"Gloriously Fighting a Glorious Cause"
The American public was in an expansionist mood in the early 19th century. Fueled by patriotism and faith in Manifest Destiny, the country fixed its gaze westward upon the lands beyond Missouri. Tennesseans flocked to Texas during the 1820s and 1830s to settle territory freshly opened by Mexico, and famous sons like Sam Houston and David Crockett were among the thousands "Gone to Texas." Most Southerners bound for the new Promised Land sought to escape economic hardship. Cheap land — four cents per acre — quickly drew them.
In Mexico, the Revolution of 1836, brought on by an increasingly dictatorial Mexico, resulted in the birth of a new independent nation: the Republic of Texas. Most Texans favored immediate annexation by the United States. Tennessean James K. Polk, elected president in 1844 on a campaign pledge to annex Texas and Oregon, moved promptly to fulfill that promise. Both territories soon won statehood in the "Glorious Constellation" known as the United States of America.
Relations between Mexico and the US went sour and war broke out in 1846 over a boundary dispute. American troop strength, however, was too low to even consider fielding a foreign occupation force. When the Secretary of War therefore issued a call for 2,800 Tennesseans to join the ranks, 30,000 responded! This cinched the nickname "Volunteer State" first earned during the War of 1812.
The First and Second Tennessee Volunteer Infantries were raised in Middle and West Tennessee, respectively, and a regiment of cavalry came from East Tennessee. All served in battle with distinction. The Third, Fourth and Fifth Infantries were recruited after the major fighting ended and acted principally as garrison troops and supply line guards, though the Third Tennessee saw some action during the last days of the war. The troops were confident the war would be over soon.
For the first time, however, American soldiers were fighting in a foreign land a long way from home, and they were overwhelmingly outnumbered. Long supply lines plagued campaigns, and war was a huge financial commitment. The cost has been estimated at more than $75 million. Sickness wracked the regiments from beginning to end and accounted for far more deaths than combat did. Measles, smallpox, typhoid, diarrhea, mumps, and the common cold claimed many lives. More than 11,000 died of disease, while 1,700 were killed in combat.
Despite the cost of the war and the number of casualties, the press was able to widely influence public opinion of the war because of a new invention. The telegraph came into common use during the Mexican War, so people were able to read news from reporters, not just the views of politicians. Exciting battlefield accounts fostered unity and patriotism among Americans.
As most Americans enthusiastically supported the war, they also and honored its veterans. Place names like Trousdale County, Fort Campbell, Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo, and Monterey in Tennessee are all associated with heroes or battles of the Mexican War. Three future governors (William Trousdale, William Bowen Campbell, and William B. Bate) used their wartime experience as stepping stones to high office. Two of them, Trousdale and Campbell, were elected within five years after the peace treaty was signed.
Scores of future Civil War officers, including Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, honed their military skills during the Mexican War. Other Civil War luminaries who cut their military teeth in the Mexican War include Jefferson Davis, James Longstreet, John Hunt Morgan, Winfield Scott, George Gordon Meade, George H. Thomas, Braxton Bragg, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Ambrose Burnside, George B. McClellan, William T. Sherman, P.G.T. Beauregard, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joe Hooker, George Pickett, and Edmund Kirby Smith.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) formally ended the war with Mexico. Under its terms, Mexico ceded to the United States a vast amount of western land in return for $15 million. This was known as the Mexican Cession and included present-day Arizona and New Mexico and parts of Utah, Nevada, Colorado and California. Mexico lost more than 50% of its territory. It also relinquished all claims to Texas and recognized the Rio Grande River as the southern boundary of the United States.
Storming of Fort Teneria at the Battle of Monterey, September 21-24, 1846
In a battle with particular significance to Tennesseans, Tennessee regiments under Gen. Gideon Pillow and future governor Colonel William Bowen Campbell stormed over the fort walls with bayonets and swords. It was Campbell who gave the famous command, "Boys, follow me!" William B. Allen of Lawrence County was felled leading a charge at Monterey and died exhorting his company of Lawrence Blues to take the fort. Both the First and Second Tennessee Infantries fought bravely in the battle despite widespread illness and terrific losses. First over the walls and into the fort was the First Tennessee, and it was at the Battle of Monterey that the regiment earned the nickname the "Bloody First."
