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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
Almost every man in the detachment is overjoyed at the idea of going away. It [is] those that stay behind [who] wear very long faces. The harbor is full of sails nowdays, and the little steamboats are constantly engaged in towing out and in vessels. …
Sunday afternoon, March 2
… Tomorrow at eight o’clock A.M. I am to go aboard the ship to sail for New Orleans. From New Orleans we go in a steamboat a few hundred miles further up the Mississippi and then march over the country to the station. …
I am now seated in my bunk, eight feet from the floor writing with my Bible for a desk. Yesterday each man belonging to the detachment ordered South was presented with a Bible by the Chaplain. They were printed by the New York Bible Society. It has in the forepart a printed paper pasted in. … The Chaplain told us this was the Christian pledge. If we made up our mind to reform and leave all our besetting sins, to write our names over the dotted line and to consider it as a solemn oath. Many men have written their names as a total abstinence pledge, so I am thinking it may do some good. …
I have for my bunk mate a tall handsome young man from New Hampshire. He is very intelligent, has a good education, and can sing by note first rate. His name is Bennett Putnam. So you see, my long letter is full, and I now subscribe myself your affectionate Brother, Barna Upton
Fort Jesup, Louisiana April 7, 1845
[Dear Father:] … We had a long, though on the whole quite a pleasant passage to New Orleans. We were twenty days on the ship. We stopt at the New Orleans Barracks three or four days, then took a steamboat for Nachitoches (pronounced Nakitosh) which took about three and a half days. A march of four miles brought us to Fort Salubrious where the Fourth Regiment lays. We rested a day or two, then marched twenty five miles which brought us to our journey’s end, viz., Fort Jesup …
We were marched, 190 in number, on the morning of the third of March to the wharf and got on board a little schooner which took us to the ship one mile to the North East, from which quarter a smart breeze was blowing. After beating about an hour and a half we reached the ship. She was a large new cream colored packet ship, the nicest I had ever seen. After selecting a berth and putting my knapsack in it, I went above to make an observation of matters and things in general. The loud voice of the Captain was heard giving curious, and of course to me perfectly incomprehensible, orders to the sailors, but I could see the effects of them, for while some were hauling down the sail, others were drawing up the anchors with a machine that works like a fire engine. Soon the sails filled, the anchors [were] hoisted to their places, and the gallant ship was moving through the waters like a thing of life. …
Towards night of the first day [aboard ship] might have been seen a brave band of heroes stationed all along the lee bulwarks discharging tremendous broadsides through the teeth. I escaped with but little seasickness. … We were out of sight of land eleven days. The third day out, having had a first rate wind, we entered the Gulf Stream, when the water became suddenly so warm as to startle a body. We crossed it in sixteen or seventeen hours. The wind lulled down, then charged dead ahead the fourth day. We lost about a week, then had a fair wind three days which carried us to the Dry Tortugas, west of the southern Cape of Florida.
In the beginning of this gale we had a narrow escape from being driven on the rocks near the Bahama Islands. If we had had some sea room, the wind was nothing. We had been beating on short tacks for a whole day between the Island of Abaco and a long crooked ledge of hidden rocks off the coast of some other island. The wind suddenly changed and blew harder, blowing exactly on against the right side of the vessel. Unfortunately, our channel lay further into the wind as we went on. The vessel began to lurch tremendously. I, being below in my bunk (it being the middle of the night), went above to see what they were all about. … It was an exciting scene. The crew and passengers were all on deck on the weather side holding on to belaying pins and ropes or one another. …
We had on board an old soldier who acted as sargeant and [was] one of the most profane and wicked men I ever saw. He got on his knees and prayed aloud. For two days he was not heard to utter an oath, but now he is worse than ever. The danger was past, the sun shined beautifully, and everybody was happy. …
Write me a letter straight back directed to Barna Upton, E Company, Third Regiment, U.S. Infantry, Fort Jesup, Louisiana. This will do: Barna Upton, E Company, Third Infantry, Fort Jesup, Louisiana.
Fort Jesup, Louisiana June 1, 1845
Dear Sister [Susan]: With great satisfaction I sit me down to answer your thrice welcome letter, which I received last Friday, just three weeks from the day it was mailed.