Hostilities between the United States and Mexico commenced with the ambush of a small American reconnaissance patrol north of the Rio Grande River near Matamoros, Mexico, on 25 April 1846. By the time Pres. James K. Polk, a Democrat, received news of the ambush on the evening of 9 May, Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor’s army had fought and won major battles at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. On 11 May Polk asked Congress to recognize that a state of war existed between the United States and Mexico and to pass legislation enabling the nation to protect its honor, rights, and interests. Polk failed to mention his desire for Mexican territory. On 13 May, after almost no debate, Congress obliged the president with a war bill that authorized a call-up of fifty thousand men and appropriated ten million dollars for military expenses. Mississippi’s congressional delegation, Democrats all (Sens. Joseph W. Chalmers of Holly Springs and Jesse Speight of Plymouth, and Reps. Steven Adams of Aberdeen, Jefferson Davis of Warrenton, Robert W. Roberts of Hillsboro, and Jacob Thompson of Oxford), supported Polk’s call to war. With the president’s signature, the United States—and with it, Mississippi—went to war.
With few exceptions, Mississippians welcomed the war, for reasons that reflected a range of emotions, interests, and ideas. Manifest Destiny, a romantic nationalism that justified territorial expansion on idealistic and racist grounds, played a role for many. Some embraced the prospect of opening new land in the Southwest to slavery, which they deemed an economic and political necessity. Others were caught up in the rage militaire that swept across the nation with news of the opening of hostilities: young men dreamed of winning a reputation for selfless courage on Mexican battlefields, while their older counterparts knew full well that laurels won on the battlefield could bring tangible political and social rewards. Both men and women, publicly at least, jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate themselves worthy of their revolutionary forebears. Democrats marshaled behind their president and castigated any Whig who dared to critique war policy. Mississippi’s Whigs, however, joined the forces heading off to Mexico and supported war-funding measures: no Mississippi Whig publicly called for an immediate end to the war, although Whig dissent became more vocal as the war progressed.
The most substantial manifestation of support for the war was enlistment in the volunteers. Gov. Albert Gallatin Brown expected that at least twenty-five hundred men would be requested from the state. Accordingly, on 9 May 1846 he ordered the organization of twenty-eight companies. By 1 June, according to estimates, as many as seventeen thousand men had gathered at Vicksburg. The news that Secretary of War William L. Marcy required only one regiment of approximately one thousand men for twelve months’ service placed the governor in a precarious political situation. As Brown anxiously beseeched Marcy for a bigger allotment, angry would-be volunteers and their friends burned him in effigy in front of the Governor’s Mansion and berated him in the press. Many of those spurned joined units from other states or sullenly bided their time until more men were needed. Still, the one-regiment quota stood.
The unit raised under the first call for troops was the 1st Mississippi Rifles, which mustered into service with 941 men at Vicksburg in June 1846. The elected field officers of the regiment were Col. Jefferson Davis (Democrat), Lt. Col. Alexander K. McClung (Whig), and Maj. Alexander B. Bradford (Whig). Davis used his Washington connections to arm his men with Model 1841 percussion rifled muskets (often referred to as Mississippi Rifles), as distinguished from the more common, less accurate, and shorter-ranged smoothbore. Under Davis’s leadership, the regiment compiled a distinguished combat record, playing a prominent role in the major American victories at Monterrey in September 1846 and Buena Vista in February 1847. It suffered more battle deaths, fifty-nine, than any other volunteer unit, and its roughly equal number of nonbattle deaths (sixty-three) made it exceptional among volunteer units, where disease generally killed many more soldiers. The 1st Mississippi’s 427 men mustered out of service at New Orleans in June 1847 as arguably the most celebrated volunteer regiment of the war.
The other units raised for federal service in Mississippi could not duplicate the success of the 1st Mississippi. The 2nd Mississippi Rifles and Anderson’s Battalion of Mississippi Rifles were raised as the result of later federal calls for troops. Neither unit participated in major combat operations. The 2nd Mississippi mustered into service with 1,037 men at Vicksburg in January 1847. This unit spent the majority of its tour of duty in Mexico in and around Saltillo. It mustered out of service at Vicksburg in July 1848 with 606 men, having suffered no battle deaths and 187 other deaths, mainly as a result of disease. Anderson’s Battalion of Mississippi Rifles mustered into service at Vicksburg in September 1847 with 445 men, spent most of its war service in garrison at Tampico, and mustered out of service at Vicksburg in July 1848 with 342 men. It suffered no battle deaths and lost thirty-eight men to other causes.
It is impossible to say exactly how many Mississippians served in the Mexican War, but the number likely falls between twenty-five hundred and three thousand. Many individuals and even complete companies joined units from other states. Others joined regular US Army formations, especially the Regiment of United States Voltigeurs and Foot Riflemen.
On 30 May 1848 the Mexican-American War officially ended with the exchange of ratifications of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which the United States agreed to pay fifteen million dollars to Mexico and up to three million dollars in claims by American citizens against the Mexican government in exchange for more than five hundred thousand square miles of territory. By the end of July, all Mississippi soldiers had returned home.
The war experience had immediate and lasting effects on Mississippi. The conflict propelled some established leaders to new heights. For example, President Polk appointed John Quitman to serve as major general of volunteers, and he went on to become governor and a member of the US Congress, and Davis later served as a US senator and secretary of war and as Confederate president. The conflict also helped to develop new leaders, such as future Confederate generals Carnot Posey, who served with the 1st Mississippi Rifles, and William Barksdale, who served with the 2nd Mississippi Rifles. The issue of the expansion of slavery into the newly acquired lands subsequently came to dominate both national and state politics. War veterans, especially Quitman and Barksdale, led the fight to see that the land gained from Mexico would remain open to the South’s peculiar institution. The fire that such men had breathed against their Mexican foes now turned increasingly against their own countrymen. Perhaps most significantly, the Mexican-American War prepared a generation of Mississippians to march off to the battlefield in 1861.
- Robert A. Brent, Journal of Mississippi History (August 1969)
- Joseph E. Chance, Jefferson Davis’s Mexican War Regiment (1991)
- Donald S. Frazier, ed., The United States and Mexico at War: Nineteenth-Century Expansion and Conflict (1998)
- Gregory S. Hospodor, Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 1999)
- Dunbar Rowland, Military History of Mississippi, 1803–1898 (1908)
- Richard Bruce Winders, “Mr. Polk’s Army: Politics, Patronage, and the American Military in the Mexican War” (PhD dissertation, Texas Christian University, 1994)
- Richard Bruce Winders, Mr. Polk’s Army: The American Military Experience in the Mexican War (1997)