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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Battle of Buena Vista
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[During the period covered by our last selections events were taking place in another part of America in whose results the United States were destined to become vitally interested. The events referred to were the revolution in Texas and its annexation to the United States. This province of Spanish American had attracted many emigrants from the adjoining States on the east, who showed a strong rebellious sentiment against the oppressive acts of the Mexican government, and in 1835 broke out into open rebellion. A collision took place on October 2 of that year. A war ensued, which continued with varying fortunes until the following year, a Declaration of Independence being made by the Texans on March 2, 1836. On March 6 took place the famous massacre at the Alamo, and on April 21 the battle of San Jacinto, in which the Mexicans were badly beaten, and their general and president, Santa Anna, taken prisoner. He was forced, as a condition to his release, to send the Mexican troops from the country and to decree the cessation of hostilities

The independence of Texas was soon after acknowledged by the United States, France, and England, and in 1845, in response to a proposal from the Texan authorities, the new republic of Texas was accepted as a State of the American Union. This action gave great umbrage to Mexico, which country had never acknowledged the independence of Texas, and in the ensuing year collisions took place between the armies of the two countries, on the border line of the Rio Grande. On May 7, 1846, a conflict occurred on Texan soil, at Palo Alto, and another on the ensuing day, at Resaca de la Palma, in both of which the Mexicans were defeated. These events were quickly followed by a declaration of war on the part of the United States, and an army of fifty thousand volunteers was called for.

Mexico was invaded in several directions, General Kearney marching upon Santa Fe and General Wool towards Chihuahua. The results of these movements were the occupation of the province of New Mexico and the capture of the city of Chihuahua, while Fremont, about the same time, took possession of California.

Meanwhile, General Taylor, with the main army, advanced, and laid siege to the strong city of Monterey. The assault on this city began on September 21, and was repeated on the 22d and 23d, the troops excavating their way through the stone walls of the houses. On the morning of the 24th the Mexican general surrendered. The succeeding events were the capture of Saltillo by General Worth, of Victoria by General Patterson, and of the port of Tampico by the fleet under Commodore Perry.

A new enterprise was now projected by the government at Washington,-the capture of Vera Cruz, and a direct march from the coast upon the city of Mexico. General Scott was sent out to take the chief command, and withdrew most of the regulars under Taylor to aid in this expedition. Taylor's force was now reduced to about ten thousand volunteers and a few companies of regulars. Meanwhile, Santa Anna was at San Luis Potosi, with twenty-two thousand of the best troops of Mexico, prepared to oppose his advance. In early February, 1847, Taylor advanced with part of his force to Agua Nueva, but learning that Santa Anna was marching on him with his whole army, he fell back to Buena Vista and took position in a strong mountain-defile. He had then with him four thousand seven hundred and fifty-nine men to oppose an army of about twenty thousand.

Santa Anna's march to this point had been a difficult one, through deserts and over mountains, his army almost destitute of food and water. A speedy victory or a hasty retreat was necessary for him, for his men could not long be sustained in the country into which he had advanced. Yet he had a serious task before him, despite the small force of his opponents. The pass through the mountains, which the Americans had seized, was constricted by impassable gullies, till it was little wider than the road that traversed it, while on each side rose high and precipitous mountains. Three miles distant was the small village of Buena Vista, where the American baggage-and supply-trains were stationed. On February 22 the Mexican army advanced to the southern entrance to the pass, and Santa Anna sent General Taylor a summons to surrender, which was without ceremony declined. Some skirmishing took place, but the main action was reserved for the next day. For the description of it given below we are indebted to Frost's History of Mexico and the Mexican War."]

At daylight on the 23d of February both armies were in rapid motion. General Taylor had reached Saltillo [about eight miles from the field of battle] on the previous night. Near this place General Minion had maneuvered all day, for the purpose of cutting off the expected retreat of the American army, and perhaps of making an attempt upon the town. In order to be prepared for any emergency, the commander appointed four companies of Illinois volunteers to garrison it, assisted by Webster's artillery. He then proceeded to Buena Vista, and ordered forward all the available troops from that place.

