Anderson County KYGenWeb

Mexican War

The Salt River Tigers

Written by Luther Allen Davenport

Feb. 2005

The Salt River Tigers of Anderson County

under command of Captain John McBrayer

Co "C" 2nd regiment Kentucky Volunteer Infantry

"The Laurels of Patriotism

are always green.

Go, volunteers

to any portion of this union

and some eye will beam with

recognition, some tongue will

pronounce your valor and proclaim

you the war torn soldier who

bravely fought at the Battle of Buena Vista"

This monument is erected by the citizens of Anderson County

in honor of the valor and sacrifice of volunteers of this county

who served in the War with Mexico 1846 - 1848

erected ca.1847"

As I read this inscription from the stone obelisk statue at the Anderson County Courthouse, I wondered about these Salt River Tigers. This monument at Lawrenceburg is considered by some to be the oldest memorial dedicated to the soldiers of the War with Mexico found in the State of Kentucky and perhaps even the entire United States, being erected by a proud public before the war it represented was even concluded. Exactly who were these men?, What did they accomplish to be worthy of such an honor? Were they some kind of hero's?

Being a student of Anderson County's history, I had from an early age known that a group of men from Lawrenceburg had volunteered for service during the Mexican War, and that these men had dubbed themselves the "Salt River Tigers". Several local histories exist that make only brief mention of these volunteers, but I found no specific details of how involved they actually were in the war, or any record of their accomplishments. I thus became determined to dig up everything I could find. Surprisingly, several sources were available that would help in this quest. The Adjutant General's Report for Kentucky Troops of that war was a big help, naming each individual soldier that served, his rank, dates of service, and any notes associated with him. There are also numerous battle accounts, casualty reports, and even the field report of their commanding general. Based on these sources, I was able to put together a short summary of the Tiger's history, and a time line of their activities.

The story of the "Salt River Tigers" begins on March 1,1845. Not in Lawrenceburg as you might imagine, but by events that transpired hundreds of miles away in Washington D.C. and in South Texas. It was on this date that the United States Congress approved the annexation of Texas into the Union. The government of Mexico had refused to recognize Texas's independence, and saw this as an act of encroachment into Mexican Territory. Their government then promptly broke off all diplomatic relations with the United States. President James Polk and other political leaders, continued to hope that Mexico's claim would be settled through a peaceful negotiation, but nonetheless many feared that Mexico would attempt an invasion of Texas to enact their claims by force. With this shadow of war ever on the horizon, leaders in Washington felt an American military presence in the area was needed, and ordered General Zachary Taylor to move an army from Fort Jessup, Louisiana to a point "on or near the Rio Grande River" to guard against and repel any invaders, and hoped his presence there would deter any such attempt.

Early in the year 1846, In response to these orders, General Taylor moved his army to a position on the Texas side of the river just opposite the Mexican town of Matamores. Here he set up a base camp, and went to work building a fortification which he named Fort Brown. Mexico countered Taylor's presence by sending an army of over 1600 troops under General Arista to Matamores.

For several months after arriving at their new post, Taylor's army kept a watchful eye across the river, but on the 25th of April, 1846, open hostilities erupted when General Arista crossed the river in force and ambushed a patrol of 60 American dragoons, killing 11 and capturing the rest. General Taylor immediately sent dispatches to Washington with news of the attack, but news traveled slow in those days, taking nearly two weeks to reach the capitol. On the evening of May 9th, 1846 the War Department received Taylor's dispatch, and officially notified President Polk that open hostilities on the border had begun. President Polk now felt that a war was justified, and he drafted a message to Congress that a "State of War" existed between the United States and Mexico. Congress passed the declaration, and the President signed it on May 13th, 1846. Also at this time he authorized the enlistment of 50,000 volunteers to serve for one year of service, or the duration of the war.

