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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Admiral Franklin Buchanan

Charles Lee Lewis

published by
The Norman, Remington Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.


Chapter X

Remember the Alamo

A man of action like Buchanan was naturally greatly dissatisfied with shore duty, however attractive it might be, when a war was in progress; and he shared in the eagerness of the midshipmen at the Naval School to lay aside their books and fight the Mexicans. It was, therefore, at his own urgent request that, near the close of the first term of the second year of his superintendency of the Naval School, he was relieved of his duty, and given the command of one of the new sloops of war, the Germantown. After seeing his family re‑established in their old home at "The Rest",​1 he set out to join his ship and get his first experience in actual warfare.

The Germantown, only recently built at Philadelphia, sailed from that port for Norfolk, December 7, 1846, in order to avoid the ice and also to complete her equipment. Here Buchanan reported for duty on March 3, 1847. This sloop had a tonnage of only 939 tons, carried four 8‑inch guns and eighteen 32‑pounders, and had a crew of 210 officers and men. On March 15 she sailed for the Gulf of Mexico.

p115 Though the war with Mexico had been in progress since the last of April, 1846 nothing more than a fairly efficient blockade had been established by the American navy on the eastern coast. The government finally decided that Commodore Conner, who was in command of the blockading expedition, was not aggressive enough and decided to replace him with a younger man, Matthew Calbraith Perry, who had already displayed courage and resourcefulness, in the war, in the famous Mississippi. He had arrived in this vessel at Vera Cruz to take over the command only on March 20, 1847. By this time the navy had begun its cooperation with General Scott in an attempt to capture this port as a base of operations for an expedition against Mexico City. This it was thought would quickly bring the war to a close, as General Taylor had already won several decisive victories over the Mexicans in the northern part of the country. Perry, by landing a battery of heavy naval guns with their officers and crews, gave much needed assistance in breaching the walls of Vera Cruz and in forcing its surrender on March 27, only one week after his taking command in those waters.

The Germantown did not arrive in time to take part in the capture of this important gateway into Mexico. This entry in the ship's log for April 1, "Discovered the American flag to be flying on the Castle of Juan de Ulloa", was recorded undoubtedly with a feeling of great disappointment on first sighting Vera Cruz, as Buchanan probably thought they had arrived too late to play any part of consequence in the war. But on April 9 Perry visited the Germantown, and the very next day she sailed in company with the rest of the  p116 squadron in an expedition against Tuspan (or Tuxpan) off which place they arrived April 17.

Tuspan, situated five miles above the mouth of the river bearing the same name, was protected from attack by water by two forts on the right bank and one on the left, so placed as to be able to do great damage to ships coming up stream. These defenses were manned by about 650 troops commanded by General Cos of the Mexican Army.

Perry left the larger ships of his squadron; namely, Mississippi, flagship, Germantown, Raritan, Potomac, Ohio, Albany, John Adams, and Decatur, at anchor outside the bar which obstructed their passage, but organized a force of 1489 officers, seamen, and marine, composed of detachments from these vessels, and the small gunboats Etna, Vesuvius, and Hecla. These, together with four pieces of light artillery, he embarked on some thirty of the ships' barges, which on the morning of April 18 were towed over the bar and up the river by his small steam vessels, Spitfire, Vixen, Scourge, Bonita, Petrel, and Reefer.

"The Germantown's boats", wrote Buchanan,​2 "were towed by the Spitfire that they might be near the Commodore so as to receive the earliest orders to 'land and storm the forts'. I went on board as the expedition approached the first fort, the Pana, situated on a prominent hill about eighty feet above the river, and armed with 32‑pounder guns. The fire from the enemy was very severe, and the Spitfire was frequently struck. During this time I had an opportunity of witnessing the coolness and gallant bearing of Commander Tattnall,  p117 whose guns were not idle, as the enemy can testify. The fate of the expedition depended mainly on the capture of that fort, for we had two others to encounter before we could take the town. The Spitfire's guns silenced the fort for a few moments, when the Commodore's order to 'land and storm' was given. About this time a grape or canister shot from the Pana fort wounded Tattnall in the arm severely. The boats were successful, and in an hour or two we had possession of the three forts and the city of Tuspan". The other vessels had similar experiences to those of the Spitfire. When the flotilla came within range of the forts, the barges sheered off and landed the detachments to attack by land. The small war vessels then steamed on up the river, and received an unexpectedly feeble resistance from the Mexicans. Though they fired both from the forts and with musketry from the wooded banks of the river, they rapidly fell back as that American forces came up, and deserted their batteries before the shore party got near enough to storm their works. That the Mexicans were taken by surprise is indicated by the following: "General Cos's house is handsomely fitted up with costly furniture, and he must have fled in great alarm, for on going to his quarters we found his bed just as he had turned out of it, with shirts, drawers, etc. strewn about in most admirable disorder. On his table were the remains of jollification, — bottles half full of champagne, Sherry, and Madeira, with the best of Cubanos distributed about in all directions".​3

