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The War With Mexico: The Taylor and Kearny Campaigns

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The War With Mexico: The Taylor and Kearny Campaigns

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the ultimate goal of many of the migrants streaming west was territory then belonging to Mexico. In 1836 the new settlers in Texas proclaimed their independence. Enthusiasm for the addition of the new Loan Star Republic to the Union was strong, and the annexation of Texas in February 1845 made war almost inevitable. In May of the following year Congress officially declared war, and the Army found itself facing the challenge of a major conflict at the far end of long supply lines in a disease-ridden land.1

Although the Army appears to have devoted surprisingly little effort in advance of the actual campaign to gathering information about the geography, water supplies, and other pertinent characteristics of Mexico, it adjusted to the demands of war with much greater ease than it had in the War of 1812. Congress modified the structure of the Army by placing brigade and division organizations above the regimental level, and it undertook a controlled expansion both by adding men to existing regiments and by creating new ones. During the course of the war, another 64,000 men serving under varying terms of enlistment in volunteer units joined the 30,000 wartime regulars.

Disease wrought its usual havoc among these soldiers. Volunteers, many of them farm boys who had never before been exposed to communicable diseases and who were unimpressed with the demands of camp sanitation, fell ill at twice the rate of the regulars. Some apparently had not been immunized against smallpox; as a result, this dreaded disease occasionally struck down small numbers of volunteers, although no epidemic on the scale of those of the American Revolution resulted, and the regulars, who had been vaccinated, were spared. Many physicians fell ill, but disease killed relatively few of them, especially in comparison to the mortality among surgeons during the struggle with the Seminoles in Florida. Five Regular Army surgeons and two of those who joined the Medical Department only for the duration of the war apparently died as a result of illness contracted during or exacerbated by their service south of the Rio

1Unless otherwise indicated, material in the two chapters on the war with Mexico is based on Louis C. Duncan, "Medical History of General Scott's Campaign to the City of Mexico in 1847" and "Medical History of General Zachary Taylor's Army of Occupation in Texas and Mexico, 1845-1847," both in Military Surgeon 47 (1920):436-70, 596-609 and 48 (1921):76-104, respectively, as well as on Callan, Military Laws, Brown, Medical Department, Justin H. Smith, The War With Mexico, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1919), Edward D. Mansfield, The Mexican War ... (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1848), and R. S. Ripley, The War With Mexico-A Military History, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Bros., 1849).


Grande, while one died of wounds.2

Administration of the Medical Department

The fall of 1845 found Surgeon General Lawson eagerly anticipating war. In a letter to Brig. Gen. William Worth he complained, "It is much to be feared that the Mexicans intend to content themselves with waging a war of threats and denunciations, and that, after all their blustering, they will not afford our gallant officers and men recently ordered to Texas sufficient pastime to keep their blood in circulation."3

In spite of Lawson's enthusiasm, the likelihood of war, and the growing need for surgeons for new posts being established in the West, no increases in the size of the Medical Department were made until after war was actually declared. Although three doctors were traditionally allowed for each regiment, in June 1846 Congress ordered the call-up of only two physicians per volunteer regiment, if there were not enough Regular Army physicians available to care for these men. The department, however, already too small to provide each Army post with a physician, was scarcely in a position to offer care for the volunteers, who, therefore, had to provide for themselves. Congress did not increase the size of the department staff until February 1847. In the process of creating nine new regular infantry regiments and a dragoon regiment, to be called up for the duration of the war, the legislature gave the president the power to appoint one surgeon and two assistant surgeons for each newly authorized regular regiment and to name an additional two surgeons and twelve assistants directly to the regular department staff, which now totaled 115. The lawmakers apparently waived the age limitation, but since they made no exception to the requirement that prospective regular surgeons pass a rigorous examination and since the number who passed these tests continued to be low, months elapsed before all the new slots were filled. Even with the increase, the hiring of private physicians both to care for soldiers in Mexico and to serve as post surgeons within the United States continued to be necessary.4

An almost casual provision of the legislation of February 1847 marked a milestone in the history of the U.S. Army Medical Department: the new legislation granted surgeons and assistant surgeons the rank they had so long sought. Although in practice, under exceptional circumstances and on an informal basis, medical officers might briefly command small numbers of troops, this law also specifically stated that doctors were not to exercise command outside the Medical Department. Since a law of August 1846 had already granted vol-

2Thomas R. Irey, "Soldiers, Suffering, and Dying in the Mexican War," Journal of the West 11 (1972):295; Ltrs, Heiskell to AG (4 May 1847), RG 112, entry 2, 17:244; Henry Holt to Lawson (22 Jan 1846), RG 112, entry 12; J. J. Oswandel, Notes of the Mexican War, rev. ed. (Philadelphia, 1885), p. 435; Stanhope Bayne Jones, The Evolution of Preventive Medicine in the United States Army, 1607-1939 (Washington: Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army, 1968), p. 86; Porter, "Notes" 26:322; H. R. Robards, "The Diseases of the Army of Occupation in the Summer of 1846," Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, 2d ser., 7 (1847):187-88; William G. Proctor, "On the Diseases of the United States' Army on the Rio Grande," Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, 3d ser., 1 (1848):461-62.
3Quote from Ltr, Lawson to William Worth (13 Oct 1845), RG 112, entry 2, 16:150.
4 Ltrs, Lawson to AG (6 Sep 1845), to Sec War (30 Mar 1846), and to James A. Gregg (21 May 1846) and Heiskell to Randall (10 Feb 1847), to Hunt (22 Feb 1847), to W. I. Michie (19 Mar 1847), to J. P. Drake (8 Apr 1847), and to A. G. Howard (18 Jan 1849), all in RG 112, entry 2, 16:129, 299, and 342, 17:200, 223, 378, and 411, and 19:365, respectively.

unteer surgeons the same status as their regular counterparts, they, too, received rank. The surgeon general became a colonel, surgeons became majors, and assistant surgeons, captains. The significance of the new law, however, did not become apparent until after the war.5

The responsibilities assigned to the members of the Medical Department who served in Mexico included those of medical director and director of a general hospital, both positions given to senior surgeons, and that of purveyor. The purveyor usually functioned as physician as well as supply officer. Doctors accompanied units in the field and the department attempted to place a physican aboard any troop transport destined for a long voyage, to inspect the vessel before departure, and to care for the troops in transit. No attempt was made, however, to establish guidelines for determining in advance who should serve in general hospitals and who should remain with the regiment.

