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The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 30841

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Arista had scarcely reached Linares when he began, though he knew his military standing had been destroyed, to rebuild the army. Mejía followed in his predecessor's footsteps, adopted a policy that was both conciliatory and stern to check desertion and bring offenders back to the colors, kept guards out on the roads leading to the Rio Grande, and exerted himself to improve the morale of his troops. Though Linares was a central point within easy reach of all the principal towns of northeastern Mexico, he justly regarded Monterey, a city of twelve or fifteen thousand inhabitants and capital of Nuevo León, as the vital spot, and about the ninth of July transferred his army to that place. Desertion had now ceased, he reported; morale had been restored; and the troops were described as eager to avenge the disasters of May 8 and 9, which in their opinion "they had suffered but not caused."[1]

This view of the situation, however, must be described as rather imaginative and extremely incomplete. It was hard to find money and hard to find mounts. As late as August 19 Mejía admitted that neither Mexicans nor foreigners would advance him funds, and even after paying for horses he could not obtain them. Two of the governors in this quarter would give him no aid, and still less were the people inclined to rise for the national defence. Both troops and artillery came far short of the requirements. Though Arista had called for reinforcements on April 24, not a man from the south had arrived by August 20. Including the scattered and almost worthless Presidials, the total number of soldiers in the region-outside of Tampico-was less than 3000, and about one third of these could not easily be concentrated at headquarters. Ill-fed, ill-clothed, soured by misfortune, smarting under the general contempt, some desiring Mejía and some Ampudia for commander, still more wishing Arista back, and all wrangling bitterly, even if less bitterly than at first, over the conduct of their generals and officers, the army had for chief a little, pockmarked man in blue glasses, who looked like a sot, and thus far in the campaign had been distinguished only for bad health and a pompous vocabulary.[2]

Mejía's plan was to conduct a guerilla warfare, save the army from further disgrace in the field, and make a stand at Monterey. General Canales and the irregulars were, therefore, his first line; but the "Chaparral Fox," who entertained revolutionary designs for which he desired American support, had managed so as to do us no harm in the battles of May 8 and 9, and proposed to continue that policy. Mejía suspected his intentions, yet could not prove him a traitor, and sent him funds and horses grudgingly; whereupon Canales, protesting that his loyal aims were paralyzed by Mejía's personal ill-will and stinginess, made the cause of Mexico odious by robbing and outraging the people under cover of her flag. At length, early in August, Mejía concluded to give him about a thousand men, and ordered him to annoy the Americans in every possible way; but the General reported that his horses were too weak to trot three miles, and that he saw little prospect of injuring or even delaying the enemy. In the northeast, therefore, to all intents and purposes no aggressive Mexican army existed. The business of the nation at this time was changing masters.[3]


Taylor intended to invade Mexico, and having been favored by Providence and the government with enough men and supplies, his next need was information regarding the enemy, the roads and the towns. Plenty of this he could easily have obtained, one must believe. A strong feeling against the government and even in favor of joining hands with the Americans now prevailed in this quarter; and a large number of the inhabitants on the border, long engaged in smuggling operations, had the training, as well as the natural gifts of disloyalty, daring and secretiveness, needed by the spy. A well-informed Mexican of this region stated that some of his fellow-citizens were quite ready to serve the Americans faithfully. Taylor could have made it for their interest to do so, and in addition the circumstances gave him countless hostages for their fidelity. Scott advised him to employ a large force of secret agents in a systematic way. But this was not done, and his information continued to be meagre.[4]

Another subject of prime importance was, of course, the means of transportation. Taylor had, as we have seen, a large outfit of wagons, but not enough of them for the expedition in view. A train of pack-mules was the natural supplement. Those animals were almost universally employed in Mexico; the country abounded in them; and it was the General's obvious duty to use the facilities within his reach. At Washington the practice of the region was understood, and it could only be inferred that good wagon roads did not exist. Besides, Taylor intimated that he expected to follow the usual system, and indeed he was not aware until August that army wagons could be used where he intended to go. There is no reason to doubt that by the first of that month fully 3000 pack-mules could have been at his command. Under such circumstances, to suppose the war department would expend a million dollars or so in the manufacture of wagons, without having a requisition from the army or even definite information as to Taylor's plans, went beyond reason. But the matter was overlooked at the front; and finally, gathering barely 1700 of those animals Taylor complained loudly, though he himself recognized that the fate of the administration depended upon the success of the war, that departmental neglect had inexcusably delayed and crippled his advance.[5]

