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   Chapter 13 No.13

The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 48690

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

SALTILLO, PARRAS, TAMPICO August-December, 1846

For men supposed to have won a splendid victory, Taylor and his army seem to have been rather low in their spirits after the capture of Monterey. Taylor admitted that his forces had been "greatly reduced." Learning that a part of the Second Infantry had arrived on the Rio Grande, he described this trifling reinforcement as "most welcome." The Texas troops wished to go home and were discharged. To replace them he counted on the Tennessee and Kentucky horse; but these regiments, having been ordered to San Antonio, were long in reaching the front. October 15 he estimated his aggregate effective strength as less than 12,000.[1] Chills and fever, a depressing malady, was extremely prevalent; and a strong tendency to desert appeared to indicate a generally unsatisfactory state of things.[2] Not only priests but Mexican officers remaining at Monterey to convalesce or to care for the sick, stimulated this tendency; and about the middle of November all such officers, not indispensably needed by the sick and wounded, received peremptory orders to go south. A little later, it was reported, the alcalde was imprisoned for the same offence. Moreover bands of Mexicans, not dismayed by the American triumphs, hung upon Taylor's lines to rob and kill.[6]


The General had other troubles also. There was a plan at Washington, promoted by reports of his inefficiency and by letters from certain ambitious officers left in the rear, to put in his place one of the new brigadier generals. Scott, however, protected his interests, and by having him assigned to duty with his brevet rank, threw a great obstacle before the schemers. They encountered other difficulties as well, and finally Polk sent him word confidentially that he need have no fear of displacement. This, however, did not prevent a serious clash between him and the administration over another matter. Perceiving that Mexico could not defend effectively the remote and disaffected provinces of the north against even our volunteer forces, realizing that the possession of territory would be an advantage in making a treaty, and wishing particularly to impress the Mexican Congress, which was to meet on December 6, Polk felt extremely anxious to extend our occupation as much as possible at once, and with all this in view it was proposed to Taylor on September 22 that, should he see fit, he should have General Patterson,[3] who was now the commanding officer at Camargo, occupy the chief points in Tamaulipas.[6]

As Taylor had bitterly complained of receiving hordes of volunteers for whom there was nothing to do, it was naturally presumed at Washington that such an expedition could be organized without interference with his plans; and, supposing also that Patterson was at Matamoros, far from Monterey, Marcy instructed that general to begin his preparations while awaiting definitive orders from Taylor on the subject. Such a movement, however, not being permissible under the terms of the armistice, a plan in which the government felt deeply interested came to nothing; and Taylor, perhaps to divert attention from this aspect of the case, not only vetoed the expedition, but protested violently against the course of the government in addressing one of his officers.[4] Polk was naturally and properly incensed, but he believed Taylor was now in the field for the Whig Presidential nomination, and wanted to force a quarrel upon the administration; and hence Marcy replied mildly to the General that the right of the commander-in-chief to offer mere "suggestions" could hardly be denied.[6]

On another point also there was a clash. Polk and his Cabinet condemned at once and unanimously the Monterey armistice; but, shrewdly or charitably suspecting that undisclosed reasons for it might have existed, they decided to end it in such a manner as to express neither approval nor censure. Marcy therefore directed on October 13 that it should be terminated, explaining that it stood in the way of prosecuting the war vigorously and forcing Mexico to seek peace. As by its terms the agreement was subject to the approval of the respective governments, no difficulty stood in the way of cancelling it; and on November 5 Taylor notified Santa Anna, that since the Washington authorities disapproved of the armistice, he should consider himself at liberty to resume offensive operations on the fifteenth, since by that date he reckoned that his despatch would reach San Luis Potosí.[6]

In reply the wily Mexican attempted to convey an insinuation of bad faith on the part of the American government. This Taylor properly noticed in his rejoinder, expressing at the same time a hope that Mexico would accept the offer of the United States to negotiate, and that permanent friendly relations between the two republics might ensue. Santa Anna had now a better opening; and he protested that his country would do all she could to justify her title to sovereignty and independence, and would never listen to any proposal of peace, until the American army should evacuate her soil, and the American vessels lay aside their hostile attitude.[5] The correspondence was published of course in the Diario, and obviously tended to unite the nation, as well as to enhance the prestige of its leader.[6]


The termination of the armistice enabled Taylor to occupy Saltillo, upon which his eye had long been fixed. For several reasons he deemed the town, a place of some 18,000 souls, important. It was the capital of the state of Coahuila, a support for Monterey and the chief pass through the Sierra Madre, a station on the high road to the south, and the dominating point in a region full of corn, wheat, cattle and other supplies. At this time the city was entirely without protection. Mejía had been ordered in May to fortify it, but had not been able to do so; and Santa Anna's first thought, on learning that Monterey had capitulated, was to bring Ampudia back to San Luis Potosí with his demoralized soldiers.[10]

