Boys' Book of Border Battles - Edwin Sabin

Face to Face with Mexico (1846)

In the American Army at the Rio Grande

Although, after his capture by the Texans, President Santa Anna of the Mexican Republic had signed a treaty agreeing to the independence of the Republic of Texas, the Mexican government at home did not stand by the act.

Mexico said that he had signed while a prisoner, without authority. She granted him no powers, for peace; she refused to admit that the Texas Americans had strengthened their cause in the eyes of the civilized world by sparing his life when he deserved death for his bloody deeds. At the next national election he was defeated for president again.

Mexico had plenty of other presidents and generals. She continued to look upon Texas as only a rebellious province. There was skirmishing back and forth through almost ten years.

The Republic of Texas insisted that her western and southwestern boundary extended to the Rio Grande River. This had been allowed in the treaty with Santa Anna. Mexico held that as a Mexican province Texas extended merely to the Nueces River where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico one hundred and twenty miles this side of the Rio Grande. That cut Texas short by one hundred and twenty to six hundred miles.

From her first year as a republic, Texas had wished to join the United States. When the annexation came up before the United States Congress Mexico objected stoutly. The fact that volunteers from the United States had aided Texas in her fight for independence was another sore point. Feeling ran high, on both sides. American citizens trading with Mexico, or living there, were illy treated; a number of claims for damages to American life and property were filed against the Mexican government. Mexico delayed payments, and broke agreements. Her word could not be relied upon, for she changed presidents frequently, by revolutions as well as by elections.

Finally, in March, 1845, the Republic of Texas was invited into the United States as a State. Mexico said that if she were "robbed" of her province, in this fashion, she would regard the matter as an act of war. Texas, however, had been recognized as a republic by other nations; and now Mexico consented to recognize her, if she would promise not to unite with any of them. But Mexico was too late. Texas preferred to become a part of the United States, and on June 23 accepted the invitation from Congress.

Thus the Lone Star State, largest of all the States, entered the Union. The great nation of the North Americans strode at one step to the Mexican boundary.

What was this boundary: the mouth of the Nueces River or the Rio Grande River? Nothing had been said upon the question, in the articles of annexation. Texas had come in simply as Texas.

The United States of course had engaged to defend its new State of Texas from attacks. Mexico had gathered troops along the lower Rio Grande, as if to invade and fight for possession. August 3 General Zachary Taylor landed fifteen hundred Regulars at the mouth of the Nueces River; he formed his camp at Corpus Christi on the farther shore of the Gulf, in the territory claimed by both Texas and Mexico.

Peace between the two nations was still being talked of. President Herrera of Mexico, a man with open mind, agreed to receive a United States envoy who should discuss this matter of Texas, and perhaps settle the boundary dispute. Mexico might be willing to release Texas to the United States, and retain the strip of land along the Rio Grande, as a protection against invasion; for it was a desolate country.

But when Minister John Slidell had arrived in the City of Mexico, after no little difficulty, to adjust the boundary dispute and also the damage suits, the Mexican congress declined to consider the damage suits at all. Another Mexican revolution occurred; President Herrera was ousted and the unfriendly Don Maria Paredes was chosen.

That ended the business. President Polk at Washington was not caught napping. He had already decided to place troops at the Rio Grande, to prevent Mexican forces from crossing into Texas. The United States believed that it had rights there equal to the Mexican rights, until the controversy was proved.

General Zachary Taylor, "Old Zach," started his advance from Corpus Christi March 8, 1846, while Minister Slidell was waiting to be received by Mexico. His force at Corpus Christi had been increased to four thousand men, all Regulars. He was a brevet brigadier general, he ranked as colonel, and he had half the United States army. The armed troops of Mexico numbered thirty thousand.

General Taylor was instructed by the Secretary of War that he might call upon the States for militia; that in case of attack by the Mexicans he might cross into Mexico. But by the Constitution of the United States the State militia were not obliged to serve outside the borders of the nation. They were home guards. Therefore General Taylor had to depend upon the little Regular army alone until Volunteers had been sworn in.

