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Our First Foreign War
Long before Vietnam, Korea, the Argonne, or San Juan Hill, there was Mexico. As usual, it was the average G.I. who shouldered the burden of our foreign policy and what it cost in blood. This is the very graphic story of one foot soldier, as he told it in letters to his family back home in Massachusetts
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
Our lieutenant had sent myself and four other men and a sergeant to the left to see if there was a body of lancers in a wide shallow ravine which was observed on the left. When the companies joined the regiment our party was so far to the left that when the line came up to the Fort we were with the Tennessee Volunteers, who formed the left flank. We joined with them and for about twenty minutes we fought under a severe fire of grape and musketry. The order from General [David E.] Twiggs [commander of Upton’s division] now came—to charge. We were ordered to cease firing and close to the right in to ranks. This was a trying moment; the noise of our guns had ceased and the smoke cleared away; the screams of the wounded were distinctly heard. I cast my eye along the ranks; what I expected and dreaded to see was there: the men sinking down every second all along.
The word was given—charge. Not four paces were taken before every head disappeared from the ramparts. We leaped across the ditch and onto the parapet, the remainder of the garrison (twenty or thirty men dead, all shot through the head) were flying to another fort. They were met by our infantry and but few made good their escape. Another fort close to this was evacuated at the same time. After this I joined my company [and] was engaged for two or three hours fighting the Mexicans behind their stone forts and on every house (all Mexican houses at Monterrey are of stone, square on the top and surrounded by a wall four feet high).
We were then ordered to retreat out of town to form another charge, the different corps having become scattered. We came out in parties of from thirty to one hundred. Captain [George P.] Fields and Lieutenant [Andrew W.] Bowman led the party that I was in. We came out in a road more to the left than the others. As soon as we got out of town we saw the Lancers coming down in great numbers at a full charge. Our party was not more than forty strong; to fight them was impossible. We commenced a retreat in treble quick time to join the main body. They gained on us rapidly, at the same time firing their scopets, or big carbines. The slow runners were soon overtaken and killed. Captain Fields was among the first victims.
They killed without mercy. I turned my head at one time and saw one of them thrusting his lance through one of our wounded men as he lay on the ground. I made up my mind to shoot the first that overtook me and continue on. I soon found myself exposed to the fire of our men at the advancing Lancers. The latter immediately turned back as fast as they came. One of them was close at my heels at this time. I turned and fired at him, and he fell from his horse, whether from my ball or not, I cannot tell. All but fifteen or twenty of the party were killed. We then formed and went in again and fought two hours more with no other success than killing a few Mexicans while they killed two to one of our men.
Our brigade was then ordered to take possession of the captured forts while the rest returned to camp. In this engagement our regiment, which was only two hundred and fifty strong at this time, had fifty two killed and wounded. About half that number were either killed or died since. Major Lear was mortally wounded (since dead), Captain Maurice, Captain [Philip N.] Barber [Barbour], and Captain Fields were killed. So also was our Adjutant Lieutenant [Douglas S.] Irwin and Lieutenant Hazlitt.
There was one young man named William Mickle, belonging to F Company (formerly E) to whom I was much attached shot through the head by a grape shot. We had agreed before this fight, as also that of Palo Alto, that should one of us be killed, the survivor should write to his friends, so it became my duty [to] forward the painful information. We were talking together for several hours the evening before. He spoke of the coming fight with cheerfulness, but expressed a presentment that he should not survive it. He was a native of Ohio.
But I must not write so many little things, or I shall not have time to answer your letter. We stayed in the open fort that night. It rained all night. In the morning the enemy commenced cannonading and bombarding us from the Black Fort; their shells fell all around the Fort. Some struck on the parapet, but did no harm. We were engaged throwing up a small breastwork in front of the Fort. A cannon ball took off the head of one of the men and wounded another. About noon we were relieved by another command and returned to our camp. That night the Mexicans left our end of the town altogether.
On the morning of the twenty third, the Third Regiment, Bragg’s Battery, and General Quitman’s riflemen went up into the town from the forts and cleared it for a mile square. Every house was a castle and filled with soldiers. The riflemen soon made them clear as fast as they could. They all retreated to the neighborhood of the plaza, or publick square. Stores and houses were broken open, and I suppose the Volunteers made some big raises.
Old Zack was there himself and told the men if they [the Mexicans] would not open the doors, to break in and see what was there. We found a great many guns, etc. concealed in the houses. I saw Old Zack munching a piece of pan (gingerbread) and pelonse (sugar) which he found in a store. We lost but few men this day though we were exposed to some severe crossfiring. Meanwhile, General Worth had got possession of the castle [the Bishop’s Palace, a Mexican strongpoint] and all the upper end of town, and on the fourth day General Ampudia asked for quarter. Some kind of treaty was made and hostilities ceased. I can’t tell how much more fighting we will have but hope it is all over.