From the Halls of the Montezumas
Mexican War Dispatches from James L. Freaner Writing under the Pen Name Mustang
Edited by Alan D. Gaff and Donald H. Gaff
University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas, 2019, 486 pages
Book Review published on: October 2, 2020
America’s war with Mexico forever altered the course of the United States and its history. America would add over nine hundred thousand square miles to its territory, validate its belief in the Manifest Destiny, serve as the training ground for future Union and Confederate officers in the Civil War, and taint its relations with Mexico. Yet, little has been written about this pivotal conflict in American history, and even less is understood regarding America’s war with Mexico. Authors Alan Gaff and Donald Gaff have edited the Mexican War dispatches of James L. Freaner in providing a bird’s-eye view of the battlefields in the conflict and observations of postwar Mexico.
The Mexican War introduced a new breed of news reporter, where correspondents served as both soldier and full-time correspondent for newspapers around the country. Freaner, a printer at the Daily Delta in New Orleans, received an appointment as sergeant in Capt. Samuel C. Head’s Company D, 3rd Louisiana Militia Infantry, on 6 May 1846. His dispatches were unique in the quality and depth of information they provided to the readers of the Daily Delta. Through Freaner, readers viewed the beauty of Mexico, learned the cultural differences of its regions, experienced the drudgery of camp life, behind-the-scenes planning of military operations and peace negotiations with Mexican officials, and casualty lists.
Freaner’s descriptions of Gen. Winfield Scott reflect a military commander who fully understood operational warfare in executing a successful campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Scott’s victory at Vera Cruz may be the first planned joint operation in American history involving both Army and Navy assets. He ensured that his army was sustained and that his lines of communications were protected from Mexican army commander Gen. Santa Anna. Through Freaner, we learn how Scott was able to defeat a numerically superior Mexican army on its home turf through maneuver and audacity. He understood the importance for what we would call today civil affairs. He ensured his army respected local citizens and their property. Freaner reported on several occasions of the trials and punishment for U.S. Army soldiers charged with crimes against the local populace and property. Scott ensured local businessmen were fairly compensated for any supplies or livestock provided to his army. Freaner also reported on Scott’s counterinsurgency efforts against Santa Anna’s use of bandits who plagued both military trains and local communities. Freaner shares his observations and inner thoughts on wars of religion, rumors of annexing Mexico, and his dread of the Army occupying Mexico.
Freaner developed a close relationship with Nicholas Trist who served as President James Polk’s emissary in establishing peace negotiations with Mexico. Polk recalled Trist who decided to remain in Mexico where he negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on 2 February 1848, officially ending the war with Mexico.
The last chapter chronicles Freaner’s life after the war, where he was successfully engaged as an auctioneer selling military surplus equipment. He would later travel to Panama on his way to California where his business endeavors resulted in several lawsuits. Freaner’s life ended when a group of Pitt River Indians attacked his survey party in 1852.
The strength of From the Halls of the Montezumas are the numerous notes by the editors that provide depth and context of personalities and events described in Freaner’s dispatches. The editors are equally exceptional in weaving a narrative that connects Freaner’s dispatches in describing the Mexican War. The reader is provided a simultaneous look at events taking place throughout Mexico and back in Washington. Freaner’s exceptional prose and style gives the reader a “you are there” feel for events in the war as it happened. It is simply hard to put down. This would be an excellent addition in the library of any historian or student with an interest in the Mexican War.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas