The Training Ground

Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848


By Martin Dugard

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Few historical figures are as inextricably linked as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. But less than two decades before they faced each other as enemies at Appomattox, they had been brothers — both West Point graduates, both wearing blue, and both fighting in the same cadre in the Mexican War. They were not alone: Sherman, Davis, Jackson nearly all of the Civil War’s greatest soldiers had been forged in the heat of Vera Cruz and Monterrey. The Mexican War has faded from our national memory, but it was a struggle of enormous significance: the first U.S. war waged on foreign soil; and it nearly doubled our nation.

At this fascinating juncture of American history, a group of young men came together to fight as friends, only years later to fight as enemies. This is their story. Full of dramatic battles, daring rescues, secret missions, soaring triumphs and tragic losses, The Training Ground is history at its finest.



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Corpus Christi

MARCH 11, 1846

It was just after dawn when the soldiers of the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry assembled, rank and file, for the long march to war. Amid a great shuffling of black leather brogans and last-minute adjustments of pistols, muskets, sabers, cartridge belts, bedrolls, india-rubber canteens, and the M1839 forage caps that would keep the South Texas sun off their heads, the nearly five hundred men organized themselves by their separate companies.

A soft wind blew in off the Gulf of Mexico as the men awaited the order to move out. It was a subtle reminder that spring had arrived after a winter they would long remember for torrential rain, flimsy white tents, and rampant dysentery. Given a choice between spending one more day in Corpus Christi and charging straight into a Mexican artillery battery, most of the Fourth would have chosen the cannon every time.

With the exception of the regimental band, which wore bright red, every man's uniform was blue, America's official national color. The enlisted were mostly immigrants, German, Scottish, and Irish boys who joined the army for the seven dollars a month and the promise of regular employment. The officers were almost all West Point trained and the sons or grandsons of men who fought in the wars of 1776 and 1812. Some were old enough to have fought the British themselves. Among the West Point graduates was Sam Grant, who just wanted out of Corpus Christi. He had camped on the beach for seven long months, and what had begun as a military idyll had become a bivouac hell.

"I do not believe there is a healthier spot in the world," he had blithely written to Julia shortly after he'd first arrived. Grant loved the outdoor lifestyle. He had filled his off-duty hours hunting, riding horseback, and losing at cards and had even been cast as the female lead in a production of The Moor of Venice, which was being staged at the new eight-hundred-seat theater the officers had built. (His theatrical career ended before it began: Lieutenant Theodoric Porter, the male lead, objected to performing opposite a man in drag, and an actress was imported from New Orleans for the actual performance.) Those diversions, combined with General Zachary Taylor's penchant for casual leadership, meant that Corpus Christi was good duty when the weather was nice.

Grant also liked the fact that most of his friends from West Point were in Corpus Christi. In fact, nearly two hundred academy graduates rounded out the officer corps. Even as the army prepared for war (indeed, a surprise Mexican attack on their camp could have come at any time), there was a burgeoning sense of sadness among the officers because they feared the conflict would be diplomatically resolved before they tested themselves on the field of battle. Grant was dismayed to note that this zeal for war had less to do with right and wrong than with personal advancement and glory. "The officers are all collected in little parties discussing affairs of the nation," he wrote Julia on May 6. "Annexation of Texas, war with Mexico, occupation of Oregon, and difficulties with England are the general topics. Some of them expect and seem to contemplate with a great deal of pleasure some difficulty where they may be able to gain laurels and advance a little in rank." With war came promotion and perhaps glory and riches. Death and dismemberment, for many American troops, were secondary concerns.

Yet even in the best of times, conditions were treacherous, and it became difficult for Grant to maintain his high spirits. The camp was infested with snakes, and more than one man woke in the night to find a deadly rattler coiled in his bedroll. Thick black clouds of flies covered the tents and food, swarming into men's mouths as they tried to sleep or eat. And a predatory militia of camp followers had wandered down from Louisiana to take advantage of the soldiers. This band of pimps, whores, gamblers, and desperadoes was described by one soldier as "all the cutthroats, thieves and murderers of the United States and Texas." Corpus Christi had been a quiet and desolate smugglers' outpost before Taylor's Army of Occupation arrived. In less than a year it had become a haven for gambling, prostitution, and loan-sharking — the last a result of the U.S. Army's inability to pay the soldiers for months at a time.

