A ghost of Christmas past

The New York Times is having a fascinating Ken Burns time with the coming of the Civil War. We are still four months from the date of war's official beginning in April 1861. But the paper has been putting that awful moment in context with incidents from the months leading from the election of Lincoln in November through his inauguration in March. The series is called Disunion.

The selection of historical materials - newspaper accounts, diaries, speeches, and memoirs - is complemented by the scholarship of the series contributors. They obviously know the outcome of their story, but they bring the uncertainties and failed hopes of the period to the telling. As in any good tragedy, we see the wreck before the collision occurs and are helpless.

The series so far is both thrilling and exemplary. Until the other day. Until Ted Widmer's piece rounding up the events big and small during Christmas 1860. Among them, Widmer includes this observation:

In Los Angeles, only recently liberated from Mexico, William Henry Brewer described Christmas festivities that were "quite lively," including immoderate dancing and gambling.

Let's unpack that word "liberated."

If Widmer meant it anachronistically, if he meant to use "liberated" as it was used by U. S. soldiers during World War II - as casual theft of property in wartime - then Widmer might be right. Los Angeles and all of Alta California was "liberated" in that ironic sense by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on terms dictated by the State Department to a commission of the defeated government in Mexico City in early February 1848.

But I don't think that Widmer meant that Los Angeles was "liberated" in the way Bill Maudlin's Willie and Joe would have "liberated" a bottle of French cognac from a German officer.

The war with Mexico didn't end with Los Angeles being liberated in the sense that Widmer casually implies. The war in California ended in January 1847, almost nine months before the final capitulation of Mexican forces in September 1847. The war ended here with the Treaty of Cahuenga - a principled and honorable agreement - between Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Frémont and Andrés Pico, governor of California as well as its military commander.

By then, the local Mexican militia had defeated a force of American dragoons under General Stephen Kearny at San Pasqual near San Diego and driven out the contingent of American troops occupying Los Angeles. The city was not retaken until Commodore Stockton entered the city on January 10, 1847 after the battles of Rio San Gabriel and La Mesa.

The Mexicans defended their city bravely against a vastly superior force of regular soldiers. They resisted an occupying army that was, initially, notably insensitive. They negotiated a cessation of conflict to avoid further wasted lives.

For their part, the American negotiators agreed to terms that left the Mexican city and the surrounding region in the control of its residents, their elected governments, and their established laws. Los Angeles in 1847 did not require liberation from anyone, and nothing was made more free by the coming of the Americans.

(In fact, American Los Angeles became much less free with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. And among the compromises offered to end the threat of secession in 1860 was a plan to split the state in two and allow slavery to be established in southern California.)

History is an assembly of stories, as the Disunion series makes wonderfully clear. And it is wise of writers of history to know that stories are never as simple as the teller might prefer.

The painting on this page is by Colonel Charles Woodhouse, USMCR. It depicts the Battle of San Pasqual. It is a work in the public domain.

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