From “History of Ohio” Galbreath, Charles B.; American Historical Society Inc. NY, Ny 1925
Vol. 1, pg. 590-4 “Victor Gilbreath”
The war with Mexico, like all others, had its side-lights, its personal triumphs, privations and tragedies among the men in the ranks.Of
course, for the most part these are lost to history. Occasionally, however, through some accidental circumstance these are lifted to the public view and endured with a degree of enduring fame not usually accorded to the central figure of the story.
The War of 1812 had its James Bird; the war with Mexico had its Victor Gilbreath. The former was made famous through a ballad that became a folk song a century ago; thelatter has found an enduring place in literature through a lyric by one of the greatest of American poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Just why Longfellow chose “Victor Galbraith” as a subject worthy of his pen does not seem to be a matter of record. The poem appeared in “Putnam’s Monthly Magazine” in 1855, without comment or explanatory note. The editor of the Cambridge edition of Longfellow’s poems contains only this note:
” ‘Victor Galibraith was a bugler in a company of volunteer cavalry and was shot in Mexico for some breach of discipline. It is a common superstition among soldiers that no balls will kill them unless their names are written on them. The old proverb says: ‘Every bullet has its billet.’ ”
Victor Gilbreath has often been thought an imaginary character, The fact that he was a real personage and native of Ohio is ample warrant for this sketch, especially sisn the site of the humble home in which he was born at Middletown, this state, is marked by a monument erected by the local lodge of one of the prominent fraternal orders of the United States,
There has been issued in printed form, with a cut of Victor Gilbreath’s birthplace on the front cover, a neat pamphlet containing what purports to be a true story of “Victor Galbraith.” It is well writted, in popular style. The opening paragraphs are an index to the entire story.
The terrors of the siege had subsided, the soldiers had departed, the plains of Monterey no longer resounded with the roar of musketry, the clash of arms or the wild alarms of cruel war.
The forces of General Ampudia were scattered in flight, The city had surrendered to the army of General Taylor, which now pursued its onward course to greater conquests and more glorious achievements.
The land was desolate, the ravages of war having left its trail of ruin. The blackness of despair threw a shadow of gloom over th ecity and country far and near.
The birds had left their accustomed haunts and fled afar; the stillness of life cas a depressing influence over all. Monterey was indeed a stricken city. But while suffering from its wounds the proud spirit of the native, though subdued, was not broken. He would hide his scars, he would efface the marks that told of disaster, that no trace of the invader’s heel should mar the environment of the Castilian in the land of the Montezumas.
The substance of the story as related in the pamphlet is to the effect that “Victor Galbraith,” a musician and lover of music, because of his association with a lady minstrel of Portuguese birth, who came from the City of Monterey, with a harp to play and sing for the American soldiers, was supposed to have been a spy and that Victor Gilbreath had imparted to her army secrets which she reported to the enemy. On this false charge he was courtmartialed, found guilty of treason, and executed. This is the basis of the romantic story as related by the author of the pamphlet.
The true story is somewhat different. To begin with, the central figure of this tragic event was not Victor Galbraith or Victor Gilbraith, but Victor Gilbreath – an immaterial variant, but worthy of note in this connection. He was born in Middletown, Ohio about the year 1823. The late Govenor James E. Campbell stated that his mother was a pupol in the school attended by Victor Gilbreath and the he had frequently [pg. 592] heard her speak of him; that she said he was harmless, good natured sort of fellow, but she did not understand why the great Longfellow should write a poem about him.
The Gilbreath family moved to Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in 1841. Victor was a tailor by trade and, because of his musical talent and social qualities, became a general favorite with the young people of the place. The instrument of which he was especially fond was the flute.
Early in 1843 the family moved to Galena, Illinois. Here the drink habit into which he had fallen grew upon him and new associates led him to gambling. At the opening of the war with Mexico, Albion T. Crowe of Galena, organized company F of the First Regiment of Illinois Volunteers for service. Gilbreath wished to join the company and was urged to do so by Captain Crowe against the protests of Gilbreath’s mother, who feared the his drink habit would prove his ruin in the army. Crowe, who knew his failing, promised to carefully look after him and see that no harm cam to him because of his infirmity. So long as he was under Captain Crowe all went well.