It had been thirty years since the United States had been in a full fledged war. The young men had never seen with their own eyes the awful side of an armed conflict. They had only heard the stories of glory from their grandfathers and fathers who had fought the British during the Revolution and the War of 1812. Anxious to cover themselves with honor, or just merely seeking some sort of adventure away from home, young volunteers answered the presidents call, and flocked to the flag with earnest. The call to arms soon reached the local area, and on May 28th, 1846 nearly one hundred young men from Lawrenceburg and Anderson County enrolled to serve their nation's cause, and thus the "Salt River Tigers" were born. These new "Tigers" who were mostly aged from their late teens through early twenties, were to proceed to Louisville, where other volunteers from all over the state were to rendezvous. It was here on June 9th, 1846 that the Lawrenceburg men were mustered into service of the United States Army for a term of one year, and officially the "Salt River Tigers" became Company "C" of the 2nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, a regiment to be commanded by Colonel William R. McKee and Lt. Colonel Henry Clay jr.

The officers of company "C" were shortly elected, with George Kavanaugh serving as the first Captain. They also received uniforms and other implements of war, as well as some degree of military instruction. It is not known exactly how long they remained in Louisville, but by sometime in late July they were transported down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. From here they crossed the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Rio Grande River, and traveled up this stream to a point about 15 miles east of Brownsville,TX., where a large concentration of volunteer regiments were gathered at Camp Belknap. It cannot be not determined the exact date they arrived at Camp Belknap, or how long they remained here, but records verify that the Anderson County boys were here sometime prior to August 10 and stayed at least through the 15th of 1846. Soon after reaching Camp Belknap, the 2nd Kentucky regiment was assigned to General Taylor's command, and transferred to the town of Camargo in northern Mexico, a staging area and supply depot for General Taylor's army along the San Juan River.

Being away from their Bluegrass home, had began to take it's toll on the men, even before reaching Camp Belknap, many cases of illness had been recorded and several men had been discharged. This trend continued and camp life for the Kentuckians at Camargo was unfavorable to say the least, the tempetures often exceeded 100 degrees, the quality of food rations were poor, and sanitation was unheard of. Disease was rampant under these conditions, and since their arrival in Mexico, four of the Lawrenceburg men had died, and seventeen others had been determined disabled for effective service, and were discharged by the regimental doctors. It was while stationed here at Camargo that Captain Kavanaugh resigned his commission for unknown reasons. Following his loss, John McBrayer ascended to the rank of Captain, and it was under his leadership the "Salt River Tigers" would serve for the duration of their service.

The Kentucky volunteers were to remain at this station for an extended period of time. Arriving too late to join Taylor's September campaign against the fort at Monterrey, and with the surrender of that place the general agreed to an eight week armistice in that sector with the Mexican commander there. In the meantime, General Winfield Scott had arrived in Mexico with a plan of invasion for Vera Cruz, and he had authorization from Washington to detach troops from Taylor's command for this purpose. When General Taylor returned to Camargo, he was furious to learn that almost all of the 4000 regulars and an equal number of his volunteers had been released to Scott, leaving him with only about 7000 effective men, nearly all of whom were raw and untested volunteers. The men of the 2nd Kentucky were among those that remained under Taylor's command.

Being the senior officer now in the field of action, General Scott had left orders for Taylor to evacuate Saltillo, a town he had occupied after the fall of Monterrey, and to set up a defensive position at the captured fort at the latter place. Taylor chose to interpret these orders as "advice" rather than as a direct command. Instead of retiring to Monterrey, he left a small garrison force there, and moved 4,650 troops further south, along the road to Mexico City, to the village of Agua Nueva, about 15 miles past Saltillo. This move placed him only about 200 miles away from General Santa Anna and his 20,000 man army. Most of this 200 miles was considered an "impassable desert", and it was the assumption of Taylor that Santa Anna would move to engage General Scott at Vera Cruz. However, the Mexican commander had learned through captured dispatches that Taylor's force had been drastically reduced. He felt an easy and quick victory over Taylor would raise the morale of his army, and gain him political and public support. By February the 9th of 1847, he had taken most of his army across this "impassable desert" and was only 35 miles away from the American camp at Agua Nueva.

On the morning of February 21st, scouts brought news to General Taylor that a massive enemy army was moving toward their position, and included a large number of cavalry and artillery pieces. As this camp at Agua Nueva rested on a huge plain, it could be easily outflanked, and the enemy's superior numbers could be greatly used to their advantage. General Taylor and his officers elected it unpractical to remain here, and by noon the Americans had broken camp and commenced to withdraw along the road back toward Saltillo. A new position was selected along this road about eleven miles away, near the small village of Buena Vista. The road at this point becomes a narrow mountain pass, and forms a natural defensive position. The valley to the right of the road was quite rugged due to a succession of deep and impassable gullies. On the left were a series of steep ridges and ravines that extend all the way back to the mountains that bordered the valley. The features of this position were so inhospitable that it would nearly paralyze the artillery and cavalry of the enemy while their infantry could not utilize it's full advantage of superior numbers.

