The Wars of Mexico

Mexican Wars Throughout History

Mexico has suffered through several wars in its long history, from the conquest of the Aztecs to World War Two. Here are some of the internal and external conflicts that Mexico has experienced.

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The Rise of the Aztecs

art illustrating Aztec warriors fighting against the Spanish

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The Aztecs were one of several peoples inhabiting central Mexico when they embarked on a series of conquests and subjugations that put them at the center of their own Empire. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, the Aztec Empire was the mightiest New World culture, boasting thousands of warriors based in the magnificent city of Tenochtitlán. Their rise was a bloody one, however, marked by the famous "Flower Wars" which were staged spectacles designed to obtain victims for human sacrifice.

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The Conquest (1519-1522)

Hernan Cortes

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In 1519, Hernán Cortés and 600 ruthless conquistadors marched on Mexico City, picking up native allies along the way who were willing to fight the hated Aztecs. Cortes cleverly played the native groups off against one another and soon had Emperor Montezuma in his custody. The Spanish slaughtered thousands and millions more died of disease. Once Cortes was in possession of the ruins of the Aztec Empire, he sent his lieutenant Pedro De Alvarado to the south to crush the remnants of the once-mighty Maya.

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Independence from Spain (1810-1821)

Miguel Hidalgo monument
Miguel Hidalgo monument.

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On September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo addressed his flock in the town of Dolores, telling them that the time had come to kick out the hated Spaniards. Within hours, he had an undisciplined army of thousands of angry Indians and peasants. Along with military officer Ignacio Allende, Hidalgo marched on Mexico City and nearly captured it. Although both Hidalgo and Allende would be executed by the Spanish within a year, others such as Jose Maria Morelos and Guadalupe Victoria took up the fight. After ten bloody years, independence was gained when General Agustín de Iturbide defected to the rebel cause with his army in 1821.

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The Loss of Texas (1835-1836)

Battle of the Alamo artwork
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Towards the end of the colonial period, Spain began allowing English-speaking settlers from the United States into Texas. Early Mexican governments continued to allow the settlements and before long English-speaking Americans greatly outnumbered Spanish-speaking Mexicans in the territory. A conflict was inevitable, and the first shots were fired in the town of Gonzales on October 2, 1835. Mexican forces, led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, invaded the rebellious region and crushed the defenders at the Battle of the Alamo in March of 1836. Santa Anna was soundly defeated by General Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto in April of 1836, however, and Texas won its independence.

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The Pastry War (1838-1839)

Antonio López de Santa Anna


After independence, Mexico experienced severe growing pains as a nation. By 1838, Mexico owed significant debts to several nations, including France. The situation in Mexico was still chaotic and it looked like France would never see its money. Using as a pretext the claim by a Frenchman that his bakery had been looted (hence "the Pastry War"), France invaded Mexico in 1838. The French captured the port city of Veracruz and forced Mexico to pay its debts. The war was a minor episode in Mexican history, but it did mark the return to political prominence of Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had been in disgrace since the loss of Texas.

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The Mexican-American War (1846-1848)

Battle of Buena Vista artwork


By 1846, the USA was looking west and covetously eyeing Mexico's vast, sparsely populated territories. The USA and Mexico were both eager for a fight: the USA to gain these territories and Mexico to avenge the loss of Texas. A series of border skirmishes escalated into the Mexican-American War. The Mexicans outnumbered the invaders, but the Americans had better weapons and far superior officers. In 1848 the Americans captured Mexico City and forced Mexico to surrender. The terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, required Mexico to hand over all of California, Nevada and Utah and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado to the USA.

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The Reform War (1857-1860)

Benito Juarez
Benito Juarez. Bettmann/Getty Images

The Reform War was a civil war which pitted liberals against conservatives. After the humiliating loss to the USA in 1848, liberal and conservative Mexicans differed on how to get their nation on the correct path. The biggest bone of contention was the relationship between church and state. In 1855-1857 the liberals passed a series of laws and adopted a new constitution severely limiting church influence: the conservatives took up arms and for three years Mexico was torn apart by bitter civil strife. There were even two governments, each with a president, which refused to recognize one another. The liberals eventually won, just in time to defend the nation from another French invasion.

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The French Intervention (1861-1867)

execution of Maximilian

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The Reform War left Mexico a shambles and once again greatly in debt. A coalition of several nations including France, Spain and Britain captured Veracruz. France took it one step further: they wished to capitalize on the chaos in Mexico to install a European nobleman as Emperor of Mexico. They invaded and soon captured Mexico City (along the way the French lost the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, an event celebrated in Mexico annually as Cinco de Mayo). They installed Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian meant well but was incapable of governing unruly Mexico and in 1867 he was captured and executed by forces loyal to Benito Juarez, effectively ending France's imperial experiment.

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The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)

Mexican Revolution

 Dominio público/Wikimedia Commons

Mexico achieved a level of peace and stability under the iron fist of Dictator Porfirio Diaz, who ruled from 1876 to 1911. The economy boomed, but the poorest Mexicans did not benefit. This caused a simmering resentment which exploded into the Mexican Revolution in 1910. At first, new President Francisco Madero was able to keep some sort of order, but after his execution in 1913 the country descended into utter chaos as ruthless warlords like Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Alvaro Obregon fought it out amongst themselves. Obregon eventually "won" the revolution and stability returned, but millions were dead or displaced, the economy was in ruins and Mexico's development had been set back forty years.

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The Cristero War (1926-1929)

Alvaro Obregon
Alvaro Obregon. Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1926, Mexicans (who had apparently forgotten about the disastrous Reform War of 1857) once again went to war over religion. During the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, a new constitution had been adopted in 1917. It allowed for freedom of religion, separation of church and state and secular education. Ardent Catholics had bided their time, but by 1926 it became apparent that these provisions were not likely to be rescinded and fighting began breaking out. The rebels called themselves “Cristeros” because they were fighting for Christ. In 1929 an agreement was reached with the help of foreign diplomats: the laws would remain, but certain provisions would go unenforced.

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World War Two (1939-1945)

Mexican Defence Forces, 1940

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Mexico tried to remain neutral at first during World War Two, but soon faced pressure from both sides. Mexico decided to side with the allies, closing its ports to German ships. Mexico traded with the USA during the war, especially oil, which the US needed desperately. A squadron of Mexican fighters eventually saw some action in the war, but Mexico’s battlefield contributions were small. Of far greater consequence were the actions of Mexicans living in the USA who worked in the fields and factories, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who joined the American armed forces. These men fought bravely and were given US citizenship after the war.