Those Who Served
During the month of May, 1846, the President called for four regiments of volunteers from Illinois for the Mexican war. This was no sooner known in the State than nine regiments, numbering 8,370 men, answered the call, though only four of them, amounting to 3,720 men, could be taken. These regiments, as well as their officers, were everywhere foremost in the American rank, and distinguished themselves by their matchless valor in the bloodiest battles of the war. Veterans never fought more nobly and effectively than did the volunteers from Illinois. At the bloody battle of Buena Vista they crowned their lives, many their death, with the laurels of war. Never did armies contend more bravely, determinedly and stubbornly than the American and Mexican forces at this famous battle; and as Illinois troops were ever in the van and on the bloodiest portions of the field, we believe a short sketch of the part they took in the fierce contest is due them, and will be read with no little interest.
Battle Of Buena Vista
General Santa Anna, with his army of 20,000, poured into the valley of Aqua Nueva early on the morning of the 22d of February, hoping to surprise our army, consisting of about 5,000 men, under Gen. Taylor and which had retreated to the "Narrows." They were hotly pursued by the Mexicans who, before attacking, sent Gen. Taylor a flag of truce demanding a surrender, and assuring him that if he refused he would be cut to pieces; but the demand was promptly refused. At this the enemy opened fire, and the conflict began. In honor of the day the watchword with our soldiers was, "The memory of Washington." An irregular fire was kept up all day, and at night both armies bivouacked on the field, resting on their arms. Santa Anna that night made a spirited address to his men, and the stirring strains of his own band till late in the night were distinctly heard by our troops; but at last silence fell over the hosts that were to contend unto death in that narrow pass on the morrow. Early on the following morning the battle was resumed, and continued without intermission until nightfall. The solid columns of the enemy were hurled against our forces all day long, but were met and held in check by the unerring fire of our musketry and artillery. A portion of Gen. Lane's division was driven back by the enemy under Gen. Lombardini, who, joined by Gen. Pacheco's division, poured upon the main plateau in so formidable numbers as to appear irresistible.
Bravery Of The Second Illinois
At this time the 2d Illinois, under Col. Bissell, with a squadron of cavalry and a few pieces of artillery came handsomely into action and gallantly received the concentrated fire of the enemy, which they returned with deliberate aim and terrible effect; every discharge of the artillery seemed to tear a bloody path through the heavy columns of enemy. Says a writer: "The rapid musketry of the gallant troops from Illinois poured a storm of lead into their serried ranks, which literally strewed the ground with the dead and dying." But, notwithstanding his losses, the enemy steadily advanced until our gallant regiment received fire from three sides. Still they maintained their position for a time with unflinching firmness against that immense host. At length, perceiving the danger of being entirely surrounded, it was determined to fall back to a ravine. Col. Bissel, with the coolness of ordinary drill, ordered the signal "cease firing" to be made; he then with the same deliberation gave the command, "Face to the rear, Battalion, about face; forward march," which was executed with the regularity of veterans to a point beyond the peril of being outflanked. Again, in obedience to command these brave men halted-faced about, and under a murderous tempest of bullets from the foe, resumed their well-directed fire. The conduct of no troops could have been more admirable; and, too, until that day they had never been under fire, when, within less than half an hour eighty of their comrades dropped by their sides. How different from the Arkansas regiment, which were ordered to the plateau, but after delivering their first volley gave way and dispersed.