By the next morning, February 22nd, the American army of less than 4700 troops were in position to meet an enemy of more than three times it's size. In this position, Taylor had posted Captain Washington's battery of artillery to command the road, while the 1st & 2nd Illinois Volunteers of Colonel's Hardin and Bissell along with Colonel McKee's 2nd Kentucky Volunteers occupied the ridge crests on the left and rear. The Arkansas and Kentucky Cavalry regiments of Colonel's Yell & Marshall occupied the extreme left near the mountain base, while Lane's Indiana Brigades, Colonel Davis's Mississippi Rifles, The1st & 2nd squadrons of dragoons along with Sherman's & Bragg's batteries were held in a reserve position. It was in this formation that the Americans waited to meet the enemy.

By 11:00 a.m., Santa Anna had sent a summons to the American commander for surrender, which Taylor promptly rejected. No attack was immediately made, and the American commander correctly assumed that Santa Anna was awaiting the arrival of his rear columns. Late in the afternoon, a small demonstration was made on the right of the line and McKee's Kentucky regiment and 2 pieces of artillery were sent to counter this effort, which it accomplished in short order. In this position they remained and entered camp for the night.

There are numerous accounts written for the Battle of Buena Vista, with reference to the actions of the 2nd Kentucky regiment. Some versions differ slightly in details, but most seem to agree in context. Every account seems to agree that the battle began on the morning of February 23rd,1847 at a very early hour. The action began with a massive assault on the American left that nearly broke through, but timely arrival of reserves sustained the line. At around 8:00 a.m., another assault was made at the American center, but it too was soon broken up with artillery fire. Small heavy attacks of this type were launched against the Americans all along the battle line for most of the day. At times the fighting became quite heated, but troops could be diverted from other points of the line to reinforce and each assault was repulsed with much loss to the enemy.

While these small actions were taking place, the enemy had been concentrating a large force of infantry and cavalry behind the cover of low ridges. A massive enemy charge was then made with intent of forcing the American left, which was posted along a huge plateau. A detachment of Infantry and artillery moved forward from the American line to meet this attack. They had moved to within musket range with great effect, but were unable to stop the Mexican advance, and were forced to fall back with loss of several men and two field guns. The enemy now appeared in overwhelming numbers against the left flank which was manned by Col. Bissell's 2nd Illinois volunteers. After a gallant stand, Bissell's position was desperate, his lines were in danger of being overrun, and the American flank rolled back, allowing the Mexicans to gain the rear.

The Mississippi Rifles of Col. Davis was ordered to the left, and immediately came into action against the enemy infantry which was turning the left flank. The 2nd Kentucky troops of Col. McKee also moved to reinforce, and arrived at this very crucial moment. The Kentuckians charged through Bissell's decimated line, and managed to stall the enemy's advance. Col. Hardin's 1st Illinois regiment rallied behind the Kentuckians, and they began to push the Mexicans back, recapturing a portion of ground which had been previously lost. However, their advance had carried them beyond the range of support from the main lines. The Mexican commander, seeing the Americans overextended, seized the opportunity and sent an entire division of fresh reserve troops into the action.

The situation soon became very critical as McKee's force kept up a heated fire with great effect, but made little impression on the enemy's advance, which by now had moved to within a few paces away. After sustaining heavy casualties, they had no choice but to pull back, leaving behind several dead and wounded comrades, and were closely pressed by Mexican cavalry. The retreating force of Kentucky and Illinois troops managed to reach refuge in a gully that led toward Washington's battery which had moved forward to support them. The pursuing enemy soon came within range of his guns, which were opened up upon them with rapid and accurate fire, breaking up the attack and driving the enemy back with heavy losses. In this last action the Americans had the misfortune to sustain some very heavy casualties of their own, nearly one half for the entire battle were sustained here. Colonel Hardin of Illinois and Colonel McKee and Lt. Colonel Clay of Kentucky fell at this time, gallantly leading their men. Survivors' accounts of how McKee and Clay met their end are reported as follows; "The brave Colonel McKee fell badly wounded to the ground, but struggled heroically until overpowered by the enemy, who stabbed him to death with bayonets as he lay helpless on the ground". Lt. Colonel McKee was also wounded severely, and as the withdraw was commenced he was being carried from the field on a liter by a half dozen of his men. At this time a blast of grapeshot from an enemy cannon killed three of his men and inflicted even more severe wounds on him. He told the men that he was now inflicted mortally, and ordered the remaining soldiers to leave him, which they reluctantly did only moments before the enemy onslaught infested their position, and a Mexican lance pierced his heart.

