Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Ulysses S. Grant and the Mexican War

This is the fourth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the portrayal of the San Patricio Battalion in the Mexican War. This week, I return to the Mexican War, to talk about my portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant as a young officer.

Many historians have written about the Mexican War as the training ground for many of the officers who later served in the Civil War – Grant and Kearney for the North; Lee and Stonewall Jackson for the South, just to name a few.

In his memoirs, Grant spoke about the United States’ provocation of the war:

The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory furthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. [The United States Army was] sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885), reprinted by Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, CT, p. 45.

[T]o this day [I] regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.

Memoirs, p. 37.

In New Garden, main character Jack Grier serves in Grant’s company. Grant suggests his opinion about the merits of the United States Army’s position in disputed territory in a scene where Grant has invited Sergeant Donovan and Private Grier to his tent to inform Jack that he is about to be promoted to corporal (page 53).

Grant slipped into his tent. A moment later he returned with a whiskey bottle in his hand. He uncorked the bottle. “It looks like you brought cups for the occasion.”

Jack and Donovan stood and extended their tin cups. Grant filled both of them and then his own. “Congratulations, Corporal Grier. I expect a lot from you. You’ll get your stripe in the morning, in front of the men.”

“Thank you, sir.”

As the men sipped their whiskey, Grant lowered his guard. “Where are we, Grier, the United States or Mexico?”

“Well, sir, the Texans say we’re in Texas, but the Mexicans say otherwise.”

“But what do you say?”

“I say we’re where we’ve been ordered to go, sir. I figure the United States and Mexican governments will work out their border issues.”

“But, Grier, don’t you find it a little peculiar that our ‘Army of Occupation’ was ordered to establish our base in disputed territory?”

“I’m just following orders, sir.”

Grant also spoke about the quality of the Mexican army.

The Mexicans have shown a patriotism which it would be well if we would imitate in part, but with more regard to truth. They celebrate the anniversaries of Chapultepec and Molino del Rey as of very great victories. **** At these two battles, while the United States troops were victorious, it was at very great sacrifice of life compared with what the Mexicans suffered. The Mexicans, as on many other occasions, stood up as well as any troops ever did. The trouble seemed to be the lack of experience among the officers….

Memoirs, p. 102.

I depict the Mexican soldier’s frustration with the lack of success on the battlefield [New Garden, p. 61]:

Private Jorge knelt for morning prayers. The day before he was certain his fellow Mexicans would rout the Yankee invaders. “What went wrong? I stood my ground, as did my fellow soldiers. We closed ranks after the hellacious cannon fire from the Americans. Why did our commandante not provide cannon adequate to mow down the proud Americans? Why did our officers lack the knowledge and skill to lead our brave soldiers to victory?”

In just a few pages, the reader receives a hint that Grant has misgivings about the war and that the Mexican soldiers do not lack for courage. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.



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