- Historic Sites
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
On September 13, 1847, under the brilliant blue of a noonday sky, a horde of dusty, red-stained soldiers dashed down from the heights of Chapiiltepec, over an ancient Aztec causeway, and hurled themselves into a curtain of smoke and fire at the Belén Garita, the last stronghold before Mexico City. As the men pressed forward, the desperate fire of Mexican artillerists barricaded in a strong stone citadel near the city gates took a fearful toll. One of the blueclad regulars who fell wounded in this, the last battle in America’s first foreign war, was Private Barna Upton of the Third United States Infantry.
Today, if it is remembered at all, the war with Mexico is thought of as an antique skirmish—a prelude to the Civil War in which the future heroes of that great conflict first had a chance to test their prowess. An atmosphere of remoteness hangs over the Mexican War, and its lingering images are almost always those of grandeur and larger-than-life heroism. There was young Sam Grant recklessly leading the charge on San Cosme Gate; stern, serious Tom Jackson calmly directing artillery fire amid a shower of grapeshot before Chapultepec; Robert E. Lee scouting the Mexican flank at Cerro Gordo Mountain a scant few feet from the enemy headquarters; and Jefferson Davis leading that gaudy charge of the Mississippi Rifles that broke the Mexican Army on the windswept plateau of Buena Vista.
But the Mexican War had a life of its own, and like all other wars in history it was fought primarily by the common soldier, both regular and volunteer. Unlike Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, Johnny Doughboy and G.I. Joe, the rank and file of the Mexican War have been relatively uncelebrated. The chief reason for this is that they have rarely left a historical personality that commands the attention of the popular mind. It is precisely because they contribute toward this much-needed insight into the personality of the rank and file, vintage 1847, that the letters which follow, written by Private Upton, a farm boy from Charlemont, Massachusetts, are published here.
Upton’s letters were invariably filled with the details of the everyday life of the United States regular. His was the novice’s point of view: the education, as it were, of a New England farm boy into the realities of the world outside and ultimately into the mysteries of battle and death. And because his experience parallels so closely the mainstream of American experience, Barna Upton’s own education perhaps takes on a somewhat wider significance. His were the adolescent confidence and unself-conscious optimism of the typical American of his time. He was brash and bold and frequently sentimental. He believed in dreams and portents and destiny. He was likewise unaware of many things. He was, in fact, young America in the high noon of our national history.
Barna Upton was born on July 26, 1820, the eldest son of Nehemiah Newhall Upton, a Charlemont farmer and clothier. When he enlisted in the Army early in 1845, he was moved to do so out of a spirit of adventure and a desire to see the world. He was trained on Governors Island in New York Harbor, then was shipped out to Louisiana; as the threat of war became more ominous, lie and his regiment were dispatched to the Rio Grande and went into action at the commencement of hostilities.
Within the brief compass of his letters, Upton presents some unusually vivid and accurate accounts of the battles in which he fought. Almost never, even in the heat of battle, does he lose the sense of the army operation as a whole; thus, his is an almost unique enlisted-man’s version of combat.
Baptism by fire came for Barna Upton and the Third Infantry in the first American victory of the war —at Palo Alto on May 8, 1846. The next day, at Resaca de la Palma, the Third took an even greater role in the fighting, and Private Upton took part in the headlong charge through chaparral and mesquite that drove the Mexican Army to the Rio Grande.
The high point of Upton’s military career came at the battle for the city of Monterrey, September 20 to 23, 1846. Thereafter, the Third marched to Tampico, where it was transported by sea to Veracriu in time for the amphibious conquest of that city. The last sequence of Upton’s letters contains a brief account of that battle, and a stirring description of the fight at Cerro Gordo, but from that point on there was little time to write. The march from Puebla and the rapid series of encounters at Contreras, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey were never described by Upton; his last letter was a brief note from Puebla on August 7, 1847, telling of his departure on the final road to the Mexican capital.
As editor I have preferred to let Barna Upton speak as much as possible for himself. The original spellings and grammatical constructions have been maintained, and only punctuation has been altered in the interests of clarity. Otherwise, the letters will be found exactly as Barna Upton wrote them 120 years ago.
I wish to express my gratitude to Lewis S. Beach, Miss Eleanor Upton, Mrs. Zara Jones Powers, Harold LeVanway, Jerry E. Patterson, and the late Edward S. Wallace. All helped make this work possible.
Governors Island, New York February 8, 1845
Dear friends: I now begin what I intend shall be, when finished, a very long letter. The first observation that I shall make is that if you all are in as good health as I am, you could not wish for better. I presume you received a letter stating that I had enlisted in the Army, and that I was at this place. When we shall go away is uncertain, probably by the first of March, or at any rate as soon as Spring opens. …
I will now proceed to give you a description of matters and things in general and of the life I now lead. When I first came here, I with the other recruits was drilled 1½ hours in the A.M. —that looks odd—and the same in the P.M. —that looks odd, too—when we had as much as you please of Right dress, Front, Right flank, Right face, Left flank, Left face, ’Bout face, Countermarch by file right and left, Left and right oblique march, Right and left wheel, Right and left turn, Right into lines, Common time, Quick time, Double quick time, Treble quick time, Mark time, etc., etc., etc.
