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Fall 2017

Remember the Walking Dead

book cover imageThe Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War
by Peter Guardino.
Harvard University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 512 pages, $40.

Timothy D. Lusch

The Mexican-American War (1846–1848) is one of the least-remembered conflicts in American history despite being one of the most successful. Part of a triumvirate of historical neglect (along with the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War), the war has received much recent attention in scholarly and popular books. For the diehards, this is a very good thing. For everyone else, it probably goes unnoticed. And it is a shame, as Peter Guardino demonstrates in his new book, since there is much in the way of interesting history to be found here.

Guardino’s book is preceded by other works on the Mexican-American War largely, though not neatly, divided into cultural, military, religious, and social histories. K. Jack Bauer’s The Mexican War, 1846–48 remains the standard military history of the conflict. There are quality operational histories, like David Lavender’s Climax at Buena Vista: The American Campaigns in Northeastern Mexico, 1846–47 and more recent books that emphasize the political and diplomatic history of the war, such as Timothy J. Henderson’s A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States. There are also classic works of cultural history like Robert W. Johanssen’s To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination and newer works of social and cultural history like Richard Bruce Winders’s Mr. Polk’s Army: The American Experience in the Mexican War. The most recent offerings include Robert W. Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, Amy S. Greenberg’s A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico and John C. Pinheiro’s superb Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War.

Guardino incorporates much of the previous scholarship on the war, and his book is perhaps best situated next to the work of Winders and Pinheiro. Drawing on expertise with Mexican primary sources, he offers new insights from Mexican civil, military, and religious perspectives. Guardino’s approach, by his classification, is the “new military history.” Such an approach focuses on “who soldiers and civilians were and how wars were shaped by the societies that waged them.” He argues that it “actually helps us understand why the battles turned out as they did, and why military leaders made particular choices. It also helps us understand the war’s outcome.” Once a nascent academic trend in military history, it has, as historian Robert Citino observes, “been around so long, in fact, and has established itself so firmly, that it seems silly to keep calling it ‘new.’” Indeed.

Guardino’s book is readable and well organized. He has an excellent command of the sources. Maps are conveniently placed near the discussions of major battles. At times he is redundant, especially in discussions of gender where the evidence is weaker or at least debatable. And he is given to the excessive and grating use of “moreover” as if it were some kind of scholarly tic. Despite these minor irritations, Guardino’s solid narrative is colored by anecdotes and an ample selection of diary entries and letters giving the reader a strong sense of flesh and blood. For example, most portraits of General Winfield Scott display a crusty looking man deserving of the name “Old Fuss and Feathers.” But Guardino breathes life into Scott’s humorless visage with a story about Scott in Mexico City after it fell to the Americans. The famously rotund general attempted to deliver a speech to his conquering soldiers (who were greeted with a barrage of stones from angry Mexican citizens) when some Mexican women shouted “Shut up, fattie!” Guardino wryly observes that more fighting ensued.

The book is chronologically arranged with specific emphasis on social and cultural themes of race, gender, and religion. Guardino analyzes how Mexican and American soldiers and civilians saw each other, particularly the American preoccupation with Mexicans as racial inferiors. He discusses the role of women on both sides of the conflict (especially interesting are the soldaderas) and also the particular significance of American ideas of masculinity that had, at times, quite tragic consequences. Guardino also examines the pervasive anti-Catholicism bound up in Democratic notions of Manifest Destiny and in American soldiers’ views toward Mexican Catholics.

An interested reader can find a fuller treatment of anti-Catholic prejudice and Manifest Destiny in Pinheiro’s Missionaries. And a robust exploration of the social, cultural, and political aspects of the American soldier’s experience in the war as documented in primary sources is found in Winders’s Mr. Polk’s Army. Guardino builds on both while giving much needed scholarly attention to social, cultural, and political aspects of the Mexican soldier’s experience (especially the phenomenon of desertion due to a lack of food). This is perhaps the book’s greatest virtue. It also explains much about the war’s outcome and supports one of Guardino’s main arguments that Mexico did not lose because it was less stable or unified than the U.S., but because it was drastically poorer.

The Mexican Army, of course, endured tactical blunders, infighting, and political division. Santa Anna’s miscalculations during Scott’s Valley of Mexico campaign contributed to the weakening of an already crumbling Mexican defense. And at Padierna, outside Mexico City, Mexican General Gabriel Valencia openly disobeyed an order from Santa Anna, his superior officer and political rival, to pull back and concentrate forces at Coyoacán. Political divisions between radical and moderate federalists and centralists, combined with divisions between rich and poor and church and state, culminated in the Polkos Rebellion of 1847 in Mexico City. The rebellion pitted various National Guard units assigned to the defense of the capital against each other just as American forces were closing in. Timing, they say, is everything.

Nevertheless, Guardino offers compelling evidence that the Mexican Army—and the state and federal governments that supported it—was hampered throughout the war by chronic shortages of food, money, and ordnance. Mexican soldiers routinely went hungry while poor Mexicans sold what little surplus they had to the Americans (or had it confiscated). Customs revenue, a major source of income for the federal government, was choked off by a U.S. naval blockade. This resulted in a government so desperate for funds that Santa Anna was forced to provision the army out of his personal wealth to keep it in the field. And at crucial points in key battles like Churubusco, Mexican soldiers simply ran out of ammunition.

A weakness of Guardino’s book is his discussion of various atrocities, guerilla warfare, and soldierly excess because it lacks a comparative approach to other conflicts. Guardino relies too heavily on racial and gender-related motives to explain violence toward citizens when, by comparison to other wars, he might have discerned a common pattern of recurring violence by men in combat zones.

On the last page of the book, Guardino unfortunately mars an otherwise solid endeavor by politicizing his conclusions. In an overt bid for scholarly relevance, he misguidedly attempts to bring past and present together in our current politics. Guardino says, “Recent Mexican immigrants, like the Mexican soldiers, Mexican civilians, immigrant regular soldiers, and American volunteers of the 1840’s, have been victims of a politics in which demagogic, nationalist appeals to fear and racial solidarity continue to be wielded as the ultimate trump card. Similar tragedies will continue until we all insist that what unites us is more important than what divides us, and that our hope is more powerful than our fear.” Any reader of Guardino’s book is educated enough to comprehend the implicit ramifications of the Mexican-American War in our politics today. One certainly doesn’t need to be condescended to with such attempts at agitprop. That said, the preceding three hundred sixty-seven pages can be read with profit.  

Timothy D. Lusch is an attorney and writer. He recently appeared in the Toronto Star and Michigan History Magazine. He blogs at pityitspithy.com.

Posted: December 17, 2017

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