Still, the General decided to move, for he knew the public demanded action; and he wished-as he said-to sustain the government. Indeed, he now declared it necessary to go forward immediately, "be the consequences what they may." "I must attempt something," he wrote privately. The government, however, had not requested him to support the administration or to incur such a risk; and Taylor-who stood conspicuous now in the Whig party, and suspected that "Polk, Marcy and Co." were aiming to discredit and ruin him-can scarcely have felt a passionate desire to sustain them. In short, as may be inferred from his correspondence, he understood that he himself was the person chiefly blamed by the country for inactivity; and, assuming that no serious resistance would be encountered, he determined-primarily, it would appear, for his own sake-to occupy Monterey and Saltillo. For the head of an invading army, both the motive and the assumption were somewhat improper.[6]

He understood, however, that resistance might possibly be offered, and for that his plan seems to have been ready. As early as the middle of June there were at his disposal ten 18-pound siege guns, two 10-inch mortars and four 24-pound howitzers; and we know that at least the mortars and half a dozen of the 18-pounders were then at Fort Brown. Before July some of the howitzers were certainly at Point Isabel. It was entirely feasible to carry heavy ordnance to Monterey, for Santa Anna did a much harder job of the same kind; and Engineer Sanders had warned Taylor that field pieces would not be effective against the stone houses of Mexican towns. But, probably quite unaware how much the moral effect produced by his guns on May 8 had contributed to his victory the following day, he seems to have retained his low opinion of artillery. Even while Taylor was protesting against the number of volunteers thrown upon him, Ridgely complained bitterly that he could not get enough men for his battery. The cold steel-simple, direct, positive, unflinching-was a weapon such as Taylor could understand. One required no book learning to use that. And no doubt he already intended, as we know he intended later, to overcome resistance at Monterey, should any be offered, "pretty much with the bayonet."[7]


Careful attention was paid to the choice of a route. That through Cadereita offered the better grazing; but the General wisely determined to march by way of Mier and Cerralvo, a distance believed to be 140 miles but in reality only about 125. This route was a little shorter and better provided with water. The roads were much more satisfactory. The problem of crossing the San Juan without boats or graded approaches did not present itself. The groves and ravines where an enemy could make trouble were few, and but one stream had to be forded. On August 19, therefore, Brevet Brigadier General Worth, commanding the Second Division of regulars, crossed the river with his first brigade over a bridge of steamboats, and moved off to establish a dép?t at Cerralvo, about sixty miles away. All the pack-mules, which were to return under escort and make a second trip, accompanied the troops. Brigadier General Persifor F. Smith and the second brigade, Brigadier General Twiggs with the First Division of regulars and about 180 wagons, and Major General W. O. Butler with a "Field Division" of volunteers followed. September 5 headquarters moved, and in a day or two the last of the men belonging to the expedition set out.[8]

The advance to Cerralvo did not prove entirely agreeable. At first there was trouble because the mules could not be loaded until after daybreak, and it was hard for the troops to march during the hot hours; but after a little experience the troops moved off at about three o'clock in the morning, and the train proceeded later under escort. The road proved to be full of sharp stones most of the way; and everything-even the frogs and the grass-had thorns, reported the soldiers. Although, as Worth said, there was no dangerous lack of water, the men suffered not a little during a part of the time. Some almost raved from thirst, and brushing the yellow scum aside, would drink eagerly from any pool. The heat baked them, and in spite of wet cotton in their caps a considerable number were overcome. Mier, the only town of any importance on the route, proved to be the roughest and gloomiest sort of a place. Gloomy, too, was the long line of wooden crosses beside the road, for every one marked a grave, and not a few signified a murder. After a while, however, came the inspiring sight of distant mountains-the fantastic, pale-blue summits of the Sierra Madre, which rose higher and stood out more boldly day by day; and the occasional inhabitants appeared, as Worth reported, "cordial in the highest degree."[9]

