Book Review: A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg


AuthorAmy S. Greenberg
TitleA Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico
Publication Info: Knopf (2012)
ISBN: 9780307592699
Summary/Review:

Like many Americans, I know very little about the Mexican War, which is a shame since what I learned from this one-volume history, we Americans keep repeating the same mistakes our nation made in this war.  Greenberg writes a page-turning narrative starting with the drumbeat for war – ostensibly caused by the United States annexation of the Republic of Texas, but with many American leaders hoping to annex California and other Mexican lands as well.  The United States first war with another republic was one guided by a greed for land and featured many atrocities – pillaging, rape, massacres – by American soldiers against the Mexican populace.  The American troops were able to occupy Mexico City and hardliners desired to annex all the land of Mexico.  But if the Mexican War is overlooked in American history, even more so is the first American anti-war movement prompted by reports from returning soldiers and embedded reporters of the real horror of the war.  In the conclusion of this book, Greenburg documents how the Daughters of the American Revolution grew out of this war, an attempt to reclaim the virtue and glory of the founding war and overshadow the avarice and criminality of the war with Mexico.

A Wicked War is by no means a comprehensive history of the war with Mexico.  Greenburg focuses her narrative on five historical figures.  The first is President James Polk who Greenburg describes as an apprentice of Andrew Jackson, a hard worker determined to meet his goals, and unusual for his time considered his wife Sarah an equal partner in his political career.  While a hard worker, his aims seem less admirable as Polk is depicted as wanting to seize the Southwest by any means and with this expand the slaveholding territory of the United States.   Opposing Polk is anti-slavery and anti-war candidate Henry Clay in his third and last failed campaign for President.  Clay’s son Henry, Jr. would go on to fight and die in the war adding to the elder Clay’s agony at this time.  But he would rally for one more great speech that would inspire the nation’s response to the end and aftermath of the war.

Another featured figure is John J. Hardin, a popular Illinois congressman who went against his fellow Whigs to support the invasion of Mexico and volunteered to fight.  His death at the Battle of Buena Vista became an image of glory for the war supporters even at a time when support for the war was flagging.  Hardin’s death also opened the door for his friend-turned-political rival Abraham Lincoln who was elected to represent their district’s seat in Congress in 1846.  Inspired by Clay, Lincoln would speak out against President Polk and the War in Congress despite the unpopularity of his views among his constituents, who saw to it that he would serve only one term.  The final figure in this book is Nicholas Trist, a diplomat sent by Polk to negotiate the Mexican surrender.  Upon growing familiar with the reality of the war and the conditions of the Mexican people, Trist refused to follow Polk’s instructions and negotiated a fairer deal with Mexico that ceded a smaller amount of territory to the United States.  After negotiation the Treaty of Guadalupe, Trist wrote “My feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than the Mexicans’ could be.”

I found this historical work very compelling and a good introduction to a bad war.

Rating: ****

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