January 30, 2020
In less than 100 years (1754 to 1846) large swaths of North America changed hands. Great Britain, France, Spain, the United States, the Republic of Texas, Mexico, and even Russia claimed, negotiated treaties for, and fought wars over control of vast territories. Being a history buff and lover of maps, the Palo Alto NBP Visitor Center visually showed how borders on the map of North America shifted.
While European powers predominantly maneuvered for control of territory in the 1700s and early 1800s, they were displaced by the United States and Mexico from the 1820s onward. Although Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, two problems remained. First, Mexico and the Republic of Texas disagreed on the border between them. Second, Mexico never truly recognized Texas’s independence.
Despite declarations that two nations don’t want to fight each other, the fact is many wars start because neither side really wants to avoid it. But neither one wants to start it either. So pre-war political and military maneuvering is designed to allow one country to blame the other country for starting the conflict.
The beginning of the Mexican-American War was no different. One unresolved question was the boundary between Texas and Mexico. US President James K. Polk claimed it was the Rio Grande River while the Mexican government claimed it was the Nueces River farther to the north (see 1845 map above). US troops began occupying disputed territory on the north side of the Rio Grande near present day Brownsville. Mexico responded by fortifying Matamoros on the south side of the river. By the time Texas was admitted to the union at the end of 1845, 4,000 American troops were in Corpus Christi. In late April 1846, Mexican troops crossed to the north side of the Rio Grande River and attacked a US Army scouting party. The fuse had been lit.
Palo Alto became the site of the first battle of the Mexican-American War. The Americans had built Fort Texas opposite Matamoros on the north side of the Rio Grande and stationed 500 men there. The Mexicans began bombarding Fort Texas from Matamoros. American General Zachary Taylor sent troops from Corpus Christi to relieve Fort Texas. Mexico sent troops across the Rio Grande to intercept them. They met at Palo Alto.
The Mexican position lay in a coastal prairie covered in needle-sharp cordgrass. US troops arrived from the north through mesquite stands. However uneven ground and sharp grass made poor terrain for infantry charges. And marshy coastal soil made cavalry maneuvers and charges difficult. So this battle was predominantly decided by artillery.
The American infantry and artillery were better trained and equipped than their Mexican counterparts. The American officer corps was also better trained and more professional, with many senior officers having fought in the War of 1812 and younger officers having graduated from West Point. Many officers in the Mexican army were given commissions as political rewards and few had any formal military training. American enlisted men volunteered for service, more to escape debt or arrest than as a patriotic duty. Mexican soldiers were drafted although the rich could buy their way out. Many Mexican soldiers were convicts, vagrants, or Indians.
Artillery played a key role in the battle. American heavy artillery bombarded the Mexican lines, inflicting heavy casualties. American light artillery moved quickly from place to place.
After finishing with the museum, we headed out to hike the battlefield trails. At various viewpoints along the trail there were information signs that told you what happened at those locations.
Many so-to-be famous Civil War generals, such as Ulysses S. Grant and James Longstreet, had attended West Point and faced their baptism of fire during the Mexican-American War. Many of these officers became good friends until divided loyalties drove them apart in 1861.
BONUS: On the way back to the visitor center, we saw a couple of nilgai romping across the battlefield. Nilgai are antelopes native to Pakistan and India that were imported to South Texas in the 1930s. In the five months we were in South Texas, this was the only time we saw them.