A Brief History of Los Cabos, Part VII: The Mexican–American War
The middle decades of the 19th century were a time of intense conflict in Baja California, not only with the United States government, whose army and navy invaded during the Mexican–American War, but also with many U.S. citizens, who saw the sparsely populated peninsula as an attractive target for filibustering expeditions and get-rich-quick schemes.
The Mexican–American War proved a disaster for México, and over a century and half later its disposition–in which approximately half of the country’s territory was lost–still evokes bitter feelings from Mexicans. From the U.S. perspective, it was purely a war of conquest. This was the era of manifest destiny, a term coined by newspaper writer John L. O’Sullivan in an article on the annexation of Texas published in The New York Morning News in late 1845. “That claim (Texas),” O’Sullivan wrote, “is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty.”
The annexation of Texas, a republic that had established its independence from México nearly a decade earlier, was ostensibly the cause of the war. But the most valuable property, as far as U.S. President James K. Polk was concerned, was Alta California. The U.S. had already made several earnest attempts to buy the territory, at one point offering 40 million dollars. California was likewise eagerly sought by the British, and the U.S. was also engaged in a dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon territory. Expansion from sea to sea suddenly seemed possible for the U.S.
México, for its part, never admitted the independence of Texas, despite the fact that its former and future president Antonio López de Santa Anna had sanctioned it by signing the Treaties of Velasco in 1836. The Mexican government claimed the treaties were worthless due to coercion–Santa Anna had signed only after being captured in the Battle of San Jacinto–and roundly rejected the U.S. assertion that the border was at the Rio Grande, unofficially acknowledging that it was at the Rio Nueces. This disputed Nueces Strip was thus used by Polk as a provocation for what future Civil War hero and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant would later call “the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
Plagued by more than two decades of political instability and insolvency following its independence from Spain, México was ill-prepared for a showdown with the U.S. The country had five separate presidents in 1846 alone. But after its leaders declared that the annexation of Texas would be viewed as an act of war, armed conflict was virtually inevitable.
Polk, seeing a chance to further his expansionist aims without appearing to be the aggressor, sent troops under General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Nueces in July 1845. When the Mexican military refused to take the bait, Taylor advanced to the Rio Grande, establishing Fort Texas in March 1846. On May 3, a little over a week after the Thornton Affair, in which Mexican cavalry engaged a U.S. patrol in the disputed area, forces under General Mariano Arista attacked Fort Texas.
The U.S. Congress passed a declaration of war on May 13, 1846. Mexican President Mariano Paredes issued his own manifesto ten days later, with a congressional declaration following on July 7, 1846. The war had officially begun.
“Considering the marked asymmetry between the two nations,” notes Josefina Zoraida Vázquez in The Oxford History of Mexico, “the conclusion was predictable. The two countries had a similar amount of territory, but the United States had already reached a population of 20 million inhabitants, whereas México had only recently exceeded the 7 million mark. México’s bankruptcy and stagnant marketplace contrasted with its neighbor’s dynamic economy. Although both nations suffered from political divisions and factionalism, expansionism tended to neutralize these divisions in the United States but cripple México.
“The contrast between the two armies was even more pronounced. Small for the size of its country, the Mexican military lacked both a professional officer corps and discipline in the ranks. The army was also much in need of resources, provisions, arms, medicines and horses. Lacking proper quartermaster and health services, the soldiers were fed and cared for by their women, who followed the troops, often with children, limiting the troops’ mobility. The army had to cope with antiquated short-range artillery and limited ammunition that did not always match the weapons. There was a chronic shortage of volunteers, especially in the north, where men preferred to stay home and protect their families from Indian attacks. Because of the shortage of ammunition, the volunteers available often fired a rifle for the first time when in battle. The lack of services led the wounded to be abandoned, and facing defeat after defeat caused depression to set in among the troops.
“The U.S. troops, in contrast, relied upon a professional officers corps and thousands of volunteers. They had abundant resources, modern weaponry, and the most advanced artillery. The commanders could order various armies and fleets to attack simultaneously. Moreover, volunteers were trained and replaced constantly. Victory on the battlefield and the booty that followed promoted their enthusiasm.”
The speed with which the U.S. advanced through México belied the hard-fought nature of the battles, and the Mexican–American War served as a potent advertisement for the emergent sea power of the U.S. Navy, which not only swept clean the Gulf of Mexico, but effectively blockaded much of California and the Pacific Coast. Less than a year after the onset of hostilities, in March 1847, General Winfield Scott commanded what was then the largest amphibious landing in U.S. history at Veracruz. Six months later, in September, his forces occupied Mexico City. All subsequent action was essentially anticlimactic, and had little bearing on anything but the terms of peace.
Interestingly, the battles fought on the Baja California peninsula all took place after the fall of the country’s capital. But even if these engagements had little to do with the ultimate conclusion of the war–and many books on the history of the conflict omit this sphere of operations entirely–they had a profound impact on the future of the peninsula, and remain a source of pride for the descendants of the participants. Although their territory was considered little more than a backwater by the federal government, many residents of what is now Baja California Sur fought fiercely for México, and did so long after most of the country had been subdued. They kept fighting even after a truce was reached between the U.S. and México, and the final skirmish at Todos Santos took place three weeks after the U.S. Congress had ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The U.S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron was patrolling the California coast prior to the outbreak of war, in readiness for a race with the British to occupy key ports. U.S. Commodore John D. Sloat received word first, and his fleet quickly secured Monterey, San Francisco and San Diego in Alta California in July 1846. By September 1846, U.S. ships had arrived in La Paz, and occupying forces were being installed in both La Paz and Ensenada.