The caliber of the volunteer doctors sent to Mexico was on the whole low. Most were unaccustomed to military discipline and unfamiliar with the requirements of military medicine, particularly the requirement for sanitation. Since they, like contract surgeons, were not required to pass qualifying examinations, their skills were questionable. Their personal health was often poor; some apparently joined the Army with the thought of restoring their health by a change of climate. They were profligate in their use of supplies and casual about the required monthly reports, to the despair of the medical director under whom they served.6

The fundamental problem continued to be the failure of Congress to recognize that any army whose duties included the garrisoning of small posts scattered over a wide area required more surgeons than an army operating exclusively in units of regimental size or larger. Attempts to obtain and keep competent hospital attendants to ease the burdens of Army surgeons remained futile. The weak, the convalescent, the alcoholic, and the incompetent were left behind as attendants to care for hospital patients while their healthier and abler comrades marched off with their units. The fact that the medical staffs of disease-ridden volunteer regiments were too small to give adequate care to their sick and often lacking in skill and dedication complicated the shortage of regular physicians. In addition, Lawson did not make the most of the surgeons he had when he failed to plan in advance for the simultaneous staffing of both regimental and general hospitals. Most departmental physicians were overworked, and the strain upon them when battle or epidemic sent large numbers of men to hospitals was great.7

As experienced military surgeons could have predicted on the basis of their experiences in the West and in the Second Seminole War, frequent delays occurred in the arrival of needed items in Mexico. Shipwrecks or unexplained disappearances ru-

5Robinson, An Account 1:42.
6Ltrs, Jarvis to Heiskell (16 Nov 1847) and Satterlee to Lawson (11 Apr 1848), both in RG 112, entry 12; Lawson to Edward Bullus (10 Jul 1846) and to P. H. Craig (5 Aug 1846) and Heiskell to Hez. Williams (2 Jan 1847), to AG (4 Mar 1847), and to Gray (6 Sep 1847), all in RG 112, entry 2, 16:425 and 449, 17:141 and 244-45, and 18:51, respectively.
7Bernard John Dowling Irwin, "Notes on the Introduction of Tent Field Hospitals in War," Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Association of Military Surgeons 4 (1894):113-14; Ltrs, Lawson to See War (30 Mar 1846), RG 112, entry 2, 16:299; Porter to Lawson (5 Jul 1846) and to McCormick (25 Jun 1847), both in RG 112, entry 12; Josiah Gorgas to his mother, in Frank E. Vandiver, "The Mexican War Experience of Josiah Gorgas," Journal of Southern History 13 (1947):382; Porter, "Notes" 26:311.


ined the most careful planning, but even without mishaps, bedding and other bulky items proved particularly difficult to transport. Such a shipment might take as long as six weeks to reach a Mexican port from New York City and another eight weeks to arrive at its final destination inland.8

Although the distances involved were great, Lawson urged that, whenever possible, medical purveyors send their requisitions to New York City, where the needed items could be bought in better quality and at lower prices than elsewhere. He suggested that medicines be packed for shipment in small quantities, to eliminate any need to open large containers when only a fraction of their contents was needed. He stockpiled medical supplies for both regular and volunteer units at New Orleans. Although an occasional shortage of a critically important medicine such as quinine might force a surgeon to buy within Mexico, medical supply officers could usually draw upon the stock of the New Orleans purveyor.9

Surgeons in the Field

The first units to enter combat against Mexican troops were those under Brig.Gen. Zachary Taylor. In the summer of 1845, anticipating a hostile response from Mexico to the annexation of Texas, President Polk ordered General Taylor to move from his station in Louisiana to a position nearer the border. By the end of August, Taylor's army was camped in the vicinity of Corpus Christi, Texas. Surgeons considered the climate there to be "perfectly delicious and healthy [with] no possibility of sickness." In a short time, however, bad water (probably resulting from the presence of the troops, who polluted it), extreme variations in temperature, and what was regarded as bad air began to take their toll. "The Northers ... blow with great force and produce an instantaneous change in the temperature, the thermometer falling 30 degrees in as many seconds," a surgeon wrote. He added that insects and snakes also proved to be a threat, "especially rattlesnakes which are as plenty [sic] as blackberries." Between respiratory and digestive ills, by October "the whole army [could] be considered a vast hospital." An average of 90 officers and 118 men out of every 1,000 were sick, and the situation worsened in November before starting to improve. A disgusted Nathan Jarvis, who had had few complaints about Minnesota winters at Fort Snelling, commented: "Texas, its climate.... and people [are] all a humbug & not worth the cost of taking."10

To care for the many sick in General Taylor's command, surgeons set up eight reg-