Grant wasn't a complainer, but if he were, his letters to Julia during the winter months could have gone on and on about the harsh northerly winds, the punishing rain and thunderstorms, and the unprotected coastal plain where there wasn't so much as a tree to block gales ripping in off the Gulf. The army's Quartermaster Corps, unaccustomed to providing for the needs of a wartime force, had disbursed flimsy, floorless tents; as a result, Grant and the rest of the four-thousand-man force slept in the cold mud, protected from the elements by thin woolen blankets. Fevers and diarrhea became so common that one-sixth of the American contingent was on sick call at any given time.

Instead of griping, Grant wrote love letter after love letter to Julia, rambling on and on about wanting to resign his commission just so he could be with her — and during the long, miserable winter he came very close to doing just that. But by March, when the rains had ended and conditions were finally right for the Army of Occupation to mobilize, he knew that such an act would have been perceived as cowardice and an abandonment of his West Point brethren. The cold, hard facts were this: in order to see Julia again, he might need to fight the Mexicans. There was no way of escaping back into her arms until the conflict was ended. "Fight or no fight, everyone rejoices at the idea of leaving Corpus Christi," he wrote to Julia. Others may have been heading south dreaming of glory; Grant headed south to get back to Saint Louis.

In all, nearly thirty-five hundred U.S. troops were marching to face a Mexican army that would soon number more than twice that size. They had come to Corpus Christi from posts great and small all around America (frontier outposts were often manned by a single company numbering just fifty-five men). Not only was their winter drilling under Taylor a crash course in how to function as a large armed force, but it also marked the first time in three decades that the bulk of the U.S. Army was in the same place at the same time.

To avoid ambush during the march to Mexico, General Taylor divided his army into four columns, each leaving a day apart. The first column had left on March 8. The cavalry, in the form of Colonel David Twiggs's Second Dragoons, led the way alongside a company of horse-drawn light artillery. Two more brigades of infantry and artillery trailed in their dusty wake. Grant and the Fourth Infantry were the final elements of Taylor's enormous caravan. On March 11, they struck their tents and gathered in formation on the sands of Corpus Christi, preparing to cross the Nueces River and venture into the no-man's-land buffering the American and Mexican armies.

The Fourth was commanded by Colonel William Whistler, an aging alcoholic who had alternately served with distinction and gotten so thoroughly inebriated that he'd been threatened with dismissal from the service. His time in uniform had begun during the presidency of John Adams and continued through America's expansion. Whistler, who had first been commissioned in 1801, was taken prisoner by the British during the War of 1812, for many years withstood hardship and prolonged separation from loved ones as a fort commander on the turbulent American frontier, and performed admirably as leader of the Fourth Infantry in Corpus Christi. The son of a Revolutionary War soldier, he was a besotted living bridge between America's past and its future.

Taylor and his staff began the march with Whistler's column. When the last man was safely away, the general galloped ahead to catch up with the forward elements. Taylor trusted Whistler to bring up the rear.

The enlisted were on foot, while the officers would travel the two weeks from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande by horse. It would be a dry, dusty trip across a barren salt plain, sure to blister the heels and crack the tongues of the foot soldiers. Many officers, foreseeing those hardships, had compassionately purchased a cheap six-dollar mustang for their personal servants. But Sam Grant — ironically enough, the Fourth's undisputed top horseman — was prepared to walk.

There were two reasons for this. The first had to do with fairness: if his men were going to slog twenty miles a day across the Texas wasteland, so would he. The second was more practical: Grant no longer possessed a horse. A week earlier he had owned three mustangs, but a careless groom let them run off. Grant was a proud man. He was bad at managing money but was not in the habit of begging or borrowing when funds ran short. "I determined not to get another, but to make the journey on foot," the young lieutenant promised himself.

