The Streets of Mexico City

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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

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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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