Chapter VI. Lieutenant Grant Under Fire

The movement of the United States troops towards Mexico did not take the country by surprise. It was the direct result of the action of Congress admitting Texas to the Union. Ever since it had won its independence from Mexico, Texas had been seeking to become part of the United States; but there had been violent objection in the North to the admission of any new slave state, and this opposition had effectually prevented its annexation. At the last election (1844), however, a majority of the voters apparently favored the admission of Texas, which was accordingly received into the Union, and the long-standing dispute which it had waged with Mexico as to its proper boundaries was assumed by the United States.

Texas claimed to own far more territory than Mexico was willing to concede, but the facts might easily have been ascertained had the United States government desired to avoid a war. Unfortunately, it had no such desire, and General Zachary Taylor was soon ordered to occupy the disputed territory with about 3,000 men. This force, of which Grant's regiment formed a part, was called the Army of Observation, but it might better have been called the Army of Provocation, for it was obviously intended to provoke an attack on the part of Mexico and to give the United States an excuse for declaring war and settling the boundary question to suit itself.

Probably, there were not many in the army who thought much about the rights or the wrongs of the impending war. There had been no fighting in the United States for more than thirty years, and most of the officers were more interested in seeing real service in the field than they were in discussing the justice or injustice of the cause. Grant was as anxious for glory as any of his comrades, but he cherished no illusions as to the merits of the dispute in which his country was involved. With the clear vision of the silent man who reads and thinks for himself, he saw through the thinly disguised pretenses of the politicians and, recognizing that force was being used against a weaker nation in order to add more slave states to the Union, he formed a very positive opinion that the war was unjustifiable. But though he was forced to this disagreeable conclusion, the young Lieutenant was not the sort of man to criticize his country once she was attacked, or to shirk his duty as a soldier because he did not agree with his superiors on questions of national policy. He thought and said what he liked in private, but he kept his mouth closed in public, feeling that his duties as an officer were quite sufficient without assuming responsibilities which belonged to the authorities in Washington.

War was inevitable almost from the moment that Texas was annexed, but with full knowledge of this fact neither the President nor Congress made any effective preparations for meeting the impending crisis, and when hostilities actually began, General Taylor was directed to advance under conditions which virtually required him to fight his way to safety. Indeed, he was practically cut off from all hope of reenforcement as soon as the first shot was fired, for his orders obliged him to move into the interior of the country, and had his opponents been properly commanded, they could have overwhelmed him and annihilated his whole force. The very audacity of the little American army, however, seemed to paralyze the Mexicans who practically made no resistance until Taylor reached a place called Palo Alto, which in Spanish means "Tall Trees."

Meanwhile Grant had been made regimental quartermaster, charged with the duty of seeing that the troops were furnished with proper food and caring for all property and supplies. Heartily as he disliked this task, which was not only dull and difficult, but also bade fair to prevent him from taking active part in the prospective battles, he set to work with the utmost energy. By the time the enemy began to dispute the road, he had overcome the immense difficulty of supplying troops on a march through a tropical country and was prepared to take part in any fighting that occurred. But the Mexicans gathered at TALL TREES on May 8, 1846, were not prepared for a serious encounter. They fired at the invaders, but their short-range cannon loaded with solid shot rarely reached the Americans, and when a ball did come rolling towards them on the ground, the troops merely stepped to one side and allowed the missile to pass harmlessly through their opened ranks. After the American artillery reached the field, however, the enemy was driven from its position and the next day the advance was resumed to Resaca de la Palma, where stronger opposition was encountered.

Grant was on the right wing of the army as it pressed forward through dense undergrowth to drive the Mexicans from the coverts in which they had taken shelter. It was impossible to give any exact orders in advancing through this jungle, and the men under Grant's command struggled forward until they reached a clearing where they caught sight of a small body of Mexicans. The young Lieutenant instantly ordered a charge and, dashing across the open ground, captured the party only to discover that they were merely stragglers left behind by other American troops who had already charged over the same ground. No one appreciated the humor of this exploit more than Grant. It reminded him, he said, of the soldier who boasted that he had been in a charge and had cut off the leg of one of the enemy's officers. "Why didn't you cut off his head?" inquired his commander. "Oh, somebody had done that already," replied the valiant hero.

Slight as the fighting was at Resaca, it completely satisfied the Mexicans, and for over three months they left the Americans severely alone. Meanwhile, General Taylor received reenforcements and in August, 1846, he proceeded against the town of Monterey, which the enemy had fortified with considerable skill and where they were evidently prepared to make a desperate resistance. Grant was again quartermaster, and the terrific heat which forced the army to do its marching at night or during the early hours of the morning, greatly increased his labors and severely tested his patience. Almost all the transportation animals were mules, and as very few of them were trained for the work, they were hard to load and even harder to handle after their burdens were adjusted. One refractory animal would often stampede all the rest, scattering provisions and ammunition in their tracks, driving the teamsters to the point of frenzy and generally hurling confusion through the camp. Even Grant, who never uttered an oath in his life, was often sorely tried by these exasperating experiences, but he kept command of his temper and by his quiet persistence brought order out of chaos in spite of beasts and men.

His disappointment was bitter, however, when the attack on Monterey began and he found himself left without any assignment in the field. Lieutenant Meade, destined at a later date to command the Union forces at Gettysburg, was one of the officers entrusted with the preliminary reconnoissance against the city, and when the fighting actually commenced on September 21st, 1846, the deserted Quartermaster mounted his horse and rode to the scene of the action, determined to see something of the battle even if he could not take part in it. He arrived at the moment when his regiment was ordered to charge against what was known as the Black Fort, and dashed forward with his men into the very jaws of death. Certainly "someone had blundered," for the charge which had been intended merely as a feint was carried too far and scores of men were mowed down under the terrible fire of the enemy's guns. Temporary shelter was at last reached, however, and under cover of it the Adjutant borrowed Grant's horse; but he fell soon after the charge was renewed and the Colonel, noticing the impetuous Quartermaster, promptly appointed him to take the fallen officer's place. By this time the troops had fought their way into the town and the enemy, posted in the Plaza or Principal Square, commanded every approach to it. As long as the Americans kept in the side streets they were comparatively safe, but the moment they showed themselves in any of the avenues leading to the Plaza, they encountered a hail of bullets. This was serious enough; but at the end of two days the situation became critical, for the ammunition began to run low, and it was realized that, if the Mexicans discovered this, they would sweep down and cut their defenseless opponents to pieces. Face to face with this predicament, the Colonel on September 23rd, called for a volunteer to carry a dispatch to Headquarters, and Grant instantly responded.

To reach his destination it was necessary to run the gantlet of the enemy, for every opening from the Plaza was completely exposed to their fire. But trusting in the fleetness of his horse, the young lieutenant leaped into the saddle and, swinging himself down, Indian fashion, on one side of his steed so as to shield himself behind its body, he dashed away on his perilous mission. A roar of muskets greeted him at every corner, but he flashed safely by, leaping a high wall which lay across his path and then, speeding straight for the east end of the town, reached the commanding General and reported the peril of his friends.

Meanwhile the Americans began one of the most curious advances ever made by an army, for General Worth, finding that he could not force his troops through the streets leading to the Plaza without great loss of life, ordered them to enter the houses and break down the intervening walls, so that they could pass from one adjoining house to another under cover, directly to the heart of the city. This tunneling maneuver was executed with great skill, and when the walls of the houses nearest the Plaza were reached and masses of men stood ready to pour through the openings into the Square, its astonished defenders gave up the fight and promptly surrendered the city.