One of the odd things about the controversy over monuments to the Confederacy is that they memorialize the losing side in the Civil War. Americans generally prefer to remember the winners. In Washington, D.C., both the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument celebrate leaders of the successful rebellion against Great Britain. The Lincoln Memorial honors the man who presided over the Union throughout the Civil War. There are monuments to both World War I and World War II. The exception is the stunning Vietnam Memorial, an appropriately somber reminder of a war the United States failed to win.
Conspicuously missing from the nation’s capital is a monument to the Mexican-American War, which lasted from May 1846 to February 1848. The omission is all the more curious because the victory of the United States was so complete. The war secured the military reputations of some of America’s most famed generals. One of them, Zachary Taylor, rode that reputation to the presidency in 1848. The strategic and tactical brilliance displayed by another, Winfield Scott, is still considered among the most impressive in the history of warfare. The fruits of victory were no less monumental. The bulk of northern Mexico was ceded to the US, and from that territory were carved most of the states of the American Southwest—California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Colorado. Compare the maps of Mexico and the United States in 1845 with those of 1850, and it’s impossible to miss how much Mexico lost and how much the United States gained.
Why, then, no memorial? Part of the answer lies in the war’s unsavory origins, which even at the time dismayed leading American statesmen. John Quincy Adams excoriated President James Knox Polk for the lies and manipulations he resorted to in order to get the war started. In one of the most fiercely polemical speeches of his career, the young Abraham Lincoln denounced Polk on the floor of Congress, defying the president to name the precise “spot” where Mexico supposedly invaded American soil. Henry Clay inspired a wave of antiwar rallies with his vigorous assault on the Polk administration. Controversial in its time, the war remained so long after it ended. Ulysses Grant wondered whether there was ever “a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico.” Many decades later, in more measured tones, Attorney General Robert Kennedy said he “thought the United States had been unjustified in its war with Mexico,” adding that he “didn’t think it was a very bright chapter in our history.”
Recent historians, even those who most appreciate Polk’s impressive political skills, nonetheless recognize that the man was secretive to a fault and impulsively duplicitous. Robert Merry deems him a “smaller-than-life figure” despite his “larger-than-life ambitions.”1 Amy Greenberg is more direct. President Polk, she writes, “was a liar.”2 Noting the absence of a Mexican-American War memorial in the nation’s capital, Peter Guardino discerns “a certain guilty ambivalence that follows from being successful thieves.”
In the summer of 1845, shortly after both houses of Congress voted to annex the Republic of Texas to the United States, the Democratic Review declared that it was the “manifest destiny” of the Anglo-Saxon people to expand their control of the North American continent all the way to the Pacific coast. The newly inaugurated President Polk came into office determined to fulfill that destiny, but there were obstacles to overcome. Mexico had never recognized Texas’s 1836 declaration of independence, and the Mexican government disputed Polk’s absurd claim that the border of Texas stretched all the way to the Rio Bravo, known to Americans as the Rio Grande. In the Pacific Northwest, the obstacle to expansion was Great Britain. It occupied the territory north of the Columbia River, yet Polk and many of his followers were demanding a US border that stretched much further north, to the upper border of what they called the Oregon Country, just south of Alaska. Fully aware of Polk’s imperial ambitions, Britain and Mexico entered into discussions to thwart the United States.
Whatever personal virtues Polk lacked, he was a supremely skilled political operator, implacable in his determination to get what he wanted. More than anything he wanted California, which he saw as a gateway to the commercial riches of the Pacific. Immediately after taking office, he embarked on an elaborate series of diplomatic maneuvers, deceptions, and menacing gestures designed to neutralize the threat from Great Britain so that he could bully and, if need be, coerce Mexico into recognizing the annexation of Texas and selling New Mexico, Arizona, and Alta California to the United States. He ordered navy ships to drop anchor off the Pacific coast, where they would be ready to occupy California ports as soon as the war against Mexico began. He dispatched spies and intriguers as US representatives to Mexico City, deliberately insulting Mexican officials. He ordered American troops to cross the Nueces River into territory Mexico legitimately claimed as its own, and he imposed a naval blockade that kept the Mexican army from receiving supplies at Matamoros. These were clearly acts of war, though Polk hoped they would be enough to cow the Mexican government into submission. If there was a war it was bound to be a short one, Polk thought, for surely the Mexicans could never sustain themselves for long against the more intrepid Anglo-Saxon invaders from the North.
