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  • A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg
  • Kristin Hoganson (bio)
A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. By Amy S. Greenberg. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Pp. 344. Cloth, $30.00; paper, $16.95.)

This is a gripping book, written in narrative style, that puts the politics back in the study of the Mexican-American War, or, as Greenberg aptly terms it, "the 1846 U.S. invasion of Mexico."

It is not an easy task to break new ground in histories of such pivotal events, and indeed, much of the coverage will be familiar to experts in the period: President John Tyler's negotiation of an annexation treaty with Texas in 1844, Democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk's enthusiasm for expansion, Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay's repudiation of the Texas treaty, lest it mean war. A Wicked War goes on to cover the outbreak of hostilities (siding with those who cast Polk as a willful provocateur), General Zachary Taylor's drive south through Texas to Monterrey, the occupations of Veracruz and Mexico City, and the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Yet despite its synthetic sweep, Greenberg's telling is remarkably fresh. In contrast to Robert W. Johannsen's To the Halls of the Montezumas, Greenberg finds that the invasion gave rise to an antiwar movement of national scope.1 Her discussion of the slaves who accompanied the army, as personal servants to officers, at federal expense, also deserves special note. Above all, the freshness of this account stems from the way that Greenberg has structured the tale. She uses a biographical approach to make the political struggles and stakes come alive. Three of her five main characters are [End Page 111] well known: senior statesman Henry Clay, President James K. Polk, and freshman congressman Abraham Lincoln. If the first two figures enable her to explore the politics of the conflict within the United States, the third enables her to gesture toward its significance for still bloodier struggles to come.

The other two main characters, John J. Hardin and Nicholas Trist, have faded into relative obscurity, though they were household names in the 1840s. The disillusioned Hardin, who became a national hero after dying at the Battle of Buena Vista, underscores Greenberg's argument that the war itself bred antiwar sentiment, owing especially to U.S. casualties, news of U.S. atrocities, and denigratory assessments of Mexico and Mexicans. Trist emerges as an unsung hero of the conflict: sent by Polk to Mexico to negotiate a settlement, he did not press the U.S. position as forcefully as Polk thought possible. The disappointed president recalled him, but Trist refused to leave his post. Although the military situation on the ground opened up the possibility of demanding a boundary around the twenty-sixth parallel (which would have placed the entire border as far south as the southern tip of Texas), Trist made peace according to the minimum demands spelled out by Polk in his initial set of orders. Well aware of Senate discontent over his territorial designs, the president had to make peace with the treaty he had, not with the more ambitious one he wanted.

While the stories of these men alone would convey multiple perspectives on the meanings and stakes of the war, what makes the choice of them as narrative pillars all the more effective is the latticework that connects them. Greenberg makes the persuasive (though ultimately unprovable) case that Hardin's death served as a necessary precursor to Lincoln's political ascent. She attributes Lincoln's earliest pronouncements in Congress (the "spot" resolutions, pertaining to the spot upon which blood was first shed) to his attendance at an antiwar speech given by Clay. Greenberg ties Trist's political ascent to Polk's through their common links to Andrew Jackson; Hardin's mother to Clay's brother; Clay's fallen son to the martyred Hardin. One of the most remarkable of these connections is that of Polk's widow to Hardin's daughter in the founding moments of the Daughters of the American Revolution...


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pp. 111-113
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