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   Chapter 19 SANTA ANNA PREPARES TO STRIKE

The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 29479

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


September, 1846-February, 1847

While these events were taking place north of the mountains, the Americans at Saltillo were having a somewhat agitated experience. At the end of December a great cloud of dust, raised towards the south by a drove of Mexican horses, convinced Worth he was again in danger, and preparations were made at once to conquer or die. Butler, who succeeded him in command, and even the more experienced Wool felt disturbed by rumors of impending attack, which considerate Mexicans, anxious to entertain their American visitors, frequently set afloat, though some of our officers believed that Scott's movement ensured them against molestation.[4]

Finally, the rather approved idea of thorough scouting presented itself; and on January 19 Major Gaines of the First Kentucky cavalry, with Captain Cassius M. Clay, Lieutenant Davidson and thirty or forty men, was detached for this purpose by General Butler.[1] After making a circuitous journey and meeting with only bland, inoffensive Mexicans, from whom-naturally enough-no important news could be obtained, he found himself on the twenty-first at the hacienda of La Encarnación, a point on the main road from San Luis Potosí to Saltillo, and about fifty-three miles distant from the latter place. Here quite unexpectedly he lighted upon forty or fifty of the Arkansas cavalry under Major Borland, whose orders from Wool had been to visit the hacienda and immediately return. If, however, Taylor could do as he pleased about instructions, why should not Borland? And when obliging Mexicans told him of a small force lying at El Salado, only thirty-five or forty miles farther on, he determined to have the glory of capturing it, and sent back to his colonel for reinforcements. Gaines's party, added to his own, seemed adequate, however, and early on the night of the twenty-second the troopers rode gayly forward.[4]

CARELESSNESS OF TAYLOR'S OFFICERS

Before long it appeared that the distance was sixty miles and the Mexican force mythical-besides, rain began to fall; so the Americans returned to La Encarnación for the night. "The general and the soldier of each side should ... be always expecting to fall into danger," as Thucydides wrote long ago, and of course our officers understood that in a hostile country picket guards were sometimes deemed advisable; but, operating on the higher plane of action, they felt that a comfortable sleep was what all needed most, and accordingly at daybreak they found themselves in the midst of Mi?ón's cavalry brigade of, say, 1200 men, magnified in their opinion-doubtless by the fog-to 3000. The Mexican general was, however, a most accomplished and elegant gentleman, and he at once relieved their embarrassment by taking them under his full-indeed, close-protection.[4]

Not aware of this comforting fact, Brigadier General Lane detached eighteen men under Captain Heady of the Kentucky cavalry, two days later, to look up their comrades. These men found liquor at a ranch and perhaps-as a letter from Saltillo stated-a fandango, too. Firmly persuaded that joy should be unconfined, they "got drunk," and so without using up a grain of powder they ascertained by ocular proof the fate of the other detachments. Apparently there was some ground for Wool's remark that the volunteers, though now almost eight months old in the service, could not easily be made to obey instructions on such duty. Indeed, even after Borland's mishap and in spite of strict orders, two outposts now went to sleep without a picket or a sentry.[4]

To be sure, the men were ready enough to fight. "Why we have no more fear of a Mexican than if they were [prairie] Wolves," wrote a soldier. Wool's men felt particularly keen. On the way from La Vaca to San Antonio they had passed a spot where about 400 Texans had been massacred by Santa Anna's order in 1836. A fire had lighted up their faces that meant, "No mercy," said one of them; and exhausted though they were after their wonderful march from Parras, they felt very much dissatisfied on reaching the front, "there being no prospect of a fight." But the recent disasters had made it seem as if the mountains were full of the enemy, and one of Gaines's men, who contrived to escape, brought fearful tales. Even those Americans who did not care to do picket duty felt little desire to wake up some foggy morning as prisoners. Signs of a panicky feeling could be observed, and Wool found it necessary to invoke Taylor's aid.[4]

