Prelude to the Civil War: Researching Your Mexican War Ancestor

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Thomas Jefferson was one of the first proponents of a nation that extended from “sea to shining sea.” In 1803, his Louisiana Purchase represented a first step toward that goal. For a period of time, westward expansion was pursued peacefully. For example, Mexico invited Americans to settle in its more sparsely populated areas during the 1820s, and early 1830s and the United States attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to purchase California from Mexico in 1835 and 1845.

By the time James K. Polk had become president in 1844, many Americans had embraced the concept of Manifest Destiny, the notion that America professed a God-given right to occupy and civilize the entire continent. This philosophy came into play in 1835, when American settlers who had relocated to Mexico disliked living under Mexican rule and rebelled. A year of warfare ensued, and in 1836, Mexican President Santa Anna reluctantly signed the Treaty of Velasco granting Texas its independence. Border disputes between the two nations continued with both Mexico and Texas claiming lands north of the Rio Grande. These disputes finally led to the federal government’s annexation of the Republic of Texas on 4 July 1845 over the protests of American abolitionists who opposed the addition of another slave state. Also ominous was Mexico’s declaration in 1843, that annexation would be considered “…equivalent to a declaration of war…”

Troops were mobilized on both sides of the border and on 25 April 1846, Mexican troops into the disputed lands across the Rio Grande and ambushed American troops. Congress voted to declare war. This war would last for two years, and would feature the first major amphibious landing (at Veracruz) by the United States Navy. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo on              2 February 1848. This treaty substantially changed the map of the United States as Mexico ceded land that would become the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

More importantly, however, the Mexican War served as a training ground for the Civil War with such individuals as Winfield Scott, Jefferson Davis, Braxton Bragg, George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, Albert Sidney Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, and others gaining combat experience in the United States Army.

Virtually every state sent soldiers to fight in this war. If you have a male ancestor born, roughly, between 1796 and 1828, you will want to determine if that individual had Mexican War military service. (Remember, some individuals may have served even if over fifty or under eighteen years of age).

An Index to Compiled Military Service Records for Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the Mexican War is on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (M616). This index includes the name of the soldier, his rank, and the unit or units in which he served. The compiled service records themselves, however, are available on microfilm only for the states of Mississippi (M8663), Pennsylvania (M1028), Tennessee (M638) and Texas (M278), in addition to records for those who served in Mormon organizations (M351). All other records may be identified through the index and then viewed as textual records belonging to Record Group 94, Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the Mexican War.

Lists of officers of “Volunteers in the Service of the United States” who served in the Mexican War can be found in Francis B. Heitman’s Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States (Clearfield, 1993), volume 2, pages 43-73. For example, this list includes a Capt. James Barclay of the 1st New York Infantry. The Aztec Club of 1847 is a by-invitation-only lineage society for those with male lineal or collateral descent from individuals who were commissioned officers of the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps, Regular or Volunteer, and who served in some part of Mexico, Mexican territory or Mexican waters during the War with Mexico. The society’s web site includes a searchable list of officers, described as “the most complete record of Mexican War service by American officers ever prepared,” compiled from fifty-four sources. Be sure to use the “Name Search” link in the left-hand navigation bar to begin your search. When I tried to use the “Database Search” link at the bottom of the page, I encountered repeated error messages. In checking this database for any Barclay/Barkley surnames, I found a listing for a Capt. James Barclay in the 2nd New York Volunteers [perhaps the same James Barclay in the 1st New York?], stating that he was wounded at Belen Gate in September 1847, and died on 28 January 1848 in San Angel, Mexico. I also accessed information on George B. McClellan, who was born 3 December 1826 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and died on 19 October 1885 in Orange, New Jersey. He served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Engineer Corps during the Mexican War. Extensive notes on his military service are included. In addition, I was able to access a record for most of the more notable individuals mentioned above, with the notable exception of Robert E. Lee. Further military service information can be found in William Hugh Robarts’ Mexican War Veterans: A Complete Roster of the Regular and Volunteer Troops (Brentano’s, 1887). Please note that despite the title of this volume, it lists officers only (and does include Robert E. Lee).

No compiled service records are available for individuals who served in the regular army, navy or marine corp. However, several microfilm publications will assist you in locating information from which you can aggregate an individual’s record. Registers of Enlistments in the U. S. Army, 1789-1914 (NARA microfilm publication M233) arrange entries first chronologically, and then alphabetically by the first letter of a surname. Information includes the name of the individual, when and where he enlisted, his period of enlistment, place of birth, age at the time of enlistment, civilian occupation, physical description, and the unit to which he was assigned. M330, arranged chronologically, is entitled Abstracts of Service Records for Naval Officers (1796-1893), and T1098, arranged alphabetically by surname, is an Index to Rendezvous Reports Before and After the Civil War (1846-1861, 1865-1884). These reports include the sailor’s name, place of enlistment or vessel on which he enlisted (rendezvous), and date of enlistment. The index references textual records.

Many Mexican War veterans received pensions for their service. Robart’s Mexican War Veterans includes the text of the Pension Act of 29 January 1887 on page 3. An Index to the Mexican War Pension Files (1887-1926) is published as NARA microfilm publication T317. In addition, NARA microfilm publication T1196 provides an alphabetical list entitled Selected Pension Application Files Relating to the Mormon Battalion (also available on Footnote). Pension files relating to regular Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel are provided by NARA microfilm publication T316, Old War Pension Index, 1815-1926, and are arranged alphabetically by surname. Finally, if the wife of a soldier remarried, you will want to consult NARA microfilm publication M1784, the Index to Pension Application Files of Remarried Widows Based on Service in the War of 1812, Indian Wars, Mexican War and Regular Army Service Before 1861.

While and provide a small number resources for Mexican War research, a search of the Library of Congress’ Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, using the phrase “Mexican War,” provided 4,851 results, and a Google search for “Mexican War 1846” yielded 41,000 thumbnail images of photographs and documents. Other web sites to consult include “The Mexican War,” U.S.-Mexican War and “The Descendants of Mexican War Veterans.” The latter provides rich information including recommended reading and links to documents from the war, including speeches and proclamations, legislation and treaties, and battle reports.

You will want to investigate service for your male ancestors living during that period. The Mexican War was a test of American military leadership and strategy that would prove valuable during the Civil War, a short fifteen years later. It is a conflict, however, that is often overshadowed by its proximity to later events and deserves a closer look.

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