It was a good army. During the seven months at Corpus Christi "Old Zach" had been drilling his regiments hard. Company for company the four thousand Regulars matched the best corps of Europe. Four-fifths of the officers were graduates of West Point—the best military school in the world. They knew their duties. Most of the officers not graduates had smelled powder in the war of 1812 and the Seminole War. The ranks were armed with flintlock muskets carrying three buckshot and a ball; could shoot and would obey orders.

General Taylor left about five hundred officers and men at Corpus Christi, to guard the port. Corpus Christi had grown from a straggling village to a crowded town of a thousand civilians. There were saloons, stores, and an American theater, of muslin tacked upon flimsy pine frames. Between duties the officers raced half-wild mustangs on the prairie, hunted the deer, the panther and the wild hogs. The Gulf weather was supposed to be balmy, but during the winter everybody suffered from the northers or sleety storms. Brush hedges were planted, to shield the tents and other quarters. All in all, when marching orders came the regiments were glad to move.

The three thousand five hundred in the marching column comprised seven companies of the Second Dragoons; four companies each of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Artillery; the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Infantry. In these regiments there were officers due to become famous during the Civil War. The Mexican campaigns trained them.

The Second Dragoons were commanded by Colonel David Emanuel Twiggs, of Georgia, who had been appointed to the army in the war of 1812, had led the dragoons against the Seminoles in Florida, and was a burly, red-faced fighter. He gained high honors in the Mexican War, won the brevet of major-general in the Regular service; but in 1861 while yet an officer of the United States army he handed the district of Texas over to the Confederates, and was dismissed from the rolls as a traitor. Thus he blackened a bright record.

In the dragoons there was First Lieutenant Henry H. Sibley of Louisiana, who invented the Sibley army tent, and who at the opening of the Civil War resigned to become a brigadier general for the South. There was Captain William J. Hardee, of Georgia, who compiled the Hardee's Rifle & Light Infantry Tactics which were adopted by the United States army and were used for a time by both North and South. He also resigned in 1861, and rose to be a lieutenant-general for the South. And there was Second Lieutenant Alfred Pleasanton of the District of Columbia, who became a major-general for the North, and was a celebrated commander of Union cavalry.

In the Third Artillery there was First Lieutenant Braxton Bragg of North Carolina, who as full general in the Confederate army defeated General Rosencrans at Chickamauga, but was crushed by General Grant at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. And there was also First Lieutenant George H. Thomas of Virginia, who as a Union general was known as the "Rock of Chickamauga," and commanded the Army of the Cumberland.

In the Fourth Artillery there was Brevet Second Lieutenant Fitz John Porter, who was to command the Union Fifth Army Corps at the battles of Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill, and who was censured for disobeying orders at the second battle of Bull Run.

In the Third Infantry there was Brevet Second Lieu-tenant Bernard E. Bee of South Carolina, who as one of the most popular of the Southern brigadier generals was killed at the first battle of Bull Run. And there was Second Lieutenant George Sykes of Maryland, who as a Union hero of Gaines Mill and Gettysburg won a brevet of major-general.

In the Fourth Infantry there was plain Second Lieu-tenant Ulysses S. Grant.

In the Fifth Infantry there was Second Lieutenant Edmund Kirby Smith, of Florida, who became chief of staff to the Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, and rose to be one of the most successful of the Southern field leaders.

In the Eighth Infantry there was Second Lieutenant James Longstreet, who was called "Old Pete" by the Southern soldiers and achieved fame as a fighting Confederate general. And there also was Second Lieutenant James G. S. Snelling of Minnesota and Ohio, who served so gallantly in this Mexican War that Fort Snelling of Minnesota was named for him.

And in the topographical engineers there was Second Lieutenant George G. Mead, who with his troops won the battle of Gettysburg for the Union.