8Ltrs, Lawson to De Camp and to Finley (both 9 Dec 1846) and Heiskell to De Camp (15 Feb 1847) and to Charles H. Laub (10 Nov 1847), all in RG 112, entry 2, 17:98, 99, and 206 and 18:222, respectively; Laub to Heiskell (5 Dec 1847) and John Frazier Head to Lawson (30 Oct 1846), both in RG 112, entry 12; Mower to Lawson (24 Sep 1846), in U.S. Army Hospital Department, New York, Letter Copy Book, 1846-1854, Ms fB25, NLM.
9Ltrs, Lawson to James Simons and to Craig (both 9 Feb 1846), to William Hammond (2 Jun 1846), and to Mower (6 Jul 1846), all in RG 112, entry 2, 16:254, 256, 270, and 420, respectively; Satterlee to Lawson (27 Dec 1846 and 8 and 29 Jun 1847), Mower to Lawson (6 Jul 1846 and 22 Mar 1847), Porter to Lawson (2 Jan 1847), and Henry H. Steiner to Lawson (24 Jun 1848), all in RG 112, entry 12; Mower to Lawson (24 Sep 1846 and 9 Nov 1847), both in Ms fB25 NLM.
10First quote, Emma Jerome Blackwood, ed., To Mexico With Scott: Letters of Captain E. Kirby Smith to His Wife (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1917), p. 18; second and third quotes, Ltr, Jarvis to Will (8 Sep 1845), in Jarvis Papers; fourth quote, Porter, "Notes" 23:14; fifth quote, Ltr, Jarvis to Ben Jarvis (30 Nov 1845), in Jarvis Papers; see also Porter, "Notes" 23:14-16, 18; Niles' Weekly Register 68 (30 Aug 1845):401; William Siaton Henry, Campaign Sketches of the War With Mexico (New York: Harper & Bros., 1847), p. 45.


imental hospitals, each sheltered in two or three large hospital tents, and a general hospital, housed in a large frame building in Corpus Christi. In the latter facility, those whose illness was likely to be prolonged joined the overflow of patients from the regimental hospitals. The medical staff manning these hospitals included the medical director for Taylor's force, Presley H. Craig, Jarvis as director of the general hospital, a purveyor, and thirteen more department physicians. Three civilian doctors were hired until more Regular Army surgeons could be assigned to Taylor's command. Almost immediately after Taylor's departure from Corpus Christi, the general hospital there was moved to a new location on St. Joseph Island, Texas, and on 7 November 1846, it was disbanded.11

Although negotiations between the United States and Mexico failed in January 1846, actual hostilities did not break out while Taylor was at Corpus Christi. In March President Polk ordered Taylor to move further south. Leaving 800 to 900 of the very weak and seriously ill at the general hospital under the care of two Medical Department physicians, Taylor established his men at Point Isabel on the coast of Texas, and inland at Fort Texas (soon to be renamed Fort Brown), facing the Mexican town of Matamoros across the Rio Grande. (Map 3) Although the men at Fort Texas were healthy when they arrived and the weather was good, many soon fell ill, most with diarrhea and dysentery. Apparently no hospital existed at this base in the early weeks, but department surgeons at Point Isabel set up tents for a general hospital to shelter all the patients from Taylor's command. This facility remained open throughout the war, and surviving records indicate that more substantial housing was eventually found for it.12

The surgeons with Taylor received their first wounded from the Mexican hostilities early in May 1846, following the enemy bombardment of Fort Texas and the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Although exact figures vary, it appears that U.S. forces lost a total of almost 50 killed and over 130 wounded in these battles. Shortly after the second battle, the Mexicans abandoned Matamoros.13

For each of these two engagements, the twelve surgeons accompanying the troops initially set up field hospitals near the battlefield. When the wounded could be moved, Craig had 48 taken to the Corpus Christi facility and the remaining 1,123 to Point Isabel, where they were placed in tents and warehouses cleared out for the purpose. The facilities at Point Isabel were overcrowded and badly policed, but, by the standards of the day, the men cared for there did well. One of the surgeons attributed this fact to the proximity of the town to the sea and its breezes, the absence of malaria, and the basic good health of the men, the weak and sick having been left behind when the march began. Nevertheless, twenty died later from their injuries.14

General Taylor's concern for the welfare of the casualties from the two battles of

11Surgeon's Quarterly Rpt, St. Joseph Island (7 Nov 1846), RG 94, entry 694; Porter, "Notes" 23:13-14; George Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, ed. George Gordon Meade, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), 2:37, 37n; Ltr, Jarvis to Will (8 Sep 1845), in Jarvis Papers; Jarvis, "Notes" 40:438-39.
12Ltrs, Heiskell to Wood (Apr 1846), RG 112, entry 2, 17:409; Hawkins to Lawson (28 Apr 1848) and Thomas C. Madison to Lawson (I Jul 1848), both in RG 112, entry 12; Porter, "Notes" 23:18-19.
13Porter, "Notes" 23:21-22.
14 Ibid., pp. 21-22, 33; Jarvis, "Notes" 41 (1907):101; T. B. Thorpe, Our Army at Monterrey (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1847), pp. 294-95; Henry, Campaign Sketches, p. 110.


Map 3. The Mexican War, Taylor's Campaign, 1846-1847

early May was not limited to his own men. He ordered Mexican wounded who had been taken prisoner turned over to Mexican surgeons, some of whom were, in Jarvis' opinion, "very skillful surgeons and very agreeable men." On Taylor's orders Jarvis visited four or five of the hospitals that had been captured when the enemy retreated and concluded that "nothing could exceed the filth & stench of their hospitals from so many wounded crowded together and I felt happy when I had ended my visits." Most of the 300 to 400 patients he saw were suffering from the effects of grapeshot and round shot. "Many had both legs and arms completely torn off. I saw


one fellow keeping the flies off by means of a palmetto leaf in his mouth both arms having been torn off at the shoulder joints." He learned that Mexican surgeons had performed many amputations in the field and that some of the amputees had died of tetanus.15

For Taylor's medical staff, the difficulties were just beginning. New volunteer units started to arrive in May 1846, when U.S. troops were occupying the abandoned Matamoros. The rains were heavy and lasted into September, low-lying ground was flooded, "and the whole country saturated with water, [while] the exhalations from it were quickened by the heat of summer into persistent malaria." Mosquitoes were not the only creatures to pose a problem; a tarantula bit a volunteer surgeon and "the effect of the poison was immediate and alarming. So violent were his spasms, that the united strength of several men was required to confine him to his tent."16

Alcoholism was a problem in Mexico as in the United States. One patient at Matamoros had been thrown into the guardhouse while suffering from delirium tremens. While so disturbed, he borrowed a "thick, one-bladed pocket knife," and "completely excised the whole of the genital apparatus, close to the body. Flinging them violently into one corner of the room, he very heroically remarked- 'Any damned fool can cut his throat, but it takes a soldier to cut his privates off.' " The surgeon was able to stop the hemorrhage that followed this deed. The delirium tremens did not return, and the patient survived, sadder and perhaps even wiser.17