General John A. Quitman (1799-1858)
"I know what my friends expect of me and …they shall not be disappointed. A general’s baton, fairly won on the field of battle, or a Mexican grave!" Quitman, a Mississippian, was present at most of the major battles of the Mexican War. The First Tennessee Infantry joined Quitman’s Brigade in 1846 and stormed Fort Teneria during the Battle of Monterey.
Colonel Benjamin Franklin Cheatham (1820-1886)
Born in Davidson County, he served as captain of the Nashville Blues, First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry, and saw combat at the Battle of Monterey. Cheatham later became a colonel in the Third Tennessee and served in action during the last days of the Mexico City campaign. He would later serve as a general in the Civil War. This carte-de-visite shows Cheatham posed in his Confederate uniform.
Lieutenant Adolphus Heiman (1809-1862)
Born in Prussia, this well-known architect adopted Nashville as his home in the 1830s. In the Mexican War he was a hero of the Battle of Monterey, where he served with the "Bloody First," and was later promoted to major. When Heiman returned to civilian life, his career as an architect soared, and he designed many fine buildings in the region — St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the Tennessee Hospital for the Insane, Belmont Mansion, the Giles County courthouse — and a number of magnificent tombstones. He died early in the Civil War while serving as a Confederate colonel in the Tenth Tennessee.
The Battle of Buena Vista, February 23, 1847
This dramatic engagement pitted Gen. Zachary Taylor against the villain of the Alamo, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. By the next year, Taylor had left the army to become President of the United States. The town of Buena Vista in Carroll County is named in honor of this battle.
The Bombardment of Vera Cruz, March 9, 1847
This battle began a twenty-day siege of the fortified seaport on Mexico’s east coast. It was the first large-scale amphibious assault in US military history. Tennessean Gideon Pillow commanded a brigade of volunteers during the fighting at Vera Cruz. From there, the Americans launched their march to Mexico City, which was captured in September. Pillow was wounded twice along the way.
The Battle of Cerro Gordo, April 18, 1847
Cerro Gordo was a strategic mountain pass along the national road between Vera Cruz and Mexico City. Facing each other in this battle were the armies of Gen. Winfield Scott and Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The battle, in which the First and Second Tennessee Infantry regiments greatly distinguished themselves, was the first in a string of American victories that led to the capture of Mexico City. Santa Anna believed the American victory at Cerro Gordo was the most significant of the war. A town in Hardin County is named for this battle.
Santa Anna's wine chest
Santa Anna’s wine chest was captured by Tennessee troops at the Battle of Cerro Gordo in April 1847. The Mexican commander-in-chief also had a cork-and-wood prosthetic leg that was captured by the Fourth Illinois. It remains on display at the Illinois State Military Museum, although the Mexican government has repeatedly asked for the leg’s return. The leather wine chest is on display at the Tennessee State Museum.
The Battle of Chapultepec, September 12–13, 1847
This was a significant but costly victory for the Americans. Chapultepec Castle guarded Mexico City. Tennesseans Gideon Pillow and William Trousdale were both wounded as they led charges there. The brave fighting of the U.S. Marines in this battle inspired the opening line of the Marine Corps Hymn, "From the Halls of Montezuma..."
The Mexico City Campaign, September 1847
The capital fell after the American forces endured a grueling march there from Vera Cruz, facing considerable resistance along the way. The First and Second Tennessee regiments under Gen. Gideon Pillow once again performed courageously. Because their enlistments were up, most of the Tennesseans were able to return home before Mexico City was captured. Pillow and others returned with newly-raised regiments to finish the campaign. Pillow was later court-martialed for publicly exaggerating his part in the Battle of Contreras, but he was eventually cleared.
Captain John Wilkins Whitfield (1818-1879)
Whitfield was born in Franklin, Williamson County, and fought with the First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. This daguerreotype is believed to show Captain Whitfield in his Mexican War uniform.
Invitation and ticket for the 1882 national reunion of Mexican War veterans in Nashville. The ribbons around the invitation display the place names of all the campaigns of the war.
Section researched and written by Susan L. Gordon, Archivist.