Into Mexico with General Scott - Edwin Sabin

The Heights of Cerro Gordo

"The general's gone, as I suppose you know, Grant," Lieutenant Smith remarked to Lieutenant Grant, at dinner this noon.

The day was April 12. The camp was much smaller than it had been throughout the week following the fall of Vera Cruz. Early in the morning of April 8 the Second Division had marched away, with the fifes and drums and the bands playing Yankee Doodle. Preceded by the two horse companies of the Mounted Rifles the long column had wound out over the National Road for the City of Mexico, two hundred and seventy-five or eighty miles westward, as the road ran.

General Scott had been growing impatient with the delays in the arrival of wagons and animals. He wished to move all the troops to Jalapa, at least, which was in the mountains about seventy miles west. There they would be free of the dreaded vomito.

So on the next day, April g, the General Patterson Third Division of Volunteers had started. General Patterson himself was on sick list, and General Pillow commanded in his place. The Mohawks had stumped gaily out, singing and shouting.

The general orders had directed that each division take a wagon train carrying six days' rations for the men and three days' oats for the animals. There would be little forage on the way to the City of Mexico until Jalapa had been reached, in the high country. After the Mohawk division had left, there were plenty of wagons but few animals remaining for the First Division. The Mexican horses and mules were small, poor creatures. Beside them the American animals were giants. A siege train of six heavy guns was being prepared also. And the First Division had had to wait.

But now—

"The general gone?" Lieutenant Grant answered. "That's good news. We'll soon be gone, too, then."

"Yes; and we're in for a lively brush, according to reports. Twiggs and Patterson have run up against the whole Mexican army at Plan del Rio, fifty miles inland. Santa Anna's said to be there in person, with all the troops he can muster, on the hills commanding the road where it passes through a gorge in climbing the mountains. So the general has set out with Lee and Phil Kearny's First Dragoons to see for himself. We'll be needed, all right"

"I'll make application to be relieved of this quartermaster duty and permitted to serve with my company," Lieutenant Grant declared. "I wouldn't miss that battle for a thousand dollars."

"Lieutenant Grant, he want to fight," Pompey chuckled, while he and Jerry cleared away the mess dishes after dinner. "What you gwine to do, when dey's a-fightin' dem Mexicans?"

"Going to keep along where I can see, anyhow," Jerry asserted.

"Sho', now; battlefield's no place fo' boys," Pompey rebuked. "Ain't no place fo' dis nigger, neither. You an' me is nuncumbatants. We got to tend to camp, so's to have hot victuals ready. Fightin' is powerful hungry work."

This afternoon orders were issued to the regiments of the First Division to prepare to break camp in the morning. That was good news to everybody. Hannibal was as jubilant as the rest. There were all kinds of rumors but they sifted down to the one fact: that General Santa Anna, who had been so badly defeated by General Taylor on Washington's Birthday last February, at Buena Vista in north-eastern Mexico, had moved his forces eight hundred miles across the mountains and deserts clear to the City of Mexico, had rallied another large army of Regulars, National Guards and Volunteers, and was now fortified two hundred miles east of the city—and all in time to confront the army of General Scott!

The First started the next morning, April 13, accompanied by the engineers and a detachment of the Second Dragoons. Light marching orders was the word—but at that, what with the muskets which weighed fourteen pounds, and the cartridge boxes which weighed eight pounds, and the haversacks and knapsacks and blanket rolls and heavy belts, the canteens of water, bayonets in scabbards, and so forth, every man carried about forty pounds not including his woollen clothing. The tents and the extra clothing were left at Vera Cruz; Lieutenant Smith and Lieutenant Grant left their chests and spare outfits—and Jerry rejoiced, for he now had little to guard. He could do about as he pleased, except he had to tend camp when necessary. But everybody took three days' rations.

Thereupon he boldly marched beside Company B, Lieutenant Grant's company.

Only General Quitman, with the South Carolinans, the Georgians and the Alabamans and most of the Tennessee horse, remained in Vera Cruz.

The column of cavalry, artillery and infantry stretched long. The canteens and the tin cups clinked, the heavy shoes clumped, the dragoon horses clattered, the artillery and the wagons rumbled, and the dust rose in a white cloud.

