The Regiment of Voltigeurs, USA

A Case Study of the Mexican-American War by Erik Donald France


A CASE STUDY OF THE MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR (First presented at the Palo Alto International Conference on the Mexican-American War, Brownsville, Texas, February 1994)


Erik D. France

Temple University


The creation and organization of the Voltigeurs was made possible by two public laws passed by the Twenty-ninth Congress of the United States. The key laws were approved and enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives and were signed by President James Knox Polk on February 11 and March 3, 1847, prior to the Siege of Veracruz (or Vera Cruz) directed by Major General Winfield Scott in Mexico. The first law was printed in droll nineteenth-century American political dialect. Entitled, “An Act to raise for a limited Time an additional military Force, and for other Purposes,” it called for the creation of new regiments for exclusively wartime service, but primarily provided details about the enlisted men. The second law, “An Act making Provision for an additional Number of general Officers. and for other Purposes” provided more details about commissioned and non-commissioned officers and addressed other organizational matters. [1]


To spark enthusiasm for new enlistment and to curtail desertion of those already serving in the ranks, non-commissioned officers. musicians, privates, and surviving immediate relatives of men who served a minimum of twelve months or who were killed or discharged honorably prior to  a year, were guaranteed “a certificate or warrant” for 160 acres of public land or an official “scrip” for $100 “bearing 6 per cent interest.” Earlier “six months volunteers” who had left for home were promised forty acres of land or $25 in bounty for their services. Thus, the noncommissioned officers and men who enlisted and served in the United States Army during the Mexican War had a tangible incentive and reward for doing so. This approach brought in large numbers of new recruits in 1847, far more than were actually needed to win the war. [2]


The act approved February 11, 1847, authorized ten new regular regiments (nine infantry and one dragoon) to serve for the duration of the war. The following stipulation enabled President Polk to create the Voltigeurs:


Provided, that one or more of the regiments of infantry authorized to be raised by this section may, at the discretion of the President, be organized and equipped as voltigeurs and as foot-riflemen, and be provided with a rocket and mountain howitzer battery. [3]


No explanation as to how voltigeurs and foot riflemen were supposed to be equipped was made within this act, nor was any rationale given for why such regiment(s) would be· “provided with a rocket and mountain howitzer battery.” The specific origin of this part of the bill has been difficult to trace. Its general origin, aside from the attached special artillery, can be deduced from the designation “voltigeurs” and “foot-riflemen.”


The French word “voltigeur” as a noun is defined in one twentieth-century French and English dictionary as a “performer on horseback, on the slack rope, on the flying trapeze” and as light infantryman, rifleman. “The "Flying Dutchman” of literary myth roughly translates as “le grand voltigeur hollandaise.”[4] An early twentieth-century military dictionary defines voltigeurs in specifically military terms: “Picked companies of irregular riflemen in French regiments. They are selected for courage, great activity and small stature. It is their privilege to lead the attack.” [5]


Voltigeurs were trained to deploy in loose skirmish formation. Unlike the bulk of the line infantry, they were supposed to harass enemy battle formations with individually aimed fire. Most eighteenth and early-to-mid-nineteenth century line infantrymen were armed with smoothbore muskets fired in massed volleys. Whereas the line infantry depended on volume of musket fire aimed in the general direction of enemy formations, voltigeurs armed with rifles used to pick off individual targets. Because rifles were harder to load, they required more skill and steadiness than smoothbore muskets. Rifles, however, had an effective range considerably greater than smoothbore muskets. Whereas a typical musket was reliable only within about fifty yards of an enemy formation, rifles could hit targets between two and four hundred yards away. Voltigeurs were to fight in flexible skirmisher formations, like trapeze artists rather than the typical automaton-like line infantry fighting in ranks two or three deep. [6]


The use of voltigeurs became widespread in the French Revolutionary and especially  the Napoleonic armies. Formed in companies, usually one per battalion, they were often detached in battle to deploy as skirmishers in advance of the main battle line. They were roughly equivalent to the one company of light infantry attached to each battalion in the British Army. Voltigeurs in particular (and skirmishers and light infantry in general) became more prominent in Napoleon’s armies. They were increased from one company per nine-company battalion (circa 1805) to one company per six-company battalion (circa 1808). [7]


When Congress gave the President the option of creating Voltigeur regiments out of the nine new regular infantry regiments created for the Mexican War, it was clearly reflective of French influence in the United States Army. Officers in the Army apparently found willing sponsors of this section of the additional force bill in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The additional name of “Foot Riflemen” both distinguishes the type of unit envisioned from the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen created in 1846, and possibly reflects an affinity for British rifle regiments of the Napoleonic period. Perhaps Voltigeurs and Foot Riflemen were envisioned as especially suited for campaigning in the rugged interior of Mexico, much as French voltigeurs and British riflemen had been deployed for campaigning against each other in the Napoleonic campaigns in Spain, Portugal, and Southwest France. [8]


