By James M. Prichard, Manuscript Cataloger
The outbreak of the Mexican War found Simon Bolivar Buckner serving as a young second lieutenant in the 2nd United States Infantry. A recent graduate of West Point, the future Confederate general and Kentucky governor was detailed as assistant instructor of Geography, History, and Ethics at the Academy. When war came in the spring of 1846, he was transferred to the 6th U. S. Infantry and served under General Winfield Scott whose little army fought its way from Vera Cruz to the outskirts of the Mexican capital in 1847. Lt. Buckner, who was wounded in the battle of Churubusco, was among the first American troops to enter Mexico City.
The American army remained on occupation duty in Mexico until peace was finally proclaimed in the summer of 1848. Buckner, like many soldiers, took the time to take in the sights around the Mexican capital. He also saw duty in the small scenic towns of Toluca and Tacubaya. As Buckner later wrote, like the Spanish Conquistadors of old, the Americans were awed by the sight of Popocatepetl, the majestic, snow covered volcano Cortez called, “the mountain that smokes.”
In a letter from Mexico City to his future wife, Mary Kingsbury, dated 10 May 1848, Buckner noted that the volcano had been scaled by scientific parties on two occasions in the early 19th century. He added, “As no Americans had accompanied either of these parties, many of the officers of the Army determined, as much from national pride as individual curiosity, to attempt the ascent for the purpose of examining into the present state of the crater.”
Buckner related that a party of twenty-five officers soon formed an expedition, which, with an escort of 60 soldiers, set out from Mexico City on April 3rd. While the Kentuckian did not identify his comrades by name, Ulysses S. Grant, then a young lieutenant, recalled in his Memoirs , that in addition to Buckner, the party included himself and four future Confederate generals, George B. Crittenden of Kentucky, Richard H. Anderson of South Carolina, Henry H. Sibley of Louisiana and Mansfield Lovell of the District of Columbia.
The first attempt to ascend the volcano was forced back by a heavy snow storm driven by winds so fierce that the stinging flakes literally caused the eyes of many climbers to swell shut. Most of the original party, including Grant, gave up the quest. However Buckner and five remaining officers began a second attempt on April 10th. The smaller party successfully reached the summit and Buckner related, "We planted the "Stars and Stripes" firmly on the highest peak of Popocatepetl overlooking the dark crater which was smoking below."
The young Kentuckian painted a rapturous word picture of the view from the summit but confessed, "On account of the very rarefied state of the atmosphere and the sickening vapours which were constantly issuing from the Crater, we found it necessary to descend much sooner than were desired." He closed with the following summation:
Wherever our future wanderings may lead us, it will be no inconsiderable source of gratification to us, to know we were the first Americans who ever stood upon the snowy peak of the "Smoking Mountain" and planted our National Colors within the tropics in clime of eternal winter, over a region of perpetual fire; where it is greeted by the first beams of the sun as he rises from the Atlantic and receives his last parting look as he sinks behind the waves of the great Southern Ocean.
Located in the Simon Bolivar Buckner Papers in the Filson Historical Society's Special Collections Department, the 1848 letter was later polished by Buckner and published anonymously in Putnam's Magazine in April 1853. In 1910 long after he witnessed the defeat of the Confederacy and his subsequent rise in post-war Kentucky politics, the elderly Buckner returned to Mexico to visit some of the battlefields of his youth. He was accompanied by his son, Lt. Simon Boliver Buckner, Jr. of the United States Army who scaled Popocatepetl in emulation of those who some 60 years before fought their way to the "Halls of Montezuma."