In May 1846, Ulysses S. Grant, a 24-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry only three years out of West Point, saw his first action in Palo Alto, Mexico, in the opening engagement of the Mexican War. “I do not know that I felt any particular sensation,” he told a friend. “War seems much less horrible to persons engaged in it than to those who read of the battles.” The war, in which he served until its conclusion a year later, was a valuable school in which he observed at close hand, and learned much from, two great generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, and solidified his friendships with other young officers, some of whom he fought with — and against — a decade and a half later in the Civil War.
The Mexican War may have been Grant’s post-graduate university, but he hated it. “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico,” he wrote in 1879. “I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign.” That passage serves as epigraph for Amy S. Greenberg’s study of the war, and as inspiration as well for the book’s title. Grant was right. The invasion of Mexico by forces of the United States was an entirely aggressive undertaking, engineered by a stubborn, duplicitous, humorless president — James Knox Polk — who was obsessed with visions of Manifest Destiny and believed it his life’s mission not merely to extend American holdings to the Pacific Coast but to extend the slave territory (he was himself a slaveholder) as far as possible.