Book Extract Describing Illinois 1st Action at Battle of Buena Vista

Isham McCormick was in John L. McConnel's company of the Illinois 1st Infantry during Mexican War. McConnel wrote a novel afterwards based on his experience in the Mexican War. This describes Illinois 1st at the Battle of Buena Vista 2/23/1847.

TALBOT AND VERNON. by John L. McConnel. Pages 298-303 published 1850.

The order was received with a shout, and every man sprang to his feet, and hastened into line. The Colonel [Hardin] had repeatedly, during the day, asked permission to charge a battery posted on the American left, but it was always refused—the General [Taylor] deeming it, correctly no doubt, a rash desire. But the permission had come at last—rendered significant, too, by the qualifying word, “now,” used by the officer; and the Colonel very naturally construed the order as a direction to do what he had before wished to do. He turned his eyes to the point previously occupied by the battery; but it was gone! Following the line of the mountain with his eye, he descried it moving to the rear, and already far within the Mexican lines. [When I speak of "the lines” of either army, I mean the ground covered by their guns, and held without contest. Whether this is technical or not, I am not sufficiently learned in military matters to know and hence this note.] But this made no difference to the chivalrous Colonel. He immediately ordered his battalion, (numbering some three hundred men,) to advance by the right of companies, and filing to the right, he passed between O’Brien’s guns, and commenced an advance in double quick time, in the direction of the retreating battery. 

He had first to cross an open, bare plateau, of about a quarter of a mile in extent, totally void of vegetation, and affording no cover of any description. This was bounded by a deep ravine, running from the road, and heading somewhat above the line of his advance. On the other side of this ravine was another plateau, of about the same extent, only sloping away towards the Mexican position, and covered by a species of plantain, which afforded sufficient cover for five thousand men. The handful of soldiers had nearly crossed the plateau in the headlong, disorderly fashion of a volunteer charge, and were within one hundred yards of the edge of the ravine, when their advance was suddenly checked. A roar of musketry boomed out from among the plantain, louder and better sustained than anything yet heard that day; at the same moment a cloud of Mexican infantry rose, like the warriors of Clan Alpine, from their cover, and began rapidly to deploy both to the right and left. The little band bad unexpectedly rushed upon the whole Mexican reserve—a body of four thousand fresh troops, who had been lying concealed, for the purpose of giving the finishing stroke to the expected victory! 

The devoted battalion went down before the hurricane of balls, “like corn before the reaper,” -a spectator might have thought them slain to a man. But it was not so. At the command of their colonel they had thrown themselves upon the ground to avoid the fire until they could ascertain from whence it came. Not long were they kept in ignorance. The deploying mass emerged to the right and left from among the plantain, and began to wheel in, as if to envelope them completely. The Colonel sprang to his feet and waved his sword - the battalion rose from the ground and re-commenced their charge at a run. Passing each flank of the enemy, they pushed on towards the centre. A deep and wide ravine lay across their path; but dashing madly down its precipitous side they commenced a scramble for the opposite plateau. It was impossible to gain it! Three several times they attempted to gain a footing: but they were as often driven back by the hurricane of balls. At last Hardin ordered them to form along the brow of the hill. Obedient, even in such a moment, they opened their fire..

“ Aim low, boys!" shouted Hardin. “Let no man pull a trigger without a sight upon his man! It is the only chance!"

Scarcely more than two hundred had reached the line; but every man was now a soldier; officers seized the muskets the slain and plied them in the ranks; and few shots were fired without effect. The dense mass before them offered a mark not to be missed, and all along the line the tall hats of the infantry went by hundreds to the earth. Cheer after cheer had rung over the plain during the whole day; but here there was no cheering. Stern silence and compressed lip marked the desperation of the fight. And now came Bissell, with the glorious second Illinois foot; and for a moment there was a hope of victory; but the masses still closed in, the movement was only checked. The Mexican right and left had outflanked the little band and were still wheeling in; their fire took the Americans in front, flank and rear. There was another gleam of hope: the chivalrous McKee came rushing up with his Kentuckians, and the American force was trebled. But the movement, suspended for a moment, again commenced, and a long line of red cockades approached the brow of the ravine on the Kentuckian right. Upon the other flank the fight had become almost hand-to-band; and although hundreds were swept down, the maddened host moved steadily forward. It seemed that the devoted band were to be literally driven from the ground, at the point of the bayonet.

