The William Chapman Papers
The Briscoe Center has received an important addition to its William Chapman Papers, a series of letters and a diary from his military service during the Mexican-American War. The additions provide striking insights into the workings of the U.S. Army, including the conditions faced by troops on the ground, the logistics of transporting men and materials hundreds of miles, and interactions with Mexican officials and civilians, as well as the perceptive thoughts of Chapman in regard to his work and surroundings.
“Chapman had a remarkable career, and his papers help document an epochal episode in U.S.and Mexican history,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. “I am grateful to Edward Coker III, a descendant of Chapman’s, who discovered the additions among family papers and promptly sent them to the center, where they are now available for research.”
William Chapman graduated from West Point in 1837. He served in the second Seminole War in Florida before joining the force of General John Wool in San Antonio in 1846. Wool had been tasked with raising troops to support General Zachary Taylor’s army, which had already invaded Mexico at Matamoros and was based in the Monterrey area. (The main body of the army landed at Veracruz and struck at Mexico City.) Chapman and fellow captain Robert E. Lee became two of Wool’s most trusted officers.
As a quartermaster, Chapman was charged with logistical work, particularly the procurement, storage, and distribution of food. “You have no idea what it requires to supply an army . . . I have my hands full . . . We are constantly out of supplies,” he wrote to his brother in one of the newly received letters. Evidently, idleness was as dangerous as hunger for Wool’s forces. “Volunteers will do well if they can have constant excitement and employment,” he told his brother. “But inactivity is ruinous to their efficiency as soldiers and morals as men.” Unfortunately, as Chapman’s diary details, Wool’s army was often left idle as it attempted to traverse northern Mexico.
Chapman’s diary entries from during fall of 1846, detail the journey of Wool’s forces from San Antonio, Texas, to Saltillo, Mexico—a distance of nearly 350 miles. In order to feed over 3,000 soldiers (only 600 of whom were regulars), the army was followed by a train of 160 mules, each pulling a ration-stocked wagon. However, the supplies represented only two months’ worth of food and were enough for only 1,500 men. Much of Chapman’s time was therefore spent procuring corn and other foodstuffs from the local Mexican population, which he proudly boasted were paid whatever they requested. Chapman also notes ironically that Wool’s retinue was well stocked with champagne and claret.
In his diary, Chapman also describes the new recruits (many of whom were “young men of wealth and high standing”), depopulated Mexican towns (deserted due to the arrival of American soldiers), and frightful storms, one of which destroyed an entire army camp and left soldiers exposed to bitter wind and cold. At certain points, the army appeared to get lost in the desert hill country of Coahuila as they attempted to invade Chihuahua. Eventually they gave up and headed east to meet up with Taylor’s army. “The general is so fidgety,” complained Chapman. Wool could also be callous. In one passage, Chapman details how the infantry crossed the Sabinas river ahead of other sections of the army. In retaliation, they were made to wait on their baggage for hours after the general ordered the artillery and dragoons (and their baggage) to take priority. “The General lost by his whole conduct today and yesterday,” Chapman wrote.
He also gives a personal description of Captain Robert E. Lee, who was responsible for constructing the pontoon bridge upon which Wool’s forces crossed the Rio Grande near present-day Eagle Pass. “All like him for his fine heart, gentlemanly manners, and talents and regret his course,” wrote Chapman. In another passage he describes the setup at a hacienda in Hermanas. Occupied by a patrón named Senor Blanco, 150 peon families maintained a 64,000-strong sheep farm. Chapman reflects on the penurious position of the peons in comparison to African Americans. “They are in no respect any better off than the blacks of the slave states, though slavery is abolished in Mexico,” he wrote. “Peons become indebted to the owners of the Haciendas and cannot leave until their debts are paid which is almost impossible to do.”
Chapman went on to fight in the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, during which Wool’s forces combined with Taylor’s to rout those of Mexican general Santa Anna. Chapman’s workload had obviously taken a toll, as his letters reflect a bitter tone. “Our loss was very severe and the lives of the officers killed were worth more than the whole country,” he wrote to his father. “I would not live in that part of the country I have seen if it was offered me for a gift. The people are in a miserable condition, with scarcely any of the comforts of life.” Nevertheless, Chapman thought, “The Mexican people . . . are temperate, quiet and moral. They are better behaved than Americans in the same class of life.”
The Chapman papers contain quartermaster records, correspondence, printed material, financial documents, photographs, and even literary productions relating to William Chapman and his wife, Helen, from the second Seminole War (1837–1838) through to his stationing at Fort Brown in Brownsville, Texas (1847–1852). The papers also document his work for the army in Corpus Christi between 1852–57. Helen Chapman’s letters give especially vivid descriptions of Texas in the 1840s and 1850s (including a description of David Crockett). Her letters formed the basis of The News from Brownsville, edited by Caleb Coker and published by Texas State Historical Association for the center in 1992.