How Tennessee became the "Volunteer" State

When Tennessean James K. Polk was elected to the Presidency in 1844, he followed through on his campaign promise to annex the Independent Republic of Texas into the United States.
Although officially recognized by England and France as well as the U.S., Mexico disputed Texas sovereignty and immediately withdrew her representatives from Washington, D.C.
President Polk dispatched General Zachary Taylor to advance the American Army to the Rio Grande across from the City of Matamoros.
Polk , however, was a master at the art of intrigue and always hedged his bets with emissaries trying to negotiate peaceful settlements. His forays into Mexican- held California and New Mexico laid the groundwork for American expansion to the coast of the Pacific. In the midst of the brewing problems in Mexico, he led a successful diplomatic assault on Great Britain’s claims to Oregon territory and purchased the property to prevent the British from laying claim to the California territories, which he desperately wanted in order to establish a "Golden Gate" trade with the emerging Asian nations.
The Mexican Government, however, recognized the expansionist policies and refused to see Polk’s envoy sent to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The action prompted Mexico to take an aggressive stand against the American soldiers on the Rio Grande.What would follow would affect not only Texas and the United States, but would forever change the way people looked at the state of Tennessee.

In April 1846, Ranking Mexican General Mariano Arista was ordered to push the American troops back across the Nueces River. He dispatched the order to Taylor stating that Mexico rightfully claimed the disputed territory. Taylor refused and sent out a unit of 63 men to investigate possible buildups of Mexican troops. The men were ambushed by Mexican regulars. Eleven Americans were killed and the rest captured as prisoners.
Taylor immediately dispatched a report to President Polk saying "hostilities had begun". At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 9, 1846, General Taylor’s report reached the President, who was dining at the time. He immediately called his cabinet to an emergency session and the following Monday a divided Congress agreed that a state of war existed with Mexico. U.S. Navy Ships immediately moved to blockade the Gulf of Mexico and others in the Pacific moved towards California ports.
With a regular standing army of only 8,000 men and General Taylor screaming for reinforcements, President Polk was forced to call upon the states to raise 2,600 men each to supply the American Army in Mexico.
Tennessee Governor Aaron Brown issued the proclamation from Nashville for 2,600 volunteers to aid in the war. With fellow Tennessean Sam Houston in trouble and the legendary exploits of David Crockett and other native sons who had given their lives for Texas Independence still fresh in their minds, Tennesseans had developed a strong dislike for the Mexican government and jumped at the opportunity to go to war against them. Within a week, 30,000 Tennesseans responded to the call and swelled the ranks of the militias. Many complained they couldn’t even purchase a place in the units. While the Tennessee volunteer Cavalry headed towards the Rio Grande, the other volunteers were sent to the staging area in New Orleans. Their sheer numbers and their native skills as riflemen made them the most sought after volunteers in New Orleans.
In the Louisiana port, President Polk was faced with another political decision, both Taylor and General-in-Chief of the Army Winfield Scott were potential rivals for the Whig candidacy for President, but Polk decided to lay aside the rivalry and appointed Scott Commander-in-Chief of the invasion force.
During this time, Polk was still working towards settlement and had accepted an offer from former Mexican General Santa Anna to leave political exile in Cuba and assume the Presidency in Mexico, under a pretext of negotiating a truce to the conflict.
Once ashore, however, Santa Anna saw an opportunity for power and broke his word. He began assembling and training a Mexican Army to repel the Americans.
While Scott scrambled to get the volunteers hammered into shape and ships to carry them to Mexico, Gen. Taylor had two surprising victories at Palo Alto and Reseca de la Palma. Thanks in a part to the leadership of his son-in-law Jefferson Davis’ Mississippi Rifles and the Artillery crews under the command of West Point instructor Major Sam Ringgold. Ringgold was killed at Palo Alto, but his instruction of other leaders on his crews like Tennessee junior officer Braxton Bragg allowed the Americans to carry on the successful tactics throughout Taylor’s engagements in Northern Mexico.
News of Taylor’s victories reached Washington quickly thanks to the work of a unique group of war corespondents. George Kendall had volunteered for service in Taylor’s army and covered it for his paper, "The New Orleans Picayune". Kendall began to set up a series of posts along the Army’s march and offered high wages to attract trustworthy Mexicans who would carry dispatches to steamships on the coast for transport to New Orleans. Once in New Orleans, the dispatches were sent north by a pony express to other American cities. The reports offered an up- to-date record of events in the War. They became a useful tool early on and kept political support for the Mexican War high among Americans.
