Dec. 11, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park – After slipping through the nefarious clutches of Santo Clos and the Navidad cartel, we escaped Laredo under cover of darkness and wound our way south along the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo del Norte on U.S. 83 until we put in at a WalMart in Mission, Texas, deep in the heart of citrus country.
Along the way, we passed a cemetery aglow with Christmas lights. As a roadside sight, it was curious enough to pique our interest, and we made a U-turn and pulled alongside the graveyard. I took photographs, with little success, and was startled to hear a disembodied female voice issue a garbled admonishment. Likely it was a security guard watching me on video, but I was spooked and scurried back to the behemoth. I mean, it could’ve been a lost soul crying out from another world, imploring me to leave her the hell alone. Or else.
I assumed it was an old Mexican custom, a ghoulish but spirited veneration of ancestors at Christmastime. I found nothing on the Interwebs describing it as such. Decorating graves with candles at Christmas is a popular Finnish tradition, it turns out, and in some places in England the custom of decorating graves with wreaths survives. In Sweden, they love to watch Donald Duck cartoons on Christmas Eve, but that’s another story.
We spent the night in Mission. The heat was so stifling we slept without covers for the first time. We kept the door ajar during dinner, and left the windows cracked all night to keep the perspiration to a minimum.
When we awoke, the wind was howling with a worrisome fury. The sky grew dark and the behemoth shuddered. I couldn’t help but wonder if a tornado would pick us up and hurl us all the way to McAllen, or if it would simply smash the camper to bits and reduce us to ashes.
There was no tornado, thankfully, and we celebrated our continued residence on the planet with a desultory day in Mission. I struggled writing words, moving from McDonald’s to Taco Palenque (wifi, kids playground, dollar tacos, 99-cent margaritas, worse than they sound) and Starbucks with little to show. As night encroached we picked up and headed toward Brownsville. I slept most of the way. We got lost upon arrival, and Becky drove around for an hour before we found a Walmart. There were no RVs in the lot, which is never a good sign.
Sure enough, a security guard drove up, exited his vehicle and approached the camper. He held us with a stern gaze and asked if we planned to stay the night.
It was a trap. We said yes. He said no, you can’t. And so we were off again, vagabonds in extreme south Texas, looking for a home for the night. We drove north to San Benito, couldn’t find the store as it was drawn up on Google maps, then doubled back on 83, pulled off at a rest area and called it a night. It’s always good when fate forces you to stay someplace other than Walmart.
In the morning, we drive south again and make our way to Palo Alto National Battlefield, nine miles due north of Brownsville.
And so our twisting, halting tour of the border country ends here on the desert prairie of Palo Alto, where, at least symbolically, much of it all began. Here on May 8, 1846, We the People initiated our first genuine war of aggression, expansion and conquest.
When the Mexican-American War ended and a the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed nearly two years later, we had doubled our land mass and halved Mexico’s at the same time.
National Park Service Ranger Karen Weaver, who has worked hereabouts for 17 years, estimates 90 percent of Americans have no clue about Palo Alto’s significance. From Manassas to Appomattox, from Gettysburg to Vicksburg, the Civil War remains a tourist bonanza 148 years after the fighting stopped. It’s not so easy to provoke interest into our little confrontation with Mexico.
“What do they teach in school?” she says. “They teach the Louisiana Purchase, and the War of 1812, and then they skip right to the Civil War. Hello! Where did all that other land come
Yeah. Good question. We’ve driven more than 3,000 miles through the stunning landscapes of Old Mexico, from northern California to Nevada and back through southern California to Hermosa Beach and then east into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. We’ve had our minds bent and uplifted by the natural wonders of the Sierra Nevada, the California coastline, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Big Bend National Park.
Every inch of it was part of Mexico when dawn broke over Palo Alto on 8 May, 1846. I suppose you could argue Big Bend, what with all the blood spilled at the Alamo and Goliad et. al which ended in the spring of 1836 with the humiliation of Santa Anna at San Jacinto and the subsequent establishment of the Republic of Texas.