Particularly sunny were the Mexican smiles at beautiful Cerralvo, where the advance arrived at noon, August 25; and there were still more substantial reasons for satisfaction. The town, a place of some 1800 people, was built of stone, and hence formed a strong military position. It had enough springs of excellent water to supply New York City, declared Taylor. Standing, all in white, on a ridge at the foot of a spur from the Sierra Madre, surrounded with groves, pastures and fields, it gave promise of abundance and kept the promise. Sheep, cattle and goats, watermelons, pecans, half a dozen delicious fruits, ample grazing, and large stores of corn were to be had, and plenty of oak, walnut, ebony, cypress and willow for the cooks' fires. By the morning of September 15, with the exception of the Texas contingent, which had marched by way of China and Cadereita, all the troops concentrated here.[10]


Mexico, anticipating Taylor's advance, had now taken steps to meet it. In July Paredes had sent three brigades of regulars from the capital to operate against the revolutionists of Guadalajara, and on August 6 these were ordered to Monterey. Ampudia, who was to supersede Mejía, received instructions to make haste; and the commander of the third brigade, on leaving San Luis Potosí, went so far as to destroy all baggage that could hinder the march. News of the revolution, which overtook these forces tardily, delayed the advance, for of course many of the officers felt they must "pronounce"; and almost the whole of one brigade, abandoning their general, went back to Mexico. The number deserting was quite serious, for besides the usual reasons for leaving a distasteful service, the troops were alarmed by the prospect of real fighting, and the sombre monotony of the deserts that had to be crossed disheartened them.[11]

But on August 29 the first brigade, about 1400 infantry with three 8-pounders, arrived at Monterey. The second came on September 6, and the third only a few days later. The garrison was now strong. Mejía had concentrated some 4000 regulars and auxiliaries, and according to the detailed official report there were in all, on September 10, 7303 officers and men. The arrival of the new forces greatly encouraged the soldiers of Palo Alto and the Resaca-who had felt little desire to meet the Americans again-and hence checked their deserting. As the cavalry had now been re-mounted, it seemed likely to be efficient; and when the Se?orita Dosamantes, equipped as a captain, volunteered to fight the invader, and was exhibited on horseback to the entire army, its enthusiasm rose high.[11]

From the forced march of Ampudia and his troops one might infer that the government had positively decided to make a stand at Monterey, but such was by no means the fact. Before leaving Vera Cruz and again later Santa Anna warned both Salas and the minister of war emphatically against this idea, and on August 20 Ampudia was therefore notified that unless Mejía's troops and the fortifications were certainly of sufficient strength to check the enemy, he should "on no account risk an action." Three days later the department informed him that the general-in-chief was "convinced" that Monterey could not be defended, and that his forces were "not strong enough to resist the Americans"; and in view of this opinion he was directed to halt at Saltillo, and order Mejía by special express to demolish his fortifications, and remove his army and military effects to that city "without loss of time"-the purpose of the government being "to gather an army capable of winning a victory without risking the honor and great interests of the nation."[12]

The new commander at the north, however, was doubtless thinking for himself. In view of Santa Anna's purpose to organize a grand army under his personal orders, this was Ampudia's last opportunity to shine independently, and he did not wish to lose it. On learning the strength of Mejía's and Taylor's armies and the condition of the fortifications, he believed he could not only repulse the Americans but drive them beyond the Rio Grande. Mejía took the ground that it would be dishonorable to give up Monterey and the pass between that city and Saltillo without a fight, and that it might be very hard to recover the road through the mountains after giving the Americans an opportunity to fortify it. His officers, who met by Ampudia's order in a council of war, appear to have shared this opinion; and the comandante general of Nuevo León, "as a Mexican and an officer in the national army," protested "before God and men" against the instructions to retreat, leaving twenty guns that could not be taken away, and permitting the enemy to triumph "without

hearing a shot from the Mexican arms." So the die was cast; and on learning of Ampudia's decision, together with his reasons, the war department endorsed it.[13]