I will describe the everyday performance here. Reveille is beat at daylight in the morning. In fifteen minutes every man must be on parade at the exact time which is announced by firing a big gun. Then the roll is called at sunrise; breakfast at eight o’clock; the sick call is beaten when all that are sick go to the hospital [at] half past eight; dinner at noon; retreat is beat at sundown; another gun fired; and the roll called. Supper, however, is before retreat. Tattoo is beat at eight, and in fifteen minutes [all] must be in bed. …
Each man is allowed eighteen ounces of bread, eighteen ounces of beef, or three-fourths pound pork a day. The old liquor ration is now served in the shape of coffee, a large bowl of which is furnished at every meal. These rations or their value in something else is more than a man needs. AVe have about every other day a soup of beef, potatoes, turnips, cabbages which is first rate. At supper we usually have nothing but coffee and bread—no butter, cheese, pies, or—see that: I was going to write cakes, kakes . …
There are now four or five hundred recruits and soldiers belonging to organixed companies on the Island. We are finely situated here for one who likes to see something new every day. Governors island is situated in the harbor of New York about three-fourths of a mile from the city and contains sixty or seventy acres and is a good deal higher in the middle where the Garrison is. There is also a strong fort on the west side of the Island containing 125 large cannons mounted on carriages, facing the portholes. The fort is circular with five tier of guns all around it. These guns are of iron and of three different sizes, the smallest on the top. …
On Sundays the men’s arms, clothes, knapsacks, and quarters are inspected at ten o’clock when at the long roll we all go on the parade ground to be inspected. There are four organized artillery companies here who all march to meeting to the music of a large brass band containing about forty members. The most appropriate instruments also assist the choir in singing. The service is the established Church of England. …
The soldiers are all paid off once in two months, viz., the first of January, March, May, etc. The day before payday is a general muster, and you hear the rumbling of cannon wheels and the bang of guns and rattling drums all day.
New York City is in full view, at least the first streets on the south side for three miles, for the city is so level that nothing but the first block of buildings and steeples can be seen, but the ships, schooners, sloops, brigs, barks, sailboats, and steamboats that lie all around the city is a caution to greenhorns. I venture to say that six hundred different water crafts can be seen at any time from Governors Island, and the different colors that fly from the masthead look scrumptious. …
Sunday, February 9
… Almost every kind of men you will find in the Army and a good many are well educated. I am acquainted with one who has been a preacher, with three or four who have been schoolteachers, clerks, etc., and there is any quantities of shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, etc., etc.
The soldiers have a hundred ways to amuse themselves: in the day time between mealtime and drill you might see the parade ground covered with men running, jumping, wrestling, playing ball, leapfrog, pitching quoits, or looking on. In the evening there are debates in which the most learned spout, or mock court martials where some prisoner is brought up, tried, and either acquitted or convicted and sentenced. These courts are carried on with a great deal of gravity and solemnity. …
The soldiers are allowed three uniform coats and caps in the five years, the first, third, and fifth years; one fatigue jacket every year; four pair boots and stockings every year; two pair woolen pants; one pair cotton ditto; one cotton jacket; one pair drawers; two flannel shirts [and] two cotton ones in a year; three blankets in the five years. Knapsacks and haversacks and arms are loaned to soldiers by [the] Government. Many soldiers save forty or fifty dollars during the term by saving their clothes. …
Sunday, February 23
… Yesterday, Washington’s birthday, was celebrated by the Yorkers in great style. Their cannon, flags, and music afforded amusement not only to thousands of citizens assembled on the Battery but called out some hundreds of soldiers on Governors Island.
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.
You ask me to describe the weather on some particular day. Well, today, the first day of summer, is a bright, beautiful, sunshiny day; a gentle breeze is ruffling the leaves of the tall china trees that grow in clusters around the hospital. Everything around today seems peaceful, calm, holy, but it is not so. Though every prospect pleases, yet man is ever vile. You want I should tell about the scenery, inhabitants here, etc. Everything in nature seems different from what it does in New England. There are scarcely any trees here that grow at home. I have seen some beeches, red oak, and there is plenty of yellow pine. The principal forest trees here (and the whole country for twenty five miles around is a forest with the exception of very scattered plantations of cotton) are the pine, cottonwood, gum, china, sassafras, and persimmon. …
It is very healthy here and entirely out of the way of the yellow fever. I do not know how long this regiment will stay at this post. … I shouldn’t wonder if we were sent to Texas or Oregon. There is no backing out of the Army, and for my part I do not want to leave it. I feel perfectly contented and why should I not? I have everything here I want except the society of my friends, and this I cannot expect always to have anyway. …
We have a large garden to every company here, plenty of all kinds of vegetables. There are any quantity of fig trees here; indeed, they hedge in the walks and lanes. They are now full of green figs. There are plenty of peaches, plums, cherries, apples, sweet potatoes, etc. This post was built in 1837-1838, and great pains were taken to have good quarters and gardens. There is great talk of war now. Well, I’ll be glad to have it come if it can’t possibly be helpt. …
In my next letter I shall [write] what kind of officers, quarters, laws and regulations we have here (we have first rate ones for such as will do just right, but a rogue catches it). I shall write also how many women there is in our company (there is five) and how many in other companies (about the same number), and I shall write how many children if I can find out.• On looking at this letter I find Susan asks where I sleep. I sleep in a bunk. …
•Women serving as laundresses frequently accompanied units of the United States Army serving in remote or frontier areas. In the Mexican War the most famous of these was Sarah Borginnes, better known as “The Great Western” or “The Heroine of Fort Brown.”— Ed.
We have a large library here of 2000 volumes of well selected works. Almost every book that I ever heard of are here: Harper’s Family Library complete, all kinds of the latest school books, dictionaries, spelling books, geographies, chemistry, arithmetic, etc., all the good old books, and new novels. I found the other day a book containing about 150 songs and tunes printed by Butler at Northampton, Mass., first-rate old tunes. Its title is The Songster’s Museum, or a Trip to Elysium.