Yet news of Grant's missing horses had gotten around. It was only natural that a group of officers who already knew one another through their common educational background and various army postings, and who had endured a hard winter in Corpus Christi together, would gossip like a sewing circle. These officers knew that Grant was so gifted on horseback that he had been commanded to give a special equestrian jumping demonstration at his West Point graduation and that he'd broken a supposedly unrideable wild mustang while in Corpus Christi, saddling the horse and galloping across the plains for hours until it stopped trying to buck him off and calmly consented to his commands. If Grant were less likable, his fellow officers might have reveled at seeing him walk all the way down to Mexico, looking as blistered and sunburned as some Irish immigrant private. But Grant was the sort of undersized, hardworking, self-effacing individual that other men felt compelled to take care of. And so they did.

A few days earlier, Grant's company commander had pulled Grant aside to discuss the march. Captain George Archibald McCall was a forty-four-year-old Philadelphian. Rangy, with a handsome face and neatly trimmed beard, McCall was widely respected as a great soldier and a gentleman — and like Grant, a consummate horseman. (He sold one of his favorite buggy horses to Zachary Taylor, who then rechristened the animal Old Whitey and made it synonymous with his oversize personality.) McCall preferred traveling by horse over any other mode of transportation, including trains or steamboats. Not surprisingly, the idea of Grant's traveling on foot made McCall anxious. The march would be daunting, to say the least. Grant's ability to lead men into battle might be impaired if he were exhausted and footsore. Casually, in the manner of an inquiry rather than an order, McCall asked if Grant planned on buying a new steed. "No," Grant replied, adding that he belonged to a foot regiment and it was natural for him to walk.

"I did not understand the object of his solicitude," a puzzled Grant later wrote of the encounter. McCall pretended to let the matter drop. It was not as if he had an extra horse. Of the captain's two expensive steeds, it was clear to Grant that McCall would ride one and his servant the other.

So when Brevet Second Lieutenant Sam Grant lined up alongside his men on the morning of March 11, he was sure that he was about to march two hundred miles to the Rio Grande on foot, without fanfare or sympathy.

Captain McCall had other plans. "There, Grant," he yelled, pointing to an unbroken mustang, "is a horse for you."

Grant studied the animal. It was a spirited three-year-old colt, one of the thousands that roamed the Texas prairie in herds so great that Grant thought it would take a land the size of Delaware to contain them. Though wild, they were exceptional horses, with a bloodline running back to the Arabians brought to North America by Spanish soldiers centuries earlier. Traders frequently rode out to capture the animals and sell them to the army — or in this case, to McCall, who had used his own money to purchase the mustang for the unhorsed lieutenant.

Grant was deeply touched. He thanked the captain and quickly threw a saddle on his new mount. "I saw the captain's earnestness in the matter, and accepted the horse for the trip. The day we started was the first time the horse had been under saddle. I had, however, but little difficulty in breaking him, though for the first day there were frequent disagreements with us over which way we should go, or whether we should go at all," wrote Grant. "At no time during the day could I choose exactly the part of the column I wanted to ride with; but, after that, I had as tractable a horse as any with the army, and none that stood the trip better."

And so it came to pass that when Sam Grant rode off to war for the very first time, he sat astride a headstrong, unpredictable, slightly aimless young horse — an animal, in fact, with a spirit much like his own.


Rio Grande

MARCH 20, 1847

Thanks to McCall's act of kindness, Grant's journey south was actually somewhat pleasant. A carpet of wildflowers covered the land, their vivid yellows and purples framed by budding shoots of green prairie grass, all set against the backdrop of a vast blue sky. "I observed in great abundance the spiderwort, phlox, lupin, fireplant, lobelia inflata, primrose, etc," one officer wrote in great detail. Grant was amazed by a horizon so vast and empty that he thought he could see the curve of the earth. A few days out of Corpus Christi, Grant and a band of officers left the boredom of the march during a rest break, spurring their mounts out toward a series of low hills to gaze in awe at a great herd of wild horses. "As far as the eye could reach to our right, the herd extended," Grant wrote. "To the left it extended equally. There was no estimating the number of animals in it."