General Scott used the national mood to continue acquiring the supplies and ships he needed to get the men ready for the Mexican coast. Never in American history had a General attempted such a large amphibious landing on a foreign coast, but Scott was determined to take the beaches at Veracruz and march inland. While he didn’t have the leadership ability of General Taylor, he was a great strategist and understood the delegating responsibilities of command.
In 1847, General Winfield Scott pushed off from New Orleans with the volunteers and the special made boats from Philadelphia that would allow him to land the American troops in numbers on the coast.
They docked at Lobos Island off of the coast of Veracruz and began assembling the troops and supplies for the amphibious landing. Logistic foul-ups and delays frustrated Scott and caused problems with President Polk and the Secretary of War. With Spring approaching, disease became a factor that could cripple his numbers and be used against him. With only half of the 18,000 men needed for the operation, Scott decided to launch the invasion fleet to Veracruz on March 2.
The Tennesseans under General Gideon J. Pillow were part of the volunteer divisions assigned to the invasion force. Pillow’s only qualification for command was that he had once been a law partner of President Polk. While he was a leader many questioned, the Tennesseans under his command proved to be some of the best volunteer fighters in the invasion force. The men took the beachhead with hardly any opposition and moved to encircle the City of Veracruz. For close to two months, the American forces battled the Mexican Army. They seized the city and started fighting their way up the mountains towards the City of Jalapa.
General Scott had taken his entire command staff with him on the invasion and his two aides, Captain of Engineers Robert E. Lee, who had requested the assignment when the War began, and Lt. P.G.T. Beauregard. His two aides would become the most depended upon in the outfit.
At a steep mountain pass, Scott’s men beat back Santa Anna’s Army at the Battle of Cerro Gordo Pass. With the Mexican Army in retreat, General Winfield Scott decided to take a big gamble. He had been plagued with delays and troubles throughout the campaign. While many of the volunteer forces were undertrained, most were hardened by frontier living and capable of the task. His men would have to live off of the land and avoid unnecessary diversions. Rather than wait for his supply trains to catch up with him, Scott chose to emulate the march of Hernando Cortes 300 years earlier and march forward to Mexico City without any logistical support.
Military leaders throughout America couldn’t believe it. President Polk declared his decision a "great military error" to try and take a city of 200,000 people on his own. London newspapers compared it to Napoleon trying to take Moscow and the Duke of Wellington himself thought it insane.
"Scott is lost!" The Duke declared. "He can’t take the city and he can’t fall back on his bases."
Scott kept his head up amid the criticism and decided it was safer to keep marching and get the war over with than be bogged down in political quicksand by armchair-generals in Washington.
On the grueling march, Scott’s men proved themselves time and again under fire. Capt. Robert E. Lee helped scout the forward areas and keep the army moving through the unknown obstacles often encountered in the jungles of Mexico. Lee’s engineering abilities impressed everyone in the command. Lt. U.S. Grant, a young Quartermaster officer under the command of General Worth, would later remark at how Lee could get an army through the eye of a needle if there was a way to do it.
When the large City of Puebla surrendered to Scott, he simply left one of his best Generals behind to guard his rear position and kept marching towards Mexico City.
By August, Scott’s men had made it to the bowl-like Mexico Valley and thousands of new recruits had caught up with the marching army. They weren’t fresh-faced soldiers, but, along the march, had become battle-hardened veterans of guerrilla fights with the Mexican Army. General Scott didn’t know if it was enough.
General Santa Anna had over 20,000 soldiers guarding Mexico City. A series of strongholds and fortifications marked the main roads into the city. Marshes stood between the roads preventing artillery and horses from evading the structures. The American soldiers would have to face a gauntlet of fortified positions in order to get to the city. With only roughly 13,000 men under Scott’s command, the American general had to find a way to take the city without having his command destroyed.
P.G.T. Beauregard scouted a route along a lake that would take them around many of the forts and to within nine miles of the city. Scott seized on the opportunity and marched his men 25 miles along the lake shore to the city of San Agustin.
When reports came back the fort was unflankable, however, Scott had his back to the wall. Marshlands covered the area between the road on the right and the Pedregal, an ancient lava field about five miles wide, lay on the left. The lava fields were hazardous to cross and it was impossible to take horses and artillery across the sharp jagged rocks. The Pedregal was a natural defense and General Santa Anna did not post troops to the region.
On Aug. 18, Scott sent a small company of infantry forward to test San Antonio’s defenses. When the were attacked, General Worth called for an immediate assault. Scott agreed, but decided he first wanted to make sure the lava fields really couldn’t be crossed.
