fact rather enjoyed the idea of fighting and conquering for the United States. Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant—who would become no small judge of soldiers—wrote home proudly that “a better army, man for man,” than Zachary Taylor’s 2,300 men, “probably never faced an enemy.”

The Mexican army, on the other hand, though impressive in numbers, was ill-trained (for one thing, the soldiers nervously fired from the hip) and top-heavy. It had more officers than enlisted men, and its officers stood on their authority while their peon-class troops stood only until it became obvious that survival recommended fleeing in another direction. The best soldiers in the Mexican army were a special class of mercenaries the Mexicans acquired just before and during the hostilities: American deserters, specifically, Catholics—many of them Irishmen, who made up a quarter of the American enlisted ranks—who chafed under the harsh discipline of their commanders and felt drawn to their coreligionists (the Irish Catholic soldiers had no chaplains of their own in the U.S. Army). The Catholic deserters—whom the Mexicans actively recruited with claims that the United States acted as a Protestant power seeking to exterminate the Catholic Church in Mexico—formed the Batallón de San Patricio (Saint Patrick Battalion) under the command of an Irish-born private named John O’Reilly. The fighting Irish, like the tenacious Scotch, are natural-born soldiers; and so it proved here.

Meanwhile, Old Rough and Ready Zachary Taylor lived up to his name by playing rough and ready with martial law, executing a couple of foreign-born rankers (a Frenchman and a Swiss), before the official onset of hostilities, in order to discourage further desertions. In those days, admirable men like Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor treated “legality” with the proper respect it deserved: damn little. Practicality before pettifoggery is the law of reasonable men.

Such practicality also induced President Polk to refute the Mexican charge that the United States was fighting a religious war. The president asked American Catholic bishops for help, and two priests were dispatched to provide the sacraments for Catholic soldiers. The priests were officially civilians—there were no chaplain billets open to them—but they shared the hardships of the men. Mexican bandits murdered one of the priests and the other eventually fell prey to sickness and had to be sent home. From Washington, Zachary Taylor received a proclamation to be delivered to the Mexican people: “Your religion, your altars, and churches, the property of your churches and citizens, the emblems of your faith and its ministers shall be protected and remain inviolate…. Hundreds of our army, and hundreds of thousands of our people are members of the Catholic Church….” Whether this did much good is open to question. Mexican priests bemoaned the fact that the barbarian American volunteers were “Vandals vomited from Hell.” The American regular officers who had to deal with these violent, recalcitrant, and unwieldy Kentuckian, Tennessean, and Texan frontiersmen—about whom they themselves complained—no doubt sympathized. But focused on their task, the “Vandals vomited from Hell” made excellent soldiers.

The first major engagement was the Battle of Palo Alto (8 May 1846), where Mexican General Mariano Arista, having crossed the Rio Grande and failed to take Fort Texas, drew up his artillery, lancers, and infantry to confront Zachary Taylor’s army. In the ensuing artillery duel the American gunners—with the accuracy that was their trademark—got much the better of the Mexicans, and General Arista withdrew his men. At that night’s council of war Zachary Taylor seconded the opinion of Captain James Duncan: “We whipped ’em today and we can whip ’em tomorrow.” So the Americans pursued General Arista’s army and whipped ’em again, despite the Mexicans having well-laid battle lines at Resaca de la Palma and despite the Mexicans outnumbering the Americans by 4,000 men. The Americans whipped the Mexicans all the way back across the Rio Grande. In their flight, the Mexicans left their border town of Matamoros undefended.

In Old California things went even better. The American settlers declared their independence, and the California Bear Flag Republic was born. There was no California Alamo because when the California rowdies knocked on the door of California’s Commandante-General Mariano G. Vallejo and arrested him, they discovered he was actually on their side: he favored American annexation. California’s status as a great independent republic, a historical memory some of us still honor, lasted all of twenty-four days before Commodore John Sloat repeated Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones’s deft, if premature, capture of California by sailing into Monterey on 9 July 1846 and declaring that California was hereby annexed to the United States.

To the east, Colonel Stephen Kearny marched from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to New Mexico and took the territory without firing a shot, entering Albuquerque on 18 August 1846. Like the Californians, the New Mexicans welcomed annexation. When Kearny received news of action in California, he decided to rush his troopers across the desert to help the American cause.

He left a detachment of men in Santa Fe to take care of a few troublemaking Indians and Mexicans. He sent another unit south to assist in the invasion of central Mexico and link up with Zachary Taylor’s army. Kearny himself took a party of dragoons and, using Kit Carson as his scout, raced across the sands of Arizona and California. His men, hungry and haggard, were met not by California senoritas bearing margaritas (which, alas, had not been invented yet) but by Californio lancers at San Pasqual about forty miles northeast of San Diego. The lancers bloodied Kearny’s men in an engagement on 6 December 1846. Three officers were killed, and Kearny himself was among the wounded. But the Americans kept the field through the strength of their artillery. Kearny then withdrew his men to San Diego where the American Navy was already established. In league with Commodore Robert Stockton, Kearny rested, refitted, and reinforced his troops and marched them north, besting the Californios in two consecutive engagements—the Battle of the San Gabriel River (8 January 1847) and the Battle of La Mesa (9 January 1847). That was enough. California was won.

In Texas, fighting continued, and with equal ease Zachary Taylor’s men took Matamoros in May and Camargo in July 1846. And there, in what proved to be a pestilential location—full of scorpions, tarantulas, and disease that claimed the lives of one of every eight encamped soldiers, including a disproportionate number of volunteers—Taylor prepared his army for what would be its first testing encounter, at Monterrey.

The city’s geography, on high ground backed by the Santa Catarina River to the south, made it easily defended. The city itself was built like a fortress. The streets were blockaded. And the stone houses of the city were mini-blockhouses. A thousand yards north of the city was the Citadel, a real fortress that the Americans called the “Black Fort” for its dominating position on the field and the danger it posed to any American attack. In addition, the Mexicans had built two new forts—Fort Tenería and Fort Diablo—to defend the city’s eastern flank. To the west, the two hills that straddled the Saltillo Road leading into the city were well defended. Indepedencia Hill had Fort Libertad with 50 men and a couple of guns as well as the fortified ruins of a bishop’s palace held by another 200 men and four guns. On Federación Hill was Fort Soldado on its eastern side and a small gun emplacement on its western side. The Mexicans had more than 7,000 regular soldiers and forty-two guns at Monterrey. Against them, Taylor had 6,000 men.

Zachary Taylor faced a daunting military task, but he quickly discerned the hidden weakness of the Mexican position. Fort Tenería, Fort Diablo, the Citadel, the hill forts, and the city itself were so positioned that each could be isolated and unable to support the other. Unless the Mexicans massed to meet him on open ground, the fortifications could be tackled individually. Taylor, a strong believer in directly storming positions with bayonets—it worked against Seminoles, after all—authorized a more creative, if potentially dangerous, plan at Monterrey. He divided his troops for separate simultaneous assaults. The advantage lay in bypassing the Citadel. General William Worth’s division would strike the hill forts to the west while the rest of the army hit the newly constructed forts in the east and break into the city. The danger lay in dividing his forces and in trying to coordinate the assaults.

On the morning of 21 September 1846, the attack began. Worth’s men advanced on the Saltillo Road, hurling back charging Mexican cavalry and inflicting heavy Mexican losses. By nightfall they had seized—and were celebrating the capture of—Federación Hill. Zachary Taylor, meanwhile, tried to keep the defenders of the Citadel pinned down with artillery fire, while he gave Lieutenant Colonel John Garland ambiguous orders about striking from the east. Taylor had meant Garland’s to be a diversionary attack. Garland took it to be the lead of the main attack, and quickly got into trouble. His men got stuck in the sweet spot for the Mexican defenders where he was open to fire from the Citadel, the two eastern forts, and the city. More American units charged in to support him. Mexican fire stubbornly cut them down, but when the Americans didn’t withdraw, the Mexicans panicked. The commander at Fort Tenería and half his men ran away.

Colonel Jefferson Davis of the Mississippi Rifles saw his moment: “Now is the time! Great God! If I had 30 men with knives I could take the fort!” Even without those men, he and the other charging volunteers took it. But the reduction of Fort Tenería had taken until noon, and though artilleryman Braxton Bragg had managed to bring artillery up to the very streets of Monterrey, the rest of the day was a stalemate. Four hundred Americans, a quarter of them Tennesseans, were dead or wounded: a high price to pay for the capture of a single supporting fort.