On reaching the ground, Ampudia proceeded to inspect Mejía's works. The importance of erecting fortifications at Monterey had been clearly seen. May 27 the minister of war gave orders accordingly, and Mejía promptly sent an engineer there to reconnoitre and draw a plan. Since, however, he could not afford to hire or even feed laborers, only soldiers carried on the work, and little was accomplished before the end of July; but people were then required to labor without pay, and the progress became more rapid. Ampudia now brought men from the neighboring towns also; and Monterey, excited by the news of Taylor's advance, became a hive of industry.[14]



The opportunities for defence were excellent. Lying encompassed-except on the north and east-with steep, high spurs of the Sierra Madre, where the Saltillo road and the small but swift Santa Catarina River debouched from Rinconada Pass, the city formed a sort of rectangle somewhat more than a mile in length from east to west and about nine squares wide at the broadest. Only a short distance from the western end rose high and steep foothills, and some of these were now crowned with redoubts. Along the southern side the river and its high, rough bank were almost a sufficient protection; but they were supplemented with fortified buildings and yard walls, barricades at the ends of the streets, and for about half the way a solid parapet.[15]

The eastern part of the town was given special attention, for here entered the principal roads from the north. In the city proper nearly all the streets ran straight either at right angles or parallel, and in each of the central ones now rose a double line of overlapping barricades or breastworks of masonry, provided with embrasures and with ditches. Outside these a series of redoubts was constructed; and wherever the enemy seemed likely to come, the houses-almost always one story high-were loopholed and provided with ammunition. As they had been constructed very solidly of rubble-work, were protected with strong doors and iron-barred windows, and had flat roofs (azoteas) defended with sand-bags in addition to their stone parapets, they were veritable fortresses. At the heart of the town stood the cathedral with its elaborately carved fa?ade, a chime in one spire and in the other a clock. This became the general magazine. In front of it was the main plaza, bounded on the western side by the prison; and beyond the prison lay the market square.[15]

The north side of the town had even stronger protection. Within 12-pounder range of almost every part of the city stood a solid pile of masonry, twenty-five or thirty feet high, blackened by time. This was an unfinished cathedral; and, taking it as a donjon, Mejía's engineers threw round its columns and buttresses a quadrangular bastioned earthwork, intended for about thirty guns. The high parapet, eleven and a half feet thick, was faced on both sides with a soft gray tufa, in which cannon balls were expected to embed themselves. The ditch, though not wide enough and not completely excavated, was twelve feet deep. A garrison of four hundred with eight guns occupied the position; and although the two small magazines were not adequately protected against falling projectiles, and still other faults could be pointed out by an expert, this fort, commonly known as the citadel, was a powerful work, and, standing on a slight elevation, it could sweep the roads and the plain east and north of the town. A sort of telegraph enabled its commander, Colonel Uraga, to communicate with headquarters.[16]

Plenty of ammunition and an adequate store of provisions were accumulated. General Requena labored indefatigably in repairing discarded cannon, and about forty guns were found available. American deserters, who either had been or had become skilful gunners, were on hand to point some of them. There was one capital, underlying defect in the whole plan of defence. To hold all the works firmly required a much larger garrison than Ampudia had. More or less clearly the mistake was understood; but the active co?peration of the cavalry and the reserves was expected to offset it.[17]

Santa Anna's policy was not merely to give up indefensible towns, and he ordered Ampudia to drive away all cattle that the Americans might otherwise obtain, destroy provisions and make the water supply useless whenever a place had to be abandoned, besides urging the inhabitants to leave their homes on Taylor's approach, so as to show the Americans and the world that Mexico could never be subdued; and Ampudia not only endeavored to execute these instructions, but adopted measures of his own to supplement the efforts of his troops. The people were ordered to intercept messengers and convoys, capture small parties, and in every possible way imitate the royalists of Spain, who had made the soldiers of Napoleon so much trouble. Martial law went into effect, and thus in addition to other advantages the authority of the indifferent or disloyal governor was obliterated.[18]

