The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1972, Volume 18, Number 1
James E Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Surfboats and Horse Marines: U. S. Naval Operations in the Mexican War, 1846-48. By K. Jack Bauer. (Annapolis, Maryland, United States Naval Institute, 1969). Appendixes. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 291 pages. $12.50.

Reviewed by Dr. Glenn W. Price, Professor of History and Chairman of the Department of History at Sonoma State College. Formerly Dr. Price was a park ranger in the California State Park System and curator of Pio Pico Historical Monument, the adobe home of the last governor of Alta California under the Mexican Government. He is the author of Origins of the War With Mexico.

The role of the Navy in the war with Mexico was not unimportant, even though the opponent had no naval forces worthy of the name and thus there were no battles at sea. Jack Bauer’s book is well-titled: On the east coast of Mexico the Home Squadron transported General Scott’s army and landed it on a beach below Veracruz and helped to reduce that port city; it also engaged in assaults against other ports and the occupation of coastal towns. The Pacific Squadron, on the other hand, not only occupied the major ports and blockaded the west coast of Mexico, but participated, as “horse marines,” in campaigning throughout Alta California. Bauer divides his book into two parts based upon these two theatres: War in the Gulf of Mexico and War in the Pacific. He justifies this separation by observing that there was little coordination of the naval operations in the two theatres, and thus it is feasible to treat them separately and not interrupt the “flow of the narrative” in either area.

This is the first naval history of the war with Mexico and it will hereafter be the standard source of information on its subject. The general, brief histories of the war by Alfred Hoyt Bill (1947), Robert Selph Henry (1950), and Otis A. Singletary (1960) necessarily allot very brief coverage to the work of the Navy. The older (1919), two-volume, comprehensive account of the war by Justin H. Smith provides much detail on the military history of the war and includes a chapter on naval operations; but Smith’s work is marred by an extreme chauvinism which contaminates even the generally competent military portions of his volumes.

Bauer gives an account of naval operations with little interpertation of the larger issues in the conflict. This was his objective and he should not be faulted for not writing a different book than he set out to write; but the reader may feel at times, as he finds paragraphs devoted to listing the names of steamers and schooners and cutters involved in an operation, that the book is designed primarily for naval personnel.

When Bauer does make brief judgments on significant aspects of the war, he is sensible and persuasive. On the first unambiguous act of war by the United States on Mexico, the blockade of the Rio Grande following the U.S. invasion of the Mexican settlements on the north bank of that river, Bauer notes that General Pedro de Ampudia, the Mexican commander at Matamoros, protested the blockade and Bauer comments that “it is hard to find any justification for it, since the war had not begun and the United States did not claim jurisdiction over the south bank of the river.” (13) His comment on the primary objective of the war, although he does not elaborate, is candid: “The policy of President James K. Polk’s administration was to acquire California by infiltration and subversion . . .” (137) That policy was abandoned, of course, in favor of direct aggression against Mexico.

Bauer’s critical discussion of actions by Mexicans and Americans is relatively evenhanded. There were irregular hit-and-run raids by groups of Mexicans (although these were not extensive or effective), and the ill-disciplined U.S. troops were notorious for the atrocities which they committed upon the Mexican people, particularly in General Zachary Taylor’s campaign in northern Mexico. Bauer refers to “marauding Mexicans” (122), but he also describes the Americans of the Sonoma action as the “strutting and drunken Bear Flaggers” (176), and uses Lt. Archibald Gillespie’s words to describe the American garrison in Los Angeles as “perfect drunkards” and “men for whom the Californians could have no respect.” (174)

The historical appraisal of the leadership is important in any military history, and Bauer is downright and direct. “Of the three men who had held command of the Pacific Squadron for a long period,” he writes, Commodore W. Branford “Shubrick was the only one who demonstrated effective leadership in wartime. He did not have the flamboyance — or the blind egocentricity — of (Commodore Robert F.) Stockton, nor, although he exercised restrained caution, did he suffer from (Commodore John D.) Sloat’s pathological fear of making a misstep.” (232-233) Of Stockton, Bauer says that he “exceeded his authority” (170), that he had an “overbearing manner and unconcealed contempt for the native Californians” (176), and he refers to his “foolish and high-handed actions.” (238)

Bauer agrees with most historians in his high praise for General Scott; it might be said that he goes very far in adulation. He allows himself to say that it is “a tribute to one of America’s greatest Soldiers” that “the expedition to Veracruz ever got under way”(71), although presumably, even under a lesser mortal, the ships would have put to sea before the end of time. And although many other military historians would support Bauer’s judgment that the landing of 8,600 men below Veracruz without the loss of a single life was “a tremendous accomplishment” (82), in view of the fact that it was wholly uncontested by the enemy, it may seem to some readers that the feat, though difficult, was not miraculous.

