Alexander J. Rice papers  1847-1851
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Biography

Near the end of the Mexican War, the young Harvard-trained physician, Alexander J. Rice, began a career in the military. A resident of Portsmouth, N.H., Rice received a commission on March 5th, 1847, as Assistant Surgeon to the bomb barge Stromboli , and within days, he had set sail for the coast of Vera Cruz and the American fleet commanded by Matthew C. Perry, then cooperating with Winfield Scott's infantry. Rice was anxious to arrive before the end of the war, which he feared was imminent, so that he would have time to win a reputation for himself and share in the "glory" of the anticipated victory.

Early in May, after staging briefly at Anton Lizardo, the Stromboli was ordered to perform blockade duty on the Guazacoalcos (currently, Coatzacoalco) River, in the southern part of the state. Intelligence provided by an American expatriate named Baldwin had suggested that the river was strategically and economically important for the quantity and variety of the produce grown there, and as a result, Rice and his shipmates had high hopes that their post might soon bring them into conflict with Mexican forces and provide the opportunity for winning fame and fortune through the interdiction of contraband. Reality, however, soon set it. Once on the river, the crew was ordered to remain on ship for fear of enemy attack, this despite any signs of Mexican military activity, and their cramped quarters degenerated into "a place of torments & disease," with the heat, mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, and sand flies adding to the misery. When the sailors were finally allowed to go ashore to destroy some earthen fortifications, they found not only no resistance, but no significant economic activity. The communities lining the banks of the Coatzacoalco were little more than Baldwin's private trading area, and otherwise there appeared to Rice to be no significant commercial activity at all.

Relief from such doldrums came on June 12th, when the Stromboli was ordered to join an expedition to the state of Tabasco, and Rice was in "high glee" expecting a fight. Entering the Grijalva River (called the Tabasco River by Rice), they met limited resistance and proceeded to the town of Tabasco (probably the capital, Villahermosa). Tabasco was rumored to be a stronghold of Mexican resistance, and earlier in the year, residents had refused to strike the Mexican flag even under heavy pressure from American forces, and women and children had died fighting in its defense. The naval expedition was briefly exposed to fire by Mexican guerrillas led by Miguel Bruno -- whom Rice believed was as hated by locals as the Americans were because of his oppressive taxation and conscription -- but in Rice's estimation, the Mexican soldiers were more inclined simply to fire a few shots and run than to stand and fight. The well-armed American landing party met little resistance in taking the town, and all remained calm until evening, when the sailors were "given" liquor by the Mexicans and, according to Rice, got drunk and began looting. Others were prevented from doing so only by being detained in the guard house.

To Rice's dismay, the Stromboli was soon ordered to return to the Coatzacoalco River, and by mid-July they lay off the village of Minatitlan under even more oppressive conditions than before. The problems with heat, insects, and disease were exacerbated once again by inadequate provisions and medical supplies and tight quarters, and even after Rice complained directly to Commodore Perry, nothing was done to alleviate the crew's suffering. Perry's only response was to suggest that in war-time, suffering and sacrifice was to be expected. By the last week of August, with "medical resources fast failing," burdened by the inactivity of a pointless station, Rice reached the point where he contemplated ordering the ship to leave the "Detestable Station" without permission, in order, he felt, to save lives. "We look with great anxiety," he wrote "to the moment when we shall leave (forever (?)) this villainous River -- which promised us so much pleasure & has afforded us only misery. So much for trusting to first appearances, & the accounts of interested & dishonest reporters." (1847 July 22-August 28).

In September, when the Stromboli was finally withdrawn to healthier conditions at Anton Lizardo, twenty five of its crew members were assigned to the naval hospital to recuperate. Yet even with this loss, the ship was not allowed to remain idle for long. Perry soon replenished the crew, replaced the captain, and after only a month's layover, ordered the Stromboli back to "the abominable river." Rice's enmity for Perry gained a particular edge in the late summer, and he constantly harped on the commodore's inattention to the well-being of his sailors while always ensuring, as Rice was quick to point out, that his own ship was posted in a secure and healthy spot. Equally galling was Perry's penchant for unwarranted self-aggrandizement. In Rice's eyes, Perry did little to help the sailors, the fleet, or the war effort, but was only too glad to bask in the glory of American victory.

To Rice's relief, conditions on the Coatzacoalco were somewhat better in the fall and winter months, though the stagnation of the post continued to prey on his mind. In April, 1848, after a long, inactive winter, the Strombol i was ordered to Campeche to protect refugees fleeing the Caste War in Yucatàn. Like most of his fellow crew members, Rice expected to sympathize with the white population rather than the Indian "rebels," yet experience soon changed his mind. The violence of the war was repugnant, but the attitude of the whites was worse. "It is indeed necessary," he wrote, "that some foreign power should come here to keep the two races, now much intermixed from entirely destroying each other. Neither party can govern the country. The one is too uncivilized -- the other too ignorant & lazy & selfish. The latter have confessedly provoked these present hostilities. They deserve no sympathy but it is urgently necessary that forces should come here to prevent cold blood atrocities on both sides" (1848 June 10). At Isla del Carmen and the town of Campeche, Yucatecan white refugees accepted the presence of the American military as a necessary means of protection, but refused to cover their expenses and refused all gratitude or hospitality. At Campeche, they used American forces as a cover to commit atrocities against Indian women and children, and committed a massacre of Indians in a nearby settlement by leaving poisoned food behind. In the end, Rice concluded that the U.S. should intervene only to prevent further violence.

After a short excursion to Sisal, Yucatàn, in July, the Stromboli received orders to return home. Rice briefly considered transferring to a ship bound for the Mediterranean station, but instead joined the U.S.S. Raritan on duty in Cuba, and in 1851, accepted an assignment as surgeon at the Naval Hospital in Pensacola. By 1850, however, his health had begun to decline and during the winter months he became critically ill, possibly with the lung ailment that had plagued him since leaving Mexico. He died on April 20th, 1851.