When the Mexican government refused to negotiate with the disreputable US representatives, Polk had the pretext he wanted for drafting a war message to Congress. He had quietly settled the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain, clearing the way for a more aggressive approach to Mexico. Then, at the very moment he was preparing his war message, word came that the Mexican army had crossed the Rio Grande and attacked American troops. The Mexicans, he declared, had shed American blood on American soil.
The ensuing war turned out to be longer and costlier than Polk had imagined, but the Americans did finally win. Mexico accepted the Rio Grande as the border and was forced to sell most of its northern provinces to the United States. Judging by the goals Polk had set for himself at the outset of his administration, his presidency must rank as one of the most successful in American history. By the time he left office in 1849, the map of the continental United States looked pretty much the way it does today in both the Southwest and the Northwest, where the northern border with Canada still stretches to the Pacific along the 49th parallel.
That, at least, is the familiar story of the Mexican-American War as found in the work of scholars such as Merry, who stay close to the perspective of the Polk administration. But there is much more to be said. For several decades historians have pressed beyond the limits of the conventional account, which now seems partial and inadequate, though not necessarily wrong. For one thing, those accounts downplay the imperial rivalries among Britain, France, and Spain, each of which sought to influence the conflict between the United States and Mexico. Cultural historians have taken a closer look at the novels, travelers’ accounts, ethnographies, and history books that reveal how Americans reimagined themselves by imagining Latin America. More recently Brian DeLay has put the insights of a generation of scholarship on Native Americans in the Southwest to extraordinary use, showing that Indian empires were central to both the origins and course of the Mexican-American War.3 And what about Mexico itself, an independent nation since 1821? Surely its history must be considered in any complete account of the war.
Guardino’s book fits neatly into this increasingly expansive approach. Like so much of the best recent scholarship, The Dead March incorporates the work of Mexican historians and anthropologists in a story that involves far more than military strategy, diplomatic maneuvering, and American political intrigue. At its core, The Dead March is a social and cultural history of the Mexican and American armies and the societies that produced them, particularly their assumptions about race, masculinity, and religion.
Guardino disagrees with historians who believe that Mexico lost the war because it lacked the spirited nationalism of the Americans. Despite the chaotic disruptions of their political system, Mexicans of all ranks, regions, and factions were determined to turn back the American invasion. Mexican soldiers went into battle shouting “Viva México” and “Viva la Independencia.” Defeated time after time, Mexican troops repeatedly regrouped to confront the US Army, slowing the American advance and denying Polk his quick and easy victory. Even the poorest Mexicans made tremendous personal and economic sacrifices to sustain the war. Like the soldiers on the battlefield, civilians in Mexico City greeted US occupation troops with shouts of “Long live Mexico” and “Death to the Yankees.” No less than the Americans, the Mexican people wholeheartedly embraced their national cause.
The two armies were not all that different either. The regular American troops Polk sent to invade Mexico were recruited from the rootless poor of eastern cities. Largely immigrants, many could not sign their own names on their enlistment papers. Mexico’s army was likewise drawn from a much larger population of poor people. But while regulars in the US Army volunteered, Mexican soldiers were drafted, and local officials used conscription to maintain a society with stable families at its core. The first to be drafted were criminals, vagabonds, and those who had been in the army and had deserted. Bachelors were vulnerable, and when married men were drafted, officials first targeted adulterers, deadbeats, gamblers, drunkards, and wife-beaters. Men in both armies deserted in large numbers.
Such men would not seem to have the makings of good soldiers, but in fact both armies fought well. Guardino attributes this to a combination of harsh discipline, training, and group camaraderie. These men may not have entered the army for patriotic reasons, but war clearly inspired them to fight for their respective nations. In Mexico and the United States, the outbreak of combat provoked an upsurge of nationalist fervor, inspiring waves of volunteer “citizen-soldiers.”