I wish you could hear the turtledoves here. I have often heard how they will mourn if they lose their mates, and they do make a most doleful moaning noise when they go away on some high limb and sit alone, but I’ve sometimes thought that some of them are old maids that can’t find anybody to have them. Deer are plenty, and they are seen almost every day and sometimes shot here, but they are very shy. The Indians bring in venison very often, and now every day the squaws come in with each a half bushel of blackberries to sell for [a] picayune [six and a half cents] a quart. …
As Barna Upton’s earlier letter indicates, the Third Infantry sailed for Fort Jessup, Louisiana, on February 23, 1845, even before Congress, in a joint resolution, had completed the annexation of Texas. As soon as the annexation was proclaimed, the Mexican minister called for his passports and sailed for home. With the threat of war becoming daily more imminent, General Zachary Taylor was ordered to occupy a position “on or near the Rio Grande del Norte … best adapted to repel invasion.” There he was to stand by until President Polk had exhausted all diplomatic efforts to reconcile Mexico. The Third United States Infantry was part of Taylor’s army of occupation, and the letter that follows chronicles Barna Upton’s part in the embarkation for the Rio Grande country.
Fort Jesup Julys 3, l845
Dear friends: I write a short letter today to inform you that I am well and that ere this reaches you, I shall be in Texas near the line of Mexico, where our regiment is ordered. The Third, Fourth, and Sixth Infantry are all ordered there, also the Second Dragoons. Everything is bustling, packing, and preparing for the march. All are eager to start, animation and enthusiasm is the order of the day.
Yesterday the news of General [Andrew] Jackson’s death came to Fort Jesup. We were paraded at ten o’clock this morning and listened to a long eulogy that came with the despatch. The flag was lowered on the staff, the regimental colors were hung in mourning, and the officers had crepe on their left arms. Thirteen guns were fired at sunrise and are to be fired every half hour through the day. …
Our baggage is being sent to the steamboat landing at Nachitoches as fast as possible. We are to stop at the New Orleans Barracks to be joined by the Sixth [Infantry], and vessels are waiting at the mouth of the Mississippi to carry us where we are going. Where this place is I do not exactly know myself. We shall start from this post next Monday. There may be a chance of our having to burn a little powder in the face of the Mexicans yet. They appear to be determined to have a fuss.… B. N. Upton
Corpus Christi, Texas August 31, 1845
Here’s another letter from the rambling soldier. I am well: I trust you are all well, too. When you write again, pay the postage to New Orleans. Unless you do, it will not be forwarded, as annexation is not settled by Congress. …
We hear of wars and rumours of war, but at these things I am not troubled. I think Mexico will keep peaceable. It’s a very healthy place here—all our troops are well. There are about two thousand here now including regiments of volunteers, and two thousand more U.S. troops and another regiment [of] volunteers are expected very soon. …
We live first rate here, plenty of beef and mutton, occasionally venison and fish in any quantity. There is a seine belonging to the regiment, and a party go out every day to supply the regiment. I have seen fifty or sixty bushels brought in at one time, each fish weighing from two to ten pounds, some averaging about twelve or fifteen. I cannot say that I positively like the Army, but I am satisfied with it. I like its clockwork regularity and the novelty and excitement of moving from place to place, and then a man don’t have his fare to pay.
Today is muster day, and I have just come off parade. The Third Regiment is acknowledged to be the best disciplined regiment in the United States and [I] have nothing to say to the contrary. Every finger and toe and joint must be placed exactly according to custom, and I rather conclude that I can come it equal to the old buck. Sometimes a recollection of old times and early scenes makes me a little homesick, but the next roll of the drum drives it all away.
As I walk my lonely post at night when the stars are shining so still, and I hear no sound but the murmur of the surf in the bay and the measured tread of my fellow sentinels, I always am thinking of my friends that I have left so far beyond the blue mountains that look so distant here, and of the bright and happy days of early youth. I remember some particular evening or morning when the moon shone softer or the sun brighter on account of some pleasing association or delightful anticipation, but these days are gone and I know from experience the selfish nature of the world, but these are exceptions. I have found even in this Army, where it cannot be denied the majority are profane and wicked, some who possess the true principles of consistent and intelligent men. But what do I see?—the bottom of my paper, so I must come to the conclusion of the whole matter. …
Hold on—today I will fill out my letter. The other day I filled three pages and folded it and laid it away and forgot it, so I concluded to write this page over and fold it in a half sheet which will not increase the postage. The weather is very warm here, and if it was not for the constant sea breeze we should suffer. It would do your heart good to see the hunters come in in the evening with their game on a pole between the two men: deer, wild turkey, and cranes, pelicans and eagles for greens.
The next move we make will be to establish a permanent post up in the country, perhaps on the Rio Grande. … If we should happen to be hard pressed, we have a strong fortification further up on the bay flanked on one side by the sea where we would defy 20,000 men to take us. The land all along on the margin of the bay is considerably higher than it is back. On this broad bank we have made a thick breastwork with a ditch before it of two rows of Spanish bayonet trees. At the foot of the embankment in front of the breastwork there is a strip of thick thorn trees which render it almost impossible to dislodge the infantry. All along the top are planted cannon occupying the places between. …
We landed twenty miles from here and sailed up on small schooners—landing is difficult on account of shallow shores. There are lots of rattlesnakes here, and the lightning bugs are six times as large here as at the North. There is a kind of bird here called the Lady Bird, about half the size of our Humming Bird, with perfect little tail feathers, claws, you know, and all. Cayenne pepper (kian) grows wild here on the prairies, and we burn a kind of logwood to boil our coffee. …
Corpus Christi, Texas November 10, 1845
It has been a long time since I have heard from home. What has been the reason? I sent a letter just before I left Fort Jesup in July, another from New Orleans, and another from this place about the middle of September—no answers. However, I am well and contented for we have a fine country to live in and nobody to shoot but deer and turkey. Why don’t you write to a “feller” once in a while? …
The recall beat just as I was finishing the first page and as there is generally a brigade drill in the afternoon, I gave up writing, but now it rains, it rains hard, and I have no one to disturb me: a sergeant who belongs to the tent is on detached service; one of the men is sick; and the other is on guard.…
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. …
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.
