A Guide to the James LeCompte Bryan Papers, 1846-1848
James LeCompte Bryan of Cambridge, Maryland, served as a lieutenant with the First Virginia Regiment of Volunteer Infantry during the Mexican War (1846-1848). One of five children, James LeCompte Bryan (called Jim) interrupted his medical studies and employment as a teacher in Petersburg, Virginia, to join the army. Bryan served the army in various positions between 1846 and 1848, such as a lieutenant, company commander, second officer of the battalion, acting adjutant, and aide to a colonel.
In the late spring of 1847, Bryan marched from Camargo, Mexico, near the Texas border, to join General Zachary Taylor’s troops. Encamped near Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, he studied the site of the battle for that city, which had occurred the previous September. Under the command of General John Ellis Wool, in the summer of 1847, Bryan marched from Monterrey to Buena Vista, where he toured the site of the decisive battle fought in February of 1847 between Taylor’s and Santa Anna’s forces. Bryan’s company was moved to Parras, Coahuila in late February 1848, and occupied that town until the withdrawal of American troops at the end of the war, in the summer of that year.
Although Bryan saw no combat during the Mexican War, his assignments to Monterrey and Buena Vista afforded him opportunity to tour the battlefields at these locations a few months after the battles; and his high rank brought him into contact with many officers who shared their combat experiences with him, such as Jefferson Davis, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, and John Ellis Wool.
After leaving military service, Bryan returned to Cambridge, Maryland, where he entered the Episcopal clergy and served as rector of Christ Church in Cambridge until his death. He was interred in the churchyard there.
The James LeCompte Bryan Papers consist of thirty letters and one fragment written by James LeCompte Bryan between January 1846 and August 1848, to members of his immediate family in Baltimore and Cambridge, Maryland: his father, James Bryan; sister, Mary Bryan; and two brothers, Richard Thomas Bryan (called Dick) and Samuel L. Bryan (Sam). The first six letters, written from Petersburg, detail his activities and financial problems before enlistment. Twenty-four of the letters were written from locations in Mexico. The last letter, from Fort Monroe, Virginia, announced his discharge. The letters have been arranged in chronological order.
Bryan’s descriptions of the leisure time and religious activities of the peasants; the town of Buena Vista; and the Holy Week festivities of Parras, reveal his impressions of the country and the people of Mexico. His letters delineate the deep divisions that existed within Mexico regarding the war. Specifically, his observations of anti-American sentiments and violent attacks from the citizens at Buena Vista contrast sharply with his reports of the desire for annexation by the United States, among the citizens of Parras. The letters also detail his own regret at having enlisted to fight in what he came to call a “grossly unjust war.”
Furthermore, Bryan’s letters discuss his opinions of various officers and historical figures fighting in the Mexican War. His admiration for Colonel Jefferson Davis is apparent from his description of their meeting, while his observations of General Zachary Taylor, as a man, a general, and a potential president of the United Sates, shed light on Taylor’s personality. The letters include accounts of various battles and battlefields, like the battle of Monterrey. Bryan’s account of routine military affairs, expenses and pastimes, desertions, court-martials, and military execution reveal much about the day-to-day experiences and attitudes of the United States troops stationed in Mexico during the Mexican War.
James LeCompte Bryan Papers, 1846-1848, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
This collection was processed by Sara Clark, February 1985.
Basic processing and cataloging of this collection was supported with funds from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for the Briscoe Center’s "History Revealed: Bringing Collections to Light" project, 2009-2011.
Detailed Description of the Papers