Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

The Second Conquest of the Capital of Mexico

The ancient city of Mexico, the capital of the Aztecs and their Spanish successors, has been the scene of two great military events, its siege and capture by Cortez the conqueror in 1521, and its capture by the American army under General Scott in 1847, three and a quarter centuries later. Of the remarkable career of Cortez we have given the most striking incident, the story of the thrilling Noche triste  and the victory of Otumba. A series of interesting tales might have been told of the siege that followed, but we prefer to leave that period of mediæval cruelty and injustice and come down to the events of a more civilized age.

One of the most striking scenes in the campaign of 1847 was the taking of the fortified hill of Chapultepec, but before describing this we may briefly outline the events of which it formed the dramatic culmination. Vera Cruz, "the city of the True Cross," founded by Cortez in 1520, was the scene of the American landing, and was captured by the army under General Scott in March, 1847. Then, marching inland as Cortez had done more than three centuries before, the American army, about twelve thousand strong, soon began to ascend the mountain-slope leading from the torrid sea-level plain to the high table-land of the old Aztec realm.

Sixty miles from Vera Cruz the American forces came to the mountain-pass of Cerro Gordo, where Santa Anna, the president of Mexico, awaited the invaders with an army of thirteen thousand men. The heights overhanging the road bristled with guns, and the lofty hill of Cerro Gordo was strongly fortified, rendering the place almost impregnable to an attack from the direction of Vera Cruz. Scott was too able a soldier to waste the lives of his men in such a perilous assault, and took the wiser plan of cutting a new road along the mountain-slopes and through ravines out of sight of the enemy, to the Jalapa road in the Mexican rear. An uphill charge from this point gave the Americans command of all the minor hills, leaving to the Mexicans only the height of Cerro Gordo, with its intrenchments and the strong fortress on its summit.

On the 18th of April this hill, several hundred feet in rugged height, was assailed in front and rear, the Americans gallantly climbing the steep rocks in the face of a deadly fire, carrying one barricade after another, and at length sweeping over the ramparts of the summit fortress and driving the defenders from their stronghold down the mountain-side. Santa Anna took with him only eight thousand men in his hasty retreat, leaving three thousand as prisoners in the American hands, with forty-three pieces of bronze artillery and a large quantity of ammunition. Within a month afterwards Scott's army marched into the city of Puebla, on the table-land, sixty-eight miles from the capital. Here they rested for several months, awaiting reinforcements.

On August 7 the army resumed its march, now less than eleven thousand strong, the term of several regiments having expired and their places been partly filled by untried men, none of whom had ever fired a gun in war. On they went, uphill still, passing the remains of the old city of Cholula with its ruined Aztec pyramid, and toiling through a mountain region till Rio Frio was reached, fifty miles from Puebla and more than ten thousand feet above the level of the sea.

A few miles farther and the beautiful valley of Mexico lay suddenly revealed before them like a vision of enchantment. It was a scene of verdant charm, the bright green of the fields and groves diversified with the white walls of villages and farm-houses, the silvery flow of streams, and the gleaming surface of winding lakes, while beyond and around a wall of wooded mountains ascended to snowy peaks. It was a scene of summer charm that had not been gazed upon by an invading army since the days when Cortez and his men looked down upon it with warm delight.

The principal lakes visible were Lake Chalco, with the long, narrow lake of Xochimilco near it, and seven miles to the north Lake Tezcuco, near the western shore of which the city of Mexico was visible. Between Chalco and Tezcuco ran the national road, for much of its length a narrow causeway between borders of marsh-land. Near Lake Xochimilco was visible the Acapulco road. Strong works of defence commanded both these highways.

Scott chose the Acapulco road for his route of approach, the national road being commanded by the lofty and strongly fortified hill of El Penon, precipitous on one side, and surrounded by marshes and a deep ditch on the other. The Acapulco road was defended by strongly garrisoned fortresses at Contreras and Churubusco, but seemed more available than the other route. Still farther north and west of the capital was a third approach to it over the road to Toluco, defended by works at Molino del Rey and by the fortified hill of Chapultepee. It was evident that the army under Scott would go through some severe and sanguinary fighting before the city could be reached.

It is not our purpose to describe the various engagements by which this work was accomplished. It must suffice to say that the strong hill fort of Contreras was taken by a surprise, being approached by a road leading to its rear during the night and taken by storm at sunrise, seventeen minutes sufficing for the important victory. The garrison fled in dismay, after losing heavily.

Lake chalco


An advance was made the same day on the nearby Mexican works at San Antonio and Churubusco, and with the same result. The garrison at San Antonio, fearful of being cut off by the American movement, evacuated the works and retired upon Churubusco, hotly pursued. The Americans, inspired by success, carried all before them, taking the works at the bridge of Churubusco by an impetuous charge and soon putting the enemy to flight. Meanwhile, General Shields attacked the Mexican reserve, consisting of four thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry, whose line was broken by a bayonet charge.

The whole Mexican force was, by these well-devised movements, forced back in terrible confusion, and was quickly fleeing in panic. The fugitives were cut down by the pursuing Americans, who followed to the immediate defences of the capital, where the pursuit was checked by a heavy fire of grape-shot. Thus in one day the Americans, nine thousand strong, had captured three strong positions, held by three times their number, the Mexicans losing in killed, wounded, and prisoners over six thousand men, while the American loss in killed and wounded was less than a thousand.

