The best books for understanding 19th Century Mexico’s military history

Stephen B. Neufeld Author Of The Blood Contingent: The Military and the Making of Modern Mexico, 1876–1911
By Stephen B. Neufeld

Who am I?

My passion for Mexican and military history came from many sources. Wandering in my 20s in Europe and Asia honed my appreciation for the historical experience. Good friends in the Canadian military made me curious about the odd rituals and strange subcultures they inhabited. As I moved from Calgary to Vancouver to Tucson I devolved from degree to degree, studying deviance, military history, Mexican culture, and finally finishing a dissertation that combined these elements into one work. And now I happily get to inflict all of this history on my students in California.  

I wrote...

The Blood Contingent: The Military and the Making of Modern Mexico, 1876–1911

By Stephen B. Neufeld,

Book cover of The Blood Contingent: The Military and the Making of Modern Mexico, 1876–1911

What is my book about?

The Blood Contingent explores the daily lives of the lowest echelons in president Porfirio Díaz's army through the decades leading up to the 1910 Revolution. Framed within a provocative narrative, it recreates the experiences of soldiers, their families, and their junior officers. Whether in recruitment, instruction, diet, intimacy, or combat, common soldiers illuminate the workings of power and resistance in the making of a nation. Neufeld reconstructs the daily experiences of a military that played a crucial role in building modern Mexico. The fault lines within the process of creating the ideal army echoed the challenges of constructing an ideal society. The Blood Contingent relates a powerful and insightful history of life, love, and war in turn of the century Mexico.

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The books I picked & why

The Mexican National Army, 1822-1852

By William A. DePalo Jr.,

Book cover of The Mexican National Army, 1822-1852

Why did I love this book?

While maybe a bit conventional, this is one of very few military history books that gets deeply into the army during this incredibly turbulent period. De Palo provides a clear and well-researched study that is sure to appeal to specialists and armchair buffs. It is especially good at describing the strengths and limitations of the armed forces at this time. He offers a reliable reference for an era of revolving door presidencies, coups, and foreign invasions.

By William A. DePalo Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mexican National Army, 1822-1852 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The army of thirty-five thousand that engineered Mexico's independence was a melting pot of insurgent and royalist forces held together by the lure of rapid promotions and other military remuneration. Overwhelmed with internal threats such as Indian skirmishes and peasant uprisings, this poorly motivated, ill-trained army seldom enjoyed the respite, resources, or direction necessary to overcome challenges to territorial sovereignty posed by Spain, France, Texas, and the United States during Mexico's first three decades of nationhood. William A. DePalo, Jr., studies the birth and tumultuous adolescence of the Mexican National Army and examines how regional, social, political, and economic factors…

Book cover of The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War

Why did I love this book?

This work combines excellent writing with impeccable research from a scholar I deeply respect. Guardino’s take on this war is persuasive and somewhat controversial, at least in Mexican circles, due to his analysis showing endemic supply issues at the heart of military failures in the face of a US invasion. He shows how the war goes horribly wrong for Mexico in a New Military History style approach that examines society using the army as a lens.  

By Peter Guardino,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dead March as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Bolton-Johnson Prize
Winner of the Utley Prize
Winner of the Distinguished Book Award, Society for Military History

"The Dead March incorporates the work of Mexican a story that involves far more than military strategy, diplomatic maneuvering, and American political intrigue...Studded with arresting insights and convincing observations."
-James Oakes, New York Review of Books

"Superb...A remarkable achievement, by far the best general account of the war now available. It is critical, insightful, and rooted in a wealth of archival sources; it brings far more of the Mexican experience than any other work...and it clearly demonstrates the social…

The Caste War of Yucatán

By Nelson A. Reed,

Book cover of The Caste War of Yucatán

Why did I love this book?

Reed’s wonderful writing style and great turns of phrase make this an enjoyable read, while his attention to detail and excellent research make it requisite to understanding the long Caste War of the Maya after 1847. It is a critical antidote to works that pay too little attention to indigenous agents, to religious motivations, and to a long-simmering insurrection with vibrant cultural voices. Other works have taken this on since, but it remains a classic.

By Nelson A. Reed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Caste War of Yucatán as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the classic account of one of the most dramatic episodes in Mexican history-the revolt of the Maya Indians of Yucatan against their white and mestizo oppressors that began in 1847. Within a year, the Maya rebels had almost succeeded in driving their oppressors from the peninsula; by 1855, when the major battles ended, the war had killed or put to flight almost half of the population of Yucatan. A new religion built around a Speaking Cross supported their independence for over fifty years, and that religion survived the eventual Maya defeat and continues today.

This revised edition is…

Book cover of Sons of the Sierra: Juárez, Díaz, and the People of Ixtlán, Oaxaca, 1855-1920

Why did I love this book?

McNamara’s wonderful account shows how communities in Oaxaca understood military service as both a duty to their region, to their people, and as a way to connect to the wider national project and specific presidents. Fighting for the National Guard created a different stake in Mexico and in political life, and the ways that Zapotec peasants remembered this gives new insights into participatory political culture. 

By Patrick J. McNamara,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sons of the Sierra as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The period following Mexico's war with the United States in 1847 was characterized by violent conflicts, as liberal and conservative factions battled for control of the national government. In ""Sons of the Sierra"", Patrick McNamara explores events in the Oaxaca district of Ixtlan, where Zapotec Indians supported the liberal cause and sought to exercise influence over statewide and national politics. Two Mexican presidents had direct ties to Ixtlan district: Benito Juarez, who served as Mexico's liberal president from 1858 to 1872, was born in the district, and Porfirio Diaz, president from 1876 to 1911, had led a National Guard battalion…

Book cover of The Power of God Against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

Why did I love this book?

This is a great book written by an accomplished scholar later in his career and confident in his research and writing. Telling the tale of the uprising, and crushing, of Tomochic village, Vanderwood zooms into the smaller details of village life and pans out to nation-level decisions with remarkable panache. In a highly enjoyable way, he brings the reader into the action without omitting the broader historical relevance. The reader may enter this for the critique of the dictator’s late nineteenth-century armies, but they will keep reading to find the fate of the unfortunate “town son of a bitch.” 

By Paul Vanderwood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Power of God Against the Guns of Government as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the early 1890's, an armed rebellion fueled by religious fervor erupted over a wide area of northwestern Mexico. At the center of the outburst were a few hundred farmers from the village of Tomochic and a teenage folk saint named Teresa, who was ministering to thousands of people throughout the area. When the villagers proclaimed, "We will obey no one but God!," the Mexican government exiled "Santa Teresa" to the United States and trained its guns and bayonets on the farmers. A bloody confrontation ensued-God against government-that is still remembered in song, literature, films, and civic celebrations.

The tangled…

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