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“A Hungery Savage Look which was Truly Fearful”: Samuel Chamberlain’s Recollections of the Mexican War, 1846

In the mid-nineteenth century, many Americans were eager to acquire the Mexican land of California and New Mexico, enough to provoke a war with Mexico. In 1845 U.S. President James K. Polk sent envoys who offered to buy Mexican territory and stationed federal troops in the border areas. Naval forces patrolled the Gulf coast and American consuls in California stirred up annexation fever. When the presence of those troops brought an anti-American government to power in Mexico in 1846, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor and his troops to the Rio Grande and declared war. Taylor pursued retreating Mexican forces 100 miles into Mexico to the heavily fortified city of Monterrey. New Englander Samuel Chamberlain was eager to do battle against the Mexicans and expand the American empire. This excerpt from his illustrated manuscript, “My Confessions: Recollections of a Rogue,” described his participation in the fierce house-to-house battle for Monterrey in September 1846.


At daylight on the morning of the 23rd. the column to assault the northern part of the town was formed inside the “Half Moon Battery.” They presented a strange and terrific appearance, faces, and clothes all covered with a mixture of mud, morter, powder and blood, eyes bloodshot, with a hungery savage look which was truly fearful. Their costumes and arms added to the Banditti like effect of the command. There was Rangers dressed in the mountain-man suits of buckskin, in Red shirts, Blue shirts, Mexican leather jackets, and serapas; Louisiana volunteers, each clothed as his fancy dictated, regular Dragoons, Artillery, and Infantry armed with “Kentucky Rifles,” double-barrelled shot Guns, Winsor Rifles, Harper’s Ferry Muskets, Carbines, Revolvers, Holster Pistols, Sabres, Swords, Axes, and Bowie Knives. A look of determination was on each countenance, as they gazed on the City lying so quiet below. Rumors had reached us of defeat and disaster to our forces that attacked the eastern part of town, that we had met with terrible loss, and that Gen Taylor was even in full retreat for Camargo, leaving us to our Fate. What gave apparrent credence to this rumor, was the quietness that reigned in town and non-appearence of our army toward Walnut Springs. Not a tent or a wagon was in sight. The green, white and red Banner of Mexico floated over the Black Fort, the Cathedral and other places. In the plain to our left near the Rancho San Jeromino we could see a large force of the Enemy’s Lancers, and their pickets extended as far as we could see beyond the Citadel. All remained quiet for hours! waiting, waiting, hungry and savage. Gen. Worth appeared anxious and nervious; he ascended the tower of the Palace, and with his glass scanned the defiant stronghold below. About nine o’cl’k A.M., the nine Pounder captured in Fort Soldado opened on the town, and at ten o’clock a heavy firing that commenced on the eastern side of Monterey informed us that rumor lied! that Taylor was still there! We were organized in two columns, one to take the right hand street Calle de Monterey under the command of Col. Hays, the other to enter the city to the left by the Calle de Iturbide under Lieut Col. Walker. I was with the latter. Finally the word was given and with a roar like that of wild beasts, the two columns dashed down the hill and entered the city. Our column penetrated as far as the square “Plazuela de la Came,” and then we found ourselves in a hornet’s nest; every house was a fort that belched forth a hurricane of ball; the flat roofs surmounted by breastworks of sand bags were covered with soldiers who could pour down a distructive fire in safety; the windows of iron barred “Rejas” were each vomiting forth fire and death. On we went at a run, stung to madness at not being able to retaliate on our hidden foes, we gained a large square, the “Plaza de la Capella,” when artillery opened on us with canester! The heavy stone wall of a churchyard was embrasured for their guns, while a scaffold was erected from which infantry were posted who kept up a constant fire. Our men were falling fast, and not a Mexican hit; they were all under cover, our fire was only waisted on their stone walls. I was close to Col. Walker when a column of Mexican Infantry came round the corner of the church and at double quick charged us with the bayonet. We were in a tight fix, not twenty rangers were in the square. Fortuneatly our arms were all loaded and we made every shot tell, but we were compelled to give ground; our men flocked in, and two six P’drs of McCall’s Battery came up at a gal-lop, unlimbered within twenty yard[s] of the Mexican line, and gave them double doses of canister. This proved too much for our brave foes; they gave back and soon run, we close at their heels, and in the rush we captured the church of Santer Maria and the fortified yard. The enemy succeeded in hauling off their guns, their infantry charge was probably made to cover this movement.