[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. …
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.
I am perfectly satisfied with my situation. It suits my taste for saving and adventure. Besides, I am in the finest country in the world— a healthy climate ( a little too warm though, sometimes) and surrounded by the varied productions of a southern clime. I march over almost boundless prairies, across large rivers without scarce knowing their names. I see countless herds of buffalo, deer, and wild horses moving unmolested over the mighty plains. There are Indians scattered everywhere in this country, the genuine sons of the forest who have seldom or never seen the white man. I love to see these rude beings in their curious and original costume, their painted faces, their bows and arrows, and then I reflect this race once owned the land now covered by our cities and cultivated farms.
The common people of Matamoros are very ignorant. I have looked on them in pity when I have presented a half dozen in succession with a scrap of a Mexican book. Not one of them could read, though of the age of men and women. How strong the contrast with the people of New England.…
I suppose you can know the movements and events that happen in this quarter of the country as well as I could tell you. It seems that the war is to be carried on in a substantial way, and so it ought to insure a speedy termination. I am in such a hurry that I don’t think I can fill my letter, but it is all the same. The Army moves about so I cannot tell you to direct your letters to any particular place, so you had better direct them: Barna Upton, Company C, Third Regiment, Army of Occupation. …
It seems to me that something will turn up to enable me to go home before the expiration of my time, but I don’t know as I shall tell Mother if I do come. I shall bring her a curious present. I am afraid the socks she made me will get moth-eaten.
Camargo, Mexico August 28, 1846
Dear Friends: I am well. Our brigade is about to move for Monterrey. I shall not have another opportunity [to write] for a long time.
We arrived at this place after a hard march of nine days. The distance is about one hundred twenty miles. A part of the Army has already moved on its way to the interior. Four or five men of the Seventh Infantry were killed, probably by [Antonio] Canales’s [guerrilla] band. They were in the rear to bring up a packed mule that had given out. So it will be all the way: stragglers from the main body will be murdered by robbers. There is a great many Volunteers here, but I don’t know how many.…
There is a good many sick in the Army, though there is no dangerous disease and but few deaths in proportion to the great number of men. I believe the enemy are determined to make every exertion to prevent our Army from advancing into their country. We shall no doubt have some hard fighting. All the troops here seem anxious to be led on to the fray. Is it not sad to think how many, either in battle or by disease, will lay their eye in the sand (as the soldiers say) before the close of this extensive campaign? I realize that my own chance is with the rest in the lottery of life ana death, yet let what will happen, I trust I shall always be found doing my duty.
I know it is the duty now for the Mexicans to prevent if they can an invasion of their country, yet in the first place it was their own haughtiness, stubbornness and narrow-minded, blind self will and foolish, ignorant pride that was the immediate cause of hostilities. They acted like a little snappish puppy biting at a man’s heels. …
It is clear that the United States, independent of what Texas had done, had a right to claim the country to the Rio Grande and to post troops there; … yet the United States, knowing that Mexico still absolutely claimed the country between [the Rio Grande and the Nueces] rivers, were willing to listen to these complaints and settle it in peace. I do not pretend to say that this war is entirely justifiable, for there is not one war in twenty that is, but I believe and I think I have given good reasons for believing that Mexico is more in fault than the United States in bringing on the war.
There is a great many things that would probably interest you that take place in the intervals of my writing for when I write I only think of movements and things that are taking place at present. I remember seeing considerable in the papers about shooting the deserters while we were lying before Matamoros. I think there were three shot in all, and there was not a reasonable man in the Army that did not feel that the order was just. It is an awful thing certainly to deprive a human being of life, but we were a small force and a powerful army were surrounding us. …
There is a great quantity of prickly pears here. They grow about the size of a hen’s egg and when ripe are the most delicious fruit I ever tasted. The inside of the fruit is like the gooseberry which resembles it in taste except it is a little more tart. There is also a species of wild plum grown here. The rancheros cultivate apples, grapes, plums, etc. Rancheros are farmers and a farm house is called a ranch.
The people here are friendly and say they wish to get rid of their tyrannical rulers.…
P.S. I open this letter to say that an express came in last night from the City of Mexico stating that Paredes had been deposed, that Santa Anna had taken the presidential chair, that he had called on the several departments to follow him and restore their tarnished honor, and that he would soon be at the head of a large army to oppose General Taylor. The paper that this letter is written on was taken from the Mexicans at the battle of Resaca Palma.
The Battle of Monterrey was fought from Monday through Wednesday, September 21-23, 1846. It was one of the bloodiest and most difficult battles of the war, for the city was well fortified and staunchly defended. Taylor’s plan of battle appeared to be the classical maneuver of a simultaneous frontal assault and flanking operation, which was to have such marked success under Lee and Jackson in the Civil War. Perhaps because of the enthusiasm of the commanders, however, the plan was not well executed. The units assigned to the frontal assault attempted to invest the enemy strong points at the lower end of the town instead of merely executing a holding action so that General William J. Worth’s division could roll up the flank from the west. As a result of this rash action, much of the American army was pinned down under enemy fire and casualties were very high. Barna Upton’s regiment as part of the frontal assault group suffered heavy losses, including its three top officers. In a letter written to his brother three months later, Upton describes the march from Camargo to Monterrey, and then gives a vivid account of the battle itself, and of what it was like to stand “before the iron sleet that day.”
