I had a horror of the Mexican War … only I had not the moral courage enough to resign. ~ Ulysses S. Grant (1879)
The phrase “regime change wars” has, of late, taken on profound meaning and stoked massive controversy. When either Donald Trump, or the current long-shot hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) calls for an end to such wars, the establishment Left and Right both attack the term as a “Russian,” or “Putin,” talking point. The contemporary polarization of the term is peculiar, given that historically regime-change wars are as American as apple pie. Still, one can understand the reluctance of today’s influential American-exceptionalism-crowd to repeat the phrase.
After all, republics aren’t supposed to invade and conquer foreign states. Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth is that the United States did just that a little more than 60 years after the thirteen original colonies’ own successful rebellion against the British empire.
Seen in this context then, the 1846 U.S. invasion of Mexico – popularly, if misleadingly, dubbed the Mexican-American War – must rate as an acute pivot point in the young nation’s history. Sure, the colonists, and then the new US republic, had long displaced and murdered various native Indian tribes. Still, the successful conquest and significant annexation of a Western nation-state – a fellow republic at that – constituted a no-turning-back moment for a self-declared “democratic beacon.” Yet today, for all that, precious few Americans know the slightest thing about that war – which had one of the highest casualty rates of any US conflict – and its contours, causes, context, or conclusion. The basis for such ignorance is quite simple: the Mexican invasion, accurately chronicled, doesn’t mesh well with Americans’ pretensions or sense of their own history. Control of the past is a powerful tool, wielded for centuries by governments deeply invested in perpetuating their unique founding narratives or myths.
The Mexican-American War, seen in the context of America’s current contemporary never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East, is more relevant than ever. Constituting the first successful conquest of another country (Canada had been unsuccessfully invaded twice), the war in Mexico included the US Army’s first major amphibious operation, and its first experience with prolonged occupation duty. The war, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was also sold to a naïve public on demonstrably false pretexts. The blowback from that realization, along with the conflict’s mounting casualties, coalesced into America’s first-ever widespread anti-war movement.
What’s more, since the peace terms wrangled from a newly installed, fledgling, Mexican government – at the point of the bayonet – included the annexation of California and other future southwest states, it was this war that finally fulfilled the American dream of Manifest Destiny and spread the United States, once and for all, “from sea to shining sea.” In truth, there was nothing inevitable about a continent-spanning American republic. There were, at the time, so very many contingent options for the once-Atlantic-coast-based republic. However, by seizing and settling California – and within four decades “pacifying” the native lands between it and the Mississippi River – the stage was set for the overseas American empire, manifested first in the Philippines (1898), with the reverberations of which the world continues to reckon.
The modern US military – particularly the regular army – was largely forged in Mexico. This was the first major war in which large numbers of soldiers were led by graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point, which had opened its gates only in 1802. For many uniformed American soldiers, Mexico would prove their graveyard. Sixteen percent of the US troopers deployed there died, most from disease. While Americans, historically, tend not to care greatly for enemy casualties, it remains relevant that Mexicans suffered far worse, with an estimated 25,000 dead, most of them civilians. The war also proved the baptism by fire, a crucible, for many future Civil War generals (on both sides of that conflict) – among them Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, George McClellan, and William Tecumseh Sherman. Two Mexican-American War vets even won the presidency: one, a general, Zachary Taylor; the other, then just a lieutenant, Ulysses S. Grant.
The war’s current and future generals, along with much of the military rank and file, often disagreed about the efficacy and morality of the war. A surprising number – including some of the more famous among them – vehemently opposed what they viewed as a “wicked” war. Dissent among active soldiers was substantial, shocking even. Though GI resistance in the Vietnam War still figures prominently in Americans’ collective memory, it was in Mexico that the army had its highest-ever desertion rate – around 8 percent. Hundreds of those deserters – mostly recent Irish Catholic immigrants – even joined the enemy. So sympathetic were they to the Mexican cause (and, perhaps, the common Catholic faith), that many fought bravely for Mexico in an entire battalion named for Saint Patrick.
Like any history worth its salt, this is also the story of people, individuals with agency all their own, both famous and forgotten. It’s about doomed, yet courageous, Mexican troopers; frustrated American officers, lieutenants and generals alike; civilians caught in the crossfire; and their representatives in distant capitals. The Mexican-American War also helped define the careers of five American presidents – one former, John Quincy Adams; one contemporaneous, James K. Polk; and three future, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. It also figured prominently in the career of a highly qualified, perennial politician who never reached the White House, Henry Clay. For Adams, the war represented a final service to his country, one of his best moments. For Polk, a true believer, it was his worst. For Taylor, his generalship rapidly propelled him to the presidency. As for Lincoln, opposition to the war eventually proved the springboard for an illustrious career. Grant, meanwhile, was forever tortured by his part in what he deemed an immoral war of aggression; it may have even informed his (flawed) “peace policy” toward the Indians. And for Clay – who lost his favorite son in Mexico – challenging the war was perhaps his finest hour.
Finally, for the United States – to the extent that countries can be said to have a collective identity – the ill-fated, if ultimately successful, crusade in Mexico marked a final end to the republic’s innocence. America was to be a continental power with global potential and pretensions. If the US war effort was victorious in the short run, the resultant peace settlement poisoned the republic and contributed mightily to the outbreak of the bloody Civil War that broke out just thirteen short years after the Mexican surrender. The conflict of 1846-48 stripped away the hopeful veneer and demonstrated that the real division in America wasn’t between the two major political parties – Whig and Democrat – but between regions, South and North, slave and free societies. In the war, then, it can be said that America did not strictly fight Mexico, but fought itself. We live with the consequences – of empire, race, and immigration – to this day.
The Alamo myth
Are you not large and unwieldy enough already? Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchre? ~ John Quincy Adams, during floor debate on Texas Annexation (1836)
Remember the Alamo! The rallying cry still rolls off the American tongue with remarkable fluidity and ease. The facts, as told, are as simple as they are inspiring: fewer than two hundred Texan frontiersmen (most Anglo and some Mexican) waged a hopeless, yet profoundly courageous, battle to the death against some 5,000 Mexican regulars. Not a defender survived, but within months, a new Texan force – motivated by vengeance (and “democracy”) – surprised the Mexican army at San Jacinto and won freedom for Texas.
The story resonates, and why not? It contains all the key components of a classic Western morality play: long odds, martyrdom, and eventual redemption. The tale, at least, is beautifully pure. The actual context – not so much. The teaching of Texas history – almost alone among American states – is mandatory curriculum in public schools from El Paso to Houston. The power of Texan myth was driven home to me as an assistant history professor at West Point, when I found that, besides the Civil War, no subject garnered more sensitivity and pushback from normally deferential cadets.
Those cadets, certainly most Texans, and really the vast majority of Americans, remain unprepared to read or hear the stark reality of the (1835-36) Texas Revolution: that the undoubtedly brave men inside the Alamo died, in large part, for the right to own slaves and (talk about a twist!) maintain a steady stream of illegal immigration into Mexico. What’s more, the flood of (also illegal) American volunteers that aided the Anglo Texans had much in common with the Russian “volunteers” now fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Finally, the eventual – and at the time highly controversial – US annexation of Texas in 1845 as the 28th state, was not only an illegal violation of Mexican sovereignty; it all but ensured the outbreak of an aggressive American war against its southwestern neighbor.
Americans, mostly from the Deep South, and many with slaves in tow, poured into Eastern Texas after 1821, at the invitation (originally) of the Mexican government. Drawn there by cheap land available for growing cotton, the Texians – as they then dubbed themselves – in a combination of chauvinistic and individualistic spirit never took seriously their promises to adhere to Mexican law and convert to Catholicism. Indeed, when Mexico, which had already abolished slavery, sought to curb further Anglo immigration, Americans ignored both strictures and rose in rebellion.
The centrality of the slavery question was made clear by a Texas newspaper, which announced that Mexico must be fought because it was attempting “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.” Furthermore, while the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto are imprinted on Texan and American memory, few remember that when – during the chaotic rebellion – black slaves attempted to seize their own freedom, they were brutally suppressed by white Texians. About one hundred were returned to their owners, some leaders were hanged, and others were beaten nearly to death. Only the northeastern radical abolitionist papers in the United States, and the Mexican press, covered the story.
That the Texians prevailed was less of a long-shot than it appears. By 1830, Anglos outnumbered Mexican tejanus in the sparsely populated province by more than two to one. That disparity only widened in the intervening six years until, at the time of the Alamo battle, the ratio was ten to one. Even so, thousands more American Southerners were ready to pour in, and the Texians were fairly sure they could count on the beneficence and eventual support of the US government. As the Mexican army retreated south from the rebellious province, many fugitive slaves and fearful Hispanics fled along with the defeated soldiers. Nevertheless, the government in Mexico City never conceded Texian independence, continued to claim the wayward region, and engaged in low-intensity warfare with what they saw as rebel forces along the contested border.
