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

General Scott's Successful Progress Toward Mexico

Mexican patriotism—Address to the Mexicans by General Scott—Changes in the army, and reinforcements—The march resumed—The Valley of Mexico—Fortifications of the Capital—Its approaches—Reconnoissances—Attacks on Contreras—Capture of cannon—Assault of San Antonio and Churubusco—Knocking at the gates of the Capital.

The Mexican army was discouraged by its overwhelming defeat at Cerro Gordo. The Mexican people under their repeated disasters were roused to seek vengeance. The papers of the country and the capital were filled with appeals to the citizens everywhere to arise and exterminate their hated foes. The Congress of Mexico passed resolutions declaring the necessity of strengthening the central government, adopting measures to carry on the war and preserve the Republic, and denouncing as traitor any officer or private citizen who should treat with the United States Government for peace or alienation of any part of the territory of the Republic. It distrusted both Santa Anna and the priesthood, and sought thus to intimidate them. The States of San Luis, Mexico, Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Queretaro bound themselves by a solemn league to preserve the unity of the Republic, and protested that they would never consent to any convention or treaty of peace with the North American enemy so long as he should threaten or occupy the capital or any part of the Mexican Republic, and that they would moreover aid the national government by their private resources, and sustain the national credit and honor.

In accordance with these, resolutions, on the 1st of May the city of Mexico was declared in a state of siege, and a decree was issued by General Bravo, the commander-in-chief of the Army of the Centre, calling upon all Mexicans between the ages of sixteen and sixty to enroll themselves for the defence of the capital, unless, they would be considered and treated as traitors. A guerilla war was also proclaimed, whose motto was, "War without pity unto death."

On the 17th of May General Scott issued a proclamation to the Mexican nation, skilfully showing them the oppressive acts of their government and their misfortunes in war; declaring the honorable intentions and conduct of the American army, the desire of the United States Government for peace and friendship, and a termination of the war that should preserve to the Mexican people their religious and civil liberty, their homes and families inviolate, and their national honor. Warning them of the evils of retaliation for guerilla warfare, should it be allowed, he promised to address them from their capital, to which he was marching.

But such appeals to a nation whose hatred had been intensified by defeat in every encounter with American troops was in vain. Wounded pride led the Mexicans to more desperate efforts to retrieve their fortunes and honor in battle, and they were more adverse to negotiations of peace than before their disasters. And though the Administration sent a commissioner, Mr. N. P. Trist, to Mexico with full powers to conclude a definitive treaty of peace with the Mexican Government, his overtures were rejected by the Mexican Congress.

General Scott's army by the 1st of June was greatly reduced by sickness, and by the expiration of the term of service of seven regiments of volunteers. It numbered less than six thousand men. Early in July reinforcements arrived, numbering about two thousand more. A month later Brigadier-General Franklin Pierce, afterward President of the United States, joined General Scott at Pueblo with about twenty-four hundred men. On August 7th the commander-in-chief resumed his march for the capital with ten thousand seven hundred and thirty eight men, nearly one half of whom were new and untried soldiers, fresh from the pursuits of civil life, except for the discipline to which they had for a few months been subjected in Pueblo.

Leaving only five hundred men to garrison Pueblo, and protect eighteen hundred sick soldiers in the hospital, General Scott went forth inspired, as were his men, with the belief that nothing could prevent their capture of Mexico. His army consisted of a cavalry brigade under Colonel Harney, and the divisions of Generals Worth, Twiggs, Pillow, and Quitman. General Twiggs was in advance, led by Harney's dragoons, and Pillow brought up the rear, the divisions marching not more than five hours apart. Their route was for the first day through a richly cultivated country, and the estates of wealthy proprietors, who had surrounded themselves with every luxury. The towering peaks of Popocatepetl, over three miles high, and its snow-crowned neighboring summit Iztaccihuatl, were in full view, as were also the ruins of the Aztec pyramid of Cholula, where Cortez found a city of two hundred thousand inhabitants. On the second day the army entered a mountainous region, till Rio Frio was reached. It was fifty miles from Pueblo, and at an elevation of ten thousand one hundred and twenty-two feet above the sea.

A few miles beyond Rio Frio they came suddenly upon an enchanting vision of the valley of Mexico. It was a dazzling picture of earthly beauty. The rich spring verdure of the plains dotted with the white walls of villages and haciendas, the silvery lines of mountain streams, the blue surfaces of lakes whose shores, winding about the base of mountains, stretched far into the green valleys and the hills rising to lofty ranges white with snow and glistening beneath the soft blue sky, all presented a scene that made the romance of Spanish conquests in the days of Montezuma appear like the truths of sober history.

Descending these lofty heights, General Twiggs' division halted on the 11th of May at Ayotla, fifteen miles from the capital. Worth on the next day arrived at Chalco, five miles distant across the lake of Chalco, but ten miles around its shore, on which were halting, between the positions of Twiggs and Worth, the divisions of Pillow and Quitman. The headquarters of the commander-in-chief were at Ayotla.

