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About the Author
Tyler V. Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Philadelphia Biblical University. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylivania.
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Devotion to the Adopted CountryU.S. Immigrant Volunteers in the Mexican War
By Tyler V. Johnson
UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESSCopyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
Chapter One"To Stop the Mouths of Mendacious Croakers" Defeating Nativists through Enlistment
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On May 23, 1846, the St. Louis Catholic News-Letter passed along a troubling report to its readers. The editors related a recent conversation with a man just arrived from New Orleans. The anonymous source informed the News-Letter of a storm brewing in New Orleans over the supposed antiwar preaching of several Catholic clergy. The Catholic population of the Crescent City feared that even mere rumors of such activity might incite violence against Catholic churches. Other Catholic papers picked up the story in the days that followed. A week after the St. Louis editors' report, the Pittsburgh Catholic gave more specific details, stating that the controversy swarmed around Reverend J. J. Mullon, a New Orleans priest accused of encouraging his congregation not to enlist in the war with Mexico. The Catholic printed Mullon's emphatic reply to the accusations: "Were they the subjects of the Sovereign Pontiff, whose catholicity is less equivocal than that of the Mexicans who had dishonored and insulted the flag of my country, I would be found among the first to stop the mouths of mendacious croakers, about an unholy war, by demanding prompt and instantaneous reparation." In one sentence, Mullon's invective addressed several issues facing Catholics and immigrants as war began with the country's southern neighbor. He countered the long-held nativist belief that U.S. Catholics honored the pope above their country by professing his loyalty to America, addressing potential divisions among Catholics uneasy at fighting a Catholic enemy (arguing that religious affinity should not obviate nationalism), and denying the charge that Catholics were all alike. Mullon instead scorned the orthodoxy of Mexicans.
The war had begun almost a month before the Mullon controversy erupted. On the morning of April 25, 1846, about twenty miles upriver from U.S. General Zachary Taylor's camp on the lower Rio Grande, Mexican cavalry ambushed Captain Seth B. Thornton's patrol. Thornton, taken completely by surprise, tried to fight off his attackers but finally had to surrender with most of his remaining troops (approximately eighty men). The Americans had lost eleven men in the fight. After word reached General Taylor the next day (along with one of Thornton's wounded men carrying a note from Mexican general Anastasio Torrejón), he dashed off notes to Washington and New Orleans letting his superiors and the nation know that hostilities with Mexico had commenced.
Taylor was on the Rio Grande because of orders from President James K. Polk. Ever since Texas's successful rebellion against Mexico, the state had claimed the Rio Grande as its southern boundary, while the Mexicans (though not conceding Texas's independence) claimed the Nueces River. When Texas entered the Union in 1845, the U.S. government inherited the dispute. In late 1845, Polk had ordered Taylor to the Nueces with several thousand men. The following spring, he commanded the general to advance to the Rio Grande to press the U.S. claim.
Taylor's message, along with its call for volunteers from Louisiana and Texas, caused uproar in New Orleans. As the city began preparing for war, local newspapers accompanied vivid (though often inaccurate) speculation about Taylor's fate with calls for the patriotic men of the city and the nation to leap to her defense. In a May 4 editorial, the Commercial Bulletin emphasized that the Crescent City's immigrants were obligated to play a role in this cause, arguing, "Our country opens wide her arm to the people of all nations who come in the guise of friendship, and under the shadow of her great standard they find liberty, protection and prosperity. How much more, then, ought every inch of her dominions to be protected from the tread of an enemy! and how ought the naturalized to vie with the native, and the native with the naturalized citizen, in defence and vindication of her rights and character!" Such appeals did not fall upon deaf ears, as immigrants helped fill the six regiments of volunteers that Louisiana furnished in the early days of the war with Mexico. However, this highly charged atmosphere meant that any perceived disloyalty would bring trouble to the immigrant and Catholic communities, as evidenced in the Mullon affair.
In the weeks that followed, and during subsequent call-ups throughout the Mexican-American War, "naturalized" Americans responded enthusiastically. Across the nation, as tens of thousands of native-born Americans rushed to volunteer their services, thousands of immigrants, especially Germans and Irish, joined them. Immigrant-dominated volunteer companies formed (either in May 1846 or in later call-ups in December 1846 and May 1847) in Boston, New York City, Albany, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, and the state of Indiana. Many of these men were also Catholic, volunteering to serve a mostly Protestant country in its war against a Catholic neighbor. Volunteers set out from their homes to swell the small U.S. presence on the Rio Grande. Zachary Taylor's forces consisted of just under four thousand men, which represented about half of the entire U.S. Army. His force represented the diversity of the army, with 47 percent of his enlisted men originating from foreign countries. These new arrivals to the United States were already embroiled in controversy, as Mexican authorities, including General Mariano Arista in Matamoros, had been sending propaganda across the lines encouraging American soldiers to desert an "unholy cause." Arista appealed especially to Catholics, asking why they wanted to fight against their Catholic brethren. Even as volunteer troops began gathering in cities across the nation, nativist editors and politicians seized on this propaganda as a rationale to challenge the loyalty of Catholics and immigrants.
