Mississippians in the Mexican War
by Tim Harrison
[Originally published in two parts in DeSoto Descendants volume 24, issues 2 and 4, 2006.]
After a decade of suspicion between the two nations, the United States declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846. To assist in the prosecution of that war, Congress passed an Act authorizing the acceptance of volunteers from various states to serve with the regular army for up to twelve months, a dramatic increase from the three months authorized under the previous statute passed in 1795. If the war was to be fought and won, the U. S. Army would have to have the help of large numbers of untrained volunteers. This was because the regular army was small in numbers and scattered at various posts across the country. At the time war was declared General Zachary Taylor had a number of regular forces in Texas near the Mexican border and had already fought two battles with the Mexican Army, Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Needless to say, patriotism was at a fever pitch!
Raising sufficient numbers of volunteers to fight the war was not a problem, at least in the southern and western states. Men and boys rushed to “the colors” for a chance to participate. After all, who hadn’t heard of Davy Crocket and the Alamo, or Colonel Sam Houston defeating the Mexicans at San Jacinto? Who wasn’t outraged by the recent shedding of American blood on American soil by the Mexican army? Mississippians were as patriotic as anyone, and a large number of volunteer companies were formed and forming even before the new law was passed calling for volunteers. On May 9, 1846, in anticipation of war, Governor Brown of Mississippi had sent out an order to the Colonels of militia advising them to “have all effective militia enrolled in companies, ‘and with a view of responding to any call that may be made on this State for troops you are advised to open a list for the enrollment of such volunteers as are ready to march at twenty-four hours’ notice.’” (Dunbar Rowland, Military History of Mississippi 1803 – 1898, p. 19.) The Governor accepted conditionally twenty-eight companies in anticipation of the call for volunteers.
Unfortunately, not all companies raised in the state would being accepted for service and the number of volunteers far exceeded the numbers allocated for the state. A War Department Circular dated May 19, 1846 was sent to various state governors setting forth the number of regiments that would be accepted per state. In spite of the fact that large numbers of her sons had rushed to the colors, Mississippi was only called upon to provide one regiment (ten companies) of foot soldiers! This was outrageous, especially when states further away from the seat of war (Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) were called on to provide up to three regiments each! Nevertheless, Governor Brown sent out a call for those companies on June 1st. By June 10th twenty-two companies had reported to the governor, including the “DeSoto Volunteers” under Captain Felix Labauve and the “Marshall Guards” of Marshall County, under Captain Alexander B. Bradford. Unfortunately, only the first ten companies to be complete and organized were accepted, and DeSoto County’s company was not one of them, though the Marshall Guards was. To somewhat pacify the people of Mississippi, President James K. Polk appointed John A. Quitman, of Natchez, as one of six new brigadier generals of volunteers. Later another regiment and one battalion would be accepted for service, but this was in the future, and only those men who were in this first regiment would see combat. They would win acclaim storming the town of Monterrey and immortal fame on the fields of Buena Vista, but that was in the future.
On July 18, 1846 the Mississippi Regiment elected officers. Captain Alexander Bradford of Marshall County won the vote for colonel on the first ballot, but declined to accept because he did not win by a majority of the total votes cast (there were five candidates for the office). On the second ballot Jefferson Davis received a majority and became its colonel. Bradford was then elected to the position of major. Alexander K. McClung, of the Tombigbee Volunteers, was elected lieutenant colonel. Thanks to the influence of Congressman Jefferson Davis, now Colonel Davis, the regiment went to war armed with a modern rifle rather than the flint lock musket. As a result, they would be afterwards known as the Mississippi Rifles. As later related by Davis:
General [Winfield] Scott endeavored to persuade me not to take more rifles than enough for four companies, and objected particularly to percussion arms as not having been sufficiently tested for the use of troops in the field. Knowing that the Mississippians would have no confidence in the old flint lock muskets, I insisted on their being armed with the kind of rifle then recently made at New Haven, Conn., the Whitney rifle. From having been first used by the Mississippians, those rifles have always been known as the Mississippi rifles.
(Military History of Mississippi 1803 – 1898, p. 21.) The Whitney rifles arrived without bayonets, so the Mississippians improvised with long knives and artillery short swords. This probably suited their character fine. After all, those who tended to enlist in such an outing were generally out for adventure or fame (or both). Men with families to support generally didn’t volunteer for such tasks which would take them away from family and responsibility for a long period of time. This left those who were young and single, older and single, or married and out to make a reputation for later political office or perhaps trying to escape from someone or something.