Feeling vulnerable, and full of mostly recent emigrants from the United States, the Texan republic almost immediately petitioned Washington for annexation, followed by statehood. While many Americans, especially in the rural South and Midwest, expected and supported the immediate accession of Texas, it would take nearly a decade for that to occur. In Washington annexation was a dicey and polarizing issue. At the time, the two major parties – Whigs and Democrats – were somewhat geographically diverse. There were still northern and southern wings of each party. The northern factions of both Whigs and Democrats weren’t enthusiastic about adding a huge southern state to the union and thereby upsetting the delicate regional slave/free balance. Furthermore, the establishment leadership in the two parties realized, prudently, that the absorption of Texas – still internationally recognized as Mexican soil – was essentially tantamount to a declaration of war.
However, President John Tyler, an accidental executive who had succeeded William Henry Harrison after a fluke bout of pneumonia killed him just weeks into his presidency, was desperate. Though the bumbling Tyler was nominally a Whig like his former boss, his Democrat-flavored states’ rights policies had alienated his own party, specifically its elder statesman leader, Henry Clay. By 1844, now a president without a party, and seeking to win his own term, Tyler hoped that unilateral Texas annexation would play well with populist sentiment and prove his salvation. In February, the American representative he had sent to Texas exceeded even Tyler’s already stretched intentions and, after secret negotiations, promised the new republic military and naval support immediately upon annexation. The signed document basically committed the US military to war with Mexico.
The Constitution was, and is, emphatic on one matter, at least: only Congress possesses the power to declare war. In the 1840s, an era of legislative preeminence, even the high-risk Tyler blanched, aware that the agreement exceeded his authority. He quickly abrogated it, but the damage was done. Texas was at a point of no return, the US government appeared treacherous, and Mexico subsequently amassed troops along the border. By election season, annexation seemed more a matter of when and how, not if.
Still, the establishment leadership in both parties stalled and battled the current. Tyler had clearly squandered any remaining chance for the Whig nomination, and Henry Clay stepped up, once again, to run on the party’s ticket. He was the first to weigh in. In a letter published in D.C. papers, which engendered regrettable political backlash, Clay outlined his many reasons for opposing Texas’s accession and warned readers that “annexation and war with Mexico are identical.” The Democratic frontrunner essentially agreed. Former President Martin Van Buren seemed to be the anointed candidate for 1844, and he also opposed annexation. For Washington to unilaterally absorb Texas would, he claimed, alienate every other country in the world, and “do us more real lasting injury as a nation … [since] we have a character among the nations of the earth to maintain.”
Clay and Van Buren alike would prove correct. The only problem: rational calculus rarely prevails in the emotive realm of American politics. Both men underestimated the substantial popularity of Texas annexation among the populace. That Van Buren’s stance torpedoed his nomination became abundantly clear when the Democratic Party’s founder, Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, his health failing at an advanced age, turned on his one-time successor, and declared, “Obtain [Texas] the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must.” Jackson’s words carried enormous weight west of the Appalachian Mountains and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Van Buren was cooked, but many wondered who would replace him. Jackson had just the man in mind: his own protégé, who, though obscure, bore the nickname “Young Hickory.” His name was James K. Polk.
Polk and the election of 1844
It was an outsiders’ election year, a cyclical phenomenon throughout US history. The experience, contrary to common assumption, wasn’t unique to 2016. There are, however, distinct similarities between the ascensions of Polk and Donald Trump. Both were long-shot candidates who had initially been dismissed. Each ran against both Washington and his own party. Both defeated highly qualified – in traditional terms – candidates who had previously sought the presidency. The nominations of Trump and Polk before him were widely predicted to portend the end of their respective political parties. The main, and profound, difference was that Polk was a true ideological believer. It’s unclear which sort – idealist or opportunist – is more dangerous.
In 1844, Jackson summoned his lifelong admirer Polk to his Hermitage mansion before the Democratic National Convention and expressed his support for Young Hickory’s nomination. Jackson, like Polk, had himself run against the Washington establishment. In fact, Jackson was the original outsider in American politics, and – despite owning a mansion, plantation, and a slew of slaves – the country’s first, self-styled “common man” president. Indeed, Old Hickory had himself twice before run against Polk’s Whig opponent, Henry Clay – a man he had dubbed “corrupt” (as Trump had dubbed Hillary Clinton as “crooked”).
Polk loved Jackson, and the feeling was reciprocated.
Polk loved Jackson, and the feeling was reciprocated. Unlike other Jackson protégés – such as Davy Crockett (who split with Old Hickory over Indian removal) – Polk had never betrayed the old man. Like Jackson, Polk was a wealthy man with a large home and numerous slaves, and also hailed from Tennessee. Unlike his mentor, however, Polk had scant military experience and had never heard a shot fired in anger. The insecurity this engendered was to remain with him, haunt his career, and, it seems, contribute to his self-conscious expansionist bellicosity as president. Yet make no mistake, Polk was a genuine zealot, and believed that not only Texas, but more important Mexican California, was destined by God to join the United States by any means necessary.
Expansion, in 1844, and cyclically throughout American history, was a winning political issue. Polk had the pulse of the considerable populist strand in the country, which also felt that the United States was truly exceptional among nations. Such language continues to pervade national politics, as US presidential candidates are still essentially required to publicly pray at the altar of American exceptionalism. After frontrunner Van Buren’s support waned, Polk – although he had been a long shot when he strode into the party convention in Baltimore – stepped in (with Jackson’s distant blessing) as a compromise nominee. Historian Amy Greenberg has labeled Polk America’s “first dark-horse presidential candidate.”
Buoyed by what he saw as the foolish nomination of Polk, Henry Clay joked, “Are our Democratic friends serious?” Though he’d been Speaker of the House, Polk hadn’t cut much of a national figure and remained publicly obscure. After all, reporters across the country had been publishing querulous headlines such as, “Who Is James K. Polk?” Many Whig papers predicted that the Democratic nominee would spell the effective end of that party. They couldn’t have been more wrong, but that was the conventional thinking at the time – just as it was in mid 2016.
The two candidates couldn’t have been more different.
The two candidates couldn’t have been more different. Clay was the ultimate insider, a three-time presidential contender, lion of the Senate, and one of the more qualified – though polarizing – political figures of his generation. He also drank, gambled, unleashed angry tirades, and had a weakness for the ladies. The Democrats, in round three of their battle with Clay, again unleashed vicious character attacks. His main sin was that he’d been in the public eye too long, had a vast record to critique – including helping deny Andrew Jackson the White House in 1824 in an undemocratic “corrupt bargain” – and inevitably carried the inherent baggage of lifelong fame. Polk, on the other hand, was actually aided by his outsider status and general obscurity. Furthermore, Young Hickory’s habits didn’t lend themselves to slander. He didn’t drink, gamble, or fight duels. His reputation for unvarnished integrity was also bolstered by his bold, yet shrewd, announcement of his intent to serve just a single four-year term.
Furthermore, his wife’s extraordinary piety burnished his credentials with religious Americans. Both Polks were essentially workaholics. And, in an odd divergence with Polk’s otherwise conservative values, he treated his wife, Sarah – an astute analyst herself – as almost a complete equal. Unlike nearly any other contemporary politician’s wife, she remained in the room during James’s key meetings. A true believer in her husband and Manifest Destiny alike, she may have been the better, more pragmatic, political strategist. By the middle of Polk’s term, Washington elites began to whisper that the true road to James’s attention ran through Sarah. For the times, the husband and wife pair were remarkably progressive in their relations and would seem so even in today’s Washington.
Polk also ran a surprisingly effective campaign. He enlisted the very ill Old Hickory in the fight. Furthermore, while the technocratic Clay focused on his party’s pet domestic issues of tariffs, infrastructure, and industry, Polk played to populist enthusiasm for expansion, annexation, and “free” land out West. And, while he was certain to lose northeastern elites to Clay, Polk masterfully won over recent urban (mostly Irish) immigrants by portraying (somewhat accurately) their Protestant social betters – and thus the Whigs they favored – as xenophobic nativists.
Both Polks were essentially workaholics.
Young Hickory also beat the rather popular drum – then and now – of lower taxes and a smaller federal government. Most persuasive, perhaps, was his delivery of resonant slogans such as “Polk and Texas, that’s the thing,” and calls for the dawn of a “Young America.” Bearing striking resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s promises and Trump’s promises to “Make America Great Again,” the sentiment redounded with the prevalent enthusiasm of the common people for expansion, for Manifest Destiny. The question, as Polk presented it, was a stark binary: would America grow or stand still? The only alternative to Polk’s grand, sweeping vision, as Democrats – and even many Southern and Western Whigs – saw it, was Henry Clay, product of the DC “swamp” and a policy wonk’s wonk.
For all that, Clay had a dedicated following, was highly experienced, and had an established, lucid platform, which – while not exactly titillating – was coherent and pragmatic. So when the ballots poured in, Polk won by just 38,000 votes out of 2.7 million cast. The Democrats, like today’s Republicans over the last 50 years, carried the South and West. Every state west of the Ohio River, went for Polk. He also won the always – then and now – essential state of Pennsylvania.