The attack thus turned out to be a complete success, with the loss of only three seamen killed and five officers  p118 and six men wounded. Leaving a small force to hold the place, Perry took the remainder of his men back down the river and rejoined his squadron. Leaving the Albany and Reefer here to watch Tuspan, he departed with the rest of the squadron to begin preparation for an expedition against Tabasco (or Tobasco), which was the only port of considerable importance, on the eastern coast of Mexico, not yet in American hands.

This town was some eighty miles above the mouth of the winding river, also named Tabasco, whose banks were densely wooded with chaparral which afforded excellent ambuscades for the Mexicans. The place was of some historical interest, as it was Cortes's first battle ground on the soil of Mexico. The campaign was a peculiar one since it was necessary for the sailors to fight on land against an enemy protected by breastworks.

Perry's squadron, minus the Ohio and the Potomac but with the same number of smaller vessels, arrived off the mouth of the Tabasco on the 13th of June. The plan of attack was similar to the one which had recently succeeded so well at Tuspan. A force of 1173 officers and men from the various larger ships was organized, embarked on the ships' barges, and taken in tow by the following small steamers: Scorpion, flagship, Stromboli, Vesuvius, Spitfire, Scourge, Vixen, and Washington. The large ships, together with the Etna and Bonita, were left behind at the mouth of the river. Each boat also had in tow a surf boat, borrowed from the army at Vera Cruz, on which was fitted a platform to carry the seven pieces of light artillery.

On June 15th the expedition got under way and proceeded up stream to within twelve miles of the town  p119 without encountering any enemy forces. This was at a turn in the river, appropriately called the Devil's Bend, which afforded a location for a perfect ambush. On the arrival of the American force here, they were suddenly fired upon from the thickly wooded river banks; but a well directed fire from the board soon silenced the enemy guns. As it was then late in the evening, it was decided to anchor the squadron there for the night, the men "sleeping on their arms" behind a barricade of hammocks on the decks of the vessels, and not feeling any too secure with that protection as the river was only seventy-five or eighty yards wide at that point.

The next morning, obstructions having been discovered in the river, Perry decided to disembark his forces and approach the city by land. The Mexicans opposed the landing from a well constructed breastwork. "Just at this time", wrote Buchanan, "a steamer had in tow the Bonita and was towing her to a position above the Palms (so named from a cluster of seven beautiful palm trees) to assist in convoying our landing, as it was supposed we should meet with resistance there. The steamer grounded; the moment it was reported to the Commodore he remarked, 'That gunboat must be placed off the Palms'. As I was near him, I told him I could put her there. 'Do so' was his reply, and in a few minutes my boats were towing her as if there was no current. As I sent my boats to perform this duty, I landed to ascertain the best points for disembarking the troops by order of the Commodore. Just as I returned to him, a volley of musketry was poured into Lieutenant May's boat and the Germantown's, wounding May very seriously in the right arm, breaking it below the elbow,  p120 and wounding a few men, one or two of the Germantown's slightly".​4

When the vessels got into position and their heavy guns began to rake the intrenchments, the American troops were landed with great enthusiasm and success, in this novel naval exploit. In ten minutes after the order was given, the entire force was on shore with their seven pieces of artillery, which had to be taken from the boats and dragged up a steep bank twenty feet high by man power alone.

