May 13—Not A Day To Celebrate
By Mel Goldberg
Mexicans celebrate Independence Day on September 16, the day in 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang the bell of his little church, issued his famous Grito de Dolores, and called for independence from Spain. When Spain signed the Treaty of Córdoba on September 27, 1821, Mexico included three provinces north of the Rio Grande River: California, Texas, and New Mexico.
Mexicans also celebrate Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the defeat of elite French troops by Mexican irregulars at the battle of Puebla in 1862.
However, one notorious date that both the United States and Mexico tend to ignore is May 13. That was another day that will live in infamy, although most history books scarcely mention it. May 13 was the day in 1848 when President James K. Polk declared war against Mexico, a war which has impacted citizens of both countries for the past 168 years.
In the 1820s, when many Americans sought cheap land in the Mexican province of Texas, they were welcomed. In many instances, land was given gratis, at no cost.
But the immigrants who inhabited the Mexican land were a thankless bunch, complaining about the laws and customs of the country that had embraced them. One of these immigrants, Sam Houston, publicly declared that he did not want to live under Mexican rule. In 1836, he led a move for Texas independence, which was thwarted when the Alamo at San Antonio was taken by Mexican troops led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
Bur President Polk was not dissuaded. He believed in the concept of Manifest Destiny, popularized by New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan, who urged the annexation of Texas. In 1845 President Polk sent John Slidell, a Louisiana senator (and later a Confederate supporter), to purchase California and New Mexico. Mexican president José Joaquin de Herrera said, “Lo siento, pero no están para la venta.” Angered, the U. S. Senate in 1846 voted to annex Texas. When Mexico severed relations with the United States, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to set up camp on the northern bank of the Rio Grande facing the Mexican army across the river. Ordered to leave Mexican soil, Taylor refused. On April 24, the Mexican army crossed the Rio Grande and killed or wounded sixteen American soldiers. That gave Polk the excuse he wanted. He declared war, stating that the Mexican army had “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.”
One significant Mexican commemoration of the war occurs in honoring the “Niños Heroes,” when American troops attacked Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City on September 13, 1847. At the time, Chapultepec Castle served as the Mexican Army’s military academy. The castle was defended by Mexican troops under the command of General Nicolás Bravo and included young cadets from the academy. The greatly outnumbered defenders battled General Scott’s troops led by Brigadier General John Quitman for several hours before General Bravo ordered retreat.
However, six cadets refused to fall back and fought to their deaths. According to legend, in an act of bravery, the last of the six, nineteen-year-old Juan Escutia of Tepic, wrapped the Mexican national flag around his body and jumped from the top of the castle in order to keep the flag from being taken by the American enemy.
The war between The United States and Mexico ended on February 2, 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico lost almost half its territory. Interestingly, in that war, two young American West Point graduates, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, got their first battle experience. Because of America’s first war of aggression, about 150,000 Mexicans became part of the American population, producing a cultural clash that galls Mexican-American relations to this day.
To be sure, some Americans denounced the war. Abe Lincoln condemned it in Congress. Henry David Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay taxes to support it. But because of this inglorious period in each country’s history, perhaps it is understandable why both countries tend to ignore May 13.