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The Mexican-American War: A Formidable But Controversial Engagement

Military History

The Mexican-American War: A Formidable But Controversial Engagement

The Mexican-American War eventually forced Mexico to cede the territories of Alta California and New Mexico to the U.S., but not before a year and a half of fighting.

The Mexican-American War eventually forced Mexico to cede the territories of Alta California and New Mexico to the U.S., but not before a year and a half of fighting.

by Arnold Blumberg

At the opening of hostilities of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, Mexico had a standing army of 33,541. This included men recruited for three brigades of foot artillery, five standing companies of garrison guns (114 guns), and a brigade of horse artillery (24 guns). Each foot brigade contained eight companies and a headquarters staff. Every foot artillery company had on its roster five officers, 22 NCOs, and 86 gunners. The horse artillery brigade comprised six companies, each with four officers, 20 NCOs, 66 gunners, 80 saddle horses, and 50 draft animals. It, too, had a headquarters staff. The foot brigades and the horse artillery (about 140 guns all told) made up Mexico’s sole field artillery force.

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Mexican field ordnance in the 1840s left much to be desired. Old and of varied calibers, ranging from 2- to 16-pounders, were made of iron, and predated 1821. As a result, the guns were less accurate than those used by the Americans.

Ammunition Posed a Problem

Ammunition for the guns presented another problem. With so many different calibers present there was never enough of the right type of shot or shell available. Additionally, because the Mexican artillery did not use ammunition caissons or reserve ammo carts, all resupply of projectiles had to be carried by pack mules, further reducing the number of rounds available for battle. Because their gunpowder was of poor quality, the Mexicans used more of it when firing. This usually caused the shots to pass beyond the intended enemy target.

Heavy guns on antiquated carriages, pulled by four mules or oxen, made the field artillery of the Mexican Army a rather slow-moving affair. Further adding to the problem was that the drivers were hired civilians who were undisciplined and untrained in battery tactics. Because they also owned the animals pulling the guns, they would not expose them to danger if at all possible. That meant they would be the last to advance against the enemy and the first to leave the battlefield if the outcome appeared in doubt.

Heavy guns on antiquated carriages, pulled by four mules or oxen, made the field artillery of the Mexican Army a rather slow-moving affair

Well-Trained Mexican Artillerists, But Handicapped Tactically

Mexican artillerists were usually well trained, especially the younger officers, many of whom had attended the country’s national Military College of Chapultepec. For the most part, they were of the more educated and patriotic middle class. Many of the better officers were foreigners who had previous training in Europe. But poor weapons and outdated doctrine canceled out the positive human materiel who manned the Mexican guns.

Tactically, the Mexican light artillery was handicapped by a number of factors. First, its inability to move at any kind of reasonable speed caused it to be positioned at the start of a fight and remain there throughout. Second, the guns were never concentrated, but rather used piecemeal in combat. As a result, the artillery could never generate that overwhelming firepower that, as was the American practice, could smother enemy guns and decimate opposing infantry. Third, Mexican rates of fire were deliberately slow. This was caused by the poor guns in use and the need to ensure that the gunners took the time to properly aim their weapons. Fourth, Mexican armament was usually positioned on line or to the rear of friendly infantry. As a result it had to fire at greater ranges, which along with poor gunpowder, made for low accuracy.

To compensate for poor ammunition the Mexican artillery usually relied on shot as the most reliable answer to American fire. The target for Mexican artillery was most often the enemy’s artillery. As a result, neither the American guns nor its infantry were gravely harmed in battle.

Although some horse artillery (also known as “flying artillery”) was attached to the Mexican cavalry in the actions at Palo Alto, Buena Vista, and Cerro Gordo, these guns played little part. Apparently the techniques of fighting with mobile guns were not part of the Mexican horseman’s training and experience.

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