And credit to the staff at the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park (where Max annexed ranger badge No. 3) for putting together a refreshingly ambivalent retelling of events. If Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity ever stumbled into this place, there’d be a 24-hour outbreak of gone-apeshit apoplexy on the fair-and-balanced screens of Fox News.
I mean, the effrontery. Check this out:
I’m amazed by those ironical quotation marks cloaking “uniquely American.” I tell you, old Bill would unspool himself in a jeremiad that would not stop until every employee of Palo Alto National Historic Battlefield, including the kid who cleans the bathrooms on weekends, was accused of sedition. Then he would pause for effect and, with sardonic grin and wistful nod, explain this is the sort of politically correct garbage you get when you leave our history in the hands of big-government apparatchiks.
It’s right there on display for visitors to contemplate: the Grand Canyon, Colorado Rockies, Highway 1 in California, the Sonoran cacti of Arizona and red-rock arches Utah. All godamned ineffable. And all once Mexico.
(Of course, all of the whole continent from sea to shining sea was inhabited by indigenous folk until the galleons and pilgrim ships arrived from good old Europe. But that’s, as they say, a whole other story.)
I confess my surprise at such candor and make special note of the “uniquely American” usage.
“Uniquely Mexican,” Weaver says with a wan smile.
It’s cold out here. A lonesome wind blows across the scrub-grass prairie. I hunch my shoulders and shudder. I try to imagine 1846. I fail.
Max and Becky were here a while ago. Max identified javelina and bobcat pawprints on the paved walkway and boned up on Palo Alto particulars in an effort to satisfy junior ranger requirements. Now they’ve gone inside to get warm.
The breeze gains in intensity and bends the green, red and white flags along the Mexican line of 8 May, 1846, toward home. They stood here with their backs to the Rio Grande, facing an enemy with superior firepower.
Home. It’s a confounding notion in the simplest of times. Here, halfway along the road from Point Isabel to Matamoras, it was tangled in a messy web of historic conjecture and diplomatic intrigue.
Where was home for American and Mexican troops in May of 1846? That was the very seed of contention and pretext for war. Texas rebelled in 1835, and was annexed by the U.S. in 1845. Mexico had never recognized her independence and considered Texas a renegade state.
The lead-up to the Mexican war is complex and fraught with all sorts of intricacies that I cannot parse in any competent way. Certainly slavery, outlawed in the Mexican constitution of 1824, lurks in the background as a critical impetus in both the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War.
The unresolved border dispute provided the war’s immediate spark. Mexico had always viewed the Nueces River as Texas’ western (and southern) border. Texas claimed the Rio Grande and cited the Treaties of Velasco, which were little more than quickly drawn-up terms and signed by prisoner of war Santa Anna in 1836. Mexico never recognized them.
Late in 1845, President James K. Polk sent secret envoy John Slidell to Mexico City with an offer to pay $25 million to officially establish the Rio Grande border and acquire the Mexican states of New Mexico and California. Mexico wasn’t down.
In April, a U.S. patrol under Capt. Seth Thornton engaged a larger Mexican force 20 miles northwest of Matamoras, deep in the disputed territory. Eleven U.S. soldiers died, and Polk seized upon this skirmish, claiming Mexico had “shed blood on American soil.” He asked Congress for a declaration of war.
But in reality, with the full tide of Manifest Destiny sweeping him along, Polk had been preparing for war since Congress voted to annex Texas as a slave state in late February 1845, just days before his inauguration. Mexico soon broke off diplomatic relations. It was only a matter of time and circumstance.
Nowadays, the mesquite and prickly pear have won the day here, roaming wild over a sparse landscape once dominated by cord grass that came to a point so sharp 2nd Lieutenant Ulysses Grant compared it to a darning needle.
Grant remains one of America’s most acerbic critics of the Mexican war. He was a 24-year-old second lieutenant on 8 May, 1846, when Zachary Taylor’s force, 2,400 strong, on the march from Point Isabel to provide support to the besieged fort hastily constructed across the river from Matamoras, ran into Gen. Mariano Arista’s force of 3,200.
