Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

Four Battles

The American army now found itself in a position that was not only uncomfortable but, to a certain extent, perilous. The forces directly south of the city were divided, the conditions presented by the lay of the land hindered all but movements in certain fixed directions. The country was broken by fields of volcanic rock and rough lava beds impossible for the movement of artillery, and in other places the only roads were surrounded by low swamps and marshy ground traversed by ditches filled shoulder-deep with water.

General Valencia, the Mexican second in command, instead of falling back, as Santa Anna had ordered him, had practically, by a sudden movement, cut the American army in two. He had advanced nearly three miles and had intrenched his force beyond the village of Contreras, upon the slope of a steep hill.

The broken and rocky ground, that was known as El Pedregal, prevented the co-operation of the two main divisions of the American army; for a time they were out of touch entirely. By a daring reconnaissance Captain Lee had determined that the Mexican works at San Antonio could only be approached in front by a narrow cause-way that was flanked on either side by deep ditches. It would have been almost madness for General worth, who was in command of the second division, to attack or advance. Under Lee's advice he was ordered by General Scott to make a feint upon the place and to hold the enemy there in suspense in order to mask any future movements that might be made. It would never do to risk a battle at San Antonio and leave Valencia free to fall upon the American flank and rear from the direction of Contreras.

The indefatigable Lee was again sent for, and with his able assistants, Lieutenants Beauregard and Towers, he was ordered to make a survey of El Pedregal, that the Mexicans considered impossible for the passage of troops. Lee, at the head of the reconnoitring party, set out, escorted by a battalion of picked infantry and a troop of horse. It took almost two hours to gain the top of the first plateau; most of the way the horses had to be led up a narrow mule-path, and the infantry, stumbling along behind, were with difficulty kept in anything like military formation. Lee and Beauregard, pressing on ahead, halted for a minute to discuss the best method of procedure. Beauregard was much depressed and showed plainly his bitter disappointment.

"It is impossible, Captain Lee," he declared. "It would take a week of hard work to make a road, and we cannot spare the time nor the men."

Lee replied nothing. True enough, the march so far had been disheartening. To move artillery up that rough path was out of the question; but where men had gone already other men could follow, and Lee was not accustomed to make up his mind until he had looked on both sides of things. Pointing out a broken ridge In front, he spoke quickly.

"There is the key of the situation," he declared. "If the Mexicans hold that ridge they can sweep aside any working party that may gain the plateau. What lies beyond it we must find out."

"It is held already," cried Beauregard, suddenly. "It is held already."

Sure enough, there was a mounted figure standing outlined against the sky, and, just as they saw him, the rider whirled his horse and disappeared behind the rocks. Lee turned. It was a quick decision he had to make. From the man's movements he determined that the rider was alone and probably a scout, or member of one of the guerilla bands that had so often harassed the flanks and the rear of the army on the march. There were some forty of the American troopers mounted on their horses, under the command of a young lieutenant within sound of Lee's voice. The infantry were appearing, tired and almost overcome by their hard climb over the sun-baked rock, and were in no condition for a charge at the double-quick. Lee did not hesitate. Calling upon the horsemen to follow him he put his own steed to the gallop, and clattering over the lava-beds the little band made straight for the ridge. It was good they arrived just when they did, otherwise the reconnaissance would have progressed no farther that day. As they reached the highest point they saw before them a stretch of perhaps three-quarters of a mile, fairly level, and broken only here and there by great boulders of volcanic rock. Beyond rose a high hill with a cone-shaped top, and at its base was a body of mounted men. The fluttering pennants of their lances showed that they were no guerilla band, but regular Mexican cavalry. They perhaps outnumbered the American troopers two to one. Just as Lee saw them they formed in line and swept onward at a gallop, heading straight for the ridge.

Looking back quickly over his shoulder, Lee perceived that the Mexicans would be upon him long before the infantry could be near enough to render him the least assistance. Again it was a time for an instantaneous decision. The troopers, armed only with horse-pistols and sabres, could never hope to hold the ridge alone. It was an axiom in the old days of cutting, slashing charges, that no body of mounted troops should receive the onslaught of another body of horsemen at a stand-still: No matter the odds opposed to them, they must ride forward at top speed to meet them. Moving force must meet moving force. Whipping out, his sword, Lee called to the troopers to follow, and before the Mexicans had covered half the distance the Americans were speeding towards them. They met almost in the centre of the plain, and through the Mexican lines the heavy northern horses ploughed, bowling over the light mounts of the lancers and splitting their force in two. They whirled again, and for a few minutes pistol-shots rang and there was great sabre play. Then what was left of the enemy put spurs to their steeds and dispersed in all directions. When the infantry gained the ridge the fight was over. Lee was returning with five prisoners, including a lieutenant-colonel; thirteen of the enemy had been killed or wounded, while his own loss was one man killed and three slightly hurt. In half an hour the bold little company reached the foot of the conical hill that was called Zacatepec, and there dismounting, Beauregard, Towers, and Lee made their way to the top. From here it was possible to make a quick survey of the rocky plateau.

