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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
[Three] days after the date of my letter [May 17], our Army marched up the river three miles and encamped with the intention of crossing over the next morning and taking possession of Matamoros by driving Arista and his army out of it. But our object was gained without bloodshed. As soon as our Army commenced crossing, Arista moved off into the interior at the head of five thousand. After the Army had crossed, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted on the Mexican forts, and to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” we marched into the city. The troops will be quartered here probably until all difficulties are settled, unless we are ordered into the country further.…
This is a beautiful Sabbath morning: from orange groves I hear the music of “strange, bright birds.” The church bells are chiming (not ringing) the hour of prayer, and the cowled priests, the sober citizens, and the dark-eyed signoras are passing on to confession. Everything is new, and nature itself seems changed. Let me think now what the reason of this is—yes, I think I have it: it is lighter here and the sky is farther off. But after all I like New-England the best. There’s no place like home.
A steamboat [the Neva ] has arrived at the city today with troops. Nearly the whole city went to see this strange monster. But one steamboat ever came here before: it was in 1832 at the time of the cholera. The citizens of Matamoros seem generally to be pleased with us; indeed, they almost drove away Arista because they knew that General Taylor would batter down the city if he remained, and General Taylor was well prepared for this business: the train of 250 wagons which came up since the battle was loaded with mortars, shells, and ammunition.
You think I would not know you. I am almost sure you would not know me. My dress, complexion, and gait are all different. Habit has caused me always to walk with toes turned out, and chin turned in; then I have fine, black, beautiful, savage mustaches; then our caps cover nearly all the forehead, leaving the back of the head uncovered—is it not fitting that he whose profession is the art of killing men should have benevolence and the reasoning organs covered, while combativeness, secretiveness, etc. should be exposed? …
You must excuse the funny way in which this letter is written, for since coming to Matamoros I have had scarcely an undisturbed hour to myself. I have been on guard and fatigue details almost all of the time. We have our provisions, baggage to get over on ferry boats; then we have had a very large quantity of Mexican ammunition, etc., to carry over to our Fort. Did you know that we built [in] a little [time] the strongest fort [Fort Texas, later Fort Brown] that ever was built in America of the same materials directly opposite Matamoros? Well, we did, and while nearly all our Army was gone to Isabel Point to bring up the train, five hundred of our troops defended it against eight thousand Mexicans, besides sustaining a constant cannonading and bombardment.
But I had an opportunity myself to see this large army and to stand in front of their line. For two hours and a half on the first day of the fight the Infantry were obliged to stand still, while a hearty cannonade was carried on on both sides. I remember thinking then of home, of friends, of earlier, and happier days, of the time that I had passed years in security and peace in my native land. It was but for a moment; the groans of the dying were in my ear, the howling of cannon balls, and the thunder of battle drove all other thoughts away. The Mexicans lost several hundred men killed in this battle [Palo Alto], while not more than twenty of our men were killed or wounded. …
I heard this morning that our loss on both battles of killed and wounded is one hundred eighty; the Mexicans lost eleven hundred. We took a large quantity of provisions and clothing and almost three hundred segars for every soldier in the Army.…
Matamoros, Mexico July 9, 1846
Dear Friends: I presume you have heard that Arista and his army left Matamoros a few days after the battle and that our Army crossed over unmolested and took possession of the town. This was unlooked-for good fortune; all had expected a hard battle that day. The (our) Army had marched up the river about three miles the night before and encamped, intending to cross over the next day. …
Now the excitement which so lately caused so much anxiety and filled all our minds with gloomy forbodings for the future has subsided. I will not deny that at the time our little Army left the camp opposite this place for Point Isabel, everyone felt a presentment that we should meet a sad reverse. … I recollect well the address of First Lieutenant [James Madison] Smith, our company commander at the time, after the company had formed and we were waiting for the assembly to beat. He told us that this was a time that demanded all the attributes of the soldier. He said that an attack was very probable and exhorted every man to be calm and collected; remember, said he, that but a small proportion of the shots do execution in battle and that we might be fired at a thousand times and not be killed. But we passed down undisturbed. …