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December 27, 2011

By Jim Werbaneth

Though arguably lost in the glare of the later Civil War, fought by many of the same officers who were once brothers in arms, the Mexican War was a critical conflict in its own right.   Victory enabled the United States to secure a political settlement that enlarged its territory by almost a quarter, while stripping away almost half of Mexico’s.[1]  This aggravated party and territorial rivalries among the victors too, with a Democratic President James Knox Polk faced with the reality that the war was won chiefly by commanders who happened to be Whigs― Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott.  In the long term, more importantly, the United States confronted the key question of whether or not its windfall of new territory should be free or slave, an issue that helped accelerate the march toward the War Between the States.[2]

For Mexico, it was correspondingly disastrous.  Though much of the land lost through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was underpopulated or even virtually empty compared to the Mexican heartland, it was a blow that traumatized the country, especially after the recent loss of Texas to a rebellion by its Anglo-American residents.[3]  Timothy J. Henderson of Auburn University asserts that Mexico went to war with the United States over the immediate dispute of Texan admission to the Union, and the fixing of its border at the Rio Grande River instead of the Neuces, as Mexico desired; even though perceptive Mexican political and military leaders saw defeat as nearly inevitable, a need to satisfy honor after the loss of Texas mandated war.[4]  Then when war came, it exacerbated Mexico’s own long-standing conflicts between conservatives and liberals, federalists and centralists.[5]  Further, the war brought back to power Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna, the cruel, demagogic, corrupt, and supremely opportunistic figure who was both the most important Mexican of his day,[6] and arguably the most dangerous to his own country.

The decisive campaign of the war ended with the capture of Mexico City by the Americans on 14 September 1847.[7]  An American army of almost 12,000 men had landed at Veracruz on 9 March 1847,[8] and then marched upcountry via the same general route used by Hernando Cortés.[9]  The Americans defeated a Mexican army under Santa Anna himself, larger than the American force and ensconced in the defensible position at Cerro Gordo on their way to the capital.[10]  At one point, when Scott withdrew his garrisons between Veracruz and Puebla, an aged Duke of Wellington is reported to have exclaimed “Scott is lost!  He has been carried away by successes!  He can’t take the city [Mexico City], and he can’t fall back on his bases!”[11]  But when he heard that Scott had indeed overcome tremendous odds to take the city, the Iron Duke proclaimed the American commander “the greatest living soldier.”[12]

Scott’s campaign both owes its success to the prevailing military theories of the time, and presages an emerging school of warfare.  At the time, American military theory was dominated by the works of the Swiss Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini, as he attempted to interpret the military lessons of the Napoleonic Wars.  Spearheaded by the influential Superintendent, Sylvanus Thayer, and the longtime engineering instructor Dennis Hart Mahan, the United States Military Academy enthusiastically embraced Jomini as it generally followed the French example of military theory and education.  The French, and Jominian, influence was further cemented when Mahan’s former student Henry Wager Halleck wrote Elements of Military Art and Science, heavily influenced by both Jomini and Mahan, and published on the eve of the Mexican War.  Mahan and Halleck, under the influence of Thayer, initiated American strategic studies, consciously promoted professionalism in the United States Army, and asserted that military science was a specialty that demanded intense study, especially of military history.[13]   Scott was a part of this trend himself, priding himself in a military library he began assembling, and traveling with, as young general during the War of 1812.  French works were among the most prominent in his collection, and in influencing him.[14]

In Europe at least, there was a competing, German-centered interpretation of the Napoleonic Wars.  Carl von Clausewitz originated a contrasting school of analysis, one that would later eclipse that of Jomini and the French approach, but he was largely unknown in the United States at the time of the Mexican War.  Jomini had the advantage of having his Art of War published in 1838, just in time for the war with Mexico, whereas Clausewitz was not available in English translation until 1873, too late even to directly influence the Civil War.[15]  Jomini would not have this disadvantage, as Scott already had a long predisposition to use French manuals that dated back to 1808.[16]  In fact, Scott was credited as a disciple of Jomini going back to his service on the Niagara frontier in the War of 1812, taking a copy of the Swiss writer’s Treatise on Great Military Operations with him.[17]  Additionally, though not a graduate of the United States Military Academy, he took special interest in the institution, being named as head of West Point’s Board of Visitors in 1831; he saw it as the symbol of the professionalism that he wanted to instill into the United States Army.  Eschewing a passive role, he attended classes, and was in an ideal position to influence the education of American officers.[18]

Thus any competition between Jomini and Clausewitz for the intellectual allegiance of American officers was over before it began.  Leading American military intellectuals, including Winfield Scott, were already drawn to the orbit of the French school and general, and Jomini in particular, as they tried to make sense of the lessons from the Napoleonic Wars.  Jomini was already known by Francophile officers, while Clausewitz, though published in German seven years earlier than his rival,[19]  would be virtually unknown in the United States for several more decades.  Thus Jomini won by default.

The visions offered by Jomini and Clausewitz are markedly different, despite analyzing the same Napoleonic Wars.  Jomini is essentially rational, mathematical, and geometric, aiming to bring reason to that most essentially unreasonable of human activities, war.  Reading this passage from The Art of War, one can imagine the general standing over the map, protractor in hand, planning the campaign with mathematical precision:

We will suppose an army taking the field: the first care of its commander should be to agree with the head of the state upon the character of the war: then he must carefully study the theater of war, and select the most suitable base of operations, taking into consideration the frontiers of the state and those of its allies.

