The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like an incubus upon the brain of the living. — Karl Marx

Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes




Before Vera Cruz

It was soon after the commencement of actual hostilities that General Scott had requested permission from the government to join General Taylor and to push forward into Mexico, following a plan of his own that he felt sure would enable him to reach the enemy's capital. But, despite all his endeavors, the hero of Lundy's Lane was held back by departmental duties, and was put off, time after time, by the authorities at Washington. It was not until November that he received orders to start overland for the seat of hostilities. Travelling Was slow, the roads were heavy, and he did not arrive at the mouth of the Rio Grande until January 2, 1847. Immediately he began the difficult task of mustering his army. From the very outset he met with opposition. He was compelled to draw his forces, in a great measure from those of General Taylor, and, of course, the latter was loath to part with any. At last, however, Scott succeeded in getting together some twelve thousand men, and, anxious to escape the yellow-fever, that was bound to make its appearance on the coast in the spring, he set sail on March 9th, leaving ten thousand men to support General Taylor and hold the country that he had taken in so many bloody encounters.

In the little army that accompanied General Scott were many officers destined soon to be famous in their country's history. Among them were Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, the future commanders-in-chief of the two greatest armies the world has ever seen, and two of the greatest military geniuses of all time.

Strange to say, Lee's brother Sydney was an officer on board the Mississippi, one of the convoying fleet. It was a beautiful day when they left Lobos Island, and it must have been a fine sight to have seen the vessels spread their white sails and, with the cheers of their companions ringing in their ears, start southward. But let an eye-witness tell the story of the short voyage and the landing of the troops. An officer of the United States sloop-of-war Albany, that was then awaiting the transports off the Mexican coast, writes as follows:

"On the 5th day of March, 1847, while the American squadron was lying at Anton Lizardo, a norther sprang up, and commenced blowing with great violence. The ships rolled and pitched, and tugged at their anchors as if striving to tear them from their hold, while the sea was white with foam. About noon, General Scott's fleet of transports, destined for the reduction of Vera Cruz, came like a great white cloud bearing down before the storm. The whole eastern horizon looked like a wall of canvas. Vessel after vessel came flying in under reduced sail, until the usually quiet harbor was crowded with them. A perfect wilderness of spars and rigging met the eye at every turn; and for five days all was bustle, activity, and excitement. Officers of the two services were visiting about from ship to ship; drums were beating, bands of music playing, and everything told of an approaching conflict.

"On the 20th the army was conveyed in huge surf-boats from the transports to the different ships of war, which immediately got under way for Vera Cruz. During the passage down to the city, I was in the foretop of the United States sloop-of-war Albany, from which place I had a good view of all that occurred. It was a 'sight to see!' The tall ships of war sailing leisurely along under their top-sails, their decks thronged in every part with dense masses of troops, whose bright muskets and bayonets were flashing in the sunbeams; the jingling of spurs and sabres; the bands of music playing; the hum of the multitude rising up like the murmur of the distant ocean; the small steamers plying about, their decks crowded with anxious spectators; the long lines of surf-boats towing astern of the ships, ready to disembark the troops all these tended to render the scene one of the deepest interest.

"About three o'clock p.m., the armada arrived abreast of the little, desert island of Sacrificio, where the time-worn walls and battlements of Vera Cruz, and the old, grim castle of San Juan de Ulloa, with their ponderous cannon, tier upon tier, basking in the yellow rays of the sun, burst upon our view. It was a most beautiful sight, that embarkation. I still retained my position in the foretop, and was watching every movement with the most anxious interest; for it was thought by many that the enemy would oppose the landing of our troops. About four o'clock the huge surf-boats, each capable of conveying one hundred men, were hauled to the gangways of the different men-of-war, and quickly laden, formed in a single line, nearly a mile in length; and, at a given signal, commenced slowly moving towards the Mexican shore. It was a grand spectacle. On, on went the long range of boats, loaded down to the gunwales with brave men, the rays of the slowly departing sun resting upon their uniforms and bristling bayonets and wrapping the far inland and fantastic mountains of Mexico in robes of gold. On they went; the measured stroke of the countless oars mingling with the hoarse, dull roar of the trampling surf upon the sandy beach, and the shriek of the sea-birds, until the first boat struck the shore, and quick as thought our army began to land. At this instant the American flag was planted, and, unrolling its folds, floated proudly out upon the evening breeze; the crews of the men-of-war raised fierce cheering, and a dozen bands of music, at the same time, struck up 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'

