Mexico The Wars of Independence, 1810-21
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
According to one historical account, the struggle for independence involved four phases of military operations. In the first phase, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a parish priest, formed the precursor of the first independent Mexican military force when he issued the now-famous Grito de Dolores on September 16, 1810, calling for an end to Spanish rule (see Wars of Independence, 1810-21, ch. 1). Hidalgo led a poorly armed force of native and mestizo peasants in disorganized attacks on Spanish-controlled towns and villages throughout central Mexico. The second phase began after Hidalgo's capture and execution in 1811, when Father José María Morelos y Pavón assumed leadership of the independence movement. Morelos led guerrilla-style operations at the head of a small army equipped with weapons captured from the Spanish. He was able to establish an independent republic from central Mexico to the Pacific coast and to encircle Mexico City by early 1813. The third phase, following Morelos's capture and execution in 1815, consisted of attacks by uncoordinated rebel bands led by guerrilla chieftains--among them Guadalupe (Manuel Félix Fernández) Victoria and Vicente Guerrero, both of whom later became presidents. Their operations further undermined Spanish control.
The final phase of the independence struggle began in 1821, when a loyalist officer, Augustín de Iturbide, revolted against his superiors and formed a tenuous military alliance with Guerrero. The temporary establishment of a liberal monarchy in Spain had provoked many Mexican conservatives like Iturbide to switch their sympathies to the revolutionaries. Iturbide's Army of the Three Guarantees, composed of approximately 16,000 men, quickly succeeded in routing those of the regular Spanish forces who resisted (see Iturbide and the Plan of Iguala, ch. 1). Full independence in 1821 was followed by the 1822 coronation of Iturbide as the "constitutional emperor" of Mexico. The revolutionary force became the first standing Mexican military body. Known as the Mexican Imperial Army, it was almost an exact copy of the Spanish colonial militia. Its officers were of direct Spanish descent, but the rank and file were mainly peasants recruited by raids on villages in the mountains and brought down in chains to the cities. The desertion rate was high among these "recruits," who remained ill-trained and poorly equipped for military action.
For the first thirty years following independence, military officers dominated the country's chaotic political life (see Empire and the Early Republic, 1821-55, ch. 1). Repeatedly, groups of generals led by a caudillo issued "pronouncements" (pronunciamientos ) denouncing the government and promising reform and rewards for those who would join their revolt. One of the most vilified and cunning of the military caudillos was General Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón, who led the first revolt against Iturbide and, between 1833 and 1855, served as president on eleven different occasions.
War with the United States, 1846
In spite of his military talents, Santa Anna is most remembered for his defeats that led to the cession of roughly one-half of Mexican territory to the United States under the 1848 peace settlement (see Centralism and the Caudillo State, 1836-55, ch. 1). After Texas declared its independence in 1836, Texan forces initially suffered a series of military reverses that culminated in the disaster at the Alamo in San Antonio. But later, bolstered by volunteer fighters from throughout the United States, they soundly defeated the Mexicans and captured Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. After nine years of independence (unrecognized by Mexico), Texas was admitted to the United States in 1845. The next year, the administration of President James K. Polk, eager to fulfill the United States claim to "manifest destiny," found a pretext to declare war on Mexico. After occupying Santa Fe without a struggle, United States forces under General Stephen Kearney advanced west to present-day California, while forces under Alexander Doniplan occupied Chihuahua. Another United States force under General Zachary Taylor defeated Santa Anna's army at the Battle of Buena Vista near Monterrey. The decisive battles, however, were waged by General Winfield Scott's 15,000-man Army of Occupation after it opened another front by landing at Veracruz. Scott's army continued toward the Mexican capital, winning a series of engagements with Santa Anna, who had assumed the Mexican presidency. United States forces took Mexico City after a three-week siege that culminated in the decisive Battle of Chapultepec. By Mexican accounts, some 1,100 Mexican troops and cadets fought in hand-to-hand combat against 7,000 United States soldiers at Chapultepec Castle, the site of the Heroic Military College on the western outskirts of the city. The legend of the Boy Heroes (Niños Héroes) was born when young cadets, among the last defenders of Chapultepec, reputedly threw themselves over the ramparts to their deaths rather than surrender to Scott's troops.
The internal disorder that followed Mexico's defeat depleted the country's treasury and destroyed much of its commerce and agriculture. Mounting unpaid foreign debts created a pretext for Britain, France, and Spain to land troops at Veracruz in 1861. Dreaming of expanding his influence to the New World, the French ruler, Napoleon III, sent an expeditionary force inland to capture Mexico City in early 1862. Although initially defeated at the bloody Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, the French, aided by Mexican conservative troops, eventually succeeded in installing the Habsburg archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph as the second emperor of Mexico (see Civil War and the French Intervention, 1855-67, ch. 1). By late 1862, the legitimate government of Benito Juárez was left with control of only a small enclave along the border with Texas.
General José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz had played a decisive role in the early victory of Juárez's forces at Puebla and commanded troops in the republican stronghold of Oaxaca until it was captured by the French in 1865. After escaping from a French military prison, Díaz commanded republican troops in the final campaigns leading to the surrender of Maximilian's remaining forces at Querétaro in 1867. After Juárez was returned to the presidency, Díaz managed to slowly parlay his military prowess into political strength.
Díaz's allegiance to Juárez ended soon after the restoration of the republic when the newly reinstalled president discharged two-thirds of the 60,000- to 90,000-member army. During the next several years, Díaz championed the cause of the dismissed troops and unsuccessfully challenged Juárez in the 1867 and 1871 presidential elections. The presidential succession after Juárez's death finally provoked Díaz to move against the government by issuing the 1876 Plan of Tuxtepec. Using recruits and funds gathered in the United States, Díaz defeated the government troops and, in November of that year, assumed the presidency, a position he would hold for all but four of the next thirty-four years (see The Restoration, 1867-76, ch. 1).
Established as the national caudillo, Díaz based his power on military might as he ruthlessly eliminated those who challenged his authority. When the United States and Mexico came close to war in 1877 over raids into United States territory by Mexican bandits and cattle rustlers, Díaz halted the brigandage and averted war by sending in federal army troops and the rurales , the feared paramilitary corps composed largely of criminals that also served as a counterweight to the regular military's power. Díaz resumed the practice of forced conscription and used his troops to brutally suppress antigovernment riots in Mexico City. Although state governorships were regularly offered to loyal officers, Díaz rotated the command of the army's military zones as a means of preventing generals from acquiring a local power base.
Data as of June 1996
NOTE: The information regarding Mexico on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Mexico The Wars of Independence, 1810-21 information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Mexico The Wars of Independence, 1810-21 should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.