The selection of this base and the proposed aim will determine the zone of operations.  The general will take a first objective point: he will select the line of operations leading to this point, either as a temporary or permanent line, giving it the most advantageous direction; namely, that which promises the greatest number of favorable opportunities with the least danger.  An army marching on this line of operations will have a front of operations and a strategic front.  The temporary positions which the corps d'armée will occupy upon this front of operations, or upon the line of defense, will be strategic positions.[20]

At its core, Jomini’s work is a product of the Age of Reason as much as the tumult of the Napoleonic Era, in which he served as chief of staff to Marshall Michel Ney before defecting to the Allies in 1813.  As eminent a scholar of the Napoleonic Wars as David G. Chandler characterizes him as one of only two contemporary writers who came close to understanding the genius of Napoleon Bonaparte ― the other being Carl von Clausewitz.[21]  Undoubtedly, Jomini had not only a close acquaintance with the way of war of Napoleon Bonaparte, but with the Emperor personally, and thus was in a unique position to witness and analyze both.  Along with that, Jomini’s place in Napoleon’s command structure gives him a unique credibility among writers of the era. 

Jomini’s infatuation with lines of communication and their centrality in strategy is as reminiscent of warfare in the eighteenth century and the era of Frederick the Great as it is of the Napoleonic Wars.  His Art of War reveals both a conservatism in politics, and a revulsion of the popular passions that can aggravate wars into something even more destructive of civilians, institutions and society:

It may be recollected how in 1792 associations of fanatics thought it possible to propagate throughout Europe the famous declaration of the rights of man, and how governments became justly alarmed, and rushed to arms probably with the intention of only forcing the lava of this volcano back into its crater and there extinguishing it.  The means were not fortunate; for war and aggression are inappropriate measures for arresting an evil which lies wholly in the human passions, excited in a temporary paroxysm, of less duration as it is the more violent.  Time is the true remedy for all bad passions and for all anarchical doctrines.  A civilized nation may bear the yoke of a factious and unrestrained multitude for a short interval; but these storms soon pass away, and reason resumes her sway.[22]

He thus rejects both the “bad passions” of a nation at war, and the idea that these passions can be suppressed through war.  Rather, the threat of military intervention can aggravate destructive enthusiasms still further.[23]  Clausewitz’s approach is markedly different, less precise, orderly, and concerned with precise lines.  He dismisses Jomini’s obsessions, accepting that war is more chaotic by nature: 

The reader expects to hear of strategic theory, of lines and angle, and instead of these denizens of the scientific world he finds himself encountering only creatures of everyday life.  But the author cannot bring himself to be in the slightest degree more scientific than he considers his subject to warrant ― strange as this attitude may appear.

In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect.  Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance.  With that assurance an architect watches the progress of his work and sees his plans gradually take shape!  A doctor, though much more exposed to chance and inexplicable results, knows his medicines and the effects they produce.  By contrast, a general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen.  In short, he is exposed to countless impressions, most of them disturbing, few of them encouraging.[24] 

Thus the writer captures the phenomenon of war as something beyond measurement by protractors across a map.  For Jomini, war is more like a geometry lesson; for Clausewitz, a giant mess, albeit one to be managed, as much through sheer effort as brilliance of maneuver:

Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counterweight, provided that no compelling reasons intervene to the contrary.  Moreover, there is hardly a worthwhile enterprise in war whose execution does not call for infinite effort, trouble and privation; and as man under pressure tends to give in to physical and intellectual weakness, only great strength of will can lead to the objective.  It is steadfastness that will earn the admiration of the world and of posterity.[25]

 In addition, Clausewitz embraced the notion that amidst all this chaos and confusion, requiring the maximum of mental and physical effort, war was essentially brutal.  His simple and direct definition of war underscores this effectively:  “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,”[26] which can be interpreted chiefly to give up the fight.  Then, the main means of doing that is combat, rather than maneuver alone: 

Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine that is the true goal of the art of war.  Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy to that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.  The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect.  If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand.  That side will force the other to follow suit; each will drive its opponent toward extremes, and the only limiting factors are the counterpoises inherent in war.[27]

 The strategic approaches of both Jomini and Clausewitz are manifested in Winfield Scott’s campaign in the Mexican War.  However, it should be remember all along that while Jomini could be seen as an influence, with Clausewitz it is more of a resemblance, due to the lack of familiarity among American officers with his theories.

Both theorists devote significant attention to the relationship of politics and war, and Scott’s campaign did take place in a complex political context.  Jomini dedicates the entire first chapter of The Art of War to the relationship between war and diplomacy, but the main theme is about the nature of conflicts rather than the relationship between military and political authorities and decision-making.[28]  Clausewitz, by contrast, spends less time explicitly on the subject, but focuses on how politics influences war, and vice versa.  For him, the “political object” determines the “military object,” and the level of force to be committed to attain it.  Additionally, he states that sometimes the political and military objects are the same.  In other cases, the political object does not supply a ready military objective:  Then, “another military objective must be adopted that will serve the political purpose and symbolize it in the peace negotiations.”[29]

In Scott’s campaign, the military objective was clear: Capture of Mexico City.  Yet to end the war in the favor of the United States, Scott and the American political representative, Nicholas Trist, had to attain a more comprehensive settlement.  This was in a Mexican domestic environment that was even more confused and fractious than usual, involving practices inimical to American practices.   Even before the fall of Mexico City, Scott allocated ten thousand dollars for “secret expenses” ― specifically to respond to an offer from Santa Anna to end the war for a bribe of that amount.  But after the American victory at Cerro Gordo, the Mexican congress passed a law declaring that even discussing negotiations was treasonous; in the face of this defiance, Santa Anna backed off his offer, but kept the ten thousand dollars,[30] an act that the Americans should have anticipated.

Nor was the American political situation exactly a source of comfort to Scott.  President James K. Polk did not have complete confidence in General Scott, but did not believe that he could keep the commander of the United States Army out of the Mexican War without cause.  At the same time, he had less in the American commander in Texas, Zachary Taylor, whom he believed was of limited brainpower.  In this he had Scott’s agreement that Taylor was not up to the task of command, though Scott could not say so in public.  Indeed, Scott’s appraisal was that Taylor was a man of honor and common sense, but intellectually narrow and rather simple.[31]  Scott’s own words, published in his memoirs in 1864, are a study in condescension:

With a good store of common sense, General Taylor’s mind had not been enlarged or refreshed by reading, or much converse with the world.  Rigidity of ideas was the consequence.  The frontiers and small military posts had been his home.  Hence he was quite ignorant, for his rank, and quite bigoted in his ignorance.  His simplicity was childlike, and his innumerable prejudices―amusing and incorrigible―well suited to the tender age.  Thus if a man, however respectable, chanced to wear a coat of an unusual color, or his hat a little on one side of his head; or if any officer to leave the corner of his handkerchief dangling from an outside pocket―in any way such case, this critic [Taylor] held the offender to be a coxcomb―perhaps, something worse, whom he would not, to use his oft-repeated phrase, “touch with a pair of tongs.”  Any allusion to literature much beyond good old Dilworth’s Spelling Book, on the part of one wearing a sword, was evidence, with the same judge, of utter unfitness for heavy marchings and combats.  In short, few men have ever had a more comfortable, labor-saving contempt for learning of every kind.[32]

Yet Scott concedes of Taylor’s character, with a rare mea culpa: 

Yet this old soldier and neophyte statesman, had the true basis of a great character:―pure, uncorrupted morals, combined with indomitable courage.  Kind-hearted, sincere, and hospitable in a plain way, he had no vice but prejudice, many friends, and left behind him not an enemy in the world―not even in the autobiographer, whom, in the blindness of his great weakness, he―after being named to the Presidency, had seriously wronged.[33]

 The two were old friends, but when President Polk offered command of the Veracruz operation to Scott, that relationship was poisoned, despite Scott’s later, revisionist kind words.  Scott wrote a long and conciliatory letter to Taylor, commending him on his recent victories while Scott planned on diverting most of Taylor’s own troops to his own enterprise.  Taylor’s first reply was likewise pleasant, but when Scott’s ship was held up by bad weather on its way to Tampico, communications were sundered, and instead of the diplomatic and friendly letter that he intended, Scott had to rather peremptorily order Taylor to give up most of his best regular soldiers.  Especially considering that both men had presidential aspirations, which Taylor realized in the end, the exchange was sensitive, with the grave possibility of driving a wedge between the two most important American generals of the war.[34]

Scott’s relations with his own administration were strained as well.  A Democrat, Polk was keenly aware of the ambitions of both Taylor and Scott, both Whigs, to replace him.  Senator Thomas Hart Benton presumptuously attempted to have Polk name him to command the Veracruz operation.[35]  A confidant of Polk’s who was also chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, Benton had served as a colonel in the War of 1812,[36] but did not have the recent experience to suit him as an army-level commander by any means.  Nonetheless, Polk attempted to undercut both Taylor and Scott, especially to prominent Democrats, on the grounds that the expedition needed a leader friendlier to the administration ― who of course would be Benton.  Thus Polk dealt with Scott disingenuously, and betrayed a false notion that command decisions could be made solely through the prism of domestic, partisan politics.[37]

The confused, even conspiratorial, turn of American politics belies the rather neat and elegant theories of both Jomini and Clausewitz.  Jealousies and rivalries between commanders are to be expected and both theorists, especially Jomini in the hothouse of the Napoleonic Marshalate, surely would have witnessed this or even worse during their military service.  Much more serious, and less excusable, there was nothing approximating a seamless connection between the political and military authorities, and ultimately the political authority, in the form of President Polk and his Secretary of War William Marcy.  In a letter to the latter, he accurately portrayed his situation as one in which Scott wrote: “My explicit meaning is ― that I do not desire to place myself in the most perilous of all positions:―a fire upon my rear from Washington, and the fire, in front, of the Mexicans.”[38]

Yet not all of the fault lies with Polk, Marcy and Benton; Scott demonstrated a lifelong, consistent penchant for undiplomatic behavior, indiscreet communications, and a general lack of political sense in direct contrast with his military sophistication.  As a young artillery captain in 1809, he referred to his commanding general as a traitor, “as great at Aaron Burr,” resulting in a court martial and suspension from duty for a year.[39]  Eight years later he condemned an order by General Andrew Jackson as “mutinous,” and got off with no more than an answer that Scott was a “hectoring bully.”  He was faced court marshal for a second time in 1837 for his prosecution of the Seminole War, but was exonerated.[40]

John S.D. Eisenhower identifies Scott’s overbearing manner and outspokenness as central to his character, and not the result of too many years of service by the time of the Mexican War.  Instead: 

