Violence and racism in the U.S. Mexican War

In August 2009, I enrolled as a Ph.D. student at the University of Heidelberg. I intend to examine atrocities that were committed in the war between the United States and Mexico (1846–1848) 1, and argue that in this short period of time both parties were responsible for numerous atrocities. In both cases one example may suffice as an illustration. On the one hand, in February, 1847, a unit of some one hundred U.S. volunteer soldiers fell upon a large number of fleeing Mexican civilians and started scalping and killing them.  In addition, many of the present women were raped. At least 25 Mexicans died before other U.S. troops stopped the bloodbath (Chamberlain, 1996, 132–134); (Crawford, 1999, 69); (Yoder, 2006, 77–80). On the other hand, Mexicans committed acts of extreme violence, as well. An American soldier described the atrocious (allegedly daily practised) killing method of the enemy guerrilla in the following words: “Woe to the unfortunate [U.S.] soldier who straggled behind, lassoed, stripped naked, and dragged through clumps of Cactus, until his body was full of the needle like thorns, his privates cut off and crammed into his mouth, then left to die in the solitude of the Chapperal or to be eaten alive by vultures and Coyotes […]” (Chamberlain, 1996, 116) 2.

These atrocities are very rarely treated in historiography, and if they are, opinions such as the one following dominate: “The number of [Mexican] citizens who were beaten, robbed, or murdered [during the war with the U.S.] will never be known, but each such incident was a black mark on the record of the American army in Mexico. Still, however, this army was probably no worse than average with regard to such behavior in comparison with other nineteenth-century armies” (McCaffrey, 1992, 210). The purpose of the proposed project is to refute this point of view because there is evidence enough that especially the U.S. volunteers during the war committed so many atrocities that their quantity was sufficient “to make Heaven weep, & every American, of Christian morals blush for his country” (Johannsen, 1985, 35) 3. However, not only have these atrocities been overlooked, the war with Mexico itself does not play any major role in the U.S. public’s opinion 4. The same is true for Mexico. Despite this lack of interest, there are numerous, yet mainly outdated works on this topic, which is especially true for the U.S. historiography. But many works are highly subjective, do not match scientific standards, or simply depict things the wrong way. As far as the social and cultural contextualization of the war is concerned, to which the present work will make a major contribution, many gaps have yet not been filled. Thus, in 2007, a historian lamented: “The social history of the Mexican War remains to be written” (Hospodor, 2000, 149). On the Mexican side, a renowned scholar complained about the absence of an extensive depiction of the history of the war as early as in 1972. Yet, apart from those publications  that  merely  give  an  overview  of  the  war  and  those  which  are  regionally  limited,  scarcely anything has changed since 5 (Herrera, 1997); (Và zquez, 1989); (Và zquez-Meyer, 2002). Thus, an examination of the U.S.-Mexican war that includes both sides appears highly profitable per se.

In addition, Mexican atrocities have so far been completely ignored (Levinson, 2005) 6. Acts of extreme violence on part of U.S. Americans have been at best investigated superficially, and there is no monograph in which this aspect is examined in detail 7. Some authors allude to atrocities, but treat them only exemplarily and tangentially. One important monograph was written by Paul Foos (Foos, 2002). Yet, he took into account only “some situations” in which atrocities were committed 8. Furthermore, John Pinheiro’s dissertation on the anti-Catholic attitudes during that time is very helpful (Pinheiro, 2001, 130–216). However, he only considers religiously connoted acts of violence which, in addition, are not in his focus of attention. Randy Yoder’s Master’s thesis is the only study that intends to investigate atrocities exclusively (Yoder, 2006). Thus, it certainly is very helpful; however it merely considers several acts of violence committed by Texas Rangers and volunteers from Arkansas. Besides, Yoder, whose analysis cannot match the topic’s complexity due to its limited scale, for the most part summarizes the existing insufficient works, and omits the Mexican side completely. Consequently, there is no synopsis, comparison and assessment of the mutual acts of extreme violence. The intended dissertation aims at filling this gap. In doing so, it reveals important, currently concealed aspects of the U.S. expansion und the U.S.-Mexican war. Cultural factors such as Manifest Destiny, racism, anti-Catholicism, memories of the recent past, and stereotypes concerning race, class, and gender will for the first time be identified as being responsible for atrocities in the U.S.-Mexican War. Some authors assess several of these influences (de León, 2008); (Foos, 2002); (Horsman, 1981); (Johannsen, 1985); (Pinheiro, 2001); (Weber, 1979); (Yoder, 2006), but fail to relate them to the high level of extreme violence. Apart from that, the project represents an important addition in the field of research of historical violence 9, whose present findings will be tested and expanded due to cases of excessive violence that have yet not been taken into account. The dissertation is of particular importance since it knits together numerous factors that have been identified as relevant in many analyses of cases of mass violence. In using a multi-causal approach that takes into consideration structural, situational, and especially cultural factors, tribute will be paid to the complexity of factors that cause the emergence of atrocities. Thus, a restriction to mono-causal explanations will be avoided. My dissertation advances the following theses:

