“Drenched Upon My Witty Brain” I
The Life, Wonderful Adventures and Miraculous Escapes of Miss Eliza Allen, a Young Lady of Eastport, Maine
I have something special for you: Another book project I abandoned, this one in 2015. I’m not going to tell you why I gave it up just yet, but it wasn’t because I wanted to write another book, as was the case with Jane Grant, or that I thought I’d accomplished what I had set out to do, as with Mary Lincoln. It does have two things in common with the mini biography I wrote about Grant, the New Yorker cofounder: I will serialize it, and if as you read you see a way around my issue, by all means, please pursue it. Unlike Grant, I’m going to write this as I go, so expect another installment sometime next week.
THE FEMALE VOLUNTEER;
OR THE LIFE, WONDERFUL ADVENTURES, AND MIRACULOUS ESCAPES OF MISS ELIZA ALLEN, A YOUNG LADY OF EASTPORT, MAINE.
It may be that my body, enervated by fatigue, weakened by privation, and wasted by disease, will be left to molder and decay in that strange and distant land, or I may fall pierced by the lance of the fierce and bloody Mexican. —Eliza Allen
Eliza Allen’s three-foot brass sword was covered in the blood of sacrificial lambs. Above the rocky gorges and steep cliffs of Cerro Gordo, American howitzers rained fire down on exhausted Mexican soldiers. Behind her was a trench laden with their dead and wounded. Their general, Santa Anna, was nowhere to be found. He had fled in the middle of a roast chicken lunch, leaving behind 43 guns, $20,000 in gold, his carriage, and a spare cork leg that greatly resembled his character—vain, flamboyant, and pliable. A camp wit composed a ballad, “The Leg I Left Behind Me,” which would follow the cork leg on its world tour.
Santa Anna, lying in wait with 12,000–14,000 Mexican soldiers, hadn’t expected to leave in such a rush. He thought he had an advantage from an impenetrable defensive position, and with more troops, too. Eliza was one of 6,000–8,000 soldiers he searched for in the distance, unaware that, as she marched from the coast under Major General Robert Patterson and General Winifred Scott, a young spy, Robert E. Lee, then a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, was gathering strategic intelligence on one of his many reconnaissance missions. “Roadways had been opened over chasms to the right where the walls were so steep that men could barely climb them,” wrote Ulysses S. Grant, who, like Eliza, was fighting his first war.
Wicked. That’s how Grant, a graduate of West Point fighting in his first conflict, described the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). If life as a soldier was going to mean he’d spend his career preying on politically divided and militarily unprepared countries, he wanted no part of it. Ulysses S. Grant, then 32, had no civilian vocation or family money to support him, but after the war with Mexico was won, he retired from the military.
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Eliza did not share Grant’s reservations about the jingoistic conflict, which had started with President James K. Polk’s lie that Mexican soldiers had attacked American soldiers and ended with Mexico handing over one-third of its country. Polk saw Mexicans much as Andrew Jackson, his mentor, had seen Indigenous Americans: undeserving of their own land. The war was a clear act of aggression, one that was unlikely to be taken by Mexico, a country in no position to fight. In 1846, Mexico’s presidency changed hands four times, the war ministry six times, and the finance ministry sixteen times. America had been comparatively stable since the Revolution, and her citizens had drunk the nectar of Manifest Destiny. Eliza was no exception. She believed seizing a third of the “fierce and bloody Mexican” country fulfilled God’s plan.
On April 18, 1847, Eliza saw “our beloved flag, though dripping with blood, floating proudly over those formidable heights” and heard “the enchanting notes of victory sounded by the assailants over that ensanguined field.” Her country was “a proud eagle, as if to sanctify its destiny, was to be baptized in blood, and the palm of its triumph consecrated in a halo of glory.” America had claimed the New World, and now, the west would be “redeemed” and remade in its image, or rather, in the vision of Polk’s fellow Southerners. If slavery didn’t expand into new territories, the North would have the upper hand. He responded to that threat with the most spectacular and bloodiest land grabs since the Roman conquest of Europe, and he was winning.
As Eliza struggled to tie a handkerchief around her arm, the air was thick with gunpowder and the cries of dying men. She realized that the path she stood on had been remade by canisters and grapeshot. The El Camino Nacional had widened and the road to Mexico City was now clear. If she attempted to find a hospital, she might never make it, and if she didn’t, she might not survive the war. She knew Deborah Sampson had successfully passed as a man for 17 months of the American Revolutionary War, but when Sampson was sent to a field hospital for a malignant fever, Dr. Barnabas Binney discovered her bound breasts. As it turned out, Binney was sympathetic to Sampson, as were his wife and daughters: they didn’t tell anyone. They even helped her secure an honorable discharge.
In the end, it wasn’t Eliza’s choice to make. She was having trouble differentiating between consciousness and sleep and barely registered being transferred from the battlefield to a makeshift hospital. It was entirely possible the nurse dressing her wounds had made excuses for the surgeon’s absence rather than a promise she would find him.
If Eliza was discovered or died in the commandeered mansion that resembled her own fine home in Maine, would anyone have recognized her? She’d transformed from “a tender and delicate female brought up in the lap of ease and affluence, of a fragile and slender form” to a “tawny and bronzed face, disheveled hair, and enlarged and blistered hands.” She had survived hand-to-hand combat, rough travel by sea and land, and the filth of army camps, whose heaps of manure and offal were deposited so close to soldiers that chronic diarrhea and dysentery were common.
And she was convincing. To her comrades in arms, she was and had always been George Mead. Had George Mead been saved only to be killed? Would Eliza Allen be buried with him?