The Battle of Buena Vista
Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Scribner, Indiana Volunteers
21 February 1847
During last week, I have passed through so many thrilling scenes, that I am unable to describe them in regular order. Last Sunday we received orders to strike our tents and prepare to march. Before we had formed a line, and the command given, "file left," the most of us were ignorant of our place of destination. But so soon as we commenced marching towards Saltillo, there was an end of discussion.
Traveling about sixteen miles, we arrived at Buena Vista. After pitching our tents, we lay down supperless, for we had neither wood nor provisions. Scarcely had I fallen asleep, when the news was circulated that a mail had arrived. Soon after a letter was handed me from my friend Mrs. W., but, having no light, I was forced to postpone the reading till morning.
22 February 1847
We had scarcely finished our breakfast, when the long roll was beaten, calling us to arms, as our picket guard had just arrived with the intelligence that the Mexican army was approaching. Having packed our wagon and formed a line, we were marched one and a-half miles towards the enemy, and stationed on a ridge just behind the narrow pass in which Major Washington's battery was placed. There we waited the approach. The Mexicans had encamped the night before at Agua Nueva, causing the Kentucky and Arkansas cavalry, who were guarding some provisions, to destroy them and retreat in the night.
We were greatly indebted to Colonel May and Captain M'Cullough, who rendered us much good service as spies. The intelligence which they brought caused us to leave the plains of Agua Nueva for a very strong and advantageous position. Whilst we were awaiting the onset, I read Mrs. W.'s letter over and over again. It was encouraging, and afforded many topics for contemplation.
Having remained in this position more than half the day, we were ordered over to another height on the left, near the foot of the mountain, where we were, during the night, occasionally receiving a shot from the enemy's battery. Toward evening, the two rifle companies, from each of the Indiana regiments, commanded by Major Gorman, who were stationed on the left, upon the side of the mountain, were fired upon by an immense body of the enemy, who had also ascended the mountain. A heavy fire was kept up till dark, when all was silent, save the echoing of the enemy's trumpets. I never shall forget the peculiar melody of those sounds as we lay upon our arms, hungry, and shivering with cold. It was a prelude to the awful din of next day.
Before hostilities commenced, a flag of truce was sent by Santa Anna with dispatches to General Taylor, stating that he was here with twenty thousand men, and to save loss of blood, demanded immediate capitulation. General Taylor is said to have replied, "If you want us, come and take us!" It looked almost like madness, with an army of four thousand five hundred men, and sixteen small pices of cannon, to compete with force, which all our prisoners, and Santa Anna himself, agree in being twenty thousand men, and seventeen pieces of cannon - of which eight were sixteen and twenty-four pounders. What a fearful difference! Yet that small army of raw, inexperienced volunteers not only struggled against twenty thousand strong of the flower of the Mexican army, commanded by one of the ablest generals in the world, but obtained a complete victory. This I hold to be one of the greatest achievements upon record.
Before I proceed further, I must confess my inability to give an accurate description of the whole action. The excitement and interest I experienced in what was passing immediately around me, occupied all my attention. I shall, therefore, for my future perusal, detail my own feelings and actions, together with what came under my own observation during the hazardous conflict.
23 February 1847
At runrise, on the following day, the roaring of the enemy's cannon announced the commencement of hostilities. A heavy fire was opened upon our riflemen upon the mountain, but they returned it in a handsome style. They were reinforced by a part of the 2d Illinois regiment and Kentucky cavalry, but still the odds were greatly against them. The whole mountain side, as far as the eye could reach, glittered with the enemy's bayonets and lances.
