Book Review Archives

A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States

By: Timothy J. Henderson
Reviewed by: David T. Morgan
Hill and Wang, 2007
$14, Paperback

Timothy J. Henderson contends in this book that there is glory in defeat, in spite of the fact that the Mexican-American War proved Mexico to be militarily incompetent and resulted in the loss of a vast amount of Mexican territory. After all, Henderson argues, Mexico received millions of dollars in compensation and defended its national honor against a mightier foe. Does that equal a glorious defeat? Let the reader decide after reading this delightfully written account of Mexican political history from 1821 (the year Mexico declared its independence from Spain) through the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

That political history includes Mexico’s strained relations with the United States and its continuous struggle to establish a national government. Factionalism ran rampant in fledgling Mexico, which could never reconcile the various factions. There were conservatives, liberals, federalists of different stripes, and monarchists. Military leaders representing one faction or another frequently rose in rebellion to overthrow the central government. Turmoil or even chaos seemed ubiquitous.

The most flamboyant military leader, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, led numerous rebellions, served eleven times as president, and was sent into exile several times. A memorable anecdote about him is a highlight of the book. In battle he suffered a wound requiring the amputation of a leg. He paraded the severed limb through the streets of Mexico City and had it interred amidst great pomp and ceremony. Seven years later angry Mexicans disinterred the leg and sent Santa Anna into exile for life. Mexico, however, had not seen the last of the one-legged hero, who returned in 1853 to become president for the eleventh time.

Other colorful figures emerge in the book, and crucial events are treated. One example is Joel Poinsett, who became U.S. Minister to Mexico in 1825 and who is erroneously called “ambassador” by the author. (There were no American ambassadors until 1893.) As for crucial events, the most crucial was Mexico’s loss of Texas, which was ultimately annexed by the United States. Texas’s annexation drove a permanent wedge in Mexican-American relations and finally precipitated war.

A Glorious Defeat splendidly surveys Mexican political history, Mexican-American relations prior to 1848, and the Mexican-American War. Exceptionally well-written, readers will find it informative and entertaining. Oct 2008

David T. Morgan is a retired history professor from the University of Montevallo and the author of a number of books and articles.