Jefferson Davis in Mexico

Civil War

Jefferson Davis in Mexico

On September 20, 1846, Colonel Jefferson Davis and a regiment of untested Mississippi volunteers stood before the fortress of La Teneria in Northern Mexico.

On September 20, 1846, Colonel Jefferson Davis and a regiment of untested Mississippi volunteers stood before the fortress of La Teneria in Northern Mexico.

by Chuck Lyons

In April 1846, strained relations between the United States and Mexico erupted into open hostilities. On May 13, 1846, the United States declared war on the Republic of Mexico, and the Mexican-American war began. Davis left Congress to raise a volunteer regiment, the 1st Mississippi Rifles, with himself as colonel. In July, the unit sailed for Texas aboard the Alabama, and by September Davis and his men were in Mexico and ready to take part in the siege of Monterrey, a Mexican stronghold garrisoned by 10,000 Mexican troops. The American besiegers numbered roughly 6,000 men and were without heavy artillery.

One Third Killed In A Moment

The army’s commander, Davis’s former father-in-law Zachary Taylor, nonetheless was determined to take Monterrey and ordered an attack on September 20, concentrating his forces on the La Teneria fortress, which was protected by a redoubt and artillery. Three companies of the 4th Infantry, including a young lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant, attempted an assault but were repulsed. One-third of the American attackers were killed or wounded “in a moment,” according to the official report.

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Later that same day, Davis’s Mississippians, with their colonel in the lead and a group of Tennessee men attached, marched into a blistering fire that stalled their advance within 100 yards of the citadel. The formation became irregular, with the men firing at will. Davis reformed his line and yelled for his troops to attack. Charging forward himself, he was followed by Lt. Col. Alexander McClung, a noted Mississippi duelist, and then the rest of his troops. “I had no instructions,” Davis later wrote, “no information as to the plan, no knowledge of any sustaining troops except the Tennesseans on our left.”

Without bayonets, the troops swarmed the fortress, McClung waving his sword, and panicked the surprised defenders, who fled to a building 300 yards away. The American flag was unfurled over La Teneria, but Davis did not halt for long to enjoy the sight before urging his men forward in a charge on the second Mexican position, El Diablo. He was called back before the second charge could begin.

Victory At Last for the Americans

The following day, Brig. Gen. John Anthony Quitman, the brigade commander, ordered Davis to make a sortie into town with four companies. As Davis and his men entered the town, they could see groups of armed soldiers running through the streets and discovered that the Mexicans had abandoned the town’s fort and removed its artillery before withdrawing to the main plaza.

As Mississippi and Tennessee men made their way deeper into town, they were fired upon by snipers from the flat roofs of buildings along the way and had to break through barred doors to get to the roofs and silence the hostile fire. When they were finally within a block of the plaza, the Americans seized a two-story house and exchanged fire with nearby Mexican troops for several hours before Davis and his men were again recalled. By then, the Mexicans had brought up their cannons to cover the street and force the Americans’ withdrawal. Davis contemplated the problem before ordering his men to follow him in groups of two and three between the discharges of the enemy’s cannons and under cover of the smoke they had created. Davis went first and the men followed, with the unit suffering only small losses.

On September 24, the Mexicans surrendered Monterrey and Davis was named to the three-man commission to arrange the terms of surrender. It was the first significant American victory since the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. “There is not a man in his regiment who would not sacrifice his life to obey him so much has his gallant conduct raised him in their estimation,” one of Davis’s men wrote.

The Charge on Washington’s Birthday

After a brief furlough and a return home, Davis rejoined Taylor just as his force was being depleted and many men—including Captain Robert E. Lee of the Engineers—were sent to join General Winfield Scott in preparation for an attack against Vera Cruz. At this point, the wily Mexican president and military commander, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, aware of Taylor’s depleted force, began moving against him with an army of some 20,000 men. Taylor in turn moved his diminished command first to Agua Nueva and then, at word of the Mexican advance, to a narrow pass near a ranch called Buena Vista. Taylor’s force numbered only 4,756 officers and men.

On the morning of February 22, 1847, Washington’s birthday, Santa Anna prepared a charge of 2,500 horsemen against the Americans, who had been deployed in a natural network of deep gullies and ravines backed by hills. Rather than attacking immediately, however, Santa Anna paused to await the arrival of the rest of his army and to send a formal demand for the Americans to surrender. Taylor replied in the polite language of the 19th century, “I beg leave to say that I decline acceding to your request,” he wrote. Santa Anna attacked that afternoon, but the majority of the fighting was confined to the American left. By nightfall, the Mexicans had gained control of the summit of a ridge, while the Americans fell back onto the plain below.

