For Americans captured by the Mexican Army captivity was not harsh. While accounts of captivity are sparse, Capt. Cassius M. Clay left an account of his imprisonment.
There were three large captures of American soldiers during the course of the war. Prior to the Battle of Reseca de Palma a scouting party of sixty-three Dragoons was overrun and all were killed or captured. The last two incidents took place in January 1847 before the Battle of Buena Vista. General John E. Wool sent scouting parties toward the town of Saltillo to search for a Mexican Army reported approaching Monterey. Captain Cassius Marcellus Clay, Kentucky Cavalry was a member of the patrol.
Two patrols numbering seventy-two officers and men halted at the hacienda Encarnacion. They were quickly surrounded by the advance of the Mexican Army. A third patrol of nineteen officers and men searching for the overdue patrol was also taken.
The surrender at Encarnacion was by formal convention; that is terms were granted. Captain Clay stated there were three conditions for the surrender. The first specified “most honorable treatment as prisoners of war known to nations; second “private property be strictly respected;” third “The Mexican guide to receive a fair trial in the civil courts.”
The Americans had picked up a local peasant to guide them. Mexicans caught cooperating with the American invaders were often executed by guerillas who infested the area of operations. This article was inserted to protect this man. The Mexcians honored the terms strictly. The only incident of unpleasantness occurred when one of the American escaped. The commander of the guard ordered his men to execute the prisoners. Clay intervened and convinced the commander that the escape was not a prelude to a mass exodus.
The prisoners suffered greatly from lack of food and water. The lack of food reflected the dire straits the Mexican Army was in. The Mexican Commissary lacked food for its own soldiers. The Americans were able to get food and water from isolated haciendas they passed. In the towns the populace wanted to murder the prisoners. At the town of Auerateo, a mob attacked the prisoners with stones. The Mexican soldiers rushed the prisoners into a church and beat the mob back.
Upon arrival in San Luis Potosi, the prisoners, both officers and enlisted men, were granted parole. The enlisted men were not required to work. Even with parole, the hostile nature of populace made the prisoners reluctant to exercise the privilege. Lack of food and clothing to be a problem. The men had only their uniforms on their backs and blankets.
The prisoners were moved to Mexico City where they were locked in the penitentiary for protection. Conditions were poor. No beds were issued; the men slept on the floor. To help alleviate the food problem, the Mexican government paid each man an allowance of fifty cents a day. The prisoners were further aided by an anonymous New Englander, who lent money to supply their needs. The efforts of the Mexican government to provide care ensured the health of the men in their custody. Clay cites no incidence of disease among the men he was imprisoned with.
Cartel & Exchange
There was no formal agreement for the treatment of prisoners of war during the war. A cartel was included in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago. The Mexican Army and government did all in their limited power to treat their prisoners humanely. Boredom and lack of food were the main complaints registered in Clay’s account.
- Cassius M. Clay, The Life, Memories, and Speeches of Cassius M. Clay Vol. I Cincinnati, OH. J. Fletcher Brennan & Co. 1886
- David L. Smiley, Lion of White Hall, (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1962)
- Department of State,Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, Art. XXII