As anniversaries go, February 2 is an equivocal one for American and Mexican history: That date in 1848 was when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the U.S. Mexico War and extending the boundaries of the United States west to the Pacific Ocean. As the Howard Zinn Education Project reminds us, “The war was an invasion and occupation of Mexico by the U.S. — in fact, the official name for the U.S. Army was the Army of Occupation.” Click here for resources on that history from the Project and Rethinking Schools about that unjust war; to learn about the odd, super-studious protege of Thomas Jefferson who helped bring it to an end, keep reading below.
In 1846, the full force fighting in Mexico consisted of two new Army regiments, 26,992 strong, bolstered by 73,000-plus state-based “Volunteers.” With the war unpopular in the North (and lacking any support for conscription), generals like Hitchcock or Taylor had to supervise “volunteer” regiments composed of political appointees, West Point dropouts, and retirees anxious for some new adventure. Young men volunteered for the free land, to get off the farm and in the case of Southern volunteers, to preserve their “way of life” from the abolitionists. Hitchcock concentrated on drills to turn them into soldiers.
Further north, the First New York Regiment, based at Harlem’s Fort Hamilton, filled up quickly with “about eight hundred rank and file, three hundred Americans, the balance Dutch, Irish, French, English, Polish, Swedes, Chinese, Indian …. For officers we had barbers, tailors, bar-tenders, and a few gentlemen.” A few even came from “Five Points,” the city’s notorious downtown slum. Nearly all had been wooed in advance by promised signing bonuses of three months’ pay. “Many enlisted for the sake of their families, having no employment …. and were promised that they could leave part of their pay for their families to draw in their absence,” wrote one such recruit, adding “They, poor duped men, but with patriotic and noble feelings toward their wives and children, sacrificed every thing [sic] for the sole purpose of their support. Thus, it will be seen that the non-commissioned officers and privates have been cheated, swindled, and their families left destitute, by rascally promises and deception!”[i]
“A few days previous to our departure to the land of death and slaughter,” the soldiers went on strike. “The men became more and more dissatisfied. Mothers, wives, and suffering children—crying for money to buy bread.” However, the rebellion was short-lived, and little record survives of that particular regiment. They sailed to Veracruz, where Winfield Scott led more than 30,000 into the country’s heartland.[ii]
Once on Mexican soil, both volunteers and regular army soldiers were in unfamiliar territory, where some did not feel they belonged. They made their discontent clear, as when the First Massachusetts Volunteers refused to march in the uniforms issued by the Army, demanding their right as a militia to wear their own uniforms.[iii] By then Winfield Scott had bombed Veracruz for five days, killing 1,150, nearly half civilians.
Those newest to the uniform most often expressed their dissent by deserting, between 9,000 and 10,300 making a statement by their numbers.[iv] Officers like Hitchcock or Kirby Smith criticized the war on paper while fighting it, until another former Hitchcock student, Nicholas Trist, defied the Commander-in-Chief and brought home a peace treaty.
After the battalion’s defeat at Chiarabusco in September 1847, fourteen “San Patricios,” including Riley, were flogged and branded with two-inch D’s on both side of their faces. The rest were tried and some executed, whether or not they had fought against the United States.
Meanwhile, as Winfield Scott approached Mexico City, two regiments deserted en masse before the Americans even reached the capital. By then, Ephraim Kirby Smith had begun to sour on the war. With an ill wife back at home, Kirby Smith decided to submit his resignation, convinced that Polk’s war was no longer worth the sacrifice. He also knew from Hitchcock about the lives they had ruined: “I passed an exceedingly interesting hour this morning with Colonel Hitchcock in listening to the translations of many letters from a large mail coming from the [i.e., Mexico’s] Capital …. all in a tone of utter heartbroken despondency.”[i]
By then, pressure for the United States to end the war was fierce, with Americans divided only by how much land should be their prize. Peace negotiations between the Mexican government and Washington were stalled by political jockeying: both Polk and his tremendously popular political rival Scott wanted to set the terms, as did Mexico’s assorted factions. The person to break that logjam was another Hitchcock student: the personally awkward, politically muddled, super-studious Nicholas P. Trist.
Trist, a Virginian whose grandmother had been close to Thomas Jefferson, was at West Point during the aborted cadet rebellion of 1819, but left soon afterward to marry Jefferson’s granddaughter and become the third president’s aide. Trist learned Spanish during the ten years he later spent as consul-general of Cuba, where he had to navigate competing interests and endure unpopularity at home, whether it was abolitionists claiming that he was aiding the illegal slave trade or seamen charging him with favoring Cuban shipping interests. Secretary of State Buchanan was counting on the multilingual Trist to broker a treaty among the diverse Mexican factions.
