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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Triumphs of
Rough and Ready

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The Mexican-American War of 1846-48 put Texas on the nation's center stage.

The conflict with Mexico over the newly admitted state of Texas made big news, nationally and internationally. From New York to New Orleans, journalists flocked to Texas and then Mexico to cover the war. In addition to the extensive newspaper coverage provided by pioneer war correspondents, and quickie books about campaigns and heroes, the war with Mexico inspired patriotic musical compositions and even a Broadway play.

Print being the only mass communication medium at the time, flag-waving songs distributed by sheet music included "Death of Ringgold" by Edward H. Davis (music by J.W. Turner) and "The Maid of Monterrey" by J.H. Hewitt. But the theater offered a more full-spectrum sensory experience.

Mead Minnigerode, in his book "The Fabulous Forties, 1840-1850," described New York stage extravaganzas of the era as "tremendous entertainments, frequently involving enormous casts and pretentious scenic and mechanical effects..." History, even recent history, was a popular category.

Shortly after the fighting ceased with the American conquest of Mexico and acquisition of much of the Southwest, in October 1847 New York theater goers crowded the Broadway Theater on opening night to see "The Siege of Monterrey, or the Triumphs of Rough and Ready." What one New York newspaper called a "grand patriotic drama in three acts" made its debut that October 28.

Here's how playbills and newspaper ads touted the show:

"Fort Brown by Moonlight

"Chorus of soldiers. Our flag floats proudly, [Gen. Zachary] Taylor inspects the entrenchments. General Taylor's dream in four visions." Each of the general's "dreams" was based on an event that had occurred in the just-ended conflict. (A treaty was not signed until the following year, but hostilities had ended in September 1847.)

The general's first "vision" in the play was the fall of Matamoras, the Mexican city just across the Rio Grande from the star-shaped fortification named for Maj. Jacob Brown. The popular officer died there when Mexican artillery began bombarding the garrison in early May 1846, the first "act" of the real war.

The playbill went on:

"The mist disperses and discovers Fort Brown at break of day, the Gallant Soldier aroused by the Reveille. His departure for Point Isabel [present Port Isabel, in Cameron County], Bombardment of the Fort, Death of Major Brown. The Plains near Palo Alto at the termination of the first day's victory. Battle of Reseca de la Palma. American arms triumphant in the second contest. Walnut Springs, Rough and Ready encampment."

Vision number two in the production was the capture of the supposedly impregnable city of Monterrey, which occurred Sept. 25, 1846. The Army commander's third vision was the U.S. bombardment of Vera Cruz, followed by his final dream, the Battle of Buena Vista.

Actually, that engagement was more in the nature of a nightmare. With some 20,000 troops opposing only 5,000 U.S. soldiers under Taylor, Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (of Alamo infamy) believed he could wipe out the smaller American force and end the war. (At the time, the bulk of the U.S. Army was focused on taking the port of Vera Cruz.) Santa Anna came close to succeeding at Buena Vista, but lost 3,400 men versus 650 American casualties. Taylor carried the bloody day, though it easily could have gone the other way.

New York theater goers wishing to view the stage version of this battle and key engagements that preceded it paid a quarter for a box seat, half that for a seat in the pit.

One W. Marshall, evidently a major actor of the 1840s (even though his first name was not given on the playbill) portrayed Gen. Taylor in the stage drama. The play was written by J. Foster and ran for four weeks. Today, only four weeks on the Great White Way (of course it wasn't called that until much later when electricity turned night into day along the thoroughfare) would be considered a big-time flop. Given the scarcity of any online mention of "The Siege of Monterrey" today, the production may have been the "Texas Rising" of its day -- in other words, an embarrassingly inaccurate telling of a major chapter in the state's history.

Even the house where the post-war drama was performed is one of New York's lesser-known theaters, only one of several structures with the same name that has stood in the theater district over the years. Located at the intersection of Broadway and Worth, the three-story Broadway Theater had seating for 4,500. It opened its doors in 1847 with the war still underway and continued in operation only 12 years. For whatever reason, the theater was demolished in 1859.

No matter the quality of the play that he and his soldiers inspired, the Mexican War made General Taylor a national hero. The old soldier essentially got "drafted" as a presidential candidate and ended up being elected. Taking the oath of office in March 1848, he served until his death on July 9, 1850.

"The Siege of Monterrey," however, does not seem to have greatly advanced the careers of playwright Foster or Marshall, the leading man. In fact, Wikipedia's list of 19th century playwrights and dramatists does not mention either man. Doubtless, genealogical research would turn up more information on those two and others who figured in the 1847 play, but they and the short-lived extravaganza have been all but forgotten.


Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - May 26, 2016 Column

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