As the question of Texas had sunk Van Buren’s party nomination, Clay’s unpopular position (in some quarters) on it very likely cost him his best chance at the presidency itself. The two prominent politicians’ stance on Texas – like Hillary Clinton’s foolish Iraq War vote in 2002 – probably cost both their hopes for the White House. Clay’s foreign-policy positions, unlike Clinton’s, proved to have been correct. However, hindsight couldn’t possibly save him. Henry Clay had once announced, and often repeated, the trope that he would “rather be right than be president.” The slogan ought to have been engraved on his tombstone.
Politics is a nasty, corrupt business. Nonetheless, elections matter in US history. In 1844, Polk’s victory was a near-run thing with sweeping consequences for the nation. If Henry Clay had won, there almost certainly would have been no Mexican-American War, therefore less cause for the free–slave state sectional balance to shatter, and it might even have avoided (or at least delayed) the American Civil War. Clay, who had years before foretold the consequences of Texas annexation – though he’d then misread the power of the subject – recognized what historians concluded soon after the invasion of Mexico kicked off. “This unhappy war never would have occurred,” he opined, “if there had been a different issue of the presidential contest of 1844.”
Polk’s crusade: Drumming up a war
Polk, as full of self-righteousness as ever, interpreted his slim margin of victory as a mandate. Congress, apparently, meekly agreed. In February 1845, after some joint maneuvering with the lame duck Tyler, and just before Polk’s inauguration, Congress admitted Texas as a state in a joint resolution. Owing to the complicated legislative rules on Capitol Hill, this controversial tactic ensured that only a simple majority was necessary, rather than the constitutionally mandated two-thirds of the Senate required to adopt a treaty. If any further proof was needed that Texas accession was in part driven by slavery, or that it was a boon to it, the price of field hands on the New Orleans slave market jumped 21 percent within a year.
The new president hadn’t run only on southwesterly expansion. In fact, he had also promised the annexation of the vast Oregon Territory – an ill-defined region running from the northern border of present-day California deep into western Canada – which was then contested and jointly occupied by the British and Americans. On the campaign trail, Polk had promised accession of the entirety of Oregon, up to the northernmost line of latitude, shouting the catchy slogan “54º40’” or fight!” In reality, because of a combination of prudent estimation of British military (especially naval) strength, and prevailing tendencies to see Hispanics as a lesser race, Polk never seriously considered war over Oregon. Ditching one of his two main campaign pledges, Young Hickory promptly (if secretly) compromised, and accepted a territorial split significantly south of 54º40′. The compromise line coheres with the current border between Washington State and Western Canada.
Polk never seriously considered war over Oregon.
Rather than slam Polk’s flip-flopping, the Democratic press seamlessly pivoted southward right along with the new president. As the Democratic-leaning New York Herald bluntly concluded, in the wake of the Oregon settlement, “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.” Polk, and his Southern and Western rural base, knew full well that Texas annexation – now statute law, for better or worse – nearly ensured an eventual war with Mexico, and they welcomed it. Polk and company’s ineluctable confidence in victory only magnified their zeal.
To predict any war’s outcome is always a tricky matter. Still, just before combat broke out in 1846, the “tale of the tape” indicated that war between the United States and Mexico would hardly be a fair fight. The odds were long for the Mexican Republic, which had been an independent entity for only 25 years and was laden with some inherent weaknesses. The first was demographic. As of the 1840 census, the United States counted 17 million people and a rapidly growing population. Mexico had just 7 million citizens. Economically, the disparity was even wider. In 1845, Mexico’s per capita income was less than half what it had been in 1800. The war for independence from Spain had resulted in 600,000 Mexican deaths, most from starvation and disease, and crippled the domestic economy.
Mexicans also lacked a coherent sense of national unity. More than half were Indians, and almost all Mexican communities adhered to a sense of localism far more powerful than allegiance to the rather new nation-state. Furthermore, hostile, separatist Indian tribes, such as the Apache and Comanche, had long raided – and veritably devastated – the northern provinces of Mexico, the very areas the US Army would eventually invade. Politically, the capital, Mexico City, was a mess. Elite factions warred incessantly, and between 1821 and 1857, the presidency changed hands some fifty times, almost always by coup d’état.
“In addition to the obvious empirical advantages of the United States – demographic, economic, and political – many Americans boasted a racial superiority over their southern neighbors. As Hispanic Catholics, Mexicans – from the viewpoint of Protestant Anglos – were both racially and religiously inferior. As Polk’s longtime friend and past president of the Texas Republic, Sam Houston, put it, “Mexicans are no better than Indians.” For Southern and Western American citizens, who had recently – and in some cases still – battled with Indians, such language was resonant and motivational.
Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself. ~ President James K. Polk’s War Message to Congress (May 11, 1846)
President Polk’s dreams were big, enormous in fact. He desired, and sought to make a reality, a United States that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. While he made a fuss about Texas annexation, his eyes had long been on California, which he saw as the real prize. Nevertheless, drumming up the war he desired hinged on a relatively minor border dispute in South Texas. Even though the long-established border of the Mexican province of Texas had been the Nueces River, the Texian Republic claimed its border was further south along the Rio Grande River. It was a ludicrous, unsubstantiated claim. Mexico hadn’t even recognized Texian independence in the first place, and nearly every Anglo advance south of the Nueces had been rebuffed. The new republic had managed to establish only one small settlement just across the river at Corpus Christi. No matter, in the border controversy, Polk sensed an opportunity.
Everything that subsequently unfolded proved one thing quite unassailably: Polk, for all his aww-shucks, vice-less, personal habits, was a liar! The new president perhaps genuinely believed that his obfuscations were in the service of “good,” in the interest, ultimately, of the nation. Nevertheless, his rampant dissembling was indefensible.
It was understandable that the formal annexation of Texas on July 4, 1846, caused Mexico to sever diplomatic relations and withdraw its minister in Washington. The Mexican people were fired up by America’s egregious insults. “Defeat and death [fighting the United States] would be glorious and beautiful,” a relatively moderate Mexico City newspaper declared. Yet for all the responsive (and justifiable) jingoism among the Mexican populace, their government neither attacked nor declared war, and even signaled its willingness to negotiate.
Polk, conversely, had readied his nation for war. He ordered a naval flotilla to the Gulf of Mexico, and covertly ordered his commodore in the Pacific to seize San Francisco and various other ports in California immediately upon the outbreak of war. As for the US Army contingent, Polk ordered Gen. Zachary Taylor to march his small force across the Nueces River to Corpus Christi.
Next, to provide international diplomatic top-cover – in a move reminiscent of George W. Bush’s disingenuous deployment of WMD inspectors to Iraq in 2002-2003 – Polk sent a Democratic Party hack, John Slidell, to ostensibly negotiate a deal with Mexico. In reality, Slidell’s actual mission was to incense the Mexicans with unacceptable demands in the hope they’d appear to start the expected war, or, even better – as Polk had hoped – concede to US impositions. Even after it became clear that no Mexican official of substance would deal with the intransigent Slidell, the secretary of War ordered him to remain in Mexico a bit longer, as it was necessary to “satisfy the American people that all had been done … to avoid the necessity of resorting to hostilities.” Nevertheless, by late December 1845, Slidell was totally disgusted with the “inferior” Mexicans, writing the president, “A war would probably be the best mode of settling our affairs with Mexico.” Up to that point, mind you, Congress had not been consulted on the crucial question of war or peace. Here was an early manifestation of the imperial presidency in action.
Just as Texas annexation hadn’t, Taylor’s order to occupy Corpus Christi didn’t provoke a violent Mexican response. Persistent as ever, Polk tried to instigate a Mexican attack for a third time in January 1846 – ordering the general to march his army right up to the Rio Grande River and take up defensive positions – supported by a US naval blockade – in the heart of the contested territory. Taylor was reluctant, concerned not only by the blatant aggression of the move, but by the tactically impracticable nature of his exposed defensive positions along the Rio Grande. Still, always the dutiful soldier, he hesitantly acquiesced. In response, a larger Mexican force was deployed to the southern bank of the river. A precarious standoff ensued. The situation was inherently unstable.
Even then, before the first shots were fired, there were prominent officers in Taylor’s army who vocally opposed Polk’s military policy. Lt. Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock confided to his diary, “We have not one particle of right to be here…. It looks as if the [US] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” It’s remarkable how prescient Hitchcock proved to be, so far from Washington’s corridors of power. He had diagnosed the Polk strategy to a T.
The long-awaited spark came on April 24, 1846, when Mexican cavalrymen crossed the Rio Grande, and ambushed an intercepting force of US dragoons, killing eleven. The limitations of mid-19th-century communications technology being what they were, Polk didn’t receive news of the bloody skirmish for two weeks. In the meantime, he’d been overtly preparing for war. Democratic newspapers were reporting that “war will be immediately declared against Mexico.” With hysterical war fever sweeping large expanses of the nation, Polk told his cabinet that since the country wanted war, he “would not be doing [his] duty,” if he didn’t oblige. Just hours later, he received news of the Mexican attack and immediately set about drafting a declaration of war to send over to Congress.