During the night the enemy had succeeded in gaining the top of the mountain, where the skirmish of the preceding evening had taken place, and in passing thence to the left and rear. Under cover of the night about fifteen hundred men had been thrown forward to the same position, and were now prepared for an attack upon the light troops of Colonel Marshall. Here the battle of the 23d commenced at an early hour. Heavy volleys of musketry, succeeded by the roar of cannon and shouts of officers, convinced General Wool that the left wing was to be the principal point of attack. The intrepid riflemen, animated by their commander, received the shock from the immense masses of the enemy with coolness, pouring back, in return, the contents of their unerring rifles. Soon they were reinforced by three companies of the 2d Illinois volunteers, under Major Trail. The troops covered themselves behind ridges of the mountains, in positions perfectly secure from artillery, and where every charge of the enemy was met with advantage.

While this movement was going on, a heavy column moved along the San Luis road against the American centre. As they marched rapidly towards this point, Captain Washington opened his battery from the pass. So terrible was the effect that whole lines seemed to sink at every discharge, and long gaps in the densely- packed mass told of the sweeping entrance of grape and canister. Led on by their officers, the survivors pressed forward, under this withering fire, until within full range of the captain's artillery, when the front ranks recoiled in confusion. The whole column was soon in rapid retreat, leaving behind masses of dead and dying.

These, however, were but preparations for the main attack. During the whole morning, an immense force of infantry and cavalry had been concentrated among the rides, and under cover of the cliffs, at the foot of the mountain on which Colonel Marshall was posted. They now commenced filing through the gorges towards the large plateau where Brigadier-General Lane was posted, with the 2d Indiana regiment, under Colonel Bowles, the 2d Illinois regiment, and Captain O'Brien's artillery. On gaining the plateau the enemy rushed on in crowded masses, the cavalry pouring through a defile to charge the American infantry. Lane immediately ordered the Indiana regiment forward, supporting it with the artillery. This movement seems to have been unfortunate, as it separated the troops from immediate support at a most critical moment. The enemy perceived the error, and, collecting all their force in one united mass, they charged like an avalanche along the edge of the plateau. The Indiana troops had not reached the designated position, when Colonel Bowles, who commanded the regiment, without the authority of General Lane, gave the order, "Cease firing and retreat."

[The consequences were unfortunate. The regiment, once in retreat, could not be rallied. A few were brought back to the field, but the most of them retreated to Buena Vista, and were lost to the remainder of the battle.]

Unaware of the loss of his support, O'Brien galloped on until he arrived at the spot pointed out by General Lane. The spectacle from this position, was sufficient to appall even a veteran. The hills, on every side, were alive with troops; horsemen were pouring over the ground, and artillery vomiting forth floods of flaming death. The rocks seemed to start and topple with the hurrying multitude, and shouts of officers and men rose, like the roar of ocean, above the din of battle. The intrepid O'Brien saw the vast host rushing towards him, and, with a quick, anxious glance, he turned to see where was his support. He was alone. With three pieces of artillery, and a few cannoneers, he was exposed to the shock of the huge multitude. If he yielded, the battle was lost, and certain destruction seemed inevitable if he stood. Flushed with victory, the heavy columns of cavalry came pouring on from the discomfiture of the Indianians, their horses crowding upon each other, and surrounded on all sides by the dense masses of infantry. Victory was concentrated at this single point, and every eye on the battle-field was bent upon the issue. Amid the deafening uproar, the shrill voice of Wool was heard far in the distance, calling forward the troops of Illinois. The sound seemed to animate O'Brien's little company, and they prepared for the fearful encounter.

By this time most of the cannoneers had been killed or disabled, the captain had received a wound in the leg and two horses had fallen under him. Three thousand Mexican infantry were pouring showers of musketry upon him, while a battery three hundred yards to his left was vomiting forth grape and canister. Suddenly he opened his fire. Companies melted before him; alleys and gaps opened along all the enemy's front, and the unerring shot rattled upon their cannon, sweeping artillery, man, and horse to destruction. Struck with horror, the front columns wavered and fell back. Elated with success, O'Brien advanced about fifty yards, and continued his fire. The van paused, rallied to receive reinforcements, and again moved forward. In rapid succession one discharge after another was hurled against them; but each gap was filled as soon as made, and in one desperate mass they poured towards the captain's position. Finding it impossible longer to resist their progress, he gave them his last discharge, and withdrew to the American line.

