March 9, 2014 12:09:06 AM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
The other evening I was asked by friends to join a dinner with Bertram Hayes-Davis, the great-grandson of Jefferson Davis. Naturally, a fascinating conversation about history ensued. One of the things I have observed in researching history is that people are seldom fully as history books portray them. I had not realized that after the Civil War the Davis family helped their former slaves succeed as freemen and developed a strong bond with them. It was also interesting to learn that after the war Davis' wife and President Ulysses S. Grant's wife became close friends.
The conversations also brought to mind the Battle of Buena Vista which occurred on Feb. 22 and 23, 1847. It was in that battle that Davis' leadership qualities first made a national impression. That story actually starts with the creation of one of the United States' oldest military units. That military unit survives today as the 155th Brigade Combat Team of the Mississippi National Guard.
In 1799 the Mississippi Territorial militia was officially organized. The Mississippi militia, as the 1st Regiment Mississippi Infantry United States Volunteers, served gallantly during the War of 1812/Creek Indian War. It suffered heavy losses at the destruction of Fort Mims by the Creeks in 1813 but took part in Andrew Jackson's victory over the British at New Orleans in 1815.
On June 1, 1846, as conflict with Mexico was rapidly developing President James Polk asked Mississippi Gov. A.G. Brown to send a regiment of troops to join forces facing Mexico. Brown called for 10 companies of Mississippi militia to make up the regiment of riflemen. This regiment was the "1st Mississippi Riflemen" whose name was later shortened to the 1st Mississippi Rifles.
The regiment included companies from across the state. Company K was known as the Tombigbee Volunteers and had been raised in Columbus. Its captain was Alexander McClung and later William Rogers. Its lieutenants were William Patterson and William Townsend. Regimental officers were elected by the troops and Jefferson Davis was elected Colonel. Alexander McClung was elected Lt. Colonel. Through the efforts of Davis, the regiment became the first U.S. military regiment to be armed with rifles rather than smoothbore muskets.
Although recognized for gallantry early on in the Mexican conflict, it was at the Battle of Buena Vista that Davis and the regiment made its name. While much has been written about that Mexican War battle, there is a letter written during the fighting which not only describes the events but evokes the feelings of a soldier on the ground there. Right after the battle Lt. Christopher Mott of Holly Springs, on Feb. 26, 1847, wrote a letter to his father describing the events of the previous days. The letter concluded by saying, "I have just learned that Santa Anna has retreated in haste." Mott began his account of the fighting:
"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 ever had. Santa Anna supported by fifteen Generals of Distinguished ability, and twenty thousand well disciplined and confident solders..."
Mott went on to describe how U.S. troops were outnumbered and at one point during the battle, "...By the time we reached the field the enemy had driven the Ind. (Indiana) Riflemen down the mountain, charged in over whelming numbers, our Left flank and completely routed the 2nd Regt Indiana Infantry..." The Mississippi Riflemen stepped into the breach and Col. Jefferson Davis gave his famous command "Stand fast Mississippians." The 1st Mississippi with less than 300 men on the field faced a charge by 2,000 Mexican lancers. The Mississippians stopped the Mexican advance and helped save the day when it appeared the United States' positions would be totally overrun.
The Mississippians, according to Mott, "...lost 42 killed and 56 wounded about one in three (as we had less than three hundred on the field.)"
On May 17, 1847, headlines in the Lynchburg Virginian proclaimed "Brilliant Exploits of Col. Jefferson Davis" and praised the conduct of the 1st Mississippi. To this day Davis' cry "Stand Fast Mississippians" remains the motto of the 155th Brigade Combat Team, the direct descendant of the 1st Mississippi Riflemen and those heroic 300 Mississippians of 1847.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]