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Yorkers fought (& died) in the Mexican War: Part 1

"Attack on Chapultepec, Sept. 13th 1847--Mexicans routed with great loss" - E. B. & E. C. Kellogg, Library of Congress
“Attack on Chapultepec, Sept. 13th 1847–Mexicans routed with great loss” – E. B. & E. C. Kellogg, Library of Congress

Thousands of books have been written on the American Civil War, including hundreds and hundreds of personal diaries, memoirs, and journals from the soldiers and civilians who were eyewitnesses and/or participants in the bitter conflict. Many of the senior leaders of the Civil War armies were veterans of the Mexican War, a confrontation which sparked far fewer written accounts and modern books.

One eyewitness account which has recently been republished (2010, University of Tennessee Press) is J. Jacob Oswandel’s personal reminiscence, Notes on the Mexican War, 1846-1848. The original book dates from 1885. Oswandel, a native of Mifflin County, was a 21-year-old soldier in the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers during the war with Mexico. He and his comrades served in the army of famed General Winfield Scott.

During his time in the army, he served alongside eight soldiers who hailed from York County.

Here are some of Oswandel’s post-war remembrances of his long-ago comrades.

The Battle of Monterrey, after a drawing by Carl Nebel. Library of Congress.
The Battle of Monterrey, after a drawing by Carl Nebel. Library of Congress.

Oswandel was from Lewistown, Pennsylvania, as was one of his close friends, Louis Bymaster. They befriended a delegation of young soldiers from “Little York” who had enlisted in Harrisburg in the 1st Pennsylvania. Their names were Peter Ahl, Henry Alburtus Welsh, Jacob Danner, William “Bob” Eurick, Thomas Zeigle, Samuel Stair, Robert Patterson, and William Patterson.

Oswandel later remembered the Yorkers as “a fine set of young men, jocular and mirthful in manner, full of talk and wit.” The men were apparently of a hardy sort and used to outdoor living, unlike their colleagues from the city of Harrisburg who had enlisted at the same time. In late December 1846, they headed out of the capital and headed west toward Pittsburgh. On one of the first nights as camped in the open, he “had a chat with the Yorkers and they are laughing their fist full about these city fellows finding fault about our quarters and rations; they will all get use to it before the war with Mexico is over.” Oswandel agreed, adding “I bet they will.”

In Pittsburgh, the new soldiers took a steamship down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and traveled south to Louisiana. The Yorkers “enjoyed themselves first-rate,” Oswandel commented. After the regiment arrived at its training and base camp in New Orleans, the York Countians invited Oswandel and Bymaster to be their mess-mates, but “we made no promise,” Oswandel related.

The men initially saw little combat action once in Mexico. They had plenty of time for amusements and siteseeing. On Sunday July 11, 1847, Oswandel and two of the York delegation, Alburtus Welsh and Bob Eurick, visited an impressive Catholic cathedral in the city of Puebla. Being unfamiliar with that denomination, they were astonished to see the comings and goings of the congregants and their religious rites. The trio enjoyed viewing the impressive paintings lining the walls of the church; “some are as old as Methuselah,” Oswandel mused. Several hours later they walked to the plaza and perused the Sunday market. Their attention was drawn to a cockfight. Two Mexican civilians had squared off, each with a gamecock in his hand. York’s Bob Eurick, who spoke Spanish, “rushed in and said, aqueste querer no ni debido (this will not do), that it was no work for Sunday, and he took one chicken, or cock, and flung it out of the surrounding crowd and pit, but did not get a chance at the other” because the startled crowd fled in all directions. Welsh, Eurick, and Oswandel returned to their camp laughing at having broke up a Mexican cockfight.

Boredom and disease were the main enemies for Scott’s army that first summer and fall in Mexico. Tragedy struck the York delegation on the afternoon of Friday, September 10, 1847. Jacob Danner had for some time been in the hospital suffering from the effects of the hot weather and exposure. He had progressively weakened and now he passed away.

“He hailed from Little York, Pa.,” Oswandel penned in his diary, “and was one of the party that left that little town and joined our company in Harrisburg, Pa. He, like his comrades, left with a stout heart and patriotism for the present war with Mexico; he was a good companion and a good soldier; his impulses were generous, and his actions the fruition of noble instincts; his character was perfect; he was exceptionally moral, without a single defective habit; he was a jovial and good-hearted man.”

“It is true that poor Jacob Danner did not meet his death on the bloody battlefield, and victimized by a Mexican bullet,” Oswandel philosophized, “yet he sacrificed his life for his country’s cause; his death is much regretted by his friends. In fact, our whole company is much grieved at his loss; for he was obedient, made friends with all who came into the circle of his acquaintance. Enemies he had none in our whole regimental ranks, for such gentle natures give offence to no one, and we shall ever hail with the warmest affection his cherished memory; and make him a hidden, quiet room, in the depth of the spirit’s gloom, where, while we live, he may abide, shadowy, silent, sanctified.”

Jacob Danner’s unfortunate passing cast a brief pall over the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers, but they moved on. Combat and the thrust against Mexican General Santa Anna’s army awaited.

Click here for part 2!