Accordingly General Worth received orders on November 8 to march for that place four days later with Lieutenant Colonel Duncan's battery, the Artillery Battalion (eight companies), the Fifth and the Eighth Infantry, and Blanchard's Company-in all about 1000 men;[7] and Taylor with two squadrons of the Second Dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel May determined to accompany him. The morning of the twelfth brought a despatch from Marcy dated October 22, expressing the wish of the government that, in view of Santa Anna's threatening posture and the increasing unfriendliness of the people, no attempt should be made to hold territory beyond Monterey, or at most beyond the mountains; but the decision was confided to the General, and he set out the next day.[10]

Advancing, then, by the left bank of the swift Santa Catarina River, at this time of the year but an insignificant stream, the column ascended gradually, passed the village of that name, and after marching nearly 28 miles came to a small bridge and a group of handsome live-oaks. Next the road descended a little, and, enclosed much of the way by lines of trees and maguey,[8] pursued the same general direction until it reached the hacienda of Rinconada, a mile or so farther on. Up to this point the majestic ranges of the Sierra Madre, nearly destitute of vegetation, though here and there brightened by a white thread of water, had stood about six miles apart; but now they closed in, and the road, turning sharply to the left, plunged into a grand and sombre gorge known as the Pass of Rinconada. For three miles or more it ascended steeply between gray and frowning walls of stone decorated only with a few hardy and prickly growths, and sometimes partly hidden by the clouds; but finally the summit was gained, and before long the farm of Los Muertos (The Dead) came in sight with its bare, vertical cliffs and its huge cairn of cobble-stones-probably a memorial to some party of travellers murdered by robbers-which gave a grim significance to the name.[10]

Here the Americans gazed with special interest at Mexican works intended to check their advance. Not willing to give up this natural fastness Ampudia, in spite of the orders to withdraw, had undertaken to fortify it; but soon, discovering that more extensive defences than he possessed the means to erect and equip would be needful, to prevent the position from being turned, he had prudently concluded to dismantle his fortifications and retreat. The gorge now expanded, and gave place to a long, wide, open valley extending to Saltillo. Here gardens, fields and crops were seen once more, but how different! Instead of the orange and lemon groves, the bananas and figs of Monterey, with the languid smokes of sugar-houses rising in the distance, the soldiers beheld fields of wheat and oats, and orchards of cherries and apples. In short, a march of 65 or 70 miles had transported them to New England.[10]

Gathered with great difficulty on November 15, the legislature of Coahuila had elected and inaugurated J. M. de Aguirre as governor, and on approaching Saltillo the following day Taylor received from him a formal protest against the American advance.[9] The General kept on, however, without replying, and leaving Worth's command in the city square, pitched his tent on the farther side of the town. There was little to make the place agreeable. Saltillo lay on the southeastern side of a slightly concave plain, with mountains close behind it that looked, in the afternoon of a sunny day, like immense drifts of dusty snow. The city itself, consisting mostly of low adobe houses-protected with grated windows-clinging to steep, narrow streets, wore the aspect of dilapidation and age that was characteristic of provincial Mexico; and the common people, apparently less intelligent then the populace of Monterey, probably more dominated by the priests, and certainly more secluded from contact with Americans, looked sullen and hostile.[10]

Some of better standing attempted to charge exorbitant prices; but the General promptly seized whatever supplies he could lay hands upon, ascertained the owners, and proposed to pay what had been the current rates or nothing. He treated the chief magistrate well, however, assuring him that his desire was to see peace restored as soon as possible, and good order preserved meanwhile at Saltillo; and after ordering certain reconnaissances made in the surrounding region, he set out for Monterey about the twenty-first. His gruff, unpolished ways did not entirely please the Mexicans, and they were glad to find themselves now under the courtly Worth, to whom they ascribed "better feelings."[10]


Meanwhile two other American commands, one on each side of Taylor, were conducting aggressive operations. If the occupation of Tamaulipas was likely to influence Mexico and facilitate the negotiation of a treaty, so was that of Chihuahua; and the western as well as the eastern of these provinces was believed to be disaffected toward the general government on account of the overthrow of the federal constitution. As early, therefore, as the middle of May, Polk proposed to the Cabinet an expedition against Chihuahua, and the suggestion was immediately accepted. Naturally such a diversion of strength from an effective line of attack to a remote section, where the people were hardly strong enough to cope with the savages, occasioned both at the time and later much criticism; and not only on this, but on other grounds as well, the President's action in the matter could be criticized fairly.[11]

Indeed, in almost every case that required a thorough comprehension of the Mexican problem, he blundered. Yet this was not his fault. He did his best; and one is tempted to lay the charge against a system of government which confers on politicians, ignorant or poorly informed regarding vital matters, the honors and responsibilities of statesmanship. So broad a censure is, however, unjust, as one scarcely needs to say. At all events we do not place in power, as others have done, mere fainéants or persons qualified only for social functions and palace intrigues. Very few Americans reach a high public station unless they have ability of some kind, a more or less healthful ambition to achieve, and much force of character; and thus we stand about as well perhaps as the Chinese, who used to reason that a man who could surpass a multitude of rivals in memorizing-and thus absorbing more or less fully-the best thought and language of his race, would be able to perform the commonplace duties of a magistrate. In reality our troubles arise from the infirmities of human nature and the defectiveness of all human institutions, no doubt, and this reflection may help us feel the proper resignation as we view the blunders of the Mexican war; yet one cannot quite forget the opinion of Meade: "Well may we be grateful that we are at war with Mexico! Were it any other power, our gross follies would have been punished severely."[11]

About the middle of June Brigadier General Wool, then at Louisville, received instructions to take command at San Antonio, Texas-for which point certain troops were already under orders-report to Taylor, and prepare for an expedition against Chihuahua. He proceeded to New Orleans, accordingly, and from there he wrote on the twenty-eighth of July that within twenty days, he hoped, the whole of his force would be at the rendezvous. In this he was disappointed. La Vaca, Texas, about 160 miles from San Antonio, was the chief base on the coast,[12] and wet weather made the so-called roads almost impassable. To get 1112 heavy loads of supplies through bottomless mud, churned by about 500 wagons going and returning, was an almost inconceivable task. Though excessive rains had been falling, the troops, marching under an August sun, were tormented by thirst; an occasional bunch of delicious grapes or slice of prime venison could hardly solace them for the abundance of rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions and centipedes; and sleep was broken by the screaming of panthers and howling of wolves-positively unearthly when near, one of the soldiers wrote, and resembling, when distant, the wail of some terrible monster gasping for life. In spite of hardships and labors, however, men and wagons finally reached San Antonio, and on August 14 Wool himself arrived at that point.[26]

Here the troops had time to rest, and they found much of interest. The old Mexican town-where one could still see now and then a fig tree spreading itself in the patio (courtyard) of a crumbling house, or gaze at the heavy, earth-brown or moss-covered walls of the Alamo, pitted by Santa Anna's cannon balls-looked in their eyes like some ancient oriental city "just dug up," as one of them said; and the cactus, the live-oaks, the mocking-birds, the pellucid river and the many varieties of grapes extinguished soon the memory of past fatigues.[26]

For Wool, on the other hand, there was no repose. Now, as always during the Mexican war, operations were unspeakably embarrassed by the necessity of drawing supplies from so great a distance and by sea, and naturally San Antonio, a town of only some 2000 persons, could furnish much less than cities like Vera Cruz or even Matamoros. Each particular article that would be necessary on the expedition had to be provided now; and departmental errors, like delaying arms and misdirecting parts of wagons, were therefore peculiarly unfortunate. But the greatest difficulty was disorder. The command was a chaotic mass like that on the Rio Grande, turbulent, impatient, insubordinate. Wool, however, attacked the problem without shrinking, and what a soldier called "the iron hand" of military discipline soon began to set things right.[26]


Highly unfortunate, therefore, in this as well as in other regards, was an escapade of Brevet Colonel Harney, a man as brave as a lion and also as untamable, who had been occupying San Antonio for some time with three companies of the Second Dragoons. Obtaining permission to ask for Texan troops to defend the frontier against the Indians,[13] he called for eight companies, and shortly before Wool's arrival, on the pretext of a threatened Mexican invasion of which he entertained little or no fear, he moved off with his entire command, although he knew of the intended concentration at San Antonio, and advanced to the Rio Grande.[14] Imprudently crossing the river, he was cut off by one of its quick rises. Only the refusal of his officers to follow him prevented a ridiculous dash against Monterey. Finally, near the end of August, he obeyed the order to return, but left three companies behind; and a part of this detachment, engaged in procuring a large supply of grain and flour in Mexico, lost the supplies and three of their number, killed or wounded. The rest of the three companies escaped under fire in a disgraceful manner, burning public stores to prevent the Mexicans from taking them; and of course news that Americans had been repulsed flew like fire through the border.[26]


Such presumption on the part of a regular officer, such imprudence, and above all such disregard of his government's known intentions were intolerable, and Wool felt them with peculiar intensity. He was a high-strung person. Being devoutly pious he loathed swearing, for example; but on special occasions his feelings got the better of his tongue, and when this occurred he would instantly raise his eyes to heaven and implore forgiveness. While not a great man, and apparently incapable of inspiring soldiers or gaining their sympathetic support, he understood his profession and lived up to it. When campaigning he seemed to sleep-if he slept at all-with both eyes open, and the outposts were liable to receive a visit at any hour of the night. Never sparing himself, he was equally stern with others; and towards officers, presumably more intelligent and responsible than privates, he seemed especially exacting. So now he treated Harney with such rigor that some of the volunteer officers, little disposed to favor strict discipline, sympathized with the culprit, and Wool came to be regarded by not a few as a narrow martinet, jealous and harsh in temper and weak in judgment. Possibly some ground for these opinions could be found, but substantially they were unjust.[15]

