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Camp Life

Topic- Matamoros and Camargo, Along the Rio Grande, Corpus Christi

In June 1845, with the annexation of Texas imminent, the War Department ordered General Zachary Taylor, commander of a force of 1,500 stationed at Fort Jesup in western Louisiana, to march into Texas to protect the area from possible retaliation from Mexico and Indian depredations. By the end of July, Taylor’s "Army of Occupation" had taken up positions at Corpus Christi, on the south bank of the Nueces River.

Since U.S. troops had previously served only in company-sized units in widely scattered frontier posts, Taylor’s officers now began the task of organizing and training the army in battalion and brigade-sized formations. Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who commanded the 3rd Infantry Regiment in the field, was a conscientious officer and strict disciplinarian who had the reputation for fielding the best drilled regiment at Fort Jesup. According to Hitchcock, neither General Taylor nor Colonel Whistler (commanding the third brigade) could form the troops into a line, while General Worth, commanding the first brigade, had "some knowledge of the principles of brigade movement" but failed to drill his brigade sufficiently. While the individual regiments were well drilled, Hitchcock felt that Colonel Whistler could not give even the simplest command without the prompting of his adjutant, a fact born out when the brigade was reviewed at Corpus Christi by the inspector general.

When the army first arrived at Corpus Christi, the location was considered ideal, and surgeons on-site evaluated it as a healthy environment for the troops. However, brackish water, a poor diet, poor tents, camp sanitation, temperature fluctuations and an inadequate supply of firewood soon put a large number of the men on the sick rolls. Conditions deteriorated still further when the army took up positions along the Rio Grande. After the fall of Matamoros, Taylor established his base of operations at Camargo, a village below the Rio Grande. In June and July 1846, volunteer regiments that had been formed in response to the declaration of war began to arrive, swelling the size of the Army of Occupation to more than 10,000. The volunteer regiments’ failure to take adequate sanitation precautions soon turned the camp into a quagmire of filth and disease, made all the more unbearable by blistering heat. The troops suffered from a variety of diseases, such as influenza, smallpox, measles, malaria, and scurvy. However, dysentery caused the most problems. By the end of August, 1,500 troops, a staggering 12 per cent of Taylor’s force, had died of dysentery and other diseases. The death march was daily heard in camp, announcing yet again the loss of a comrade.

The war with Mexico had the highest mortality rate of any of America’s wars, 110 per capita versus 65 per capita in the Civil War. In a typical regiment, more than 10% of the troops never lived to see the end of their enlistment. A significant percentage of these deaths were due to sickness and disease. Whereas 1,548 U.S. army deaths were combat-related, almost ten times that number, 10,970, fell to illness during the course of the war. The volunteers succumbed to disease at twice the rate of regular troops. In addition to suffering from poor sanitation, the volunteers from rural areas were not immunized against smallpox, a requirement in the regular army. In the rush to raise troops, moreover, many states accepted volunteer recruits who were unfit for service.

The medical department was too small at the start of the war to even provide adequate physicians for the regular army, much less the thousands who made up the newly created volunteer regiments. The quality of voluntary and contract doctors sent to Mexico was generally low. Unlike army surgeons, they were not required to pass a qualifying examination, were unfamiliar with the requirements of military medicine and sanitation, and possessed questionable skills.

Military medicine had made little progress since the Napoleonic Wars. Although the numbing effect of ether was known, many surgeons were reluctant to use it, believing that it interfered with the patient’s recovery. They preferred to trust in speed when performing surgical procedures. When hit by a musket ball, debris such as pieces of cloth or leather became lodged in the wound. In addition to having to overcome the effects of penetration by the ball, the patient would have to deal with the subsequent infection. For those who survived, recovery could take weeks, if not months. Artillery rounds often caused traumatic wounds. Major Ringgold, commanding the flying artillery at the Battle of Palo Alto, suffered traumatic amputation of both legs when a solid shot struck one leg, passed through his horse, and took off his other leg. Major Brown, one of the few casualties of the siege of Fort Texas (later named Fort Brown in his honor), died two days after a shell took off his leg. Accidents also took their toll. In September 1845, as troops were arriving at Corpus Christi, eight men were killed and seventeen severely wounded when the boiler exploded on the chartered steam boat Dayton as it was bringing troops and supplies ashore.

As citizen soldiers, the volunteers bridled at the discipline of army life. Volunteer officers were elected and needed a deft hand to successfully command their troops. Regular officers were dismayed and complained often of the lack of discipline displayed by the volunteer regiments. Drunkenness, unruly behavior, and unauthorized foraging were commonplace among volunteers. However, regular troops were also guilty of such pursuits during periods of inactivity. While at Corpus Christi, Colonel Hitchcock reported that the 2nd Dragoons were involved in several drunken brawls. One captain had to resign and two officers went on trial for a quarrel over a "low woman."

The reality of a soldier’s life, much to the dismay of the volunteers who enlisted with dreams of glory, was dull and monotonous. Drums and bugles governed the day’s activities. There was a call for every duty – reveille at dawn, roll call, fatigue duty, sick call, officers’ call, sergeants’ call, breakfast, drill, guard mount, roll call, dinner, more drill, supper, retreat, a third roll call, and finally lights out at tattoo.

