War with Mexico! America's Reporters Cover the Battlefront. Tom Reilly, edited by Manley Witten. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010. 335 pp. $39.95 hbk.
From the perspective of the early twenty-first century, the U.S. war against Mexico (1846-1848) is easy to overlook. It was a relatively short war, after all, pitting the nascent power of the United States against a divided Mexico and its irrepressible leader, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
Yet the Mexican War looms large in the history of American war reporting as the first U.S. foreign conflict covered by an enterprising band of professional journalists and amateur correspondents. As documented by the late Tom Reilly, a journalism historian at California State University-Northridge, Mexican War reporting was an important test of American journalism's newfound energy and its fraught relations with the military, issues tliat would surface in later U.S. wars.
Reilly's goals here are straightforward and descriptive: "to reconstruct the efforts, methods, lifestyles, achievements, and failures of the individual American correspondents and, to a lesser degree, the journalistic system in which they functioned." In this, he is largely successful, providing a detailed chronicle of an enthusiastically imperialistic era in American war reporting.
Reilly's subjects include such reporting stars as George W. Kendall of the New Orleans Picayune and James L. Freaner - known as "Mustang" - of the New Orleans Delta. Both men were fearless, dedicated, and well organized, employing multiple couriers to elude Mexican guerillas and carry their dispatches from the front lines to Veracruz, where U.S. ships carried them to New Orleans.
New Orleans was front and center in Mexican War news. As the nation's fourth largest city at the time, and the principal port for ships arriving from Mexico, New Orleans had a highly competitive newspaper scene. The New Orleans papers, Reilly concludes, "provided the tone, direction, and content for the reporting of the conflict - and in the journalism style of the day, most of the nation's press followed their lead."
Reilly also unearths the war reporting of several lesser-known correspondents, including William C. Tobey of the Philadelphia North American. In the aftermath of the U.S. victory at Cerro Gordo, Tobey described the terrible cost of combat: "While the fight is raging men can look upon death and shrink not from his bloody features; but to walk coldly over hundreds of human bodies, blackened and bloated in the sun... sickens the senses and the soul; strips even victory of its gaudy plumage and stamps the whole with an unspeakable horror."
Another notable journalist was the outspoken Jane McManus Storms, the only woman war correspondent. Writing for the New York Sun, Storms reported from Veracruz, where she criticized one of her favorite targets, the U.S. Navy, for its "deplorable inefficiency." She also slammed Santa Anna and other Mexican generals for inflicting on their citizens "more burdens and outrages than the Americans dare impose. …