Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dishman: "A PERFECT GIBRALTAR: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846"

[A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846 by Christopher D. Dishman (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010). Hardcover, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:240/288. ISBN:978-0-8061-4140-4  $34.95 ]

In terms of inspiring premier modern style battle studies, the U.S.-Mexican War lags far behind other 18th and 19th century American wars, especially the Civil War. Thankfully, Christopher Dishman's A Perfect Gibraltar, a military history of the September 21-23, 1846 Battle of Monterrey, goes some distance in addressing this historiographical deficiency.

Monterrey was preceded by a pair of demoralizing Mexican defeats at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, but the Mexican authorities responded by marshaling heavy reinforcements and fortifying the Monterrey defenses. Dishman's text does a good job summarizing the political situation in northern Mexico and informing the reader how the chaos hampered their ability to repel the invaders. Terrain difficulties and time worn issues of time and distance were also critical. The author also describes well the Mexican efforts to fortify all likely military approaches into the city, the imposing geography and defensive works together comprising the "perfect Gibraltar" of the book's title.

Mexican War studies generally gush about the role of West Point trained U.S. topographical engineers in scouting roads and gathering intelligence (especially during Winfield Scott's later more famous Mexico City campaign). However, for the approach to Monterrey, Taylor instead relied on Texas Ranger companies, who did an excellent job of scouting and screening the U.S. advance, capturing enemy soldiers for interrogation, and, most important, discovering the best routes for the passage of the army's artillery and trains. In his private correspondence, engineer officer George Meade bitterly laments Taylor's perceived lack of respect for and use of the Pennsylvanian's professional skills prior to Monterrey.

Once the army arrived at Monterrey, the lack of siege artillery led Taylor to plan a direct assault on the city. Accordingly, he divided his army into wings for an attack on September 21. The left, under Taylor himself, would press against the works on the Mexican right and center in what was later termed a diversion but what was in reality a fairly vigorous assault with heavy casualties. The right wing, entrusted to William Worth, would pass both through and around the fortified high ground ringing the west and southwest approaches to the city. Though he captured Fort Teneria, Taylor's attack on the left was essentially repulsed, but Worth succeeded magnificently, capturing all of his objectives with comparatively little loss. It only remained for the Americans to pitch into the city itself and squeeze the Mexican army between Taylor and Worth's wings.

It is here, once the street fighting begins, that the balance of perspectives is most upset. Dishman recounts the swirling combat in stirring detail, noting that the Texan volunteers leveraged their knowledge of Mexican architecture and experience in urban warfare (most notably at Mier) to demonstrate to the rest of the army the way to press back the Mexican defenders without suffering catastrophic loss. In contrast to the detail lavished on the Americans, however, the Mexican point of view from command level on down is only intermittently presented, with the reader provided with little information about their order of battle or positioning of forces to oppose the Americans. One suspects a dearth of source material is the primary culprit.  The rank and file of the Mexican army was clearly less literate than their American counterparts, and it is a shame more officers and civilian residents did not write of their experience.  

The author's treatment of the end of the battle is abrupt, with the negotiations to surrender the Mexican forces covered in a single short sentence. However, the political fallout over Taylor's too generous terms is  recounted and a lengthy final chapter relates the war's course subsequent to the battle.

The book's main failing is in its cartography.  Including previously unpublished archival maps and a series of beautiful battle lithographs is fine, but usefulness needs to trump all other concerns. Shrinking a large historically significant map to fit within a half page space makes identifying its features all but impossible. All proper battle histories must have original terrain and troop position maps specifically wedded to the text. As an example, for all its narrative excellence, a truly solid grasp of the course of the street fighting around Fort Teneria during Taylor's diversionary attack, and for the combined urban assault on the 23rd, is substantially lost on the reader without clear maps.

Nevertheless, even with its presentation flaws, A Perfect Gibraltar is clearly one of the better Mexican War battle studies in the literature, certainly the finest account of the Battle of Monterrey to date. All serious students of the U.S. war with Mexico will want to find a copy of this book. The exploits recounted therein of prominent volunteer and West Point trained officers who would go on to assume roles of great responsibility during the Civil War should be of interest to enthusiasts of that later conflict, as well. Recommended.

Other CWBA reviews of books from this publisher:
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865


  1. In Monterrey Mexico they have found a well buried skeleton at the site of fierce fighting at Fort Teneria. It is probably a Tennessee volunteer based on where the skeleton is located. Many U.S. soldiers were buried at the base of the fort during the fighting.

    Unfortunately the Mexican archeologists only have another 1.5 month or less to continue their dig because an apartment building is going to be built on top of where the old fort stood. The construction workers have already built a ramp that is interfering with their progress.

    As of now only Mexican archeologists are participating in the dig. I have contacted quite a few Army offices and the national park service but no one seems interested in bringing the boys home. Part of the challenge is the security in Monterrey isn't the best nowadays, but the U.S. Army has people who can operate in any environment.

    If you want to see a photo of the skeleton and read the article go to:

  2. I am from Monterrey, Could you please send me the correct url of the photo?

    1. Sure here it is


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