The Streets of Mexico City

“General Scott Entering Mexico City, 1851.” Carl Nebel captures the tension of General Scott’s entrance into Mexico City’s grand plaza on September 14, 1847. Dragoons cluster around Scott, protecting him from harm, while cannons face the square, ready to fend off attackers. A stone-throwing Mexican in the lower left and armed men on the roof make clear that the United States may have captured the capital but has hardly won the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.

Santa Anna, had recovered from his humiliation at Cerro Gordo. In the face of taunts and harassment on the streets of Mexico City, he reasserted his powers as dictator over the Mexican Congress and began organizing a defense of the city. Announcing to the people that he would fight a “war without pity unto death,” he constructed fortifications around Mexico City and concentrated twenty-five thousand troops at three vulnerable points around the city.

On August 7, the fourteen thousand men under Scott’s command began their final seventy-five-mile march to Mexico City. As they crested a mountain pass, they looked down on the Valley of Mexico. Many were overcome with emotion. Illinois colonel George Moore, a good friend of John Hardin’s, was one of the few twelve-month volunteers who reenlisted, despite his growing doubts about the war. He later wrote that the war “left a reproach upon” the United States “which ages upon ages will fail to remove.” But in 1847 the view from ten thousand feet amply repaid his decision to stay on as an aide-de-camp. “A full and unobstructed view of the peerless valley or basin of Mexico, with its lakes and plains, hills and mountains, burst upon our astonished sight, presenting a scene of matchless prospective that would bid defiance to the pencil of the most gifted landscape painter.” The troops then descended, intent on capturing a fortified city of two hundred thousand, surrounded by marshland, lakes, and a lava bed. And there was no retreat. The route back to Veracruz was riddled with murderous Mexican rancheros who wished them dead. The Duke of Wellington, watching events unfold from his lofty perch in England, declared that “Scott is lost—he cannot capture the city and he cannot fall back upon his base.”

It was the final stage of the American military plan, and it proved to be the bloodiest fighting of the war. As at Cerro Gordo, Captain Robert E. Lee discovered a route around the concentrated Mexican forces. This one led directly through a lava badland more than three miles wide. The Battle of Contreras on August 19 was a hard-fought struggle between evenly matched forces over jagged lava rock. Santa Anna was on the verge of crushing the Americans but pulled back abruptly, as he had at Buena Vista, taking a portion of the best soldiers off to defend the gates of the city. He missed another opportunity for victory.

That evening a cold, heavy rain began to fall, and troops on both sides spent a miserable night on the field. On the morning of August 20, desperate U.S. troops, braving lightning and pouring rain, divided their forces. They attacked the remaining Mexican troops from two directions and routed the enemy in minutes of fighting.

Scott had opened up a road to Mexico City. They marched into Churubusco, a small village of whitewashed adobe houses with red tile roofs and colorful bougainvillea vines. There they met Santa Anna. The Mexican troops, with the San Patricio battalion manning the artillery, fought valiantly on the muddy ground at the monastery convent of San Mateo. The San Patricios repeatedly tore flags of surrender out of the hands of their Mexican comrades, knowing that surrender meant death for their treason, but by the end of the afternoon Scott’s forces had prevailed. The U.S. Army was now only three miles from Mexico City. Santa Anna had lost a third of his troops over the previous few days. The U.S. Army sustained a thousand casualties.

Seventy-two of the San Patricios captured by the U.S. Army were tried in two courts-martial. Seventy were initially sentenced to death by hanging, but Scott pardoned five and reduced the sentences of fifteen to jail, fifty lashes, and branding of the letter D for deserter. John Reilly, who had deserted before the war began, was one of the sixteen who were whipped and branded. Sixteen of the captured men were hanged soon after trial, a spectacle that both Mexicans and Americans found “revolting.” The remaining thirty awaited execution.

The last stand of Santa Anna’s forces was at a line of interior defenses. Both armies were battered, and Scott’s troops were in no position to continue fighting. On August 24, Scott and Santa Anna agreed to an armistice for the purposes of opening negotiations. When an American wagon train entered Mexico City under the flag of truce in order to pick up supplies, it was attacked by the populace. Santa Anna did nothing to quell the riot. On September 6, the Mexican government formally terminated the armistice, and Santa Anna issued a proclamation to the residents of the capital that he would “preserve your altars from infamous violation, and your daughters and your wives from the extremity of insult.”

Scott still had to capture two fortified positions, a mass of stone buildings called Molino del Rey, and the imposing Chapultepec Castle half a mile to the east. General Worth attacked the Molino at dawn on September 8 in a frontal assault with his whole division. Worth’s hope that the mill was deserted proved to be mistaken, and Mexican artillery rained down on the Americans. It was the bloodiest battle of the war, as the infantry struggled and failed to storm the buildings and a sharp clash between rival cavalry decimated both sides. One column of Scott’s forces lost eleven of its fourteen officers, and reports circulated among the men that Mexican soldiers had slit the throats of wounded Americans. U.S. troops continued the assault, however, and eventually battered down a gate leading into the buildings. They continued fighting, room to room, until their opponent eventually withdrew. The Mexicans suffered two thousand casualties, and seven hundred Americans fell.

Four days later, Scott’s artillery began to bombard Chapultepec Castle. He had seven thousand remaining troops. The castle once had been the residence of Spanish royalty but was currently occupied by a Mexican military school. The following morning, September 13, the guns began firing at dawn, for two hours. Then the Americans began to scale the castle walls. They found that six of the military cadets, all teenagers, refused to fall back even after the Mexican army retreated. According to legend, one of them wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped to his death in order to prevent the flag’s capture. In the aftermath of the defeat, los niños héroes were venerated by the people of Mexico.

