The Mexican-American War (1845–48) had a lot of connections to the Philadelphia region, even though it took place in the American Southwest and Central America. Because it is one of the most populated places in the country, the Delaware Valley became the center of one of the bloodiest battles in American history.
Following Texas’s admittance as the country’s twenty-eighth state in December 1845, the United States and Mexico went to war. This heightened already-existing hostility with Mexico, which never acknowledged Texas’ independence, the United States’ annexation of Texas, or the new state’s intended border at the Rio Grande River. Congress declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846, and President James K. Polk (1795–1849) was given permission to call up 50,000 volunteers to join the already-existing U.S. Army following a battle between American forces led by General Zachary Taylor (1784–1850) and Mexican forces in the disputed region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande.
The debate over the start and outcome of the Mexican-American War demonstrated the growing gulf in American society over the problems of territorial conquest and the spread of slavery in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The mid-Atlantic states initially had a lot of sympathy for the war, and Philadelphia’s historical connections to the American Revolution made it a focal point for pro-war patriotism among politicians and cultural leaders who saw Manifest Destiny as the legacy of American independence. George R. Graham (1813–1894) was the publisher of The Philadelphia North American, a “penny press” publication that published editorials in favor of “Mr. Polk’s War” and covered news from Mexico.
The vibrant abolitionist society in Philadelphia, however, opposed the war because it saw it as a means of bringing slavery into new areas. The National Anti-Slavery Standard, a newspaper based in Philadelphia, was very against the war in June 1846 because it was against the spread of slavery into the West.
Both New Jersey and Delaware had strong feelings about the war. A significant Whig Party presence in state politics in New Jersey made coordinated action challenging. A New Jersey Whig convention denounced the Polk administration’s efforts to seize territory in October 1847. Their resolutions, according to Niles’ National Register, “strongly denounced the current national administration for violations of the liberties of the people and interests of the Union, especially in having made war without consulting the people or their representatives, and that too, for party purposes.”
Many all around New Jersey share this opinion. When Governor Charles C. Stratton (1796–1859) of New Jersey responded to President Polk’s request for volunteers to be organized for war, the response was so poor that only a New Jersey Battalion of Volunteers, not a regiment, could be raised. Only a dozen Delaware residents offered their services since there was such intense resistance to the war there.
When mobilization first began, Philadelphia joined other cities in conducting a pro-war march, but this zeal was not shared by all cities. Anti-war demonstrations were held in Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey, in the autumn of 1847 in response to passionate remarks against the war given by Whig politician Henry Clay (1777–1852).
The Ranks of the “Killers”
The governor of Pennsylvania, Francis R. Shunk (1788–1848), demanded the creation of six regiments to serve in the American Army upon the declaration of war. Patriotic zeal soon filled the quotas, in contrast to the lukewarm reaction in New Jersey and Delaware, and several complete firms had to be turned away. The First and Second Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiments were established for the purpose of assembling recruits from the Keystone State. Six of the ten companies that made up the First Regiment were from Philadelphia, including the Cadwalader Grays, the Philadelphia Light Guards, and the City Guards of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Rangers’ Company F was assigned to the Second Regiment.
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The instability and violence that had characterized Philadelphia throughout the 1830s and 1840s also traveled west with the volunteers who enlisted in Harrisburg and then moved on to Pittsburgh en route to Mexico, in addition to the patriotism that drove Philadelphia men to serve. A violent altercation between police and soldiers from Company D (The City Guard) in Pittsburgh occurred when the soldiers broke into a nearby theater.
Later on, in New Orleans, a soldier who claimed to be a member of the infamous Philadelphia “Killers” gang attacked locals and damaged property all around the city. This disorderly behavior was continuing there. Captain Joseph Hill, the commanding officer of Company D, was later threatened by a group of the Killers, causing him to briefly leave the regiment in April 1847.
After being transported down the Mississippi River and over the Gulf of Mexico to Lobos, Mexico, where they landed in February 1846, the Pennsylvania volunteer regiments were led by another veteran of the street warfare in Philadelphia. When the Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia was destroyed in 1838, Major General Robert Patterson, a former commander of the Pennsylvania militia, commanded troops against rioters. He was in charge of the Second Division of a brigade in Mexico. This brigade was led by Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow (1806–1878) and was made up of volunteer soldiers from Pennsylvania.
Mexico’s Pennsylvania Volunteers
The Siege of Veracruz in March 1847 marked the beginning of a substantial battle for the fighting men from Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania battalions lost fifteen soldiers during the ferocious twenty-day siege to enemy cannon fire, including three fatalities. Following Veracruz’s capitulation, the regiments relocated to the interior of Mexico, where they fought once more in April at the Battle of Cerro Gordo as part of an assault on Mexican artillery at Jarero, south of the Mexican camp near Vasquez. The troops only sustained a small number of losses despite the fierceness of the battle. They moved on inland into Mexico City for the following two months, battling guerillas, the elements, and illness.
In order to prepare for the assault on Mexico City, General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) divided the Pennsylvania Regiments in September 1847. The Reading Artillery of Company A and the Philadelphia Rangers of the Second Regiment marched with the main force into Mexico City, while three of the Philadelphia battalions were sent to garrison duty at Puebla. The Mexican defenders engaged both companies in intense close-quarters combat. In two days of fighting, eight men died and 89 were hurt. This was the Second Regiment’s worst loss of the war.
Other than Mexico, soldiers from the Philadelphia area participated in the war. Rear Admiral William Mervine (1791–1868), a veteran of the War of 1812, oversaw the USS Savannah while it was stationed in the Pacific. In July 1846, a Marine detachment under his command took Monterey. Samuel Francis Du Pont (1803–65), a member of the illustrious Delaware DuPont family, oversaw the blockade of California and attained the rank of rear admiral. Commodore Robert Stockton (1795–1866) of New Jersey, a future senator from the United States, played a crucial role in the conquest of Monterey and Pueblo de Los Angeles in California. From July 1846 to January 1847, Stockton presided as the military governor of California.
The military governor of Mexico during the occupation of Mexico City was Brigadier General Persifor Frazer Smith (1798–1858), a Philadelphia native. The Pennsylvania volunteer regiments’ duties included drill, boredom, and periodic pandemonium as Mexican guerilla troops harassed American forces. When American troops left Mexico on March 6, 1848, the regiments had a long journey back to the United States that brought them through New Orleans, up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and finally into Pittsburgh, where they landed on July 11, 1848.
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The Pittsburgh battalions soon mustered out of service, while the Philadelphia businesses made the decision to conclude their service at home. The Delaware Valley celebrated their return with parades, speeches, banquets, and neighborhood gatherings between July 27 and August 5. 477 of the 2,415 soldiers who made up the Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiments lost their lives in Mexico or while being transported. Combat resulted in 52 deaths. Few battles were fought by the New Jersey volunteers in Mexico before they left for the Garden State in July 1848. The volunteers from Delaware who took part in the Battle of Huanmantla in October 1847 returned in August 1848 with just one casualty.
On February 2, 1848, the Mexican-American War was put to a conclusion by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which also saw a 525,000-square-mile increase in US territory. After two years of fierce struggle, the costly triumph was finally achieved, but it only served to heighten the already present tensions in the nation. Residents of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley talked about the political and moral implications of the war, and people from Philadelphia and the surrounding area volunteered to help with military operations.