Monterrey, Mexico December 12, 1846
Dear Brother [Elias]: This letter informs you I am well. … I wrote a little bit of a letter to Father just after the fight to let him know I was alive and well. Since that time I have been kicking about with scarcely leisure enough to take my meals. I will first give you a little sketch of the events of the last two or three months. …
We left Camargo the First of September. The weather was hot and we marched generally at three in the morning and encamped at ten. The country on the Rio Grande is rich and well cultivated. After passing Mear [Mier], we left the Rio and proceeded west over a dry, hilly, and sterile country, intersected by deep ravines on the bed of which is small streams of good water. In a day or two we came in sight of a range of steep mountains; toward these we marched for three or four days when we came to a place called Punta Agader [Aguda], where is a long brook of swiftrunning spring water. We stayed here several days.
In the meantime, General Taylor passed us on his way to Cerralvo, where General Worth is encamped with the second division, with four batteries of artillery and the Second Dragoons. We then joined General Worth and encamped till the whole Army came up. The first division, including the Third and Fourth Infantry, [Captain—afterward Confederate General- Braxton] Bragg’s Battery, and General [John A.] Quitman’s Volunteers left Cerralvo for Monterrey, sixty miles distant. The Second Division were to march the next day, and the Third the day following. As the rangers had reported considerable bodies of the enemy on the road in advance, we were ordered to march with our guns loaded and uncovered.
On the second day our advanced guard came up with a body of lancers. There was a little scurmishing, but the lancers retreated. At this time we entered the pass in the mountains. On the third day we came to a considerable town called Marin. Here we halted till the whole Army should come up; when all was ready the march resumed. The Lancers kept only a few miles in advance. …
The next day we approached Monterrey, General Taylor riding at the head of the column. When within one and a half miles the Mexicans commenced throwing twelve pound balls at us. One came within a few feet of General Taylor himself. The columns now countermarched, and the Army encamped in a large grove of pecan (pronounced “peken”) trees and at that time the ground was half covered with pecan nuts. During the day the Rangers and Dragoons were out scouting round the city. The Mexicans kept firing at them with their cannon without doing any damage.
The next day was Sunday, and it was observed as a day of rest. An irregular cannonade was kept up all day by the enemy, who fired at our Engineers and Dragoons. General Worth’s division moved off to the right to attack the town at the upper end. The next morning (Monday the twenty first of September) our division marched down to attack a line of forts which commanded the lower end of the town. When within a mile, the larger fort or citadel in front of the city opened all her guns on us. We kept on.
When within half a mile of the first fort our Company and F Company were deployed as skirmishers in advance so the two companies were out a quarter of a mile in advance of the Army at five pace intervals and soon got the fire of the fort. In front men were posted as spies. We went up within gunshot under a fire of grape, musket, and cannon ball and laid low till the main body come up. We had a crossfire also from the large fort in front of the city, which from its tall dark pillars we called The Black Fort.
Our lieutenant had sent myself and four other men and a sergeant to the left to see if there was a body of lancers in a wide shallow ravine which was observed on the left. When the companies joined the regiment our party was so far to the left that when the line came up to the Fort we were with the Tennessee Volunteers, who formed the left flank. We joined with them and for about twenty minutes we fought under a severe fire of grape and musketry. The order from General [David E.] Twiggs [commander of Upton’s division] now came—to charge. We were ordered to cease firing and close to the right in to ranks. This was a trying moment; the noise of our guns had ceased and the smoke cleared away; the screams of the wounded were distinctly heard. I cast my eye along the ranks; what I expected and dreaded to see was there: the men sinking down every second all along.
The word was given—charge. Not four paces were taken before every head disappeared from the ramparts. We leaped across the ditch and onto the parapet, the remainder of the garrison (twenty or thirty men dead, all shot through the head) were flying to another fort. They were met by our infantry and but few made good their escape. Another fort close to this was evacuated at the same time. After this I joined my company [and] was engaged for two or three hours fighting the Mexicans behind their stone forts and on every house (all Mexican houses at Monterrey are of stone, square on the top and surrounded by a wall four feet high).
We were then ordered to retreat out of town to form another charge, the different corps having become scattered. We came out in parties of from thirty to one hundred. Captain [George P.] Fields and Lieutenant [Andrew W.] Bowman led the party that I was in. We came out in a road more to the left than the others. As soon as we got out of town we saw the Lancers coming down in great numbers at a full charge. Our party was not more than forty strong; to fight them was impossible. We commenced a retreat in treble quick time to join the main body. They gained on us rapidly, at the same time firing their scopets, or big carbines. The slow runners were soon overtaken and killed. Captain Fields was among the first victims.
They killed without mercy. I turned my head at one time and saw one of them thrusting his lance through one of our wounded men as he lay on the ground. I made up my mind to shoot the first that overtook me and continue on. I soon found myself exposed to the fire of our men at the advancing Lancers. The latter immediately turned back as fast as they came. One of them was close at my heels at this time. I turned and fired at him, and he fell from his horse, whether from my ball or not, I cannot tell. All but fifteen or twenty of the party were killed. We then formed and went in again and fought two hours more with no other success than killing a few Mexicans while they killed two to one of our men.
