Sunday, September 5, 2010

Lewis: "TRAILING CLOUDS OF GLORY: Zachary Taylor's Mexican War Campaign and His Emerging Civil War Leaders"

[Trailing Clouds of Glory: Zachary Taylor's Mexican War Campaign and His Emerging Civil War Leaders by Felice Flanery Lewis (University of Alabama Press, 2010). Hardcover, 5 maps, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:242/340. ISBN:978-0-8173-1678-5  $35]

Although not as impressive a military feat as Winfield Scott's winning advance from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, Zachary Taylor's campaign in northern Mexico was nevertheless an important contribution to victory in the U.S.-Mexican War. His army's victories at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista secured the Texan border and materially weakened the Mexican army as well as that country's strategic position. Felice Flanery Lewis's Trailing Clouds of Glory: Zachary Taylor's Mexican War Campaign and His Emerging Civil War Leaders is both an operational history of the northern campaign and a focused look at the combat, engineering, and logistical services rendered by the impressive group of young military professionals that accompanied Taylor's army, over 170 of whom would achieve general officer rank during the Civil War.

As mentioned above, Lewis's narrative is of an organizational and operational nature, with the battles themselves dispensed with rather summarily (an exception being that of the multi-day battle at Monterrey, which is recounted in some detail). Taylor's army was constantly in a state of organizational flux, from its origins in Louisiana as the Corps of Observation to its offensive role as the Army of Occupation in a series of movements and battles culminating in the tough victory at Buena Vista. The author dutifully notes the comings and goings of the various companies and regiments (and their many West Point trained officers) at each stage of the campaign. The maps (one theater and four battle drawings, all original) are helpful, but, given the orientation of the narrative, the study would have greatly benefited from the inclusion of those of a more operational nature. Also somewhat disappointing is the book's lack of any meaningful forward looking discussion of how combat in the U.S.-Mexican War informed (if indeed it did) how these officers would later fight the Civil War. How this can be done well is by no means obvious, and there is a little of it scattered about, but one might have expected a more determined attempt of some kind.

The author consulted a large number of personal paper collections located in several major east coast manuscript repositories for her study, utilizing this body of material to effectively chronicle the campaign largely from the perspective of the captains and lieutenants that comprise the book's main focus. The material is evenly balanced, north and south. Several officers (e.g. Napoleon J.T. Dana and D.H. Hill) are quoted throughout, perhaps a function of the volume of correspondence left behind.

Lewis is clearly an earnest admirer of Taylor, and another goal of her study is to defend the general against what she perceives to be unfair charges by recent historians (especially Scott biographers). She rather effectively counters contentions that Taylor was an indifferently concerned logistician, but is less successful in her defense of the general's battlefield management (especially at Monterrey) and is arguably not critical enough of the inadvisedly long truce negotiated there. Other points of contention strike one as minor, and the author's arguments, though convincing overall, might have had more impact had the opposing views been presented more fully.

Nevertheless, students of both wars will find much of value and interest in Trailing Clouds of Glory. No other book attempts on this scale such a precise accounting of the presence of Civil War officers on the battlefields and dusty trails of northern Mexico in the period between the establishment of Fort Brown and the American victory at Buena Vista.

Also from this publisher:
* A Small but Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia
* Columbus, Georgia, 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War
* Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861
* Battle: The Nature and Consequences of Civil War Combat
* Camp Chase and the Evolution of Civil War Prison Policy
* Blockaders, Refugees, and Contrabands: Civil War on Florida's Gulf Coast, 1861-1865
* Civil War Weather in Virginia
* From Conciliation to Conquest
* Like Grass Before the Scythe
* Navy Gray
* Sherman's Mississippi Campaign
* Confederate Florida

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