We halted under shelter of the walls of the church, and could hear the explosion of firearms and shouts on the street to our right, giving us to understand the resis-tance that the other column was meeting with. Our wounded were taken care of by surgeons who kept with us, the Mexican’s were quietly disposed of by those humane fellows, the Texan Rangers.

Reforming, we dashed around the church, and found the street barracaded, and the same infernal fire was again poured in to us; we rushed over the breast-work, and wild yells charged up the street, men drop-ping every moment. It would have required Salamanders to withstand the fire that scorch [ed] us on every side. Our run came down to a walk, our walk to a general seeking of shelter in doors and passages. I stuck to Walker, who had gained my boyish esteem in speaking a kind and cheerful word to me in the terrible storming of Independence Hill. About a dozzen of us with Col. Walker were hugging a door mighty close, when a volly was fired through it from the inside. Three of our party fell. By order of the Colonel, two men with axes hewed away at the stout oak plank. Another volly was fired, when one of the axemen with a deep curse dropped his axe, a ball had broke the bone of his arm. Walker took his place, and soon the barrier gave way, and we rushed in. Some eight or ten hard looking “hombres” tried to escape through a back way, but they were cut down to a man. No quarter was given. In a back room we found some women and children who were not molested. Pickaxes and Crowbars were sent to us, also some six P’dr shells. A house on the other side of the street was forced and our men were all soon under cover. Our advance was now systematized; one party composed of the best shots ascended to the roof, and now on equal terms renewed the fight. The rest tore holes in the limestone partitions that divided the blocks into houses, then a lighted shell was thrown in, an explosion would follow, when we would rush and we generaly left from two to six dead greassers. We found plenty of eatables and large quantities of wine, and one house was a “Pulque” Fonda, or liquor store. To pre-vent us from getting drunk, the liquor was reported as poisoned, but we were not to be beat in that way; we would make a greasser drink some of each kind, no ill effects appearing, we would imbibe, while the “assayer” would be dispatched by a sabre thrust. When Mexicans were scarce, we used a Dutch artilleryman whose imperfect knowledge of our language prevented him from understanding why we gave him the first drink! and why we watched his countenance with so much anxiety. But the only bad effect it had was to get the Dutchman dead drunk, and the glorious so-so….

We reached a corner house of a block, as usual it was a “corner grocery” full of wine, aquadenta and Mescal. On the opposite side of the street we had to cross, was another of those infernal fortified stone walls, enclosing a house a fort in its self. It was now 3. P.M., all firing had ceased in the eastern part of the town, and from the loud cries of defiance, and increased boldness of our foes, we were sattisfied that they had been largely re-enforced. Things were getting desperate, the men were all getting crazy drunk and unmanagble. With words of cheer, Walker orderd the door of the Shop to be thrown open and a dash made for the wall. The fire was so blinding that we held our heads down and shut our eyes, “going it blind.” One fine young fellow, a Texan named Lockridge, had been with me all day, in this affair he wraped a Mexican blanket around his head, and Bowieknife in hand led the charge. Our foes met the rush with so heavy a fire that the air seemd to rain balls. Bullets striking on the stone pavements and walls, ricochet and glancing from side to side, as we staggerd on. At least a regiment of infantry came up a side street, poured their fire in our flank, and then charged us with the bayonet. All fought now on his own hook, and fought more like devils, than human beings, with axes, club’d rifles, sabre and Bowieknife. We held them for a moment, then, inch-by-inch we gave ground. My Carbine and Hoster pistol were lost in the Bishop’s Palace, and I fought with my sabre alone. I was no doubt badly scarte, but I laid about me in great fury, yelling like a fiend, and when a soldier run on to the point of my weapon, which came out at his back, I considered myself quite a hero. Lockridge, whose huge knife was driping with gore, noticing the act, cried out “Well done honey! nothing like the cold steel for greassers.” I had now that tiger thirst for blood that will take possession of a man when engaged in close conflict, a desire to slay, to destroy life, that is a frenzy amounting almost to insanity, making men demons, indifferent alike to danger, wounds and death. I was in this state when a severe blow, dealt by a Mexican on my head with his clubbed musket, brought me to the ground and somewhat cooled my ardour. I with other wounded were dragged in to the “Fonda” in which all that was left of our party retreated, leaving over fifty of our men “toes up” in the street. The door was hastily barred, and a fire opened from the windows on the black devils, who were bayoneting our wounded left in the street. My head was coverd with blood, it was bathed in “muscal” which made it smart as if fire had been put on it, and bound up in a “rebosa.”

