American history textbooks usually mostly talk about the events that led up to a war, and what happened during and after a war. Take for example the Mexican-American war. Books and websites written about this war only state the basics of what happened; Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1845, there was a dispute about the southern border of Texas between the United States and Mexico, and soon, the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ spread across the county by President James K. Polk. The Thornton Affair, which was a battle between the militaries of the United States and Mexico in 1846, was the start of everything. President Polk took advantage of this battle’s events and convinced Congress to declare war on Mexico, since he had made the statement that Mexico had ‘passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil’ (MacCaffrey, 7).
The Mexican-American war had indeed begun. Battles were fought, lives were lost, and it wasn’t until February 2, 1898, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the nearly two-year war by establishing the Rio Grande as the U.S-Mexican border. Mexico also recognized the annexation of Texas by the U.S and agreed to sell California and the rest of its territory. The stories written about this war, never really go into depth about what it was like to be a part of such a war. Individuals have never known the real stories that happened inside the armies and the experiences the soldiers went through. The novel, Army of Manifest Destiny: the American Soldier in the Mexican War 1846-1848, written by James M. MacCaffrey, unveils the truth about what was happening inside the American army and its soldiers during the Mexican-American War. MacCaffrey states, ‘The purpose of the present work, then, is to look at the war from the viewpoint of the common soldiers’ experience. What prompted them to enlist in the first place? What did they think of the Mexican people with whom they came in contact? How did they feel toward their officers? Were they adequately supported with food, clothing, shelter, and medical care by their government? How did they spend spare time? If they broke any rules, how were they punished?
What did the regular soldiers think of these temporary volunteers and vice versa? And finally, having answered these questions, how did the American soldiers in the Mexican War measure up to their counterparts of earlier and later conflicts?” (MacCaffrey, xii) . Through soldiers’ letters and diaries, MacCaffrey is able to show the day-to-day activities of all the American soldiers and how the tasks they were asked to do affected them. The soldiers in the American army, were humans that suffered through many horrible things, whether that be diseases, punishments, and even death. We get to read about what their impressions on the other soldiers they were working with and how those relationships affected their role in the army. Along with this, we also read about the times the American soldiers encountered the people they were fighting against– the Mexicans. The thoughts and actions of these soldiers have finally been revealed through this book along with their beliefs of the nation’s “Manifest Destiny”.
Throughout the book, MacCaffrey utilizes original documents such as letters and diaries the American soldiers had written in, to highlight what the soldiers went through and how it affected them physically, mentally, and emotionally throughout the time they were soldiers in the American army during the Mexican-American War. MacCaffrey introduces the reasons why the soldiers enlisted in the army after congress had approved James Polk’s war message. He read in soldiers’ diaries and letters that, for many, their main reason for enlistment was a “desire for personal glory and adventure in a foreign land” and others wanted to “avenge the deaths of the men killed during the Texas Revolution and during subsequent difficulties between the republic of Texas and Mexico” (MacCaffrey, 31). Soldiers were anxious and enthusiastic to fight in the war due to their sense of personal invincibility to the dangers of combat, but others just joined the war not because they were ecstatic to fight, but because they would get free transportation to the frontier by the government. Once they had found a place they would be happy, these recruits deserted. A soldier’s life was not easy before the war and it surely didn’t get any better once they joined the army. Some troops were familiar with basic military training, but unfortunately for others, this was their first time being introduced to military life. These volunteers had to be trained on how to use the weapons provided and they needed to know how to drill. Learning how to drill took a lot of time, so soldiers were put to work for hours and hours. Complaints were common amongst the soldiers ranging from restrictions put upon them and boring military life to their miserable living conditions. During their enlistment in the war, many soldiers complained about the food, shelter, camp life, weather, and their officers. Most soldiers were getting tired of the dull and uninteresting routine of camp life.
