Robert E. Lee’s Most Important Battle: The Epochal Impact of the Mexican War




            The United States boasts an impressive martial tradition in its mere 200+ years, with operations waged on all continents, across all the seven seas, and with military bases housed in a substantial fraction of the world’s nations.  Yet there are a handful of conflicts in the nation’s history which continually pervade the nation’s collective consciousness: the American Revolution, the fiery cauldron in which the country was birthed; the US Civil War, the fratricidal national trauma that continues to polarize and inflame opinions even today, and which initiated the age of total war which would reach its culmination in the two horrible world wars of the 20th century; World War II, the “good war” in which the US rose to become the preeminent world power, becoming a bulwark in the world against the twin totalitarian menaces of fascism and communism; and Vietnam, the USA’s longest war, that haunting debacle in the muddy, swamp infested jungles and parvenu cities of Southeast Asia in which the nation that could seemingly do no wrong blundered into a quagmire.  All of these are historically significant clashes of arms, and the American Revolution is one of history’s most pivotal wars, the one in which the United States succeeded against all odds in winning independence against a European power, and which provided the template for the country’s pioneering system of government which would soon permeate countless other states across the world.  However, the struggle that is perhaps second only to the Revolution itself in terms of world impact—a clash with momentous ramifications, one of the most important confrontations of the past 500 years—remains curiously forgotten.  In 1846, the United States and Mexico—both young republics—waged a bitter two-year struggle sparked in part by American annexation of Texas, which had itself broken from Mexican rule in the previous decade.  Despite vigorous patriotism and valor among Mexico’s foot soldiers, the country suffered the humiliation of a successful US invasion of Mexican territory and its capital, Mexico City, in 1848.  US victory was hardly a foregone conclusion, and the American success stemmed in large part from the improvisational acumen of General Winfield Scott and the tactical effectiveness under pressure of rising officers like Robert E. Lee. 

            Upon signing of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty in 1848, the United States paid $18 million and seized nearly half of Mexico’s territory—the largest land transfer ever effected between two countries by a treaty concluding a war.  The captured Mexican territory became the Southwestern states of the US, replete with Spanish place names and imbued with native American, Mexican, and Spanish culture dating back almost a century before the first English settlers had even arrived at Jamestown in 1607.  The US had now become a continental power spanning North America from ocean to ocean, freed to place its navy in Pacific waters and open trade and military contacts with the Far East.  Moreover, the former Mexican territory was particularly rich in natural resources, and the rolling plateaus of warm, coastal California became an ideal setting for Hollywood, the cultural vehicle which has brought America and its customs and attitudes to the world.  It was the conquest of Mexico which paved the USA’s way to world-power status in 1898, when Commodore Dewey’s Pacific navies defeated Spain and seized strategic islands in the Pacific, and the possession of such a wide swath of territory enabled the US to become the industrial powerhouse that fought the Second World War and morphed into the world’s dominant economy after the demise of the British Empire following 1945.  The Mexican War’s immediate results, of course, were also responsible for the conflagration of the Civil War in 1861.  In the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty’s aftermath, the region’s formerly Mexican residents found themselves disenfranchised and dispossessed; yet in recent decades, much of the area has once again assumed a predominantly Mexican, Latino character in the wake of massive immigration waves that continue unabated, and the Mexican War itself has begun to emerge again as a topic of ferocious debate.  This article examines the history of this fascinating but dimly recalled war between two budding nations, and its tremendous implications for the world of today.


-- Wes Ulm


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