The United States Army occupied Mexico City from September 14 1847, to June 12 1848. The occupation began with three days of intense and bloody street fighting between Mexicans and U.S. troops. Generally, U.S. historians of the war have contended that the conclusion of street fighting marked a transition to a peaceful occupation, disrupted occasionally by random acts of violence primarily involving a criminal element of Mexico’s urban underclass, known as leperos. Yet the private journals, diaries, and letters of members of the U.S. occupation force suggest that those troops perceived something more than random acts of crime being directed toward them―they saw a more generalized, and organized, anti-American resistance, particularly among the Mexican lower classes, but also sometimes including elements of the Mexican military. Evidence from contemporary writings of some Mexicans supports such a view.
But while U.S. troops and Mexicans perceived and wrote about Mexican resistance to the occupation, some also perceived and wrote about a degree of cooperation by some Mexicans that could be considered collaboration. Mexicans who were perceived as collaborators generally belonged to the upper classes and interacted primarily with U.S. officers. As a result, evidence of collaboration appears more frequently in the writings of officers than of enlisted men. Yet even those U.S. officers who wrote of Mexican collaboration recognized that Mexicans who were seen to be collaborators with the North American occupiers faced the threat of reprisals from Mexicans who resisted the occupation. Thus, the U.S. occupation of Mexico City involved concurrent and competing dynamics of resistance and cooperation. The private writings of U.S. troops, and enlisted men in particular, provide important and fascinating insights into the full range of Mexican attitudes toward the occupation.
The U.S. troops who marched into Mexico City on September 14, 1847, were unique. Never before had the United States military occupied the capital of a defeated foreign power. As the troops entered Mexico City, they came into contact with people who held intense anti-U.S. feelings, who had been told for years that the North Americans were violent racists to be feared (the "Barbarians of the North"), and who had heard stories of U.S. atrocities against civilians elsewhere in Mexico. For their part, many U.S. troops held racial and religious prejudices against Mexicans. Angered by having been forced to fight their way into Mexico City after a failed armistice, some may have sought revenge for atrocities committed against them elsewhere in Mexico. This volatile brew portended trouble when Mexican civilians and U.S. soldiers came into contact in Mexico City.
The street fighting that erupted on the first day of the occupation was brutal, with charges of atrocities on both sides. It likely involved several elements of the Mexican population: street criminals, convicts who were released or escaped from prisons when Santa Anna withdrew from the city, the lower classes of the civilian population, and Army and National Guard troops who did not join Santa Anna’s withdrawal. It seems unlikely that after only three days all of those elements except the criminals gave up the fight. Indeed, in a letter written at the end of September 1847, a prominent citizen of Mexico City related to the governor of Durango that open fighting had ceased, "but the undercover struggle goes on."
The private writings of U.S. troops did not seem to attribute the ongoing violence during the occupation simply to the random acts of street criminals. For example, Private John Meginness of the U.S. Army wrote in his journal on February 16 about an attack by a large number of Mexicans on an armed U.S. patrol in Mexico City, resulting in the capture of forty to fifty Mexicans and the deaths of nine others. Meginness noted that the attack occurred in a part of the city that was notorious for criminal activity, but he made it plain that he did not view this attack as mere street crime: "The attack seemed to be a concerted matter, quite a large body of [Mexicans] being armed with pistols." Other U.S. troops wrote of other attacks that appeared to be organized guerrilla actions, sometimes involving Mexican lanceros. In sum, while common street criminals presented a constant problem in Mexico City, something more than that appeared to be afoot―a two-way conflict in which Mexicans resisted and fought U.S. troops because those troops were despised enemy occupiers. That this perception endured throughout the occupation may be reflected by a letter written by U.S. Lieutenant DeLancey Floyd-Jones shortly before U.S. troops began withdrawing from Mexico City: "I don’t think I shall ... remain behind, as I have no desire to get my throat cut after escaping all the dangers that I have passed through—and I should not consider myself very safe after the Army left."
Of course, not all Mexicans resisted the occupation. Many cooperated with the occupiers, and some even collaborated. Some Mexicans accused the upper classes of undermining the September 14 uprising, and some U.S. officers wrote of a desire on the part of wealthy Mexicans that the U.S. maintain a long-term occupation or even annex Mexico. The motives attributed by Mexicans and U.S. officers to Mexican collaborators varied: a desire to make money from trade with the North Americans, a desire to protect property interests, admiration for U.S. democratic institutions, a desire to reform Mexican society, or a desire for order and security that the Mexican government could not supply. Some wealthy residents of Mexico City voluntarily opened their homes to U.S. officers in an effort to gain protection from crime. As one U.S. officer wrote in a letter to a friend: "The better classes of this city ... have no respect for their own government, declaring they only know it by its extortions, and not by any protection it gives them. ... They declare they see no prospect, near or remote, of peace, law, and order, under their own rulers."
Yet, as U.S. troops recognized, Mexican cooperation and collaboration with the North American occupiers occurred against a backdrop of Mexican resistance. U.S. troops regularly wrote of the reluctance of upper-class Mexicans to associate publicly with the occupiers for fear of reprisals. As the end of the occupation neared following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, U.S. troops predicted a general uprising would occur after the North Americans withdrew from Mexico City, with actual or suspected collaborators being targeted. DeLancey Floyd-Jones wrote to his sister that some residents of Mexico City were worried about the prospect of reprisals and "rather wish that we would hold their Country" because "they know that when we leave ... the populace ... will come ... on them for having taken our side." But despite such threats, some citizens of Mexico City continued to cooperate or even collaborate economically and socially with members of the U.S. occupation force.
Mexico City was the first foreign capital occupied by United States armed forces. The nine-month U.S. occupation combined street combat, guerrilla-type resistance, cooperation between occupier and occupied, and even outright collaboration. At least one critical aspect of this complex dynamic―Mexican resistance to the occupation after the first month―has received short shrift from most U.S. historians of the war. But private diaries, journals, and letters of participants in the occupation provide valuable resources to help explain that aspect of the occupation and contribute to a better overall understanding of the occupation.
Dennis M. Conrad
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