The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

War Life: or, The Adventures of a Light Infantry Officer (1849)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

War Life; or, The Adventures of a Light Infantry Officer and its sequel The Scalp Hunters, or Romantic Adventures in Northern Mexico (1851) were written by T. Mayne Reid. Reid (1818-1883) was, for several decades, one of the most prolific and widely-read authors of adventure novels and juveniles in the United States. His work was read by a wide range of figures, from political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt to cultural leaders like Lord Baden-Powell to other writers, including Dumas père, Robert Louis Stevenson, and R.M. Ballantyne.

War Life is better known internationally as The Rifle Rangers, the title under which it was first published in Great Britain. War Life is Reid’s first full-length novel and is about Captain Henry Haller, an adventure-seeking young American roughneck. In 1846 he is in New Orleans, having traveled all around the American continent (“My foot had passed the summit of the Andes, and climbed the Cordilleras of the Sierra Madre....I had hunted buffaloes with the Pawnee of the Platte, and ostriches upon the Pampas of the Plata....”1) and run out of places to go and animals and humans to hunt and kill. Luckily for Haller an expedition is forming to venture to Mexico, and he finagles his way into command of an “independent corps of ‘Rifle Rangers.’” They travel to Mexico, and that's where the adventure begins. Haller and his men storm Mexican cities during the Mexican-American War, get into gunfights with guerrilleros, fight “Indians,” trek through jungles, romance lovely women (who happen to be the daughters of a Spanish don), kill caymans and other vicious animals, and in general have a high old time of it. In The Scalp Hunters Haller fights against the natives of “the trackless prairies of the ‘Far West.’”2 Along the way he finds romance and meets the tragic hero “Seguin the Scalp-Hunter.”

Reid wrote on a number of subjects, but he was best-known during his lifetime for his juvenile novels. Along with W.H.G. Kingston (Peter the Whaler, 1851), Reid was primarily responsible for the creation of the genre of adventure stories specifically for boys (see: Boy Heroes). (War Life and The Scalp Hunters were not created specifically for boys but were written for both children and adults). There were precursors to Reid and Kingston, like Frederick Marryat (see: Masterman Ready), but Reid and Kingston made their (widely-respected) reputations and (sizeable) fortunes by specializing in novels aimed at boys, which was not the case with Marryat and other similar writers, like Johann Wyss (of Swiss Family Robinson). Reid and Kingston heavily influenced G.A. Henty, Gordon Stables, and other writers of juveniles aimed at boys.

War Life is one of relatively few novels written in the immediate wake of the Mexican-American War which made use of the war as a backdrop. (This was not the case in the “novelette” magazines which were the precursors to dime novels; see Buena Rejon). During and immediately after the war novelists wrote stories safely set in Mexico’s past, whether fifty years ago or three hundred, but few used the events of the war. War Life also deviates from its contemporaries in its portrayal of the Mexicans, both the natives and those of Spanish descent. Before the war American popular sentiment was against the Mexican ruling elite but was surprisingly sympathetic toward the Mexican natives and poor. Numerous historical romances were published about Mexico’s past before the war, portraying the Aztecs as noble, doomed heroes and the Conquistadors as evil, brutal conquerors. Other novels portrayed the Mexican frontier in much the same terms as the American frontier, with the natives being described as an impediment which must be swept away before the settlers can civilize the land. During the Mexican-American War popular sentiment remained with the Mexican people; the Mexican ruling classes were blamed for the war, rather than the peasants and those who were forced to fight the war.

This perspective arose in part because Americans viewed Mexico through the prism of their belief in the rightness of evangelistic democratizing. According to this worldview, a non-democratic country like Mexico whose population were oppressed by a cruel upper class would automatically consist of a noble working class and an evil moneyed class and would, just as automatically, welcome the arrival of American troops who would replace the current, unfair government system with democracy. Reid perpetuates this point of view in War Life; it is the Mexican guerrilleros, not the American troops, who are the invading despoilers of the Mexican countryside. The American troops are there as liberators.

The other source of the American sympathy for the Mexican people was the “Leyenda Negra,” the Black Legend of Spanish barbarities in the New World (see: The Yellow Peril). Although originally European, the Black Legend had arrived in American along with the early colonists. The Black Legend was revived in American popular culture during the Mexican-American War, reinforced by anti-Catholic nativism and attached to Mexicans of noble Spanish descent.

However, Reid takes the opposite point of view. He clearly loves the Mexican landscape and describes it in glowing, Romantic terms. War Life has none of the Puritan distrust and hatred of the American wilderness which colors the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne (see: "Roger Malvin's Burial") and Robert Montgomery Bird (see: Nick of the Woods). But in War Life it is the Mexican guerrilleros who are to blame for perpetuating the war. In Reid’s world Mexicans of Spanish noble descent are innately more noble than those of native descent and act in a more civilized fashion. This is a more racist viewpoint than is ordinarily found in novels about Mexico during the 1840s, but also shows the regrettable tendency among writers of historical romances to romanticize nobility, regardless of nationality or historical context, at the expense of the commoner.

War Life has some interesting elements accompanying its negative ones. The novel has a great deal of information, clearly gathered first-hand, on Mexico’s geography and culture. Unfortunately, the information is presented as crude infodumps rather than integrated into the text. There are several entertaining Gothic touches, including the appearances of skeletons and mummies, underground caverns beneath the house of a Don, a “bridge of monkeys” across a ravine, and the crumbling Aztec and Spanish ruins dotting the Mexican landscape. But the characterization is only cursory: characters are types rather than individuals. Despite the overwhelming amount of action the novel’s pace is slow. And, perhaps predictably, Haller and his fellows have the ideology of middle-class America rather than the more relaxed ideology which actually existed on the American frontier.

The character of Seguin the Scalper, in The Scalp Hunters, is another example of the scalp hunter as Hero-Villain, similar to Bird’s Nick of the Woods and Gustav Aimard’s White Scalper (see: The Border Rifles). Reid’s treatment of the Mexican natives in War Life is significantly more generous and less racist than his portrayal of Native Americans in The Scalp Hunters and his later books.

Recommended Edition

Print: T. Mayne Reid, The Scalp Hunters. Chicago: Donohue, 1851.


For Further Research

Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.


1 T. Mayne Reid, The Rifle Rangers (London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1904), 20.

2 T. Mayne Reid, The Scalp Hunters (London: G. Routledge, 1861), 11.