  1. In the U.S.-Mexican war both sides committed numerous atrocities, far more than usual in international wars of that time.
  2. U.S. Americans committed more acts of illegitimate extreme violence than Mexicans.
  3. Many U.S. Americans were obsessed with the ideology of Manifest Destiny 10 and therefore were convinced to be chosen by God and to be far superior to other ethnic groups. This attitude must be considered as a form of racism 11 that was (complemented by the absence of a similar  ideology on the Mexican side) jointly responsible for the Americans’ higher inclination towards atrocities. Therefore, this dissertation considers ideology to be a relevant driving force in cases of extreme violence, but integrates it into the context of further components since a reduction on the factor of ideology cannot suffice as an explanation. Since atrocities on the part of Mexicans will also be examined, it is possible to draw a comparison with the Americans’ acts of extreme violence and to verify the assumption of Manifest Destiny’s joint responsibility for atrocities.
  4. For the examination of any act of extreme violence, several central causes have to be taken into consideration. These include not only situational and structural factors (e.g. personal war experiences or the military frame of reference) but also “race”, gender, class, stereotypes, religion and memories of the recent past. Strangeness is a factor that is closely linked to these forces and also heavily related to ideology. The stranger the enemy is perceived, the easier it is to overcome one’s inhibitions to commit atrocities. Extreme acts of violence can only be fully understood and explained through this complex net of factors.

In order to verify these hypotheses, the dissertation will examine acts of extreme, illegitimate violence against the civilian population, the defenceless and against captured combatants and partisans.

The types of wartime atrocities, that will be analyzed, range from massacres (Sémelin, 2007, 15) 12, (mass) murders, physical violence, torture, raping and looting to acts of violence which have a religious connotation. In the 1840s, laws of war that were internationally binding did not exist, but there was no predominance of the principle of nullum crimen sine lege either: not only did the public opinion disapprove of atrocities (Karsten, 1978, 3); (Buß, 1992, 54–60); (Karr, 1998, 879) 13, these were also prohibited by Field Order 20 that was issued by the commander-in-chief of the U.S. troops in Mexico. This decree, which may serve as a further proof of the high number of atrocities, explicitly sanctioned “murder”, “rape”, “robbery” and “the wanton desecration of churches” and, in addition, ordered the establishment of courts martial that were supposed to punish these and other crimes (Winthrop, 1920, 832) 14.

Methodologically, my project takes up analytical approaches of the extensive literature on historical research on violence and involves insights originating from social psychology, anthropology and cultural studies. My Ph.D. thesis intends to capture, as far as possible, the quantitative extent of the acts of extreme violence. At the same time, it will, by means of “thick description”, analyse selected model cases that are supposed to support the assumptions aforementioned 15.

