Our First Foreign War

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The Battle of Monterrey was fought from Monday through Wednesday, September 21-23, 1846. It was one of the bloodiest and most difficult battles of the war, for the city was well fortified and staunchly defended. Taylor’s plan of battle appeared to be the classical maneuver of a simultaneous frontal assault and flanking operation, which was to have such marked success under Lee and Jackson in the Civil War. Perhaps because of the enthusiasm of the commanders, however, the plan was not well executed. The units assigned to the frontal assault attempted to invest the enemy strong points at the lower end of the town instead of merely executing a holding action so that General William J. Worth’s division could roll up the flank from the west. As a result of this rash action, much of the American army was pinned down under enemy fire and casualties were very high. Barna Upton’s regiment as part of the frontal assault group suffered heavy losses, including its three top officers. In a letter written to his brother three months later, Upton describes the march from Camargo to Monterrey, and then gives a vivid account of the battle itself, and of what it was like to stand “before the iron sleet that day.”

Monterrey, Mexico December 12, 1846

Dear Brother [Elias]: This letter informs you I am well. … I wrote a little bit of a letter to Father just after the fight to let him know I was alive and well. Since that time I have been kicking about with scarcely leisure enough to take my meals. I will first give you a little sketch of the events of the last two or three months. …

We left Camargo the First of September. The weather was hot and we marched generally at three in the morning and encamped at ten. The country on the Rio Grande is rich and well cultivated. After passing Mear [Mier], we left the Rio and proceeded west over a dry, hilly, and sterile country, intersected by deep ravines on the bed of which is small streams of good water. In a day or two we came in sight of a range of steep mountains; toward these we marched for three or four days when we came to a place called Punta Agader [Aguda], where is a long brook of swiftrunning spring water. We stayed here several days.

In the meantime, General Taylor passed us on his way to Cerralvo, where General Worth is encamped with the second division, with four batteries of artillery and the Second Dragoons. We then joined General Worth and encamped till the whole Army came up. The first division, including the Third and Fourth Infantry, [Captain—afterward Confederate General- Braxton] Bragg’s Battery, and General [John A.] Quitman’s Volunteers left Cerralvo for Monterrey, sixty miles distant. The Second Division were to march the next day, and the Third the day following. As the rangers had reported considerable bodies of the enemy on the road in advance, we were ordered to march with our guns loaded and uncovered.

On the second day our advanced guard came up with a body of lancers. There was a little scurmishing, but the lancers retreated. At this time we entered the pass in the mountains. On the third day we came to a considerable town called Marin. Here we halted till the whole Army should come up; when all was ready the march resumed. The Lancers kept only a few miles in advance. …

The next day we approached Monterrey, General Taylor riding at the head of the column. When within one and a half miles the Mexicans commenced throwing twelve pound balls at us. One came within a few feet of General Taylor himself. The columns now countermarched, and the Army encamped in a large grove of pecan (pronounced “peken”) trees and at that time the ground was half covered with pecan nuts. During the day the Rangers and Dragoons were out scouting round the city. The Mexicans kept firing at them with their cannon without doing any damage.

The next day was Sunday, and it was observed as a day of rest. An irregular cannonade was kept up all day by the enemy, who fired at our Engineers and Dragoons. General Worth’s division moved off to the right to attack the town at the upper end. The next morning (Monday the twenty first of September) our division marched down to attack a line of forts which commanded the lower end of the town. When within a mile, the larger fort or citadel in front of the city opened all her guns on us. We kept on.

When within half a mile of the first fort our Company and F Company were deployed as skirmishers in advance so the two companies were out a quarter of a mile in advance of the Army at five pace intervals and soon got the fire of the fort. In front men were posted as spies. We went up within gunshot under a fire of grape, musket, and cannon ball and laid low till the main body come up. We had a crossfire also from the large fort in front of the city, which from its tall dark pillars we called The Black Fort.