Tens of thousands of men signed up to fight Mexico. Military historian Richard Bruce Winders cites a War Department figure of 73,260 volunteer enlistments over the course of the war. The majority of the volunteers came from the West and the South where the war's popularity was greatest, with a smaller number signing up later in the war from the Northeast, where opposition to the conflict waxed stronger. Although some of the disparity arose from the fact that Congress called on the western and southern states for volunteers two or three times, while the Northeast only received one request for enlistees, in December 1846, political opposition to the war did reduce enthusiasm for volunteering in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. This enlistment of volunteers presented both opportunities and problems for the immigrant and Catholic communities. The hundreds of Irish, German, and other immigrants offering their services became convincing evidence of Catholic and immigrant patriotism and loyalty to community leaders, evidence to be used against nativists and anti-Catholics. However, difficulties erupted even before hostilities commenced. Catholic newspapers reacted vehemently when rumors of religious coercion wafted out of Zachary Taylor's army in Texas. Also, as Reverend Mullon recognized, Catholics faced the dilemma of fighting an enemy that shared their religion. They looked on nervously as some Protestants portrayed the erupting conflict as a prime opportunity to defeat Catholicism and openly coveted rich booty from Mexico's churches. These difficulties presaged future troubles that cropped up throughout the war, demonstrating that, at least in the eyes of the immigrant community, nationalism had not completely subsumed religious and ethnic prejudice.
In April 1846, as his army encamped near Corpus Christi, Texas, reports began to emerge that Catholic troops under Zachary Taylor's command had been compelled to attend Protestant services. Although this controversy began before the onset of official hostilities, and therefore before volunteers arrived on the scene, it illustrated the religious tension faced by later enlistees. Catholic newspapers (and the clerical hierarchy who published them) reacted swiftly to the news. The Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph thundered, "What! Despite all of the slanders to the contrary, there stand the thousands of Catholic soldiers ready to fight for the glory of America against their brethren of the same faith—to fire upon them even in their churches—to keep them from injuring so much as a hair of their Protestant commander's head." However, a Catholic officer under Taylor, in a letter that appeared in the paper two weeks after the scandal erupted, reassured the Telegraph that no such coercion had taken place. The editors happily toned down their ire for the short term, proclaiming their friendliness to the army and denying any attempt to cast shame upon the military.
Another controversy arose over the treatment and respect given to Catholic soldiers in Taylor's forces. The nativist Philadelphia Sun published a piece asserting that foreign troops under Taylor, particularly the Irish and Catholic men, would desert to the Mexicans at the first opportunity. An indignant reply in the Philadelphia Keystone refuting the charge received favorable commentary in both the Catholic and Democratic press. The Keystone provided a list of twelve Irish Catholics among the casualties of Captain Seth Thornton's unfortunate cavalry patrol as ironclad proof of the loyalty of immigrants and Catholics, and both the Pittsburgh Catholic and the Louisville Daily Democrat copied the report in order to deliver a slap to the nativist press. Catholic newspapers from Louisville and St. Louis also took up the cause. The St. Louis Catholic News-Letter borrowed figures first published by the Boston Pilot that contradicted the accusations of desertion against Catholics in Taylor's army, showing that most deserters were Protestant. The St. Louis editor roared,"No!—we feel that their countrymen will do the Catholic soldiery justice—we are confident that the vile attempts of the malignant demagogue and the vindictive bigot, will be frowned down by every generous heart in the land." Louisville's Catholic Advocate went a step further, suggesting sarcastically that the nativists might find allies in Mexico: "These natives will come into common brotherhood with you, for they must hate the Irish who have so unfeelingly slaughtered their brethren." Catholic clergy agreed with this positive assessment of Catholic fidelity. After Reverends John McElroy and Anthony Rey received appointments from President James K. Polk to minister to the Catholics in Taylor's army and reassure Mexico's civilians that the U.S. Army meant them no harm, Reverend J. A. Schneller wrote to McElroy to congratulate and encourage him. Schneller noted the fidelity of Catholic troops in the recent battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and expressed optimism: "Patriots and Christian soldiers, we feel assured they will ever be found faithful and true to both." Defending the professional troops under Taylor's command steeled the Catholic and immigrant community for the defense of those who volunteered willingly when the war began. In the eyes of editors, bishops, and other leaders, the initiative shown by German, Irish, and other immigrant volunteers should have obviated any question of their loyalty. However, that did not prove to be the case.