Of both sides, the U.S. as well as the Mexican, the dissertation makes use of newspaper articles, diaries, letters,  memoirs,  political  speeches,  leaflets,  military  and  diplomatic  notes  and  addresses,  court records and other source material. There is a huge number of promising materials which have not yet been examined in general; not to mention from the approach as outlined here in particular. Thus, numerous sources are, for the first time, to be used for scientific research. Many participants of the war published memoirs or diaries. Newspapers frequently printed reports of correspondents, soldiers and travellers. These sources are especially useful because of being contemporary and being based on first hand experiences. Last but not least, it is indispensable to examine military records, correspondences, statistics, and similar documents. Records that concern low- and high-ranking soldiers are to be examined, as well as dossiers that were compiled for the government, and records of courts martial. Only in doing so, it can be found out how common atrocities were, how the soldiers experienced them and reported on them, furthermore, if their commanders took preventive or disciplinary measures, as well as if and in which way atrocities were depicted at the official level.


  1. For the causes of the war see (Francaviglia-Richmond Douglas, 2000), (Ruiz, 1963). The best overall depictions remain (Smith, 1919); (Bauer, 1992); (Eisenhower, 2000). However, these works are mostly outdated and lack objectivity.
  2. The quote reproduces the source’s orthographical peculiarities.
  3. The statement was made by General Winfield Scott about General Zachary Taylor’s troops.
  4. Even the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo of 1848, which put the war to an end and secured a huge area of land for the U.S., was, with the exception of a few small exhibitions, neglected (Engstrand-del Castillo- Poniatowska, 1998); (Acuña, 2000); (Van Wagenen, 2009). The general public’s lack of interest in this topic is also indicated by the nearly total absence of Hollywood movies about the war.
  5. In German, there is only one single slim monograph (Solka, 1997) that deals directly with the war, while the studies on its evolution are limited to Frieling and Reichstein, (Frieling, 2008); (Reichstein, 1984).
  6. Levinson emphasizes the importance of the guerrillas and suspects (Appendix A) that they killed a large part of the 2,800 U.S. soldiers whose cause of death is unknown. Yet, he completely ignores atrocities.
  7. U.S. Americans are not the only ones that find it difficult to admit atrocities of their soldiers. Cf. the discussions in Germany about an exhibition on war crimes of the Wehrmacht (Bald-Klotz-Wette, 2006); (Thiele-Günther), 1997.
  8. Foos calls the atrocities a “hidden dirty war” and recognizes their connection to Manifest Destiny but who, nevertheless, treats them rather superficially (Foos, 2010, 113–139).
  9. This discipline is supposed to incorporate theories, models, methodologies and results of all the historical researches that deal with violence (Schumann, 1997, 366–386).
  10. The “invention” of this expression is often attributed to John O’ Sullivan. See: [Anonymous:] Annexation (Greenberg, 2005, 225–228). As from 1845, the term got very popular. It reflected the zeitgeist and the  convictions  of  many  Americans  that  ascribed  to  themselves  a  divine  sense  of  mission  that  both  justified  and  pushed ahead their expansion. This ideology can be traced back to the early times of colonization and was also relevant in relation towards African and Native Americans. (Junker, 2003, 18f); (Johannsen, 1985, 49–51); (Weinberg, 1935, 1f); (Horsman, 1981, 116–138, 189–207); (Spillmann, 2007, 29–51); (Takaki, 1990, 5–15, 63–65).
  11. Sémelin understands those as the “mostly collective form of the destruction of non-combatants”.
  12. Sémelin understands those as the “mostly collective form of the destruction of non-combatants”.
  13. In 1806, Congress imposed a binding code of practice for U.S. servicemen: “An Act for establishing Rules [”¦].” The disapproval of wartime atrocities led to the Lieber’s Code in 1863 (Schindler, 1981, IX 3–23); (Vönecky, 2002, 424–460).
  14. In addition, military commanders issued numerous instructions on the spot (Smith, 1968, 391–393). In order to get to know the combatants’ normative frame of reference, several other military manuals will be examined, too. (Cooling, 1979); (Halleck, 1861); (Ney, 1966); (Winthrop, 1920). The Mexican side will also be taken into account.
  15. (Geertz, 2009, 7–43);  (Gailus, 1990), may serve as a guiding principle for such a synthesis.