In the summer of 1847, using presidential powers authorized by Congress, US Commander-in-Chief 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 Veracruz and Mexico City. Accompanying that force, which contributed to lifting a siege against a small US Army garrison in the city of Puebla, was Polk’s younger brother, William H. Polk, who had recently resigned his post as chargé d’affaires of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Naples. The force was sent in response to a request submitted in April by General Winfield Scott, the commander of the campaign to seize the Mexican capital. However, what Scott did not know was that federal officials authorized the regiment to enter the war as militia operating under a semi-separate set of laws governing military conduct – which was another indication of Polk’s tendency to micromanage the war to Scott’s consternation. 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 during their years defending the Republic of Texas from hostile tribes and Mexicans along a lawless frontier.[1] 

Presidential War Powers and Militia Laws

Although the public was not aware of Polk’s request for the Texans, the general issue of utilizing militia in foreign wars prompted deliberations on the American laws of war under a broad array of topics. The Daily Union of Washington DC ran an extensive article that included references to the Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. The article rhetorically asked: “Well, what are these laws of war?” Because it was America’s first foreign war, it appeared the Americans were learning along the way. The issue raised questions: Did the President have the express authority to escalate a war by sending untold numbers of militia into a foreign theater to defend the United States? Did he have the power to circumvent congressional authority if that authority was given to him by Congress in 1806? What did the Constitution say on the matter? The article cited Hamilton’s Federalist Number 74 as one example. “‘The President of the United States is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several States, when called into actual service of the United States.’” The Washington newspaper cited former Chief Justice Joseph Story’s opinion in the third volume of his Commentaries: “The command and application of the public force, to execute the laws, to maintain peace, and to resist foreign invasion, are powers so obviously of an executive nature, and require the exercise of qualities so peculiarly adapted to this department, that a well-organized government can scarcely exist where they are taken away from it.”[2]

Photo at right: Colonel John Coffee "Jack" Hays (January 28, 1817 – April 21, 1883). Source: Wikimedia. In the Public Domain.

The DC newspaper weighed both ends of a impassioned argument involving both pro- and anti-war positions. “The propriety of admitting the President to be commander-in-chief so far as to give orders and have general superintendency, was admitted. But it was urged that it would be dangerous to let him command in person without any restraints, as he might make bad use of it.” The Union’s writers ultimately believed “consent of both houses of Congress ought, therefore, to be required before he should take actual command.” They added that the executive had certain powers enumerated by the Constitution but that they were limited by the system of checks and balances. “The power of the President, too, might well be deemed safe; since he could not of himself declare war, raise armies, or call forth the militia, or appropriate money for the purpose; for these powers belong to Congress.”[3] The debate remained, but it was clear that a large segment of the anti-war population favored limiting Polk’s direct involvement in the war.

The American laws of war further complicated the conflict. What the Union missed but what Scott was keenly aware of was another important aspect of the Articles of War that became applicable in the convoluted case of the Texas mounted militia. Scott did have, and exercised, disciplinary authority over U.S. soldiers in Mexico, but Article of War No. 97 was specific about how militia members were held accountable in the event of alleged crimes committed in theater (italics added): "The officers and soldiers of any troops, whether militia or others, being mustered and in pay of the United States, shall, at all times and in all places, when joined, or acting in conjunction with the regular forces of the United States, be governed by these rules and articles of war, and shall be subject to be tried by courts martial, in like manner with the officers and soldiers of the regular forces, save only that such courts martial shall be composed entirely of militia officers."[4]

Because the Texans operated under Polk’s authority, violations committed by them were unlikely to be properly addressed. If court martialed, a jury would consist of fellow militia officers (and fellow Texans) unlikely to condemn an accused Ranger of war crimes. This was one of the concerns Taylor had in the northern theater. A correspondent for the Baltimore Patriot had his own take on the pending action. According to him the Texans had “a carte blanche to operate between Vera Cruz and Puebla,” and could “serve the guerrillas… without fear of being called into account by a superior officer, save the Commander-in-Chief!”[5] John S. “Rip” Ford, the adjutant who accompanied Hays’s unit in central Mexico likewise expressed similar sentiments when he wrote that the Texans “were not going to be bothered by rules and regulations…” Indeed, many Texans believed their actions justified, and that the war was merely a continuation of a longer struggle beginning in 1835.  Ford wrote that the “command had men in it who had suffered loss of relatives by the Mexicans massacring prisoners of war. There were men who had been Santa Fé prisoners, Mier prisoners, and prisoners made at San Antonio…” Ford explained this motivation by citing one soldier, Lewin Rogers, who “was in Mexico on a mission of revenge. Mexicans had cut the throats of his family: Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, their daughter, and their son William, who lived as if by miracle.” Atrocities committed by Mexicans against Texans before statehood were commonplace, and because of these Ford understood why many Rangers disregarded the rules of war once they hit Mexican soil. Indeed, many Texans believed their actions justified: "Was it a wonder that it was sometimes difficult to restrain these men, whose feelings had been lacerated by domestic bereavements and who were standing face to face with the people whose troops had committed these bloody deeds? They never made war upon any but armed men… They scorned the role of assassin… [and] waged hostilities upon a scale they deemed legitimate, and calculated not to wound the honor and injure the reputation of Texas soldiers."[6]    