The General's position in his army was now extraordinary. To the troops, while they gloried in his courage, his achievements had seemed at the time commonplace enough; but sentiment at home as exhibited in the newspapers-reacting from painful anxiety, indulging in the common taste for exaggeration, and instinctively demanding a national figure for this national crisis-had not only done justice to his great qualities, but, partly in order to explain victories clearly marked with errors, made him out a genius and worker of miracles; and all this laudation, read by the army, created an impression which both duty and interest forbade the more discriminating to impair.[4]

ARMY FEELING TOWARD TAYLOR

The General, moreover, though nursing the mammoth conceit that he was qualified to be President of the United States, was careful to spare the self-love of all who came in contact with him; and while no one could enter Scott's presence without feeling himself before a superior man aware of his superiority, probably most of Taylor's visitors had an agreeable sense of excelling him in personal appearance, dress, education and talents, and enjoyed also a flattering conviction of their insight, because they recognized that he possessed high merits after all. How the soldiers, oppressed by the lordliness of many generals, adored his plainness we have seen. They felt they could bow down to such a man without losing self-respect, since the obeisance was due to their own choice, not his demand; and when he welcomed one to his unguarded tent and talked with him about home and friends, or shook a delinquent by the two ears with a kindly warning not to do so again, he established a positive dominion over their minds and hearts. It has been said that no woman loves a man unless she can despise him for something, and the saying may be extended to the rest of humanity. Taylor had thus a double hold on his troops. His black body-servant referred to him as "De ole hoss," but would have died for him; and while the army would probably have expressed itself about him as lightly as did the street urchins of Philadelphia:

"Old Zack's at Monterey,

Bring out your Santa Anner;

For every time we raise a gun,

Down goes a Mexicanner;"

yet in reality he was now enthroned in the hearts of the soldiers generally as a father, a hero and almost a fetich.[4]

Invoked by Wool, then, Taylor-instead of drawing him back, as the government wished-appeared at Saltillo on the first or second of February with about 700 men, and proceeded to occupy the advanced position already mentioned. Believing, as we have seen, that a lack of water on the road from San Luis would prevent any strong body of Mexicans from coming north at that season, and hearing that a great part of Santa Anna's troops had gone toward Vera Cruz, he scouted alarms; and in addition to his other grounds for pushing forward, he thought so doing would tend to restore confidence among the troops and the people of Saltillo. Moreover, although he had ridiculed Scott's intimation that he might be able to manoeuvre toward San Luis in the early spring, he was now planning to do so.[4]

Scrambling out of Saltillo by the southern route, which makes a short but sharp ascent as it leaves the town, Taylor found himself on a rather smooth plateau elevated nearly or quite 6000 feet above the sea, and after a ride of about five miles discovered on the left, near the road, four or five mean adobe buildings, headquarters of the Buena Vista ranch, where Wool's command had recently been in camp. The southern outlook from this point was desolate but noble. On both sides rose high, barren mountains. Those on the west, formed of many rather thin horizontal slabs of rock, slightly concave toward the sky and separated by thicker deposits of a softer material eroded at the edges, formed reddish, flat-topped pyramids like the pictured hanging gardens of Babylon; while those on the other hand were a true sierra, a line of saw-tooth peaks buttressed with sharp spurs. Descending easily for about a mile and a half, the General came to a narrow place called by Mexicans La Angostura (The Narrows), and then traversed lengthwise for a distance of about three and a half miles the approximately north-and-south valley of Buena Vista. At the end of this came the windy, dusty farm of La Encantada, where Butler had stationed Wool for a time; and then began the smiling valley of Agua Nueva, which broadened gradually for about seven miles, and ended at the farm or hacienda of that name. This lay near the mountain on the eastern edge of a wide plain, generously supplied by nature with fuel and water.[4]

