From one of my favorite Chicano writers via Juan Montoya:
(“Then the soldiers went to Mexico and it was a kind of painful picnic. Nobody knows why you go to a picnic to be uncomfortable when it is so easy to go to eat at home. The Mexican War did two things though. We got a lot of Western land, damned near doubled our size, and besides that it was a training ground for generals, so when the sad self-murder settled on us the leaders knew the techniques for making it properly horrible.)
From”East of Eden” by John Steinbeck
By Juan Montoya
BROWNSVILLE – It will be 165 years this May that the armies of Mexico and the United States clashed on the thorny wastelands north of Brownsville.
Yesterday, the cold weather foiled the plans of the directors of the Palo Alto National Historical Battlefield to have a reading of papers by the diverse groups that see the site as an important historical index point in the history of the U.S.
As Steinbeck correctly concludes, the U.S. soldiers who fought here and who were stationed on the fort that Zachary Taylor built on the banks of the Rio Grande went on to lead the ranks of the northern and southern armies in the Civil War that was to come less that two decades later.
No less than 37 future generals fought the Mexican army at Palo Alto (23 Union and 14 Confederate).
Another 15 future generals (six Union, nine Confederate) were present during the siege of Ft. Brown across from Matamoros, next to the golf course at the college.
It can be safely said that the seeds of the Civil War were planted at Palo Alto and at Resaca de la Guerra the next day, although the field was watered with U.S. and Mexican blood and not exclusively American as it was during the Civil War.
And although the president during that horrific internecine war, Abraham Lincoln, never set foot on South Texas soil, the events that unfolded here linked his life inextricably to our area.
Lincoln’s biographers say that the first utterances Lincoln gave concerning South Texas came some three weeks after Mexican and U.S. forces clashed May 7, 1846, at Palo Alto and ignited the war that ended with more than half of Mexico in possession of the United States.
At that time he is said to have been given a “warm, thrilling, and effective” speech at a public meeting that he gave to encourage volunteering. However, he was of like mind with most young white males of the day in that he considered most Mexicans ”greasers,” according to historian Mark E. Neely in a paper he presented in 1981.
When he got to Washington as a newly-elected congressman in 1847, he thought that whether one agreed with President James K. Polk on the Mexican War, “should…as good citizens and patriots, remain silent…at least till the war should be ended.”
But all that changed when Lincoln, the Whig congressman, arrived in Congress. By that time the fighting was substantially over. In his annual message of December, 1847, Polk asked Congress for additional funds to bring the war to a close, claiming the vast territories of New Mexico and California as partial indemnity. In that address, he repeated the claim that Mexico had initiated the war by “invading the territory of the State of Texas, striking the first blow, and shedding the blood of our citizens on our own soil.”
Shortly thereafter, on December 22, Lincoln introduced a series of resolutions requiring that Polk provide the House with “all the facts which go to establish whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed, was, or was not, our own soil.”
Had that spot, Lincoln queried, ever been a part of Texas and whether its inhabitants had ever submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas…by consent, or by compulsion, either by accepting office, or voting at elections, or paying taxes, or serving on juries, or…in any other way?”
Lincoln even joined 85 other Whigs led by Massachusetts representative George Ashmun who introduced a resolution declaring that the war had been “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally began by the President of the United States.”
Lincoln’s anti-Polk tirades in the House eventually earned him the wrath of the Democratic press, who chided the new congressman by calling him “Spotty” Lincoln, in reference to his insistence that Polk name the spot where hostilities had begun. His two predecessors in the congressional district – John H. Hardin and E. D. Baker – both had served volunteered to serve in the Army when the war broke out.
This apparent contradiction didn’t go unnoticed by Missouri representative John Jameson, of Missouri, who professed astonishment that the successor of Hardin – killed at Buena Vista – and Baker, a hero of the battle Cerro Gordo, should utter such unpatriotic speeches.
