The Routledge Handbook of the History of Race and the American Military

“In addition to compassion, Euro-Americans believed that Mexicans lagged behind in other areas: agriculture, industry, and commerce. These failings resulted in the land not fulfilling its potential. In their reasoning, it was clear that the fault must lay with the Mexicans themselves, who were a mixture of Spaniard, Indian, and even African. The majority of Mexicans were indigenous to the region, the descendants of the tribes changed little since the Spanish Conquest.”

“Although a Christian nation, Mexico followed Catholicism, which brought into question Mexicans’ ability to be true republicans since they owed allegiance to Rome. A church building, the cartographic icon for a civilized nation, expressed the power that an established religion such as Catholicism had over its people. The series of changing governments in Mexico since independence from Spain in 1821 disappointed Euro-Americans.”

“To them, Mexico had committed the ultimate civil sin of betraying the republican ideals of Enlightenment and deserved punishment. The American’s pre-war military was woefully small and unprepared to meet the placed on it by the conflict. Numbering less than five thousand men and officers, the regular establishment attempted to fill the units already authorized by Congress through increased recruitment.”

“How, by mid-war, a looming manpower shortage prompted the raising of ten new regiments to augment those that already existed. All told, only 26,922 regulars served from 1846-1848, not enough to prosecute the war. The legislation allowed individual states to provide volunteers for national service. Two separate calls (the first for twelve months and the second for the duration of the war) resulted in a total of 73,532 state volunteers for the war.”

“Although there may have been exceptions, these men–regulars and volunteers–were predominately white Protestant Euro-Americans. The 1841 edition of the General Regulations of the United States Army limited recruiting to “free white male persons.” Purportedly, these men received an examination by a doctor in the presence of the recruiting officer and were checked for medical conditions or defects that might hinder their usefulness. Examiners also looked for any obvious or subtle indication of a race other than white.”

“Dr. Thomas Henderson addressed the issue of race in a postwar edition of Hints on the Medical Examination of Recruits for the Army, in which he wrote. “The question can never occur whether the man be white or black; it arises in cases of the offspring of the white man, and of the mulatto woman. Henderson related two incidences where this had occurred. In the first case, the man remained in the service.”

“In the latter, the Army discharged an enlisted recruit at Fort Monroe, Virginia, after his father revealed him the offspring of a union with a mulatto slave woman. Henderson contended that the matter was serious because “Soldiers would not tolerate the mixed breed as comrades.” The doctor offered several suggestions to prevent the enlisting of mulattoes by mistake. “The most conspicuous feature is the hair,” noted Henderson, “which has a very coarse texture.”

“Even this was not enough because “course hair is frequently seen in undoubtedly white cases.” Moreover, “The color of the skin is not more dark than in many unmixed white families in the Southern States, or in the branches of the olive colored (Mongolian or Mauritanian) race seen in all parts of the country.” He offered one other method of ascertaining a man’s race. “One of the best tests in doubtful cases of this kind is afforded by the appearance of the external organs of the generation…The skin covering these organs is much darker in persons having a trace of negro blood, than in the white race.”

Source: The Routledge Handbook of the History of Race and the American Military edited by Geoffrey Jensen