Here's What You Need to Know: Santa Anna displayed little tactical ability during the pivotal battle.
By the spring of 1846, it had become apparent to everyone that diplomatic efforts between the United States and Mexico had failed. For the Mexicans, old injustices had become unbearable. A decade earlier, the upstart Texans had declared their independence, but the sovereign nation of Mexico still considered the land a northern province. Then, in 1845, the United States had annexed Texas while offering Mexico the insultingly low amount of $35 million to purchase California and other lands in western North America.
The diplomatic wrangling had been exacerbated by the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” which had captivated the geopolitical thinking of many Americans in the mid-19th century. Adherents of the ideal believed that God had divinely sanctioned the expansion of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Indeed, James K. Polk, a Democrat, had been elected president in 1844 on a platform of just such expansion.
The Mexicans, for their part, believed that insult had been heaped upon injury. They disagreed with the United States over the boundary between the two countries. Rather than the Rio Grande, Mexican officials held that the border was farther north, at the Nueces River, and they dispatched troops to back up their claim. Following the declaration of a “defensive war” by Mexican President Mariano Paredes on April 23, 1846, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to march to the Nueces with a strong contingent of American troops. Inevitably (as Polk had intended), war soon broke out between the two countries.
During the war’s first major battle at Palo Alto, the Mexicans were forced to retreat, and on the following day at Resaca de la Palma the retreat turned into a rout. Throughout the summer of 1846, Taylor pressed deeper into the enemy’s country, and in September his forces captured the fortress city of Monterrey. The unbroken string of victories had made “Old Rough and Ready” a national hero and prompted him to continue a successful if risky campaign in northern Mexico.
Meanwhile, American forces were triumphant on all fronts. An army of 1,600 men under Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny occupied Santa Fe, New Mexico, that summer, and by the end of the year all of California was in American hands. Another army of 1,200 men under Colonel Alexander Doniphan occupied El Paso, Texas. As far as Polk and Army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott were concerned, the stage had been set for the war’s coup de grace. Scott, they determined, would land another army at Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico and press on to the enemy’s capital. Once Mexico City was occupied, the United States would dictate the terms of a favorable peace to the stubborn Mexicans.
“Like an Old Hen with One Chicken.”
In preparation for the grand offensive in the south, Taylor was ordered to remain at Monterrey and dispatch all but 500 of his U.S. Army regulars, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Worth, to join Scott at Tampico. The diminutive but fiery Taylor was outraged. Poised to strike deep into the heart of Mexico, he saw his supreme opportunity being usurped by his superiors in Washington. He would obediently release the bulk of the regulars, but remaining idle while the war came to a climax was unthinkable to Taylor.
Although unimposing physically, Taylor had earned the respect and admiration of his soldiers, even fighting on foot with them at Monterrey. He was a familiar figure sitting astride his favorite horse, Old Whitey. A junior officer described him, not unfavorably, as “short and very heavy, with pronounced face lines and gray hair, wear[ing] an old oilcloth cap, a dusty green coat, a frightful pair of trousers and on horseback looks like a frog.” Aesthetics notwithstanding, the general still seethed that he had been “stripped of nearly the whole of the regular force and half of the volunteers, and ordered to act on the defensive.” One of his officers observed that Taylor was “very angry and flies about like an old hen with one chicken.”
With every intention of carrying the fight to the Mexicans and securing a role for his army and himself in the endgame, Taylor advanced to the town of Saltillo and ordered the Center Division, under Brig. Gen. John Wool, to abandon its independent expedition in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and join him. Even with the addition of Wool’s troops, Taylor’s so-called Army of Occupation numbered fewer than 5,000 soldiers—and precious few of them were regulars.
A professional soldier himself, Taylor had entered the military as a volunteer in 1806. Two years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a first lieutenant. A veteran of the war against the Indian chief Tecumseh, the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War, Taylor was well aware of the risk inherent in his bold advance. However, he was also convinced that a conspiracy with its roots in Washington was bent on denying him a major role in the final victory. An air of near invincibility contributed to Taylor’s impetuous decision. Like many prideful generals before him, Taylor was about to stumble.
A Long March for the Theatrical Santa Anna
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had once again taken center stage in Mexico. Like the proverbial phoenix, Santa Anna seemed to continually rise from the ashes of defeat and exile. The victor at the Alamo during the 1836 war with Texas, he had slaughtered the prisoners to a man, only to be humiliated by the forces of Sam Houston and captured at San Jacinto a few weeks later. Banished from his country, Santa Anna nevertheless returned to military and political prominence during a short but vicious fight against French invaders two years later. He lost a leg fighting the French, but he regained power in 1841. Three years later, he was again thrown out of his homeland. Then, in 1846, he was called home from exile in Cuba to assume the office of president and defend the honor of Mexico against the United States.
To many, Santa Anna appeared to be nothing more than a strutting peacock, dressed in military regalia dripping with gold braid, striking martial poses, and likening himself to Napoleon. In reality, he was much more than that. Possessing superb organizational skills, he inspired a renewal of patriotic fervor among his people, pledging his own personal fortune, borrowing heavily from the Catholic Church, and procuring weapons and animals from the populace. In a remarkably short period of time, he raised an army of 25,000 soldiers. While many of these men had little military training, the sheer weight of numbers might hold the key to victory, particularly under the right circumstances.
While Taylor fumed and Santa Anna schemed in January 1847, a young American courier, Lieutenant John Richey, was intercepted and killed and the contents of his packet delivered into the hands of the Mexican commander. Here was the American plan in its entirety. Amazed by his good fortune, Santa Anna determined to send his army north to overwhelm Taylor before wheeling southward to deal with Scott and the threat to Mexico City. On January 28, the imposing but inexperienced Mexican army set out from San Luis Potosi across 400 miles of inhospitable terrain to find and annihilate Taylor’s force, which Santa Anna reckoned would still be in the vicinity of Saltillo.
With his flair for the theatrical, Santa Anna addressed his soldiers of the Lombardini, Pacheco, and Ortega infantry and Juvera cavalry divisions on the eve of their departure. “Today you commence your march, through a thinly settled country, without supplies and without provisions,” he said, “but you may be assured that very quickly you will be in possession of those of your enemy, and of his riches; and with them, all your wants will be superabundantly supplied.”
Through wind, rain, and mud, Santa Anna’s army trudged across the desert wasteland, where temperatures soared by day and plunged by night. Many died of exposure or starvation during three weeks on the march. A number of women who had gathered their possessions and followed their husbands also perished on the march. Desertion thinned the ranks, and by February 20, only 15,000 soldiers remained with their leader.
Taylor Sets his Defense
Taylor initially had scoffed at the possibility that an enemy force of any consequence could undertake such an arduous trek. Confidently, he had advanced as far as Agua Nueva, seven miles south of Saltillo. As rumors of the Mexican advance filled his camp, Taylor sent Major Ben McCullough of the Texas Rangers to scout southward in search of Santa Anna. When McCullough returned with the unwelcome news that a massive Mexican army was only 60 miles away, Taylor decided to stand and fight at Agua Nueva. His lieutenants, however, argued vigorously against such action.
Taylor relented and ordered a withdrawal to Angostura, where the road to Saltillo passed through the mountains of the Sierra Madre, one mile from the established supply base at Hacienda San Juan de la Buena Vista. Wool had selected Angostura two months earlier as an ideal location from which to fight a defensive battle. The road to Saltillo passed through a narrow valley; to the west of the road, the landscape was severely broken by deep and precipitous arroyos to form an effective barrier against enemy movement. On the other side of the road, the terrain was rugged but passable. The American troops took up positions and waited for the enemy to approach.