Trudge, trudge, trudge, with the bands and the fifes and drums playing marching tunes—"Yankee Doodle," "Will You Come to the Bawer"(the Texas battle song of independence, that), "Turkey in the Straw," "Hail, Columbia!", and so on, and the men marching at will. The dragoons and General Worth and staff headed the column, the guns of Colonel Duncan's flying battery came next, the sturdy infantry and the artillery serving as infantry followed, the wagon train toiled in the rear. And midway Jerry, clad in an old cut-down pair of army trousers, and an old army shirt, with a ragged straw hat on his crown and no shoes on his feet, ambled beside Company B, keeping as close to Lieutenant Grant as he dared. Pompey was somewhere, probably stealing a ride in one of the wagons.

The road was a poor road for one called "National," the main road to the capital. It was ankle deep in sand. Soon the soldiers were sweating and panting. When a halt was made about three miles out, at a stream, they began to overhaul their knapsacks and haversacks, and throw things away. Presently the route was strewn with stuff, although the wise ones hung to their blankets and great-coats and rations, if nothing else.

Trudge, trudge, clinkity-clink, all that day, and all the next day, while the mountains gradually loomed higher and higher before. On the third day they had arrived at the Puente National, or National Bridge, where the road crossed the Antigua River. Now the mountains and the Plan del Rio were only sixteen miles onward.

General Worth ordered camp here to rest the division. He himself went forward to consult with General Scott. This day of April 16 was a nervous day in the bivouac. The men all were held together, forbidden to wander from the lines. But the dragoons who reconnoitred ahead said that they had seen the Twiggs and Patterson divisions encamped and waiting down near Plan del Rio village beside the Rio del Plan, at the foot of the mountains—probably right under the Mexican army.

An aide brought back orders from General Worth. Hannibal saw him come galloping, and soon knew' what was up.

"Reveille is to sound at eleven-thirty to-night, and we're to move camp in the dark."

"Then what, Hannibal?" Jerry asked.

"Tell you later. A battle, I expect. Old Fuss and Feathers will have a scheme."

The men slept on the ground without tents. Lieutenant Smith and Lieutenant Grant did not undress, for what was the use? Reveille sounded at eleven-thirty, the assembly followed, and the companies fell in, the men yawning and grumbling. The night was pitchy dark; the column went stumbling up the road, with the soldiers staggering aside as if asleep on their feet. It seemed as though that night's march never would end; and at daybreak, when halt was sounded, everybody was glad indeed.

But what a panorama that was as the sun rose. It was well worth staying awake for. Yonder, below the slope up which the night's march had led, there appeared the camps of the two other divisions, near the little village in a level bottom or valley. The river issued from a gorge in the mountains and flowed rapidly down past the village, on the left or south. There were precipices and high hills on both sides of it; and on the right or north the National Road, obliquing from the river and village, zigzagged up into the hills, and crossed the mountains.

This was the Pass of Cerro Gordo. The highest crest—a huge round-topped hill—four miles distant in the midst of the other hills along the road, was Cerro Gordo itself: Big Mountain, or Telegraph Hill. The officers said that with their glasses they could see the Mexican flags floating from its very summit, over batteries, and over a stone tower.

"Gin'ral Scott, he got to shed his coat an' get to work, I reckon," declared Pompey, who had appeared at each night's camp. "How we-all gwine to trabbel on with dose Mexicans rollin' rocks down on us? An' dar ain't no road 't all odder side the ribber. 'Spec' we mought have to make wings an' fly ober dose mountings. Don't see no odder way."

Aha! The troops below were already in motion. At any rate, one column was moving out, and filing into the hills on the north of the road. Marched like Regulars; must be the Second Division! Was the battle about to begin, before the First Division received orders? 13ut when, after a hasty breakfast, the division hurried down and camped near the Third Division, soldier talk explained matters.