General Zachary Taylor himself was a sturdy commander. "Old Zach," his soldiers called him; and soon, "Old Rough and Ready." He did not object; rather liked it, for "rough and ready" was his style in camp and field. At this time he was sixty-two years of age. He had been born in Virginia but raised in Kentucky while Kentucky was the frontier. He loved the outdoor life; as a boy he had hunted and fished and had followed the forest trails. When seventeen he and his brother had swum across the broad Ohio and back, without pausing, opposite Louisville, in March amidst the drifting ice.

He had entered the army as lieutenant of the Seventh Infantry in 1808; had been a captain during the War of 1812; had won promotion from captain to major for his defense of Fort Harrison (the fort established by Governor William Henry Harrison in his march upon the Prophet's Town) against the Winnebago and Potawatomi Indians in the summer of 1812; had commanded ill the Seminole War, in Florida, and had fought the bloody battle of Okechobee.

At the outbreak of the trouble with Mexico he had been in charge of the military department of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, with headquarters at Fort Jesup, of Louisiana near the Texas northeastern border.

Now in the field in Texas he represented that old type of army officer who cared little for uniform or ceremony, but battled stoutly. He wore a common straw hat or else a battered fatigue cap; a short linen coat, sometimes a draggled linen duster, and dingy linen pantaloons; rode a white horse of the "nag" order, and was fond of sitting it sideways, woman fashion. Anybody might speak to him; he answered a private soldier as readily as he would answer an officer. He was not a stickler for cut-and-dried discipline, but he was to be obeyed. Made few plans before a battle; studied tactics not at all; was a go-ahead fighter, hand-ling things when he came to them, and quick to strike at the right moment. Knew no fear; wrote such short reports that the Secretary of War complained. "I put into them all that I have to say," Old Zach replied.

He had a wrinkled, weather-beaten face, an erect figure strongly built, short legs, long body, an alert manner, a bright blue eye, a high forehead, and a "farmer" look.

The troops, three thousand five hundred and fifty-four, with the dragoons of Colonel "Old Davy" Twiggs leading, and the two brigades of foot soldiers under Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) William J. Worth of the Eighth Infantry and Colonel James S. McIntosh of the Fifth Infantry following, were twenty days in arriving at the Rio Grande River of southwestern Texas, opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros.

The march had been rather uncomfortable, across prairies of heavy grass and mesquite thickets and prickly-pear cactus, and desert stretches where the only water was salty. Nobody lived in that country.

At the Colorado, a stream part way, a Mexican force had appeared upon the western bank, and had warned General Taylor not to try passage or there would be a fight.

"As soon as I cut down this bank I intend to cross," General Taylor announced. "The first Mexicans that I see after my men enter the water will be shot."

He leveled the high band, for his artillery and wagons; the men plunged into the water and waded through. But the Mexicans had vanished.

It was reported that the Mexican general Ampudia was on his way with five thousand soldiers to reinforce Matamoros, above the mouth of the Rio Grande. On the Gulf shore just this side of the mouth of the Rio Grande there lay the little Mexican village of Point Isabel or Frontone. The United States transports were to land the army supplies here. General Taylor took the dragoons and wagons and hastened down to seize Point Isabel before the Mexicans should cross and occupy it.

He was in time. He found the transports, but the village was abandoned and burning. This looked like war. He did not know whether war had been declared by Mexico; the transports did not know. A company of the First Artillery and a company of the Fourth Artillery were detached from the column in camp at Palo Alto, to reinforce the post. Major John Munroe, a hard-headed Scotchman who had graduated at West Point in 1814, was placed in command. Then with his column General Taylor had proceeded on from Palo Alto, through a fine country of oranges, cattle, quail and wild ducks (as well as rattlesnakes) eight or nine miles south to the Rio Grande opposite Matamoros.

Two bold dragoons, scouting too far ahead, were captured by Mexican cavalry. A boy bugler who had been with them came running back afoot, with the news. But except for this everything had gone like clockwork, although many of the soldiers were ill.

