could have had two Alamos, the famous 13-day
siege at San Antonio de Bexar in 1836, and the lessor-known siege
a decade later of a star-shaped earthen fort built in the Rio Grande
Valley across from Matamoras.
In both events, a numerically superior Mexican army equipped with
heavy artillery laid siege to a smaller, primarily American force
determined to hold a fortified position. A further similarity is that
the ranking officer on the Mexican side during the second siege, Gen.
Pedro Ampudia, had been an officer on Santa Anna’s staff during the
Alamo standoff. He also
had survived the Battle
of San Jacinto.
The first of two significant differences in the engagements is that
while the Alamo fell
and all the Texas combatants died in the final assault or survived
only to be put to the sword, all but two of the defenders of the fort
across from Matamoras lived to fight again. The second major difference
is that the 1846 fight at the southern tip of Texas pitted regular
soldier against regular soldier. The men in the Alamo
had been largely untrained volunteers.
Following the U.S.
annexation of Texas in 1845, President James K. Polk sent troops
to the new state amid a dispute with Mexico over whether the Rio Grande
or the Nueces constituted the boundary between the two nations. Mexico
claimed the Nueces, the U.S. maintained the Rio Grande divided the
In March 1846, Taylor marched his army from Corpus
Christi to the Valley. First setting up a supply base at Point
Isabel, Taylor then had his troops construct an earthen fort on
the river across from Matamoras.
Capt. Daniel P. Whiting had just splashed water on his face shortly
after “Reveille” on the early morning of May 3, 1846 when, as he later
wrote, “a round shot passed over the fort from the Mexican side, startling
me with its peculiar rushing sound.”
That cannon ball, he continued, “was followed by another and still
another in rapid succession.”
Though the circumstances and outcome of the bombardment that followed
are well-enough known, Whiting’s account of the battle and its aftermath,
the Mexican War, remained unpublished for 165 years.
A native of New York, Whiting graduated from West
Point in 1832. He served on the Kentucky frontier, in the Seminole
War in Florida and by the mid-1840s had risen to captain. Whiting
and his infantry company were among the troops who landed at the small
village of Corpus
Christi following Texas statehood.
He kept a journal of his military experiences, and later used that
as the basis of a memoir. That handwritten manuscript remained in
his family until 2002, when Whiting’s great-great grandson donated
it to the Corpus Christi Public Library. Retired Corpus
Christi newspaper editor Murray Givens edited and annotated the
memoir and published it in 2011 as “A Soldier’s Life: Memoirs of a
Veteran of 30 Years of Soldiering, Seminole Warfare in Florida, the
Mexican War, Mormon Territory and the West.”
Despite an intense bombardment of the first federal military post
in Texas, only two American soldiers
died. One was a sergeant overseeing one of the fort’s guns and the
other was the garrison commander, Maj. Jacob Brown.
No matter the grim circumstances of the Mexican attack and its aftermath,
as Whiting wrote, “We had our merriment.”
of what the young officer found amusing had to do with the attitude
and antics of his orderly, an Irishman he referred to simply as Mac.
Mac was “zealous and indispensable” in attending to Whiting’s “interest
and comfort.” On top of that, he had a good sense of humor.
“He never dodged a shot or shunned a shell,” Whiting continued, “and
when one struck near him, he casually glanced that way saying to himself,
‘Now that was uncomfortably near,’ or ‘Don’t you wish you’d hit me?’”
Beyond laughing at close calls, Mac proved to be an accomplished forager,
an early-day Radar O’Reilly of “M.A.S.H” fame. Mac especially excelled
in coming up with creative answers to the question, “What’s for dinner?”
Incoming fire had knocked open some chicken coops inside the fort
and the yard birds, as nervous as anyone else amid the rain of deadly
projectiles from across the Rio Grande, roamed around the soldiers’
“One was killed by a flying fragment, so Mac had it for our dinner,
and frequently after, without waiting for an ‘accident,’ he served
a fowl for our repast, accounting to no one for the delicacy, but
often remarking in soliloquy, whenever a shell burst in the fort,
‘There goes another chicken.’”
prevented the 1846 siege from becoming another Alamo
was Taylor and the rest of his army. When he and others heard cannon
fire echoing across the sand flats from the fort to Point
Isabel, the future president ordered most of his force to march
immediately to reinforce the besieged garrison on the river.
Ampudia hurriedly crossed the river to intercept Taylor, and the U.S.
prevailed in two engagements (Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma). What
remained of the Mexican forces retreated back across the river, and
the Stars and Stripes remained flying over the installation soon named
Fort Brown in honor of its fallen commander.
No one, however, long remembered the chickens who gave their all to
support the first American troops on the Rio Grande.
© Mike Cox
- June 5, 2014 column
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