12700156898?profile=RESIZE_584xIn the summer of 1847 at the height of the Mexican-American War President James K. Polk sent a mounted regiment of Texas Rangers under Colonel John Coffee “Jack” Hays to Mexico to confront guerrillas attacking US Army convoys between Mexico City and Veracruz. That force, which contributed to lifting a siege against a small US Army garrison in the city of Puebla, was sent in response to a request submitted by General Winfield Scott, who went on to seize the capital in September. What Scott did not know was that federal officials authorized the regiment to enter the war as militia. Three months after Polk met privately with Hays in Washington DC, Secretary of War Marcy informed General Zachary Taylor that the mounted units from Texas selected to be sent to Veracruz had “come out as militia, as distinguished from volunteers”. Although the Texans were excellent counterinsurgency fighters, their designation complicated Scott’s population-centric war strategy, and caused friction between the West Point-led operation and ‘volunteers’ who often eschewed traditional laws of war while defending the Republic of Texas from hostile tribes and Mexicans. Their arrival in Mexico City in November of 1847 caused a considerable stir, and forced Scott to issue two general orders (No. 367, No. 372) to accommodate them.[1] 

Photo at right: Mexican-American War Overview Map, without Scott's campaign. Source: Wikimedia. In the Public Domain. Click to enlarge.

After dispersing various insurgent groups in the vicinity of Puebla, the 3,500-man force, including Hay’s unit, entered Mexico City. “The gallant Col. Jack Hays appeared to be an object of peculiar interest to all,” the Picayune reported, “and the better informed class of the Mexicans were particularly anxious to have pointed out to them the man whose name had been the terror of their nation for the last twelve years.” John S. “Rip” Ford, the adjutant who accompanied Hays’s unit in central Mexico Ford, noted that the procession “produced a sensation among the inhabitants. They thronged the streets along which we passed. The greatest curiosity prevailed to get a sight at Los Diablos Tejanos – ‘the Texas Devils.’” When they entered the main plaza fronting Scott’s headquarters at the National Palace, a Ranger shot a Mexican selling candy after he seized a handful of the sweets without paying, which prompted the merchant to throw a stone. Ford wrote the Mexican thought “he was being robbed… There must have been ten thousand people on the Grand Plaza. They were desperately frightened; a stampede occurred.”[2] In widely reprinted Indiana Register article it was reported two people were shot as the Rangers entered the city. What was generally consistent among all the reports was the eclectic spectacle made by the soldiers who were anything but regular: “Young and vigorous, kind, generous, and brave, they have purposely dressed themselves in such garb, as to prove to the world at a glance that they are neither regulars nor volunteers, but Texas Rangers”.[3] 

The following day the Daily American Star made no mention of the plaza shooting but only stated the “Americans in this city were taken somewhat by surprise yesterday morning by the arrival of Gen. Patterson’s advance guard, consisting of Col. Hays’s regiment of Texas Rangers”. However, the Star alluded to the Texans’ tendency to shoot at will. “The troops who accompanied him are a hardy set of men, and will prove, as they always have done, rather severe customers to leperos and all others with whom they may come into conflict.”[4]

Middle Ground and Mixed Blessing: General Orders No. 372

A swift reaction from Scott unmistakably directed at the Rangers came in the form of General Order No. 367 – written due to “considerable departures from the Uniform and Dress of the Army, as prescribed in Art. 57 of the general regulations”. The regulations applied to volunteers and soldiers were “prohibited from wearing badges either in stripes upon trousers, or embroidery for coats or caps, not prescribed by the regulations for the army.” Since Scott ostensibly recognized the legal distinction that Hays and his men were operating as militia under President Polk, those codes did not apply to the Texans. Because of this he singled them out. “Followers of the army, for whom no particular dress has been prescribed, will not appear in any dress indictive of rank in the army, and are expressly forbid wearing badges of rank, either such as prescribed by the army regulations or adopted by volunteer regiments.”

12700132089?profile=RESIZE_584xPhoto at right: Depiction of 'Los Diablos Tejanos', a Mexican nickname for the Texas Rangers during the Mexican War. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107. In the Public Domain. Click to enlarge.

