History of the War with Mexico - H. O. Ladd

The March to the Capital City of Mexico

Consternation of the Mexican people—Arrival of Santa Anna at the Capital—Reconciliation of factions—He assumes command—Cerro Gordo—Its defences—General Scott's plan of attack—Turning the left Storming the hill by regulars—Wounding of General Shields—Assault by Pillow—Mexican losses.

The fall of Vera Cruz carried consternation to the capital city of Mexico and throughout the Republic. But the people with heroic spirit rallied again to the defence of their country under the leadership of Santa Anna. His journey from the north after the disaster of Buena Vista, which had been falsely proclaimed by himself as a victory, had called forth ovations. Deputations came out from the principal cities and states to greet and acknowledge him as their deliverer from the ruin threatened by the armies of the invaders. They blindly clung to his fortunes. He had more of the prestige springing from success in governing than any other man in Mexico, and after every defeat had arisen to some new and more extended exercise of power.

Mexico, the capital, was, however, the scene of another revolution. The acting President, Gomez Farias, had incurred the bitter hostility of the clergy by attempting to levy a war tax of five millions of dollars on church property. The citizens were divided in their support of the existing government. For days the streets had been barricaded, and convents and public buildings had been seized, while the people were engaged in shooting at one another, without much loss on either side.

Santa Anna, having waited his time for action, now approached the capital as mediator. He reconciled the factions, and at the same time, by the arts of political intrigue in which he was such an adept, secured his own installation on the 23rd of March, 1847, as President of the Republic.

In the joy and acclamations of the people over this event, money was freely subscribed, citizens were enrolled in the army, and fortifications prepared for defence in and around the city. As Santa, Anna was leaving the capital to take command of the army, he issued an address, in words of exalted patriotism and self-sacrifice, to the people of Mexico, whom he implored to be ready to die with himself, fighting for their country and its independence, now in such imminent peril from the American hosts advancing to attack the imperial capital.

The route of Santa Anna toward Vera Cruz led through Puebla, Perote, and Jalapa. Gathering troops at each of these places and borrowing money to pay them, his army was increased to thirteen thousand men and forty-two pieces of artillery by the time he reached Cerro Gordo, a pass in the mountains, sixty miles from Vera Cruz and twenty-seven from Jalapa. This pass was on a part of his own private estate, which included the whole slope of the mountains for ninety miles from Jalapa to Vera Cruz, and gave him at once the climate and products of both the torrid and temperate zones. The ground he had chosen on which to resist the march of General Scott's army had been the scene of many conflicts. It was almost impregnable to attack from the direction of Vera Cruz. The heights overhanging the road were strongly fortified and bristling with guns. His right rested on a ravine with perpendicular sides several hundred feet high; his left was on the hill of Cerro Gordo, nine hundred and fifty feet above the river on its southern side. His whole line faced hills along which extended for miles the road that at last passed directly through its centre. The road from Vera Cruz as it approaches the pass first crosses a creek and then a narrow plain lying under the shadow of the mountains and crags. Through this Plan de Rio, extending into a deep ravine toward the west, flowed the creek. The groups of massive hills and steep ravines, among which the winding road was hidden, made a most difficult battle-ground. It was the scene of one of the fiercest conflicts of the war. From the ravine of the river to the height of Cerro Gordo, a distance of two or three miles, a series of forts threatened the most desperate assaults with defeat. The road, turning sharply to the right from the bridge, passed up among the hills over a ridge which was completely enfiladed by these forts, before the defile itself could be reached by an army climbing to this mountainous region toward the capital of Mexico.

The advance of the American army, under command of General Twiggs, arrived at Plan de Rio, April 11th. General Scott himself with the other divisions of his army joined him on the 14th, and a reconnaissance showed such difficulties of attack in front, that it was determined to turn the position of the enemy by cutting a new road along mountain slopes and through ravines out of sight of the enemy till it should meet the Jalapa road in the rear of the Mexican army.

The construction of this road was unknown to the enemy until the 17th of April, when the working parties were fired upon from the Mexican lines. The Jalapa road was however almost reached, and the division of General Twiggs, supported by Shields division of volunteers, was ordered to take a position by this road, in the rear of the Mexicans, and occupy heights near to Cerro Gordo. Two or, three regiments of infantry and artillery, under the leadership of Colonel Harney, Majors Sumner and Childs, drove three thousand Mexicans before them, charged to the summit of one of these hills, and then forced the Mexicans over two other heights, till they sought shelter in the Tower of Cerro Gordo itself, completely routed by the impetuous onsets of the Americans, who halted at last within one hundred and fifty yards of the Tower. On the highest hill thus captured, commanding all others except Cerro Gordo, a thousand men were employed during the night in raising a battery of three twenty-four-pounder guns and howitzers, lifting them up the steep, rugged sides of the height with immense difficulty.