Our brigade was then ordered to take possession of the captured forts while the rest returned to camp. In this engagement our regiment, which was only two hundred and fifty strong at this time, had fifty two killed and wounded. About half that number were either killed or died since. Major Lear was mortally wounded (since dead), Captain Maurice, Captain [Philip N.] Barber [Barbour], and Captain Fields were killed. So also was our Adjutant Lieutenant [Douglas S.] Irwin and Lieutenant Hazlitt.
There was one young man named William Mickle, belonging to F Company (formerly E) to whom I was much attached shot through the head by a grape shot. We had agreed before this fight, as also that of Palo Alto, that should one of us be killed, the survivor should write to his friends, so it became my duty [to] forward the painful information. We were talking together for several hours the evening before. He spoke of the coming fight with cheerfulness, but expressed a presentment that he should not survive it. He was a native of Ohio.
But I must not write so many little things, or I shall not have time to answer your letter. We stayed in the open fort that night. It rained all night. In the morning the enemy commenced cannonading and bombarding us from the Black Fort; their shells fell all around the Fort. Some struck on the parapet, but did no harm. We were engaged throwing up a small breastwork in front of the Fort. A cannon ball took off the head of one of the men and wounded another. About noon we were relieved by another command and returned to our camp. That night the Mexicans left our end of the town altogether.
On the morning of the twenty third, the Third Regiment, Bragg’s Battery, and General Quitman’s riflemen went up into the town from the forts and cleared it for a mile square. Every house was a castle and filled with soldiers. The riflemen soon made them clear as fast as they could. They all retreated to the neighborhood of the plaza, or publick square. Stores and houses were broken open, and I suppose the Volunteers made some big raises.
Old Zack was there himself and told the men if they [the Mexicans] would not open the doors, to break in and see what was there. We found a great many guns, etc. concealed in the houses. I saw Old Zack munching a piece of pan (gingerbread) and pelonse (sugar) which he found in a store. We lost but few men this day though we were exposed to some severe crossfiring. Meanwhile, General Worth had got possession of the castle [the Bishop’s Palace, a Mexican strongpoint] and all the upper end of town, and on the fourth day General Ampudia asked for quarter. Some kind of treaty was made and hostilities ceased. I can’t tell how much more fighting we will have but hope it is all over.
I will now notice a few little incidents which happened in the fight and then answer your letter. At the first charge after the engagement had become general I received a blow on my cartridge box as I was loading, which at the time I thought was someone hitting it with his gun. The next time I drew a cartridge I found that the lower part of my box had been struck with a ball, the thick leather at the end where the ball had passed out ripped down at both ends, so that it is probable that this leather saved me from a wound.
After passing the first fort and coming up to the second (which was close by) two officers appeared on the top, waving their swords, holding them by the points, to show that they had surrendered. Some of the volunteers cried out: shoot him! shoot himl General Twiggs, who rode up at this time, roared out: for God’s sake, don’t shoot that man. It was too late. One of them fell dead, the other stooped below the battlements still waving his sword. When the retreat was ordered, and our ill-fated party were going out, one poor fellow had a foot shot off by a cannonball. I saw his shoe fly fifteen or twenty feet in the air. He begged us to help him on, but those immediately about him hurried on but one man who said he would die at his side before he would have a brother soldier exposed to this raking shot. I took his other arm and led him to a hollow out of reach of shot where he told us to leave him and take care of ourselves. Well, I must answer your letter. …
Susan asks if I can’t get free from the Army by paying money? Tell her no, nothing but the most precious of all things will satisfy Uncle Sam—that is time. No, I have but little hopes of getting a discharge before my time is out unless it is brought by a bullet on the battlefield or by disease. So I will live on the hope that sometime when wild war’s deadly blast has blown and gentle peace returns, I will go home and see you all well.
There is nothing makes me feel so unhappy as when I reflect that it is more than probable that before the time arrives when I shall be free to go where I please that either I myself or some of our family will have past to their long home. But hope, being pretty large in my cranium, makes me think that though today is dark and stormy, tomorrow will be bright. …
The following letter, undated but written just after the Battle of Monterrey, represents Barna Upton’s dream of home and the security of days gone by. It is in the form of an imaginary visit to Charlemont and the nearby country as far as Shelburne Falls down the river. In addition to providing insight into the particular pleasures of Upton’s early New England life, the letter is also an indication of his thorough disillusionment with the dangerous life of a soldier at war.
[Monterrey, Mexico November, 1846]
[Dear Brother Elias:] I promised to make you a visit—so now in imagination I will leave this bustling can- vas city and go at once to your door. I knock! You open the door. You see before you a tall, good-looking chap with a suit of blue clothes on and little eagles stamped on his buttons. You will recognize at once your absent brother. Well now, put on your big coat and mittens and take a walk, for by the time this reaches you, it will be cold weather. Let us go up into Gould Hollow and talk by the way of other times when we were boys together. A great many questions are asked and answered and we remind each other of a thousand little adventures and incidents that happened [a] long time ago.
We come at last to our old home. I will not go in for those who used to welcome me there are gone, but I will take a drink from the old penstock and go on up the lane. There is the great field on one side and the orchard on the other. How many days we have worked and played in those fields without a thought of so long and distant separation. Who marks March 12 on the little barn now? I presume that long list of states is discontinued. I suppose the little plum trees in the west garden are big trees now.
I beg pardon for not finishing my letter sooner. Now I must finish it hastfily] for it is now evening and we start on a long march tomorrow at four o’clock. We go to Victoria—270 miles distant. I will finish my visit.
