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

The Storming of Monterey

Advance to Monterey—Its defences—Encampment at Walnut Springs—Worth's movement—Cavalry skirmish—Anticipations of battle—Night scenes—Preparations of the morning—Garland's assault—Capture of a fort—Quitman's charge—Mexican courage—Rain in the night—Fort Diabolo abandoned—Entering Monterey—The Texan rangers.

About the last of August, 1847, General Worth led the advance of General Taylor's forces toward Monterey, and occupied with his division a point near this stronghold of the Mexicans. He was followed on September 5th by General Twiggs with the centre division, and on the 17th General Quitman's brigade set out with the rear of General Taylor's army from the Rio San Juan. The route of the army lay from Camargo to Monterey, a distance of one hundred and eighty miles, through a dreary desert region, and was traversed under the oppressive rays of a tropical sun, while no pleasant landscape cheered the tired soldiers on the march, except the lofty peaks of the Sierra Madre Mountains in the dim distance. Resting two or three days at Ceralvo, a pretty town at the base of the mountain range and watered by a cool stream, the army crossed a vast plain dotted with many empty farm-houses, betokening the gathering of the population for the defence of Monterey. They passed through a gap of the mountains to encamp again upon the banks of the San Juan beyond Marin. Thence they marched to San Francisco, ten miles from the city, and on the morning of the 19th of September, leaving San Francisco, the advance soon had a greeting from the Mexican guns, to which the eager soldiers responded with shouts that made the mountains ring. General Taylor had repeatedly declared that the enemy would make no resistance to his march. As he reached the edge of the plain overlooking the city, escorted by a company of rangers, a twelve-pounder ball struck within a few feet of him. Assured of a determined resistance by this unexpected message from the Mexican works, he ordered the guard to withdraw from the reconnaissance to Walnut Springs. Here, in a sequestered and lovely spot, three miles from Monterey, the pleasure resort of the gay inhabitants, the army encamped, and the sounds of drum and trumpet with the tramp of soldiers soon to engage in the bloody scenes of battle filled the peaceful recesses of the grove.

Monterey was the capital of the State of Nueva Leon, and had at the beginning of the war a population of about ten thousand citizens. General Ampudia, who had succeeded General Arista in command, anticipating the attack of this city, had collected here more than ten thousand troops for its defence. With the caution taught them in the battles already fought, they were awaiting behind their fortifications the assault of the Americans.

The strongest defence of Monterey lay in its well-chosen site. It was surrounded with rugged and craggy mountains, which rose four thousand feet above it. Some of the lower eminences hung directly over the city. It lay in a beautiful valley made by the river San Juan, which flowed out from a steep gorge on the west. Through this gorge ran the road to Saltillo. The river flowed toward the east along the southern side of the city, which was regularly laid out for about two miles along its bank. This valley was lower than the plain, which extended to the north and east of the city. A dry ravine, several hundred yards in length, intersected this plain on the north. The mountain ranges ran mouth of the city beyond the river, with high hills reaching to its banks, and commanding the city. The plain gradually sloped down on the north and east toward the city. On the north-east was the approach to Monterey from Ceralvo across this plain. The upper part of the city was situated on the crest commanded by high hills one mile distant and beyond the Saltillo road. On one of these was the Bishop's Palace.

The American army approached Monterey over the plain from the north. It was here and there planted with fields of corn. The natural defences of the city had been made apparently impregnable by fortifications constructed with great skill, and garrisoned by well-armed troops. They would test to the utmost the intrepidity and strength of any attacking force.

Near the Ceralvo road on the north was the citadel which lay outside of the city. It was built of a soft volcanic stone, had four sides, and was two hundred feet square. At the angles were projections, each pierced for seven guns. The upper portion of the wall or parapet was twelve feet thick, resting on a heavier stone wall, with a ditch twelve feet wide surrounding the whole fort. This defence was situated on a slight elevation so that it commanded the country for two miles, and also the forts at the lower end of the city. In its centre were the ruins of an old cathedral, which gave the "Old Black Fort," as it was called by the Americans, under the thick clouds of smoke hanging over it during the battle, an impregnable look.

On the eastern or lower side of the city was a fort of four guns, behind which were two redoubts named Fort Tannerio and Fort Diabolo, each mounting three guns. This line of fortifications was continued by two breastworks and a barricade on the south, and commanded all the approaches to the city from the east.