The diseases in northern Mexico tended to be mild, but the rate of sickness, relatively low in June, increased as the summer progressed, especially among the volunteers. Since almost 8,000 men were serving under Taylor by early June, it became necessary to erect another hospital building at Point Isabel and to open yet another facility at Fort Brown.18

The problems that Taylor's surgeons encountered as his force moved further into Mexico differed little in general outline. Volunteers appear to have invariably fallen ill in greater numbers than regulars, and disease was invariably a more dangerous foe than the enemy. Malaria caused much illness, scurvy appeared from time to time, and measles and mumps afflicted volunteer units, but dysentery and diarrhea caused more difficulties than any other ailment. General hospitals were established at various points through which the army passed: at Mier and Camargo, near the Rio Grande; then at Cerralvo, where at least one surgeon attempted with little success to treat the many sick Mexican children; and finally at Monterrey. At Matamoros, the department also established a hospital where doctors could isolate smallpox victims.19

General hospitals were located in tents or in whatever buildings were available, and because ceilings were often low, ven-

15First quote, Ltr, Jarvis to Heiskell (16 Nov 1847), RG 112, entry 12; remaining quotes, Ltr, Jarvis to Will (24 May 1846), in Jarvis Papers; see also Jarvis, "Notes" 41:102; Porter, "Notes" 23:21; and George Deas, "Reminiscences of the Campaign of the Rio Grande," Historical Magazine, 2d ser., 7 (1870):237.
16Quotes from Luther Giddings, Sketches of the Campaign in Northern Mexico ... (New York: George P. Putnam & Co., 1853), p. 40; Ltrs, Meade to Mrs. Meade (3 Jun 1846), in Meade, Life and Letters 1:97; W. W. T. Bliss to Craig (22 Jul 1846), in RG 112, entry 12.
17E. W. H. Beck, "Case of Excision of the Whole of the Genital Organs," Missouri Medical and Surgical Journal 3 (1847-48):160.
18Ltr, Bliss to Craig (22 Jul 1846), RG 112, entry 12.
19Surgeon's Quarterly Rpts, Mier (30 Sep 1847 and 31 Mar 1848) and Camargo (30 Sep 1846), all in RG 94, entry 634; S. Compton Smith, Chile con Carne, or the Camp and the Field (New York: Miller & Curtis, 1857), pp. 59, 65, 76-77.


tilation poor, and rooms crowded, disease could spread rapidly. Even in tents, where ventilation was not a problem, the death rate was sometimes high; one author estimated, for example, that 1,500 men died at Camargo. Many of these general hospitals appear to have remained open until the late spring of 1848, when U.S. troops finally began to leave Mexico.20

Taylor and his army reached Monterrey on 19 September 1846. After a five-day struggle, during which U.S. forces suffered 120 killed and 368 wounded, the defenders evacuated the city. For U.S. surgeons caring for troops on the field of battle, it was "all blood-blood-blood!" and "a dreadful sight.... Particularly where death [was] produced by artillery and the bursting of shells." Initially, only small tents or blankets on the ground were available for the wounded. Jarvis, and apparently some of his colleagues as well, were working in quarry pits, no more than five feet deep and wide, in which Jarvis had to stoop to avoid being injured himself. Once, when he had just completed one amputation and was preparing to do another, some soldiers fleeing a Mexican sally fell into the pit, on top of the wounded. Fortunately, the enemy did not spot Jarvis himself, and the surgeon was able to continue his labor.21

As soon as the city of Monterrey surrendered, wagons and litters began carrying the wounded into the city, where surgeons established general hospitals for each of three divisions. The 1st Division facility lay in the former home of a Mexican general, which was, unlike so many hospital sites, "a beautiful place, with delightful gardens, [and] plenty of water." The house itself was small, but outside, "upon terraces of stone, hundreds of earthen jars were ranged, in which flowering bulbs opened their limpid-looking petals, beside the double-leafed rose, and those things were reflected into a small stream that stole along in its artificial canal, until it noisily poured into a magnificent bath."22

Even in this idyllic setting, maggots were soon growing in wounds, which had to be reopened to eliminate the infestation. In many cases, a condition then diagnosed as erysipelas (but which may have been hospital gangrene, another form of streptococcal infection) developed two to three days after surgery, causing sloughing of the involved tissue and either killing its victims or necessitating further amputations. Malaria appeared among the hospitalized wounded, contributing to deaths and delaying convalescence, striking soldiers in camp and the civilian population of the town as well. Supplies of quinine gave out, and surgeons were forced to rely on useless substitutes. Blankets, bedding, and lint were in short supply. "Nostalgia" (homesickness) had "a powerful depressing influence" on many of the new troops and volunteers, prolonging their recovery.23

The shortage of physicians seemed particularly severe after the battle for Monterrey, when the wounded were added to the large number of sick already hospitalized. The strain on Army surgeons was

20Irey, "Soldiers," pp. 288-89.
21Quotes from Ltr, E. K. Chamberlain to S. C. West, in S. Compton Smith, Chile con Carne, p. 90; Jarvis, "Notes" 39:267-68.
22First quote, Porter, "Notes" 23:35; second quote, Thorpe, Monterrey, pp. 115-16; Jarvis, "Notes" 39:268.
23Quotes from Surgeon's Quarterly Rpt, Monterrey (30 Sep 1846), RG 94, entry 634; Ltrs, William W. Mackall (19 Oct 1846), in William W. Mackall, A Son's Recollections of His Father (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1930), p. 100; Craig to Lawson (21 Oct 1846) and Jarvis to Heiskell (10 Aug and 3 Oct 1847) and to Lawson (20 Feb 1848), all in Meade, Life and Letters 1:145; Porter, "Notes" 25:38-39; Payne "Camp Life in the Army of Occupation: Corpus Christi, July 1845 to March 1846." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 73 (1970):341.


