During the war with Mexico, more than 13,000 U.S. military personnel lost their lives. Most were buried at or near the spot where they drew their last breath, largely because there was no other practical option. This was hardly new in the annals of warfare. In all previous conflicts in which Americans or their colonial forebears had fallen, the bodies of dead soldiers had been treated in similar fashion. Yet for Americans this war was different. Because these men were fighting outside the United States, they were forced to inter the bodies of deceased comrades in enemy territory—in places with unfamiliar names and frequently in remote spots that no friend or family member was ever likely to find even if they tried.
This situation made many soldiers uneasy. Shortly after the war began, Col. William R. Curtis of the Third Ohio Volunteers sat in his tent in northern Mexico and drew a map in his journal, on which he marked the site of his regiment’s camp. He also drew crosses to represent “the places where the dead have been deposited.” Expressing what seems to have been a universal sentiment, he added: “It will be hard to leave these graves in possession of our foes. The places will no doubt soon be lost and forgotten, and mourning friends will find no trace of these graves.”
Although there was then no federal legislation requiring or permitting the return of a soldier’s remains to his family at government expense (no such law would exist for another fifty years), Army regulations did specify that certain funeral honors be observed in the field. Major Generals were to be saluted with artillery fire. Everyone else was entitled to a musket volley, although the size and make-up of funeral escorts varied according to rank.
Despite the lack of an official provision for the return of remains to the U.S. at government expense, not all the Americans who died in Mexico remained buried there. In some few instances the bodies of officers and even some private soldiers were disinterred and brought home at the expense of family, friends, or community. However, locating the remains of a specific man after burial could be difficult, particularly when corpses had been deposited in a mass grave. There was also little likelihood of finding an individual grave if it was unmarked or no one remembered the site. Given enough time, nature could render even a carefully marked grave indistinguishable from its surroundings.
In contrast to enlisted graves, those of senior officers were almost always well marked, often in anticipation of disinterment. It appears that the more distinguished or popular an officer was in life, the more likely he was to be reburied in native soil. Among those whose remains received such special consideration were Col. Archibald Yell, former governor of Arkansas, Col. John J. Hardin, a former Illinois congressman, and Lt. Col. Henry Clay, Jr., son of the distinguished Kentucky statesman. All three died at the Battle of Buena Vista. Such favored treatment is particularly ironic considering that it occurred during the Jacksonian age, which, superficially at least, celebrated the equality of all men regardless of their rank in society.
Once a fallen officer arrived home, he was treated in a dignified and respectful manner. When the skeletal remains of Colonel Trueman Cross, the very first U.S. officer to die during the war with Mexico, “reached Baltimore from the banks of the Rio Grande” they were escorted by an honor guard to the railroad depot and then loaded on a train bound for Washington, D.C. Upon arrival, they were taken to the Congressional Cemetery, where Cross’ “imposing” second funeral was attended by a large crowd of people that included President Polk, “the heads of departments, public officers, officers of the army and navy, the civil authorities, and members of the community, amongst whom he had so long lived.”
Cross was no exception. After the body of Major Samuel Ringgold, a casualty of the Battle of Palo Alto, reached Baltimore in 1846, his second funeral attracted a crowd so large that the streets were “almost impassable from one end of the city to the other” and “the windows of most of the houses were taken out to accommodate the spectators.” After lying in state in the Exchange Building, Ringgold’s coffin was carried through city streets, accompanied by a military honor guard. “The music of a dozen or more bands,” along with “the mournful appendages of flags displayed at half mast in innumerable directions, the toiling bells, the muffled drums, the dead march, the gloom that everywhere pervaded the dense throng of living beings,” one observer remarked, “spoke a language to the heart that needed no interpreter.”
Although it was almost certainly a minority opinion, not everyone approved the practice of disinterment. After seeing seven coffins stacked for shipment like common cargo, Capt. Franklin Smith of the Mississippi Volunteers was moved to write: “Better poor fellows that they had been left in the gory bed where they fell under the blue vault of the cloudless skies” with the mountains, “the witnesses of their heroism, around them.”
In 1850, two years after the occupation of Mexico ended, President Fillmore approved $10,000 for the purchase of “a piece of land near the city of Mexico, for a cemetery or burial ground, for such of the officers and soldiers of our army, in our late war with Mexico, as fell in battle, or died in and around said city.” This act, which created the first U.S. national cemetery anywhere, still stands as the only significant effort made by the federal government to recover the remains of any soldiers who lost their lives during the war with Mexico and to memorialize them. Today, this cemetery (reduced in size to a single acre in 1976) forms a tiny oasis of calm in the heart of Mexico City. A small cenotaph erected there shortly after the cemetery’s establishment originally read: “To the memory of the American Soldiers who perished in this valley in 1847 whose bones, collected by their country’s order, are here buried—750.” The words have since been changed to read: “To the honored memory of 750 Americans known but to God whose bones collected by their country’s order are here buried.”
In 1874 the National Association of Veterans of the Mexican War put pressure on the U.S. government to investigate the condition of known American burial sites at Monterrey and Saltillo, hoping that these too could be preserved. However, at the latter, the land that formed the graveyard was private property and “every vestige of its being a burial place” had disappeared. The report from Monterrey was similarly discouraging.
Given the off-putting nature of these reports, the aging veterans took no further action. With dwindling numbers and limited funds, the old soldiers apparently deemed it more important to focus on supporting passage of federal legislation granting service pensions to elderly survivors of the war. Two additional government investigations, conducted in 1897 and 1900, likewise came to nothing.
In 1965, a private U.S. citizen visiting Mexico found a cemetery in Monterrey that seemed to fit the description of one established there by the Third Infantry in 1846. The same individual also visited Saltillo, where he found the wall surrounding the U.S. burial ground had been destroyed but that “the old foundation [was] still visible.” He also noted that: “Other walls made of adobe from materials on the spot have numerous human bones visible.”
Curiously, no government investigation included the grave sites of the approximately 267 soldiers buried at the Buena Vista Battlefield, south of Saltillo and reportedly located on the grounds of the Coahuila Agriculture Station, which occupies the former site of the Hacienda Buena Vista (for which the battlefield was named).
Apart from the establishment of Mexico City National Cemetery, no known attempts have ever been made by the U.S. government to retrieve the remains of soldiers buried in Mexico, to secure titles to their burial places, or to erect a national monument. Not until the Spanish-American War was a law passed offering the families of soldiers who died overseas the opportunity to have their loved one’s remains returned home at government expense.
Steven R. Butler
Butler, Steven R. The Forgotten Soldiers: Deceased U.S. Military Personnel in the War with Mexico. Master’s thesis, The University of Texas at Arlington, 1999.