The Mississippi Rifles, about 990 strong, soon left Vicksburg for New Orleans, where they were joined by Colonel Jefferson Davis on July 21, 1846. While in camp here many men became ill and several died. Others were discharged and sent home as unfit for duty. On July 26th the regiment boarded the steamship Alabama and sailed to Brazos Island, seven miles from Point Isabel, Texas, and the army of General Zachary Taylor. Interestingly, Davis was well acquainted with Taylor, his first wife having been Taylor’s daughter who had died of fever only three months after their marriage. The Mississippians were placed under fellow Mississippian Brigadier General John A. Quitman.
Taylor’s army, led by regular troops under General Worth, began to move toward Monterrey, Mexico on August 19, 1846. Monterrey was a fortified city held by at least 7,300 Mexican soldiers, not counting militia, with 42 cannon. Worth was to set up a supply depot at the town of Cerralvo. Transportation being a problem, General Taylor issued orders on August 28th reducing the number of troops to be used in the campaign by about half. Fortunately, the Mississippi Regiment was one of those chosen for the campaign and would remain in Quitman’s Brigade as part of Major General Butler’s Field Division of Volunteers. The Order further stated: “The regiments designated will be reduced to a strength of 500 men each, exclusive of officers, by leaving behind all sick and disabled men, and all who shall not be deemed capable of undergoing the fatigues and privations of the campaign.”
At the beginning of the campaign Taylor’s army numbered 6,640 officers and men organized into three divisions: First (Twiggs), Second (Worth) and Field Division (Butler). The volunteer division, which included Quitman and the Mississippians, were the last to leave Camargo for Cerralvo. The harsh conditions of the march were later described as follows:
Fever and other diseases had weakened the volunteers in camp at Camargo; heat and thirst now threatened to put an end to their miseries. In five days, Butler’s division – all raw men – marched seventy-five miles, for the most part through barren country, where no water could be had, and the thorny chaparral was the only vegetation visible. At the close of each day the men staggered as if drunk – breaking the ranks constantly to rush to holes in the earth in search of stagnant water, but seldom finding the boon they sought. Scores of fine fellows died by the roadside, and were hastily thrust into pits dug at night, and covered over with a few handfuls of dry earth.
(“Taylor’s Battles in Mexico,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 11, Issue 62 (July 1855), pp. 175 & 177.)
The Volunteer Division did not reach Cerralvo on September 13th, the same day that Taylor sent Worth’s Division on toward Monterrey. Butler’s Division would follow in the 15th. Each man in the army was ordered to carry eight days rations and forty rounds of ammunition. Also by order of General Taylor, two companies of the Mississippi Regiment (A & F, as it turned out) were to remain at Cerralvo to guard the depot. By the morning of September 19th the army was at Monterrey, setting up camp three miles from the town.
Taylor’s plan of attack called for Worth’s Division to swing far to the right around the Mexican Army’s left flank and attack from the west, while the main army threatened from the eastern side of the city. General Worth and his division began their march around the Mexican’s left flank on the late on the 20th. This movement was spied by the Mexicans, causing Taylor to display his other divisions in front of the town until dark.
The attack on the city began early on the morning of September 21st. In order to assist General Worth’s attack, Taylor ordered the other two divisions “under arms,” and to move in the direction of the city. Twigg’s Division was “directed towards the lower part of the town, with orders to make a strong demonstration, and carry one of the enemy’s advanced works, if it could be done without too heavy loss.” (The Mexican War and its Heroes, published 1860 by J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, p. 39.) Artillery of both sides was firing. The attacking force, under Lt. Col. Garland, was taking heavy fire. Three regiments of Butler’s Division (Mississippi, Tennessee and Ohio) were ordered forward to support the attack. The troops under General Quitman, along with three companies of the 4th U.S. infantry, were to attack a fortress called La Teneria, a fortified tannery. A fierce volley struck the 4th infantry, which lost one-third of its men, forcing it to retreat. “General Quitman’s brigade, though suffering most severely, particularly in the Tennessee regiment, continued its advance, and finally carried the work in handsome style, as well as the strong building in its rear.” (The Mexican War and its Heroes, p. 41.) Lt. Col. McClung, of Mississippi, was the first man over the walls, followed closely by Captain William Rogers of Company K. According to witnesses, Lt. Col. McClung mounted the breast works of the fortification, waived his hat, and was in the process of “giving three cheers” when he was struck by a musket ball and dangerously wounded. (Niles’ National Register, 24 October 1846.) (Quitman’s men captured five pieces of artillery, ammunition, and thirty prisoners.
No active operations were conducted on the eastern side of the city on September 22nd. About 9 a.m. Quitman’s men marched from their camp and relived Lt. Col. Garland’s command in the captured fortifications. As General Quitman noted in his report, “Both regiments [Mississippi and Tennessee] were much reduced by the casualties of the twenty-first, and the necessary details for the care of the wounded. The march necessarily exposed the brigade for a short distance to a severe fire of artillery from the works still in possession of the enemy on this side of the city, and from the cross-fire of the citadel. We were not allowed to reach our post without some loss. Private Dubois, of Captain Crump’s company [H] of Mississippi riflemen, was killed, and two men of the same company wounded, before entering the works.” (The Mexican War and its Heroes, p. 84.) The Mississippians remained in place throughout the day and night, coming under sporadic fire of shell, round shot, and grape shot from the Mexicans. The night was very rainy and cold, and the men without blankets or overcoats. Still, as General Quitman related, “not a murmur was heard.”
