Small Wars Journal

Fighting Fire with Fire

Mon, 06/23/2014 - 12:34am

Fighting Fire with Fire: Texas Rangers and Counterinsurgency in the 1847 Mexico City Campaign

Nathan A. Jennings

In the spring of 1847, at the height of the Mexican-American War, the United States Army invaded the heart of Mexico. Not content with limited victories in northern provinces, the American government hoped decisive action in the interior would compel territorial concessions. On April 18, after seizing the Atlantic port of Veracruz and marching inland, the expeditionary force won spectacularly at the Battle of Cerro Gordo. With superior combined arms maneuver, General Winfield Scott shattered the national army of President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Despite the strategic triumph, Scott soon worried from his forward outpost at Jalapa, a town along the road to Mexico City, of “bands of exasperated rancheros” resorting to “the guerilla plan.”[1]

The American commander’s fears proved perilously correct as the Mexican government embraced the timeless strategy of occupied societies: guerrilla warfare. Pedro Maria Anaya, now serving as the substitute president, swiftly recognized that the U. S. Army’s vulnerability lay in the unconventional arena. On April 28 he accordingly decreed the creation of an elite-led program of asymmetric resistance. Santa Anna confirmed the shift when he stated his intent to organize new forces to “harass the enemy’s rear in a sensible manner.”[2] If Mexico could not expel the invaders through decisive Napoleonic methods, it would isolate and destroy the American army with a decentralized savagery born of nationalistic desperation.

The resulting Mexican plan, reflecting a military-focused strategy of insurgency, perfectly exploited the invading force’s geographical and structural weaknesses. The expanding distances between the American army’s logistical base at Veracruz, its interspaced garrisons, and the main body’s advancing line of march provided opportunity to destroy the foreigners in detail. While Scott possessed peerless infantry and artillery corps, he lacked mounted capacity to protect critically needed logistical and reinforcement columns marching west from Veracruz. The general consequently worried about the cost of diverting his few dragoon companies to convoy security, noting that, “our cavalry is already meager, and, from escorting, becoming daily more so.” With this inability to secure their rear against fleet guerilla strikes, the Americans faced a growing dilemma: the further they advanced, the more tenuous their position became.

By the fall of 1847 Scott’s occupation challenges had more than doubled with his inexorable march west and stunning capture of Mexico City. The strained American army of 24,000 now relied upon an embattled chain of fortified outposts to govern conquered territory, stretching 260 miles from capital to coast. As negotiations failed, Mexican aristocrats along the line of invasion enthusiastically embraced the call for “War without Pity” as the insurgency phased from guerrilla conflict to a general offensive war.[3] To remedy this untenable scenario, Scott called for the deployment of a specialized counterguerrilla force to compliment his comprehensive strategy. The general needed cavalry unlike any other, a cadre of irregulars forged in the crucible of frontier combat. For the bloody task at hand, he needed Texas Rangers.[4]

This essay explores how federalized Texas Rangers, designated the First Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers, supported the United States Army in Mexico in 1847 and 1848 by providing critically needed special operations capacity. It investigates the Texans’ lethal contributions to the American governance program, enabled by their singular mastery of repeating firearms and horsemanship, by pursuing two lines of inquiry: How did they achieve consistent tactical superiority over Mexican guerrillas, and how did their kinetic activities support or undermine American stability operations? The answers to these questions will reveal the Lone Star regiment as a controversial, yet conditionally beneficial, component of American victory in the decisive campaign of the Mexican War.

Deployment and Initial Operations

The pivotal summer of 1847 provided opportunity for the Texas Rangers to vault onto a larger stage as the War Department in Washington, D.C., responded to the guerrilla crisis in Central Mexico. Needing a rapid solution, it authorized the Lone Star State, with its readily available reservoir of veterans, to mobilize a “Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers for twelve months and during the war.”[5] John Coffee Hays, Texas’s premier frontier captain who had risen to fame during the Wars of the Texas Republic and the recent Monterrey Campaign, stood as the natural selection to command as a full colonel. The Secretary of War, under pressure from Scott for assistance, thus ordered Hays to “proceed to Vera Cruz with such of his command as can be spared, for the purpose of dispersing the guerillas which infest the line between that place and the interior of Mexico.”[6]

The regiment that deployed from San Antonio on August 12, 1847, reflected a mixture of Texas Rangers and more recent veterans from the American invasion of Northern Mexico. Drawn from a frontier militant culture developed over years of combating the fierce Comanche on the Great Plains, the unit consisted of 5 over-sized companies of 110 to 130 men each. Throughout August and September they traveled south through Laredo, crossed the Rio Grande, passed through Mier, and camped near Matamoros. After waiting eight days for naval transport, the regiment moved to the Gulf Coast for embarkation. The Texans then shipped out by company at the port of Brazos de Santiago between October 5 and 17. Volunteer John Salmon Ford, who served as the regimental adjutant, remembered that some worried apprehensively of the challenges to ahead, believing that “the valleys of Mexico were little better than graveyards.”[7]

The regiment arrived at Veracruz by individual company with Hays disembarking last. According to Ford, who went ahead with the first two units, the rangers camped at the village of Vergara “three miles from Vera Cruz on the road to Jalapa,” which positioned them dangerously forward of the regular army garrison in the walled city. The adjutant also noted that “the Mexican guerilla bands were giving considerable trouble outside the walls of Veracruz.” This constant harassment around the sole entry point into Central Mexico had made any march by reinforcement columns to the west extremely hazardous. With Texas horsemen on site, a renewal of historical enmity between the successor states of the Spanish Empire was imminent.[8]

The rough Texans viewed this manner of asymmetric raiding with naked contempt, having encountered such warfare for decades on the Texas frontier. John Caperton, a fellow Texas Ranger who received his account of the campaign directly from his Hays, endorsed their perspective when he wrote that the Mexicans were, “a more depraved, unprincipled and unfeeling set of men were never banded together.” He also disdainfully claimed that the raiders “were destitute of courage,” revealing typical Lone Star condescension. In reality, the Mexican resistance emerged as a haphazard endeavor that included both state-sanctioned cavalry and opportunistic brigands, often blurring the lines between patriotic raiding and blatant criminality.[9]

General Robert Patterson, the ranking American officer on the coast, immediately put the Texans to use against the Mexican resistance. He informed the eager rangers of a “place of resort for the irregular forces of Mexico,” at the “hacienda of San Juan,” located about thirty miles from the city. The general complained that these guerrillas, under the command of a man named Colonel Zenobia, had been “particularly troublesome.” Without adequate mounted support, the Americans in Veracruz had been forced to endure Zenobia’s constant raiding. Now, with a mobile strike force available, it was time for the Texas Rangers fulfill their purpose of recruitment.[10]

The next day, despite Patterson’s doubts about the rangers’ ability to “penetrate the country and do effective service,” the Texans tracked the guerillas to their support zone and assaulted the ranch. Ford recorded that “two or three of the guerillas were killed. The balance escaped.”[11] The rangers then burned the establishment, but not before “some nice things were taken from Colonel Zenobia’s house.” Upon their return to Veracruz, after which “other little affairs occurred,” meaning more theft and assault, they also killed a Mexican officer. The Texans proudly claimed “the credit of having marched sixty miles that day.”[12]

This action set the precedent for the kind of human and infrastructure destruction that would make the Texas Rangers notorious across Central Mexico. Ford remembered that Patterson told them that “they might have trouble over the house burning,” fearing a violation of Scott’s nuanced pacification policy.[13] This warning reflected recognition of the commanding general’s occupation program that recognized the Mexican population as a strategic asset to be courted and mollified.

This balanced approach to the invasion, hinting at 21st Century sophistication, revealed Scott’s comprehensive perspective on counterinsurgency operations. On the eve of the invasion he had issued General Order 20, which included lines of effort that mandated respect for religious proceedings, protection for the “unoffending inhabitants and their property,” partnership with indigenous “military police” in occupied towns, and direction to purchase supplies on the march with gold instead of relying on confiscation.[14] This last article had the benefit of reducing the army’s logistical train while serving as a cash stimulus program in occupied communities. While Scott intended to defeat the Mexican Army to force terms on the ruling class, the veteran general, who had studied Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation difficulties in Spain, hoped to gain the support, or at least exploit the apathy, of the church and commoners.

