So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico: 1846-1848. By John S. D. Eisenhower. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index, xvii plus 436 pages. $19.95 Paper.
Reviewed by Bruce A. Castleman, lecturer in the History Department, San Diego State University and historian of colonial Mexico, is currently writing a book analyzing labor market trends in eighteenth-century Mexico. A graduate of Annapolis, he is retired from the U.S. Navy.
John S. D. Eisenhower’s narrative history of the 1846-1848 war first appeared in 1989, published by Random House, and is now released by the University of Oklahoma Press. So Far from God is the latest of several narrative overviews of this war of expansion, a conflict which has in recent years attracted growing public interest in the United States.
Eisenhower organizes the thirty chapters of So Far from God along both chronological and geographic lines. A short introductory background precedes descriptions of the battles in northeast Mexico. Next is a section entitled “The War in the West.” Aficionados of California history will particularly enjoy this part, since this part of the war gets fairly short shrift in most of the older works on the war with Mexico. An extensive treatment of the campaign from Veracruz to Mexico City is followed by the negotiations which culminated in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
A pleasure to read, So Far from God is military history in a traditional way. Battlefield maneuvers are described, peppered with anecdotes from first-hand accounts, but in the end, this is very much a headquarters history. Only a few maps are included, but they are clear and informative for the general reader, who will perhaps appreciate them all the more for that lack of detail. Eisenhower’s narrative, however, contains an exhaustive degree of military detail. Orders of battle, which are lists of participating units and their commanding officers’ identities, accompany almost every one of the battle narratives. Most readers will probably skim past them, but their inclusion illustrates another aspect of Eisenhower’s general approach to this history: he has a very much “top-down” outlook. Actions such as Resaca de la Palma and Buena Vista become “Zachary Taylor’s War;” Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, and Chapultepec constitute “Winfield Scott’s War;” and the final negotiations are “Nicholas Trist’s War.” The book’s organization works well, but also highlights Eisenhower’s emphasis on the actions of “great men” at the center of historical importance and inquiry.
There is an adequate treatment of Antonio Miguel López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón himself. Some would not agree with Eisenhower’s contention that Santa Anna was a populist whose indiscreet pleasures and pastimes excluded him from membership in the Mexican social elite. This reviewer contends that the two categories are not mutually exclusive and that Santa Anna belonged to both at the same time. Beyond Santa Anna, So Far from God’s Mexican historical background becomes sketchier. It does appear that Eisenhower genuinely wishes to be fair to the Mexican people, since he concludes that their national honor required them to fight a lopsided war and often invites the reader’s attention to the personal courage of the Mexican soldier. Anyone would be hard-pressed to dispute that this dignified nation has suffered at the hands of its leaders.
Even so, Mexico and Mexicans seem to receive less than even-handed treatment in Eisenhower’s sometimes troubling choice of words. Santa Anna has “henchmen,” but such pejoratives are never aimed at U.S. officials. General Pedro de Ampudia and Governor Manuel de Armijo are labeled as “cruel,” but the harsh discipline meted out to U.S. soldiers is downplayed and even given a positive spin. Floggings are indeed mentioned, usually for rapes of civilian women, but no mention is made of branding the faces of those San Patricio deserters who were not executed following their courts-martial.
In researching So Far from God, Eisenhower drew heavily on secondary works of other published authors, and most of the primary sources are also from published books, including records of the U.S. Congress. All of Eisenhower’s sources are in English, and only three are of Mexican origin if one includes as Mexican the memoirs of Scottish-born Fanny Calderón de la Barca. The subtitle indicates that So Far from God is about the U.S. war, and it is a one-sided book. To be fair, one should recognize that the Mexican national archives dealing with military aspects of their War of 1847 remain sealed to this day. Eisenhower narrates long sections with material cited from earlier works by North American historians: Justin Smith (1911), Bernard de Voto (1943), Ralph S. Henry (1950), Otis A. Singletary (1960), and K. Jack Bauer (1974). Solidly researched, authoritative secondary works by Mexican historians do exist, but never do we hear the voice of Josefina Zoraida Vázquez, a prominent historian who has published extensively on these subjects. Vázquez’s essays began to appear as early as 1972 and had their arguments been included, might have reduced the strong current of partiality flowing through the book.
One should ask where So Far from God fits with other works on this subject. Eisenhower himself does not address that issue. A comparison of footnotes and bibliographies between this and Henry’s 1950 work, reveals that most of the same primary sources are used in both studies. Eisenhower cites to Henry and also to later secondary works. The two stories read much the same, but Henry contends that war between the U.S. and Mexico was a historical inevitability. Although he never declares outright where he stands, Eisenhower emphasizes the active role in shaping these events of leaders such as Polk, Taylor, and Scott. The title of Eisenhower’s latest work, Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott makes a clearer statement on the matter.
In So Far from God, John S. D. Eisenhower presents a narrative that will entertain the general public and military buffs, and still contributes significantly to the corpus of historical literature on this period in U.S. history. The criticisms offered here are not intended to diminish the book, only to point out the things that it is not. Even if it leaves much to be desired as Mexican history, So Far from God is still a valuable book. The definitive history of the “War of 1847” has yet to be written, and conceivably may never be done. In the meantime, we shall have to be satisfied with what has achieved to date.