Furthermore, the Voltigeurs were considered something of an elite. In February, 1847, President Polk himself reportedly described the “Corps of Voltigeurs” as a unit “of higher rank.” [9] What is less clear is why the President opted to make only one of the new regular infantry regiments an elite light infantry unit. It may be that he did not wish to denigrate the rest of the infantry. Intellectuals of the French Army around the same time “complained ... of the enervating effect of picked corps which made the mass of the army a mere residuum” or residue. [10]


The act approved March 3, 1847, authorized the formation of the ten additional regular regiments into brigades of three or more regiments and divisions of two or more brigades. Alternately, new regiments could be added to existing brigades and divisions. The President was authorized to appoint with the “advice and consent of the Senate,” up to three new brigadier generals and up to two new major generals. Officers assigned to the ten new regular regiments were to be discharged from their duties at the end of the war. [11] The military practices and situation resulting from this and the February 11 act were somewhat improvised. General Winfield Scott continued to prepare for his Veracruz-Mexico City campaign, of necessity relying on assurances from government officials that these reinforcements would join him during the campaign. The War Department stepped up its issuing of orders, attempting to coordinate troop movements within and outside the United States in a coherent manner.


On March 4, 1847, Army Adjutant General Roger Jones ordered official commencement of recruiting and organizing of the ten new regular regiments. Each regiment was to recruit for ten complete companies with a proscribed minimum of eighty men per company. The Regiment of Voltigeurs were to enlist men and form companies in six states: three companies in Maryland; two in Pennsylvania and two in Virginia; and one respectively in Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky. The regimental headquarters, which included recently appointed commanding officer Colonel Thomas Patrick Andrews, was situated in the city of Washington. The first seven companies were to concentrate at Fort Monroe, Virginia, prior to embarkation for Mexico. The remaining three were directed to “proceed direct to Mexico, under their respective captains, as soon as organized.” [12]


Colonel Andrews had sent out a circular to his new company commanders on March 3 ordering them to instruct their recruits in squad and company drill. “Let the enlisting and drilling go on together,” he directed, "and both with all possible energy. We are compelled to take the field immediately that the Corps is filled up, and unless the drilling keeps pace with the recruiting, we shall go under every disadvantage. [13]  The companies were to drill according to the “Scott system," which for the infantry officers entailed consultation of the three-volume Infantry Tactics, or, Rules for the Exercise and Maneuvers of the United States' Infantry, written in 1835 by Winfield Scott and loosely based on French infantry drill manuals. [14]


On February 27, 1847, Niles' National Register listed the names and ranks of officers appointed by President Polk with the advice and consent of the Senate, revealing that the largest contingent came from Pennsylvania. Colonel Andrews of the District of Columbia, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Johnston of Virginia, and Captain Charles J. Biddle of Pennsylvania were just a few of the ambitious men who received appointments. Andrews emigrated to the United States from Ireland sometime between his 1794 birthdate and the War of 1812. In 1813, he volunteered as a naval officer’s aide and was commissioned in 1822 as a paymaster in the United States Army. He served in this staff capacity until his appointment to command the Voltigeurs. [15] It is difficult to surmise why he was chosen to lead a specialized light infantry unit or even a combat unit. He may have been chosen for his Irish ethnicity as an inspiration for foreign-born recruits. At fifty-three, he was also older and had served the Army competently for twenty-five years.


Forty-year old Joseph E. Johnston, second-in-command of the Voltigeurs, graduated from West Point in 1829. His military experiences before the Mexican War were varied, including field and staff appointments and service in the Black Hawk War expedition of 1832 and in the Second Seminole War (1837-1842). He was commissioned a first lieutenant (brevet captain) in the newly created elite Topographical Engineers in 1838. In 1845 he married Lydia McLane, daughter of Louis McLane, former Senator from Delaware, Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, first president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and Minister to England. Johnston served with distinction in the Topographical Engineers at the Siege of Veracruz, and on April 12, 1847, he was wounded reconnoitering the Mexican lines prior to the Battle of Cerro Gordo. [16]  Given his professional education and experience, Johnston was actually more suited for command of the regiment than Colonel Andrews.


