Scott's Campaigns

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter XXIII.

Scott's Campaigns—Colonel Riley—Brilliant Charge of Kearney and MacReynold's Dragoons—Brigadier General Shields—His Reception on returning to the United States—Senator for Illinois

IN November, 1846, Major General Scott, commander-in-chief of the United States army, was despatched to Mexico, with orders to besiege Vera Cruz, and endeavor to penetrate from that city, by a direct route, to the Mexican capital.

In this brilliant expedition, of which the successive steps were Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Puebla, Contreras, Churubusco, Chepultepec, and Mexico, many noble deeds of arms, and fine combinations of skill, were exhibited.

One of Scott's most efficient officers was Colonel, since General, Riley, a native of Baltimore, of Irish parentage, and an old volunteer in the war of 1812. In every action of the war he was distinguished, and no promotion was considered, by the soldiers of the war, more justly deserved. Under General Riley, the territory of California was organized and prepared for admission into the Union in 1850.

Among the other officers of Scott's army were many of Irish origin, as Brigadier Patterson, of Pennsylvania; Captains Lee, of the engineers, Casey, of the regular infantry, and Magruder, of the artillery; Lieutenant Neal, and many others.

Major McReynolds, of the dragoons, a lawyer, long settled in Michigan, was distinguished wherever cavalry had ground to operate on. A cotemporary biographer writes of him:—

"Mr. McReynolds, a native of Dungannon, county Tyrone, came to this country when a youth of eighteen, and has, we believe, since then, resided in Detroit, Michigan. To the Legislature of that state he has been several times elected, and in it he has occupied a highly honorable position. He was a member of the Michigan Senate when the war with Mexico broke out, and immediately tendered his services to the government. The President promptly gave him a captain's commission in the dragoons, and the gallant discharge of his duties in that position has won for him enduring honors. The assault of Kearney's and McReynolds' dragoons, on the bloody field of Churubusco, was one of the most daring and brilliant deeds of heroism among the many proud instances of valor which have shed such undying lustre on the American arms, in the history of the Mexican war."

The commanding general of the division thus speaks of this charge, in his official report:—

"Captain McReynold's 3d dragoons nobly sustained the daring movements of his squadron commander, and was wounded in his left arm. Both of these fine companies sustained severe losses in their rank and file also. We are informed that the enemy numbered, by their own report, five thousand infantry and one thousand cavalry, while our dragoons did not exceed one hundred. This small force drove the Mexicans upwards of two miles, and ceased not until they were within the battery that covered the gate of the city. In this charge, the dragoons cut down more than their entire number of the enemy. When we consider the extraordinary disparity in point of numbers, and the raking position of the enemy's battery, into the very mouth of which our brave dragoons fearlessly threw themselves, we think we may safely say it has no parallel in modern warfare."

The same village in which Major McReynolds was born, also gave birth to James Shields. Both families are Milesian Irish, old as the hills, in Ulster. Under the Celtic Pentarchy, the O'Shields were the standard-bearers of the north,—an office of special honor and trust, in those military ages.

While a mere boy, James Shields emigrated to this country, and, while still in his teens, served as second lieutenant of volunteers in the Florida war. In the long years of peace which succeeded, he did not abandon military studies, and, though he held an important civil employment in the department for Indian Affairs, he at once volunteered into the war with Mexico. On the 1st of July, 1846, he was appointed brigadier general, and joined the division under General Wool. With that officer he shared the famous march through Chihuahua and New Mexico to Monterey, from whence he was detached to the army under Scott, then before Vera Cruz.

"But the military talents of General Shields were first fully developed at Cerro Gordo. In the general orders of April 17th, he was entrusted with the care of the Jalapa road, in order to keep the enemy in that quarter engaged during the main attack, and to cut off retreat. In both these objects he was successful. By his activity he contributed largely to the victory of that memorable day, and elicited the admiration of both General Scott and his brother officers. In the pursuit, he received a musket ball through the lungs, by which he was immediately prostrated, the command devolving on Colonel Baker. His life was for a while despaired of, but eventually, to the astonishment of all, he recovered.

"During the long stay of the army at Puebla we hear little of General Shields; but he again appears amid the toils and dangers of the march towards the capital. Late on the 19th of August, while the storming of Contreras was in progress, he was sent to a village near that fort, in order to afford assistance to General Smith. A deep, rugged ravine, along whose bed rolled a rapid stream, was passed with great difficulty, in consequence of the increasing darkness; after which, the general ordered his weary troops to lie upon their arms until midnight, in order to prepare for further duty. In the mean while he threw out two strong pickets, who, perceiving a body of Mexican infantry moving through the fields toward the city, opened a sharp fire, and succeeded in driving them back. At midnight, Shield's troops resumed their inarch, and soon joined Smith's brigade, at the place appointed.

