“The Great Importance of Harmony and Cordial Co-Operation”: Documents from “New Mexico and California: Message of the President of the United States,” 24 July 1848, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was the first such conflict fomented by the United States as an act of pure imperialism, couched in the broadly used term of “manifest destiny,” which presupposed that it was inevitable that the America extend “from sea to shining sea,” regardless of the sovereign rights of the indigenous people of the continent or those of the Republic of México. As expressed by John L. O’Sullivan at the end of 1845, the nation had “the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

This divine mandate was not accepted by many Americans, though the reasons varied from concerns about the hypocrisy embedded in such an attitude regarding the self-determination of peoples and nations to a fear that the conquest of lands with residents of color would prove problematic, among others. With the administration of President James K. Polk, however, determined to expand the borders of the country, a pretense to provoke México to war was provided in the American military occupation, in January 1846, of disputed territory along the border of recently-annexed Texas and the firing on American troops by Mexican forces three months later.

By summer, the war spread to the Mexican department of Alta California and, as previous posts here have noted, the pueblo of Los Angeles was seized twice by American forces led by the recently appointed commander of the Navy’s Pacific Squadron, Robert F. Stockton, first in August 1846 and then, after Californios revolted because of the stringent restrictions of martial law and took back the town, again, with Stockton and Army Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny combining their forces, in January 1847, with William Workman playing a role in this second invasion, including bringing the white flag of truce after the conclusion of the Battle of Los Angeles on the 10th.

While the end of hostilities in California came with the Treaty of Cahuenga signed between General Andrés Pico and Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont (whose authority to execute the agreement was questionable, as was much of his behavior that followed as he came into conflict with Kearny) on 13 January, the American campaign continued in México until the taking of the capital in mid-September. Following this were the negotiations that culminated with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was ratified by the Mexican Congress on 2 February 1848, just nine days after James Marshall’s stunning discovery of gold ushered in the great rush that changed California far more than the war.

A prior post here briefly touched upon some of the contents of a message of Polk’s titled “New Mexico and California” and dated 24 July 1848. This was a reply to a request of the House of Representatives for information on these two recently seized Mexican departments and that post reviewed the president’s discussion of the formation of military governments, these existing until Congress determined their statuses as territories or, in the case of California, statehood, which was granted in September 1850. The president then appended reports and pieces of correspondence relating to these temporary governments and some of them form the basis for this follow-up post (which comes only five years later!)

On 11 June 1847, Secretary of War (this is now the Secretary of Defense) William L. Marcy, formerly a senator from and governor of New York and later the Secretary of State under presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, wrote to General Kearny a lengthy communication (delivered by Lieutenant Christopher “Kit” Carson, a legendary figure in New Mexico and the west and who was an apprentice for William Workman’s brother David in Missouri before running away and following William to Taos—during the war and the immediate aftermath, Carson and Workman got reacquainted in California and Carson once camped, in 1848, near Workman’s house at the Homestead), beginning with the hope that his missive and that from the Navy to Commodore Stockton would “put an end to the much regretted misunderstanding which had arisen between” Stockton and Kearny over who was in charge in California—Frémont added to the complications by asserting his authority through support from Stockton.

Marcy explained (rationalized, given that Stockton and Kearny were basically of the same rank in their respective branches) that there was no certain expectation that Kearny, who led his Army force over a brutal march overland through the southwest, would reach California before spring 1847, though he made it by early December only to be routed at the Battle of San Pasqual near San Diego by Californios commanded by Gen. Pico. The secretary added that

It was then anticipated that the naval force might take possession of important places on the coast of California some time before a land force could arrive in that country to co-operate with it; and the early instructions to that branch of the service were framed with only a very remote expectation of the presence of a land force.

Marcy continued that naval commanders were given authority on “all military operations on water,” while, on he other hand, to the senior Army officers “all the operations on land were entrusted” with the assistance of the navy, if needed. He concluded that “when brought together, and co-operating for any particular object, the superior in rank . . . would have command for the time being.”

As for the temporary postwar government, instructions were said to have been clearly laid out in orders from November 1846 and the secretary informed the general that “while in California, occupying the position of an officer of the army of the United States highest in rank, you are charged by the instructions heretofore sent to you, and here repeated, with the functions of civil governor of the country.”

Stockton, having appointed Frémont military governor, left for the east, while Kearny, who had further troops under his command as they arrived after hostilities ended, assumed authority and took Frémont east to Fort Leavenworth pending a court-martial (which included, among several charges, his agreement to purchase, on behalf of the United States, Alcatraz Island from F.P.F. Temple, who was given the deed to the island from William Workman—granted it by Governor Pío Pico, Andrés’ brother, shortly before the war came to California.)

