Open for Business and Scattering Gold: U.S. Occupation of Mexico City and Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine, 1847-1848 (Part One)

If difficult military occupations, which often devolve into violent insurgencies, are reflections of the intensity of animus existing between belligerents during war, then the U.S. Army’s occupation of Mexico City is a case study in conciliating a conquered capital. The occupation that began in the fall of 1847 and lasted roughly a year reached a high level of amity between the invading army and citizenry. Particularly important to U.S. rule over Mexico’s massive city was the continuation of local commerce buttressed by policies allowing Mexicans to police their own people while simultaneously subject to martial law under the jurisdiction of U.S. forces. General Winfield Scott’s benign counterinsurgency initiatives for military occupation, informed by Henry W. Halleck’s study of the guerrilla insurgency in Spain against Napoleon (1808-1814), would go on to serve as the doctrinal model for the U.S. Army in both the Civil War and the Philippine-American War.[1]

The U.S. Army’s economic strategy to mitigate animus was multifaceted and represented an olive branch accompanying the use of force intrinsic in traditional counterinsurgency warfare. Policies included paying for goods at equitable market rates, facilitating trade between the capital and coastal region by protecting Mexican conveys from guerrilla attacks, rescinding the alcabala tax targeting poorer Mexicans seeking to sell their goods in areas controlled by the U.S. Army, and respecting property rights of Mexicans. These policies were implemented throughout U.S. occupied Mexico but were particularly important to success in the heart of the country. In their 1968 work, Chronicles of the Gringos, George W. Smith and Charles Judah noted that every day “Mexican women came into American camps to vend their fruits, vegetables, and other wares.” They also acknowledged the “irony” of that relationship by highlighting a letter written from Captain John W. Lowe to his son. The irony was that American soldiers were battling Mexican men in firefights at one moment while buying goods from Mexican women at another:  

‘We have skirmishes with them 5 or 6 miles from camp every few days, but others come into our Camp and sell us bread & cakes, pies, green corn, oranges, and so on, but we have to pay for them. We have to give 3 cents for a potato; 4 cents for a sweet potato – 2 cents for a small ear of corn and 12½ cents for 3 rolls of bread as large as your hand…’[2]


Top photo: Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel. Source: Wikipedia. In the Public Domain.

Middle photo: General Scott's entrance into Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Hand-colored lithograph; original size of painted area: 43.2×28.2 cm. 1851. Originally published in George Wilkins Kendall & Carl Nebel: The War between the United States and Mexico Illustrated, Embracing Pictorial Drawings of all the Principal Conflicts, New York: D. Appleton; Philadelphia: George Appleton [Paris: Plon Brothers], 1851. Source: Wikipedia. In the Public Domain.

Bottom photo: Mexican–American War (without Scott's Campaign). Source: Wikipedia. In the Public Domain.


The decision to pay for goods rather than force Mexicans to supply the U.S. Army with requisitions represented an avant garde approach to “counterinsurgency” – a word that did not exist in the antebellum period. For as long as anyone could remember it was the undisputed right of conquerors to take whatever supplies it wanted while invading another country, but that approach was deemed ill-advised because it was thought that doing so would lead to the creation of an insurgency. Winfield Scott studiously believed forced requisitions would have resulted in disaster and notified Secretary of War William L. Marcy that any “attempt to subsist it by living at free quarters, or on forced contributions, would be the end of military operations.” Marcy tried to get Scott to change the policy in April of 1847 after capturing Veracruz, but Scott and General Zachary Taylor (of the northern occupation army) stuck to their instincts and the strategy thereinto successful in dividing Mexican public opinion of the invaders.[3]

12393229890?profile=RESIZE_710xLittle has been written by historians of the Polk Administration’s attempts to redirect the course of the war by ordering his two main generals to supply their armies in Mexico with forced requisitions. However, writing in the early twentieth century, the renowned Mexican War historian Justin H. Smith acknowledged as much by indicating that Polk “felt disposed to bring the stern realities home to the Mexicans,” and defended the Commander-in-chief (against Scott) by arguing that it was “no part of an invader’s army to scatter gold over conquered territory…”[4] Indeed, it was believed by many that Scott’s “measures of conciliation” were too benign and that a sterner approach towards the Mexican people was required to end the guerrilla action that erupted after U.S. forces routed the Mexicans at Cerro Gordo in the spring of 1847.[5] Polk told Congress himself that the policy reversal was ordered but never initiated (due to insubordination) from both generals – one of whom would go on to become president in 1848 because of the successful outcome of the war.[6]     

