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Duncan's Battery (1839-1848)

Company A, 2nd US Artillery

by Dan Lawrence


Some time between the Battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista (February 21-23, 1847) Duncan's Battery, along with a number of other seasoned Army units, was sent south to join General Winfield Scott's forces assembling along the eastern coast of Mexico. There they were preparing to invade southern Mexico at the city of Vera Cruz (true cross). Buena Vista was the premier artillery battle in a conflict largely decided by artillery and it was the only major battle, in what is now the country of Mexico (Chihuahua aside), in which Company A did not participate. At Buena Vista, or Angostura Narrows as it is sometimes called, Captain Braxton Bragg, commanding Ridgley’s and Ringgold’s former company, helped save the day by repelling a determined counter attack launched against the American left.

Col James Duncan - Click here more Information

Col. James Duncan

When Vera Cruz finally surrendered on March 29, 1847, to the rousing strains of a 29 gun salute, Scott's army held a toehold on the road to Mexico (City). The area around Vera Cruz was infested with vomito (yellow fever), myriads of sand fleas, and other pestilence. Scott moved west into the mountains and off of the coastline to preserve his army, as much as for any other reason. The money, supplies, and reinforcements that he had been promised by President Polk were slow in coming, to say the least. Scott boldly planned to live off of the land and, in the name of the United States, routinely borrowed money from the accompanying gamblers to sustain his army. General William T. Sherman, for instance, is rightly given much credit for his bold venture through Georgia in 1864, where he turned loose of his supply line and lived off the land. Sherman learned it from Grant during the Vicksburg campaign in 1863, and it is likely that Grant learned the trick from Scott as he moved trough central Mexico in 1847.

At Cerro Gordo General David Twiggs disobeyed Scott's orders and lost a number of men in an uphill assault that need not have been made. Company A did not play a significant part in the battle proper, but did help pursue the enemy and thereby secure 3,000 prisoners, 4,000 stand of small arms, and 43 cannon. Cerro Gordo is astride one of the best natural defensive locations between the coast and Mexico. How Santa Anna managed to lose here is still somewhat of a mystery.

Next on the road to the Mexican capital was Puebla, Mexico’s second largest cities. It fell easily and Scott rested his troops there waiting for reinforcements. They came along with General Franklin Pierce, himself only six years away from the White House. Scott now had a siege train in addition to a total of 14,000 troops.

Sometime around July of 1847 an event interesting to artillerymen occurred in the highlands of Mexico. Lt. Francis Wyse of the 3rd Artillery was in need of replenishing his ammunition chests, as he expected to be attacked soon. He received permission to scout around a local village where he found loose powder and escopeta (Mexican musket) balls, but no regulation cloth for powder bags or tin for canister. He did, however, discover a number of empty champagne bottles. Being of an inventive mind and finding that the bottles just fit into the bores of his cannon, he returned to his company area and requested that his cannoneers provide some cloth from the bottom of their shirts, the 1841 Ordnance Manual stating that flannel could be used for powder bags for wont of more appropriate materials. The company tailors began sewing powder bags and other members of the company filled the champagne bottles with the musket balls. Wyse reported that, "As I expected we were attacked for the next three days, at almost every mile of our return home, and nothing under heaven saved us but this champagne and shirt ammunition." Wyse added that when he returned to Tampico he procured the issue of an extra shirt for each of his "brave men, who had so cheerfully curtailed their nether garments."

Battle of Molino del Rey 1847

Battle of Molino del Rey 1847 - Mexican War (1846 1848)

Churubusco is an Aztec word meaning "place of the war god." It was appropriately named. Here the infantry faced well entrenched and fortified Mexican troops, including the renegade "San Patricio Battalion." Duncan pushed his guns out in front of the infantry, in what had by then become a standard tactic, in an attempt to blow a path through the enemy formation for the U.S. infantry to pass so they could "roll up" the Mexicans’ flanks. At 200 yards Duncan's cannons pounded the Convent of San Mateo and its defenders (the pockmarks are still visible on the eastern wall of the convent/fortress). Finally the defenders, seeing they were cut off', surrendered. August 20, 1847, marked the day Santa Anna lost two battles (Contreras and Churubusco), and lost a third of his effective troops to defeat, desertion, capture, and casualty. The road to the outskirts of Mexico was open.

As the American army moved toward the City of Mexico, Santa Anna had floated rumors that he had been using the old Molino del Rey (King's mill) to foundry cannon. Scott rose to the bait and attacked. The approach to the Molino was guarded by a supposedly minor redoubt, the Casa de Mata, about 500 yards west of the Molino and covering the main approach to it and the castle of Chapultepec. Duncan positioned his battery and fired on this obstacle. The American infantry was thrown back several times suffering heavy losses in the process. Both the Casa de Mata and Molino del Rey eventually fell. Afterward, there was no evidence of the Molino ever having been used as a foundry and Scott withdrew his forces from the fruits of this hard won victory. A dispute subsequently broke out between Scott, Worth, and Pillow as to the effectiveness of the preparatory bombardment on the Molino and Casa de Mata. Duncan, as Worth's artillery officer, was in the middle of the argument. This dispute, however, merely presaged the one which would erupt between the principals after the fall of Mexico City.

