Santa Anna’s Invitation to American Soldiers
I recently discovered an interesting document in our archival collections, and in conducting research about the context in which it was created I learned something new and fascinating about the Mexican War (1846-1848).
The document is an English-language broadside issued by Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – who regained and lost power several times following his surrender at San Jacinto in 1836 – on August 15, 1847. In it, the Mexican leader urges American soldiers to desert the United States army and promises them a reward of “rich fields and large tracts of land, which being cultivated by your industry, shall crown you with happiness and convenience.” Santa Anna penned this broadside from El Peñon, a high hill approximately seven miles east-southeast of the center of Mexico City. His troops faced Gen. Winfield Scott’s army, which had reached the outskirts of Mexico City; within a month U.S. troops entered the capital and raised the American flag over the National Palace. The capture of Mexico City marked the end of the major military operations of the war, although politicians and diplomats negotiated until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848.
Santa Anna’s leaflet was part of a larger propaganda mechanism during the Mexican War that endeavored to promote desertion among American forces. According to historian Robert Ryal Miller in Shamrock and Sword, several reasons drove men to desert from the army, including “brutal military discipline, which seemed unjust to some soldiers; hatred of military life or unsuitability for it; sickness and disease, which may have disoriented some men; harassment or discrimination against foreign-born soldiers by their native-born officers; religious sentiments and ideological beliefs; the lure of women; and drunkenness, which sometimes led to their capture by the enemy” (150). As demonstrated in the above handbill, Santa Anna further encouraged American soldiers to desert by promising enticements of cash prizes, rank promotions, and land bonuses.
Other propaganda pieces employed different strategies to encourage desertion. For example, a supplement to Santa Anna’s broadside of April 1847 – published in the Mexican newspaper Diario del Gobierno on September 10, 1847, and reprinted in the New York Herald on October 17 of that same year – targeted Irish Catholic soldiers:
Irishmen! Listen to the words of your brothers, hear the accents of a Catholic people…Is religion no longer the strongest of human bonds?…Can you fight by the side of those who put fire to your temples in Boston and Philadelphia? Did you witness such dreadful crimes and sacrileges without making a solemn vow to our Lord? If you are Catholic, the same as we, if you follow the doctrines of Our Saviour, why are you seen sword in hand murdering your brethren? Why are you antagonistic to those who defend their country and your own God?
Are Catholic Irishmen to be the destroyers of Catholic temples, the murderers of Catholic priests, and the founders of heretical rites in this pious nation?…
Come over to us; you will be received under the laws of that truly Christian hospitality and good faith which Irish guests are entitled to expect and obtain from a Catholic nation…
May Mexicans and Irishmen, united by the sacred tie of religion and benevolence, form only one people!
Using Catholicism to realign and redefine Irish soldiers’ allegiance made sense given that, according to Richard Bruce Winders in Mr. Polk’s Army, “one former enlisted man estimated that, during the 1830s, two-thirds of the soldiers” in the American army were foreign-born, specifically in countries such as Germany, Ireland, and Great Britain (60). Moreover, foreign-born soldiers faced bullying in the army due to their nationality and religion, circumstances that mirrored rising nativist sentiments in the United States more broadly. Indeed, approximately 39 percent of the soldiers in the famous San Patricio battalion were born in Ireland and 13 percent were natives of Germany (21 percent were born in the United States).
From the point of view of American government officials and military commanders, desertion was a significant problem. Various historians calculate different desertion rates ranging from under 7 percent to 8.3 percent of a total American force ranging from approximately 112,000 to 116,000 soldiers. On one hand, this was a marked improvement over desertion rates in the peacetime army prior to the Mexican War, which some years reached twenty percent. Historian James M. McCaffrey also asserts that George Washington “lost as many as one-fourth of his army through desertion, and during the Civil War losses were correspondingly high” (110-111). On the other hand, historian Robert Ryal Miller asserts that desertion rates in the Mexican War were high compared to America’s other foreign wars, namely the Spanish-American War (1.6 percent), World War I (1.3 percent), World War II (5.3 percent), the Korean War (1.9 percent), and the Vietnam War (4.1 percent) (174).
References and further reading:
The United States and Mexico at War (encyclopedia) edited by Donald S. Frazier
Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War, 1846-1848 by James M. McCaffrey
Shamrock and Sword: The Saint Patrick’s Battalion in the U.S.-Mexican War by Robert Ryal Miller
Crisis in the Southwest: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle Over Texas by Richard Bruce Winders
Mr. Polk’s Army: The American Military Experience in the Mexican War by Richard Bruce Winders