By the time the Texans arrived in Mexico City the general population was already accustomed to the equitable judicial regime established by Scott a few months prior. Mexicans were also aware of the differences between regular soldiers, volunteer units, and the Texans. Uniforms were the most visible manifestation of that difference, and Spanish-language newspapers informed the Mexicans of the distinction made between Scott’s soldiers and the irregular Texas militia. Regular army and volunteer soldiers out alone after dark and drunk were already targets of violence by nefarious elements operating in the city. The arrival of the Texans, who the Mexicans witnessed were killing in public seemingly without legal consequences, made them especially hated and therefore targets of reprisal. The historian Darren Ivey documents “Rangers Who Died in the Line of Duty” in Mexico City during the occupation. Ivey’s rolls of the deceased demonstrate the existence of a higher level of unaccounted violence directed at the Texas Rangers in the Mexican capital.[5]   

Nor was it a coincidence that a few days after the Texans arrived in Mexico City, Scott issued General Orders No. 372. The order, containing eight points outlining policies to further confront the guerrillas along the road between Mexico City and Veracruz appeared in the Daily American Star December 15 and in Puebla’s Flag of Freedom December 16. “The highways used [are]… still infested in many parts by these atrocious bands called guerrillas or rancheros, who… continue to violate every rule of warfare observed by civilized nations”. Escalating the fight with the guerrillas, posts along the line were ordered to “daily push detachments, or patrols as far as practicable, to disinfest the neighborhood – its roads and places of concealment.”[6]

The language Scott used in the order was deliberate and represented a compromise between his position and the Texans to take the fight to the guerrillas. “No quarters will be given to known murderers and robbers, whether called guerrillas or rancheros, and whether serving under Mexican commissions or not.” By adding the word known to the language, Scott ensured that unknown guerrillas, if captured, would not be summarily executed. In addition, any captured guerrillas claiming to be operating under political authority were unlikely to receive special consideration. The fourth article of the order was especially important: "Offenders of the above character, accidentally falling into the hands of American troops, will be momentarily held as prisoners – that is, not put to death without due solemnity. Accordingly, they will be promptly reported to commanding officers, who will, without delay, order a Consul of War for the summary trial of the offenders under the known laws of war applicable to such cases."[7] 

The key word in the fourth provision of the Order was accidentally, which implied that U.S. soldiers (including Texans) were encouraged to kill insurgents in battle rather than take them prisoner. The explicit language would have conformed with the Rangers’ preference to mete out frontier justice in battle rather than capture the enemy. Although harsh, the language in Order No. 372 was an important compromise made by Scott to keep the war on a legalistic footing while at the same prosecuting the war without hamstringing population-centric counterinsurgency efforts. Scott had time to prepare for Hays’s arrival, and not knowing exactly when the occupation would end (although Scott encouraged Trist to effect a treaty) the order was designed to placate elements in the military bent on revenge – regardless of the laws of war. Essentially, General Order No. 372 was designed to be both legal and acceptable to the Texans – a solution that may have been inspired by his failures to deal with guerrillas in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Scott biographer Timothy Johnson writes that that “experience did teach him the effectiveness of guerrilla fighting” and that the lessons learned were applied in a “sophisticated way” during his tenure as commander of the Mexico City campaign. A more inexperienced and inflexible officer might have reacted counterproductively to Texan violence but General Order No. 372 not only demonstrates the maturity Scott achieved after a long career, but his ability to adapt to circumstances.[8]       

Another incident highlighting the dichotomy between Ranger efficacy in battle and disregard for civilians occurred in February, when Adam Allsens, a Texas Ranger who had been alone in the notorious Mexico City neighborhood known at “Cutthroat” was “assailed by a murderous crowd and almost literally cut to pieces.” Several hours after miraculously making it to safety, Allsens died of his ghastly wounds. Rip Ford wrote that Hays and the Rangers deliberated on how to prevent reprisals. “Who could [Hays] employ to nip in the bud any scheme to wreak bloody vengeance on the assassins? The sequel will show he was powerless to checkmate what he could not foresee.” In fact, Hays could foresee it, but stayed in his quarters the following night to avoid being held responsible for what happened. While Ford and Hays sat together, the sound of Colt six-shooters rang out in Cutthroat followed by regular issue firing. The noise continued for about two hours. In the morning it was learned a dozen or so Texans went into Cutthroat and began shooting any man they could find. When a U.S. patrol alarmed by the noise arrived at the scene, they joined the Texans. The following day Ford noted that there were “more than eighty bodies lying in the morgue. These were parties who had no relatives or friends to care for them. It was a fearful outburst of revenge.”[9] 