At 8:00 am on September 13, 1847, the Americans stepped off against Chapultepec. Henry Jackson Hunt, Duncan's 1st Lieutenant, pushed a section of Battery A (comprised of a 6 pdr. gun and a 12 pdr. howitzer) to the front of the ramparts of the capitol city. Every man and horse was hit as they unlimbered, Hunt being wounded three times himself. Muzzle to muzzle with an enemy cannon in an embrasure, Hunt fired first and blew the Mexican cannon and its crew away. Down the causeway to the Garita (gate) de San Cosme Hunt pushed his two guns. Fifty yards at a time Hunt leapfrogged his cannon until a lodgement was secured.

On September 14, 1847, Santa Anna surrendered the city. Scott entered in triumph, dressed in a grand manner befitting "old fuss and feathers." Worth, Scott, and Pillow again fell to arguing with Scott over responsibility for the attacks, losses, and retreat at Casa de Mata and Molino del Rey. A letter reputedly written by Duncan critical of Scott was published in a Pittsburgh, PA, newspaper. Scott had Pillow, Worth, and Duncan brought under inquiry. Charges and countercharges flew back and forth between Mexico and Washington, DC. There were several letters written on this and other subjects, and the authorship of several of them remain obscure today. The affair dragged on for some time but President Polk, who did not like the imperious Scott and suspected him of being at least in part motivated by presidential ambitions, eventually let the matter drop. The only real outcome of the subsequent inquiries was that Scott was eventually replaced as the Army commander.

In January, 1849, Colonel Croghan, who had been the Inspector General of the Army, died. President Polk rewarded Duncan by naming him to the post. While on an inspection trip to Mobile, Alabama, that summer, however, Duncan contracted the vomito he had successfully avoided In Mexico and succumbed on July 3, 1849. Ironically, Duncan's remains joined that of his former commander, General Worth, and another artilleryman, Major Gates, both of whom had also died recently, in a funeral cortege through New York City. Duncan was buried in his home town and later reentered just across the Hudson River at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His eulogizer characterized Duncan's career as like a "meteor, not only in brilliancy but duration."

Artillery emerged as the greatest power on the battlefield in America’s first foreign war. Light artillery companies continually fought from exposed positions, firing rapidly, changing positions quickly, and concentrating their fire on selected targets. Except for the exposed position part, the same principles have been employed from then on down through Desert Storm. Mexican artillerymen, even though they had comparable equipment, could not match the American's mobility and training. Mexican artillery still depended on mules and oxen to pull their guns, and on civilian teamsters to man the transport. American artillery units frequently split into sections, generally two gun increments, to counterattack on separate parts of the battlefield, only to merge again later to repel massed Mexican infantry attacks with canister, shot, and shell on yet another part of the battlefield. John Eisenhower in his book So Far From God stated that, "...the field artillery made the difference between victory and defeat for the Americans."

Duncan emerged from the war as the premier American artillerist, due in part to the fact that he survived it, but also due to his intrepidity and inspirational leadership. Duncan's guns were frequently well in front of the infantry in exposed positions, attempting to secure lodgement for them. Henry Jackson Hunt was Duncan's friend and pupil and took command of the battery after Duncan's departure. Other renown future commanders of Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery included John C. Tidball (who was the first to have "Taps" played at a funeral on the peninsula in 1862), Alexander Pennington, and John H. Calef, who commanded the battery at Gettysburg.

During the 1850s the Army and its artillery was once more downsized. Company A and five of sister batteries were dehorsed by Secretary Conrad in 1852. The next year saw Hunt on the way to Ft. Washita, Indian Territory, to mount Company M and act as an instructional unit--two other companies having been given a similar duty. He had left Company A in 1852 and was now in command of Company M, 2 nd U.S. Artillery. When Hunt arrived at Ft. Washita he found the 11 year old fort in a state of near ruin. The roofs were dilapidated and leaky, the hospital unfit for use, the stables "insufficient and unsuitable for the accommodation of artillery horses," the storehouses unfit, and the magazine located in an unsafe position. It lacked, in addition, no granary, workshops, or gunhouse. Hunt set about correcting these deficiencies. During his stay there he had the company of several notable officers who were either temporarily assigned to the post or visited there: Robert E. Lee, Braxton Bragg (who resigned the Army in disgust when Company C, 3rd U.S, Ringgold’s old battery, was again dehorsed), Joseph E. Johnson, and William Barry.

Hunt went on to command the artillery for the Army of the Potomac. He established procedures for the logistics and supply of the artillery which is in large part still in use. In fact, some letters to the FA Journal (official publication of the U.S. Field Artillery Association) after Desert Storm commented that if the lessons that Hunt and others had taught the Army in the Civil War had been remembered the conflict might have been "easier," if not shorter. The tactics and procedures laid down by nineteenth century artillerists such as Ringgold, Duncan, Bragg, and Hunt live on in this regard.

Click Here for more Information on Col. James Duncan


© Author Dan Lawerence

Company A, 7th Regiment of United States Infantry Living History Association

Source: Mathew Brady (American, c. 1823-1896), Portrait of James Duncan, c. 1848, half-plate daguerreotype, Collection of the Palmer Museum of Art, Penn State, Photo by Penn State Image Resource Centre

Source: Battle of Molino del Rey during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel. Published in the 1851 book "The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated".


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