“Kentucky has immortalized herself in the fight”

Kentucky at the Battle of Buena Vista, February 22-23, 1847

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

Gen. Zachary Taylor orders Kentuckian to the field during the Battle of Buena Vista, Feb 22-23, 1847. Outnumbered and on the edge of defeat, Taylor sent his reserve force including two Kentucky regiments into battle, thwarting the Mexican attack and saving the battle for the Americans.

The acceptance of Texas into the United States in 1845, was viewed as an intolerable act by Mexico.  The crisis and on-going differences between the two countries led to war the following year.  Although the federal government’s allotment for Kentucky’s portion of the Mexican-American War effort was 2,500 troops, approximately 13,000 Kentuckians answered the call.

The Kentuckians found little martial glory in Mexico.  Instead, they suffered from extreme heat, a lack of healthy water and food, and long periods of boredom.  Of the more than 5,000 Kentuckians who would eventually serve in the war, disease claimed the vast majority (509) of Soldiers’ lives.  Less than 70 died from actual combat.

The volunteers have a very large sick report at this place, & a good many deaths; poor fellows they have a very hard time of it.  No hospitals, & I greatly fear, very poor medical advisers; I can but feel very sensibly for them. 

                                                            General Zachary Taylor.

I have seen more suffering since I came out here than I could have imagined to exist.  It is really awful.  I allude to the sufferings of the Volunteers.  They literally die like dogs.

                                                            Lieutenant George B. McClellan.

Kentucky Soldiers served in infantry and cavalry regiments, fighting in famous battles at Monterey, Cerro Gordo, and the capture and occupation of Mexico City.  Kentuckians saw their heaviest combat at the Battle of Buena Vista, Feb. 22-23 1847, under the command of Gen. Zachary Taylor, of Kentucky.

At a critical point during the morning of the second day of battle, it became necessary for Taylor to reinforce and sustain one of his columns, which was staggering under a charge made by the Mexicans, in overwhelming numbers.  Taylor dispatched Mr. Thomas L. Crittenden, also a Kentuckian and his civilian aid-de-camp, to order Col. William R. McKee, of the Second Regiment, Kentucky Foot Volunteers, to bring his command into immediate action.

Crittenden found the regiment, officers and men, eager for the fray, delivered the order and rode back to the general.  The Kentuckians moved forward in gallant style, led by McKee and his second in command Lt. Col. Henry Clay, Jr., both of whom were destined to fall in battle later in the day.

It so happened that before the Kentuckians reached a position from which they could deliver an effective fire, the regiment had to cross a valley which was broken up by ravines and masses of stone.  While crossing the valley only the heads of the troops could be seen from the point that Taylor and Crittenden occupied—and were bobbing up and down and crosswise in such confusion as to impress the general that the regiment had fallen into disorder.  At the same time the Mexicans were firing upon the men which helped to confirm this opinion of the general that the Kentuckians were thrown into utter disarray and confusion.

This was a critical moment in the battle which could possibly determine the outcome of a decisive battle of the war.  The responsibility of holding the Mexicans fell squarely on the gallantry of the Kentucky regiment.

Taylor, who had already drawn the conclusion that the Kentuckians were about to falter in their mission, turned to Crittenden, and with a countenance in deep mortification, and an eye fierce with emotion, exclaimed, “Mr. Crittenden, this will not do—this is not the way for Kentuckians to behave themselves when called upon to make a good battle—it will not answer, sir!” and with this he clenched his hands, and knit his brow, and set his teeth hard together.  Crittenden having drawn the same conclusion as the general, was unable to reply.  In a few moments, however, the Kentuckians had crossed the uneven terrain, and were ascending the slope of the valley, shoulder to shoulder, with the firm and regular step of veterans of a hundred fields.  On they moved until they reached the crest of the hill, where they met the enemy.  Here they delivered their fires along with supported artillery, with such regularity and deadly aim that the decimated ranks of the Mexican army gave way and retreated.

As the Kentuckians emerged from the valley the countenance of the old general, who had been watching them with intense interest, gradually relaxed the bitterness of his expression, with the glow of pride.  Forward the regiment moved, when they opened fire on the enemy, Taylor broke forth with a loud, “Hurrah for old Kentucky!” he exclaimed, talking to himself, and raising in his saddle; “that’s the way to do it; give it to them,” and tears of exultation rolled down cheeks as he said it.

“Hold’em Kentuckians!” became the battle cry of the Second Kentucky.  The Regiment held, protecting and saving the right wing of Taylor’s army.

The American army won the battle and held the ground after Santa Ana’s army retreated.  Officially, 264 American Soldiers were killed in the battle at Buena Vista (called the battle of Angostura by the Mexicans).  Of that number 74 were Kentuckians, young men who had served in the Second Regiment, Kentucky Foot Volunteers, and the First Regiment, Kentucky Cavalry Volunteers.

Kentucky’s service in the Mexican-American War was not forgotten by its citizens. Monuments at Frankfort, Paris, Lawrenceburg, Midway, and Cynthiana were raised to honor those Kentuckians who had fought and died in the service of their state and country.

Today’s Kentucky National Guard carries on the honors and traditions of the Kentucky regiments that fought at Buena Vista.  The 201st Engineer Battalion, 1st Battalion, 623rd Field Artillery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery and the 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry carry-on the lineage and honors of the Kentucky units that fought at Buena Vista.

The following Kentucky units were at the Battle of Buena Vista:

First Regiment Kentucky Mounted Volunteers

Col. Humphrey Marshall, commanding.

Company A – “Garrard County Cavalry” Garrard County

Capt. Johnson Price.

Company B – Gallatin County

Capt. Joseph S. Lillard.

Company C – “Capitol Guards” Franklin County

Capt. Benjamin C. Milam.

Company D – “Harrison County Cavalry” Harrison County

Capt. John Shawhan.

Company E – “Cavalry Company of Louisville” Jefferson County

Capt. William J. Heady.

Company F – “Woodford Cavalry” Woodford County

Capt. Thomas F. Marshall.

Company G – “Louisville Cavalry Company” Jefferson County

Capt. Aaron Pennington.

Company H – Madison County

Capt. James C. Stone.

Company I – “O. J. Cavalry” Fayette County

Capt. Cassius M. Clay.

Company K – “Fayette Mounted Riflemen” Fayette County

Capt. G. L. Postlethwait, Captain Oliver P. Beard.

 

Second Regiment Kentucky Foot Volunteers

Col. William R. McKee, commanding.

Company A – “Green River Boys” Green County

Capt. William B. Maxey, Captain James W. Moss.

Company B – “Franklin Volunteers, No. 1” Franklin County

Capt. Frank Chambers.

Company C – “Anderson Rangers/Salt River Tigers” Anderson County

Capt. George W. Kavanaugh, Captain John H. McBrayer.

Company D – “Boyle Blues” Boyle County

Capt. Speed S. Fry.

Company E – “Kenton Rangers” Kenton County

Capt. George W. Cutter.

Company F – “Jessamine Blues” Jessamine County

Capt. William T. Willis.  Captain James O. Hervey.

Company G – Lincoln County

Capt. William Dougherty.

Company H – “Covington Guards” Kenton County

Capt. William M. Joyner.

Company I – “Montgomery and Bath Invincibles” Montgomery County

Capt. Wilkerson Turpin.

Thompson’s Company – “Harrod Guards” Mercer County

Capt. Philip B. Thompson.