FOREIGN BODIES: IMMIGRANT SOLDIERS
In chapter 2, I argued that George Lippard foregrounded the mangled body of an Irish immigrant soldier in Legends of Mexico as a way of symbolically incorporating marginal whites into an American “race.” In singling out an Irish soldier for representation, Lippard was certainly not alone, for a good deal of war literature foregrounded the participation of the Irish. Like Lippard's Legends, much of the literature loudly insists upon the exemplary patriotism of the Irish soldier, as if to drown out nativist claims that recent immigrants were incapable of feeling binding, intense nationalist loyalties to the United States. For instance, a sketch in The Taylor Anecdote Book, a collection of pieces largely culled from newspaper accounts, features a wounded Irish soldier who saves the U.S. flag after the standard-bearer is killed in battle: “The Irishman, stunned for a moment, raised himself, and wiping the blood which blinded him from his eyes, saw the flag placed in his charge some rods in advance; he rushed forward, bloody and ghastly with his wounds, and seized the loved banner, and in his peculiar language exclaimed—‘Holy Jasus! I am worth a dozen deadmen yet!’ and wounded as he was, he carried that flag through the remainder of the fight, until it waved in victory.” This representation of an Irishman's devotion to the “loved banner,” intensified by the sensational focus on the soldier's mutilated body, implicitly counters the nativists who argued that the allegiances of the Irish were suspect; the use of dialect recalls the ubiquitous stage Irishmen of popular theater. The message of this sketch was repeated in a different register by General Winfield Scott, who had previously favored immigration
Indeed, the figure of the Irish soldier was Janus-faced in mid-nineteenth-century war literature, for representations of the Irishman as faithful martyr to the U.S. cause were countered by images of the Irish as traitors to the white republic. Harry Halyard's novelette The Chieftain of Churubusco, or, The Spectre of the Cathedral (1848), for instance, features a stage Irishman, Teague O'Donahue, who is enticed to desert by a Mexican priest, as well as an entire band of Irish deserters, led by one Sergeant Riley, who unsuccessfully try to persuade a Yankee, Solomon Snubbins, to switch sides and join them. And in Charles Averill's The Mexican Ranchero: or, The Maid of the Chapparal (1847), a cross-dressing female guerrilla fighter for Mexico, who turns out to be the daughter of the niece of the deposed Mexican president Herrera and a U.S.-American father, joins forces with a U.S. officer to defeat the novel's two villains: the Irish deserter-chief Raleigh, who killed the maid's parents, and his henchman, a monstrous Mexican “half breed” with super-human strength. In the novel's grand finale, the maid, dressed as a man,
According to David Roediger, the 1840s and 1850s were crucial years in the making of the Irish worker into a white worker, for during those years whiteness was increasingly redefined to include the Irish. It is by now well known that early race scientists often posited enduring differences between a degraded Celtic and a superior Anglo-Saxon “race” and that they frequently compared the Irish to blacks. Noel Ignatiev, Roediger, and others have documented how around the middle of the nineteenth century the Irish, largely because they could vote and were increasingly incorporated into the Democratic Party, were often able to claim the privileges of whiteness and distance themselves from black people. “Instead of seeing their struggles as bound up with those of colonized and colored people around the world,” Roediger suggests, “they came to see their struggles as against such people.” The U.S.-Mexican War no doubt also played an important role in this process, for the many Irish who fought on the U.S. side joined forces with large numbers of Protestant, native-born, U.S. whites to fight against Mexicans who were widely perceived to be “vari-colored people … composed of all the variety of blood in the world, with specimens of all possible variety of mixtures.” Despite the renewed intensity of nativist agitation after the war, Irish military service probably also contributed to the increasingly common, if by no means universal, belief that the Irish were a part of a white “race” defined in opposition to people of color. But during the late 1840s, the place of the Irish within U.S. racial economies was unclear, and the fact that some Irish did, as we shall see, fight with rather than against the Mexicans no doubt heightened fears about the incorporation of the Irish into the white republic.
