As historic markers go, it is an easy one to miss. Embedded in a boulder near the southeast corner of Schiller Park in Columbus is a greening metal plaque. Among other things it says "on July 27, 1848, a grateful people assembled to express their profound appreciation to their brave sons who gave so much in their devotion to duty. May their heroic deeds inspire all men of future generations who are called upon to serve and protect their country."

As historic markers go, it is an easy one to miss. Embedded in a boulder near the southeast corner of Schiller Park in Columbus is a greening metal plaque. Among other things it says "on July 27, 1848, a grateful people assembled to express their profound appreciation to their brave sons who gave so much in their devotion to duty. May their heroic deeds inspire all men of future generations who are called upon to serve and protect their country."

The celebration was held to welcome home several hundred men from central Ohio who had returned from one of the more unpopular wars in American history. Although many Ohioans agreed with future President Abraham Lincoln in thinking the war was wrong, Ohio provided more volunteers to the American army sent against Mexico in 1846 than any other northern state.

The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that even if the reasons for the war were debatable, it was still one's duty to fight it when asked to do so.

That said, it was not hard to see why many northerners opposed the war proposed by President James Knox Polk and his southern allies in Congress. For more than 20 years, the North and South had been drifting apart one over a variety of issues. The increasingly industrial North was becoming much more powerful than the predominantly agricultural South. The South tended to place a much higher value on states' rights issues than the North. But most importantly, North and South disagreed on the issue of slavery.

Many people in the North felt that slavery was wrong. Most people were not as adamant about the issue as the Abolitionists, who felt that enslaving people was abhorrent and immoral. They believed instead that leaving the institution alone where it existed, but prohibiting its expansion, was a better approach.

It was not a better approach for many Southerners. Many people in the South did not like slavery all that much. In fact many people in the South did not own slaves at all, and those who did often only owned a very few. But most Southerners were agreed as well that they did not like another part of the country presuming to tell them how to live.

The seriousness of the divide in America over these issues became apparent in 1846, when President Polk took the United States to war with Mexico over the issue of Texas. Texas had gained its independence from Mexico in 1836. The Republic of Texas had had a tumultuous history and many people living there looked with favor on the idea of joining the Union -- as a slave state.

A border dispute with Mexico provided Polk with the reason to send troops to Texas to enforce the American claim to land as far south as the Rio Grande. After some failed diplomacy and border skirmishing, the result was war with Mexico.

The war was not welcomed in the North. Many felt that the whole conflict was an excuse to expand the power of the slaveholding South.

And then there was the matter of the army. There simply was not much of an American army in 1846 -- in fact, there had not been much of one for quite some time. Since the end of the War of 1812, the military had been reduced to a small peacetime force whose West Point graduate officers spent much of their time as civil engineers.

This small force, as had been the case since the colonial era, was complemented by local militias, which could be called up in emergency. In theory, this combination of professional and part-time soldiering made sense from an economic and practical perspective. In reality, many years of little conflict had led to the decline of local militia companies.

At one time, Columbus was the home of several local militia companies. The Columbus Guards and the Columbus Cadets were two of the most prominent. By the start of the war, these groups were gone and the only active militia units were two companies of German artillery based in what is now German Village. Those units drilled frequently and were considered ready for war.

Polk called for 50,000 men to support the war with Mexico. In short order the states responded. In Columbus, the Guards and the Cadets were reactivated and new company called the Columbus Grays was organized. These three companies, in addition to the German artillery, set off on June 9, 1846, for Camp Washington near Cincinnati. The mass of men from across the state were formed into three regiments and sent off to war.

In April 1847, the War Department requested more volunteers and two new companies were formed in Columbus. One was commanded by Capt. Mitchell Lilley and the other, a German company, was commanded by Capt. Otto Zirckel.

Many of the units from Ohio were involved in most of the major battles of the war, up to and including the conquest of Mexico City, which effectively brought the war to an end. By the time the war was over, Ohio had provided five infantry regiments, 15 independent companies of infantry and one company of mounted riflemen.

The war provided practical experience to future Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, as well as Columbus native Irvin McDowell. More than half of the deaths or disabilities affecting several hundred of the Ohio soldiers were attributable to diseases like typhus, dysentery and yellow fever.

And when it was over, Columbus provided a memorable homecoming to its returning veterans. On July 27, 1848, more than 200 veterans formed into three companies on High Street. As one account put it: "They were bronzed and hirsute, sometimes wore articles of dress peculiar to the climate or customs of Mexico, and bore many curious mementoes of their campaigns."

The men marched south on High Street past the Statehouse and headed for a reception in Jaeger's Orchard near what is now Schiller Park.

"As the procession passed the Statehouse, they were met by a band of some 60 or 70 (actually 54) young girls dressed in white, supporting a vast wreath of oak and evergreen, with which they encircled the volunteers, and thus marched with them to the place of reception.

"The large gateway to the orchard was formed into a triumphal arch; rare flowers were mingled with the evergreen and the oak, the whole surmounted and decorated with flags. On the left of the arch and forming part of it was the American Shield, on the right the American Eagle, and in the center the words, Ehret die Braven -- 'Honor the Brave.'"

With liberal helpings of food, libation and speeches by local dignitaries, a good time was had by all.

At the same time this celebration was under way, more than 5,000 men were trying to find more of what James Marshall had seen shining in the sand of the race of John Sutter's sawmill on the American River in California. The shining flakes were gold and the Gold Rush of 1849 was on. By the time it was over, many men who had just marched home would be returning west to make their fortunes.

But most of the veterans of this war returned to their lives in central Ohio. Perhaps the war had fulfilled someone's idea of "manifest destiny" of a country stretching all the way to the Pacific. But for most, it was just nice to be home again.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.

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