Military portraits from the Mexican War are especially relevant to American history, notes veteran collector Bill Schultz.
“Images from this period are the earliest true visual record of how the U.S. military actually appeared,” he explained. “They verify what is recorded in the regulations. They give the earliest glimpse into the faces of men who would later face each other in the Civil War.”
Schultz possesses a definitive knowledge of the Civil War connection. He initially collected Union and Confederate cartes de visite and hard plate images. But after an antebellum military daguerreotype came into his possession while a student in medical school, he sold or traded most of his Civil War images to focus on the earliest military portraits. He has pursued these rare photos ever since. A selection of his daguerreotypes appeared in the The Daguerreian Annual 2002-2003. Captions from the Annual were referenced, along with primary source material, for this survey.
Schultz, a dedicated student of uniforms, advises Mexican War image collectors to be well versed in U.S. army regulations for 1832, 1847 and 1852, as well as navy regulations—all from reliable references. He also recommends a good book on buttons, such as the Record of American Uniform and Historical Buttons by Alphaeus H. “Dewey” Albert, and a reference on identifying photographers of the period. Schultz also suggests “that much information can still be gleaned from scratched and damaged images. Also look for later copies of daguerreotypes as cartes de visite and cabinet cards.”
This portrait of Brig. Gen. Franklin Pierce was likely intended to support his bid in the 1852 U.S. presidential contest as a Democrat. There can be no question that he wore his undress uniform and carried a presentation sword to impress supporters with his martial bearing, and remind them of his service in the recent Mexican War.
In 1846, the New Hampshire attorney and state legislator volunteered to serve in the army, and made a name for himself as a subordinate to Gen. Winfield Scott. His military stint helped propel him into the White House as the nation’s 14th president. His administration is remembered for the Gadsden Purchase, which added a significant portion of land from Mexico along the southwestern border to the United States, and approval of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. He did not win re-election—the only sitting president and active candidate not nominated by his party for a second term. Fellow Democrat James Buchanan succeeded him.
Pierce went on to become a staunch supporter of the Southern position on slavery, and an outspoken critic of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Lincoln’s counterpart in Richmond, Jefferson Davis, had served as Secretary of War in President Pierce’s cabinet. A heavy drinker towards the end of his life, Pierce died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869 at age 64.
On the Wrong End of a Feud
Brevet Maj. Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines of Virginia had a long-running feud with fellow general Winfield Scott over seniority, as both men held the same 1814 commission date. The rivalry came to a head in 1841 with the death of the army’s top general, Alexander Macomb. President John Tyler, a fellow Virginian, settled the dispute when he named another Virginia native, Winfield Scott, to lead the army. The influence of Gaines, who had started his military career in 1799 and commanded in the War of 1812 and the Indian wars of the early decades of the century, gradually waned. Relegated to command of various military districts during the Mexican War, he died in New Orleans in 1849. His lasting legacy is a number of cities named in his honor, including Gainesville, Fla. In this portrait, Gaines wears the regulation uniform of his rank sanctioned by the military from 1836-1851.
“Let It Be Our National Colors”
The honor of entering Mexico City after its fall on Sept. 15, 1846, fell to the hard-fighting Fourth Division commanded by Brig. Gen. John Anthony Quitman. According to one account, when the conquering army entered the Grand Plaza, Quitman ordered a subordinate to raise the flag, the time honored symbol of occupation by victorious forces. “Let it be our national colors, the stars and stripes—not the particular colors of any regiment,” Quitman reportedly declared.
The statement, if true, is of particular interest for Quitman, a New York-born Mississippi politician and former acting governor, advocated a policy of state’s rights and supported the institution of slavery. “He was a man of tall stature and commanding presence. His temper was genial, his mind clear, and, though he was no orator, his speeches were always terse and effective,” reported Harper’s Weekly upon his death in 1858 at age 59. Had he lived, one can imagine he might have been a Confederate general.
Future Chief of Engineers
An accomplished military leader of the early republic, career Corps of Engineers officer Richard Delafield poses in his full-dress major uniform. An 1818 graduate of West Point, the New York City native earned his rank as major in 1838, a year before the birth of photography. He is best remembered for two stints as superintendent of his alma mater: As the leader of The Delafield Commission (along with a young captain, George B. McClellan) that studied the European military system, and as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. During the Civil War, he first commanded the defenses of New York Harbor and then, beginning in May 1864, as Chief of Engineers following the death of Brig. Gen. Joseph G. Totten. Delafield retired with a major general’s brevet in 1866 and died in 1873. His second wife, Harriet, and five children survived him.