Finally, on September 23, a topographical party went forward to study routes, inquire about wood, water and forage, and select halting places; and two days later some 1400 men, the first section of the "army," advanced into an almost unknown region with about one hundred and seventy-five wagons and provisions for two months.[16] The distance to Presidio del Rio Grande, a small Mexican town five or six miles beyond the river, was about 175 or possibly 185 miles. Much of the country proved to be rough and wild, but there were also barren prairies, deep "hog-wallows," rich bottom-land and one fine, broad valley. Several streams had to be crossed, and among these were counted the Medina and the Leona, not less beautiful than their names. Population there was almost none, though on the first day's march Castroville, a German town planted on American soil by a Frenchman bearing a Spanish name, offered quite cosmopolitan suggestions. A drought of several weeks had made the roads hard and the streams fordable, and no serious difficulty was encountered until on October 8 the advance came to the Rio Grande.[26]


The river was here swift and rather more than four feet in depth; but with the aid of boats and a pontoon bridge, provided beforehand by Wool, the troops effected a crossing safely during the next few days, established a small fort at each end of the bridge-to hold it and to guard the boats for the second section under Colonel Churchill, which was still waiting at San Antonio for the means of transportation-and then camped three or four miles beyond the town for rest and repairs. Some of the teams had come all the way from La Vaca, 330 miles, without stopping for a day. As the small Mexican border force had retired and the citizens were friendly, there was nothing to fear; and Wool's amicable assurances, reinforced with strict orders to molest no one, promoted kind relations. The government had left him without specie, and the people would accept only hard cash; but with private means and by dint of borrowing he obtained half-rations of corn. This brightened the outlook noticeably, for subsistence was to be, of course, the greatest problem; and the arrival here of Brigadier General Shields,[17] who brought not only another body of the troops but news that Monterey had fallen, and took command of all the infantry, together with a small force of mounted men, appeared to strengthen the expedition materially.[26]

Wool had received no definite instructions from Taylor, and on October 16 with about 1800 men he struck out according to his own judgment for Monclova, taking a circuitous route practicable for wagons and artillery. This brought the army soon to San Fernando de Rosas, a garden of roses lying in a beautiful plain on the cool and limpid Hidden River (the Escondido), surrounded with trees and encompassed at a distance with superbly grand peaks.[18] Here the road turned more toward the south, and the country soon became broken. Formidable mountains upreared themselves ahead, and before long the troops were among them, traversing valley after valley in order to turn their huge flanks.[26]

The San José range, some 4000 feet high, had to be climbed. It was a hard task; but when the mists dissolved, Wool and his men gazed with delight over two beautiful valleys, where meandering lines of dark foliage marked the watercourses, while on the west, like a battlemented wall, towered the Sierra de Santa Rosa, its precipitous buttresses festooned with white and purple clouds. Descending then through a gorge to the plain of San José, the army next encountered the Alamos and Sabinos Rivers, each about four feet deep and racing like a torrent. To get the wagons across looked at first impossible; but with incredible exertions and the aid of ropes and improvised bridges the feat was accomplished.[26]

At the foot of the next range lay Santa Rosa, a town of some 2500 people, where the troops arrived on October 24. All were Federalists here. Their interests had suffered greatly from the dishonesty and inefficiency of the central government, and the presents of cake, fruit and confectionery offered to the Americans told their own story. Beyond this point the road entered a sterile region, where almost the sole inhabitants were sheep and goats. Now and then water could only be obtained by scooping it from holes in salty ground, and sometimes there was hardly fuel enough to boil the coffee. At length coffee and sugar gave out, but the magnificent range on either side helped the men keep up their spirits. A protest against the American advance was received, and some 2500 men gathered under Colonel Blanco to enforce it;[19] but as the loss of Monterey had cowed the people, and there were no funds to stimulate them, Blanco dissolved his army; and on October 29 Wool formally occupied Monclova without opposition. A week later Churchill with a hundred wagons and nearly all of the rear section came up.[26]

At this town, a place of about 5000 population, lying amid hills on the fine Monclova River, Wool remained almost four weeks, for on account of the armistice Taylor forbade a further advance toward the south; and the army, camping a mile or so from the city, had time to drill, recruit, reconnoitre and make repairs. It was a pleasant sojourn. Rivulets of pure water freshened the streets; highly cultivated fields, mostly planted with corn, filled the wide valley, and far mountains clung to the horizon like azure clouds. Being now almost 600 miles from La Vaca, Wool sent for the last supplies waiting with escorts at San Antonio, prepared to break up his communications with that point, and opened a connection with Camargo, not more than 200 miles distant. At the same time he collected s

ome local provisions, though most of the surplus had already been drawn away by Ampudia, and he studied the routes. Strict rules were made for both officers and men about entering the town; the sale of liquor to soldiers was prohibited under penalty; and the arrival of some gold aided materially.[26]