After looking at old and familiar objects a while we will trip over the frozen hills to Rowe. After walking at the rate of twenty miles an hout for ten minutes (that is three and a third miles) and eating some apples, I will take leave. I find Henry grown to be a big boy, but little William, where is he?
We start again for Charlemont. We go down into the valley by the factory, and up the long hill and away to our father’s door. Here I meet our kind father who provided and supported us through childhood. Here, too, is our dear mother; she always watched over us so carefully and cared for us when no one else was near. Do you remember how she would come upstairs at night in winter, when the cold made the nails snap in the roof and ask if we wanted more clothes? I can never repay this kindness, but I shall feel grateful as long as I live. Here, too, I meet our little sisters and sing with them “Home, Sweet, Home.”
But here I must take my leave of all and commence my journey over the Green Mountains, across the Hudson, over the Allegheny and the vast extent of hill and valley, plain and woodland, to the valley of the Mississippi, across that great river to the Sabine, over the prairies of Texas to the Rio Grande, and far into the interior of Mexico to rest on my little moss bed in the camp at Monterrey. Write to me often, direct to General Taylor’s camp, Mexico.
I have no doubt but that our Army will be engaged soon in another bloody battle. How soon it will take place, or whether it may chance not to take place at all, I cannot tell. There certainly can be no place where the uncertainty of life is so fearfully realized as on these battle fields. I have often heard old soldiers say that after the first volleys all thoughts of danger are swallowed up in the wild excitement. This may be partly true, but I am sure everyone, even in the most exciting moments feels a consciousness that he is constantly exposed to instant death.
I agree with Susan when she says she thinks God is angry when men kill each other in battle but still they are sometimes unavoidable and sometimes justifiable. I have not time to finish the page, so I will conclude by wishing you all health and happiness. Barna Upton.
After the Battle of Monterrey, Barna Upton’s regiment was transferred to the invasion force of General Winfield Scott, who was preparing to capture the Mexican stronghold of Veracruz and march directly to Mexico City. On March 9,1847, the amphibious assault began as American soldiers splashed ashore just out of range of the Mexican artillery at Fort San Juan de Ul’fba guarding the entrance to the city. After eighteen days of bombardment Veracruz surrendered, and the American army had established its beachhead. The following letter presents Barna Upton’s account of the invasion and the occupation that followed.
Camp before Vera Cruz April 7, 1847
Dear Brother [Elias]: I will spend a little time this fine Sabbath morning in writing you a letter.
I am well, and the Army generally are in good health. You will have heard, I presume, before you get this of the surrender of Vera Cruz and the small loss of life on our side. Had the place been taken by storm (which was generally expected) it must have cost thousands of lives, but this I believe was never General Scott’s intention.
The loss [on] our side was seventeen killed and twelve wounded. I suppose hundreds of Mexican citizens as well as soldiers were killed by our shells and balls. I was in town yesterday on pass and was surprised at the almost entire destruction of a considerable part of the town. It reminded me of the description I have read of cities destroyed by earthquakes. …
We are encamped three miles from the city on the beach northwest of the castle and city. Our division is on the left of the line which extends entirely around the city to the beach on the other side. We were protected by high sand hills from the shot and shells of the Mexicans, which is one reason of our trifling loss, for we were exposed for fourteen days and nights to a constant cannonade and bombardment both from the city and castle.
In three days our division takes up its march to—well, they call it Jalapa, but I believe there is an H in it somewhere. It is thought there will be some fighting there, but I don’t know how it will go. The heat, at any rate, will be extreme. Already it is as hot here as any weather we have in the summer in the north. I hope and trust the war will soon be over and that the troops will move to the north.
You must continue to write. …
I have not time to write any more, so goodbye from your affectionate brother, Barna Upton.
On Sunday, April 18, 1847, General Scott’s invading army met the Mexicans under Santa Anna at Ccrro Gordo in one of the bitterest struggles of the war. The Mexican army was entrenched in a series of mountain strongpoints which commanded the narrow defile of Cerro Gordo directly in the path of the American army. Direct assault alone would have proved so costly as to have seriously crippled General Scott’s plans for the capture of Mexico City. But due to the brilliant reconnaissance of Captain Robert E. Lee, a flanking action was made possible and the Mexicans were soon dislodged from their positions. Barna Upton was again in the thick of the fight. His description of the charge on the Mexican hilltop positions is one of the best surviving eyewitness accounts of the battle.
Jalapa, Mexico May 16, 1847
Dear Brother [Elias]: With much pleasure I now sit down to write you a letter. My health is good, and my life again preserved amid the dangers of another battle. Four weeks ago today (Sunday), while you were probably engaged in the worship of God at church, I was in a foreign land witnessing and participating in a scene of wholesale carnage and bloodshed; in place of listening to prayers and songs of praise to our Creator, I heard only the thunder of hostile cannon, the rattling of musketry, the clashing of steel, the groans of wounded men, and the shouts of victory as the victors rushed onward, trampling on their fallen foes.
I never was intended by nature for a soldier and I am astonished at the calmness and almost indifference which I experience now in walking over the battlefield. It is only when some shocking instance of mutilation meets my eye that I feel that sensation of horror which it is natural for anyone to feel on seeing hundreds of our fellow beings cut down instantly in the bloom of manhood and laying in heaps on every side. But when I am alone and the wild excitement of the conflict passes away, I realize as well as you how fearful, how strange and inconsistent, is the idea of thousands of intelligent and enlightened men, meeting together to mangle and kill each other.
