“When We Knew No North Or South”: Veterans of the U.S.-Mexican War at the 1876 Centennial

 

"Buena Vista" by Carl Nebel. Image provided by  Descendents of Mexican War Veterans (www.dmwv.org)

“Buena Vista” by Carl Nebel. Image provided by Descendents of Mexican War Veterans (www.dmwv.org)

On 4th July 1876 Philadelphia hosted celebrations marking one-hundred years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Thermometers ranged in the high nineties, but the intense heat did not stop the people of the city from enjoying the day’s activities. Church bells pealed and cannons fired. Crowds packed the streets to watch a procession of civic societies and state officials march through the centre of town. On a stage festooned with flags and flowers a German brass band played “Hail Columbia.”

Amongst the heat and noise were over two hundred veterans of the U.S.-Mexican War 1846-48.  Having watched the parade, most of the veterans retired to their hotel rooms. They had travelled from thirty-three different states and territories, and were weary from their journeys. Besides, the Centennial was not what had brought these veterans to Philadelphia on that sunny July day. For them, the real event – the third annual reunion of the National Association of Veterans of the Mexican War – would take place the following day.

For many Americans today the U.S.-Mexican War is a conflict they would rather forget. In part the result of President Polk’s dreams of “Manifest Destiny,” the conflict ended with the annexation of nearly half of Mexico’s territory to the United States. In scholarly circles far more attention has been paid to the Civil War as the defining conflict of the nineteenth-century United States. This is particularly true in the field of memory studies. David W. Blight, for example, notes the importance of the construction of memories of the Civil War in shaping the course of sectional reconciliation between Northerners and Southerners in the postwar era.[1] In the 1870s, however, veterans of the Mexican War united in an undertaking to ensure that their achievements and sacrifices would not fade from public memory. Indeed, they believed that popular remembrance of the Mexican War could play a role in promoting sectional peace in post-Civil War U.S. society.

Medals produced by the National Association for their members

Medals produced by the National Association for their members

On 5th July the National Association of Veterans of the Mexican War convened in Assembly Hall, Philadelphia. The first speaker of the day was General Thomas T. Crittenden. He began with an overview of U.S. history. The American Revolution, Crittenden told his audience, had given birth to a “country young and feeble among the nations of the world.”[2] Just over seventy years later, the Mexican War transformed the republic into “the greatest nation of the earth.”[3] The treaty signed in 1848 added roughly 335 million acres to the union. This land’s minerals and resources had fuelled the nation’s industries. It also provided the United States with a Pacific coast, giving the country access to the trade of Central and South America and the Far East. According to Crittenden, the Mexican War should be placed in the pantheon of great wars which had built the U.S. republic.

Crittenden added that Americans ought to honour the Mexican War not only for the bounty it had bequeathed to their nation, but for the bravery of the American troops who had fought in it. In exultant tones he described how these citizen-soldiers had withstood heat, sickness, and over-whelming odds, circumstances which would have “broken the spirits and quelled the courage even of troops inured to war.”[4] For Crittenden, the causes of the conflict were largely irrelevant. To be sure, it was unfortunate that the war had been engineered in part by American slaveholders, and that the resultant Mexican Cession had aggravated the debate in the union over slavery and so contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. What ought to be remembered, however, was the valour of the troops who had raised the American flag over the Halls of Montezuma.

Crittenden’s speech was typical of the version of the Mexican War espoused by members of the National Association. Indeed, this reading of the conflict served the veterans’ interests. The National Association had been formed in 1874 for the expressed purpose of lobbying Congress to pass a pensions bill which would provide federal assistance to all surviving soldiers who had fought in the war with Mexico. The veterans argued that the government ought to share the riches which the conflict had given to the nation, and provide them with the means to live out their final years in comfort. There was, however, another dimension to the veterans’ memory of the Mexican War which served a second, less mercenary purpose.

"Vera Cruz" by Carl Nebel. Image provided by the Descendants of Mexican War Veterans (www.dmwv.org)

“Vera Cruz” by Carl Nebel. Image provided by the Descendants of Mexican War Veterans (www.dmwv.org)

After Crittenden finished his oration, General George W. McCook addressed the convention. He too chose to indulge in memories of his time spent in Mexico. In 1846, he recalled, American troops had stood “shoulder to shoulder, not for their personal safety alone, but for the honor of the glorious flag under which they were mutually engaged in the service of their country.”[5] These soldiers had been united in a common cause, bound by mutual love for their country and a determination to protect it. For McCook, the most powerful effect of the Mexican War was the spirit of patriotism and fraternity it had roused in the hearts of the men who had fought in it.

McCook’s message was not lost on the assembled delegates. Many of them were veterans not only of the Mexican War, but also the Civil War. The Association’s membership rolls were filled with former Unionists and Confederates. It’s annual reunions provided a rare forum for these comrades-turned-enemies to meet and socialise. At these events members of the Association created a memory of the Mexican War which obliterated sectional identity. There had been no Northerners or Southerners among the troops who had captured Mexico City, only Americans. The veterans often commented that these recollections rekindled their old affections both for their country, and for one another. No matter their loyalties in the Civil War, they added, they could all take pride in having fought in a conflict which had done so much for their nation.

President of the Association James W. Denver gave the final address of the day. “In future years,” he told his comrades, “the men of all sections of our common country will meet with the same general good feeling, and fraternize in the same harmonious manner” that had characterised the 1876 reunion.[6] He called on the people of the United States to commemorate and remember the Mexican War. He anticipated that by doing so, all Americans – North and South – would reconnect over their common history. They would also be reminded of the United States’ historic significance and future destiny. As the American people enjoyed the Centennial celebrations, Denver warned them that they could only hope to preserve the legacy the Founders had bestowed to them if their hearts would “beat as patriotically” and as one, just as they had in 1846.[7]

Footnotes 

[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[2] Gen. Thomas T. Crittenden, Speech delivered at the Meeting of the National Association, Philadelphia, 5 July 1876, in The Centennial Reunion of the National Association of Veterans of the Mexican War, ed. Alexander M. Kenaday (Washington: Cunningham and Brashears, printers, 1876), www.babel.hathitrust.org (accessed 10 June 2015), 22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Gen. George W. McCook, The Centennial Reunion, 22.

[6] James W. Denver, The Centennial Reunion, 12.

[7] Ibid.

[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[2] Gen. Thomas T. Crittenden, Speech delivered at the Meeting of the National Association, Philadelphia, 5 July 1876, in The Centennial Reunion of the National Association of Veterans of the Mexican War, ed. Alexander M. Kenaday (Washington: Cunningham and Brashears, printers, 1876), www.babel.hathitrust.org (accessed 10 June 2015), 22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Gen. George W. McCook, The Centennial Reunion, 22.

[6] James W. Denver, The Centennial Reunion, 12.

[7] Ibid.

About Alys Beverton

Alys Beverton is a PhD candidate at University College London. Her thesis focuses on perceptions of Mexico in U.S. political discourse from 1863 to 1896. She is particularly interested in how U.S. Americans constructed images of Mexico as a way of expressing different interpretations of their own national identity. She also examines how ideas about the United States' hemispheric role intersected with and influenced the process of disunion and reunion in the United States during the Civil War era.
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