On 22 September, Worth again took the lead, spending the day clearing the defenders from Independencia Hill—a job made easier by the Mexicans in the bishop’s palace choosing to charge the Americans rather than sit tight behind their defenses. On the other side of Monterrey, the Americans were disinclined to do anything but reorganize themselves for another try the next day. This was just as well, as the Mexican commander, General Pedro de Ampudia, abandoned Fort Diablo and his other outlying positions and concentrated his defenders in the city and at the Citadel.

The third day of battle did not look auspicious for the Americans. Worth’s men, though victors, had spent two nights in drenching rains, had scaled two hills, and had two full days of fighting—all without food. Their one great incentive to assault the city was to hit the larders. At the other end of Monterrey, the Americans began a reconnaissance in force that penetrated the city with minimal opposition. The Americans then cleared the defenders house by house, with tactics very similar to those that would be used today: breaking down doors (or walls), tossing in grenades, and then clearing the rooftops. From there, they provided covering fire for troops attacking the next house. Thus, the Americans methodically and efficiently advanced, with light artillery support, clearing blockaded streets. Worth never received orders, but at the sound of firing led his men into the battle and advanced house by house from the west.

The Americans did not press into the center plaza—where the civilians huddled in the cathedral, which General Ampudia was also using as an ammunition dump—but pulled back and dropped mortar rounds into it. As the shelling came closer to the cathedral, General Ampudia came closer to losing his nerve. Well before dawn, General Ampudia opened communications with Taylor that over the course of the next twenty-four hours led to the surrender of Monterrey. Taylor eventually conceded—under hard Mexican negotiating—extremely generous terms that allowed the Mexican army to evacuate the city with its arms and under cover of an eight-week armistice.

President Polk, when he learned of the terms, privately denounced Taylor for a lack of aggression. The Democrat Polk already suspected Taylor of Whiggish presidential ambitions—a military hero on a literal white horse (Old Whitey). Now he suspected him of being soft on Mexicans, too. It did not help that General Winfield Scott (a Whig) cheered Taylor’s “three glorious days,” which was how the battle appeared in the popular press. Taylor appointed Worth governor of Monterrey and set about using the armistice to patch up and rebuild his army.

Mexican War II


The United States had secured for Texas the border it wanted. It had seized the territories of California and New Mexico (which included the future states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and part of Colorado). So now what was the objective: to hold what had been taken, to demand—again—Mexico’s payment of debts, or to march into Mexico City and take over the government of Mexico?

The Mexican government had fallen into the hands of Santa Anna. At the outset of the war he had been in exile in Cuba. The United States connived in smuggling him back into Mexico on the understanding that he would broker a peace. Instead, he saw himself returning from exile, like his hero Napoleon from Elba, to grasp a second chance at glory. Ten years had passed since the Alamo. He was fifty-two years old, and short one leg—blown off by the French when they employed gunboat diplomacy to force Mexico to repay its debts. He did, however, have a seventeen-year-old second wife, which surely made the loss of a limb and the bruising of his ego easier to assuage. And now he had his great chance to defeat the yanquis who had wrested Texas from Mexico. He raised an army of 20,000 men and led them on a forced march north. Their goal: crush Zachary Taylor.

General Antonio López de Santa Anna was a military hero who became president of Mexico on multiple occasions. The Mexican Army’s intervention in politics was an ongoing issue during much of the mid-nineteenth century.

Generalissimo Santa Anna had to hurry, because the United States Navy was probing the Gulf of Mexico. In November 1846, the Navy plucked the Mexican port city of Tampico, and Santa Anna knew that the Americans’ ultimate goal was taking Vera Cruz and then Mexico City. But he assumed that if he defeated Taylor, he would give strength to antiwar critics in the United States, who derided the American invasion as “Mr. Polk’s War.” The peace party included such strange bedfellows as Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the war on moral and legal grounds; John C. Calhoun, who opposed it on constitutional ones and because he worried it would exacerbate conflict between the slave and free states; and such elder statesmen as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. Most Americans, however, took a more robust view, as captured in this little ditty:

Old Zack’s at Monterey,

Bring out your Santa Anner:

For every time we raise a gun,

Down goes a Mexicaner.

General Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers” and the most educated soldier in the Army, led the Vera Cruz expedition. He had the honor to inform Zachary Taylor (via letter) that he was taking 9,000 of his men—half of them regulars—plus two batteries of light field artillery, for his campaign. “Providence may defeat me,” wrote Scott, “but I do not believe the Mexicans can.”

Zachary Taylor’s leathery face turned the color of oxblood when he learned Scott intended to steal his men. He consoled himself by preparing to fight Santa Anna. “Let them come,” Taylor growled of the Mexican army. “Damned if they don’t go back a good deal faster than they came.” Brigadier General John E. Wool spotted the advancing Mexicans. With Taylor’s approval, he prepared positions eight miles south of Saltillo near the Hacienda Buena Vista on ground cut by ravines that favored the defense and limited the mobility of Santa Anna’s cavalry. On 2 February 1847, Santa Anna sent a messenger to Taylor informing him that he was surrounded and outnumbered, and requesting his surrender. Taylor replied true to form: “Tell Santa Anna to go to hell!”

That first day of battle was taken up with inconsequential skirmishing. The second day, however, was a decisive clash between 15,000 Mexican effectives and 5,000 Americans. Santa Anna made the most of his massed force, drawing them up in sight of the Americans, expecting the ruffians led by Old Rough and Ready to be awed by the Mexicans’ numbers, their European-style uniforms, the musical splendor of their bands, and the solemn dignity of the priests who passed through the ranks giving their blessings to the soldiers. But to the American volunteer regiments in particular this was all flummery. They licked their thumbs and moistened their musket sights for good luck, and settled down to do what they had come to do: kill Mexicans.

In the initial fighting, American artillery put a full stop to the Mexican advance on the narrow road to Buena Vista, but in the center-left of the American line on a plateau along the high ground, the Mexicans burst through with such vigor—if confused vigor—that General Wool moaned to Zachary Taylor: “General, we are whipped.” To which Taylor responded: “That is for me to determine.” He determined, rightly, that Wool was wrong, and he rushed the Mississippi Rifles under Jefferson Davis to plug the line. They did that—and drove the Mexicans back.

Santa Anna threw his lancers around the American left flank, charging to take Buena Vista. But Taylor was ready for that gambit and put his dragoons on the chase. They cut the lancers off and turned them away. Santa Anna thought he saw a new way around the Americans. He hurled another attack against Taylor’s left flank, this time farther out. But the Americans repelled it and inflicted heavy losses on the Mexicans.

The Americans, however, were also badly battered. Every American unit, save for the Mississippians, had at one point been forced to give ground. And the Americans had suffered heavy losses—including the desertion of 30 percent of their number when things got hot. Among the dead was a young officer, Henry Clay Jr., son of the antiwar politician who had campaigned against Polk for the presidency. Clay, cut off, wounded, and surrounded by Mexicans, fired his pistol until it was exhausted and the Mexicans killed him.

Taylor reinforced his lines, and as dawn broke, the Americans made an astonishing discovery: Santa Anna had withdrawn. The Americans were jubilant—and prudent. They returned to Monterrey and safety. Santa Anna, after a decent interval of pretending to wait for Taylor’s advance, raced back to Mexico City. By the time he got there, his army—bedraggled by casualties, forced marches, and no supplies—was reduced to 10,500 men.

Meanwhile, to the north, at Chihuahua, an army of Missouri volunteers led by the giant Colonel Alexander Doniphan had marched, and occasionally fought, all the way from Missouri through Santa Fe and El Paso, to prosecute the war across the Rio Grande. Doniphan had fewer than 1,000 fighting men. Drawn up ahead of him, north of the Sacramento River on the road to Chihuahua, was an army of 3,000 Mexican soldiers under the command of General García Condé and 1,000 Mexican volunteers. The Mexicans held the plateaus that stood on either side of the road. But, alerted by his scouts, Doniphan did the unexpected and swung his column wide to the right, unseen by the Mexicans, and came in behind the Mexican lines. Defeating Mexican cavalry that finally found them, Doniphan’s men then attacked the Mexican positions from the rear with artillery, cavalry, and infantry that closed to hand-to-hand combat. The American casualties were extraordinary: two killed, seven wounded. The Mexicans lost 300 dead, 300 wounded, and all their artillery pieces. The Battle of Sacramento (28 February 1847) was a triumph, leaving the capture of Chihuahua, fifteen miles south, a mere matter of marching. And after 2,000 miles, Doniphan’s men were well practiced at marching.