The reaction in the press was partisan as it was pointed. Precious few Whigs came to Lincoln’s defense, but pro-Democratic newspapers took umbrage with his views in no uncertain terms. The Illinois State Register warned that Lincoln predicted that he would have “a fearful account to settle” with the veterans when they returned from Mexico.
Likewise, the Peoria Press denounced Lincoln as the “Miserable man of spots” and pilloried him for his “traitorous course in Congress.”
In public meetings, Democratic speakers chastised Lincoln for “base, dastardly, and treasonable assault upon President Polk” and prophesied that “henceforth will this Benedict Arnold of our district be known here only as the Spotty Ranchero of one term.”
Lincoln only served one term, in large part for as a result of his stand on the Mexican War and his attack on Polk. But before he left office, he became the driving force who pushed for Taylor – victorious at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Guerra – to be drafted as the Whig candidate for president.
“Our only chance is with Taylor,” he cautioned voters on the presidential campaign trail.
After he left office, Lincoln could not have known that the men who had served with Taylor in Texas and Northern Mexico would play large roles in his future. Nearly all the officers who served with Taylor in South Texas would one day become leading generals in the Civil War less than two decades later. No less than 37 future generals served in the Army that Taylor commanded. At Palo Alto, Taylor and later Ulysses S. Grant would go on to become presidents themselves.
Grant would become Lincoln’s leading general, providing gthje Union with victories when things looked darkest.
Besides Grant, other future Union generals who would later served under Lincoln that were present at Palo Alto included Gen. Benjamin Alford, Gen. Christopher Augur, Joseph K. Barnes, William Brooks, Robert Buchanan, and Don Carlos Buell, among others.
Future Confederate generals at the battle included Bernard Bee, Braxton Bragg, Samuel Gibbs French, Robert Selden Garnett, Bushrod Johnson, Edwin Kirby Smith, and James Longstreet. Robert E. Lee was not at Palo Alto, but served with Grant under Gen. Winfield Scott in the taking of Mexico City. Scott arrived off Brazos Island (Boca Chica Beach) to transfer many of Taylor’s officers to his army after Polk decided the hero of Palo Alto was dragging his feet in the prosecution of the war.
Joseph K. Barnes, Taylor’s medic, went on to become the U.S. Surgeon General and was serving in the position when Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater. He was one of the physicians who tended to the fatally wounded president before he died. In fact, on April 14, 1865, Barnes attended the death bed of Lincoln and ministered to the successful restoration of Secretary of State William H. Seward. In 1881, during the long struggle of President James A. Garfield to live following his assassination, Barnes was one of the surgeons who for weeks served in the chamber of the dying president.
However, as it relates to Lincoln’s ties to our area, while president, he and his cabinet grappled with the blockade of southern ports, including shipping from South Texas. Considerable fortunes (such as those of Charles Stillman and Robert King’s) were made running the blockade to deliver cotton to British mills. As the Union tried to stem the flow of cotton from the South and arms from abroad, they found themselves helpless to stop the flow of Confederate cotton from Puerto Bagdad, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
David Herbert Donald tells of the Peterhoff incident just off the coast of Brownsville in his Lincoln biography. Union forces captured the ship suspecting that it carried contraband intended for the Confederacy. Secretary of War Gideon Welles defended the Navy and urged Lincoln to open the mails so that proof of the ship’s intentions could be verified.
The British protested claiming the inviolability of the mails under international law and demanding that the Peterhoff be released.
Secretary of State William Seward backed the British position and things were at a stalemate until Lincoln interceded and laid the issue to rest. Telling his cabinet members that the US. could fight only “One war at a time,” he ordered the blockade-runner released.
Lincoln never visited South Texas, or Texas for that matter, but his presence looms large over this area. His contention that an unjust war and the inclusion of Texas as a slave state would further the divide that would lead to the Civil War was justified, and his relationship to those who fought here make him an important figure in this area’s history.