|The Churubusco Convent|
The terror, pandemonium, noise, and ever-present likelihood of horrific injuries or death are the constant companions of artillerymen under fire. Whether the gunners stood by their howitzers with Stephen Lee on the Dunker Church plateau or with Joseph Clark’s rifled guns on the ridge west of the Burnside Bridge, the artillerymen have to take it. William Graham’s Light Company K, First Artillery made a similar stand at the Sunken Road. They too had to stand and take it.
One of the most vivid descriptions of artillerymen under fire that I have found, comes not from the Civil War, but from the Mexican War. Fifteen years earlier in August of 1847, Light Company K was under a similar ferocious fire at the Battle of Churubusco, one of the bloodiest battles of the Mexican War. At Churubusco, it was a different captain, different lieutenants and different enlisted men but the end result was the same. The men stood by their guns. There was no place to go. They too had to stand and take it.
We have vivid first-hand accounts of this bloody fight from James Martin and Edward Boynton, two lieutenants who served with the battery at Churubusco. Their stories are found in William Haskin’s epic regimental history, The First Regiment of Artillery
, [Portland Maine: B. Thurston and Company, 1879].
James G. Martin was born at Elizabeth City North Carolina on February 14, 1819. He graduated from West Point in 1840 with William Tecumseh Sherman and George Thomas. In July of 1846, Martin, now 27, joined Company K which was then assigned to Zachary Taylor’s army. Martin’s first battle was at Monterey on September 21, 1846. In February 1847, he moved with Light Company K to join Winfield Scott’s army at Vera Cruz.
Edward Boynton was born on February 1, 1824 at Windsor Vermont. He entered West Point in 1841, the year after Martin graduated. Boynton graduated in 1846 and was immediately sent to Mexico as a brevet second lieutenant in Light Company A, Second Artillery. He served in that unit with Lieutenants Henry Hunt and William Hays, future artillery commanders of the Army of the Potomac. In April 1847, Boynton fought with Company A at Cerro Gordo. In July of 1847, he was promoted to second lieutenant and reassigned to Light Company K. Boynton was 23 years old.
The Officers of Light Company K
Edward Boynton paints an interesting image of the officers of the Light Company K:
[Captain Francis Taylor (USMA 1825) age 42 from Virginia] “lived and died a devoted Episcopalian. He was a strict disciplinarian and a thorough paper officer He delighted in frequent drills and long ones, but he was not an artillery student and not a modern soldier in his ideas. Like many of the older officers of that day he belonged to the leather-stock epoch, but he was a genial companion and a very agreeable commanding officer.”
[First Lieutenant William Mackall (USMA 1837) age 31 from Maryland] “was a quiet officer but possessed of enthusiasm and dash when the occasion required it. He soon accepted an appointment as an assistant adjutant general and was succeeded by Lieutenant [William] French (USMA 1837 from Maryland] age 32] who as a battery officer, was a soldier and a superior one.”
[First Lieutenant James G. Martin (USMA 1840) age 27 from North Carolina] “was like Taylor, devoutly pious, and did his duty because it was his duty and did it thoroughly.”
[Second Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson (USMA 1846) age 23 from Virginia] “both as my cadet classmate and as an associate officer, was a pious, hard-working, plodding, perspiring, and very eccentric man. There was not a trait about him which indicated future greatness, and to his religious fanaticism more than to anything else must be attributed the enthusiasm with which inspired his followers in after days which have embalmed his memory in the hearts of the southern people. He possessed great reserve of endurance, perseverance, and patience-qualities which enabled him to wield despotic influence over his men. Tall and awkward, stiff and ungraceful in deportment, he was a perfect stranger to pleasure, recreations, and humorous enjoyment of any kind or description. Nervous in manner, quick and jerky in speech, his constant repetition of ‘very good, very good’ words also repeated by him on his death-bed-was equivalent to the phrase most of us employ when we say, ‘all right; go ahead’.”
