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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
But here I must take my leave of all and commence my journey over the Green Mountains, across the Hudson, over the Allegheny and the vast extent of hill and valley, plain and woodland, to the valley of the Mississippi, across that great river to the Sabine, over the prairies of Texas to the Rio Grande, and far into the interior of Mexico to rest on my little moss bed in the camp at Monterrey. Write to me often, direct to General Taylor’s camp, Mexico.
I have no doubt but that our Army will be engaged soon in another bloody battle. How soon it will take place, or whether it may chance not to take place at all, I cannot tell. There certainly can be no place where the uncertainty of life is so fearfully realized as on these battle fields. I have often heard old soldiers say that after the first volleys all thoughts of danger are swallowed up in the wild excitement. This may be partly true, but I am sure everyone, even in the most exciting moments feels a consciousness that he is constantly exposed to instant death.
I agree with Susan when she says she thinks God is angry when men kill each other in battle but still they are sometimes unavoidable and sometimes justifiable. I have not time to finish the page, so I will conclude by wishing you all health and happiness. Barna Upton.
After the Battle of Monterrey, Barna Upton’s regiment was transferred to the invasion force of General Winfield Scott, who was preparing to capture the Mexican stronghold of Veracruz and march directly to Mexico City. On March 9,1847, the amphibious assault began as American soldiers splashed ashore just out of range of the Mexican artillery at Fort San Juan de Ul’fba guarding the entrance to the city. After eighteen days of bombardment Veracruz surrendered, and the American army had established its beachhead. The following letter presents Barna Upton’s account of the invasion and the occupation that followed.
Camp before Vera Cruz April 7, 1847
Dear Brother [Elias]: I will spend a little time this fine Sabbath morning in writing you a letter.
I am well, and the Army generally are in good health. You will have heard, I presume, before you get this of the surrender of Vera Cruz and the small loss of life on our side. Had the place been taken by storm (which was generally expected) it must have cost thousands of lives, but this I believe was never General Scott’s intention.
The loss [on] our side was seventeen killed and twelve wounded. I suppose hundreds of Mexican citizens as well as soldiers were killed by our shells and balls. I was in town yesterday on pass and was surprised at the almost entire destruction of a considerable part of the town. It reminded me of the description I have read of cities destroyed by earthquakes. …
We are encamped three miles from the city on the beach northwest of the castle and city. Our division is on the left of the line which extends entirely around the city to the beach on the other side. We were protected by high sand hills from the shot and shells of the Mexicans, which is one reason of our trifling loss, for we were exposed for fourteen days and nights to a constant cannonade and bombardment both from the city and castle.
In three days our division takes up its march to—well, they call it Jalapa, but I believe there is an H in it somewhere. It is thought there will be some fighting there, but I don’t know how it will go. The heat, at any rate, will be extreme. Already it is as hot here as any weather we have in the summer in the north. I hope and trust the war will soon be over and that the troops will move to the north.
You must continue to write. …
I have not time to write any more, so goodbye from your affectionate brother, Barna Upton.
On Sunday, April 18, 1847, General Scott’s invading army met the Mexicans under Santa Anna at Ccrro Gordo in one of the bitterest struggles of the war. The Mexican army was entrenched in a series of mountain strongpoints which commanded the narrow defile of Cerro Gordo directly in the path of the American army. Direct assault alone would have proved so costly as to have seriously crippled General Scott’s plans for the capture of Mexico City. But due to the brilliant reconnaissance of Captain Robert E. Lee, a flanking action was made possible and the Mexicans were soon dislodged from their positions. Barna Upton was again in the thick of the fight. His description of the charge on the Mexican hilltop positions is one of the best surviving eyewitness accounts of the battle.
Jalapa, Mexico May 16, 1847
Dear Brother [Elias]: With much pleasure I now sit down to write you a letter. My health is good, and my life again preserved amid the dangers of another battle. Four weeks ago today (Sunday), while you were probably engaged in the worship of God at church, I was in a foreign land witnessing and participating in a scene of wholesale carnage and bloodshed; in place of listening to prayers and songs of praise to our Creator, I heard only the thunder of hostile cannon, the rattling of musketry, the clashing of steel, the groans of wounded men, and the shouts of victory as the victors rushed onward, trampling on their fallen foes.