On arriving here he had not a cannoneer to work the guns, all having been killed or disabled. It being impossible to replace them, he was compelled to apply to Captain Washington, who furnished him with two six-pounders. With these he again ascended the plateau, where he came in contact with a strong line of infantry and cavalry, covered by a heavy battery. He was himself supported by a body of infantry posted in two ravines on his right and left. The remainder of the American infantry and artillery were engaged with the enemy about half a mile to his left. O'Brien kept the Mexicans in check, while the troops to the left drove the body opposed to them round the head of the ravine, where they united with those opposed to the captain. About this time the latter received orders to advance, and at the same time the enemy, finding themselves strong by their junction, came on to meet him.

The position of affairs was most critical, for if the Mexicans succeeded in forcing the American position the day was theirs. There being no artillery opposed to them but O'Brien's section and another piece, it was all-important for him to maintain his ground until the guns on the left could come round the ravine to join him. He determined, therefore, to hold this position until the enemy reached the muzzles of his guns. The struggle was a terrible one. Each party put forth its utmost strength, and the feelings of the soldier were wound to a pitch of enthusiasm that made him reckless of death itself. The enemy sank down by scores, and a body of lancers, charging the Illinois troops, were compelled to fall back. Still the main body rushed on, shaking the mountain- passes with the trampling of their armed thousands, and shouting above the uproar of battle. The wounded and dying were crushed in their furious charge, and soon their horses were within a few yards of O'Brien's pieces. Here they received the last discharge, and as the driving hail smote their columns, a groan of anguish followed, and horse and rider sank down and rolled over the rocky surface in the arms of death. It was a dreadful moment, and as the columns swayed to and fro beneath the shock, and then sternly united for the headlong leap, companies that were mere spectators grew pale for the result. Although O'Brien was losing men and horses with alarming rapidity, he gave orders again to fire, when suddenly the few recruits who were fit for duty lost their presence of mind, and, with all his efforts, they could not be kept to the guns. Mortified to find the fruits of his gigantic efforts torn from him, the captain rode round his guns with startling quickness, urging his followers by voice and action; but it was in vain; no man on the field could have rallied them; and after staying at his post to the last, he retired slowly and sullenly. He lost his pieces, but by his gallant stand he had kept the enemy in check long enough to save the day.

About the same time the 2d Illinois regiment, under Colonel Bissell, having been completely outflanked, was compelled to fall back. Colonel Marshall's light troops, on the extreme left, came down from their mountainous position and joined the American main army. Masses of cavalry and infantry were now pouring through the defiles on the American left, in order to gain the rear north of the large plateau. At this moment General Taylor arrived upon the field from Saltillo. As the Mexican infantry turned the American flank, they came in contact with Colonel Davis's Mississippi riflemen, posted on a plateau north of the principal one. The 2d Kentucky regiment, and a section of artillery, under Captain Bragg, had previously been ordered to this position from the right, and arrived at a most important crisis. As the masses of the enemy emerged from the defiles to the table-land above, they opened upon the riflemen, and the battle soon became deeply interesting. The lancers meanwhile were drawing up for a charge. The artillery on each side was in an incessant blaze, and one sheet of sparkling fire flashed from the small-arms of both lines. Then the cavalry came dashing down, in dense columns, their dress and arms glittering in the sun, seemingly in strange contrast with their work of death. All around was clamor and hurry, drowning the shouts of command and groans of the dying. Davis gave the order to fire; a report from hundreds of rifles rang along his line, and mangled heaps of the enemy sunk to the ground. Struck with dismay, the lacerated host heaved back, while in mad confusion horse trod down horse, crushing wounded and dying beneath their hoofs in the reckless rushings of retreat. The day was once more saved.