Early on the morning of the 23rd it was discovered that the Mexicans were abandoning the strong defensive works (Fort Diablo) near the Mississippi Rifles. This fact was communicated to General Taylor, who left it to Quitman’s discretion whether to attack. General Quitman ordered Colonel Davis, along with two companies of Tennessee volunteers, to take possession of the works, which was promptly done. Prisoners and ammunition were captured, but the artillery had already been withdrawn. Quitman noticed yet another redoubt in advance of his position and received permission to attack. Davis, with two companies each of Mississippi and Tennessee volunteers, was given the task. The redoubt was carried, but found to expose the men to fire from the Mexicans in stone buildings and behind stone walls to the rear. Quitman then gave Davis permission to establish his men as he deemed best. While reconnoitering, several shots were fired at Davis, which fire was returned by the riflemen. Soon there was “brisk firing” by both sides. The Mexican headquarters was in the Grand Plaza, which was the target of the American forces. “The streets were barricaded with mason-work pierced for musketry, and every second house had on the roof a sand-bag battery, from whence showers of bullets were poured on [the American troops]. The Mexicans fought obstinately.” (Taylor’s Battles in Mexico, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 62 (1855), p. 180.) The troops under Quitman would have to advance through a hail of fire. As later reported:
From this commencement, in a short time the action became general. The enemy appearing to be in great force, and firing upon our troops from every position of apparent security, I [Gen. Quitman] dispatched my aid, Lieutenant Nichols, with orders to advance the whole brigade which could be spared from the redoubts occupied by us. A portion of the Mississippi regiment, under Major Bradford, advanced to the support of the troops engaged... Detachments of our troops advanced, penetrating into buildings and occupying the flat roofs of houses, and by gradual approaches driving the enemy back... Buildings, streets, and courts were occupied by our troops without much loss, until, after being engaged for about five hours, having advanced within less than two squares of the great plaza, apprehensive that we might fall under the range of our own artillery, which had been brought up to our support, and our ammunition being nearly exhausted, active operations were ordered to cease until the effect of the batteries, which had been brought forward into one of the principal streets, could be seen.
(The Mexican War and its Heroes, pp. 86-87.)
General Taylor ordered General Quitman’s troops to fall back to their original position, which was done in good order. A concerted attack would be planned for the next morning. However, early on the 24th the Mexican commander, General Ampudia, sent General Taylor a note proposing to evacuate the town. Negotiations commenced, with Colonel Jefferson Davis serving as one of the U. S. commissioners, and soon the battle was over. The Mexican Army began evacuating the city on September 26th under the terms of an armistice which would last until November 13th.
Victory had not been cheap. General Taylor reported his losses from the battle as 12 officers, 108 men killed and 31 officers, 337 men wounded. The Mississippi regiment lost 9 killed and 52 wounded, five of these mortally. In the Marshall Guards, Corporal William H. Grissam and Privates Joseph Heaton and Joseph Downing were killed, and Sergeant Francis Wolf and Privates Charles Cotton, George Williams and Nat Massie were wounded. Private James Miller of Company B, writing to his wife after the battle, probably spoke to the vast majority of soldiers, regulars and volunteers, when he wrote: “I want to get home and see my wife and children and be at peace. War is not the thing it is cracked up to be. It may look well to those at home in security but not to those in camp or in action.” (H. Grady Howell, Jr., Mississippi Rifles, pp. 5-6.)
For a time there were no battles to fight. However, events had been moving away from General Taylor and his army. In perhaps the biggest blunder of the war, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had been in exile in Cuba, had been allowed by the U. S. to re-enter Mexico in August. Santa Anna had promised to work for peace, but he was no sooner back in his homeland that he quickly took over control of the government and the army. Rather than peace, he would soon move north to offer battle to General Taylor. In addition, the tactics of winning the war were changing. Rather than marching to Mexico City from the north, another army, under General Winfield Scott, would perform an amphibious landing at the port city of Vera Cruz and march inland from there. Unfortunately for Zachary Taylor, Scott was authorized to take troops from Taylor for use in his campaign. Scott chose to take almost all of the regular troops and a number of the volunteers, including those commanded by General Quitman. However, General Taylor reportedly requested that the Mississippi Rifles remain with his army, which was allowed.