Under a provision (section three) of the February 11 act, each regiment, old and new, was authorized to have two majors, rather than the traditional one, for additional help with command and control of new recruits. George Alfred Caldwell and George H. Talcott became majors of the Voltigeurs. Caldwell, born in Columbia, Kentucky, in 1814, became a lawyer and served for the 1839-1840 term in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He had subsequently been elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives in the Twenty-eighth Congress from 1843 to 1845 and was thirty-two years old at the time of his appointment to his majority. Talcott, a native New Yorker, overlapped Joseph E. Johnston at West Point, graduating in 1831 and serving in the artillery and ordnance. He was about thirty-eight years old at the time of his appointment to majority. [17]


The ten original company commanders included Captain James Jay Archer of Stafford or Bel Air, Maryland, and Captain Charles John Biddle of Philadelphia. Archer, a Princeton graduate and lawyer, was twenty-nine years old when appointed to the Voltigeurs. Captain Biddle, son of former Bank of the United States President Nicholas Biddle, was just under twenty-eight years old when commissioned. Like Archer, he was a Princeton graduate lawyer. [18]


Biddle assertively pursued his appointment as captain in the Army even before the creation of the Voltigeurs. More than a week before the first ten-regiment act was approved, he wrote directly to President Polk, who learned from Biddle’s friends in Congress that the aspiring young lawyer was, like the President, a Democrat. Not only had Biddle raised the informal minimum of sixty-four enlistees for an infantry company, he had also found two men to serve as his lieutenants who were “both gentlemen of mature judgment.” [19]  Furthermore, he traveled to the Capitol to lobby personally for a commission. A friend wrote to him from Washington after he returned to Philadelphia regarding the scramble for new commissions: “Since you left here, there has been a desperate growl among all the hungry applicants and some of them have been impudent enough to question the propriety of your appointment,” which by then had been promised. [20]


On To Mexico City


The United States Army under Major General Winfield Scott successfully captured Veracruz on March 29, 1847. It moved inland and defeated an army under the primary and ubiquitous Mexican commander General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo on April 18. The American Army captured the town of Jalapa the same day and moved on to occupy the city of Puebla—subsequent base of operations in the interior—on May 28, 1847. Meanwhile, officers of the Voltigeurs prepared to rendezvous in the field and continued to receive rapidly changing news and orders.


Captain Charles J. Biddle’s company of Voltigeurs was without weapons and was destined to remain so until its arrival in Mexico. This was probably true of the other companies also. Captain Biddle was informed at Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania, that his men would be supplied with percussion rifles and accoutrements at Fort Monroe. Late in March he was directed by Colonel Andrews to ready his company for transport by rail to Baltimore, for embarkation on transports at Fort McHenry, and for assembly at Fort Monroe. This plan was changed to assembly at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and movement by land and river transport to New Orleans, Louisiana, where equipment would be distributed. However, even when most of the Voltigeurs had assembled in Mexico at Veracruz and prepared to march inland to join Scott’s army at Puebla, their rifles had still not been distributed. Biddle complained in a letter to a friend that “... my men are certainly ignorant of the use of any weapons. They are to be armed with the rifle which particularly requires long exercise as it is necessary for the men to be marksmen to be at all effective as light troops.” He was furthermore disgusted that he and many of his men were sick. “We live in a degenerate age,” he continued to his friend, “and men can stand nothing.” [21]


Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Johnston, recuperating from wounds suffered at Cerro Gordo, quartered in Jalapa with his nephew, First Lieutenant John Preston Johnston of the First Artillery. On June 3, the younger Johnston wrote to his sister Eliza in Virginia about their “Uncle Jo,” who was able to walk “without his crutch being only troubled by the stiffness of his right arm and leg.” Further, he wrote, the lieutenant colonel was beginning “to be impatient” for the arrival of his regiment. [22]


Brigadier General George Cadwalader, one of the newly appointed brigadiers, soon marched into Jalapa with his brigade of new regulars, including the Voltigeur Regiment. Johnston assumed his role as second-in-command of the Voltigeurs, and the column proceeded toward Scott’s main force in Puebla. As the column was harassed by Mexican irregulars, it proceeded carefully. The threat of Mexican guerrillas probably helped prevent straggling: undoubtedly few of the invaders wished to risk capture or death at the enemy’s hands. [23]


Major General Gideon Pillow, newly appointed as division commander, joined Cadwalader’s brigade at Perote with more reinforcements by the end of June. Pillow ordered the whole column to head out for Puebla, placing a detachment of dragoons, the Voltigeurs, and the Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery in the vanguard.  In this order of march they reached Puebla on July 8, 1847. [24]


For the next month, the Voltigeurs drilled and prepared for combat against the Mexican forces defending the approaches to Mexico City. Meanwhile, General Scott reorganized his army to incorporate the new regiments arriving from Veracruz.  less than eleven thousand combat-ready. By August 7, Scott’s forces in Puebla amounted to less than eleven thousand combat-ready effectives: over three thousand more were sick or otherwise incapacitated. [25]


