Civil War Leadership and the Mexican War Experience
by Kevin Dougherty, University Press of Mississippi, 2007, $50.00
To really know a man, it is said, you should reflect on his father.To really know a general then,you should reflect on the leaders he served under. This is especially significant in the American wars of the 19th century where many commanders in the Civil War (1861- 1865) served in the Mexican War (1846-1848).
Military historian Kevin Dougherty does just that in Civil War Leadership and Mexican War Experience, which explores the influence of the earlier war on those men who would become leaders of Federal and Confederate forces.In his brief but insightful study, he examines 26 men who served in Mexico—13 would become Confederates,13 would remain with the Union—tracing how their experiences would come into play in the Civil War.
The book identifies 194 Federal generals and 142 Confederate generals who served in Mexico.As expected, the main players are studied—Ulysses S. Grant, George B. McClellan, Winfield Scott,William Sherman and George Thomas for the Union,and Robert E.Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, James Longstreet, Jefferson Davis and George Pickett for the Confederates. The lesser known officers discussed,however, are just as intriguing— Henry Hunt and Samuel Du Point for the Federals and John Winder,John Slidell and Gideon Pillow for the Confederates.
A retired U.S.Army officer, Dougherty,who teaches history at the University of Southern Mississippi,makes a convincing case that the impact of Mexican War experiences affected the major tactical decisions these men made in the Civil War.But the lessons learned by the young officers,he contends,also depended on their Mexican War commander.
In the Mexican-American War, Dougherty writes, there was more to learn from the strictly professional Winfield Scott than under Zachary Taylor, known for his lesss formal leadership style.By serving under Scott,Lee learned “to value reconnaissance”; Grant learned “to take calculated risks,”and McClellan learned to “wage limited war.” Serving under Taylor, Jefferson Davis learned to be “self-reliant;”John Pope learned “a callous attitude toward civilians”; and George Meade “learned to play it safe.”
Different campaigns also had different impacts. For example, at Chapultepec, Longstreet, who was wounded, saw carnage in frontal attacks while his friend Picket found glory. Dougherty explains: “The measure of a great Civil War general was his ability to apply what he had learned in Mexico, not blindly repeat or avoid it. Many had trouble with this.”
Sherman’s development as a general was another side to the Mexican War coin. He was on duty in California and far from the fighting.When he did take to the field in the Civil War,he recognized his limitations and that led to his growth and originality as a commander.He excelled because he was “smart enough to recognize what he had not learned.”
Changing technology also impacted whether a successful tactic in the Mexican war would survive and be applicable in the Civil War.An example was the growing development of rifled shoulder arms and artillery which aided defensive operations.The frontal assaults of the Mexican War failed in the Civil War because the range of effective musketry went from 50 yards to 300 yards and artillery from 300 yards to almost a mile.
One of the most interesting sections of the book details Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ long admiration of Braxton Bragg,who became one of eight Confederate full generals. He won at Chickamauga, but was routed at Chattanooga. It was in Mexico that Bragg developed a reputation for rigid discipline and was singled out for allegedly being told by Zachary Taylor to add “a little more grape” to his guns. Davis and Bragg fought side by side at Buena Vista, and both won glory.“Indeed,one explanation of why Davis was so tolerant of Bragg’s Civil War shortcomings certainly could be that Davis chose to recall this Mexican War memory whenever he saw Bragg.”
This is an interesting, thoughtful, important but short book that carries a heavy $50 price tag for slightly more than 200 pages with index. Dougherty,whose other books include The Coastal War in North and South Carolina and (with J. Michael Moore) The Peninsula Campaign of 1862:A Military Analysis,makes his case about the influence of Mexico on young officers who would later fight in the Civil War.
Full-blown footnotes or endnotes instead of the short, modern in-text attribution would make this a better book. I also wished some of the comparisons he makes would have gone into more detail.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.