The Real Ichabod Crane
Ichabod Crane, the scarecrow-like protagonist in the Washington Irving short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is believed to be named for this chunky colonel.
Ichabod Bennet Crane of New Jersey, pictured here in his full dress uniform, began his military career in the Marine Corps in 1809, and went to on to serve in the army in the War of 1812 and other conflicts in various parts of the country. According to one account, Crane and Washington Irving met during an 1814 inspection of the defenses of Sackets Harbor, N.Y. Irving, who served as an aide to the governor of the Empire State at the time, never admitted that he borrowed the colonel’s name for his famous fictional character.
The real Col. Crane died on active duty in 1857. “He served so long with great credit to himself and profit to the country,” noted an obituary.
Bloody Fight at the Molino del Rey
After negotiations to end the war crumbled in early September 1847, American forces advanced within reach of the Mexican capital. On September 8, they attacked a well-entrenched enemy position at Molino del Rey, or King’s Mill. A 500-man storming party broke through. But Mexican counterattacks stalled the momentum. At this critical juncture, Col. John Garland’s brigade swept in and took the Molino after a bloody fight. The enemy eventually withdrew, and a week later Mexico City fell.
Garland’s Acting Asst. Adjutant-General, 1st Lt. William Augustus Nichols, earned a major’s brevet for gallant conduct during the engagement. He is pictured in this circa 1848 portrait sporting shoulder straps with this rank. This represented the second brevet for the 1838 West Point graduate from Philadelphia, Pa. His first came a year earlier at Monterey.
Nichols continued in the regular army after the war ended, and went on to serve as a staffer to several top generals. Stationed with the Department of Texas when the Civil War began, he participated in negotiations with rebels that ended with the surrender of Union forces. Held as a prisoner of war for a time, he received a parole and was exchanged before the end of the year. Nichols spent the rest of the war in Washington, D.C. In 1866, he became Chief of Staff to Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman. Three years later, he joined the staff of Lt. Gen. Phillip Sheridan, but died soon after at age 50.
The Ablest Soldier of the War
According to one account, artillerist James Duncan held the distinction as the ablest soldier of the Mexican War—ahead of such future Civil War figures as George H. Thomas, John F. Reynolds and Stonewall Jackson.
A New York native and an 1834 graduate from West Point, “The Gallant Duncan” had pledged to take his guns wherever infantry could go—and did so again and again. A best remembered example occurred during the Battle of Monterey. High on hills overlooking the city stood a large stone structure, known as the Bishop’s Palace, considered impregnable. After Col. William J. Worth ordered his infantry to scale the heights, Duncan and his men dismantled a howitzer and hoisted it along with an ample supply of ammunition up the steep incline, and then remounted it on the summit. Duncan’s howitzer fire made the palace untenable, and Worth’s infantry drove the enemy away. This cleared the way for a larger attack, which sealed the fate of Monterey.
Duncan emerged from the war with three brevets, and soon received a promotion to full colonel and Inspector General of the Army. He barely lived to enjoy his fame. In July 1849, he succumbed to fever during an inspection tour of the South. He was about 38. A wide circle of comrades, friends and family mourned his passing. The army named Fort Duncan in Maverick County, Texas, in his honor.
He Held on at Puebla
Thomas Childs, a Massachusetts native and the son and grandson of veterans of the Revolution, followed their footsteps into the military. He served in the War of 1812, graduated from West Point in 1814, and made his mark in Mexico. Childs commanded artillery in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma on May 8-9, 1846, for which he earned a colonel’s brevet. Four months later, he successfully led a battalion of infantry and artillery at the Battle of Monterey. The following year, he defended the garrison of Puebla against Mexican forces led by Santa Anna, until reinforcements arrived 28 days later. For this, he earned his brigadier’s brevet.
Childs continued on in the army, and died in 1853 of yellow fever while on duty at Tampa Bay, Fla. He was 57. According to an obituary, “The whole career, indeed, of Gen. Childs in the Mexican war was brilliant.”