The Voltigeurs were unique in Winfield Sott’s army, because they had their own specially equipped attached battery. They were one of probably three units armed with rifles rather than smoothbore muskets. An Ordnance Department statement listing equipment “issued to troops ordered to Mexico, between June 30, 1846, and June 30, 1847, includes 3,722 rifles.” Since less than 1,200 men served in the Voltigeurs, it is likely that a rifle was issued to each enlisted man serving in the regiment. The actual type of rifle issued was probably the Model 1841 United States “Windsor” or “Jager” rifle. In addition to having rifles and their own battery, the Voltigeurs were supposed to have been issued their own unique gray cloth rather than the standard infantry colors of light or dark blue. However, as late as January 8, 1848, the gray uniforms had not been received in the field; instead the men wore “Infantry c1othing, none else being on hand.” [26]


The Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery was officially “assigned to duty” with the Voltigeurs on July 17, 1847. The Battery (or Company as it was sometimes called) fielded four to six Model 1835 bronze smoothbore twelve-pounder howitzers with effective range of about one thousand yards. The gun carriages were light and relatively easy to disassemble and pack on mules for added mobility in difficult terrain. The rocket component consisted of a stockpile of Hale’s rockets and specially manufactured launchers. The rockets had been designed by William Hale, an American or English inventor (sources conflict), and were supposedly effective to 2,200 yards; the Army acquired rights of use in December 1846, and decided to try them out in the field.  Second Lieutenant Jesse Reno commanded them as section of the Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery. The Ordnance Department sent 1,328 rockets to the Army in Mexico, and the battery fired at least 130 of them while engaged against the Mexicans. [27]


Even before its attachment to the Voltigeurs, the Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery had proven its usefulness, flexibility and compatibility with rifleman. Rockets and howitzers had been used against Mexican cavalry during the Veracruz landings and at Cerro Gordo, in conjunction with detachment of the Mounted Rifle Regiment, against Mexican infantry and artillery. To facilitate the new arrangement, some of the officers from the Voltigeurs were instructed in the handling and firing of Hale's rockets. On April 6, 1847, Colonel Timothy P. Andrews described his experiences firing them in a letter to Captain Charles J. Biddle. Mounted on a “stand,” the rockets were to be aimed low and lit with a quick match. “I found a low elevation very necessary for all distances under a longe range,” Andrews wrote, describing the stand as “a good one as it is strong, & can be elevated or depressed at pleasure, but I think it is too heavy …” [28]  Through its association with the Voltigeurs the battery could be  employed in separate sections mixing rockets and howitzers as needed and in numerous combinations as desired by the officers.


The Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery and the Voltigeurs were frequently drilled . during their month at Puebla in preparation for the final advance on Mexico City. Drilling each morning lasted from seven to ten o’clock, and again in the afternoon from three to five o’clock. Somewhat better prepared for combat, the regiment marched out of Puebla on August 7, forming the rearguard of Pillow’s Division.


At Contreras/Padierna on August 19, 1847, Mexican General Gabriel Valencia’s artillery opened up on the van of the American column advancing near the southwest corner of the rugged Pedregal. The Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery was ordered up together with Captain John B. Magruder’s Battery to engage Valencia’s twenty-two guns. The American howitzers took a heavy pounding, facing between two and three times their number at a range of about eight hundred yards. Both Captain John Magruder and Lieutenant Frank Callender went down seriously wounded. Lieutenant John Preston Johnstone of Magruder’s Battery was cut  down by an eighteen pound ball. Lieutenant Jesse Reno kept his own rocket section firing after most of the two batteries’ howitzers were disabled or withdrawn. Reno fired all one hundred rockets on hand and then retired to a sheltered position for the night. [29]


During the night, the Voltigeurs advanced through the Pedregal with several other regiments and moved into position behind and overlapping Valencia’s right flank. Early on the morning of August 20, the Voltigeurs, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Johnston, joined in a surprise attack that routed Valencia’s troops in less than half an hour. They then joined in the subsequent attack on the Mexican defenses at Churubusco. There, rather than rush across an “uncovered” expanse swept by artillery and small-arms fire, the Voltigeurs lay down behind piles of dead horses and rubble and fired their rifles. [30] The Voltigeurs suffered only eight casualties at Contreras/Padierna and Churubusco; the Rocket and Howitzer Battery, however, suffered heavily, with three killed and twelve wounded. Whereas the American artillery had engaged in a direct duel with Valencia’s large concentration of artillery, the Voltigeurs had engaged in a surprise flank attack and protected covering fire.