The United States troops were now in the midst of a populous country, surrounded by enemies that might have arisen en masse and crushed them. The Mexicans were indeed in a state of great activity, fortifying their city and manufacturing cannon, powder, and other munitions of war for its defence. The plan of operations adopted was for Santa Anna to await in his intrenchments the attack of the Americans, and for General Valencia, with the Northern army, composed of the best troops of Mexico, to assail them in their rear.

Seven miles beyond Lake Chalco toward the north was Lake Tezeuco, near the western shore of which the capital city is situated. The national road between the two lakes is for much of the distance a narrow causeway running over marshy ground. The long, narrow lake of Xochimilco, separated on the west from Lake Chalco by a strip of land, extends along the foot of the hills and mountains northward toward the capital, and nearly reaching the Acapulco road. The approaches to Mexico on both these roads had fortifications of immense strength. On the first was the formidable position of El Penon, a lofty hill commanding the thoroughfare, absolutely inaccessible on one side, and on its other sides armed with three tiers of batteries mounting fifty guns, and surrounded by marshes and a ditch twenty-four feet wide, filled with water ten feet deep. On the southern and south-western sides of the city were the fortifications which guarded the Acapulco road at San Antonio and Contreras, the convent, and the bridge of Churubusco, with the fortress of Chapultepec.

A bold reconnaissance within five miles of the city and near El Penon led General Scott to abandon the plan of storming that position, and aided by information acquired by Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan in another successful reconnaissance to the south, he determined to approach the capital along the southern shores of Lake Chalco and west of Xochimilco, by the Acapulco road carrying the fortifications in that direction instead of those strong eastern defences on the national road, where the enemy expected the principal assault of their works.

General Worth's division now took the lead, followed by Generals Pillow and Quitman. General Twiggs remained in the rear at Ayotla for one day, still threatening the fortifications of El Penon and Mexicalcingo, which were to be avoided by this movement. By a slow and painful march over a circuitous route of twenty-seven miles, where the road was filled with rocks, or made difficult by marshes along the shores of Lake Chalco, the divisions were again united May 18th, near San Augustine and the Acapulco road.

The hill of Contreras was about four miles from the village of San Augustine. Besides its fortifications, mounting twenty-two cannon, it was occupied by General Valencia with seven thousand of the bravest soldiers in the Mexican army. General Santa Anna with twelve thousand men held a position in front of the village of Contreras, and between the hill and Churubusco. Three thousand troops under General Bravo were at San Antonio, and General Ruicon held from seven to nine thousand at the head of the bridge of Churubusco. Still farther north and west of the capital was a third approach to it over the road to Toluca. Molino del Rey and the fortress of Chapultepec were the defences on this road.

It will be seen that only by a series of sanguinary engagements could these different fortifications be reduced and the thoroughfares to the capital city on which they stood be cleared for the march of the American troops into its streets.

General Scott's headquarters had now been moved to San Augustine. On the 19th a reconnaissance revealed a route through the villages of San Angel and Cuyoacan to Churubusco, by which San Antonio might be avoided and the hill of Contreras taken by assault. The divisions of Generals Pillow and Twiggs were ordered to make a road through chaparral and over ravines on this route for artillery. At two o'clock P.m. Smith's brigade reached the summit of a hill with Magruder's battery, and found themselves within two hundred yards of Valencia's entrenchments and the masses of infantry defending his camp, and a deep ravine between the road and the enemy's works to the front and left. Pushing forward his batteries to a better position, Smith, supported by General Pierce's brigade, engaged for two hours in an unequal contest of five guns with twenty-two, when he withdrew with a loss of fifteen artillerists and thirteen horses. Riley's brigade meanwhile, in trying to force a position on the San Angel road in the rear of the enemy, though supported by Cadwalader, had been hard pressed by two or three thousand infantry from the Mexican camp, and as many cavalry from Santa Anna's reserves. Though hemmed in, he skilfully extricated himself and joined Smith's brigade at the village of Contreras late in the evening, where Cadwalader had also taken position, and later still the brigade of Shields. Without having gained any advantage over the Mexicans by such hard fighting, they were now surrounded by eighteen thousand Mexicans, and within range of the batteries on the hill of Contreras. Their situation was indeed desperate. It rained heavily, torrents of water choked the streams running near them, and they stood in the darkness drenched and dispirited, when a route through a ravine to the rear of Valencia's fortifications was discovered. General Smith formed a plan to storm the hill and surprise that Mexican general, quite off his guard and confidently awaiting the morrow.