The company was discharged at Camargo, and Gilbreath reenlisted as bugler in Capt. Gaston Means’ company of voluntary cavalry. And now his troubles began, which later reached a tragic culmination. Though good natured when sober, Gilbreath was violent when under the influence of drink. His new captain made no allowance for this and evidently considered him a disturbing element, which he undoubtedly was when intoxicated, rather than a real menace to the life of his captain. The result was that he was courtmartialed, found guilty of habitual drunkenness and threatening the life of his captain, and the order was issued for his execution. He did not deny the charges of which he was found guilty, but truly stated the he had committed the offenses only when he was under the influence of drink.
The romantic story of the lady minstrel has little foundation in fact, Gilbreath was not executed for “revealing army secrets” or for “treason.” The execution “under the walls of Monterey” on December 27, 1847, seems to have been not only a tragic but a gruesome affair. He fell before the firing squad, we are told, and was placed in his coffin, which was left uncovered.” Before the hour of burial, his comrades were horrified to see him arise with blood streaming from his wounds and call for a drink of water. This was given him, after which he pleaded to be shot and relieved of his pain. A second volley from the firing squad was effective. Perhaps it should be added hre that sobered by his impending fate, Victor Gilbreath met death with firmness and composure.
The romantic story of the lady minstrel has little foundation in fact, Gilbreath was not executed for “revealing army secrets” or for “treason.” The execution “under the walls of Monterey” on December 27, 1847, seems to have been not only a tragic but a gruesome affair. He fell before the firing squad, we are told, and was placed in his coffin, which was left uncovered.” Before the hour of burial, his comrades were horrified to see him arise with blood streaming from his wounds and call for a drink of water. This was given him, after which he pleaded to be shot and relieved of his pain. A second volley from the firing squad was effective. Perhaps it should be added here that sobered by his impending fate, Victor Gilbreath met death with firmness and composure.
The poem by Longfellow so long as it relates to the execution, is a vivid description of what actually occurred. By special permission from the publishers it is here quoted in full:
From “Birds of Passage” – “Flight the First”
Under the walls of Monterey
At daybreak the bugles began to play,
In the mist of the morning damp and gray,
These were the words they seemed to say:
“Come forth to thy death,
Forth he came, with a martial tread;
Firm was his step, erect his head;
He who so well the bugle played,
Could not mistake the words it said:
“Come forth to thy death,
He looked at the earth, he looked at the sky,
He looked at the files of musketry,
And he said, with a steady voice and eye,
“Take good aim; I am ready to die!”
Thus challenges death
Twelve fiery tongues flashed straight and red,
Six leaden balls on their errand sped;
Falls to the ground, but he is not dead;
His name was not stamped on those balls of lead,
And they only scath
Three balls are in his breast and brain,
But he rises out of the dust again,
The water he drinks has a bloody stain;
“O kill me, and put me out of my pain!”
In his agony prayeth
Forth dart once more those tongues of flame,
And the bugler has died a death of shame,
His soul has gone back to whence it came,
And no one answers to the name,
When the Sergeant saith,
Under the walls of Monterey
By night a bugle is heard to play,
Through the mist of the valley damp and gray
The sentinels hear the sound, and say,
“That is the wraith
Of Victor Galbraith!”
A pamphlet produced for a commemoration of Victor Galbraith in Middletown around 1917 reads:
Victor Galbraith,’ a musician and lover of music, because of his association with a lady minstrel of Portuguese birth, who came from the City of Monterey, with a harp to play and sing for the American soldiers, was supposed to have been a spy and that Victor Galbraith had imparted to her army secrets which she reported to the enemy. On this false charge he was court martialed, found guilty of treason, and executed.
The stone on which his name is inscribed and which marks the location of the paternal roof, is one that the government rejected in the erection of the federal building, hard by the old homestead, and it therefore becomes a fitting monument to the one who had mistakenly suffered the same treatment from his native country as that of the stone erected in his memory.
His grave, unknown and unmarked in the fields of Mexico, his rejected stone mid the scenes he knew and loved stands the only monument to his memory, and the traveler on his way over the Dixie Highway,
seeking places of historic interest, as he stands over the stone besides the Elks’ temple in Middletown, will recall the pathetic story of Victor Galbraith, sleeping peacefully in an unknown grave on the plain of Monterey.
Victor Gilbreath did not “mistakenly” suffer. He was the victim of a habit that found little restraint in the army and he died under discipline that was not tempered by the mercy of later times.