At the Battle of Molino del Rey on September 7, 1847, the Voltigeurs constituted about ten percent of the attacking force. During the engagement they performed a variety of missions. They provided close support for the initial assault, worked together with the American dragoons to repulse a Mexican cavalry attack. and fought detached in groups of one or two companies. Here the Voltigeurs suffered heavily: 102 killed, wounded, or missing out of 341 officers and men engaged. [31]


The Voltigeurs received their “privilege to lead the attack” at Chapultepec. September 13. 1847, following a sharp thirty-minute artillery barrage. Lieutenant Jesse Reno deployed the serviceable howitzers of the Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery in front of the Molino del Rey building complex and fired into a copse of woods at the base of the Chapultepec castle. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Johnston led the infantry attack on the right with a temporary four-company battalion of Voltigeurs; Colonel Timothy P. Andrews led a similar battalion on the left. Johnston’s battalion “deployed in a run, each company firing as soon as it deployed, drove the enemy from the parapet [below the castle] before the rear company was in line,” and spread out in skirmish formation to fire with rifles at the castle defenders. When Reno advanced with two mountain howitzers, Johnston ordered him to fire at close range on the main gate from which the Mexicans might try to escape. Other storming parties moved up and mingled with the Voltigeurs. Captain Samuel Mackenzie, commanding a 260-man storming party, found the Voltigeurs firing from prone or crouching positions on the rocky slope of Chapultepec; his men were less than enthusiastic about charging through their rifle fire and “showed a disposition to take cover with them.” The assault continued when another detachment brought up ladders to mount the castle ditch and walls. Johnston and several other officers spurred the men over the walls and into the castle complex. The position was quickly overrun. Within twenty-four hours Mexico City fell to the American Army. The Voltigeurs had five killed, four missing, and forty-three wounded. The Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery had suffered one mortality and five wounded. [32]


After The Fighting


The Voltigeurs performed routine garrison and occupation duties until their disbandment in mid-1848. They frequently operated in and around Mexico City, but detachments occasionally escorted columns of wagons and troops between the capital and Veracruz. Eleven officers of the regiment joined the Aztec Club in Mexico City, a social organization which supposedly included “none but gentlemen.” In the Aztec Club, the Voltiguers provided the largest contingent from a line unit in Scott’s army.” [33] By its very formation, the Aztec Club reinforced the ideological separation of the officer corps from the enlisted ranks, echoing the Society of the Cincinnati formed by Continental Army officers at the end of the American Revolution.


The Voltigeurs were officially disbanded on August 25, 1848, though Colonel Andrews, Lieutenant Colonel Johnston and Major George·Talcott, rejoined their old regular units with lower peacetime ranks on July 19-20. There was, however, a movement among former regimental officers to reconstitute the Voltigeurs late in 1848. Apparently, Joseph E. Johnston, back in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, was working to add the Voltigeurs to the permanent Army. William S. Walker, former lieutenant in E Company, wrote to Charles J. Biddle that Johnston “says he would rather go the North Pole a Colonel than remain in his present position.” The Voltigeurs were never reorganized. [34]


Several former officers of the Voltigeurs and Foot Riflemen continued in public service after the regiment was disbanded. Timothy Andrews resumed his position as Army Paymaster, and in  this capacity contributed to the Union war effort during the American Civil War. He died in the District of Columbia in 1868, still serving in the Army. Joseph E. Johnston continued in the United States Army until 1861, when he resigned his post as Quartermaster General and joined the Confederacy to become one of its most prominent and controversial generals. After the war he was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives (1879-1881) and was appointed Commissioner of Railroads in 1885.  He died m 1891, still in public service.


Several former captains and lieutenants of the Voltigeurs received commissions of considerably higher rank during the Civil War. James J. Archer, Birkett D. Fry, William S. Walker, and James E. Slaughter all served as Confederate brigadier generals. Before siding with the Confederacy in 1861, Fry moved to California in 1849, joined William Walker (not William S. Walker of the Voltigeurs) in his filibustering expedition to Nicaragua, and served as a brigadier general in Walker’s army. Charles J. Biddle had the rare opportunity, in 1861, of choosing between accepting a commission as brigadier general in the Union Army or taking a seat in the United States House of Representatives. A Democrat, he chose the Thirty-seventh Congress. Later in the war he became editor of a Democratic newspaper in Philadelphia. He died in 1873 at or near the age of fifty-four. Of the Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery, Jesse L. Reno remained with the Ordnance Department until he was requested to serve as an infantry brigade commander by Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside during the Civil War. In less than a year, Reno was promoted from ordnance captain to major general in command of the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Having survived serious wounds in the Mexican War, he was killed in action at the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862.