12633775266?profile=RESIZE_584xMuch of this violence centered around the 1846 Battle of Monterrey in northern Mexico. One article in Boston’s anti-war newspaper Liberator republished from the Charleston Mercury, titled “Outrages of the American Soldiers,” reported that generals were unable to “restrain the passions of the volunteers” after the battle. “As at Matamoros, murder, robbery, and rape were committed” by undisciplined soldiers: “It is thought more than one hundred inhabitants were murdered in cold blood, and one Mexican soldier, with Gen. Worth’s passport in his pocket, was shot dead at noon day in the main street of the city, by a ruffian from Texas.” Another article appearing in the Liberator cited the “Austin (Texas) Democrat” reporting on an incident involving the murder of a Texas volunteer named David Horseley and the retribution exacted on the locals by the regiment under Hays’s command. The Liberator added box brackets to provide context:

The news spread like wild-fire among Hays’s men. [Hays’s regiment had been disbanded for disorderly conduct.] They determined to take ample vengeance. Wo to the Mexican falling in their way! Gen. Worth was made acquainted with what was going forward; he sent his aid to expostulate and beg of the Texans to cease. Infuriated by the cowardly meanness of the murder of their fellow-soldier, and remembrance of the many foul and blood butcheries upon them in former times [in Texas,] they spared not a man. It is thought eighty or one hundred Mexicans fell to avenge the death of Horseley!! Terrible retribution! Gen. Taylor was inclined to order all disbanded troops, such was the excitement, to leave Monterey in 48 hours.[7]  

Photo at right: US troops marching on Monterrey during the Mexican-American War. Source: Wikimedia.

Based on rereporting by the Liberator the reader was left with the impression that although General Worth knew the malign intentions of the Texans, there was nothing he could do to prevent the killing other than sending his subordinate to “beg” retribution not be carried out. A similar episode later took place in Mexico City after their arrival and the continuance of such action in the northern theater ultimately prompted Taylor to inform the Adjutant General in Washington that “the mounted men from Texas have scarcely made one expedition without unwarrantedly killing a Mexican.” As a result, of the “constant recurrence of such atrocities” Taylor explicitly requested “that no more troops may be sent to this column from the State of Texas.”[8]

Central Mexico and Siege of Puebla

Adding urgency to Scott’s request for mounted units was a siege of the small American garrison left behind in Puebla following the capture of Mexico City. The siege began September 14, one day after U.S. forces stormed Chapultepec Castle and the same day Scott rode triumphantly into the capital. The siege threatened to sever the U.S. Army’s logistics route to Veracruz and thus the mounted units were essential to the continuance of the campaign. The reinforcements came in two waves ostensibly of the same brigade: the first wave, which arrived September 16, was commanded directly by Brigadier General Joseph Lane – a politician who fought with the Texans at Buena Vista and led a mixed unit of Indiana volunteers and Texas mounted rifles under Captain Samuel H. Walker. The second wave led by Hays arrived a month later on October 17. Lieutenant Albert G. Brackett, who chronicled Lane’s Brigade in the war, wrote that a “better regiment was not in service” and that Hays’s “corps did not join us until we got on Scott’s line.”[9]

Why did two halves of the same brigade arrive in Veracruz a month apart? The answer is speculative but informative given James K. Polk’s younger brother, William H. Polk, accompanied Hays and the Rangers into the heart of Mexico after resigning his post in Naples as chargé d’affaires of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – a position he received from his older brother after he took office in 1845. The timing appears more than circumstantial, and the connection is validated by Polk’s own diary entries indicating William returned to the United States around July 7 to get married in New York, and then returned to Washington July 11 with his new wife to spend “some days” at the White House. As noted (Part I), after having met Hays March 19, on July 16 Polk chose Hays to assist Scott, and two weeks later Polk wrote that William had “repeatedly pressed me to give him a position in the army, was very desirous to be appointed… Upon a full view of the subject I concluded to gratify his wishes.” The younger Polk thus officially resigned his diplomatic post, took up his new position as major in the Third Regiment of U.S. Dragoons – a regiment created during the war – and was attached to Major General Robert Patterson, who was in Washington conferring with Polk and headed to Mexico. Polk wrote, “My brother will leave for Vera Cruz to join his Regiment… and his arrangement is to join Gen’l Patterson at Petersburg or some other point on the route and accompany him to Gen’l Scott’s army.” Major Polk left Washington on September 2 – two weeks before Lane arrived at Veracruz.[10]