With Taylor retired to Monterrey and Doniphan set to join him, the focus of operations shifted south to where General Winfield Scott was preparing an unprecedented amphibious operation for the American Army and Navy—one that would not be equaled until the Second World War: the capture of Vera Cruz. The island fortress of San Juan de Ulúa guarded the coastal approach to the city, but Scott located an unguarded beach to the south and, in an operation remarkable not only for its size and complexity but for its lack of mishap, landed 10,000 men on 9 March 1847 at Collada Beach.

The next two weeks were spent throwing out a line of troops isolating Vera Cruz, skirmishing with the enemy, establishing artillery positions (this was done by Captain Robert E. Lee), and preparing the siege. On the late afternoon of 22 March, after General Juan Morales rejected Scott’s call to surrender, the bombardment began from Scott’s initial gun emplacements. The next day, American naval batteries opened up on the city. Two days later, all of Scott’s land-based batteries joined in. The pounding had its effect on the European consuls in the city. They demanded that General Morales stop risking civilian lives and surrender. Morales replied that he felt terribly unwell. He transferred command to his deputy, Brigadier General José Juan Landero, who sent a messenger to Scott requesting a parley. The Americans ceased fire and the Mexican negotiators began haggling. When Scott threatened to open up his guns again, it concentrated Mexican minds on the essentials, and on the evening of 27 March 1847, the City of the True Cross was surrendered to the Americans.

General Scott endeavored to treat it well. Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers went out of his way to conciliate the clergy, as a means to reconcile the Mexican people to American rule. With his love of pomp and ceremony, he encouraged his officers to attend the city cathedral in their dress uniforms, where he led a candle-lit procession. If his diplomacy paid him dividends in Heaven, it was certain that it paid dividends in the field, for the Church tilted in favor of the Americans and against Santa Anna. Santa Anna was not a strident anticlerical—in fact, his vice president, who led that faction, had just been deposed in a civil war in Mexico City—but like any dictator he saw the wealth of the Church as a tap house for the state. Given a choice, the Church preferred Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers.

Scott did not neglect strictly military matters. He was eager to be on the move, to escape the coastal region of Mexico before the yellow fever season. Santa Anna was just as eager to pen him in there and planned to do so fifty miles inland at Cerro Gordo, blocking one of two main roads that led to Puebla, the key point on the way to Mexico City. Mountains straddled the road, and on them Santa Anna assembled an army of 12,000 men. His position was well chosen, but he had made a fateful mistake. He had assumed that the rocky, mountainous terrain to the Mexican left was impenetrable. But Captain Robert E. Lee penetrated it and directed the carving of a trail behind Santa Anna’s batteries, with Cerro Gordo dead ahead.

General David Twiggs led his division along Lee’s road with orders to take a position on the plateau of La Atalaya, in preparation for the main assault on Cerro Gordo the next day. But after the tough march and skirmish to dislodge the Mexican pickets, Twiggs’s blood was up. “Charge ’em to hell,” he ordered his troops, and the Americans charged halfway to Cerro Gordo, where they were finally pinned down by Mexican fire, until they were recovered and brought back to Atalaya. The withdrawn lunge had the drawback of alerting Santa Anna to the American presence, but it had the benefit, for the Americans, of wrongly convincing Santa Anna that he’d just won the battle.

He had not. Winfield Scott was already making plans for the morrow to rout Santa Anna from Cerro Gordo and press on to Jalapa. If the battle did not go entirely to plan—General Gideon Pillow mismanaged his attack on the Mexican right—it went well enough. The main attack—and the only one that mattered—came from Twiggs, whose men charged into Cerro Gordo and spread panic in the Mexican ranks. Cut off from retreat, the Mexicans, including peg-legged Santa Anna, fled down any footpath they could find. An untold number of Mexicans were killed and 3,000 were captured and subsequently paroled by Scott, who could not hold so many prisoners. The next day, 19 April 1847, Scott’s army of 8,500 men rested in the city of Jalapa.

Here and at Puebla, Scott’s army paused. Some of his volunteers had their enlistments running out—fewer than one in ten re-upped for the duration of the war—and Scott let them go so that they could reach transports at Vera Cruz before the yellow fever season. He waited for new volunteer units to arrive, but he did not wait patiently. Politics, he feared, might do him in. He was traveling the national highway to Mexico City, a road built by Cortez and his conquistadors, and he felt himself a similarly embattled conqueror. “Like Cortez, finding myself isolated and abandoned, and again like him, always afraid that the next ship or messenger might recall or further cripple me, I resolved no longer to depend on Vera Cruz, or home, but to render my little army a self-sustaining machine.” Scientific soldier that he was, he could do it.


On 7 August 1847, he was on the march again, looking to close on Mexico City. In England, the Duke of Wellington followed the press accounts and took a keen interest in the campaign, charting Scott’s maneuvers on a map. The Iron Duke was pessimistic. “Scott is lost! He has been carried away by his successes! He can’t take the city, and he can’t fall back on his bases.” That was one point of view. But Captain Kirby Smith of Scott’s 3rd Infantry undoubtedly put the American soldiers’ view about their Mexican opponents: “What a stupid people they are! They can do nothing and their continued defeats should convince them of it. They have lost six great battles; we have captured six hundred and eighty cannon, nearly one hundred thousand stand of arms, made twenty thousand prisoners, have the greatest portion of their country and are fast advancing on their Capital which must be ours,—yet they refuse to treat!” From the infantryman’s point of view, there was fighting to be done, but the outcome was inevitable.

Scott’s “self-sustaining machine” of an army had restored itself to nearly 11,000 effectives, while Santa Anna’s Napoleonic gift for raising armies put more than 25,000 Mexicans in uniform and under arms for the defense of Mexico City. Once again, the Mexicans had the advantage of a solid defensive position: a marshy plain (some of it flooded) before the city, stout defenses around it, and the city itself resting on high ground.

Using Robert E. Lee again as a scout, Scott decided to leave the national highway—and thereby avoid the Mexican defenses at El Peñón—and approach Mexico City from the south on roads that straddled the Pedregal, an allegedly impassable volcanic waste that was five miles wide and three miles deep. On either side of that lava bed, the battles of Contreras and Churubusco were fought. And once again, Captain Robert E. Lee would find a path—this time through the Pedregal—where no path was supposed to be found.

The road on the eastern side of the Pedregal was the San Antonio Road; on the western side was the San Angel Road. The San Antonio Road was the more direct, but the Mexicans had a well-fortified position at San Antonio and not far behind it was Santa Anna’s main position along the Churubusco River. On the San Angel Road, the Mexican General Gabriel Valencia was supposed to be defending San Angel, where Santa Anna could easily reinforce him. Instead, Valencia—an officer of dubious reputation and on bad terms with Santa Anna—took up a position farther forward, and off the San Angel Road, across from the southwestern base of the Pedregal.

Mexican War III

Battle of Contreras during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel.

On 19 August 1847, the Americans launched a two-pronged advance on either side of the Pedregal, with the objective of meeting up to attack Santa Anna at Churubuso. Lee’s scout work, and the work of the engineers, broadened the path he discovered on the Pedregal and allowed the Americans to flank the Mexican position at San Antonio. Santa Anna, however, thought the San Antonio Road was secure. What worried him was the western side—the responsibility of General Valencia. The Americans, tying Valencia up in an artillery duel, had slipped 3,500 men onto the San Angel Road. But as evening fell the Americans faced the possibility of being trapped, because coming south to stop them were 3,000 Mexican reinforcements under Santa Anna’s personal command.

The American hero of the following morning, at the Battle of Contreras, was General Persifor Smith. Smith’s infantry was supporting Captain John Magruder’s artillery against Valencia’s front. But when he saw the danger to the American troops on the San Angel Road—potentially trapped between Santa Anna and Valencia—Smith brought his brigade to the rescue. Early on the morning of 20 August, Smith launched the attack he had organized during the night: a demonstration against Valencia’s front, while the Americans on the road hurled a three-pronged assault at Valencia’s left flank.

