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“The most impartial, detailed, complete, and well-written account on the North American invasion”

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402.     [MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR]. ROA BÁRCENA, José María. Recuerdos de la invasión norte-americana 1846-1848 por un jóven de entónces. Mexico: Juan Buxó y Ca., 1883. [6], [i]-ii, [1] 2-686 pp. 8vo (23 x 17 cm), contemporary half dark brown sheep over black and blue mottled boards, spine gilt lettered and decorated. Spine rubbed, dry, and with light damage to ends. Joints starting, hinges open but holding, boards lightly rubbed, corners worn, overall moderate shelf wear; title page slightly darkened, text block cracked at pp. 596-597 (resulting in a few loose leaves). Other than a few scattered pencil notes, the interior is fine and clean. Printed book ticket of binder-bookseller Diego Fonseca of San Luis Potosí on front pastedown.

     First edition in book form (first appeared in the pages of the newspaper El Siglo XIX). Connor & Faulk, North America Divided 25: “Bancroft praised the book saying it was the result of study of both American and Mexican documents.” Garrett & Goodwin, The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, p. 45: “This work is considered basic to the study of the Mexican-American War and it is among the best accounts by a Mexican author.” Griffin 4245: “The most impartial, detailed, complete, and well-written account on the North American invasion. Roa Bárcena’s thesis is that defending Mexican forces did not give such a bad account of themselves.” Haferkorn, p. 17. Harvard Guide to American History, p. 373. Howes R333. Palau 270660. Raines, p. 22. Sabin 71705. Tutorow 3672: “Standard history of the Mexican War from the Mexican perspective.” See also: Cambridge History of Latin American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 511. Frederic Starr, Modern Mexican Authors (Chicago, 1904), pp. 259-274.

     A native of Jalapa, Veracruz, Roa Bárcena (1827-1908), politician, businessman, editor, translator, and writer of history, poetry, and fiction, was, as his title suggests, a youth during the Mexican-American War. He was a disciplined, learned investigator who brought a great deal of necessary dispassion and honest discussion to his subject. He clearly had access to great numbers of both Mexican and U.S. documents and publications, and the facts and inferences he drew from them are supported with copious footnotes and citations. His approach is chronological, although a few background chapters open the book. Roa Bárcena is a subtle and insightful commentator. In his Chapter III, entitled “Verdaderes fines de la guerra,” he openly admires the political machinations that President Polk used to persuade his country to declare war, despite abolitionist fears that Texas would be admitted as a slave state: “La conducta del gobierno de Polk fué extremadamente hábil, preciso es confesarlo” (p. 8). In his view, Polk initially hid his ultimate aims by making it appear that his actions in Texas were merely defensive. This obscured what was actually the beginning of a conquest, which Roa Bárcena never doubts was Polk’s original objective. In the end, he says, a defeated Mexico had little choice but to give up the territory; otherwise, it never could have paid the necessary reparations.

     He also dissects the pride and blunders of the Mexican government and its populace that led to the war in the first place. He first writes that the nation was overly proud of the fact that it defeated Spain in its war of Independence. Given that great impetus, one can understand his conclusion that the ensuing feeling of invincibility caused Mexicans to downplay the humiliation inflicted by the French in the Pastry War and to consider the San Jacinto defeat as merely “un revés imprevisto y casual” (p. 32). Flushed with this feeling, the populace considered President Herrera, who sought to avoid the war because he understood all too well its likely consequences, as “pusilánime si no traidora” (p. 32). Roa Bárcena recalls (in what appears to be a genuine memory from his youth) that he even overheard someone say “que el paballón mexicano llegaria de allí á poco á ondear sobre el antiguo palacio de Jorge Washington. El primer baño de agua fria aplicado á tan ardoroso entusiasmo, fué la noticia de las batallas de Palo-Alto y Resaca de Guerrero” (p. 33). As his narrative unfolds, he often returns to the theme of Mexican overconfidence, which persisted even after numerous defeats.

     His admiration for U.S. forces is shown again in his appreciation for the skills and courage of U.S. soldiers and their commanders, although he is also careful to credit his own countrymen with the same qualities, despite whatever delusions they may have been under. Yet these delusions persisted. In the crucial Battle of Cerro Gordo, the insightful chief engineer Robles had convinced Canalizo that it was futile to make a stand there; he showed that the consequences, should things go against the Mexican army, could be devastating. Canalizo agreed but was overruled by Santa-Anna, who saw Robles’ worst fears realized (pp. 197-198). Although the battle was hard fought and U.S. casualties significant, Roa Bárcena follows the line of overconfidence that led Santa-Anna to make his futile stand at Cerro Gordo despite being flanked by artillery on the first day, a danger he seems to have dismissed. On the other hand, his analysis makes it perfectly clear that not every Mexican soldier was so improvident, with Robles and Canalizo serving as prime examples.

     Roa Bárceno closes by revisiting the Texas Revolution. He says that despite the existence of other fine memoirs on the Texas campaign, he wrote this section at the urging of his readers. After extensive quotes from other authors, Roa Bárceno concludes that the chief causes of the conflict were that Texas had basically been ignored, that it was populated with too few native Mexicans, and that it had been insufficiently policed by the federal government. He then skims over the conflict rapidly to its end, though he makes a point of noting that when the Texans attacked at San Jacinto, Santa-Anna was asleep. He concludes by agreeing that Filisola had little choice but to follow Santa-Anna’s orders to retreat since the President’s life and those of his captured troops were all in danger. In the final sentence of this chapter, he throws Santa-Anna a crumb: “En cuanto á Santa-Anna, justo es hacer notar que si se acobardó en San Jacinto y dictó providencias que se le impusieron como rescate de su vida, la espuso después constante y resueltamente en la defensa nacional” (p. 661).

     This insightful work is a masterpiece of historical, political, and military description and analysis based on extensive research into contemporary printed and manuscript sources.


Sold. Hammer: $300.00; Price Realized: $360.00

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