Here Taylor pitched his tent on the fifth, and by the fourteenth substantially all the troops were on the spot-about 650 camping with him and some 4000 lying with Wool a mile or so away. The General ordered no scouting, and took about the same precautions against surprise that Gaines and Borland had taken. On the ground that spies could not be kept out, he let the Mexicans come and go with perfect freedom. The engineers, reconnoitring on their own responsibility, concluded that the mountains were "passable in every direction" by routes familiar to the enemy but of course blind to the invader.[2] Parallel roads lay beyond the heights on each side. Yet here Taylor decided that he would meet the enemy, should they care to attack him;[3] and he said to the correspondent of the New York Tribune; "Let them come; damned if they don't go back a good deal faster than they came." In reality the troops had more reason than ever to feel alarmed; but Dagon was again in the midst of them, and they stood like mountains. Taylor might be old and slow and inefficient, and he might know little about the art of war, but he could stiffen the courage of soldiers. "Every man feels that the honor of his country is now placed in his hands," wrote Lieutenant Posey on the nineteenth.[4]

SANTA ANNA'S PLANS

This takes us back to Santa Anna, who left the city of Mexico for the north on September 28. When his carriage had rolled on for about thirty miles, he received word that Monterey had fallen, and the news occasioned many bitter reflections; but there were enough other matters to divert his thoughts. He understood well the superior strength of the United States; but from Mackenzie's mission and the conviction that war expenses would be extremely unpopular in this country, he doubtless felt sure that we earnestly desired peace. It was therefore clear to him that his problem was to gain one victory. This would so discourage us, he seems to have calculated, that he could end the war on fairly satisfactory terms.[7]

To gain this victory, it seemed only necessary to gather large forces, bar the road from the north with fortifications, make no defence of outlying sections, worry the Americans perhaps with feints and forays, await and repulse them should they advance, and at the end of the winter season, should they not, fall upon some fraction of their army with full power. One difficulty in this programme was the general hatred which he must have known the northern provinces entertained for him, because his policy had always sacrificed their interests; and he thought it wise to despatch a proclamation to San Luis Potosí, calling upon the people to see in him only a Mexican soldier fighting for the common country. The appeal was effectual. A committee met him about a dozen miles from the city, and on October 8 he entered a town decorated with tapestries and pots of flowers, and resounding with salvos of artillery, peals of bells and enthusiastic vivas from the entire population.[7]

A number of circumstances occurring now and later appeared favorable. The government engaged that he should have an adequate remittance of funds every month, and instructed the heads of seven states to supply his general wants. A medal was promised to all taking part in the campaign. The National Guards, now ordered to obey the central instead of the state authorities, apparently came within his reach. The fight at Monterey was pictured as creditable to Mexican arms and costly to the enemy. Every life sacrificed there on the altar of nationality, proclaimed the government, called to heaven for vengeance, and the outrages perpetrated by the insolent invaders proved how they would trample on the whole country, if they could.[7]

Once more our wicked administration and its horde of "adventurers" were denounced in the good old blood-curdling style, and once more the forays of the savage Indians were laid to our charge. Detestable wretches like the Americans could not wage war long. Their beloved money-bags were already feeling pinched. Volunteers did not flock to the banner. Noble orators like Webster were enlightening the better people. The slavery question could not fail to paralyze the country. Already the elections had turned against the administration, and signs of a revolution could be seen. European countries were certainly preparing to interfere. Merely by uniting, the Mexicans could "tear from the invader's flag the symbol of Texas," and at last-so it was declared-union had actually been achieved. On all sides patriotism had burst into flame. The nation was rising. It would take account of every injury, great or small, inflicted by the barbarians of the north, and the day of settlement would soon arrive. In this fashion talked the government, the orators and the newspapers; and many observers in Europe and the United States believed the overdue national movement had now begun.[7]

But this radiant picture was only paint-deep. Don Simplicio, the satiric weekly, announced: It is proposed that all give, that all lend, that all rise, that all go to the field; but "few give, few lend, few get in motion, few take up arms." The states, restored to a measure of sovereignty by the adoption of the federal system, became conscious of their powers. Durango would not help, because threatened by the Indians, and even denounced the Hero of Tampico. Michoacán held aloof because Ocampo, her brilliant governor, who could voice his opinions in five languages, hated Santa Anna even more than he did the

