Hunt Janin, Ursula Carlson. The California Campaigns of the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. 224 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9420-0.
Reviewed by Matthew McDonough (Coastal Carolina University)
Published on H-War (December, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Hunt Janin and Ursula Carlson’s latest work, The California Campaigns of the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848, sheds some needed light on a relatively unknown part of Manifest Destiny. While the Mexican-American War itself is often overshadowed by the American Civil War, the conquest of California is also commonly seen as simply a minor sideshow within the context of the larger Mexican-American War. In contrast, Janin and Carlson argue that California was the main prize up for grabs and the story of its conquest is just as significant as the more well-known campaigns in the South.
The California Campaigns of the U.S.-Mexican War is a concise and easy to digest introduction to the topic. The authors provide an excellent and helpful chronology that details all the important events as well as a handy outline on the contents of each chapter. They ultimately conclude that American designs on California were the primary catalysts of the war and that Mexico, woefully unprepared for conflict in the region, would have been better served to avoid the fight entirely. Janin and Carlson argue that “two things stand out in the historical record: a profound forgetfulness on the American side and a profound humiliation on the Mexican side” (p. 178). In the end, the history of the Golden State was shaped in equal measure by Americans, Mexicans, and native Californios.
Janin and Carlson are at their best when describing the incredible cast of historical actors that helped shape California. Many of the best depictions come from some of the authors’ many primary sources, such as the portrayal of native Californian Chief Solano and his warriors whose “looks inspired fear in everyone” and appeared to be “devils from hell” (p. 30). More well-known figures also make appearances, such as the famed author of Two Years before the Mast (1840) and inspiration for Dana Point, Richard Henry Dana Jr., as well as the long-suffering Johann Augustes Sutter. The latter’s depiction in particular is fascinating as Sutter’s attempt to find fame and fortune in California was ultimately thwarted when gold was discovered on his land and his workers deserted almost immediately, leaving him destitute.
Readers will also be drawn to the authors’ fascinating coverage of the often bizarre events that preceded the outbreak of hostilities, such as the 1842 incident during which the American naval commander assumed that war had been declared, landed his marines, and occupied Monterrey without meeting any resistance. Upon learning that his actions were premature he apologized to the local Mexican garrison and withdrew. Janin and Carlson use this as well as other examples to argue that Mexico was so woefully unprepared for war that resisting during the Mexican-American War was doomed to failure. In addition to discussing the well-known Bear Flag Revolt, the authors also cover several lesser-known altercations. Most significant was the siege of Los Angeles in which local Californios rose in rebellion and forced the American occupiers to retreat to San Pedro. These skirmishes ultimately culminated in the largest fight in California, the Battle of San Pascual. While the Americans were actually defeated here, due to a lethal combination of wet powder and overconfidence, it ultimately was an inconsequential win as the larger battles in the South would dictate the cessation of hostilities.
Methodologically, the book is an excellent mix of pertinent primary and secondary sources. In particular, the authors’ tendency to utilize block quotations is a strength as it gives the reader more context than just a brief snippet. Unfortunately, the book does not include any maps, pictures, or drawings. Campaign maps in particular would have been useful to pinpoint exactly where each of the battles took place. Janin and Carlson’s work is filled with colorful and interesting characters and the work would have benefited from some pictures or even drawings of the main actors. Just a few visual aids would have breathed additional life into a fascinating topic. Historiographically, the book focuses on significantly older pieces of scholarship. Many of the more prominent secondary sources they use were written between the 1920s and 1940s. While some of this scholarship is no doubt worthy of inclusion, it comes at the expense of more recent pieces. For example, in chapter 1, “Peoples of California,” Janin and Carlson describe the lifeways and ultimate fate of many of the indigenous groups and predominantly rely on The Indians of California, published in 1925. No mention is made of Albert Hurtado’s more recent and exceptional Indian Survival on the California Frontier (1988). When discussing the importance of John Charles Fremont in chapter 6, Tom Chaffin’s Pathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire (2002) is nowhere to be found; instead Janin and Carlson rely on the Year of Decision, by Bernard DeVoto, published in 1945.
Even with these small missteps, the authors have managed to produce a readable and illuminating book regarding the role of California during the Mexican-American War. Janin and Carlson vibrantly bring many forgotten historical actors into the spotlight and successfully argue that while the spark of the conflict occurred in Texas, the prize was clearly California. In just two brief years, the fate of North America changed course and both the United States and Mexico continue to grapple with the ramifications.
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Matthew McDonough. Review of Janin, Hunt; Carlson, Ursula, The California Campaigns of the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848.
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