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

The Storming of Chapultepec

Fall of the Capital

The causeway of San Cosme—Chapultepec assailed and taken—Daring assaults—Seizing the approaches to the city—Stubborn resistance—The Belen Gate—Quitman's advance—Entering the city—Fearful slaughter—Nightfall—Surrender—Forces engaged—Santa Anna resigns—The endurance of the Americans at Puebla—Battle of Huamantla—Death of Captain Walker—Exile of Santa Anna—General Scott relieved of his command.

It was the rainy season in Mexico, and the great canal surrounding the capital, as well as the lesser ones within its circle, were filled with water. The difficulties of bridging these canals under fire were very great. The southern approaches were heavily guarded with four times the number of troops in General Scott's command. After several careful reconnaissances it was determined to attack the city from the west over the causeways of San Cosine or Tacubaya. To give the enemy the contrary impression, General Scott on the 11th of September ordered Quitman's division from Coyoacan to join Pillow by daylight before the southern gates. These two divisions were directed by night to join General Scott at Tacubaya, where Worth's command was stationed, leaving Twiggs' division and Riley's brigade with two batteries to threaten with great activity the southern entrances. It was imperative to capture Chapultepec. On the night of the 11th, four batteries were posted at easy ranges to reduce the castle. During the whole of the 12th, their fire was directed upon it, driving most of its defenders outside the walls, and crippling the works. The next morning two assaulting columns, each of two hundred and fifty picked men from Worth's and Twiggs' divisions, furnished with scaling-ladders, at a concerted signal advanced, from different directions, while the batteries threw shot and shells over their heads to prevent reinforcement of the works. Major-General Pillow was leading his division through the grove on the west side, when he was struck down by a dangerous wound, and Brigadier-General Cadwalader succeeded him. Worth had just sent Clark's brigade to reinforce Pillow, when he fell. Major-General Quitman was approaching the same works on the south-east over a causeway, without shelter and hindered by deep ditches, which were intersected by others on the meadows. Smith's brigade by a wide sweep to the right was coming up to face the enemy's line outside the work and capture two batteries at the foot of Chapultepec.

These simultaneous movements were watched with intense eagerness as the forces drew closer around the enemy and brought near the moments of fierce struggle for possession of the fortress.

On Pillow's side a broken rocky ascent was to be climbed, and a redoubt midway of the steep carried by our troops. Their officers led them, as they climbed the rocks and drove the enemy from the redoubt. And now the scaling-ladders were raised against the castle walls. The first to mount are shot down, the boldest men pressing on give their lives to the attempt, but thus inspire those behind. Hurrying over the ground before the wall could be reached, while yet the Mexicans were disputing it, the Americans escaped the danger of the mines underneath, which could not be fired by the enemy without destroying their own men. Soon the ranks of the storming party filled up and they poured over the wall with ringing shouts, swept down the garrison, that still opposed, and planted the American colors on the ramparts with long-continued cheers.

On the south-east the assaulting column of Quitman's division had been making equal progress. Smith's brigade had taken the two batteries in the road with numerous prisoners. Shields' brigade of New York, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania volunteers had crossed the meadows, which were swept with a murderous fire from the enemy's ranks and guns. Entering the outer inclosure of the castle as their comrades on the west were making their last assault, they joined in the triumph of those moments which filled with terror the hearts of the Mexicans within the city gates.

The ancient cypresses that had sheltered the Aztec emperors in their luxurious residences on the hillside of Chapultepec had bowed again beneath the storms of another invasion that swept above and around the base of this historic mound like a thundering tempest over the tumultuous waves of an angry sea.

General Worth's division had been turning some minor works north of Chapultepec and was now advancing along the San Cosme causeway. This formed a double roadway on each side of a massive aqueduct of masonry with open arches and pillars. Quitman was pursuing the enemy along the similar causeway of Belen.

