Jersey Reflections: Buena Vista Marks 150 Years

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The town takes its title from a battle fought during the Mexican-American War in 1847.

This year, Buena Vista celebrates its sesquicentennial, having been incorporated on March 5, 1867, and joining other towns and cities in this area that have spent 12 months honoring their legacies this decade. But Buena Vista, which is Spanish for “good view,” is not named after a premiere crop like Vineland or for a leading industry like Millville or even for a member of its founding family like Hammonton. No, Buena Vista takes its title from history, particularly a battle fought during the Mexican-American War in 1847.

According to online sources, the war, incited by the U.S. annexation of Texas, which Mexico still considered its territory, brought about a division in Congress and the American population. Government opposition was represented by John Quincy Adams, who saw the annexation as an excuse to add another slavery state, and Abraham Lincoln, then a member of the House of Representatives. Public disapproval was led by anti-slavery advocate Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau, whose refusal to pay taxes that would support the war effort resulted in a jail term that inspired the writing of Civil Disobedience.

The Mexican-American War had been prefaced by the 1836 Texas Revolution spearheaded by both Mexican and U.S. citizens living in the territory. Sources report that Americans had been encouraged to settle there by the Mexican government in order to help with the Indian raids that had plagued the northern portion of the province, the same government against which its citizens revolted in 1836. Afterward, Mexican officials refused to recognize the republic the citizens created and, in 1845, rejected an offer from the U.S. to buy the lands. The fraying relations between the two countries over this territory set the backdrop for war.  

The Battle of Buena Vista, which is also referred to as the Battle of Angostura, occurred on February 22 and 23, 1847. Sources report that the Mexican army, led by Antonio López de Santa Anna, greatly outnumbered U.S. forces under the command of Major General Zachary Taylor, who had taken the town of Saltillo after disregarding orders not to proceed south following the Battle of Monterey.

Santa Anna made plans to attack Saltillo after intercepting a letter ordering several U.S. troops to divert to Veracruz. He departed for Saltillo on January 27, 1847, and arrived just south of the town on February 20 with 15,142 soldiers that encountered the Texas Rangers under the command of Maj. Benjamin McCulloch, forcing Taylor to withdraw to Angostura, about a mile south of Hacienda San Juan de la Buena Vista

What ensued was a two-day battle that began with Santa Anna’s demand for a surrender and ended with a U.S. victory in what amounted to a David-and-Goliath contest between the Mexican forces and American troops culled from the Mississippi Rifles under the command of  Col. Jefferson Davis, several regiments of the Illinois Mounted Volunteers, the Kentucky Cavalry Volunteers, the Indiana Brigade, two squadrons of dragoons and the Texas reserve.

The U.S. did not always maintain the upper hand in the battle, facing considerable casualties at times and succumbing on occasion to Santa Anna’s strategy. But the tactical maneuvering of Taylor protected Buena Vista from being taken by the Mexicans. Santa Anna’s renewed attacks on February 23 proved ineffective and ultimately the order was given to retreat. 

In the aftermath of the war, which concluded in 1848, some of the key players in support of and opposition to it achieved noteworthy recognition in their careers. Taylor was swept into the office of the U.S. presidency in 1849 and Lincoln shortly afterward. Thoreau would publish his crowning achievement, Walden, in 1854.  

The American victory seems to have inspired the naming of more than just one town “Buena Vista” over the remainder of the century. From Minnesota in 1849, Tennessee in 1850 and Iowa in 1851 to Colorado in 1864 and Virginia in 1891, Buena Vistas were appearing across the U.S. Yet, although the battle occurred in Mexico, the pronunciation of the South Jersey municipality’s name, when displayed phonetically, is rendered as “byoona” as opposed to the Spanish “bwayna.” That and the township’s history will be examined in the next installment of this series. 

Recommended: Jersey Reflections: Yellow Journalism

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