History of the War with Mexico - H. O. Ladd

Episodes of the War

Personal traits of General Taylor—The soldiers blunder—An officer's pique—Camp discipline good for officers as well as soldiers—The sentinel's wrath—The general's mistake—Mexican chivalry—The fatal ambuscade.

Incidents that exhibited the influence of democratic institutions in every station of American life were continually recurring in this war.

The rugged simplicity of General Taylor was in nothing more conspicuous than in his habits of dress and in his intercourse with his soldiers. He was seldom in uniform, but rode about his camp dressed in citizen's clothing of brown color.

Riding one day along the road through an encampment, he was accosted by one of the cavalry-men, who did not imagine his rank, but had taken a fancy to his horse.

"Hallo, stranger, how will you swap that pony for this horse?" giving his own horse a slap.

"Old Zach," as he was familiarly called by his men, stopped, and in the most matter-of-fact way said that he "did not care about swapping, for the pony was a favorite of his."

The orderly in attendance now rode up in full uniform, and took his proper position behind the general. The private's suspicions were aroused. He blushed and stammered as he realized his mistake, and asked pardon of the general. Taylor smiled and assured him that he had done no harm, and inquiring of his regiment's long march from Tennessee, complimented his State and its soldiers, and rode on.

Another general was addressed in a similar way by a soldier who knew him and admired his horse.

"Good-morning, general. A fine horse, that black you ride."

No reply was given by the lofty-minded officer. "How would you swap him for this one, general?" he continued.

This officer was apparently made of different stuff from General Taylor, for turning away from the soldier he ordered the guard in an angry voice to "arrest that man."

The soldier was innocent of any intention to offend, but saw his unhappy position. As they were taking him off he said in the hearing of the officer: "Why, the general is a fool; he did not know but that I would have given fifty dollars to boot." It was but a few minutes after the arrest that the general, recovering himself from his surprise and petulance, ordered the release of the soldier.

The innumerable instances of the laughable traits and conduct of soldiers under difficulties beguiled many a lonely night and wearisome days in camp or on the march. The men were ever ready to enjoy the ridiculous but sometimes trying experiences of their comrades.

One dark night a Tennessean was on guard. The surface of Mexico is cut up with arroyos or gullies, and the tall grass of the prairie hid these from sight as the sentinel paced his beat of sixty yards. He fell into these gullies two or three times, and was hardly able to repress his own vexation, till he listened to the soliloquy of the guard next to him, who had a still more broken ground to pace. He had picked himself out of the arroyos two or three times without comment, but at last began to swear to himself, as his floundering experiences increased. But into a gully he would go as he finished each round of oaths. "This is a pretty place to put a fellow this time of night," he was heard to say. "I shall break my neck sure before we are relieved. Ah, here is another! Didn't catch me that time: if I had a candle I should come it. No need of a guard along here anyhow. If any of the Comanches, Lipans, Mexicans, or any other of the cursed red skins, should come here they could not get into camp; for they would break every one of their necks in these gullies. Down he went again, as he finished his sentence, his gun striking heavily on the ground. As he got out, he growled, "Curse the gullies, what's the use of walking back and forward any way? I won't do it. I'll stay right here. "And in that spot he did stay.

Under the severest showers of cannon or musket balls the American soldiers were remarkable for their coolness and firmness of bearing. At Monterey, a regular officer observed one of his men halting beside the body of a volunteer whose brains had been dashed against a wall while standing near him. "What do you stop there for?" asked the officer. "Are you afraid?"

"Afraid! no!" he replied. "I was only thinking how a man that had so many brains could be fool enough to volunteer to come to such a place as this. "

A Tennesseean at Monterey had a spent ball take away his front teeth and lodge between his double teeth. "There now," he said, as he dropped the ball from his mouth into his hand, "I'll bet a month's pay there ain't another man in the army that can let the Mexicans shoot at him and catch the ball in his teeth in that way. "

This was equaled by the sangfroid of an adjutant who said to a brother officer, under a tornado of balls which they were facing in the thickest of the fight, "This is a hard shower to be in without an umbrella."

