U.S.-Mexican War: Part V
Halls of Montezuma
U.S. Invasion of Central Mexico: March 9, 1847 to September 15, 1847
In 1846, the United States Navy and volunteers captured the Spanish missions of Alta California from San Francisco down to San Diego, and General Stephen W. Kearny had marched from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to San Diego, thus occupying the New Mexico territories. General Zachary Taylor had conducted successful operations in Northern Mexico. Thus, the United States had conquered all the territory it would latter wrest permanently from Mexico, and had fought off Mexico’s best troops in Northern Mexico.
With all strategic objectives accomplished, it remained only to compel the Mexicans to capitulate, and end the war before the U.S. public grew weary of bloodshed. General Scott’s plan for an amphibious invasion started looking more and more attractive, even to his political opponents in the White House and Congress.
As a young Lieutenant Colonel in the War of 1812, Winfield Scott (1786-1866) gained experience with moving troops around by naval transport on Lake Erie in operations against Canada. “General Scott had opposed conquest by the way of the Rio Grande, Matamoras and Saltillo from the first.” Ulysses S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs Of U.S.Grant, Chapter 9. Scott’s original plan was to capture the port of Vera Cruz and advance directly upon Mexico City. Polk’s administration, however, were Jacksonian Democrats. Winfield Scott was a member of the Whig Party and known to have political aspirations. The Democrats had no experienced military commander of their own to champion, and instead put a relatively unknown commander, Zachary Taylor, in charge of an invasion southward from Texas. Taylor was a Whig, but perceived as an apolitcal, career military officer. After a string of victories, however, the Whigs took up Taylor as a future presidential candidate, with or without his urging.
Landing at Vera Cruz
Scott requested 50 large steamships and sailing ships for transporting his 15,000 men and a large siege train. All of the regular army units in Northern Mexico under Zachary Taylor were transferred to Scott, leaving Taylor with only less-experienced volunteer units. Approximately 140 “surfboats”, flat-bottomed, double-ended rowboats, capable of carrying about 40 men each, were constructed especially for the landing. The Navy and Army assembled forces at Lobo Island, in the Gulf of Mexico off Tampico, 200 miles north of Vera Cruz. From Vera Cruz, the plan was to march up the Camino Nacional, the route of the conquistadors, to the capital.
Vera Cruz was surrounded by fortifications, and protected by a fortress built on a rocky shoal in the harbor: the fort of San Juan de Ulua. On March 9, 1847, Scott landed his forces, around 10,000, three miles to the southeast, and proceeded to encircle the town. Naval siege guns were hauled off the ships and placed in batteries on the hills around Vera Cruz. After almost three weeks of bombardment from land and sea, with substantial military and civilian casualties, the Mexican general surrendered. Scott immediately turned his attention to advancing inland, to avoid having his army on the coast during the “yellow fever” season.
By April 18, 1847, General Santa Anna had arrived and assumed command of the Mexican Army. He set up a defensive position near a mountain called Cerro Gordo from which his artillery could fire down upon a good portion of the highway to Mexico City. Santa Anna thought his position inaccessible and impassible, but unbeknownst to him, U.S. engineers had constructed a road to his rear, and the Americans had smuggled cannon there, on foot (the way being too steep and treacherous for pack animals). According to Grant’s memoirs:
The surprise of the enemy was complete, the victory overwhelming; some three thousand prisoners fell into Scott's hands, also a large amount of ordnance and ordnance stores. The prisoners were paroled, the artillery parked and the small arms and ammunition destroyed.
Among the equipment captured at Cerro Gordo, suggestive of the tactical surpise, was Santa Anna’s extra wooden leg. Scott advanced to Puebla, and there waited for reinforcements.
The San Patricio Battalion
The last place on the road to Mexico City where the Mexicans were able to put up a stout defense was at the convent of Churubusco, on August 20, 1847. There, behind some hasty fortifications, the Mexicans managed to assemble 27,000 soldiers. Among them was a unit of deserters from the U.S. Army, the San Patricios. The San Patricios were mostly Irish immigrants who had been outraged by the treatment of Mexican civilians by the Army, as well as the crimes by soldiers in the Texas Rangers and other volunteer units against civilians, including murder, robbery, rape and the desecration of Catholic churches. The San Patricios fought in several the battles of the Mexican War, but the largest San Patrico unit was involved in the battle of Churubusco. At Churubusco the San Patricio Battalion refused to surrender, believing (it turned out, correctly) that they would be tried as deserters and executed if captured by the Americans. Of those captured, fifty were hanged and another 16 were flogged and branded on the face with the letter "D" for deserter.
The Niños Héroes de Chapultepec
Finally, in September, 1847, the United States Army fought its last battles to capture the Mexican capital. Commanding a prominent hill near the center of Mexico City, close by the National Palace, was a fort called the “Chapultepec Castle”. The “Castle” was then being used as a military academy, the Colegio Militar. At the base of the hill was a group of low, stone buildings called “El Molino del Rey”. General Scott was informed that there was a cannon foundary at El Molino, and authorized an attack to disrupt any weapons production. Expecting little resistance, the Americans were met with massed musket fire from El Molino and artillery bombardment from the Castle. Fighting extended from September 8 to 13, 1847, with both sides taking some of heaviest casualties of the war. The Mexicans made their last stand at this citadel. Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant received a battlefield promotion to Brevet (temporary) Captain for his personal bravery in the storming of Chapultepec Castle. Among the last defenders of the Castle were six teenage cadets. According to legend, the cadets fought the Americans until, refusing to be captured, the last survivor hurled himself off the castle walls to his death on the rocks below, wrapped in the Mexican flag. The six cadets are known in Mexico as the “Niños Héroes (Boy Heroes) de Chapultepec”.
In 1947, President Harry S Truman visited Mexico, and went to Chapultepec Castle to lay a wreath at the base of the Niños Héroes monument. When American reporters asked him why, Harry Truman replied: “Brave men don't belong to one country.”
General Scott marched onto the plaza of Mexico City on September 15, 1847.
Incidently, from the landing at Vera Cruz to the storming of the Chapultepec Castle, “marines” attached to Commodore Perry’s Navy participated in the Mexican War. That’s why the Marines' Hymn begins “From the Halls of Montezuma ...”. '
Also, Commodore Matthew Perry later went to Japan in 1853 and 1854 and convinced the Japanese to permit trade with the United States.
« U.S.-Mexican War, Part IV: U.S. Campaigns in the Mexican War |
U.S.Grant Memoirs: http://www.aztecclub.com/grant/grant9.htm
Numerous period lithos of the Mexican campaigns:
The Aztec Club website also has the text of General Scott’s dispatches to Washington, D.C.