The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) has many historical links to the US Civil War (1861-1865), not least of which is the fact that most of the important military leaders of the Civil War had their first wartime experiences in the Mexican-American War. In fact, reading the officer lists of the Mexican-American War is like reading a "who's who" of important Civil War leaders! Here are ten of the most important Civil War generals and their experience in the Mexican-American War.
Not only did Robert E. Lee serve in the Mexican-American War, he seemingly almost won it single-handedly. The highly capable Lee became one of General Winfield Scott's most trusted junior officers. It was Lee who found a way through the thick chaparral before the Battle of Cerro Gordo: he led the team which blazed a trail through the dense growth and attacked the Mexican left flank: this unexpected attack helped rout the Mexicans. Later, he found a way through a lava field which helped to win the Battle of Contreras. Scott had a very high opinion of Lee and later tried to convince him to fight for the Union in the Civil War.
Longstreet served with General Scott during the Mexican-American War. He began the war ranked a lieutenant but earned two brevet promotions, ending the conflict as a brevet Major. He served with distinction at the battles of Contreras and Churubusco and was wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec. At the time he was wounded, he was carrying the company colors: he handed these off to his friend George Pickett, who would also be a General at the Battle of Gettysburg sixteen years later.
Grant was a Second Lieutenant when the war broke out. He served with Scott’s invasion force and was considered a capable officer. His best moment came during the final siege of Mexico City in September of 1847: after the fall of Chapultepec Castle, the Americans prepared to storm the city. Grant and his men dismantled a howitzer cannon, lugged it up to the belfry of a church and proceeded to blast the streets below where the Mexican army fought the invaders. Later, General William Worth would greatly praise Grant’s battlefield resourcefulness.
Jackson was a twenty-three year old Lieutenant during the last phase of the Mexican-American War. During the final siege of Mexico City, Jackson’s unit came under heavy fire and they ducked for cover. He dragged a small cannon into the road and began firing it at the enemy by himself. An enemy cannonball even went between his legs! He was soon joined by a few more men and a second cannon and they fought a raging battle against the Mexican gunmen and artillery. Later he brought his cannons to one of the causeways into the city, where he used it to devastating effect against enemy cavalry.
Sherman was a lieutenant during the Mexican-American war, detailed to the U.S. Third Artillery unit. Sherman served in the western theater of war, in California. Unlike most of the troops in that part of the war, Sherman’s unit arrived by sea: since this was before the construction of the Panama Canal, they had to sail all the way around South America to get there! By the time he got to California, most of the major fighting had ended: he did not see any combat.
Lieutenant George McClellan served in both major theaters of the war: with General Taylor in the north and with General Scott’s eastern invasion. He was a very recent graduate from West Point: the class of 1846. He supervised an artillery unit during the siege of Veracruz and served with General Gideon Pillow during the Battle of Cerro Gordo. He was repeatedly cited for valor during the conflict. He learned much from General Winfield Scott, whom he succeeded as General of the Union Army early in the Civil War.
Burnside graduated from West Point in the Class of 1847 and therefore missed most of the Mexican-American War. He was sent to Mexico, however, arriving in Mexico City after it was captured in September of 1847. He served there during the tense peace that followed while diplomats worked on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war.
P.G.T. Beauregard had a distinguished stint in the army during the Mexican-American War. He served under General Scott, and earned brevet promotions to captain and major during the fighting outside of Mexico City at the battles of Contreras, Churubusco and Chapultepec. Before the battle of Chapultepec, Scott had a meeting with his officers: at this meeting most of the officers favored taking the Candelaria gate into the city. Beauregard, however, disagreed: he favored a feint at Candelaria and an attack at the Chapultepec fortress followed by an assault on the San Cosme and Belen gates into the city. Scott was convinced and used Beauregard’s battle plan, which worked out very well for the Americans.
Braxton Bragg saw action in the earliest parts of the Mexican-American war. Before the war had ended, he would be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. As a lieutenant, he was in charge of an artillery unit during the defense of Fort Texas before war had even officially been declared. He later served with distinction at the Siege of Monterrey. He became a war hero at the Battle of Buena Vista: his artillery unit helped defeat a Mexican attack that might have carried the day. He fought that day in support of Jefferson Davis' Mississippi Rifles: later, he would serve Davis as one of his top Generals during the Civil War.
10. George Meade
George Meade served with distinction under both Taylor and Scott. He fought in the early battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma and the Siege of Monterrey, where his service merited him a brevet promotion to First Lieutenant. He was also active during the siege of Monterrey, where he would fight side-by-side with Robert E. Lee, who would be his opponent at the decisive 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Meade grumbled about the handling of the Mexican-American War in this famous quote, sent home in a letter from Monterrey : "Well may we be grateful that we are at war with Mexico! Were it any other power, our gross follies would have been punished severely before now."