As Shields was charging along this causeway with his volunteers, who, flushed with victory at Chapultepec, could not be satisfied with any less honor than the capture of the city, he was overtaken by an aide sent by General Scott to detain him till Worth had forced an entrance through the San Cosme gate. Riding up, the aide saluted the impetuous general: "General Scott presents his compliments"—Shields comprehended at once his message, and interrupted him:

"I have no time for compliments just now," and spurred on out of reach of the orders of the commander-in-chief.

Despatching infantry and heavy guns to support both generals in their movements, Scott now joined Worth's column, which was within the suburb of the city and had passed the junction of the aqueduct with a broad highway from the west, where was found a strongly built but deserted fortification without guns. But the houses, gardens, and windows along the street were alive with Mexican skirmishers, with whom Worth was contending. He had ordered up two howitzers, which were slowly moving forward preceded by soldiers forcing their way with bars and pickaxes through doors and walls. At eight o'clock in the evening his men had suitable shelter for the night and his guns were in position to break down the San Cosine gate, which was the only barrier between himself and the great square in front of the cathedral and palace in the centre of the city. His men had carried two batteries and the works at the garita, the Mexicans contending stubbornly and bravely for every foot of ground and every intrenchment, and slaying many by their incessant firing from their protected positions?

The force under General Quitman had been directed toward the Belen gate rather as a diversion from the main attack by Worth. But in the face of enfilading firing, led by Smith's brigade and gallantly supported by Shields' command and Captain Drum's howitzer, they wound around the pillars of the arches of the aqueduct, assailed by direct firing from the garita and cross-firing from the Paseo and Piedad causeways. At noon they had nearly reached the gate, when they sprang from the arches and charged upon this defence. It was captured, and the whole column by half-past one o'clock was within the inclosure and the city. But only three hundred yards beyond this was the citadel mounting fifteen guns, which began a most destructive fire upon them. Their situation was full of peril. Ammunition for their heavier guns had failed. Officers and men were falling fast. Captain Drum was killed, one of the most valiant and efficient officers of artillery in the service. Others shared his fate. The enemy, seeing that the ammunition of the Americans had failed, tried to recover their position, but were repulsed in each attempt, till darkness covered the men who were left to General Quitman, and ammunition could be obtained over the cause way. Then placing some heavy guns in position they waited for the morning. A few defenders of the citadel surrendered, however, to General Quitman at daybreak.

But before light on the morning of September 14th, a deputation of the city council waited upon General Scott, announcing the evacuation of the capital by the Mexican army and the flight of the officers of government. They asked for terms of capitulation in favor of the municipal government and the church. These were stoutly refused by General Scott, who ordered Quitman and Worth to advance cautiously to the Grand Plaza. Worth was, however, halted at the Alameda or Green Park, while to Quitman was given the honor of unfurling the United States flag in the great plaza and over the National Palace containing the halls of Congress, where the commanding general soon after was received with triumphant cheers.

But a severe contest continued for twenty-four hours longer between two thousand liberated convicts and about two thousand Mexicans soldiers, who in desperation and fury fought the victorious army from housetops and every available shelter, till many more of the American troops and officers had fallen beneath their murderous attacks. They were finally conquered, and the army of the United States, on the morning of the 16th of September, had undisputed possession of the Mexican capital.

The city of Mexico was taken by an actual fighting force that, after leaving Chapultepec, did not number more than six thousand men. The total losses of the American army in the valley of Mexico were two thousand seven hundred and three, including three hundred and eighty-three officers. The Mexican losses were seven thousand in killed and wounded and three thousand seven hundred and thirty prisoners, equaling the whole number of Americans that marched into the valley. Among the spoils of these victories were twenty standards, seventy-five pieces of artillery, fifty-seven mounted cannon, and twenty thousand stand of arms.

In these battles the volunteer troops of the United States had emulated the victories of the regulars in General Taylor's first engagements with the Mexican soldiers. The achievements of American arms in Mexico will ever be conspicuous for uninterrupted successes, for the endurance, skill, courage, patience, moderation, and individual heroism of the men who fought and died in these astonishing campaigns, which shattered and destroyed three finely equipped and disciplined armies, numbering over sixty thousand men. For three hundred and thirty years the descendants of the Spanish conquerors had maintained undisturbed their possession of the capital and valley of Mexico. Another foreign army, burning with enthusiasm, fearless of danger, steady in battle, but impetuous in the hour of desperate contest with vastly superior numbers, had now fairly won the coveted prizes of victory.

