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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"
Sergeant Kelly
The Unknown Soldier of the Mexican War

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Open any of several recently-published books on the Mexican War and look in the index under "K." You'll find a few entries, but not the surname Kelly.

A Sgt. Kelly -- his first name has yet to be retrieved from the muster rolls -- is for all practical purposes the Unknown Soldier of the Mexican War. This is what little is known of his story.

By virtue of his surname and the times, he must have been an Irishman. The American military was full of men like him. He served 20 years in the Army, nearly half of that time in the 3rd Artillery under Samuel Ringgold.

Of Ringgold, plenty is known. He graduated from West Point in 1818, the first class. He went on to invent a saddle that became a cavalry mainstay (it was called the McClelland Saddle, not the Ringgold Saddle, but that's another story) and the concept of "flying" artillery - horse drawn field pieces that could be moved rapidly on the battlefield for tactical advantage.

Ringgold's artillery got the credit for helping to carry the day during the first battle of the war, a clash between Gen. Zachary Taylor's army and Mexican forces at a place in the Rio Grande Valley called Palo Alto.

Sgt. Kelly, a teamster, had come to Texas with his unit, but on May 7, 1846 his latest - and last - two-year enlistment expired. The sergeant was ordered home, and after his long career, he intended to follow orders.

On the morning of May 8, Kelly went to Ringgold's tent to say goodbye. The sergeant offered a crisp final salute, maybe a "top o' the mornin' to ya" and told the major it looked like a fight was on. The major concurred, saying it was a pity the sergeant wouldn't be taking part in it. Sgt. Kelly agreed. Would it be alright with the major if he volunteered his services that day simply as a concerned citizen, not a soldier? Ringgold may or may not have had the legal authority to do so, but he said yes.

Though several thousand U.S. soldiers participated in that day's victory over the Mexican forces, only a handful were killed or wounded. Among those hauled by wagon back to the military hospital at Point Isabel were Kelly and his commander, each victims of cannon fire.

Ringgold's wounds were worse than Kelly's, but the sergeant did not know that at the time. A surgeon wearing a bloody apron removed his right forearm. Complications, probably infection, soon necessitated removal of the whole arm.

For Kelly's CO, the situation was even more dire. A cannonball had taken a huge chunk from each of Ringgold's thighs. No arteries or bone had been hit, and a modern doctor could have fixed him up with a lot of surgery, but not a surgeon of 1846. The major survived for 60 hours, eventually succumbing to infection.

Kelly lived, but discovered that because his enlistment had expired, he was not eligible for any government care, pension or even a medal recognizing his bravery. Officially, though impaired for life, he had not even taken part in the battle.

Still, Kelly stood at attention with many of his former colleagues as Ringgold was buried at Fort Polk in Point (now Port) Isabel. Steadfast in his loyalty to Ringgold, by mail Kelly organized a committee in Ringgold's hometown of Baltimore to bring the major's body home. The Maryland delegation arrived in November, and when they returned with the exhumed officer, Kelly went along with them.

Ringgold was the first high-ranking officer to die in the war and he became a national hero. At each port of call on the sea journey to Baltimore, the public turned out to greet the Marylanders and the body they were escorting. As word of Kelly's plight spread, Americans outraged by the military's refusal to care for the still-recovering Kelly began donating him money.

Hundreds attended Ringgold's reburial, which was preceded by a parade through the city. The ever-faithful Kelly, described by one writer as "bent and sorrowful," walked behind the caisson bearing the major's body.

With an impressive monument befitting his status as war hero, Ringgold's remains rest in Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery. The sergeant, loyal to his commander and to his country, was quickly forgotten after all the hoopla attendant to Ringgold.

No one has determined what happened to Kelly or the location of his grave.

(August 31, 2003 column)
Mike Cox
September 9, 2003
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