For soldiers on foot, the journey was far less idyllic. Their boots, those army-issue leather brogans, were designed to fit interchangeably on the right or left foot, making for great discomfort over such a long distance. Game was hard to come by, so they lived on rations of bacon, salted pork, and crumbling, barely edible, maggot-infested biscuits. Water was even scarcer than predicted. The troops' thirst was made worse when Mexican scouts, seeking to harass the American advance, set fire to the prairie on March 14. The flames quickly raced inland and away from the army, driven by winds blowing in off the Gulf, but the damage was done. All that remained of the grass and wildflowers was a thick layer of soot. The Fourth Infantry's footsteps sent the black gray dust flying up into their mouths and nostrils, forcing many of them to march with handkerchiefs tied over their faces. Their blue uniforms were coated in ash, with no cool stream nor even a muddy lake in which to wash it off. "The men," Grant noted with understatement, "suffered."

Nine days after setting out, filthy and exhausted, Grant and the Fourth caught up with the rest of Taylor's army on the banks of a tidal river known as the Arroyo Colorado. Mexican soldiers had been spotted on the far shore. Taylor had no way of knowing how many enemy troops were hiding there, but from the scores of Mexican bugles blowing up and down the river, it certainly sounded as if the enemy had him outnumbered.

The Arroyo Colorado seemed just deep and wide enough to give the Mexicans a powerful tactical advantage. They merely had to wait for the Americans to begin crossing, and then let forth a hail of artillery and musket fire. Taylor's men would be stranded midriver, battling the current, incapable of fighting back, and soon weakened if not decimated altogether.

Yet Taylor was a wily general, capable of seeing a battlefield with the same analytical calm with which other men viewed a chessboard. One way or another, he needed to cross that river. Conventional tactics stipulated that infantry and cavalry should be sent across to wage war on the ground as Taylor's artillery batteries bombarded enemy positions from his side of the river. His army was vulnerable if they tried to ford piecemeal. Crossing en masse was still somewhat suicidal, but at least then the Americans had the benefit of numbers: many men might die, but many more might make it across to do battle.

Instead, Taylor halted the entire army. By the time Grant arrived, days later, the northern bank of the Colorado was a scene of organized chaos: thousands of soldiers; hundreds of mules, horses, and bellowing oxen; and, from the other shore, the annoying blare of unseen Mexican bugles, blowing nonstop from the thick scrub.

A work party of American soldiers swung their axes under the glaring Texas sun, chopping away trees and shrubs to clear a trail down to the water, even as a second group stripped to the waist and wielded shovels to level off the steep drop from the banks down into the sluggish current. The soldiers might have looked like a very determined band of settlers, were it not for the artillery crews calmly aiming their cannons toward the Mexican positions, eager, after year upon year of practice, to fire upon a live enemy for the first time.

Grant was a compulsive observer, constantly watching and appraising so that he might understand a person or an activity better. He normally revered Taylor, a man whose disdain for affectation and military pomp mirrored his own. Yet as he studied Taylor's inability to cross the river, and the logjam of American troops now exposed to Mexican fire, anger flashed through the young lieutenant. The Arroyo Colorado should have been easy to cross. It was only a hundred yards wide and not much more than waist deep. From Grant's point of view, Taylor had made a mess of things by neglecting to bring along materials for a temporary bridge.

The lack seemed a glaring omission, for it had been known all along that the predominant geographical obstacles Taylor's army would face on its path into Mexico were Texas's broad, sluggish rivers, among them the Nueces, the Arroyo Colorado, and the Rio Grande. Yet neither Taylor nor his staff had had the forethought to bring along pontoons, an engineering novelty that had been developed during the Seminole Wars. Such an oversight seemed to Grant not only ludicrous but humiliating. If the American army was trying to intimidate the Mexicans with their professionalism, they were doing a very poor job of it.