In a heavy rain and under the cover of darkness, Capt. Robert E. Lee entered the lava fields with a small company of men. When they heard Spanish voices near the end of the fields, Lee scaled up a rock wall and took cover at the top of a rise. While watching for enemy activity from that vantage point, Lee suddenly saw a way through the solid rock fields with a little help. He returned to camp and got his team digging a road to the pass. Within a day, Scott’s men filed through the lava beds to Santa Anna’s flanks. There were six more bloody engagements between the Americans and Mexicans, but the American forces kept moving forward.
In September, Scott’s men made the decisive assault on Chapultepec Castle and captured Mexico City on Sept. 14, 1847. General Winfield Scott rode victoriously through the city, while American Marines literally patrolled the Halls of Montezuma in the National palace. When news of his victory reached the foreign press, world opinion of Scott changed overnight and he was hailed as one of the "greatest living soldiers" by the Duke of Wellington, who had previously called him insane.
With their victory, the Tennesseans and the American forces in Mexico had done what no one thought they could. They marched from an amphibious beachhead at Veracruz across the mountainous jungles and into Mexico City without a supply line and under the harshest of conditions. In addition, they had been outnumbered and outgunned at almost every turn against the brilliant Mexican General Santa Anna. Their most feared enemy on the march were the numerous tropical diseases that left many dead.
Within months of the victory, a peace treaty had been negotiated and was approved by the U.S. Senate on March 10, 1848.
While the war and ensuing political fallout would cost President James Polk a chance for reelection, he accomplished what every President before him had wanted to do.
In the Mexican Peace Treaty, a stroke of the pen had given America the present day region of New Mexico, parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho, and all of Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. In addition to the territories of Oregon, Washington, and the rest of Idaho purchased from Britain, Polk had almost matched the Louisiana Purchase in land mass and taken America to the Pacific coast and secured an opportunity for national expansion on an unbelievable scale.
The brave Tennesseans who had ventured off to Mexico returned home to heroes’ welcomes across the state. The City of Nashville hosted a barbecue for the thousands of returning soldiers. The veterans were honored with parades in every Tennessee city and town. The men had officially brought home with them not only a tradition for strength and courage under grueling conditions, but a reputation for service under fire. One that would forever in the annals of American history earn Tennessee the "Volunteer" nickname.

Numerous books are available on the Mexican War. Situated between the War of 1812 and the American War Between the States, the Mexican War is often regarded as American history’s most forgotten historical conflict.
Its impact, however, is undeniable as the first modern war in American history. It changed the way Americans viewed themselves and the way wars would be fought. From the Mexican War emerged an officers corps that would command both sides of the WBTS.
Among the 200 officers who served, Robert E. Lee, Braxton Bragg, P.G.T. Beauregard, A.S. Johnston, and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson would rise to the rank of General in the Confederate Army. Gen. Taylor’s son-in-law Jefferson Davis would later become President of the Confederate States of America.
U.S. Grant, McClellan, Sheridan, and Sherman would command on the Union side of the war and Generals Taylor and Franklin Pierce would both go on to serve as President of the United States.
President James K. Polk passed away just four months after he left office. A young Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who had opposed "Polk’s War" in Mexico was reviled by his constituents and voted out of the office.
George Kendall, who established an information route for his news dispatches to his New Orleans newspaper that informed America on the progress of the Mexican War laid the groundwork for an organization that eventually evolved into what we know today as the "Associated Press". Of the 20 million people in America at the time, 90 percent of them were literate and followed the war on a daily basis. The pencil sketches, engravings, and daguerreotypes, ( an early form of photography) were published throughout the world.
General Winfield Scott returned home a hero, but got caught up in the political turmoil following the war. Scott wasn’t liked by many Tennesseans. While a brilliant leader, a lot of people from the state still remembered him as the officer in charge of the Cherokee removal from Tennessee.
He made an unsuccessful run for the Presidency and stayed a leading member of the American Army until his quick war policies in the WBTS proved a failure.
The 150 year anniversary of the Mexican War that earned Tennessee the Volunteer nickname was celebrated in the state’s Bicentennial year. A monument does stand near Gallatin honoring the veterans of the Mexican War from Tennessee.
Representative Steve McDaniel R-Lexington secured the passage of a bill that added The French & Indian War, The War of 1812 , and the U.S. Mexican War to the roster of the Tennessee Wars Commission as a way of ensuring the Tennesseans’ sacrifices made in these conflicts would be forever remembered.