Oh the Irony

Published:May 14, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

If my math is correct, then yesterday was the one hundred sixty-second anniversary of the start of the Mexican War. Not that this sort of anniversary requires a parade or anything, but it brought to mind a paragraph from James McPherson’s Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom, in which he notes “the marksmanship and élan” of the American forces.

“Yet the competence of these men foreshadowed the ultimate irony of the Mexican War,” McPherson continues, “for many of the best of them would fight against each other in the next war. Serving together on [Virginia-native Winfield] Scott’s staff were two bright lieutenants, Pierre G. T. Beauregard and George B. McClellan. Captain Robert E. Lee’s daring reconnaissances behind Mexican lines prepared the way for two crucial American victories. In one of this reports Captain Lee commended Lieutenant Grant. The latter received official thanks for his role in the attack on Mexico City; these thanks were conveyed to him by Lieutenant John Pemberton, who sixteen years later would surrender to Grant at Vicksburg. Lieutenants James Longstreet and Winfield Scott Hancock fought side by side in the battle Churubusco; sixteen years later Longstreet commanded the attack against Hancock’s corps at Cemetery Ridge, an attack led by [Richmonder and friend of Lincoln?] George Pickett, who doubtless recalled the day that he picked up the colors of the 8th Infantry in its assault on Chapultepec when Lieutenant Longstreet fell wounded while carrying these colors. Albert Sidney Johnston and Joseph Hooker fought together at Monterrey; Colonel Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi volunteers broke a Mexican charge at Buena Vista while artillery officers George H. Thomas and Braxton Bragg fought alongside each other in this battle with the same spirit they would fight against each other as army commanders at a ridge a thousand miles away in Tennessee. Lee, [Farmville native] Joseph E. Johnston, and George Gordon Meade served as Scott’s engineer officers at the siege of Vera Cruz, while offshore in the American fleet Lieutenant Raphael Semmes shared a cabin with Lieutenant John Winslow, whose U.S.S. Kearsarge would sink Semmes’s C.S.S. Alabama seventeen years later and five thousand miles away.”

McPherson doesn’t mention another irony: George Henry Thomas, who would later be regarded as one of the Union’s best generals behind only Grant and Sherman, and who would be nicknamed the Rock of Chickamauga after his stand against Braxton Bragg, was actually a Virginian, a native of Newsome’s Depot in Southampton County. He and his family were slave owners who fled to the woods during Nat Turner’s rampage.

Oh the irony.