Things went substantially well, in fact, yet they did not go smoothly. Considerable sickness prevailed among the troops. For a time the daily ration per man had to be fixed at nine ears of corn, ground in the portable steel mill of each company; and the soldiers grumbled. Orders were issued requiring every man to shave, as the regulations provided; and beardless young fellows, lacerating their faces in order to prove themselves "men," grumbled again. The volunteers abominated the "tarnal regulars," who were naturally the chief reliance for enforcing rules, and when an opportunity came, retaliated. Many of their officers were outspokenly dissatisfied with the conduct of the expedition. Wool's bearing was denounced as harsh; but perhaps their own deportment had something to do with that, for the punctilious Mexicans thought his manners good. Officers as well as men chafed under the discipline; but the General could easily reply that good-will on the part of the Mexicans was essential, and that not a single complaint had yet been made by the people.[20] In all probability it was argued that a flying column of half Wool's numbers would have been far preferable; but it could be answered that wastage from disease and battle had been anticipated, that so small a column would probably have been attacked by Colonel Blanco's irregulars and by other forces,[21] and that after the conclusion of the armistice Ampudia might have to be reckoned with.[26]

Certainly the dissatisfied officers ridiculed unmercifully the number of wagons. Here their ground was somewhat firmer. Jesup himself had taken the position that such a train could neither reach Chihuahua nor be sent back to the base. But in this matter Wool stood at the centre and the quartermaster general stood at the circumference. It seems very doubtful whether an adequate mule train could have been organized at San Antonio in season. Without the wagons the army would probably have been compelled to live more or less upon the country; and this would have led to the concealment, or even the destruction of supplies, to bloodshed, to a state of things not compatible with the conciliatory methods ordered by Taylor and the government, perhaps to a serious lack of rations, and possibly to the ruin of this isolated command. Moreover artillery was essential; and Wool may have reasoned that where cannon could go, wagons could follow.[26]

The wagons and guns were, however, a serious embarrassment, and while at Monclova Wool satisfied himself that he could not march from there to Chihuahua by the direct route. A lack of water also was a grave difficulty. Besides, a large force appeared under the present circumstances unnecessary. Ampudia retreated to San Luis Potosí; and although Santa Anna had taken steps, before the American expedition left the Rio Grande, to prepare for the defence of Chihuahua, the military forces holding that point had fallen back on Durango. There was indeed nothing for Wool to conquer now but distance, and he felt that five or six hundred men could do this as well as more. In his opinion, therefore, the proper course was to proceed about 180 miles in a southwesterly direction to Parras, where he would be on a good road to Chihuahua and only about 90 miles from Saltillo; and indeed he thought it advisable to join the main army. His views were duly expressed to his superior officer, and Taylor concurred. The government, concluding that the revival of the federal system at Mexico would change the sentiment of the northern states, and that Chihuahua was in effect already in our grasp, took a similar position;[22] and accordingly on the twenty-fourth of November, leaving four companies to guard the stores at Monclova, Wool set out for Parras.[26]

The long march, generally through deserts and rugged mountains, was cheered by a halt at a fine estate belonging to gentlemen who had received their education in Kentucky, and still cherished the most cordial recollections of their American experiences; and on December 5 the army pitched its gray tents in front of the town. By many Parras, a place of about the same size as Monclova, was called an Eden. It lay where a wide plain and a long hill met, and most of the streets were extremely narrow and crooked; but streams of clean water flowed through them, and most of the residences were buried in gardens or vineyards. But even amidst the luxury of romantic nature firm discipline continued. The soldiers were kept at their drills and parades; their arms and clothing had to be ready at all times for a close inspection; as at Monclova, a system of calls and signals made surprises impossible; and Wool busied himself in procuring corn and flour and in reconnoitring.[26]


All the while he looked for orders, and finally the summons came. December 17, at a little before two o'clock in the afternoon, he rode hastily into town with staff and escort, holding despatches in his hand; and at once the aides and men hurried through the markets crying out, "Soldiers, to the camp instantly!" As will appear in due time,[23] the call was urgent. But it found Wool ready as usual, and in two hours his army-leaving the sick under guard and taking with it 350 wagons, provisions for 60 days, 400,000 cartridges and 200 rounds for the cannon-set out. No blundering occurred. Thanks to his reconnaissances Wool knew which of the routes to pursue. And there was no loitering. Once the troops made thirty-five miles in twenty-four hours; and in four days they shook hands with General Worth's brave men, then some twenty miles beyond Saltillo and 110 or perhaps 120 from Parras.[26]