Bauer does not hesitate to make a judgment against the opinion of celebrated authority. Commodore Matthew C. Perry succeeded Commodore David Conner in command of the Home Squadron and Bauer says “many contemporaries believed” that Perry presented Conner in an unfavorable light in conversations with Secretary of the Navy John Y. Mason. He then comments: “Such intrigue would have been in keeping with his character.”(70) Samuel Eliot Morison, in his recent biography of Perry(which Bauer notes in his preface he had been able to read in manuscript), says the charge of “intriguing” is ridiculous.

One of the high points of the narrative is the bombardment of the town of Veracruz. It was indiscriminate, with explosive shells which were lobbed up with the design of crashing through the flimsy roofs of the adobe houses and exploding among the families after falling inside. The British press was extremely critical of this deliberate destruction of the population, much along the lines of the American reaction to the air bombardment of Nanking by the Japanese before World War II. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier compared the slaughter to the September massacres of the French Revolution and some American officers on the scene expressed their strong disapproval. There is reference in this action to the rivalry between the Army and the Navy, a feature of all American wars. Commodore Perry insisted that the naval guns taken ashore for the bombardment should be manned by naval officers and crews, rather than turned over to artillerymen, as General Scott had requested.

The character of these nineteenth-century wars against what are now referred to as “under-developed nations,” but in that time of unrepentant racism were called inferior peoples, is illuminated in these shellings of towns. The protest against the slaughter of Mexicans had no effect, but when the foreign merchants in Tabasco asked Commodore Perry to cease his cannonading of that town because it endangered their properties, he acquiesced at once.(51)

In such a general naval history of the war, the author must necessarily condense his accounts of some interesting and important events which are not central to his subject. Thus, for example, those interested in the military operations in the San Diego area may find Bauer’s treatment of the Battle of San Pasqual and the subsequent developments somewhat disappointing. On the effort to secure help from the Americans in San Diego, Bauer mentions the early report by Thomas Stokes and the dispatch of Alex Godey, the “mountain man,” through the lines of the Californians following the battle. Two nights later, still besieged, Kit Carson, Edward F. Beale, and an Indian scout whose name is given as Che-muc-tah in the records, were sent by three different routes to seek help from Commodore Stockton. Che-muc-tah was the first to arrive, and Bauer says only “an Indian came in,”(189) with no indication that he was officially sent from the battered American force. He adds that Beale came in later (it reads, “the evening of 7 December,” but it was the 9th), but he makes no mention of Kit Carson. Such contraction, however, is inevitable in the effort to keep the book in balance.

The research is thorough; the book is based upon the author’s dissertation at Indiana University. In preparing it for publication, the footnotes were deleted, which will not please everyone. The “bibliographic notes” in the appendix contain a general discussion of the sources for the study and brief statements of the sources for each chapter. The essential material was, of course, the records of the Navy Department in the National Archives, but Bauer also used the papers of the leading figures in libraries throughout the country.

The appendix material will be useful to future students of the war. There is a chronology of the main events of the conflict, from the annexation of Texas to the return of La Paz to Mexican control; a listing of the vessels of the Home Squadron and of the Pacific Squadron, and a list of the vessels of the Mexican Navy, 1846-48, the latter by Robert L. Scheina of the Division of Naval History of the Department of the Navy. There is also a list of the officers at the landing at Veracruz and of the Third Los Angeles Campaign.

The book is illustrated with portraits of leading figures, many sketches of naval vessels, some contemporary sketches of scenes of action during the war, and many maps of harbors and battle plans, as well as end maps of the two theatres of operation.