They had always been part of his makeup.  But he had never been punished severely enough to make him change his ways.  In fact, some of the disciplinary actions against him had turned out to be blessings in disguise.[41]

In addition, Polk was correct in believing that Scott did have aspirations to the White House.  Scott was the Whig nominee in 1852, the last for that party as it turned out, and was soundly defeated by Franklin Pierce, a former military subordinate in Mexico.  For the Whigs, the Democratic landslide was appalling, as Scott carried only Kentucky, Tennessee, Vermont and Massachusetts, even losing his home state of Virginia.[42]  Scott ended up as the only military hero ever rejected for the White House in a general election, doomed by long and bombastic speeches, a tendency to speak over the heads of his audiences, and a generally clumsy campaigning style.  Further, his conservative political views were out of touch with the times, and efforts to reach out to traditionally Democratic Irish immigrant voters in particular backfired by alienating anti-immigrant nativists.[43]

Nor did his political missteps end there.  During the secession crisis that ended in the Civil War, he submitted a rambling and unrealistic set of political and military recommendations, unsolicited by its recipients, to President James Buchanan and Secretary of War John Floyd.  Sending it was well to other influential parties, including newspaper editors, Scott obviously intended for it become public.  Instead, it destroyed whatever influence he might have had with the Buchanan administration.[44]  Thus Scott showed a record of questionable, even poor, political judgment to the end of his career.  However, in Mexico Scott repeated rose above the questionable political instincts that he demonstrated at home, making few if any mistakes in dealing with the Mexicans or his own forces.  In fact, his campaign in Mexico was probably his greatest political as well as military accomplishment.

Scott’s campaign started with the largest amphibious landing in American history to that point, to be surpassed only with the Torch landings in North Africa in 1942.[45]  As such, the operation demanded a high degree of cooperation between Scott and the naval commander, Commodore David Conner.  An expert at seamanship and navigation, he had over thirty years worth of experience in the Gulf of Mexico, but by 1846 was old and unhealthy, “confirmed invalid.”[46]  Nonetheless he proved highly effective in command of the Gulf Squadron, until replaced, by Matthew Perry on 21 March 1847.[47]  Further, Conner and Scott maintained an excellent professional relationship.[48]

The start of a campaign with an assault from the sea is definitely consistent with Jomini.  A little ironically for an officer from landlocked Switzerland, Jomini stressed that seizing enemy ports was essential to all wars of coastal invasion.[49]  With effective control of the Gulf, Scott was free to invade wherever he chose, considering whether to land at Tampico, thence through San Luis Potosí to Mexico City, or to take the shorter route from Veracruz.  Tampico had the advantage of having been seized without opposition by Conner on 11 November 1846.[50]  Learning that there was no road from Tampico to San Luis Potosí, Scott elected to land at Veracruz.[51]  Tampico was relegated to the port of debarkation for Taylor’s troops being transferred to Scott’s command, while those from the United States were to assemble at Brazos Santiago.  Since Tampico’s harbor was too small to accommodate all the transports, the contingents would assemble at Lobos Island before moving on to Veracruz.[52]

The actual invasion reflected both Jomini and Clausewitz.  Jomini cautioned that since the invention of artillery, amphibious operations were hazardous and rare.[53]  Hence, he advocated that if one was to be undertaken, the army should land on a beach where it could assemble as a whole, and quickly get its own artillery into operation.  Scott did just that before attacking Veracruz and its imposing fort of San Juan de Ulloa.[54]

The operation can also be viewed in terms of Clausewitz’s principle of surprise.  The Mexicans should not have been entirely surprised that the Americans should invade at Veracruz.  After all, this was where Cortez had invaded, and only in 1838, Santa Anna had lost a leg there, fighting the French in the Pastry War. [55]   The city was protected by impressive fortifications, and by coast artillery interspersed in the area.[56]  Additionally Santa Anna ordered upwards of 6,000 militia to concentrate on Veracruz, though poor administration and staffwork prevented them from arriving in time.[57]

Clausewitz tends to look at surprise as either strategic or tactical,[58] and Scott’s siege of Veracruz was not especially different in its conduct than any other.  Scott himself concedes that “All sieges are much alike.”[59]  Yet the unprecedented scale of the American invasion had to have been surprising in itself.   In the end, Veracruz surrendered to overwhelming American land and naval power on 27 March.  Scott recorded capturing about 5,000 prisoners, 400 artillery pieces, and large stores of ammunition, at the cost of only sixty-four American dead.[60]

The next step was to move inland on the prime objective, Mexico City.  Jomini and Clausewitz[61] share a concern with maintaining a clear eye on the objective of an operation, and so did Scott.  Scott selected a route following the National Road through Jalapa, then Puebla and finally approaching Mexico City.[62]  One could look at that in terms of military theory, especially Jomini’s, with its emphasis on lines of movement and resistance.  Yet one could also look at Scott’s choice as simply sensible, as there were but two routes available, and this one was arguably the better.  With their birth on the battlegrounds of Europe, where road nets were much more extensive, Jomini’s theories were not prepared for the relative paucity of roads in Mexico.

Scott had a second reason for advancing, and doing so quickly, that had less to do with Jominian theory or even the enemy than it did with nature: Disease.  Veracruz lay on the tropical Gulf coast of Mexico, where yellow fever, the dreaded vomito, was endemic.  This was a prime concern in a war in which 2,083 men died in combat or accidents, but 11,155 succumbed to disease. [63]  In the Mexican War, all other diseases had cumulative death rate of 10.9%, but yellow fever’s mortality was 17.4%.[64]  Thus Scott had every reason to move into the highlands as quickly as possible, regardless of any strategic philosophy.