great, but Lawson denied Taylor's request for more surgeons beyond the twenty already with his force. A soldier familiar with the work of the Medical Department staff commented, "Nothing can exceed the devotion of our medical officers; they are literally fatigued to death." Under the stress, one physician suffered a mental breakdown from which he never completely recovered.24

After 27 September, as the surgeons acquired the buildings necessary for division hospitals at Monterrey, more patients from regimental facilities began arriving, although it was not until 1 October that Jarvis believed the large hospitals were ready to accommodate them. When President Polk disapproved the armistice that Taylor had arranged after taking Monterrey, and the war resumed, Taylor sent his 2d Division south to take Saltillo, an important Mexican road junction. The 2d Division Hospital at Monterrey was broken up, and patients unable to march were sent to one of the other two division hospitals, which had been reorganized so that all volunteers would be in one, all regulars in the other.25

Supplies were scarce at Saltillo, which Taylor's men took without opposition. Surgeons set up another general hospital, but the senior surgeon was forced to buy some medicines locally, until the arrival of the 2,800 volunteers and 600 regulars of Brig. Gen. John E. Wool, who brought an ample supply of medicines with them from San Antonio, Texas. Wool and his men campednearby at Parras and became part of Taylor's force.26

Diarrhea, a mild form of malaria, and a life-threatening form of measles appeared among Wool's men before they left Texas. Caring for the sick were four department physicians and volunteer surgeons attached to individual units. Although Congress had provided for two physicians to accompany each volunteer regiment, even this ratio was not always achieved in practice; as a rule, for example, only one medical officer marched with the 1st Illinois Volunteer Regiment.27

The disease rate among Wool's men dropped after an early peak, and, since those unable to march were left behind in Texas at the San Antonio hospital, the departing force that started south in the fall of 1846 was, for the most part, healthy. One group of volunteers who had recently joined the force suffered greatly, however; a measles epidemic had left many weak; and the change in diet was causing much digestive distress among the men. The march, "under scorching sun, and over plains covered, in many places, to the depth of two or three feet with water," had "disastrous effects" upon them, including respiratory diseases and relapses from measles. For the remainder of Wool's forces, however, the simple diet and vigorous activity contributed to an improvement in health, despite such dangers as the

24Quote from Henry, Campaign Sketches, p. 226; Surgeon's Quarterly Rpt, Monterrey (31 Dec 1846), RG 94, entry 634; Giddings, Sketches, p. 84; Ltrs, Craig to Lawson (20 Oct 1846) and Finley to Lawson (14 Dec 1846), both in RG 112, entry 12; see also Ltrs relating to James A. Conrad (1847-53), RG 112, entry 2, vols. 18-21 and 23.
25Surgeon's Quarterly Rpts, Monterrey (31 Dec 1846 and 30 Jun 1848), both in RG 94, entry 634.
26Ltr, Porter to Lawson (2 Jan 1847) and Surgeon's Quarterly Rpt, Saltillo (31 Dec 1846), both in RG 94, entry 634.
27 Otto B. Engelman, ed. and trans. "The Second Illinois in the Mexican War .... Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 26 (1934):3 74; William B. Herrick, "Letters of 5 November 1846," Illinois and Indiana Medical and Surgical Journal, n.s., 1 (1846):510. Since Mexican War-era physicians could diagnose pneumonia, it is unlikely that the deaths blamed as measles actually resulted from this complication of the disease. It is probable that the virus then prevalent was more virulent than the present-day strain.


wounds from the sharp leaves of the palmetto soap plant that filled one of the valleys through which they marched. The effect of this particular plant was "so venemous [sic] that the wounds are hardly curable." The march even appeared to benefit those of the ill and convalescing who had joined their healthier comrades on the journey; a surgeon with a volunteer unit reported that these men recovered more quickly than those who stayed behind.28

Despite the healthful effects of the march, at Parras a measles epidemic of unusual severity soon confronted Wool's medical staff. By December the mortality rate was high; one of Wool's men recorded "It was very seldom a man recovered after he had fallen into an aggravated state of the disease, and we knew cases where men have lain down in the evening and in the morning have been found choked to death, from the measels [sic]."29

Fortunately, Wool's men had time to recover from the measles epidemic. The armistice had ended, but General Taylor's unit did not see action again until late February 1847. By this time Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott had arrived in Mexico to take command of the effort there, siphoning off most of Taylor's regulars and leaving him with a force that was largely volunteer. Scott ordered Taylor to evacuate Saltillo, where health problems were severe, and to take up a defensive posture at Monterrey, which was regarded as among the healthiest cities in Mexico. Taylor, acting as if he had been merely advised to abandon his offensive, instead advanced south of Saltillo. Finally, on 23 February, his forces met a much larger army under the Mexican general Santa Ana at Buena Vista. The U.S. victory there cost Taylor's troops 267 killed and 456 wounded, casualties that numbered about half those of the enemy's.30

Some members of Taylor's medical staff had been left behind to manage the hospitals behind the lines, but four Regular Army physicians in addition to those who had marched south with Wool were present at Buena Vista. Spent balls caused the few wounds experienced by U.S. soldiers in the initial skirmish on 22 February, and only two or three men died. The next day sur-

28Quotes from Jonathan W. Buhoup, Narrative of the Central Division (Pittsburgh: M. P. Morse, 1847), pp. 86, 228; W. B. Herrick, "Remarks Upon the Organization of the Medical Department of the Army, and Effects of Marching and a Camp Life in Producing and Modifying Disease," Illinois and Indiana Medical and Surgical Journal 4 (1847-48):227-29, 232.
29Buhoup, Narrative, p. 94.
30James K. Polk, The Diary of James K Polk .... ed. Milo Milton Quaife, 4 vols. (Chicago: McClurg, 1910), 2:476-80; Ltr, Porter to Lawson (3 Jan 1847), RG 112, entry 12; Rpt, John Trevitt (31 Dec 1847), RG 94, entry 634.