The Second and Third Divisions had been here two or three days, lying low and wondering how to get past Cerro Gordo. When the Third had joined the Second, General Twiggs had decided to storm Cerro Gordo, anyhow, and had given instructions to General Pillow. He was a fighting man, this feral Twiggs. But General Patterson had heard and had galloped forward from his bed to take command and veto the orders. Being a major-general, he out-ranked Old Davy, who was only a brigadier. The men had been rather glum at the idea of storming Cerro Gordo from the road—that looked like a sure-death job; and when they learned that nothing would be done until General Scott came in, they felt mightily relieved.

General Scott had arrived on the fourteenth. He immediately sent Captain Lee of the engineers out to examine the country. Captain Lee reported that by following a deep brushy ravine around to the northwest, if the guns and men could be got through then Cerro Gordo might be flanked and attacked from the rear. Santa Anna faced the road, of course, thinking that the principal attack would be made from that. The Americans were not goats or rabbits; they would have to march by the road. And Cerro Gordo and the other batteries (quite a number) cones manded all the zigzags and switchbacks by entrenchments and breastworks two miles in length. His artillery and his muskets, manned by twelve or thirteen thousand soldiers, would simply pulverize that road.

It had looked like a problem to General Twiggs and Generals Pillow and Patterson; but Captain Lee seemed to have solved the problem. General Scott approved the plan. Pioneers were dispatched at once to open a trail around to the north that cannon might be hauled; the Second Division had marched this morning, to take position and seize, as was said, a hill that the Mexicans had neglected to fortify.

The day, April 17, was a fine one, with just a little sea breeze wafting in from the gulf and Vera Cruz, fifty miles east. The stars and stripes fluttered over the camps of the First and Third Divisions; but the Second Division apparently did not intend to come back. Upon the mountain crests three and four miles west the Mexican flags fluttered. All was quiet there. General Santa Anna seemed to have no suspicion that anything especial was happening. He waited for the Americans to advance. General Scott knew exactly what was happening and what was going to happen. He issued his orders for battle.

First they were given to the division commanders. The division adjutants furnished copies of them to the brigade commanders; the brigade adjutants transmitted them to the regimental commanders; and soon the company officers who were keen knew them also.

"Now we gwine to see what kind ob strateegis' Gin'ral Scott am," Pompey pronounced. For Lieutenant Grant had made a copy of the orders where posted, and he and Lieutenant Smith discussed them.

"The enemy's whole line of entrenchments and batteries will be attacked in front, and at the same time turned, early in the day to-morrow—probably before ten o'clock A. M.," said the first paragraph of these General Orders No. III.

"Hi golly!" Pompey chuckled. "We gwine to slam him in the face an' in the back, same time. Dat's proper."

"The Second Division of Regulars is already advanced within easy turning distance toward the enemy's left. That division has instructions to move forward before daylight to-morrow, and take up position across the National Road in the enemy's rear, so as to cut off a retreat toward Jalapa."

"We got dose Mexicans retreatin' already," chuckled Pompey, while Jerry listened with all his ears.

The Second Division was to be reinforced by General Shields' brigade of Volunteers.

"The First Division of Regulars will follow the movement against the enemy's left at sunrise to-morrow morning."

"Hi! Dat's us," Pompey announced. "We gwine to be dar fo' the leavin's."

General Pillow's brigade of Volunteers was to attack from the front, or the river side, as soon as he heard the sounds of battle in the north.

"The enemy's batteries being carried or abandoned, all our divisions and corps will pursue with vigor. The pursuit may be continued many miles, until stopped by darkness or fortified positions, toward Jalapa. Consequently, the body of the army will not return to this encampment, but be followed to-morrow afternoon or early the next morning, by the baggage trains of the several corps."

General Scott therefore was confident. He had no notion of being beaten; he made no mention of what to do in case that his troops were driven back. All his order read: "Go ahead."

"Twiggs has the honors this time," Lieutenant Smith remarked. "Why, that old fire-eater will capture the whole bag before the rest of us ever catch up with him!"

The Second had a good head start, at least Then, shortly after noon, a wave of heavy gunfire rolled in from the northwest—the direction taken by the Twiggs division. Great clouds of smoke welled up, three miles distant; the heights of Cerro Gordo were veiled, and the smoke extended down and rose again.

