Springer on Gaff and Gaff, 'From the Halls of the Montezumas: Mexican War Dispatches from James L. Freaner, Writing under the Pen Name "Mustang"'

Alan D. Gaff, Donald H. Gaff, eds. From the Halls of the Montezumas: Mexican War Dispatches from James L. Freaner, Writing under the Pen Name "Mustang". Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2019. 477 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57441-767-8

Reviewed by Paul Springer (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58609

Alan and Donald Gaff’s In the Halls of the Montezumas presents the Mexican War dispatches of James Freaner, one of the earliest US war correspondents, writing for the New Orleans Daily Delta. Freaner initially served as an enlisted soldier in a Louisiana volunteer unit, part of General Zachary Taylor’s invasion of northern Mexico. While on that campaign, he wrote a series of dispatches to his press in New Orleans, reporting on the war as he saw things from the ranks. After his unit was disbanded, Freaner returned to Mexico as a full-time civilian correspondent, accompanying General Winfield Scott’s army as it besieged Vera Cruz and then advanced upon the interior. After the fall of Mexico City, Freaner was integral to the peace process, convincing US envoy Nicholas Trist to ignore orders recalling him to the United States and instead work to conclude the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Trist, who recognized that Freaner had established a communication system far faster than that utilized by the War Department, actually entrusted the treaty itself to his care, to be transported to Washington, DC, where Freaner rousted Secretary of State James Buchanan from his bed to present the vital document.

Having delivered the treaty, Freaner returned to Mexico, where he used his connections to obtain a commission to auction surplus equipment, and turned a substantial profit out of the rapid withdrawal of American forces. Freaner next joined the California Gold Rush in 1849, reporting back his observations both during the ordeal of traveling to the West Coast and his time seeking his fortune there. These dispatches were excerpted rather than printed in full and show a decidedly unscrupulous side of Freaner, who heavily exaggerated his reports to fuel the boom. In turn, with the backing of a few wealthy colleagues, he engaged in extensive speculation efforts in both Panama and California and showed little remorse for swindling newcomers with less worldly experience. His reports came to a sudden end, as did his life: Freaner and a small party were murdered by the Pitt River Indians in July 1852, while surveying for a toll road from the Sacramento Valley to Oregon.

Freaner’s dispatches were widely distributed throughout the United States, under license from the Daily Delta. As a first-person correspondent, his perspective created many of the dominant assumptions about the war throughout the country. Because he had established a fast communication system, his viewpoint was often the first provided to distant readers, and he was also the only dispatch writer to include exhaustive casualty lists in his reports. Worried families could thus consult Freaner’s columns to see if their family members had been killed, wounded, or captured by the enemy, and receive the news far more quickly than any official notification from the War Department.

Between them, the editors bring a wide range of publishing experience, particularly in nineteenth-century military subjects, as well as a keen understanding of the role of an editor who is presenting the original work of a long-deceased author. Alan Gaff is an independent scholar as well as the president of Historical Investigations. He has previously published books on Anthony Wayne’s campaign in the Old Northwest; the Lost Battalion of World War I; and the Civil War Iron Brigade. Donald Gaff is an anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa, specializing in the archaeology and ethnohistory of Native Americans. He has previously published works on the Civil War experience of Charles A. Curtis and edited the journal of a Civil War noncommissioned officer.

In the Halls of the Montezumas opens with a short but efficient summary of the Mexican War, suitable for a lay reader who needs a refresher on the major campaigns and personalities of the conflict. It is followed by a quick biographical sketch of Freaner, a man who seemed constantly in search of the next great national undertaking, both as an observer/correspondent and as a participant in the events of the day. The editors make comparisons between Freaner and one of his better-known contemporaries, George W. Kendall, a writer for the New Orleans Picayune whose journals were collected into The War Between the United States and Mexico in 1851, cementing his work as one of the most important sources for scholars of the conflict. To Gaff and Gaff, Freaner deserves an equally prominent position, having documented the sights and sounds of Scott’s advance into the interior of Mexico with remarkable detail and imagery. They argue that Freaner became less well known than Kendall both because he used a nom de plume, “Mustang,” and because he died shortly after the end of the war, before he could compile his own one-volume history of everything that he had witnessed. The editors judge Freaner to be a better writer than Kendall, and one who adopted a much wider viewpoint in that he discussed more than the actions of a few key officers surrounding Taylor and Scott. In one sense, they are correct—Freaner is worthy of examination, and his perspectives differ significantly from Kendall’s. However, their criticisms of the latter are overblown, in a futile effort to emphasize the importance of their own subject at the expense of one of the best sources of eyewitness descriptions available to the modern scholar.

