Mexican-American War 170th: Mexico City’s Gates

Chapultepec had fallen, leaving the fortress walls slick with human gore. As the Americans stopped to take stock in what they had captured, Maj. Gen. John Quitman was figuring what else he could do. Quitman, a New York born former governor of Mississippi, was a political appointee in service and wanted to make a name for himself. Throughout the war, the heavy tasks had always seemed to go to the regular army officers like David Twiggs and William Worth. Even for the main attack against Chapultepec, Quitman had been regulated to a supplementary role, only giving a small portion of his division for a storming party. But now on the morning of Sept. 13, 1847, Quitman figured his chances for winning glory were running out; the war’s end seemed so perilously close. And so, without getting orders from Winfield Scott, Quitman gathered up his brigades and hastened towards the outskirts of Mexico City—perhaps there was a chance for immortality after all. History would remember the first American into Mexico City.

Quitman’s men marched towards Mexico City along a wide causeway that led to the Belén gate, one of two entrances on the western side of the Mexican capital. The road surface was bisected by a large aqueduct some eight feet wide and fifteen feet tall. About halfway between Chapultepec and the Belén gate, the Mexicans put a section of two artillery pieces to cover the road.

Maj. Gen. John Quitman (LOC)


Quitman, still pushing forward hell bent for leather, deployed the Mounted Rifles to deal with the cannon. Dismounted, the Riflemen took cover in the arches of the aqueduct, and traded shots with the Mexican defenders. Gradually, the Riflemen’s fire drove the Mexicans off and pushed them further to the Belén gate, but not before their commander, Maj. William Loring, had his arm shattered by a musket ball. Loring would recover, and would eventually join the Confederate Army.

At the same time that Quitman advanced his men quickly and without much thought, Winfield Scott rode up to Chapultepec. As his soldiers cheered him, Scott noticed Quitman’s march. Turning to a staff officer that Quitman left behind, Scott demanded to know where the division commander was going. The staff officer offered no explanation, and the commanding general demanded rhetorically, “Is General Quitman’s intention to advance without orders?” Scott dispatched one of his staff officers, Maj. Edmund K. Smith, to tell Quitman to halt. According to one of Quitman’s staff officers, Smith did not deliver the message because he believed Quitman in the right position; it is far more likely that historian Timothy Johnson has the correct interpretation: Quitman ignored the order and kept pressing against the Belén gate.[1]

William Wing Loring, as a Confederate general. His empty sleeve, a result of September 13, 1847, can be seen.

Though Quitman was clearly being insubordinate, Johnson also points out that Quitman probably changed the outcome of Scott’s Mexico City Campaign, or at least sped its conclusion up. It is not clear what Scott planned for after Chapultepec’s capture. If he followed the same pattern from his earlier victories at Cerro Gordo, and Contreras and Churubusco, Scott may have accepted another armistice and re-opened diplomatic channels. But as John Quitman refused to stop, and got further and further engaged with the Mexican defenders at the Belén gate, Scott changed his plans to add more men to the attacks against the very outskirts of Mexico City.[2]

To the north of the Belén gate lay a second route into Mexico City along the San Cosmé road. Scott planned to throw William Worth’s division against the San Cosmé gate, forcing Santa Anna to divert troops to hold the second gate. Orders went out for the soldiers who had taken Chapultepec to reform and press down the San Cosmé road. Scott ordered heavier artillery to follow Worth’s men, too.