Thrilled to be plucked from State Department obscurity, Trist was anxious to honor the words of his long-dead grandmother. Elizabeth Trist had been happy to see Nicholas quit West Point: “Those who wage war for subjugating nations to their will,” she had written to him, “are guilty of a heinous crime.”
During the summer of 1847, Trist stayed in the former bishop’s hacienda at Tacubaya, beside Hitchcock and Winfield Scott. Initially distrustful of someone sent by his political enemies, Scott relented and even helped Trist secure a bribe to ease negotiations. But nothing seemed to work. Trist wrote home that he was considering quitting[ii]. “Mr. Trist came home last evening evidently dispirited and unusually fatigued, and his appearance is a kind of thermometer to us,” Hitchcock wrote in his diary of September 3. A few weeks later, the Mexicans elected a new legislature and then a new peace committee, and Trist delivered Washington’s proposed terms into their hands.
Soon after, on November 16, Trist was recalled to Washington by a letter from Polk, who was under pressure from the “All Mexico Movement” to demand all of Mexico as part of the United States.[iii] Trist did not respond, taking the advice of a New Orleans journalist and old friend: “Make the treaty, Sir! . . . I know your country. I know all classes of people there. They want peace, Sir. They pant for it. … Instructions or no instructions, you are bound to do it.”[iv]
His convictions affirmed, Trist wrote to his wife that he planned to ignore Polk’s order. “Knowing it to be the very last chance, and impressed with the dreadful consequences to our country which cannot fail to attend the loss of that chance.” [v] The sixty-page explanation that Trist sent to Polk did not persuade the President, who wrote in his diary that Trist “is destitute of honor or principle and he has proved himself to be a very base man.”[vi] As negotiations dragged on, Ephraim Kirby Smith agreed with Polk. “How many times must [the U.S. negotiators] be gullied and deceived before they learn to treat all Mexican promises with scorn? We are in a strange situation—a conquering army on a hill overlooking an enemy’s Capital, which is perfectly at our mercy, yet not permitted to enter it, and compelled to submit to all manner of insults from its corrupt inhabitants. I am much afraid that peace cannot be made, but this satisfaction remains to us, that the world must see that, though always victorious, we have extended the olive branch, always ready to sheathe the sword.” Soon after writing those words, Kirby Smith died, mortally wounded while following the Commander-in-Chief’s orders to keep fighting.
In January 1848, Trist went into hiding at Guadalupe-Hidalgo with the three Mexican commissioners, and refused to leave without a peace treaty. On February 3, all parties signed an agreement that gave one-third of Mexico’s territory—including Texas and California—to the United States. Trist agreed with Hitchcock that the treaty fell short of what Mexico deserved, but the boundaries had already largely been drawn by generals. This, he thought, was the only chance to end the war. As it turned out, most of his country agreed. The treaty was praised by newspapers from Boston to New Orleans.
After the war, Trist and his family went to Philadelphia and Hitchcock to St. Louis. Hitchcock was “vigorously besieged by the participants in the Mexican War, entreating him to write a history of that contest.”[vii] Hitchcock declined, awaiting his next set of orders.
(Photo: By Scan by NYPL – https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e3b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46798172)
[i] To Mexico With Scott.
[ii] Nicholas Trist to Virginia Randolph Trist.
[iii] Greenberg, A Wicked War. p. 213
[iv] Wallace Ohrt, Defiant Peacemaker: Nicholas Trist in the Mexican War (University of Texas Press, 1998).
[vi] Via Glenn W. Thrush, Origins of the War with Mexico: The Polk-Stockton Intrigue (University of Texas Press, 2014).
[vii] Fifty Years in Camp and Field: “They knew that he had disapproved of the motives of the administration which began it and yet had been actively present in the battles which effected the conquest of the invaded country.”
[i] Albert Lombard, The High Private, with a Full And Exciting History of the New York Volunteers (1848). Lombard ’s history, which is short on details of the actual war, does have a whole chapter titled INSUBORDINATION.
[ii] A successive First New York deployment a year later would proceed to San Francisco, taking part in the conquest of California). See Francis D. Clark, The first regiment of New York volunteers, commanded by Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson, in the Mexican war. Names of the members of the regiment during its term of service in Upper and Lower California, 1847-1848, with a record of all known survivors on the 15th day of April 1882, and those known to have deceased, with other matters of interest pertaining to the organization and service of the regiment. (Published by GeoSea’s Co.,1882, accessed via Project Gutenberg).
[iii] John Campbell to Alice Campbell, 21 October 1847. American Civil War Letters, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.
[iv] Rosemary King, “Border Crossings in the Mexican-American War.” Bilingual Review, 25 (2000), p. 1. Via Robert Fantina, Desertion and the American Soldier (Algora, 2006), p. 45.