Given this intent, the commander worried about the impact that undisciplined volunteer soldiers, especially the Texan auxiliaries, could have on his plan for the occupation:

With steady troops, I should not doubt the result; but the great danger lies in the want of       that quality on the part of the new reinforcements, including the recruits of the old         regiments. The average number of disorders and crimes, always committed by undisciplined   men, with inexperienced officers, may destroy the best concerted plans, by exasperating    the inhabitants, and rendering the war, on their part, national, interminable, and desperate.[15]

Despite the Scott’s hopes for general conciliation, he also understood that the core of the Mexican resistance, the Light Corps, had to be countered through reciprocal violence. This was where the Texas Rangers balanced the strategic equation: he would utilize his regular forces to stabilize urban centers along the Veracruz Road, while the Texan irregulars countered irreconcilable elements with specialized lethality in more rural settings. The general accordingly ordered Hays to “give attention to these guerrillas…fighting them whenever he could find them and keeping the roads clear of them.”[16]

Any strategy that incorporated partisan Texans, who were prone to excessive brutality due to historical enmity between Mexico and its former Tejas colony, held great risk. Scott explicitly mentioned the “wild volunteers” who had committed “all sorts of atrocities on the persons and property of Mexicans” in the northern theater, and thus worried about similar outrages under his command.[17] As exemplified by the rangers’ first raid at Veracruz, the question remained: would the infamous “Texas Devils” defeat the insurgency at the cost of precipitating a general uprising? The answer would unfold over the coming months as the auxiliaries utilized their exceptional mobility and firepower to punish the resistance.

By late October Hays and the entire regiment had arrived at Veracruz. After the advance companies cleared the area, the regiment received an unprecedented upgrade in weaponry from the U. S. Army Ordinance Department. The Texans drew 280 innovative Walker Colt revolvers in two consignments to augment the Paterson models that many of the men already exclusively possessed. The arrival of these more efficient .44 caliber guns, which had been jointly designed by former Texas Ranger Samuel Walker and manufacturer Samuel Colt after the Monterrey Campaign, reflected one of the first instances of the rapid fielding of new American technology to an active front.[18]

The unlikely collaboration resulted in the Model of 1847 Army Pistol, which allowed a mere cylinder exchange to reload instead of complete disassembly, thereby facilitating reloading by cavalry while mounted.[19] Ford wrote that in a “trial between the Mississippi rifle and the six-shooter,” the Walker Colt “threw the ball a greater distance than the rifle.” He also attested that “with the improved revolvers we felt confident we could beat any number the enemy could bring to bear upon us.”[20] The Texan irregulars, already highly skilled in irregular combat tactics, would now ride against Mexican insurgents with the most advanced close-combat weapon in the world.

The new revolvers, when combined with the density of older Patterson Colts, allowed Hays’s regiment a superiority of lethality over all other combatants in Mexico. The vast preponderance of the American and Mexican soldiers yet fought with single-shot firearms and edged blades. The resulting differential in reload capacity potentially allowed a single Texan with two revolvers to rapidly discharge the firepower of ten soldiers. Albert Brackett, an infantryman who fought in the 4th Indian Volunteers, attested that “a hundred of them could discharge a thousand shots in two minutes.”[21] Ford recorded that the “guerrilleros began to evince respect for the six-shooter” after first use.[22]

In addition to advanced firearms, the Texans also deployed to Mexico with another tactical multiplier: masterful horsemanship. At the onset of the war, when rangers and dragoons first began to mingle at the invasion staging camp near Corpus Christi in the fall of 1845, one regular observed that the Texans were “teaching the United States officers and soldiers how to ride.” He also noted that “the feats of horsemanship of our frontiersmen” were “extraordinary.”[23]

The superior quality of Texas breeds in the arid Mexican environment likewise facilitated excellent mobility. Compton Smith, an army surgeon who served in the northern occupation garrison, described ranger horses in 1847 as “a cross of the mustang of the Texas plains, with the Kentucky or Virginia blood-horse.” The volunteer also approvingly noted that Texas stock possessed “all the fire and endurance of the one, combined with the docility, intelligence, and speed of the other.” Smith believed that this fusion was “perfectly developed in the half-breed horse of the Texas Ranger.” This hybrid nature resulted in a horse that was larger and stronger than the Mexican stock, while possessing greater patrol endurance than eastern steeds.[24]

A joint patrol by Hays’s auxiliaries and U.S. Dragoons in February of 1848 provided a specific, and comparative, example of the operational reach capacity between western and eastern equine stock. Ford, engaged in a long, grueling ride across Mexico, observed of the federal mounts that “some of them gave out; others were reported to have died under the saddle.” In contrast, the Texas horses set the pace and completed the ride without faltering. A short time later the adjutant noted that since “a good many horses of the command were tenderfooted,” replacement “remounts were furnished from the captured animals.”[25]

