Battle of Contreras during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel.
On 19 August 1847, the Americans launched a two-pronged advance on either side of the Pedregal, with the objective of meeting up to attack Santa Anna at Churubuso. Lee’s scout work, and the work of the engineers, broadened the path he discovered on the Pedregal and allowed the Americans to flank the Mexican position at San Antonio. Santa Anna, however, thought the San Antonio Road was secure. What worried him was the western side—the responsibility of General Valencia. The Americans, tying Valencia up in an artillery duel, had slipped 3,500 men onto the San Angel Road. But as evening fell the Americans faced the possibility of being trapped, because coming south to stop them were 3,000 Mexican reinforcements under Santa Anna’s personal command.
The American hero of the following morning, at the Battle of Contreras, was General Persifor Smith. Smith’s infantry was supporting Captain John Magruder’s artillery against Valencia’s front. But when he saw the danger to the American troops on the San Angel Road—potentially trapped between Santa Anna and Valencia—Smith brought his brigade to the rescue. Early on the morning of 20 August, Smith launched the attack he had organized during the night: a demonstration against Valencia’s front, while the Americans on the road hurled a three-pronged assault at Valencia’s left flank.
The morning was cold and wet, and Valencia’s troops, whose hopes rested on Santa Anna’s reinforcements, saw to their dismay that Santa Anna’s men had withdrawn. (Santa Anna had sent orders to Valencia to withdraw with him, which Valencia had ignored.) The next thing they saw was charging Americans. The Mexicans fled, 700 were killed, more than 800 were taken prisoner, and thousands melted away—and those that fled up the road were met by an infuriated Santa Anna, who struck about him with a riding whip. Valencia’s army no longer existed, and if Santa Anna had his way, Valencia would not long exist either—he issued orders for his execution.
Santa Anna now withdrew his men. The San Angel Road was cleared, and the San Antonio Road soon would be. Ahead lay the bridges across the Churubusco leading the way into Mexico City. And it was here that the Mexicans fortified their next line of defense. The Americans had two objectives at Churubusco: seize the bridge across the river and clear the fortified convent of San Mateo.
The bridge looked to be easily taken; the only obstacle was the mass of Mexican troops retreating across it. The convent proved to be the tougher nut; the Mexican defenders—including soldiers from the Batallón de San Patricio—put up a stiff defense. They repelled the hastily organized and sloppily executed initial American assaults, and even defeated the American gunners in an artillery duel.
Meanwhile, the Americans easily took the outer defenses of the bridge. At the heavily fortified tête du pont, however, the defenders outnumbered the attackers three to one and blunted two American charges that were made with reckless overconfidence. No engineers had scouted the position first. The mood of the American troops plummeted from enthusiasm to dangerous self-doubt.
But they had help in the shape of a flanking maneuver, with troops crossing the river to the west, bypassing the convent and coming onto the road behind the bridge to cut off the Mexican retreat and pressurize the defenders at the tête du pont. Santa Anna saw it developing and reinforced the road, so that the flanking Americans ran not into panicked Mexicans, but into Mexican troops pouring musket balls at them. Now, however, the American troopers at the bridgehead showed the grit that had got them this far. After three hours of fighting, they roused themselves for a mighty bayonet charge that filled their general, William Worth, with “wonder” and “gratitude” as they swept the bridge and saved General Scott’s army from stalling out before the great prize of Mexico City. With the bridge in American hands, American artillery bombarded the convent, reducing enough of it to rubble so that the Americans could charge over it and invest the defenders in their final redoubt. Because the San Patricios kept tearing the white flag from the hands of Mexicans trying to surrender, the American Captain James Smith raised a white handkerchief, which the Mexicans gratefully saw as their salvation from certain death, throwing down their arms. Even the eighty-five surviving San Patricios realized their battle was over.
The last remaining job was clearing the road, north of the bridge, where the American flankers were still meeting with murderous resistance. Mounted riflemen and dragoons finally drove the Mexicans back, but in their excitement, a handful of hard-charging dragoons who didn’t hear the bugler sound recall charged all the way to the gates of Mexico City. Enemy fire that cost Captain Philip Kearny an arm finally reminded the dragoons to return to their comrades.
The road to Mexico City was open for the taking, but Scott decided his troops had had enough fighting for one day. If Mexico City would not capitulate peacefully, if it had to be taken by force, let it be done with cool consideration, not with ragged men whose blood was up. He had already suffered a thousand casualties, more than 130 of them killed. The Mexicans, however, had done far worse, with 10,000 men killed, wounded, or missing, and with 2,637 men, by Winfield Scott’s count (including eight generals and two former presidents), held as prisoners of war.