The resultant speech was vintage Polk: pure fiction, but loaded with crowd-pleasing, martial hyperbole. He didn’t exactly ask Congress for the constitutionally required war declaration, but rather asked it to recognize that a war was already in existence. In the process, of course, he omitted any of the complicated context surrounding the Mexican attack. His penultimate line informed Congress that “after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Blood and soil, it was an effervescent call to nationalism, to arms. Only none of it was true! American blood had, indeed, been shed. However, it had spilled on contested soil, in a territory that simple reason and international consensus agreed was actually Mexican.
Nevertheless, Polk’s Democratic loyalists in Congress sprang into action in support of their president’s war. They immediately, and in a cynical masterstroke, attached a preamble to the war-declaration bill that authorized funding for the troops. The move was brilliant, deplorable, and completely new in American history. For now, if a skeptical Whig dared to vote against war with Mexico, he could easily be tarnished as “anti-soldier!” The tactic plays, and is masterfully used by both major political parties even today. Yet more flagrantly, the Democratic House leadership limited debate on the war to two hours – 90 minutes of which were taken up by a diligent reading of the many documents that accompanied Polk’s war message. Only thirteen representatives, led by the stalwart, 78-year-old former president John Quincy Adams held out.
Mainstream Whigs, fearful for their political futures in Washington, were in a bind. Most folded and acceded to war. In the Senate the next day, the vote was even more lopsided, with a 42-2 majority supportive of war. The US Congress, hastily, and without sufficient information, had simply rolled over. It may have been the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last. Unshackled from the feared congressional opposition, Polk proceeded to set expansive goals for the postwar settlement following what was expected to be a short, decisive war.
Polk lectured his secretary of State James Buchanan (a future president) – who had initially held circumscribed postwar expectations – that “though we had not gone to war for conquest, yet it was clear that in making peace we would if practicable obtain California and such other portion of Mexican territory as would be sufficient … to defray the expenses of the war.” It was a precursor to events in 2003: Iraq’s oil would cover the costs of the 2003 invasion, Bush administration officials had assured the American people. Whether delusion, obfuscation, or a bit of both, the absurd, discredited promise would prove to be, historically, in good company.
Race and jingoism: Justifying war
[Mexicans] are reptiles in the path of progressive democracy, [who] must either crawl or be crushed. ~ From the Illinois State Register, a prominent newspaper in Abraham Lincoln’s district (1846)
While the few congressional diehards led by John Quincy Adams stridently opposed the war, the louder and more numerous voices rose from pro-war populists on Capitol Hill, in the press, and among the people. Though the Polk administration may have drummed up the war, it largely relied on political and media supporters to sell it. Three ideological strands coalesced to justify war: racism, jingoism, and the desperate fear of being labeled unpatriotic, a fear that gripped most war-ambivalent Whigs. Thus, like modern mainstream Democrats, even outwardly antiwar Whigs continued to vote in favor of disbursements to fund a conflict most hated. To appear anti-military, then and now, was a political death sentence.
Many Americans held deep-seated beliefs regarding the inferiority of Hispanic, especially mestizo, Mexicans. Religious chauvinism, too, played a role. Majority Protestant Americans believed Mexican Catholics to be servile, unenlightened, and in need of proselytization. The combination of Protestant and racial paternalism also infused the ranks of the military before and early in the war. Capt. R.A. Stewart, a minister and commander of Louisiana volunteers, declared, after an early American victory in Northern Mexico, that the battle “showed most plainly and beautifully, that it was the order of providence that the Anglo-Saxon race was not only to take possession of the whole North American continent, but to influence and modify the character of the world.”
White Protestant chauvinism was strongest in the volunteer, rather than professional regular, regiments. One Ohio volunteer stationed near Matamoros, wrote of Mexicans that “it is now pretty generally believed that they are almost without exception snakes in the grass…. They are in short a treacherous race and have hearts the most of them as black as their skins.”
One fact perfectly demonstrated the contradictory character of the US mission in Mexico and its clear racial overtures. Many officers in the invading American army brought their slaves – who served as personal servants – along with them. The paradoxical result was a US slave army, representing a “free” republic. Indeed, many black “servants” in Mexico took the opportunity to flee the American lines and escape deeper into Mexico – the real land of freedom (for them). Even embedded journalists attached to General Taylor and Gen. Winfield Scott’s armies identified overmuch – as they would in the Persian Gulf and Second Iraq Wars – with their troops, and usually sympathized with the soldiers’ racialized and religious justifications for war with Mexico.
The ghost of the Federalist Party – a relic of America’s first political party system – haunted the Whigs. Though there was hardly a nationwide antiwar movement during the War of 1812 against Britain (1812–15), significant Federalist-based opposition had grown in New England by 1814. The Whigs of 1846 remembered well how the Federalists – though they’d been largely correct in their war skepticism at the time – had been forever discredited as unpatriotic and anti-soldier in the wake of Andrew Jackson’s surprise victory at the Battle of New Orleans. The party never again ran a viable presidential candidate or maintained any support outside New England, and disappeared completely by 1820. All of that had occurred in recent memory, illustrated by the persistence of the Democratic disparagement of Whigs as “the Federal Party.”
Furthermore, the Whigs were hypersensitive to the Democrats’ charge that they associated with abolitionist (anti-slavery) “radicals.” The fatal flaw in Whig thinking early in the conflict – nearly identical to that of Iraq-invasion skeptics in the Democratic Party – was their assumption that their loyal (if tepid) support for the war would protect them from precisely the same attacks from their opponents in the other party. No matter how virulently the Whigs proclaimed their support for the war effort and soldiers alike, the Democrats nevertheless blasted them as “weak” on national defense, insufficiently pro-military, and (however inaccurately) fatally connected to the hated abolitionists. Thus, while establishment Whigs, as a whole, were usually enthusiastic (if tactically so) cheerleaders for war at the start, many would later struggle to justify their hawkish positions when their party base and insurgent freshmen congressmen – including Abraham Lincoln – later unabashedly turned against the invasion and occupation of Mexico.
Our militia & volunteers, if a tenth of what is said to be true, have committed atrocities – horrors – in Mexico, sufficient to make Heaven weep, & every American, of Christian morals, blush for his country. ~ Gen. Winfield Scott to the Secretary of War (January 1847)
The American Army’s invasion of Mexico was justified by a lie, overtly aggressive, and unnecessary. In that sense it bore striking resemblance to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Yet, even more so than the Iraq occupation that followed, the conduct of large segments of the US Army in Mexico was exceptionally ruthless throughout the two-year campaign. While a comprehensive military history of this war would be extraordinarily fascinating and worthy of contemporary study by army officers, the length of such an analysis and the existence of exceptional existing works on the subject preclude its inclusion in this piece. Rather, a focus on the inherent military mismatch between the two sides, as well as the brutality of the invasion and subsequent occupation by American troops is more relevant for our purposes.
From an operational perspective, the American invasion and resultant war had three distinct (though often concurrent) phases. First, after following Polk’s intent and sparking a violent enemy response along the Rio Grande, was General Taylor’s campaign in Northern Mexico. This lasted more than a year and consisted of fixed battles – usually against numerically superior Mexican forces – and limited occupation duty. Second, was Brigadier Stephen Kearny’s march, with a remarkably small force, through what is now New Mexico and Arizona, en route to the conquest of California. Finally, the climactic campaign consisted of Gen. Winfield Scott’s amphibious invasion of southeast Mexico, the battle-ridden advance to the capital, and the sustained occupation of the Mexican heartland. Each phase involved conquest, aggression, and rather difficult pacification of an occupied Mexican populace. All three were unique, complex, and highly challenging experiences for the US Army.
The conquest of New Mexico, Arizona, and California – on the basis of the numbers engaged on both sides – appeared, on the surface, as a peripheral campaign. However, the accession of California had, largely, been Polk’s main goal from the start. This campaign, full of adventure and daring, had a certain romance, but also mirrored many of the complications inherent in invasion and occupation that the main American armies would face in the Mexican heartland. New Mexico, and its main settlement of Santa Fe, fell to Kearny first. In his haste to march on to the real prize of California, he left a token volunteer force behind with “sympathetic” native Hispanics running the local government, unaware of the simmering local hostility to American rule.
The old Santa Fe elite and Catholic clergy, jealous of their former power positions, and alienated by the banal brutalities of the undisciplined American volunteer troops, joined (paradoxically) with Pueblo Indians and rose in revolt in January 1847. Finally suppressed and captured, sixteen of the rebellion’s leaders – rather than being treated as prisoners of war – were summarily tried for murder, convicted, and hanged. So disturbed by the proceedings was one young American observer, that he wrote, “I left the room, sick at heart. Justice! Out upon the word, when its distorted meaning is the warrant for murdering those who defend to the last their country and their homes.” The coda to the New Mexico story demonstrated the racial component of American conquest and accession to democracy. Although, the province’s population greatly exceeded that of California or Texas at the time, Hispanic Mexico, with its Indian majority, would have to wait more than sixty years longer than the former for statehood.