The fight was hopeless from the first moment of its inception, and time had only made it worse. The men were fatigued and worn out; their cartridges began to fail, and many of the guns, which they had not had time to clean, began to miss fire and choke with powder. But stilt the fight was nobly sustained, and a deafening roar filled the ravine, and echoed among the mountains, for many a mile. The Mexican force, like a huge giant, had spread abroad its arms, as if to embrace and crush them. They were completely surrounded, except upon one side, where the breadth of the ravine, about sixty yards, still left a narrow path open for retreat. Hardin sprang upon a large rock and looked over the field. He saw there was but one way open, and even in that now began to be visible the fluttering pennants of a body of lancers! The door was about to be closed, and the band shut in forever! They were lost, and all there was left for them was to sell their lives as dearly as possible. At this moment an aid-de-camp galloped through the storm of bullets, and reached the Kentuckians untouched. He was the bearer of an order from General Taylor to fall back. It was high time—nay, it was doubtful whether it was not too late! It seemed as if the bearer of the order had only forced his way into the jaws of Death! For the lancers were now seen slowly advancing up the ravine—a glittering mass of many colors! The order was passed to Bissell and by him to Hardin, who was still standing conspicuously upon the rock and encouraging his men in efforts, which he saw could only delay their fate and his. He received the order and cast his eyes again down the ravine. To retreat was as dangerous as to remain where they were - it seemed that there was no escape for him, alas! There was none! “We must fall back, my men!” he said in a tone of regret “Retire down the ravine and force your way to the redoubt.” 

They needed no second order. Every man had long known it was a hopeless conflict -though few, very few, had left their comrades without an order. The nature of the ground precluded all attempt to retire in order. It was a confused rush upon the cavalry. The usual order of battle was reversed- the [infantry] were chargingthe horse—and the charge was desperate and bloody. Hardin stood upon the rock until the last of his men had received the order and left the spot. Casting his eyes once more towards the enemy he sprang to the ground and followed his men.

In the meantime, Taylor bad ordered up the third Indiana foot and Bragg’s light battery, to stem the torrent. It was quite a mile of rough ground over which they had to travel, and horses and men were scarcely able to move. The moment was too critical for delay; and aid after aid was dispatched to hasten their advance. The cannoniers plied whip and spur, the horses strained every muscle; the guns rumbled along faster than ever before; the infantry put their shoulders to the wheels and pushed them painfully up the hills. The effort was a convulsive and desperate one - upon one minute’s speed depended the fate of the day! At last they cleared the last ravine, and got a run of the ground they were endeavoring to reach. Their friends had left it, and it was now flooded by Mexican infantry! The tide was setting rapidly down the plateau towards the pass of Angastura. Should they gain that, all was lost!

Again the whip was plied, a shout of anger and of sorrow went up to Heaven; horses and men sprang forward to within one hundred yards of the Mexican force. In a moment the guns are unlimbered, the infantry formed, and a storm of iron hail is poured into the dense columns. The advance begins to slacken; they turn upon the guns and attempt to charge. It is too much! They are driven back, and long lanes are opened in their ranks; broken, rent and torn, they begin to waver; they fall into disorder. The guns are seized by the wheels and pushed upon them, nearer and more near, quicker and more deadly hurtle the shot. A few turn to retreat, the example becomes contagious, and the whole mass rolls back like a wave that has spent its force upon the rock!

The retreating [Illinois] infantry have met the lancers hand to hand. Fighting in inextricable confusion they flow out of the mouth of the ravine, upon the wheat fields beside the road. Captain Washington [whose cannon guarded the road through the pass] springs upon a gun and waves a handkerchief— the Americans fall upon their faces, and the shot rushes over them, tearing the lancers to pieces and driving them to shelter. The road is left clear to the exhausted men, and the battle is over.

In this retreat the American loss was greater than during the whole day before. Hardin, McKee and Clay fell fighting in the melee. The victory would have been dearly purchased by the life of either one.