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Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War, 1846-1848.

To risk a gross generalization, social historians are concerned with demarcating the slow, developmental changes of a social order; when confronted with sweeping social change, there is a tendency to investigate its contexts, rather than the change itself. As a discipline, social history has shied away from the study of war because of the desire to examine how individuals have shaped the context of their lives; war removes individuals from their own backgrounds and places their actions in the services of a larger social agency, the state. While the social or "new" history of war has emerged as subdiscipline of social history, most literature in the field,has thus far used the study of war as a means of further exploring the discipline's traditional concerns of the structural nature of ethnicity, gender, or class, rather than looking at the extraordinary, singular nature of war and war service.

In Army of Manifest Destiny, James M. McCaffrey examines the Mexican War by using the records left by its foot soldiers. Like Bell Wiley before him, McCaffrey has chosen to write a history of the war by writing about the everyday actions of the men who fought, rather than its leaders, strategies, or political debates. McCaffrey's descriptions of the world of the soldier are richly detailed and well drawn. By reviewing the manuscripts and diaries of Mexican War soldiers, as well as the relevant secondary literature, he produces a narrative well organized around the movement to camp, the effect of battle, and the impact of encountering a foreign culture upon the young men of the 1840s.

The battle between the United States and Mexico over the lands of Texas has been anachronistically overshadowed by the study of the Civil War, rather than having a history of its own. McCaffrey suggests that at least some of this comparison is warranted. The Mexican War did serve as an initial battleground for many of the Civil War's leaders--Grant, Lee, McClellan, Scott, and Meade among them. With the exception of the later conflict's black troops, the volunteer soldiers of 1846 were recruited in the same manner and from similar stock, and were organized in the loose, confraternal manner of local militias rather than the tight discipline of a national army.

As McCaffrey illustrates, however, the relationship between the Mexican and Civil wars can also be illusory. The earlier war, with relatively few casualties and substantial, conclusive victories, fed the hubris that would affect the Americans in 1861. Rather than splitting a relatively homogeneous nation into antagonistic camps, the Mexican War placed the Anglo culture of the new nation against the Hispanic culture of Mexico. For Americans, the Mexican War tested the new republic's virtue and purpose satisfactorily. The victory justified the belief that the nation was ethnocentrically under the aegis of divine providence.

While McCaffrey hints at the larger changes wrought by the Mexican War, he never fully explores the war's legacy upon either the society at large or upon the men who fought. After an initial exploration of the war's national context, he spends the largest part of this work describing the everyday experiences of soldiers as they invaded and occupied Mexico. The problem here, is that McCaffrey does not tie these changes into any kind of larger conceptual framework--we don't get the sense whether the Mexican War was merely a "lovely little war" that men fought, then returning to their communities relatively unchanged, or, rather, if the war had wideranging, important impacts upon the soldier and his community.

The dilemma raised by the exploration of war in using the traditional methods of social history is whether the examination of everyday experience leaves out the extraordinary changes or widespread reorganization that war can engender. How do we describe the structural frameworks of individual and interpersonal change without losing the individual voice of the participant? Do we need to examine the reverberation of war in order to make the soldier's experience meaningful, or is the examination of the soldier's role implicative enough?

Unlike the ongoing arenas of class, gender, or racial relations, the roles of war begin and end. McCaffrey, by examining the soldiers of the Mexican War, has, appropriately, laid the groundwork for the reexamination of this conflict by other social historians. The men of the Mexican War, largely forgotten by American social historians, have had their actions remembered.

Timothy Haggerty Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Haggerty, Timothy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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