The following story related in detail by the author of "Twelve Months' Volunteers," is an amusing instance of literal obedience to orders:

The colonel in command of a cavalry regiment stationed outside of Matamoras had impressed upon the picket guards the great importance of vigilance, and one day charged them to allow even an officer who was known to them to pass without the countersign, only in the daytime, but after nightfall they were to know no one, not even himself as an officer, not even if his face or voice could be distinctly recognized.

One day the colonel himself had gone into town and was delayed till night. Two lieutenants had also dashed away to town after parade, to attend a Mexican fandango or dance. All of them had neglected to take the countersign. They returned together after their business and enjoyment. A sentinel heard them coming as they approached the picket line, the two lieutenants in front. They were challenged and told to give the countersign.

"We have not got it," was the reply. "You know us—"

"Halt! and remain where you are, "quickly replied the sentinel, levelling his gun as they still approached.

"But we must go in," said all, advancing toward the guard, "there will be no harm. "But they were met again with the muzzle pointed at them and the soldier's hand on the trigger. "Stop! you are near enough," he said in warning, and they heeded his command in time to save a shot. They turned angrily away for consultation.

The colonel, now very much amused, came nearer to see the discomfiture of the officers. One of them was an adjutant, and he tried in vain to pass the guard. At last the colonel himself drew up to the sentinel, and commended him for the soldier-like fidelity of his act. "Now," he said, "I am pleased to see you so prompt and decided in your discharge of duty; and I trust the lesson will not be lost on these officers, for officers should set an example of military discipline to the soldiers. Let these gentlemen in; and depend upon it we think much more of you for your firmness."

The colonel was clearly recognized by the soldier in the bright moonlight, but he turned to his commanding officer in reply.

"Have you the countersign?"

"The countersign—no! it is not necessary for me to have it—you know me. I am your colonel."

"You can't go in, "said the sentinel, standing erect before them.

"Look at me," said the colonel, standing with shining epaulets and sword in the bright light away from the shadow of some bushes, where he had been partially hidden. "Don't you know me now?"

"I might know you in the daytime," said the soldier coolly, "but now I do not know you; you cannot go in; remain where you are. "

"Where is the officer of the guard?" at length the colonel inquired.

"He is gone into camp."

The sentinel was told to call him.

"Should like to accommodate you, gentlemen, but can't leave my post."

They sat upon the ground and held their horses for two hours in the cold night air, till the officer of the guard came up to relieve the sentinel, and found the officers chilled and shivering, without even a blanket for protection. They were quickly let into the camp, and the night's repose in their tents and blankets quieted their indignation.

The next day the colonel specially complimented the sentinel who reminded him of his own order, that "no one, not even himself, should pass at night without the countersign."

There was a genuine enthusiasm in the heart of General Taylor which endeared him to the rough soldiers, who were ready to follow his commands to the death in the most desperate moments of a battle.

At a critical time in the engagement at Buena Vista, he sent Mr. Crittenden to order the Second Kentucky Regiment to sustain one of the columns staggering under a tremendous charge of the Mexicans. Led by Colonels McKee and Clay, they marched into the fight with a steady front. They had to cross ravines and very rough ground to gain their position, and only their heads were visible to General Taylor and his staff watching their progress. They seemed to be broken and dismayed by the fire of the Mexicans as they crossed this ground, and were often individually out of sight in the march.

General Taylor, knowing how much depended on their gallantry, and believing, from the irregular appearance of their heads above the uneven ground, that they were faltering, turned to Mr. Crittenden, who, like himself, was a Kentuckian, with mingled mortification and fierceness in his countenance, and said:

"Mr. Crittenden, this will not do; this is not the way for Kentuckians to behave themselves when called upon to make good a battle; it will not answer, sir." With brow knit and clenched fist, and lips compressed in anger, he still watched them, receiving no reply, from his aide, who, like himself, was overcome with shame.

But erelong the Kentuckians began to ascend the slope out of the ravine with the firm step and even lines of veterans. They came to the crest of the hill, meeting the Mexicans in the flush of a victory already within their grasp. Now delivering their volleys by companies with deadly aim, the general saw the Mexicans fall in terrible slaughter, till their ranks were broken and they retreated in confusion. His stern face had relaxed, and pride and joy now animated his eyes as he saw them approaching the heavy battalions of the enemy, and as the sheets of flame rolled out from their columns, he shouted in a loud huzza, rising in his saddle:

"Hurrah for old Kentuck! That's the way to do it: give it to 'em!" he cried, with tears of exultation now moistening his hardy cheeks. Then turning to other parts of the field he gathered up other columns to hurl them upon the foe, and complete the victory.

