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

The American Navy in the War

The Gulf squadron—The blockade—Yucatan—Capture of Tampico—Expedition against Tuspan—Ascent of the river—Storming the forts—Capture of the city—Preparations to attack Tabasco—The flotilla—Attacked by Mexicans—Engagement with forts—The landing party—Firing upon the Spitfire—The fortifications captured—Fort Iturbide reduced and destroyed—Surrender of the city—Prizes—The Pacific squadron—Instructions to Commodore Sloat—Capture of Monterey and San Francisco—Subjugation of California.

It is impossible to estimate the value of the service rendered by the navy of the United States in the conquest of Mexico. It was not distinguished by many engagements upon the sea, or by any brilliant victories such as were won upon the battle-fields of Mexico. There was no hostile fleet to contend with; there were scarcely any fortified ports to reduce and capture; but there were many to blockade and cut off from foreign intercourse. Had it not been for the important part the navy played in this respect in the war, it might have been long protracted by the supply of food, munitions of war, and even of skilled soldiers which other nations would have willingly sent into Mexico, had her ports been open.

The Pacific squadron, under command of commodore Sloat, consisted of three frigates and six other war vessels, carrying in all two hundred and seventy-five guns. The Gulf squadron, under Commodore Perry, numbered seven ships of war, four steamers, and one brig. Within two weeks after the battle of Resaca de la Palma, the Gulf squadron established a blockade of all the Eastern coast of Mexico. Yucatan was at first exempted, being in revolt against the Mexican Government; but as its ports were made the place of traffic in war material for Mexico, it was soon included in the blockade. It was not easy to guard so large an extent of coast, but a few vessels were captured in their effort to escape the vigilance of the fleet. Save the bombardment of Vera Cruz there were no very exciting events in the service of the fleet on the Gulf coast, though the task assigned to the squadron required much vigilance, and, to add to the difficulties of the blockade, sickness prevailed on board the ships from the effects of the tropical climate.

On the 14th of November the fleet took possession of Tampico. It had, however been abandoned by the Mexican forces which had garrisoned this important city. The same month two noteworthy actions were performed by the squadron at Tuspan and Tabasco. Both these cities were well defended by Mexican troops and fortifications.

Tuspan was situated near the mouth of the river called by the same name, which was so shoal that the larger vessels could not ascend to take part in the capture of the town. A detachment of gun-boats and barges was towed up the river by the steamers, lightened as much as possible for crossing the bar. These boats carried twelve hundred men and two pieces of artillery. Having entered the river, Commodore Perry, with pennant flying on board the Spitfire, led the rest of the fleet. They had not proceeded far up the stream when two forts opened fire from the right bank upon the vessels, which immediately replied, while the boats manned with storming parties swept swiftly to the shore. The marines rushed up to the fortifications, but the Mexicans did not wait for the conflict at close quarters, and fled toward the town.

The Americans pressed forward in pursuit of the retreating garrison, receiving a fire from the chaparral and from another fort which they approached in their charge after the Mexicans. Turning upon this battery they soon put its defenders to flight in every direction, leaving the town in possession of the marines. The forts were immediately dismantled and destroyed, a garrison was posted in the town, a sloop of war and a gun-boat anchored in the river, and the expedition returned to its former station.

Tabasco was not so easily captured. It was a city second in commercial importance to Vera Cruz, and Commodore Perry with twelve vessels anchored off the bar on the 13th of June determined to reduce it. It was seventy-five miles from the mouth of the river on which it was situated, and only vessels of the lightest draft could be brought into requisition. Four steam vessels and four brigs, with three divisions of surf-boats, launches, and cutters, carrying seven field-pieces and filled with officers and men detached from the vessels left behind, composed the flotilla which started on the 14th and sailed all night.

The river became so narrow as the vessels pursued their way in the darkness that a musketry fire from the chaparral on the shore could easily command the opposite bank. From a fort at a bend of the river, on the 15th, a strong body of Mexicans suddenly opened a plunging fire on the flag-ship Spitfire. The Americans quickly replied with grape and canister, and with musketry stationed in the vessel's top and the boats alongside. It was not long before this attack was effectually repelled. Two leagues below the city the enemy were again found occupying the woods on the river-bank, just as night was settling upon the flotilla. The decks, rigging, and boats were protected during the night by sand-bags, cots, and hammocks strung up so as to hide the marines, and some other preparations were made for a land attack upon the morrow.