In California, by contrast, American adventurers on a Polk-approved “scientific expedition” that set out a year before the outbreak of war, led by Capt. John C. Frémont (later the unsuccessful 1856 Republican candidate for president), had seized control even before Kearny’s modest army arrived. Although the Mexican authorities in the region had seen through Frémont’s suspicious activities and motives and had previously ordered him out of the country, the adventurer promptly returned as U.S.-Mexican tensions rose. After fighting a few brief skirmishes, his band emerged victorious, raised a hastily drawn flag bearing a bear’s image, and declared California an independent republic on (naturally) July 4, 1846. When word reached the American insurgents that an official state of war finally existed between the two nations, Frémont lowered the Bear Flag, raised the Stars and Stripes, and welcomed Kearny’s relief force.
As in New Mexico, while the initial bloodshed in California was minimal, the wanton intimidation, robbery, and brutality by the American volunteers quickly soured the existing population on the Yankee invaders. In late September 1846, as the locals had in Santa Fe, the Californios revolted. The outnumbered rebels held on for nearly four months, but finally signed a regional peace treaty in mid January 1847. As for the enormous Indian population of California, they were ethnically cleansed to near extinction in the uncannily brief span of just a decade, in what most historians now label a genuine genocide. Indigenous peoples were decidedly not envisaged as part of the newly U.S.-annexed “paradise” of California. Hardly a trace of this once-prominent civilization exists today on America’s “Left coast.”
Back in northern Mexico proper, Taylor’s army, after its first victory, seized the city of Monterrey, and, his troops exhausted, agreed to an eight-week armistice with his Mexican counterpart. It was a prudent tactical move for a fatigued, logistically stretched US force, but Polk was furious. Taylor, along with Scott and most of the military’s top officers, were sympathetic to the Whigs. That made practical sense, since that party favored increased federal power and investment in the regular army to which they had all dedicated their professional lives. Nonetheless, the exceedingly jealous and insecure Polk had no intention of sharing the glory of war with anyone, especially a triumphant general who had (through no effort of his own) already been short-listed as a (Whig Party) presidential candidate for 1848. Polk immediately vetoed Taylor’s armistice.
In Taylor’s defense, he’d assumed the war was now over. He’d defeated the major Mexican Army before him, seized – with significant casualties, though – the major provincial city, and secured the Rio Grande as the boundary between the United States and its southern neighbor. Had the war actually been about Texas, Taylor’s assumption might have been valid. Only, unbeknownst to him, Polk’s aspirations had always been grander. Around the same time, when Secretary of State James Buchanan (far from a dove on these matters) counseled Polk against the risky wholesale dismemberment of Mexico, the president rebuked him. Polk, by then, “preferred the 26 degree [latitude] to any boundary north of it,” which, had it come to pass would have included a third of modern-day Mexico, in addition to the massive concession north of the Rio Grande between Texas and California. It went without saying that Polk’s (and all the Democrats’) assumption was that all acquired lands would be slave territory.
Through the war, in all three major theaters, the US Army – then an awkward amalgamation of regular and volunteer regiments – suffered from varying (but significant) degrees of indiscipline and brutality. As a general rule of thumb, the less professional, more scantily trained, volunteer soldiers engaged in more wanton savagery and wholesale debauchery than the regulars. Taylor, along with even rank-and-file regulars, was simply exhausted and exasperated by the volunteers’ foibles. Insufficiently trained, and fiercely individualistic, the volunteer regiments – at least at first – were less reliable under fire, were more susceptible to (highly deadly) communicable disease (owing to their notoriously poor sanitation practices), and had a disturbing propensity to commit atrocities (read: war crimes) against Mexican prisoners and civilians.
Even privates in the regular regiments were appalled at the capricious wickedness of the volunteers. Almost all enlisted active-duty soldiers were destitute, uneducated, and unskilled. Forty percent were recent immigrants and 35 percent couldn’t sign their own names. The volunteers, by contrast, hailed from the middle and upper classes of American society and looked down upon the lowly professionals. The hatred was reciprocated. Raised in the regular army culture of steadfast discipline and adherence to orders, many young active-duty troopers criticized the volunteers’ propensity for counterproductive violence against Mexican civilians. One regular Army private wrote to his father, “The majority of the Volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman washing on the bank of the river – merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.”
Educated, West Point-trained, regular officers were even more likely to denigrate the venality of the volunteers. Lt. Ulysses S. Grant wrote his wife, just after taking part in Taylor’s occupations of Matamoros and Monterrey, of the “great many murders” and “weak means made use of to prevent frequent repetitions.” He expanded on his clearly disturbing observations, telling her,
Some of the volunteers and about all the Texans seem to think it perfectly right to impose upon the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by the dark. And how much they seem to enjoy acts of violence too! I would not pretend to guess the number of murders that have been committed upon the persons of poor Mexicans and the soldiers, since we have been here, but the number would startle you.
The initially sympathetic press eventually picked up on some of the atrocities, especially in the aftermath of the bloody battle and occupation of Monterrey. The litany of reported atrocities probably only scratched the surface of the dismal, on-the-ground realities. On October 6, 1846, the New Orleans Picayune reported that “eight Mexicans, including two women, had been killed … the murder attributed to some volunteers.” The next week, the Charleston Mercury described how, in Monterrey, “As at Matamoros, murder, robbery, and rape were committed in the broad light of day…. [The Volunteers] burned many of the thatched huts of the poor peasants. It is thought that 100 of the inhabitants were murdered in cold blood.” Soon, the news of volunteer atrocities reached the reading audience in London.
Many Mexican civilians consequently fled Monterrey when US troops arrived. They’d heard stories about the earlier excesses in Matamoros. Grant wrote his wife in October 1846 that the volunteers “have made themselves so terrible by their previous outrages as to have inspired in the Mexicans with a perfect horror of them.” According to Taylor, in the North Mexico theater, the Texan volunteers were the most uncontrollable. As early as late June 1846, he expressed regret, in a letter, for “outrages committed by the Texas volunteers on the Mexicans and others,” and called them a “lawless set.”
Soon after, a sergeant in the Arkansas volunteers admitted that “a portion of our regiment … have been killing, I fear, innocent Mexicans as they meet them.” Matters worsened when, after an Arkansas volunteer was killed, the state’s cavalry took retribution, and commenced “an indiscriminate and bloody massacre” of 25–30 Mexican men in the presence of their families, who were then left “butchered on the floor,” and, according to an Illinois volunteer witness, “most of them [were] scalped.” Taylor, horrified, considered sending the whole lot home, but he desperately needed all the troops he could get. Given the reports from within the US Army expeditionary force, it is hardly surprising that widespread guerrilla warfare promptly broke out in occupied Mexico – greatly complicating the task of occupying American soldiers in the distant land.
Polk had hoped that a few quick victories from Taylor’s army in Northern Mexico would promptly end the war. When, after a few defeats, the Mexican army refused to quit, and realizing that the route straight south to the capital of Mexico City was a daunting distance, Polk had no choice but to turn to another senior, Whig-sympathizing, general. Winfield Scott was the man of the hour. He had an audacious plan for an amphibious assault at Veracruz along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, followed by a shorter overland approach to seize the capital – the very same route the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés had taken to conquer the Aztecs in 1519. Thus, Taylor, stripped of four-fifths of his troops, and many of his most talented subordinates – including Grant – commanded only a skeleton force in the north. It was with that paltry force that he would fight, and barely win, the largest battle of the war at Buena Vista.
On March 9, 1847, Scott’s army landed. It was the first major amphibious landing in American military history – and the most ambitious until D-Day in World War II. Faced with the formidable fortified port city of Veracruz, the general decided to surround the city, cut off water and food supplies, and bombard it into submission. Over two full days, 6700 shells indiscriminately rained down on Veracruz. Foreign consuls in the city begged Scott to allow the women and children to evacuate. He refused. Some subordinate officers disagreed with the general’s decision. Capt. Robert E. Lee – though he obediently directed much of the artillery fire – wrote, “My heart bled for the inhabitants, it was terrible to think of the women and the children.” Veracruz eventually capitulated. A young South Carolina volunteer wrote his family that the inhabitants “were nearly starved to death when they surrendered … they had gotten to eating their donkeys.”
Scott’s decision to sacrifice Mexican civilians rather than risk his own troops in an assault was quite costly. Nearly 500 civilians and enemy soldiers were killed. After the city fell, embedded American journalists reported that US troops immediately rioted, raping and robbing the inhabitants wholesale.
After the capitulation of Veracruz, Scott turned westward and marched towards Mexico City. American atrocities continued across the route. In Guadalupe, after a US soldier was shot by a partisan, his comrades retaliated through the deliberate murder of 24 Mexicans. In another instance, Texas Rangers hanged more than 40 Mexicans. So brutal were the reports of the American retaliations, that Sen. Thomas Corwin, shocked, rose to the floor and defended the actions of the enemy partisans. “If I were a Mexican,” he declared, “I would tell you, ‘Have you not room in your country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hands, and welcome you to hospitable graves.’”
Scott, however, faced more-pressing tactical concerns. His army plagued by sickness and fatigue, and with many of its regiments’ one-year enlistments up, he found himself deep in Mexico – cut off from his supply chain – with fewer than 5,000 troops fit for duty. Guerrillas harassed the army’s rear, and, for Scott, there was no retreat. So dire was the American situation, that the British Duke of Wellington (the famed victor of the Battle of Waterloo) predicted that “Scott is lost – he cannot capture [Mexico City] and he cannot fall back upon his base.” That Scott defied the odds, pushed forward – his army living off the land – and made it to the outskirts of the capital, must stand as one of the great operational achievements in the annals of American warfare.