geons and the stewards assisting them placed themselves "at convenient points near their respective regiments, ready with a plentiful supply of instruments, ligatures, bandages, splints &c" in anticipation of battle and were soon immersed in their work.31

Many of the wounded were initially taken either to the nearby Ranchea Buena Vista or to the town cathedral. Wagons quickly removed the 400 to 500 U.S. and Mexican wounded originally sent to the cathedral to Saltillo, often with the aid of "a most gallant old gentleman," a civilian who, surprisingly, was "always found during the battle, where he could be of service."32

Although during the night after the battle all the wounded appear to have suffered greatly from cold, thirst, and hunger, those sent to the ranchea were particularly unfortunate. A volunteer surgeon working there noted that "those of the wounded still living, the dying and the dead [were] crowded together indescriminately [sic], ... presenting a melancholy picture of suffering and distress, not easily described, and never to be forgotten." A former patient there remarked that "the whole floor was covered with wounded. . . . The screams of agony from pain, the moans of the dying, the messages sent home by the despairing, the parting farewells of friends, the incoherent speech, the peculiar movements of the hands and fingers," all testified to the miseries of the wounded.33

The surviving patients from the ranchea were moved to the cathedral as soon as possible and then, several days later, were divided up among less crowded facilities, each of which could hold 50 to 100 men. Doctors attempted to have wounded volunteers from the same regiment housed together. Officers apparently had private quarters, but large numbers of enlisted men shared a common room. Mexican surgeons worked on their own wounded; at least half of their patients died, a fact a U.S. surgeon attributed to their "diet composed of saccharine, fatty, and other carbonaceous substances, and a life of idleness and dissipation."34

The battle of Buena Vista marked the end of active campaigning for the army under Zachary Taylor, although many of the men who had come to Mexico with him participated in operations conducted further south and directed at Mexico City. While Taylor and Wool were undertaking the conquest of northeastern Mexico, however, the Army of the West, under the command of Brig. Gen. Stephen Kearny, launched a second campaign, one aimed at the northwestern region that included the present-day states of New Mexico and California. In Kearny's force assembling at Fort Leavenworth in the spring of 1846 were a company of dragoons, as well as artillery and infantry units, and an 860-man regiment of mounted volunteers led by Col. Alexander Doniphan.35

31Quote from W. B. Herrick, "Surgery in the Hospitals After the Battle of Buena Vista," Illinois Medical and Surgical Journal 4 (1847-48):302; James Henry Carleton, Battle of Buena Vista ... (New York: Harper & Bros., 1848), pp. 139, 236.
32Quotes from Carleton, Buena Vista, p. 127; H. Montgomery, Life of Zachary Taylor (Auburn, N.Y.: J. C. Derby & Co., 1847), p. 349.
33First quote, Herrick, "Surgery in the Hospitals" 4:414-15; second quote, French, Two Wars, pp. 81-82.
34Herrick, "Surgery in the Hospitals" 4:414-15, quote from 418.
35George Rutledge Gibson, Journal of a Soldier Under Kearny and Doniphan, 1846-47, ed. Ralph P. Bieber (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1935. Reprint. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974), p. 125; William Hernsley Emory, Lieutenant Emory Reports, ed. Ross Calvin (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1951), p. 21; William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), p. 131.


The first leg of Kearny's journey from Fort Leavenworth was a 50-day, 900-mile ordeal through wilderness, desert, and mountains to Santa Fe, ending in mid-August. By early July, "many were sick, lame, and exhausted," often too exhausted to continue under their own power. Although the Mexicans presented no opposition to their progress, disease, privation, and stress soon incapacitated many and filled the wagons being used as ambulances. Inadequate diet led in some instances to scurvy, good water was often hard to find, and "the mosquitoes came out in clouds in the intense heat of the midday sun."36

Although it is difficult to be precise about the number of physicians with Kearny on the Fort Leavenworth-Santa Fe portion of his march, at least six accompanied him. The medical director and two assistant surgeons were Regular Army physicians. One of these doctors was John S. Griffin, who, having been replaced as post surgeon at Fort Leavenworth by a volunteer surgeon, accompanied Kearny the entire way to California. A doctor left at Bent's Fort, in what is now Colorado, with three invalids was apparently a volunteer. Two more surgeons may also have been volunteers; one of them early acquired a reputation as "both lazy and too ignorant to attend to the duties of his office."37

At Santa Fe, Kearny divided his force. Although he and 300 dragoons, a 14-man topographical team, and a few scouts continued westward, Colonel Doniphan and his Missouri volunteers initially remained in what would become New Mexico. They attempted to work at pacifying the Navajo Indians, but their ultimate goal was Chihuahua, about 200 miles into Mexico, where they were to join Wool. Although Doniphan's men were suffering from fevers and measles, after signing a treaty with the Navajo on 22 November and learning that the Mexicans were planning to defend El Paso, on the route to Chihuahua, the colonel decided to march south. Moving so rapidly that there was no time for him to receive additional supplies or reinforcements, Doniphan took El Paso at the end of December and then continued south. Word that Wool's plans had changed and that he would not be at Chihuahua did not deter Doniphan. Covering as many as 50 miles in one day through unfriendly terrain, enduring the effects of short rations and inadequate supplies of water, and threatened by snakes, scorpions, and grass fires, by February 1847 Doniphan and his men were approaching their goal. After defeating the Mexicans near Chihuahua, they camped at that town, awaiting further orders. On 21 May, only ten days before their terms of enlistment were up, orders arrived for them to join Wool at Saltillo.38

