Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

The Fall of Vera Cruz

Gain the guns were roaring and the heavy shells bursting in the streets and on the house-tops of Vera Cruz, and above the island fortress of San Juan. Just out of range of the Mexican guns the fleet were joining in the din, and the well-directed broadsides sent tons of metal over the American lines into the city.

General Winfield Scott, on foot, was walking in a little sandy hollow back of the naval battery and with him was Captain Lee. The general of late had become more and more convinced of his aide's usefulness, and had grown to value also the charm of his companionship. Although Scott was considered to be rather a pompous person by those who wished to detract, if possible, from his character, the truth of the matter was that he did not unbend to every one, and to few he showed the gentle and lovable side of a strongly sensitive temperament. For some reason Lee not only had won his trust and admiration, but he had appealed to his affection, and the general talked to him as he talked to few others among his army acquaintances. He knew that he could always rely upon the young man's loyalty and discretion, and he perhaps allowed more of his inner self to show in consequence. They were talking, odd to tell, not of the present military exigencies, but of war in the abstract, and it was strange to hear the general, while the white, sulphurous clouds from the great guns enveloped them both, speak as follows:

"It is exactly as I said before, Captain Lee; because a man is a soldier and has been present at scenes of carnage and bloodshed, he is supposed to be devoid of gentler feelings, but this is not necessarily true. . . . I cannot help thinking, when I see those shells describing their graceful curves and bursting so-prettily in the bright sunlight, of the scenes that must be enacted yonder in the streets of the city. It grieves me to think of the women and children exposed to the frightful dangers; and yet what can we do? Governor Morales refused my offer of a safe-conduct for all noncombatants, and the responsibility is now his, or theirs—for apparently the foreigners have chosen to remain yet I cannot overcome the feeling of great pity and compassion." The general paused. "You will notice as you grow older, Lee, that this softening tendency increases. We are supposed to grow wiser with our years, and all this may be part of our wisdom. War is dreadful, and our appreciation of the value of human life increases as we draw near to its certain end."

Probably the same thought that had entered the mind of the British general Wolfe the day before the battle on the Heights of Abraham, before Quebec, crossed General Scott's mind.

"Gray has it all summed up in his 'Elegy'," he said, quietly, and to Lee's surprise quoted two stanzas of the poem in full. It would probably have amused the other officers, who did not know Scott so well, to have overheard this conversation. Even Lee was forced to smile when the general, halting suddenly in the rear of one of the big guns, ended his quotation abruptly and addressed the young officer in charge. "You have lost your range, sir," he thundered. "More elevation, sir!" The young officer saluted and nervously superintended the resighting of the gun, while the general, forgetting his moralizing, stood waiting for the effect of the next shot.

"Lee," he said, at last, coming back to the conversation, when he had watched the trajectory of the shell, "there are a lot of young hot-heads who will take the chances of the grave for an opportunity to tread the paths that lead to glory."

"It's all in the life of a soldier," Lee replied.

"Yes," replied the general, "but you'll find again, as you grow older, that you will think more of results and less of the methods and glory. Should you think, for instance, that the town yonder could be carried by assault?"

Lee knew well what was in the general's mind, for he had heard the talk that had been going through the different messes. The younger officers rather deplored the slow process of a siege. Even some commanders of regiments openly advocated an assault in force, and had expressed loudly to their juniors their belief that ultimately cold steel would be called upon to carry the day. In fact, Lee remembered that only the evening before he had heard a colonel of infantry make the following statement:

"If old Zachary Taylor was here in command, our men, before this, would have been cheering on the ramparts."

Some of this talk must have reached the commander-in-chief. He waited for Lee's reply.

"I should not counsel an assault, general," replied Lee. "It would be unnecessary."

The general remained silent for a few minutes.

"And yet," he said, at last, slowly, "if such a thing were decided upon, I suppose that you would be petitioning me to let you go in with the advance. But you know I don't believe in risk. Yet I understand these young hot-heads well, and, if I restrain them, I have a sympathy with their feelings."

As he finished speaking the general sighed, and Lee, remembering the story of Scott's behavior at Fort George and Chippewa, and at the battle of Lundy's Lane, years before, when he had by his reckless daring and bravery courted death a thousand times and had been twice badly wounded, smiled at his mood. It was not long before he had occasion to remind the general of his words.

The next day the walls and the nearest entrenchments opposite the heaviest American batteries were found to be badly shattered. Great breaks and breaches appeared in the masonry, and in several places the Mexican guns had been dismounted and the gunners driven from their posts.

At ten o'clock in the morning of the 26th Scott and Lee were once more together, both on horseback this time, riding along the well-trampled road to the northwest, nearest the camp of the infantry, whose principal work up to this time had been accomplished with pick and spade. The furious bombardment of the day before had, under orders, slackened into regular firing as if at drill; but now all fell strangely silent. Not a gun had been discharged for fully three minutes.

"I wonder what this means," exclaimed the general, spurring his charger up to the summit of the sandy hillock, and there the reason was plain to be seen. A white flag was flying from the top of the big building whose shattered roof showed above the walls, and three mounted men, bearing a white flag also, were approaching the American lines. Along the batteries the gunners were crowding up into sight, and away to the south there broke out the sounds of distant cheering.

"So, Morales has dome to his senses," laughed the general. "I did not expect it to happen so soon. He has surrendered."