At one o'clock noon of March 28 the three thousand able-bodied Americans were paraded upon the bank of the Rio Grande, the Stars and Stripes were planted, challenging the Mexican flags across the river. The bands played Star Spangled Banner and Yankee Doodle. The dragoons' game cock flew on top of a baggage wagon and flapped his wings and crowed. The ranks gave him three cheers, for defying the Mexicans.

The Rio Grande River here, about twenty-seven miles above its mouth, was five hundred feet wide. The defenses of Matamoros, half a mile from the south bank, could be seen. They appeared strong, with several forts and breastworks, and considerable artillery.

General Mejia was in command there, with two thousand troops. General Taylor sent Brevet Brigadier General Worth over with a flag of truce and a note for General Mejia. General Mejia proved haughty. He refused to receive the note from anybody save General Taylor himself. Ile appointed General de la Vega, of his staff, to talk with General Worth.

"Has Mexico declared war upon the United States?" General Worth demanded.

"No, senor," said General Vega.

"Are the two countries still at peace, sir?"

"They are, senor."

"Then I wish to be taken to the American consul."

"That is impossible, senor."

"You decline to give me, an officer of the American army, access to the consul of the United States?"

"My instructions do not include your consul, senor."

"That is an unfriendly act, sir."

"I have no opinion to offer upon the matter, senor. But I would ask, is it the intention of General Taylor to remain on the left bank of the Rio Bravo?"

"Most assuredly, sir," replied General Worth, who was a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Florida War, and wore his uniform proudly. "And there he will stay until otherwise directed by his Government."

"The flag of North America has been advanced by you into Mexican territory, senor, and we view it with surprise and much displeasure."

"That, sir, is a matter of taste," General Worth retorted. "Just the same, there it will remain."

"Your attitude must be considered by Mexico as one of war," General Vega accused.

General Worth laughed lightly.

"General Mejia may very easily determine when and where the war shall begin, sir. It will then be for the United States to say when and where it shall end. And I will add that the commanding general of the American forces on the left bank of the Rio Grande will view the passage of any armed party of Mexicans across the river as an act of war and will pursue a course accordingly."

General Worth stiffly saluted, turned upon his heel and, hot under the collar, went back to camp. General Taylor stroked his grizzled chin, while listening to the report. The Mexicans were commencing new fortifications, between the river and the town. He directed that his engineers construct a fort on his side.

The Mexican troops were paraded, to make a showing, full in view of the American camp. They were gaily uniformed, well equipped, and splendidly drilled. General Taylor himself was not much on show. All the citizens of Matamoros flocked in front of the town, to stare at the soldiers of "North America." There were elegantly dressed caballeros, and handsome women with flashing black eyes. The sprig young American officers lifted their caps and called, across the river : "Buenos dias, senoritas—good day, ladies."

But General Taylor was not here to palaver. He erected a heavy battery of four eighteen-pounders, pointed at the Matamoros plaza; a strong field fort, of earthen walls and sand-bag parapets, to hold a garrison of five hundred men, was being pushed, behind the battery. It was named Fort Mansfield, after Captain Joseph K. F. Mansfield of the engineers, who laid it out—and who afterward, or in 1862, as major-general of Volunteers was killed at the battle of Antietam. Fort Taylor and Fort Texas were other names for it. The two captured dragoons had been returned unharmed. They said that they had been well treated. But the Mexicans were crossing the river.

April 10 Colonel Truman Cross, assistant quarter-master general, disappeared. He had gone out for a little ride up the river, on his horse, and did not come back. Guns were fired to guide him in, if he were lost. Notes of inquiry were sent to the Mexican commander. General Mejia replied that he knew nothing of Colonel Cross.

On April 11 drums rolled, bands played, and bells rang, in Matamoros. General Pedro de Ampudia had arrived with a large body of Mexican Regulars. He took command, and forwarded a note to General Taylor.