THERE WERE MORE than just buglers on the opposite bank of the Colorado. "Mexican lancers were on the southern side," noted Second Lieutenant Pete Longstreet, "and gave notice that they had orders to resist our further advance." He had no doubt that there would be a battle if Taylor's army crossed the Arroyo Colorado.

Longstreet could hardly wait.

Since childhood, he had dreamed of being a soldier. And unlike those men whose dreams and physical attributes didn't mesh, the strapping southerner was born to be a great warrior. He was tough, having spent his childhood roaming the rugged Appalachian forests. He was shrewd, a serious cardplayer who won far more than he lost. His personal charisma was so great that some considered him a giant, even though he wasn't much more than six feet tall. But most of all, Longstreet was calm under pressure and deeply persevering. If the Mexicans contested the crossing, Longstreet would happily be in the thick of the fight. And then, he was sure, he would methodically dispose of anyone who tried to stop him.

Longstreet was Dutch on his father's side, descended from Puritans who had fled to America in 1630 and settled in New Jersey. It was Longstreet's grandfather William who moved his family south, settling near Augusta, Georgia, where he invented a steamboat prototype that successfully traveled eight miles on the Savannah River. But William was unable to procure a patent, despite years of trying, and never received proper credit for his revolutionary invention. Ten years later he moved again, this time to South Carolina.

It was on his grandfather's plantation in Edgefield, 20 miles north of Augusta and 150 miles northwest of the bustling port at Charleston, that James Longstreet the future soldier was born on January 8, 1821. The third of seven children, he was named after his father. His mother was the former Mary Ann Dent, who claimed she could trace her lineage to both Chief Justice John Marshall and William the Conqueror. Longstreet had no middle name but was given the nickname Peter at an early age — "rock" in Greek — for his strength and sturdy character.

Longstreet spent his childhood roaming the fields and forests around his father's large farm, learning to shoot and ride, feeling at home in the out-of-doors. Daily chores developed muscle to go with instinct, and Longstreet grew into a strapping, independent young boy, seemingly destined for a life in the country.

But he dreamed of being a general. Longstreet loved reading books about great warriors like Napoleon and Washington, and believed wholeheartedly that his ancestral link with William the Conqueror made him a natural soldier.

His father not only respected those dreams but also put forth a plan to help make them come true. When the boy was nine years old, his father packed him off to Augusta, where he would live with his uncle and get the sort of proper education that would allow him to enter West Point. The move from countryside to city was a dramatic lifestyle change, yet Longstreet adapted and even flourished. His uncle, a portly and influential local figure, sent the youngster off to the Richmond County Academy, a rigid private school where classes were conducted from dawn until dusk, ten months a year. By the time Longstreet matriculated at West Point at the age of sixteen, he had been educated in math, Latin, and Greek.

Sadly, his father didn't live to see Longstreet become a soldier. A cholera epidemic killed him in 1833, and Longstreet's mother moved away from the farm and relocated to the Alabama coast. Longstreet never saw much of her after that.

At West Point, Pete Longstreet was an even greater rebel and poorer cadet than Sam Grant. He graduated fifty-fourth out of fifty-six in the class of 1842, an esteemed bunch that would see seventeen of its members become generals. Longstreet was their equal in many ways, but his standing was pulled down by demerits, a fondness for sports above study, and a disdain for military discipline. (For instance, the food at West Point was a daily variation on overcooked beef, with boiled potatoes thrown in for variety, so Longstreet was fond of sneaking off the grounds to eat and drink at a local inn that was expressly off-limits to cadets.) Comfortable in his own skin, he was equally at home displaying proper etiquette at a formal military ball and swearing crudely in the field. "As I was of a large and robust physique," Longstreet admitted years later, "I was at the head of most larks and games." His classmates, noting that physique, named him Most Handsome Cadet. That description would stick for years to come, though he would eventually grow a long beard to hide his mouth, which a classmate once described as coarse.

Longstreet's poor grades meant that he, like his good friend Grant, couldn't select his postgraduate posting. As a result, all that West Point engineering training went by the wayside, and he was assigned to the infantry, which almost guaranteed that promotions would be few and far between.