Disloyalty and indifference among the people were combated at the same time, as Ampudia informed the government, by a twofold policy of "moderation" and "decisive energy," in which the second ingredient appeared the more conspicuous. All the citizens of the region received a summons to come and help defend the nation. Notice was publicly given that any person voluntarily affording the enemy direct or indirect aid would be shot; everybody was required to denounce offences of this kind; and all authorities were ordered to inflict the penalty. A circular in English inviting Americans to desert met our troops, and the inhabitants were directed to succor and protect all such repentant foes. Taylor had but a few regulars, Ampudia proclaimed, and the rest of his army was "a mob of adventurers without valor or discipline." Moreover the sacred cause of independence itself appealed for support, and could not be ignored. "Soldiers," he cried, "Victory or death must be our only motto." Thanks to this vigorous policy and the increased numbers of the army at Monterey, by the middle of September the temper of the people towards the Americans noticeably changed.[19]


In other respects, however, the General did not feel so well pleased. In person large and strong, with a soldierly mustache and goatee and a martial bearing, he figured well on horseback; but he was really small and mean, and his measure had been taken. His obtaining the command of the army-first at Matamoros and again recently-through political intrigue was fairly well understood. Many attributed the disaster of May 9 to his machinations against Arista. A dominant regard for personal safety was known to be one of his characteristics. His chief distinction, said the British minister at Mexico, arose from acts of violence done in abuse of power, and he now acted out his disposition. However the general public might be deceived, such a man could not impress the officers by talking about a sacred cause and "victory or death"; and old personal animosities against him supplemented the want of confidence based on public grounds. One of the officers wrote bluntly to him that the disgust and discouragement produced by the news of his appointment could be seen plainly on the faces of nearly all. Complaints against him were forwarded to the government. The press voiced this hostile sentiment, and fresh enmities were rapidly engendered.[20]

Nor did military affairs prosper very well. The funds were scanty, and that state of things could not fail to cause dissatisfaction. Ampudia's appointing Ramírez, who understood tactics but not engineering, to supervise the construction of works met with disapproval. Numerous changes of policy had a similar reception. At first he adopted Mejía's plan of attempting nothing serious in the field, and then he decided to meet the enemy at Marín, some twenty miles from the city. A council was held; and finally, as most of the officers opposed this project, it was given up. Then another council decided to abandon certain incomplete fortifications between the citadel and the western defences; and at the instance of Ramírez a very important fort, the Tenería redoubt at the eastern end of the town, was demolished. Such vacillation and such waste, both moral and material, undermined the courage and confidence of the garrison and stimulated its dissensions.[21]

At Cadereita, August 31, there were a thousand regular cavalry, and they were ordered to attack five hundred Texan horse then at China; but they accomplished nothing. The Americans march carelessly and in small bodies, observers reported; they loosen their arms and stoop down to drink at the first water; they sleep as if at home; they carry little ammunition; and their muleteers are hoping the train will be attacked. With such opportunities the six hundred troopers now under Canales were expected to do something; but that astute leader merely gave reasons why they could not. "Nothing, absolutely nothing will either the regular cavalry or the auxiliaries do against the enemy," exclaimed Ampudia bitterly; and on September 18 the whole mounted force of about three thousand meekly retreated to the town, leaving the roads practically open.[21]


Early on September 12 all the pioneers of Taylor's army advanced from Cerralvo to prepare the road for his artillery and wagons. Ahead of them went a strange-looking company. Mounted on quick, tough horses and marching at will, the men were dressed as they pleased; but they agreed substantially on leggings, trousers belted round the waist, coarse red or blue shirts, and either a buckskin cap or a soft felt hat. Each carried a heavy rifle, a pouch of bullets, a large powderhorn and a bowie knife, and some had Colt revolvers. At every saddle-bow hung a braided lariat for a tether; and a bag of parched and pounded corn, together with whatever else the rider thought he needed, was bound to the saddle with thongs. This company was Captain McCulloch's rangers-a part of the First Texas regiment-Taylor's finest body of scouts; and they, assisted by a squadron of dragoons, covered the pioneers. On the following three days the First, Second and Field Divisions moved successively, carrying forty rounds of ammunition and rations for eight days, besides what went as freight; and only the sick, with a guard of two Mississippi companies, remained at Cerralvo.[22]