Picking out five of the best-mounted troopers and leaving Towers in command of the rest, Lee and Beauregard kept on farther to the south, until they were actually on the edge of El Pedregal and could look down upon the Mexican position at Contreras. Having successfully retraced their steps, they joined the command at the hill, and leaving some of the infantry to hold it and the rest to go back for water, Lee immediately set out alone and reached Scott at San Augustin. Scott relied upon his judgment entirely, and followed Lee's plans to the letter, which were, in short, to build a road from El Pedregal, advance upon Contreras, engage General Valencia's forces there, and also by this move and keeping to the high ground, turn the Mexican position at San Antonio, and gain the rear of the forces that were so difficult to approach from in front. Again was Lee to perform an almost superhuman feat of endurance, for not only did he superintend the making of the road, but he guided the divisions of Pillow and Twiggs across the lava-beds, and although the Mexican guns opened upon them at long range, by evening they were in position.

The troops, galled and harassed by the Mexican artillery, were anxious to fight at once. But the enemy had every advantage in numbers and position, and Lee urged Generals Pillow and Twiggs to wait for reinforcements, and, after the skirmish that took place on the evening of the 19th, the truth of his reasoning was carefully proved, for Pillow and Twiggs found themselves unable to do more than hold their ground after having advanced in the zone of the Mexican fire. Lee, to whom Scott had intrusted almost the whole army, stated his purpose of returning to headquarters at San Augustin in order to make a personal report of the condition of affairs. Alone and unattended in the pitch darkness he set out about nine o'clock in the evening. It was raining in torrents, great gashes of lightning rent the sky, and every galley was a roaring stream. Yet not once did he lose either his courage or his sense of direction; for miles he led his tired horse by the bridle, stumbling over the rocks and fissures, and by twelve o'clock he heard the welcome hail of an American sentry. In a few minutes the commander-in-chief, aroused from his slumbers, was told that Major Lee (for Lee had been brevetted major since the battle of Cerro Gordo) was waiting. So glad was Scott to see him that he almost took him in his arms.

By candle-light Lee sketched the whole position and outlined the plan that was adopted for the following day. Of this night's journey Scott wrote afterwards that it was the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual during the campaign. When the conference was over and it lasted nearly two hours—Scott accompanied Lee to the door of the little adobe house that he had taken for his headquarters. To the surprise of both of them the clouds had cleared away, and it was a bright, starlit night, and nothing but the muddy condition of the road told of the great storm that had passed.

"General," said Lee, "I urge haste in moving up troops to help Generals Pillow and Twiggs. It is the most important thing." He glanced up at the sky above him. "It is light enough to see, and will hold clear till the morning. They should start at once."

"But how?" asked Scott. "No one but you knows the way—don't deny it, sir, you're almost dead from fatigue at the present moment."

Lee turned his pale face, worn with weariness and lack of sleep, to the general and smiled.

"I'll take them, sir," he said. "Have no fear for me, and every' moment counts. Send orders to the brigade commanders, and we will arrive by daylight."

Almost reluctantly, Scott returned to the room and scribbled a hasty order. Inside of an hour three thousand men, led by the tired engineer, were on their way to join the dismal bivouac of the troops of Twiggs and Pillow, who all night long had listened, as they lay on the soaked and muddy ground, to the cheers and music coming from the town opposite their position, where General Valencia and his staff were leading the rejoicing, for the Mexicans supposed that they had won a great victory the evening before, and were but waiting for daylight to complete it and drive back the invaders. There is hardly time to go into the doings of August 20th, but the general assault began shortly after daylight, and the astonished Mexicans, dismayed again by the unexpected movements of their antagonist, were thrown into confusion and fled.

Lee got no sleep until that night. He had participated in the great charge of General Cadwallader's brigade, and had led the brilliant movement of Colonel Ransom's troops that, acting independently, had crossed a deep ravine under a heavy fire and turned the enemy's flank.

In Scott's report of the action, he has given such a complete resume of the doings on the 19th and 20th that it is well to quote it as it stands:

"I doubt whether a more brilliant or decisive victory taking into view the ground, artificial defences, batteries, and the extreme disparity of numbers, without cavalry or artillery on our side—is to be found on record. Including all our corps directed against the entrenched camp, with Shields's brigade at the hamlet, we positively did not number over four thousand five hundred rank and file; and we knew by sight, and since more certainly, by many captured documents and letters, that the enemy had actually engaged on the spot seven thousand men, with at least twelve thousand more hovering within sight and striking distance, both on the 19th and 20th. All not killed or captured now fled with precipitation.

"Thus was the great victory of Contreras achieved: one road to the capital opened; seven hundred of the enemy killed; eight hundred and thirteen prisoners, including, among eighty-eight officers, four generals; besides many colors and standards; twenty-two pieces of brass ordnance, half of large caliber; thousands of small arms and accoutrements; an immense quantity of shot, shells, powder, and cartridges; seven hundred pack-mules, many horses, etc., all in our hands."