12700126660?profile=RESIZE_584xIt was reported Scott had words with Hays about the massacre and that Hays insisted it was the result of provocations, and therefore done in self-defense.[10] However, most of those accounts (stemming from a single article in the Indiana Register) related to the incidents occurring when the Texans initially arrived in the capital in December and were dated in February and early March. The incident in Cutthroat occurred mid-February, a few days before Scott left Mexico City. Ford cited the Register article in relation to the incident, but there is no record of any action Scott took concerning the massacre in Cutthroat – nor mention of it in the press. The incident was further complicated by the regular army patrol’s participation. Since Mexican outrage over the killings was minimal (considering the murdered men were apparently not pillars of the community) the entire episode like the sacking of Huamantla was dismissed as an aberration. Ford asserted that the killings deterred future attacks. “The affair in revenge for Allsens… broke up the murder of Americans almost entirely.”[11]    

Photo at right: Title: "Battle of Cerro Gordo. April 18th 1847." Print shows American soldiers advancing on Mexican infantry and cavalry, and artillery during the Battle of Cerro Gordo, in Mexico. Created / Published New York; Hartford, Conn.: E.B. & E.C. Kellogg 144 Fulton St. N.Y. & 136 Main St. Hartford, Conn., 1847 (Buffalo: D. Needham 223 Main St.) Source: Library of Congress. In the Public Domain. Click to enlarge.

Soon after the Rangers were ordered to leave Mexico City to hunt the guerrilla-priest and Spanish Carlist, Jose Celedonio Dómeco Jarauta, who was the most effective guerrilla leader of the war. Major Ian Lyles asserts in his 2015 work that “Scott, apparently discerning Zachary Taylor’s most successful technique for dealing with the unruly Rangers, soon realized that busy Rangers employed outside the city caused fewer problems.”[12] Lyles is correct, but moreover, their six-month period for duty as militia was set to expire and the Rangers were running out of time to hunt the most well-known insurgent of the war. In mid-February, a group consisting of Hays and 250 Rangers, 130 dragoons and rifles, Major William H. Polk, General Lane, and the Mexican “contraguerrillos” under Colonel Domínguez, set off northeast in the direction of the Sierra Madre towards Tulancingo – where it was believed the insurgent was operating aside General Paredes. On February 25 Lane’s group arrived at dawn in the mountain town of Sequalteplan (Zacualtipán) – surprising the guerrillas. According to Lane’s report, more than four hundred guerrillas and only one American were killed. Such an imbalanced outcome suggests the insurgents were completely caught by surprise. The main target of the operation was Jarauta. Hays tried to locate the priest in a church off the main plaza but he “effected his precipitate escape; thereby, for the present, saving his person from the treatment he so wisely dreaded.” Although the Rangers were forced to head home without their coveted prize their presence and efforts in central Mexico severely diminished insurgent activity.[13]     


12700164255?profile=RESIZE_400xDespite their fighting prowess, the arrival of the Texans complicated Scott’s law and order occupation. Scott did not request them specifically and most likely would not have – given their controversial record of executing captured enemy soldiers after action. That Taylor specifically asked Washington not to send him soldiers bent on revenge may have played a role in his decision to cease an invasion of San Luis Potosi in the north. Although not a disciplinarian like Scott, Taylor understood the importance of the conciliatory side of the occupation. For Scott, the arrival of the Texas mounted riflemen among the reinforcements was reluctantly welcomed. This is because – although the frontier fighters were excellent at counterinsurgency and Indian warfare – they were not keen on the type of discipline Scott enforced among his soldiers to prevent the conflict from devolving into a guerrilla war. 

Photo at right: General Winfield Scott, circa 1860-61 by Matthew Brady. Source: War History Network license. Click to enlarge.

Had the Texans not arrived it is safe to assume the brigade under Lane’s leadership would still have relieved the besieged U.S. garrison at Puebla. What is not clear, however, is whether U.S. forces would have been able to rid or neutralize central Mexico of formidable guerrillas who sought to perpetuate the war and scorned those who made peace. The Texans undoubtedly made life difficult for the insurgents, and their arrival likely acted as a strong deterrent to those who might have considered making a profit from stealing U.S. supplies or robbing fellow Mexicans along the route between Veracruz and Mexico City. Had the Texans not arrived, it is difficult to determine whether the sacking of Huamantla would have occurred given the Americans became enraged after Walker’s death and were predisposed to avenging Santa Anna’s past deeds. To the benefit of the occupation army, news of the Huamantla episode was not widely disseminated.

