Illinois in the Mexican American War

With Notes on Isham McCormick

Read John L. McConnel's story on the Illinois 1st Regiment's action at Buena Vista - click here.

As the call for volunteers spread throughout the country, Illinois citizen soldiers were anxious to join the conflict. In 1846, with the support of Congress, President James Polk called for volunteers from each state to serve a twelve-month enlistment. The Secretary of War asked the Governor of Illinois for 3,000 volunteers or three regiments on May 29. Governor Ford’s call for Illinois volunteers filled the government quota in ten days. The first call generated a response of 8,370 men. This number was well over the state’s quota and only 3, 720 were accepted between June 12-26, 1846. Volunteers were required to serve 12 months from May 25, 1846-May 25, and 1847. Colonel William Weatherford and Colonel John J. Hardin were appointed to command these recruits.

The war was popular with the majority of the people because it helped to alleviate the state’s financial crisis and sparked men’s desire for glory and honor. There was an over abundance of labor, scarcity of money and farmers were unable to sell crops. Most people were engaged in trade and bartered for goods and services. The high rate of unemployment in the state and the increase in immigration was alleviated by the call to arms. Men from all walks of life were brought together creating a volunteer army from laborers, farmers, coopers, lawyers and doctors. Over half of the volunteer troops were foreign-born.

According to his discharge papers, Isham McCormick enlisted on June 25th, 1846, at Jacksonville, Illinois, and was discharged on June 17th, 1847, at Camargo, Mexico. He was in the Illinois 1st Regiment under John Hardin and William Weatherford. He was in Company D under Jacob W. Zabriskie, who was killed in action, then under John L. McConnel, who was also wounded in action.

General John Hardin of the First regiment, Jacksonville lead the call for volunteers at a rally in Springfield.

"Let us not say Taylor and his brave men can whip Mexico without our aid. This is not the language of brave men. Let us have a hand in whipping her. Let our people answer "Aye" in one universal and glorious response." (Illinois State Register May 29, 1846)

The first regiment of Illinois Volunteers to form was the 1st Ottawa Volunteers from St. Clair and Monroe counties. They formed on June 30, 1846 under Colonel John J. Hardin. It was comprised of 877 men divided in to 8 companies. Many other companies sprang up around the state’s trade centers such as Alton, Belleville, Peoria, and Chicago.

The First, Second and Third Regiments left Alton by way of the Mississippi river on July 17, 1846 headed to New Orleans. From there they sailed to Lavaco and marched on to San Antonio arriving in the city on August 25, 1846. Along the way, these troops experienced food and water shortages, harsh weather, and disease. The living conditions and diet of the volunteer soldier was very poor. They ate wild grapes, venison, salt pork, beans and dry bread. Marching was hazardous and many succumbed to disease, exposure, weather, and lack of food. The government provided their weaponry, which consisted of pistols and dragoon sabers. Soldiers had to provide for their own uniform and received $8.00 a month as pay with extra for travel expenses.

By August of 1846, they reached Camp Crockett, which was located two miles below the Alamo and joined with General Wool’s army becoming attached to the 6th U.S. Regiment. By this time, Wool’s forces grew to 3,000 men. Army routines quickly became a way of life as Illinois regiments moved from camp to camp,

"Every morning at 3 am the reveille is sounded; every man must be in line for inspection of arms. An hour afterwards, we cook our breakfast, eat, and take down our tents, pack and be on the march. This is the rule for everyday.

In September, part of this force which included the First and Second Illinois regiments, began the march south reaching the Rio Grande, San Juan and Santa Rosa. Conditions along the way only grew worse as soldiers died of disease and poor living conditions. Discipline and order among the troops was slowly falling apart as many grew to disrespect Illinois’ Colonel Bissell. Captain Wyatt B. Stapp described the conditions soldiers experienced in a letter home,

"Each has a tin cup, a tin plate and a spoon, a table, and a bread board to sit on. A cup of gruel, toast, rice pudding, and goats milk. On the march we simply lie down on the ground with one blanket above and one below."

The troops continued marching along the Sierra Gordo Mountains until they reached the city of Monclova. This city was taken by force on October 30, 1846. Wool’s forces stayed there a month and then began the march to Parras when he learned that Santa Anna was heading to Potosi. Wool left a force of 250 men from the Second Illinois Regiment to guard Monclova and headed out to pursue the Mexican army. Isham in Company D of First Illinois Regiment headed out with them.

Battle of Buena Vista February 1847

The battle of Buena Vista was fought in a narrow mountain pass measuring 1 ˝- 4 miles in width. General Wool arrived there with fewer than 3,000 men. His forces included the First and part of the Second Illinois. Santa Anna arrived with 20,000 men. As General Wool worked his men into position, General Taylor was six miles away defending his supply line from Santa Anna’s forces. General Taylor’s use of muskets and artillery kept the enemy from gaining victory. Colonel Bissell and the 2nd Illinois serving as a division under General Wool at Buena Vista used artillery and cavalry forces to engage the enemy in battle and managed to return fire with dramatic effectiveness. As the Mexican troops retreated, U.S. troops advanced on them. However, the First and Second Illinois and the Second Kentucky were soon forced to pull back into a deep gorge. They were trapped there by the forces of the Mexican army, sustaining heavy losses due to gunfire and lancers

It was here that Colonel Hardin and Colonel Clay were lost (Adj. 194). The units were saved by Colonel Bissell’s quick actions and Washington’s Battery as they opened fire upon the enemy allowing for their escape. The First and Second Illinois went on to fight the rest of the battle. The next day Santa Anna retreated to Agua Nueva and ended hostilities in the area of Mexico along the Rio Grande. The First and Second Illinois lost 91 men and counted 85 wounded. "The rapid musketry of the gallant troops from Illinois poured a storm of lead into their serried ranks which literally strewed the ground with dead and dying. But, notwithstanding his losses, the enemy still advanced until our gallant regiment received fire from three sides. Still they maintained their position from a time with unflinching firmness against the immense heat.