In half an hour after Commodore Perry set foot on land, the column moved forward, in the following order: a scouting party commanded by Lieutenant Maynard, marines in command of Captain Edson, then "Old Hoss" and his suite with his broad pennant in front, next the artillery commanded by Captain Mackenzie, which was supported by a detachment under Buchanan, then the main body of the infantry in two divisions under Captains Breese and Forrest, and lastly the ambulance party to pick up the killed and wounded. The Americans proceeded through the high grass and thick chaparral, driving in the outposts and advancing a mile or so to the principal intrenchment which occupied a commanding situation. It mounted three 32‑pounders and four field pieces, and was defended by about six hundred Mexican troops. These put up a very weak resistance and then retired to a breastwork only a mile and a half from the city. With the cooperation of the steamers, which had finally broken through the obstruction in the river, all of the remaining defenses were carried, and the city of Tabasco was entered by the  p121 victors about four o'clock in the afternoon of the 16th.

The American loss was only two officers and four seamen wounded and three seamen missing, though several dropped from exhaustion caused by the oppressive heat encountered during the nine miles' march. This heat was particularly severe on those who were dragging the field pieces. "Many of the officers", declared Buchanan,​5 "carried canteens with liquor and the moment they saw a poor fellow fall they would give him 'a drop of comfort' which had an astonishing effect on him. . . . The news soon reached us that the fort and city were taken. Just about this time the advance could see the Stars and Stripes flying on the fort; cheers, hearty cheers passed along the line, but the disappointment to all hands you may imagine; the field pieces became a thousand pounds heavier at once. You would have been amused to hear the abuse heaped upon the 'bloody Mexicans' by Jack, — 'the bloody cowardly rascals are not worth fighting anyhow; they won't stand and be licked like men', and various other remarks. Jack is certainly a queer compound. . . . You would not have supposed from his (Perry's) appearance that he had been taking more than an ordinary walk; the next morning he was quite fresh and assured me he could take just such another walk that day. He is at present certainly the man for the navy; in many respects he is an astonishing man, the most industrious, hard working, energetic, zealous, persevering, enterprising officer of his rank in our navy. He does not spare himself or any one under him. This I like; his great powers of endurance astonish every one; all know he is by no means a brilliant man but his good common sense  p122 and judgment, his sociable manner to his officers, no humbuggery or mystery, make him respected and esteemed."

Out of the Mexican force of at least 1400 men, some thirty were killed. In Tabasco, a large quantity of military stores were destroyed by the Americans, the fortifications of the city were demolished, and the captured cannon​6 were taken on board the vessels. A force of 420 officers and men under Commander Abraham Bigelow, on the Scorpion, Etna, Spitfire, and Scourge, was left on guard, and Perry then retired to his base at the mouth of the river.

This was the last important engagement of the war, in which naval forces took part. In fact, the navy had finished its work after capturing every port on the eastern coast of Mexico and thus establishing a strict blockade on the country. Another foe, however, was still to be reckoned with, — that insidious enemy, yellow fever. In July, this disease became so severe on the Mississippi that Perry had to send the vessel to Pensacola; while he shifted his flag to the Germantown, which thus became the flagship of the squadron until the 8th of November. Though General Scott's army entered Mexico City in triumph on September 17, Perry's squadron continued to cruise up and down the coast until the treaty of peace was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo, February 2, 1848.

The Germantown, however, sailed from Vera Cruz on January 15, 1848, for home, by way of Havana, and  p123  arrived at Norfolk on February 16th. Here Buchanan paid off his crew and discharged them, on the 24th of that month, and was himself given leave of absence for three months, relinquishing the command of the ship to his brother-in‑law, Commander Charles Lowndes. In granting this leave, Secretary Mason wrote, "Transmitted herewith is a copy of a letter from the Commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard respecting the condition of the United States ship of war Germantown, which I have received with much satisfaction. You will be pleased to read the same to the officers and crew of the ship, and express to them the high commendation of the Department". Another recognition Buchanan received for his services in the Mexican War was the mention of his name among those honored by the Maryland legislature, when it passed resolutions of praise "for the gallant and immune conduct of Marylanders who distinguished themselves in the war". He also was given one hundred and sixty acres of land in Iowa, patented to Commander Buchanan on September 10, 1859, by the Congress of the United States "for services rendered in Mexico".

