When Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1835, Mexico did not recognize that independence. Matters grew worse when Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845; Mexico saw this annexation as a threat to its other northern territories. U.S. President James K. Polk had made clear in his campaign in 1844 that he wished to annex California and Oregon into the United States. California was part of Mexico at the time. If the annexation of Texas was successful, the Mexicans feared California might not be far behind. Polk sent an envoy to Mexico with an offer to buy New Mexico and California. Mexican leaders, who believed the problem of Texas should be resolved first, were offended by the idea that the United States would take over more Mexican territory. The Mexican president refused to receive Polk's envoy. In April 1846, Mexican troops fired on General Zachary Taylor's troops along the Rio Grande (on land Mexico believed was theirs according to earlier U.S. treaties with Spain), and a declaration of war soon followed.
The war with Mexico aroused both patriotic fervor and ardent dissent. Patriotic fervor was fueled by cries that Mexico had spilled "American blood on American soil." Dissenters questioned whether the soil involved was actually American, suggesting that the United States had acted too aggressively by sending troops onto land that Mexico claimed. In addition, some northerners protested the war because they believed it was a ploy by southern leaders to gain territory onto which they could expand slavery.
Most of the music about the war was written to celebrate victories over Mexican forces or the exploits of U.S. military field commanders. A piano composition by William Striby titled "The Battle of Buena Vista" presented a musical composite of the war including a "Mexican March," "U.S. Parade March," "Charge of the Lancers," "Battle Music," "Flag of Truce," and "Hail Columbia." Other songs celebrated heroic acts. "The Heroine of Monterey" was written as a ballad to call attention to the selflessness of a woman who nursed the wounded during the battle of Monterey. "Look up on that Banner," written after the war, used as an epigram an excerpt from a grieving mother to her son:
"'Come not to me! Go to Mexico — revenge your brother's death, and sustain your Country's honor' Extract from a letter from Mrs. Porter to her Son, who had communicated to her the death of his brother in Mexico."
From "Look up on that Banner"
In contrast, the Hutchinson Family Singers in "Eight Dollars a Day" reflected a sentiment, especially popular in New England, that the conflict with Mexico was not an event to be celebrated but "a war for slavery."
Conduct a Keyword Search using the term Mexican War to locate sheet music written to commemorate battle victories at Palo Alto, Monterrey, Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo, and Chapultepec. Examine several of the songs and consider the following questions:
- How did the composers of the songs try to marshal patriotic fervor? What techniques were used in instrumental pieces? What words and phrases were used in song lyrics to inspire patriotic feelings?
- What techniques did the Hutchinson Family Singers use to express their opposition to the Mexican War? How were the techniques they used similar to and different from the techniques used by supporters of the war?
- Examine the dedications of the songs. How did the dedications underscore the meaning of the songs? What other purposes did the dedications serve?
- What message did the lyricists seek to convey in "Look up on that Banner" and "The Dying Soldier of Buena Vista"? What emotions did they try to elicit? Contrast the feelings aroused by the lyrics of "Look up on that Banner" and those aroused by "Eight Dollars a Day."
- Find out about songs written to support other war efforts, as well as other songs of dissent. Have songs been written about every war in U.S. history? Why do you think this is so?