During his march to the Valley of Mexico, and after taking the city, Scott exhibited a great deal of sensitivity toward the Mexicans, showing more political aptitude than he often did with American officers and politicians in peacetime.  He was deeply concerned about the behavior of American soldiers, whose lapses into indiscipline threatened to alienate Mexicans in the American zone of operations.  He declared martial law in Veracruz, not so much to control the population, but to control his own soldiers better; Americans were restricted to the city, banned from killing domestic animals, and in at least one case a soldier was hanged for rape.[65]  Two teamsters from Robert Patterson’s division were executed for murdering a Mexican boy when the army reached Jalapa.[66]

With the same goal of winning over the Mexicans, Scott turned his attention to the Catholic Church.  He ordered American soldiers to salute priests, and personally requested the clergy in Veracruz for permission to conduct religious services in two churches; the Mexican priests assented, provided that they could perform the services for the occupiers themselves.  Furthermore, the general indulged in his penchant for military splendor when he and his staff donned their best full-dress uniforms and attended Mass in Veracruz cathedral with the new governor, lighting a candle in a ceremony in which the priests, caught up in the spirit of the moment, drafted him.  Scott’s cultivation of the Catholic Church in Mexico threatened to alienate Nativists back home, undermining his presidential ambitions, but offered evidence that he put the military mission first and foremost.[67]

In terms of military theory, Scott’s actions do fit in with Jomini’s views that eschew inordinate passions in war.  Scott was certainly attempting to maintain the “civilized” nature of the conflict, in which soldiers fought soldiers, and civilians were neither active participants nor victims, any more than absolutely necessary.  But as with his choice of landing places and routes to Mexico City, not everything can be credited to preexisting theory; he commanded a small army in a hostile land, in which lines of communication back to Veracruz promised to be tenuous.  He simply did not have the means to conduct anything approximating total war, and could not afford it if the Mexicans adopted a similar approach themselves.  Therefore immediate military needs dictated policies that happened to conform to Jomini’s theories.

In that, Scott was successful.  The Americans paid for rather than took supplies, and had little interference from Mexican guerrillas.  Some Mexicans did attack American stragglers and patrols, but their threat was miniscule.  According to one soldier, these were only bandits who preyed on Mexicans as well as Americans, and were not part of the war effort.  Ultimately, they did not represent anything close to an organized, effective thread of irregular warfare.[68]

Nonetheless, when Scott did encounter guerrillas, he dealt with them ruthlessly.  He announced a war of extermination against them, denying quarter.  Should any be taken prisoner “accidently,” they should be held only as long as necessary for a summary court martial to order equally rapid execution.  If civilians harbored or supported irregulars, he held local officials responsible, confiscating their property when they failed to help apprehend the guerrillas.  When and where that was insufficiently effective, Scott fined and burned villages suspected of harboring the elusive enemy.  Thus he applied the stick as well as the carrot, and even if the bandit/guerrilla threat was never completely eradicated, he was able to keep it in check.  In large part this was because he was able to convince the local population that they had a lot more to gain through cooperation than opposition.[69]  Even this apostle of Jomini had his limits.

The first major battle of Scott’s campaign occurred at Cerro Gordo on 18 April 1847. This not a battle by choice, but forced by Santa Anna’s occupation of a defilade between Veracruz and Scott’s first major objective of Jalapa.  Scott chose an approach reflective of his military sophistication, and which carried the possibility of decisive victory.  Santa Anna was confident that the Americans would have to launch a costly frontal assault, made even more difficult by fire from Mexican batteries outposted on cliffs overlooking the approach to the battlefield.[70]

Scott did not play by Santa Anna’s rules.  Instead, benefiting from a reconnaissance by engineers lead by the intrepid Captain Robert E. Lee, Scott planned on sending a flanking force to the north, through rough terrain that Santa Anna did not consider passable.  The battle went well for the Americans, though poor performance by the notoriously incapable Gideon Pillow prevented the rout from becoming a really decisive victory.  The Americans did capture Santa Anna’s personal treasury, and maybe a little more dramatic, his wooden leg.[71]

Continuing the advance through Puebla toward Mexico City, Scott showed a Clausewitzan willingness to do battle.  His army fought an extremely dogged foe at Contreras in August; when the Mexicans finally capitulated, they were out of ammunition, and their commander, General Anaya, critically wounded and badly burned.  So determined was the Mexican resistance, an American observer stated that “the glory is all theirs.”[72]  Scott kept up the pressure, making two more assaults at Molina del Rey and Chapultepec, and then seizing the Belem and San Cosme garitas, or gateways, to the city.  The next day, 14 September 1847, a delegation came out under a flag of truce and surrendered Mexico.[73]

Besides his willingness to engage the enemy rather than avoid battle through maneuver, Scott’s strategy before Mexico City reflects a more Clausewitzan than Jominian approach.  This is not the only area in which Scott’s conduct of the campaign plays as much to On War as The Art of War, and one can find clear instances of Clausewitzan principles in the campaign.

