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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
I will now notice a few little incidents which happened in the fight and then answer your letter. At the first charge after the engagement had become general I received a blow on my cartridge box as I was loading, which at the time I thought was someone hitting it with his gun. The next time I drew a cartridge I found that the lower part of my box had been struck with a ball, the thick leather at the end where the ball had passed out ripped down at both ends, so that it is probable that this leather saved me from a wound.
After passing the first fort and coming up to the second (which was close by) two officers appeared on the top, waving their swords, holding them by the points, to show that they had surrendered. Some of the volunteers cried out: shoot him! shoot himl General Twiggs, who rode up at this time, roared out: for God’s sake, don’t shoot that man. It was too late. One of them fell dead, the other stooped below the battlements still waving his sword. When the retreat was ordered, and our ill-fated party were going out, one poor fellow had a foot shot off by a cannonball. I saw his shoe fly fifteen or twenty feet in the air. He begged us to help him on, but those immediately about him hurried on but one man who said he would die at his side before he would have a brother soldier exposed to this raking shot. I took his other arm and led him to a hollow out of reach of shot where he told us to leave him and take care of ourselves. Well, I must answer your letter. …
Susan asks if I can’t get free from the Army by paying money? Tell her no, nothing but the most precious of all things will satisfy Uncle Sam—that is time. No, I have but little hopes of getting a discharge before my time is out unless it is brought by a bullet on the battlefield or by disease. So I will live on the hope that sometime when wild war’s deadly blast has blown and gentle peace returns, I will go home and see you all well.
There is nothing makes me feel so unhappy as when I reflect that it is more than probable that before the time arrives when I shall be free to go where I please that either I myself or some of our family will have past to their long home. But hope, being pretty large in my cranium, makes me think that though today is dark and stormy, tomorrow will be bright. …
The following letter, undated but written just after the Battle of Monterrey, represents Barna Upton’s dream of home and the security of days gone by. It is in the form of an imaginary visit to Charlemont and the nearby country as far as Shelburne Falls down the river. In addition to providing insight into the particular pleasures of Upton’s early New England life, the letter is also an indication of his thorough disillusionment with the dangerous life of a soldier at war.
[Monterrey, Mexico November, 1846]
[Dear Brother Elias:] I promised to make you a visit—so now in imagination I will leave this bustling can- vas city and go at once to your door. I knock! You open the door. You see before you a tall, good-looking chap with a suit of blue clothes on and little eagles stamped on his buttons. You will recognize at once your absent brother. Well now, put on your big coat and mittens and take a walk, for by the time this reaches you, it will be cold weather. Let us go up into Gould Hollow and talk by the way of other times when we were boys together. A great many questions are asked and answered and we remind each other of a thousand little adventures and incidents that happened [a] long time ago.
We come at last to our old home. I will not go in for those who used to welcome me there are gone, but I will take a drink from the old penstock and go on up the lane. There is the great field on one side and the orchard on the other. How many days we have worked and played in those fields without a thought of so long and distant separation. Who marks March 12 on the little barn now? I presume that long list of states is discontinued. I suppose the little plum trees in the west garden are big trees now.
I beg pardon for not finishing my letter sooner. Now I must finish it hastfily] for it is now evening and we start on a long march tomorrow at four o’clock. We go to Victoria—270 miles distant. I will finish my visit.
After looking at old and familiar objects a while we will trip over the frozen hills to Rowe. After walking at the rate of twenty miles an hout for ten minutes (that is three and a third miles) and eating some apples, I will take leave. I find Henry grown to be a big boy, but little William, where is he?
We start again for Charlemont. We go down into the valley by the factory, and up the long hill and away to our father’s door. Here I meet our kind father who provided and supported us through childhood. Here, too, is our dear mother; she always watched over us so carefully and cared for us when no one else was near. Do you remember how she would come upstairs at night in winter, when the cold made the nails snap in the roof and ask if we wanted more clothes? I can never repay this kindness, but I shall feel grateful as long as I live. Here, too, I meet our little sisters and sing with them “Home, Sweet, Home.”