It must have been a brave sight indeed, but the thing that most astonishes us in reading of the transaction is the fact that it was done so easily. One would have thought, in view of subsequent happenings, that the Mexicans would have tried to oppose the landing in some way, for most certainly it was all in full sight and contained no element of surprise. If the governor of the city of Vera Cruz had been more of a soldier and less of a spectacular performer the landing could not have taken place without great loss of life.

The city of Vera Cruz was of the old Spanish construction, surrounded by a wall, and at the angles there were forts and parapets. The castle of San Juan de Ulloa, that fronted the city and was its principal defence, contained 400 guns and 5000 men under the command of the governor-general, Morales. When the Americans had succeeded in landing and were starting from the beach to take the positions that had been allotted them in the well-conceived plan of investment, the Mexicans opened fire, but the second and third divisions had, like the first, reached the shore without accident, and under the bright, starlit sky that night regiment after regiment swept up into full view of the city. The fortresses at once opened upon them. The casualties, however, amounted to but very little, one or two men being slightly hurt. All the next day the troops kept marching to the westward in order to completely surround the city, and as soon as each division had reached its position the men were set to work digging trenches.

It was a fortunate thing that the Mexicans did not make any sortie just at this time, for with the exception of a few light pieces and howitzers all of the American artillery was still back on the ships, and a fierce norther or gale blowing up suddenly, the vessels were in danger of dragging their anchor, and the crews stood by all night ready to make sail in case they be forced to put to sea. For three days afterwards the surf that broke on the beach was exceedingly heavy, but, nevertheless, most of the ordnance was got on shore. With considerable difficulty, for Scott was from the outset hampered by a dearth of draught animals, the guns were dragged to the trenches.

The castle of San Juan de Ulloa, which stood at the end of the reef of Gallega directly opposite the city and separated from it by a long stretch of shallow water, was considered impregnable by the Mexicans. In fact, Santa Anna, the commander-in-chief, had given it out as his opinion that the garrison at Vera Cruz and the castle could resist successfully a long siege and investment. He was sanguine that upon the breaking out of the yellow fever in the spring the American troops would have to withdraw or suffer the dire consequences of meeting the deadly enemy of all foreigners. That there would be any surrender before spring Santa Anna did not bring into his reckoning, and consequently he devoted himself entirely to organizing the army then confronting General Taylor. He left the difficulties of the situation and the climate to confront General Scott.

Of the Mexican defences General Scott wrote as follows:

"The walls and forts of Vera Cruz, in 1847, were in good condition. Subsequent to its capture by the French, under Admiral Baudin and the Prince de Joinville, in 1838, the castle had been greatly extended, almost rebuilt, and its armament about doubled. Besides, the French were allowed to reconnoitre the city and castle and choose their positions of attack without the least resistance, the Mexicans deprecating the war with that nation, and hence ordered not to fire the first gun. Of this injunction the French were aware. When we approached, in 1847, the castle had the capacity to sink the entire American navy."

By the 20th, after ten days of the hardest kind of labor, the army was ranged along the high lands back of the city, extending from the little village of Vergara on the Jalapa road to the point of landing. Worth's division was on the south, then came Peterson's, and then General Twigg's. Some distance ahead of the main line were pushed forward the American batteries, and Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry, the son of the hero of Erie, had dismounted one of the 68 pounder waist-guns of the Albany, and with a number of volunteers had succeeded in mounting this gun at a point that well commanded the town. Subsequently three other guns were added and their emplacement was called the naval battery. All communications between the city and the interior had been completely cut off by the 15th. The question of the city's fall became only a matter of time, and as yet no attempt at bombardment had been made. On the 22d Scott called a meeting of his "little cabinet," for as such he had denominated his staff, and at the meeting there were present Colonel Totten, chief-engineer; Lieutenant-Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock, acting inspector-general; Captain Robert E. Lee, engineer; and Lieutenant Henry L. Scott, acting adjutant-general. There had been much advocacy of an assault in force, and there were many officers who had implored General Scott to carry the place by storm. Much pressure had been brought to bear upon him, and no doubt he had to exercise great restraint, for his army was young, in fine fettle, and hard to keep in hand.