The Second Division was in battle! General Scott evidently had expected this. In about an hour the long roll beat for General Shields' brigade, in the Volunteer camp; out they went, at quick time—the Second New York and the Third and Fourth Illinois, and three twenty-four-pounders.

General Scott himself might be seen, sitting his horse, upon a little rise of the valley bottom, gazing steadily at the smoke through his glass. Very calm and collected he appeared. His aides galloped forward as if to get the news.

All that afternoon the booming of cannon and the drumming of musketry continued. No bad news came back. At sunset the firing died away. An aide from General Twiggs raced in and reported to General Scott. Speedily there were cheers.

Captain Gore of the company hastened forward to learn what he might. He returned.

"The movement by General Twiggs has been entirely successful, men. The American flag is now established upon a hill directly opposite Telegraph Hill, within easy range of the rear of the enemy's defenses. Colonel Harney's Mounted Rifles and the First Artillery, supported by the Seventh Infantry, carried it in gallant style, and General. Shields' brigade is reinforcing with men and guns. The first stage of the battle has been won."

"An' will we get into the foight, cap'n, plate, sorr?" old Sergeant Mulligan asked.

"We'll do our level best, sergeant. All we want is the chance."

This was an uneasy night. The men persisted in talking among themselves until late. The veterans who had fought in other battles cracked jokes and told stories, and the few new men were nervous. The sergeants and corporals in vain cautioned: "Silence! Go to sleep."

Lieutenant Grant lay under his blanket in the open, for the tents were far behind. The night was sultry; showers of rain fell, wetting the blankets. Pompey himself chattered less than usual and Jerry felt serious. To-morrow there was going to be a great battle of eight thousand American soldiers against twelve thousand Mexican soldiers, strongly fortified on the hills.

"Cerro Gordo hill is the key to the field," Lieutenant Grant had said "That of course must be taken, and all the operations will concentrate upon it."

The First Division did not know till later, but all this night the Illinois and New York Volunteers were working like Trojans, dragging the three twenty-four-pounders, under direction of Captain Lee and Lieutenant Hagner of the Ordnance, through the brush and over the rocks and tree trunks, and up the hill. The men were divided into two detachments. One detachment rested while the other detachment hauled and shoved; then the working detachment blocked the wheels and lay panting while the first detachment buckled to. It was not until three o'clock in the morning, that amidst the darkness and the rain the three guns were placed in position to open fire upon Telegraph Hill.

Down in the camp at Plan del Rio reveille was sounded before daylight. Breakfast was eaten in the pink of dawn. And listen! The day's battle had commenced! Cannon were bellowing from the Second Division's hill—sending grape and solid shot into the Mexican entrenchments upon Telegraph Hill. The Mexicans were replying.

Huzzah! The long roll sounded, signaling to the men to be alert.

"Fall in! Fall in!" the sergeants shouted; and the assembly was not needed. Company B was ready in a jiffy, the men with muskets in hand, their cartridge boxes and bayonet scabbards in place, their knapsacks and their haversacks with two days' rations hanging from their shoulders. They formed a single rank facing to the right.

"Front face!"

They faced together, in company front.

"In three ranks, form company! By the left flank! Left face! March!" barked First Sergeant Mulligan.

That done, Company B was three in (or files) deep; and Sergeant Mulligan turned it over to Captain Gore.

"Number off!" the captain ordered.

The men numbered.

"Shoulder! To the rear, open order—march! Front!"

Now the company was in opened ranks. The lieutenants and the first sergeant quickly passed behind, examining the cartridge boxes to see that all were filled.


"Close order—march!"

To the color had been sounded.

"By the right flank—right face—forward march!" And Company B marched to its position at the head of the Fourth Regiment, for it was the color company.

Jerry followed. He had no idea of being left behind; he determined to keep his eyes upon Lieutenant Grant, and he paid no attention to the whereabouts of Pompey.

General Worth, stately and handsome, his black eyes flashing, was sitting his horse. Colonel Garland, of the First Brigade, issued sharp orders, which were repeated by the galloping brigade adjutant to the regimental commanders, and by them to the company officers. The gunfire among the hills had waxed tremendous. The General Pillow brigade of Volunteers was about to move.