12633778892?profile=RESIZE_584xDespite Lane’s arrival preceding Hays, guerrillas were still attacking U.S. forces and small convoys when the 580 “cooped up” Rangers landed at Veracruz.[11] A correspondent with the Daily Union eagerly announced, the “so-anxiously-looked-for Col. Jack Hays, the celebrated Texas ranger, has at last arrived… He will start up with Gen. Patterson’s train in a few days.” The dispatch noted that since arriving the Texans had already “killed a guerrilla, dressed in a Mexican’s colonel’s uniform, epaulets, cocked hat – and all.” The Union’s correspondent exuded confidence in Hays and his unit by claiming “the guerrillas will be rather scarce in a few days.” The writer also asserted the mere presence of Hays and his fellow Texans in central Mexico spelled disaster for the guerrillas. “He is well-known to them by reputation; and I venture to say, that if he had his whole regiment with him, the road from here to the city of Mexico would be as safe as the road from New Orleans to Carrollton [Texas].”[12]

Immediately after arriving, Patterson learned that guerrilla leader Colonel Mariono Cenobio was launching raids from a nearby hacienda called San Juan located about 30 miles from Veracruz. Rip Ford surmised from the conversation with Patterson that Cenobio and his group “were fighting more for plunder than for their government.” Patterson inquired if the Rangers were up to the task. “We assured him that we would willing make the effort, but suggested the propriety of having a guide.” The following morning they located the hacienda and killed a few guards – finding no trace of Cenobio but a few U.S. supplies. The group then burned the compound to the ground. Ford wrote that they “had a minute or two to pick up valuables. The torch was applied and the splendid edifice was consumed. It was an unpleasant scene…”[13]

Photo at right: U.S. 3rd Cavalry Regiment in Mexico.  "Brave Rifles" painting by Don Prechtlel. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History.

In an after-action report of the assault submitted by Captain Truit, it was noted the discovery of U.S. goods was evidence the hacienda was a guerrilla base. Items included “two U.S. muskets, and one U.S. yager [rifle], powder, lead, and cartridges were found on the premises. A fine shirt, evidently American made, with a ball-hole in the bosom and quite bloody…” The force also found “500 or 600 bushels of Indian corn shelled, some of which were in American sacks…” After interrogating two prisoners, the Texans burned everything “except the church” and returned to Veracruz. In Ford’s account, when the group informed General Patterson he mentioned the Rangers “might have trouble over the house burning, but promised to stand by us.” Ford also indicated they believed they were acting under Polk’s authority. “The [hacienda] owner had a safe conduct from General Scott. Nothing was ever done in the matter. It was presumed that the commander-in-chief recognized the act as legitimate under the circumstances.”[14] 

Meanwhile, by early October, the 3,000-man force under Lane reached the windswept town of Perote atop the Sierra Madre Oriental. It was there that Brackett learned from Captain Walker of Walker’s history of being imprisoned there after the failed Mier Expedition near the Rio Grande in 1842.[15]  Formerly known as the Castle of San Carlos, the prison had an older history under the Viceroy as a “second-line of defense” for Veracruz and was completed after several years of construction beginning in 1770. A mid-twentieth-century summary of the notorious “hellhole” describes the windy, high-altitude prison built atop an extinct volcano. “Every force, either of nature’s or man’s making, combines to make Perote Prison one of the worst spots imaginable. Even the Aztecs called the place ‘pinahuizapan,’ or ‘something-to-be-buried-in.’”[16]  

The imprisonment and executions of the Texans in the 1840s was the cause of considerable anger among those who returned to Mexico during the war. George Wilkens Kendall, a New Orleans Picayune correspondent whose dispatches became some of the most re-reported material during the conflict, addressed these motivations in his 1844 Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé Expedition. Like the Mier Expedition, the failed 1841 Santa Fé Expedition ended in disaster and its members (which included Kendall) were taken prisoner and marched more than a thousand miles to Mexico City. Many of the prisoners who survived the death march were held in Perote. According to Kendall, the “butchery” of the prisoners at the hands of the Mexicans made the entire group “callous” and eager for retribution. “Inly we prayed that a time might come when their death could be avenged – that the damnable crimes hourly enacted around us might be atoned for. There was the breast of many a hero in that sorry band; and in its pent-up chamber were recorded deep vows of vengeance…”[17]