"An entire failure," was Taylor's comment on Wool's expedition, and in a sense his judgment appeared to be correct.[24] But this was Polk's fault. Where there is nothing to do, nothing can be done.[25] Before laying out the campaign the government should have seen what it had now seen-that Saltillo was the key of Chihuahua, and that a properly equipped expedition could not reach the latter city without passing rather close to the former. But in reality Wool accomplished a great deal. He showed how a real soldier, without fear and without political yearnings, could lead an expedition through an enemy's country. Nine hundred miles this army marched. Swift rivers were quickly crossed, ravines filled, hills cut down, mountains climbed. Provisions never failed. No wreckage marked the route. Not a drop of blood was shed; not a shot fired. Wool made enemies only among those who were under obligations to be friends, and made friends among those who were under obligations to be enemies. And out of a crude, heterogeneous mass he forged a keen, tough, highly tempered blade, that was to prove its value soon in a terrible crisis.[26]


Tampico and Its Environs

The other lateral expedition moved against the city of Tampico. This place, the principal town in the state of Tamaulipas, and after Vera Cruz the chief port of Mexico on the Gulf coast, was physically remarkable. Land and water are perhaps nowhere more freakishly intermingled. But for practical purposes one may describe it adequately as on a low ridge-with the immense lagoon of Carpintero on the one hand and the deep, wide, heavy, greenish-brown Pánuco on the other-a little more than five miles from the Gulf, as the river flows. For ten years beginning in 1835 political upheavals and vexatious commercial regulations had militated against its prosperity; but the port was highly prized by the government, and in April, 1846, was taken into its particular care.[38]

All the old fortifications having been demolished lest they should be turned to account by insurgents, Parrodi, the comandante general, was ordered to prepare the town for defence, and a number of badly planned and badly constructed works-particularly a redoubt equipped with two 8-pounders on the north side of the Pánuco at the bar-gave a semblance of security. Some twenty-five light or fortress guns were placed; but efforts to obtain additional heavy ordnance from Vera Cruz were frustrated by the blockade, and when Ampudia, going north in the summer, was directed to give his first attention to reinforcing the garrison, circumstances again intervened. The people were spirited, however; and the daily Eco voiced their sentiments by exclaiming, "With such officers, with such troops, with such citizens let the Yankees come whenever they please!"[38]

As a matter of fact the Yankees had thoughts of coming quite soon. Possession of the town seemed to be desirable, in the first place, because for some time it was supposed to be the starting-point of a carriage-road to San Luis Potosí, and apparently could be made a more convenient base than the Rio Grande for a deep advance into Mexico; but the war department found before long that wagons and artillery could not cross the mountains by that route. In the second place occupation of Tampico appeared to be a logical feature of the Tamaulipas movement, in which Patterson was expected to play a leading r?le;[27] and moreover, Santa Anna himself had explained to Mackenzie that it would be advantageous as well as easy to make this conquest.[38]

Conner had his eye upon the place, of course; but, aside from the question of overcoming its defenders, he felt considerable hesitation. It was regarded as the most dangerous port on the coast, and vessels could not ride out a gale at anchor off the shore. The bar, on which eight feet of water stood normally, had only a fathom in August, 1846; and as the fleet would have to rendezvous and prepare for battle in the open roadstead, he was afraid that one of the frequent northers would assail him before he could assail the town. September 22, however, when deciding upon the Tamaulipas expedition, Polk and his Cabinet agreed that Conner should attack Tampico, and the order was issued that day.[38]

Santa Anna seems to have remembered the advice given to Mackenzie, and while at Mexico he instructed Parrodi to retire, if attacked, unless he could be sure of resisting successfully. On his way to San Luis he evidently received Marcy's intercepted letter of September 2, which announced that a movement upon Tampico was contemplated.[28] Hence on October 3, with a view to the confirmation of those instructions, he directed the war office to notify Parrodi of the American plan. Two days later the comandante general reported to Santa Anna that he could not defend the town victoriously, and explained in detail why. His garrison, including some 200 sick, consisted of less than 1200 men besides 200 available National Guards, ignorant of the use of arms. Only 870 of these men could be employed, according to a later statement of his, at the town and the bar, and having but 150 regular gunners he could not man the numerous and widely separated positions. Indeed he would not be able to subsist the garrison more than eleven days longer.[29] The enemy, on the other hand, it was said, included a shore party of 3000, and could attack by water and by land at the same time.[38]


In response, Parrodi received from Santa Anna on October 14 an order, confirmed three days later, that all the heavy guns, the stores, and his three gunboats, light but effective craft, should be sent up the river, and that he himself with his troops and what field pieces could be taken along, should withdraw to Tula, a place behind the mountains. Parrodi, who did not believe in the war, liked these instructions, and proceeded to execute them. The government, however, seemed unwilling to abandon Tampico, and the comandante general, perplexed by this difference of sentiment and by the protests of the governor, troops, people and foreign consuls, offered to Santa Anna some arguments against his instructions: but the latter, annulling without ceremony the government's action, impatiently ordered immediate evacuation. His reasons were, in brief, that he could not reinforce the garrison adequately without dividing the army in a manner incompatible with his plans; that, even should he undertake to do so, this aid could not arrive in time; and that, since a victorious defence could not be expected, it was important not only to save the men and material, but especially to avoid the moral effect of another American triumph; and no doubt, on the assumption that Conner was prepared to make a strenuous, unflinching attack with such forces as Parrodi described, these reasons were sound.[38]