"At this time, General Shields performed an action so delicate and magnanimous as to deserve record with the more dazzling ones which were soon to follow. Previous to his arrival, Smith had completed those judicious arrangements, for turning and surprising the Mexican position, which were afterwards so brilliantly successful. As Shields was the senior officer, he could have assumed the command, as well as the execution, of General Smith's plans, thus debarring that officer from the fruit of his labor. But this he nobly refused to do, and withdrew his men to the position formerly occupied by his brother veteran. About daybreak, the Mexicans opened a brisk fire of grape and round shot upon the church and village where the general was stationed, as also upon a part of the troops displayed to divert him on his right and front. This continued until Colonel Riley's brigade opened its fire from the rear, which was delivered with such terrible effect, that the whole Mexican force was thrown into consternation.

"At this juncture, Shields ordered the two regiments of his command to throw themselves on the main road by which the enemy must retire, so as to intercept and cut off their retreat. Although officers and men had suffered severely during the night's march, as well as from exposure, without shelter or cover, to the incessant rain until daybreak, this movement was executed in good order and with rapidity. Crossing a deep ravine, the Palmetto regiment deployed on both sides of the road, and opened a most destructive fire upon the mingled masses of infantry and cavalry; and the New York regiment, brought into line lower down, and on the road-side, delivered its fire with a like effect. At this point many of the enemy were killed and wounded, some three hundred and sixty-five captured, including twenty-five officers.

"Meanwhile the enemy's cavalry, about three thousand strong, which had been threatening the village during the morning, moved down toward it in good order, as if to attack. General Shields immediately recalled the infantry, so as to place them in a position for meeting the threatened movement; but the cavalry soon changed its position, and retreated toward the capital. Orders now arrived from General Twiggs for the troops to advance by the main road toward Mexico; and accordingly, having posted Captain Marshall's company of South Carolina volunteers and Captain Taylor's New York volunteers in charge of the wounded and prisoners, Shields moved off with the remainder of his force, and reached the position of those divisions already moving on the main road.

"After turning the village of Coyoacan, Shields moved with his command toward the right, through a heavy cornfield, and gained an open and swampy plain, in which is situated the hacienda de los Partales. On arriving there, he established his right upon a point recommended by Captain Lee, an engineer officer of great skill and judgment, at the same time commencing a movement to the left, so as to flank the enemy's right, and throw his troops between them and the city. Finding, however, their right supported by a body of cavalry, three thousand strong, and perceiving that the enemy answered to his own movements by a corresponding one toward the American right flank, and owing to the advantages of the ground, gaining rapidly upon him, he withdrew his men to the hacienda, for the purpose of attacking the enemy in front. The conflict was close and stubborn, until General Shields, taking advantage of a slight wavering in the Mexican ranks, ordered a charge. This was obeyed with alacrity and success, the enemy breaking and flying on all sides. Shields continued to press upon the fugitives, until passed by Colonel Harney with his cavalry, who followed the routed foe into the very gates of the city.

"On the 10th of September, General Shields, with the New York and South Carolina regiments, was ordered first to Piedad, and subsequently to Tacubaya, preparatory to the assault upon Chapultepec. Here he continued a heavy cannonade upon the enemy's lines until early on the morning of the 13th, when his command moved to the assault. While directing the advance, Shields was severely wounded in the arm, yet no persuasion could induce him to leave his command or quit the field. In company with the remainder of Quitman's division, he pushed rapidly forward along the Belen road, exposed to the most tremendous fires, overthrowing one after another of the Mexican strongholds, until finally his victorious banners were planted over the principal gateway. When night fell, he was carried from the field sick, exhausted, and writhing with pain. His wound, although severe, was, happily, not mortal; and rest, together with careful attention, united with a strong constitution, speedily restored him to health."

On his return to the United States, the general was everywhere welcomed with enthusiasm. Alabama came out with all her dignitaries to meet him; South Carolina presented him with a magnificent sword; and Illinois, proud of her adopted son, elected him to the Senate of the United States.

In the short session of 1850, '51, General Shields, from the committee on military affairs, reported in favor of conferring the rank of lieutenant general on Scott,—which was adopted. Strange chance of fortune! that he whom Scott mourned dead on the field of battle, should live to present him the title, hitherto worn in war only by Washington.[1]

Of the conduct of the non-commissioned officers and men of Irish birth, during the war, both Taylor and Scott have spoken in the highest terms of praise. Their eulogiums are too recent to need repeating.