Scott opened the meeting, which was very solemn in character, by making the following speech:

"We, of course, gentlemen, must take the city and castle before the return of the vomito [yellow fever], if not by head-work, by the slow, scientific process of storming, and then escape by pushing the conquest into the healthier interior. I am strongly inclined to attempt the former, unless you can convince me that the other is preferable. Since our thorough reconnaissance, I think the suggestion practicable with a very moderate loss on our part. The second method would, no doubt, be equally successful, but with the cost of an immense slaughter to both sides, including noncombatants, Mexican men, women, and children; because assaults must be made in the dark, and the assailants dare not lose time in taking and guarding prisoners without incurring the certainty of becoming captives themselves, till all the strongholds of the place are occupied. The horrors of such slaughter as that, with the usual terrible accompaniment, are most revolting. Besides these objections, it is necessary to take into account the probable loss of some two thousand, perhaps time thousand, of our best men in an assault, and I have received but half the number promised me. How, then, could we hope to penetrate into the interior?"

A letter which he sent to Governor Morales, requesting the surrender of the city, was answered by a courteous defiance. The Mexican commander rejected all terms offered him, merely stating that he would defend the place to the best of his ability, and that no one would leave Vera Cruz under any pretence whatsoever for Scott had offered safe-conduct to women and children and foreign residents. But as all negotiations had fallen completely through, there could be but one result. On the 24th the bombardment began, but it was not until the following day that all of the great guns were in action. The heavy batteries facing the Puerta de la Merced and the fort de Santiago were almost within musket-range, and the mortars and howitzers there rained a perfect shower of missiles and projectiles into the city. But the Paixhans guns that had been taken from the ships performed the deadliest service. The Mexicans had no idea of their existence or position. The works had been completed under cover of darkness and behind the shelter of a dense line of chaparral. When the battery was disclosed by the cutting away of the bushes the consternation of the enemy was apparent. In this battery, which, with the exception of two pieces of field artillery, was under command of naval officers entirely, was Lee's brother Sydney, and here the soldier and sailor met. One of the artillery subalterns being killed, Sydney Lee took his place, and Lee, subsequently to the fight, describes the scene as follows:

"The first day this battery opened, Smith served one of the guns. I had constructed the battery, and was there to direct its fire. No matter where I turned, my eyes reverted to him, and I stood by his gun whenever I was not wanted elsewhere. Oh, I felt awfully, and am at a loss what I should have done had he been cut down before me! I thank God that he was saved! He preserved his usual cheerfulness, and I could see his white teeth through all the smoke and din of the fire. I had placed three 32 and three 68 pound guns in position. . . . Their fire was terrific, and the shells thrown from our battery were constant and regular discharges, so beautiful in their flight and so destructive in their fall. It was awful! My heart bled for the inhabitants. The soldiers I did not care so much for, but it was terrible to think of the women and children . . . . I heard from Smith to-day; he is quite well, and recovered from his fatigue."

It was a wonder that Lee did not break down under the strain of the first week's work, for not only was he constantly walking or riding along the line of entrenchments, superintending the erection of batteries and the emplacement of the guns, but late at night he could be seen in his tent at headquarters poring over the maps and plans, and at every odd moment that he could snatch from his duties devoting himself to the study of the Spanish language. Of one thing he was certain—it would not be long before the army would be on the move, and the difficulty of reducing Vera Cruz would be nothing to overcoming the obstacles that nature presented to an invading army on its way to the capital. A costly victory, he reasoned, would be as disastrous as a severe defeat.

In a letter written at that time he expressed his joy at noticing the care that Scott took in saving his men. It boded well for the success of the expedition.