The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 will be forever overshadowed by the immensities of the subsequent Civil War. Yet the earlier war, which ended 13 years before the great and bloody contest over slavery began, is not without immensities of its own, particularly when it came to the acquisition of vast new territories.
Today, the Mexican-American War is generally understood as a land grab by expansionist-minded Americans under the thrall of Manifest Destiny. It ended with the U.S. obtaining from a politically divided and overwhelmed Mexico what would become the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, and most of California.
Fifty-eight men from McLean County served in the war as members of the 4th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Co. B. About 50 years after the war’s end, local historian Ezra M. Prince wrote a brief history of Co. B, basing much of it on correspondence with several surviving veterans.
McLean County was responsible for raising one company (about 100 men) for the 4th Illinois. Leading the effort was Gen. Asahel Gridley, who would go on to make a personal fortune selling and speculating on railroad land, and in the process play a paramount role in the development of McLean County. Despite his rather ignominious record in the Black Hawk War (the very extent of his scant military experience), Gridley was somehow commander of the local militia, hence the officious title of general.
At any rate, as Gridley called a public meeting for June 13, 1846 to get enough recruits to fill a regimental company. The patriotic rally was held Center and Market streets in downtown Bloomington, a site now occupied by a municipal parking deck.
At this gathering Gridley played the role of the pompous patriot. “He urged the young men to enlist in the service of their country attacked by the ruthless Mexican barbarians,” recounted Ezra Prince. “Go and fight the battles of your country as I have done,” concluded Gridley. “Glory awaits you. Our hearts are with you.”
David Davis (he wouldn’t be Judge Davis for another two years) was in the crowd. Many northern members of the Whig Party, Davis included, opposed the war, viewing it as little more than a bald-faced attempt to expand American slavery. “They wanted me to make a speech, but I told them I wasn’t going to enlist and wouldn’t make a speech,” Davis was purported to have told Bloomington plow maker Abram Brokaw, who was standing next to him during Gridley’s pitch.
English-born John Moore, a McLean County farmer who at the time was serving as lieutenant governor, was next to speak. Prince described Moore as a “large, portly man, red-face, sandy hair … honest, plain, blunt, and direct, both in speech and action.”
“Gen. Gridley has urged you to go to the war,” Moore told those gathered. “I am going to say to you all, ‘Come with me.’” And indeed, the lieutenant governor (and future state treasurer) fought in the war as a first lieutenant and then lieutenant-colonel.
In Bloomington, 102 men joined Moore for what they believed were six-month enlistments.
The night before they left for Springfield to begin the formal process of organizing the regiment, around a dozen Co. B recruits terrorized Bloomington abolitionists for opposing the war. The men, “who got full of whiskey,” first stopped at Rev. Levi Spencer’s residence in the 200 block of East Front Street (about where A. Gridley Antiques is located today). They smashed in doors and windows and “defiled the house with rotten eggs.” The good reverend and his family were fortunate to escape out the back door.
By the next morning peace had returned to the city. This was seven years before the arrival of the first railroads to Bloomington, so in order to get to Springfield, the McLean County volunteers piled into farm wagons for the jarring, jolting and jostling ride to the state capital.
Once in Springfield the McLean County contingent learned that enlistments had to be no less than a full year. That was news enough to induce some men, who already had their fill of soldiering, to return home. It was also said that a number of prominent McLean County men traveled to Springfield to convince sons and nephews to come home. All of this activity cut the company’s strength nearly by half, and the remaining 58 McLean County recruits were supplemented by more than 40 others from additional Illinois counties.
By the fall of 1846 the 4th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment found itself in the Mexican town of Camargo on the Rio Grande River, having just missed a chance to participate in U.S. Gen. Zachary Taylor’s victory at Monterey. At Camargo, the 3rd and 4th Illinois regiments suffered terribly due to poor water and related sickness.
In a letter written in December 1846 to his father-in-law William Perrin Walker, David Davis noted the war’s deadly turn for the McLean County volunteers. “They have been treated worse than dogs and one half either die, or return home, emaciated and with constitutions wholly broken down,” he wrote.
Elements of the 4th Illinois led by Lt. Col. John Moore participated in the siege of Veracruz that ended with the surrender of the Gulf of Mexico port on March 29, 1847. Some 8,500 soldiers under the command of U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott then began moving inland toward Mexico City. On April 18, 1847 the Americans engaged a larger enemy force at Cerro Gordo Pass.
The Battle of Cerro Gordo was a crushing defeat for the Mexicans, and the 4th Illinois played a key role. Situated on the American right flank, the 4th was part of a group that cut its way through chaparral and over a mountain to attack Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s army from the rear. In the subsequent rout of the surprised and quickly overwhelmed enemy, 4th Illinois soldiers stumbled upon Santa Anna’s hastily abandoned private carriage. Inside the carriage was a trove of war booty, including the general’s artificial cork leg.
With the one-year enlistments coming to an end, the 4th Illinois soon vacated the field and made its way to New Orleans where the campaign-weary troops mustered out on May 26, 1847. Co. B suffered no battle deaths, though as noted a number of men died from disease or camp-borne ailments.
Strangely, Santa Anna’s artificial leg is now held in the collections of the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, this despite protestations for its return by the Mexican government. The leg is even on public display in a recreated Cerro Gordo carriage scene in the museum’s “Patriots of the Heartland” exhibit.