[Marxism] The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 4 07:06:02 MDT 2017

NY Review of Books, NOVEMBER 23, 2017 ISSUE
Our ‘Wicked War’
by James Oakes

The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War
by Peter Guardino
Harvard University Press, 502 pp., $39.95

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 

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.

1) 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.  ↩

2) Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 
U.S. Invasion of Mexico (Knopf, 2012), p. 71. ↩

3) Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the 
U.S.-Mexican War (Yale University Press, 2008). ↩

4) See Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 
2008). ↩

5) See Peter Nabokov, “Indians, Slaves, and Mass Murder: The Hidden 
History,” The New York Review, November 24, 2016. ↩

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