The boundary between the foreign and domestic is also at stake in these representations. Although U.S. war supporters trumpeted the supposed virtues of the citizen-soldier, the large numbers of immigrant soldiers
Finally, sensational story-paper fiction displays anxieties about empire and American exceptionalism. While war supporters developed the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny to argue for the uniqueness and beneficence of U.S. empire-building, visions of rival empires—including the Spanish, the British, and an imagined Catholic empire—loom large in much of this literature. Although the Spanish empire was widely perceived to be in irreversible decline, it continued to support mass-produced fantasies about imperial adventure and conquest in which the British, a more powerful rival for whom Anglo-Americans felt a complex blend of racial loyalty, envy, and rivalry, also played significant roles. At the same time, the vision of a Catholic empire that shadowed the United States in the New World was often a component of nativist conspiracy theories. For nativists, the figure of the Irish soldier reinforced fears that religious loyalties among Catholics—the bedrock of an imagined Catholic empire—might supersede allegiance to the United States or to whiteness. On the other hand, story-paper entrepreneurs such as Gleason and Ballou who attacked Britain for its imperialist policies and its treatment of Ireland risked exposing the resemblances between the United States and Britain as imperial Protestant powers invading Catholic countries. Senator John Pearce alluded to this problem in Congress when he worried that “if we should annex Mexico, she should be to us what Ireland is to Great Britain, a perpetual source of bloodshed, embarrassments, annoyance, endless disquietude.” Pearce's suggestion that the relationship between an annexed Mexico and the United States would be a colonial one countered and contradicted efforts by other senators, as we shall see, to describe annexation as the benevolent extension of freedom to an oppressed and welcoming people. Such contradictions undermined the exceptionalist premise that U.S. expansion was uniquely good or benign, an empire that was not one, even as they revealed connections between anti-Catholic nativism in Northeastern cities and empire-building in Mexico.
The memoirs of the German immigrant soldier Frederick Zeh suggest how nativism in U.S. cities shaped the experiences of the working-class immigrants who composed an important part of the U.S. Army. “Love of my new homeland was definitely not the reason I became a soldier,” Zeh declares in the opening sentence, “because the bitter experiences of my six- to seven-month stay in the United States certainly instilled no patriotism in me.” After working as a day laborer near Philadelphia, almost dying from malaria, and frequently passing out from hunger, he decided to join the U.S. Army. At first he tried to enlist in an infantry regiment, but he was rejected because of his foreign birth. Although that experience “considerably dampened” his “ardor for becoming a soldier,” he joined the regulars after reading a recruiting poster that promised “the best pay, provisions, and equipment.” Before Zeh's war story begins, however, he interjects yet another anecdote to illustrate “the immigrants' bitter frame of mind toward the natives.” Zeh writes: “Shortly after my induction, a countryman, completely unknown to me, stopped me and said: ‘Aren’t you ashamed to fight for these natives, who treat us worse than the blacks?! Let these fellows be the first to fight and when they're all shot to hell and need men, then we can step in.' The good man really did not understand what made me go to war.”
The war experiences of immigrants led, of course, to a variety of out-comes. Although Zeh never forgot his harsh experiences with the “natives,” he also quickly learned to look down on his Mexican foes. Ironically, this Protestant immigrant soldier shared many of the anti-Catholic prejudices of the nativists that he so detested. What is more, the remark of Zeh's countrymen that the natives treated Germans “worse than the blacks” suggests how inevitable that comparison would be for most European immigrants, as well as how many would respond by trying to distance themselves, as Roediger suggests, from people of color. Although Zeh's narrative is framed by bitter memories of U.S. nativism, war service probably encouraged many immigrant soldiers to try to “forget” the nativist prejudice they encountered in Northeastern cities and to claim a white American identity defined in opposition to Mexicans and people of color at home. Toward the end of his narrative, Zeh even exclaims, “How many Germans sealed their patriotic devotion to their adopted homeland by sacrificing their lives on the battlefields of Mexico!” As usual Zeh's tone is cynical and ironic, but his emphasis on immigrants who sacrifice their lives for the nation is uncritically echoed in many of the popular texts of the period.