Negotiations for peace followed, but they came to nothing, the armistice that had been declared terminating on the 7th of September. The problem that now lay before General Scott was a very different one from that which Cortez had faced in his siege of the city. In his day Mexico was built on an island in the centre of a large lake, which was crossed by a number of causeways, broken at intervals by canals whose bridges could be removed.

During the centuries that succeeded this lake had disappeared, low, marshy lands occupying its site. The city, however, was still reached by causeways, eight in number, raised about six feet above the marsh level. In these ended the five main roads leading to the city. A large canal surrounded the capital, and within its circle were smaller ones, all now filled with water, as this was the rainy season. The problem of bridging these under fire was one of the difficulties that confronted the Americans.

General Scott decided to approach the city by the causeways of San Cosmé, Belen, and Tacubaya, which were, defended by formidable works, the outermost of which was Molino del Rey, a fortified position at the foot of a slope beyond which a grove of cypresses led to the hill of Chapultepec. It consisted of a number of stone buildings, some of which had been used as a foundry, but which were now converted into fortresses. This place was carried by storm in the early morning of September 8, and the stronger position of Casa de Mata, a quarter of a mile from Chapultepec, was captured by a fierce assault the same day. Only Chapultepec now lay between the Americans and the Mexican capital.

The stronghold of Chapultepec, of which the places just taken were in the nature of outworks, remained to be captured before the city could be reached from that quarter. Chapultepec is an isolated rocky hill, about one hundred and fifty feet in height, and was surmounted by a large stone building which had been used as the bishop's palace, but was now converted into a strong fortress. It was well prepared for defence in guns and garrison, and was the most difficult to win of the fortifications of the capital. The western side was the most accessible, but the face of this, above the grove of cypresses which covered its base, presented a steep, rocky, and difficult ascent.

To deceive the enemy, a feigned advance upon another section of the city was made on the 12th of September. The two divisions engaged in this returned that night to Tacubaya, near Chapultepec, though a force still threatened the southern causeways. Four batteries had been posted within easy range of the castle of Chapultepec during the night of the 11th, and all next day they kept up a steady fire upon it, driving its defenders back and partly wrecking the walls. On the morning of the 13th the batteries resumed their fire, while the forces chosen for the assault approached the hill from different directions through the fire of the enemy.

Two assaulting columns of two hundred and fifty picked men each, from Worth's and Twigg's divisions, advanced with scaling ladders, while the batteries threw shot and shell over their heads to drive the defenders from the walls. Major-General Pillow led his division through the grove on the east side, but he quickly fell with a dangerous wound, and General Cadwalader succeeded him. Before him was a broken and rocky ascent, with a redoubt midway in its height. Up the steep rocks climbed the gallant stormers, broke into the redoubt with a wild cheer, and put its defenders to flight. On up the steep they then clambered, passing without injury the mines which the Mexicans had planted, but which they could not fire without killing their own men. In a few minutes more the storming party reached the summit and climbed over the castle wall with shouts of victory, driving back its defenders. Soon the United States flag was seen floating over the ramparts, a roar of cheers greeting the inspiring spectacle.

On the southeast Quitman's column of assault was making like progress, while Smith's brigade captured two batteries at the foot of the hill on the right, and Shield's brigade crossed the meadows under a hot fire of musketry and artillery and swept up the hill to the support of the stormers.

Thus the castle of Chapultepec, the last and strongest citadel of the Mexicans, had fallen before an impetuous charge up a hill deemed inaccessible, in the face of a hot fire, and the city itself lay at the mercy of the invaders. The causeway which it defended formed a double roadway on each side of a great aqueduct, with stone arches and pillars. Shields charged impetuously along this causeway, towards the city, two miles distant, while Quitman pursued the fleeing enemy along the neighboring causeway of Belen.

An aide sent by Scott came riding up to Shields to bid him halt till Worth, who was following the San Cosine causeway, could force its defences. The aide politely saluted the eagerly advancing general and began, "General Scott presents his compliments—"

"I have no time for compliments just now," roared out Shields, and spurred briskly onward to escape the unwelcome orders which he felt were coming. Soon he had led his men into the suburbs of the city, while Worth and Quitman charged inward over the neighboring causeways with equal impetuosity.

A strong force was quickly within the streets of the city, assailed by skirmishers firing from houses and gardens, who could be reached only by forcing a way in with pickaxes and bars. Two guns were brought in by Worth's column and planted in position to batter down the San Cosmé gate, the barrier to the great square in the city's centre, and which fronted the cathedral and palace. Quitman and Shields had to fight their way through as hot a fire, and as they charged inward found themselves before the citadel, mounting fifteen guns. At this point a severe loss was sustained, but the assailants held their own, mounting guns to attack the citadel the next morning.

These guns were not used. Before daylight a deputation of the city council waited on General Scott and announced that the army had evacuated the city, and the government officials had fled. It was not long afterwards before the Stars and Stripes were floating over the National Palace and in the great plaza.

Fighting continued for a day longer between the Americans and about four thousand soldiers and liberated convicts, who fought with desperate fury for their country and were not put down without considerable loss. On the morning of September 16 the army of the United States held undisputed possession of the famous old capital of Mexico. Fighting continued, however, elsewhere for some months later, and it was not till the 2nd of February, 1848, that a treaty of peace was signed.