 At length, perceiving the dangers of being entirely surrounded; it was determined to fall back to a ravine. Colonel Bissell, with his coolness of ordinary drill, ordered the signal "cease firing" to be made; he then with the same deliberation gave the command, "Face 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." Col. Henry L. Webb and the Pulaski County Riflemen, an independent company from Illinois, numbering 100 joined in response to the first call. They were all killed at the battle of Buena Vista. They were part of General Wool’s advance guard, left battalion.

The First and Second Illinois were mustered out of service on June 17, 1847.

The Congressional Session of 1848 issues 160 acres of public domain land to veterans of the Mexican American War. (Isham's Land Warrant) This offer covered non-commissioned officers, privates, enlisted (regular and volunteer) and those who were killed or wounded. Pensions were also granted for widows and orphans. Those soldiers officially discharged were to receive half a pension. Congress also authorized three months pay for soldiers to assist them in their financial needs.  The State of Illinois was congressionally authorized to present swords to the Colonels of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th regiments.

 

Section of Battle of Buena Vista depicting Illinois Regimental efforts.  Each "man" represents about 10 actual soldiers.

Click here to see complete lithograph (click back to return).

 

"Old Rough and Ready"

Portrait of Zachary Taylor 

 

 

 

 

 

Zachary Taylor

 

Map of Isham's Mexican War Travels based on records.

Daguerreotype of Mexican War soldiers

 

  

 See map of the Battle of Buena Vista

 

Click here for Alton Newspaper Article on Battle June 11, 1847

 

Near the end of their enlistment, the First and Second Illinois Infantry remained at Buena Vista. Brigadier-General Wool issued the following statement as a testimony to their service

Headquarters, Buena Vista

May 25, 1847

Orders No. 302

The term of service for which the First and Second Illinois Regiments have engaged to serve the United States has nearly expired, and they are about to return to their homes. The General Commanding takes this occasion to express his deep regret at the departure of those who have been so long under his immediate command, and who have served so well their country.

Few can boast of longer marches, greater hardships, or more privations, and none of greater gallantry than on the field of Buena Vista. It was there that the General witnesses with infinite satisfaction their valor, which gave additional luster to our arms, and increased glory to our country. To their steadiness and firmness in critical moment, and when there were five to one against them, and as General Santa Anna said, "where blood flowed in torrents and their field of battle was strewed with their dead," we may justly ascribe a large share of the glorious victory achieved over 20,000 men. A great victory is true; but obtained at too great a sacrifice. Hardin, Zabriska, McKee, Woodwind, Yell, Clay, and many others, fell leading their men to the charge. Their names and gallant deeds will ever be remembered by a grateful people. In taking leave of these regiment, the general cannot omit to express his admiration of the conduct and gallant bearing of all, and especially of Cols. Bissell and Weatherford and their officers, who have on all occasions done honor to themselves; and heroically sustained the cause of their country in the battle of Buena Vista. His best wishes will attend them to their homes, where they will be received with joy and gladness as the pride of their families and of their States.

By Command of Brigadier-General Wool

IRWIN M’Dowell, Assistant Adjutant General.

(ADJ XXVIII).

  

 

 

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A total of 116,000 people through out the United States volunteered to serve in the war. Of these, 13,000 died with 11,155 dead from disease and harsh weather conditions. "Dirty camps contaminated food and water, and exposure to severe weather conditions led to amoebic dysentery, diarrhea and yellow fever." Militia units from various stated made up over seventy percent of the United States armed forces during the Mexican war (Hylton). Illinois contributed a total of 6,123 men between June 1, 1846 and January 1, 1848. Eighty-Six of these were killed in action, twelve died of wounds, 160 were wounded and 683 died of illnesses. There were also many cases of desertion that resulted in harsh punishments.

 

Works Cited

Material above was mostly taken from 

www.il.ngb.army.mil/museum/citizen_soldier/mexican/ illinois_in_the_mexican_american.htm

Adjutant General’s report containing the complete Muster-Out Rolls of the Illinois Volunteers who Served in the Mexican War, vol.9.

The Alamo Long Barrack Museum. Compiled by the daughters of the Republic of Texas. Texas: Taylor Publishing Company1986

Cottingham, Carl D, Preston M. Jones and Gary Kent. "General John A. Logan: His Life and Times"

The Diary of the Travels of Augustus Frederic Ehinger Company H, 2nd Regiment 1846-1847. Edited by Charles F. Ward. Rosewell, New Mexico: 1978.

Dupuy, Trevor, Curt Johnson, David L. bongaid. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography. Castle Books: 1996

Hylton, Renee. "Citizen Soldiers: An Illustrated History of the Army National Guard.

Johnson, Col. Carl J. "Wilderness Settlers Mould Illinois National Guard Heritage" A paper submitted to the Illinois National Guard.

Jones, James Pickett. Black Jack: John A. Logan and Southern Illinois in the Civil War Era. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.

Mauch, Jeffrey. The Education of a Soldier; U.S. Grant in the War with Mexico. Kentucky: American Kestrel Books, 1996

McCartney, Samuel Bigger. Illinois in the Mexican War. Northwestern University, 1939

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Edited by E.B. Long. New York : A Da Capo Press, 1982.

Santa Anna Leg Museum Collateral Files General Reference, News Clippings, Photographs #1402.

 

 

 

 

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[1] General Winfield Scott 1786-1866. Served in the War of 1812, Seminole War, Aroostook War 1838, Mexican War and Civil War. His major battles in the Mexican War included Veracruz, Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco and Chapultepec. (Notes)