"I require you in all form, and at the latest in the peremptory term of twenty-four hours, to break up your camp and retire to the other bank of the Nueces River, while our governments are regulating the pending question in relation to Texas. If you insist upon remaining upon the soil of the Department of Tamaulipas [which was the Mexican claim to that part of Texas], it will clearly result that arms and arms alone must decide the question."

General Taylor replied that the United States Government had been trying for a long time to settle the boundary dispute; and that the American commissioner sent to Mexico had been refused. As for himself, he had been ordered to occupy the left bank of the Rio Grande until the boundary had been agreed upon by both governments, and he would be unable to retire.

Said Captain Bliss, General Taylor's son-in-law and assistant adjutant-general, to his fellow officers:

"Well, gentlemen, you may get ready. It's coming."

When the twenty-four hours were up, the little army of Old Zach was indeed ready, in order of battle. But the Mexicans of General Ampudia did not advance.

Second Lieutenant Theodoric Porter of the Fourth Infantry and First Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Dobbins of the Third Infantry, with ten enlisted men each, were detailed to search for the lost Colonel Cross. Colonel Cross probably had been murdered by Mexican guerillas under the bandit chief Romano Falcon. That was the belief, now.

Lieutenant Porter's detachment fell into an ambush by the guerillas, on the American side of the river. A rain had dampened the priming of the flintlocks; the guerillas unhorsed Lieutenant Porter, killed him and Private Flood with knives while the two were lying wounded and helpless on the ground. Lieutenant Porter was the son of the brave old Commodore David Porter, who had so gallantly defended the Essex frigate in 1812.

Next, the remains of Colonel Cross were found in the brush. He also had been murdered. This was now settled. The soldiers vowed vengeance for the cruel deaths of Colonel Cross, Lieutenant Porter, and Private Flood.

General Taylor blockaded the Rio Grande. The American squadron under Commodore Cornier held the mouth and would not allow vessels to pass up for Matamoros. General Ampudia protested; he said that a blockade could be maintained only in time of war. And he said other things, of an insulting nature.

"Upon my arrival here I tried to arrange for peace. General Mejia would not receive my note. And you yourself have declared for war," General Taylor answered. "I consider your language disrespectful to my Government."

On April 25 there was another great celebration in Matamoros. A third Mexican general had arrived. He was General Arista, commander-in-chief of the Mexican Army of the North. He politely sent word that he was going to fight.

The Mexican forces in Matamoros seemed to wake up. Drums beat, bugles pealed constantly; at night signal rockets flared. It was reported by the scouts and spies that Mexican troops were being thrown across the river, both above and below the camp of the American Army of Occupation.

To learn what he might of that, General Taylor ordered reconnoissances. Captain Croghan Ker with Company K of the Second Dragoons was dispatched on a scout doom the river; Captain Seth Thornton and Captain William Hardee with F and C companies, sixty men, were dispatched up the river. Their guide, a native named Chapita, who was thought to hate the Mexicans, deserted them. At the ranch of La Rosia, only sixteen miles from camp, they were surprised in a large brush-fenced yard by twenty-five hundred Mexican lancers and guerillas under General Torrejon. Captain Thornton leaped his horse over the eight-foot fence, but the horse fell and pinned him down. He was captured; Second Lieutenant George T. Mason and eight men were killed, two wounded. Captain Hardee had to surrender the remaining forty-six to the Mexicans.

General Taylor announced that war had actually begun on this April 26; he summoned Texas to supply him with four regiments of Volunteers.

He needed them. Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers and six men spurred in from Point Isabel. The Rangers also had found the enemy on this side of the river; on April 28 while out scouting toward Fort Mansfield had encountered fifteen hundred of them; had been driven back to the Point.

It was plain that General Arista was busy; was cutting off the American force, above and below. How many Mexican troops there were, General Taylor did not know. Five thousand, eight thousand, ten thousand? The little garrison at Point Isabel, twenty-three miles by road from the camp, was in great danger of attack; and an army of two to one, or three to one, supported by batteries, was likely to attack the camp at any hour.

