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The Battle of Cerro Gordo

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The Battle of Cerro Gordo

General Winfield Scott by Robert Walter Weir, 1855

Artist: Robert Walter Weir, 1855

The Battle of Cerro Gordo:

On April 17-18, 1847, American and Mexican forces clashed near Xalapa, Mexico at the battle of Cerro Gordo. The Americans were making their way to Mexico City as part of the ongoing Mexican-American War. General Antonio López de Santa Anna was sent with a large army to stop them. Although the Mexicans had a good defensive position, the Americans were able to flank them and the battle swiftly turned into a rout, clearing the path to Mexico City.

The Mexican-American War and the Siege of Veracruz:

War had broken out in early 1846 between the USA and Mexico, primarily because the US coveted Mexico's western lands, such as California and New Mexico. The war began with an invasion from the north: General Zachary Taylor and his army made it as far as Saltillo. When Mexico did not swiftly surrender, the US sent General Winfield Scott to attack from the Gulf of Mexico in the hopes of capturing Mexico City. Scott had taken Veracruz on March 27 and had quickly mobilized to move inland before Yellow Fever season hit the coast.

Two Armies:

Scott had about 8,500 men, many of them veterans of Taylor's war in the north. He had outstanding officers, including several men who would go on to be generals in the Civil War, including Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, Joseph E. Johnston, Ulysses S. Grant, John Foster and P.G.T. Beauregard. Santa Anna had some 12,000 men, a mixture of raw recruits and veterans. Among Santa Anna's forces was the St. Patrick's Battalion, comprised of defectors (mainly Irish Catholics) from the US army who formed an elite artillery unit.

Santa Anna's Defensive Fortifications:

Santa Anna picked an excellent defensive position at the point where the National Road winds its way past Cerro Gordo (“Fat Hill,” also called “El Telégrafo” sometimes in Spanish). Santa Anna set up the majority of his troops on Cerro Gordo, which commanded the road, and on the highway directly alongside the hill. Ahead and on his right flank were some hills criss-crossed with ravines: he put artillery batteries on the hills. On Santa Anna’s left was a series of deep ravines covered in dense brush and a hill named Atalaya: he decided this way was impassible for the Americans and only put a token force on top of Atalaya. Thus entrenched, Santa Anna waited for the Americans to come to him.

The Americans Arrive:

The American army had a shortage of pack animals and wagons and was moving slowly. The first American forces, under General David Twiggs, arrived at the defended hills on April 11, 1847. Twiggs and the other generals began sending out men to scout the terrain and waited for General Scott. Captain Robert E. Lee found a way through the dense brush and ravines on the Mexican left. Scott decided on a bold plan: General Gideon Pillow would feint at the Mexican artillery batteries and keep the advance enemy lines occupied while Twiggs would lead a column through the brush to take Atalaya and attack Cerro Gordo and the Mexican rear. Work began immediately on cutting a trail through the thick chaparral leading to Atalaya.

Strategic Positions:

On April 17, General Twiggs led his men along the road that had been cut through the dense foliage on the Mexican left. They did not encounter resistance until they reached Atalaya hill, but they were able to swiftly overcome the Mexican defenders there. Some of Twiggs' men, overzealous for combat, pursued retreating Mexicans too far and came within range of Cerro Gordo's guns: these men had to hunker down and climb back up the hill that night under cover of darkness. Also during the night, the Americans lugged three massive artillery pieces to the top of Atalaya: a 24 pound cannon and two 24 pound mortars (pounds refers to the size cannonball the cannon could fire: the cannons themselves were much heavier).

The Battle of Cerro Gordo:

On the next day, April 18, the battle plan went exactly the way Scott had hoped it would. Although General Pillow botched the diversionary attack by taking an exposed route and attacking the central battery (thus leaving himself open to fire from all sides), he still kept the enemy’s attention and thus accomplished his mission. Meanwhile, Twiggs’ men began firing their deadly cannons and mortars, pummeling Cerro Gordo before a determined infantry assault. The defenders held firm for three hours, then broke: once Cerro Gordo was taken, the entire Mexican defensive formation was compromised. The battle turned into a rout and the Mexican soldiers threw down their arms and fled. Santa Anna himself narrowly escaped and had to leave without his papers and some six thousand pesos in soldiers’ wages.

Legacy of the Battle of Cerro Gordo:

With the Mexican forces routed once again, the road was open for Scott to march to Puebla and from there to Mexico City. The Americans lost some 63 killed and 367 wounded: the Mexicans lost 436 killed and over 700 wounded. In addition, 3,000 Mexican soldiers were captured. These captured soldiers would be released, as Scott could not feed them all. Mexico City would fall soon thereafter and the Mexican government would be forced to sue for peace at the cost of a great deal of territory in the Mexican northwest.

Cerro Gordo was a big win for General Scott and the Americans. The soldiers with Scott had taken Veracruz without a lot of direct combat and loss of life: this was their first real battle as a unit and they fought very well. Scott's battle plan had been followed nearly perfectly: Ulysses S. Grant later said "The attack was made as ordered, and perhaps there was not a battle of the Mexican war, or of any other, where orders issued before an engagement were nearer being a correct report of what afterwards took place." As a bonus, Scott captured a good deal of Mexican supplies, including food, gunpowder, weapons (including 40 cannons) and even money to be used to pay the Mexican soldiers.

For the Mexicans, Cerro Gordo was yet another disaster in a long string of defeats during the war. Santa Anna, who has gained great fame for his ineptitude as a General, actually picked a good defensive spot and arranged his troops wisely: his mistake was failing to see the massive attack coming from his left. The Mexicans were forced to fall back to Mexico City for a last stand there. The worst of the damage may have been psychological: if they could not beat the Americans with greater numbers and a superior defensive position, could they beat them at all?

Sources:

Eisenhower, John S.D. So Far from God: the U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. Norman: the University of Oklahoma Press, 1989

Henderson, Timothy J. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States.New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Hogan, Michael. The Irish Soldiers of Mexico. Createspace, 2011.

Wheelan, Joseph. Invading Mexico: America's Continental Dream and the Mexican War, 1846-1848. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007.

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