The principle of concentration occurs in both Clausewitz and Scott’s campaign.  Clausewitz emphasizes the importance of keeping one’s forces massed, stating that “No force should ever be detached from the main body unless the need is definite and urgent. [original emphasis].”[74]  He continues to say that throughout history, armies have been divided for no good reason, simply because the commander vaguely thought that it was the way it should be done.  Counters Clausewitz: “This folly can be avoided completely, and a great many unsound reasons for dividing one’s forces never be proposed, as soon as concentration of force is recognized as the norm, and every separation and split as an exception has to be justified.”[75]

Scott did keep his forces concentrated throughout the campaign.  The greatest exception was when the American army split to fight for the garitas on the perimeter of the enemy capital, and this was really the pursuit of a defeated enemy, when division can be most effective and called for.  Even the twin battles of Contreras and Churubusco south of the city were really two parts of the same battle, with most of the American units engaged in both engagements.[76]

At the same time, Scott adhered to the principle of economy of force[77] when necessary.  On the strategic scale, diverting the core of Taylor’s army to the main effort, the drive on Mexico City, represents concentration.  Maintaining a smaller force under Taylor around Saltillo, capable of maintaining an effective defense in northern Mexico, is a classic instance of economy of force.  However, the near-run victory at Buena Vista, as Santa Anna struck this depleted army in late February 1847, demonstrates that economy of force is a calculated risk.[78]

Despite his mandates to keep an army concentrated, Clausewitz warns against using too large of a force to accomplish a task; too many troops can result in unnecessary casualties.[79]  In his attack on Chapultepec Castle, Scott embraced this principle; first he ordered the bombardment of the objective, using captured Mexican pieces as well as his own siege train, to force an issue without the commitment of infantry, and resulting effusion of blood.  When that failed, Scott ordered a direct assault.  Two divisions, William Worth’s and Gideon Pillow’s, were officially allocated to the task.  However, the actual spearheads were “forlorn hopes” of a few hundred picked men and officers from both, with their comrades in support.  By 0930, two hours after the battle started, the Stars and Stripes flew over Chapultepec Castle, and the roads to the garitas, and thus Mexico City, were open.[80]

Perhaps Scott’s most important instance of adhering to economy of force, combined with a willingness to live off the land without necessarily plundering it, came on 4 June.  He found that he could not adequately protect his convoys moving inland from Veracruz.  Moreover, the cost of garrisoning Veracruz, Jalapa and Perote reduced the vital Puebla garrison to only 5,820.  Therefore he abandoned all positions between Veracruz and Puebla, and moving those troops up to Puebla.  This cut the American army off from the coast; Scott would have to live off of Mexico, not supplies delivered to Veracruz.  It was this action that caused Wellington to exclaim from London that Scott was lost, unable to take Mexico City, or fall back on his bases.[81]

For Clausewitz, war was something in which unity of command was essential; it was nothing to be done by committee.  The principle of unity of command applies to Scott’s campaign too.  There was but one commander, Scott, who happened to be the commander of the United States Army as well.  David Conner, and then Matthew Perry, was his naval opposite, and Scott was able to maintain good professional relationships with both.  Thus only was cooperation between the army and navy very good, but the navy served the army’s purposes extremely well.  The initial landings, followed by the siege of Veracruz, are examples of joint cooperation yielding crucial results.

Further, Scott was the unquestionable authority within his own army, sharing power with no other officer at the top of the hierarchy.  He did quarrel with Gideon Pillow, especially after the fall of Mexico City.  Then again Pillow was one of the least talented officers in the army, unpopular with officers and troops alike, and with ambitions far beyond his capabilities; perhaps his best qualification was that he was a crony of President Polk.[82]  It was a record of mediocrity that he would maintain into the Civil War, in which he quickly showed his inadequacy as a Confederate general, being reprimanded and removed from command after the surrender of Fort Donelson.[83]

Despite enduring such sniping from a bad general under his command, and his own pride and pomposity, Scott did not abuse his power by intimidating officers.  Before the attack on Chapultepec, he solicited the views of his officers, who felt that they could think and speak freely.  In the end though, only one vote counted, and that was Scott’s.[84]  Thus unity of command was preserved, while maintaining a healthy freedom to think and contribute among his officers.  There was no obvious instance of "group think" during this council of war.

Yet Scott could also be hard on subordinates whom he saw as behaving badly.  For example, William Worth was responsible for administering Puebla, and did it poorly.  The general demonstrated paranoia toward the Mexicans, circulating a document warning Americans that the water supply was poisoned by the inhabitants.  He imagined other threats, ordering drums to call out the garrison so much that they were referred to as “Worth’s scarecrows.”  Simultaneously, he could be inordinately lenient with the Mexicans, going so far as to allow local courts to try American soldiers accused of murder; the courts quickly abused this, severely depressing the morale of the American enlisted men.[85]

Scott took matters in hard personally.  He instituted a more nuanced set of policies, in large part repeating what he had instituted in Veracruz, building a greater degree of confidence between American soldiers and Mexican civilians in as low key a manner as he could.  Again, he courted the Catholic Church, and before long, relations were much better and more peaceful.  As for Worth, he instituted a court of appeal that found him guilty on 24 June 1847 of offering terms of capitulation to Puebla that were “improvident and detrimental to the public service,” and issuing a circular about the allegedly poisoned water that was “highly improper and extremely objectionable.”  Worth received only a reprimand, but was so incensed that he appealed to Washington for justice.   Finally, Scott lost Worth as a valued friend and ally.[86]  At that cost though, Scott was able to further his mission politically through restoration of relations with the Mexicans, and reasserting American power in Puebla, while maintaining control as the sole commander of the American army.