On November 2 the Texas Mounted Volunteers, now 580 strong and in possession of the Walker Colts, moved west into the Mexican interior while providing convoy security for a large reinforcement column. They had conducted several raids in the Veracruz area and believed the local threat reduced. The rangers soon passed the famous National Bridge and arrived in Jalapa, one of Scott’s garrisoned outposts. Oswandel, serving in the occupation garrison, observed their arrival: “next came Col. Jack Hays with five companies of mounted Texan rangers, and we gave him three good cheers.” He also noted the Texans’ superiority in horses and weapons, stating, “They are a fine body of men and well mounted, with six-shooting pistols.”[26]

This praise indicated that by this point the rangers’ reputation preceded them. Daniel Harvey Hill, of the 4th Artillery at Puebla, agreed in his journal on November 14 when he appraised: “It seems that the Guerrilleros have pretty much abandoned the road frightened by the knowledge of the arrival of Col. Hays’ Regiment of Texas Rangers.” The lieutenant also noted the security impact of the Texans’ presence, attesting that “a private carriage reached here two days ago all the way from Vera Cruz having come through without the slightest interruption. This is considered a wonderful feat.”[27]

Task Force Operations

Hays continued west with two companies to assess the central operational environment while the majority of the regiment remained at Jalapa. The detachment soon arrived in Puebla, an occupied city approximately half-way between the capital and the coast. The American occupation of this critical stronghold had proved tenuous in recent months as conditions along the central corridor, behind Scott’s line of advance, had transitioned back into high intensity warfare between combined arms forces. According to Brackett, the isolated garrison had “been besieged for a long time by the Mexicans” and “was in a famishing condition.”[28] The loss of this outpost would have severed Scott’s line of communication with Veracruz, hence Santa Anna’s determination to seize it.

With the garrison near defeat, a reinforcement brigade of volunteer infantry managed to march from Veracruz in time to relive the Puebla defenders. Under the command of General Joseph Lane, they soundly defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of Huamantla on October 9th. The soldiers destroyed the town in retribution for the death of the popular Captain Samuel Walker, who had been leading his company of U.S. Mounted Rifles. Hill observed of the wanton chaos: ‘Twas then I saw and felt how perfectly unmanageable were volunteers and how much harm they did.”[29]

The relief column that won at Huamantla emerged as Scott’s dedicated counterinsurgency task force. When Hays arrived in Puebla he naturally offered to join Lane’s brigade, giving it an unprecedented capacity for speed and killing. This merging of elements created a corps that would terrorize Mexican partisans, and civilians, through the duration of the occupation. As remembered by Brackett, the brigade initially consisted of “five companies of Texas Rangers, Lewis’ company of Louisiana cavalry, the 4th Ohio, and 4th Indiana Volunteers.”[30]

Hays and Lane quickly formed an effective partnership. On November 20 they moved to strike a guerilla encampment at the distant town of Izucar de Matamoros, which reportedly held American captives. Brackett claimed the enemy’s “numbers were considerable” and that they “continued to infest the neighborhood…frequently killing our soldiers.” Leaving the less mobile infantry regiments to secure Puebla, Lane led out a battalion of rangers, riflemen, and dragoons. The Indiana volunteer noted that the force was “all well mounted” and contained 160 men. In a fortuitous decision, Lane also elected to tow a set of light cannon to increase his firepower.[31]

The Americans conducted a forced night march and arrived at the insurgent stronghold in the morning. Upon arrival, Brackett recorded that “a sudden and rapid charge was made into the town.”[32] Ford recounted the battle that followed: “a heavy forced march carried them upon the enemy at daylight. A fight came off, and the Americans were victorious. They killed a good many Mexicans, captured artillery, small arms, and ammunition.” More importantly, he noted that they recaptured fifteen American prisoners.[33] The task force estimated that they killed or wounded “sixty or eighty of the enemy, capturing three pieces of artillery.”[34]

Despite the unqualified success of the raid, the return march proved more challenging. They had seized military equipment and supplies from the Mexican town, and were thus slowed from their normally swift gait. According to Lane’s report on the affair, a Light Corps regiment retaliated against the American column when “the train was considerably extended” in a “long mountain pass.” Since the Texans were the most heavily armed of the task force, Hays and his men quickly rode to the fore of the column to ward off the attack.[35]