The simple reason both Scott and Taylor disobeyed orders was not that they were of a different political party (they were Whigs), but that the policy of promoting business brought a large amount of ancillary benefit to the U.S. Army’s reputation in Mexico and eased animus towards the occupation – particularly in Mexico City. Irving W. Levinson notes in his 2005 work, Wars within War, that the U.S. Army “sought to revive the internal commerce by regularly providing escorts for merchants seeking to reestablish the two main internal trade routes.” The main route lay between the capital and Veracruz while the second route targeted the exfiltration of gold to Saltillo from points further inland. The U.S. Army’s willingness to protect conveys from Veracruz to Mexico City “met with an enthusiastic response from traders and customers who transacted business along this key commercial route…”[7] The response was so positive that by the late fall of 1847 reporting in major U.S. newspapers indicated Mexican officials were tiring of guerrillas attempting to control the flow of goods in that region, and that “the Mexican government of the state of Vera Cruz, talk[ed] of adopting measures to put them down.”[8]   

Perhaps the most fruitful initiative used by the U.S. Army to promote commercial activity in Mexico was rescinding the alcabala – a tax used by Mexican and Spanish officials for generations to inhibit small venders from entering urban areas to sell their goods. Small venders were generally poorer people (often indigenous) who lived and toiled in the region directly surrounding the logistics network extending between Veracruz and Mexico City – an area that included the strategically important cities of Jalapa and Puebla. For an insurgency to coalesce and challenge the U.S. Army in central Mexico, support of the people in that region would have been essential. Few reports at the time caught on to the initiative, and historians have not addressed it despite the fact that Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the primary Mexican general opposing Scott’s campaign, sought to have the alcabala rescinded nationwide prior to the fall of Mexico City. In Mexico’s main newspaper, the Diario del Gobierno, Santa Anna wrote: “Experience has proven how hateful the system of alcabalas is to the people…” Santa Anna’s plea is proof of the efficacy and popularity of the U.S. Army’s decision to rescind it.[9]   

Only a handful of outside observers understood the complicated social and economic dynamics in Mexico’s multi-tiered society and connected the effectiveness of eliminating the alcabala towards building goodwill among Mexico’s lower classes. London’s Morning Post observed that Mexicans “expect benefit from this occupation. …The interior customs and alcabalas are also abolished where the Americans pass the property, and persons are well protected by them. Trade is promoted, and everything receives new life.” The Post noted that the alcabala was hated and that a “majority of the people, as you must know, take no part in” the economic progress of the country. According to the popular London newspaper, the success of the U.S. military campaign was directly related to the conciliatory counterinsurgency measures implemented by Scott, and those measures explained exactly “how it is that 4,000 Americans have occupied the city of Puebla without the smallest resistance.”[10]

12393231472?profile=RESIZE_710xHad Puebla resisted, Scott’s campaign would have been drastically different. That city officials and the citizens of Puebla recognized what the U.S. Army was doing in Jalapa is important to understanding their decision to allow the Americans to occupy it without mounting a defense. On May 11, while headquartered in Jalapa, Scott issued a proclamation that he called his “crowning act of conciliation…” The message was intended to mollify the hysteria disseminated in the Mexican press concerning American intentions. Scott cited General William Worth’s letter from Puebla on May 19 as evidence of the policy’s success. “We are rapidly accumulating supplies of the essentials,” Worth wrote to Scott, “and could soon garner up sufficient for all our wants, with a few hundred cavalry to control actively a large circle and allay the fears of the holders.” In other words, supplies were increasing rapidly because Mexicans were making money. Worth praised Scott’s proclamation: "It was most fortunate that I got hold of one copy of your proclamation. Today I had a third edition struck off [printed], and am now with hardly a copy on hand. It takes admirably and my doors are crowded for it – with the people (of all classes)… and has produced more decided effects than all the blows from Palo Alto to Cerro Gordo. I have scattered them far and wide, and [have] taken three chances to get them into the capital."[11]  