I soon felt better and full of fight. The cries of our wounded as they were butcherd drove the men perfectly frantic. They howled like wild beasts, such oaths! such fearful imprecations! Walker cried out “My hoses! I have sworn to sleep in the Post office tonight or in hell! Thar is no time to spare, try them again.” The door was thrown open, when tremendous explosions of artillery shook the house and the street was swept by a tempest. Canister and bags of musket balls were fired into the ranks of our foes by our two six pounders, one of which had been brought along and mounted on the roof of the house in which we were; the other gun was unlimberd in the street, while a twelve P’dr, with the other column in the “Calle de Monterey” had been mounted on a roof of a tower facing on the “Plazuela de la Carne,” and threw shells in to the fortified yard in our front. The enemy fire soon slackened, and we gained their position without further loss. The other column advanced no farther then the church of Sante Maria, where they entrenched and sent us re-enforcements. For four hours untill dark, Hell reigned in this part of the city. The air was filled with the roar of artillery, the rattle of musketry, the bursting of shells, the dull heavy blows on doors and walls, the shouts and yells of the Rangers, mingled with cries of children and shrieks of women, made it a scene in which a Demon would delight. House after house we gained, cutting through the longitudinal walls, bursting in to the presence of terrified groups of feamales and children. We must have seemd to them like fiends from another world, our appearence was certainly terrific enough to daunt the boldest, with faces and bare arms encrusted with black blood, hair and beards mattened and stuck full of bits of mortar, garments torn, wit ha variety of articles found in the houses fastened on their person, weapons all smeared with gore, and all yelling and shouting. What fearful apparitions to meet the gaze of a quite nervous family!

In one house showing unmistakeable sign of wealth, I came upon a group of laides before a crucifix on a small alter situated in an alcove; three were young and quite beautiful, and dressed in pure white, two middle-aged women, their companions, rent the air with their shrill cries. Lockridge who was with me spoke Spanish like a native. He tried to calm them, but they threw themselves on the floor rolling over and over, the younger ones made no outcries but remained with their eyes fixed on the cross. One of the rollers sat up and in Spanish begged us to “spare the Senoreitas, and use them as we wished.” This drove us out and Col. Walker, placed an old mountain man as a safeguard over them.

In another house lay a mother killed by a random shot, with a little child crying beside her. In every house fearful sights told of the horrors of a town taken by storm! To add to the woe of the defenceless inhabitants, the garison in the Black Fort, finding that we were in possession of the northwestern part of the city, opened with morters, throwing huge bombs high in air that fell in the streets and crashed through houses exploding with great violence. We pushed on, and one hour after dark, Walker with some fifty others gained a lodgement in the Post Office, a high stone building within one hun-dred yards and overlooking the Grande Plaza. Walker, when a “Meer prisoner,” was confined in this house, and the knowledge then acquired, was of great benefit to him now. Among those who staid by Walker was Lockridge and myself, and we ascended to the top of the builden with the gallant Ranger, who had accomplished his oath.

The scene from the roof was magnificent, the rattle of small arms, the shouts and cries of combatants had ceased, darkness had settled over the city and shroud-ed its scenes of carnage in deep gloom, the dead horses and men laying in the streets looked black and uncanny in the darkness; to the north camp fires mapped out the position of our reserve, Gen. Worth’s Head Quarters, the Bishop’s Palace, was one blaze of light from the fires built inside. The occasional shout of a drunken stormer or the bray of Donkeys in the Plaza was the only sounds we heard. Silence fell on city and camp. Our wounded were stupefied with stimulants and lay unconscious of their pains. This silence was broken by a roar in our rear, and a stream of fire shot up from the “Plaza de la Capella” showing in bold relief the dark towers of the Church of Sante Maria, and rushed over our heads with a strange roaring scream, and burst in the Grande Plaza beyond. Old Maj. Munroe had got his nine inch Morter in position and was trying its range! Another Bomb followed and broke through the roof of the Cathedral, and exploded inside. Tons and tons of ammunition were stored in the Church, and we were not two hundred yards off! The Major only fired these two, but the Black Fort opened and fired at intervals for hours. I made a bed of clothes found in the house, and slept sound until! daylight on the 24th.

Source: Samuel Chamberlain, My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue, ed. By William H. Goetzmann (Austin, Texas: Texas State Historical Association, 1965), 92–98.