The morning was cold and wet, and Valencia’s troops, whose hopes rested on Santa Anna’s reinforcements, saw to their dismay that Santa Anna’s men had withdrawn. (Santa Anna had sent orders to Valencia to withdraw with him, which Valencia had ignored.) The next thing they saw was charging Americans. The Mexicans fled, 700 were killed, more than 800 were taken prisoner, and thousands melted away—and those that fled up the road were met by an infuriated Santa Anna, who struck about him with a riding whip. Valencia’s army no longer existed, and if Santa Anna had his way, Valencia would not long exist either—he issued orders for his execution.

Santa Anna now withdrew his men. The San Angel Road was cleared, and the San Antonio Road soon would be. Ahead lay the bridges across the Churubusco leading the way into Mexico City. And it was here that the Mexicans fortified their next line of defense. The Americans had two objectives at Churubusco: seize the bridge across the river and clear the fortified convent of San Mateo.

The bridge looked to be easily taken; the only obstacle was the mass of Mexican troops retreating across it. The convent proved to be the tougher nut; the Mexican defenders—including soldiers from the Batallón de San Patricio—put up a stiff defense. They repelled the hastily organized and sloppily executed initial American assaults, and even defeated the American gunners in an artillery duel.

Meanwhile, the Americans easily took the outer defenses of the bridge. At the heavily fortified tête du pont, however, the defenders outnumbered the attackers three to one and blunted two American charges that were made with reckless overconfidence. No engineers had scouted the position first. The mood of the American troops plummeted from enthusiasm to dangerous self-doubt.

But they had help in the shape of a flanking maneuver, with troops crossing the river to the west, bypassing the convent and coming onto the road behind the bridge to cut off the Mexican retreat and pressurize the defenders at the tête du pont. Santa Anna saw it developing and reinforced the road, so that the flanking Americans ran not into panicked Mexicans, but into Mexican troops pouring musket balls at them. Now, however, the American troopers at the bridgehead showed the grit that had got them this far. After three hours of fighting, they roused themselves for a mighty bayonet charge that filled their general, William Worth, with “wonder” and “gratitude” as they swept the bridge and saved General Scott’s army from stalling out before the great prize of Mexico City. With the bridge in American hands, American artillery bombarded the convent, reducing enough of it to rubble so that the Americans could charge over it and invest the defenders in their final redoubt. Because the San Patricios kept tearing the white flag from the hands of Mexicans trying to surrender, the American Captain James Smith raised a white handkerchief, which the Mexicans gratefully saw as their salvation from certain death, throwing down their arms. Even the eighty-five surviving San Patricios realized their battle was over.

The last remaining job was clearing the road, north of the bridge, where the American flankers were still meeting with murderous resistance. Mounted riflemen and dragoons finally drove the Mexicans back, but in their excitement, a handful of hard-charging dragoons who didn’t hear the bugler sound recall charged all the way to the gates of Mexico City. Enemy fire that cost Captain Philip Kearny an arm finally reminded the dragoons to return to their comrades.

The road to Mexico City was open for the taking, but Scott decided his troops had had enough fighting for one day. If Mexico City would not capitulate peacefully, if it had to be taken by force, let it be done with cool consideration, not with ragged men whose blood was up. He had already suffered a thousand casualties, more than 130 of them killed. The Mexicans, however, had done far worse, with 10,000 men killed, wounded, or missing, and with 2,637 men, by Winfield Scott’s count (including eight generals and two former presidents), held as prisoners of war.

Santa Anna requested a truce, seeing this as his only means to gain time to shore up the defenses of Mexico City. General Winfield Scott agreed to it, assuming that a spirit of accommodation would lead to peace and conciliate Mexican pride. The Mexicans, of course, were not conciliated but kept busy by Santa Anna, while Scott’s men grew restive, wondering why they were waiting and knowing damn well what the high-minded Scott chose to ignore: Santa Anna was playing Scott for a fool. After two weeks, even Scott had to concede that the Mexican peace negotiators were not serious and that Santa Anna was violating the truce. So the battle for Mexico City began.

Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel.

There were three fortifications blocking Scott’s way: the stone fortress and earthworks at Casa Mata; the gathering Mexican cavalry at Molino del Rey (where church bells were suspected of being melted and cast into cannons); and the towering Castle of Chapultepec. The stone buildings at Molino del Rey were only 1,000 yards from Chapultepec. Casa Mata was only 500 yards ahead of Molino del Rey and between them lay an artillery battery. The positions were mutually reinforcing, and the Americans estimated the combined number of Mexican defenders at an imposing 12,000 to 14,000, though it might well have been fewer. If accurate, it meant the Mexicans outnumbered Scott’s entire army two to one.

Nevertheless, Scott assumed that Casa Mata and Molino del Rey could be snapped off easily and sent 3,500 men under the command of General William Worth to do the snapping. Worth’s plan was sound: cut off the road to Chapultepec and attack Molino del Rey from the right, engage the Mexican batteries with his own and bombard the Molino, deploy dragoons to scare off any Mexican cavalry, and detach separate assault units to storm Casa Mata and the Molino. The Molino was first taken by a bayonet charge, with the Americans seizing the Mexican guns and turning them against the defenders. But when the Mexicans saw how small the assault unit was, they counterattacked and inflicted heavy casualties. American troops striking down from the Chapultepec road came to the rescue of the beleaguered assault unit and took the Molino in fierce close quarters combat.

Now the Americans focused their attack on Casa Mata, and in their haste relied not on bombardment—the American artillery and some badly outnumbered dragoons were holding off Mexican cavalry and other enemy reinforcements—but on another bayonet charge, which succeeded. The price, however, was steep. Reducing the two Mexican positions cost the Americans 800 casualties, more than 100 of them dead. Among the dead were wounded men whom the Mexicans had murdered, in some cases by slitting their throats. The Americans would not forget.

Scott pressed on. He ordered the reduction of Chapultepec. His intrepid engineer Captain Robert E. Lee thought Chapultepec best avoided and Mexico City best attacked directly from the south. Scott overruled him after staff officer Lieutenant Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard supported Scott’s original plan for investing Chapultepec and then approaching the city from the west. Scott hoped to subdue the castle by bombardment alone, and hoped further that once the castle fell Mexico City might be surrendered without a shot—his constant humanitarian wish.

In the event, the Mexicans did not buckle under the daylong bombardment. It was Scott’s men who were in need of hope when they assembled on the morning of 13 September 1847. The bloody battles at Churubusco and Molino del Rey gave them a very sober assessment of what storming Chapultepec—used as a military college, and with 100 cadets among its 1,000 defenders—might mean.

Scott’s attack was well designed, with demonstrations to keep Santa Anna guessing where the main attack would be launched, which, in turn, kept him from reinforcing Chapultepec. The Americans were up and over the exterior walls of the castle grounds and advanced steadily uphill to the castle proper. Here they were compelled to wait for a miserably long quarter of an hour, under constant Mexican fire, for their scaling ladders to arrive. Then the ladders were thrown up, a few came falling back—with men attached—but so many ladders went up that the Americans were soon into the castle, forcing the defenders from the ramparts and cutting them down wherever they could find them. The Mexicans surrendered—except for the cadets, six of whom jumped to their deaths rather than become prisoners of the yanquis.

As he watched the American flag rise over the castle, Santa Anna sensed his doom: “I believe that if we were to plant our batteries in Hell the damned Yankees would take them from us.” One of his despairing officers added: “God is a Yankee.” If so, He is a Yankee who made good use of future Confederates—and not just in Captain Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Pierre G. T. Beauregard, but in Lieutenant James Longstreet, who was wounded here; Lieutenant Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who displayed his oblivious imperturbability under fire; Navy Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, who directed artillery; Artillery Captain John Magruder; Lieutenant Joseph E. Johnston leading four companies of Voltigeurs (self-proclaimed elite light infantry); Colonel Jefferson Davis of the Mississippi Rifles; and Lieutenant George Pickett, who tore down the Mexican flag and ran up the Stars and Stripes. Among those cheering the American flag were thirty condemned Patricios, watching from the plains below. They stood on mule-led wagons. Nooses were round the deserters’ necks. Their cheers died when the mules trotted forward.

For the Americans, the cheers were just beginning. Chapultepec had fallen in two hours. Mexico City lay ahead. Brigadier General William Worth led his men against the city from the west, while Major General John Quitman slugged straight up the direct road from Chapultepec. Scott envisioned Quitman’s attack as a feint, but Quitman saw himself in a race with Worth to claim the prize. Both forces spent the day smashing through the Mexican barricades, infantry, and artillery that guarded the city approaches, with Quitman’s units taking heavy casualties. By evening it was obvious that the Americans were unstoppable and Santa Anna escaped with 5,000 men to Guadalupe Hidalgo in a forlorn, desperate belief that he would fight another day. As his parting gift to the American conquerors he opened the city’s prisons, hoping the criminals would do their worst to ruin Scott’s dream of a calm and orderly occupation.

