Jefferson Davis’ Mexican War exploits led directly to the Confederate White House.
When Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy, it was with some regret that he assumed a post of political, rather than military, leadership. Indeed, his wife, Varina, recalled that Davis received the news of his election “as a man might speak of a sentence of death.”Despite a lengthy career as a United States congressman, senator and secretary of war, Davis considered himself first and foremost a soldier. This perception was shared by enemies as well as friends. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, hardly a Southern newspaper, acclaimed Davis as “a genuine son of Mars,” and a Richmond newspaper predicted boldly that “President Davis will soon march an army through North Carolina and Virginia to Washington.”
This somewhat inflated view of Davis’ military prowess was based on his prominent role in two pivotal battles in the Mexican War, Monterrey and Buena Vista. When war with Mexico broke out in 1846, Davis was serving as a congressman from Mississippi. Resigning his office, he accepted the colonelcy of the 1st Mississippi Volunteers. Before leaving Washington, however, Davis endeared himself to his new command by pulling political strings to see that his men were equipped with nonregulation Whitney rifles, which were much more accurate and dependable than the old flintlock smoothbores carried by U.S. Army regulars.
When Davis arrived on the Texas-Mexico border, he immediately received a message from his former father-in-law, Zachary Taylor, who had already crossed into Mexico. (Davis’ first wife, Sarah, Taylor’s daughter, had died of malaria a mere three months into their marriage.) Taylor, charged with holding a defensive line in northern Mexico, was determined to capture the mountain fortress at Monterrey, 200 miles west of the American stronghold on Brazos Island. On the morning of September 21, 1846, Taylor attacked the town.
Davis, on foot and still in civilian dress (he had not had time to order a uniform), led his Mississippians into line alongside volunteers from Tennessee. Together, the Mississippians and Tennesseans captured the fort, and Davis somewhat uncharacteristically dashed about brandishing a captured enemy sword above his head. The next day, Davis and his men again were at the forefront of the action, fighting house-to-house in Monterrey proper. One of his soldiers called Davis “the bravest, coolest, grandest man that I ever saw.”
Five months later, Davis won even greater fame at the Battle of Buena Vista. There, in the hilly countryside of northern Mexico, Taylor’s depleted army of 4,800 men faced a Mexican army four times its size, led by the infamous conqueror of the Alamo, Antonio López de Santa Anna. It was Santa Anna’s plan to defeat Taylor’s army, clear northern Mexico of American troops and turn on General Winfield Scott’s main army as it advanced toward Mexico City.
Taylor positioned his forces in the hills alongside the road leading from San Luis Potosi to Saltillo, where the American base camp was located. Davis, moving with the 1st Mississippi, arrived on the field just as the battle was getting underway. Immediately, the Southerners were confronted by evidence of a demoralizing break in the line, as members of the 2nd Indiana broke for the rear due to a confusion of orders. Davis moved his own men into the position vacated by the Hoosiers. He could clearly see the Mexicans massing to attack.
“The moment seemed to me critical,” Davis wrote later, “and the occasion to require whatever sacrifice it might cost to check the enemy.” On his own direction, he sent his regiment forward to check the Mexican advance, receiving for his troubles a painful bullet wound to the foot.
Mexican cavalry next arrived on the scene and threatened to overrun the Americans. Davis, reinforced by the 3rd Indiana Regiment, shaped his men into a V and poured converging fire into the enemy horsemen. “Boys, fire, and at them with your knives!” he cried. A few Mississippians did manage to drag the fleeing lancers from their mounts and stab them to death with well-honed bowie knives.
Davis’ inarguably fine performance at Buena Vista won him national fame (and helped win his erstwhile father-in-law the presidency a year later). He quickly parlayed his heroic reputation into election to the U.S. Senate, where his growing influence soon made him a leader of the Southern delegation. Without his Mexican War laurels, it is doubtful that Jefferson Davis would ever have become president of the Confederacy; with them, his election was virtually inevitable.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War
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