Fessenden & Hyde
Franklin Pierce wrote of his journey through the countryside
to join the command of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott's American army, "[We]
were enveloped in driving clouds as we wound round the mountain until
we reached a short turn, where there is a table land of small extent,
at which point, the sun breaking through the mist and the clouds rolling
partially away toward the Southeast, such a scene was revealed to our
vision, hitherto hemmed in by a narrow precipitous road and dense fog,
as I do not even hope ever again to witness
On the left, rising above
the dark precipitous mountains by the base of which we passed, was visible
so much of Orisaba as is covered with eternal snow. On the right and a
few miles distant the finest cascade probably in this land of mountains.
It looked, in the sunlight, with a rough somber background, like a silver
thread dropped down a perpendicular descent of more than two hundred feet.
Beyond, lay the Ocean in plain full view, upon it, we all cast a longing
It was probably the most beautiful countryside a soldier
could witness as he campaigned in a distant land. This was Mexico and
the year was 1847. Pierce, Bowdoin class of 1824, was leading a brigade
of reinforcements to join the rest of the hard-fought American army awaiting
them at Puebla, a mere seventy-five miles from their objective, which
was the capital of Mexico City.
Pierce was no soldier. He was a politician but this little
war fought, as most New Englanders contended, for the illegal annexation
of another nation's land and to feed the already threatening institution
of slavery, was an opportunity for Mr. Pierce to put another feather in
his career cap. And thus, with his political connections, he had acquired
the rank of brigadier general. Afraid that he would be too late to join
the army before the War was won, he relaxed as he marched into Puebla
on August 6 to find Scott's army still there.
Pierce's reinforcements gave Scott a total fighting force
of 14,000 men. With this small army, Scott intended to fight a Mexican
force three times his size under the dictator Antonio López de
Santa Anna and win the War. Criticism from across the sea said that it
was an impossibility. The Duke of Wellington, that grand old British soldier
who had defeated Emperor Napoleon on the fields of Waterloo uttered, "Scott
is lost- he cannot capture the city and he cannot fall back on his base."
But Scott was a soldier, and he did not care for what others
thought. Within a few hours of receiving Pierce's men, he moved. Years
later while the troops who served under Scott were killing each other
on the fields of the American Civil War, many of them would remember his
tactics and try to reproduce them.
Scott's next objective was to take Mexico City but that
was to be no easy task. Santa Anna was there with thousands of troops
and hundreds of guns. The population was hostile and the city itself was
ringed with natural obstacles that could only spell doom for an invading
army. But this was no ordinary army, for Scott had with him some of the
best minds that the Military Academy at West Point had produced.
With these engineers, Scott found away around most of the
natural obstacles and placed his army to the southwest of the city. Crossing
a lava field known as the Pedregal, Scott's troops isolated a Mexican
command under General Gabriel Valencia at a place called Contreras. Here
would begin a series of running battles outside the walls of Mexico City.
Pierce's command was part of the action against Contreras.
While riding among the men, however, his horse was stunned by an artillery
shell. Pierce was thrown forward, injuring his pelvis. In pain, he fainted
just as his horse collapsed. When the senior officer in the brigade was
called to take command, he asked what had happened. Someone yelled out,
"Take command of the brigade, General Pierce is a damned coward!"
The reputation stuck.
Pierce's knee had been wrenched and his horse had a broken
leg. When ordered to remain behind due to his injuries Pierce begged Scott
to let him go forward with his troops. This was the battle of Churubusco,
another fight in which the Americans were victorious in driving the Mexican
army back against Mexico City's defenses. In this fight, however, Pierce
fainted again from the pain of his injuries. His reputation was not helped
by this, nor was it furthered by an armistice, which Pierce helped to
negotiate after the battle.
This armistice was not long lasting. It had been a ploy
for Santa Anna to beef up his defenses. Scott finally dissolved the armistice
and moved again, this time for the city itself. The battles of Molino
del Rey and Chapultepec were fought and Pierce's brigade took part in
most of the action.
The problem was Pierce himself was not there to lead his
troops. At Molino del Rey, he had been too late to be of any importance
and at Chapultepec, he had been down with diarrhea. When he was finally
ready to get back into action, it was too late for Mexico City had already
And thus ended the military career of Franklin Pierce. He
had gone to war hoping that it would enhance his reputation, but instead
it had worked against him and rumors that he was a coward were spreading
The other Mexican War veterans, in the mean time, were given
heroes' welcomes. In Charleston, South Carolina, Generals Quitman (an
unfortunate name for any soldier) and Shields were greeted by five thousand
militia troops. Witnessing this spectacle of Southern power was a very
young Thomas Worchester Hyde. Years later, he would remember the event
and claim that President Lincoln's initial call for seventy-five thousand
volunteers to suppress a state of rebellion in the South was inadequet
to the task. Hyde, still young enough to be considered a boy at that point,
After lying low for a while, Franklin Pierce was suddenly
nominated by his peers for the office of the President of the United States
in the election 1852. Two years later William Pitt Fessenden would be
nominated by another political party to help combat the extension of slavery
and fight the Democratic administration of Franklin Pierce.
Next Week: President Pierce and Senator Fessenden.
Some editing (by the Orient staff) may have occurred before this piece was published. To view a full version of the entire series (including source citations) please visit my website. (This site includes the Chamberlain and Howard Series and is updated weekly during the school year) at: http://www.bowdoin.edu/~kwongsri
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