America's War with Mexico

A new book paints a vivid picture of the Mexican War and the men who made it.

(Page 2 of 3)

His heart stirred by the martial drumbeat, Hardin led the First Illinois Regiment into Mexico. Before seeing up close the ugly realities of war, he was given to such guff as "I start to seek my destiny beyond the Rio Grande." Three months in country and Hardin was opining of Mexico that "there is not an acre in 500 that a man in Illinois would pay taxes on."

Hardin's law partner, David A. Smith, chose the wiser course, writing the destiny-seeker, "I would not give the glory and gain of spending one week quietly at home with my wife and children for all the laurels, honor, and enchantments of whatever name or nature that you or...Old Rough & ready will reap on the fields of Mexico." This was a fine example of that preference for the domestic over the exotic which marks the old, and mostly faded, American anti-militarist tradition. In any event, the destiny Hardin found was his own mortality. He fell at the Battle of Buena Vista, where he rallied his men by shouting, "Remember Illinois and give them Blizzard, boys!" But Illinois, so poignantly invoked in Hardin's last moments, was decidedly not what he was fighting for, any more than today's enlistees from Morgan County are fighting for Illinois in Afghanistan.

Abe Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, less than a month after John J. Hardin boarded a steamer for the war. "Hardin's death," notes Greenberg, "vastly improved" Lincoln's "political prospects." For "had Hardin lived," she writes, "Lincoln would have been overshadowed." Less than two decades later, more than half a million American boys and their bereaved families would have reason to regret Hardin's "pointless death."

The congressional backbencher Lincoln had been in Washington less than a month before he rose to denounce Polk's war. Greenberg attributes Lincoln's lack of enthusiasm for expansion to the examples of "his unlucky father and shiftless stepbrother, who were constantly moving from place to place": boomers instead of stickers, to use Wallace Stegner's terms.

This was Lincoln's finest—certainly his most pacific—hour, though his censures of Polk were consistent with the changing mood of the country. Men were returning without their limbs, their wits, their morals. The homefolks were appalled.

Ralph Waldo Emerson prophesied that "The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us." Emerson's forecast echoed half a century later in William Graham Sumner's classic essay "The Conquest of the United States by Spain," in which the anti-imperialist Sumner prophesied the corrosive effect of the Spanish-American War on the American soul.

As the war dragged on and families received uncensored letters from brothers and husbands and sons providing "vivid reports of overcrowded, unsanitary camps" and general turpitude, the homefront grumbled. Impatience can be a virtue, and sentiment grew to conclude the war and reunite the parted. To the architects of empire, the life of Johnny Smith meant nothing; to his family, however, Johnny was irreplaceable, and it was time that damned Polk sent him home.

The newspapers now carried stomach-turning stories of the "atrocities" committed by American soldiers against Mexican civilians. General Winfield Scott wrote the secretary of war that "Murder, robbery & rape of mothers & daughters...have been common all along the Rio Grande." And here enters Greenberg's unsung hero, the disobedient diplomat Nicholas Trist. Suave, handsome, tutored in law by Thomas Jefferson, whose private secretary he was and whose granddaughter he wed—these early luminaries sure married well—Trist ought to have had a brilliant career.

Confirmed bachelor James Buchanan, Polk's secretary of state, recommended that the president send Trist, his department's chief clerk, to parley for peace with Mexico—a peace that would leave Mexico in pieces, as Polk coveted the Southwest both for its own sake and as lebensraum for slavery. On paper, the selection made perfect sense. Trist was a Democrat, he spoke Spanish, and he had no obvious anti-expansion tics. But, writes Greenberg, Trist shared two traits with grandfather-in-law Jefferson: "the conviction that he was smarter than almost everyone else, and an innate distrust of war." This second, especially, is a curse to the ambitious.

Irritated to learn, too late, that Trist was less than rapacious, Polk fired him. Trist ignored the pink slip. He hadn't come all the way to Mexico just to slink back home, treaty-less. He set himself the task of conscientiously carrying out his mission despite his new conviction that the war was "a thing for every right-minded American to be ashamed of."

The most perfervid expansionists whooped for "All Mexico!" By comparison, Polk was a moderate freebooter, and Trist a virtual desert father of abnegation. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which Trist negotiated and Polk reluctantly accepted, established the Rio Grande as the Texas-Mexico border and paid Mexico $15 million for vast lands including California (but not Baja California, to Polk's dismay).

