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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
You ask me if I had a gun in the battle. I certainly did, and I used it, I think to some purpose, though I only fired four shots. I will tell you how it was. … The Mexicans were in solid masses on the opposite bank of the stream and every shot took effect. I now commenced loading and firing. From the first sight I got of them I could see they felt uneasy. Though they loaded and fired very fast, they did not take good aim, or they would have killed every man of us. As it was, the dead and dying were scattered all along our line. One man was shot dead within a step of me. I can never forget the expression of his face as he fell back, grasping his musket.
There was a Mexican cannon a few yards in advance of the others, the men belonging to which were either all killed or ran away excepting two officers. Corporal [Michael] O’Sullivan of our company shot one of them and took the other prisoner. I then went down with five or six others and drew it on the road—this was the first field piece that was taken actual possession of. For this act of bravery Corporal O’Sullivan was noticed in General Taylor’s report to Washington. The Mexicans in the meantime were leaving by battalions and were all soon on the way helter-skelter for Matamoros.
The Third Regiment with the Dragoons and Artillery pursued them to the river. We found the way strewn with muskets, cartridge boxes, and clothes which the affrighted Mexicans had thrown off to enable them to run the faster. We then returned and encamped on the field of battle. There was but two of our company wounded and none killed.
I expect we shall have some more fighting by and by; the Mexicans are recruiting strongly in some places. I hear that Paredes, who is now at the head of the Mexican Army, is going to try to retake Matamoros. Shall think better of it, I guess. There is a great move going on among the Volunteers who together with some Regulars are about marching to Monterrey, a considerable town some two or three hundred miles inland where there is a body of Mexicans entrenching themselves. I do not know whether the Third Regiment will go or stay to guard Matamoros. It will be a hard march, a bloody fight, but a certain victory.
It is very healthy here: the only disease prevalent is the dysentery, and this is not dangerous. If Yellow Jack does not pay us a visit we shall be lucky. It was never here but once.
All kinds of tropical fruits grow here in abundance: the soil is the best in the world. Here are fields of cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco, besides lemons, oranges, figs, pineapples, bananas, yams, dates, prunes, pomegranates, and then there are enormous water and mushmellons, peaches, plums, grapes, and Indian corn. The Mexicans bring all [these] things into our camp to sell, besides milk, eggs, poultry, butter, cheese, etc.
The country in general is very badly cultivated. The country around Matamoros is a wide-spreading prairie without fence or trees and covered only with grass on which large herds of cattle and horses subsist. If I stay in these diggin’s long, I shall be able to speak the Spanish language; I am now able, with the assistance of what little English the natives here picked up, to talk with them on almost any subject, but especially concerning trade.…
We had considerable times here on the Fourth, such as ringing of bells, firing of cannon, military parade, and balls. It looked to me rather hard for Matamoros bells to ring in honor of Uncle Sam’s birthday.
One of the volunteers was shot by one of his comrades in a drunken frolic on the Fourth. There is a murder in Matamoros almost every day. The other night I was on guard up town and while out patrolling, heard a row in a house. [I] went in and found a man brandishing a knife with which he had just killed a woman, who was lying in her blood on the floor. We took him to our guardhouse and turned him over to the city authorities in the morning. This same man was a sergeant in the Mexican Army and was at the battle of the ninth [of May].…
Matamoros July 26, 1846
[Dear Father:] How do you do? (I think you say you are as well as common.) As for myself, I am well. I thought I would write today as I am soon to leave this place for Camargo, from thence to Monterrey, and I think probable, to the city of Mexico itself.
I shall see a great many new places and things, endure a great deal of fatigue and hardship (for this must always happen to a soldier on a campaign). I shall see herds of buffalo and perhaps shoot a grizzly bear. I hope I shall never again have to shoot at men. I think the Mexicans will never again show us such a front as at Palo Alto and Resaca de Palma, but if our Army invades their country and marches to their capital they will annoy and harrass it by robbing and murdering straggling parties and by cutting off supplies. Well, I wouldn’t blame them, but I hope Mexico will save herself this by making peace.
I have been so busy for several days that I had no time to finish my letter. A part of the regiment has started in the steamboat for Camargo, the rest will soon follow. It seems to be the opinion now that our march will be disputed, that the Mexicans will meet us with considerable force at Monterrey, and there seems to be but one opinion as to the result, viz., that victory is sure. I think so myself, but still the disadvantages are on our side: the American Army will be unacquainted with the country and wearied with the march. Besides, you know the wolf fights hardest in his den.