After 173 years, historians continue to debate the whether the Mexican War was a "just" war or whether President James K. Polk used a minor boundary infraction to provoke a conflict, allowing an expansion of United States territory. As a unit within many history degree programs, students engage in critical-thinking activities designed to help each determine individual answers to that question. Regardless of the outcomes of those studies, the Mexican War did occur, and its impact on our nation and Tennessee was profound.
The Mexican War provided the first combat experiences for future military leaders, including Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, George McClellan, Joseph E. Johnston and, familiar to Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefield scholars, Braxton Bragg. Their West Point classes in leadership and military strategy became reality on the ground as they learned the practical and difficult lessons associated with commanding troops, both professional soldiers and volunteers like the East Tennessee militia, during the heat of battle.
Today, we return to Richard Mitchell Edwards' recollections of the East Tennessee militia's participation in the conflict.
"The story told us," he wrote, "was that Santa Anna, after his many defeats at Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo, Churubusco and finally being driven from the City of Mexico, with most of his army captured together with his artillery and nearly all his small arms, was at the little mountain city of Orizaba, about sixty miles west of Vera Cruz, and it was designed to capture him For this purpose, a force of cavalry under General Lane was sent down to attack Orizaba on the west and we were ordered to attack on the east. But when we arrived at Palo Verde on the third day, we were met by a courier who informed us that old Santa Anna had received notice in time and made his escape."
Most with military experience will recall the lulls between fighting and attempts to fill those hours or days. The East Tennessee militia units were no different. Ordered to return to Vera Cruz, Edwards and his two hometown friends, Frank Stout and Rus Carter, decided to explore the city, managing to "get outside the camp guard."
"In this way, we went around the city wall, some fifteen feet high, built of solid cement one and a half or two feet thick and as solid as our best Tennessee limestone. Their great churches and all other buildings were of the same material and, of course, all fire proof. In order to further protect the city against an enemy who might attempt to scale the walls, a deep ditch some eight or ten feet deep and five or six feet wide had been cut entirely around the city, just outside the wall. Sharp spikes of hard wood were firmly set in this ditch. In addition to this, two rows of deep pits were dug outside of the ditch and similarly defended with spikes."
Edwards noted that prior to the conquest of Vera Cruz by the American forces, Gen. Scott had studied their defenses and concluded, "as a great and incomparable military man," to use four of the largest guns off one of the best naval vessels to lay siege. "How they were transferred from the ship to the shore I have never been advised they were, according to my calculations, called eighty-four pounders and were considered the most powerful guns then belonging to the United States Navy."
The Tennessee volunteers had played an instrumental role in the capture of the city. During the night prior to the attack, a crude road, leading from the south toward the city, had been cut through the thick scrub trees growing on the side of the sandy hill. "Two Tennessee regiments and two Pennsylvania regiments were detailed to pull these guns to a point six hundred yards from the southwest corner of the city wall. The First and Second Tennessee hauled them into position in the nights, without the knowledge of the enemy. When daylight came, this battery began its terrible work and soon the city wall was destroyed."
For Edwards, the most appalling scene was "the bones protruding out of the sand where our [Tennessee] comrades had fallen during the investment of the city their bones yet rest in those Mexican sands."
Linda Moss Mines, Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian, is the vice chairwoman of the Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.