“Responsible for All the Evils and Misfortunes That May be Occasioned in a War So Unjust”: Documents from “New Mexico and California: Message of the President of the United States,” 24 July 1848, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In this second and final part reviewing contents of a report to the House of Representatives by President James K. Polk under the generic heading of “New Mexico and California,” we look at a series of letters relating to the seizure in 1846 and 1847 by the United States of the Mexican department of Alta California during the Mexican-American War, a baldly imperialistic project by America as it determined to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans under what has often been referred to as “manifest destiny.”

The first part focused on the earlier portions of the report and the questions related to the military governments set up in both possessions. In California, there was no small amount of controversy and contested interests by a trio of military figures. These included Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont, who, while an Army officer, acted frequently as almost a “free agent,” supported both by his powerful father-in-law, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and the popular acclaim received from his explorations throughout the western end of the continent prior to the war.

A second was Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who felt that his early taking of California towns during the war entitled him to assume leadership of its governance, although Los Angeles was redeemed by the Californios, forcing the commodore to slowly regroup for a second invasion. The third was Army Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, who led an exhaustive overland campaign, including the seizure of New Mexico, before arriving in California and being humiliated by General Andrés Pico and the Californios in the December 1846 battle of San Pasqual near San Diego. He then joined forces with Stockton and they headed north to complete the conquest of California with the retaking of Los Angeles early in 1847—William Workman met with Stockton at San Juan Capistrano before the final pair of battles at the San Gabriel River and La Mesa (Vernon) before helping to carry out the flag of truce from Los Angeles to end hostilities.

Kearny believed he had ultimate authority over the governance of California from that point, but Stockton disagreed and then appointed Frémont as military chief executive to Kearny’s deep anger and chagrin. Eventually, the latter sent Frémont back to Washington for a court-martial and then left California during the spring with Colonel Richard B. Mason becoming the military governor. Documents in the latter part of this report concerned Stockton’s communications and were designed to show his primacy in the subjugation of the California as supported by Secretary of the Navy John Y. Mason (no relation to Richard.)

One of the missives was written by the commodore from Monterey, the former capital of Alta California (it was in Los Angeles under the last governor of the Mexican period, General Pico’s older brother, Pío) on 18 September 1846 and addressed to George Bancroft, who, unbeknownst to Stockton, ended his tenure as Navy secretary just over a week prior (Bancroft, whose history of the United States through 1789 was a standard reference for many year, soon became the minister to the United Kingdom from 1846 to 1849 and Germany from 1867 to 1874

Stockton informed Bancroft that “I send enclosed the correspondence between General [José, also referred to as a lieutenant colonel, which rank he was commissioned in 1842] Castro and myself,” adding that he did not respond to the Californio comandante general and his last letter “but by a verbal message, which does not properly belong to history,” though why he felt this was so was not stated—he concluded this part by adding, “we found in and near his camp ten pieces of artillery—six in good order and four spiked.” The commodore noted that recent elections seemed to have gone well because “the people [Californios, presumably] are getting over their first alarm, and our friends [Anglos?] are not now afraid to avow themselves.” Ten days later, however, Californios liberated Los Angeles from the tyrannical rule of Captain Archibald Gillespie, whom Stockton left behind to oversee the pueblo but who insisted on overly tight restrictions as part of the martial law imposed on the pueblo and environs.

Moreover, Stockton wrote that

General Castro and the governor [Pico] having collected at one time so large a force together, and our remaining inactive at Monterey, induced the belief that we were not willing to run the hazard of a fight, and that if we did we must be beaten. No one, foreign or native, dared aid us even with advice or information. But since Castro and the governor have been driven out of the country, the aspect of things is changed, and all is going on as well as we ought to desire.

It was reported, from letters seized by Americans between Castro and a military commander, Rafael Telles, at Mazatlán, that “it appears that arrangements were making [sic] to send troops into California, and General Castro is strongly urged to destroy ‘the nefarious enemy,’ but it is too late.” That missive, dated the 8th, also conveyed Telles’ “true grief, that the perfidious Yankees have taken possession of or invaded this department” and expressed the belief that “we will unit to reconquer our rights and to overthrow the indolent usurper.” Telles, however, also referred to a rampant and consistent problem in California, the infighting that continued until just before the American invasion, including the gathering of the forces of Governor Pico and Castro over supremacy in the department.

