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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 never was intended by nature for a soldier and I am astonished at the calmness and almost indifference which I experience now in walking over the battlefield. It is only when some shocking instance of mutilation meets my eye that I feel that sensation of horror which it is natural for anyone to feel on seeing hundreds of our fellow beings cut down instantly in the bloom of manhood and laying in heaps on every side. But when I am alone and the wild excitement of the conflict passes away, I realize as well as you how fearful, how strange and inconsistent, is the idea of thousands of intelligent and enlightened men, meeting together to mangle and kill each other.
The fight at Cerro Gordo was, while it lasted, the fiercest one I was ever in. The main height at Cerro Gordo was charged and taken by the Third and Seventh Infantry, supported by the First Artillery, acting as Infantry. When the bugle sounded the charge, we were on a height flanking that of Cerro Gordo with a deep ravine and steep banks between. Down the hill we ran or jumped, the enemy grape thinning our ranks at every step. After gaining the ravine and while making our difficult way up the steep mountain to the enemy’s works, we were completely covered from all shot except a distant battery on our left.
When we came in sight of the enemy’s lines on the hill, they opened with infantry and artillery, but we marched directly up to their breastworks which was a slight one made of one thickness of timber laid one above another and supported by stakes, and drove them to the rocks and behind another breastwork inside the first. We remained behind the breastwork to take breath while we discharged ten or fifteen rounds. Here for the first time since the war commenced we fought with equal advantage. Soon two of their guns were deserted, and our whole force with a loud shout leaped the breastwork and met them at the point of the bayonet.
Here for just one short minute ensued a kind of fighting which I hope never to see again. It seemed like murder to see men running bayonets into each other’s breasts, but they soon turned and ran like a flock of frightened sheep down the hill towards the National Road. They threw away their guns and probably a hundred of them were killed before they reached the bottom.
On seeing this height taken the whole [Mexican] Army on our left threw up their white flag. Santa Anna with his cavalry and some infantry escaped. There were four hundred twenty five killed and wounded in action. Our Regiment lost about forty. In C Company there were three killed and five wounded. I suppose you will have read before you receive this an account of the battle, so it will not be necessary for me to write particulars.
This is enough about war, so I will write about something else. This is the finest Mexican city I have seen yet: the streets are well paved and clean; the houses are large and well built, generally of stone, and painted white; and the inhabitants are intelligent and wealthy. The climate is healthy, no deadly diseases are known, which I think is the case the whole distance to Mexico. We march in a few days for Perote and soon from thence to Puebla and the City of Mexico.…
There is a lofty mountain peak called Orizaba about thirty miles south of this place whose top is always covered with snow. This and the neighboring cities are supplied with ice and snow during the summer months from this mountain. When the sun rises in the morning and its rays reflect on this pure white peak, I have thought it the most beautiful sight I ever beheld. All kinds of tropical fruits grow here in abundance, such as bananas, plantains, pineapples, cocoanuts, oranges, lemons, figs, etc. Here every prospect pleases and only man is vile.
I think it likely we shall have one more fight, either at Mexico or this side, and only one more, for the Mexicans are nearly used up. They may continue the war, however, for a year and annoy us in small parties, but in this way they will hurt themselves more than us. …
After all the inconveniences of an army on a campaign in an enemy’s country I am almost perfectly contented, for in the Army the intervals between battles is a time of profound peace. It is only a short time before a battle when the army of the enemy is near that the American soldier is harrassed and worn by fatigue and watching. At such times he may expect two or three nights and days without sleep and sometimes without anything to eat. At such times I often think of home and our old big buttery, where I used to go whenever I was hungry, but as a general thing I have plenty of grub—that is the soldier’s name for it.
Now by a little yankee ingenuity I can make it appear that my time is nearly out: in six or seven months, it will be New Year, then I can say “my time is out next year.” After all, my time is not quite half in. If I live till my time is out, I think it very doubtful if Uncle Sam gets any more of my services, and I shall have learned a lesson that will prevent me from roving about as I have done. … I remain your affectionate brother, Barna Upton.