TO THE HALLS OF MONTEZUMA
The United States had secured for Texas the border it wanted. It had seized the territories of California and New Mexico (which included the future states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and part of Colorado). So now what was the objective: to hold what had been taken, to demand—again—Mexico’s payment of debts, or to march into Mexico City and take over the government of Mexico?
The Mexican government had fallen into the hands of Santa Anna. At the outset of the war he had been in exile in Cuba. The United States connived in smuggling him back into Mexico on the understanding that he would broker a peace. Instead, he saw himself returning from exile, like his hero Napoleon from Elba, to grasp a second chance at glory. Ten years had passed since the Alamo. He was fifty-two years old, and short one leg—blown off by the French when they employed gunboat diplomacy to force Mexico to repay its debts. He did, however, have a seventeen-year-old second wife, which surely made the loss of a limb and the bruising of his ego easier to assuage. And now he had his great chance to defeat the yanquis who had wrested Texas from Mexico. He raised an army of 20,000 men and led them on a forced march north. Their goal: crush Zachary Taylor.
General Antonio López de Santa Anna was a military hero who became president of Mexico on multiple occasions. The Mexican Army’s intervention in politics was an ongoing issue during much of the mid-nineteenth century.
Generalissimo Santa Anna had to hurry, because the United States Navy was probing the Gulf of Mexico. In November 1846, the Navy plucked the Mexican port city of Tampico, and Santa Anna knew that the Americans’ ultimate goal was taking Vera Cruz and then Mexico City. But he assumed that if he defeated Taylor, he would give strength to antiwar critics in the United States, who derided the American invasion as “Mr. Polk’s War.” The peace party included such strange bedfellows as Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the war on moral and legal grounds; John C. Calhoun, who opposed it on constitutional ones and because he worried it would exacerbate conflict between the slave and free states; and such elder statesmen as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. Most Americans, however, took a more robust view, as captured in this little ditty:
Old Zack’s at Monterey,
Bring out your Santa Anner:
For every time we raise a gun,
Down goes a Mexicaner.
General Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers” and the most educated soldier in the Army, led the Vera Cruz expedition. He had the honor to inform Zachary Taylor (via letter) that he was taking 9,000 of his men—half of them regulars—plus two batteries of light field artillery, for his campaign. “Providence may defeat me,” wrote Scott, “but I do not believe the Mexicans can.”
Zachary Taylor’s leathery face turned the color of oxblood when he learned Scott intended to steal his men. He consoled himself by preparing to fight Santa Anna. “Let them come,” Taylor growled of the Mexican army. “Damned if they don’t go back a good deal faster than they came.” Brigadier General John E. Wool spotted the advancing Mexicans. With Taylor’s approval, he prepared positions eight miles south of Saltillo near the Hacienda Buena Vista on ground cut by ravines that favored the defense and limited the mobility of Santa Anna’s cavalry. On 2 February 1847, Santa Anna sent a messenger to Taylor informing him that he was surrounded and outnumbered, and requesting his surrender. Taylor replied true to form: “Tell Santa Anna to go to hell!”
That first day of battle was taken up with inconsequential skirmishing. The second day, however, was a decisive clash between 15,000 Mexican effectives and 5,000 Americans. Santa Anna made the most of his massed force, drawing them up in sight of the Americans, expecting the ruffians led by Old Rough and Ready to be awed by the Mexicans’ numbers, their European-style uniforms, the musical splendor of their bands, and the solemn dignity of the priests who passed through the ranks giving their blessings to the soldiers. But to the American volunteer regiments in particular this was all flummery. They licked their thumbs and moistened their musket sights for good luck, and settled down to do what they had come to do: kill Mexicans.
In the initial fighting, American artillery put a full stop to the Mexican advance on the narrow road to Buena Vista, but in the center-left of the American line on a plateau along the high ground, the Mexicans burst through with such vigor—if confused vigor—that General Wool moaned to Zachary Taylor: “General, we are whipped.” To which Taylor responded: “That is for me to determine.” He determined, rightly, that Wool was wrong, and he rushed the Mississippi Rifles under Jefferson Davis to plug the line. They did that—and drove the Mexicans back.
Santa Anna threw his lancers around the American left flank, charging to take Buena Vista. But Taylor was ready for that gambit and put his dragoons on the chase. They cut the lancers off and turned them away. Santa Anna thought he saw a new way around the Americans. He hurled another attack against Taylor’s left flank, this time farther out. But the Americans repelled it and inflicted heavy losses on the Mexicans.