Excited by the urgency of his instructions, which were received on the twenty-second, the comandante general now endeavored to atone for the time lost, and executed a flight instead of an evacuation.[30] The redoubt at the bar was destroyed; large quantities of war material were thrown into the river; with the aid of the British consul a pretended sale of the gunboats was effected; and on October 27 and 28 the troops hastily withdrew.[38]

While these events were taking place, timely notice of them was forwarded to Conner. Chase, the American consul, had been expelled and had taken refuge on a blockading vessel; but his wife, who was a British subject, remained in Tampico, and on October 20 she wrote to the Commodore that Parrodi would evacuate the town on the following day, and that no resistance would be made against an American attack. By November 5 Conner received this news, but a lack of provisions made it impossible for him to set out the next day, as he desired to do. On the tenth, eleventh and twelfth, however, eleven vessels made sail from Antón Lizardo with orders to rendezvous fifteen miles from the shore on a certain east and west line a little south of Tampico. The frigates Raritan and Potomac did not appear there; but as the weather was fine, Conner decided to proceed, and at break of day, November 14, the Mississippi, Princeton, St. Mary's, three small steamers-the Spitfire, Vixen and Petrel-and three schooner-gunboats joined the blockading vessel off Tampico bar. By this time the Commodore knew that Parrodi had not evacuated the city on the twenty-first, and, supposing the garrison was still there, expected some hard work;[31] but the weather looked favorable, and he prepared at once to attack.[38]

Lieutenant Commanding Hunt, the blockading officer, had examined the bar; and piloted by him the three small steamers towed the gunboats across it. By ten o'clock the river was entered successfully, and the Commodore advanced immediately toward the city. The low shores were covered with rich vegetation; the huts, thatched with palmetto leaves, appeared cosey if not grand; broad-leaved bananas and loaded orange-trees grew beside them; tall cocoanut palms languidly waved their graceful fronds above; and the long line of steamers and schooners, followed by nine boats from the frigates packed with officers, marines and sailors, made an impressive spectacle as they moved slowly up the smooth but rapid Pánuco under an azure sky.[38]

Conner himself was on the Spitfire. As he approached the town, he was met by a deputation from the ayuntamiento (city council), who stated that having neither the means nor the disposition to resist, they desired to capitulate. Perry and two other officers then went ashore with the deputation to arrange terms; but after a long conference, finding this impossible-though of course the expediency of surrendering was not in debate-all returned to the Spitfire, and at length an informal agreement was reached. Next morning the chief points of this were embodied in the following declaration:[32]

"United States Steamer Spitfire. Off the City of Tampico, November 15, 1846. Commodore Conner declines a Capitulation with the Authorities of Tampico as he considers it unnecessary. He accepts the surrender of the City, and takes military possession of it. He assures the Inhabitants, at the same time, that he will not interfere with their Municipal Regulations, or their Religion; and that private property shall be respected, provided that the public property of all kinds, be delivered up at once, and in good faith. Should an assault be made by the Inhabitants of the City, on the American Forces, the Inhabitants will be held responsible for the consequences. Commodore Conner, so long as the Authorities and Inhabitants of the City observe good faith towards him, will consider them under his protection;-a different course will expose them to serious evils."[38]

The danger of an assault was not imminent, for the National Guards could find but one hundred serviceable muskets, and all the people of the town, who usually numbered about 15,000 but were now perhaps half as many, lined the streets and gazed at the Americans as mere spectators. All the public property that was movable had been carried away, but the public buildings were now occupied; and, as the fraudulent sale of the gunboats was detected, three much needed vessels, built at New York, were added to our navy.[33] Steps were then taken to recover what Parrodi had transported up the river.[34] November 18 Tattnall set out with the Spitfire and Petrel, and the next forenoon he reached Pánuco town, the head of navigation, some eighty miles from Tampico, where it was known that heavy guns had been left. Everything had been concealed but the concealment proved ineffectual. He disabled nine 18-pounders, threw into the river a quantity of balls, and burned some camp equipage; and a 24-pounder was taken aboard.[38]