Santa Anna resigned his presidency. Holding together about two thousand five hundred men, he determined to make one successful effort against the Americans, to cut off their communication with the sea, and to revive, if possible, the spirit of the Mexican soldiers. He marched to Puebla, where the American garrison of five hundred men, guarding eighteen hundred sick and disabled troops, had been attacked by the Mexican general Rea on the 18th of September. Surrounded by seventy thousand Mexican inhabitants, these troops under Colonel Childs heroically defended themselves, and having collected thirty cattle and four hundred sheep at the beginning of the attack, they would not yield their ground. They intrenched themselves in the plaza and also in part took shelter in a convent. Colonel Childs had six companies of infantry, two companies of artillery, and one of cavalry. For thirty days they were under a constant musketry fire, till the 12th of October. Santa Anna arrived with his command on September 22nd, and at his approach the bells of Puebla rang a joyful peal. His troops, combined with those of General Rea, made a force of eight thousand men.

Santa Anna sent a summons to Colonel Childs to surrender, which was curtly refused. The streets of the city were then barricaded with cotton bales and stone. The Mexicans opened an artillery fire upon the Americans in the plaza. From the surrounding houses a terrible hail of musketry was hurled against them. But with great spirit the besieged soldiers assailed their foes in front and rear, charging upon them with the bayonet and burning their defences and the buildings from which they experienced the most annoyance.

At length General Lane's approach with reinforcements from Vera Cruz induced Santa Anna to withdraw with four thousand men to meet him. General Rea having ineffectively maintained this unequal attack till October nth, left the sturdy Americans in possession of this great city and retreated to Atlixco; for Santa Anna had been again defeated with a loss of one hundred and fifty men at Huamantla, by General Lane, who was now coming to the relief of the garrison of Puebla. This was quickly accomplished, and General Lane on the 19th started in pursuit of General Rea. A sharp engagement occurred in the vicinity of Atlixco, the same afternoon. The Mexicans were driven from a position five and a half miles from the city, by the American cavalry, who pushed them to within a mile and a half of Atlixco, when, the infantry and batteries of artillery joining them, they took possession of a height above the city, which was cannonaded by moonlight for less than an hour and then was surrendered. The Mexicans in this battle lost over five hundred men, two fifths of whom were killed.

Santa Anna did not again attempt to fight the Americans in person. His army was demoralized, and there was equal demoralization in the administration of the government. He had made great sacrifice for the cause of his country. He was bitterly assailed for its misfortunes. His resignation of office left the nation without any worthy leader. Paredes and others were intriguing for the control of affairs. Santa Anna made an attempt to regain the presidency, but failed, and having narrowly escaped capture at Tehuacan by General Lane's cavalry, despairing of the Republic and his own safety, he obtained permission to leave his country and became a voluntary exile in the West Indies.

The chief cities of Mexico were now in the hands of small garrisons of the United States troops, and General Quitman was quietly governing the capital, where order and commercial prosperity were re stored. After its capture, General Scott made a levy of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars upon the municipal government, which was largely expended in caring for the wounded, providing for the famishing, and relieving the distress and suffering which the destructive and merciless hand of war had wrought in this beautiful city.

General Scott's army now began to receive reinforcements from Vera Cruz, till the number of troops in his department amounted to twenty thousand men. A murderous guerilla warfare was sustained by the scattered Mexican soldiers and bands of desperate wretches over the country, who assailed supply trains and detachments of reinforcements and small garrisons. Gradually these guerrilleros were driven from their strongholds in the larger towns, and under the dashing raids of the chivalric Captain S. H. Walker, who was killed at the battle of Huamantla, and by the energetic and rapid movements of General Lane over the infested country, even these outbreaks of patriotic rage and hatred and lawlessness were largely suppressed.