General Worth lifted his sword—his orders had meant "Forward!" The companies broke into platoons and away they tramped, at quick step, in long column again, the fifes and drums playing merrily, The Pillow brigade was coming. Those Pennsylvanians and Tennesseeans had been directed to storm Telegraph Hill from in front, if possible; they had several batteries to carry, first. No pleasant job, that; and all as a feint to hold the Mexicans occupied on the roadside.

The First Division branched to the right, and into the brush through which the pioneers had hacked a rough trail. The faces of the soldiers were stern; some white, some red, with excitement. The battle clamor arose so loud that the drums and fifes could scarcely be heard. A dense cloud of smoke covered the hills before. Were those cheers, mingled with the bellowing of cannon and the roll of muskets? From whom—the Mexicans or the blue-coats? Jerry stumbled as he half ran, trying to stay close to Lieutenant Grant.

The trail was cumbered with tree trunks and rocks and cactus. After a time the Fourth Regiment rounded the base of a hill, and emerged at) a ravine running crosswise, at the very foot of Telegraph Hill itself. Upon the top of the first hill cannon were thundering. And look! The hither slope of the other hill was alive with men, toiling up in ragged lines, following the colors. They were blue-coats—Regulars! The standard of the Mounted Rifles waved on the left, in the ravine. The Mexican batteries and entrenchments were shooting down upon the storming columns, the Rifles were deploying and facing a charge upon the stormers' flank; and from the top of the first hill the twenty-four-pounders were pouring grape and ball across, into the higher hill, El Telegrapho.

"Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!" The First Division quickened pace, so eager the men were to get into the fight.

"Form company! First platoon—right oblique—quick!—march!" And— "Left into line, wheel!" the adjutant shouted.

"To the left, into line—quick—march!" shouted Captain Gore to Company B.

The men obeyed at a run. The division was forming line of battle.

"Forward—center guide—quick time—march!"

The drums tapped briskly. They had crossed the head of the ravine, they began to scramble up the slope, at last, in the wake of the Second Division stormers. The brush and rocks were reddened, strewn with knapsacks, and dotted with dead and wounded; the climb was very steep. A perfect pandemonium raged above. Bullets and grape-shot were whistling overhead. The men gripped their muskets and peered and panted. Huzzah! But what's the cheering for? For General Scott! Here he stood, as large as life, in his full uniform, gazing through his glass up the hill, marking the progress of the charge. He looked as cool and confident as if watching a parade.

"Huzzah for Old Fuss and Feathers! Huzzah! Huzzah!"

Company B passed close to him. He waved encouragingly.

"On, my brave boys!" he said.

Next there were breastworks, bloodied and trampled. The Mexicans had already been driven out of these. Scrambling inside, Jerry almost stepped upon a drum—a drum, drumsticks, cross-belt harness and all. It was a Mexican drum, but differing little from a United States outfit except the Mexican eagle instead of the American eagle upon the brass plates. So he grabbed it up quick, and lugging it on, trying to sling it, he pursued the line.

The slope continued. A breeze was wafting away the smoke; the stars and stripes and the regimental flags of the stormers had advanced far; and the blue ragged line, rushing, resting, and rushing again, pressing after the streaming folds and after a single figure, who, sword flashing, kept in the lead.

The drum bothered Jerry. When he had slipped into the cross-belts they were so long that the drum struck his shins, and the best that he could do was to carry it in his arms. His own battle line had forged well ahead of him; and when, dipping into a hollow, and clambering up out, still following Cornpany B, he might glimpse the stormers again, he heard a hearty burst of cheers and yells.

Huzzah! Huzzah! The hurrying First Division was cheering—echoing the cheers from the top of the hilL From the stone tower above a blue regimental flag was flying—and the stars and stripes; the Mexican flag had come down. The American soldiers were springing upon the breastworks just beyond, wielding their bayonets as they disappeared—other American flags had been planted—the red caps of the Mexican defenders surged backward, and eddying and tossing broke into numerous rivulets flowing tumultuously across the hill, to the south, for the road below.