At three o'clock A. M. the troops began their difficult ascent through the ravine, and obtained a position screened from the batteries by a bill, within five hundred yards of the enemy's works. Cadwalader was coming up the ravine to support Riley's command, thus waiting the order to dash forward, while Smith's brigade, under Major Dominick, turned to the left to meet a body of Mexican cavalry, and a division was made in front of the hill by troops sent from San Augustine. At sunrise General Smith gave the word of command. With a volley from the rifles to aid the storming party, the men rushed forward, climbed the parapet with tremendous cheers and engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict, clashing swords and clubbing muskets with the enemy, who, completely surprised and thrown into confusion by assaults in front and rear, were slaughtered in masses. Overcome by the onset of the Americans, they threw down their arms and sought flight in all directions. Five hundred forced into a narrow pass surrendered to thirty men as prisoners of war; Smith's brigade having charged the Mexican cavalry, turned back upon the enemy fleeing from Riley's attack in the rear. The action on the hill lasted but seventeen minutes. The pursuit was continued as far as San Angel, and great numbers fell dead and wounded in the road. The spoils of this brilliant assault were very great. It was the happy lot of Captain Drum to discover in two of the captured guns the pieces that had been lost by him, after heroic service, at Buena Vista. The men at sight of these guns, wild with delight, raised tremendous cheers, and rushed forward to embrace them like lost children. Nothing could have inspired them more in the heat of the charge than the unexpected restoration of these strange pets, in the defence of which they had repeatedly imperilled their lives.

The captures included thousands of small arms, and eight hundred and thirteen prisoners, including eighty-eight officers and four generals. Forty-five hundred American troops were engaged in this fight, with over seven thousand Mexicans, who were posted behind strong intrenchments. One road to the capital was opened should the others remain closed. The Mexican reserve, which had been unable to enter the conflict, was obliged to fall back upon Contreras. It seems incredible that while the American loss was only about fifty, seven hundred of the enemy were killed.

To open a short road for the siege train to the capital and another approach from the front to Churubusco by the causeway leading through San Antonio, General Scott now ordered General Worth to capture the enemy's works at San Antonio. In this attack he was to be supported by Cadwalader's brigade of Pillow's division, and if successful, these two divisions were to unite and hasten forward to Churubusco, two miles distant by the causeway. At the same time General Twiggs was ordered to move upon Churubusco by a road from Cuyocan, only one mile distant, Shields was to cross the Churubusco River, seize the causeway between Churubusco and the capital, and cut off the retreat of its garrison to the city.

General Twiggs, with Smith's and Riley's brigades in advance, found at San Pablo de Churubusco very formidable works. The fortification was the thick high wall of a hacienda, forming a square with a stone building higher than the wall, and a stone church with a tower. Both these buildings were pierced with loopholes for musketry. Outside the wall were two field-works mounting ten cannon, and guarding the causeway, and having a garrison of over two thousand men; while the surrounding corn-fields were filled with skirmishers, whose range covered the causeway for a mile.

It was necessary to attack the enemy at once. Taylor's battery and a regiment of infantry took a position fronting the church or convent, which they held under a tremendous fire of grape, canister, musketry, and round shot, and for two hours inflicted by their admirable and precise firing a heavy loss upon the enemy. Shields' movement meeting too strong an opposition, he managed to get in front of the enemy and joined in the battle, which now at mid-day was fought with unflinching perseverance and gallantry on both sides.

An hour before noon, General Worth had begun his attack of San Antonio. A brigade had succeeded in nearly gaining the causeway between Antonio and Churubusco, while another portion of his division was attacking in front. The garrison, fearful of their position, and hoping to retreat upon Churubusco, evacuated their works. The two American brigades now joined in the pursuit, one hurrying through the deserted fortifications, while the other broke the column of Mexicans on the causeway. Still pursuing, the Americans came up to San Pablo and the other field-work beyond, both which fortifications were swarming with Mexicans. This field-work at the head of the bridge was captured by a charge of the infantry regiment, and its guns turned upon the church and hacienda. The artillery was now hotly engaged till the Mexicans were driven from the work outside of San Pablo. After half an hour of concentrated firing upon San Pablo, its ramparts were carried by a charge of the Third Infantry, when the garrison surrendered. The enemy now began to give way further to the left, and retreated, pursued by the troops of Worth's division up the road from Churubusco.

In the mean time General Shields was engaging the Mexican reserve, consisting of four thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry. Deploying his command to right and left, he moved steadily forward upon them till he saw them waver. Then ordering a charge with bayonet the line of the enemy was broken, and he put them to rout at the same time that those fleeing from Churubusco were crowding the road. In terrible confusion, cavalry and infantry intermingled in one wild, panic-stricken mass, the Mexican troops were cut down, sabred by pursuing dragoons, or, driven by terror, were scattered in every direction. The Americans rode up to the very gates of the capital and leaped into their intrenchments, but were punished for their rashness by a severe fire of grape, in which several officers and men were killed or severely wounded.

On that 10th of August, the American troops, numbering but nine thousand, and contending with at least twenty-seven thousand Mexicans defending their own capital, captured three formidable positions and won three victories. They killed and wounded three thousand two hundred and fifty of the enemy, took two thousand six hundred and twenty-seven prisoners, and over two hundred officers, including eight generals. Their own loss was sixteen officers and one hundred and twenty men killed, and sixty officers, eight hundred and sixteen wounded. This was indeed a stubbornly contended battle. The Mexicans poured out their blood like water in the defence of their country's honor. The courage and perseverance of the Americans were more than equal for their desperation and patriotism.