It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. — Upton Sinclair

Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes




Bloodless Victories

Nothing could begin to describe the panic in which the Mexican army had fallen after their defeat at Cerro Gordo. All over the surrounding country the infantry and cavalry were scattered. The cavalry alone, to the number of three thousand, under General Ampudia, made some semblance of keeping military formation. But the foot-soldiers, with their spirits broken, dismayed, and utterly without morale, wandered along the highways or through the wastes of chaparral, many entirely destitute of arms, for they had cast everything aside in their mad rush for safety. Encampments of stragglers were to be seen scattered here and there in the mountain-passes. It had seemed to them as if they had been fighting men of more than flesh and blood. They wished no more of it.

General Patterson, who had led the advance and followed the enemy's retreat along the Jalapa road, halted on the night of the 18th at Encerro, and the next day entered Jalapa. In the afternoon General Worth's division followed them, and towards evening the commander-in-chief himself arrived with his staff.

Lee having slept for seven hours on the hard stones, arose as refreshed as if he had been reposing amid the downiest of pillows. But he was delighted to find himself in the saddle once again. His feet were still sore from the mountain-climbing that he had been doing for the past four days, for he had combined the work of scout, engineer, staff-officer, and infantry leader. As he rode forward a little ahead of the others, Scott turned to Colonel Garland, of the 2d Artillery, who had joined him on the road.

"Blood will tell, colonel," he said. "Look at Lee; there is a case of 'the son of his father.' 'Light Horse Harry,' if he should look down from the place where good men and good soldiers go, would be proud of his son to-day."

In a few words he recapitulated Lee's services, and Garland added a chapter that Scott had not heard in detail; for he told of seeing Lee on foot outstripping the younger men as he climbed the hill, of how, almost without pausing to take breath, he had led the infantrymen in that gallant charge on the frowning, stone-walled fortress.

"You will have to keep an eye on him, general," he concluded, "or he won't survive this campaign."

"I'd rather lose a brigade. But some men are like some horses," replied Scott, half laughing, "you have to give them their head or they will chafe beneath the curb."

On the 20th of the month the scouts brought back word that the way seemed clear towards the next pass, which was named La Hoya, but from Mexican accounts Scott had been informed that this mountain defile had been strongly fortified with earthworks and a battery of heavy guns. Lee was sent forward with General Worth's brigade and two batteries of siege-guns to superintend the placing of the artillery, for Scott hoped to shell the enemy out and thus avoid the severe loss of another desperate charge. As the troops came down the road and deployed on each side, the heavy guns were brought forward and halted at extreme range. The batteries could be seen half-way up the hill, flanking the highway, but there was not a sign of movement and no color that might mean an enemy's flag. It was a strange sight.

The general was watching through his field-glass anxiously, however, and expecting every moment to see the smoke come eddying up above the bare lines of hills, when Lee spoke quickly.

"We can save our ammunition, general," he said. "The place is abandoned!"

"Hold hard, Captain Lee; we had better try a shot," replied Worth, warningly.

"As you please, general," Lee replied. "But our friend, the enemy, has left us no work to do. A corporal and three men could take that place unaided."

The shot was never fired. In order to prove the truth of his assertion, Lee, with a few troopers, rode on up the road. Here was a remarkable state of affairs. Six heavy brass field-pieces and two old-fashioned iron guns frowned over the well-built entrenchments, but not a human being was there. A lone goat, with a couple of bleating kids, wandered among the guns, and scampered away up the hill as Worth's brigade marched in and took possession. On every side were little campfires, some still smouldering, where the Mexican troops had cooked their meals the night before. Everything bore evidence of a hasty evacuation. But not many miles along the highway was the fortress of Perote. No one expected that this would be abandoned also, but so, indeed, it proved to be; and with the same ease that they had entered La Hoya, Worth marched into the town. At the castle he found an old, brown-skinned man in a gaudy uniform who introduced himself as General Vasquez. With many bows and gesticulations he informed General Worth that he had been instructed to remain to conclude all the formalities of the surrender. He conducted, almost with an air of pride, Lee and General Worth over the fortifications. The Americans found themselves possessed of an amazing amount of war material, presented, as it were, to them with the compliments of the Mexican government. No less than fifty-four iron and bronze guns of various calibers and in excellent condition, twelve thousand cannon-balls, and over fourteen thousand bombs and hand-grenades, and five hundred good and serviceable muskets stacked in perfect order in the courtyard. The degree of consternation and despair into which the enemy had been plunged can best be shown by taking an extract from a letter found in the carriage of General Santa Anna, among his personal baggage which was taken at the same time: "If the enemy advance one step more," reads the postscript, "the national independence will be buried in the abyss of the past." To which Scott added, tersely, in quoting it, the following words, "We have taken that step."