This victory made untenable the position of Santa Anna at San Antonio, a fact that at first the Mexicans did not realize. The next day was fought what might be considered two separate actions—one with the forces of Santa Anna that remained at San Antonio and on the road beyond it, and the second at the town of Churubusco, that was well situated for defence, as was amply proved by the losses the little American army sustained. It made Lee's third day of fighting, and this day he found himself playing the part of an artilleryman, bringing up and placing the howitzer battery that was hurried to the support of the brigades of Pierce and Shields, and at the same time attending to his staff duties by keeping the commander-in-chief informed as to the movements of the enemy's cavalry. Following close upon the victory of the day before, that at Churubusco almost completed the Mexican demoralization.

The fierceness of the combat can best be told by glancing at the official return of killed and wounded. On the American side the losses and casualties amounted to one thousand one hundred and fifty, besides the officers; the Mexicans lost approximately four thousand. General Santa Anna, in making his report of these two days, stated that in killed, wounded, and missing he had lost twelve thousand men. On the 19th his army was nearly thirty thousand. The morning of the 2 I St it numbered but eighteen thousand men.

The battle of Churubusco was one of the most furious and deadly for its length of any battle of the war. General Scott might have entered the city of Mexico that night, but for reasons of his own, which no doubt were wise, he concluded not to do so, and camped on the battle-field he had won, which was about four miles from the gates of the city.

With the American army at this time was Mr. Trist, a man who had been sent out as special commissioner of the United States to negotiate terms of peace, etc., with Mexico when the time should arrive. His position was a peculiar one, his presence was unnecessary and due entirely to politics, and although he afterwards shared in some of the misfortunes that befell Scott, the mere fact that the general had to take him into his councils was galling in the extreme. Trist now counselled waiting before further military moves were made, in order to open negotiations if possible. He was acting under the advice of some friendly Mexicans who claimed to know well the temper of the people at large. So Scott curbed the ardor of his troops, and for two weeks waited anxiously for results. It would have been better for him if he had entered the city on August 20th, for now two bloody battles lay before him, and Santa Anna had mustered an army of fourteen thousand men and determined to resist the advance of the Americans at all hazards. On September 8th was fought the battle of Molino del Rey, the bloodiest of the campaign. Nearly one-third of the American officers engaged were either killed or wounded. Of the rank and file, over seven hundred were killed, wounded, and missing. The Mexicans on their side lost upward of two thousand men. It would be hard to describe, in short, the doings of that day. Artillery was used by the Americans almost in the place of infantry, guns were advanced by hand, trundled up to almost point-blank range; and there is a story told of one battery that had every gunner shot away from it and yet still kept up its steady fire; for Captain Drum had called for volunteers, and as there were no artillerists left, every man at the gun was a West Point officer. The Mexicans fought bravely in the trenches, and in the breaches in the walls that were made by the solid shot from the American guns, and yet, when the sun went down, Scott, although victorious, knew that before him was a still greater task the taking of the castle of Chapultepec, that was the key to the defences of the city.

For three days the American army did little but rest, but on the 11th a strategic movement was commenced that worked most successfully. While Chapultepec remained in possession of the enemy the city of Mexico could not be held by the invading army, and upon the fall of the fortress depended the whole success of the campaign. A feint was made by Twiggs against the southern gate in daylight on the 12th, but as soon as night fell all hands were at work with pick and shovel constructing batteries immediately opposite Chapultepec. These batteries were traced by Captain Huger and Major Lee, and constructed by them with the able assistance of the young officers of the Engineer Corps. The recent numerous captures of artillery had more than trebled the American force in guns, and also had given them all the ammunition necessary for a heavy and continuous bombardment, which began early on the morning of the 12th; but the great thing done at the battle of Chapultepec, and that will always be remembered , was the assault of the volunteer storming party of some two hundred and fifty officers and men that rushed forward carrying scaling-ladders, and in the face of an awful and murderous fire gained a lodgment inside an angle of the fort and held it until reinforcements could be brought to their assistance. Lee had started with this gallant little band when it first rushed out from under the protection of the American batteries. His tired brain and body (again he had gone more than forty-eight hours without rest) refused to combine, and he fell fainting before he had gone half the distance. It was not until they picked him up that the doctors discovered that he was also suffering from a slight wound, and that his arm and shoulder were covered with blood. He had not reported it, and had considered it of little moment, for the ball had only lodged in the muscles and worked itself out of its own accord.

There were so many individual deeds of bravery done this day, and so many men won honor and distinction for personal gallantry, that it would take a long list to relate them. And the next day also there was much hard fighting, and many brave young lives were lost. Among them Lee's great friends, Captain Drum and Lieutenant Benjamin.

On the 14th, at four o'clock in the morning, a deputation waited upon Scott, coming from the city of Mexico, and informing him that the federal government had fled with the army.

A wonderful sight it must have been to see that little band of five thousand heroes enter the great plaza of the city, with thousands upon thousands of their enemies watching their quiet but triumphal entry. There was some fighting from the house-tops, but no very determined resistance, and then within three days peace settled down, people began to return to their homes, shops were opened, and business once more went on as usual. Lee found time to make up for some of his lost slumber and to write several long and interesting letters home to his friends and children.