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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
Something happened that stopped my writing yesterday. I got your letter of October 15 this morning. Wasn’t I glad to get it? So it seems you are all in tolerable health, and contented in the world, which is all a person wants to make him happy. I think you did not get the letter I wrote at New Orleans, as you did not mention it. The reason why my letter written here was mailed onto New Orleans was because Texas is not a part of the United States, you know. …
I thank you and Father for your good advice, and I do pray that I may be a Christian. I read the Bible that the good chaplain gave me almost every day, and I do love to read it for a reason that I hardly ever before read it, because I know it points the way to our resting place, when we leave this world of change, disappointment, and death. I think more than I used to do of death and eternity, and I hope that when I die, I shall live again. Oh, won’t that be happy, if it should be that I should never see you here, to meet and know and love you in Heaven. But now I must close my letter, and I bid you goodbye.…
Corpus Christi, Texas March 9, 1846
Dear Brother [Elias]: … We start on a march [to] the River Rio Grande or Rio del Norte, the day after tomorrow, so all is bustle and preparation for a tramp. We go by land; it is 150 or 200 miles. I believe I wrote that there was a possibility of my being discharged. I will explain: ever since I have been at the South, my eyes, which you know were always weak, became so much affected by the climate that I was unable to do duty, and was for a long time on the sick report at Fort Jesup and also at this place. They are better now, and I hardly think they will discharge me unless they get very bad and remain so for a long time. You may be sure I will come home as straight as I can when I am free. …
The weather here is like the first day of May; the trees are bearing out.
I began this letter last evening, and now I finish it in a hurry. I cannot have time to finish it, so goodbye. B. N. Upton.
P.S. You can write me to Corpus Christi and it will be forwarded to me where I am. My love to Mother and Father and Sisters. I will try to be able to wear out any socks before the moths eat them.
Between May 3 and May 9, 1846, the American army under General Taylor successfully fought three engagements with the Mexican army. On May 3, General Mariana Arista had ordered the bombardment of Fort Texas opposite Matamoros on the Rio Grande. After five days of continuous firing the fort still stood, and the only casualty was its commandant, Major Jacob Brown; the fort was renamed in honor of him. When the Mexican army under Ampudia crossed the river to invest the fort on May 8, it was suddenly confronted with the entire American army, and on the afternoon of that day suffered defeat in the Battle of Palo Alto. The next day at Resaca de la Palma the Mexican forces were again severely defeated and driven beyond the Rio Grande.
The battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma were Barna Upton’s first experience in combat. On the first day his regiment played a relatively small part, although it did protect the American right flank against the sudden cavalry charge of General Torrejon. In the Resaca engagement, however, Upton’s regiment was in the forefront of the battle and drove the Mexicans from their prepared positions on the heights above the dry lake bed (resaca) for which the battle was named.
Camp opposite Matamoros May 14, 1846
I am going to write a letter today to let you know that I am alive and well. I sent you a letter from Point Isabel [Taylor’s supply base at the mouth of the Rio Grande] in which I stated that we expected a fight on our way back. Well, we did have a fight and a pretty tall one for these days [Battle of Palo Alto].
We started from Point Isabel the seventh [of May], about four P.M. Our advance guard reported the Mexican Army in front and prepared for battle. We could not see them at the time on account of a swell or rising ground in the prairie. We advanced about half a mile, halted by a pond, and after getting water to drink and resting a little, our little Army formed its line of battle and advanced to meet the enemy. They were six thousand strong, while we numbered but little more than two thousand.
The Mexicans had a battalion of infantry on the right, next a strong battery of heavy guns, then a host of infantry with the front in columns, then another battery, and a large body of cavalry on their left. We had eight six-pound brass cannon and two eighteen pounders. Four of the brass pieces were on our right, the eighteen pounders in the center, and the other brass pieces on the left. The dragoons were on the right of the center, and the infantry occupied the spaces between. We marched up slowly and when within three fourths of a mile they opened their battery on us from the right. We advanced a little farther, halted, and returned their fire. A general cannonade now commenced on both sides which lasted about one hour.
Now for the first time I found myself in battle. I found it true what Uncle Laban used to say: that they shoot dreadful careless in battle. The balls were constantly hissing over our heads or mowing their way through the tall grass, and it was astonishing how few struck our ranks. I noticed one ball spinning its way through the grass close to the ground with the swiftness of the swiftest car. It passed about six feet from me. The men who were in its path dodged it in safety. …