On the morning of 14 September 1847 the white flag of surrender flew over Mexico City. General Worth occupied the western quarter of the city, but General Quitman got his wish and marched his men (though the general had lost one of his shoes in the fighting) to the Grand Plaza, claiming the capital. He assigned his accompanying United States Marines the task of rounding up the criminals and shoving them behind bars, something the leathernecks did with their usual dispatch after Marine Lieutenant A. S. Nicholson raised the American flag over the National Palace, known as the Halls of Montezuma. As General Scott rode into the city in the full fig of his dress uniform and with a party of dragoons, he saw that his wish had come true. Not only was Mexico City his, but Mexicans were lining the streets waving white handkerchiefs in honor of the conquering hero.

There was some continued scattered resistance, but it was crushed quickly and in force. The city was put under martial law, the streets were patrolled, and the combination of no-nonsense policing and Scott’s orders demanding magnanimity and good discipline had the city well pacified within a month. Meanwhile Santa Anna tried to attack the American garrison at Puebla, but his men would do no more than settle into a lazy siege. Other Mexican officers tried to inspire a guerilla war, aiming at Scott’s extended lines of communications. But the American forces were not so vulnerable, the guerillas became bandits (preying largely on the Mexicans themselves), and there was no ignition of partisan guerilla warfare.

Indeed, the obvious answer to Scott’s conquest of Mexico, which only a few generous and farsighted men recognized—including some Mexican leaders who tried and failed to convince Winfield Scott to take up their cause—was the incorporation of the entire country into the United States, which would have had the immediate effect of improving Mexican civil and economic life and adding tropical Catholic charm to the industrious Yankee Republic. And by dramatically enlarging the southern states, perhaps some of the steam building up between North and South could have been dissipated.

But if that chance was neglected, it should not detract from what was achieved. Scott’s magnificent performance won him plaudits from the Duke of Wellington, who dubbed Scott the “greatest living soldier”—presumably excluding the duke himself, given his retirement from soldiering. Ambassador Nicholas Trist, by negotiating the Treaty of Hidalgo (signed on 2 February 1848), gained every territorial demand President Polk had wanted, and as a consolation to the Mexicans, granted them financial compensations such as had been offered before the war. Polk rewarded his general and his diplomat by sacking them. Such is the prerogative of chief executives who are little men.

Polk the politician, however, knew very well what he was doing: dismissing a potential political rival in Scott and a diplomat whom he thought too easy on the Mexicans and who had ignored a presidential summons recalling him to Washington. (Trist negotiated his treaty with the Mexicans in knowing insubordination.) If Polk was handed a fait accompli in the Treaty of Hidalgo, he did his best to sell it to the Senate, in which passage was in doubt. Polk said, presciently: “If the treaty in its present form is ratified, there will be added to the United States an immense empire, the value of which twenty years hence it would be difficult to calculate.”

The treaty, with minor changes, was approved. And then came the irony. President Polk’s other general—Zachary Taylor—became the Whig candidate for president in the 1848 election, defeating Polk’s fellow Democrat Lewis Cass. Polk left the White House, returned to Tennessee, and promptly died. But his gift to the United States of another great imperial acquisition, as great as the Louisiana Purchase, puts him, neglected as he is in popular memory, in the front rank of American presidents.

Africa – The Ultimate Frontier I

Battle of Alcazarquivir (Alcácer Quibir)

Europeans living in the Early Modern era were ignorant of Africa because they not only considered it peripheral to their interests, but because they were acquainted only with the continent’s outer margins. Europeans who had made it to China, to India, to the Ottoman Empire, were amazed by the rich and colourful cultures there, by the power of the rulers, and the self-confidence of their people; and they had eagerly brought back art and foods from their visits. Their response to Africa was very different; they found the native costumes, dwellings, and weaponry of the coastal peoples exotic but unimpressive. Had the Europeans not feared the tropical diseases, the unfamiliar jungles and dangerous animals, and the heat, they might have learned more, and been more impressed, but the African coastline lacked convenient harbours and the interior could not be penetrated by simply sailing up the great rivers; hence, they knew little even about the great Songhai Empire in the Niger Valley. Timbuktu became a synonym for an incredibly exotic place that no one could reach. Many attribute this lack of interest to racism, but ethnocentrism might be a better word. Certainly that word would be less confrontational and less judgmental.

Europeans did eventually confront Africa, but in ways very different from their earlier encounters with the New World or the Ancient East.

North Africa

Africa was a huge continent with much variety. There were rainforests, deserts, mountains, lakes, lots of insects, and people of every height and colour imaginable. And the native peoples had not always remained in the homelands of their ancestors, but migrated, sometimes slowly, occasionally very quickly, either to escape troubles or to find better lands. Scholars tell us that colonial boundaries were irrational, but that it would have been impossible to draw better ones, because nomads and farmers were not strictly separated; and some tribes had welcomed refugees to settle on their poorest land. Understanding this is particularly important in following the story of Muslims penetrating into Black Africa from the desert, and Christians pressuring the same peoples from the coasts.

The peoples of the Mediterranean and northwestern coastlands were not black, but a combination of native peoples (Berbers being the generic term to describe their languages and cultures) and Arabs. Europeans lumped all these people together as Moors, a term not used often today because of its lack of precision and because its Greek root means ‘dark’. The darkness came partly from the intense sun, partly from the importation of black slaves, and partly from the looks that the Moors cast at Europeans.

Buying (or taking) black slaves over the past millennium had darkened the complexion of parts of the population, but the Ottomans who ruled the northern coastland were also importing white slaves—like the Circassians taken by Turks, or the Poles and Russians rounded up by Tatars, or Irish and Icelanders captured by Barbary pirates. The slaves came from diverse lands, some from the Caucasus Mountains, some from European borderlands or a few from distant islands, but others were prisoners-of-war or captured sailors; an ever large number came from raids on the Spanish and Italian coasts, so many that in the 1600s white slaves employed in raising sugar, rice and other crops in North Africa may have outnumbered the black slaves in North America. Sometimes the Ottomans made these prisoners into elite warriors, favouring them over natives because it was possible to punish or even execute them without offending relatives. Also, time out of mind Christian warriors had hired themselves out as mercenaries, often as personal bodyguards to Muslim rulers of the coastal states. Having no interest in the complicated politics, they could be trusted to concentrate on safeguarding their employer.

The thinly populated Barbary Coast (modern Algeria and Libya) was dotted with ports that flourished from trade and piracy, activities that were occasionally difficult to tell apart; and from time immemorial their captains had yielded to the temptation to capture ships belonging to European competitors. Crusaders had attempted to eliminate Islamic corsairs as a threat to Christian shipping and Italian and Spanish coastal towns; of course, they attacked Muslim ships and raided coastal towns, too. Each side claimed to be acting in self-defence or in retaliation, or to be performing great feats of arms as champions of their respective religions.

Around 1500 two great warriors from one Muslim family changed the conflict from small scale warfare to a struggle involving all the major powers of the Mediterranean. Aruj (c1474-1518) was the elder brother, the emir of a small principality in Algeria. His father had been a Janissary (hence, most likely, of Balkan ancestry) stationed on the Greek island of Lesbos and his mother had been the widow of a Greek priest. When he was a young man he had been captured by the Knights of Malta and made into a galley slave—one of the worst fates possible since it meant a short lifetime of hard labour chained to a rowing bench, often exposed to the hot sun. After being ransomed, he took his revenge by attacking Christian vessels. His fleet was no larger than twelve galleys, but his captains struck hard at Spanish commerce and upset Spanish military operations against the French—once he captured a ship with hundreds of troops on board, presumably making all of them into slaves. Having a flaming red beard, he was called Barbarossa, a name that his brother Khizr inherited after Aruj’s death in spite of not sharing that characteristic. Little more is known of the first Barbarossa other than his dying in battle while opposing a Spanish/Berber army led by Charles V (1500-58), the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor who was conquering many of the cities along the Algerian coast.