The rangers immediately “charged the enemy to the teeth” with revolvers blazing.[36] They then engaged 200 Mexican Lancers in a running fight, which led them into an ambush by another 300 horsemen. The overmatched Texans used their remaining ammunition to hold until Lane moved his cannon up to disperse the enemy. Brackett narrated that “a few rounds poured into the head of the Mexican column of lancers, changed their direction very suddenly and relieved the brave Texans from imminent danger.”[37] Lane subsequently praised Hays in his report to Scott, writing that “never did any officer act with more gallantry than Colonel Hays in this affair.”[38]

The aggressive operations by the mobile brigade destroyed the residual conventional elements of the Mexican Army and brought the provincial insurgency to manageable guerrilla intensity. With their utility now proven, the Texans received orders to join Scott in Mexico City to clear the territory around the capital. They arrived on December 6, 1847, causing “a sensation among the inhabitants.” The prostrate city had thus far uneasily accommodated the garrison occupation by American army, but had yet to encounter the feared Texas Rangers. Upon their arrival, Ford noted that the fascinated Mexican citizens “thronged the streets along which we passed,” and that “the greatest curiosity prevailed to get a sight of Los Diablos Tejanos.”[39]

Despite the novelty offered by the foreign frontiersmen, their presence proved a liability to Scott’s civil stability efforts in Mexico’s greatest urban density. The longer the Texans resided in the city, the more Mexicans died from ranger enmity. Ford reciprocally remembered that every morning “three to five Americans were found dead in the streets of a morning” due to “assassin’s knife,” indicating a simmering insurgency in the capital. The casualty rate then exploded when a “murderous crowd” killed a ranger named Adam Allsens, who had strayed alone into the section of the city inhabited by “the lower orders.” The rangers’ “outburst of revenge” resulted in “more than eighty bodies lying in the morgue.” With tensions rising, it was past time for the Texans to redeploy and refocus interdicting insurgents.[40]

High Value Targeting

Despite the success of Lane’s task force, the resistance gained renewed momentum as the New Year approached. On December 12, 1847, the commanding general issued an official counterguerrilla directive to the dispersed regiments along the Veracruz road. Scott proclaimed that “The highways of Mexico, used or about to be used by the American troops” were “still infested in many parts by those atrocious bands called Guerrillas and Rancheros.” He also accused the “late Mexican authorities” of promoting the violence, which continued to “violate every rule of warfare observed by civilized nations.” Desperate to hold his center of gravity, the old veteran ordered every garrison along the contested line to conduct patrols “to disinfest the neighborhood, its roads and places of concealment.”[41]

For the Texans, this resulted in a focus on eliminating of high value targets leading the resistance. They first pursued the vaunted guerilla leader Celedonia de Jarauta, a Catholic padre who had risen as a popular insurgent.  The rangers followed him to the town of San Juan Teotihuacan, just 12 miles from the capital. Upon arrival to Teotihuacan, they immediately attacked their enemies at the city center. Ford remembered the audacious Mexican counterattack that followed: “the cavalry probably seventy-strong, charged across the plaza upon on our quarters.” The lancers hit the Texans with several costly assaults in the city plaza, but like so many previous engagements, Lone Star firepower won the day. Hays also used men with rifles on rooftops to attrite the Mexican riders. The cross-fire by cavalry and snipers killed fifteen and wounded five, but the “priest-general” escaped with recoverable wounds.[42]

On January 18 the Texans again united with Lane’s strike force to pursue enemy leaders. The Americans aimed to neutralize Jarauta and another partisan, General Mariano Paredes, who were “in charge of guerilla forces and giving trouble.” According to Caperton, Lane intended to “pursue these guerrillas in the mountains, attack them in their own retreats and strongholds where they lived with their families and their plunder, and to break them up if possible.”[43] The coalition regiment consisted of over a thousand men, including 250 rangers, 130 dragoons, and an allied “Mexican Lancer Regiment.” The inclusion of native “contra-guerrillas” revealed an adept use of indigenous assets to both multiply combat power and incorporate topographical and cultural intelligence.[44]

The American mounted corps arrived at the target city of Tulancingo at dawn, reflecting their preference for night marches to gain surprise and initiative. Ford recorded that, “at an early hour in the morning the Americans dashed into Tulancingo, and were directed to the house of Paredes.” A dragoon officer immediately demanded that a civilian show him to the home of the insurgent general. Once located, a man thought to be Paredes, who was actually the chief’s brother, distracted the Americans while the real target escaped. As so often happens in counterinsurgency operations, indigenous wile had defeated foreign might.[45]

