Fighting Phantoms of Sertorius: A Comparative History of Napoleon’s War in Spain and the Mexican-American War, 1807-1848

2019 edition

Benjamin Swenson

The project looks at Mexican, American, French, and Spanish sources to provide a comparative interpretation of the influence of Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain (1807-1814) and its impact on the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Important to the thesis is a comparative look at the guerrilla wars in both Spain and Mexico. The project’s multinational and transatlantic approach will inform and challenge ongoing historiographical debates surrounding Spanish and Mexican-American history, transatlantic Spanish history, and aspects of conflict on a macro and micro level during a critical period in western history. The proposal aims to be the first such comparative study of these conflicts.  

 A major impetus for Napoleon’s defeat was a tenacious Spanish resistance, help from allies, and an unpredictable and unconventional guerrilla war. Many of the figures who fought for independence by employing guerrilla warfare became folk heroes. These “guerrilleros” worked in various ways to undermine and thwart French successes during the conquest and occupation of Spain in the Peninsular War (1807-1814). This project will examine these figures (among others) and the subsequent roles they played in the war, and aspects of the Peninsular War’s influence on an equally critical war in North American history.

Nine thousand kilometers away and a generation removed – the Mexicans – defeated conventionally on the battlefield, began engaging in tactics not dissimilar to those previously employed in Spain. Realistic of their slim chances in overpowering the Americans, Mexican guerrillas began attacking errant soldiers, small units, and supply lines of an American occupation force led by General Winfield Scott headquartered in Mexico City.

Although American military efforts to stymie Mexican guerrilla activities by employing counterinsurgency strategies is important, the proposal also seeks to analyze the soft-power approaches to win the hearts and minds of the Mexicans. Lastly, like Napoleon (vis-à-vis Spain), there is much evidence that American leadership during the period contemplated the annexation of the entire Mexican nation. This was known as the All Mexico Movement, and citizens opposing the war looked upon the American adventure in Mexico in similar terms to that of Napoleon’s failed imperial effort to subdue Spain a generation earlier.

Since this is the first comparative study of these two events, roughly five minutes will be devoted towards the historiographical significance of the thesis. Generally, American historiography has been unidirectional and Turnerian, i.e. moving from east to west. As demographics change in the United States, a bi-directional historiographical approach will become more apropos in the future. In other words, the focus on Spanish and Mexican history will take on more importance in North American history – drawing more relevance at the expense of the traditional Anglo-Saxon and British-oriented perspective.