Our First Foreign War

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On September 13, 1847, under the brilliant blue of a noonday sky, a horde of dusty, red-stained soldiers dashed down from the heights of Chapiiltepec, over an ancient Aztec causeway, and hurled themselves into a curtain of smoke and fire at the Belén Garita, the last stronghold before Mexico City. As the men pressed forward, the desperate fire of Mexican artillerists barricaded in a strong stone citadel near the city gates took a fearful toll. One of the blueclad regulars who fell wounded in this, the last battle in America’s first foreign war, was Private Barna Upton of the Third United States Infantry.

Today, if it is remembered at all, the war with Mexico is thought of as an antique skirmish—a prelude to the Civil War in which the future heroes of that great conflict first had a chance to test their prowess. An atmosphere of remoteness hangs over the Mexican War, and its lingering images are almost always those of grandeur and larger-than-life heroism. There was young Sam Grant recklessly leading the charge on San Cosme Gate; stern, serious Tom Jackson calmly directing artillery fire amid a shower of grapeshot before Chapultepec; Robert E. Lee scouting the Mexican flank at Cerro Gordo Mountain a scant few feet from the enemy headquarters; and Jefferson Davis leading that gaudy charge of the Mississippi Rifles that broke the Mexican Army on the windswept plateau of Buena Vista.

But the Mexican War had a life of its own, and like all other wars in history it was fought primarily by the common soldier, both regular and volunteer. Unlike Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, Johnny Doughboy and G.I. Joe, the rank and file of the Mexican War have been relatively uncelebrated. The chief reason for this is that they have rarely left a historical personality that commands the attention of the popular mind. It is precisely because they contribute toward this much-needed insight into the personality of the rank and file, vintage 1847, that the letters which follow, written by Private Upton, a farm boy from Charlemont, Massachusetts, are published here.

Upton’s letters were invariably filled with the details of the everyday life of the United States regular. His was the novice’s point of view: the education, as it were, of a New England farm boy into the realities of the world outside and ultimately into the mysteries of battle and death. And because his experience parallels so closely the mainstream of American experience, Barna Upton’s own education perhaps takes on a somewhat wider significance. His were the adolescent confidence and unself-conscious optimism of the typical American of his time. He was brash and bold and frequently sentimental. He believed in dreams and portents and destiny. He was likewise unaware of many things. He was, in fact, young America in the high noon of our national history.

Barna Upton was born on July 26, 1820, the eldest son of Nehemiah Newhall Upton, a Charlemont farmer and clothier. When he enlisted in the Army early in 1845, he was moved to do so out of a spirit of adventure and a desire to see the world. He was trained on Governors Island in New York Harbor, then was shipped out to Louisiana; as the threat of war became more ominous, lie and his regiment were dispatched to the Rio Grande and went into action at the commencement of hostilities.

Within the brief compass of his letters, Upton presents some unusually vivid and accurate accounts of the battles in which he fought. Almost never, even in the heat of battle, does he lose the sense of the army operation as a whole; thus, his is an almost unique enlisted-man’s version of combat.

Baptism by fire came for Barna Upton and the Third Infantry in the first American victory of the war —at Palo Alto on May 8, 1846. The next day, at Resaca de la Palma, the Third took an even greater role in the fighting, and Private Upton took part in the headlong charge through chaparral and mesquite that drove the Mexican Army to the Rio Grande.

The high point of Upton’s military career came at the battle for the city of Monterrey, September 20 to 23, 1846. Thereafter, the Third marched to Tampico, where it was transported by sea to Veracriu in time for the amphibious conquest of that city. The last sequence of Upton’s letters contains a brief account of that battle, and a stirring description of the fight at Cerro Gordo, but from that point on there was little time to write. The march from Puebla and the rapid series of encounters at Contreras, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey were never described by Upton; his last letter was a brief note from Puebla on August 7, 1847, telling of his departure on the final road to the Mexican capital.

As editor I have preferred to let Barna Upton speak as much as possible for himself. The original spellings and grammatical constructions have been maintained, and only punctuation has been altered in the interests of clarity. Otherwise, the letters will be found exactly as Barna Upton wrote them 120 years ago.

I wish to express my gratitude to Lewis S. Beach, Miss Eleanor Upton, Mrs. Zara Jones Powers, Harold LeVanway, Jerry E. Patterson, and the late Edward S. Wallace. All helped make this work possible.

W.F.G.

Governors Island, New York February 8, 1845