A couple days after arriving in Perote, General Lane made inquiries as to General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s whereabouts by sending out “Mexican spies” and offering them “large sums of money” if they could determine if he was in the vicinity.[18] By all accounts Lane a gracious commander but the desire among the brigade to hunt Santa Anna was apparent. Once it was learned that the Mexican general had abandoned the siege at Puebla to pursue a position behind the convoy, Lane decided to confront him. As the sun rose on October 9, the force quickly bivouacked due to “a rumor spread through the division” and around noon came upon the small city of Huamantla, surprising Santa Anna’s forces. Walker and eighty Texas riflemen charged a large group of Mexican lancers posted on the city’s outskirts. The lancers turned their horses and fled back to Huamantla. “The Mexicans lashed their steeds with perfect fury, and the poor horses were completely covered with foam and perspiration.” The Mexicans had been surprised.[19]  

12633827462?profile=RESIZE_584xBy the time the American infantry arrived in the city it was learned that Captain Walker had been killed in a clash in the main plaza. Santa Anna also escaped – never to be seen in the war again. Many of the lancers and their horses lay strewn throughout the city. Other Mexican soldiers, caught off guard by the attack, sought shelter in the homes of Huamantla’s citizens. The combination of fatigue, Walker’s death, and desire for revenge, resulted in an ordeal unseen thereinto by U.S. soldiers in central Mexico. Some violations obviously included rape. Lieutenant William D. Wilkins of the 15th Infantry provided an account to his parents:

Grogs shops were broken open first, and then maddened with liquor every species of outrage was committed. Old women and girls were stripped of their clothing – and many suffered still greater outrages. Men were shot by dozens while concealing their property, churches, stores, and dwelling houses were ransacked… The plaza presented a singular scene. It had been beautiful… But now “Grim visage War” had taken possession of it… Dead horses and men lay about pretty thick, while drunken soldiers, yelling and screeching, were breaking open houses or chasing some poor Mexicans who had abandoned their houses and fled for their life. Such a scene I never hope to see again.[20]

Photo at right: The death of Capt. Walker, at Huamantla in Mexico. Source: Wikimedia.

There was little reporting on the sacking of Huamantla in U.S. newspapers. “Many of the houses of the villages were sacked and destroyed, and it is much to be regretted that after Gen. Lane passed on, a number of stragglers, who had been intoxicated, were put to death by the Mexicans.”[21] For the most part, what occurred at Huamantla was linked with the lifting of the siege at Puebla, and subsequent reports were relayed through two accounts printed by the newly opened and U.S.-operated Flag of Freedom in Puebla on October 23 and 25. The death of Captain Walker took up considerable space in most accounts, as did the names of the fallen soldiers who died during the siege. Lane, in an account from Puebla, wrote that at Huamantla “every officer and soldier behaved with the utmost coolness, and my warmest thanks are due them.”[22] All U.S. publications were in sync with reports on the event by the end of the week – with a notable change in tone led by a Flag of Freedom dispatch blaming the Mexicans for violating the laws of war. “Mexican cavalry pride themselves in the title Lancers of Poison, or Rancheros of the Poison Lance.” The claim was never confirmed, but the editors insisted the “use of such weapons… is forbidden by the rules of civilized warfare, and places those who wear them beyond all claim to respect or quarter. They must be careful never to be taken prisoner.”[23]

In contrast, the Mexican capital was calm. The day after Huamantla, the American Star’s writers reported a lack of “positive information of the whereabouts of our reinforcements on the road…” It was obvious that General Lane’s arrival and Santa Anna’s abandonment of the siege of Puebla sapped the Mexican Army’s morale. “By another person arrived yesterday from Puebla we are informed that the Mexican army was almost entirely dispersed.” Two days later, on October 12, Lane’s brigade entered Puebla without opposition and officially ended the siege. The same day the Daily American Star (which changed its name October 12) reported that “Col. Childs had quiet possession of the city of Puebla,” and that the Mexican troops had scattered towards the surrounding region. The crisis on the American logistics lifeline was over.[24] By mid-November Hays arrived in Puebla. “Our brigade was now complete,” Brackett wrote, providing an interesting description of the new arrivals: "They were certainly an odd-looking set of fellows, and it seemed to be their aim to dress as outlandishly as possible. Bob-tailed coats… low and high-crowned hats, some slouched and others Panama, with a sprinkling of black leather caps, constituted their uniforms ; and a thorough coating of dust over all, and covering their huge beards, gave them a savage appearance… I watched them closely as they passed silently by me, and could distinguish no difference between the officers and men."[25]



[1] House Executive Document (subsequently: HED) No. 60, 1191-1192. Marcy (Washington D.C.) to Taylor (Monterrey), June 26, 1847.