Khizr (Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, 1478-1546), who at the time he met Suleiman the Great (Sultan 1520-66) commanded no more than 800 Ottoman soldiers, nevertheless received instructions to build a great navy. He completed this so quickly that he was given command. Soon he was famed even among his enemies—the legendary Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560) called him ‘the Great Corsair’. What made Barbarossa so dangerous was that the French king provided him bases in France that he could use to attack Charles V’s lines of communication with Italy. Before Barbarossa retired to the comforts of Istanbul, he had made the Ottoman navy supreme across vast stretches of the Mediterranean Sea.

After the natural death of the aged Suleiman on campaign in 1566, while moving up the Danube toward Vienna, his successors stayed away from battlefields. Instead, they entrusted command to their grand viziers, who were experienced administrators and commanders. The sultans limited their activities to what they did best—harem politics and watching their grand viziers for signs of excessive ambition. Many of the grand viziers were technically slaves, taken in boyhood from their Christian parents and trained in their future duties—the best being selected for the most important duties. This gave the Ottoman sultans more talented commanders than Christian monarchs who gave out military positions only to high-born nobles.

It seemed, according to the dramatic narrative of Roger Crowley, Empires of the Sea, that by 1571 a divided Christendom could not expect to defeat the magnificent forces of the Ottoman grand vizier, Lala Mustafa Pasha (1500-80) who had the great advantage of being able to give orders and expect them to be obeyed. Catholic Europe was led by a hyper-cautious Philip II of Spain (1527-98), who could not forget the naval disaster at Djerba in 1560; Venetians remembered equally vividly the 1537 battle of Preveza, where the Holy League had tried to challenge Barbarossa—they blamed the defeat on Andrea Doria’s refusal to come to their aid. Christian disunity had almost led to the fall of Malta in 1565—a siege of epic proportions—and made it impossible for Venice to hold Nicosia and Famagusta on Cyprus in 1571. The only good result from the eight-month defence of Famagusta, in the Christians’ eyes, was that it cost the Ottomans 80,000 men they would have had only months later at the battle of Lepanto.

That famous victory reestablished European naval prestige briefly. The collision of two gigantic fleets—that of the Holy League (200 galleys and six large hybrid galleys/sailing vessels) being slightly smaller than the Ottoman force, but having more cannon—developed into an infantry battle on water, with the Christians having more men wearing armour and using firearms. One of the Ottoman squadrons was led by an Italian convert to Islam—Uluj Ali (1519-87), born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni in southern Italy. Captured by Barbarossa and, like many of his fellows, offered the choice between ordinary slavery and becoming a rich pirate, he chose to convert. Among the few Muslim commanders to survive the disaster, he was welcomed in Istanbul for returning safely with the giant banner of the Knights of Malta that he had taken from their flagship. Subsequently he became pasha of Algiers, then admiral of the Ottoman fleet.

The Ottoman sultan quickly replaced the lost ships, then ordered them to push cautiously westward along the coast, driving the Spanish from Algeria, deposing their native Muslim allies, and reaching almost to Morocco. This was the end of Christian hopes to conquer these coasts and the beginning of Ottoman rule.


The same weakness that made Algeria vulnerable to attack allowed the Portuguese to capture ports in Morocco—Ceuta in 1415, Tangiers in 1471, and smaller cities in the early 1500s. Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) had seen Morocco as a jumping off point for explorations that would lead to the gold fields of Ghana. However, the heavy ships of the Mediterranean were unsuited to ocean travel, and their large crews consumed too many supplies. This problem was overcome by using a lighter sailing vessel, the caravel, which adopted the lateen sail used by Arab sailors; later this was combined with the well-known square sail to produce fully-rigged vessels that could withstand almost any storm. The next delay was caused by sailors’ fears of unknown shores and winds—sailing south along the African coast was no problem, since Prince Henry’s ships had a tail wind, but coming home against those same winds was testing. Nevertheless, in 1481 the Portuguese were able to build a fortress at Elmina in Ghana that Christopher Columbus visited shortly afterward; this post was profitable for both buyer and seller because it cut out the Muslim middlemen.

Moroccans, meanwhile, were experiencing Ottoman pressure from Algeria. Fortunately for them, they understood European weaponry well, a knowledge they applied effectively against the Turks. It was more difficult to resist the Portuguese aggression that began in 1576, because the Portuguese were not operating at the end of a long supply line. The new sultan, Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik, had just returned from exile to seize the throne, and his counterpart was Sebastian I (Dom Sebastião, 1554-78), an inbred, obstinate, gifted and ambitious young man.

King Sebastian was very aware that his captains were easily establishing trading posts along the African and Brazilian coasts and that his governors had repelled challenges to their domination of the Indian trade; in short, his captains seemed invincible. In contrast, Morocco appeared to be weak. A successful crusade there would bring Morocco over to Christianity (or at least make Portuguese exploitation possible) and open central Africa to European trade.

Under normal circumstances not even a prince as active and intellectually curious as Sebastian would have dared think so extravagantly, but he had come into possession of a rival to the Sultan, Abu Abdallah. The presence of Abdallah in his army, and a supposedly weak Abd al-Malik on the other side caused the battle of Alcazarquivir (Alcácer Quibir) to be known as the Battle of the Three Kings.

There was an important back story to the campaign. Abdallah al-Ghalib Billah (1517-74) had become Sultan in 1557 after his father was assassinated by Barbarossa’s son on Ottoman orders. Immediately he had consolidated power by eliminating possible rivals—that is, killing his brothers. This practice was well-known in Islamic states because harems produced numbers of ambitious sons whose only hope to rule, or even do anything in life, was to lead a successful rebellion. However, he failed to capture Abd al-Malik, who had fled to Algeria and become a soldier for the Ottoman governor. When al-Ghalib Billah died, leaving power to a son, Abu Abdallah, instead of to a surviving brother—as custom required—Abd al-Malik raised a mercenary army from his Ottoman troops and seized power. When Abu Abdallah asked the Portuguese king for mercenary troops to recover his kingdom, Sebastian agreed to provide them, but only on the condition that he lead the army himself and share in the benefits of victory. Sebastian began to assemble his army in 1578, borrowing men from the king of Spain. Though Philip II subsequently signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans, the young Portuguese monarch pressed on. Sebastian believed that he had the resources to prevail, most importantly because of 2,000 Italians employed by Thomas Stukley (1525-78).

Stukley—a former pirate, mercenary, and possibly an illegitimate son of Henry VIII—was just the man for such a wild-eyed project. His original plan had been to land in Ireland, raise volunteers, then overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Stukley’s career as an adventurer had begun during the reign of Queen Mary, when he had fought in the army she had sent to the Spanish Netherlands to support of her husband, Philip II. After Mary’s death he entered the retinue of Lord Dudley, one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites, serving occasionally as a pirate. His activities in Scotland and Ireland are worthy of a novelist’s talents, but it was his proposal to Philip II to overthrow Elizabeth and restore Catholicism to England that is best known. He was distracted by the battle at Lepanto, where he fought with distinction, then his plans to invade Ireland and England were delayed by the competing ambitions of more exalted personalities. It was only in 1578 that the Pope gave him 2,000 men for the Irish enterprise. It was not difficult to divert these men to the Moroccan expedition.

Stukley’s men were well-equipped with muskets, and they had far more self-confidence than the situation warranted—they counted on a mass formation of pikemen to fend off the expected cavalry attack, then to push forward and break the enemy’s infantry, which would have been shot to pieces by the musketeers. In addition, Sebastian had the usual assortment of German and Spanish mercenaries, but the bulk of the 23,000 Europeans in the royal army were Portuguese, the best his nation could raise. Awkwardly, the king could not bring many horses on his ships, but he had good European infantry and the horsemen raised by his Muslim ally, Abu Abdallah. Surely this army was sufficient to conquer any kingdom along the Atlantic or Mediterranean coast of Africa. This was especially true if their opponent was, as rumour had it, mortally ill.

Abd al-Malik had about 100,000 men, some of whom were anti-Christian fanatics, descendants of Moors expelled from Spain after 1492. The two armies faced each other across a small river, the Christian-Muslim forces drawn up in a European-style formation, infantry in the centre, relying on their firearms to sweep the enemy away. It is not clear why Sebastian stood on the defensive, but that may have been the best choice considering the terrain and the unexpected numbers of horsemen in the opposing army. Sebastian commanded the Christian cavalry on one wing, with Abu Abdallah commanding the Muslim cavalry on the other. Abd al-Malik ignored the infantry, while using his superior numbers to surround Abu Abdallah, then closed in for hand-to-hand fighting. The Portuguese king led his horsemen forward, but disappeared quickly (his body was never found); Abu Abdallah was killed at some unknown point. Stukley commanded the centre of the line, which was holding out well until his legs were torn off by a cannonball. After that order broke down. His men found themselves fighting for their lives, flight impossible. When both kings and about a third of their men were dead, the rest of the army, perhaps 15,000 men, surrendered. Only perhaps a hundred fugitives made it to the coast alive; the rest of the Europeans became slaves.