Classroom and Campaign
A number of junior officers who had graduated from West Point fought alongside their infantry tactics professor and commandant of cadets, Charles Ferguson Smith. A member of the Class of 1825, Smith was widely admired at the Academy. According to one biographer, “He won the golden opinions of all over and under him. … His stately and commanding presence inspired his soldiers with respect and almost fear.” One of his pupils, Cadet Ulysses S. Grant considered him, along with Gen. Winfield Scott, “as the two men to be most envied in the nation.”
The popular Smith proved himself a capable warrior. “The call of duty was to him a magic sound for which he was always ready to make every sacrifice and endure any fatigue. He was the very model of a soldier, calm, prudent, and self-poised, yet, in the hour of danger, bold almost to rashness,” noted his biographer. His participation in engagements with the 2nd U.S. Artillery and other forces resulted in three brevets, including lieutenant colonel, which he wears in this circa 1847 portrait.
Smith acted as head of the police guard after American forces conquered Mexico City. He departed in 1848 and continued his army career. After the start of the Civil War, he commanded the Defenses of Washington. He moved to the Western Theater in late 1861 and played a conspicuous role in the capture of Fort Donelson in a subordinate position to his former pupil, Grant.
Complications from a freak injury to a bone in his lower leg that occurred as he jumped from a steamer into a yawl along the Tennessee River at Savannah, Tenn., caused him to miss the Battle of Shiloh, and resulted in his death in April 1862. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman reportedly said that, “Had C.F. Smith lived, Grant would have disappeared to history after Donelson.”
Scientific Artillerist at Buena Vista
Gen. Zachary Taylor praised the critical contribution of his light artillery in the repulse of a much larger Mexican force at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847. “Moving rapidly over the roughest ground, it was always in action at the right place and time, and its well-directed fire dealt destruction in the masses of the enemy,” he wrote in his after-action report.
Taylor went on to call out several of the artillery officers by name, including an 1840 West Point graduate, 1st Lt. George Henry Thomas of the 3rd U.S. Artillery. His captain, Thomas W. Sherman, also had kind words for Thomas, “I joined Lieutenant Thomas, who had been constantly engaged during the forenoon in the preservation of that important position, and whom I found very closely engaged with the enemy, and that, too, in a very advanced position.” He added, “Thomas more than sustained the reputation he has long enjoyed in the regiment as an accurate and scientific artillerist.”
Thomas received a major’s brevet for his performance in the battle—his second of the war. The first was awarded to him after Monterey in 1846, about the time he posed for this portrait.
One biographer noted, “His conduct in Mexico foreshadowed his generalship in the War of the Rebellion.” About 16 years later, in September 1863, now Maj. Gen. Thomas found himself in another advanced position along a North Georgia ridge. Here, he earned the nom de guerre “Rock of Chickamauga” for fighting back a series of Confederate assaults. His actions bought time for outmaneuvered federal forces to withdraw to relative safety.
Thomas ended his war service as among the Union’s most beloved commanders. He died in 1870 at age 54.
Waiting in Brazos Santiago
In a letter dated Jan. 15, 1847, to a fellow officer while he awaited transportation from Brazos Santiago to join the army in Mexico, 2nd Lt. Bezaleel Wells Armstrong reflected on his sad circumstances. “Here I am on a sand bank without money, without a horse.”
An 1845 graduate of West Point, he had been forced to remain behind in New Orleans after a bout with dysentery almost killed him. But now, back on his feet and ready for action, he hoped to soon be reunited with his comrades in the 2nd U.S. Dragoons.
He made it to Mexico in time to participate in the March 1847 victory at Vera Cruz, and other operations through the war. He posed for this portrait prior to the war in his full dress uniform, and a Pattern 1839 cap with a six-pointed star prescribed for Dragoon officers.
Armstrong continued in the military after the end of hostilities. But his career ended prematurely when disease struck him again. This time, he succumbed to its effects at home in New Lisbon, Ohio, on Feb. 7, 1849. He was 26.
Big Coat, Wheel Hat
An enlisted man wears a uniform coat that appears much too big for his frame, as evidenced by the rolled up cuffs and the large loose-fitting collar. The view of his Pattern 1839 cap highlights the roundness at the top that gave rise to the common term “wheel hat.”
Brevet 1st Lt. George Henry Gordon of the Mounted Rifles almost met his death a few days before Christmas 1847. Two guerrilla fighters attacked him near a bridge crossing at San Juan del Rio. Hand-to-hand combat ensued, and, at some point during the action, bullets were fired. Two shots ripped into him, causing serious wounds.
