Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
The Mexican War in Baja California. The Memorandum of Captain Henry W. Halleck Concerning His Expeditions in Lower California, 1846-1848. Introduced and Edited by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1977. Illustrations. Appendices. Maps. 208 pages. $24.00.
Reviewed by C. Joseph Pusateri, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, University of San Diego.
Henry W. Halleck is best known to history as a less than successful Civil War field commander but a more capable Washington-based military bureaucrat. To historians of the Far West, however, both Halleck’s antebellum and postwar careers have been of interest as well. He served as a delegate to the Monterey convention that drafted California’s first constitution, practiced law and held public office in the state during the 1850s, and found time to be a real estate developer, a bank director, and a railroad president.
This volume offers some insight into another chapter of Halleck’s early career, his military experiences as a young captain in Baja California during the Mexican War. It had been Halleck’s original intention to author a fullscale account of his wartime experiences, but the work somehow never materialized. Instead, we have only a long extract from his field diary covering the period from October 1847 to April 1848. Fleshing out the work, though, are a number of other historical bonuses the editor has chosen to provide his readers.
These include, most importantly, a useful introductory essay detailing the course of the war in Baja California. It begins with the mission of the U.S.S. Cyane, commanded by Samuel F. DuPont, to impose a blockade on the western coast of Mexico in August 1846 and concludes with Colonel Henry S. Burton’s victory at Todos Santos two years later. Nunis is particularly critical of American policy toward those Bajacalifornios who had supported the United States’ occupation of their land. Viewed as traitors to their own country, hundreds were forced to emigrate to Upper California while those left behind after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo paid a heavy price in the ensuing decades of bloody dissension.
Also included within the volume are a variety of other historical items, among them brief biographical listings of U.S. Army and Navy personnel involved in the various campaigns and prominent Baja Californians. Finally, eight documentary appendices are supplied. Each consists of an official report by American military or naval officers, usually dealing with specific battles. Even a brief Mexican account of the battle of Mulege, prepared by Manuel Pineda, is paired with an American version of the same encounter.
Nevertheless, the Halleck passages are still the centerpiece of Nunis’ book. In truth, they are not exactly spellbinding. Halleck does prove decidely scathing in his estimation of the Mexican opposition, referring to Pineda’s men as “robber-soldiers” and the “worse band of scoundrels” ever to prey upon a defenseless people. Pineda himself is denounced as having fled Mazatlan to avoid creditors and having lived “a dissipated and lawless life.” For the most part, however, Halleck’s memoir is mainly a travelogue with considerable description of geography and treks across difficult terrain and relatively little combat action. It is, therefore, of some historical curiosity but, like its author who would reach his career peak behind a Washington desk rather than on the battlefield, rather unglamorous. Yet, Nunis’ overall work, even with the limitations of Halleck’s account, is more than useful in providing information and insight into a little-known phase of the war between the United States and Mexico.