The fight at Cerro Gordo was, while it lasted, the fiercest one I was ever in. The main height at Cerro Gordo was charged and taken by the Third and Seventh Infantry, supported by the First Artillery, acting as Infantry. When the bugle sounded the charge, we were on a height flanking that of Cerro Gordo with a deep ravine and steep banks between. Down the hill we ran or jumped, the enemy grape thinning our ranks at every step. After gaining the ravine and while making our difficult way up the steep mountain to the enemy’s works, we were completely covered from all shot except a distant battery on our left.
When we came in sight of the enemy’s lines on the hill, they opened with infantry and artillery, but we marched directly up to their breastworks which was a slight one made of one thickness of timber laid one above another and supported by stakes, and drove them to the rocks and behind another breastwork inside the first. We remained behind the breastwork to take breath while we discharged ten or fifteen rounds. Here for the first time since the war commenced we fought with equal advantage. Soon two of their guns were deserted, and our whole force with a loud shout leaped the breastwork and met them at the point of the bayonet.
Here for just one short minute ensued a kind of fighting which I hope never to see again. It seemed like murder to see men running bayonets into each other’s breasts, but they soon turned and ran like a flock of frightened sheep down the hill towards the National Road. They threw away their guns and probably a hundred of them were killed before they reached the bottom.
On seeing this height taken the whole [Mexican] Army on our left threw up their white flag. Santa Anna with his cavalry and some infantry escaped. There were four hundred twenty five killed and wounded in action. Our Regiment lost about forty. In C Company there were three killed and five wounded. I suppose you will have read before you receive this an account of the battle, so it will not be necessary for me to write particulars.
This is enough about war, so I will write about something else. This is the finest Mexican city I have seen yet: the streets are well paved and clean; the houses are large and well built, generally of stone, and painted white; and the inhabitants are intelligent and wealthy. The climate is healthy, no deadly diseases are known, which I think is the case the whole distance to Mexico. We march in a few days for Perote and soon from thence to Puebla and the City of Mexico.…
There is a lofty mountain peak called Orizaba about thirty miles south of this place whose top is always covered with snow. This and the neighboring cities are supplied with ice and snow during the summer months from this mountain. When the sun rises in the morning and its rays reflect on this pure white peak, I have thought it the most beautiful sight I ever beheld. All kinds of tropical fruits grow here in abundance, such as bananas, plantains, pineapples, cocoanuts, oranges, lemons, figs, etc. Here every prospect pleases and only man is vile.
I think it likely we shall have one more fight, either at Mexico or this side, and only one more, for the Mexicans are nearly used up. They may continue the war, however, for a year and annoy us in small parties, but in this way they will hurt themselves more than us. …
After all the inconveniences of an army on a campaign in an enemy’s country I am almost perfectly contented, for in the Army the intervals between battles is a time of profound peace. It is only a short time before a battle when the army of the enemy is near that the American soldier is harrassed and worn by fatigue and watching. At such times he may expect two or three nights and days without sleep and sometimes without anything to eat. At such times I often think of home and our old big buttery, where I used to go whenever I was hungry, but as a general thing I have plenty of grub—that is the soldier’s name for it.
Now by a little yankee ingenuity I can make it appear that my time is nearly out: in six or seven months, it will be New Year, then I can say “my time is out next year.” After all, my time is not quite half in. If I live till my time is out, I think it very doubtful if Uncle Sam gets any more of my services, and I shall have learned a lesson that will prevent me from roving about as I have done. … I remain your affectionate brother, Barna Upton.
After Cerro Gordo, Barna Upton marched with Scott’s army into the series of battles at Puebla, Contreras, Churubusco, and Molino del Key, as the American force moved up the National Road ever closer to the Mexican capital. Upton’s last letter, however, is from Puebla on August 7, 1847, before this latter series of battles, and we therefore have no firsthand account of the part that he played from this point on. The final piece of certain information that is available indicates that he took part in the last charge of the war at the Belén Garita of Mexico City, where he fell mortally wounded shortly before the war ended. Upton’s last letter indicates his premonition that one of the battles that lay ahead would be his last.
City of Puebla, Mexico August 7, 1847
Dear Friends: I will now write a line to inform you that our division marches tomorrow for the City of Mexico. The order came out last night, and I am on guard today, so I cannot write much. I am in good health, and if my life is spared, I will write to you as soon as the Regiment is in quarters.
I received a letter from Elias and one from Father since I have been here. How glad was I to get them, away on a strange and distant land, yet I hope that I shall yet live to return to my Father’s house, but if not, I hope to meet you all in Heaven. I am yours in haste, Barna Upton.
The premonition was all too accurate. The following spring this letter was delivered to Barna Upton’s father:
City of Mexico April 20, 1848
Mr. N. N. Upton Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts Sir:
In answer to your letter addressed to the Commanding Officer of Company C, Third Infantry, the melancholy duty devolves on me of informing you of the death of your gallant lamented son on the 15th October 1847, of wounds received at the Garrita de Belén near this City. He died in the City of Mexico.
Not belonging to the Company at the time of his decease, I cannot say whether he left any effects or money, but the necessary information may be found, no doubt, at the War Department, where you had best write, for there must have been some pay, and his relatives are by law entitled to 160 acres of land, which you should in justice apply for. I was well acquainted with your son from his first joining the Army and have been with him in every fight from Palo Alto to the taking of this City and have to say that a better soldier never served his country or died for it. On your melancholy bereavement I beg leave to offer my condolements to his family. Will you please answer this, and if I can be of any further use to you, please command me, I am, Sir,
Very respectfully, Your obedient servant,
William W. Fogg First Sergeant Company C Third Infantry