The army could ill afford to lose him. One of the youngest West Pointers to fight in the war, Gordon graduated in July 1846—three months after hostilities commenced. He proved himself an able officer, earning his first lieutenant’s brevet for gallantry in the April 1847 victory at the Battle of Cerro Gordo. Gordon, on detached duty with a rocket and howitzer company, suffered a slight wound. He recovered, and participated in capture of Mexico City in September 1847. Three months later he mixed it up with guerrillas.
Gordon recovered from his wounds and continued in the army until 1854, when he resigned to become an attorney. The American Civil War brought him back to active duty in 1861 as colonel of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. The Bay Staters saw their share of action in some of the war’s biggest battles, earning the grim distinction as one of the Three Hundred Fighting Regiments for its heavy losses. The man who compiled the list, Lt. Col. Willian F. Fox, noted, “The Second Massachusetts was the best officered regiment in the Army.”
No doubt Gordon inspired this observation. He survived the war and lived until 1886, dying at age 63.
Ready for Action with a Brace of Pistols
The pair of Lewis and Tomes pistols tucked into the striped sash of this enlisted man suggests he is prepared to meet the enemy at close range. His uniform illustrates the variety of styles worn by volunteer troops in Mexico. This portrait dates to about 1846.
Cerro Gordo Williams
A moment came during the fight for Cerro Gordo when a brigade of Americans assaulted Mexican forces entrenched along a plateau. Gideon J. Pillow, the general who commanded the brigade, assigned the 2nd Tennessee Infantry to lead the attack. Attached to this regiment was an independent company of Kentucky volunteers led by Capt. John Stuart Williams. The Tennesseans and Kentuckians marched into a murderous hail of enemy fire that drove them back twice. Down but not out, they stormed the line again, and this time managed to plant the flag on the Mexican works. The tide of battle turned in favor of the Americans.
According to the History of Kentucky written after the war, “Conspicuous among the bravest, Captain Williams led his company in the front, and shared the honors of the victory. For his bravery and daring on the occasion, he won the sobriquet of ‘Cerro Gordo Williams,’ which yet distinguishes him among his ardent friends in Kentucky.”
The son of an officer who served during the War of 1812, Williams attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The fame he achieved at Cerro Gordo earned him a promotion to colonel of the 4th Kentucky Infantry.
The sobriquet followed Williams through the rest of his life—even 15 years later as a general in the Confederate army. He returned to civilian life after the Civil War, became a U.S. Senator and died at age 80 in 1898.
“R” for Rifles
The clue to the identity of this second lieutenant is barely visible. A a gold-embroidered spread eagle shield insignia with an “R” in its center is affixed to the Pattern 1839 cap sitting upon the table next to him. The letter indicates his service in one of the Mounted Rifles regiments. His undress uniform is consistent with 1847 regulations. The Model 1840 mounted officer’s sword with crimson sash of silk and two-piece eagle belt plate was common to militia officers.
Many American regiments went west to fight in Mexico. One of them, the 1st New York Infantry, sailed for California in September 1846. According to its colonel, John Drake Stevenson, who was granted permission to organize the 1st by President James K. Polk, “My stipulation when I raised the regiment and went out was that I should take possession of the State, which then belonged to the Mexicans, and stay there with my 1,000 men and colonize it.”
Stevenson, who had his first taste of conflict as a student building defenses in New York City during the War of 1812, became an insider in New York politics. His regiment, after arriving in California, occupied garrisons in Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego. One of the companies went to Baja California, and fought in the Battle and Siege of La Paz in November 1847.
The regiment disbanded the following year. Many of the veterans remained in the West, and became pioneers. According to the historian of the 1st, “In one respect we were favored beyond any other regiments serving during the Mexican war, in being discharged in California the same year that gold was discovered at Sutter’s saw-mill, but a few months subsequent to that event, and it is to be regretted that so few of us are enjoying the benefits resulting from that wonderful discovery.”
Stevenson settled in San Francisco and raised a military force that prevented a secessionist takeover of the city at the start of the Civil War. He was remembered, however, for his role as “The Conqueror of California” upon his death in 1894 at age 94.
A Militia Artilleryman
The uniform worn by this circa 1846 militiaman conforms to regular army specifications for an artillery private, with one exception—a feather plume instead of a scarlet worsted pompon tops his hat. Also of note, the flintlock musket, which rests on top of a box hidden beneath the brass mat.