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The Onset of War

With Slidell's rejection, it became clear that the Polk had no immediate hope of obtaining California by diplomatic methods. He thus resolved for war, and considered asking Congress for an immediate declaration of war based on Mexico's refusal to negotiate as well as the unpaid claims. However, when it became clear that he lacked the immediate Congressional support needed for war, Polk instead ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead troops south of Nueces River, into the disputed territory. For Polk, it promised to be a win-win maneuver: the show of force might awe Mexico to the bargain table, or, if the Mexicans attacked, a congressional declaration would be easily obtainable. As it was, a brief skirmish took place between Mexican and American patrols, in which several Americans were killed. When news reached Washington, Congress voted to war, and thus opened up for Polk the opportunity to obtain California by conquest.

However, Polk maintained publicly that the US was not fighting the war with territorial ambition. To do so would have grossly hurt already waning congressional support for the conflict, as the aquisition of vast new tracts of territory threatened to re-open the ugly debate over the expansion of slavery. Nonetheless, as California was one of Polk's foremost private war aims, he dispatched forces to secure the territory, although the main bulk of American troops and ships were concentrated directly against Mexico.

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