In addition to the problems brought on by nativist assaults on immigrant loyalty, the war dredged up several other difficult questions for recent immigrants, particularly those in the Catholic Church. Catholics worried about potential Church sanctions against those who signed up to fight their fellow Catholics in Mexico. Concerns over the justice of the war and the attempts of some Protestants to treat the war as an anti-Catholic crusade only heightened their uneasiness. Antiwar activists took advantage of this uncertainty by attempting to drive a wedge between Catholics and the Democratic leadership that promoted the war effort. They encouraged Catholics to disavow the war on the basis of their religious affinity with Mexico. Finally, Catholics faced the oft-repeated charge that Catholicism at its very heart conflicted with the democratic and republican values central to the nation's political and religious liberty. The efforts of Catholic leaders to address and solve these multiple dilemmas served their greater agenda of bolstering the confidence of those communicants who volunteered and presenting a unified and patriotic front to the nation.
From the beginning of the conflict, the Church hierarchy sought to resolve the philosophical dilemmas facing their faithful. During the week of May 10–17, 1846, the Catholic leadership of the United States met in Baltimore for the Sixth Provincial Council. At the conclusion of their proceedings, the bishops published a pastoral letter addressing numerous issues then facing the Church in America. Although the clerics did not mention the war with Mexico by name, they took specific steps to reassure U.S. Catholics conflicted over whether to support the war effort. The letter contended,"The paternal authority of the chief Bishop is constantly misrepresented and assailed by the adversaries of our holy religion, especially in this country, and is viewed with suspicion even by some who acknowledge its powerful influence in preserving faith and unity. It is unnecessary for us to tell you, brethren, that the kingdom of Christ ... is not of this world; and that the obedience due to the Vicar of the Saviour is in no way inconsistent with your civil allegiance, your social duties as citizens, or your rights as men." This missive freed Catholics to obey and support the national government in its prosecution of the war. In a way, the Church hierarchy encouraged civic responsibility rooted in a separation between secular and sacred loyalties.
The Provincial Council's letter dealt with an issue that bedeviled the efforts of many immigrant and Catholic leaders to fit their congregants into the mainstream of U.S. society. Anti-Catholics had long maintained that Catholicism's association with feudal and monarchical governments and the Church's authoritarian structure made it fundamentally incompatible with the U.S. political system. As historian John Higham argues, they "considered the immigrants minions of the Roman despot, dispatched here to subvert American institutions." In addition to the collective Catholic hierarchy, individual bishops and editors also sought to refute these and similar arguments. Charleston, South Carolina's United States Catholic Miscellany, the grand old dame of Catholic journalism in the United States, published an editorial in early May 1846 entitled "Catholicity Not Inimical to Republicanism." In it the editor contended that the Church's "teaching is truly republican; though she respects the distinctions drawn by society, still she declares to her children, that with God there is no exception of persons." He also argued that the Church's government operated in a democratic fashion, electing bishops and popes from among the clergy and offering an avenue for even the humblest cleric to advance to the papacy. Countering charges of divided loyalties, the author affirmed that "[a]llegiance is due alone to civil authority" and that "to accuse us of divided allegiance is to fling the stigma of perjury (the deepest of insults) on at least a million of citizens!" In this, the Miscellany sought to put nativists on the defensive, daring them to prove their accusations.
As volunteer companies began to form and march off to war, other Catholic editors took a similarly assertive approach, even if they had misgivings about the justice of the war. The News-Letter proclaimed, "In the meantime, our brethren are in arms, and since the war has commenced, we trust it will be carried through by them with their well known energy, valor, and success. That they will be victorious, we have no doubt. We feel that God will again stretch forth his arm in the protection of our beloved country, and we pray that he will conduct our fellow-citizens unharmed through the dangers that surround them." Disabusing any doubts about their loyalties, the paper later pronounced that "the first, the last, the sincerest prayer of the Catholic citizen rushes from the heart to the lip, 'God save the Republic!'" Although it expressed misgivings about the Polk administration's justifications for the war, the Catholic Telegraph of Cincinnati agreed with the News-Letter's priorities, arguing, "It is natural that we should regret the emergency, which compels us to take up arms against brethren of the same faith but if the Oregon question had provoked war with England, our Protestant fellow citizens would have been placed in the same position which we occupy at present; and as they would not allow their similarity of creeds to extinguish their patriotism, neither should the Catholic citizen permit any objection of the kind to interfere with his devotion to his native or adopted country." This editorial, reprinted in many secular and sectarian newspapers across the country, engendered praise from many sectors. Both the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer and the Memphis Weekly Appeal lauded the "noble spirit" and "manly and creditable" sentiments of the piece. The Enquirer, a Democratic organ, took advantage of the opportunity to take yet another swipe at nativism, expressing hope that the eagerness of Catholics to support the war would "expose and rebuke the absurdity and injustice" of that belief.
Excerpted from Devotion to the Adopted Country by Tyler V. Johnson Copyright © 2012 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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