After the defeat of General Ampudia’s Mexican Army by General Zachary Taylor’s army at Monterrey, Mexico in September 1846, most American soldiers believed the war was nearly at end. The members of the Mississippi Rifles, so distinguished in the recent battle, were not exception. Colonel Jefferson Davis, commanding the regiment, took a leave of absence to return home, leaving command to Major A. B. Bradford. Under the terms of an armistice between the two forces, Ampudia’s army was permitted to withdraw from the city, and the armistice had to be approved by both governments. Such was not to be. Unknown to Taylor and his veterans, the war would continue for more than a year. While Taylor’s army remained in and around Monterrey, an invasion of Mexico by a second American Army under the command of General Winfield Scott was planned for gulf coast city of Vera Cruz. This was believed to be the quickest road to Mexico City and victory. In the meantime, the U. S. government decided that more soldiers would be needed for the task.
Mississippi was called upon to supply a second regiment, which became known as the Second Mississippi Regiment. Like their predecessors, they were armed with a modern percussion rifle rather than the old flintlock musket used by most infantry troops. The call for volunteers went out from Governor Brown on November 27, 1846. Enlistment would be for the period of the war, and the rendevouz for the new companies was Vicksburg between January 1-5, 1847. The ten new companies accepted for service were:
Co. A – Lowndes Guards, Capt. Andrew K. Blythe.
Co. B – Marshall Relief Guards, Capt. J. H. Kilpatrick.
Co. C – Choctaw Volunteers, Capt. Enos Elder.
Co. D – Monroe Volunterrs, Capt. Joel M. Acker.
Co. E – Tippah Guards, Capt. A. M. Jackson.
Co. F – Lauderdale Volunteers, Capt. W. J. Daniel.
Co. G – Hinds Guards (Jefferson County), Capt. Charles Clark.
Co. H – Union Grays (Attala County), Capt. Adam McWillie.
Co. I – Panola Boys, Capt. A. A. Overton.
Co. K – Union Company (Lawrence and Covington Counties), Capt. Benjamin C. Buckley.
On January 12, 1847 Reuben Davis was elected Colonel, Captain Kilpatrick was elected Lieutenant Colonel, and Ezra R. Price was elected Major. This regiment was destined to arrive in northern Mexico too late for the fighting, but served faithfully as part of the Army of Occupation. Many of its men were to die of disease before the regiment returned home in the summer of 1848. By June 1847, 167 men had died, 134 had been discharged, and 38 had deserted. (Military History of Mississippi 1803 – 1898, p. 30.)
While the Second Mississippi was being recruited and making its way to the seat of war, the First Mississippi was engaged in occupation duties along with the rest of General Taylor’s army. General Santa Anna, meanwhile, had not been idle, and had put together a force of more than 20,000 men to confront and drive out the Americans at Monterrey. He assembled his forces at San Luis Potosi, about 300 miles south of Monterrey.
Congress repudiated the armistice between Taylor and Ampudia, and hostilities officially recommenced on November 13, 1846. General Taylor knew that Santa Anna’s plans were to bring his army north and try to recapture Monterrey and northern Mexico. He made plans to thwart the attack. However, through no fault of his own, his plans had to be changed:
Taylor, intending to act on the defensive only, proposed to occupy a line stretching from Saltillo to Tampico, which fort had been evacuated by the Mexicans; and, in pursuance of this plan, marched on Saltillo and Victoria, and occupied them without resistance. His plans were frustrated by a requisition from General Scott depriving him of Worth’s and Twigg’s divisions of regulars. Thus reduced to a force of some 5000 men—all of whom, except a few dragoons and artillery, were volunteers—Taylor was compelled to abandon his projected line, and to content himself with one stretching from Saltillo to the mouth of the Rio Grande. December, January and February were spent by the army in awaiting the Mexican attack.
(“Taylor’s Battles in Mexico,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 11, Issue 62 (July 1855), p. 181.)
The road Santa Anna must take, from San Luis Potosi to Monterrey, ran north across desert country through Encarnacion, then Agua Nueva about eighteen miles south of Saltillo, then through the pass at La Angostura, a narrow defile near the hacienda of Buena Vista, and thence to Saltillo before turning east a bit north of that place to Monterrey, a journey about three hundred miles. Boredom was soon the result of waiting for the American volunteers. As with all amateur armies, inactivity by the army led to restlessness and rowdiness among the volunteers who needed activity to preserve discipline. In late November Kentucky troops shot a Mexican boy as he worked in the field. As one volunteer wrote, “Plundering is getting pretty common and often with bad results, recently an old gray headed sheep herder was shot because he objected to the shooting of his sheep.” (K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War 1846 – 1848, p. 204.) Whether the Mississippi volunteers were also engaged in such activities is unknown as they were detailed as part of Taylor’s personal escort during this time. On February 14, 1847 Taylor moved his army south to Agua Nueva in preparation to meet the Mexican Army.