If Mexicans did not lose because they lacked a national esprit de corps, what accounts for their defeat? Guardino believes it all comes down to the simple fact that Mexico was poor and the US was rich. The Americans could afford to feed and clothe their troops adequately, move them over vast distances, and arm them with the most up-to-date military technology. Mexican soldiers fought in rags, armed with obsolete weapons and often starving. Mexico came into the war already burdened with foreign debt and lacking the tax base it needed to sustain an army, never mind a war. In the US the war barely pinched American taxpayers.
Guardino returns to this point again and again as he traces the military history of the war. In the first significant battle, American cannons proved decisive in part because they were more advanced but also because the Americans could afford to keep horses to move the artillery. At Monterrey Mexican soldiers went into battle exhausted from long overland marches, whereas the Americans had ferried their soldiers much of the way on steamboats. At Churobusco Mexican soldiers “fought until they were out of ammunition.” When Mexican soldiers deserted it was usually because they were hungry. “More than anything else it was the lack of fiscal resources that prevented the Mexican national state from mounting a successful defense against American aggression,” Guardino writes.
The area where the fighting broke out in May 1846, between Corpus Christi and Matamoros, had in recent decades been subjected to a devastating series of raids by southwestern Indians, notably the powerful Comanche Empire.4 Isolated and distant from Mexico City, unable to protect their cattle ranches from Indian raiders, the Mexican inhabitants had largely abandoned the region. President José Joaquín Herrera understood this and was prepared to recognize Texan independence, effectively conceding the territory to the US.
But Mexico was a republic, not a monarchy, and its leaders could not ignore the overwhelming support for resisting the American invasion. In July 1846, six months after General Mariano Paredes overthrew the republic, he was himself overthrown in the face of popular resistance. President Polk misread the signals and assumed the Mexican people were reluctant to fight. Believing he had a pliant lackey in his sway, Polk arranged for the return of former president Antonio López de Santa Anna from exile in Cuba, only to discover that the restored president was even more committed to expelling the Yankees than his predecessor. Unlike Herrera, Santa Anna refused to consider a peaceful settlement.
The American invasion was concentrated in two distinct military campaigns. The first, led by Zachary Taylor, produced a string of tactical victories that proved to be a strategic failure. Taylor’s army beat back successive Mexican attacks at Palo Alto and Resaca de Palma on May 8 and 9, 1846. The Americans then moved inland to reengage and defeat the retreating Mexicans, first at Monterrey in September and then at Buena Vista (still known to Mexicans as La Angostura) in February 1847. These were the victories that established Taylor’s reputation as a war hero in the United States. Yet after forcing Santa Anna’s army to retreat, Taylor was stymied by the same problem that had so debilitated the Mexicans. A desert separated his army from San Luis Potosí. Should Taylor attempt to cross it, he would exhaust his troops and deplete his supplies. Another campaign launched from the coast was the only viable option if the US Army was to reach the heavily populated center of Mexico.
That second campaign, led by Winfield Scott, began with the American bombardment of Veracruz in March 1847. There Scott devised a two-pronged artillery assault, weakening the fortress walls with cannon fire and terrorizing the civilians within by lobbing exploding shells over the city walls. It was the horror and desperation of the civilians that eventually forced the Mexican army to surrender. A week later, anxious to get away from the coastal marshes before yellow fever season began, Scott ordered his army to begin marching inland. At Cerro Gordo the Americans were confronted by Santa Anna’s troops, regrouped after their defeat at La Angostura. He had positioned his men in the hills and across the road to block the US advance. But on April 18 the Americans outflanked the Mexican army, occupied the hills, and blocked Santa Anna’s northern retreat. The Mexican troops scattered in disarray, and Scott’s path to Mexico City was clear.
Once again, however, military strategy was constrained by political and social developments. Scott’s troops, parked at Puebla, could not move for ten weeks in large measure because his men were abandoning the army in vast numbers at the end of their twelve-month enlistments. By the spring of 1847, most of the soldiers who were dying in Mexico were being felled by disease rather than battle. Dying of dysentery in a squalid army camp was nobody’s idea of heroism. Every day American corpses were carried to their graves to the tune one soldier called “the dead march.” As Americans back home read reports of disease and atrocities, their militaristic fervor subsided, opposition to the war grew more vocal, and the Polk administration found itself offering bounties and homesteads in an effort to promote enlistment.