In ordering the capture of Tampico, the American government had intended that Patterson should be at hand to occupy the town, and as this calculation had been upset by Taylor, it now became a question how to retain the prize. The place of the squadron was at sea; without the help of every man it looked almost impossible to manage the vessels in bad weather; and officers of nearly all grades were actually wanting. So Perry in the steamer Mississippi sailed from Tampico on the evening of November 15 for Brazos Island, and the next day left an officer there to explain the situation. Without delay the news was forwarded to Patterson at Camargo, and he directed that men and cannon should go "forthwith" to the captured city. His instructions were not waited for, however. Lieutenant Colonel Belton, who occupied Camp Belknap with six companies of the so-called artillery, embarked for the mouth of the river on hearing from Perry; and on November 21 Colonel Gates and about 500 men sailed from the Brazos in the Neptune, leaving two more companies to follow the next day in the Sea.[35] Both vessels were driven ashore, but fortunately the troops were saved in both cases. By the twenty-third Tampico had therefore a garrison of about 650 good regulars. Some ordnance also arrived; and Conner, besides landing a pair of carronades, remained in the harbor with four or five gunboats. Fortunately the only land approaches were by a neck at each end of the town between Carpintero Lake and the river; and the work of fortifying these, begun at once, was prosecuted night and day.[38]

Perry, meanwhile, kept at work. November 21 the Mississippi, bearing the red pennant of a vice commodore at the masthead, appeared at New Orleans.[36] Announcing the capture of Tampico, Perry conferred with General Brooke and the governor of the state, and obtained sixteen cannon-half of them borrowed from the Louisiana arsenal-and with these, an engineer officer, 110 regular recruits and a quantity of ammunition, he arrived off Tampico on the twenty-ninth.[37] Before long the Alabama regiment came from the Rio Grande, and the government, which heard of the capture of Tampico on November 28, ordered about 460 additional regulars to be sent from the United States. There was great anxiety at Washington to make the port secure, for, as will soon be discovered, a particular reason for holding it had now arisen. Gates issued stringent regulations to govern the citizens in case of a Mexican attack; and by December 19 Brigadier General Shields was in command there with an adequate and fairly well-protected garrison. Yet the Mexicans endeavored to feel cheerful. No battle had been lost, for none had been fought, said the government with convincing logic; and the Americans had not triumphed, for they had merely taken what had been abandoned; but the governor of Tamaulipas recalled bitterly that "in former times Tampico, almost by herself, had repulsed more than 4000 veterans."[38]


Substantially all of northeastern Mexico was now in American hands, and the question of Taylor's future operations, which had long been under consideration, became urgent. On that matter the General himself entertained a definite opinion. He was for adopting a boundary line that would include enough territory to pay all just American claims, and standing there on the defensive. As already drawn, the line ran from Parras, where he expected Wool to remain, and Patos, a rich hacienda on the Parras route about thirty-five miles from Saltillo, to Saltillo itself, to Camp Butler, six miles north of that city toward Rinconada Pass, and to Monterey. Between Monterey and Tampico lay a wide gap, but the General proposed to fill this now by occupying certain points in Tamaulipas. Victoria, the capital of that state, was exposed to attacks proceeding from Tula, and there he planned to have a large force.[41]

How many troops were available is not precisely known; but according to Meade, who seems to have been in rather close touch with headquarters, Worth was to have some 2500 at Saltillo and eight guns, Butler 1500 at Monterey, Taylor and Patterson about 5000, to be divided between the posts in Tamaulipas and a new position in advance of Saltillo, and the commanders on the lines of communication about 2000; which meant that some 14,500 men, including Wool's 2400 or 2500 and about 1000 occupying Tampico, were to hold lines approximately 800 miles long in an enemy's country.[39] Over against them stood the Mexicans under Santa Anna, who in Taylor's opinion were potentially, if not actually, more than 50,000 in number, and were occupying before Christmas a position only about sixty miles from the Americans;[40] and in addition to these it was necessary to consider the large bands of irregulars, like those of Colonel Blanco, who were liable to gather suddenly almost anywhere.[41]

When Taylor reported his plan to the war department, a good deal of anxiety and perhaps distress was felt there. To be sure, he pointed out that artillery could be moved north by way of Saltillo only, and that water and provisions were scanty on that road, while doubtless he as well as others considered the Mexicans too deficient in vigor and enterprise to be feared. How just were these calculations will appear in the sequel, and they failed now to satisfy the government. Though not informed by Taylor precisely how many posts he intended to establish in Tamaulipas, Marcy was afraid that widely separated forces and lines of communication would be assailed, and it was clear that a small Mexican success, doing us no actual harm but diminishing our prestige materially, might rouse the people against us. Even the line to Monterey was long, the Secretary feared. Taylor evidently had no thorough knowledge of the passes, for he was now preparing to take a very hasty look at a few of them. Besides, it had been Marcy's expectation of late that Wool's column would be drawn back to Monterey; and at the end of the year, as well as earlier, he said he did not wish to occupy territory in advance of that city. Polk appealed in his diary to the General's own opinion that he could not safely advance beyond it. Scott, as well as Marcy and the President, believed the troops were being scattered too much. Officers on the ground also held that view; but such was Taylor's deliberate policy.[41]

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