The death of Captain Walker and the battle of Huamantla gives a fitting illustration of the heroic spirit which still at the very close of the war animated the hearts of both the Mexican and American troops. General Lane had approached within five miles of Huamantla, when he sent Captain Walker forward with his company of seventy-five mounted riflemen, and three other companies, to engage the enemy before he should flee and to secure the artillery at all hazards. He found the Mexicans in force in the plaza and adjacent streets, apparently about to retreat. The trumpet was ordered to sound a charge. Only Walker's own company obeyed the order. These dashed forward into the plaza, seized the cannon, and then attacked four hundred lancers stationed near them.

Foremost in the charge was Captain Walker, riding with a cool, steady movement and firing his revolvers, each time bringing down a man, and ploughing his way through the enemy wherever they attempted to make a stand. The whole body was soon routed and pursued for a mile out of town. Then riding back, the artillery was secured and his men dismounted their horses, protected behind a convent wall, while the company took positions at the windows of a house adjoining the convent.

The Mexican lancers now rallied and returned at a gallop into the plaza. Every man in their front rank fell dead. Another fire from the house threw the rest into confusion, and they immediately retreated out of range of the deadly rifles. Their officers endeavored in vain to lead them again to the charge. At last one hero among them rode furiously into the plaza toward the convent, waving his sword and entreating his men to follow. But still in vain was such an example of devotion. Reaching a spot half way across the open space alone, he fell, riddled with rifle-balls.

Then the lancers scattered and blocked the entrance to every street so as to cut off Captain Walker's men, straggling back, from joining their companions in the house. Perceiving the object of this movement, Walker taking a part of his troop sallied out into the plaza and feigned a retreat. The Mexicans, deceived by this stratagem, rode after him, concentrating from the different streets. Thus most of the stragglers were able to dash in and join their company. Then wheeling upon his pursuers in most gallant style, Captain Walker and his little band fought their way with indescribable bravery toward the house. Like ancient knights they hewed a path with their swords, instead of battle-axes, through the Mexican lancers thronging around them, and pressing them hard on every side. Swayed back and forth, leaping forward a few paces and then forced back, they had nearly reached the convent gate, with only seven out of twenty left, when farther progress was impossible. No longer attacking, but feebly parrying the lance thrusts, they could wield but a few strokes more with their dripping swords, when a few of the garrison turned upon the massed Mexican troops the captured gun, which was standing at the gate, and a lieutenant attempted to fire it with his pistol. A panic seized the lancers, seeing certain death before them, and they quickly scattered. Walker and his men made a leap for the gate, which they entered with a loss of thirteen of their heroic companions. Then firing from the windows, the little garrison drove the enemy out of the plaza, and all was silent where a few moments before had been the din of a terrible strife.

Captain Walker now directed his men to bring the captured gun nearer to the gate, and superintended them in changing its position. Suddenly from a neighboring house a sharp report was heard, and a puff of smoke rose above a white flag that had been hanging from the window during the fight. Walker fell mortally wounded in the back. With a cry of grief his men bore him into the house, and in half an hour he died, entreating his followers to the last, "Never surrender."

No man in all the war died more regretted. None fell who combined so many qualities of the prompt, daring, energetic, yet cool and self-contained soldier in the hour of greatest peril. The commanding general in his report said of Huamantla: "This victory is saddened by the loss of one of the most chivalric, noble-hearted men that graced the profession of arms, Captain Samuel H. Walker, of the mounted riflemen. Foremost in the advance, he had routed the enemy when he fell mortally wounded."

The Mexicans, having made one more attempt upon the convent, abandoned the town, leaving behind them two pieces of artillery.

The commander-in-chief of the American army, whose leadership in this brilliant campaign will ever make illustrious his name, was now recalled by the government at Washington. His grand success had won for Major-General Scott both unstinted praise and envy. The necessities of partisan politics required that he should be superseded. Major-General Butler, by orders of the government, now took the chief command, and General Scott, having won glory enough for a lifetime, returned home, before the war was entirely ended by the treaty of peace.