Peter F. Guardino. The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. 512 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-97234-6.
Reviewed by Christopher Menking (University of North Texas)
Published on H-War (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Peter Guardino’s The Dead March is an exceptional book that drastically improves upon the scholarship of the US-Mexican War, particularly as a general history. The book offers a balanced approach to the literature of the war and serves as an exceptional synthesis of the multifaceted aspects within the US-Mexican War scholarship. Guardino is a professor in the Department of History at Indiana University; his earlier works focused on state formation, nationalism, and popular political culture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexico.
This book begins with a comparison of the two armies as these neighboring nations moved closer to war. In particular, Guardino offers an insightful discussion of social, religious, and political motivators for the soldiers of each country. In the next chapter he utilizes traditional operational and tactical descriptions of the battle, which helps tie his discussions of the soldiers to the battles they fought. There are important inclusions that expand the traditional narrative of a US-Mexican War survey book, such as the influence of Comanche raids on Mexico and the methodology of recruitment from both sides of the conflict. He interjects discussions of Mexican guerillas fighting against the US invaders as a counterbalance to his more traditional accounts of the battles.
Guardino breaks from the operational accounts of battle to look at the Mexican National Guard and argues in this section that Mexico had a tradition of citizen-soldiers much like the United States. As the book moved forward chronologically, Guardino discusses the growing political resistance to the war and issues arising in the United States and Mexico. He even mentions the Batallón de San Patricios, Irish defectors from the US army that joined the Mexican army. He ends the body of his book with an analysis of the last few battles in and around Mexico City as well as the difficulty the US representatives experienced signing a final peace treaty.
His thesis challenges the common conception in the literature that Mexico lost the war because it was not a unified nation. In contrast, Guardino argues that there were many factors that unified Mexico and that the United States was not nearly as united as the prevailing literature argues. Guardino justifies this latter argument by citing the proximity of the American Civil War as evidence of US division. He argues that Mexicans’ political conflicts limited their ability to take advantage of opportunities but did not necessarily hinder their war effort. The United States’ military superiority, for Guardino, was not as decisive because although Mexican military officers were more politicized, they equaled the militarily competence of their US counterparts. Finally, Guardino concedes that the economic disadvantage for the Mexican army limited its tactical and strategic options as the army regularly diverted focus from military objectives to the acquisition of food.
This is an excellent book that makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on the US-Mexican War. Guardino provides a seamless synthesis of numerous topics from within the literature on the war, integrating them into a thoughtful, comprehensive narrative. He introduces lesser-known aspects of the war to the reader. This book thus serves as a launching point for interested readers to seek out scholarship dedicated to those specific topics, such as the Batallón de San Patricios, Mexican guerilla fighters, and the wartime home fronts. The inclusion of a variety of sources, Mexican and US, including government documents, personal accounts, and published secondary sources gives readers a solid understanding of the current state of the academic field.
His thesis proves to be the most contentious part of his book. It directly challenges the traditional narrative of US-Mexican War literature. Other historians, such as Brian DeLay, have also sought to expand the understanding as to how the war started and why Mexico lost. Guardino comes across in the book as having a certain zeal for readers to accept his argument that Mexico did not lose because of a lack of national unity. At times he supports his position well, particularly when addressing how recently Mexico obtained independence relative to the outbreak of hostilities. However, when he addresses many of the traditional examples, such as political division, he loses some of the conviction that appears elsewhere. This is clearly due to the fact that there was a certain amount of national disunity in Mexico that influenced the war, evidenced by rebellions and guerilla actions against the Mexican government. Despite this issue, Guardino makes important contributions to the literature by forcing readers to understand that there was no a single reason for Mexico’s loss. Instead, he makes evident that a complex series of unfortunate events during the war dramatically weakened Mexico, making it susceptible to defeat, though US military victory was never an inevitability.
The Dead March has completely replaced the survey books on the war by John Eisenhower, Charles Dufour, K. Jack Bauer, and many others. This is easily the most comprehensive survey-level book of the war. It will serve as a foundational text for many classes on or relating to the US-Mexican War. The combination of sources used represent an extensive collection for scholars just beginning to work on this topic as well as veteran scholars looking for new avenues of research. However, the lack of a comprehensive bibliography does hinder rapid perusal of the included sources. The synthesis of many of the more topically focused books makes this an essential first read for those interested in the war. It combines many of the smaller works into an easily accessible, enjoyable work, yet the book still conveys the core topics of the books from which it draws. This book has become the new benchmark text for comprehensive histories of the US-Mexican War.
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Christopher Menking. Review of Guardino, Peter F., The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War.
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