Friday, October 23, 2009

Musket fire in Vera Cruz

George B McClellan. According to some he is among the most controversial of figures in American military history. And now Louisiana State University Press is publishing what it calls the ‘definitive edition’ of his diary from the Mexican War in the mid-1840s. However, the text of McClellan’s diary, as published in 1917, is freely available online - and very colourful it is too.

McClellan was born in Philadelphia in 1826, the son of a prominent surgeon. He entered the United States Military Academy at a young age, and graduated in 1846. After joining the US Army Corps of Engineers, he was detailed as a military engineer with General Winfield Scott’s expedition in the Mexican War (1846-1848). His experiences there - including the siege at Vera Cruz - proved formative. In the mid-1950s, he was sent to Crimea to report on European methods of warfare, a trip that led him to write a book on calvary tactics, and to design a saddle which became standard equipment in the calvary.

Although McClellan resigned his commission to work on developing the country’s rail network, he soon returned to military life thanks to the civil war - but his was to be a controversial war. After his Union troops had successfully driven Confederate forces from western Virginia in 1861, President Lincoln called on him to restore and command the Army of the Potomac (which had been demoralised by the defeat at First Bull Run). Although he successfully rebuilt the army, his hesitant and indecisive Peninsular campaign led Lincoln to replace him. Although recalled later, he was blamed for failing to destroy the rebel forces at Antietam in 1862, and relieved of his duties again.

in 1864, McClellan, still on active duty as a US Army general, ran for president, but was roundly beaten by Lincoln. He then resigned from the Army, and went back into business as a consulting engineer, but he also served a single term as governor of New Jersey. He died relatively young, in his mid-50s, in 1885. Since then, history has never quite made up its mind about McClellan. Wikipedia says he is ‘usually ranked in the lowest tier of Civil War generals’ but has been universally praised ‘for his organizational abilities and for his very good relations with his troops’.

While still in his formative years and on his first major army assignment, during the Mexico War, McClellan kept a detailed record of his day-to-day activities. Louisiana State University Press is about to publish a ‘definitive edition’ of these diaries (and letters) as edited by Thomas W Cutrer - The Mexican War Diary and Correspondence of George B McClellan. (LSU Press and Amazon.com both give November 2009 as the date of publication, yet Amazon already has the books in stock.)

LSU says McClellan’s ‘colorful diary’ and frequent letters ‘provide a wealth of military details of the campaign, insights into the character of his fellow engineers . . . and accounts of the friction that arose between the professional soldiers and the officers and men of the volunteer regiments that made up Scott’s command’. It calls McClellan ‘a courageous, indefatigable, and superbly intelligent young man’ but suggests the diaries reveal him ‘contemptuous of those he perceived as less talented than he, quick to see conspiracies where none existed, and eager to place upon others the blame for his own shortcomings and to take credit for actions performed by others’.

No need to buy the book, though, since the diaries are freely available - at Internet Archive - in a version edited by William Starr Myers and published by Princeton University Press in 1917. This older version has a near identical title: The Mexican War Diary of George B McClellan. Here are a few extracts from March 1847, when the US Army won control of Vera Cruz.

9 March 1847
‘. . . We were removed from the Orator to the steamer Edith, and after three or four hours spent in transfering the troops to the vessels of war and steamers, we got under weigh and sailed for Sacrificios. At half past one we were in full view of the town [Vera Cruz] and castle, with which we soon were to be very intimately acquainted.

Shortly after anchoring the preparations for landing commenced, and the 1st (Worth’s) Brigade was formed in tow of the Princeton in two long lines of surf boats bayonets fixed and colors flying. At last all was ready, but just before the order was given to cast off a shot whistled over our heads. ‘Here it comes’ thought everybody, ‘now we will catch it.’ When the order was given the boats cast off and forming in three parallel lines pulled for the shore, not a word was said everyone expected to hear and feel their batteries open every instant. Still we pulled on and on until at last when the first boats struck the shore those behind, in the fleet, raised that same cheer which has echoed on all our battlefields we took it up and such cheering I never expect to hear again except on the field of battle.

Without waiting for the boats to strike the men jumped in up to their middles in the water and the battalions formed on their colors in an instant our company was the right of the reserve under [Lieut.-] Colonel Belton. Our company and the 3rd Artillery ascended the sand hills and saw - nothing. We slept in the sand - wet to the middle. In the middle of the night we were awakened by musketry a skirmish between some pickets. The next morning we were sent to unload and reload the ‘red iron boat’ - after which we resumed our position and took our place in the line of investment. Before we commenced the investment, the whole army was drawn up on the beach. We took up our position on a line of sand hills about two miles from the town. The Mexicans amused themselves by firing shot and shells at us all of which (with one exception) fell short.’

22 March 1847
‘. . . The command ‘Fire!’ had scarcely been given when a perfect storm of iron burst upon us every gun and mortar in Vera Cruz and San Juan, that could be brought to bear, hurled its contents around us the air swarmed with them and it seemed a miracle that not one of the hundreds they fired fell into the crowded mass that filled the trenches. The recruits looked rather blue in the gills when the splinters of shells fell around them, but the veterans cracked their jokes and talked about Palo Alto and Monterey. When it was nearly dark I went to the left with Mason and passed on toward the town where we could observe our shells the effect was superb. The enemy’s fire began to slacken toward night, until at last it ceased altogether ours, though, kept steadily on, never ceasing never tiring.’

25 March 1847
‘. . . About 11.30 the discharge of a few rockets by our rocketeers caused a stampede amongst the Mexicans they fired escopettes and muskets from all parts of their walls. Our mortars reopened about 1.30 with the greatest vigor some times there were six shells in the air at the same time. A violent Norther commenced about 1 o clock making the trenches very disagreeable. About three quarters of an hour, or an hour after we reopened we heard a bugle sound in town. At first we thought it a bravado then reveille, then a parley so we stopped firing to await the result. Nothing more was heard, so in about half an hour we reopened with great warmth. At length another chi-wang-a-wang was heard which turned out to be a parley. During the day the terms of surrender of the town of Vera Cruz and castle of San Juan de Ulua were agreed upon, and on 29th of March, 1847 the garrison marched out with drums beating, colors flying and laid down their arms on the plain between the lagoon and the city. . . muskets were stacked and a number of escopettes. . . pieces of artillery were found in the town and . . . in the castle.

After the surrender of Vera Cruz we moved our encampment first to the beach, then to a position on the plain between our batteries and the city. . .’

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