Online: Object of the Month
"Under the Commission of Massachusetts We Shall March Forward to the Mountain Plains of the Aztecs:" Recruiting Volunteers for the First Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment during the Mexican War
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
The Sole New England Regiment
While there was wide enthusiasm for the Mexican War in Southern and Western states where the number of volunteers often exceeded state quotas, raising troops for the war proved challenging in New England. In the minds of many New Englanders, “President Polk’s War” was inextricably tied to the expansion of slavery and could not be supported. The First Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers for the War (often referred to formally or informally simply as the “Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers”) was the only unit recruited in New England between 1846 and 1848. While it was part of the national system of state volunteer regiments, the First Massachusetts was the brainchild of Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts lawyer who saw military service in the war as a path to glory—and political advancement.
In spite of an inspiring speech to the Bay State legislature, alluding to the “mountain plains of the Aztecs,” Caleb Cushing was unable to persuade the Commonwealth to appropriate funds for the unit that he planned to recruit and lead in battle. Cushing and his fellow officers struggled to fill the ranks of the regiment by appealing to the incipient nationalism of Irish immigrants. This recruiting poster, a recent addition to the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, is illustrated with a flag-waving eagle and an Irish harp with the inscription, “Erin Go Bragh.” Although the First Massachusetts even recruited across the state border in New Hampshire, it remained understrength when it embarked for Mexico.
The service of the First Massachusetts Regiment was destined to be both inglorious and extremely costly. The Massachusetts men remained in rear-area garrison duty through most of the war, finally arriving in Mexico City after the fighting had ended, but they lost a third or more of their number to disease and desertion. Colonel Cushing was promoted out of the regiment soon after it reached Mexico, and while he paid some of its expenses out of his own pocket, the First Massachusetts became known for its undisciplined behavior and motley appearance.
Who Was Caleb Cushing?
A forty-six-year-old lawyer from Newburyport, Massachusetts, Caleb Cushing saw the active command of troops in the Mexican War as a way to advance his political career on the national stage. He had previously served in the Massachusetts legislature and the United States Congress, and had been the United States minister to China from 1843 to 1845, but his only previous military service had been as a legal officer in the state militia. Cushing’s fellow officers elected him to be the commander of the Massachusetts volunteers, but only by a single vote. He already had been promised a commission as brigadier general in the United States volunteers, so his time with the regiment was limited. When the First Massachusetts straggled back to Boston in July 1848, many of the survivors blamed Cushing for their suffering. Ironically, in 1847 Cushing had run for governor of Massachusetts from Mexico with the campaign slogan, “Cushing, a well-fed soldiery, — our country against the world!” His own men hissed him when he rose to speak at a banquet held in their honor.
Perhaps in spite of his war service rather than because of it, Caleb Cushing was elected mayor of his hometown of Newburyport and appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He later served as attorney general of the United States, as counsel for the United States before the Geneva Arbitration Commission, and as minister to Spain until a short time before his death in 1879.
Who Was Isaac Hull Wright?
Born in Boston in 1814, Isaac Wright had been a state senator, a Democratic Party newspaper publisher and militia officer before raising a company of Irish immigrant volunteers from Boston for service in the First Massachusetts Regiment. Wright was elected lieutenant colonel, and after Caleb Cushing’s promotion, became the regimental commander. Colonel Wright seems to have retained the loyalty of his men in spite of the enormous number of noncombat casualties they suffered. After the war, he became the naval agent for Boston under both Whig and Democratic presidents, and remained active in militia affairs until the Civil War when, because of his political opposition to that war, he studied and then practiced law, rather than returning to military service. He was a Boston street commissioner at the time of his death in 1886.
Some Notable Members of a Forgotten Regiment
General Cushing and Colonel Wright were not the only politically connected figures to serve in the First Massachusetts Volunteers. Edward Webster, the younger son of Senator Daniel Webster, was elected a company commander and later promoted to the rank of major, although his father and older brother Fletcher maneuvered unsuccessfully to get him command of the regiment. In February 1848, Senator Webster, whose daughter Julia Webster Appleton was dying of consumption at home in Massachusetts, received news of his son’s death from typhoid fever in Mexico the same day that he heard the news of the treaty ending the increasingly unpopular war. Julia Appleton mourned her brother’s death and the terrible cost of the war in a letter to her father: “… I feel nothing but that my brother in the flower of his youth was a useless sacrifice—to what? —ambition & vainglory.”
Foos, Paul W. A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Fuess, Claude M. The Life of Caleb Cushing. (2 vols.). New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1923.
Johannsen, Robert W. To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. New York: Oxford, 1985.
Johnson, Tyler V. Devotion to the Adopted Country: U. S. Immigrant Volunteers in the Mexican War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.
Merk, Frederick. “Dissent in the Mexican War,” in Dissent in Three American Wars. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970. 33-63.
Smith, George W. and Judah, Charles B. Chronicles of the Gringos: the U. S. Army in the Mexican War, 1846-1848: Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Combatants. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968.
For letters from Major Edward Webster, serving with the First Massachusetts in Mexico, and his sister, Julia Webster Appleton, to their father, Senator Daniel Webster, see:
Webster, Daniel. The Papers of Daniel Webster. Correspondence, Volume 6, 1844-1849. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1984.
The Massachusetts Historical Society holds the personal papers of Benjamin Kendall Andrews. Andrews, a former coachman for John Quincy Adams, enlisted as a private in the First Massachusetts Volunteers and quickly became an officer. As regimental adjutant, Andrews kept official records that are interspersed with more revealing personal letters to a brother at home in Boston.
The Dwight family papers contain information relating to the service of Aaron Dwight Stevens. A teenager from Connecticut who ran away from home to join the regiment, Stevens would gain fame and notoriety as one of abolitionist John Brown’s principal lieutenants in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry.
The Beinecke Library at Yale University holds a collection of Mexican War Records from the First Massachusetts Regiment, Company B.