The former Mexican president, Santa Anna, emerged as the next target. The Americans first moved east to Puebla to resupply, and then rode forty miles to Tehuacan, where they narrowly missed capturing him. The potential capture of this man offered an especially gratifying objective for the Texans, who still blamed him for massacres of their countrymen at the Alamo, Goliad, and Mier. Bracket relayed a description of how the strike force cordoned and cleared the town:

As the command came to the entrance of the town, the dragoons and rifles dashed to the right and left, and in a few minutes every outlet was stopped; and the Texan rangers galloped ahead toward the plaza, with their revolvers cocked, glancing warily on every side, with the belief and hope that the enemy was on the house-tops. The rangers in the plaza formed into squads, and galloped through every street, but no enemy was found.[46]

The rapid efficiency with which the Texans isolated and cleared this urban terrain reflected the internal coordination that the task force had achieved by this time. Lane and Hays next rode to another suspected location at Orizaba, again failing to capture Santa Anna. The Americans occupied the city for a week and then flushed out another guerilla leader, named Manuel Falcon, at the town of San Juan de Teotihuacan. Yet the task force again missed, further illustrating the difficulties of locating partisans within their home populations.[47]

The frustrated counterinsurgents returned to Mexico City to resupply. On February 17 they launched another rapid march against their perennial opponents Mariano Paredes and Padre Jarauta. The force rode hard for seventy-five miles to reach the city of Tulancingo, northeast of Mexico City. Lane then reduced the signature of his approach when he, “attempted by a rapid movement of a small portion of my force, to surprise the town.” Upon arrival, the forward detachment, naturally led by Hays’s Texans, learned that Jarauta had been absent for two days and Paredes had just escaped.[48]

Appreciating the pressure their constant pursuit was placing against the insurgency’s leadership, the relentless task force next pursued Jarauta to the town of Sequalteplan, seventy-five miles north of Tulancingo. This strike resulted from the advice of an informant. After a long ride American mounted corps arrived at the target area at dawn the next morning with exhausted horses. Lane reported the sequence of the battle that unfolded: “With the Texas rangers in advance, I marched my force with a rapid charge upon the town.” The attackers immediately countered “a heavy fire” from a housing area with one company, while sending another to flank enemy in the town plaza.[49]

The Americans sections became separated between the buildings, but according to Lane, managed to finally break the opposing Mexican lancers and infantry with a charge “which was gallantly led by the officers.” He also emphasized the “fatal effect” of the Texans’ “unerring rifles,” and described how at one point, the contest was fought at a distance of less than thirty feet. The ensuing mêlée was “frequently muzzle to muzzle until it became necessary to make a charge.”[50] Ford attested that the Americans killed over 150 enemy soldiers and captured another 50, likely inflating the actual casualty count. Yet like before, the wily Jarauta escaped. The adjutant estimated that the padre “did not recover from his defeat at Zacualtipan sufficiently to give the Americans much trouble during the continuance of hostilities.”[51]

This battle ended as the last significant fight for the federalized Texas Rangers in Central Mexico. Like the rest of their contests, tactical victory had rested upon superior firepower and mobility. While the rangers had failed to capture many of their high value targets, the sheer relentlessness of their pursuit deprived the insurgency leadership of initiative during a critical phase in the occupation, thus preventing intensification of the resistance. After consolidating their wounded, Hays and his regiment reported to Mexico City to receive instructions. Each ranger carried a captured Mexican lance as they rode through the capital streets, drawing much attention. Over the past six weeks they had spent five on patrol and ridden more than 900 miles, a remarkable feat for horsemen of any era.

By the spring of 1848, due to Scot’s success in implementing a sophisticated campaign plan that combined military, political, economic, and culture lines of effort, and more importantly because of the emergence of peace negotiations between governments, attacks lessened against the American garrisons. The war of diplomacy had taken center stage and the combatants on both sides understood the invader’s exit now inevitable. The Texan auxiliaries completed their duty in Mexico with a final clearing patrol down the length of the Veracruz road to ensure a safe retrograde for the withdrawing garrisons. This task, usually the domain of regulars, revealed the degree to which the rangers had supplanted the U. S. Dragoons. Their last duty complete, the Texas Mounted Volunteers demobilized in Veracruz and shipped for home.[52]

Conclusion: Fighting Fire with Fire

The Texas Rangers that fought across Central Mexico in 1847 and 1848 emerged with a controversial legacy due to their scope of brutality.  While Scott “regarded Col. Hays and his men as invaluable” and “gave them great credit for their active and efficient services in suppressing the guerrillas,” American officer Harvey Hill attested that the “atrocities” in the central theater were committed “principally by Col. Hays’ Regiment of Texans” and accused them of “murder, rape and robbery” in the “broad light of day.”[53] Jefferson Davis, who personally observed the Texans, specifically criticized their penchant for indiscriminate violence: “If I should ever have the fortune to command an army…our experience in Mexico would tell us that we wanted none but regular cavalry.”[54]

Despite these condemnations, the addition of Texas Ranger lethality to the broader American governance plan managed to prevent the Mexican resistance from expanding their guerrilla strategy to a more conventional offensive war. Ranging from larger task force offensives to precision targeted raids, Texans generally complimented, with some notable exceptions exemplified by their atrocities in Mexico City, the larger pacification effort. This synergy, which effectively deprived the insurgent leadership of initiative while simultaneously pursuing nuanced conciliation with urban centers, ultimately prevented the insurgent’s military-focused strategy from exploding into a conflict of protracted popular resistance.

Given the resulting balance in strategic equation, Scott ultimately elected to accept and minimize the Texans’ negative impact on his larger occupation program in exchange for their unequaled counterguerrilla lethality. With his embattled army stretched across hundreds of miles of precarious outposts, he needed a special operations capability to prosecute the “War of Masses” that had become a “War of Detail.”[55] While he rightly focused the majority of his forces on pursuing stabilizing lines of effort, the general still required an element with firepower and operational reach that could “daily push detachments or patrols as far as practicable.”[56] Thus in the final analysis, the kinetic impact of the federalized Texas Rangers, and their unique ability to fight fire with fire, offered the needed American solution to asymmetric warfare in Mexico.


[1] House Executive Document No. 60, 30th Congress, 1st Session, 1171-1172. Hereafter cited as HED No. 60.

[2] Quoted in William A. Depalo, The Mexican National Army, 1822-1852 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997), 124.

[3] Jacob Oswandel, Notes of the Mexican War, 1846-1848 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2010), 78.

[4] Timothy Johnson, A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 246, 252-253.

[5]  John Ford, “John C. Hays in Texas,” The Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin; Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 146-147.

[6] HED No. 60, 1194.

[7] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 61-63.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Caperton, “John C. Hays,” 62.

[10] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 66.

[11]  Ibid, 66-67.

[12] Ibid., 68.

[13]  Ibid., 68.

[14] Johnson, Gallant Little Army, Appendix 4. .

[15] HED No. 60, 1049.

[16] Caperton, “John C. Hays,” 65.

[17] Winfield Scott, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D, two volumes (New York: Sheldon & Company, Publishers, 1864), II: 392.

[18] Frederick Wilkins, The Highly Irregular Irregulars: The Texas Rangers in the Mexican War (Austin: Eakin Press, 1990), 161.

[19] Chapel, Guns, 153, 157-159.

[20] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 75, 105.

[21] Albert Brackett, General Lane’s Brigade in Central Mexico (Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Co, Publishers, 1854), 174.

[22] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 88.

[23]  Henry Barton, “The United States Cavalry and the Texas Rangers,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 63 (1960): 506.

[24] Compton Smith, Chile con Carne (New York: Miller and Curtiss, 1857), 266.

[25] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 92, 97.

[26] Ibid., 75-66; Oswandel, Mexican War, 217.

[27] Daniel Hill, A Fighter from Way Back: The Mexican War Diary of Lt. Daniel Harvey Hill, 4th Artillery, USA, edited by Nathaniel Hughes and Timothy Johnson (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002), 141.

[28]  Brackett, Lanes Brigade, 66; Ibid., 90-94.

[29] Quoted in Johnson, Gallant Little Army, 249.

[30] Brackett, Lanes Brigade, 174.

[31] Ibid., 189.

[32]  Ibid., 189.

[33]  Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 78

[34] Brackett, Lanes Brigade, 189.

[35] Ibid., 190.

[36]  Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 79.

[37] Brackett, Lanes Brigade, 190-192.