On the north-west of the city beyond the cultivated fields and above the Saltillo road rose a rugged height called Independence Hill. It had two forts, one of which, the Bishop's Palace, thoroughly equipped for defence, was the strongest position held by the enemy outside of the city. Opposite to this, on the other side of the road, was Federation Hill, beyond the San Juan River, having fortifications of less strength, mounting but one or two guns, to protect the rear of the city.

In addition to these cleverly constructed defences, which included with their light batteries forty-two pieces of artillery, were strong stone barricades at the entrances of each of the streets pierced for musketry, while the stone houses, with their parapets, were each minor forts to aid in the stubborn resistance which the defenders of Monterey were prepared to make. A large force of cavalry was also waiting in the plaza to cut off the expected retreat of the Americans, after their attempt to capture the city.

On the 19th of September General Taylor ordered several reconnaissances to be made by the engineer corps and Texas rangers to obtain accurate information of the enemy's works. The American army was without heavy artillery. Rather than submit to the delays of its transportation from Camargo and Matamoras, it was decided to attempt the capture of Monterey by assault, and carry the works at the point of the bayonet.

On Sunday, the loth of September, General Worth, with his division numbering seventeen hundred men and one hundred Texas rangers, was ordered to take position at the extreme right on the Saltillo road, which he was to reach by a long detour. He was directed to cut off the supplies and retreat of the enemy, and, if possible, capture the defences in that quarter. The afternoon and following night were spent in cutting a road through the fields of corn and sugar-cane, and building bridges over the ditches for the passage of Duncan's artillery. To conceal this movement the other two divisions were marched to the front of the town, but withdrawn at night. A ten-inch mortar and two four-pounder howitzers were posted in the dry ravine on the north of the city within fourteen hundred yards of the Old Black Fort, and protected all night by the Fourth Regiment of regular infantry.

General Worth's division marched for seven miles through the fields and came out upon a road at the base of a high mountain on the north-west, which led into the Saltillo road a mile and a half from the city. They encamped in the night not far from the height surmounted by the Bishop's Palace. As soon as their camp-fires were lighted, their position was disclosed and showers of grape-shot were hurled upon them. Quickly extinguishing the fires, they were obliged to lie down in the rain without supper and without blankets. They left their camp at day-break, and following the winding road entered the Saltillo road, when they discovered a large body of Mexican cavalry waiting to give battle. Part of the Texan rangers dismounted and moved forward to concealed positions in underbrush and behind a fence on the right and left of the road. Here they attacked four regiments of Mexican lancers riding proudly down the road, and checked the advance of the first regiment by a sharp fire of musketry. The Mexican commander pressing on fell pierced by many balls. The rest of the Texans came up and drove the Mexicans into the chaparral and up the hill. They left nearly one hundred killed and wounded on and near the road. Only two men were killed on the American side.

After this short engagement with the enemy's cavalry, General Worth moved on the Saltillo road out of range from the fortifications on the hill, encamped beside the stream, and prepared to storm the height on the morrow.

The night of the loth was passed by the now separated American troops around Monterey with such feelings as only those who are on the eve of a fierce and bloody strife can adequately describe. Laughter and jest among veterans and volunteers soon died away, to give place to silent thoughts of the issues of the morrow, and then to the sleep of brave men preparing for the terrible scenes of battle.

The long roll sounded at dawn of the 21st of September, and the columns moved forward over the plain to the assault. Clouds of mist were hanging over the city, pierced only by the church-steeples. Soon, however, the rays of the rising sun dispelled the fog, and the breeze swept it away rolled in masses up the mountain-sides.

The troops took their appointed positions on the south of the city. General Twigg's division under Colonel Garland's command, with Captain Bragg's artillery, were on the left of the Black Fort. The cavalry commands of May and Woods, with the mounted rangers under General Henderson, moved to the right to support General Worth, who was expected to attack the upper part of the city, while a diversion was made by the troops in front and on the eastern defences. General Quitman's force, comprising the Mississippi and Tennessee volunteer regiments, and the dragoons under General Butler, occupied ground fronting the Black Fort, and farther to the right were stationed the Kentucky and Ohio volunteer regiments.

