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American Hotspur

By Frank Jastrzembski
11/1/2016 • Military History Magazine

Among the ranks of history’s unheralded officers, William Montrose Graham earned remembrance for his Mexican War service and sacrifice. 

Soon after the 1846–48 Mexican War, Marcus M.C. Hammond, a 4th U.S. Infantry veteran who had served as a wartime Army paymaster and later wrote a series of sketches about the conflict, admiringly compared a little-known Army officer to Sir Henry Percy, aka Hotspur, a famed English knight who had died in battle some 450 years earlier.

The obscure American officer, Lt. Col. William Montrose Graham, was, in Hammond’s estimation, “one of the hardiest and most heroic soldiers of the Army and the world.” Closing the tribute to his onetime superior officer, Hammond cited a verse from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, a reference to Hotspur, who was killed in the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury while leading a bold but ill-fated revolt to oust the title sovereign of the play:

This earth that bears thee dead

Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.

Though the American and the Englishman lived and died centuries apart, Hammond’s comparison of the noble warriors is, all things considered, a fair evaluation.

William Montrose Graham was born on Feb. 11, 1798, in Prince William County, Va., one of six children in a family of Scottish origin. His father, William Graham, had been a military physician in the Virginia ranks during the Revolutionary War and was at the battles of Brandywine and Monmouth. In June 1813 Will, 15, and brother James, 14, entered the U.S. Military Academy; both graduated in 1817 and were assigned to the Corps of Artillery as third lieutenants. In June 1821 1st Lt. Will Graham was transferred to the 4th Infantry, the unit that would be his military home for the next quarter-century. On Aug. 11, 1829, he was brevetted captain for 10 years of faithful service in his grade, and three years later was made full captain.

Graham first displayed his combat leadership skills during the Second Seminole War. At the Battle of Withlacoochee on New Year’s Eve 1835 he personally led a bayonet charge that broke the back of the Seminole defense. In the action he and younger brother Campbell (West Point Class of 1822) each suffered two severe gunshot wounds, Campbell’s very nearly fatal. For his part Will carried one bullet with him the rest of his life. In his after-action report Brig. Gen. Duncan Lamont Clinch praised Will as being “fearlessly brave,” noting that “although severely wounded early in the engagement, [he] continued to head his company in the most gallant manner, until he received another severe wound, when he was taken from the field.” For the brothers’ decisive roles in the battle, Campbell was brevetted captain and Will major for “Gallantry and Good Conduct in the Affair of the Withlacoochee, Florida.”

Will Graham spent the next seven years intermittently ranging the swamps and subtropical wilds of Florida to battle the tenacious Seminoles. He again distinguished himself during Colonel Zachary Taylor’s frontal assault on the Seminole position at Lake Okeechobee on Dec. 25, 1837, an ill-advised action that left 26 Americans dead and 112 wounded. Graham also participated in the pursuit and ultimate rout of Chief Halleck Tustenuggee and his band of Seminole holdouts. On April 19, 1842, a detachment of mounted soldiers under 1st Lt. George A. McCall surprised the Seminole camp near the settlement of Peliklakaha Hammock and captured all but one in the last action of the Second Seminole War.

Graham’s war in Florida was over, and he spent the next three years on uneventful frontier duty in Kansas. But a growing crisis on the southern border soon put him back in action.

The annexation of Texas into the Union on Dec. 29, 1845, sparked the outbreak of the Mexican War the following spring. Mexico was ill-prepared for the conflict, and U.S. forces quickly occupied large swaths of Alta California (the present-day American Southwest). The fighting then shifted to Mexico itself, as U.S. troops prepared to cross the Rio Grande.

Brevet Major Graham was commanding Fort Scott, Kansas, in July 1845 when he received orders to join then Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation for the forthcoming campaign. Graham arrived at Corpus Christi at the head of Company D of the 4th Infantry, a regiment that would produce such future Civil War notables as Christopher Augur, Henry M. Judah and Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1846 Graham led his men in the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, and he distinguished himself in the bloody street fighting at Monterrey that September. During the latter fight Graham, by then senior officer of the regiment, tenaciously held position. In his after-action report brigade commander Lt. Col. James Garland reported, “In their exposed situation [they] maintained their position against fearful odds.” An indebted Garland continued, “I reluctantly ordered this truly Spartan band to retire, and I am proud to say, under all their afflictions, it was accomplished in good order.” In recognition of his exemplary service Graham was promoted to full major in the 2nd U.S. Infantry on Feb. 16, 1847. In March he joined the regiment at the Siege of Veracruz.