If Kearny was to return east, “the functions of the civil government will devolve on Colonel [Richard B.] Mason,” though the general was soon sent to México, where he commanded posts at Veracruz and Mexico City. After he contracted yellow fever, Kearny went to St. Louis where died of the disease in 1848. Marcy also addressed the matter of revenues from the collection of duties at ports for the expenses of the military administration of California, which was to be “simple and economical” and paid for, if possible, “within the revenues which may be collected in the country.” This was because there was no money to be had otherwise, unless through congressional action. Frémont wrote to Marcy on 3 February 1847 about the need for more funding, but was told that this was a matter for Congress.

As to Frémont, whose father-in-law was the powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and whose explorations in the west earlier in the decade made him a national hero and emboldened him in his often-independent courses of action, Marcy reminded Kearny that if the young office “would desire to return to the United States” after the cessation of fighting in California, “you were then directed to conform to his wishes.” Notably, Marcy went on to note that “it has become known here that [Frémont] bore a conspicuous part in the conquest of California; that his services have been very valuable in that country; and doubtless will continue to be so, should he remain there.”

Given this and the explanation that President Polk considered “his definite instructions” a settled matter and emphasizing “the great importance of harmony and cordial co-operation in carrying on military operations in a country so distant from the seat of authority,” the secretary told the general

Should Lieutenant Colonel Frémont, who has the option to return or remain, adopt the latter alternative, the President does not doubt that you will employ him in such a manner as will render his services most available to the public interest, having reference to his extensive acquaintance with the inhabitants of California, and his knowledge of their language; qualifications, independent of others, which it is supposed may be very useful in the present and prospective state of our affairs in that country.

In fact, on 20 March, as his conflict with Kearny crested, Frémont used his good relations with local Anglos to solicit their support as he asserted his authority as military governor, including a letter written to William Workman for just this purpose. By the time Marcy’s letter was transmitted for the long trip to California, however, Kearny, accompanied by Frémont as a prisoner, was on the lengthy march eastward, and one of the documents in the report, dated 31 May, was a general proclamation by Colonel Mason that Kearny “having been permitted to return to the United States,” authority for governing California devolved upon him. Another item, from 17 June, was an order permitting the return of José Castro, a Californio military leader referred to as a colonel though he was appointed a commanding general, to return from México, with instructions that American military officials were “to aid in facilitating the return of the said Castro to Monterey.”

A 15 March 1848 missive to Mason (whose grandfather was George Mason, author of the constitution, bill of rights and declaration of rights for Virginia and who voted against ratification of the federal constitution because if lacked a bill of rights—later added by James Madison—and namesake of George Mason University) from Marcy informed him that “by the treaty now pending, Upper [Alta] California is ceded to the United States.” The military governor was notified that “peace is definitively settled between the two nations, withdraw your troops to that part of the country which falls within the limits of the United States, as defined by the treaty, and take proper measures with a view to its permanent occupation.”

John Y. Mason (no relation to the colonel), in his second stint as the Secretary of the Navy following a year-and-a-half as Attorney General, wrote to President Polk on 20 July 1848 to present his review of the matter of temporary governments in New Mexico and California. Specifically, the secretary observed that “while holding portions of the enemy’s territory by conquest, the right of the conqueror was regarded as attended by the duty of continuing to the people occupying it the benefits of civil government.” To that end, “agents to be charged with its administration . . . were appointed by the naval commander,” with any appointments outside of the officers of the navy or army “to be as few as possible” and expenses limited to what could be paid for by internally collected revenue.

Mason also insisted that “there is nothing on the files of the Navy Department to show, nor have I reason to believe that these instruction have been disregarded in a single instance, in the territory held by the United States naval forces by the right of conquest.” Stockton created a civil government after the seizure of Alta California and remained commander-in-chief until the arrival of Commodore William B. Shubrick. The secretary then wrote that, under the November 1846 orders, “the direction of the operations on land, and the administrative functions of government over the people and territory occupied by us, was transferred to the military officer highest in rank [Kearny], and since that date the naval officer in command no longer had any authority in administering civil government in Upper California.”

To underscore his reporting, Mason observed that the Navy seized several places in Baja California, as well as along the Gulf of Mexico, and asserted that “while in our possession the duties of civil government have been discharged as a military right and duty.” Moreover, no naval officers handling civil, as well as military, duties was paid anything beyond what naval regulations allowed and anyone, not in the service, held a civil post they were “paid out of local fees or revenues, according to the usages of the country.” With the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, any places held by naval forces were returned to México, as was proper.

In order to demonstrate the proper conduct of his department, Mason included correspondence related to Stockton’s actions in California including his own 11 January 1847 letter to the commodore, with some of this including remarkable missives from José Castro, who, while named comandante general by Governor Pío Pico as the American invasion loomed, was referred to by Governor Mason as a colonel, as Castro was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in 1842.

Part two, which comes tomorrow, will look at this material, so be sure to check back with us then.

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