Americans. The great state of Jalisco promised much and did little; and Zacatecas, which Santa Anna had crushed and robbed in 1835 because it dared to oppose his ambition,[5] not only withheld all aid, but attempted to form a combination of states against him. A multitude of officials preferred the triumph of a foreign invader to that of a native tyrant, and their constituents endorsed their course.[7]

The decree taking the National Guards from state control had to be substantially qualified. Members of that organization could not be impressed. The law pardoning-that is to say, authorizing-desertion from the regular army was extended for three months. A secret society called The Red Comet, which sprang up among the military men at San Luis, took for motto, "Nobody is bound to obey one that has no right to command," and annoyed the General constantly. Requena, one of the best qualified officers, who entertained little respect for the Liberator's professional ability or plans, made so much trouble that he was sent away; and General Valencia, a member of the Red Comet society, who had been refused permission to attack the Americans at Victoria and was believed now to covet Santa Anna's place, openly defied the commander-in-chief and left the army.[7]

SANTA ANNA'S EMBARRASSMENTS

Still more serious were financial difficulties, for the Executive did not supply the promised funds. The reason was obvious. "Our treasury is as poor in money as it is rich in obligations," explained the minister. Santa Anna did not spare the government, however. "I do not consider myself nor should I be considered by the gentlemen who compose the provisional administration of the Country as a mere General, commanding a corps of the army, but as the one leader of the Nation, to whom the direction of its destinies has been entrusted," he wrote; and in this tone he conducted the financial correspondence-demanding, reproaching, protesting, threatening; yet the needful remittances did not arrive. Popular support was equally unfruitful. "Santa Anna lacks three things-to wit, money, money and money," announced Don Simplicio; "Very well, let us have a public meeting. What is the result? Nothing." But somehow, through remittances from the capital and the states, forced loans, arbitrary seizures and the use of his personal credit, the General worried along, and built up an army of some 25,000 men.[6] Extensive shops were established for the manufacture of clothing and the repair of arms; and energetic measures were taken to provide muskets, ammunition and cannon.[7]

Santa Anna's operations were not, however, entirely sagacious. As was usual in Mexican armies, number outweighed quality. Consisting mostly of impressed men and to a considerable extent of criminals, the troops were unreliable. They were drilled in no larger bodies than brigades; many had no practice in firing; and most of them were very imperfectly disciplined. The artillery did no manoeuvring. There was no school for officers. Persons of a notoriously bad reputation as soldiers occupied high posts. Santa Anna showed marked favoritism toward certain regiments and certain men. Never visiting the drill-ground, he could not estimate the relative qualities of the various corps, and he was too much engrossed in politics and personal interests to concentrate his attention upon the work in hand. All of the generals who tried to do their duty gave too much time to the details, and studied the plans of campaign too little. What was hardly less important, Santa Anna, instead of instructing the troops regarding the national issues at stake, talked much about the booty to be stripped from the Americans, and in particular about an alleged blue wagon containing their military chest. Still, the army took shape, and the General looked hopefully toward spring.[7]

But now came one of those whirls of fortune that always hover about leaders of dubious antecedents. November 26 an influential newspaper of the capital, El Republicano, copied from the New York Herald a letter of September 22, written from Mexico City, which stated that Santa Anna, acting in collusion with the United States, would abandon the invaded provinces, resist the enemy feebly, satisfy the nation of its impotence, bring about a peace agreeable to the United States, and become the dictator of Mexico.[8] Already there had been suspicions, and now they crystallized instantly round this definite accusation. Why had the Americans allowed the ablest citizen of Mexico to pass through their fleet? Why had Tampico and Saltillo been evacuated? Why had not the passes of the Sierra Madre been fortified? And why had Valencia been forbidden to attack the enemy at Victoria? The government denounced the story as a scheme to create discord and break down the national champion. Santa Anna does not need to become a traitor in order to be the first Mexican, it was said. Had he made such a bargain, the United States would have kept it secret in order that he might be able to do his work. Has he not shed his blood for the country? Has he not recently declined the supreme power? The defence was plausible, but the facts looked more than plausible.[10]