It was about nine o'clock in the morning when our regiment and a battery of three pieces, commanded by Lieut. O'Brien, marched out towards the battery which had been playing against us during the night and morning. We formed a line in front of three regiments of Mexico's oldest soldiers. It was an awful moment to face the thousands of veterans in solid column, with their gaudy uniforms and showy banners. But we had no time for admiration; for, before our line was formed, they had fired two rounds, which we soon returned in right good earnest. I was at my post in the rank of file closers, and was urging the men to form in their proper places, when Captain Sanderson cried out, "Never mind, Frank, fire away!" which I did, with all possible haste. About this time the battery on our left, opened upon us a deadly fire of grape, which raked our flank with terrible effect; still we stood front to front, and poured our fire upon the infantry, which did us but little injury, as they shot too high. But the battery on our left galled us exceedingly. It appeared as if we had purposely halted in their exact range, and the whole atmosphere resounded with the whizzing shot that came with increasing precision. Apollos Stephens was the first of the Greys to fall. He received a grape shot in the head, and fell back almost into my arms. O, how shall I describe the horror of my feelings? There lay quivering in death one of my comrades, with his eyes upturned, and the tears starting from them. It was a sad and touching scene - one that will never be effaced from my memory. I was loading when he fell, and compressing my lips, and smothering my emotions, I stepped over him and fired. Our captain was the next to fall, exclaiming "I've got it boys!" A grape shot had struck his scabbard, which saved his life. Being ready to fire again, I stepped into a vacant place in the ranks, where I continued to load and fire without noticing anything around. The only thought I remember to have had was, "What a wonder I did not receive Captain Sanderson's shot, as I was next to him on the same line! so the ball must have passed me before it struck him." All was hurry and excitement, each working hard and doing his best. Occasionally a cannon-ball would whistle over our heads, or strike the ground near us, throwing the rock and dirt in all directions.
We had fired about twenty-one rounds, when I heard some one say, "They are all retreating!" and turning, I saw that the right wing had gone, and the left starting. but several who had not heard Colonel Bowles's order to retreat, cried out, "Halt, men! for God's sake, stop!" At this, many of us hesitated; but the retreat was general, and the enemy fast advancing upon us, led on by a large force of lancers. At length, Lieutenant Cayre, then in command, remarked, "It's no use, boys, to stay here alone; let us retreat!" which we did, with the balls raining around us, and the lancers at our heels. We rallied, by order, on the brow of the ridge from which we started in the morning, but were told to fall back upon the ridge on which we were first formed on the morning of the 22d. Here many of us met the Mississippi regiment of riflemen, who had just arrived from their quarters in town.
The more I reflect upon our position in the opening of the conflict, the more I am at a loss to understand the policy of sending the 2d regiment against such an overpowering force. We were three-quarters of a mile from any assistance, except that of the gallant O'Brien, who with his three little pices did such great execution.
Our field officers all deny giving the word retreat, and General Lane, they say, intended to charge. Had he given the word, the charge would have been made; but how dreadful would have been the slaughter of our troops. It is unprecedented in the annals of warfare, for eight companies to rush against a disciplined force of three thousand infantry supported by twelve hundred lancers. Had we remained fifteen minutes longer, it is thought not one half of us would have survived. Their battery was fast getting our exact range, and it is astonishing that so many of us escaped.
After many fruitless exertions to rally his men, Colonel Bowles ordered those who were near him to join the Mississippians, at the same time falling in himself. We marched along the ridge to meet a large body of lancers supported by infantry. We soon opened our fire upon them, and that, too, in a manner which forced them to retreat, and pursuing, we halted at intervals, and continued our leaden hail. Having followed them across two deep ravines, they were reinforced, and came rushing down upon us like a tremendous avalanche, pouring out upon us their incessant shot. We fell back across the two hollows, occasionally halting to fire upon our pursuers.
While in the second ravine, the sun shining with burning heat, famishing for want of water, and almost overcome with exertions, I leaned against a rocky precipice, and there made up my mind to die. Sad and hopeless were my thoughts, when, raising my head, I beheld the Mexican line firing down upon us. At this I was involuntarily aroused, and recollecting an expression in Mrs. W.'s letter, "If you should die, it would kill your mother," I made an effort for those I loved and gained the summit. But oh! God! what a merciful preservation! The balls rained around, scattering death and destruction on every side. It appeared like the bed under a shot tower, so thick and fast did the balls hail about us. A man just before me was shot down, and a brave lieutenant, who so kindly made room for me in his company, fell wounded behind me, exclaiming, "Give me water!, give me a handkerchief!" I gazed upon his supplicating countenance, but had nothing to relieve him. Rendered reckless by the sight we had just witnessed, we rallied again upon the top of the hill, and with the 2d Indiana under Lieutenant Haddon, opened a terrible fire upon our blood-thirsty enemies. They soon retreated in the utmost disorder.
Having fled beyond our fire, a detail was sent to explore the ravine for our wounded. While descending, what a shocking scene presented itself! The barbarians were cruelly butchering our wounded, and stripping them of their clothes. But our unerring rifles soon stopped these atrocious murders. Our success was but poor compensation for the blood of twenty brave comrades. The poor lieutenant was left naked with his throat cut from ear to ear.
Benjamin Franklin Scribner. A Campaign in Mexico or a Camp Life of a Volunteer by "One Who Has Seen the Elephant." (Philadelphia: 1847).