Did the United States Army learn anything from its Mexican War experiment with the ith the Regiment of Voltigeurs and Foot Riflemen with attached Rocket and Mountain Howitzer Battery? The Army as a... corporate entity does not seem to have absorbed much in the way of innovative tactical experiences with rocketeers or riflemen. Hale’s rockets were apparently scarcely used in the Mexican War after Contreras despite their successful employment in action at that battle, at Cerro Gordo, and near Veracruz. One drawback may have been that they “lacked an adequate guidance system and inaccurately dispersed' their fire over a very large area.” [35] Even so, rockets had the advantage of being relatively light, mobile, and easy to fire. The Army should have adopted them on a larger scale for further experimentation and innovation. They had already proven useful against cavalry and would probably have been useful against the Western Plains Indians.


The Army did not opt to retain or add voltigeurs to their roster of standing peacetime regiments. Neither the Confederates nor the Union Army designated any of their regiments as voltigeurs during Civil War. However, more fancifully-uniformed Zouave companies and regiments were raised for militia and volunteer service in the 1850s and 1860s, continuing one form of French influence in the American Army. [36]


A few individual officers seem to have learned about the killing capacity of the percussion rifle before the Civil War. Kirby Smith of the Light Battalion, Persifor Frazer Smith of the Mounted Rifles, and Joseph E. Johnston of the Voltigeurs were experienced combat officers of units armed with such weapons. Of these three, Kirby Smith was killed at Molino del Rey on September 8, 1847, and Persifor Smith died in 1858. Johnston seems to have tried to kindle interest in a permanent Voltigeur Regiment after the Mexican War, and failing that, applied for the colonelcy of a new rifle regiment in 1854. [37] If the American Army learned anything from the Voltigeur experiment, Johnston was the chief recipient and exemplar of that knowledge. For most officers, it was not the Mexican War but the Civil War that taught the primacy of the rifle. Though the United States Army did not form new voltigeur regiments after the Mexican-American War, by the end of the American Civil War the widespread distribution and use of rifles inevitably caused the American infantrymen to fight more in the manner of voltigeurs.


Aside from tactical innovations, the experience of the Regiment of Voltigeurs reflected socio-economic differences between the officer corps and enlisted personnel in the American Army—something akin to, but more pronounced than, modern-day differences between salaried employees and hourly wage workers. Officers presided over enlisted troops in a strict hierarchical social organization. Officers usually came into their positions laterally with the help of previous socio-political connections or prior professional training. Through their Mexican War service, the officers gained a sort of social capital to aid them in their quest for advancement up the social hierarchy. Service as an officer in wartime was especially coveted by men who were influenced by the age’s Romantic ideology. Rather than use family influence to evade service, these Romantics actively sought glory on the battlefield.


Indeed, many of the surviving officers of the Voltigeurs benefitted from their Mexican War service. The enlisted personnel also benefitted from their Mexican War service, but in a different way. Each man or surviving relative received from the government a material piece of “Manifest Destiny” in the way of a capital grant of 160 acres in land or $100 in government scrip after the war. By providing them with start-up capital, this government policy promoted the modest integration of low-income foreign-born and native-born families into the expanding market economy. Nearly 88,000 Mexican War bounty land warrants involving over thirteen million acres had been issued by 1855. [38] Whereas the Mexican War officers received social capital, the enlisted veterans received land or cash.


The Mexican-American War promoted a revival of martial fervor throughout much of the United States. This was especially evident in the Army officer corps and amongst those political appointees of 1847, who after the peace assumed or resumed influential posts in their respective state militias and volunteer organizations. The officer corps had suffered from a severe malaise during the bitterly contested Second Seminole War which ended in 1842. The successfully fought battles of 1846-1847 restored confidence and resurrected passion for Napoleonic-style glory and Romantic idealism.


The Civil War fourteen years later provided the next major opportunity for Romantic fulfillment of soldierly ambition. The nearly complete technological changeover to the rifle by the mid-1860s, which should have prompted a consequent change towards more cautious tactical thought could not overturn enthusiasm for the romance of direct Napoleonic frontal assault. Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, and Pickett’s Charge might have been less disastrous for the attackers, if their commanders had brought with them more than just the Romantic inspiration of Chapultepec. Application of the specialized assault tactics of the Voltigeurs and other improvised storming parties might have brought not only the spirit of Chapultepec, but the victory as well.




[1]. United States Statutes at Large (Buffalo, N.Y.: Dennis & Co., 1964), IX, 123-126, 184-186. Hereafter cited as Statutes at Large.