[2] “The Intelligencer’s Law, Logic, and Loyalty” Daily Union, Washington DC, 21 August 1847, 2. See: Joseph Story: Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Hilliard, Gray and Company, 1833), 82. “In times of insurrection or invasion it would be natural and proper, that the militia of a neighboring state be marched into another to resist a common enemy… But it is scarcely possible that in the exercise of the power the militia shall ever be called to march great distances…” See also: Federalist Papers (1787) No. 29 “Concerning the Militia” (Alexander Hamilton), No. 46 (James Madison).

[3] “The Intelligencer’s Law, Logic, and Loyalty” Daily Union, Washington DC, 21 August 1847, 2. 

[4] U.S. Articles of War (Art. 97), Annals of Congress, 9th Congress, 1st Session, Appendix: “Public Acts of Congress”, Washington D.C., 1251-1252.

[5] “Correspondence of the Baltimore Patriot” Alton Telegraph, Illinois, 22 October 1847, 3. Report from Baltimore Patriot, 11 October 1847. The same article noted that the Polk Administration would be “prosecuting the war more vigorously than heretofore!”

[6] Stephen B Oates (ed.), John S. Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas (Personal Narratives of the West) (Austin: University of Texas, 1963), 69 (footnote 2), 72.

[7] “Outrages of the American Soldiers” The Liberator, Boston, 25 December 1846, 4.  

[8] HED No. 60, 1178. Taylor (Monterrey) to Adjutant General (Washington DC) June 8, 16, 1847.

[9] Albert G. Brackett, General Lane’s Brigade in Central Mexico (Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Company, 1854), 35.

[10] The Diary of James J. Polk During his Presidency, 1845-1849, vol. 3 (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1910)Polk, Memoirs, vol. 3, 74-5, 82, 153-8. For the Hays-Polk meeting, see, Diary of James J. Polk, vol. 2, 429. March 19, 1847.

[11] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 66.

[12] “From the Army” Daily Union, Washington DC, 5 November 1847, 3.  

[13] Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 66-68.

[14] “From the Army” Daily Union, Washington DC, 5 November 1847, 3; Ford, Rip Ford’s Texas, 69.

[15] Brackett, Lane’s Brigade, 76-77. See: Ralph A. Wooster, “Texas Military Operations against Mexico, 1842-1843.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 67, no. 4 (April 1964): 465-484.

[16] J.J. McGrath and Walace Hawkins, “Perote Fort: Where Texans Were Imprisoned.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 48, no. 3 (Jan. 1945): 344-345. See: Daily American Star, Mexico City, December 10, 1848. Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas, Austin.

[17] George Wilkins Kendall, Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé Expedition, vol. 2 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1844), 17.

[18] Brackett, Lane’s Brigade, 87.

[19] Brackett, Lane’s Brigade, 88-89. See: Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox, History of the Mexican War (Washington DC: The Church News Publishing Co., 1892), 498. Wilcox cites 150 deaths on the American side based on Lane’s report to Congress. Mexican casualty figures vary considerably but extend upwards to 1000.

[20] Quoted from: George Winston Smith and Charles Judah (ed.): Chronicles of the Gringos: The U.S. Army in the Mexican War, 1846-1848 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968), 270-271. See: Wilcox, History of the Mexican War, 498-499.

[21] “Interesting Details from the War Quarter” New York Herald, 15 November 1847, 1.  

[22] “Reports of Brigadier General Lane” Weekly National Intelligencer, Washington DC, 27 November 1847, 7. Report from Puebla dated 18 October 1847.

[23] “Interesting from Mexico” The Sun, Baltimore, 20 November 1847, 1. (via New Orleans Delta)

[24] “Puebla” American Star, No. 9/ “Our Daily” Daily American Star, Mexico City, 10, 12 October 1847. See: Timothy Johnson: A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007). 250. Johnson notes that upon Lane’s arrival in Puebla U.S. forces received some opposition and “Lane’s men repeated their shameful pillaging…” There are few reports confirming this.

[25] Brackett, Lane’s Brigade, 173-4.

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