Meanwhile, Congress had authorized the creation of 10 additional regiments of regular troops to serve for one year. On April 9 Graham was chosen to serve as lieutenant colonel (deputy commander) of the newly created 11th U.S. Infantry, a unit comprising raw recruits from Pennsylvania, Delaware and Graham’s native Virginia. He was promptly assigned to take part in Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott’s operations against Mexico City.

The 11th Infantry took part in the battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras and Churubusco. Brig. Gen. George Cadwalader commended Graham in his after-action report on the latter engagement, writing, “Lieutenant Colonel Wm. M. Graham, in command of the 11th Regiment, never lost a moment in pressing gallantly forward wherever service was to be performed, which his command always responded to with alacrity.”

In the predawn darkness of Sept. 8, 1847, Graham woke the 170 men of his regiment to prepare them for action. Scott had ordered three American columns totaling 3,450 men to storm the stout stonework defenses of Molino del Rey, just west of the gates of Mexico City. The 11th Infantry was to be part of the assault, which would prove the bloodiest battle of the Mexican War.

From the opening bugle the American assaulting columns faced withering Mexican gunfire from the strongly fortified Casa Mata, the rooftops of Molino del Rey and a fortified ditch running the length of the defense. Captain John C. Henshaw, who published a memoir of his wartime exploits, described how his fellow soldiers were “swept down like grain before the scythe,” suffering casualties amounting to nearly a quarter of their force.

Graham steadied his men as they came up in reserve to exploit a breach in the Mexican line, then led from the front as his company moved to support the faltering center of the attacking American column. Marching over the lifeless dead and groaning wounded, the soldiers attempted to split the Mexican defenses Brevet Maj. Gen. William Worth’s brigade had worked so hard to crack. As the men of the 11th Infantry moved forward, they came under a galling fire, yet one young soldier later recalled how Graham sat his horse “in the coolest manner and gave his commands as collectedly as when on a parade.”

Graham may have been cool under fire, but he was not invulnerable. Struck by two enemy bullets in quick succession, he was forced to dismount but remained on the field to steady and inspire his men.

The assaulting troops managed to push back the Mexicans to a strong position centered on a hacienda. With a burst of adrenaline, Graham fought through his painful wounds and drove his men forward until a virtual hive of well-aimed bullets tore through his coat into his body. The fighting swirled around his crumpled form, as Major Francis Lee of the 4th Infantry took up the charge, leading both his men and soldiers from various other regiments to carry the hacienda.

Though mortally wounded, Graham continued to inspire his men. Close friend Captain Robert Anderson, also wounded that day, recalled in his journal how “Graham fell, gallantly cheering his men on.” The lieutenant colonel died shortly after the capture of the enemy position, the most senior West Point graduate killed that day and arguably the most capable.

According to a period account, the soldiers under his command “braved every danger to rescue his bleeding body from piles of others by which it was surrounded.” His remains were first interred in a Spanish cemetery near Mexico City, then later reburied at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

By the time of his death at Molino del Rey, Graham was a 30-year veteran who had earned a sterling military reputation among superiors and the respect of those under his command. He had likewise proven a staunch advocate for his men’s welfare and an empathic commander. Over the course of his long and varied career Graham had also earned a reputation as a “soldier’s soldier” who led from the front rather than barking orders from the rear. Founder and editor George Wilkins Kendall of New Orleans’ Daily Picayune called him “as brave a spirit as ever lived.”

President James K. Polk and his Cabinet were present on the day of Graham’s reburial in Washington, as were senators and representatives from Virginia and Florida. An obituary in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, written by a contemporary from his Seminole wars service, put the loss in sorrowful perspective:

He is mourned by numerous friends who appreciated his worth and in whose hearts his memory is embalmed. A grateful country will not forget his services. Among all his fine military qualities none were more conspicuous than the generosity of his heart and his kind devotion to the comfort of those under his command. These endeared him to his soldiers, and many a tear will be shed for his loss by men of the stoutest hearts who served in the ranks under him and experienced his kindness and benevolence.

It was an eulogy worthy of an American Hotspur. 

Ohio-based freelance writer Frank Jastrzembski is author of the forthcoming Valentine Baker’s Spartan Stand (Pen & Sword Books, 2017). For further reading he recommends Osceola and the Great Seminole War, by Thom Hatch; Until Antietam: The Life and Letters of Major General Israel B. Richardson, U.S. Army, by Jack C. Mason; and The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade: Major General, United States Army, Vol. 1.

First published in Military History Magazine’s November 2016 issue. 

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