From Perote, Scott sent his report to Washington, and in making reference to the military movements up to that date, and especially to the battle of Cerro Gordo, he wrote as follows:

"I am compelled to make special mention of the services of Captain R. E. Lee, Engineers. This officer greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Vera Cruz; was again indefatigable during these operations, in reconnaissance, as daring, as laborious, and of the utmost value; nor was he less conspicuous in planting batteries and in conducting columns to their station under the heavy fire of the enemy."

The American force present at the battle of Cerro Gordo, in action and reserve, was eight thousand five hundred men. The loss in the two days' fighting was thirty-three officers and three hundred and ninety-eight men, in all four hundred and thirty-one, of whom sixty-three were killed outright. The numbers of Mexicans were estimated at twelve thousand or more, and their losses in killed and wounded from one thousand to twelve hundred. Some three thousand prisoners, four or five thousand stands of arms, and forty-three pieces of bronze artillery, manufactured at Seville, in Spain, were taken.

It is pleasing to relate that the brave Shields had so far recovered from what was supposed to be a mortal wound as to be able to be brought on to Perote, and subsequently, though much weakened, he resumed his command.

A bitter disappointment to Scott and his officers came to him, announced through a letter that arrived on April 2 7th. It was that two thousand recruits that he expected were to be sent to join his army had suddenly, and without warning being given to him, been diverted to General Taylor. Besides, the term of enlistment of the volunteers was drawing to a close. Scott wisely concluded to send them back at once. And in a remarkable order, which he issued on May 4th, he complimented the volunteers upon their services, and announced his intention of discharging them. Then, after a consultation again with his "little cabinet, "he wrote to Washington, expressing in a dignified manner his disappointment at not receiving the new levies promised him, and concluded with the following remarkable statement:

"I might, notwithstanding the unavoidable discharge of the old volunteers seven regiments and two independent companies—advance with confidence upon the enemy's capital. I shall, nevertheless, advance, but whether beyond Puebla will depend upon intervening information and reflection."

Surrounded by such an army, officered by men in whom he placed the utmost confidence, no wonder Scott felt that he could go forward. But yet it was a wonderful thing to do. The danger of being cut off from his base of supplies increased with every mile he marched. But his spirit was undaunted. On May 8th the forward movement began again, and on the 14th the army, having passed through the town of Amazoque, came into sight of Puebla, that at one time had been the second city of importance in Mexico. A messenger had been sent forward to request the surrender of the town from the mayor, and the troops were engaged in furbishing up their arms and accoutrements in order to make a more imposing effect upon the inhabitants, when a drummer-boy who had strayed ahead of the advance-guard suddenly came running back with the news that the enemy was approaching. The staff of officers, among whom was Lee, immediately rode forward. Sure enough, about two miles ahead a large body of mounted men could be seen approaching through a defile in the hills lancers, in brilliant uniforms, and dragoons; whether it was the whole force of the enemy or not, it was hard to determine. Colonel Garland's artillery was hurried forward by Lee, and a few discharges of grape and shell disconcerted the Mexican horsemen, and, without even forming for the charge, they disappeared helter-skelter into the hills. In a drenching downpour of rain that rather destroyed the effect of its military appearance, the army marched into Puebla. Even at the risk of digressing a little from following our hero's personal doings, it might be well to introduce here a description from a Mexican standpoint of the appearance of the little army to whose success his own doings had contributed so largely:

"The singular appearance of the American soldiers, their trains, their artillery, their large horses, all attracted the curiosity of the multitude, and an immense crowd surrounded the new conquerors. The latter, extremely fatigued, confiding in the mutual guarantee stipulated by the ayuntamiento (the city council) and General Worth, or, perhaps, despising the people who so easily permitted the occupation of their territory, stacked arms in the plaza while waiting for quarters, while some wandered into neighboring streets."

Another native of the place wrote in a letter that appeared in the columns of the London Times:

"Nor does their armament seem to me anything extraordinary. In a word, except the draught-horses, which are very good, I assure you, without exaggeration, that these men bring nothing that we have not seen a thousand times. Even the immense number of their wagons is not a proof of large stores. The wagons are all empty, and I understood the principal ones to be for the transport of troops. How, then, have they done what they have? How have they continually beaten our army, which not only surpasses them in appearance—for that is unquestionable but, in my opinion, has real and positive advantages over them? Every one asks this question, to which there is but one reply. Their leaders, and particularly the colonels of regiments, are old, gray-haired men."

No matter what might have been their appearance, Scott's little army of less than eight thousand men slept peacefully that night, surrounded by thousands of their foes.