March 28, 2007
In April 1847, the war with Mexico was entering its second year. European observers and Mexican leaders had expected the fledgling American Army to be easily overwhelmed, but it had performed superbly. In the war's first twelve months, the Army had overrun New Mexico, secured the Rio Grande frontier, and carried the war into northern Mexico itself. Continuing farther south by that overland route, however, would prove difficult, if not impossible, logistically.
Major General Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the United States Army, then launched a bold stroke across the Gulf of Mexico to capture the main enemy port and then strike westward for the Mexican capital itself. In one of the Army's earliest amphibious operations, he landed just below Vera Cruz and then captured that crucial port in March, 1847.
Now, a month later, General Scott faced a serious dilemma. To advance toward Mexico City would require overcoming a more numerous enemy force, arrayed across his line of march in a strong defensive position in the rocky defile at Cerro Gordo. Delaying the assault, however, would keep the Americans in the coastal lowlands as yellow fever season was beginning. To make matters worse, he also faced the impending expiration of many of the enlistments of his volunteers.
But half of Scott's small army of less than 10,000 were hardened regulars, and many of his junior officers were young West Point graduates destined for greatness on future battlefields. One of them, an engineer Captain named Robert E. Lee whom Scott relied upon for reconnaissance, found a route around the Mexican left flank, building upon the initial scouting of First Lieutenants Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard, also future Confederate generals. The Mexican leader, General Santa Anna, had set up a strong defense in depth with his more than 12,000 troops, but considered any route around his position to be impassable. On April 17, Scott sent a strong column under the command of Brigadier General David Twiggs along Lee's route to be prepared to assault the vulnerable flank, and on the 18th they attacked. With the rest of Scott's force storming the front of the Mexican position, Santa Anna's men soon broke and ran. The Mexican army was shattered, and the road to Mexico City, and out of the disease-ridden lowlands, was open.
By September Scott had taken the Mexican capital. He conducted a masterful campaign featuring heroic fighting by his Army and an enlightened pacification campaign that kept guerrilla harassment to a minimum. Seeing the American flag over his capital, and reflecting upon all the lost artillery that now arrays Trophy Point at West Point, Santa Anna remarked, "if we were to plant our batteries in Hell the damned Yankees would take them from us." The famous Duke of Wellington proclaimed Scott "the greatest living soldier," and urged English officers to study a campaign that was "unsurpassed in military annals." The United States Army had demonstrated its mettle and arrived on the world stage.