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Posted on Feb 13, 2013 in Books and Movies

A Wicked War – Book Review

By Abigail Pfeiffer

A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. Amy Greenberg. Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, New York, 2012. 368 pages. $30.

Amy S. Greenberg’s book, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, chronicles the political strides that led to the invasion of Mexico, and focuses on the actions of James Polk, Henry Clay, and a young Abraham Lincoln before, during, and after the war. The title is slightly misleading since there are two more men whose actions Greenberg weaves into the story: John J. Hardin and Nicholas Trist. Greenberg also acknowledges that, while this is a book about the invasion of Mexico, it “is also a story about politics, slavery, Manifest Destiny, Indian killing, and what it meant to prove one’s manhood in the nineteenth century.”  It is certainly a story about Manifest Destiny, and Greenberg skillfully demonstrates how Polk’s actions were motivated by a sense of Manifest Destiny and the insatiable desire to add land to the United States, at the expense of Mexico.


Greenberg makes it very clear that this is not a comprehensive military history of the U.S.-Mexican War. Instead it is “a narrative history of the war that Ulysses S. Grant deemed America’s most ‘wicked,’ as seen through the eyes of five men, their wives, and their children.”

The book begins during John Tyler’s presidency (1841–1845) and centers on the issue of Texas annexation, a controversial matter that had been brewing for the last decade. Following the creation of a Texas republic in 1836, which was granted diplomatic relations with the United States by President Andrew Jackson, presidents Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison did not push Congress to annex Texas. Politicians of the era knew annexing Texas would result in war with Mexico. Despite most Americans holding to a sense of Manifest Destiny, “few in the 1830s felt that territorial expansion should proceed at the cost of war with a neighboring republic.”

Avoiding war with Mexico was one reason politicians did not push to annex Texas, but the issue of slavery was another deciding factor. If Texas was admitted to the Union, it would be as a slave state, upsetting the slave state vs. free state balance. It was not until President Tyler took office that there was a president who focused on Texas annexation, and not until the presidency of James K. Polk (1845–1849) did it become a reality. Mexico had made it clear it would consider the annexation of Texas to be an act of aggression, but “despite all the bluster in the Mexican press, the country neither attacked nor declared war.”

Polk saw three things as proof of Mexico’s provocation of the United States: rejecting John Slidell (whom Polk sent to Mexico in an attempt to get the Texas border resolved and to purchase California); Mexico’s refusal to pay out claims made by United States citizens; and Mexico’s continuing claim on the Nueces Strip, that area between the Rio Grande (which Polk and Texas claimed was the southern border of the new state) and the Neuces River some 150 miles farther north (which Mexico claimed was the true border of Texas and Mexico). Because of these “injustices” Polk told his cabinet in April 1846 that it was time to “take a bold and firm course toward Mexico” and “forbearance was no longer a virtue or patriotic.” At this point, Polk had already ordered General Zachary Taylor 100 miles into the Nueces Strip and figured that if this aggressive tactic failed, then it would be time to declare war.

Taylor received orders in February 1846 to march his men to the Rio Grande, 150 miles south. His orders stated that the mission was defensive, and that Mexico should not be considered an enemy unless they provoked Taylor’s men.  On April 24, a squadron of dragoons was dispatched across the river to meet a Mexican cavalry detachment.  A short firefight ensued in which eleven American died, and Polk now had a reason to go to war against Mexico. However, due to communication issues of the day, Polk did not learn this new for two weeks. Despite that, he spent those weeks planning for a war with Mexico that he deemed inevitable.

Polk’s strategy to push the war through Congress was new in American politics—he bundled the authorization of war funds to the declaration of war against Mexico.  Anyone who voted against it could be seen as not supporting the troops. Polk’s supporters limited debate in the House to two hours, so the opposition did not have the time to amend the bill. Greenberg noted that this war bill gave the opposing Whigs a tough choice: “either assent to Polk’s lies or vote against reinforcements for Zachary Taylor’s troops.”

So America went to war against Mexico, and public support at the beginning of the war was very much in favor, especially in the states that favored slavery. Thousands of American men volunteered for service and were on their way to a war they believed would be easily won and over soon. The war dragged on for two years, and after some time its popularity waned. More and more people began to voice their feelings against the war. This dissent was fueled by reports from correspondents embedded with the troops that told of atrocities committed against Mexicans by the American soldiers. The public started to see men come home from the war that were “very much emaciated by sickness, and darker colored than most Indians.” Henry Clay came out publicly against the war, despite his knowledge that it was political suicide and would end his road to the White House.

While public opinion was turning against the war, Nicholas Trist was sent to Mexico to broker a peace treaty, a treaty that would naturally benefit the United States. Trist became increasingly unsettled about the American intervention in Mexico, and he and Polk did not see eye to eye as to how peace should be negotiated. He later told his family about his feelings during the signing of the treaty: “Could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger that theirs could be as Mexicans.”

The peace negotiations culminated in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which gave Texas to the United States and recognized the Rio Grande River as the border of the U.S. and Mexico. Additionally, America paid 15 million dollars for 525,000 square feet of Mexican land, and offered a path to citizenship for Mexican citizens in the annexed lands. The United States gained California, and additional western territory that included what is now New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Overall, this book was a good read, especially since it is about a part of American military history that often gets overlooked. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in this time period; however, I believe it is more suited to historians who have an understanding of how American politics operated in the 19th century. One negative critique I have is that I believe it was unnecessary for Greenberg to include Lincoln in such a large role in this book. Arguably, Nicholas Trist played a more important role in the ending of the war than Lincoln, yet Lincoln was given more attention. Perhaps it would have been more useful to include Lincoln’s role if the book addressed both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War; however, Lincoln was not a major player in the politics leading up to the war with Mexico. He did play more of a role at the end of the war, especially in his support of Henry Clay and his anti-war stance, but it did not seem that the content of the book would have been lost had Greenberg omitted Lincoln.

Abigail Pfeiffer is a recent graduate of Norwich University with a Master of Arts in Military History. She lives in San Francisco Bay Area, with her husband and stepdaughter. She focuses on 20th century American warfare and American POW history, and has a special interest in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. When Abby does not have her nose in a book, she can be found hiking, swimming, running, and cooking.