Both Mackall and Jackson transferred out of Light Company K before the Battle of Churubusco.
The Battle of Churubusco was the second action fought on August 20, 1847. In the early morning hours, American forces surprised and routed a Mexican column at the village of Padierna (Contreras) sending it flying back toward the gates of Mexico City. American forces led by General David Twiggs followed in reckless, headlong pursuit. Failing to thoroughly recon the path ahead, the Americans did not appreciate the formidable strength of the next Mexican position at Churubusco and the absolute determination of the Mexicans, who included American deserters of the San Patricio battalion, to hold there. Twigg’s didn’t give his engineers who included Isaac Stevens, Gustavus Smith and George McClellan the time to adequately scout the way ahead. The men of Light Company K paid dearly for this neglect.
Company K’s approach to Churubusco
We now follow the accounts of Edward Boynton and James Martin.
[Edward Boynton:] “By 2 o’clock [p.m. August 20] our division was formed afresh and, with the rifle regiment leading, followed by battery K, the whole command moved out straight for the city. The road was smooth, bordered by aloes or cultivated field, and a short march brought us to San Angel. A few shots here from flying stragglers brought us to a halt, while a party was sent by General Twiggs to "brush em away." … the company of engineers was sent on ahead down the road to aid in hunting up the cause of the mischief. We did not know of any force at a stand between us and the city [Mexico City] which was distant only two or 3 miles from where we were then halted. Very soon Lieutenant [Isaac] Stevens of the engineers, who had accompanied the company of engineers down the road in front, returned on foot, and in my presence reported to Gen. Smith, “there is a barricade across the road in front of us mounting one gun
.“ Thereupon the First Artillery [fighting as infantry] next behind our battery was ordered to the left to move parallel with the road and flank the barricade, at the same time we were ordered to move on straight down the road.
The Formidable Mexican Position
[James Martin]: “Capt. Taylor was ordered to go with some engineer officer - I think Lieut. Stevens - to put his battery in position against the enemy's batteries. Capt. Taylor made no examination of the position which was designated by the engineer officer, nor of the battery he was to oppose, but galloped up into a wheat field in the outskirts of the village, came into battery and commenced firing, before I, or any other officer of the battery, knew what we were to fire at. To my utter amazement I found we were opposed to a stone wall pierced for artillery, with guns in position of much heavier caliber than ours, behind which wall was a stone church loopholed for infantry. The church and steeple were filled with sharpshooters, not more than two hundred and fifty yards away.
[Edward Boynton]: “We were in front of a large stone church only 200 yards distant, with a regular bastioned and curtained field work in front mounting seven guns one of which, mounted en barbette
in front the enemy's left bastion, made up that "one gun" which raked the road by which we advanced. The church top, the inside, and the scaffoldings around the building were alive with infantry and a heavy force crouched in the field work… We were so near that we could see the enemy draw rammer and bite the cartridge. “By section, right wheel
, “brought us into an open barley field on our right, the growth being three or 4 inches high. “In battery
“followed. We fired very rapidly, but of course with little or no effect, while their fire on us was destructive.
Lieutenant Martin Wounded
[James Martin]: “The night of the 19th had been decidedly cold, and, though the sun had risen bright and warm, I had not taken off my overcoat when we reached Churubusco, and still had it on when I was wounded… I cannot say how long we were in this position before I was struck on the right arm, midway between the elbow and shoulder, with a grape-shot, as I sat on my horse between my two guns. I galloped at once to Capt. Taylor to report my condition and left the field a few hundred yards to a sheltered spot, where a regiment of infantry had been placed as a guard to our battery. Here I was assisted to dismount by an officer whose name, I regret to say, I cannot now recall, and immediately fainted. As I left the battery and before reaching the infantry, I met Boynton on foot going toward the battery, he having been left to make some disposition of the caissons, and then to join the battery. I was wounded about noon, and it was not till about sunset that my arm was amputated.”