The remainder of the year 1848 Buchanan spent peacefully with his family at "The Rest" with the exception of duty in April on a Naval General Court Martial held at the Naval School, where trouble had arisen through the lax discipline of Superintendent Upshur, and a few weeks in September which were spent in examining sites for lighthouses at Blackston's Island in the Potomac and at Sand Shoal Island on the coast of the "Eastern Shore" of Virginia. This duty on the lighthouse committee was required in order to carry out the act of August 14, 1848, appropriating funds to  p124 erect new lighthouses. Buchanan's report, which was favorable to the chosen sites, was finished on the 1st of November.

On January 10, 1849, Buchanan was ordered to command the Baltimore Rendezvous. Under his orders there were Lieutenants Isaac S. Sterrett and Robert F. Pinckney and Surgeon James C. Palmer. The Receiving Ship was at this time the sloop of war Ontario, under the command of William M. Glendy; it had been built in that city in 1813. On January 25, Buchanan assumed this command, which he exercised for two years. During this period he also served on various boards. For example, early in July, 1849 he was a member of the board called to examine midshipmen at Annapolis; in September he was made a member of another board, composed of Commodore William B. Shubrick, Commanders Samuel F. Du Pont and George P. Upshur, Surgeon W. S. W. Ruschenberger, and Professor William Chauvenet, which had been appointed to draw up new regulations for the Naval School. When finished, these embodied many changes and improvements, which first went into effect July 1, 1850; among them was the change of the name of the institution to the "United States Naval Academy". At about the same time, Buchanan joined Commanders Du Pont and Magruder in the writing of a pamphlet, addressed to the House of Representatives, against the proposed measure of incorporating the officers of the former Texas Navy into the Navy of the United States. This pamphlet was of considerable aid in defeating the proposition. In April, 1850, Buchanan was a witness before a Naval Court of Inquiry at Annapolis, and in June following again a member of the examining board of the Naval Academy.

 p125  After being detached from the Baltimore Rendezvous January 24, 1851, where he was again succeeded by Commander Charles Lowndes, he served as a member of the General Court Martial at the Navy Yard in Washington during February, and was then relieved of duty until September 12, 1851 when he was ordered to the Navy Yard at Norfolk. After being at this place only a week, he asked to be relieved of the duty for "strong private reasons". This was granted, and he soon found himself a member of another board of examiners at Annapolis, in company with Commodore David Conner, Captain Samuel L. Breese, Commanders C. K. Stribling and A. Bigelow, and Lieutenant Thomas T. Craven. This board suggested further changes in the regulations, embodying a reorganization of the academic courses at the Academy, which continued in force for many years. Buchanan, accordingly, had a hand not only in the founding of the Naval Academy but also in the directing of its policies for many years thereafter. No other naval officer, indeed, was so often called upon for advice in the administration of the school during the first six years of its history. In November, he was called to attend, as a witness, a Court of Inquiry at the Norfolk Navy Yard, and early the next year he departed on one of the most interesting and important expeditions ever undertaken by the United States Navy in time of peace. This was the famous expedition to Japan, which awoke from its sleep of centuries this nation which had been so long isolated from the rest of the world.

The Author's Notes:

1 His only son, Franklin, Jr., was born January 16, 1847 about seven weeks before his father departed for Mexico. The Buchanan residence in Annapolis was sold in March, 1847 to the United States government for $6,500, and with some other property adjoining incorporated with the ground of the Naval School. It stood near where the Herndon Monument is now located.

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2 In a letter quoted in "The Life and Services of Commodore Josiah Tattnall" by Charles C. Jones, Jr., p64.

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3 "Correspondence from the field" in Niles' National Register, May 22, 1847.

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4 Letter to James R. Harrison of Annapolis, June 22, 1847, written off Tobasco River.

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5 Ibid.

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6 Three of the guns were sent to the Naval School out of compliment to the first graduates of the institution and its first Superintendent, who had assisted in their capture. Four large shells were brought home as souvenirs by Buchanan, and for many years they ornamented the gate posts at "The Rest".

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