The United States declared war on Mexico 13 May 1846, in a dispute over the border between the two nations. Texas, formerly a part of Mexico, claimed that its southwest boundary extended to the Rio Grande. Mexico claimed the boundary was the Nueces River, which was 100 miles eastward.
Kentucky’s Role in the Mexican-American War
Governor William Owsley issued the call for volunteers for Federal Service two days prior to the War Department’s nationwide call. The call was for two Foot and one Mounted Regiment.
Within days Kentucky formed the First Regiment, Kentucky Foot Volunteers, from the Louisville Legion Battalion area. The Bluegrass Region furnished the Second Regiment, Kentucky Foot Volunteers and the First Mounted Regiment, Kentucky Volunteers.
The First Foot mustered 17 May 1846, commanded by Colonel Stephen Ormsby. On 9 June 1846, the Second Foot commanded by Colonel William McKee, and First Mounted, commanded by Humphrey Marshall, were mustered into Federal service.
They fought the Battle of Monterey on 19-24 September 1846. Major General Zachary Taylor, wrote in his campaign report of 22 September to the Adjutant General of the Army in Washington, “… I moved forward the volunteer division under Major-General Butler to its support, leaving one battalion (1st Kentucky) to cover the mortar battery.” Back home the press denigrated the Regiment for not “honorably engaging the enemy.”
The First Foot and First Mounted were assigned to General Zachary Taylor’s army in the northern part of Mexico. Both regiments were instrumental in the American victory at the Battle of Buena Vista on 22-23 February 1847.
On 6 March 1847, Major General Zachary Taylor in his after-action report to the Secretary of War, wrote “In this last conflict we had the misfortune to sustain a very heavy loss. Colonel Hardin, First Illinois, and Colonel McKee and Lieutenant-colonel Clay (the son of Henry Clay), Second Kentucky regiment, fell while gallantly leading their commands.”
The after-action report is peppered with complimentary remarks about Brigadier-General Marshall and McKee. Being a Kentucky resident, General Taylor was always proud of the accomplishments of the Kentucky troops.
Burying Fallen Soldiers in the Frankfort Cemetery
Most of the seventy-three Kentuckians killed in the battle were returned to the Frankfort Cemetery and reburied with much pomp and ceremony. Mexican War veteran Theodore O’Hara wrote the famous poem “The Bivouac of the Dead” for this occasion.
Captain John Stuart Williams, Paris, raised a company of 100 volunteers, calling themselves the Clark Independent Rifles. He and his men served with distinction at the Battle of Cerro Gordo 17-18 April 1847.
In early October 1847 the War Department issued another call. Kentucky provided the Third Regiment, Kentucky Foot Volunteers from Eastern Kentucky, commanded by Colonel Manlius V. Thompson; and the Fourth Regiment, Kentucky Foot Volunteers from Western Kentucky, commanded by Colonel John S. Williams.
On 14 September 1847, American troops entered Mexico City, and the fighting was at an end. By the time these regiments reached the area of operations, all active campaigning had ceased. They performed garrison duties and returned home in the spring of 1848.
A total of fifty-one Kentucky companies served during the campaign. Of the 5,113 Kentucky officers and men who served, seventy-seven were killed in action and 509 died of disease. Overall, Kentucky’s contributions to the Mexican-American War were significant and played a critical role in the United States’ victory in the conflict.
- Kentucky Encyclopedia, pps. 633-634, 956, 1991 Report of the Adjutant General – Mexican War Veterans, 1889.
- Compton’s Encyclopedia – Mexican War
The following resources can help locate names of those who served: