Two retired Mexican infantrymen, both veterans of the U.S.-Mexican War—a conflict between the two nations that lasted from 1846 to 1848—remain friends for decades after their unit disbands. The two spend most days reminiscing about the disastrous Battle of Resaca de la Palma, fought on May 9th, 1846 on the northern banks of the Rio Grande. In the battle, U.S. General (and 12th U.S. President) Zachary Taylor routed regiments under the command of Mexican General Mariano Arista. Among the regiments under Arista’s command was the 7th Mexican Infantry, for which detachment the two former Mexican infantrymen now discussed both fought.
On the Mexican side, the result of “Resaca de la Palma” was 515 killed, wounded, or missing Mexican soldiers. Still, Arista’s men managed to kill 33 Americans and to critically injure 89 others. The first of the two aging Mexican veterans, Hernandez, personally killed 3 Americans and wounded 2 in the battle; his friend, Fernando, killed 5 and wounded 3. It’s these 8 kills and 5 woundings (3 of them permanent maimings) the two men now celebrate near-daily as they sit in their rocking chairs at a nursing home in San Juan Bautista (now Villahermosa). Hernandez in particular has vivid memories of Arista’s 7th Infantry crossing the Rio Grande to meet Taylor’s advancing 3rd, 4th, and 5th foot regiments and a squadron of skirmishers led by Captain William W. Mackall. He recalls, too, that May 9th, 1846 was a clear night, and that Arista’s men—all of whom earnestly believed themselves to be freedom fighters—were certain they’d defeat the Americans massing before them. Their belief was not unreasonable, given their numbers, equipment, and training. And yet, while Arista had 4,000 men to Taylor’s 1,700, the former’s troops (including both Hernandez and Fernando) were in many instances young and untested.
On one particular day in 1903, the now-73 year-old Hernandez and now-76 year-old Fernando are sitting in the day room at La Hacienda in San Juan Bautista speaking, once again, of Resaca de la Palma. (Well, Hernandez is speaking, as by now Fernando has ceased communicating altogether.) Hernandez reads his old comrade’s reactions by watching the other man’s slowly dimming gray-blue eyes. Hernandez recalls how Fernando played his vihuela (a guitar-like stringed instrument) before the battle; how he (Hernandez) quivered with fear at the approach of the Americans’ 3rd foot; and, finally, paints for Fernando a vivid portrait of the hundreds of Mexican and American corpses that littered the shores of the Rio Grande for hours after the battle. Hernandez speaks with particular delight, and in unusually grisly detail, of the 3 Americans he killed that night. After describing to Fernando his final kill of the battle—the strangulation (“With a half-rotted canteen strap, Fernando!”) of a thirteen year-old drummer boy—he remarks, with barely concealed fervor, “If I had to do the same again, I would.” His eyes mist as he hears once more the high-pitched death rattle of that little gringo cocksucker.
Sometimes, friends, war is beautiful.