The U.S. strategy was the same in both Alta and Baja California: establish a blockade, cut communications and supply lines with the Mexican mainland, urge neutrality on the citizens, and promote the benefits of future U.S. citizenship. Colonel Francisco Palacio Miranda, jefe politico of Baja California, surprisingly acceded to U.S. demands for neutrality, confounding his constituents, the vast majority of which were ardent patriots.
As a consequence of this treason, a territorial deputation met in February 1847 in Santa Anita, on the outskirts of San José del Cabo, and named Mauricio Castro Cota as acting jefe politico. A native son of San José del Cabo, Castro agreed to organize resistance against the invaders, which had already emerged in San Antonio (which would be home to the provisional government), and under guerrilla leaders like Padres Vicente Sotomayor of San Ignacio, and Gabriel González of Todos Santos (Dominican missionaries who fought for both God and country). Castro was soon helped in this endeavor by Captain Manuel Pineda Muñoz, who arrived from Sonora in September of that year with additional arms and a mandate to take command of peninsular forces.
Pineda was no stranger to Baja California, having served for many years at the presidio in Loreto, and he wasted no time in signaling a sharp break with the neutral stance of the former regime. In response to a warning from the U.S. ships Dale and Liberty, which had arrived in Mulegé on the first of October following reports of military activity, Pineda replied: “This Headquarters of the Command will do just the opposite (of neutrality). It will preserve every communication with the Mexican government, even if the whole fleet of the United States wants to stop it. This command with the valiant soldiers that it has at its orders will defend and protect itself until the last drop of blood is shed.”
The U.S. reply to Pineda’s bravado was a barrage of artillery and a landing party of some 60 men. The Mexicans withstood the former and repulsed the latter, news of which quickly galvanized resistance throughout the region. Citizens of San José del Cabo, hearing of what had happened in Mulegé, jubilantly tore down the foreign flag and expelled American citizens, drawing the attention of U.S. Commodore William B. Shubrick.
While Shubrick was installing a detachment of 24 men and a cannonade under the command of Lt. Charles Heywood in San José, Pineda was assimilating guerilla forces from Mulegé, Comondú, San Ignacio, San Antonio and Todos Santos. Pineda’s primary plan was to attack La Paz, which housed the heart of the invading force: Lt. Col. Henry Burton’s Seventh Regiment of New York Volunteers. The secondary and supporting objective was an attack on San José del Cabo. For the latter detail, Pineda assigned some 150 men under José Matías Moreno, Vicente Mejía and a former naval officer named José Antonio Mijares.
The meat of the Seventh Regiment was barricaded in the main plaza of La Paz, which Pineda and his men –estimates range from 180 to 300–surprised in the early morning hours of November 16, 1847. They would engage the enemy on three separate occasions that day, and again upon the following morning before being obliged to retreat.
Meanwhile, in San José, Mijares was asking Lt. Heywood to surrender his position, which consisted predominantly of the old mission church, with local partisans of the U.S. side holed up in a house owned by the Mouet family. Heywood refused, and in the early evening of November 20, after an aborted attempt the previous evening, the Mexicans surged forward in a concentrated attack on the enemy. Mijares, advancing from the most vulnerable angle, was fatally wounded and died the next day. His fellow soldiers then withdrew after two Yankee whaling ships, Edward and Magnolia, provided much needed shore support for the beleaguered invaders. Soon afterward, Shubrick sent two more ships with 46 additional men and increased artillery, and the Battle of San José del Cabo was over. The siege, however, was yet to come.
Pineda and his guerrilla army, reinforced by the returning contingent from San José, attacked La Paz again on November 27, laying siege to the capital for the next twelve days. On December 7, with this siege still hotly debated, U.S. President James K. Polk told Congress that the U.S. was in undisputed control of the Californias: “I am satisfied,” he said, “that they should never be surrendered to México.”
A month later the Bajacalifornios–who had regrouped in San Antonio after U.S. naval support stifled their efforts in La Paz–marched to the outskirts of San José in preparation for yet another siege, this one a three-week confrontation between increasingly belligerent forces.
While negotiators argued over the treaty in Mexico City, Pineda, Castro and their guerrilla army were still bitterly fighting for the freedom of their homeland. Slowly, by dint of daily attacks, Pineda’s men assumed a dominant position. They cut off the supplies of the invaders, and took control of everything but the military barracks, which was housed in the mission church. Almost certainly they would have starved their enemies into surrender had it not been for the fortuitous–from the American perspective–arrival of the U.S. sloop Cyane, which dropped anchor in the bay on February 14, 1848. The following day, Capt. Samuel F. Dupont came ashore with 100 men, and the tide of resistance was finally rolled back.
Mijares part in the Mexican–American War has since passed into legend, but living reminders abound. The broad central boulevard in San José del Cabo is named in his honor, and a monument–the centerpiece of the city’s Jardín de los Cabeños Ilustres–has been erected on the spot where he fell. His likeness now graces the municipality’s official seal. Castro and Pineda too are remembered for their heroic deeds. Castro has an entire neighborhood named for him in San José del Cabo, as well as a bust next to Mijares’ monument. Calle Capitán Manuel Pineda is located in the El Arenal colonia of Cabo San Lucas.
Castro’s famous words–“These people want to exterminate the enemy or bury themselves in their own ruins rather than be dominated by foreigners”–and the actions of he and his faithful followers illustrate why only one of the Californias was ceded to the U.S.
The few who had supported the invaders, rightfully fearful of their patriotic neighbors, begged o be taken to the now U.S. owned Alta California, which they eventually were aboard the transport ship Ohio. Among the 300 who entered voluntary exile were disgraced ex-jefe politico Francisco Palacio Miranda and Miguel Choza, the port official that had given sanctuary to the Japanese castaway Hatsutarō in 1842.