Also included were letters between Stockton and José María Flores, who later assumed command of the Californio defense when Flores left for México, and “Pablo de la Guena,” actually Pablo de la Guerra, of the prominent Santa Barbara family and future District Court Judge in southern California, including Los Angeles, and from Castro.

This latter, dated 7 August, was addressed to the commodore who was “anchored on the road of San Pedro,” meaning on board ship offshore and “asking explanations on the conduct that [Stockton] proposes to follow” regarding meetings concerning “what is most convenient to the interests of both countries.” Castro also stated that, wanting “to avoid all the disasters that follow a war, like that which your lordship prepares,” he sent Flores and de la Guerra to learn what the formalities of a conference contained, adding that “it must be on the base that all hostile movements must be suspended by both forces.”

Stockton answered the same day that, while he did “deplore the war which is now waging between Mexico and the United States,” he was only doing “what my duty calls upon me to do.” The commodore continued that “I do not wish to war against California or her people; but, as she is a department of Mexico, I must war against her until she ceases to be a part of the Mexican territory” as “this is my plain duty.” Nothing could be done, Castro was told, other than if “California will declare her independence under the protection of the flag of the United States,” so, if Castro would “agree to hoist the American flag in California,” Stockton “will stop my forces, and negotiate the treaty.”

On the 10th, at the “Camp of the Mesa,” probably at what became the January 1847 battle site south of Los Angeles in what is now Vernon, Castro responded to Stockton’s message “with inexpressible surprise” what he called “the insidious contents of that note and the degrading proposition which it involved.” Declaring that he had “to prove to you to what degree I am disposed to sacrifice myself to preserve, without stain, the position I hold,” the general told Stockton, “I . . . am resolved to defend [California’s] integrity at all hazards, and to repel an aggression, which . . . has no example in the civilized world.”

As for the proposal to simply raise the American flag and capitulate to the commodore, Castro retorted “never shall I consent to commit such a low act” and certainly not “under the degrading conditions which you propose.” He continued, “what would be [California’s] liberty with that protection offered at the muzzle of the cannon?” Moreover, he would never agree that the place “in which I first saw the light” should become a place of “disgrace and slavery.” Rising to an indignant pitch, the general thundered,

Still more: you believing, without doubt, that not a drop of Mexican blood circulates in my veins, and that I am ignorant of my attributes, you offer me the most shameful of your propositions, which is to hoist the American flag in this department of my command. Never! Never! Never! Much could I say to you in this respect: and permit me only to ask, what would you do, were the proposition reversed?

Castro concluded that any seizure of California would be such that it would be “making you responsible for all the evils and misfortunes that may be occasioned in a war so unjust as that which will be declared against this Pacific department.” Yet, the rhetoric masked the fact that Castro had no intention of mounting a defense and informed Governor Pico that such an idea was hopeless and inviting the chief executive to join him in fleeing to México—both men left separately that night of the 10th and this opened the door to Stockton’s seizing of Los Angeles.

From Los Angeles on 31 August, Stockton wrote Gillespie to present him “your commission as military commandant of this department” with instructions that “martial law will continue in force . . . until otherwise ordered,” but that “you will permit the civil officers of the government to proceed in the exercise of their property functions, nor will you interfere” unless necessary for “the peace and safety of the territory.” There were exemptions for some, including “persons known to be friendly to the government, to be out themselves, and to send their servants out, before sunrise” and “to carry arms with them” if needed for protection.

Gillespie was also given commissions for prefects and alcaldes (offices held over from the Mexican system of administration) if needed “in case the people should fail to elect either of those officers” and was asked to “write to me [at San Francisco] as to the state of the country, and the feelings o the people within this department.” Notably, Stockton added a postscript in which he informed Gillespie that his letter was “sent that you may see how I have tempered the rigors of indispensable military law with the appliances of peace” by maintaining the existing structure of civil government.