All arrangements had now been made successfully for the stern and bloody conflict of the morrow, and General Scott issued detailed orders for each division and brigade with the confidence of a victor.

The morning of the 18th was transparently clear. A cloudless blue sky hung over the hills, and a cool breeze fanned the combatants. Eight thousand Mexicans were awaiting attack behind fortifications, and six thousand reserves, on the plain in the rear of Cerro Gordo close to the Jalapa road, were ready to march to the most exposed part of their line of defence. General Scott's command did not number more than eight thousand.

General Twiggs' division was in motion at sunrise. To the regulars of the First Brigade was committed the storming of Cerro Gordo. Many were veterans of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterey. Colonel Harney was to lead them. Seeing the enemy advancing to support the Mexicans on Cerro Gordo, he detached a regiment to hold them in check. Then rushing down the hill into the ravine, his men began to climb the steep rocks in the face of a deadly fire from the Tower and the barricades nearer to the assailants. It was a fearful struggle to surmount those rocks and precipices, carry one barricade after another under a pitiless hail of bullets, and at last sweep over the ramparts of the Tower and drive its defenders, beaten in this terrific fight with every advantage in their favor, down the mountain-side. But so they fought and won the key to the whole position of the enemy. Their general-in-chief was with intense eagerness watching their unfaltering progress, and their chivalrous leader ever cheering them by his presence at their head and his clear voice of command. Their comrades in the ravine below were no less steady and efficient in their determined resistance to the enemy's reinforcement.

The remainder of Twiggs' division were not less successful farther to the enemy's left. The Second Brigade, under Colonel Riley, climbed the height of Cerro Gordo in the rear and reached the summit at about the same time with those who had assailed it in front. Still farther to the enemy's left Shields' volunteers engaged the Mexicans discovered to be holding position, with a battery of five guns and a large force of infantry and cavalry, on the Jalapa road. General Shields here fell dangerously wounded. His men, under command of Colonel Baker, charged the Mexicans. A sharp conflict for a few minutes decided the issue of this part of the battle. Seeing the American flag waving over Cerro Gordo the Mexicans fled, leaving guns, camp equipage, and provisions to the Americans.

To General Pillow had been assigned the assault on the fortifications on the enemy's right. These could be approached only by a difficult path through chaparral over the rocky hills. The river batteries enfiladed his first position, from which he retreated. Organizing a storming column under Colonel Haskell, it was almost obliterated by a galling fire of grape and musketry, and ere his third column of attack was engaged, Cerro Gordo had fallen, and the Mexican general, La Vega, cut off from all support, surrendered to him, with three thousand men, the forts which he had with great skill and bravery commanded as the post of greatest peril that day. Before mid-day the battle was ended, and the remnants of the Mexican army numbering eight thousand men, with Santa Anna and his generals at their head, were in full retreat, pursued with relentless fury by Harney's dragoons and the commands of Worth and Twiggs, till darkness fell. The Americans halted not more than ten miles from Jalapa.

The storming of Cerro Gordo was another brilliant exploit of American arms. The spoils of battle were great. Forty-three pieces of bronze artillery, with a large amount of ammunition and three thousand prisoners, including five generals, fell to the victors. Their loss in killed and wounded was four hundred and thirty-one. The casualties of the Mexicans were nearly twelve hundred. Generals Shields and Pillow were both wounded, and a large number of gallant officers disabled or killed.

The prisoners of war were released on parole, and the army again set forward to the capture of Jalapa, and of the town and castle of Perote, which offered no resistance. But General Worth received at the latter place, from the hands of the Mexican commissioner, fifty-four guns and mortars, eleven thousand and sixty-five cannon-balls, fourteen thousand bombs and hand grenades, and five hundred muskets.

Within two weeks General Worth's command and Quitman's brigade of volunteers marched toward the city of Puebla. After a slight skirmish with three thousand of Santa Anna's cavalry about twelve miles from the city, on the 15th of May, Worth's whole division, numbering four thousand men, encamped in the Grand Plaza of Puebla, where they were delayed for many weeks. Into this city of eighty thousand inhabitants this little army marched, with such plainness of uniform and equipments and such quietness of demeanor, that the astonished Pueblans could not restrain their reproaches of their own countrymen, whose proud armies had gone forth to conquer, as they supposed, physical giants in splendid armor, but had returned broken, disorganized, and routed by such ordinary troops.