General Garland began the assault by entering the town on the north-east, and attempting, by turning to the right through the suburbs, to gain the rear of Fort Tannerio. The Mexicans repulsed them in half an hour by an effective fire from the forts and houses in the vicinity. The Tennessee and Mississippi regiments were ordered to support Colonel Garland's advance. The Tennesseans marched to the left, passed the Mississippi regiment, and started on a brisk run toward the firing, which was nearly a mile distant. As they crossed the open plain, led by General Quitman, the Black Fort opened a terrible fire upon them from twenty guns. They pressed on without faltering through the low tangled brush and thickly flying grape-shot, at heavy loss, till they came within five hundred yards of the fort, from the attack of which Colonel Garland's men were returning. An unfortunate order from some subaltern to halt and fire stopped the column, which began to fire upon the fort while exposed to the deadly range of two of the fortifications that poured grape and canister shot upon them, till the gallant band leading the assault quite melted away. The officers again and again gave orders to their men to charge, but the commands were not heard amid the shrieks of the wounded and the terrific roar of the battle. At length the firing lulled, and the orders given again were heard and quickly obeyed. The Tennesseans rushed up to the very cannon's mouth, while grape-shot, thick as hail, was hurled upon them from the forts. Leaping the ditch and climbing the rampart with Lieutenant Nixon, one of their brave officers at their head, the assailants saw the enemy flying, and turned a gun just loaded with canister shot upon them. Rushing on to the outermost fort, about forty yards distant, they entered it just as the Mississippi troops had taken possession, and captured thirty prisoners and five cannon which Lieutenant Ridgeley immediately turned upon the enemy's works. A movement to assault Fort Diabolo, five hundred yards in the rear, was now partially executed in the face of a vigorous firing maintained by its garrison, but the order was countermanded, and the men gained shelter from the deadly, missiles to which they had been so long exposed.

While General Quitman's brigade was thus engaged, General Butler, with the Ohio volunteer regiment and Fourth United States Infantry, had penetrated the city on the north, but could not long endure the storm of musket and artillery shot which was poured upon them from the houses and breast-works. He withdrew his men, but after the first fort was carried by General Quitman's troops, General Butler was again ordered to advance. He attempted to storm Fort Diabolo, but he himself and Colonel Mitchell were both wounded, and his command again fell back.

Many of the assailants had now lost their regiments, and fought for several hours without orders from behind houses, walls, and fences. The Mexican lancers swept down over the ground along the front of the town, where the American troops had marched under fire, and without mercy pierced the wounded with their lances, till they were checked with heavy loss by a steady firing from a body of Ohio and Mississippi troops.

The Mexicans everywhere fought with determination and bravery against their gallant foes. Twenty-five hundred of their best troops covered with their guns the approach to Fort Diabolo. Grape and canister shot swept like a murderous flame over the open ground around it, and it seemed impossible that day to take Fort Diabolo. A fruitless attempt was made by Colonel Garland and a section of Ridgeley's battery to take the Mexican guns posted at the bridge, but the deep stream prevented approach to it. The day was drawing to a close, and the recall was sounded to our scattered troops. The Mexican cavalry charged upon them as they retired from the field, but they were driven back by Ridgeley's guns at heavy loss. A garrison of troops who had been less exposed was posted in the captured forts, and what was left of the gallant regiments which had heroically won them withdrew to the camping ground at Walnut Springs. The Tennessee regiment lost one hundred out of three hundred men who entered battle that morning. It gained the name from that day of "The Bloody First."

A cold and dreary rain fell in the darkness of that September night upon the field where hundreds of wounded lay. The scenes after battle, when its excitement is over, are indeed heartrending. Then the bravest recoil at the horrors of war. There was but little sleep that night. The soldiers in the fort had not the shelter of a blanket, and the camp was disturbed by the cries of the wounded brought in from the field.. On the cold and muddy ground the weary soldiers waited, without even supper, for the morning's fighting, but the dead and wounded lay in ghastly heaps upon the field the next day, unburied and uncared for, a truce for the purpose having been refused by the Mexican generals.

The 22nd of September began with rain, and the attack was not renewed that day on this side of the city. On the 23rd, early in the morning, the men in the fort were relieved by General Quitman's shattered brigade; Lieutenant Ridgeley, one of the most enthusiastic spirits on the field, was still there with his battery. General Quitman discovered that Fort Diabolo had been abandoned during the night, and took possession of it. Then dispatching four companies of troops to enter the town, he again brought on the engagement. These soldiers fought from house to house, and had pushed far into the town, when they were reinforced by the Texan rangers, who rushed through the streets like tigers with the battle cry, "Goliad and Alamo!" They broke through the walls of the houses, climbed to their flat roofs, bringing down with their unerring rifles every Mexican visible, till they had forced their way to within one hundred and fifty yards of the Plaza, where the enemy were posted in great force. Bravely supported by the Mississippians and Texan troops, the men in front were just about reaching with their avenging fire the masses of the Mexicans, when General Taylor, unaware of their advantageous position, sent orders to them to retire. At that moment General Worth's troops were about equally distant from the Plaza, advancing from the other side of the city.