By February 19, 1847, Santa Anna’s army of 15, 142 men was encamped at Encarnacion, a few miles south of Agua Nueva. To meet this threat Taylor had a force of only 4, 650 men. Taylor had very few veteran troops, and almost no regular army troops (two companies of the Third U.S. Artillery and members of the First and Second U. S. Dragoons – no regular infantry). Only one of regiment of his volunteers had been tested in battle: the Mississippi Rifles. The remainder of his forces were untried volunteers from Arkansas (one mounted regiment), Illinois (First and Second Illinois infantry regiments), Indiana (Second and Third Indiana infantry regiments), Kentucky (one mounted regiment and the Second Kentucky infantry regiment), and Texas (Captain Connor’s Company of Foot and Captain McCulloch’s Company of Mounted Volunteers). Thus Taylor and the Americans faced a force more than three times their number! As Taylor later reported: “As the camp at Agua Nueva could be turned on either flank, and as the enemy’s force was greatly superior to our own, particularly in the army of cavalry, I determined, after much consideration, to take up a position about eleven miles in rear, and there await the attack. The army broke up its camp and marched at noon on the 21st, encamping at the new position a little in front of the hacienda of Buena Vista.” (The Mexcan War And Its Heroes, p. 60.)
Not being familiar with the ground, General Taylor ordered General John E. Wool to make the necessary troop dispositions for the defense of the position before heading back to Saltillo with the Mississippi Rifles and a squadron of the 2nd Dragoons. The purpose of his visit to Saltillo was to organize the defense there to counter any raids against that place by Mexican Cavalry.
Santa Anna’s army arrived in front of the American position at eleven o’clock on the morning of February 22nd (George Washington’s birthday). Santa Anna sent forward a note under flag of truce informing the Americans that they were “surrounded by twenty thousand men, and cannot in any human probability avoiding suffering a rout, and being cut to pieces with your troops.” (The Mexcan War And Its Heroes, p. 58.) The note went on to ask for the American surrender. Taylor’s reply was brief: “In reply to your note of this date, summoning me to surrender my forces at discretion, I beg leave to say that I decline acceding to your request.” Taylor’s army was in high spirits. As Taylor later described the position in his report:
Our troops were in position, occupying a line of remarkable strength. The road at this point becomes a narrow defile, the valley on its right being rendered quite impracticable for artillery by a system of deep and impassable gullies, while on the left a succession of rugged ridges and precipitous ravines extends far back toward the mountain which bounds the valley. The features of the ground were such as nearly to paralyze the artillery and cavalry of the enemy, while his infantry could not derive all the advantage of its numerical superiority.
(The Mexcan War And Its Heroes, p. 61.)
The Mexican light troops advanced its right to attack the extreme American left. As Taylor described it, “The skirmishing of the light troops was kept up with trifling loss on our part until dark, when I became convinced that no serious attack would be made before the morning, and returned, with the Mississippi regiment and squadron of the 2d dragoons, to Saltillo.” (The Mexcan War And Its Heroes, p. 62.) Taylor was right. The troops camped on the field of battle that night without lighting fires.
The Mexican’s began their advance about 2 a.m. on February 23rd, when the American pickets were driven in. The main advance of 7,000 Mexican troops then took place about day break against the American left flank where the 2nd Indiana Regiment was posted along with three cannon under Captain John P. J. O’Brien, 4th U. S. Artillery, and members of the Arkansas and Kentucky cavalry regiments. The Americans fought bravely but were greatly outnumbered at the point of attack. The American artillery advanced to within musket range of the Mexican infantry, but was unable to check its advance. The 2nd Indiana was ordered to move forward to their assistance but, misunderstanding the directive their colonel instead ordered, “Cease fire and retreat.” (The Mexican War, 1846-1848, p. 214.) At this order the regiment broke and fled, having suffered a number of casualties already. By doing so they exposed the left flank of the 2nd Illinois Regiment.
By this time it was about 9 a.m. and General Taylor had arrived on the scene along with the Mississippi Rifles (minus companies D & K, left at Saltillo to help defend the encampment). This was to be their hour of destiny! The Mississippi Rifles were directed to the left flank and, as Taylor later recalled, “immediately came into action against the Mexican infantry which had turned our flank.” (The Mexican War And Its Heroes, p. 65.) In his report Colonel Jefferson Davis later wrote:
We had approached to within about two miles of [the battlefield], when the report of artillery-firing, which reached us, gave assurance that a battle had commenced. Excited by the sound, the regiment pressed rapidly forward, manifesting upon this, as upon other occasions, their more than willingness to meet the enemy.
... As we approached the scene of action, horsemen recognised to be of our troops, were seen running, dispersed and confusedly, from the field; and our first view of the line of battle, presented the mortifying spectacle of a regiment of infantry [the 2nd Indiana] flying disorganized from before the enemy....
