Gone for Soldiers

Written by Jeff Shaara
Review by James Hawking

Gone for Soldiers does not echo Peter, Paul and Mary’s pacifism in the song which provides the title. Rather, it portrays General Winfield Scott’s 1847 anabasis from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, the campaign which ended the Mexican-American War. More than half of the book is told from the point of view of Scott’s favorite junior officer, Captain Robert E. Lee, alternating with Scott’s own view point, and with smaller segments told from the perspective of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and some selected U.S. officers.

Simple maps clarify the numerous flanking movements by which the North Americans defeat the Mexicans at every turn. Lee’s daring reconnaissance leads to victories atVera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, through the lava beds onto Mexico City and the fortress Chapultupec. Lee’s central position in all of these actions seems suspiciously inflated, but the historical record corroborates such details as his near escape from death by friendly fire while discovering a mountain attack route, his march through the lava, and his witnessing the death of the nephew of his colleague Joe Johnston.

Political maneuvering on the divided general staff provides much of the book’s conflict. President James Polk is portrayed as denying necessary support lest he exalt a rival for the presidency. (Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce were generals in this war, and both ran successfully for president in the next two elections, while Scott himself was defeated by Pierce.)

The internal dialogue shows some stiffness, especially with Lee, a man for whom strong coffee was a major vice. A saltier Scott fosters Lee’s development from competent engineer to brilliant tactician. Scott himself is portrayed as a worthy commander who prepared his army well in peacetime and led it daringly in war, a judgment concurred with by military historians like John Eisenhower. Santa Anna comes across as a gluttonous mountebank, alternating between listening to American bribe offers and calling upon his countrymen to drive the yanquis out of the country. Most of the book’s Mexicans seem to owe something of their characterization to a television series called Zorro.

Nonetheless, Shaara does solid research, and the book’s historical accuracy is impressive, although he gives none of his sources. Gone for Soldiers showcases officers such as Ulysses S. Grant, James Longstreet, and Stonewall Jackson, linking the book to Shaara’s previous success with Civil War novels. All characters are historical with no fictional everyman giving us life in the trenches, but the military history is solid and compelling.