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Mexican War

Mexican War

April 25, 1846–February 1848

The roots of the Mexican War can be traced to westward expansion following the War of 1812. Many Americans, including many South Carolinians migrating west in search of cheap land, settled in northern Mexico where liberal land grants of as much as four thousand acres were available.

The roots of the Mexican War can be traced to westward expansion following the War of 1812. Many Americans, including many South Carolinians migrating west in search of cheap land, settled in northern Mexico where liberal land grants of as much as four thousand acres were available. These settlers established an agrarian economy based on slavery. The 1836 revolt that led to the de facto independence of Texas set the stage for future conflict with Mexico. Texas statehood, supported by most South Carolinians, became mired in sectional controversy and was rejected in June 1844. However, in the 1844 presidential campaign James K. Polk ran on a platform of “recovering” lost territories, including Texas. Polk won, but before he was inaugurated, the out-going president, John Tyler, engineered a proposal for Texas statehood, which was accepted by Texas on July 4, 1845.

To “protect” our newest state, President Polk sent Zachary Taylor and nearly half the U.S. Army into Texas, raising tensions when he ordered Taylor into territory claimed by Mexico along the Rio Grande. Hostilities began on April 25, 1846, when Mexican forces ambushed a patrol led by Captain Seth B. Thornton. Polk quickly sought a declaration of war and money and men to reinforce Taylor. In South Carolina public opinion on the war was mixed. John C. Calhoun fervently opposed the war, believing it posed a grave danger to southern political power, but he was placed in a difficult position by the coupling of the war declaration with provisions for supporting Taylor’s army. In the end he abstained from voting on the bill. The editor of the Charleston Mercury was highly critical of Polk and defended Calhoun’s position. Many other South Carolina newspapers criticized the administration’s position as well. On the other hand, the Abbeville Banner and the Greenville Mountaineer advocated stern measures, including invasion of Mexico. Taylor’s victories in northern Mexico muted the opposition. War fever swept the state.

When South Carolina was asked to provide a volunteer regiment, state adjutant general James W. Cantey ignored the fact that the regiment was for the reserve when he issued his guidelines on May 29. His optimistic deadline of June 10 was not met, and it was not until June 29 that ten companies were accepted for service. The news from Secretary of War William Marcy in July that the Palmettos were not needed was devastating. In August 1846 the Wilmot Proviso, a failed attempt by Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot to prohibit slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico, caused little reaction in South Carolina, and there was increasing public support for the war. Even the editor of the Mercury, while fulminating against northern warmongers, opposed withdrawing Taylor’s army from northern Mexico.

That autumn the administration’s optimistic view of the war collided with Mexico’s intransigence, and on November 16 South Carolina was asked to provide a regiment for immediate service. Because the term of service had changed from one year to the duration of the war, the Palmetto Regiment had to be reformed, and many refused to volunteer under the new provisions. In Greenville, for example, where two companies had been formed in June, only forty-two men volunteered and a company could not be formed. War fever had died down in the upstate and on the coast, and except for a company from Charleston, the Palmetto Regiment was raised exclusively in the Midlands.

As the Palmetto Regiment marched to war in 1847, the Wilmot Proviso was being roundly condemned in the South Carolina press. Calhoun, for example, feared that such abolitionist pressure would exacerbate sectional rivalry in the near future. Many agreed. Despite this debate, South Carolinians eagerly anticipated news of the war. Some in the Palmetto Regiment corresponded with their hometown newspapers, and their reports of the battles created intense interest in South Carolina. People wanted to know what “our boys” were doing. When peace came in February 1848 there was a clamor for the return of the volunteers. The surviving Palmetto Regiment finally arrived at Mobile, Alabama, in late June 1848. There they were mustered out and left to find their own way home. The return of the Palmettos generated great excitement in South Carolina. Columbia and Charleston got into a heated debate over which city would “officially” welcome the regiment home. In the end there was a grand celebration in Columbia on July 26 and an equally grand one in Charleston two days later. However, by the end of the year the war with Mexico was all but forgotten.

Johannsen, Robert Walter. To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lander, Ernest McPherson, Jr. Reluctant Imperialists: Calhoun, the South Carolinians, and the Mexican War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Meyer, Jack Allen. South Carolina in the Mexican War: A History of the Palmetto Regiment of Volunteers, 1846–1917. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1996.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Mexican War
  • Coverage April 25, 1846–February 1848
  • Author
  • Keywords westward expansion following the War of 1812, Texas statehood, President Polk sent Zachary Taylor and nearly half the U.S. Army into Texas, John C. Calhoun fervently opposed the war, Wilmot Proviso, the Palmetto Regiment,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date April 13, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 15, 2022
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