At the same time the Kentucky regiment, supported by Bragg's artillery, had driven back the enemy's infantry and recovered a portion of the lost ground. The latter officer then moved his pieces to the main plateau, where, in company with Captain Sherman, he did much execution, particularly upon the masses that were in the rear. General Taylor placed all the regular cavalry and Captain Pike's squadron of horse under the orders of Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel May, with directions to hold in check the enemy's column, still advancing to the rear along the base of the mountain. May posted himself north of the ravine through which the enemy were moving towards Buena Vista, in order to charge them as they approached that place. The enemy, however, still continued to advance, until almost the whole American artillery were playing upon them. At length, unable to stand the fearful slaughter, their ranks fell into confusion, some of the corps attempting to effect a retreat upon their main line of battle. To prevent this, the general ordered the Ist dragoons, under Lieutenant Rucker, to ascend the deep ravine which these corps were endeavoring to cross, and disperse them. The squadron, however, were unable to accomplish their object, in consequence of a heavy fire from a battery covering the enemy's retreat.

Meanwhile a large body of lancers assembled on the extreme left of the Americans, for the purpose of charging upon Buena Vista. To support that point, General Taylor ordered forward May, with two pieces of Sherman's battery. At the same time, the scattered forces at that hacienda were collected by Majors Munroe and Morrison, and, uniting with some of the troops of the Indiana regiment, they were posted to defend the position. Before May could reach the village the enemy had begun the attack. They were gallantly opposed by the Kentucky and Arkansas cavalry, under Colonels Marshall and Yell. The shock was a heavy one. Colonel Yell fell at the head of his column, a lance entering his mouth, wrenching off his lower jaw, and shattering the side of his face. The Kentuckians lost Adjutant Vaughan, a young officer of much promise. The enemy's column was separated into two portions, one sweeping by the American depot under a destructive fire from the Indiana troops, until they gained the mountain opposite, the other portion regaining the base of the mountain to the west. Lieutenant-Colonel May now reached Buena Vista, and, approaching the base of the mountain, held in check the enemy's right flank, upon whose masses, crowded in the narrow gorges and ravines, the artillery was doing fearful execution.

The position of that portion of the Mexican army which had gained the American rear was now so critical as to induce the belief that it would be forced to surrender. At the moment, however, when the artillery was thinning its ranks, and May, after much manoeuvring, was about charging their flank, a white flag was observed approaching the American quarters, and General Taylor ordered the firing to cease. The message was simply a demand from General Santa Anna, requesting to know what the American general wanted. General Wool was sent to have a personal interview with the Mexican general. On reaching the Mexican lines, Wool was unable to stop the enemy's farther advance, and returned to head-quarters. The object of the Mexicans had, however, been accomplished,-their extreme right moving along the base of the mountain and joining the main army..

The roar of artillery, which had lasted from before sunrise, now partially ceased on the principal field, the enemy apparently confining his efforts to the protection of his artillery. General Taylor had just left the main depot, when he was unexpectedly recalled by a heavy fire of musketry. On regaining his position a stirring scene was presented. The Illinois and 2d Kentucky cavalry had been attacked in a rugged defile by an overwhelming force of both cavalry and infantry, and were now struggling against fearful odds. Could the enemy succeed in defeating these troops, they might renew the main attack with great advantage, and perhaps gain the day. To prevent the catastrophe, Captain Bragg, who had just arrived from the left, was immediately ordered into battery. Feeling how important was every moment, that brave officer abandoned some of his heaviest carriages, and pushed forward with those that could move most rapidly. Gaining a point from which they could be used, he placed them in battery and loaded with canister. His position was one of imminent peril. The supporting infantry had been routed, the advance artillery captured, and the enemy, flushed with victory, were throwing their masses towards him. He appealed to the commanding general for help. None was to be had; and, nerving himself for his terrible duties, he returned to the battery, and spoke a few low, hurried words to his men. Silently but firmly they gathered round their pieces, and awaited orders. The commanding general sat on horseback, gazing with thrilling intensity upon that handful of troops. After all the losses and triumphs of the day, victory had eluded their grasp, to hang upon the approaching struggle.