News had reached the infantry camp, and from all sides men came pressing forward. In a very few minutes the bearer of the white flag stood in the presence of the American general.

Scott was angry. Morales had not come to his senses after all. The letter that the officer read, couched in high-sounding Spanish phrases, merely requested an armistice while the governor complied with General Scott's offer of the day before. He now asked that all women and children and foreigners should be allowed to leave the city, in order, as Morales expressed it, that he might be "better able to defend it to its last gasp."

The decision of General Scott contrasted strangely with his humanitarian sentiments of the day before.

"My compliments to the governor," he replied, "and you may tell him that no one shall leave the city, with my permission, until he surrenders or until our flag is flying where that white flag flies just now."

The Mexican officers returned, and during the day constant shots were fired into the city, as Scott intimated, "to hasten the governor's decision."

But another little incident took place that is well worth recording. While the short negotiations were in progress a number of officers had gathered near, and, emboldened perhaps by the fact that General Scott appeared to be in a proper mood to receive suggestions, the hot-heads were emboldened to approach him through the medium of a spokesman, the one they had selected being the very colonel that Lee had heard express himself as at variance with the general's waiting policy.

The colonel boldly requested, in the name of the junior officers, permission to call for volunteers to storm the fortress at dusk that evening. He stated that the men were eager, and the result would be certain of success.

Scott looked calmly at the colonel and at the anxious group of young men who awaited the result of the inquiry.

"How many men do you suppose it would cost to do it, sir?" he asked,

"Possibly two thousand or two thousand five hundred," the officer replied, making a swift mental calculation. "It would depend upon circumstance."

Scott smiled at him and then grew stern.

"But I can take it with much less sacrifice," he said, at last.

"Yes, general," replied the fiery colonel, "but the army will win no glory and the officers will have no opportunities to distinguish themselves."

Scott stepped out before the group, so that his words could be heard by all, and, raising his voice, he replied, imperiously: "Remember, gentlemen, that a commander who deliberately sacrifices one life more than is necessary to secure a victory is guilty of murder. Back to your posts, sirs!"

General Scott was much criticised subsequently for not allowing Governor Morales's request to be granted, and the following is a copy of the document which was sent to Washington and also to the foreign consuls in Vera Cruz on the morning of the 27th:

"I enclose a copy of a memorial received last night, signed by the consuls of Great Britain, France, Spain, and Prussia, within Vera Cruz, asking me to grant a truce to enable the neutrals, together with Mexican women and children, to withdraw from the scene of havoc about them. I shall reply, the moment that an opportunity may be taken, to say:

  1. That a truce can only be granted on the application of Governor Morales, with a view to surrender.
  2. That in sending safeguards to the different consuls, beginning as far back as the 13th inst., I distinctly admonished them—particularly the French and Spanish consuls—and, of course, through the two, the other consuls, of the dangers that have followed.
  3. That although at that date I had already refused to allow any person whatsoever to pass the line of investment either way, yet the blockade had been left open to the consuls and other neutrals to pass out to, their respective ships of war up to the 22d inst.; and
  4. I shall enclose to the memorialists a copy of my summons to the governor, to show that I had fully considered the impending hardships and distresses of the place, including those of women and children, before one gun had been fired in that direction. The intercourse between the neutral ships of war and the city was stopped at the last-mentioned date by Commodore Perry, with my concurrence, which I placed on the ground that the intercourse could not fail to give to the enemy moral aid and comfort."

The morning of the surrender, Scott's remark about "reckless hot-heads" was called to his mind by Captain Lee. Mounted on his big horse the general had ridden along the earth-works and approached an angle where the shot was flying thickest. Here he noticed some gunners and bombardiers climb up into full sight in order to watch the effect of their fire. The general shouted to them, angrily, "Down, men, down! Don't expose yourselves." Still seated in his saddle he motioned them fiercely with his arms to leave the ramparts.

There was a private standing by who looked the general in the face and, as he saluted, said, "But, general, you are the most exposed."

Scott almost laughed at the man's boldness.

"Oh," replied he, "generals nowadays can be made out of anybody, but good men are hard to get "

Captain Lee, overhearing this remark, recalled to General Scott his military caution the day before, but the only response was a gruff laugh and a shake of the shoulders. Late in the afternoon of the 27th, the day the memorial was written, a second flag of truce was seen to be raised, and this time Governor Morales really surrendered the city and the castle of San Juan, and on the 29th, at ten o'clock in the morning, the garrisons marched out, with all the honors of war, and laid down their arms. The officers were allowed to preserve their private effects and horses, and the whole army of defenders was paroled and given five days to return to their respective homes.

The American loss during the siege was small. The casualties, including officers and men killed and wounded, were sixty-four. The Mexican loss was considerably greater, and, alas! many noncombatants had met their death. In all there were surrendered 5000 prisoners, zo,000 stands of arms, 400 pieces of ordnance, and large stores of ammunition.

Vera Cruz had been spoken of as the Gibraltar of Mexico, and Santa Anna had considered it impregnable, and yet it had fallen after a siege of twenty days. In summing up his report and in conversation afterwards Scott gave great credit to the assistance rendered him by Robert E. Lee in drawing up the plans of the entrenchments and in mounting and placing the batteries.

But Captain Lee's more active participation in the Mexican campaign was subsequent to the siege, and the services that he rendered his commander were given at a time when they were badly needed, and when there was danger enough in the mere accomplishment to suit any of Scott's most reckless hot-heads, as we shall see.