- Reviewed by
[End Page 608]
A Wicked War has something that many authors fail to include in their historical studies: humans. Of course, people are always included as part of their narratives but often as distant and detached historical figures. Greenberg’s study of the Mexican War is different in that she allows her readers to see the war as an event that reveals the humanity of her subjects. The author contends in her introduction that the experience of people who were forced to deal with the reality of the event will “help us to understand how the war and its unintended consequences shaped the meaning of American identity, ethics, and patriotism” (p. xiv). Greenberg is successful in her endeavor as her work gives the reader a deeper understanding of the political struggles that occurred off the battlefields in Mexico.
The main subjects of the book are James K. and Sarah Polk, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, John J. Hardin, and Nicholas Trist. Of this group, Hardin—who was destined to die a heroic and lamented death at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847—will be unfamiliar to most readers. Greenberg’s approach weaves the lives of her subjects together, revealing the family, personal, and business connections that bound them together prior to the war. They were not strangers thrown together by events happening on the national political stage, but relatives, friends, and rivals who were well acquainted with one another. As I have written before of this period, events did not happen in isolation. Greenberg takes this a step further by showing that the people who lived through those events were not isolated either.
As the author notes in her introduction, the Mexican War (the historical term for the conflict) is a difficult subject for many modern Americans. The thought of fighting a neighboring country for any reason is unsettling. The idea that Mexico might have been getting what it deserved is as certainly unpopular today as it was at the time of the conflict. Hence, Greenberg reminds readers of the “difficulty of remaining objective” when considering the actions of Polk (p. xv). This admonition really should extend to the war itself. Greenberg makes one of the strongest arguments to date that Polk deliberately lied so that he could take the country to war and achieve his goals [End Page 609] of territorial expansion. Her belief in his dishonest machinations is reflected in her choice of words in both the title and subtitle of her study: “wicked” and “invasion.” Ironically, it is not a new interpretation but one that dates back to the antiwar Whigs themselves. Greenberg, however, does back up her argument with more than rhetoric through her use of Polk’s own words.
The author promises to demonstrate that the antiwar movement clearly helped to both shorten the war and blunt the call for the annexation of all of Mexico. She draws heavily on quotes from critics of the war, from personal papers, public speeches, and newspapers, the majority of whom were Whigs. Only when she links Clay’s fiery denunciation of the war to an audience that included Lincoln does the connection between Lincoln’s “Spot Resolution” and his political idol become clear, along with the broader picture of cause-and-effect. There is no substantial discussion of the antiwar movement beyond the antiwar beliefs expressed by her subjects. Nor does she mention that much of the opposition to the war that developed among former Polk supporters came from the manner in which he conducted the war and not the war itself. Hell has no fury like a disappointed spoils-seeker.
A Wicked War is an important work and a significant addition to the literature on the Mexican War. Greenberg humanizes the conflict as few other authors have. Kentuckians will like the book because of its emphasis on native families such as the Clays, Lincolns, Todds, and Hardins. Historians of the Civil War era ignore this book at their own risk...