The routine camp chores like drill and guard duty were becoming bothersome and drudgery. One soldier wrote his wife that an army camp “where there is no active service is a dull and stupid place, nothing but drill and parades” (MacCaffrey, 82). Military life was not easy, especially when the soldiers were not very fond of their officers. In many of the soldier’s letters, they formed their opinions of their officers with little encouragement. They pointed out their little confidence in them, worthlessness, fraud, and cowardice. An Ohio man had made complaints to berate his company commander such as that “the captain appeared to have gone into the army only in order to obtain high rank and that he had misappropriated funds” (MacCaffrey, 90). Their officers were not the only thing the soldiers complained about, though. They also complained about the weather in Mexico. Because these soldiers were not used to the weather in this foreign land, they found this hot and dry land that made their tents leak very annoying. The tents that were provided for them were full of sand because of the climate in Mexico. Another common complaint was about the food. The amount and variety of food was limited to what regulations provided, and on some occasions, the soldiers had to cook their own meals. As expected, soldiers were not very happy about the food given to them, and the fact that they had to cook their food. The soldiers were provided with materials, but the soldiers were ready to complain about anything given to them. They might not have received the best supplies, but like any war, the government needs to be cautious about spending too much money to not go into too much debt. But the volunteer soldiers were not used to military life so they tended to complain more than a regular soldier.
Apart from food, shelter, and ammunition, the soldiers also got medical attention while in the army. Medical attention was necessary in this particular war because there were a lot of cases that involved diseases or illnesses amongst the soldiers. Diseases such as measles, mumps, diarrhea, yellow fever, and the greatest common threat, malaria. The main reasons for these diseases were ‘Contaminated food, polluted drinking water, poor sanitation, and a general lack of concern for personal hygiene’ (MacCaffrey, 61), but because medical knowledge was not the best back then, many soldiers died because of these diseases. However, such threats did not stop the American soldiers, especially the volunteers, from having fun once in a while during their enlistment. Drinking, gambling, and female companionship were the most common ways that soldiers spent their free time doing. They would drink until they passed out, spend a lot of money while gambling, and because the number of American women was limited, they would involve themselves with the Mexican women instead. Soldiers also escaped from the boredom if military life by accompanying the Mexican women to fandangos. Of course, the soldiers did not get away by the actions they committed because the army officials used severe methods of discipline to control its men. These punishments varied from mere reprimands to even death. Examples of punishments are that a soldier might have to march for several hours while carrying a heavy weight, they would be put into dark holes in the ground for several days, or another method would be ‘bucking’. An Ohioan, having observed the punishment of bucking, decided that bucking ‘does not seem to be very military, yet is a very good way of keeping unruly spirits’ (MacCaffrey, 107). Because of these harsh disciplines, the soldiers would harm the defenseless Mexican civilians due to how they perceived the Mexicans.
The American soldiers thought of the Mexicans as uncivilized, uncultured, lazy, idiots, and worse than slaves. This heightened the idea of their duty as American soldiers to expand their culture, government, or progress into Mexican territory. White Americans thought of themselves superior to those with darker skin colors, so when opportunities arose, they did not hesitate to state their beliefs. The Mexicans were not the only ones the soldiers had bad things to say about. They also said horrible things to say about each other. The regular soldiers did not like the volunteer soldiers because they detested the lack of discipline among them and they believed that they had no sense of proper duty. Volunteers also disliked the regular soldiers because they were convinced that “all the regular officers feel a jealousy of the volunteers which they cannot conceal” (MacCaffrey, 121). According to the volunteers, the regulars felt jealous because they had taken their positions in the army. It is clear that the soldiers from this war were not any different from past or future wars. They were citizens who were obliged to go to war even though many did not like the idea of combat. They complained about many things, thought they were invincible, and above all else, they hated their enemy with great passion, which made it easy for them to kill the Mexicans.
