Wars, by their nature, tend to engulf both participants and spectators in a fast-moving chain of events while generating much interest and comment. The war with Mexico (1846-1848) proved to be no exception. American public attention was already focused on Mexico in the wake of Texas’ recent war for independence and the controversy surrounding Texas’ annexation by the United States in 1845. The country was, it seemed, looking for an excuse to teach the Mexicans a lesson, and when events both real and imagined led to a declaration of war, the country responded with volunteers and a wide-ranging outpouring of expressions of approval.
Rather than a military history of the Mexican War, Robert W. Johannsen’s To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination is an examination of the ways in which the country perceived and interpreted the war—in the press, popular culture, literature, and the arts. The patriotism which the war inspired resulted in an outpouring of writing and artistic works that reflected many of the values and assumptions of nineteenth century American culture—attitudes toward romanticism, republicanism, nationalism, racism, and other aspects of nineteenth century life.
The war was a celebration of patriotism and nationalism, and it fostered a period of national unity even as its successful prosecution was laying the ground for disunity. Sectionalism was brushed aside, even though some said that this was a war to aid the slaveholders and to provide new territory for the expansion of slavery. Much of the popular sentiment, however, was expressed by a Southerner: “When fighting a common enemy, in one great common cause we are all united.” The war and its early victories offered a reassurance by lending “new meaning to patriotism, providing a new arena for heroism, and reasserting anew the popular assumptions of America’s romantic era.” The war was important for a number of reasons, both real and perceived. The territorial acquisitions, some two-thirds of Mexican territory north of the Rio Grande and west to the Pacific, provided the impetus for new settlement and the addition of new states to the union. As perceived by contemporaries, the war “held an even broader importance, for it strengthened republicanism, demonstrating to a doubting world that republics held the capacity to wage successful foreign wars, and legitimized long-held convictions of mission and destiny.”
The successful prosecution of the war was made possible by the adoption of new technology. The steamship made possible the successful invasion of Veracruz and provided a means of supplying matériel to the invading forces and vital news dispatches to the home front. The advancing telegraph was pressed into use, along with dispatch riders, to provide rapid communication between forces in Mexico and President Polk, who actively directed conduct of the war.
The new technology which aided in the prosecution of the war also provided the means to supply the public with news of events in a matter of days rather than weeks. The demand for information led to innovations in news gathering and dissemination. Newspapers placed correspondents on the scene with the invading forces and printed their dispatches as well as those from the military. To speed the information along to New Orleans, newspapers outfitted a river packet with a complete typesetting operation and met each ship inbound from Mexico and set the latest news in type—thus ready for the press by the time the boat docked in New Orleans. Dispatches and news arriving in New Orleans were carried to New York via another innovation. Several New York newspapers had joined together to support a combination telegraph-courier operation to improve receipt of war news. This operation proved its value, and the cooperation continued as the Associated Press.
The early success of the army stimulated the war spirit and resulted in an overflow of volunteers for the fighting. Most of the volunteers ignored the dangers of combat and entered the war with “a spirit of enterprise and curiosity with light hearts and bounding pulses we left our homes in quest of wild adventures.” Everyone was eager to do his part and prove that the nation had not lost its revolutionary spirit in pursuit of a just cause. As one volunteer expressed his feelings, “I am very anxious to have a chance to try my spunk . I think I have the grit of ’76.” Many of the volunteers and regulars saw the war as an opportunity to travel to a foreign land and have something of an exotic vacation—“if those cursed Mexicans did not shoot at one so hard,...
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