The cavalry were almost near enough to spring upon his guns, when Bragg gave the order to fire. Suddenly they halted, staggered a few paces, and then closed for the charge. The shouts of their supporting infantry followed the roar of artillery, and they again advanced. The cannoneers had marked the effect, with feelings too intense to admit of outward expression, and, rapidly reloading, they again poured forth a shower of grape. The effect was fearful; and General Taylor, as he beheld the bleeding columns, felt that the day was his own. A third discharge completed the rout. Discipline gave way among the enemy to the confused flight of terrified hosts, as, pouring through the rugged passes, they trod each other down in their hurried course. One wild shout went up from the American army, broken at short intervals by the thunder of Bragg's artillery..

In the retreat of the enemy, a portion of the American infantry pursued them through a ravine so far that they got out of supporting distance. On seeing this, the Mexicans suddenly wheeled round and attacked them. The infantry were in their turn driven back, taking the course of another ravine, at the end of which a body of the enemy were waiting to intercept them. Fortunately, while the cavalry were pursuing, they came within range of Washington's battery, which, opening upon them with grape, drove back the column in confusion and saved the exhausted fugitives.

This was the last struggle on the well-fought field of Buena Vista. For ten hours the battle had raged with unmitigated fury, and yet, strange to say, each army occupied the ground that it had early in the morning. As night crept among the rocky gorges, the wearied soldiers sank down on their arms upon the field. Although the air was excessively cold, the Americans slept without fires, expecting a renewal of the attack early on the following morning. The night was one of horror. On every rock, and in every defile, piles of dead and wounded lay, the latter writhing in torture, their wounds stiff and clotted with the chill air, while their piercing cries for aid, and supplications for water, made the night hideous.

[The expected renewal of the assault by the Mexicans the next day was not made. Santa Anna found his men worn out with fatigue, burning with thirst, and starving for want of food. And they had suffered too severely in the battle to be in a condition to endure another conflict. Before daylight he was in full retreat, leaving the well-won field to the victorious Americans. After their failure to carry the American position, desertion became so extreme in the Mexican host as to threaten to disorganize the army, and another battle would have been ruinous. The loses in this conflict on the American side were two hundred and sixty-seven killed, four hundred and fifty-six wounded, and twenty- three missing. Santa Anna stated his loss at fifteen hundred, but it was probably greater.

It may be remarked here that the task of Santa Anna in this battle was one that fully overcame the disparity in numbers. The pass of Angostura, occupied by Washington's battery, is one of the strongest in Mexico, and capable of being defended by a small party against great odds. The American right wing was posted with one flank against the precipitous mountains and the other resting on impassable ravines, while it could only be approached over broken and exposed ground. The plateau which formed the key of the American position was high and commanding, and could be reached only through intricate windings among the rock ledges.

There was no other victory of the war received with such enthusiasm in the United States, and Buena Vista carried General Taylor to the Presidency. It ended the war in that region of Mexico, Santa Anna being now called southward, to defend the capital from the projected invasion of General Scot by way of Vera Cruz.

The remaining events of the war were a constant series of successes. General Scott, with the army under his command, landed near Vera Cruz on March 9, 1847. He forced this city to surrender on the 27th, and on April 8 began an overland march towards the city of Mexico. On April 18 Santa Anna was seriously repulsed at Cerro Gordo, and in August the American army reached the immediate vicinity of the Mexican capital. On the 18th the formidable Mexican intrenchments at Contreras were carried by assault, and on the same day the important post of Churubusco was carried. On September 8 the fortress known as the Molino del Rey was captured, and on the 13th the very strong fortifications on the hill of Chapultepec were carried by an impetuous and daring assault.

On the same day an advance on the city took place, and by nightfall the American troops were within its gates. The capture of the city was fully achieved during the ensuing day. This result virtually ended the war, though some minor military movements followed. A treaty of peace was signed on the 2d of February, 1848, and was ratified on May 30. Under its provisions the United States gained a large accession of territory, embracing all New Mexico and Upper California. In return the United States surrendered all other conquered territory, paid Mexico fifteen million dollars, and assumed all debts owed by Mexico to American citizens.]

John Frost

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