Private Andrew Walker’s horrific injury
[Edward Boynton]: “Martin lost his right arm at the outset. He rode to the rear pale and faint, but otherwise making no sign. I took command of his section. For one hour and twenty minutes we stood that heavy artillery and infantry fire before anybody had sense enough to order us away; Seventeen horses and twenty-two men made up the loss, but the surprise of those who did not know that so many of the enemy's shot passed over us was great to find that any of us had escaped. The barley field was soft from recent plowing and the rain of the night before, and French ordered me to fire grape shot at the infantry on the top of the church. In doing this the recoil of the guns sent the end of the trail down deep in the earth so that the guns fired over the church-too high. As the men who sought to depress the gun did not succeed, I dismounted and endeavored to work the elevating screw myself. I was at the left piece of the left section. The men cheered and worked lively, and as the gun on my right was discharged, Patrick Walker, "number one" at my piece, had his attention diverted and hearing the report behind him sprang in to insert his sponge, thinking it was his own gun just discharged. At this instant "number 3" at my piece fired, and the sponge and Walker's two hands were blown away by the discharge.”
Lieutenant Boynton Wounded
[Edward Boynton]: “While I was yet endeavoring to depress the muzzle of the gun, a heavy musket ball entered my right thigh and I fell backward. Upon attempting to rise I found I had no control over the right leg. Looking about me, Taylor and French were in their places, the former motionless and fixed in his saddle. I called out that I was down, to which Taylor replied, "take care of yourself if you can." Turning over on my hands and knees I found I could go on all fours, and in that way, I paddled to the rear. A ditch of water in lieu of a fence encircled the field on three sides, and the shot covered me with dirt and splinters of the maguey plant as I sought to cross the ditch. An overhanging tree gave me a chance to swing myself over, and as I did so I saw First Serg't Martin in the water, almost submerged, and suffering from the loss of his leg. Assuring him of assistance I crawled on until I encountered a deserted adobe ranch and sheltered by its walls, I awaited the lessening of the fire. Three men from the 3d infantry soon came up and I sent them after Serg't Martin.”
Martin’s and Boynton’s words evoke powerful images - Lieutenant Martin himself, pale and faint, the sleeve of his wrecked arm in his teeth, struggling to stay on his horse as he canters to the rear; the screams of Private Walker as he looks in horror at the stumps of his two mangled hands, Lieutenant Boynton with a terrible wound to the thigh, on hands and knees, “paddling to the rear;” and First Sergeant Martin nearly submerged in a ditch minus a leg waiting rescue.
Artillery fights are gruesome affairs. At Churubusco, Light Company K hurried forward with inadequate intelligence and little idea of what to expect. Told by Lieutenant Isaac Stevens to expect just one gun ahead, they found instead a veritable fortress of artillery and infantry hunkered down in a stone walled convent. Mostly impervious to the light artillery rounds fired by Company K, the Mexican defenders including the fanatical San Patricios inflicted horrible casualties on the gunner of company K. Captain Taylor claims in his report that his gunners were able to clear the walls and roofs of enemy sharpshooters. However, the shot of his six-pound guns and twelve-pound howitzers never pierced the solid walls of the convent. It would take infantry to root out the defenders and capture the building. The men and officers stood gamely at their pieces exposed in a barley field, before, as Lieutenant Boynton said, “anybody had sense enough to order us away.” The casualty count tells the story. Two privates were killed, and two officers (Lieutenants Martin and Boynton), two sergeants, one corporal and 17 men were wounded. 14 horses were killed, and several others wounded. Among the officers, only Captain Taylor and Lieutenant French escaped injury.
The artillery drill is a complex, technical process. That is why the officers and sergeants of the artillery constantly drilled their gun platoons. On the battlefield, the gunners have to recall the drill thoroughly and remain totally focused above the deafening roar of the battle. The adrenalin was pumping. Private Walker “had his attention diverted” and thought his own gun had fired. That he couldn’t differentiate that it wasn’t his gun that fired, attests to the deafening noise of the battlefield surrounding him. Firmly gripping the sponge, Walker rammed it down the barrel as the gunner behind him pulled the lanyard. The discharge of the gun shattered the Walker’s hands and sent the broken sponge fragments flying down range. On the deadly realm of the battlefield, taking his eye off the ball for just a moment crippled the young Irishman for life. Miraculously he survived. Captain Taylor, like all good artillery officers “delighted in frequent drills and long ones.” It is easier to understand why.