The Americans, however, were also badly battered. Every American unit, save for the Mississippians, had at one point been forced to give ground. And the Americans had suffered heavy losses—including the desertion of 30 percent of their number when things got hot. Among the dead was a young officer, Henry Clay Jr., son of the antiwar politician who had campaigned against Polk for the presidency. Clay, cut off, wounded, and surrounded by Mexicans, fired his pistol until it was exhausted and the Mexicans killed him.
Taylor reinforced his lines, and as dawn broke, the Americans made an astonishing discovery: Santa Anna had withdrawn. The Americans were jubilant—and prudent. They returned to Monterrey and safety. Santa Anna, after a decent interval of pretending to wait for Taylor’s advance, raced back to Mexico City. By the time he got there, his army—bedraggled by casualties, forced marches, and no supplies—was reduced to 10,500 men.
Meanwhile, to the north, at Chihuahua, an army of Missouri volunteers led by the giant Colonel Alexander Doniphan had marched, and occasionally fought, all the way from Missouri through Santa Fe and El Paso, to prosecute the war across the Rio Grande. Doniphan had fewer than 1,000 fighting men. Drawn up ahead of him, north of the Sacramento River on the road to Chihuahua, was an army of 3,000 Mexican soldiers under the command of General García Condé and 1,000 Mexican volunteers. The Mexicans held the plateaus that stood on either side of the road. But, alerted by his scouts, Doniphan did the unexpected and swung his column wide to the right, unseen by the Mexicans, and came in behind the Mexican lines. Defeating Mexican cavalry that finally found them, Doniphan’s men then attacked the Mexican positions from the rear with artillery, cavalry, and infantry that closed to hand-to-hand combat. The American casualties were extraordinary: two killed, seven wounded. The Mexicans lost 300 dead, 300 wounded, and all their artillery pieces. The Battle of Sacramento (28 February 1847) was a triumph, leaving the capture of Chihuahua, fifteen miles south, a mere matter of marching. And after 2,000 miles, Doniphan’s men were well practiced at marching.
With Taylor retired to Monterrey and Doniphan set to join him, the focus of operations shifted south to where General Winfield Scott was preparing an unprecedented amphibious operation for the American Army and Navy—one that would not be equaled until the Second World War: the capture of Vera Cruz. The island fortress of San Juan de Ulúa guarded the coastal approach to the city, but Scott located an unguarded beach to the south and, in an operation remarkable not only for its size and complexity but for its lack of mishap, landed 10,000 men on 9 March 1847 at Collada Beach.
The next two weeks were spent throwing out a line of troops isolating Vera Cruz, skirmishing with the enemy, establishing artillery positions (this was done by Captain Robert E. Lee), and preparing the siege. On the late afternoon of 22 March, after General Juan Morales rejected Scott’s call to surrender, the bombardment began from Scott’s initial gun emplacements. The next day, American naval batteries opened up on the city. Two days later, all of Scott’s land-based batteries joined in. The pounding had its effect on the European consuls in the city. They demanded that General Morales stop risking civilian lives and surrender. Morales replied that he felt terribly unwell. He transferred command to his deputy, Brigadier General José Juan Landero, who sent a messenger to Scott requesting a parley. The Americans ceased fire and the Mexican negotiators began haggling. When Scott threatened to open up his guns again, it concentrated Mexican minds on the essentials, and on the evening of 27 March 1847, the City of the True Cross was surrendered to the Americans.
General Scott endeavored to treat it well. Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers went out of his way to conciliate the clergy, as a means to reconcile the Mexican people to American rule. With his love of pomp and ceremony, he encouraged his officers to attend the city cathedral in their dress uniforms, where he led a candle-lit procession. If his diplomacy paid him dividends in Heaven, it was certain that it paid dividends in the field, for the Church tilted in favor of the Americans and against Santa Anna. Santa Anna was not a strident anticlerical—in fact, his vice president, who led that faction, had just been deposed in a civil war in Mexico City—but like any dictator he saw the wealth of the Church as a tap house for the state. Given a choice, the Church preferred Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers.
Scott did not neglect strictly military matters. He was eager to be on the move, to escape the coastal region of Mexico before the yellow fever season. Santa Anna was just as eager to pen him in there and planned to do so fifty miles inland at Cerro Gordo, blocking one of two main roads that led to Puebla, the key point on the way to Mexico City. Mountains straddled the road, and on them Santa Anna assembled an army of 12,000 men. His position was well chosen, but he had made a fateful mistake. He had assumed that the rocky, mountainous terrain to the Mexican left was impenetrable. But Captain Robert E. Lee penetrated it and directed the carving of a trail behind Santa Anna’s batteries, with Cerro Gordo dead ahead.