[38] Quoted in Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 80.

[39]  Ford, “Jack Hays,” 92.

[40] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 83-85.

[41] Brackett, Lanes Brigade, 220-221; Scott, Memoirs, II: 574-575.

[42] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 87-88.

[43] Caperton, “John C. Hays,” 66.

[44] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 91-92.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Brackett, Lanes Brigade, 288.

[47] Ibid., 289-240, 245.

[48] Ibid., 263; Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 92-93.

[49] Brackett, Lanes Brigade, 264.

[50] Ibid., 264-265

[51] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 96; Oswandel, Mexican War, 292; See also Ronnie Tyler, “The Rangers at Zacualtipan,” Texana 4 (1966): 341-350 for a more detailed study on this battle.

[52] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 103-104.

[53]  Caperton, “John C. Hays,” 66; Hill, Fighter from Way Back, 19, 28.

[54] Dunbar Rowland, editor, Jefferson Davis Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches (Jackson: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1923), 467.

[55]  Scott, Memoirs, II: 570.

[56] Quoted in Brackett, Lane’s Brigade, 221.


About the Author(s)

Nathan Jennings is an Army Strategist and Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies, holds a MA in History from the University of Texas at Austin, and a holds a PhD in History from the University of Kent. He is the author of Riding for the Lone Star: Frontier Cavalry and the Texas Way of War, 1822-1865.



Thu, 07/03/2014 - 7:54pm

In reply to by J Harlan

J Harlan:

What is was called is not material. Gen Scott had an understanding of what was needed and acted accordingly. The important thing is what he did, not what he called it, though they weren't encumbered by foolish English as you say. Perhaps there is study to be done there-how clear headed thinking is obfuscated by mil-speak. (Capt Jennings does a good job of fighting mil-speak in the article. I couldn't find a single acronym.)

Scott's General Order 20 can be found here.…

J Harlan

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 12:03pm

I'm not sure if the author intends humour in using modern jargon and cliches to describe events over a century ago or not. Hopefully "asymmetric warfare" is being used tongue in cheek. The US won the Mexican War so it's likely the commanders were unfettered by the "wank words" the modern professional is saddled with.

The actions of the Mexicans was not insurgency. It was resistance to invasion. Perhaps the author really means counter-guerrilla. Much of the problems of recent American "COIN"- Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan has revolved around the inability to understand the US is fighting a national resistance and not some disaffected voting block that can be bought with improved public utilities.


Thu, 07/03/2014 - 11:33am

For those interested in Scott's stability operations in Central Mexico, start by reading his General Order 20. This directive will read strikingly similar to the COIN tenants that American forces embraced in OIF and OEF. For secondary sources, there is currently no published manuscript that fully explores Scott's program. Dr. Timothy Johnson's A Gallant Little Army is the closest, but there should be a more focused study forthcoming from an Army officer who wrote a dissertation on the subject. General Order 20 can be found in App. 4 of Dr. Johnson's book.

This is a great article. It contains sentences like this.

"This warning reflected recognition of the commanding general’s occupation program that recognized the Mexican population as a strategic asset to be courted and mollified."

"On the eve of the invasion he had issued General Order 20, which included lines of effort that mandated respect for religious proceedings, protection for the “unoffending inhabitants and their property,” partnership with indigenous “military police” in occupied towns, and direction to purchase supplies on the march with gold instead of relying on confiscation."


"Despite the Scott’s hopes for general conciliation, he also understood that the core of the Mexican resistance, the Light Corps, had to be countered through reciprocal violence"

This is all describing Winfield Scott's actions and attitudes going on almost 170 years ago. He knew small war fighting and provided us with a demonstration. This is our history. Our Army's history and it contains as much to learn about small war fighting as anything written in the 20th Century.

It is even more valuable if combined with histories of other American small wars. I am listening to book on tape about Quantrill and the fighting in Kansas/Missouri before and during the Civil War. The behavior of Union authorities so far in the book, is just the opposite of that of Scott when it comes to provoking the locals. Scott paid for supplies with gold, some Union units lived off the land, off confiscation. That didn't go over well.

Sometimes I think it would be better is we didn't get so exercised about what the latest small war field manual said and just gave people a series of historical studies to read and study. I think they would get the small wars essentials more thoroughly and it would be a lot more interesting.

Capt. Jennings: What do you consider the best reference when it comes to learning about occupation policies and practices in Mexico?