Word of the defeat of the American detachments, and of the tight situation of the General Taylor troops soon reached the East. Excitement welled high. Recruits flocked to the enlistment offices in the large cities; Volunteer regiments were formed; the news-papers said that General Taylor had been overwhelmed—the Mexican troops had surrounded him and crushed him. The Government was much blamed for having given him only a small column, separated from speedy succor by three hundred miles of land and water travel.

Old Rough and Ready did his best. He had no fear but that his "boys" would stand by their guns, in battle. They were trained to the minute, were full of determination and eager for a fight. Now the situation was this: He had left four hundred and fifty men—most of them raw recruits—at Point Isabel, and his supplies were there. Possibly more recruits might have arrived, by this time. He had about three thousand men, able to fight, and several hundred invalids and camp followers, here at the Rio Grande, and Fort Mansfield was not yet finished. Rations were getting short. There were enough for only eight days. No wagons or boats could come in.

So he might stay where he was, and risk being bottled up by a Mexican army, while Major Munroe defended Point Isabel. He might retire beyond the Nueces, and wait for reinforcements. Or he might march back to Point Isabel, maybe through the Mexican lines, drive the enemy away from it, and get his supplies.

He was not going to lose his supplies and his recruits and his base. He certainly was not going to retreat. Therefore he decided to march to Point Isabel.

Fort Mansfield was so far completed that it could give a good account of itself. The walls contained six bastions, the bomb proofs were under cover; two of the long eighteen-pounders had been mounted. General Taylor left for its defense the Seventh Infantry, Captain Allen Lowd's Company I of the Second Artillery, and Lieutenant Braxton Bragg's Battery E of the Third Artillery, all commanded by Major Jacob Brown of the Seventh, who had entered the army as a private in the War of 1812. He was a sturdy soldier and officer.

The fort sheltered the hospital cases and the camp followers, who included many women—laundresses and wives of non-commissioned officers. There were no tents; the eighteen-pounders lacked ball in quantity; the food might last a week, on a pinch; but General Taylor relied upon Major Brown to hold out.

"You will remain strictly on the defensive," Old Zach directed. "And expend no ammunition unnecessarily. In case you are being hard pressed you may fire signal guns with your eighteens and I will take measure for your relief."

At half-past three o'clock in the afternoon of May 1 General Taylor and his twenty-three hundred men marched east for Point Isabel, twenty-three miles by the shortest route across country.

From Matamoros the Mexicans watched him go. General Arista had been puzzled by the preparations. Was the American general about to retreat, or attack? The bulk of the Mexican army had already been thrown across the river and was gathered twelve miles below. General Arista recalled part of it, to strengthen Matamoros. Then General Taylor had marched toward Point Isabel. The Mexican column did not move again quickly enough to block him. He arrived at Point Isabel the next noon, without having sighted an enemy.

The citizens of Matamoros celebrated. They were certain that the American general had retreated.

"General Taylor dared not resist the valor and enthusiasm of the sons of Mexico," they proclaimed. "When our cavalry reached the place where they were to stop him, he had passed and was several leagues ahead. Great was the sorrow of our brave men. Why did not the Americans remain with firmness under the colors? Thus has an honorable general kept his word! Had he not said in all his notes that he was prepared to repel all attacks? Why then does he flee in so cowardly a manner, to shut himself up at the Point? The commander-in-chief of the American army has covered himself with shame in sacrificing a part of his forces, whom he has left in the fortifications, in order to save himself!"

At five o'clock Sunday morning, May 3, the heavy batteries of Matamoros opened fire upon Fort Mansfield. Reveille was just being sounded at Point Isabel when the dull booming of distant cannon rolled in from the west. The reports of the Major Brown eighteen-pounders could not be mistaken. Fort Mansfield was being bombarded, and was replying.