February 23, 2013 8:59:03 PM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
It was 166 years ago this weekend that a die-hard group of Mississippians in red shirts and brandishing Bowie knives changed the course of a battle and history. The Battle of Buena Vista on Feb. 22-23, 1847, sealed the fate of Mexican General Santa Anna's army and ensured a United States victory in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48.
Often the war with Mexico has been perceived as U.S .troops sweeping through Mexico, totally overwhelming the Mexican Army. Such was not the case. Within a mountain pass near the Hacienda Buena Vista Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor's army of only 500 veteran regulars and 4,759 inexperienced volunteers faced the almost 20,000-man cream of the Mexican Army under Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna. Gen. Taylor hoped for a miracle to save his army from defeat.
Shortly before, in a case of presidential politics, President James K. Polk had ordered most of Taylor's veteran troops to be transferred to Gen. Winfield Scott's command for a drive on Mexico City. That action may have resulted from President Polk's possible concerns about Taylor's political ambitions. Another major victory could have propelled Taylor into a race for the White House.
At any rate, Taylor faced almost insurmountable odds at Buena Vista. During the battle, many of the inexperienced volunteers did break and flee, allowing the Mexican cavalry to break through the U.S. defensive line. Gen. Taylor ordered the 1st Mississippi Regiment (also called the Mississippi Riflemen) which had been held in reserve to close the breech.
With Col. Jefferson Davis' battle cry of "Stand Fast Mississippians!" they crushed the fearsome Mexican assault and then later charged a much larger Mexican force to help save Illinois and Kentucky troops pinned down in a ravine.
In his official report Gen. Taylor said: "The Mississippi riflemen, under Col. Davis, were highly conspicuous for their gallantry and steadiness, and sustained throughout the engagement the reputation of veteran troops. Brought into action against an immensely superior force, they maintained themselves for a long time unsupported and with heavy loss, and held an important part of the field until reinforced."
There was extensive newspaper coverage of the victory with much praise for what were called "the Gallant Mississippians." The New York Evening Post reported how "the Mississippians, the (earlier) heroes of Monterey" had "completely repulsed" the enemy.
All of this came to mind yesterday while reading a letter written by Lt. C.H. Mott of the 1st Mississippi Rifles to his father just after the battle had ended. In the letter he wrote: "With mingled feelings of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, I hasten to inform you that another great battle has been fought, and the victory is ours. The battle of Buena Vista is probably one of the hardest fought and most sanguinary battles that has ever been fought on the American Continent. It was there we met the best appointed army that Mexico has had, Santa Anna supported by 15 Generals of Distinguished ability, and 20,000 well disciplined and confident soldiers..." The four page letter which described the fighting concludes; "I have just learned that Santa Anna has retreated in haste..."
Santa Anna's defeat doomed the Mexican Army which never recovered while advancing "Old Rough and Ready" Zachary Taylor's political career into the White House the following year.
Among the 10 companies of the 1st Mississippi was Company K, the Tombigbee Volunteers, of Lowndes County who were commanded by captains Alexander McClung and William Rogers and lieutenants William Patterson and William Townsend. That company, however, did not participate in the gallant action of the 1st Mississippi in halting the U.S. retreat in the mountain pass, as they had been detached to guard the army's supply base at Saltillo from an expected Mexican attack.
One's view of history totally changes when, rather than seeing someone's edited version in a book or on television, you hold and read an original first-hand account. All too often the versions of history that we get are tainted by politics or other agenda. The real story of historical events is usually much more complex and interesting than what is provided in school text or popular media.
The 1st Mississippi Rifles survives to this day though now designated as the 155th Infantry Regiment of the Mississippi Army National Guard.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]