Hudson on Belohlavek, 'Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies: Women and the Mexican-American War'

Author: 
John M. Belohlavek
Reviewer: 
Leonne M. Hudson

John M. Belohlavek. Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies: Women and the Mexican-American War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017. 306 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-3990-2.

Reviewed by Leonne M. Hudson (Kent State) Published on H-War (April, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54078 

The peace that the United States enjoyed for thirty-two years with foreign countries was shattered when the nation found itself fighting a war against Mexico. The Mexican-American War (1846-48) tested the mettle of soldiers on both sides of the Rio Grande River. The expansionist president, James K. Polk, believed that a war with his southern neighbor would provide the United States with the opportunity to acquire Mexican land. Opposition to President Polk and American imperialism was personified in the Mexican dictatorial leader, General Santa Anna. As the hostilities approached, the deep divisions among Mexicans no doubt foretold of the difficulty they would have in prosecuting the controversial war. Mexico had a history of violence, political corruption, and revolution. Nonetheless, the one issue on which there was nearly universal agreement among Mexicans was their hatred of American slavery. The eighteen-month conflict erupted against the backdrop of Manifest Destiny in which Americans firmly held to the conviction that they had the right to occupy all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The outcome of the war was never in doubt when juxtaposing the United States Army against Mexico’s incompetent military leaders, poorly trained soldiers, and lack of materiel.    

John M. Belohlavek tells us in Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies that the war with Mexico was much more than about officers, soldiers, and the performance of the competing armies in battle. In this thoroughly researched work, American and Mexican women emerged with leading roles in the military drama of the mid-nineteenth century. Relevant secondary sources combined with an impressive array of primary documents formed the foundation of this book. Belohlavek asserts that the purpose of this volume is to “explore and recognize the courage, spirit, and influence of women” on both sides “who powerfully impacted the war that changed the continent” (p. 2). By contextualizing the social, political, economic, and cultural life of American and Mexican women, Belohlavek highlights their roles individually and collectively within each society before and during the conflict. The author gives his book a special human quality by including rich anecdotal material and allowing the women to speak for themselves. Belohlavek presents a judicious examination of unknown and famous women patriots, prostitutes, and spies who participated in the war. Through the eyes of women, a clear portrait emerges of the hellish nature of the military contest. Some of the American soldiers routinely referred to Mexicans as inferior because of their Spanish and Indian heritage. Belohlavek contends that “the relationship that existed between American soldiers and Mexican women, imagined and real, were both simple and complex” (p. 182). Although women are the focal point of this monograph, it also introduces several West Point graduates who thirteen years after the Mexican conflict found themselves on opposing sides during the Civil War. 

Belohlavek provides a comparative analysis of women in both countries in order to better understand their world as patriots, prostitutes, and spies. American women in general responded to the outbreak of the war with an outpouring of patriotic fervor. The thunderous wave of support, however, did not silence the voices of the antiwar activists. In various parts of the country, social reformers such as Caroline Healey Dall and Jane Grey Swisshelm could be heard criticizing the Mexican-American War as immoral, unjust, and inhumane. This book illuminates the fact that many women who traveled with the United States Army to Mexico were intelligent, courageous, and industrious. American women supported the army in traditional roles and during their stay in Mexico “many experienced firsthand the threat of danger, disease, and death” (p. 135). Women on the home front were no less patriotic than their sisters in the war zone. They contributed to the war effort by making flags, raising money, and crafting items of clothing for the soldiers. These women frequently found themselves performing nontraditional tasks. They worked in factories, served as newspapers editors, wrote novels, poems, musical selections, and theatrical plays.

Mexican women faced more difficult challenges than their American counterparts behind the lines and at the front. Their lives were rigidly circumscribed by custom and tradition. Women south of the border told a story of pain, tragedy, privation, and exploitation. The women who marched with the Mexican army endured horrendous conditions. Once in camp, these women who were essentially servants were counted on to provide critical support to the soldiers as nurses, cooks, washerwomen, spies, foragers, and comforters. This volume does not ignore the reprehensible deportment of some of the men of General Winfield Scott’s army. Belohlavek maintains that Mexican towns and cities that were occupied by Americans witnessed a plethora of violence, gambling, murder, physical and sexual abuse, and the destruction of property. According to the author, “the behavior of many American soldiers in Mexico remains a permanent stain on the reputation of the military” (p. 241). A discussion of whether any of the American soldiers faced any legal consequences for their outrageous behavior toward Mexican women would have been instructive.   

The Mexican-American War as a field of study has suffered from a lack of attention by historians. Belohlavek has helped to fill that void with the publication of Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies. This volume, which is a combination of social, political, economic, military, and cultural history enriches the literature on the Mexican War. He has successfully shed light on “voiceless and invisible” women who languished for too many years at the margins of Mexican War history. In addition to the soldiers, American and Mexican women were also changed by the experience of war. The war promoted gender awareness; however, the women within each culture had to contend with the slow rate of progress toward social and political equality. Belohlavek has told an important story about the role of American and Mexican women in the continental conflict of the middle nineteenth century.   

 

 

                                                                                                                   

 

 

Citation: Leonne M. Hudson. Review of Belohlavek, John M., Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies: Women and the Mexican-American War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54078

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Without discussing any pertinent literature, the reviewer makes the arresting assertion that "the Mexican-American War as a field of study has suffered from a lack of attention by historians."  Christopher Conway's exhaustive Oxford bibliography (2018) on the subject paints a very different picture.  The field has experienced an efflorescence of books, articles, and even PBS documentaries, many of them shifting focus to the Mexican experience in the conflict.  Once historians escaped their monolingual prison and began working archives in Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere, the conflict took on vast new dimensions.  Studies like Belohlavek's fit into this broadening landscape of research.

Peter Knupfer, Michigan State University