(The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 3 1846-1848, p. 140.)
The Mississippi Rifles, undaunted by the turmoil and confusion, advanced to the attack. Davis, riding at their head, appealed to those who had abandoned their positions to “return with us, and renew the fight; pointing to our Regiment as a mass of men behind which they might securely form.” His appeal, however, was largely unheeded. After asking General Wool for a regiment to support him in the attack, the Mississippi Rifles prepared to advance. As Davis would later report:
The enemy in number many times greater than ourselves, supported by strong reserves, flanked by cavalry, and elated by recent success, was advancing... The moment seemed to me critical, and the occasion to require whatever sacrifice it might cost to check the enemy.
My Regiment having continued to advance was near at hand. I met and formed it rapidly into order of battle; the line then advanced in double quick time, until within the estimated range of our rifles, when it was halted, and ordered to “fire advancing.”
The progress of the enemy was arrested. We crossed the difficult chasm before us under a galling fire, and in good order renewed the attack. The contest was severe,—the destruction great upon both sides. We steadily advanced, and as the distance was diminished the ration of loss was increased rapidly against the enemy; he yielded, and was driven back on his reserves.
(The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 3, p. 141.)
About this time a body of Mexican cavalry (lancers) skirted the American left and descended on the hacienda of Buena Vista, opposed by the Arkansas and Kentucky mounted volunteers and the remnants of the infantry that had fled before the Mexican infantry earlier in the morning. The fighting was fierce with many losses on both sides before the Mexicans withdrew.
When the Mexican lancers had gone around the Mississippians, Col. Davis “ordered the regiment to retire, and went in person to find the cavalry, which after passing round our right, had been concealed by the inequality of the ground.” (The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 3, p. 141.) He found them, attempting to form for the purpose of attacking the Mississippians from the rear. Calling for his men, they attacked this body of enemy cavalry and dispersed it with some loss. Davis believed their commander had been killed in the fight, and Davis, himself, had been wounded painfully in the heel, but refused to leave the field.
By this point Davis had been joined by Lieutenant Kilbourne with a piece of artillery and Colonel Lane’s 3rd Indiana Regiment. The artillery opened fire and the Mexicans retreated at the Mississippi and Indiana regiments advanced to the spot where the Mississippians had first met the Mexican attack that morning. The Mexicans opened a heavy artillery fire against this force, forcing the 3rd Indiana, which was most exposed to the fire, to move from the left of the Mississippi Rifles to its right. Davis had previously sent out men to search for wounded where they had fought earlier in the day. When these men returned, Davis ordered the regiment to retire “by its left flank” and march along the bank of the ravine. The Indiana troops were concealed from Mexican view during this maneuver, “who was probably thereby encouraged to make an attack.” The action was about to commence which made Davis and the Mississippians household names. As Davis later wrote:
We had proceeded but a short distance, when I saw a large body of [Mexican] cavalry debouche from his cover on the left of the position from which we had retired, and advance rapidly upon us. The Mississippi Regiment was filed to the right and fronted, in line across the plain; the Indiana Regiment was formed on the bank of the ravine, in advance of our right flank, by which a reentering angle [a V with the open end toward the Mexicans] was presented to the enemy. Whilst this preparation was being made, Serjeant Major Miller, of our regiment, was sent to Captain Sherman for one or more pieces of artillery from his battery.
The enemy who was now seen to be a body of richly caparisoned lancers, came forward rapidly and in beautiful order—the files and ranks so closed, as to look like a /sold/ mass of men and horses. Perfect silence, and the greatest steadiness prevailed in both lines of our troops, as they stood at shouldered arms waiting an attack. Confident of success, and anxious to obtain the full advantage of a cross fire at short distance, I repeatedly called to the men not to shoot.
As the enemy approached, his speed regularly diminished, until, when within 80 or 100 yards, he had drawn up to a walk, and seemed about to halt. A few files fired without orders, and both lines then instantly poured in a volley so destructive that the mass yielded to the blow, and the survivors fled.
(The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 3, p. 142.)
This repulse was described by later historians as follows: “The Mexicans tumbled and rolled under this blast of metal, bodies shattered, blood pouring, weapons lost, men crawling away over heaps of bodies, drawing back out of the fire. The V of Buena Vista marked the turning point of the battle.” (Time-Life Books, The Mexican War, p. 87.) Had the lancers broken through, they would have been behind the American army and could potentially have been the difference between victory and defeat.
As much as the Mississippians had accomplished so far, there was still more to do. The Mexican Army, having failed in its attack of the American left, shifted their attack to the right of the Mississippians position, more toward the center of the American lines. Davis and his men were ordered to move toward that position.
