You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
"The border crossed us"

By Paul D'Amato | April 28, 2006 | Page 13

"WE DIDN'T cross the border, the border crossed us." This slogan of the immigrant rights movement expresses an historical fact--that much of the Western U.S. was once part of Mexico.

The U.S. seized half of Mexico--including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California--in the Mexican-American war of 1846-48. The war cost almost 14,000 U.S. and twice as many Mexican lives.

The war was justified on the basis of "Manifest Destiny"--the idea that the continent, other than Canada, rightly belonged to the U.S., no matter who it currently belonged to--Indians or Mexicans. But as with all U.S. wars of conquest, it was justified in its specifics as a defensive reaction to Mexican "outrages."

It began with a dispute over Texas. The Mexican government had invited settlers into the region in the 1820s and 1830s. After a series of battles between the Mexican Army and Texans, Mexico lost control of Texas in 1836, though border skirmishes continued.

In 1845, the U.S. officially annexed Texas, proclaiming the Rio Bravo (called the Rio Grande in the U.S.) its southern border. That the Nueces River, 130 miles north of the Rio Bravo, had been considered the true border was affirmed by every official map of the period.

Newly elected president James Polk had war on his mind. Knowing from experience that Mexico would refuse to sell any of its provinces, he sought to provoke Mexico into war. The plan found its greatest support among Southern slave owners, who hoped through conquest to expand the number of slave states.

Polk planned a military expedition over the Rio Grande into the Mexican town of Matamoros, saying, "when Texas was finally brought into the Union, she might bring a war with her."

Polk wasn't simply eyeing a slice of land between two rivers in Texas. He had already instructed Commodore John D. Sloat to occupy California should war break out over Texas.

In March 1846, Gen. Zachary Taylor's 3,900 troops crossed into Mexican territory and occupied the left Bank of the Rio Grande (now on the American side). According to historian Sidney Lens, "Every grievance that could be dug up about insults to the flag, mistreatment of American citizens, seizures of American property, was used to inflame sentiments."

In response to the invasion, as well as to a naval blockade that the U.S. had begun against Matamoros, Gen. Mariano Arista led his forces over the Rio Grande and attacked Taylor's forces--thus providing Washington with its coveted "pretext" for declaring war.
Amid a wave of jingoistic rhetoric, led by Polk who now claimed, "Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil," the House voted for war by an overwhelming margin of 174 to 14.

Within days, Polk had dispatched troops to invade New Mexico and California, claiming that though his aim was not conquest, the seizure of California would help "defray the expense of the war"! In both New Mexico and California, the native populations rose up in revolt against the invaders and almost defeated the forces of Capt. John C. Fremont before they were rescued by the intervention of fresh U.S. troops under Gen. Stephen F. Kearney.

As Taylor's troops advanced south, 12,000 troops under Gen. Winfield Scott landed at Veracruz and made a drive to Mexico City, occupying the capital and forcing the Mexican government to sign, on February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ceding half of Mexico to the United States.

Critics of the invasion, like congressman Joshua R. Giddings, rightly called it "a war against an unoffending people...for the purpose of conquest; with a design of extending slavery...I will not bathe my hands in the blood of the people of Mexico."

Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in the war, called it "one of the most unjust ever waged on a weaker country by a stronger."

Home page | Back to the top