The spell of Mexico, that was to charm away so often the pains of a hard existence, now fell upon the soldiers. The country became more fertile. One broad plain shone with Spanish dahlias, and curious trees and plants could be seen on all sides. Every few miles a stream of cool, sparkling water leaped across the road. In the morning a curtain of gray, thinning little by little, went slowly up at last, and revealed a world of hills, edged with burnished gold, where one or two, catching the sun aslant on a bare, crystalline side, would flash out amidst the lingering shadows in all the colors of a diamond; while, farther on, lilac mountain rose above lilac mountain and purple range looked over purple range until the crowning peaks touched the firmament. In one town after another grapes, figs and pomegranates delighted the eye, and, as an officer quoted to himself,

"The air was heavy with the sighs of orange groves."

And finally, as night came on, the jagged blue sierras, growing almost black, were silhouetted perhaps against a pale yellowish-green streaked with crimson. A spice of danger added zest, for about a thousand Mexican cavalry hovered constantly in the front, and once near Ramos McCulloch's rangers got near enough to exchange shots with a party of them. But Torrejón's men employed themselves principally in driving the Mexicans from their homes under Santa Anna's and Ampudia's instructions; and on September 17, after passing through Papagallos, the Americans now marching with Taylor concentrated near Marín.[23]

Very early the next morning a bugle broke the silence of the camp; other bugles answered it; the drums awoke; the fifes joined in; the army sprang to its feet. As soon as possible the advance guard moved off. The First Division followed at eight o'clock, and the others at intervals of an hour. After sleeping that night at San Francisco the army, completed by the arrival of the Texas Division, set out again at about sunrise on the nineteenth. Since reaching Marín Taylor had rather come to the conclusion that he would scarcely reach Saltillo on time-that first he would have something to do at Monterey; and this opinion was now confirmed. At about nine o'clock, accompanied by his staff and an escort of Texas mounted men, he came to the edge of the plain, and passed on down the gentle slope of the San Juan valley.[21]

In front lay a stretch of broken ground. Beyond it cattle were feeding peacefully in green fields, and corn was ripening under a hot sun. Farther away still lay Monterey, the holy city of the frontier, as if in a niche of the vast sierra, its white houses partly hidden with green and the spires of its cathedral soaring above; and now and then the music of a bell, a bugle or a drum came faintly across the plain. A little at the right could be seen the long, low line of the citadel wall, surmounted by the dark bulk of the "donjon" and its flag of red, white and green. But suddenly the tranquillity of the scene was broken. A white puff rose from the fort, and a 12-pound ball tore up the dirt in front of the General. Another dropped near him, and a body of Mexican cavalry advanced. Hays's regiment of horse was ordered to charge; but seeing the enemy retire as if to lure the Americans under the guns of the fortress, Taylor recalled him.[24]

Meanwhile the rest of our troops, excited by the rolling echoes from the mountains, pressed on. Some threw away their packs of cards, but mostly the men joked, laughed, cheered each report from the citadel guns, and shouted that they were going to a grand fandango at Monterey. "No one discussed depots of supplies, base of communications, lines of retreat, or strategic positions," we are told by General S. G. French, then a lieutenant of artillery; "but every one knew that the brave old soldier would fight the enemy, wherever he found them, to the end." The victories at Palo Alto and the Resaca had filled the men with confidence; and in this happy mood the army encamped about three miles from the city at Walnut Grove (Bosque de San Domingo), an extensive and beautiful group of pecans and live-oaks, watered by large, pure springs, where pleasure parties of well-to-do Mexicans were accustomed to enjoy themselves. The army now consisted, all told, of some 3080 regulars and 3150 volunteers. About 1350 of the troops were mounted men; and for artillery there were four field batteries, and a pair of 24-pound howitzers, but no real siege ordnance except one 10-inch mortar. In the front lay a city of stone, protected with strong and rather skilfully planned works, and guarded by an army larger than Taylor's.[25]

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