Patrick Troester is a PhD Candidate in History at Southern Methodist University. His dissertation project studies the evolution of identity and political power in the nineteenth-century U.S.-Mexico borderlands by examining borderland violence and the ways in which the region’s diverse peoples struggled over its meanings. More information can be found at www.patricktroester.org
Review of Peter Guardino, The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017
Peter Guardino’s new book presents a masterfully constructed transnational account of one of the most influential, yet least discussed events in North American history: the Mexican-American War. While many authors have sought to examine this conflict from both Mexican and U.S. perspectives, none have approached the depth, breadth, and nuance that Guardino has achieved here. Although he spends significant time on traditional military and political themes, the bulk of the narrative focuses on reconstructing the experiences of ordinary people from both countries, constantly illustrating the ways in which the war’s social and cultural history is essential for understanding what happened on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Not only does The Dead March offer perhaps the first truly trans-national history of the war, but it does so in a volume that is both accessible to general audiences and deeply relevant to professional historians.
Throughout the book, Guardino builds a sustained and compelling case against a myth that has long haunted interpretations of the Mexican-American War in both countries. This myth suggests that Mexico lost the war primarily because it lacked the stability and national unity of its northern neighbor. Guardino, on the other hand, shows that the war’s outcome had far more to do with the economic and social disparities between the two countries. An assortment of geographical, political, and social forces combined to give the U.S. a strong material advantage. At the same time, costly mobilization efforts, a violent U.S. occupation, and the U.S. Navy’s blockade of Mexican ports compounded Mexico’s already dire economic situation and aggravated its internal conflicts. The loss of revenue from import duties crippled the financially strapped Mexican state, while the war’s demands further burdened a society already living on an economic knife-edge. Given this harsh reality, Guardino shows that the fierce and sustained resistance that Mexicans made against the U.S. invasion was nothing short of remarkable. Working to overcome deep internal divisions and constantly weighing the stark realities of personal and family survival, Mexicans from all walks of life contributed to and participated in the war effort. In doing so, they unequivocally declared and demonstrated their Mexican nationalism. “In short,” Guardino concludes, “Mexico lost the war because it was poor, not because it was not a nation” (367).
More broadly, Guardino uses the Mexican-American War as a lens through which to compare and contrast the two countries as they approached the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite their vast economic, social, and cultural differences, Guardino highlights the key similarities that Mexico and the United States shared. Most importantly, national identity and central state authority were new and fluid forces in both countries. Nationalism was tightly bound to other pre-existing forms of identity, such as regionalism, religion, family, ethnicity, and race. The war’s outcome has led many historians to mistakenly assume a great deal more cohesion and unity than actually existed in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. This in turn has helped reinforce the false dichotomy between a supposedly strong U.S. nation-state and a deficient Mexican one. However, Guardino clearly illustrates that regionalism, partisan conflict, class and racial anxieties, and political violence were rife in both countries at this time. Indeed, the strikingly parallel paths that Mexico and the U.S. followed in the aftermath of the war underline this point. Although the conflict boosted nationalism in the short term, its results enflamed existing conflicts over what each nation aspired to be, leading both countries into massively destructive civil wars.
Although much material in this book will be familiar to both U.S. and Mexican historians, Guardino also presents a great deal of valuable original research. In addition to expertly synthesizing large bodies of scholarship from both sides of the modern border, he draws on his own deep archival evidence from regional and national archives in Mexico, the U.S., and Spain. The most compelling of this original work uses military court records and other sources to reconstruct the complex processes through which the Mexican nation mobilized itself for war. Especially enlightening are Guardino’s treatments of the gendered politics of conscription to the regular Mexican Army, the multi-layered efforts that organized volunteer units in central Mexico, the previously ignored violent resistance with which Mexico City’s residents met the U.S. invaders, and the harsh experiences of the U.S. Army deserters who formed the San Patricio battalion.
If there is anything to critique in this book it is that Guardino seems far more comfortable dealing with central Mexico than with the its northern borderlands. Guardino’s expertise on central Mexican politics, especially his previous work on popular participation, allows him to examine the central Mexican war effort in exceptional detail. However, his treatment of the North sometimes lacks the same richness and complexity. Guardino’s task here is made all the more difficult by the fact that much popular participation in the North was small-scale and decentralized, and northerners were never called upon to assemble large National Guard units like those that defended the capital in 1847. In the grand sweep of this expansive study, this is a minor weakness.
Altogether, The Dead March offers a deeply researched and skillfully written narrative that simultaneously shows the Mexican-American War from both sides, while doing justice to the complexity and humanity of those who lived it. It is a much-needed addition to the growing bodies of scholarship in both Mexico and the United States that have begun the difficult work of re-evaluating this conflict and weaving it into national histories that have long sought to marginalize its importance. Guardino’s work represents a major step forward in that effort and provides an invaluable launching point for further research.