- Devotion to the Adopted Country: U.S. Immigrant Volunteers in the Mexican War by Tyler V. Johnson
Tyler Johnson has written a very well-researched book that is a welcome addition to the historiography of the U.S.-Mexico War and the social history of Jacksonian America. Johnson shows that immigrant and Catholic volunteers (often [End Page 98] one and the same) saw the war as a “unique opportunity” to demonstrate loyalty to their adopted country and “refuting the claims of nativists . . . who doubted the ability of any immigrants, especially Catholics, to remain loyal to the United States” (122). The war proved to be a “testing ground for this complex debate” (2), often played out in the Catholic and Democratic press, which supported the volunteers, and the nativist press, which sought to minimize their contribution. Unfortunately, most military histories and studies of antebellum immigration or religion have paid little attention to the issue, offering the oversimplification that the war brought a “lull” in nativism (2). Johnson does a good job in showing that the picture was far more complicated.
The author devotes chapters to exploring the role of immigrant soldiers in the war: the enlistment of volunteers; the activities of the immigrant soldier in Mexico; and, the riot involving the Catholic Jasper Greens of Georgia. He also explores the role of the American Catholic church in the war, specifically the activities of two priests who accompanied Taylor’s army. He does not, however, devote much attention to the question of the San Patricios, who were regulars who deserted to Mexico.
The entire book is excellent, but this reader found the author’s discussion of the experiences of Fathers John McElroy and Anthony Rey of particular interest. Both Polk and Taylor worried that Mexicans would interpret the invasion as a war on the Catholic Church. New York’s Bishop John Hughes met with Polk and agreed to assign the priests to serve with Taylor. They probably had little impact on Mexican opinion, however, as neither knew Spanish. McElroy confined his activities to the area around Matamoros (including regulars at Fort Brown). Rey accompanied the army to Monterrey, only to later be killed by guerillas near Cerralvo. Both demonstrated great compassion for the many soldiers of any faith dying of disease, winning the praise of many but not all Protestant officers.
So just what did the immigrant soldier find in Mexico? Johnson avoids the pitfall of revisionists who overstate the case. Immigrants and Catholics found soldiering in Mexico to be “an uncertain experience.” Some earned the respect and admiration of their peers. Others “met scorn and condescension” (29). The same was true of how their actions were interpreted at home. On one hand, Irish Catholic general James Shields emerged a hero in the war and later served as senator from three different states. On the other hand, a riot involving the predominantly Irish Jasper Greens of Savannah and another Georgia company provided the nativist press with fodder to smear the Irish American community. Supporters of the Greens challenged their adversaries’ version of events and said the whole thing had been blown out of proportion.
How did the wartime experience of these immigrant and volunteers affect the course of nativism in the coming years? If these men thought they would return to a more tolerant America, they soon found they were mistaken. A new influx of Irish immigrants after the war as well as the long-standing anti-Catholicism of many Americans “awakened nativism to an unprecedented degree” (124). At the same time, the author concludes, the immigrant soldier came home determined to stand up for his rights and refused to be cowed by nativist slurs.
I have only one quibble with the book. Since most of the focus is on Catholic immigrants, much of it about Catholicism and the war with Mexico, I found the [End Page 99] title somewhat misleading. Nevertheless, this is excellent scholarship and a significant contribution to our understanding...