Ruminations on the “Recollections of a Rogue”

2008 December 4
by ASHP Staff

Since the Mexican-American War has been a recent TAH topic, I thought I’d take the opportunity to recommend one of my favorite recent book discoveries. Sometimes subtitled “Recollections of a Rogue,” Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession (available in used bookstores, mine is a 1956 edition) is partly a jocular and self-aggrandizing tale of youthful exploits both romantic and military, partly a harrowing historical account of the various atrocities that took place during and after the war. The latter become particularly central to the story after Chamberlain deserts from the Army at the end of the war to join John Glanton’s band of “scalphunters,” a polyglot group of paid killers hired by the Governor of Mexico’s Sonora state to kill Indians (the account of which formed the basis for Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel Blood Meridian). While Chamberlain is notoriously unreliable as a historical source (he frequently provides accounts of battles he did not take part in, and even more frequently portrays himself single-handedly defending beleaguered senoritas against hordes of bloodthirsty desperados), the work is nonetheless valuable for its portrayal of everyday soldierly life, as well as for the light it sheds on otherwise undocumented massacres and abuses of the invading U.S. Army. Moreover, it is a richly revealing source of insights into the American mentality of the early 19th Century, with its manifest destiny, “muscular Christianity,” and peculiar mixture of chest-thumping bravado and maudlin sentimentality. As an added bonus, the original manuscript was also illustrated with dozens of Chamberlain’s original watercolors, an example of which can be seen below. One can’t help but wonder what revelations about America’s Mexican adventure might have emerged from a more strictly factual “confession.”

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