After recovering, Boynton went to West Point as a chemistry instructor. He resigned from the army in 1856 and earned an advanced degree in chemistry from Brown University. Following that, he became a professor at the University of Mississippi. Boynton, a Vermonter, was fired from his position in 1861 for "evincing a want of attachment to the Government of the Confederate States." When dismissed, he was not allowed to return north until he promised on his honor, that he would not take active service in the field. Boynton declined volunteer appointments as colonel of both the 2nd and 6th Vermont Infantry Regiments feeling this would violate his oath. Instead he accepted a reappointment in the regular army as a captain in the 11th US Infantry Regiment and returned to West Point spending the war years as quartermaster of the Academy and later as the adjutant. He resigned from the Army in 1872. Boynton became the superintendent of the Newburgh Water Works in New York and authored a history of West Point and several papers on chemistry. He died in 1893.
Martin earned the sobriquet “old one wing” from his wounding in Mexico. He remained in Mexico until November 1847 when his wound was sufficiently healed to travel. Martin had been promoted to a captaincy in the quartermaster’s department before he was wounded. He served on quartermaster duty at Fort Monroe and other locations until June of 1861 when he resigned from the U.S. Army after North Carolina seceded. Martin was appointed a brigadier general in the North Carolina militia and was instrumental in outfitting the newly forming regiments as they mustered in. He later was appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and held brigade or district level commands, mostly in the Department of North Carolina. He was among the last Confederate officers to surrender. Martin was penniless at the end of the war. He studied law and opened a practice in Asheville where he died on October 4, 1878. D.H. Hill once said of his fellow North Carolinian "The man [James Green Martin] thus trusted was a one-armed veteran of the Mexican war, a rigid disciplinarian, thoroughly trained in office work, and not only systematic but original in his plans. The State has never fully appreciated, perhaps never known, the importance of the work done for it by this undemonstrative, thoroughly efficient officer."
William Graham was 13 years old in 1847 when Captain Taylor took his battery into action at Churubusco. Like Taylor, Graham’s men 15 years later, inflicted severe damage on enemy infantry in the Sunken Road and rebel artillery in Piper’s peach orchard. The Federals in turn endured the galling and deadly fire of Confederate rifled artillery on the Reel Ridge that was out of range of their Napoleons. General Israel Richardson was among Graham’s guns when he was mangled by a shell fragment and fell mortally wounded. Graham reported that his officers and men fought superbly. His losses of four men killed, five severely wounded, 17 horses killed, and 6 horses wounded were severe. Like their forefathers at Churubusco, the new generation of gunners at Antietam had to stand and take it.
Only one Light Company K veteran of Churubusco was anywhere near the Sunken Road of Antietam, fifteen years later. That officer described by Lieutenant Boynton in Mexico “as a battery officer…a soldier and a superior one, was William French. In 1853 French was promoted to captain and commanded Light Company K for 8 years. At the beginning of the Civil War, he was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers. French commanded an infantry brigade on the Peninsula and now led an infantry division of the Second Corps at Antietam. One wonders if he had a moment in the Sunken Road to think about his old command just a few yards east of him and his own day under fire at Churubusco so many years ago.
Number four usually fires the piece. Possibly the gun was shorthanded and number three was doing double duty. Patrick Walker was born at Westmeath Ireland in 1820. After immigrating to the United States, he enlisted on December 3, 1846 at Boston Massachusetts. Miraculously Walker survived his terrible injury and was discharged with a pension on October 27, 1847. Source: Record Group 94, National Archives; Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, compiled 1798 - 1914