[2]. Statutes at Large, 125-126; Emory Upton, The Military Policy of the Unied States, Fourth Impression. (Washington; Government Printing Office, 1917); U.S. War Department, Doc: No. 290, Office of the Chief of Staff), 210-222. James M. McCaffrey, in Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War, 1846-1848 (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 176, claims that despite the land bounty and other bonuses, “recruiting was slow.” He underestimates both the effectiveness of recruiting and the importance of the land bounty.


[3]. Statutes at Large, 124.


[4]. J.E. Mansion, Harrap’s Standard French and English Dictionary (London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1934), I, 898.


[5].  Edward S. Farrow, A Dictionary of Military Terms (London: Library Press Limited, [1918], 653; See also Le General LeCouturier, Dictionnaire portatif et raisonne des connaissances militaires (Paris: Chez Pierre Blanchard, Libraire, 1825), 517-518.


[6]. E.M. Lloyd, A Review of the History of Infantry (London, 1908), 231-236; Steven Ross From Flintlock to Rifle: Infantry Tactics, 1740-1866 (London: Associated University Press, 1979), 162-164; David G. Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1979), 432; Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 to the Present (New York, 1986), 732-735.


[7]. Chandle'r, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, 208, 432.


[8]. The Mounted Riflemen were also created by public law. See “An Act to provide for raising a Regiment of mounted Riflemen…” in Statutes at Large, 13-14; Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, 288, 433.


[9]. Charles John Biddle at Philadelphia, Pa. to President James K. Polk at Washington, D.C., February 2, 1847. Charles J. Biddle Series, Biddle Family Papers (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.). This collection hereafter cited as Biddle Papers.


[10].  Lloyd, A Review of the History of Infantry, 244.


[11].  Statutes at Large, 184-186.


[12]. “General Orders, No. 8,” War Department, Adj’t General’s Office, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1847, in Niles’ National Register, March 13, 1847 Facsimile reprint (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969), 218-219.


[13]. Circular, Col T P Andrews at Washington D.C., "To the Company Commanders of the Voltigeur Regiment,”  March 3, 1847. Addressed to Capt. C.J. Biddle, U.S. Voltigeurs, Philadelphia, Pa., in Biddle Papers.


[14]. Niles' National Register March 13, 1847, 19; [W]infield Scott, Infantry Tactics, or Rules for the Exercise and Maneuvers of the United States’ Infantry (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1857). Originally adopted by the U.S. Department of War in 1835 and copyrighted by the author in 1840.


[15]. The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (Ncw York: James T. White & Co., 1893). IV, 321-322.


[16]. See Craig L. Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992).


[17]. Who Was Who in American History -- The Military (Chicago, Ill.: Marquis Who's Who, Inc., 1975), 80; George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (2 vols., Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1891), I, 474.


[18]. Another captain, James N. Caldwell, remained in Ohio on recruiting service. Mark Mayo Boatner, III, The Civil War Dictionary (New York: David McKay Co., 1959), 23; Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959), 11; Who Was Who in American History, 14; Cullum, Biographical Register, II, 48-49; National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, XI, 395-396.


[19]. Charles John Biddle at Philadelphia, Pa., to President James K. Polk at Washington, D.C., February 2, 1847, Biddle Papers.


[20]. Benjamin H. Brewster at Washington, D.C., to Charles J. Biddle at Philadelphia, Pa., February 14, 1847, Biddle Papers. It should also be noted that of the approximately ten first lieutenants and nineteen second lieutenants, several had received military schooling (at places such as the Virginia Military Institute) and were sons of well-to-do famers. It can be surmised that social class and education played a major role in the appointment of all the officers.


[21]. George Talcott, Ordnance Office, at Washington, D.C., to Capt. Charles J. Biddle at Fort Mifflin, Pa., February 26, 1847; Col. Timothy P. Andrews at Washington, D.C., to Capt. Charles J. Biddle at Philadelphia, Pa., March 21,1847; Capt. Charles J. Biddle at Vera Cruz, Mexico, to [?], June 1,1847, Biddle Papers.


[22]. Lt. John Preston Johnstone at Jalapa, Mexico, to Eliza Johnston at Abingdon, Va., June 3, 1847, Robert Morton Hughes, Jr., Papers, (Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia). Both nephew and uncle alternated the spelling of the family name between Johnston and Johnstone. Though Joseph later used only Johnston, his name often appears as Johnstone in Mexican War documents.


[23]. Brig. Gen. George Cadwalader at Puebla, Mexico, draft, "Review of incidents on march from June 7 [1847]," July 11, 1847, George Cadwalader Papers, (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.) Hereinafter cited as Cadwalader Papcrs.


[24]. "General Orders, Head Qrs Pillow's Div., Perote, Mexico, July 2, 1847, in Cadwalader Papers, See also Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr.,  and Roy P. Stonesifer, Jr., The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 79.


[25]. Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico (2 vols., New York: The MacMillan Co., 1919), II, 77.