36Abraham Robinson Johnston, Marcellus Ball Edwards, and Philip Gooch Ferguson, Marching With the Army of the West, ed. Ralph P. Bieber (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1936. Reprint. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1974), pp. 142, 172-73, first quote, p. 83; Gibson, Journal, pp. 129, 133-34, 143, 152, 161, 249, second quote, pp. 133-34; Dwight Lancelot Clarke, Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), p. 130; Viola Lockhart Warren, "Dr. John S. Griffin's Mail, 1846-1853," California Historical Society Quarterly 33 (1954):97-98, 101.
37Johnston, Edwards, and Ferguson, Marching, p. 15, quote from p. 127; Gibson, Journal, p. 234; Warren, "Griffin" 33:97-98, 101.
38Irey, "Soldiers," pp. 292-93; R. Ernest Dupuy, The Compact History of the United States Army, new and rev. ed. (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1961), pp. 95-96; Alexander Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier: Alexander Majors, Memoirs of a Liletime on the Border, ed. Prentiss Ingraham (Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1965), p. 90; A. B. Bender, "Frontier Defense in the Territory of New Mexico, 1846-1853," New Mexico Historical Review 9 (1934):251-52; James A. Huston, The Sinews of War: Army Logistics, 1775-1953 (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1966), p. 146; Edward Everrett Dale, The Indians of the Southwest: A Century of Development Under the United States (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949), p. 47; Gibson, Journal, p. 276; Richardson, Journal, pp. 35, 37.


None of Doniphan's physicians was a Medical Department surgeon. One was an American civilian hired in Chihuahua, where the Mexicans had imprisoned him when war was declared. Although these doctors were probably unfamiliar with the demands of military medicine, they were called upon to care for a command with a sick rate that approached 33 percent and a high death rate as well. Their patients included many with measles, fevers, and diarrhea. After the engagement near Chihuahua, in which Doniphan lost five wounded and one killed, they cared not only for their own wounded, but for Mexican casualties as well. They performed a large number of amputations; a veteran of the battle noted that it was "a sight to see the pile of legs and arms that have been amputated."39

Both the men who remained at Sante Fe and the volunteers who came in after Kearny and Doniphan left were often sick, some from malaria acquired earlier, others from such diseases as tonsillitis, colds, measles, dysentery, typhus, and "a disease affecting the men something like mumps." The death rate could be five to eight in one day. Houses were converted into hospitals, but by the end of October 1846, when there were at least 2,700 men at Sante Fe with more still arriving, the hospitals were full. Supplies were running short because of the difficulties involved in predicting how many volunteers would come in, and there was confusion as to where these supplies should come from. The Regular Army physician who was in charge of the general hospital at Sante Fe, Samuel De Camp, fell ill himself. He recovered quickly, but even with the aid of three medical officers working directly under him, two of whom were Regular Army surgeons, and the physicians with the volunteers, De Camp was unable to stem the tide of illness among the volunteers. On 10 November, six men died, and the next day five more, several from measles. As the weather turned colder and the wind rose, not all the volunteers could find adequate shelter. One noted, "A great mortality prevails among the troops who are dying from exposure and disease."40

Through the winter until early February 1847, the men remaining at Santa Fe were occupied principally with subduing Indian and Mexican rebels. The health of the command remained poor; even in mid-April, pneumonia and other respiratory ailments as well as severe cases of fever confronted medical officers there. The supply of medicines was limited through much of the spring, and attempts to improve the health of the command were often frustrated. Many of the men preferred bread and meat to vegetables and fruits, and De Camp maintained that a "vegetable diet [was] almost unknown in New Mexico." By the time scurvy appeared among the men, many of the Missouri volunteers were already sick, having been in poor health when they started their journey to New Mexico, where they hoped to improve or even regain their health through the change in climate. As a result, by the time they reached Santa Fe, some men were in no condition to work. According to De Camp, "Many of them have not done one day's

39Richardson, Journal, pp. 35, 37, quote from p. 63; Irey, "Soldiers," pp. 292-93; Adolphus Wislizenus, Memoir qf a Tour to Northern Mexico (Albuquerque, N. Mex.: Calvin Horn, 1858); Ltr, James Shields to Lawson (28 Jan 1949), RG 112, entry 12.
40Gibson, Journal, pp. 271, 271n, first quote, p. 244; Richardson, Journal, p. 13, second quote, p. 37; Ltr, De Camp to Lawson (21 Oct 1846), RG 112, entry 12; Surgeon's Quarterly Rpt, Army of the West (31 Dec 1846), RG 94, entry 634.


SAMUEL DE CAMP. (Courtesy of National Library of Medicine.)

duty since they left Missouri." He urged that volunteers be given physical examinations before being sworn into the Army, so that the unfit would never be in a position to receive pay. Noting, however, that the men from Missouri, unlike many of the other soldiers at Santa Fe, were accustomed to a vegetable diet, he urged that seeds be sent to him so he could plant a garden for their benefit. Whether he ever received his seeds is not known, but, if planted, the garden could not have been very successful; in March 1848, 79 men in a command of fewer than 250 volunteers were reported to have suffered from scurvy in the preceding quarter.41

One further venture into Mexico took place from Santa Fe in the spring of 1848, when the officer commanding in New Mexico led approximately 1,100 regulars and volunteers accompanied by two surgeons toward Chihuahua. In mid-March and after the actual signing of the peace treaty, they encountered a Mexican force at Santa Cruz. The U.S. triumph left three of the victors dead and nineteen wounded. Chihuahua was reoccupied, but disease proved to be a devastating enemy; few were spared at least one episode of diarrhea, dysentery, respiratory infection, scurvy, or a venereal disease in the first quarter of 1848, before returning to Santa Fe.42

Kearny himself left Santa Fe for San Diego late in September 1846 with a force of mounted troops. Learning two weeks later that the U.S. Navy's Pacific squadron had already secured the principal California ports, he sent 200 dragoons and a surgeon back to Santa Fe, and with the two remaining companies of dragoons continued his westward journey. The two Regular Army surgeons who were with him apparently drew straws to determine who would return to Santa Fe, and Griffin won the right to continue on with Kearny.43

On 6 December, when Kearny's men were but thirty-nine miles from San Diego and both mules and riders were exhausted, a force of Californians attacked them at San Pasqual. Although he was now the only surgeon with the unit, Griffin was eager to share in the action. Aware that Kearny would not permit him to do so, he attempted to sneak forward unseen by his commander. When four of the enemy spot-