With night approaching, no further attempts were made by the enemy to force the action, and the break gave an opportunity to rest and pay proper attention to the wounded, who were taken to a rear position at Saltillo. Although the night was extremely cold, the troops were compelled to spend it without fires, fully expecting the battle to continue at first light, and every preparation was made by the Americans to receive an attack.

However, no attack came, and soon it was discovered that the enemy had withdrawn from the field. The site of the final action of the previous evening was a gruesome sight, as over a hundred men were strewn around, many of the dead had been slashed savagely with sabers and bayoneted numerous times. Scouts soon returned with intelligence that the enemy was in full retreat and had fallen back as far as Agua Nueva, leaving hundreds of their wounded behind on the field, who were taken into custody. The American dead were gathered, and as the plain of Buena Vista was nearly barren of trees, these gallant fallen heroes were buried in shallow graves using the rough sawn boards from their wagons to construct makeshift coffins, and names were scratched on boards to mark them.

The official report of General Taylor stated "That troops engaged had been 334 officers and 4425 men. the number of enemy was never ascertained, but in the summons sent by Santa Anna, he stated to be in command of 20,000. The American loss is confirmed as 267 KIA with 456 WIA and 23 MIA. The Mexican loss in killed and wounded may be fairly estimated near 1500 and may reach as high as 2000 or more. At least 500 dead were left upon the field".

General Taylor further stated, "Our loss has been especially severe in officers, Twenty eight have been killed. No loss falls more heavily upon the army in that of Colonels Hardin and McKee, and Lieut. Colonel Clay. Possessing in a remarkable degree the confidence of their commands, and the last two having enjoyed the advantage of a military education, I had looked particularly to them for support in case we met the enemy. I need not say that their zeal in engaging the enemy, and the cool and steadfast courage with which they maintained their positions during the day fully realized my hopes, and caused me to feel yet more sensibly their untimely loss.", "The 1st and 2nd Illinois, and the 2nd Kentucky regiments, served immediately under my eye, and I bear a willing testimony to their excellent conduct throughout the day. The spirit and gallantry with which the 1st Illinois and 2nd Kentucky engaged the enemy restored confidence to that part of the field".

The "Salt River Tigers" of Anderson County must certainly had been in the thickest action of this contest, as the casualty report bears witness, Company "C" sustained a higher numbers of killed and wounded than any other in the regiment. Of Eleven companies of the 2nd Kentucky, 44 men were killed and 59 wounded, 9 Tigers were among the slain, and 8 were wounded 2 of which later died of their wounds. The final assault involving the Kentucky and Illinois troops had been brief, but was very heavily contested and casualties were extremely high, accounting for nearly one half of American losses for the entire battle.

General Taylor elected not to follow the retreating enemy immediately as his army was still greatly outnumbered. The Americans did advance after a few days, when scouts had confirmed no threat of further action was evident. The road of the Mexican retreat was strewn with dead and dying, and every village and ranch along the way were filled with his wounded.

Following the Battle of Buena Vista, the war was fairly won in the northern provinces, and the term of enlistment was soon to expire for many of the volunteers including, the 2nd Kentucky. After a few weeks of uneventful camp life and garrison duty, the Kentuckians were transported to New Orleans where they were discharged from the service on June 8th 1847.

Of the nearly one hundred Lawrenceburg boys that left the previous spring ,7 had died of illnesses. 18 others had been discharged on account of disease, and 9 others were killed or mortally wounded at Buena Vista. Evidence certainly indicates that they were truly worthy of all honors they received, and Lawrenceburg as well as Kentucky should be proud to call them heroes.

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