Saddest Event Of The Battle
But now we have to relate the saddest, and, for Illinois, the most mournful, event of that battle- worn day. We take the account from Colton's History of the battle of Buena Vista. "As the enemy on our left was moving in retreat along the head of the Plateau, our artillery was advanced until within range, and opened a heavy fire upon him, while Cols. Hardin, Bissell and McKee, with their Illinois and Kentucky troops, dashed gallantly forward in hot pursuit. A powerful reserve of the Mexican army was then just emerging from the ravine, where it had been organized, and advanced on the plateau, opposite the head of the southernmost gorge. Those who were giving way rallied quickly upon it; when the whole force, thus increased to over 12,000 men, came forward in a perfect blaze of fire. It was a single column, composed of the best soldiers of the republic, having for its advanced battalions the veteran regiments. The Kentucky and Illinois troops were soon obliged to give ground before it and seek the shelter of the second gorge. The enemy pressed on, arriving opposite the head of the second gorge. One-half of the column suddenly enveloped it, while the other half pressed on across the plateau, having for the moment nothing to resist them but the three guns in their front. The portion that was immediately opposed to the Kentucky and Illinois troops, ran down along each side of the gorge, in which they had sought shelter, and also circled around its head, leaving no possible way of escape for them except by its mouth, which opened upon the road. Its sides, which were steep, " at least an angle of 45 degrees, " were covered with loose pebbles and stones, and converged to a point at the bottom. Down there were our poor fellows, nearly three regiments of them (1st and 2d Illinois and 2d Kentucky), with but little opportunity to load or fire a gun, being hardly able to keep their feet. Above the whole edge of the gorge, all the way around, was darkened by the serried masses of the enemy, and was bristling with muskets directed on the crowd beneath. It was no time to pause. Those who were not immediately shot down rushed on toward the road, their number growing less and less as they went, Kentuckians and Illinoisans, officers and men, all mixed up in confusion, and all pressing on over the loose pebbles and rolling stones of those shelving, precipitous banks, and having lines and lines of the enemy firing down from each side and rear as they went. Just then the enemy's cavalry, which had gone to the left of the reserve, had come over the spur that divides the mouth of the second gorge from that of the third, and were now closing up the only door through which there was the least shadow of a chance for their lives. Many of those ahead endeavored to force their way out, but few succeeded. The lancers were fully six to one, and their long weapons were already reeking with blood. It was at this time that those who were still back in that dreadful gorge heard, above the din of the musketry and the shouts of the enemy around them, the roar of Washington's Battery. No music could have been more grateful to their cars. A moment only, and the whole opening, where the lancers were busy, rang with the repeated explosions of spherical-case shot. They gave way. The gate, as it were, was clear, and out upon the road a stream of our poor fellows issued. They ran panting down toward the battery, and directly under the fight of iron then passing over their heads, into the retreating cavalry. Hardin, McKee, Clay, Willis, Zabriskie, Houghton " but why go on? It would be a sad task indeed to name over all who fell during this twenty minutes' slaughter. The whole gorge, from the plateau to its mouth, was strewed with our dead. All dead! No wounded there " not a man; for the infantry had rushed down the sides and completed the work with the bayonet."
Victory For Our Army
The artillery on the plateau stubbornly maintained its position. The remnants of the 1st and 2d Illinois regiments, after issuing from the fated gorge, were formed and again brought into action, the former, after the fall of the noble Hardin, under Lieut. Col. Weatherford, the latter under Bissell. The enemy brought forth reinforcements and a brisk artillery duel was kept up; but gradually, as the shades of night began to cover the earth, the rattle of musketry slackened, and when the pall of night was thrown over that bloody field it ceased altogether. Each army, after the fierce and long struggle, occupied much the same position as it did in the morning. However, early on the following morning, the glad tidings were heralded amidst our army that the enemy had retreated, thus again crowning the American banners with victory.
Other Honored Names Of This War
Other bright names from Illinois that shine as stars in this war are those of Shields, Baker, Harris and Coffee, which are indissolubly connected with the glorious capture of Vera Cruz and the not less famous storming of Cerro Gordo. In this latter action, when, after the valiant Gen. Shields had been placed hors de combat, the command of his force, consisting of three regiments, devoled upon Col. Baker. This officer, with his men, stormed with unheard of prowess the last stronghold of the Mexicans, sweeping everything before them. Such indeed were the intrepid valor and daring courage exhibited by Illinois volunteers during the Mexican war that their deeds should live in the memory of their countrymen until those latest times when the very name of America shall have been forgotten.