A Fighter from Way Back: The Mexican War Diary of Lt. Daniel Harvey Hill, 4th Artillery, USA

By Haworth, Daniel S. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2005 | Go to article overview

A Fighter from Way Back: The Mexican War Diary of Lt. Daniel Harvey Hill, 4th Artillery, USA


Haworth, Daniel S., South Carolina Historical Magazine


A Fighter from Way Back: The Mexican War Diary of Lt. Daniel Harvey Hill, 4th Artillery, USA. Edited by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. and Timothy D. Johnson. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002. Pp. 248; $39, cloth.)

The Mexican War (1846-1848) ended with the United States seizing nearly one-half of Mexico's territory. Writing sixty years ago in observance of its centenary, historian Alfred Hoyt Bill characterized the conflict as a "rehearsal" that prepared the eventual leaders of the Union and the Confederacy for the Civil War. South Carolinian Daniel Harvey Hill, of York District, anticipated Bill's thesis. Graduating from West Point in 1842, the son of upcountry gentry by then in decline, Hill gained practical experience as a lieutenant in the Mexican War that he later applied in the Civil War as a Confederate general.

By all accounts, Hill distinguished himself during the Mexican War as a competent, dedicated junior officer who inwardly, and occasionally publicly, fumed at what he perceived as the incompetence that plagued the war effort. Complaints over problems of supply recur in his diary. Hill especially resented the volunteers who augmented the regular army, excepting only his brother Albert. He derided General Gideon Pillow, a volunteer and crony of President James K. Polk with no formal military background, as a "fool" (p. 71), an "ass" (pp. 111, 121), and an "ignorant puppy" (p. 123). Hill and Pillow grew so antagonistic that they openly clashed before the Battle of Chapultepec, as General Winfield Scott culminated his campaign to capture the Mexican capital in September 1847. The proclivity of volunteers to victimize the residents of occupied towns further violated Hill's sense of military ethic. Both the volunteers and the lapses in adequate provision derived from the underlying fact that invading Mexico presented U.S. military planners with an unprecedented logistical challenge, for the army had never undertaken an offensive operation of such scale. Hill's ire thus sheds light not only on the professionalization of the army, but also on the tension inherent in the military's struggle to adapt to the demands of U.S. expansionism.

Hill devoted much of his diary to cataloging the quotidian elements of life in the field. He noted troop movements, the size and composition of individual units, and the order of battle. He also made detailed observations on the everyday experience of the soldier. Chapter 1 vividly portrays the misery of a mid-summer march through the arid savannah of the Mexican northeast in 1846. The last half of the book features colorful, and at times graphic, descriptions of close-quarter combat with Mexicans desperately defending their capital. Hill composed detailed critiques of U.S. and Mexican strategy alike. He also wrote earnestly of the contradictory mix of fright and excitement he felt in moments of pitched violence, recognizing, though not analyzing, the way war validated his existence as a soldier. As to his motivation to fight, the diary is all but silent aside from the invocation of egalitarianism inherent in his assertion that "we are fighting the Army and the Aristocracy not the people of Mexico [Hill's emphasis]" (p. …

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