Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, grandson of the Revolutionary War hero, struggled with questions of right and wrong during his long military career. He thought the Mexican-American War was wrong because the United States had ‘not one particle of right’ to be there.’ He did his duty as a soldier, though, and served with distinction.
President James Polk pushed for the war to acquire California, then part of Mexico. Anti-slavery Northerners viewed expansion as a way to create more slave territory. Hitchcock then predicted vast bloodshed would result from U.S. aggression. He was right.
Ethan Allen Hitchcock
Like his grandfather Ethan Allen, Hitchcock was a bold and independent thinker. He was born on May 18, 1798, in Vergennes, Vt.,the son of Samuel Hitchcock and Lucy Caroline Allen. Though no likeness exists of his grandfather, his mother said her son bore a strong resemblance to him.
His brother Henry served as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. One nephew served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President William McKinley.
Ethan Allen Hitchcock graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, commissioned a third lieutenant and then quickly rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army. He served in the Seminole War in Florida and as the right-hand man of Gen. Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War.
Hitchcock was a devoted scholar, an admirer of the philosopher Spinoza and a collector of books on alchemy and flute music.
In 1845, Hitchcock served in the 3rd Infantry Regiment, but not happily. He viewed the impending conflict with Mexico with dread and despair. “For ten years we have been encroaching on Mexico and insulting her,” he wrote. “Her people I consider a simple, well disposed, pastoral race, no way inclined to savage usages.”
On June 30, 1845, Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock was stationed at Fort Jessup in Louisiana. He had just learned of orders to move the army to the west bank of the Rio Grande. Hitchcock believed Texas had no right to claim the territory they were ordered to defend. He wrote in his diary:
Fort Jessup, La., June 30, 1845. Orders came last evening by express from Washington City directing General [Zachary] Taylor to move without any delay to some point on the coast near the Sabine or elsewhere, and as soon as he shall hear of the acceptance by the Texas convention of the annexation resolutions of our Congress he is immediately to proceed with his whole command to the extreme western border of Texas and take up a position on the banks of or near the Rio Grande, and he is to expel any armed force of Mexicans who may cross that river.
[William W. S.] Bliss read the orders to me last evening hastily at tattoo. I have scarcely slept a wink, thinking of the needful preparations. I am now noting [writing] at reveille by candlelight and waiting the signal for muster….Violence leads to violence, and if this movement of ours does not lead to others and bloodshed, I am much mistaken….
The Rest of the War
Hitchcock predicted correctly. The Mexican-American War went on for two years. Mexicans more properly call it Intervención estadounidense en México (American intervention in Mexico).
Hitchcock served throughout the war. U.S. troops invaded Mexico’s heartland under Gen. Winfield Scott. During the march on Mexica City, Hitchcock served as his inspector general. When the war ended in 1848, Mexico ceded California, Nevada and Utah and parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Historian Howard Zinn relied on Hitchcock’s journal entries during the war for his treatment of the conflict in Voices of A People’s History of the United States.
With thanks to the History Is A Weapon blog.
This story was updated in 2023.