One of the last obstacles in Scott’s path was Chapultepec Castle, home of, and defended by, the cadets of Mexico’s national military academy. The young cadets put up a valiant defense but were overwhelmed. Six refused to surrender, even after the main army fell back, and fought to the death. Legend has it that one of the cadets wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leapt to his death rather than risk the banner’s capture. To this day, Los Niños Héroes are venerated as Mexican martyrs. The enemy’s conventional army had been vanquished, but Scott had no choice but to settle in for a lengthy, brutal – rape, robbery, and murder were rampant among his volunteers also – occupation of Mexico City. Even as bands of guerrillas continued to harass the American supply lines, he was befuddled by the continued unwillingness of the Mexican people or government to accede to defeat or negotiate peace. Army morale quickly declined. Stuck in a stagnated impasse, the general had little choice but to rely on Polk’s appointed peace emissary – Nicholas Trist – to work out an acceptable settlement … and fast!
The President, in his first war message of May 1846, declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico. Now I propose to try to show, that the whole of this … is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception. ~ Gen. Winfield Scott to the Secretary of War (January 1847)
Though Polk’s initial declaration of war on Mexico passed both houses of Congress with flying colors, early war fever waned within a year, picked up unassailable momentum by late 1847, and culminated in America’s first-ever nationwide antiwar movement. While the climax of that activity was political and centered (most vocally) in Washington, DC, much of its genesis – surprising as it sounds – lay within the deployed army itself. Dreadful conditions and consequent low morale helped lay the foundation for that even before American atrocities sickened some of the soldiers, and the unexpected length of the war began to frustrate volunteers and regular troops alike.
Hygiene was terrible in military encampments from the start. Unsanitary camps, especially those filled with undisciplined volunteers lacking immunity, led to massive outbreaks of communicable diseases. Supplies were also a problem, and remained short throughout most of the war. Regular army officers – most of whom were sympathetic to the Whig Party – were convinced it was a form of political retribution from the staunchly Democratic president. There was a grain of truth in that assessment. Polk’s was – at least in the volunteer regiments – a rather politicized army. After all, every one of the 13 generals he appointed during the war was a Democrat, most former party officeholders. Mostly, though, the culprit was Polk’s policies, since he – just as George W. Bush would in the 2003 Iraq War – insisted on waging war and cutting taxes simultaneously. Partly as a result of the shortfalls and rampant disease infestations, more than 9,200 soldiers deserted the US armies in Mexico – the highest for any American foreign war before or since.
Patriotic dissent: The rise of military and political opposition
As the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and many veteran troops began to realize the inherent cruelty of the US invasion and more political dissent infused the military ranks. In a sense it began at the top. General Taylor abhorred Polk. During his early campaign around Monterrey, the general, having heard rumors (which he did “not credit”) that Polk was dead, wrote his son-in-law, “While I regret to hear the death of anyone, I would as soon have heard of his death … as that of any other individual in the whole Union.” Coming from a serving combat-theater commander, those were profound, even shocking, sentiments.
In other cases, dissent, desertion, and even treason reigned. So disgusted with the American invasion were many recently emigrated Irish Catholic soldiers – who had often suffered abuse and ethnic riots in northeastern cities the decade before – that a battalion’s worth responded to enemy entreaties and defected to the Mexican Army. Most spent the remainder of the war as some of the fiercest fighters – and best artillerists – in the Mexican Army. They named their unit the San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s) Battalion. At one of the final major battles – Churubusco – the San Patricios rallied Mexican troops, even tearing white flags of surrender out of their hands. The Irish deserters undoubtedly knew that for them surrender meant execution for treason. Ultimately, 72 of the Irish survivors were captured and court-martialed. Seventy were sentenced to death. Forty six were actually executed – 30 in a single mass hanging. The others’ sentences were reduced to jail, 50 lashes, and being branded with the letter D, for “deserter.”
One of the most famous military skeptics was Lieutenant – and future general and president – Ulysses Grant. Uncomfortable with the justifications for the Mexican War from the start, he wrote his wife, during the lengthy occupation of Mexico City, that, “Mexico is a very pleasant place to live because it is never hot nor ever cold, but I believe everyone is hartily [sic] tired of war…. I pity poor Mexico.” Grant never forgot the horror of his first war, and never forgave his country for its aggressive invasion. In 1879, a few years after leaving the White House, he told a journalist, “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster…. [The war] was one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” In his memoirs, he went further, and described that the Civil War as “our punishment,” for that “transgression.”
The Whigs, most of whom had followed their party leadership in feckless acquiescence to a war few had any enthusiasm for, were later transformed by the Mexican conflict. By war’s end it was their finest hour, but also, perhaps, their party’s downfall. No one with even scant knowledge of American history would conclude that antiwar activism tends towards political success. Nevertheless, even if most Whigs – fearful of suffering the extinction the anti–1812 War Federalists suffered – folded, a few in Congress, known as the “14 irreconcilables” showed courage from the start.
They were led by the indefatigable Rep. John Quincy Adams. When nearly all Whigs gave in to Polk’s reasoning for war, the 78-year-old Adams would have none of it. Not only was old John Quincy totally opposed to “this most outrageous war,” but he told a fellow Massachusetts congressman that he “hoped the officers would all resign & the men all desert!” One of his fellow “irreconcilables,” Congressman Luther Severance of Maine, declared that from the start, “It is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed,” and, going further, even averred that for their “manly resistance” the Mexicans should be “honored and applauded.”
Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the Whigs’ stalwart party leader, Henry Clay, took a strong antiwar stand, that most members changed course. The three-time presidential candidate was very likely moved to a more vocal position of dissent after the death of his favorite son – Col. Henry Clay Jr. – at the Battle of Buena Vista. The younger Clay had, after being struck with a bullet in the thigh, heroically protected his retreating soldiers before succumbing to a deluge of Mexican bayonets. He was just 35. The elder Clay, was somewhat comforted by knowing that his son “if he were to die … preferred to meet death on the battlefield.” However, Clay, never enthusiastic about the invasion (and having very likely torpedoed his last presidential campaign by his muted critique), admitted to a friend, “That consolation would be greater, if I did not believe the Mexican War was unnecessary and of an aggressive character.”
Matters began to shift by the summer of 1847, when, finally, journalists outside of New England had seen enough atrocities in Mexico and began to condemn the war. The public intellectuals spoke out next. Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail after he symbolically refused to pay his poll tax in protest of the war. He then delivered a famous lecture, “Civil Disobedience,” which called for resistance against the government’s immoral war effort. Other writers and poets, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell, followed suit. Then Walt Whitman, initially a war supporter, published an editorial titled “American Workingmen, versus Slavery” in support of the upstart Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot’s “Proviso” that all forms of human bondage be prohibited in any land taken from Mexico. Whitman’s dissent, certainly a slap in the face to his paper’s conservative Democratic readership, got him fired from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he had served as an editor.
Still, the major turning point was clearly Henry Clay’s profound decision, on November 13, 1847, to give a widely promoted speech – the finest of his long career – in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. He had, after much soul-searching, and realizing his presidential prospects were very likely behind him, decided to boldly and publicly oppose the war that had cost him his son. A newly elected freshman congressman from Illinois – a young Abraham Lincoln – was in attendance, having fortuitously stopped in the town to visit his wife’s family en route to Washington, DC What Clay said shocked his party and the nation.
With thousands in attendance, Clay started from the beginning. The United States should never have annexed Texas in the first place, he asserted, and then he proceeded to attack not only the obvious target – Polk – but to excoriate the vast majority of his own party, which had expediently voted for the war in 1846. Significant highlights from the speech are worth quoting. The war had resulted in a “mad sacrifice of human life … waste of human treasure … mangled bodies … death and desolation.” It was Mexico, not the United States that was “defending her firesides, her castles, her altars.” The consequences, he said, were substantial. America had ceded its “unsullied” international “character.” The only moral course, Clay declared, was for Congress to use its constitutional powers to cut off funds, end the war, and refuse to annex even a square mile of Mexican land. Now, and in the future, America should disavow “any desire … to acquire any foreign territory … for the purpose of introducing slavery into it.” Going a step further, in a radical step for a Kentuckian, Clay added that he had “ever regarded slavery as a great evil.”
Clay’s melancholy over his son’s death may have contributed to the sabotage of any remaining hopes he had for the presidency. Nonetheless, the renowned orator’s two-and half-hour speech was incredibly courageous, and, more important, widely influential. Thanks to the wonders of technology (which his Whig party had long championed) – specifically the telegraph – Clay’s remarks boomeranged across the entirety of the country within days. Democratic papers labeled Clay a traitor. Polk’s favored newspaper, the Washington Union, condemned Clay’s remarks as “the spirit of treason promulgated.” No matter, this single speech catalyzed and exploded the nascent antiwar movement. That faction was no longer a New England phenomenon. At rallies across the nation, from Indiana, to Kentucky, to New Jersey, to Maine, thousands denounced the war and read aloud Clay’s speech.