Another aspect of the Texas militia in the war was the status bestowed upon them by President Polk. That Polk specifically asked for Hays’s participation and placed his younger brother in that unit undermines the argument the commander-in-chief allowed his generals to manage the war on the ground. The opposite appears to be the case, and the fact that the Texans under Hays’s command believed they were operating at the behest of Polk in a legal grey zone demonstrates a level of micromanagement by the executive. In order to mitigate the potential for an escalation of violence during the occupation, Scott was forced to find middle ground satisfactory to both himself and the Texans – without unnecessarily undermining the conciliatory counterinsurgency initiatives designed to prevent an uprising his small force could not suppress. This was done by allowing the Texans to enter Mexico City in early December and issuing General Order No. 372 promptly thereafter.

Militia laws, the result of longstanding Anglo-American heritage, dated back centuries but their application in the Mexican War marked a notable transition in the American laws of war best illuminated in the contrast between Scott’s efforts to protect noncombatants from unnecessary violence. In essence, two very different wars were waged: one ancient and instinctual, involving tribal notions void of avante garde West Point ethics cumbersome on a relatively lawless frontier dictated more by the need for security and revenge as a deterrence. Militia would remain after the war but their use in foreign conflicts was abruptly ended in the United States by a growing class of professional soldiers with more articulate notions and doctrines on how to conduct war. In the end, as the American frontier filled, the US Army developed, and the borders of the United States manifested, the presidential use of militia in national defense eventually became a relic of the past.   



[1] House Executive Document, 1191-1192. Marcy (Washington D.C.) to Taylor (Monterrey), June 26, 1847.

[2] “Letters from the City of Mexico” The Sun, Baltimore, 6 January 1848, 1. (via The Picayune); John S. Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 81–2.

[3] “Hays’ Men in Mexico” Natchez Weekly Courier, Mississippi, 23 February 1848, 1; “Hays’ Men in Mexico” Buffalo Courier, New York, 1 March 1848, 2; Hays’s Men in Mexico” Daily Union, Washington D.C., 6 March 1848, 1. 

[4] “News from Home” Daily American Star, Mexico City, 7 December 1848, 2. (BLAC).

[5] Darren L. Ivey, The Texas Rangers: A Registry and History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010), 226. See: Edward S. Wallace, “The United States Army in Mexico City.” Military Affairs 13, no. 3 (Autumn, 1949), 161. “…a constant source of trouble throughout the occupation, was the leperos, as the swarm of semi-criminal, professional beggars were called, and it was never safe for a soldier to go out at night alone or for even small groups to go unarmed, and assassinations of drunken soldier at night were frequent.”

[6] “Headquarters of the Army” Daily American Star No. 65, Mexico City, 15 December 1847, 1 (BLAC). Issued 13 December. See also: Flag of Freedom, Puebla, 16 December 1847.

[7] “Headquarters of the Army” Daily American Star, Mexico City, 15 December 1848, 1. Article 5 stated: “[A]ny flagrant violation of the laws of war, condemn to death, or to lashes – not exceeding fifty – on satisfactory proof that such prisoner, at the time of capture, actually belonged to any party or gang of known robbers and murderers, or had actually committed murder or robbery upon any American officer or soldier or follower of the American army.”

[8] Timothy D. Johnson, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 126. 

[9] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 83-84.

[10] Hays’s Men in Mexico” Daily Union, Washington D.C., 6 March 1848, 2. 

[11] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 85. See also: Brackett, Lane’s Brigade, 262. William O. Butler took charge of U.S. forces February 19, 1848, two days later the Texans left Mexico City.

[12] Major Ian B. Lyles, Mixed Blessing: The Role of The Texas Rangers in The Mexican War, 1846-1848, (Normanby Press, 2015), 87.

[13] “Report of Col. Hays.” Daily Union, Washington DC, 7 April 1848, 3. Report from General Joseph Lane dated March 2, 1848. See: Ford, 94. “We had great faith in Miguel and Vicente, our spies and guides.” Report from Hays dated 1 March 1848.

You need to be a member of War History Network to add comments!

Join War History Network

Votes: 0
Email me when people reply –