On 2 September, Stockton, under the title of “Governor and Commander-in-chief of the territory of California,” issued a general order that “there will be, from this day, a military commandant of the territory of California, whose duty it will be to superintend and direct all the military operations” and receive directions from the governor and report his action to Stockton. California was also divided into three departments, though these were not delineated, with a commander in each answerable to the overall commandant.

An undated circular also “advised that war exists between the United States of North America and Mexico” and warned that there may be attacks from Mexican ships and privateers,” but that “safe anchorage and protection” was offered at San Francisco. On 19 September, the commodore wrote to Bancroft that he’d appointed former United States Consul Thomas Larkin of Monterey the “navy agent” for California and Talbot H. Green, who came to California with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, which arrived in the north the same week that the Rowland and Workman Expedition made landfall in the south in November 1841, and who turned out to be Paul Geddes, a bank embezzler from Pennsylvania who later returned east, as customs collector.

Stockton continued that the reason for setting up regulations and officers was “to satisfy the minds of the timid that we have not only conquered the territory, but that we have such entire and complete possession of it, that there is no need to stop, for a single day, the machinery of civil government.” Moreover, the commodore asserted that “there are many who still hope that, by some chance or accident, the government of the United States may give up California again to Mexico,” so his swift administrative actions were calculated to deflate those ideas. He claimed that “it is surprising to see the effect that is produced upon the minds of the people, by the appointment and acceptance of an office by a man of consideration in the country.” He justified his lack of communication by claiming “I am so sick and tired of writing, that I am fearful you will be equally sick and tired of reading my poor despatches [sic].”

There was no response until 11 January 1847, or the day after Stockton and Kearny marched with their combined forces into Los Angeles and seized it for the second time, and it was from Mason, who’d, as noted earlier, succeeded Bancroft as Secretary of the Navy. Mason mentioned that he’d received Stockton’s 19 September communication on the day after Christmas, while he sent missives dated 5 November with President Polk’s orders regarding the fact that he “deemed it best for the public interests to invest the military officers commanding with the direction of the operations on land, and with the administrative functions of government, over the people and territory occupied by us.” Of course, Kearny claimed that right, as did Stockton.

Mason went into some detail about the rights incumbent on Congress and the President with respect to prosecuting war and the government of seized territory pending the ratification of a peace treaty (it would be more than a year before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was adopted.) Until then, there was to be “the due protection of the rights of persons and of property,” but no “political right[s]” outside of those observed by “the laws of war.” Consequently, the orders of 5 November were to stand, but “it has not been deemed improper or unwise that the inhabitants should be permitted to participate in the selection of agents to make or execute the laws to be enforced” as these “cannot fail to produce amelioration of the despotic character of martial law.” So, Mason approved of Stockton’s administrative policies and orders, subject to what was stated above.

With regard to any question of California being returned to México, Mason informed Stockton that President Polk “forsees [sic] no contingency in which the United States will ever surrender or relinquish the possession of the Californias.” Larkin might serve as a navy agent, but no officially without Senate confirmation and posting a bond. Mason, moreover, informed the commodore that he could return home when Commodore William B. Shubrick arrived, which happened in January, and Stockton was praised for handling his duties “with honor and success.” In fact, the secretary ended the missive by noting that, while it was addressed to Stockton, “it is intended for the officer in command of the naval forces” of the Pacific coast.

As something of an appendix, a separate document (the New Mexico and California report is number 70 of the first session of the 30th Congress and this was the 71st) dated 28 Jul 1848, was an estimate by the General Land Office of the area embraced by certain territories within the United States and transmitted by commissioner Richard M. Young. The total area of “Upper California and New Mexico” was adjudged to be just over 526,000 square miles or nearly 337 million acres situated west of the Rio Grande to its source and up to the 42nd parallel “ceded to the United States by the treaty with Mexico of 1848.” It is worth noting that México was deprived of some 55% of its entire territory by the American seizure of land in the war.

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