The other side of such a representation of immigrant self-sacrifice, however, is the image of the immigrant soldier as traitor to nation and race. Zeh briefly alludes to this second image when he mentions, in passing, a proclamation issued by the Mexican government in English, German, and French and directed “to the foreign soldiers,” urging them: “Join us and fight with us for our rights and for our sacred imperiled religion, against this infidel enemy.” According to Zeh, “Several hundred Irishmen, stirred up by religious fanaticism, went over to the enemy, thanks to this piece of paper. They formed a battalion named ‘San Patricio.’”
The San Patricio regiment—a group of foreign soldiers, including many deserters from the U.S. ranks, who fought for Mexico—especially disturbed the fantasy of a united front of white native Americans. This regiment, which included two hundred soldiers in August of 1846, was led by John Riley, a native of County Galway, Ireland, who had deserted from the U.S. Army before the war officially began. Michael Hogan suggests that some of the San Patricios were “Mexican citizens of European birth, others were resident foreigners, some were deserters like Riley, and most were Irish.” Although historians have argued that the deserters left the U.S. Army because of drunkenness or boredom, many of the San Patricios, as Hogan observes, must have been struck by the irony of “forming part of an army invading a Catholic country while their own Catholic relatives were being beaten in the streets of Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.” The anti-Catholic prejudices of many of their native-born fellow soldiers, the harsh discipline enforced by officers, and the bombing and sacking of Mexican Catholic churches might well have contributed to decisions to desert. The desertion rate was higher, after all, during this war than any other. By March of 1847, more than nine thousand U.S. soldiers had deserted, more than five times the number that were killed in action. Whatever their reasons for fighting on the Mexican side may have been, the deserters and other foreign nationals who made up the San Patricios played important roles in the battles of Monterrey, Buena Vista, and Churubusco.
After the battle of Churubusco, eighty-five of the San Patricios were taken prisoner by U.S. forces. Later the majority were hanged, and most of those who escaped hanging were given fifty lashes, branded on the cheek with a “D” for deserter, and sentenced to hard labor for the duration of the war. “Why those thus punished did not die under such punishment was a marvel to me,” reported a soldier who witnessed the punishment of one contingent of these deserters. “Their backs had the
These executions, which would have been proper at any time, were peculiarly so now. … [T]here were many foreigners in our ranks; some of them not even naturalized citizens, and the enemy was making every effort still, to entice them away. The salvation of the army might depend upon an example being made of these dishonored and dishonorable men, and General Scott had the firmness to make it. The brave Irish, who remained faithful to us, and who were always among the foremost, and most devoted of our troops, were more rejoiced at this event than the native-born Americans even, as they had felt keenly the stigma which this conduct of their countrymen had cast upon them.
Semmes's words betray the dependence of the U.S. forces on so-called foreigners, despite the widespread celebration of the native-born volunteer, even as they suggest how representations of the San Patricios might have been mobilized as a device to teach immigrants to imitate the “faithful” Irish and to abjure alliances with other nations or people of color.