The Lexington speech may have altered the career and even character of that young congressman in the audience, Abraham Lincoln. Before the Lexington talk, Lincoln was a “tariff-man,” a domestic policy-wonk, with little interest in foreign affairs. He hadn’t planned to kick off his freshman term in Washington on an antiwar platform. Yet, despite hailing from an enthusiastically pro-war Illinois district, that’s just what he did. No doubt, he foresaw the political consequences. Perhaps he thought, well, if Clay – his lifelong idol – could demonstrate political bravery, then so should he.
So it was, then, that on December 22, 1847, Lincoln, the unknown (and sole Whig) congressman from Illinois, delivered a bold first speech on the House floor. As a well-trained country lawyer, Lincoln’s inaugural remarks were more methodical than inspirational, but other members took notice as he effectively battered away at Polk’s deceptive justification for the invasion. American blood, Lincoln asserted, had been shed, but in a “contested region” by “armed officers and soldiers, sent into that settlement by the military orders of the President,” and thus could not be blamed on the defensive Mexican troopers. Polk, according to Lincoln, though seduced by “military glory,” must, in his heart, be “deeply conscious of being in the wrong – that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him.”
Congressman Lincoln’s speech and early votes didn’t endear him to his pro-war constituents. Though his remarks brought him the national renown so rare for an obscure freshman representative, the blowback – particularly back in Illinois – was severe. One prominent Democratic paper labeled him a new “Benedict Arnold.” His own local State Register seconded the notion and declared, “Henceforth will the Benedict Arnold of our district be known here only as the Ranchero Spotty [slang for a Mexican guerrilla fighter] of one term.” Lincoln’s own law partner back in Springfield warned him that his antiwar position constituted “political suicide.” Unfazed, Lincoln doubled down. On January 12, 1848, he again spoke – for 45 minutes – and declared that Polk should “remember he sits where Washington sat…. As a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt no evasion – no equivocation.” It ought to come as no surprise, then, that Lincoln, was, in fact, to be just a single-term congressman.
If Lincoln was the newest antiwar voice on Capitol Hill, former President John Quincy Adams was most certainly the eldest and ablest. Indeed, opposition to the Mexican War would constitute, literally, his final mortal act. As the historian Richard Immerman wrote, “Adams [had] never voted to withhold appropriations from the soldiers, but … on Feb. 21, 1848, he cast his final vote against a resolution to commend America’s victorious generals.” It is fitting that, when the clerk called for a roll call on the routine measure, Adams bellowed what was to be his last word ever in Congress: “No!” He slumped over at his desk. At age 80, he had suffered a massive stroke. He soon lapsed into unconsciousness. Before he did, he gathered the strength to ask for Henry Clay, who grasped his hand and weeped over the old president. Two days later, the only ex-president to leave the White House for a career in the House of Representatives was dead.
The young Lincoln – representative of the “new blood” in the revamped Whig Party – had witnessed Adams’s dramatic collapse on the House floor. No doubt, he was soon surprised to learn that he’d been chosen to serve as one the indefatigable old man’s pallbearers at the forthcoming elaborate state funeral. One wonders what effect these theatrical events had on the future president – how it influenced his future career. What we do know, is that a few days later Lincoln cast his first antislavery vote as a congressman. Adams’s death, coming on top of Clay’s histrionic speech, also seemed to buoy the Whig Party. Though they never cut off funds or supplies to the troops, Whig congressmen never acted on Polk’s two requests for reinforcements for the occupation of Mexico, and – in a prelude to modern political dramas – actually lowered the ceiling on federal borrowing.
Clay must have known his Lexington speech ruined any remaining hope he’d had for his party’s 1848 nomination – it would go, instead, to the more electable and less controversial Gen. Zachary Taylor. Furthermore, though Clay reentered the Senate in 1849 and worked hard to forge a compromise (in 1850) to avert civil war, the antiwar – and, by extension, anti-slave-state-expansion – positions he’d staked out in his speech ultimately proved the undoing of the Whig Party within a decade. But that didn’t make him, or Lincoln, wrong.
But she [America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.… [Were she to do so] the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.… She might become the dictatress of the world. ~ Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams (1821)
It was an odd peace, negotiated by a once-trusted, Democratic Party loyalist who, though appointed by Polk himself, soon turned against the war, defied his president, and – with the support of equally exasperated American generals – unilaterally negotiated an essential peace, despite knowing that doing so would destroy his own career. Few today have heard of Nicholas Trist – which was precisely James Polk’s intent. Nevertheless, the man – a bona fide American hero and man of impeccable integrity – should be celebrated, even now, in schools across the nation. Trist had an interesting background. He had married Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter, lived for many years with the ex-president, and became his personal secretary, dear confidant, and – similar to Polk with Jackson – his protégé of sorts. The Jefferson connection undoubtedly influenced Trist’s professional life, most especially his troubled, courageous, mission to Mexico.
When Trist arrived on his secret peace mission in Mexico, General Scott was suspicious from the get-go. Long convinced that Polk planned to replace him with a Democratic Party loyalist-general, Scott saw Trist as a threat and rival. So contentious were their earliest interactions that Scott initially threatened to resign if Trist wasn’t recalled. Over time, however, Scott – increasingly desperate for a peace settlement – came to realize that Trist was his best hope. The two became friendly confidants, both eager for peace at almost any cost, and even sought to undermine the president’s increasingly ambitious, expansionist sentiments. Scott and Trist both recognized the precariousness of the American military situation, wherein a relatively small US Army – deployed deep in the Mexican interior and harassed by guerrillas – was trapped in occupation duty with no end in sight.
Polk, too, trod on delicate ground. His Democratic loyalists had begun to call for the annexation of all of Mexico. Sam Houston, the former president of the Republic of Texas, had just proclaimed the entirety of the vanquished nation as the “birth-right” of the United States. “Assuredly as tomorrow’s sun will rise … so certain it appears to my mind,” he asserted, “must the Anglo-Saxon race pervade … throughout the whole rich empire of this great hemisphere.” Polk hoped for a quick peace that would gain the United States as much of Mexico as possible in order to placate the “All-Mexico movement” in his own party.
Thus, when Trist demonstrated his willingness to negotiate a somewhat more lenient, “just” peace with the provisional Mexican government, Polk decided to fire him. If Trist remained in place, Polk concluded at a hasty cabinet meeting held in his private bedroom, it might convince the Mexicans that “the US were so anxious for peace that they would ultimately conclude one upon the Mexican terms.” Secretary Buchanan, who had once argued against any annexation of Mexican territory, now – with presidential ambitions of his own – declared the full annexation of Mexico was “that destiny which Providence may have in store for both countries.”
Meanwhile, down in Mexico itself, Scott and Trist had come to agree on the futility of a lengthy military occupation. Scott’s racial biases were on full display in his opposition to total annexation. “There are not more than one million,” out of eight million Mexicans, “who are of pure European blood. The Indians and the mixed races constitute about seven millions. They are exceedingly inferior to our own. As a love of my country, I was opposed to mixing up that race with our own.”
The longer he spent on the ground in Mexico, Trist’s view of the untenable American military situation, and the (aggressive) nature of the entire US military invasion, changed. His country’s conquest of Mexico and occupation of its capital, he soon wrote, was a “thing for every right-minded American to be ashamed of.” Scott agreed, as much on tactical as moral grounds, and the two men collaborated to defy Polk’s recall of Trist, and – exploiting the slow nature of communications with Washington – as the special envoy decided, to make peace with “as little exacting as possible from Mexico.” When the military dictator, Santa Anna, fell from power and was replaced by an originally antiwar moderate, Manuel de la Peña, Trist saw an opportunity to negotiate a peace before Peña fell in an (expected) coup.
Thus, when Trist finally received his recall orders, he made a profound, even unheard of, decision: he refused to accept his firing or return home as ordered. In that, Trist had Scott’s support. The general, also defying a president for whom he had no love, encouraged Trist to “finish the good work he had begun.” So it was that Trist composed and sent Polk a 645-page letter explaining just why he refused to be relieved of duty. A prolonged US military occupation, he wrote, constituted an “incalculable danger to every good principle, moral as well as political, which is cherished among us.”
Back in DC, Polk, influenced by the all-Mexico expansionists within his party, was horrified by Trist’s intransigence. “There is,” between Scott and Trist, “a conspiracy to put the government at defiance and make a treaty of some sort.” Down in Mexico, both the general and the diplomat realized that time was short. Any day a new general might arrive with orders to relieve Scott and physically remove Trist from army headquarters. So in a last desperate gambit, Scott threatened provisional President Peña. If a peace agreement was not soon signed, the US Army would march out into the countryside and resume hostilities upon the Mexican people. And so it was, on February 2, 1848, that a fired diplomat and an insubordinate general signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico ceded the northern third of its territory – everything that Polk had desired in his initial guidance to Trist (with the exception of Baja California). The United States promised – but ultimately failed to fulfill – recognition of Mexican property rights in the annexed territory, to provide residents therein a path to US citizenship, and to protect them from Indian raids along the new border.