[26].Report from the Ordnance Department," Lt. L.A.B. Walbach and Lt. Col. G. Talcott at Washington, D.C., to Secretary of War William  L. Marcy, November 20, 1847, in [United States Government,] Executive Documents Printed by Order of the Senate (Serial Set 503) (Washington: Printed by Wendell and van Benthuysen, 1847-1848), I,685, volume hereafter cited as Sen. Exec. Doc.; Col. Timothy P. Andrews, January 8, 1848, quoted in Philip R.N. Karcher, The Mexican-American War, 1846-1848 (London: Osprey Publishing Limited, 1976), 13. Karcher does not provide further contextual details about this document.


[27]. Lester R. Dillon, Jr., American Artillery in the Mexican War, 1846-1847 (Austin, Tex.: Presidial Press, 1975), 12, 17. Dillon states that Hale was an American inventor. “Report from the Ordnance Department,”  Sen. Exec. Doc. (Serial Set 503), 685, 697, states that Hale was "of England."


[28]. Col. Timothy P. Andrews at Washington, D.C., to Capt. Charles J. Biddle at [?], April 6, 1847, Biddle Papers; for previous engagements see Niles' National Register, June 5, 1847, 218-219.


[29]. See after-action report of Contreras and Churubusco, Lt. J.L. Reno to Col. T.P. Andrews, no date, in Appendix, Sen. Exec. Doc. (Serial Set 503), 123-124.


[30]. See after-action report of Contreras, Lt Col J E Johnstone at Mixcoac, Mexico, to Col. T.P. Andrews, August 24, 1847, in Appendix, Sen. Exec. Doc. (Serial Set 503), 123.


[31]. See Smith, The War with Mexico, II, 140-147, 400-404; “Field return of troops engaged at Molino del Rey September 8, 1847, under command of Brevet Major General Worth,” W.W. MacKall, A.A.G. and Brevet Maj. Gen. W.J. Worth, in Sen. Exec. Doc. (Serial Set 503), 368-369; “Tabular statement of casualties in the command of Major General Worth, in the action of Molino del Rey, September 8, 1847,” Capt. W.W. MacKall, A.A.G., in Sen. Exec. Doc. (Serial Set 503), 371.


[32]. See after-action report, Lt. Col. J.E. Johnstone at Mexico City to Col. T.P. Andrews, September 17, 1847, Exec. Doc., Appendix (Serial Set 503), 210-211; After-action report, Capt. S[amuel] Mackenzie at Mexico City to Capt. W.W. Mackall, A.A.G., 1st division head-quarters, Sen. Exec. Doc., 231; T. Harry Williams (ed.), With Beauregard in Mexico: The Mexican War Reminiscences of P.G.T. Beauregard ([Baton Rouge]: Louisiana State University Press, 1956), 79-83;  H.C. Longnecker, Adjutant, “Casualties incident to the U.S. Voltigeur regiment in the storming of the fortress of Chapultepec on the 13th September, 1847, near the city of Mexico,” September 16, 1847, in Sen. Exec. Doc. (Serial Set 503), 208-211; “Return of the killed, wounded and missing of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, during the attack on Chapultepec and the City of Mexico, on the 13th and 14th Sept., 1847,” Cadwalader Papers.


[33]. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 26; see “List of Original Members of the Aztec Club,” in Cadmus M. Wilcox, History of the Mexican War (Washington, D.C.: The Church News Publishing Company, 1892), 710-711.


[34]. William S. Walker at Washington City, D.C., to Charles J. Biddle at Philadelphia, Pa., November 6, 1848, Biddle Papers.


[35]. Dillon, American Artillery in the Mexican War, 59.


[36]. Boatner, Civil War Dictionary, 880 954. Boatner makes a direct comparison between Zouaves and voltigeurs, and states baldly that "a number of Voltigeur units appeared before and during the Civil War.” (Boatner, 880). Evidence of Zouave units is readily available, but not of voltigeur units; see also Lloyd, A Review of the History of Infantry, 236, and Ross, From Flintlock to Rifle, 162-164, 181.


[37]. William S. Walker at Washington City, D. C., to Charles J. Biddle at Philadelphia, Pa, November 6, 1848, Biddle Papers;  J.E. Johnson at Louisville, Ky., to General George Cadwalader at Philadelphia, Pa., February 11, 1854, Cadwalader Papers.


[38]. Thomas A. Hendricks, “Report of the Commissioner of the General Land Office,” November 30, 1855, in The New American State Papers. Public Lands, Volume 2: Administration (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1972), 396.


[Please feel fee to quote or use as a source. My only request is some form of acknowledgement and/or link. -- EDF.