Monday, March 12, 2012

The War With Mexico

The wife had to get up at 3 am Sunday morning to catch a 6 am flight out to Phoenix for her four-day sales conference. So after an afternoon and evening of helping her pack (mainly by doing her laundry and watching the two little ones), I settled in to a quiet house and began reading Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals.

When – wouldn’t ya know it? – the Hopper in me kicked in severe style with a new mission.

The first paragraph of the introduction to G&G dishes this beautiful gem of information in my lap: two unique things happened in the 1840s that transformed the Civil War into the unholy conflagration we know it today. History buffs – any idea what they were? According to Shaara, and I see no reason to disagree, several extremely talented classes of cadets at West Point graduated, one class after the other. Then, the Mexican War, giving those cadets and newly-commissioned officers their first taste and experience of warfare well on its way evolving from the Napoleonic to the continent-destroying World Wars of the next century. Of course, Shaara states it much more elegantly and impressively in that paragraph. But it took a hold of me and got me thinking.

I’ve read about a half-dozen books on the Civil War over the last five months or so, and I’ve come to realize how frequently the Mexican War is mentioned. Usually it’s brought up to illustrate the experience of generals, and sometimes to show how they fought arm-in-arm in that conflict only to fight head-to-head a dozen years later. The Mexican War always surfaces as a way of fattening Winfield Scott’s credentials, for example. But an uncomfortable thought immediately lodged in my skull –

I don’t know anything about the Mexican War!

How can I possibly understand all these Civil War books if I don’t know a thing about one of the peripheral  and tangential possible root causes! (See, this is how the mind of a hopper works …)

Well, I knew some basics. Uh, two things, really. First, it was a war between the United States and Mexico. Second, it was a really short war. Vaguely and interestingly enough, I remembered these deep facts from a high school history class I took shortly after the Mexican-American War. But they would not suffice. So many Civil War luminaries cut their teeth on those foreign sands (is Mexico sandy?) that I felt I could not continue with G&G until I fleshed out this gap in my knowledge.

Now I wasn’t looking to ace the Mexican War category on Jeopardy with Alex Trebeck. I just wanted to know a bit of what happened, the major themes and movements, the roots and the results. Also a list of notables who fought in the war. So, something more in depth than a three-page encyclopedia article. But I definitely did not want to read a three-hundred-page book on the subject.

Then a unique answer came to me while tending to a toddler tantrum Sunday afternoon. Why not go to the library (where said toddler could get a soothing book) and get a juvenile book on the subject of the War?

By “juvenile,” I don’t mean a See Spot Run type of book. Now that my oldest is an avid reader at age 7, I’m learning that there are certain books that really treat children respectfully as adults-in-training. They don’t talk – or write – down to them. Yet at the same time they keep the information fresh, to the point, and interesting. So I browsed in the children’s history section, and I found a really good book on the Mexican War. Go figure.

It was 85 pages and filled with lots of sidebars, maps, charts, and photographs (“daguerreotypes”). Probably aimed at a Middle School audience, maybe 12- or 13-year olds. Since I wasn’t looking for a scholarly study of the 16-month conflict, I thought it might work. While Patch played a Dora computer game in the library, I read the first couple of pages and decided it would do. I’d get the gist of the war and I’d be able to put it away in a day and move on the Shaara’s much anticipated novel.

I did. After 90 minutes of reading, I got the major themes and movements, the roots and the results.

Curiously, I did note first-hand the creeping PC-ness that infects our children’s academic lives. A couple of instances, actually. My eagle-eye noted a phrase “God-given” where “God” was not capitalized.  What other dieties would we be talking about?  Zeus?  Then there was the multiple-paragraph insistence of the author that the coiner of the phrase “Manifest Destiny” was actually a woman. And there were full-page sidebars illustrating the role of Women in the war, African-Americans in the war, and Minorities in the war. How about the role of white Catholic Czechoslovakian-Italian males, dammit!

But overall the book was good and my little experiment worked. It did what I wanted it to do. Make fun of me if you will; I fear nothing when it comes to the pursuit of Knowledge and/or a Good Read.

Oh, and I remembered a third fact from high school – the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo! It ended the war!

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