A few months after the U.S. Army seized Mexico City a number of U.S. newspapers caught on to the importance of the elimination of the alcabala tax. The Times-Picayune, whose articles were forwarded to the eastern press, noted in late December of 1847 that the Mexicans “have the collection of the revenue, including the odious alcabala and the sole control of the police of the city.”[12] The following summer, as the occupation was winding up following the dual ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), the New York Herald made the connection despite the fact that few observers were interested in learning about the nonviolent measures used by Scott to win over poorer Mexicans who would have otherwise constituted the backbone of an insurgency: "The sojourn of our army in Mexico has relieved these poor and interesting people of many oppressions and taxes which they have long been subjected. They are the producers and industrials of the country, and hitherto have contributed, through the alcabala, and other taxes, to support the extravagant government of Mexico."[13]



[1] Benjamin J. Swenson, “‘Measures of Conciliation’: Winfield Scott, Henry Halleck, and the Origins of US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine,” Journal of Military History 86, no. 4 (Oct. 2022): 859-881; Benjamin J. Swenson, The Dawn of Guerrilla Warfare: Why the Tactics of Insurgents against Napoleon failed in the US Mexican War (Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 2023). See: Andrew James Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations, 1860-1941 (Washington D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 1998), 17. Birtle cites Scott in Mexico as the origin of the U.S. Army COIN doctrine but only mentions Halleck regarding his 1861 work (International Law) preceding the Lieber Code. In fact, Halleck’s 1846 Military Art and Science, was written as the behest of Scott and informed the origins of the U.S. Army’s COIN doctrine. See also: Timothy D Johnson, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998); A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007). Johnson lauds Scott’s successful “pacification” program based on lessons learned from the Peninsular War (1808-1814).

[2] 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), 307. For a detailed look at the marketing end of the policy see: Johnson, A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign, 108-109, 121, 124. See also: Niles’ Register, March 28, 1846. Headquarters, Army of Occupation, Corpus Christi, Texas, March 8, 1846 (Orders No. 30): “Whatever may be required for the use of the army will be purchased by the paper departments at the highest market price.” The order was also written in Spanish and distributed.

[3] House Executive Document No. 60, US Congressional Documents: Library of Congress, (US Serial Set No. 520), 994. Scott to Marcy, June 4, 1847 (Puebla). See: Marcy to Scott, September 1, 1847 (Ibid. 1001): “[T]he President directs me again to call your attention to the dispatch… of the 3rd of April last… the property holders of Mexico have no claim to find in the market afforded by sales to our army, and actual pecuniary benefit resulting from the war. They must be made to feel its evils, and it is earnestly hoped and expected that you will not… adhere to your opinion… that a resort to forced contributions will exasperate and ruin the inhabitants, and starve the army.”

[4] Justin H. Smith, “American Rule in Mexico” in The American Historical Review 23, no. 2 (Jan. 1918): 288.

[5] Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, Memoirs (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1864), 540.

[6] President Polk’s 3rd Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1847. Congressional Globe, 30th Congress, Library of Congress (LOC), Washington D.C., 6. Polk’s message was received by the U.S. Army in Mexico City late December, but both generals were informed of the new policy after Scott successfully invaded Veracruz in the spring of 1847. See: Daily American Star, Mexico City, December 26, 1847. Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, subsequently referred to as BLAC. The Daily American Star was one of several U.S.-run newspapers in occupied Mexico.

[7] Irving W. Levinson, Wars within War: Mexican Guerrillas, Domestic Elites, and the United States of American, 1846-1848 (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2005), 100.

[8] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York City, November 1, 1847. See also: The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, November 22, 1847; The Evening Post, New York, November 29, 1847.

[9] Diario del Gobierno, August 10, 1847.

[10] The Morning Post, London, July 9, 1847. For Mexican division see: Pedro Santoni, Mexicans at Arms: Puro Federalists and the Politics of War, 1845-1848 (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1996); Michael P. Costelo, “The Mexican Church and the Rebellion of the Polkos.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 46, no. 2 (May 1966): 170-178.

[11] Scott, Memoirs, 549; House Executive Document No. 60, US Congressional Documents: Library of Congress, (US Serial Set No. 520), 967. (Library of Congress). “Extracts from an unofficial letter of Major General Worth to Major General Scott,” May 11, 1847.    

[12] Times-Picayune, December 23, 1847. The same reference appears in the New York Daily Herald, December 30, 1847, Philadelphia Ledger, December 30, 1847, and Buffalo Commercial January 3, 1848.

[13] New York Herald, July 9, 1848. The significance of eliminating the alcabala as a benign initiative was recognized more so in 1848. See also: The Washington Union, July 7, 1848. The alcabala is cited in the Mexican version of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but not in the English (American) version that refers to it as a “tax.”


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