Trist took scant comfort in the eventual settlement. As he admitted to his family, “Could those Mexicans [at the peace table] have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans.” Though he knew, as a result of his actions, that his political career was over, Trist felt he had done as right as possible by both his own country and vanquished Mexico – his “conscience as a man,” was clear. Polk was furious, and still pressured by expansionists in his own party, but, after lengthy cabinet discussions and personal reflection – and undoubtedly cowed by the growing national antiwar movement – decided he had no choice but to accept the peace treaty that he had.
Trist returned as a pariah. He lived out much of the rest of his life in nearly abject poverty, a man without a party, or a benefactor, but at peace with himself. He had done the right thing; had saved lives on both sides; and had chosen integrity over advancement. His punishment was penury. Still, while Trist had done all he felt he could for the Mexicans, the US government, would ultimately abrogate key provisions of the treaty with Mexico – just as it would time and again with Indian tribes within its own borders. The real losers of the war turned out to be newly Hispanic-Americans and Indians within the annexed territory. Under the conditions of the Mexican Constitution of 1824, to which – by the treaty – the United States was statutorily obligated to adhere, all Mexicans, including Indians, were considered citizens. Still, for generations, Mexican-Americans and, especially Indians, were treated as second-class citizens or foreigners within the borders of the United States.
The new state of California didn’t recognize Mexican-Americans as citizens until 1870; New Mexico refused until 1912. For decades, Texas restricted the right to land ownership to whites. As for the Indians, most of whom lived in California, matters were far worse. Within a single decade, 1845–55, after California’s American governor, Peter Burnett, predicted a “war of extermination” would rage until “the Indian race becomes extinct,” the native population fell from 150,000 to 50,000. The former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass probably best expressed the nature of the eventual settlement: “They [the peacemakers] have succeeded in robbing Mexico of her territory, and are rejoicing for their success under the hypocritical pretense of a regard for peace.” And so they had.
The end of American “innocence” and the seeds of Civil War
The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as a man who swallowed the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (1846)
James K. Polk’s worst nightmare came true in the election of 1848. To his credit, and almost singularly among American executives, Polk did indeed eschew a reelection campaign. Still, he was a sincere Democratic loyalist and had long feared that a Whig – particularly a popular Whig general – would succeed him. And that is precisely what happened. One of the two celebrity theater commanders of the war, Gen. Zachary Taylor, assumed office in early 1849. That the Whigs – a party literally formed and held together by sheer loathing of Andrew Jackson – turned to another general (from a war they opposed) in a bid to take back the White House, demonstrated both their political opportunism and the pervading star power of military commanders throughout US history.
Polk left Washington after Taylor’s inauguration and trekked back to Tennessee. By then a broken man, Polk may not have led his armies from the front in Mexico, but the war can be said to have killed him anyway. A workaholic with few worldly vices – not even rest – Polk was dead just three months later. Nonetheless, while Polk is unlikely to top many historians’ lists of “great” presidents, he was undoubtedly one of the most successful. He had, for better or worse, fulfilled nearly every one of his campaign promises. He had helped annex Texas; negotiated most of the Oregon Territory away from the British; provoked and sold a war that made the Manifest Destiny dream of an America that spanned “from sea to shining sea” a reality; and he even stepped down after a single presidential term, as he had pledged. Few occupants of the White House, before or since, can claim as much.
Nevertheless, Polk’s wartime leadership set a number of rather dark precedents for the young nation – questionably constitutional criteria that far too many of his successors would follow, and follow still. His was the first American war waged against another republic – once thought an impossibility by the Founding Fathers and their contemporary Enlightenment thinkers – the first based upon an unassailable lie, and the first that a significant portion of the populace opposed. That pattern has continued. So has Polk’s expansion of executive power in foreign affairs. As the first to truly identify, believe in, and execute the fiction that the Article II commander-in-chief clause of the Constitution grants near unlimited powers to the president, Polk undoubtedly did much to irreversibly enlarge the dominion of the presidency. Without Polk’s early precedent-setting and what logically followed, it is difficult to imagine the contemporary and seamless conduct of unsanctioned “terror wars” by the three consecutive administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.
The sheer scope and horror of the Mexican-American War was also something new for the young American Republic. Though the Revolution counted a greater number of battle deaths, more US soldiers had died in Mexico, and far more than in the War of 1812, or even in all the Indian wars (1817–1890) combined. In fact, per capita, the Mexican-American War was the deadliest for US soldiers in the nation’s history. One in ten of the Americans who went to Mexico died there – the vast majority from illness and disease. More than 12,500 American servicemen and at least 25,000 Mexicans (soldiers and civilians) died in the conflict. And it is telling that the Mexican-American War is one of the few major conflicts not commemorated in Washington DC Though the war cost the US government nearly $100 million (some $3 billion in today’s dollars), most historians agree that the massive economic and social disruption of the war significantly set back and stunted the progress and growth of Mexico.
That the United States had aggressively dismantled its neighboring republic raised, and raises, a number of uncomfortable questions. Could the United States still claim national altruism and define itself positively compared with the British, and other monarchies and empires? Of course it couldn’t. Would American expansion stop at the Pacific? It would not. More urgently, would slavery expand into the annexed territories, and if it did, would that placate Southerners? The answers: some of it, and, absolutely not.
The question of slavery in the Mexican cession – and later legislation permitting the peculiar institution throughout the far West – would, within just thirteen years, tear the United States asunder. It did so, in part, owing to the sectional breakdown of the “second” party system in American history. There had, before the war, been northern and southern factions of both Whigs and Democrats. Afterwards, the parties quickly became almost completely regional: Northern for the former, Southern in the case of the latter.
The indefatigable lion of the Senate, Henry Clay tried to halt this sectional fragmentation. In an attempt to recreate his 1824 “Missouri Compromise,” he again worked out a tenuous deal between pro- and antislavery states in 1850. In hindsight, his fatally precarious “Compromise of 1850” never stood a chance. His first grand bargain had held firmly for 24 years; his encore, barely ten.
Abraham Lincoln wasn’t even around to observe his old idol attempt this last trick. His antiwar position almost certainly cost him his coveted congressional seat. Meanwhile, Henry Clay, perhaps the most famous American politician never to serve as president, died within two years, and was thus spared the pain of watching his final deal collapse. Nevertheless, by the 1856 presidential election, the Whig Party essentially ceased to exist – replaced by the far more overtly antislavery Republicans. Just four years later, against all odds, Lincoln would ascend to the White House at the head of that new party.
The undeniable nature of historical contingency aside, one must reflect in wonder at some of the implications inherent in an accurate accounting of the Mexican-American War. If Emerson was right – and it seems he was – that the conquest of Northern Mexico poisoned American politics, upset the delicate slave-state versus free-state balance, and eventually tore the union apart, consider the ramifications. It could be said that 180 pro-slavery, illegal immigrant rebels holed up in an old Spanish mission named the Alamo sacrificed themselves for what they’d claimed was “freedom,” but inadvertently caused an American Civil War. What’s more, that much bloodier war would paradoxically be commanded – on both sides – by generals who were veterans of the Mexico invasion, many of whom had doubts, if not downright regrets, about the war of their youth.
Wilder still, the careers of the presidents on both sides of the monumental civil conflict to come were veritably built by the earlier conflict. On the Confederate side, Jefferson Davis – a West Point graduate – had served as a colonel of the Mississippi Volunteers under the command of his former father-in-law (his first wife had died), Zachary Taylor. Before he had resigned from Congress to lead the regiment, however, he had opposed a hasty invasion, and lamented on the House floor, “Unfortunately, the opinion has gone forth that no politician dares to be the advocate of peace when the question of war is mooted. That will be an evil hour – the sand of our republic will be nearly run – when it shall be in the power of any demagogue, or fanatic, to raise a war-clamor, and control the legislation of the country.” He fought well in all the major battles in Northern Mexico and was shot through the foot. Six years after the conflict’s end, while serving as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce – who had himself served as a volunteer brigadier general under Gen. Winfield Scott – Davis successfully pushed for a revision of the original treaty that further benefited the US invaders. In the Gadsden Purchase, Washington acquired some 30,000 square miles of present-day southern Arizona and New Mexico – including the city of Tucson – to facilitate a southern branch of the transcontinental railroad.
Conversely, the Civil War–era president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, had made his name – and risked his career – with his virulent, principled antiwar stance in Congress. So it was that both sides of the Civil War would be led by generals who had doubted the morality and efficacy of the Mexican-American War as young officers, and by presidents who’d once outright opposed it.
How immensely all this alters the standard patriotic narrative! Think of the significance: an aggressive US regime-change war of conquest in 1846 boomeranged east a little more than ten years later and resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 Americans – more, perhaps, than all the nation’s other wars combined. The implications for America’s imperial present are astonishing.
Bibliographical note: This piece draws extensively on Amy S. Greenberg’s book, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico (2012); on sections of Daniel Walker Howe’s volume in the Oxford History of the United States, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1846–1848; my chapter on the Mexican-American War from the “American History for Truthdiggers” series; and my teaching notes and lectures from West Point. Interested readers should read Greenberg’s work in full for a broader and more in-depth treatment of this massively complex subject.
This originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen