Mr. Polk’s Army, by Richard Bruce Winders, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas, 1997, $34.95.
Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant called it America’s most unjust war. George G. Meade, then serving as a second lieutenant of U.S. Topographical Engineers, wrote, “Were it any other power our gross follies would surely have been punished by now.”
Widely viewed as little more than a training ground for the men who would later lead great armies during the Civil War, the Mexican War has been relegated to a footnote in American history. Yet the conflict, fought between 1846 and 1848, was vitally important to the United States. Politically and geographically, it settled the issue of American control over what would become Texas, California and New Mexico. The war was the trial by fire that established the need for the trained professionals of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. It also exposed serious flaws in the volunteer army system, which most Americans were convinced made a permanent standing army unnecessary.
If the Mexican War itself is forgotten, what of the men who fought it? For men such as Grant, Meade, George B. McClellan, Thomas J. Jackson and Robert E. Lee, their Mexican War service is at least recognized when the tales of their later deeds are told. But what of the thousands of others who fought and died during those two years? Where are their memorials, and who would tell their story?
In Mr. Polk’s Army, Richard Bruce Winders has taken a large step toward correcting this gross oversight in our historical record. Based on contemporary accounts, this well-researched and documented vol-ume gives insight into the men who made up the U.S. Army in Mexico.
Winders not only introduces the reader to the men who served, both as volunteers and as members of the Regular Army, but also details the differences between them, socially and politically. The author makes a strong case for the fact that, while all wars are political, in many ways the Mexican War was more so than usual. It could accurately be called a war fought mainly to solidify the dominance of one political party while sealing the demise of another.
Winders has also done an excellent job of sticking to his subject. One will not find tactical and strategic accounts of battles here; nor will one find discourse on how the Mexican War experience affected the performance and/or personalities of the men mentioned during their Civil War service.
It should also be mentioned that Mr. Polk’s Army is not the Mexican War version of Bell Wiley’s Life of Johnny Reb and Life of Billy Yank. Winder’s book does, however, compare favorably with Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr.’s Soldiers Blue and Gray. As Robertson’s book gave a clear, concise overview of the life of a soldier during the Civil War, Mr. Polk’s Army serves the same purpose for the Mexican War soldier.
For anyone interested in the Mexican War specifically, or the American military during the 19th century in general, Mr. Polk’s Army is a highly recommended addition to the bookshelf.
B. Keith Toney