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A Call to Arms

Army Life:  Mexican Army

by Donald S. Frazier

Mexican SoldierLife in the Mexican Army The Mexican army of 1821 to 1854 was composed largely of peasants who were either drafted or dragooned into service. Thus, the culture and social life of the Mexican rank and file while under arms reflected that of Mexico as a whole. Like their civilian counterparts, the soldados of Mexico enjoyed music, paid dutiful attention to Catholic ritual, if not tenets, were self-reliant in terms of medicines and food, maintained a healthy cynicism toward their government, and pursued various forms of recreation including talking, drinking, and games of skill and chance. Largely illiterate, the common soldiers who fought for Mexico spent little time keeping diaries, writing letters, or reading books; rather, these were activities that distinguished the officer corps. One of the aspects that had the most profound effect on the culture of the Mexican army in the first three decades of independence was the large number of women accompanying the troops.

Music abounded. From the fairly sophisticated brass bands that accompanied every army to the simple wooden flutes of the privates, the tunes of Castilian marches and Indian corridos floated from the midst of every encampment. In 1836 when Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna marched north to suppress the rebellion in Texas, his advance guard of 2,000 men was accompanied by a band numbering 150 members. The band book included tunes inherited from the Spanish Armv, revolutionary airs like the Marseillaise, and campesino waltzes that reminded them of home. One observer from the early stages of the siege of the Alamo noted that the band frequently played selections from the opera The Barber of Seville.

For a Catholic army, priests were required on the march. These men were more than the obligatory chaplains of the U.S. armies and served the dual role of confessor and enforcer. The Catholic calendar was respected in the field to varying degrees depending on the forcefulness of the army's clerics. Before battle, priests offered prayers and blessings; after the fight, they offered rites and absolution.

The true keepers of the soldiers' morale, however, were the ubiquitous soldaderas. These women had no official role in the army but tagged along with their husbands, brothers, customers, and lovers as they had since the earliest days. These women served a variety of useful roles, including those of laundress, cook, nurse, and maid. This informal relationship became such a part of Mexican war planning that logistics often were neglected by military officials with the expectation that the soldaderas would make up for any deficiencies.

Mexican soldiers had to endure the effects of a poor system of logistics and medical care. Food was often scarce and had to be pressed from local residents as the army passed. Animals, too, were often requisitioned. As a result, troops often spent time away from camp foraging for supplies. In combat, the rank and file's weapons and ammunition were unreliable. Powder and shot were often in short supply throughout the Mexican military, and soldados often faced U.S. forces with less than a full cartridge box. Men wounded in battle faced a grim future. The medical corps of the Mexican army was virtually nonexistent, and even a modest injury could result in weeks of agony and death. Soldiers who did not receive attention from relatives or friends were often abandoned by their officers.

A reality of the Mexican army was the gulf that separated the enlisted ranks from their officers. Considered a bastion of wealth and privilege, the officer corps was filled with aristocrats who had little concern for the welfare of their men. These leaders, more often than not, saw their position as an opportunity for personal glory and financial gain. As a result, payrolls disappeared, phantom soldiers remained on rolls for pay and supply purposes, and food and ammunition often became "lost." While on campaign, Santa Anna referred to his men as "mere chickens" and viewed their lives simply as tools for advancing his career. Military justice was often arbitrary, and punishments in camp, for crimes real and imagined, were severe, ranging from execution by hanging or firing squad to flogging, branding, and cropping. Ever so, when called on by these same officers to perform heroically, the soldados did their duty to the best of their ability.

 Another feature of the Mexican army of 1821 to 1854 is that it spent more time fighting other Mexicans in the various coups and in the service of the various caudillos than it did fighting foreigners. As a result, battles were not as lethal and campaigns not as protracted as those that would be experienced when fighting the United States, Texas, France, Spain, or Indians.

When out of the watchful eye of priests and officers, the men of the Mexican army enjoyed the universal pastimes pursued by soldiers worldwide. Gambling was commonplace, from cards to dice to horse races in mounted regiments. Mexican soldiers often composed poems and songs as satire of their plight. Fandangos, impromptu dances accompanied by drinking, were favorites in an army in the field.