For the new recruit, learning the skills of soldiering could be a long process. General Taylor insisted that the volunteers get six hours of drill per day and they be exempt from other responsibilities such as policing the camp, guard mount, and fatigue duties. Officers could rely on a standardized infantry manual-—authored by Winfield Scott--which was organized into the school of the soldier, school of the company, and school of the battalion. Having been rushed to Mexico with limited training at home, recruits were forced to learn their jobs in the field. First to be mastered was the twelve step procedure to fire the musket. A well-trained private was expected to get off three rounds a minute. The new recruit also had to learn to march in cadence and execute the various evolutions required by the linear tactics of the time and the need to mass fire power. As a result, by some accounts the volunteers performed as capably as the regulars in combat situations.

However, one could always distinguish regular from volunteer regiments. Major Giddings of the 1st Ohio Volunteer Regiment reported that unlike the volunteers, the regular army in camp presented a scene of order and efficiency. Tents were set up in well-ordered streets, each company in its place, burnished arms stacked on the color line, cooking fires in a line at the end of the company streets, horses on well-ordered picket lines, and artillery batteries in place covered with tarps. According to General Scott, upon being given the order to camp the regulars would have tents pitched, arms stacked, guards posted, and supper cooking within fifteen minutes. By contrast, when the volunteers camped, they left their arms exposed to the elements, slept in the open, and ate their salt meat rations raw or fried.

Limited by law to only keeping on hand a six-month supply of military equipment for a peacetime army, the Quartermaster Department was hard pressed to keep the regular troops supplied in far off Mexico. Although characterized by misdirected efforts, excessive costs, and long transit times, supplies such as arms, equipment, and uniforms kept flowing to the troops across the sea and through long stretches of hostile territory to the front. The states were required to outfit volunteer units, but were frequently unable to provide sufficient clothing and equipment, requiring the Quartermaster Department to do so.

To counteract the long periods of boredom and monotony, soldiers made their own entertainment while on campaign in Mexico. Theatrical productions were particularly popular. Plays were produced by the soldiers themselves or professional troops were hired to perform. At Corpus Christi in early January 1846, the officers of the 8th Infantry completed a theater capable of seating 800. The officers originally intended to stage their own plays with themselves playing all the parts. However, when Ulysses Grant drew the role of Desdemona in Othello, there were second thoughts and a professional actress from New Orleans was hired to play the female roles.

Starting with the arrival of the Army of Observation at Corpus Christi, newspapers were published in camp wherever the army went. The soldier-editors would confiscate printing presses or take over local print shops. The American Flag was published in Matamoros and the Picket Guard was a volunteer produced newspaper in Saltillo. The American Star followed General Scott’s invasion, publishing issues in Veracruz, Jalapa, Puebla, and finally Mexico City, with the most important news items also published on a weekly basis (the Weekly Star). These newspapers offered a mix of official reports, editorials, market prices, and advertisements and camp gossip.

The men in regiments also joined fraternal organizations. The Masons held meetings and even founded lodges in Mexico. During the occupation of Mexico City, officers formed the Aztec Club, which proved so popular it became a permanent organization for officers who served in the U.S.-Mexico War.

In addition to theatrical productions, newspapers, and fraternal organizations, there were other less lofty avenues for entertainment and relaxation. Drinking was a favorite pastime. Alcoholism was as much a problem in Mexico as it was in the United States. Despite prohibitions on the sale of liquor, whiskey, brandy, and wine were eagerly sought out. When they were unavailable, soldiers purchased Mexican liquor such as pulque, mescal, and aguardiente. Gambling was another vice. Professional gamblers followed the armies, always ready to relieve the soldier of his pay. Soldiers were able to socialize with the local population at frequently held dances called fandangos, where the men far outnumbered the women. When writing home to their wives, officers typically made the point that "other men" participated in these social opportunities for female companionship, but not themselves. In reality, the officers’ wives had little cause for concern at gatherings, because the young ladies present were chaperoned by family members.

Then as now, letters from home were the soldiers’ link with the outside world. A letter from home would be cause for celebration, a lack of one could cause despair. Grayson Prevost, a young Assistant Surgeon, gives an indication of the value placed by the troops on mail from home. In a letter written from St. Joseph’s Island to his parents on March 21 1846 while waiting for transportation to Matamoros, he recounted how the men took it into their own hands to distribute the mail. A large mailbag addressed to Corpus Christi had arrived, but there was no postmaster available to open the bag. A large group of officers gathered around the quartermaster’s tent, all anxious for news from home. Uncertain about the propriety of "robbing" the mail, the officers stood for a long time mulling over their options, some cursing, some laughing, most silently staring. Finally, one lieutenant whose child had just recovered from a dangerous sickness before he left for Mexico, walked up, pulled out a knife and, to the applause of all, cut open the mailbag. The officers remained silent on the identity of the perpetrator.

Don Gross

Bibliography:

Barringer, Graham. "The Mexican War Journal of Henry S. Lane." Indiana Magazine of History, Vol 53. No 4 (December 1957), pp 383-434.

Croffut, W.A. Ed. In Camp and Field: Diary of Major General Ethan Allen Hitchcock U.S.A. 1909.

Gillett, Mary C. The Army Medical Department 1818-1865. Center for Military History, United States Army.

Henry, William Seaton. Campaign Sketches of the War with Mexico New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847.

Weigley, Russell F. History of the United States Army. Enlarged Edition, Indiana University Press, 1984.

Winders, Richard Brice. Mr. Polk’s Army: The American Military Experience in the Mexican War. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.

Journal and Letters of Grayson M. Prevost. Unpublished manuscript. Special Collections, University of Texas-Arlington, Arlington, Texas.





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