41Quotes from Ltr, De Camp to Lawson (14 Apr 1847), RG 112, entry 12; Ltr, Heiskell to Lawson (12 Mar 1847), RG 112, entry 2, 17:266; Surgeon's Quarterly Rpts, Army of the West (31 Mar 1847 and 31 Mar 1848), both in RG 94, entry 634.
42Surgeon's Quarterly Rpt, Army of the West (31 Mar 1848), RG 94, entry 634.
43Warren, "Griffin" 33:98; Goetzmann, Exploration, p. 134.


ted him, Griffin tried to fire his double barreled shotgun at them, but since the weapon was wet, it would not discharge. He was forced to flee to gain the protection of the dragoons. Although Griffin escaped injury, the battle of San Pasqual left eighteen U.S. dragoons dead and nineteen wounded. Among the injured was Kearny himself, who suffered two painful wounds.44

After the battle, Griffin worked late into the night caring for the wounded. The devices dubbed ambulances that soldiers prepared for his patients appear actually to have been merely buffalo-hide travois fastened between willow poles, each dragged behind a mule. When the expedition took to the road the next day, the wounded in the middle of the group for protection, "the ambulances grated on the ground, and the sufferings of the wounded were very distressing." Kearny himself was able to ride and was thus spared this agony. On the second day after the battle, one of the wounded died, and the rest were in no condition to progress farther. Kearny sent three men ahead to San Diego for help. He ordered that the dead man, "a gallant fellow, who had, just before leaving Fort Leavenworth, married a pretty wife," be buried deep in the ground and his grave covered with heavy stones so that wolves would not dig up the body. The survivors of Kearny's force then settled down to wait until the wounded were well enough to ride; Kearny believed that slow-moving wagons required a heavier guard than he could provide. On 10 December, shortly after Griffin had concluded that all but two of the injured were able to ride, a rescue party of 100 sailors and 80 marines rode in from San Diego to escort them to safety. The wounded entered a Navy hospital; while they were there, someone stole their blankets, presumably the first of the many thefts of this type to plague the Army's sick in California.45

Kearny's supply train came west to California from Santa Fe by a more southern route than the general had taken. Guarded by a volunteer battalion of Mormons commanded by Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, the wagon train and the surgeon assigned to the entire force, a volunteer given to overdosing his patients with calomel, arrived in San Diego at the end of January 1847. The battalion remained a short time for recuperation and drill at the California mission at San Luis Rey, just north of San Diego, before being broken up into companies and sent to San Diego and Los Angeles, which had been peacefully surrendered on 10 January. The surgeon with Cooke's force appears to have remained with them at San Luis Rey and then been reassigned to Los Angeles, while Griffin remained for several months at San Diego.46

Surgeon General Lawson announced early in December 1846 that the medical needs of the units newly arrived in California could be supplied better from St. Louis than New York. The Medical Department also shipped some supplies with transports taking troops to California by

44Warren, "Griffin" 33:102; Emory, Reports, p. 168; J. M. H. Hollingsworth, "Journal," California Historical Society Quarterly 1 (1923):240.
45Emory, Reports, pp. 168, 172-74, quotes from pp. 171, 173; Viola Lockhart Warren, Dragoons on Trial: Los Angeles (Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1965), p. 2; Arthur Woodward, Lances at San Pascual (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1948), p. 39.
46Warren, "Griffin" 33:106-08, 110-11; A. B. Bender, "Government Explorations in the Territory of New Mexico, 1846-1859," New Mexico Historical Review 9 (1934):4-5; Emory, Reports, pp. 182, 188; Frances E. Quebbeman, Medicine in Territorial Arizona (Phoenix: Arizona Historical Association, 1966), p. 29.


ROBERT MURRAY. (Courtesy of National Library of Medicine.)

sea. Griffin, the first Regular Army surgeon to arrive in California, served as a medical purveyor, receiving the supplies and then distributing them to both volunteer and Regular Army physicians. He does not appear, however, to have been as methodical as Lawson would have wished; Lawson was repeatedly irritated by Griffin's failure to file his reports on time. Moreover, when the surgeon received orders late in the spring of 1847 to report for duty to Los Angeles, he forgot to bring his medical records with him. He also appears to have forgotten to lock up the supplies he left behind for his successor, and, as a result, they were stolen. Unlucky when it came to theft, in November 1847 Griffin reported that a volunteer hospital steward had been stealing his more expensive medicines, including morphine.47

By the time Griffin was ordered to Los Angeles, significant resistance had come to an end in California, and Army surgeons were able to settle down into a peacetime routine. Ships brought volunteers around Cape Horn to the newly acquired territory; on one such vessel was assistant surgeon Robert Murray, who would become surgeon general in 1883. Like the other surgeons in California, he was soon involved in treating the victims of accidents and Indians, diarrhea and typhoid. He may, like Griffin, have even treated soldiers newly landed from the six-month voyage around Cape Horn who were suffering from scurvy.48


Surgeons who, like Griffin, served in the northern provinces of Mexico, faced familiar diseases of a kind to be found at many of the forts in the West. Nevertheless, because there were so few doctors in proportion to the number of sick and wounded, the strain upon these medical officers was great. Their principal difficulties involved caring for relatively large numbers of troops on the move and in finding adequate shelter for those of the sick and wounded who were unable to march with their comrades. The setting for the Medical Department's greatest challenge, however, lay to the south.

47Warren, "Griffin" 33:118, 120-21, 258; Ltrs, Lawson to AG (8 Dec 1846) and Heiskell to King (2 Aug 1847), both in RG 112, entry 2, 17:95 and 591, respectively; George Sanderson to Griffin (8 Apr 1847) and Griffin to Lawson (1 Jun 1847), both in Warren, "Griffin" 33:112, 118, respectively; Griffin to Lawson (22 Nov 1847), RG 112, entry 12.
48Warren, "Griffin" 33:252-53, 258-59, 267.