Abd al-Malik had died, too, though no one had noticed immediately. The exertion of combat had been too much for him. He was succeeded by his imprisoned brother, Ahmad I al-Mansur (1549-1603).

The leaderless Portuguese kingdom collapsed, Philip II of Spain moving in to make himself king. It would not be the last time that Europeans attempted to establish footholds on the Moroccan coast, but there would be no serious effort to conquer the entire state until the nineteenth century.

Africa – The Ultimate Frontier II

Morocco and Songhai

The new Sultan of Morocco reflected carefully on the lessons of the battle of Alcazarquivir. His councillors were still confident in the superiority of their traditional weapons and tactics, but he had been impressed by the effectiveness of the Christian infantry. Al-Mansur imagined how the European weapons could be employed in the lightly populated centre of the continent, where the Songhai state had been recently shaken by civil war. Moreover, Moroccan trade with Songhai was being undermined by European merchants on the coast. Ships could carry so much merchandise that the Christians could undercut the prices of Islamic merchants, who had to pack their wares across the Sahara; and in the case of weapons, the Muslims would not sell them to their enemies at all.

Al-Mansur’s informants led him to believe that Songhai would not be able to respond effectively to a well-planned invasion. In late 1590, a dozen years after becoming sultan, he announced to his council that he was sending an army of 3,000-4,000 troops and thousands of pack animals and their handlers on a four-month march across 1,000 miles of desert to the Songhai capital at Timbuktu. His commander was Judar Pasha, a European-born slave and eunuch; the goal was to acquire access to the gold mines and salt, so that he could pay for the European commodities his subjects desired—this had become increasingly difficult now that Portugal’s Brazilian plantations were selling sugar cheaper than his subjects could. His force was outnumbered, but it included Turkish mercenaries and Christian bodyguards, matchlocks and cannon. The language of command was Spanish, a reflection of the importance of Iberian mercenaries in the campaign.

The Songhai Empire had been important since the early 1400s, stretching along the Niger River from the cataracts near the sea north and west for a thousand miles to distant gold fields. Its wealth came from trade, selling gold, ivory, salt and human beings across the desert to Morocco and to the Mediterranean coast. Fervently Islamic in faith, its orientation was northward. To the south lay forests, disease and paganism; it was much safer for Songhai warriors to stay in the drier but healthy regions of the Upper Niger River Valley, where the pasture land was more extensive than it is today.

The Songhai rulers were generally, but not consistently, tolerant toward the pagan practices of the southern people; as long as those peoples were divided, they were no danger, but could be exploited easily and cheaply. One ruler, Askia Muhammed I (reigned 1493-1528) had made the pilgrimage to Mecca with 500 cavalry and 1,000 infantry, establishing Songhai’s reputation for being fabulously exotic and rich. This legendary wealth had attracted al-Mansur’s attention, first for gold, then for salt—the exchange was often equal weight of one for the other.

Most of all, the sultan saw that the Songhai state was weak. Dynastic quarrels followed the death of each king; brutal efforts at imposing Islamic customs were resented both by desert nomads and farmers of the bush, all of whom believed in magic and who carefully treasured memories of past outrages. Vassal chiefs knew that their predecessors had been slain, their sons gelded and their daughters sold into slavery; and merchants resented the taxes. The royal processions were splendid and the king’s army made a brave display, but Moroccan merchants could see that the Songhai Empire was a case of the least weak ruling the weaker.

The harem system had always encouraged jealousy and fear, and when the last great sultan died in 1582, the multiplication of potential heirs had reached its logical (and disastrous) outcome—civil war.

The Invasion

In late 1590 al-Mansur’s hold on Morocco was at last secure. He had warded off European and Ottoman challenges, then expanded his kingdom into the interior, seizing some of the valuable salt mines that were central to Saharan trade. Overseas trade with Ireland, England and even Italy was prospering, and his enemies were involved in desperate wars on distant frontiers. It was an opportunity to break free of his financial troubles, those caused by the need to pay his mercenaries, by seizing the salt and gold of the African interior. Of course, his councillors were all against the expedition—it was a long journey over one of the more formidable deserts in the world, with almost no pastures and only a handful of water holes—and those were capable of supporting only small parties. He rejected this advice, heaping scorn on their caution and pointing out the advantages that gunpowder weapons and good cavalry had over men armed only with spears and bows. The numbers had to be small, he agreed, in order to cross the desert successfully, but if the troops were good, they could prevail. Conducting a siege without great cannons would be difficult, but the enemy, not knowing what they were up against, would probably come out to fight rather than watch their country ravaged.

The losses on the march must have been appalling, so it would have been wise for the Songhai king to have marched out to meet the Morrocans before they had recovered from their desert ordeal, but he did not; even his orders to fill in the wells had apparently not reached the nomad Tuareg chiefs—or they had disobeyed. Had that elemental step been taken, the Moroccan army might had died in the desert. However, the Tuaregs were Berbers; though they had little love for Arabs, they were always reluctant to take orders from anyone.

Fortunately for the Moroccans, the Songhai had not read Kenneth Chase’s analysis in Firearms of the difficulties that armies face in a desert. The demands for water, food and fodder were so great that infantry usually had to turn back after two days, cavalry after only one. Had the army been supplied with camels, it would have done better, but it appears that the Moroccans were counting on using their horses in battle. The Moroccans must have been very relieved not to have to fight for each watering place along the march, but they probably did not worry about poison—nomads were not suicidal.

Judar Pasha’s army met the Songhai host in March 1591 in the short and violent battle of Tondibi. The mercenaries had been greatly outnumbered, but their enemies lacked the will to fight. The Songhai king drove a herd of cattle at the northerners, but volleys of infantry weapons and cannon frightened the cattle, causing them to charge back through the king’s forces, after which there was little organised resistance. Judar Pasha allowed his men to sack the cities and towns, after which he reestablished order and made himself governor, ruling from Timbuktu.

The victors were disappointed to discover that the fabled cities were collections of mud buildings, and that the gold had been taken away or hidden; worse, the gold fields were still far away, deep in Black Africa to the west. In Gao, the first city captured, the invaders found a Portuguese cannon that the Songhai warriors had not known how to use, a crucifix and a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was a fitting symbolism of Songhai military backwardness.

However, the Songhai king had survived the battle. From a safe distance he tried to pay the invaders to leave, but they refused—the gold he offered made them more eager to stay, not less. Nevertheless, the mercenaries saw little reason in holding onto their conquest, True, Timbuktu had an impressive mosque, learned scholars and some evidence of wealth, but the mercenaries had no use for places of worship or books, and they were forbidden to loot. Their numbers had been quickly reduced by illness, and the Songhai ruler continued to resist from his southern strongholds. Reinforcements were slow to arrive, and of the few sent, most were killed by Tuareg nomads. Meanwhile, chaos reigned —the king was removed by a brother, the peoples subject to the Songahi rose in revolt, and the mercenaries began to loot, rape and murder.

Judar Pasha’s discouraging report on local conditions resulted in his assignment to a much lesser post, governor of Gao. His successor was Mahmud ibn-Zarqun, a eunuch, the son of a Christian. He stripped the houses of doors and doorposts to build two ships, then set off downstream to eliminate the last Songhai forces. A stroke of luck then came his way—civil war broke out among the Songhai. The new king had ordered his brothers castrated, whereupon they had joined the Moroccan invader. This allowed Mahmud to easily scatter the remnants of the Songhai army, after which he invited the king to a conference and murdered him.

That ended resistance in the north, but desperate Songhai in the south turned to one of the late king’s brothers, Askia Nuh, who withdrew into the bush country, even into the coastal forest, where he proved himself a gifted guerilla commander. Aksia Nuh established bases in the swampy south and the rugged north where cannons and horses could not be used; and where malaria weakened the invading troops. Because the mercenaries’ atrocities had by now appalled everyone, Askia Nuh was able to make common cause with ancient Songhai adversaries, while Mahmud found it impossible to exploit their many ancient animosities; as a result, Moroccan efforts to reach the gold fields failed. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Songhai had tempted every brigand in the desert to attack the caravans, so that trade with Morocco became more dangerous. Mahmud requested reinforcements, which arrived in 1593.

