Category Archives: Mexican War

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Partus Sequitur Ventrem

This is the fifth 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 young Ulysses S. Grant in the Mexican War. This week, I shift to slavery in North Carolina, where one’s status in life was determined by that of the mother. Specifically, I turn to a moral and legal dilemma faced by young attorney Richard Grier, whose father-in-law, Edward McAllister, has given him Alicia, Edward’s slave daughter. Alicia is now pregnant with Richard’s child. (Alicia’s mother, Annie, was given to Edward by his father.)

Richard rushes to Johnston County, North Carolina, where Edward is on his deathbed in a cottage. In New Garden (196-199), I depict North Carolina law and Richard’s dilemma.

[Richard] returned to the cottage, uncorked one jug [of whiskey], and placed it on the sill.

“Thank you, lad.” Edward took a long swallow, then coughed up more blood.

“Richard, nothing shames me more than the wrong I have done to Annie and Alicia.”

“You’ve treated them very well, sir, like family.”

“Richard, the fact is, they are family, in every sense of the word.”

Richard swallowed hard. “What do you mean by that, sir?”

“Richard, you must not perpetuate the wrong committed by my father – and by me. Before I left Virginia, my father told me the truth about Annie. You do know that she is a mulatto?”

“Yes, of course.”

“In most such cases, the father is white and the mother is black.”

“Yes.”

“Annie’s mother was white. The father was a mulatto. Partus sequitur ventrem.

***The legal doctrine held that the status of a child followed that of the mother. Early English common law had held that among English subjects, a child’s status was inherited from the father. In the seventeenth century, Virginia colonists adopted the partus sequitur ventrem doctrine to protect slave owners from legal responsibility for their slaves’ offspring. Other colonies followed Virginia’s example.

“And you, sir, I surmise, are Alicia’s father.”

“That’s hardly news, Richard. Strangers often ‘mistake’ Alicia and Lydia for sisters. There’s no ‘mistake’ about it. Which brings me to you. Alicia is with child. Are you the father?

“I believe so. I mean … there is no doubt.”

“Richard, give me your solemn promise that you will make this right. Annie and Alicia must be free.”

Richard chose his words carefully. “On my honor, sir, I will do right by you and the family.”

So now Richard is faced with a terrible dilemma. He was raised in a Quaker household, which also served as a station on the Underground Railroad. His parents taught him that slavery is immoral, but he has married into a family of slave owners. If Alicia has been free from birth, Richard, who has married Alicia’s half-sister, has violated his marriage vows by committing adultery. If she is still treated as a slave, she remains Richard’s mistress, and Richard is free of reproach under North Carolina law.

In just a few pages, the reader learns how partus sequitur ventrem could play out. 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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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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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The San Patricio Battalion

This is the third in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. This week, I turn to the Mexican War, more specifically, to the San Patricio Battalion.

Military recruiting has not changed dramatically since the 1840’s. Recruiters then and recruiters now have their greatest success among the poor. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but on the eve of war with Mexico, German and Irish immigrants made up roughly forty percent of America’s regular army. In turn, the Mexican officers actively recruited those men to switch sides.

Among the characters in New Garden is main character Jack Grier’s NCO, Sergeant Donovan, an Irish immigrant. American troops are encamped across the Rio Grande from the Mexican town of Matamoros in March, 1846. A chapter captioned “The San Patricio Battalion” (57-58), portrays Donovan’s dilemma and the choice made by him and other immigrant soldiers.

The next morning Donovan obtained permission to attend mass at a Catholic church in Matamoros. He discreetly packed most of his valuables in the event he chose not to return.

Donovan did not object to fighting Seminoles or Apaches, but he was less enamored with making war on fellow Catholics. He had observed the priests mingle among the Mexican troops. He had heard the American officers question their orders to march south of the Nueces River into disputed territory. The Irish made up 24 percent of the American troops. Many of them shared Donovan’s doubts.

Mass and communion settled Donovan’s dilemma. Kneeling in church, absorbing the Latin litany, inhaling the incense, receiving Holy Communion, Donovan felt Catholic once again. After the service two Mexican officers approached him. Other American soldiers were also approached by Mexican officers. The Mexicans offered them incentives to leave the United States Army for the Mexican Army. They offered Donovan the rank of major, as well as four hundred acres of land outside Puebla, in the cooler, higher elevations of Mexico.

****The United States behaved like England, bullying its way into the territory of North America’s other democracy. He had left Ireland because of the English. Leaving the United States felt the same. He threw his lot in with the Mexicans.

Over the next eight days more soldiers swam across the Rio Grande. Taylor grew alarmed and issued orders to fire on any deserter. The sentinels shot several deserters and several others drowned, but over one hundred and thirty men made it across the river. Over the next two years they would serve Mexico in the San Patricio Battalion.

Seventeen months later, the Americans fight the San Patricios at Churubusco. Jack Grier has risen to the rank of sergeant, and now commands the unit previously run by Donovan. Dying in Jack’s arms, Donovan begs Jack to care for his widow, Ileana. Jack’s decision to honor Donovan’s dying wish will have consequences, good and bad, for the rest of Jack’s life.

Time seemed to stand still. Donovan rose behind his improvised barricade and began to fire on Bryan and Chandler. Jack could not move his Paterson revolver fast enough. As Bryan and Chandler fell, Jack emptied his revolver on Donovan. All five shots hit their target.

Hit, but not yet dead, Jack and Gold bent down over Donovan, while the other soldiers tended to their fallen comrades. Donovan held a letter in his left hand, forcing it in Jack’s right.

“Illeana,” he moaned. “Care for her, Jack, please.”

“Who?”

“Ileana, my wife. Puebla. Please, promise.”

Jack tried looking away. “Save your breath, Donovan. We’ll take care of these wounds.”

Struggling to laugh, Donovan coughed up blood. “No, Jack, the wounds are fatal. I don’t want a noose. Ileana. Promise, promise.”

“I promise.”

Two months after Churubusco, thirty of the San Patricios draw their last breath as the American flag is raised at Chapultepec (New Garden, pp. 67-69).

Within minutes thereafter, another American hoisted the United States flag over Chapultepec. This was the hangman’s signal. At Mixcoac, only two miles from Chapultepec and well within sight of the battle, thirty San Patricios stood on makeshift scaffolds constructed on United States Army wagons. They had stood there all morning, their hands and feet bound, ropes around their necks. Once the colors unfurled above Chapultepec, the teamsters ordered the mules foreward. Thirty San Patricios swung in the Mexican sunshine.

In just a few pages, the reader learns about the San Patricios. 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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