And the situation had other aspects, too. As Governor Olaguíbel of México state informed Santa Anna, more things were said against him than even a long letter could specify. San Luis was described as changing under his influence into a new Capua, where he was wasting the funds of the country on his vices-not only gambling, but inducing the officers to gamble with him. His political attitude was viewed with distrust, and familiar signs indicating an intention to overthrow the government were believed to be discernible. Even the correspondent of the London Times described his policy as "dark and tortuous," and the British minister deemed it an "enigma." Many said his troops were more dangerous to Mexico than to the United States. The wide extent of his military jurisdiction was described in the press as alarming. By January each day brought fresh rumors of an approaching dictatorship. Olaguíbel's letter spoke the word frankly. Then came news that the troops at Mazatlán had pronounced for it, and Santa Anna's repudiation of their course only convinced the public that he preferred to wait for a time.[10]

The military phase of the situation gave equal offence. "Where now," it was demanded, "are those great generals of ours, who-covered with ribbons and crosses from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot-insulted with their luxuriant splendor the misery of the people?" "Predictions for 1847," announced Don Simplicio: "The officers of our army will be divided into fugacious and permanent;" and the same journalistic scorpion asked why the commander-in-chief did not, while calling for money, "eliminate the superfluous, useless, burdensome, incapable and cowardly." At the beginning of December Salas had promised with a flourish that Santa Anna would "very soon" meet the odious Yankee, and before long the people were inquiring why he did not. "We are invaded, time presses, and what has Santa Anna done?" demanded a pamphleteer; "Ah, the silly fellow is waiting for the Americans to come and hunt him up." At the General's demand, three newspapers were established to defend him; but the scorpion disposed of them all with one sting: "Napoleon answered his detractors with victories."[10]

SANTA ANA FORCED TO MOVE

Under these attacks the army shivered with rage and mortification from top to bottom. The soldiers deserted in astonishing numbers. The officers and their infuriated commander felt they must either do something or sink to perdition in a burning lake of distrust, hatred and contempt; and therefore Santa Anna decided precipitately to hurl himself against the Americans.[9] Scott's intercepted letter of January 3, which probably found its way to the Mexican headquarters, showed how Taylor's army had been depleted, and Taylor's volunteers, it was believed by Santa Anna, would hardly resist a single onslaught; while their inferiority in numbers, their distance from heavy reinforcements, their scattered condition, and their isolation in the midst of a hostile people were other factors offsetting the great difficulty of crossing deserts to reach them.[10]

January 23 Santa Anna ordered the mint of San Luis to work night and day on ninety-eight bars of silver forcibly appropriated by him. A few days later, after issuing a manifesto in self-defence, he addressed the army in eloquent language, pointing out the hardships, the plunder and the glory that awaited it. On the twenty-eighth, to the plaintive strains of a popular air called the Adios, the troops began to leave the dust-brown city. The rear guard set out three days later; and on February 2 headquarters moved.[11] Only useless remnants of the army stayed behind; but on the other hand a great number of adventurers of both sexes, drawn forward by various motives but especially by the prospect of booty, accompanied the march.[15]

SANTA ANNA'S MARCH NORTH

For about thirty miles the route lay through a cultivated region; but after it bade farewell to the heavy old Spanish church that crowned the hill of Las Bocas, the country became sterile, and between mountains now lumpy, now conical, usually rich in silver and always poor in vegetation, each division rolled on in a billowy cloud of dust, at one time chilled with icy blasts, and at another melting under an insupportable sun; cheered only by the prickly cactus, the crooked mesquite and an occasional group of dwarfish palms. Reckless from fatigue and unaccustomed to such a burden, the soldiers threw away thousands of sacks containing food.[15]

