A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War

A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War

A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War

A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War


The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) found Americans on new terrain. A republic founded on the principle of armed defense of freedom was now going to war on behalf of Manifest Destiny, seeking to conquer an unfamiliar nation and people. Through an examination of rank-and-file soldiers, Paul Foos sheds new light on the war and its effect on attitudes toward other races and nationalities that stood in the way of American expansionism.

Drawing on wartime diaries and letters not previously examined by scholars, Foos shows that the experience of soldiers in the war differed radically from the positive, patriotic image trumpeted by political and military leaders seeking recruits for a volunteer army. Promised access to land, economic opportunity, and political equality, the enlistees instead found themselves subjected to unusually harsh discipline and harrowing battle conditions. As a result, some soldiers adapted the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny to their own purposes, taking for themselves what hadbeen promised, often by looting the Mexican countryside or committing racial and sexual atrocities. Others deserted the army to fight for the enemy or seek employment in the West. These acts, Foos argues, along with the government's tacit acceptance of them, translated into a more violent, damaging variety of Manifest Destiny.


“A Mexican mob is not that short, offhand, killing affair that it is in the ‘far west’ of the United States; … it is rather an uproarious meeting, a somewhat irregular procession, arranged with a certain decency, and executed more from love of plunder than thirst of blood.” Thus did an American doctor from Missouri summarize his treatment at the hands of a wouldbe lynch mob—and, by implication, the entire experience of the Mexican‐ American War. Adolphus Wislizenus meant to disparage Mexicans with his comments, showing a preference for more decisive, American modes of action. This is some what odd, given that he owed his life to the decision of a patriotic Mexican mob to demonstrate rather than to execute. Wislizenus and a small group of Americans set out on an exploratory and trading journey in 1846 and were caught in Chihuahua shortly after the outbreak of war. They were neither killed nor plundered, but held for a few months until American troops arrived.

It was not at all unusual for Americans to offer broad generalizations about Mexico and its people during the 1840s, and for those statements to reflect strong prejudices about race, religion, and nationality. American supporters of the Mexican War wished to see Mexicans as inherently flawed, their society sliding toward dissolution, thus creating an opening for Americans to take control.

The experience of many soldiers in Mexico, however, led them to harsh criticisms of their own officers and comrades. Ohio volunteer Orlando John Hodge saw his fellow privates whipped and executed for infractions of discipline when he served along the Rio Grande in 1847; he complained that his officers wasted their time drinking and gambling and even ffghting duels. Hodge returned home convinced that military discipline, based in class privilege, was more hateful than any racial or national enemy.

An Arkansas soldier, John Palmer, was befriended by Mexican rancheros and sought to settle in northern Mexico as a landowner. His plans were set awry by the hostility of both lower-class Mexicans and soldiers in the Ar-

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