The Mexican attack was hit by American artillery and pushed back momentarily. Some of the American troops, two Illinois and the Kentucky regiments, believing the Mexicans were in retreat, launched a counterattack which ran straight into a Mexican advance. There was hand-to-hand fighting before the Americans were forced to withdraw back to their lines. Among those killed was Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay, Jr., of the Kentucky Regiment. The Mexicans pressed on in spite of casualties, forcing Captain O’Brien of the American artillery to abandon two of his guns. At that moment Captain Braxton Bragg (later a Confederate general) arrived with his battery and was ordered by General Taylor to hold the position “at every hazard.” Bragg asked his commander who would support his guns and was informed that Taylor and his aide, Major Bliss, would do so, whereupon the guns went into action. The Mexican attacked bore down on these guns, and Taylor had this now-famous conversation with Bragg:
“What are you using, Captain, grape or canister?”
“Single or double?”
“Well, double-shot your guns and give ‘em hell, Bragg.” Which was done.
(The Mexican War, p. 216.)
While Bragg’s artillery was thus engaged, Davis’ Mississippians were moving toward the fighting:
After marching two or three hundred yards we saw the enemy’s infantry advancing in three lines upon Capt. Bragg’s battery; which, though entirely unsupported, resolutely held it’s position, and met the attack with a fire worthy of the former achievements of that battery, and of the reputation of its present meritorious commander. We pressed on, climbed the rocky slope of the plain on which the combat occurred, reached it’s brow so as to take the enemy in the flank and reverse, when he was about one hundred yards from the battery. Our first fire—raking each of his lines, opened close upon his flank—was eminently destructive. His right gave way, and he fled in confusion.
(The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 3, p. 143.)
At last the fighting was over for Colonel Davis and his men. The Mississippi Rifles had performed magnificently during the fighting, earning a reputation which would later sweep Jefferson Davis into the presidency of the Confederate States. Taylor would later write in his report: “The Mississippi riflemen, under Colonel Davis, were highly conspicuous for their gallantry and steadiness, and sustained throughout the engagement the reputation of veteran troops. Brought into action against an immensely superious force, they maintained themselves for a long time unsupported and with heavy loss, and held an important part of the field until reinforced.” (The Mexican War And Its Heroes, pp. 71-72.)
The cost of victory had been high. Taylor’s army as a whole lost 267 killed, 456 wounded and 23 missing. Twenty-eight of the killed at been officers. Santa Anna later reported his losses as 591 killed, 1,048 wounded, and 1,894 missing. The Mississippi Rifles lost 42 killed and 51 wounded during the fighting. Company I, the “Marshall Guards,” lost the following: Killed—Sergeant Garland Anderson (of DeSoto County), Henry G. Trotter, John S. Branch, Addison Collingsworth, John Peace, and James W. Vinson. Wounded—Sergeant Plummer M. Martin, John Hudspeth, Thadeus O. McClanahan, Thadeus D. Randolph, and John Bass. (Military History of Mississippi, p. 28.)
The war for the men of what was now known as the First Mississippi Rifles was over, their twelve month enlistment expiring. On May 2h9, 1847 they sailed from the Bazos for New Orleans and a hero’s welcome. The regiment had taken 926 to war and returned to New Orleans with only 376, showing a loss in battle and from disease of 550 men. (Military History of Mississippi, p. 28.) It had left the Second Mississippi Rifles behind to perform occupation duties in northern Mexico, which was no easy task. It would not return home until the summer of 1848.
One more group of Mississippians was raised for the war effort. In 1847 the President asked Mississippi to supply one more battalion of infantry for the war effort. This time DeSoto County would be well represented as the commander of the battalion, James Patten Anderson, and an entire company, C, were from the county. Some time later James Patten Anderson, then of DeSoto County and later a Confederate general, recalled the formation of Company C:
In October, 1847, I received an earnest appeal from Governor A. G. Brown, of Mississippi, to organize a company in response to a call from the President of the United States, for service in Mexico. (I had previously made several efforts to enter the military service during the war with Mexico, but all the organizations from DeSoto county had failed to be received by the Governor, their distance from the capital making them too late in reporting.) In a few days I organized a company of volunteers from the regiment of militia in the county, of which I was then colonel. I was elected captain of the company without opposition. H. Car Forrest was elected 1st lieutenant, my brother John Adair was elected 2d lieutenant, and my brother Thomas Scott, orderly sergeant. The company repaired hurriedly to Vicksburg, the rendezvous. Two other companies had already reached the encampment. After waiting a fortnight or more for the other two companies of the battalion called for by the President to report, the five companies were sent to New Orleans for equipment and organization. Having received arms, clothing, &c., they embarked about the 2d of January, 1848, for Tampico, Mexico.