MEXICO TO AGUA NUEVA

To Matehuala the distance was about 140 miles, and beyond that point lay a broad flinty desert. Here provisions and good water began to fail; and many, though well enough supplied with the poor meat and water that now composed the rations, grew sick and weak.[12] Weather of unusual severity set in. For several days a storm of snow or chilling rain buffeted the struggling troops; and at night, destitute of all shelter, they could only huddle and shiver at a few small fires. Many died from exposure, and a great number, though expressly warned that death would be the punishment, risked all the chances of deserting. But the army as a whole pressed forward, and on February 17–21 arrived at La Encarnación, nearly 200 miles from San Luis.[13] Several thousand men had been lost from death, sickness or desertion on the way. Others had been detached at various points, and Mi?ón had now placed himself at Potosí hacienda behind the mountains on Taylor's left; but on February 19 the figures for the army were 15,142 officers and men[14]-in general the strongest and most determined that had set out-and a brilliant review, held the next day, showed no lack of confidence and enthusiasm. A triumph was considered certain.[15]

Santa Anna had supposed that a part of the American army occupied La Vaquería, some eight or ten miles west of Taylor's actual position, and his intention had been to surprise it; but by February 11 he learned that all had concentrated at Agua Nueva. He now had the choice of three routes. One was the direct road to that point; the second would have taken him via La Hedionda to the rear of Buena Vista; and the third ran by the way of La Vaquería to the north of Agua Nueva.[16] Santa Anna desired, he said later, to pursue one of the lateral routes, and place himself between Taylor and Saltillo; but both of these routes were said to be circuitous, difficult if not impracticable for artillery, and perhaps inadequately supplied with water and provisions. He decided therefore to surprise Agua Nueva, believing that should his forces be seen, they would be regarded as a part of Mi?ón's brigade.[17]

That general was ordered to proceed via La Hedionda to the American rear, and a little after noon on February 21-every soldier having been ordered to drink his fill, carry all the water he could, and take rations for the next two days-Santa Anna advanced. Agua Nueva was only some thirty-five miles away, and he expected to overwhelm it early the next morning. The march continued well into the night. At Carnero Pass, five or six miles from Taylor, the troops lay down by columns as they arrived-the cavalry still holding their reins. It was too cold for sleep, but they rested; and at six in the morning they rose in the deepest possible silence, and resumed their march.[17]

MONTEREY TO LA ENCARNACIóN

The Americans had at last awakened, however. By February 19 Santa Anna was expected "hourly," wrote Lieutenant Posey, and the next day Major McCulloch with his party of Texan scouts was despatched in the direction of La Encarnación, while Brevet Lieutenant Colonel May with about 400 dragoons and some field pieces proceeded toward La Hedionda.[18] The latter saw a cloud of dust in the direction of Potosí, fell in with a Mexican deserter[19]-who said Mi?ón was near and Santa Anna at La Encarnación-and reported at Agua Nueva before sunrise, February 21. At first his party were taken for Mexicans; and when the alarm subsided, it was followed by a solemn stillness, amidst which groups of officers could be seen talking eagerly in low tones with mysterious gestures.[22]

TAYLOR DRAWS BACK

Suddenly at about noon a solitary horseman on a jaded steed came down from the mountain, and made straight for the General's tent, bringing word that a great Mexican army had been seen at La Encarnación. The combination of this report and May's was understood to mean that Santa Anna intended to turn Agua Nueva, and before two o'clock the Americans took flight-that is the polite phrase-for Buena Vista.[20] Colonel Yell with his mounted Arkansas regiment was left behind to guard the stores, should Santa Anna permit this, until they could be removed;[21] the Second Kentucky and some guns were detached at La Encantada to support him; and the First Illinois under Colonel Hardin was posted at La Angostura. About midnight Yell's pickets at Carnero Pass were driven in. Upon this, firing the buildings and the last of the stores, and abandoning some wagons, the troops hurried off, lighted on their way by roaring flames that filled the air with piles of lurid smoke and the mountains with fantastic shadows; and by morning all except Hardin's command and the advanced pickets were at Buena Vista. Taylor, meanwhile, entrusting to Wool the disposition of the troops, marched with a strong escort of the three arms for Saltillo, to provide at this late day for the defence of that city against Mi?ón.[22]

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