MacCaffrey’s argument in this novel is clear and to the point; American soldiery in the Mexican-American war was not so different from other wars. In my opinion, MacCaffrey does make his argument effective. He utilized his personal knowledge and research done by him to get the answers to the many questions he had about the life of an American soldier in the Mexican-American war. Because he realized that “there has been little attempt to address the day-to-day activities of all the American soldiers involved” (MacCaffrey, xiii), he began traveling to gather more information. MacCaffrey’s argument is effective because he collected and applied primary information lying in the original documents, letters, and newspaper articles, into his novel. The use of all these sources is essential to MacCaffrey’s argument because it lets us, the readers, know that his evidence is coming from original or true sources, rather than secondary ones. Because these are real facts and stories, it reveals the true emotions and attitudes of the soldiers in this war. We get to examine the real-life of an American soldier and history, due to the blunt structure or wording. All of these different sources such as diaries or newspaper opened my eyes because they each come from a different perspective, so we get to experience the war as if it was happening to us. The way that MacCaffrey incorporates the emotions and thoughts of the soldiers makes it seem like we’re the ones feeling and thinking such things. I thought I knew what soldiers went through during enlistment, but in reality, I don’t know anything. Through MacCaffrey’s novel, I now know the different experiences soldiers went through back in the day, and how it affected them. In reality, soldiers were regular citizens who were childish most of the time, but when it came to fighting in battle, they took their responsibilities very seriously and were passionate about winning against the Mexicans, which led to the American victory. These are things that might be true in today’s soldiery, so thanks to this book, we have heard their voices and stories, and can understand them more now.
Personally, I find a few problems with MacCaffrey’s Army of Manifest Destiny. One thing I noticed as I was reading is that MacCaffrey would drag a topic for longer than necessary. He talked about a subject or issue for a long time, even though he could’ve moved on and talked about something else. Because he extended things more than needed, he did tend to repeat himself sometimes. Another fault I found across the novel is that MacCaffrey tended to repeat himself. There were several occasions when he mentions things that he already said before. Take for example the idea of the soldiers spending their time with the Mexican women, and how they were being unfaithful to their wives at home. Even though it is interesting and comedic, I do wish he would’ve focused on other more important things, because this repetition does get tiring after some time. One thing I believe he could have focused more on is the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’. I find it a little disappointing that even though the title of this book is’Army of Manifest Destiny’, MacCaffrey rarely goes into the topic of the soldiers’ ideals of their duty to expand into the Mexican Territory.
The topic of Manifest Destiny is not delved into that much, and because of this, the reader does not get to understand or go much into depth about what “America’s duty” was really about. When it comes to the evidence, I believe MacCaffrey couldn’t have done a better job. He gathered soldiers’ letters and diaries. He traveled around and visited repositories to gather as much information as he could find. He never used the same evidence twice. He made sure that for every claim he made of the soldiers’ lives he used different excerpts from the diaries or letters of the soldiers. This comes to show that the information that is in this novel is pure facts. The way he organizes this novel and the way the evidence is included is just fantastic. A soldier’s life and the hidden truths behind the army in the Mexican-American War could not have been told any better.
This book, written by James M. MacCaffrey, has opened the eyes of many when it comes to seeing the real and ugly life of an American soldier in the 1800s and maybe even today. It has exposed the truth that several of us Americans did not know about until now. Soldiers in the Mexican-American War were humans that citizens admired since they were the ones who would acquire the Mexican territory for them to expand their beliefs, culture, and technology. But MacCaffrey wanted to go deeper than that. He wanted to know about the actual life of the soldiers and if they were worthy of the praise they received. MacCaffrey wanted to explore how different a soldier’s life is, compared to that of a normal citizen, or how they compared to soldiers in past or future wars. He was able to make this novel interesting because he doesn’t talk about the basics of this war, like every other history book. He asked himself many different questions about the soldiers and their every-day lives during their enlistment.
By acquiring letters, diaries, and newspapers, MacCaffrey was able to focus on many topics of this particular war, especially the fact that a soldier’s life varied on many different aspects. Soldiers enlisted in the war for different reasons, they complained about the food and their officers (especially the volunteer soldiers who were new to military life), and they would also get severely punished, like whipping, for the actions they committed. MacCaffrey also emphasizes his point on how “the whole concept of manifest destiny rested on a foundation of racism, or, more politely, ethnocentrism” (MacCaffrey, 69). White Americans looked down on those people with darker skin tones, so when it came to the American soldiers, it was easier for them to fight and kill for the Mexican territory. They went through so much before and during the war, and the things they experienced and saw during their enlistment made them tougher and more immune to personal feelings, which made it easier for them to kill the Mexican people. All the ways they were being treated, they reflected that unto the Mexican people. This novel touches on so many different topics that many are afraid to delve into. But by publishing this novel, MacCaffrey wanted to reveal to us the shocking and horrible truth about the life of the American soldiers in the Mexican-American War.