Monday, May 25, 2009

Johnson: "A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign"

As campaign studies go, Timothy D. Johnson's A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign (University Press of Kansas, 2007) is quite good. The strategic and operational conceptualizations of the campaign are clear and well thought out, while the tactical details of the battles are sufficiently outlined. Johnson's assessment of Scott's military performance is judicious, and mostly in line with convention. He reasonably defends the general's operational pauses between battles -- on both political and logistical grounds -- but is highly critical (rightly, I believe) of the lengthy truce that was negotiated prior to the final stage of the Mexico City campaign. The author, a Scott biographer, also examines the general's personal difficulties with his superiors and various subordinates (several of whom attempted to assume undue credit for the campaign's ultimate success).

What hampers the study most, keeping it from something approaching a definitive level, is the one-sided point of view. The Mexican military remains a shadowy 'other' force, leaving the reader often puzzled at how the greatly superior numbered Mexican defenders were driven repeatedly from fortified positions, suffering enormous losses in killed and wounded compared to the American attackers. I've read the arguments put forth elsewhere, but I wanted fresh insight from Johnson. If possible, a really good numbers and losses analysis also remains in order for the campaign.

Civil War readers will appreciate the book's focus on the many officers (mostly lieutenants and captains at the time) who would later achieve prominence in the sectional conflict. On the flip side, one often considers the loss of many well regarded officers [regular artillery captain Simon Drum comes to mind] who would likely have gained high positions during the Civil War had they lived.

The book's maps [adapted from Donald Frazier's reference book The United States and Mexico at War: Nineteenth-Century Expansionism and Conflict] are a mixed bag. The originals are qualitatively excellent, but, in reproducing them for this book, the publisher often shrunk the maps so much in size that vital details were rendered indistinct, even for readers with good eyes.
However, the positives of A Gallant Little Army far outweigh the negatives. Flaws aside, Johnson's book is clearly the best Mexico City Campaign study to date.

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Other Civil War Books and Authors reviews of Univ. Press of Kansas titles:

* The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth
* Guide to the Atlanta Campaign: Rocky Face Ridge to Kennesaw Mountain
* Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla
* Civil War St. Louis
* The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War
* Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era


  1. Thanks for the heads up about this book, Drew. I have a small Mexican War collection and I will have to add 'A Gallant Little Army' to it. I have already recently added 'Invading Mexico: America's Continental Dream and the Mexican War, 1846-1848' by Joseph Wheelan. It looks to be a pretty good general history. Johnson's book should add to it by having good tactical accounts of the battles.
    Thanks again,

  2. Hi Chris,
    The descriptions are fairly good. It is surprising that so few battle histories from that war have been published.

  3. I am interested in the Mexican War careers of the leaders in the Civil War and this book was helpful in that respect. I thought the treatment of Winfield Scott was particularly revealing. I recommend the book also.



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