The greatest threat to the harmony of the army, and unity of command, was the arrival of Nicholas Trist, during a three-month halt at Puebla, where Scott planned the last stage of his drive on Mexico City.  Trist was charged by Polk with authority to negotiate the post-war peace, with large territorial concessions to the United States.  Trist was well-suited to the task; married to Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter, he had studied law under the third President of the United States, and served as Andrew Jackson’s private secretary.  He further had diplomatic experience as consul to Cuba, and was a fluent Spanish-speaker.[87]

Scott, perhaps understandably considering his perceptions of Polk’s “perfidy” from the conception of the campaign in Washington,[88] saw Trist’s arrival as an attempt to undermine his authority.  Yet he and the diplomat soon developed a rapport that would serve the war effort well. [89]  After Mexico City fell, Trist began the difficult task of negotiating a settlement; Santa Anna had skulked away in the middle of the night, resigned his command, and gone into yet another exile.  With no president, executive power lay with the chief justice of the Mexican Supreme Court, Manuel Peña y Peña.  Further, Mexican politics remained as factionalized as ever, with some willing to pursue victory through the kind of guerrilla war that Scott had done so much to prevent.  Others were afraid of their own underclass, the so-called leperos.[90]

Relations with the Americans remained more cordial, though complex.  Interestingly, while Trist and Scott maintained a friendly relationship, and negotiations with the Mexicans went slowly but without much bitterness, the relationship between Trist and his friend Polk broke down to the point that Polk ordered the diplomat’s recall in October 1847.  Trist disobeyed orders, remaining to negotiate the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on 1 February 1848, thus ending the war.[91]  In a clear Clausewitzan manner, war became politics by another means, and then gave way back to diplomacy, albeit in defiance of the civilian executive.

No Clausewitzan analysis of any conflict would be complete without consideration of friction.  Clausewitz writes:

Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.  The military machine―the army and everything related to it―is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage.  But we should bear in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is comprised of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction.[92]

Further, each one of those individuals, indeed every component of the army and everything with which it interactions, carries the potential of not working according to the general’s wishes, orders or expectations.  In short, things go wrong.

Scott’s campaign exhibits the concept of friction throughout.  The weather conditions that interfered with his correspondence with Zachary Taylor can be seen as friction.  So could early difficulties in procuring mules immediately following the capture of Veracruz.[93]  Soon after, David Twiggs marched his division up the National Road toward Cerro Gordo, driving them too fast, thus causing a third of his command to fall out.  Then many of these soldiers were in no hurry to rejoin their units, taking their time to shoot Mexican cattle and rob houses along the way.[94]  Both the error of General Twiggs, and the lazy efforts of his stragglers to catch up, matches Clausewitz’s definition of friction.  Then too, so was Pillow’s botching of his part of the attack at Cerro Gordo.

Friction played a major part too in the Battle of Molina del Rey on 8 September 1847.  Scott had intelligence that the Mexicans were casting cannon there, and that there was a large store of powder at Casa Mata, intelligence that turned out to be false.[95]  Scott demanded that the position be taken, but thought of it more as a raid, while Worth considered it more of a battle, and thus made the decisions to increase the number of troops in the assault, and changed it from a night to a daylight attack.[96]

The ensuing battle was probably the lowest point for Scott’s army through the entire campaign.  At the cost of 134 killed and 665 wounded, the Americans routed the Mexicans in a frightful battle that ended around 1900.  They took three cannon as well, but found none of the cannon molds that were the reason for the attack.[97]  Not to be neglected, the American soldiers began to doubt the judgment of their own leaders.[98]  All of this was due to friction; Scott issued orders based on erroneous information, Worth implemented his orders incorrectly, and then Scott neglected to intervene.[99]

In all, the campaign to Mexican City was a model of military professionalism, a product of the education, training, and professional standards which Winfield Scott stamped on the United States Army.  He was hardly the only one involved in this prolonged effort; Dennis Hart Mahan and Sylvanus Thayer certainly deserve as much credit for building this foundation.  Yet Scott was no passive observer, but a general who took a very active interest in the intellectual, theoretical basis of the army.  Largely, it was one centered on the French school of strategy, itself founded on the works of Jomini.

To help put Scott's Mexico City into historical perspective, it should be born in ind that the War of 1812 was a conflict in which American generalship was a mixed picture of incompetence, complacency, and flashes of professionalism―much of that provided by a young Winfield Scott on the Niagara River.[100]  Between then and the onset of war with Mexico in 1846, the United States had occasion to fight irregular wars against Native Americans but only one limited clash with a non-native foe, Andrew Jackson’s campaign against a weakly-defended and barely-governed Spanish Florida, which was almost an “outlaw zone,” in the words of H.W. Brands.[101]  Thus while Mexico was not a European enemy, it could be seen as the only major conventional foe of the United States between 1815 and 1861.

Scott and his army lived up to far higher standards than that which fought the British a little over thirty years earlier.  Despite mistakes such as the Battle of Molino del Rey, and the inevitable intrusion of friction, it was effective beyond its numbers.  Scott began his campaign with the largest amphibious operation in American history until World War II, took a defended port quickly, and then marched on Mexico City.  There, he had the sense to step back and allow Nicholas Trist to turn military victory into a successful political outcome.