Victorious. Now What?

The decisive moment in the campaign may have been Mahmud sending one of his captains with 300 musketeers back to Timbuktu to protect it against raiders. The officer apologised to local leaders for past misdeeds and promised to keep his men in barracks after dark. The policy worked—open resistance ended, trade revived and exiles returned. He then led his men north against the desert raiders and, with local help, destroyed the worst of the bandits. More reinforcements allowed him to crush a dangerous insurrection in an outlying city whose inhabitants had more passion than political acumen.

This was not a policy that pleased Mahmud ibn-Zarqun, whose own efforts to pacify the south had failed. Wanting to take revenge on his enemies, not placate them, he began to massacre Timbuktu’s leading families. Many who were not slain were loaded with chains and driven across the Sahara to Morocco. When news of this reached the Moroccan king, he ordered Mahmud removed from command. Mahmud, however, had already been killed in a fight against black pagans before his replacement arrived in 1595. Askia Nuh received Mahmud’s head with satisfaction, presumably pleased by the proof that bows and arrows could defeat firearms. But that had no immediate effect on the war; Nuh retreated to his stronghold at Dendi, while a brother, Sulaiman, was put on the throne in Timbuktu as a puppet of the occupation army.

Clearly, the distant Moroccan sultan had misjudged the situation, and he was to continue to do so. This was easily done, perhaps inevitably, considering the inadequacy of information available to him. His effort to divide duties among his commanders provoked a civil war until finally Judar Pasha suggested that the army decide which of them should rule. After Judar Pasha’s election, he poisoned his rival and then made all the appropriate gestures of loyalty and subordination to the sultan. In 1599 Judar Pasha returned home, rich with gold, slaves and exotic wares, ready to enjoy life in every respect except the founding of a dynasty.

The new Arma state was ruled by the army. Some soldiers had been Christian prisoners-of-war, others had been simple mercenaries; there were also Moors whose ancestors had fled Spain after the Reconquista, and Berber tribesmen. Most married local women, and when some tried to restrict alliances to their own races, reality struck home: where would they get women? That was the origin of a mixed race elite who eventually came to speak the language of their mothers and subjects. Since the army controlled the state, the reigns of the distant Moroccan sultans, which were often short anyway, made no difference. Civil war and rebellions prevented the Arma from becoming a powerful empire, but they had no dangerous rivals to threaten their existence.

Not even the weapons that Europeans supplied to coastal peoples threatened the northerners’ vast state. As Chase noted in Firearms, a Global History, the savannah south of the Sahara was ideal cavalry country except that its diseases were deadly to horses—more so even than to Europeans, it seems, who could at least go indoors to escape the tsetse fly. And without cavalry to force infantry into tight formations, firearms were less than fully effective. The obvious strategy for Europeans and Arma alike was to recruit light infantry from the weaker tribes, relying on them to do most of the fighting, while the heavy troops guarded the baggage and artillery.

Edward Bovill notes in The Golden Trade of the Moors that by 1660 the Arma were so weak that Timbuktu had fallen to pagan enemies. Arising from the chaos was a black military force, the Bokhari, who became important in Moroccan affairs. They, like the white mercenaries, had no local connections and were, therefore, preferred as bodyguards to Berbers or Arabs. As for the politics of the Arma lands, it was complicated beyond any hope of summarising or reading with enjoyment or edification.

Slavery Supports the State

Al-Mansur had profited immediately from his conquests, but over the long term his invasion disrupted trade and pilgrimages, thus making his gains transitory and his losses heavy. His successors were not tempted to become involved in the politics of the interior, except to buy slaves who could be employed as bodyguards and elite troops. Trained in western methods and having no stake in local politics, their loyalty to their employers could be trusted; many were eunuchs, which limited their vices to those which disturbed the public least.

Although the Moroccan sultan had expected that conquering the Songhai kingdom would increase the slave trade across the western Sahara, it shifted to the coast, where tribes hostile to the new Muslim state were now selling prisoners-of-war to Europeans.

The practice of slave-raiding tore central Africa apart for many generations to come, but it mattered little to Moroccan sultans and their supporters how many villages were destroyed and how many perished during the long march north. Everyone was in the business of procuring and selling slaves.

The War of the Spanish Succession in Spain

The contest in Spain, the ultimate reason for the war, seesawed back and forth. Fighting did not begin across the Pyrenees until 1704, the year that the Austrian claimant, Archduke Charles, reached Lisbon. An Anglo-Dutch naval expedition took Gibraltar on 3 August 1704 and then held off a French fleet at the battle of Velez-Málaga. In October 1705 the Allies took Barcelona after a siege that cut off the city from land and sea. Importantly, Leopold I died in 1705, to be succeeded by Joseph I. There was no reason to believe that Joseph I would not have a long reign, but should he die young, Archduke Charles would succeed him.

Philip V at Madrid would have to face challenges on two fronts, from Portugal, where the English enjoyed an alliance and could invade from the east, and from the Mediterranean, where naval preeminence allowed the Allies to sustain operations from the coast. For most of the year, the campaign of 1706 brought news as apocalyptic as that coming from Flanders and Italy. Philip V mounted an unsuccessful attempt to retake Barcelona, and in devoting so much to Barcelona, the Franco–Spanish forces were weak elsewhere. When an Allied army advanced from Portugal to take Madrid, Philip had to flee his capital in June. Just days after the Allies, led by Galway and Das Minas, marched into Madrid, they also took Saragossa, on 29 June. But the Allies proved unable to keep their hold on Madrid in the face of growing Franco–Spanish opposition and at the end of a long supply line, so they withdrew to Valencia, and Philip reentered his capital on 4 October.

In 1707 the Franco–Spanish forces rebounded to score important victories. Marshal Berwick, an illegitimate son of James II, advanced against Galway and beat him at the battle of Almanza on 25 April, a defeat that cost the Allies Valencia. Almanza did not win the war in Spain, but it surely set things on a different course. Valencia fell to the French on 8 May and Saragossa on 26 May. The Catalan town of Lerida capitulated to the Franco–Spanish forces on 14 October. Meanwhile, near the Portuguese border, Ciudad Rodrigo also passed into Philip’s hands on 4 October after a siege of nearly three weeks. By the close of 1707 Philip held most of Spain.

The French made modest gains in Catalonia during 1708, an otherwise rather uneventful year in Spain; Franco–Spanish armies also did little more than maintain the status quo in 1709. The next year threatened disaster at the outset and ended in triumph for Philip V. As an effort to encourage peace negotiations, Louis had withdrawn his generals and forces from Spain, and Philip V could not handle the Allied army led by its commander-in-chief, Starhemberg. That general defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Almenara on 27 July, won again at the Battle of Saragossa on 20 August, and finally took Madrid on 21 September.

However, with his hopes for peace dashed, Louis recommitted to Spain, sending Vendôme and reinforcements. With this pressure, Starhemberg retreated from Madrid and made for the coast with Vendôme on his heels. Vendôme caught the rear guard of the Allied army and defeated it on 9 December 1710 at the battle of Brihuega, and the next day Vendôme took on Starhemberg and the main body. This costly battle of Villa Viciosa ended in a tactical draw; Vendôme pushed Starhemberg from his position, but withdrew from the battlefield himself at the end of the day. Yet the consequences of the fight proved horrendous for Starhemberg, who abandoned his artillery and baggage in a rush for Catalonia. The French diplomat Torcy said of these battles, ‘No matter what, never has victory been more complete, and this day will change the face of affairs in Spain and at the same time those of Europe.’

The nature of the war changed in 1711. Louis and Philip had already secured irreversible victory in Spain by the close of 1710. Then, on 17 April 1711, Emperor Joseph I died, leaving Archduke Charles heir to the imperial crown and Habsburg lands. Should the Allies succeed in putting him on the throne of Spain, they would be creating a monarchy more dangerous to the balance of power in Europe than was a Spain ruled by Philip V. This undermined the determination of the alliance, and on 8 October the French and British concluded the ‘London Preliminaries,’ by which Louis pledged himself to recognize Anne and the Protestant succession in Britain and to ensure that the thrones of France and Spain were never united.

The last fighting saw Philip V consolidate his control over Spanish territory. He finally retook Barcelona on 12 September 1714 and regained Minorca in June 1715. The wars of the Sun King had ended, and within a few months Louis himself would pass from this earth.