Trist followed a "heroic plot line," says Greenberg. Perhaps, though her claim that "Polk got California, but it was the antiwar movement that conquered a peace" is overstated. Under a truly just peace, the anti-expansionists would have won the day.

The Mexican War scathed each of Greenberg's subjects—save one.

James K. Polk died just three months after leaving office. He joined the 40,000 or so Americans and Mexicans whose deaths he was responsible for.

Henry Clay lost his son, Lt. Col. Henry Clay Jr., who had been the only child of his spectacularly ill-starred family to have escaped catastrophe: Two brothers were in bedlam, and all six sisters died young. Fighting with the Second Kentucky Volunteers, Clay Jr. fell at Buena Vista. He was hailed as a martyr, but his father wasn't buying it. "That consolation would be greater," said the senior Clay, "if I did not believe that this Mexican War was unnecessary and of an aggressive character."

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Polk's chief asset, according to Greenberg, was his stylish and self-possessed wife Sarah, a shrewd assesser of the political scene and abettor of her husband's fortunes.

    Unfortunately, as first lady, her "Let Us Remain Sedentary!" campaign to get children to put on healthy amounts of fat was a dismal failure.

  • ||

    but her recipe for sugar-coated lard remains a Christmas favourite

  • GILMORE||

    "Texas was the nexus."

    oh, please.

    "...but Nevada was teh Baddest?"

  • GILMORE||

    i genuinely expected the story to be about fruit pickers though. because its not like we have a shortage of modern day panic attacks about a slow-motion Reconquista

  • GILMORE||

    also = "Chinese Drywall May Affect You"?

    best. H+R ad. ever.

  • Martin Paredes||

    It is interesting to me, as a Mexican how little Americans really know about this war. I realize that history is written by the victors and that its perception is normally from the point of view of the one relating the story. In this case, Mexicans know very little about the reasons for the war and the consequences of it is given only a cursory look through the prism of nationalism. Americans on the other hand only encounter it as part of their studies of the Texas rebellion and The Alamo.

    In my opinion, one of the notable events of this war was the St. Patrick’s Battalion. (http://stpatricksbattalion.org/) It was composed of immigrants to America, mainly Irish who defected the American lines and fought for Mexico because of the mistreatment they endured at the hands of the US command. Today, Ireland and Mexico hold a special relationship because of the Irish who fought on the Mexican side.

  • RyanXXX||

    Seeing as it was one of the most immoral wars we ever fought, it's no surprise that American history classes gloss over it. I'm more surprised that Mexicans aren't very knowledgeable about it.

  • Gladstone||

    I'm more surprised that Mexicans aren't very knowledgeable about it.

    Probably this has do to with with the constant instability due to the fighting in the 19th Century between Mexican Conservatives and Liberals. This not only contributed to the Texan Rebellion and Mexico's defeat in the war with the US but also the French attempt to install Maximilian as Emperor. Rather embarassing I imagine and I'm not sure if too many Mexican want to rehabilitate Santa Anna.

  • Juice||

    Is that why their flags are sorta the same colors?

  • XM||

    I learned about the Irish defection in high school, and this was in the late 90's. It's pretty common knowledge. The left leaning AP history teachers won't pretends the US was justified in invading Mexico.

    The Irish fought for the confederates
    (also for the union) in the American Civil War. They shot down other Irish at Fredericksburg, the worst union loss in the Civil War. The Catholic church was with slavery for a while.

  • MaximumBob||

    Of all the stories from that war, none resonate with me more than the tale of the "Ninos Heroes" of the Mexican Army Military Academy.

    Badass Motherfuckers, to the last kid.

  • J_West||

    OK, so let's say we go back in time and prevent the US from going to war with Mexico. Where would the Reason Foundation building be located? Not in its brand new headquarters in Los Angeles, because without the Mexican War there would have been no Winning of the West. The USA would have had the pre-1846 boundaries, which means half or so of the country would not exist. Anyone here who thinks the US War with Mexico was wrong and also lives in any of the territories which the USA gained as a result of that war should immediately pack their bags and leave. The land should then be restored to its original condition.

    As for myself, I enjoy living in an advanced civilization.

  • شات عراقنا||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world
    http://www.iraaqna.com

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