In his book Two Wars (1901), Confederate General Samuel G. French still remembered clearly the tragic demise of a classmate and friend. Lieutenant George Stevens was not yet 25 years old when he drowned crossing the Rio Grande River on May 18, 1846. French could still visualize his “dear” friend Stevens “‘Beat the surges under him, and ride upon their back,’ then sink and rise no more.” To Lieutenant Napoleon J.T. Dana of the 7th Infantry, drowning “is worse than being killed on the battlefield” – there is no chance for glory in such a death.
One of eleven children, George Stevens was born on June 8, 1821. His father, Henry Stevens, was a successful businessman and politician of Barnet, Vermont. The Vermont native graduated in the Class of 1843 from the U.S. Military Academy ranked near the middle at eighteenth – other classmates included William B. Franklin (1st in class), Samuel G. French (14th) and Ulysses S. Grant (21st). Lieutenant Stevens was assigned to the Second Dragoons upon graduation and ordered to Fort Jesup, Louisiana, where he remained until 1845.
Stevens accompanied the Second Dragoons on its 500 mile trek to Corpus Christi to join Zach Taylor’s Army of Occupation in July 1845. He distinguished himself in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma on May 8th and 9th. One account noted that he “was in the hottest of the fight” under the command of the dashing Captain Charles May. Stevens escorted the captured Mexican General Rómulo Díaz de la Vega to the rear following May’s dragoons overrunning a Mexican battery. Due to his hospitality, General de la Vega presented Stevens with some “curiosities” from his baggage as a token of respect – cigars, bullets and some other items.
Nine days later, in what should have been a routine affair, Stevens’ life ended abruptly and ingloriously while fording the Rio Grande on his way from Fort Brown to Matamoras. A close friend, Second Lieutenant Joseph H. Potter of the 7th Infantry (Class of 1843), had the “painful duty” of conveying “the melancholy news” of Stevens’ death to his father in a solemn letter dated May 20, 1846:
While crossing the river with his company, his horse became restive, and he lost his seat in the saddle, his foot caught in the stirrup, and by the continued plunging of his horse, he was held under water. Every attempt possible was made to rescue him, but in vain. His remains were recovered on the morning of the 20th, and interred in Fort Brown, with the honors due a brave and accomplished soldier. Lieut. Stevens was universally beloved and esteemed by his own regiment, and by all that knew him, and his loss will be regretted by all. I had the honor of being one of his most intimate friends, and was also a member of his class at the Military Academy. Lieut. S.’s personal affairs will be attended to by the officers of his regiment, from whom you will probably receive every information in their possession.
Within only sixty yards of the Mexican shore, Stevens and a squadron of dragoons ran into a violent whirlpool sending their horses into a panic. Boats on the opposite shore paddled to the rescue but could not reach the unhorsed Stevens in time.
His tragic death dampened the spirits of Taylor’s army. After the incident, General Taylor officially reported: “I deeply regret to report that Lieut. George Stevens, a very promising young officer of the Second Dragoons, was accidentally drowned this morning while attempting to swim the river with his squadron.” In The Life of Major General Zachary Taylor (1850), author Henry Montgomery noted that, “A gloom was thrown over the brilliant events of this day by the most unfortunate accident,” insisting that, “his untimely death was universally lamented.”
Stevens’ body was retrieved and buried within the walls of Fort Brown, next to the namesake of the fort (Major Jacob Brown). The Vermont Watchman and State Journal expressed its displeasure that Stevens was buried at Fort Brown rather than his native Vermont, declaring in June 1846, “Is it too much for the Government to restore the remains of those who perish faithfully serving it, to their kindred? Such an act would be gratefully received by all who have given their sons to their country, and the hope of such a favor would serve to solace the dying moments of the soldier.”
At home in his native Vermont, the community reacted to his death. The same paper mentioned above proclaimed that, “His loss will be very severely felt by a large circle of relatives and friends,” and reasoned that even though his part in the Mexican War did not last long, it was “long enough to prove his capability for useful and honorable services, and to win the confidence and good opinion of his superiors.” On June 25, 1846, The Voice of Freedom praised Stevens’ character, stating that, “He had by his amicable and gentlemanly deportment, won the regard and esteem of his associates…” Although he remained untouched in the two previous encounters with the enemy only nine days before, “by strange Providence he was only spared to find a watery grave in the Rio Grande nine days later.” Poor George Stevens had shown signs of evolving into a capable officer marked for distinction, but providence ingloriously snuffed out this rising star.
Frank Jastrzembski is author of the forthcoming Valentine Baker’s Heroic Stand at Tashkessen 1877 (Pen & Sword Books). He is a proud alumni of both John Carroll University and Cleveland State University. Visit www.frankjastrzembski.com to view a complete list of his publications.
“A Guide to the Henry Stevens Family, Correspondence, 1844-1862.” Vermont Historical Society. 1995. http://vermonthistory.org/documents/findaid/stevens.pdf.
Ferrell, Robert H, ed. Monterrey Is Ours! The Mexican War Letters of Lieutenant Dana, 1845-1847. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1990.
French, Samuel G. Two Wars: An Autobiography of General Samuel G. French. Nashville: Confederate Veteran, 1901
Montgomery, Henry. The Life of Major General Zachary Taylor. Buffalo, NY: Derby & Hewson, Publishers, 1847.
“Report of Taking of Matamoros.” Niles’ National Register. May 18, 1846. NNR 70.255. http://www.history.vt.edu/MxAmWar/Newspapers/Niles/Nilesa18441846.htm.
Stark, Caleb. Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark. Concord, NH: G. Parker Lyon, 1860.
The Voice of Freedom. June 25, 1846.
Vermont Watchman and State Journal. June 18, 1846.
Vermont Watchman and State Journal. June 25, 1846.