Like any journalist, Freaner was limited to what he could observe from his viewpoint as an independent correspondent. Although military commanders of the day had a much less keen sense of operational security than modern generals possess, Freaner was still not privy to everything that transpired in Scott’s headquarters. Even with his somewhat limited access, he often published accounts of impending operations that, if his dispatches had been captured by the enemy, might have constituted significant peril for Scott’s army. Nevertheless, for his own reasons, Scott tolerated Freaner’s presence, and probably hoped to use his positive accounts to further his own position in the War Department, or to support a political career out of uniform. Certainly, Freaner made Scott the key actor in his descriptions of the campaign, and he tended to paint Scott’s decisions and actions in the most flattering light. Other individuals who have often gained significant fame and glory in historical treatments of the war, such as Captain Robert E. Lee of the Corps of Engineers, emerge as minor characters in Freaner’s stories. This may suggest a bias upon his part toward the higher-ranking officers, or it may be a more accurate assessment of the roles played by company-grade officers whose fame was not cemented until the Civil War. Freaner also gave special attention to volunteers from Louisiana, such as Captain Albert Blanchard, whom he portrayed as the most competent and diligent soldiers of the war. Fifteen years later, Blanchard, serving as a brigadier in the Confederate States Army, proved to be utterly incompetent at leading larger units in the field, as well as in administering camps of recruitment and instruction. Perhaps this simply indicated that he had been promoted well beyond the limits of his skill set, or perhaps Freaner was overwhelmed by his dashing demeanor and failed to recognize the comparatively high casualty rates of Blanchard’s Phoenix Company.

In order to produce this volume, Gaff and Gaff had to painstakingly recreate a complete record of Freaner’s dispatches, working from microfilmed copies of the Daily Delta. Although Freaner fought with Taylor and, according to the editors, commenced his career as a correspondent while accompanying the northern campaign, the first dispatch in the current volume is dated February 22, 1847, and was written during the siege of Vera Cruz. They offer no explanation for why his earlier work is not included in the volume, beyond noting that his first dispatch to the newspaper was dated May 15, 1846. Perhaps the earlier material was discarded for lack of space, as every publisher has to set limits on what can be contained within a single volume. However, it is disappointing to miss the opportunity to compare his perspectives on the two campaigns.

Freaner was a very thorough correspondent—he provided substantial descriptions of the countryside, its inhabitants, and the daily lives of citizens living in war-torn Mexico, in addition to exhaustive discussion of the activities of Scott and his subordinates. Because the authors relied almost entirely upon the microfilm versions of the published newspapers, they give little indication whether the editors of the Daily Delta chose to trim Freaner’s dispatches or printed them in full. Freaner’s original manuscripts, which are held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University, are included as the only manuscript source in the bibliography, but it is difficult to determine how much time and effort was devoted to comparing the dispatches themselves to the final product made available to the reading public. It might have been fruitful to compare Freaner’s perspective with that of some of the participants in the war itself, many of whom wrote exhaustive letters home that have been preserved in archival collections.

There are many aspects of this work that will make it both interesting and intellectually useful for a wide audience. Freaner was a pointed critic of Mexican society, and his inherent bias is clear through the use of racist terms and condescending rhetoric when describing the lives of Mexican citizens. In this regard, he is a product of his times—but readers should be forewarned about some of the particularly nasty terminology that he regularly applies to his subject. In particular, Freaner’s description of the occupation period in central Mexico, after the end of combat operations but before the formal treaty ending the conflict, is a potential treasure trove for modern researchers. Unfortunately, Freaner’s attention to the negotiations to end the war waned, showing he had clearly become bored and frustrated by the tedium of daily life after the excitement of the war itself. He remained a strong advocate for the military personnel he had come to know well, including pushes for brevet promotions, pensions, and bereavement money for widows and orphans of men killed in the war. He also criticized much of the worst behavior of US troops, with a particular emphasis upon the looting and robbery that became all too common during the occupation period.

Ironically, although the editors critiqued Kendall for his focus upon high-ranking officers, they chose to provide biographical data only for officers at the rank of lieutenant colonel and above, effectively committing the same error for which they castigated Kendall. There is little context supplied for much of the work, which is unfortunate in that Freaner did not have an unlimited perspective, and they could have clarified many of his unfounded positions. But, in the end, this work is almost entirely dependent upon Freaner’s dispatches, and Gaff and Gaff are correct in their assertion that these are a worthy subject of study that should be available to the modern reader. Any scholar of the Mexican War will absolutely need a copy of this work, as will individuals interested in conflicts of the era or the actions and attitudes of Winfield Scott and his senior commanders. Those devoted to the study of war termination will find much of value in this work, as will anyone wanting to examine civil-military relations in the mid-nineteenth century. I can therefore heartily endorse its value, while lamenting the opportunities lost for even more utility.

Citation: Paul Springer. Review of Gaff, Alan D.; Gaff, Donald H., eds., From the Halls of the Montezumas: Mexican War Dispatches from James L. Freaner, Writing under the Pen Name "Mustang". H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58609

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