Also like Grant, Longstreet fell in love after reporting for duty at the Jefferson Barracks, just outside Saint Louis. The woman in question was Louise Garland, and her father was Lieutenant Colonel John Garland, the regimental commander. Longstreet's eccentric classmate and fellow infantry officer Lieutenant Richard Ewell (the man who allowed Grant his predeployment leave to see Julia at White Haven) considered Louise to be one of just two attractive women in Missouri — the other being her sister Bessie. "This is the worst country for single ladies I ever saw," Ewell wrote to his brother. "They are hardly allowed to come of age before they are engaged to be married, however ugly they may be. Except the Miss Garlands, I have not seen a pretty girl or interesting one since I have been here."

Louise was seventeen when she first met Longstreet in the spring of 1844, a petite beauty who owed her dark black locks to her Chippewa Indian mother. The attraction between Louise and Pete Longstreet was obvious to both of them early on, and before shipping out for Camp Salubrity, Louisiana, he asked her father for permission to marry her. The request was approved, with the stipulation that the wedding not take place until Louise was a few years older.

Thus Brevet Second Lieutenants Pete Longstreet and Sam Grant were both engaged men as they settled in at Camp Salubrity. But whereas Grant was heartsick for Julia, writing letters that pleaded for her to reaffirm her love (which she did, though not as often as Grant would have liked), Longstreet had taken the separation from Louise in stride. He had passed the time near Fort Jesup among the rogues and rascals, playing poker, particularly a game called brag. (Longstreet was renowned for his ability to bluff. Grant, on the other hand, was miserable at cards.) A brevet second lieutenant earned less than thirty dollars a month — not quite a dollar a day. "The man who lost seventy-five cents in one day was esteemed a peculiarly unfortunate person," Longstreet said of Grant, who frequently lost that much before excusing himself from the table.

Longstreet had been transferred to the Eighth Infantry in March 1845 and reassigned to Fort Marion, Florida. More than two hundred years old, the fortress had a decidedly medieval feel, with moats, a dungeon, and twelve-foot-thick walls facing out at the Atlantic. The Eighth was a battle-hardened outfit, having spent the previous few years waging war against Florida's Seminole tribe. A far cry from the horse races and poker games of Camp Salubrity, Fort Marion was an appropriately disciplined military garrison for a self-confident young soldier to make the mental transition to his first taste of combat.

By September 1845, Longstreet and Grant were reunited in Corpus Christi, where they spent that awful winter awaiting the order to march on the Rio Grande. By the time Taylor's army proceeded south the following March, they had spent two full years living under the shadow of war. It had been a stretch of boredom and inertia, card games and hunting trips and living in tents, their personal lives on hold until politicians in Washington and Mexico City could decide their fate.

But now all that was past. As Pete Longstreet and Sam Grant faced south on a fine spring morning, looking across the muddy, inconsequential tidal flow of the Rio Colorado, battle was no longer some abstract image but was being vividly brought to life by the horns and lancers they could hear and see on the far bank.

Longstreet had laid eyes on few, if any, foreign soldiers in his life. The same was true of almost every officer and enlisted man along the river. It was titillating to stare over at the nameless, faceless army on the opposite shore, with their brightly colored uniforms and their exotic language, which very few Americans spoke and even fewer saw the need to learn. Most of the Americans didn't know, for instance, that the Mexican army was much like their own in many ways, structured in the European manner, with infantry, cavalry, engineers, and artillery, or that the total size of the Mexican army — 18,882 regular soldiers, 10,495 militiamen, and 1,174 irregulars — outnumbered theirs almost five to one, which was perhaps a case of ignorance being bliss.


On Sale
Jun 16, 2008
Page Count
464 pages

Martin Dugard

About the Author

Martin Dugard is the New York Times bestselling author of such nonfiction titles as Chasing Lance, The Last Voyage of Columbus, Farther Than Any Man, Knockdown, and Into Africa. He has written for Esquire, Outside, Sports Illustrated, and GQ. Dugard lives in Orange County, California, with his wife and three sons.

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