On the 22d of February, 1848, I was elected at Tampico lieutenant-colonel to command the battalion. I remained at Tampico till the close of the war, when I was mustered out of the service along with the battalion at Vicksburg, Miss., and reached my home at Hernando on the 4th of July, 1848.
(Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXIV, 1896, pp. 57-72.)
The other companies which comprised Battalion of Mississippi Rifles were:
Company A – Captain Keye’s Co. (Chickasaw County).
Company B – Captain Crowson’s Co. (Copiah County).
Company D – Pontotoc Avengers (Pontotoc County).
Company E – Captain Stewart’s Co., (Monroe County).
The men of Company C were: David G. Agee, James P. Anderson (Lt. Col.), Jesse Anderson, John A. Anderson (Adjutant), Thomas S. Anderson (1st Sgt), William Anderson, John P. Barnes, James Bee, Washington O. Benthall, George W. P. Booth, Jefferson C. Bradley, John Franklin Bradley, William B. Carter (bugler), Zebulon M. P. Clough (3rd Cpl.), Bayless E. Cobb (4th Cpl.), Josiah Cobb, William R. Cox, Absalom L. Crumbly, Walker K. Crumby, David L. Dalton (musician), Joseph P. Dickson (Q.M.S.), Hilliard Dorsey (Capt.), Jeremiah M. Douglass, Ashley D. Eason, Archibald S. Edmonson, Andrew I. Ellis, George S. Fisher, John Fisher, Hardeman Car Forrest (2nd Lt.), John M. Forrest, John S. Garrett, James T. Griffin, Leonidas Gwaltney, George W. Hancock (3rd Cpl.), Jesse M. Harrell (2nd Cpl.), Granville O. Haynes (2nd Cpl.), James P. Heiston, Joseph W. Hicks, James Hodge, Lewis M. Holloway, Josiah Holt, Calvin Howard, William A. Inabnet, Thomas D. Jean, John C. Jones, Richard S. King (1st Lt.), Elijah Knott, Samuel Langley, Alfred Lewis, Henry Lewis (2nd Sgt.), Ansylum G. Lipsey, George H. Livingston (1st Sgt.), David McGeehee, Edward A. McKenna, Joseph W. Manning, Solomon Mason, Andrew J. Matlock, Charles M. Matlock (musician), Stephen W. Miller (1st Cpl.), William S. Moore (3rd Sgt.), Waddy F. Morgan, Thomas Mulcare, Charles B. Nash, William O’Brien, Joshua Payne, Samuel G. W. Poag, Belfield W. Prior, William Rapplee, Rankin Sloan, John Sweeney, William P. Thompson, John W. Van Wagener, John M. Walker, Allen Williams, John Williams, Simon Williams, Benjamin F. Winters, Carlton Luke Wolcott.
Major General John A. Quitman
While the two regiments and one battalion of Mississippi Riflemen were serving in northern Mexico, one of Mississippi’s sons played a prominent part in the campaign against Mexico City. John A. Quitman, of Natchez, was originally appointed a Brigadier General of Volunteers by President Polk in 1846. He lead a brigade which included the Mississippi Rifles in the battle of Monterrey in September 1846. In December 1846 Quitman led the advance on Victoria, which was surrendered without a fight.
When General Winfield Scott took many of Taylor’s troops to form his army in January 1847, Quitman’s brigade (less the Mississippi Rifles) went along. In April 1847 he was promoted to the rank of Major General. They were present for the amphibious landing at Veracruz and were under Mexican artillery fire during the siege. The day after Veracruz was surrendered to the Americans, Quitman’s brigade was tasked with capturing the Mexican town of Alvarado in hopes of capturing much needed supplies, including beef. However, while Quitman’s troops were marching toward their objective, the U. S. Navy prematurely captured the town, permitting most of the needed supplies to be captured or destroyed. Quitman then returned to Veracruz and prepared to follow Scott’s army, which had moved inland. Because of the Alvarado expedition, Quitman and his brigade missed the battle at Cerro Gordo. However, military laurels were to come to General Quitman later in the campaign before the gates of Mexico City.
Quitman’s brigade played an important role in the capture of Mexico City. His men carried the Belen gate and were the first to raise the American flag above the city. He was afterward named Governor of Mexico City during the occupation. After restoring order to the city, he “demanded command of a full division of the army, and, not obtaining the same, repaired to Washington and presented plans for the permanent occupation of Mexico. Being offered by the President any position to which his rank entitled him, he asked command of the military district including General Taylor’s army. But the treaty of peace ended his military hopes and he was honorably discharged in July, 1848.” (Military History of Mississippi, p. 33.)
Recommended further reading:
John A. Qutiman Old South Crusader, by Robert E. May.
Mississippi Rifles, by H. Grady Howell, Jr.
The Mexican War, 1846-1848, by K. Jack Bauer.
DeSoto County Coordinator: Tim Harrison
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