Though influenced by Jomini, Scott’s campaign also reflected the theories of Carl von Clausewitz.  Here though there is no evidence of influence, only resemblance.  Ultimately, it says more about Clausewitz and his predictive powers than it does about his stature, which was non-existent, in the American military consciousness.  In the coming Civil War, the Prussian would be further affirmed, as victory for the Union only came with a belligerence and commitment to total war alien to Jomini and his disciples.  It would be an overstatement to say that the Mexican War was America’s first Clausewitzan conflict.  However, it would be accurate to state that it was America’s last Jominian war.

Winfield Scott stood through this entire process.  Along with Andrew Jackson and Jacob Brown, he was one of the few American soldiers to distinguish himself in the War of 1812.  Staying in the army, he continued his own professional development, and worked to insure that younger officers were educated for their profession.  Then he led the decisive campaign to Mexico City, putting his imprint on that war as both overall commander of the United States Army, and as an operational commander.  Shaking off his massive electoral defeat in 1852, Scott stayed in command as his native Virginia seceded, helping to formulate the Anaconda Plan at the core of defeating the Confederacy.[102]  Finally, in July 1861, the old and now-corpulent general was forced into retirement.[103]  It was the conclusion of one of America’s most illustrious military careers, one of which had its finest hours in the Mexican War.



[1] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 3-4.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Timothy J. Henderson, A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 84-101.

[4] Ibid., 188-189.

[5] Ibid., 189-190.

[6] Ibid., 77-81.

[7] John S.D. Eisenhower, So Far From God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 342.

[8] John S.D. Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 239-240.

[9] Ibid., 246.

[10] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 271-272.

[11] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 261.

[12] Timothy D. Johnson, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998), 7.

[13] Alan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 133-134.

[14] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 52.

[15] Millett and Maslowski, 133-134.

[16] Johnson, 12.

[17] James W. Pohl, “The Influence of Antoine Henri de Jomini on Winfield Scott’s Campaign of the Mexican War,” Texas State University Faculty Publications-History (1972), http://ecommons, 88.  accessed 18 December 2011.

[18] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 124-125.

[19] Millett and Maslowski, 133.

[20] Antoine-Henri Jomini de (trans. G.H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill), The Art of War.  The Gutenberg Project., 66-567.  accessed 18 December 2011.

[21] David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier (New York: Scribner, 1966), 133-134.

[22] Jomini, 26.

[23] Ibid., 26-27.

[24] Carl von Clausewitz (trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret), On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 193.

[25] Ibid., 193.

[26] Ibid., 75.

[27] Ibid., 75-76.

[28] Jomini, 14-38.

[29] Clausewitz, 80-81.

[30] Henderson, 168-169.

[31] Johnson, 151.

[32] Winfield Scott, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D. (Philadelphia: Sheldon & Company, 1864), 382-383.

[33] Ibid., 383-384.

[34] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 230-232.

[35] Ibid., 229.

[36] Johnson, 159.

[37] Ibid., 159-160.

[38] Ibid., 154.

[39] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 90.

[40] Ibid., 90.

[41] Ibid., 90.

[42] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 328-329.

[43] Johnson, 213-214.

[44] Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 64.

[45] Johnson, 174.

[46] Richard Berg and Joe Balkoski, “Veracruz: US Invasion of Mexico, 1847,” Strategy & Tactics Issue 63 (July/August 1977), 9.

[47] Ibid., 10.

[48] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 238.

[49] Pohl, 90.

[50] Berg and Balkoski, 10.

[51] Ibid., 7.

[52] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 256-257.

[53] Jomini, 173.

[54] Pohl, 92-93.

[55] Henderson, 115-116.

[56] Pohl, 92.

[57] Berg and Balkoski, 9.

[58] Clausewitz, 198-201.

[59] Scott, 426.

[60] Ibid., 429.

[61] Clausewitz, 526.

[62] Pohl, 94.

[63] Berg and Balkoski, 7.

[64] Ibid., 7.

[65] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 266.

[66] Johnson, 187.

[67] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 266-267.

[68] Johnson, 187-188.

[69] Andrew J. Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941 (Washington: Center of Military History, 2003), 16-17.

[70] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 251.

[71] Berg and Balkoski, 11.

[72] Richard Hitchman, “Rush to Glory: An Account of the Mexican-American War,” Strategy & Tactics Issue 127 (June-July 1989), 25-26.

[73] Ibid., 60.

[74] Clausewitz, 204.

[75] Ibid., 204.

[76] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 316.

[77] Clausewitz, 213.

[78] Ibid., 178-191.

[79] Clausewitz, 205.

[80] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 338-342.

[81] Ibid., 297-298.

[82] Berg and Balkoski, 8.

[83] Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary (New York: David McKay, 1988), 653-654.

[84] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 337-338.

[85] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 265.

[86] Ibid., 265-266.

[87] Henderson, 168-169.

[88] Scott, 415.

[89] Henderson, 169.

[90] Ibid., 172.

[91] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 303-307.

[92] Clausewitz, 119.

[93] Eisenhower, So Far From God, 269.

[94] Ibid., 274-275.

[95] Johnson, 202.

[96] Berg and Balkoski, 14-15.

[97] Ibid., 15.

[98] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 289-291.

[99] Ibid., 290.

[100] Millett and Maslowski, 114.

[101] H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (New York: Anchor Books, 2005), 322-325.

[102] Johnson, 226.

[103] Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny, 393.



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_____.  So Far From God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.


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