Santa Anna requested a truce, seeing this as his only means to gain time to shore up the defenses of Mexico City. General Winfield Scott agreed to it, assuming that a spirit of accommodation would lead to peace and conciliate Mexican pride. The Mexicans, of course, were not conciliated but kept busy by Santa Anna, while Scott’s men grew restive, wondering why they were waiting and knowing damn well what the high-minded Scott chose to ignore: Santa Anna was playing Scott for a fool. After two weeks, even Scott had to concede that the Mexican peace negotiators were not serious and that Santa Anna was violating the truce. So the battle for Mexico City began.
Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel.
There were three fortifications blocking Scott’s way: the stone fortress and earthworks at Casa Mata; the gathering Mexican cavalry at Molino del Rey (where church bells were suspected of being melted and cast into cannons); and the towering Castle of Chapultepec. The stone buildings at Molino del Rey were only 1,000 yards from Chapultepec. Casa Mata was only 500 yards ahead of Molino del Rey and between them lay an artillery battery. The positions were mutually reinforcing, and the Americans estimated the combined number of Mexican defenders at an imposing 12,000 to 14,000, though it might well have been fewer. If accurate, it meant the Mexicans outnumbered Scott’s entire army two to one.
Nevertheless, Scott assumed that Casa Mata and Molino del Rey could be snapped off easily and sent 3,500 men under the command of General William Worth to do the snapping. Worth’s plan was sound: cut off the road to Chapultepec and attack Molino del Rey from the right, engage the Mexican batteries with his own and bombard the Molino, deploy dragoons to scare off any Mexican cavalry, and detach separate assault units to storm Casa Mata and the Molino. The Molino was first taken by a bayonet charge, with the Americans seizing the Mexican guns and turning them against the defenders. But when the Mexicans saw how small the assault unit was, they counterattacked and inflicted heavy casualties. American troops striking down from the Chapultepec road came to the rescue of the beleaguered assault unit and took the Molino in fierce close quarters combat.
Now the Americans focused their attack on Casa Mata, and in their haste relied not on bombardment—the American artillery and some badly outnumbered dragoons were holding off Mexican cavalry and other enemy reinforcements—but on another bayonet charge, which succeeded. The price, however, was steep. Reducing the two Mexican positions cost the Americans 800 casualties, more than 100 of them dead. Among the dead were wounded men whom the Mexicans had murdered, in some cases by slitting their throats. The Americans would not forget.
Scott pressed on. He ordered the reduction of Chapultepec. His intrepid engineer Captain Robert E. Lee thought Chapultepec best avoided and Mexico City best attacked directly from the south. Scott overruled him after staff officer Lieutenant Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard supported Scott’s original plan for investing Chapultepec and then approaching the city from the west. Scott hoped to subdue the castle by bombardment alone, and hoped further that once the castle fell Mexico City might be surrendered without a shot—his constant humanitarian wish.
In the event, the Mexicans did not buckle under the daylong bombardment. It was Scott’s men who were in need of hope when they assembled on the morning of 13 September 1847. The bloody battles at Churubusco and Molino del Rey gave them a very sober assessment of what storming Chapultepec—used as a military college, and with 100 cadets among its 1,000 defenders—might mean.
Scott’s attack was well designed, with demonstrations to keep Santa Anna guessing where the main attack would be launched, which, in turn, kept him from reinforcing Chapultepec. The Americans were up and over the exterior walls of the castle grounds and advanced steadily uphill to the castle proper. Here they were compelled to wait for a miserably long quarter of an hour, under constant Mexican fire, for their scaling ladders to arrive. Then the ladders were thrown up, a few came falling back—with men attached—but so many ladders went up that the Americans were soon into the castle, forcing the defenders from the ramparts and cutting them down wherever they could find them. The Mexicans surrendered—except for the cadets, six of whom jumped to their deaths rather than become prisoners of the yanquis.
As he watched the American flag rise over the castle, Santa Anna sensed his doom: “I believe that if we were to plant our batteries in Hell the damned Yankees would take them from us.” One of his despairing officers added: “God is a Yankee.” If so, He is a Yankee who made good use of future Confederates—and not just in Captain Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Pierre G. T. Beauregard, but in Lieutenant James Longstreet, who was wounded here; Lieutenant Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who displayed his oblivious imperturbability under fire; Navy Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, who directed artillery; Artillery Captain John Magruder; Lieutenant Joseph E. Johnston leading four companies of Voltigeurs (self-proclaimed elite light infantry); Colonel Jefferson Davis of the Mississippi Rifles; and Lieutenant George Pickett, who tore down the Mexican flag and ran up the Stars and Stripes. Among those cheering the American flag were thirty condemned Patricios, watching from the plains below. They stood on mule-led wagons. Nooses were round the deserters’ necks. Their cheers died when the mules trotted forward.