When fresh troops at last arrived, Scott headed for Mexico City. Once again, Santa Anna had regrouped his army and set up a defensive perimeter on the major causeways leading into the city from the south. This time the Mexicans, prepared for another of Scott’s flanking maneuvers, put up sharp but ultimately unsuccessful resistance to the Americans in a series of engagements along the western and northern roads into town. Flanking maneuvers are rarely successful and Scott had now succeeded twice under extremely difficult conditions.
Whatever his faults as a political leader and battlefield tactician—and those faults were considerable—Santa Anna had at least ensured that the American victory would be hard-won. Facing certain destruction, however, the Mexican army abandoned the city, and the Americans marched in. The fighting did not end there. For weeks civilians tormented the Yankee occupiers. Snipers shot at US soldiers from rooftops. Women hurled rocks down upon them. Scott responded as occupying forces often do, intimidating the people of Mexico City into submission by having suspected agitators beaten or executed in public squares.
It was not the first time the Americans confronted irregular warfare in Mexico. Taylor’s troops had been harassed by guerrillas during the Monterrey campaign, and Scott faced an upsurge of guerrilla activity after his victory at Veracruz. Disheartened by an endless series of battlefield losses, some Mexican leaders had begun openly encouraging civilians to resort to irregular warfare. This is always a dangerous move. Guerrilla warfare is a reliable incubator of war crimes, demoralizing to professional soldiers, fudging the distinction between warriors and criminals, and alienating to the very civilians upon whom the irregulars depend.
In a book studded with arresting insights and convincing observations, Guardino’s account of irregular warfare is unsatisfying. He does not seem to know enough about the laws of war that both armies relied on to discern when and how the lines of acceptable military behavior were crossed. Nor does he compare events in Mexico with irregular warfare in other times and places, comparisons that would have helped him evaluate the Mexican case more skillfully. Instead he attributes the atrocities committed by US troops to rampant anti-Catholicism and a universal racist disdain for Mexicans.
Unlike his nuanced account of the complex divisions within Mexican culture, Guardino’s description of American culture is harsh, one-dimensional, and periodically contradicted by his own evidence. After victorious battles, for example, American soldiers often expressed admiration for their Mexican counterparts, cared for wounded Mexican troops, and offered their rations to hungry Mexican civilians. Norteamericanos in California and New Mexico regularly intermarried with Mexicans. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, offered citizenship and religious freedom to all Mexicans living in the territories that became part of the United States.
Polk’s Jacksonian Democrats were often virulently racist, but they were not generally hostile to immigrants or Catholics. American soldiers sometimes vandalized churches, but Polk responded by ordering his generals to show respect for Catholicism, and in one case an American colonel had his heavily Protestant troops march in a Catholic procession. Anti-Catholicism was most common among the Whigs, who were generally opposed to the war. Guardino sees such evidence as ironic, which makes sense if you assume that Americans were uniformly racist and anti-Catholic. Start from a different premise—that Americans disagreed among themselves about race and religion—and the irony vanishes. What’s left is evidence that the war roughly reflected the conflicts deeply embedded within American culture.
In the aftermath of the war the most conspicuous victims of American imperialism were not Mexicans but Indians. Article XI of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo obligated the Americans to restrain the Indians in the Southwest. For a century Native American empires had dominated much of the region, keeping the Spanish at bay and terrorizing Mexican ranchers. But twenty-five years after the treaty was signed, those Indian empires lay in ruins. In California, the American takeover led to a genocidal assault on what remained of the native population.5
There were momentous consequences back east as well. Opposition to the war became opposition to the expansion of slavery, setting in motion an escalating series of clashes whose culmination, a little over a decade later, was the brutally destructive conflict between the North and the South. Such were the bitter fruits of Manifest Destiny. No wonder there are no monuments to the Mexican-American War in our nation’s capital.
Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent (Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 131, see also p. 579. ↩
Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico (Knopf, 2012), p. 71. ↩
Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War (Yale University Press, 2008). ↩
See Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008). ↩
See Peter Nabokov, “Indians, Slaves, and Mass Murder: The Hidden History,” The New York Review, November 24, 2016. ↩