The Battle of Chapultepec produced lasting heroes for Mexico but a crucial victory for the United States. As the victorious U.S. forces raised the American flag over the castle, the thirty remaining San Patricios were publicly executed in a mass hanging, despite pleas for clemency by priests, politicians, and “respectable ladies” of Mexico City. It left a “terrible impression” on the people of Mexico.

Scott pushed forward to the walls of Mexico City, and after a loss of another nine hundred men, he took control of one of the city gates. Santa Anna found it impossible to hold the city, and fled with his army toward the northern suburb of Guadalupe Hidalgo. A delegation from Mexico City approached Scott’s headquarters under a flag of truce and surrendered the city. At 7:00 a.m. on September 14, the American flag was raised in the capital, and General Scott, in his most elaborate uniform, rode proudly into the city to the cheers of his men and the terror of the civilian residents. According to twenty-nine-year-old Mexico City poet and journalist Guillermo Prieto, “demons, with flaming hair” and “swollen faces, noses like embers” roamed through the city, desecrating churches and turning houses “upside down.”

Military operations should have been over that day. Scott had conquered the Mexican capital after a dramatic series of military victories. But neither the people nor the government of Mexico were willing to negotiate. The army had no one to blame but itself for the Mexicans’ intransigence. Despite the best intentions of most of the officers, when it came to “conquering a peace,” U.S. troops were their own worst enemies. Northeastern Mexico was marked by “devastation, ruin, conflagration, death, and other depredations” committed by Taylor’s men against the region’s “inoffensive inhabitants.” One Mexican general wrote Taylor directly in May 1847 to learn if the U.S. Army intended to follow the laws of nations and fight in a civilized manner or continue to engage in warfare “as it is waged by savage tribes between each other.” Decades of Indian Wars had left their mark on U.S. combat.

With a stubborn enemy refusing to surrender, Scott’s troops settled into a lengthy occupation. Volunteers, drunk on stolen liquor, committed rape and murdered unarmed civilians, and soldiers were in turn murdered on a daily basis. The two countries seemed no closer to a peace treaty than when Taylor had first crossed the Rio Grande. Bands of guerrilla rancheros formed and launched merciless attacks on Scott’s men. At least twenty-five express riders, attempting to get news from central Mexico to Veracruz, were captured and killed, wounded, or tortured by Mexican guerrillas. The war that was going to be over as soon as it began now seemed endless.

Yet suddenly, after two months of squabbling, Trist and Scott were on good terms with each other. After some initial attempts at negotiating without Scott’s help, Trist realized that he needed the general on his side. Scott, also anxious for peace, reached a similar conclusion. Nicholas Trist was the only man in Mexico who could officially negotiate a treaty. When Trist again fell ill, Scott sent him a get-well note, a jar of guava jelly, and an invitation to move to his own much more comfortable lodgings for the period of his recovery. All three were gratefully accepted.

The two men discovered that they had more in common than they ever would have imagined, not the least of which was a belief that the war should be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible. Each man wrote to Washington in order to take back the nasty things he had said about the other. Scott called Trist “able, discreet, courteous, and amiable,” and asked that “all I have heretofore written … about Mr. Trist, should be suppressed.” He regretted the “pronounced misunderstanding” and assured the administration that since the end of June his communication with the diplomat had been “frequent and cordial.” Scott attributed the “offensive character” of Trist’s earlier letters to the effects of morphine. Trist also asked that his insulting letters about Scott be stricken from memory; “justice” demanded that his previous letters be withdrawn from public view.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given this chain of events, Secretary of War William Marcy had a nervous breakdown. In late August, he retreated from Washington for a monthlong recovery. In the meantime, the rapprochement between the general and diplomat became a friendship as the two men happily spent hours discussing literature, politics, and, above all else, the prospects for peace in Mexico. Trist had discovered Scott to be “affectionate, generous, forgiving and a lover of justice,” he happily wrote his wife. This development was more disturbing to Polk than their previous argument. Scott, it was clear, could not be trusted. A friendship between him and Trist could only lead to trouble.

So while there was ample reason for celebration, and plenty of ecstatic commemoration after the fall of Mexico City, for the most part matters were not going much better for James K. Polk than for the soldiers stationed in Mexico. The threat of guerrilla attack was one that Polk could fully identify with. His Democratic coalition had shattered over the Wilmot Proviso, and Democrats had lost control of the House of Representatives. Whigs would control the House when the Thirtieth Congress was seated in early December. The “growing unpopularity of the war” was news in London. Voices of protest against the war increased as the occupation dragged on through the fall, while at the same time a growing minority of Democratic expansionists began pushing for the annexation of the whole of Mexico as spoils of war. At a mass meeting in New York in support of annexing the entirety of Mexico, Sam Houston, the former president of the Republic of Texas, proclaimed the full “continent” a “birth-right” of the United States. “Assuredly as to-morrow’s sun will rise and pursue its bright course along the firmament of heaven, so certain it appears to my mind, must the Anglo Saxon race pervade … throughout the whole rich empire of this great hemisphere.” He was met with “great cheers” and cries of “annex it all” from the audience. The New York Herald assured readers that once annexed, Mexico, “like the Sabine virgins,” “will soon learn to love her ravisher.”

Polk was sympathetic to Houston’s vision, but the All-Mexico Movement, as it was known, did nothing to improve the prospects of peace. And peace, above all else, was what Polk dreamed about—on the rare occasions when he slept, that is. The vitriol and controversy combined with his ceaseless labor took an increasing toll on his fragile health. Night after night Sarah pleaded with him to stop work and come to bed, while members of his inner circle noted his “shortened and enfeebled step, and the air of languor and exhaustion which sat upon him.” Yet Polk kept going. What he needed was peace with honor, and as much of Mexico as he could take with it.

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