In The Mexican Ranchero, Charles Averill's villainous Irish deserter-chief Raleigh is clearly modeled on the San Patricios' leader, John Riley, and much of the conclusion of the novel is devoted to a spectacular staging of the trial and punishment of “the foreign legion of deserters so famous throughout our country” (85). The execution took place in the center of the city, according to Averill, so “the terrible scene of wholesale death could be visible to both armies encamped without the walls of the capital” (89). Averill paints the sensational scene in lurid shades of red, presenting the space of the execution as a kind of theater: “In a blaze of blood-red glare up rose the sun, as if dressed out in mimic mockery of the ensanguined scene it was soon to witness; and its crimsoned beams shone in fearful imagery upon the seventy and one gibbets erected upon the field of death” (89). Although the actual Riley was branded (twice) and sentenced to hard labor rather than death, Averill's Raleigh is hanged from a gibbet “more conspicuous and elevated than any of the others” (90). After the cross-dressed Buena Rejon kills Montano, the mixed-race monster, she leaps up to Raleigh's scaffold, waving the head “with its hideous blood-besmeared features awful in death,” and demands the privilege of acting as the deserter-chief's executioner. Averill ends the chapter with an image of “the gibbetted corpses of the deserters [which] hung in their chains, [and] rattled horribly in the furious wrath of the
Raleigh has to be “sacrificed” and spectacularly punished because he threatens the boundaries of nation and race that Averill's novel tries to stabilize. On the one hand, Raleigh has betrayed the national-imperial cause of the United States by fighting for the Mexicans. As an Irish immigrant and army deserter, Raleigh is a boundary-crossing figure who threatens the self-evidence and coherence of the principle of loyalty to the U.S. nation. Earlier, Raleigh had robbed the U.S. hero's family of their “rightful estates” and had repeatedly tried to kill the children; it is not difficult to read in this detail anxiety about the immigrant Irish stealing the national legacy of its “true heirs” (59), the natives. On the other hand, Raleigh's “taint” corrupts the “blood” of the U.S. hero and the Mexican heroine. He is paired with the “Mexican half-breed” Montano, who has black skin and a “shapeless form … all one confused jumble, thrown together in a hurry by nature, into a sort of human hash” (22). Montano and his sister Juana seem to stand in for the mixed-race people of Mexico, and so Raleigh's close relationship to them—they work together, and the hero suggests that Montano is “as much a monster in form” as Raleigh is “in soul” (86)—racially darkens him. This representation suggests that the Irish are weak links in the chain of whiteness, who may have greater affinities for the mixed-race Mexican masses than the white inter-American family that Averill tries to construct.
Like most sensational war novels, this one goes to great lengths to distinguish a white Mexican elite from the nation as a whole, which was often represented as disturbingly nonwhite. In The Mexican Ranchero, the cross-dressed Mexican maid is most obviously the white face of Mexico, while the “monstrous” Montano and Juana represent its dark face. Although the anticipated marriage between Buena Rejon and the U.S. hero in the conclusion of the novel seems to figure a close relationship, perhaps even a union of sorts, between Mexico and the United States after the end of the war, the demonization of Montano and Juana suggests the limits of such a relationship: most white U.S. Americans could happily fantasize about the incorporation of the foreign only as long as they imagined Mexico as white. Insofar as foreign bodies such as the nonwhite Mexican or the side-switching Irish soldier were perceived to threaten the presumed coherence of a white, native U.S. identity, they had to be spectacularly policed and punished.
During the war and in the decades that followed, however, the “foreign bodies” of the Irish would be slowly and unevenly incorporated into the white republic, while many people of Mexican origin would increasingly be racialized as nonwhite. Although some would be able to construct white identities, and although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo promised citizenship to former Mexican citizens in the new U.S. territories, many would be legally, socially, and economically marginalized within or excluded from the white national body. As I have been arguing, war literature significantly affected this reconstruction of postwar racial boundaries. Since political debates, travel narratives, and newspaper reports repeatedly characterized Mexico as a nation in which almost everyone was part Indian or black, it should not come as a surprise that fears of Mexico's racial heterogeneity haunt the international race romances of 1848 that figure the relationship between Mexico and the United States on the model of a marriage contract. Although these novelettes stake out different positions on the war and annexation, they all register questions that were also being raised in Congress, in the newspapers, and in popular culture more generally, about the boundaries of whiteness and about the incorporation of nonwhites and Catholics into the republic. To these debates and to the international race romances I now turn.