Technology, History, and Place

Category: Archeology and monuments (Page 2 of 7)

Forgetting the Mexican-American War

This post is a follow-up to my piece from last year, “Remembering the United States intervention.”

The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was a hugely important event for both nations involved. At the end of the war, a defeated, humiliated Mexico lost nearly half of its territory. The United States gained this territory, including the strategic harbors of San Francisco and San Diego and the gold- and silver-rich Sierra Nevada. The aftermath of the war would lead to bitter civil wars in both countries, the War of the Reform in Mexico (1857-1860) and the American Civil War in the United States (1861-1865).

Given its importance, it is not surprising that the Mexican-American War is well-remembered in Mexico, with huge monuments in the capital and streets honoring the heroes of the war in cities across the country. In the United States, though, it is another story. There is very little cultural memory of the war, and virtually no monuments to it. (I am not including monuments to the Bear Flag Revolt in California, because the monuments never portray the conflict as a part of the bigger war.) I never even heard of the war before I was in 11th grade, and my students in college-level US History 1 know little or nothing about it.

Why do we not remember the Mexican-American War in the United States, even though it was so important? That is a question I have pondered for some time. I unexpectedly came across an answer to this question when I found an article about memory of the Mexican-American War while researching a different topic.

The article is by Amy S. Greenberg, and it appeared in the October 2009 issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association. According to the article, it was between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the Spanish-American War in 1898 that Americans forgot about the war with Mexico. There were a couple of reasons why collective amnesia set in during this time. One was that the heaviest fighting in the war had taken place in territory that was still a part of Mexico, and there were thus very few soldiers’ graves on US soil to pay homage to on the new holiday of Memorial Day. (To this day, the US government maintains a cemetery of American war dead in Mexico City.)

There was also a political reason. In the Second Party System, the Democrats had been in favor of the war with Mexico while the opposition party, the Whigs, were opposed to it, seeing it as nothing more than a brazen land grab. (Great Whig statesman John Quincy Adams collapsed on the floor of the House of Representatives while railing against a proposal to honor the generals from the war with Mexico. He never recovered and died shortly afterward.) The Whig Party fell apart shortly after the war, splitting north and south over the issue of slavery.

In the North, most former Whigs joined the nascent Republican Party. After the Civil War, Whigs-turned-Republicans maintained their dislike of the Mexican-American War. From their perspective, the Civil War had been a righteous crusade to preserve the Union and liberate the slaves, while the war with Mexico had been a shameful attempt to seize more land for slavery. Republicans blocked the efforts of veterans’ groups to build a national memorial for the Mexican-American War or to preserve battlefields from the conflict.

As it is, I have seen precisely one physical monument to the Mexican-American War on American soil, and it isn’t much of one. The waterfront in Vallejo, California, on the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, has a display of a couple of cannons. One of them has a plaque stating that the gun “participated in the capture of Guaymas and Mazatlan” in 1847.

And that’s it. If you want to see much more than this, you are going to have to go to Mexico!

24-pounder cannon plaque

Plaque for a Mexican-American War cannon on the waterfront at Vallejo, Calif.

Naval cannons in Vallejo, Calif.

The cannon from the USS Independence in Vallejo (foreground). The other cannon is a post-Civil War cannon from the USS Hartford.


  • Greenberg, Amy S. “1848/1898: Memorial Day, Places of Memory, and Imperial Amnesia.” PMLA 124 no. 5 (Oct. 2009): 1869-73.


  • https://www.nps.gov/paal/index.htm Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park in Texas. The first clash of the Mexican-American War took place north of the Rio Grande on land claimed by both countries. The battlefield was not preserved as a historic park until more than a century after the war.

Pyramids of waste

“What can be said of a culture whose legacies to the future are mounds of hazardous materials and a poisoned water supply? Will America’s pyramids be pyramids of waste?”

–Giles Slade, Made to Break (2006)

I think that Giles Slade meant for this comment to be ironic, not taken literally. In the opening of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Slade compares the landfills of modern America with the pyramids of ancient Egypt. As Slade would have it, it is an indication of our societal decadence that the great mounds that we raise are not tombs for our god-kings but final resting places for our junked PCs, outmoded cell phones, and plastic pop bottles.

Of course, ordinary domestic landfills don’t really look like pyramids. Sometimes they have rectangular ground-plans; often they don’t. But there is at least one waste-containment mound that actually resembles a pyramid. It is in Missouri. And I’ve been there.

Weldon Spring Site is 30 miles west of St. Louis. During World War II, it was home to a munitions plant, which was converted to a uranium-processing facility in the Cold War. Like so many other Cold War industrial sites, Weldon Spring had plenty of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste lying around when it was abandoned in the 1960s. The Department of Energy took over the site twenty years later and began cleaning it up. All the untreatable chemical and radioactive waste from the site was entombed in an enormous mound. With its sloping sides and flat top, the mound looks a bit like a Mesoamerican pyramid, not so much an Egyptian one. (It is also a little reminiscent of the Cahokia Mounds nearby in Illinois, built by the Mississippian mound-builders.)

I should hope that some of modern America’s more inspiring monuments prove as durable as our pyramids of waste. At least what the Weldon Spring pyramid says about us is that we cared enough to clean up the mess we created (albeit twenty years late).

The Weldon Spring waste mound from across the visitor center parking lot.

The Weldon Spring waste mound viewed from the visitor center parking lot.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotiuhuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotihuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The spirit of Gothic and Notre Dame of Paris

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

On Monday this week, the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris caught on fire. In what appears to have been a freak accident related to restoration work going on at the time, the cathedral’s medieval wooden roof caught fire and was totally destroyed. Initial news reports indicated that the entire church would be destroyed, but the bell towers were spared and the stone vaults over the nave remain mostly intact.

With this much of the structure remaining, it is obvious that the great church can and should be rebuilt. While the structure was still smoldering, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the people of France would rebuild the beloved cathedral.

How to go about the reconstruction is another question. It will clearly be an expensive undertaking that will entail many difficult technical and aesthetic questions. What materials and techniques should be used for the reconstruction? And what should it look like?

Some articles and editorials I have read assert that the church should be rebuilt exactly as it was before, even using the very same techniques used in the 12th and 13th centuries, such as erecting giant wooden frames in the nave for reconstructing the damaged sections of the vaults. I do not see the point of this. The High Middle Ages, when Notre Dame of Paris was built, was an era of technological innovation, with extensive use of machinery and even fossil fuels. If they could know, the master builders of Notre Dame would understand if we used steel scaffolding to rebuild their church.

In the same way, I feel that it is important that the rebuilt roof of Notre Dame should not be a slavish copy of the original. The spirit of Gothic architecture is one of creativity and inventiveness. President Macron expressed this spirit well when he declared that Notre Dame would be rebuilt more beautiful than before. Doing otherwise would be contrary to the spirit of Gothic and the High Middle Ages.

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexanre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexandre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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