"Although the attempts to conclude a treaty of peace immediately after the battle of Churubusco had not been successful, yet, in concert with the commander-in-chief, Mr. Polk lost no opportunity to repeat his overtures for so desirable an object. It was not, however, until the beginning of the following year, that the Mexicans would listen to such proposals. Their army was then reduced to a few insignificant parties, scattered here and there, more for safety than any hope of opposition to the invaders. Even the guerillas manifested symptoms of weariness. Accordingly, when, in January, 1848, General Scott laid before the Mexican Congress articles of a treaty, based upon those formerly rejected, that body immediately appointed Luis Gr. Cuevas, Bernardo Conto, and Miguel Atristain, as commissioners. These gentlemen, with Mr. Trist, acting on behalf of the United States, assembled at Guadalupe Hidalgo, and concluded a treaty of 'peace, friendship, limits, and settlement' between the two republics.

"The only thing still necessary to the conclusion of the war, was the ratification of the new treaty by the legislature of each country. In February, the attested copy was received at Washington by President Polk, and transmitted to the United States Senate. After being slightly amended, it was passed in that body, on the 10th of March, by a large majority. Mr. Sevier was appointed envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to present it for ratification to the Mexican Congress. In company with Mr. Clifford, he soon arrived at Queretaro, where the national legislature was sitting, and laid before that body the corrected copy for their final action. It passed through both houses by a large majority, and was received with marked satisfaction by the Mexican people.

"By this instrument, the boundary line between the two republics was made to begin at the mouth of the Rio Grande, ascending the middle of that river to the southern boundary of New Mexico, thence westwardly, along the whole southern boundary of New Mexico, to its western termination; thence northward, along the western line of New Mexico, to the first branch of the river Gila; thence down the middle of this branch and river to its junction with the Colorado; thence between Upper and Lower California to the Pacific. It secured to the United States the vast territories of New Mexico, California, Western Texas, and the Pacific coast, together with the fine harbor of San Francisco, and the internal navigation of the Colorado, Gila, and other rivers. Fifteen millions of dollars were to be paid to Mexico by the United States, as compensation for part of this grant.

"By an article of the treaty, arrangements had been made for withdrawing all the United States troops from the Mexican territory within three months after the final ratifications, provided it could be effected before the commencement of the sickly season. In furtherance of this provision, the most active preparations immediately commenced for marching different portions of the army from the capital and interior towns to Vera Cruz, whither they were to embark for New Orleans. Previous to this, General Scott had left Mexico to attend a court of inquiry appointed by government to investigate reciprocal charges between himself and Generals Worth and Pillow. The duty of superintending the evacuation of the capital, and subsequent embarkation from Vera Cruz, devolved upon the temporary general-in-chief, Major General Butler. In the early part of June, the greater part of the soldiers in the city of Mexico marched for Vera Cruz, under the supervision of Mr. Sevier. They left the latter city by detachments, reached New Orleans about the middle of June, and thence proceeded, by steamboat or railway, towards their respective homes. Nothing can exceed the enthusiasm with which these toil-worn veterans were hailed, as they entered, regiment by regiment, into the cities, from which, two years before, they had marched to the scene of strife. Business was suspended, the population rushed to meet them, military and civic processions attended their march, banquets were spread, addresses delivered, and presents bestowed on them throughout their route. Thus closed, after a duration of two years, the Mexican War."

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[1] A recent visitor at Washington thus describes Shield's personal appearance:—

"I found the general seated among his papers,—a spare man, of middle size, and apparently about forty years of age, with the amber tinge of health on his cheeks, an eye like a live coal, large brows, and a fine head. I felt an electrical thrill pass through me, as I took the hand of the first soldier of our race, not excepting Cavaignac or Guyon. I believe I stared at him rather rudely, for I was anxious to detect whether his constitution had recovered from the terrible results of his Mexican wounds. I was satisfied by the scrutiny, and it will give joy to many an Irish heart to know that in all probability the general has as many years, as any man of his age, yet to come.

"I shall not here commit the indecency of printing private conversations, but I may say that the more I heard of General Shield's opinions, the more he rose in my estimation. He is a very thoroughly read man, with a very reflective turn of mind. He has thought much on all subjects and countries. He speaks French as fluently as English, and during my first call held along Spanish conversation with a Mexican general, Herrera, who, he observed, had been 'in the same war with him, but not on the same side.'"