For the Americans, the cheers were just beginning. Chapultepec had fallen in two hours. Mexico City lay ahead. Brigadier General William Worth led his men against the city from the west, while Major General John Quitman slugged straight up the direct road from Chapultepec. Scott envisioned Quitman’s attack as a feint, but Quitman saw himself in a race with Worth to claim the prize. Both forces spent the day smashing through the Mexican barricades, infantry, and artillery that guarded the city approaches, with Quitman’s units taking heavy casualties. By evening it was obvious that the Americans were unstoppable and Santa Anna escaped with 5,000 men to Guadalupe Hidalgo in a forlorn, desperate belief that he would fight another day. As his parting gift to the American conquerors he opened the city’s prisons, hoping the criminals would do their worst to ruin Scott’s dream of a calm and orderly occupation.
On the morning of 14 September 1847 the white flag of surrender flew over Mexico City. General Worth occupied the western quarter of the city, but General Quitman got his wish and marched his men (though the general had lost one of his shoes in the fighting) to the Grand Plaza, claiming the capital. He assigned his accompanying United States Marines the task of rounding up the criminals and shoving them behind bars, something the leathernecks did with their usual dispatch after Marine Lieutenant A. S. Nicholson raised the American flag over the National Palace, known as the Halls of Montezuma. As General Scott rode into the city in the full fig of his dress uniform and with a party of dragoons, he saw that his wish had come true. Not only was Mexico City his, but Mexicans were lining the streets waving white handkerchiefs in honor of the conquering hero.
There was some continued scattered resistance, but it was crushed quickly and in force. The city was put under martial law, the streets were patrolled, and the combination of no-nonsense policing and Scott’s orders demanding magnanimity and good discipline had the city well pacified within a month. Meanwhile Santa Anna tried to attack the American garrison at Puebla, but his men would do no more than settle into a lazy siege. Other Mexican officers tried to inspire a guerilla war, aiming at Scott’s extended lines of communications. But the American forces were not so vulnerable, the guerillas became bandits (preying largely on the Mexicans themselves), and there was no ignition of partisan guerilla warfare.
Indeed, the obvious answer to Scott’s conquest of Mexico, which only a few generous and farsighted men recognized—including some Mexican leaders who tried and failed to convince Winfield Scott to take up their cause—was the incorporation of the entire country into the United States, which would have had the immediate effect of improving Mexican civil and economic life and adding tropical Catholic charm to the industrious Yankee Republic. And by dramatically enlarging the southern states, perhaps some of the steam building up between North and South could have been dissipated.
But if that chance was neglected, it should not detract from what was achieved. Scott’s magnificent performance won him plaudits from the Duke of Wellington, who dubbed Scott the “greatest living soldier”—presumably excluding the duke himself, given his retirement from soldiering. Ambassador Nicholas Trist, by negotiating the Treaty of Hidalgo (signed on 2 February 1848), gained every territorial demand President Polk had wanted, and as a consolation to the Mexicans, granted them financial compensations such as had been offered before the war. Polk rewarded his general and his diplomat by sacking them. Such is the prerogative of chief executives who are little men.
Polk the politician, however, knew very well what he was doing: dismissing a potential political rival in Scott and a diplomat whom he thought too easy on the Mexicans and who had ignored a presidential summons recalling him to Washington. (Trist negotiated his treaty with the Mexicans in knowing insubordination.) If Polk was handed a fait accompli in the Treaty of Hidalgo, he did his best to sell it to the Senate, in which passage was in doubt. Polk said, presciently: “If the treaty in its present form is ratified, there will be added to the United States an immense empire, the value of which twenty years hence it would be difficult to calculate.”
The treaty, with minor changes, was approved. And then came the irony. President Polk’s other general—Zachary Taylor—became the Whig candidate for president in the 1848 election, defeating Polk’s fellow Democrat Lewis Cass. Polk left the White House, returned to Tennessee, and promptly died. But his gift to the United States of another great imperial acquisition, as great as the Louisiana Purchase, puts him, neglected as he is in popular memory, in the front rank of American presidents.