General David Twiggs led his division along Lee’s road with orders to take a position on the plateau of La Atalaya, in preparation for the main assault on Cerro Gordo the next day. But after the tough march and skirmish to dislodge the Mexican pickets, Twiggs’s blood was up. “Charge ’em to hell,” he ordered his troops, and the Americans charged halfway to Cerro Gordo, where they were finally pinned down by Mexican fire, until they were recovered and brought back to Atalaya. The withdrawn lunge had the drawback of alerting Santa Anna to the American presence, but it had the benefit, for the Americans, of wrongly convincing Santa Anna that he’d just won the battle.
He had not. Winfield Scott was already making plans for the morrow to rout Santa Anna from Cerro Gordo and press on to Jalapa. If the battle did not go entirely to plan—General Gideon Pillow mismanaged his attack on the Mexican right—it went well enough. The main attack—and the only one that mattered—came from Twiggs, whose men charged into Cerro Gordo and spread panic in the Mexican ranks. Cut off from retreat, the Mexicans, including peg-legged Santa Anna, fled down any footpath they could find. An untold number of Mexicans were killed and 3,000 were captured and subsequently paroled by Scott, who could not hold so many prisoners. The next day, 19 April 1847, Scott’s army of 8,500 men rested in the city of Jalapa.
Here and at Puebla, Scott’s army paused. Some of his volunteers had their enlistments running out—fewer than one in ten re-upped for the duration of the war—and Scott let them go so that they could reach transports at Vera Cruz before the yellow fever season. He waited for new volunteer units to arrive, but he did not wait patiently. Politics, he feared, might do him in. He was traveling the national highway to Mexico City, a road built by Cortez and his conquistadors, and he felt himself a similarly embattled conqueror. “Like Cortez, finding myself isolated and abandoned, and again like him, always afraid that the next ship or messenger might recall or further cripple me, I resolved no longer to depend on Vera Cruz, or home, but to render my little army a self-sustaining machine.” Scientific soldier that he was, he could do it.
On 7 August 1847, he was on the march again, looking to close on Mexico City. In England, the Duke of Wellington followed the press accounts and took a keen interest in the campaign, charting Scott’s maneuvers on a map. The Iron Duke was pessimistic. “Scott is lost! He has been carried away by his successes! He can’t take the city, and he can’t fall back on his bases.” That was one point of view. But Captain Kirby Smith of Scott’s 3rd Infantry undoubtedly put the American soldiers’ view about their Mexican opponents: “What a stupid people they are! They can do nothing and their continued defeats should convince them of it. They have lost six great battles; we have captured six hundred and eighty cannon, nearly one hundred thousand stand of arms, made twenty thousand prisoners, have the greatest portion of their country and are fast advancing on their Capital which must be ours,—yet they refuse to treat!” From the infantryman’s point of view, there was fighting to be done, but the outcome was inevitable.
Scott’s “self-sustaining machine” of an army had restored itself to nearly 11,000 effectives, while Santa Anna’s Napoleonic gift for raising armies put more than 25,000 Mexicans in uniform and under arms for the defense of Mexico City. Once again, the Mexicans had the advantage of a solid defensive position: a marshy plain (some of it flooded) before the city, stout defenses around it, and the city itself resting on high ground.
Using Robert E. Lee again as a scout, Scott decided to leave the national highway—and thereby avoid the Mexican defenses at El Peñón—and approach Mexico City from the south on roads that straddled the Pedregal, an allegedly impassable volcanic waste that was five miles wide and three miles deep. On either side of that lava bed, the battles of Contreras and Churubusco were fought. And once again, Captain Robert E. Lee would find a path—this time through the Pedregal—where no path was supposed to be found.
The road on the eastern side of the Pedregal was the San Antonio Road; on the western side was the San Angel Road. The San Antonio Road was the more direct, but the Mexicans had a well-fortified position at San Antonio and not far behind it was Santa Anna’s main position along the Churubusco River. On the San Angel Road, the Mexican General Gabriel Valencia was supposed to be defending San Angel, where Santa Anna could easily reinforce him. Instead, Valencia—an officer of dubious reputation and on bad terms with Santa Anna—took up a position farther forward, and off the San Angel Road, across from the southwestern base of the Pedregal.