The Mexican War
Digital History ID 334
Persifor Smith (1798-1858), General Winfield Scott's second in command, provides a first-hand account of the capture of Mexico City. On April 18, 1847, at a mountain pass near Jalapa, a 9000-man American force met 13,000 Mexican troops, and in bitter hand-to-hand fighting forced the Mexicans to flee. As Scott's army pushed on toward Mexico City, it stormed a Mexican fortress at Contreras and then routed a large Mexican force at Churubusco.
For two weeks, from August 22 to September 7, Scott observed an armistice to allow the Mexicans to consider peace proposals. When negotiations failed, Scott's 6000 remaining men attacked El Molino del Rey and stormed Chapultepec, a fortified castle guarding Mexico City's gates.
Think of our astonishing campaign, with 8800 bayonets we came down the mountain and first saw this much vaunted valley. Near 300 miles from all our resources, in the midst of a population of eight millions of people, every valley a fortress accessible only through passes which nature seems to have constructed purposely to exclude the approach of a stranger; 32,000 men in front; a city of 180,000 inhabitants situated in the centre of a marsh (formerly a lake) fortified by two lines of works, approachable only by a few narrow causeways, full of wealth, provisions and all the means necessary to support war, ready for every need of their army, the enemy perfectly acquainted with every foot of ground while we could know nothing beyond our own lines, every battery & position they occupied actually encumbered with heavy artillery which you know they excel in serving. One half of our troops raw, (the law under which they were raised is not yet eight months old) and all somewhat suffering from the change of climate, weigh all this and you will be able to do justice in your own mind to the skill of the commander and the invincible energy of the troops.
Imagine yourself on a battlefield overtopped by the snow covered Popocatépetl & Ixtachuatl [volcanoes], which ages since belched up the misshapen rocks among which you are struggling, now rushing on with the bayonet you carry a half church half fortress & find yourself in one of the first edifices founded by Cortez and on the spot from which he so often looked at the doomed city.... Here where our contending batteries are disputing the possession of an open space...and finally while standing in the grand Plaza you watch the Stars & Stripes climbing the flag-staff to wave over the "Halls of the Montezumas" you are treading on the spot cursed by the unnatural rites of human sacrifice, and before you stands, built into the wall of the cathedral...the wonderful...Calendar of that mysterious people [the Aztecs], hinting darkly, by the astonishing knowledge of Astronomy its calculations displays, at a remote origin among the nations of the East.
In the pride and exultation of success, we fancy ourselves the real proprietors of all the unexplored treasures of Mexican history hidden as they are...we felt that the unknown wonders of the migrations, adventures & conquests of the former masters of this Soil, & the romantic story of Cortez & his captains all now belong to us. God forbid! that we should have any title to the ages of cruelty, oppression, & then anarchy that have succeeded him.
In all our adventures here, I do not recollect a moment when every man was not full of confidence if I except the evening of the 19th of August when [one commander]...went back to tell Gen. Scott...that the effort to turn the enemy's position was hopeless, & advise[d] him to withdraw the troops....
In the meantime Santa Anna came out from the city with 12000 men about 5000 of them cavalry, and took position fronting me. I had 2800 men, no artillery, and not even an officer was mounted. Valencia [a Mexican commander] had 7000 men about 2000 of them cavalry & 22 pieces of cannon many of them heavy....
In seventeen minutes (I looked at my watch to time it) they were entirely defeated, 700 killed 1300 prisoners & the rest dispersed to the mountains, 21 pieces of cannon & 700 mules with their loads of ammunition captured, more generals and colonels than I ever saw before in my life at a time were among the prisoners. You never saw so splendid a sight as our charge on the works....
We might undoubtedly have entered the city...but Gen. Scott knew the Government & People of the United States ardently desired peace, that if we entered the city the government would disperse & a state of anarchy would follow that would prevent all Negotiation, and while we threatened to take the city the fear of losing it would be one of the strongest motives to treat [negotiate], while as soon as we were in it and that blow no longer to be dreaded they would have no motive for any sacrifice of their prejudices. Although that brilliant conclusion of the day's work was within his power he sacrificed his own ambition for the general good & allowed an armistice for the purpose of negotiation. The corruption among their leading men who live on the public suffering was too strong for any little sense of public interest or virtue among them & after a few days having recovered from their first fright they thought our desire for peace was in reality a fear of their last effort, and as they had not kept the terms of the armistice in one particular, Gen. Scott put an end to it.... On the 12th we bombarded Chapultapec [a fortress outside of Mexico City] & the next morning took it & following up our success, Gen. Quitman with whose division I was serving entered the city just after one p.m. during the night the enemy abandoned it & the next morning at 7 a.m. we had the flag hoisted on the National Palace....
This people have been conceived in sin & born in iniquity for ages the millions have been degraded by oppression and the few corrupted by unbridled power. Their whole moral character is debased, they have no self respect & are therefore incapable of self government; having no test within, they are guilty of any vice they think they can screen from punishment, and now all being alike base they naturally encourage each other's degradation. The best people in the country look on any reform as hopeless without the restraint & example of others and so actually seek to prolong the war with the view of benefiting by the example we give them even as conquerors. The immense crowd of office holders civil as well as military who have hitherto lived on the revenues & exactions of the government, are struggling to perpetuate the abuses by which they exist, and now then their very nationality is at stake the Congress which was to have met...is not yet a quorum. If two weeks more go by without the government being organized I do not think a peace can be made for years, and I believe indeed that they will cease to exist except as little quarrelsome, disorderly States....
Don't let any of my letter get into the paper.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: General Persifor Smith to Judge R.W. Nichols
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