The flotilla in three divisions, armed with marines and one division carrying artillery, and protected by schooners, moved forward in the morning, when a concealed breastwork poured upon them a sharp musketry fire. This was briskly returned from the whole fleet, and Commodore Perry, standing in full view of his men on a barge at the head of the division, gave the spirited order, "Three cheers and land." With loud hurrahs the boatmen rowed to the shore, and soon nine hundred seamen and two hundred marines landed and climbed up the steep bank, dragging their cannon to the top.

The enemy abandoned the fort and took position behind a breastwork nearer the city at Acachapau. Here were stationed a battery of two guns and a force of cavalry and infantry under the Mexican colonel, Hidalgo. The route to this position, seven miles distant, led the Americans through thick woods, canebrakes, and marshy ground. They were, however, unmolested till they came in sight of the breastwork, which greeted them with shot from the guns at long range.

The field-pieces were immediately brought into action, and soon threw the Mexicans into confusion and flight, before the seamen dashing forward with ringing shouts could reach the work. They here halted to rest. The steam vessels, meanwhile, had passed up the river and engaged Fort Iturbide, which commanded the river for a long distance. The Mexican flag was soon hauled down from its ramparts, and the Scorpion, sailing farther up the stream, received an offer of the surrender of the city from the alcalde. As the Spitfire went by the fort, the Mexicans again opened fire upon her, and a detachment of seamen was sent to storm the fortification. It was soon done, two brass field-pieces were, captured, three twenty-eight pounders, and a quantity of small arms and ammunition. The city was occupied by a garrison of artillery and marines, and the next day Fort Iturbide was mined and destroyed. The flotilla returned immediately to rejoin the squadron, having accomplished, with the loss of a very few killed and wounded, the whole object of the expedition. The city of Tabasco was greatly injured by the bombardment. Fifteen Mexican vessels, including a brig, two steamers, and four schooners, were captured here and taken away as prizes, with the exception of one schooner which was burned.

Commodore Perry's fleet was also actively engaged in the bombardment of Vera Cruz.

The Pacific squadron made under Commodore Sloat an eventful movement early in the war. Its commander was beyond communication with the government at Washington, and in entire ignorance of the relations of the Mexican Government to the United States. At length rumors of actual hostilities reached Commodore Sloat from Mexican sources. Without doubt the Washington government had in anticipation given him special instructions as to his course of action, since the Administration were fully determined to bring on the war. Commodore Sloat was at Mazatlan with his fleet when he heard these rumors on the 7th of June.

Orders were issued at once to the squadron, and the next morning sails were hoisted and the fleet was on its way to the coast of Upper California. On the 7th of July Monterey, the capital of California, and San Francisco, the best harbor on the coast, were both in full possession of the navy of the United States, and the inhabitants were informed by proclamation that henceforth California would be a part of the United States; that they should enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizens, and be protected as would those of any other State of the Union. Official instructions of date the 5th of May, two days after war was declared, were afterward received by Commodore Sloat, in which he was told to consider the most important object to be to take and hold possession of San Francisco. Again, under the date of the 12th of July, the official directions received by him were that "the object of the United States is, under its rights as a belligerent nation, to possess itself entirely of Upper California. This will bring with it the necessity of a civil administration. Such a government should be established under your protection." As afterward proclaimed by General Kearney, when his expedition arrived in California, the people of these provinces had no alternative but to accept the new citizenship, which in the pre-meditated purpose of the Administration had been given them before they knew or hardly thought of a conflict between the two republics. Commodore Sloat having returned to Mazatlan, and about the 15th of August having received orders to do all that he had with great promptness and energy already accomplished, relinquished the command of the Pacific fleet to Commodore Stockton, and returned to the United States. Thus, whatever praise the capture of California merited belonged chiefly to the navy, though its full subjugation and civil reorganization could not have been wrought without the efficient co-operation of the army under General Kearney, whose rapid occupation and quelling of the insurrection in that province has been already described in a previous chapter. The fleet remained through the war, holding the Mexican Pacific coast below California in full blockade.