The following morning, after some skirmishing, Santa Anna again attacked, moving three columns against the American position, which broke on the left. Taylor on his horse “Old Whitey” then rode out under hostile fire and rallied his troops. He sent Davis and the 1st Mississippi Rifles, along with two extra companies, forward under heavy fire to measure the strength of the Mexican position commanded by General Pedro de Ampudia, Santa Anna’s second in command. Along the way, Davis ran into some Indiana men retreating from the engagement and convinced them to halt and join his column. They then advanced “under one of the heaviest fires I ever saw,” according to Major Alexander Bradford, who was present at the time.

Yielding to the Blow

Davis was almost immediately hit in the right heel by a rifle ball that smashed the bone and imbedded shards of brass from his spur and pieces of wool from his stocking in the wound. Despite his painful injury, Davis continued leading the advance. Stunned by the force of the attack, the Mexican troops fell back toward the mountain. At this point, American artillery of the 4th Artillery under Captains Braxton Bragg and Thomas Sherman, which had supported Davis’s attack, fell back to guard his rear.

Davis soon became aware of Mexican cavalry, which turned out to be a troop of richly caparisoned lancers, approaching from the left. Realizing that it was up to him to prevent the cavalry from passing to the rear of his position and threatening the recently relocated artillery batteries, Davis stationed his men in the form of a V, with the flanks resting on a ravine and the open end of the formation facing the Mexicans. The Mexican cavalry was then allowed to approach. “Perfect silence and the greatest steadiness prevailed in both lines of our troops as they stood at shouldered arms awaiting an attack,” Davis later wrote. “As the enemy approached, his speed regularly diminished, until within eighty or a hundred yards, he had drawn up to a walk and seemed about to halt. A few American files fired without orders, and both lines then instantly poured in a volley so destructive that the mass yielded to the blow and fled.”

By this point, Sherman had come up with a field piece and fired on the retreating Mexicans until they were out of range. Additional artillery and cavalry then joined Davis, and he marched his men against the right side of the Mexicans at the base of the mountain. When Santa Anna launched an attack on Davis’s right, Davis personally led men to that side of the field, guided by the sounds of battle, and finally came upon a Mexican column of infantry moving against a battery commanded by Bragg. He led his men up a slope to fire on the Mexican flank and rear and routed them. “Our first fire was eminently destructive,” he wrote. “The enemy gave way, and he fled in confusion.”

“My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

Meanwhile, the larger battle seesawed until about 5 pm, when American cannons were successful in driving the Mexicans from the field. Both forces occupied roughly the same ground they had occupied in the morning, and it was far from clear who had won the battle. Weak from loss of blood, Davis was helped from his horse, and his wound, which had remained untended to all day, was finally looked after. Remembering his opposition to Davis’s marriage to his daughter 10 years earlier, Taylor graciously told the recovering colonel, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

The day had ended with the United States suffering 673 casualties, including Lt. Col. Henry Clay Jr., the son of the famous Kentucky senator, who was killed. Davis had been entertained at the Clay home while a student at Transylvania University. The Mexican loss was estimated at three times as many. Davis’s regiment of less than 300 men had suffered 100 casualties, including 47 dead.

During the night, Taylor worked on planning his defenses for the morning, only to find at dawn that the Mexicans had withdrawn. Campfires lit to cover the withdrawal were still burning, and Santa Anna had abandoned his seriously wounded men as well as his wagons and supplies. American newspapers, which had expected to report the defeat of the outnumbered Americans, instead trumpeted the news of a great and surprising victory. Taylor became a national hero, while Davis’s heroics and his successfully improvised V formation were accorded a share in the glory second only to his commander’s.

Davis Returns Home

Three months later, their period of enlistment having expired, Davis and his Mississippi men sailed north to New Orleans, Davis still hobbling around on crutches. They were greeted by large crowd, and the New Orleans Picayune reported that any “attempt to describe the enthusiasm evidenced on the occasion was in vain.” In New Orleans, David received word that President James Polk had promoted him to brigadier general in command of a brigade of volunteers. A few days later, Davis declined the promotion on the grounds that the president did not have the authority to make such an appointment. Volunteers, Davis believed, should be commanded by officers appointed by their states.

From New Orleans, the group traveled north on the Mississippi River by steamboat, stopping frequently to disembark men near their homes. Two days later, Davis was himself back home. In June, Brig. Gen. Stephen Kearney marched 1,600 men from Kansas to New Mexico and attached the province to the United States. He then divided his force, sending one group south where they occupied El Paso, took Chihuahua, and moved to the Gulf Coast. The second group marched west and captured southern California. In March 1847, General Winfield Scott landed 12,000 men at Vera Cruz and marched inland to capture Mexico City. On September 14, the American flag was hoisted over that city, the first time the American flag had flown over a foreign capital. The war was over. However, a much bloodier battle awaited Davis and the entire country in the years to come.

Add Your Comments

One Comment

  1. Bob Lovell
    Posted October 16, 2015 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Well written, succinct and to the heart of the matter. I don’t believe Davis has received the place in history he deserves due to his later support of Southern Independence. Thank you for your unbiased account of his military activities in Mexico during the war.

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