Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Wicked War

Amy Greenberg offers a fresh take on the Mexican War, approaching it largely from the anti-war sentiments expressed at the time by such statesmen as Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln.  Most historians have regarded the Mexican War as a manufactured war largely engineered to expand slavery below the Mason-Dixie line.  Theoretically, the line ran all the way to the Pacific Ocean, so annexing Texas, the New Mexico territory and California virtually doubled the size of the "South."  

As wars go, it was a relatively easy affair for the US Army, which greatly outmanned the duplicitous Santa Ana, who was largely bent on seizing power of Mexico again.  The sprawling country simply wasn't prepared for the onslaught and succumbed within a year and a half, forced to sign the notorious Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, which ceded Upper California and the New Mexico territories to the United States, which had previously taken Texas, all for the princely sum of $15 million.  The two countries would forever be divided by the Rio Grande River.

It was U.S. Grant who called it a "Wicked War" in his 1879 Memoirs, but like many young American officers, he honed his skills on the battlefield, which served him well during the Civil War.  He also said he wished he had the "moral courage" to resign, finding the war contemptible on many levels.  As Greenberg illustrates in her narrative, so did many others, but Polk and the Southern Democrats held sway in Congress, buttressed by their friends in the North, leaving Lincoln to make a moot speech at the end of the war in 1848, although it sums up the cost of the war to the national conscience.  Several historians argue that the Mexican War was one of the precipitating factors that led to the creation of the Republican Party in 1854. which Lincoln would lead in 1860.

Historians have also viewed the war as America's first attempt to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, and elevated  Zachary Taylor to hero and eventual President of the United States, although his term would be short lived.  Bernard De Voto wrote a caustic account of the war in Year of Decision 1846 taking aim at all the manufactured heros that arose from the war, notably John Fremont, who was largely responsible for annexing California.  I look forward to reading Greenberg's account of the war.


  1. Nice overview! I'm going to have to go back to DeVoto now that I've read this book.

    What Greenberg points out is that Taylor actually lost a major battle, with several men killed, and it probably should have been the end of the war. But then Santa Ana returned to (I think) Mexico City and the loss became considered a major victory for the Americans by default, and the dead men became heroes.

    Very interesting to see this early use of propaganda. Many areas the book suggested Iraq to me, particularly with Polk provoking a "war of choice" on the Americans and Mexicans.

    Also interesting to see the young Lincoln coming into his own. She does a really good job bringing some of these people to life.

  2. As a resident of California, I confess I have no regrets.

  3. Noticed a few typos (wrote it late last night) so polished the post this morning.

    I suppose few Americans have regrets, since it took place over 160 years ago, but it is good to be reminded once in a while how we came to be who we are ; )

  4. The war of 1812 was a similarly contested war, largely aimed at expanding US territorial positions. The US secured Northwest Florida and added the Mississippi Territory, as I recall reading. It also made a play for Canada but lost that bid. Yet, Jackson emerged a great hero from the trumped-up war and later became President. War, it seems, is a path to glory.

  5. It is interesting that this and another one I read recently on the "great debates" are really early histories of Texas and California, and points in between. As well as histories of slavery. It all sort of gets mixed up into one melting pot as it were.

  6. That should have possessions. Oh well. I remember in high school having to go through all those compromises and laws that protected slavery, the fugitive slave law the most hotly contested of all. It was just a blur to me at the time, but my mother was very patient with me, as she said it was very important to learn these things. I have her to thank for my continued interest in these subjects, as I came to realize this is really what the formation of the United States was all about.

    Territorial expansion was largely an attempt to increase the South's hold on Congress, which is why Lincoln, Clay and others were so adamantly against expansion. But, it must have been pretty hard to resist all that prime real estate just sitting there for the taking.