Mexican-American War 170th: Fall of Mexico City

Mexican War-header

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, Sept. 14, 1847, General Winfield Scott finished putting on his nicest uniform and prepared for the moment he had waited for since the previous March and his landing at Vera Cruz. Earlier that morning, a delegation of officials from Mexico City had come to Scott’s headquarters and surrendered the city. Now, just shy of 6:00 a.m., Scott and his staff rode to join William Worth around the San Cosmé gate. The hour had arrived to enter Mexico City.

Joining up with Worth, Scott’s entourage rode towards the center of the city “under a brilliant sun,” the commanding general remembered. One of Scott’s biographers noted that Scott’s entrance into Mexico’s capital was “the most dramatic moment of his career.”[1] Worth’s division had formed up along the roads and bands played Hail Columbia, Washington’s March, Yankee Doodle, Hail to the Chief, and others amidst the cheering soldiers.[2] As the Americans marched towards the center of the city, Lieut. D.H. Hill wrote, “The houses were all open and the balconies crowded. The people gazed at us as at wild animals but apparently without enmity.”[3]

General Winfield Scott reaches the center of Mexico City (Wikipedia Commons)

Getting towards the center of the city, where the municipal buildings were located, Scott and Worth were surprised to find John Quitman’s division already occupying the structures and the Stars and Stripes already flying. It was perhaps fitting that the general who had advanced without orders, and thus hastened Mexico City’s downfall, would once again advance without orders and get to raise the American flag before the pomp and circumstance of Scott’s arrival. Quickly recovering from the shock of seeing American soldiers already before him, Scott proclaimed, “Let me present to you the civil and military Governor of the City of Mexico, Major General John A. Quitman. I appoint him this instant. He has earned the distinction and he shall have it.” Scott had apparently quickly gotten over his frustration with Quitman’s advance the day before.[4] Later, Scott wrote, “The capital, however, was not taken by any one or two corps, but by the talent, the science, the gallantry, the vigor of this entire army. In the glorious conquest, all had contributed.”[5]

Mexico City would need a military governor because even though Santa Anna had evacuated with his army the night before, there remained behind soldiers and irregulars who sought to keep fighting. And though D.H. Hill had thought the Mexican onlookers had not shown any enmity, that opinion would soon be proven wrong. As other American soldiers entered the city, Mexican sharpshooters opened fire. The fighting would continue, fluctuating between desultory and full-on combat, over the next couple of days. D.H. Hill found himself horrified at the actions of American soldiers, who found an opportunity to sack the city under the disguise of fighting. “Many of them were perfectly frantic with the lust of blood and plunder. In order to sack rich houses many soldiers pretended that they heard firing from the. ’Twas a day of bloodshed and brutality such as I trust never to see again.”[6]

Brigade commander John Garland was wounded during the fighting in Mexico City’s Streets (LOC)

The fighting in Mexico City’s streets would eventually abate, and the occupation began in earnest. American soldiers would stay in the city for the next nine months. As more and more American flags began to fly from the rooftops of Mexico City, it marked an end to one of the most audacious campaigns in American military history. From landing at Vera Cruz in March, to the battle of Cerro Gordo in April, to the advance from Puebela, and the battles of Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, Chapultepec, and the twin gates of Mexico City, Winfield Scott had led a steady march against his foe. He had won at every turn, outfighting his opponent and even earning the respect of one of history’s most famed soldiers. When the Duke of Wellington heard that Scott had marched himself into Mexico’s heartland, he famously said Scott was lost. But when he heard of the final result, Wellington simply said, “His campaign was unsurpassed in military annals. He is the greatest living soldier.”[7]

But, in the middle of all the victory marches and the loud bands, a reality soon set in: Santa Anna was still out there with the remnants of his army. While the last major fighting of the Mexican-American War had concluded, there would be many smaller skirmishes and raids to be fought before its conclusion. So the American soldiers could celebrate September 14 as the end of a long journey, but a new journey was beginning that would have to be completed before the end of the conflict could come.


[1]  John S.D. Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 299.

[2]  Winfield Scott, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott (New York: Sheldon & Company Publishers, 1864), 535.

[3] Daniel Harvey Hill, A Fighter from Way Back: The Mexican War Diary of Lt. Daniel Harvey Hill, 4th Artillery, USA, ed. Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Timothy D. Johnson (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002), 128.

[4] Eisenhower, 299.

[5] Scott, 528.

[6] D.H. Hill, 129.

[7] The Duke of Wellington quoted in K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War: 1846-1848 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), 322.

6 Responses to Mexican-American War 170th: Fall of Mexico City

  1. Here’s hoping for a post or two on the month long siege and relief of Pueblo.

    No matter how many times he was defeated, Santa Anna only needed one victory to boost national morale and turn the populace against Scott’s army.

    Both Scott and Santa Anna were aware that seventy years prior when the British took Philadelphia, George Washington and the Continental Congress did not give up the struggle for independence.

    Had the US garrison surrendered, not only would Scott have been cut off from Veracruz, Trist would have been at a disadvantage negotiating the treaty.

    – Will Reardon

    1. Hi Will,

      Thanks for commenting. There will definitely be posts about the Siege of Puebla, because, as you point out, it really is vital to the safety of Winfield Scott’s army. Look for the first post about that next week.

  2. The “new journey” that was beginning has not ended yet, because it was the defeat of Mexico and the theft of more than half of their country for $15 million, by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that led inexorably to our Civil War, which led inexorably to 11 years of terror, murder, mayhem and property destruction, known to history as “Reconstruction”, and more than a century of Jim Crow, a period during which blacks were abused, oppressed, exploited, lynched and disenfranchised. Grant said it best: “The Mexican War was one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory…The occupation, separation and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.” On another occasion, he was more direct: He said: “All our troubles began with Mexico….Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.” Asked why he made war on Mexico, President James Knox Polk said: “We had to have California.” Surely Washington, the Adams’s, Henry, Hancock, Franklin, Revere, Madison, Monroe, et al., rolled over in their graves.

    1. Hi John,

      You’re right on the money. The Mexican War’s legacy is a complicated thing, and has far reaching results– far further than it’s given credit for. Its causation is still hotly debated, and its worthiness for fighting. It is interesting to see how perspectives of those who fought it changed over time. You quoted Grant from his memoirs, where he was famously against the Mexican War, but if you read his letters in the 1840s, he’s all for it. I suppose that’s what 40 years of reflection got him. Thanks very much for commenting.

  3. Thanks Ryan.

    As Faulkner famously said: The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. Thomas Hardy’s themes, too, dwell on the role of the past in all our lives. They are two literary giants from the 20th century. They should know.

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