Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

On Towards Mexico

It was August. The American forces were still at the city of Puebla. The three months that had passed had not been idle ones. Reinforcements of troops and stores of supplies and ammunition had, after long delay, reached the waiting army, that now numbered nearly fourteen thousand men, but of these more than fifteen hundred were invalided, and the same number had been detailed to constitute a garrison under the command of Colonel Childs. On the 7th of the month the cavalry, with which was Lee, took up its march along the road to the valley of Mexico. On the three following days Scott quickly followed with the three other divisions. Passing over the beautiful, rolling country, that abounded in fields and gardens, filled with a profusion of fruits and vegetables, the Americans pressed on, climbing higher and higher through wide-spreading uplands above them. They crossed through the last mountain-pass of Rio Frio unopposed, and there burst upon their sight the grand, well-watered valley in which lay the capital city.

As Captain Lee sat upon his horse and looked down on the wonderful sight, from his position on a little hill to the side of the road, he could see the snow-capped summit of the lofty mountains rising through the mists, and before him, stretching far as the eye could see, mountain and valley, lake and river, wood and grove, hamlet and city, in a blaze of color like a fairy landscape. As each regiment marched through the defile and caught the sight, they burst into cheers. It was like a view of the promised land. They felt as Cortez and his men might well have felt over two hundred years before. Their hearts lifted within them, as the hearts of the Crusaders must have leaped when first their eyes fell upon Jerusalem. Little did they think that half a dozen bloody battles were before them, and that it would be long weeks before they would finally enter the city they had so long ago started to reach.

A strange little note might here be mentioned. The great Duke of Wellington had followed closely, in far-off England, by letter, the march of the invading army into Mexico, tracing its every movement upon a large map. When he was informed that the Americans had passed Rio Frio into the basin of Mexico, he said, "Scott is lost. He has been carried away by his successes. He cannot take the city and he cannot fall back upon his base."

In order that the situation of the army might now be better understood, it would not be amiss to give a short description of the country in which, within the next few days, so many actions were to be fought. The difficulties of the military movements might be better understood also if we look for a moment at the geographical surroundings.

The valley of Mexico lies in a table-land at an elevation of nearly seven thousand feet, and is about half-way between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It occupies a basin extending from north to south fifty-two miles, and in width, from east to west, thirty-four. Measuring along the crest of the towering mountains that surround it, it is slightly over two hundred in circumference. Here enclosed are seventeen hundred and ten square miles, one-tenth of which is taken up by five good-sized lakes, the largest of which, Lake Tezcuco, is in the centre and is seventy-seven square miles in extent. Like Lake Chalco, farther south, it is fresh water, the others being saltish or brackish to the taste. It is not a smooth plain, but abounds in irregularly shaped rocks of volcanic origin, and is filled with numerous little hills and valleys. To the westward it is fertile as a garden, crowded with towns and villages and fields of wheat and other grain.

Into this great basin the advanced division, under the brave General Twiggs, descended, and, unopposed, they moved along the well-built national road to a place called. Ayotla, about sixteen miles from the capital. There they waited for the remainder of the army.

No sooner did Scott arrive than he called a council of war. Lee, with several other officers, was ordered to attend the general. On a rough table in a bare, mud-plastered room of a little hacienda, or small farm-house, a big map was spread out, and over it there was much discussion.

"There seem to be three routes by which we can approach the city, gentlemen," remarked the old commander. "One by the road along which we have advanced so far successfully, that passes south of the big lake, to the eastern gate of the city, and the second to the west of Lake Chalco and near this other one with the unpronounceable name. By this means we can enter the capital from the south. The third appears to be by the Toluca highway on the west. The ground there seems to be soft and marshy."

"I should advise sticking to the main road, general," suggested one of his staff, a man who was always in favor of frontal attacks, and a believer in the bayonet.

"But how about the fortress of El Person that we have heard so much about?" interposed another.

"We will have to ask Captain Lee about that," General Scott rejoined. "I believe he has certain information that might determine our course of action. He has just returned from an all-night reconnaissance of the position."

Lee had made some report but a few minutes previous to the meeting, to the general, and it was his modesty that had kept him from interposing his opinion until it was asked.

"You went in that direction, Captain Lee?" Scott went on, propounding the question in the legal manner that he sometimes assumed, for Scott in his early life had been a lawyer.

"Yes, sir."

"How far did you go, sir?"

"To the walls of the fortress, general." "Can you describe its position?"

All eyes were turned upon the engineer as he replied, quietly leaving out, altogether, the personal danger that he must have passed through in gaining this information. In a few words he told of the situation of the fortress how it overhung the narrow causeway, on one side a deep ditch and on the other the rugged shores of the lake. He hastily sketched the appearance of the place, and estimated the number of guns and the probable number of defenders. But he said little of how he had crawled up the hill and actually passed through the lines of Mexican sentries, of how he swam the muddy ditch, and, having completely passed around the fortress, waded out into the lake until the water was well above his shoulders, and, taking advantage of the blinding rainstorm, made his way down the national road, nearly walking into a Mexican outpost in the darkness, and at last, tired and soaked to the skin, had reached his own lines again. Ile had shifted into dry clothes but a few minutes before the council of war. When he had finished, Scott spoke as follows:

"From what Captain Lee has told us, and from an opinion he expressed to me when he first returned from this, the boldest reconnaissance of the war, I am of opinion that El Penon might be carried, but at a great, and to all purposes, disproportionate loss of life.

"I am," added the general, "most anxious to spare the lives of this gallant army. There will be, beyond doubt, a hard battle, which we will have to win before we capture the city and attain, what is the great object of this campaign, a just and honorable peace." As soon as the council of war was adjourned, Lee' and Scott held another long consultation, and another reconnaissance was suggested to the left of El Person, and this having been accomplished by a bold, daylight survey, a circuitous march was determined upon, leaving the national road and passing to the south of Lake Chalco. The order of the march was now reversed, and General Worth, who was in the rear, led the advance with his division. Over the rugged mountain-spurs and by broken and narrow causeways, along the marshy borders of the lake, Worth's division pressed ahead. And although a small party might have greatly embarrassed its movements, only once was any opposition met with, and in two days the Americans, having crossed over ground whose difficulties the enemy believed to be insurmountable, reached San Augustine on the Acapulco road, nine miles from the walls of Mexico. By August 18th all the divisions had assembled there.

In the capital, as it afterwards developed, everything was terror and confusion. Santa Anna had now gathered in the fortifications, close to the city, an army of over thirty-five thousand men. Word reached the waiting Americans that the shops had been closed and all the male inhabitants had been turned for the nonce into soldiers. The appearance of Scott's army, from a totally unexpected direction, had caused the Mexicans' spirits to sink to the lowest ebb, however, and it is on record that Santa Anna was considering at this time the idea of entering into negotiations for the surrender of the city, but his plans were mistrusted, and Scott boldly withdrew consent to all parleying and determined to pursue the campaign with unabated energy. And this brings us to the battle of Contreras, on August 19th, when once more the commander-in-chief had opportunity to mention Captain Lee in his despatches.