James K. Polk
The next President was James K. Polk. His administration is marked by the Mexican War—and a terrible war it was indeed. We do not hear so much about this war, and do not realize how fierce a fight it was, because the battles were all fought away off in the Mexican neighborhood, and we did not therefore see the battles fought as we did in the other wars.
Away back in those times when the different European nations were all sending men over here to find lands and gold, the Spaniards had taken possession of that part of the country called Mexico.
Some time I want you to read about the wonderful people the Spaniards found living there. They had cities and elegant palaces and gardens; they had a king, and a brave king he was, too, and lived on the whole, in quite as civilized a way as did the Spaniards themselves. It seems strange that these people should have been so civilized when all the other Indians throughout the country were so wild and savage. It is a great mystery where these people came from and who they were; but as they had no written history, it doesn't seem very likely that we shall ever find out. It is all very wonderful; and when, down in this Mexican country, and out through our Western States, we dig up here and there axes, chisels, knives, beads, bracelets, even bits of cloth and pieces of vases which we know must be hundreds and hundreds of years old, it makes us think that this Earth of ours has rolled on and on for many, many more years than we have any idea of.
But you will think I have forgotten all about the Mexican war. Mexico, as I said before, was in the possession of the Spaniards. Spain had never been very successful with her American possessions, some way. She had had, from time to time, to give up a part of her land, once to France, and again to the United States. Then, too, from the very beginning, the Spanish rulers had been very cruel and overbearing in the treatment of the people whom they had found in Mexico. It is no wonder, then, that after a time the Mexicans rose in arms, and declared they would no longer be ruled by Spain. Many a hot battle they had; but at last Spain gave up her claim upon them, and they were independent.
There were, in that part of Mexico called Texas, many Americans who had gone there to farm and raise cattle. These Americans took part in the uprising of the Mexicans against Spain, and helped them to throw off the Spanish rule.
As time went on, and cattle-raising came to be a very paying business, Texas began very rapidly to fill up with these shrewd Yankees, anxious to grow rich as soon as possible.
The Mexicans at last began to grow afraid and jealous of these thrifty Yankees. "They will get our land away from us," they said. And so, when the American colony in Texas sent Stephen Austin to the Mexican government to ask that Texas should be allowed to join the Mexican Union, instead of giving him a ready answer, and sending him back to his people, they kept him for a long time in uncertainty. Austin was angry enough at this needless delay, and he wrote a letter to the Texas people telling them to rise in arms and declare themselves independent of Mexican rule. This letter fell into the hands of the Mexicans, and Austin was put in prison.
This kindled the anger of the Texans, and they rose indeed. There was much sharp fighting, and in the end Texas declared herself independent, made a government of her own and chose a governor of her own.
Very soon, she asked the United States to allow her to join their Union, and so be under the protection of some government greater than her own. For a long time congress talked and talked about the matter. The Northern States said, "No, Texas is a slave-state, and we have too many slave-states already; besides we shall be sure to get into a war with Mexico, if we have anything to do in this matter." The Southern States argued in just the opposite way; but at last the State was accepted, and as the Northern States had predicted, war did follow.
I shall make no attempt to tell you much about this war—it was like all other wars a series of terrible battles in which thousands of men were killed, and thousands of homes made desolate. It ended at last in the victory of the Americans over the Mexicans, and Texas now belonged to the United States—a far dearer purchase, I think, than that of Lousiana away back in Jefferson's time.
There are a few names and incidents connected with this war which you need to know, even if you don't quite yet learn the names and stories of the battle. Certainly you must know about "Old Zack," as his men used to call him. He was a sturdy old soldier who had fought like a "Trojan," as people say, in the battle of 1812. He was very much such a man as "Old Put" had been in the Revolutionary times, and "Old Hickory" whom you heard of in that famous battle at New Orleans. And for this reason, his men had given him the pet name of "Old Zach." He did some lively work in the Mexican war, lived through it all and came out of it hale and hearty, and so much respected by the nation, that they made him President by and by.
There are several little stories told of General Taylor in this war. At one time Santa Anna, the Mexican general, sent a messenger to General Taylor. On reaching there the messenger found Taylor sitting idly on his horse, with one leg thrown over the pummel of the saddle.
"What are you waiting for?" asked the messenger, amazed at such coolness in battle.
"I am waiting for Santa Anna to surrender," replied he calmly.
At another time, some one of Taylor's officers suggested that his pet horse, "Whitney" could be too easily singled out by the enemy's shot and urged him to take another and send "Whitney" away. "Not a step," said General Taylor, "the old fellow missed the fun at the other battle but she's going to have her share in this one."
Then there was General Kearney, who had a way of marching straight into the little mud-built villages, demanding the governor of the town to present himself, and then, having surrounded him with American officers, compelled him to swear faithfulness to the United States. He would then unfurl the stars and stripes over the house of the governor, and march coolly on.
There was Captain Fremont, a noble young officer, who fully deserved his promotion to captainship. He had crossed the Rocky mountains at one time, had climbed one of its very highest peaks, and had there unfurled the stars and stripes. That peak, which when you come to study geography, you will be very likely to hear about, is now called Mt. Fremont or Fremont's Peak. Soon after this young officer was made captain, he started off to Oregon, passing through Mexican territory on his march. I wish I could tell you about his guide, Kit Carson, who had lived for years among these wild mountain regions. Kit Carson was a wonderful story-teller; he could tell you bear stories and Indian stories of the most exciting kind. There were hundreds of these—all out of his own life—and terrible enough some of them, to make your hair stand on end.
Toward the end of the war General Scott, who was as great a general in this war as General Taylor, was preparing to storm a place know as Grass-hopper Hill. It was a fearful place to attack, situated as it was on a rocky height, a hundred and fifty feet above the plain. A stone-wall surrounded it at the top, and within this was a military school of a hundred boys from ten to twenty years of age.
Two columns of soldiers advanced to attack the fort from either side. Slowly they toiled up the rocky steep, up to the very cannon's mouths. Pillow, the leader of one column, when half way up, fell, terribly wounded by a Mexican shell. "Carry me up with you, boys," he begged, "that I may be there to see the victory." His soldiers carried him up amid the fire rained down upon them from the fort; and he did see a victory.
Reaching the top, quick as a flash the ladders are thrown against the walls, the men scramble over, pell-mell, helter-skelter, in order and out of order, and met the Mexicans hand-to-hand. In the midst of the blood-shed, fighting as hotly as the oldest warriors, were the hundred lion-hearted boys.
"They were pretty little fellows, and they fought like little soldiers, as they were," said an American officer in speaking of them after the war.
It was a cruel battle; but I am glad to say it was the last of the war. The next morning, General Scott rode into the city square and took possession. The Mexicans were glad enough to accept almost any terms of peace, after the battles in which they had been so terribly beaten.
It is said that after one of these terrible battles, the Mexican women gathered upon the bloody field, working through the long, dark night, comforting and aiding the wounded and dying, both American and Mexican. Brave, tender-hearted Mexic women! Many a dying soldier that night had reason to thank the women of a nation he had tried so hard that day to crush.
War may seem to you a very grand thing, my boys, when you see the soldiers marching along your street, dressed in their gold and silver bands and with their plumes waving so gaily in the breeze; but when you think of the heartache, the pain, the agony, the death that follows in every battle, no matter how grand and victorious your generals may have been—then war loses its brightness and its flash; and we have only the dark, black cloud of death to look upon.