“I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war … as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
If Mexico wasn’t exactly on the side of the angels, Polk’s justification for war remains shadowy as George W. Bush’s pretexts for the Iraq invasion.
Most influential Americans saw this as a matter of due course, aka Manifest Destiny. Waddy Thompson Jr., a former U.S. Representative from South Carolina who served as envoy to Mexico from 1842-44, hastily published his “Recollections of Mexico” in 1846 to capitalize on current events. Thompson offered this inelegant but typical view of Manifest Destiny:
“That our language and laws are destined to pervade this continent, I regard as more certain than any other event that is in the future. Our race has never yet put its foot upon a soil which it has not only not kept, but has advanced.”
Not everyone was on board, of course. Abraham Lincoln, a freshman member of the House of Representatives representing the Whig Party, was a notable dissenter. In a letter to Rev. J.M. Peck in May 1848, Lincoln rejected the notion that the land beyond the Nueces was anything other than Mexican:
“It is a fact that the United States army in marching to the Rio Grande marched into a peaceful Mexican settlement, and frightened the inhabitants away from their homes and their growing crops. It is a fact that Fort Brown, opposite Matamoras, was built by that army within a Mexican cotton-field, on which at the time the army reached it a young cotton crop was growing, and which crop was wholly destroyed and the field itself greatly and permanently injured by ditches, embankments, and the like.”
Earlier that year, in a letter to William Herndon, his law partner and future biographer, Lincoln flatly asserted “That soil was not ours.”
His words, as they often do, remain instructive today, particularly as our Kenyan-Muslim-socialist president asserts the right to take out American citizens and foreigners alike with robot-controlled aircraft and refuses to justify such killings with, you know, reference to something like the Constitution. All we need know is they are necessary to safeguard our freedoms. It is not for us to see the threat, we only need to accept it is out there.
“Allow the President,” Lincoln wrote, “to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him,–“I see no probability of the British invading us”; but he will say to you, ‘Be silent: I see it, if you don’t.’ The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object.”
The battle itself was nothing out extraordinary. Arista hoped to lure Taylor into a frontal assault on his lines and then unleash his cavalry to roll up the American flanks. The U.S.’s overwhelming artillery advantage never let them get close. The Mexicans were flayed and dismembered by 18-inch cannons and exploding shells and outmaneuvered by Samuel Ringgold’s “Flying Artillery.”
Not that there wasn’t some good, old-fashioned mayhem, even for the home team. Grant described some of the horror he saw in his wonderfully deadpan prose style.
“One cannon ball passed through our ranks, not far from me. It took the head off an enlisted man, and the underjaw of Captain Page … while the splinters of the musket of the killed soldier, and his brains and bones, knocked down two or three other.”
The next day Taylor consolidated the victory five miles south at Resaca de la Palma, and the inexorable march to Mexico City was in full swing.
Now it’s 167 years later, and we find ourselves blessed with national parks all over Old Mexico. From Big Bend to Yosemite, they are idylls that beckon tourists from the world over. It’s a big, beautiful country out there, wherever it came from. You should go see it sometime.
The narrative has come full circle, out here in the computerized wilds of the 21st century. Paranoid wingnuts in the mold of Michelle Malkin rave about the horror of the borderlands. They have been, she writes, a “bloody joke for decades.” I suppose we are experiencing Santa Anna’s Revenge.
If the chickens are coming home to roost, who can blame them?
Inasmuch as there really is a dire problem on the border (and having traveled unmolested over more than 1,500 miles of it with a 5-year-old child in tow, and having been subjected to a half-dozen or more border patrol stops, I can’t tell you anything about the horror), we are being hoisted with our own petard. That petard sat unexploded in the fields of Old Mexico for more than a century.
We’ll lean on Faulkner one more time: The past isn’t dead. It ain’t even past. May 8, 1846, was, historically speaking, yesterday. Today we reap the consequences of yesterday.
Speaking of which, we’ll give the last word to Grant, who viewed the national tragedy of 1861-65 as our comeuppance for our misdeeds of 1846-48:
“The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. we got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”