A Concise History of the U.S.-Mexican War


"MEXICANS: Vera Cruz is already in the power of the enemy. It has succumbed, - not under the influence of American valour, nor can it be said that it has fallen under the impulses of their own good fortune. To our shame be it said, we ourselves have produced this deplorable misfortune by our own interminable discords."

- President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
   in a proclamation to the Mexican people
   March 31, 1847

Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

7. The War in Central Mexico

Before the end of 1846, President Polk came to the realization that if the war with Mexico was to be brought to a successful conclusion, U.S. forces would have to occupy or threaten Mexico City and that it would be best to approach it from the Gulf coast, rather than from the north, taking the same route Cortez followed three centuries earlier when he conquered the Aztecs. Consequently, in November, Major-General Winfield Scott received orders from Polk to head an invasion of Central Mexico. Shortly afterward, Scott wrote to General Zachary Taylor, first from New York and again from New Orleans, detailing his plans and apologizing to Taylor for the need to take troops away from him.

The U.S. Navy had already been busy in the Gulf of Mexico since before the war began, assisting Taylor in the movement of supplies and blockading the mouth of the Rio Grande. Later, after the war began, the Navy set up a blockade of the entire Mexican Gulf coast, lifting it long enough to allow a British vessel bearing General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, previously in exile in Cuba, to enter the harbor of Vera Cruz. Santa Anna, having communicated to President Polk that he would head a peace party if he was able to come back into power in Mexico, immediately betrayed Polk's trust.

Prior to Scott's arrival on the scene, the Gulf squadron, headed by Commodore David Conner, successfully attacked Tabasco and occupied Tampico, at that time Mexico's second leading port city. Afterwards, Tampico was garrisoned by troops previously under command of General Taylor.

Siphoning off troops from Taylor's forces in Northern Mexico, with additional regiments being raised in the states, Scott assembled his "Army of Invasion" at Lobos Island, located midway between Tampico and Vera Cruz. There, on February 28, 1847, he wrote to Secretary of War Marcy complaining of the delays he was encountering and expressing his desire to get the invasion under way before the vomito season set in on the Mexican coast.

On March 9, 1847 the invasion finally began as shipload after shipload of U.S. soldiers were rowed ashore in specially-built surf-boats to the sands of Collado Beach, located immediately to the south and in view of the great walled city of Vera Cruz. A feat which at that time was unprecedented in military history, by nightfall some 10,000 troops had been put ashore without a single major mishap.

Afterward, both Vera Cruz and the castle of San Juan d'Ulloa, located in the city's harbor, were besieged and constantly bombarded for nearly three weeks by both land and naval forces. Finally, on March 29, 1847, after severe casualties had been inflicted on both the military and civilian population, Vera Cruz capitulated.

Leaving a small force to garrison the city, Scott immediately began marching inland with the bulk of his troops. At the same time he sent a division of volunteers, under command of General Quitman, south along the coast to secure the town of Alvarado.

On April 18, 1847, near a mountain called Cerro Gordo, or El Telégrafo, the Americans engaged in battle with Santa Anna's troops, who had erected defenses overlooking the Rio del Plan and the road to Jalapa, 12 miles distant. Despite the fact that they had to fight their way to the top of the heights commanded by the Mexican army, with lethal firepower being rained down upon them, the troops under Scott prevailed. In the end, the Mexican army retreated in such haste that in addition to weapons and other baggage, the Americans captured numerous personal items belonging to Santa Anna, including his spare wooden leg.

The following day, Scott's army occupied Jalapa without firing a shot. Sending General Worth's division ahead of the rest of the army, the Americans also took over Perote, about thirty miles from Jalapa.

At this point it was necessary for Scott to halt his advance while several regiments of 12-months volunteers were sent back down to Vera Cruz, from there to take ship to New Orleans, where they were mustered out of service. To add to the delay, several new regiments, raised to replace the veteran troops, were slow in arriving. In the meantime, General Worth occupied Puebla as the battered Mexican army retreated to the capital, only 70 miles beyond. In May, Scott moved the rest of the army up from Jalapa and Perote.

As Scott waited at Puebla, new troops arrived throughout the summer of 1847, marching along the National Road up from Vera Cruz. It had become a perilous journey. In July, a force under the command of General George Cadwalader encountered Mexican resistance at the National Bridge.

Finally, in August, Scott was strong enough to advance upon Mexico City. Unfortunately for him, Santa Anna had also had time to recuperate from the losses inflicted on him at Cerro Gordo several months earlier.

Faced with four possible approaches to Mexico City, General Scott chose to advance upon it from the southwest - the muddiest but most lightly defended route. By August 13th he was at the village of San Agustin, only nine miles south of the capital. Not expecting Scott to take that approach, Santa Anna redeployed his forces. On August 19th and 20th, the two armies clashed at the villages of San Antonio, Contreras, and Churubusco. But in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, the Mexicans were once again unable to halt the American advance.

Although he had so far been victorious, General Scott hoped to prevent any further loss of life. After Churubusco he suggested a truce, for the purpose of allowing an American envoy, Nicholas Trist, to meet with Mexican commissioners to propose the terms of a peace treaty. Santa Anna agreed, but it appears he only did so to buy time.

When negotiations failed, hostilities resumed. On September 8, 1847 the Americans went on to win the Battle of Molino del Rey and five days later stormed the fortress of Chapultepec, overlooking the City of Mexico. Finally, following battles at the gates of the city itself and the subsequent withdrawal of the Mexican army, Scott's forces triumphantly marched into the Main Plaza where a small force of U.S. Marines took over the National Palace, the so-called "Halls of the Montezumas," and raised the American flag.

But, as General Scott told his troops, the war was not yet over. Although Santa Anna was deposed a month after Mexico City fell, he first led the Mexican army in an abortive attempt to overcome the U.S. garrison at Puebla. Afterward, with the Mexican government in disarray, the Americans settled in for a long, uneasy wait, during which time their supply lines were constantly harassed by guerrillas and a hoped-for peace was still several months away.



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