Some of the soldiers had never stopped. Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson had commanded a section against Chapultepec and now limbered his guns up and moved them down the causeway. He would unlimber the two cannon, fire down the road, limber back up, advance, and repeat the process. Even when faced with some 1,500 Mexican cavalry troopers who sortied out of the San Cosmé gate, Jackson kept his head and ordered his guns to fire canister. Constricted to the confines of the road, the Mexican cavalry were hit head on by the devastating punching power of Jackson’s artillery that cut wide swaths through the ranks and left man and horse tumbling about in bloody mayhem. “It was splendid!” Jackson remembered.[3]

Fighting around Chapultepec and the gates of Mexico City. San Cosme is near the top of the map, and the Belen gate near the middle of the map. (US Army)

Another future Civil War general also found a way to employ artillery against the San Cosmé gate. Though an infantry officer, Lieut. Ulysses S. Grant managed to get his hands on a small howitzer. Finding a nearby church, Grant knocked on the door and “With the little Spanish then at my command, I explained to him that he might save property by opening the door.” Grant and his entourage set the small howitzer in the belfry and opened fire, dropping shells among the San Cosmé gate defenders. When William Worth saw the effect of the howitzer’s fire, he sent an aide, Lieut. John C. Pemberton, to investigate the source. Grant and Pemberton would meet again, under different circumstances, 16 years later.[4]

An inset of a Thure de Thulstrup painting, showing U.S. Grant in the church tower with a howitzer. (Wikipedia Commons)

Worth’s attacks against the San Cosmé gate did not begin until about 4 p.m. By that time, Quitman’s advance had breached the Belén gate, having broken through around 1:30 p.m. Facing off against Santa Anna himself, Quitman’s soldiers hunkered down around the gate and took a heavy fire from Mexican soldiers ensconced within the houses of Mexico City. Alongside Quitman, engineer P.G.T. Beauregard was struck numerous times by shrapnel and spent musket balls. Though he had taken heavy casualties to do so, John Quitman was indeed the first American into Mexico City, a fact lauded by a biographer in the 1860s: “First in the fortress of Chapultepec! First on the walls of the capital! First in possession of the city!”[5]

With Quitman having broken through, and Worth’s attacks gaining momentum later in the evening, Santa Anna’s soldiers gradually gave ground. By 6 p.m., Worth’s men broke through the San Cosmé gate. It was getting dark, and Worth hesitated to push further into the interior of the capital city. His soldiers, having fought since 8 a.m., stopped to rest amidst the wreckage of the battlefield. Quitman’s men also bedded down for the night. Scott, seeing the powder-smeared men of the Mounted Rifles, called out, “Brave Rifles, you have gone through fire and come out steel.”[6] Brave Rifles has remained the unit nickname of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 170 years later.

Scott’s success on September 13 came with a heavy loss. About 130 Americans were killed, and another 703 were wounded, in the operations both against Chapultepec and storming the two gates into Mexico City. The Americans caused about 3,000 Mexican casualties.[7]

Having been defeated at every turn, Santa Anna now faced the horrible realization of losing his capital. Rather than surrender, though, Santa Anna ordered his regular army to retreat north. In the city, Santa Anna left behind irregulars, and even released convicts, with orders to continue to fight the Americans. They would prove a nuisance in the days to come.[8]

Around four in the morning, Sept. 14, a delegation of officials from Mexico City made their way to Winfield Scott’s headquarters, wishing to know the terms of surrender. General Winfield Scott, having advanced his army all the way from Vera Cruz back in March, was now at victory’s door. He just had to open it.

Winfield Scott’s Mexico City Campaign concludes tomorrow, September 14.


[1] George Turnbull Moore Davis, Autobiography of the Late Col. Geo. T.M. Davis, Captain and Aid-de-Camp Scott’s Army of Invasion (New York: Jenkins and McCowan, 1891), 234; Timothy D. Johnson, A Gallant Little ArmyThe Mexico City Campaign (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 231.

[2] Johnson, 228-229.

[3] James I. Robertson Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1997), 68.

[4] Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: The Library of America: 1990 reprint), 109.

[5] J.F.H. Claiborne, Life and Correspondence of John A. Quitman, Major-General, U.S.A., and Governor of the State of Mississippi, Vol. I (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1860), 366.

[6] Bauer, 319.

[7] Ibid., 321.

[8] Johnson, 237.

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