With the same generous spirit toward an enemy, General Taylor, when introduced to the brave Mexican general, La Vega, on the battle-field, took him by the hand, and warmly shaking it, said:

"General, I do assure you I deeply regret that this misfortune has fallen upon you. I regret it exceedingly, and I take pleasure in returning you the sword which you have this day worn with so much gallantry. "

The character of the Mexican generals was often as chivalric and high-minded as that of the American officers. The capture of nearly one hundred Arkansas and Kentucky cavalry at the hacienda of Encarnacion, some days before the battle of Buena Vista, was effected by General Miņon in a manner most creditable to his soldier-like qualities and humanity. He had made a forced march of one hundred miles to surprise them, and toward night had surrounded the two American scouting parties in the hacienda without their knowledge, the night being very dark and a high wind prevailing. In the morning, the Mexican cavalry force, three thousand in number, and in splendid array, were revealed to the astonished Americans resplendent, with the stirring strains of three fine bands rolling upon the air in exulting tones.

But these sturdy Americans were not intimidated. The bugle notes of the Americans rung out defiantly as they were marshaled in line for the desperate struggle for their lives.. General Miņon wished to save them a useless and certain death, and sent a flag of truce summoning them to surrender, and stating the force which surrounded them at every point. He offered them honorable terms as prisoners of war. The men were unwilling to yield and did not credit his statement of the strength of his force. General Miņon now sent an officer of equal rank as hostage, while Major Gaines went into their ranks and assured himself of their force. He reported that resistance would be only to throw away life, and the Americans accordingly surrendered. Thus the cool and humane judgment of this accomplished Mexican cavalry officer, when he had his foes in his power, spared the bloodshed of his own men and secured the capture of the Americans.

General Taylor, apprised by one of these American prisoners who escaped, of the presence of the advance-guard of Santa Anna's army, marched at once to Agua Nueva to meet him before the battle of Buena Vista.

The conflicts with the guerillas, especially after the fall of the city of Mexico, were some of the severest tests of bravery which tried the American soldier, though they had nothing of the glory or incentive to heroism which hung over a battle-field, where thousands fought in the presence of their generals. When Scott left Puebla on his march to the capital, he appointed Colonel Childs as governor of that city. He had as a garrison less than four hundred men ready for duty, with which the city and two forts a mile distant were to be guarded. His situation was a critical one, for it was threatened by General Rea, of the Mexican army. On the morning of the 26th of August, Colonel Childs received information, that a stock-yard near Fort Loretto had been attacked by guerillas and seven hundred and fifty mules driven away. He could not detach either his infantry or cavalry in pursuit, so weak were his numbers, and an irregular force of mounted men thirty-three in number, under the command of Captain Blanchard, of the quarter-master's department, were sent in pursuit. They followed the tracks of the animals into a ravine. Crossing the ravine and ascending a hill beyond, the advance-guard were fired upon by a few guerillas, who immediately fled to a stone house in sight of the crest of the hill.

Captain Blanchard gave orders to charge upon them. When half way down the hill, a large body 'of men darted out of the willows which had concealed them. He found himself drawn into an ambuscade, with guerillas, lancers, and infantry to the number of eight hundred men, appearing on all sides. He ordered a retreat toward the city, but this was the signal for hundreds more to swoop out with cries and screams upon their prey, successfully entrapped. As they approached the ravine, where only one man could cross at a time, the opposite bank was lined with lancers, and Captain Blanchard, seeing all hope lost of successful resistance, reluctantly gave the desperate order for every man to save himself, or sell life at the utmost cost to the enemy.

His men scattered in a moment. Some rode into the ravine and hurled themselves on the lances of the Mexicans. Others rode along the bank to find some other crossing, or galloped into a neighboring corn-field, which they found was filled with infantry. Back and forth they dashed in the narrowing circle, smiting their merciless foes till, with their leader Captain Blanchard, they were cut to pieces. Of the thirty-three men, eleven escaped, by hewing their way through the enemy's lines, or flying before them as they were pursued, and saving themselves by the speed of their horses.