Thursday, April 17, 2008

Samuel Chamberlain's journal and illustrations of the Mexican War

Digging around in a book this morning about a young soldier's adventures in the American Southwest and Mexico during the Mexican War of the 1840s, I discovered some fascinating fragments of history, long-forgotten, which ultimately led to a place practically in my backyard.

From humble beginnings in Center Harbor, New Hampshire to battles in Mexico, Samuel Chamberlain left a legacy of his dramatic experiences in the form of an illustrated journal. Written accounts of the United States' War with Mexico are numerous, but first-hand artistic renderings are rare. Private Chamberlain of the First Regiment of the United States Dragoons carried a sketchbook with him throughout the war and made drawings of the people, places, events, and battles he witnessed. In later years, settled down in Boston, he recounted his experiences in a manuscript and enhanced his sketchbook drawings with watercolors to illustrate his journal.

The finished manuscript remained in the family for decades, brought occasionally for showing friends and family, but mostly kept hidden. After Chamberlain's death in 1908, his widow saw that it stayed in the family. But in the 1940s, nearly 100 years after Chamberlain's adventure, his manuscript had fallen out of family hands and was discovered in a Connecticut antique shop. A Baltimore collector purchased it and, recognizing the significance of his find, contacted Life Magazine about it. The manuscript was subsequently sold to Life Magazine, which published a condensed version of the story in three parts during 1955. Included were some of Chamberlain's paintings of his remembrance or the war.

The book I've been reading and researching, My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, Written and Illustrated by Samuel E. Chamberlain, Harper & Brothers, (1956), includes five times the text from the original manuscript and 55 of Chamberlain's paintings.

Laid in at the front of the book was a small brochure from the San Jacinto Museum of History, near Houston.This led to another interesting fact about Chamberlain's art work: One hundred forty-four of his paintings were purchased by the San Jacinto Museum in 1957, the first significant purchase of history by the museum. This brochure appears to be for the first exhibition of Chamberlain's watercolors anywhere. The brochure, limited to a print run of 5,000 copies, offers eight pages of information about Chamberlain, his exploits and his art, along with information about the museum and exhibit.

Now, more than 50 years later, as the San Jacinto museum and park prepare for their annual observance of the Battle of San Jacinto (April 21st, 1836), in which the fledgling Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico, I'll have to wander over there and see if I can find any of the original watercolors I've been so engaged with this morning.

I am particularly drawn to Chamberlain's painting of an event he witnessed--the mass execution by hanging of U.S. Army deserters, mostly Irish who sympathized with the plight of their fellow Catholics in Mexico. They came mostly from deplorable conditions in the Northeast after immigrating from equally deplorable conditions in Ireland (Potato Famine). Seeking new opportunity in a new land, these immigrants did not find it in the Notheastern U.S. and likely joined the Army as a means of escape. In Texas, they came to know the Mexican culture and the similarities of the Catholic people in their struggles. Further, the Mexican government enticed sympathizers with free land in exchange for allegiance to Mexico in their war with the U.S. For some Irishmen, this proved too much temptation, as Army life had not been any better than civilian life. They came to be known in Mexico as the San Patricios (St. Patrick's Battalion), fought valiantly against their former comrades, and have been revered in Mexico as heroes to this day.

Ultimately, they were defeated and most executed for treason. Sam Chamberlain witnessed one of the mass executions and illustrated and wrote about what he witnessed.

As my research jumped over to the San Patricios in Mexico, I discovered a film made about them and their leader, John Riley, of County Galway. Tom Berenger stars in One Man's Hero (1999) and, by a few accounts I've read, this film is a cult classic in the making. It didn't get the theatrical release or promotion it needed to show how good it was. Nor has it gotten any promotion in the DVD market.

It's now next up in my Netflix queue and I can't wait to see a dramatic representation of what I've been reading about. And then I'll definitely have to go searching for that painting at the site of the 1836 battle, without which, Sam Chamberlain likely would not have ventured into Texas, nor would the San Patricios.


  1. Lois C Jenkins10/12/10 16:52

    I was fascinated to come across this site, as my grandfather George Nickerson was a foreman for the Pine Top Poultry Farm back in the 1940s, and his four sons (my uncles) also worked there, three of them clearing land on Page Hill. L. Jenkins, Nova Scotia, Canada

  2. I thought I replied to this back in October, but it doesn't appear so. My father died the week of your comment, so naturally I was distracted with that. He grew up in South Tamworth and remembered Pine Top Poultry Farm well. But he knew nothing of Mr. Goodson's writing, not to mention his book collecting. The dichotomy of the two interests--poultry and poetry--is both unique (as far as I know) and fascinating. I've come across the Nickerson name in my Tamworth genealogy research. Thanks for commenting and sorry for the delayed response. -Chuck

  3. Does this volume contain the illustration of Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona Territory, 24 Oct 1848?

  4. Can't put my hands on the book at present--boxed and stored--but will report back here when I come across it.