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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
The enemy just before sundown advanced and endeavored to turn our left flank. … In the first place, however, their cavalry moved off to the left and advanced to our right but were driven back with great loss by [Brevet Captain Samuel] Ringgold’s battery of artillery, and the Fifth Infantry got a distant crack at them. [Captain James] Duncan’s artillery, which was on the left, now moved to the right, and then the enemy advanced to the left. As soon as this was noticed, Duncan was ordered back to his former position. Our guns had set the prairie on fire and luckily the wind was blowing from us behind this smoke. Duncan waited till the enemy was as near as he wanted them. He then went out and blazed away. Every shot was sent home with unerring accuracy. The enemy retreated and after making an ineffectual attempt to charge and take our eighteen pounders they marched off and the darkness ended all further hostility.
We encamped on the field of battle that night, and at eight the next morning we were formed to renew the battle. A small body of cavalry and infantry was all that appeared where their large army was the night before. It was a beautiful morning; the winds were singing; the sun was shining bright; and the sweet fragrance of the prairie flowers was wafted along by gentle winds; and yet, surrounded by all this loveliness, were two Christian armies about to meet and kill each other.
As our line advanced, the enemy disappeared. We came to a halt which lasted two or three hours. Meanwhile, scouting parties were sent out and reported that the chapparel was clear for five miles. The Army and train now moved on this distance. At this place is a narrow passage between the chapparel and river. The advanced guard reported the enemy in front. The train was halted. The Fifth, Eighth, Third, and Fourth Regiments were successively marched in by a flank headed by the dragoons and artillery. The infantry then deployed to right and left while the dragoons charged in front supported by the artillery.
A universal rattle of musketry and thunder of cannon soon commenced. The whole chapparel was raked by the enemy’s grapeshot, cannon, and musket balls. Duncan’s battery of artillery now rushed up to the very mouth of the enemy’s cannon and to the feet of their cavalry supported by the Eighth, Fifth, part of the Third and Fourth. A general charge was made. The enemy, after one or two shots, fled in almost all directions, leaving two or three hundred dead on the spot with eight first rate brass cannon, all their provisions, camp equipage, pack mules, etc. (Their supper was cooking on the fires). Their line extended along the opposite bank of a low muddy stream a part [of] which was of bushes so that when we came up we could see them by thousands whereas they could only catch a glimpse of our blazing muskets as we pounded in our fire.
Our company came up just as the enemy were in a panic from the fire of Ringgold’s artillery. In two or three shots they were gone. Though I do not know anything positive, yet I suppose the enemy lost in both battles five hundred killed and as many wounded. We lost about fifty killed and sixty wounded. [The official report listed nine Americans killed, forty-four wounded.— Ed. ]
When we were within a hundred yards of the pond we were in the range of a tremendous volley of musket balls directed there by our hurrahs as we came on. When I think of it now, it seems a wonder that I was not struck by one of them. But, oh, what a sight I witnessed that night and the next morning! The wounded, both friend and foe, were collected on the bank of the pond. Their groans were heartrending as the dreadful and rapid progress of amputation was going on. The dead lay in a heap beside. So much misery on account of a disputed and uninhabited piece of land.
We again encamped on the battleground and early the next morning I walked down on the margin of the bloody pond. There lay the dead, dying, and wounded Mexicans. They were crying for water, and though in their own tongue, I soon understood what they wanted. I employed myself in carrying them water till a party appeared who were directed to collect the dead and wounded. There was one poor fellow who had both legs broken and a shot in his head who was not strong enough to lift the cup to his lips. When I had helped him, he looked up in my face while the tears stood in his eyes and with gestures and his native tongue, thanked me. I turned away and wept. Here was a poor ignorant Mexican soldier led on by ambitious commanders obliged to fight for what he had no interest for. Everything was right at the Fort [Texas], our men held out, but you will get the account, I suppose, in the papers. Now I will close. Barna Upton.
Matamoros! Mexico! May 24, 1846
Dear Sister [Emma]: With great satisfaction I now set about the pleasing task of writing you a letter. I received a second letter from you about a week ago—two days after I had sent a letter to Father, giving an account of the battle with the Mexicans. All is well.