Mexican-American War 170th: The March on Monterrey

Mexican War-header

This past spring, Emerging Civil War started to cover the 170th Anniversaries of the Mexican-American War. But since the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma in May, the war hasn’t been mentioned. This was not an oversight, but rather, following in the footsteps of both competing armies, who did not do much campaigning in the summer of 1846 and respectively began to consolidate their forces and ready themselves for the next action. That next action is upon us: the Battle of Monterrey, fought between September 21-23, 1846. The following post serves to bring readers up to speed with the strategic setting of the fall 1846, as well as lay the scene for the fighting to begin tomorrow.

 After his army’s twin victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, and the ensuing occupation of Matamoros, Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself. The tense political situation along the banks of the Rio Grande had flared into open warfare, that much was clear, but now the grizzled commander who had spent nearly the last 40 years in the service of his country had to wait for new orders from Washington, D.C.

Those orders were being planned by President James Polk, his advisors, and the commanding general of the army, Winfield Scott. Scanning maps, the political machinery in the nation’s capital had to decide what the next move was while, simultaneously, tens of thousands of volunteers began to muster for the country’s newest war.

The volunteers arrived first, joining the camps alongside the United States Regular Army. Tempers flared between the regulars and volunteers—the result of an American society that looked down on the professional army. A standing army in the 19th century scared many Americans, and others thought the force entirely unnecessary—after all, hadn’t it been citizen-soldiers who had won the Revolution? they wondered. For their part, the regulars saw the volunteers as little more than a ragamuffin, with no discipline and no martial bearing. As more volunteers and more regulars arrived at Taylor’s camps, one of the leading concerns for the general was to make sure his own men didn’t fight each other as well as trying to keep the peace in Matamoros. Neither regards were very successful, with spats between regulars and volunteers continuing, and worse done to the Mexican citizenry. “The Volunteers have murdered about twenty persons in Matamoros [,] have committed rape, robbery etc., etc.,” Second Lieutenant D.H. Hill wrote in his journal.[1]

An 1846 poking fun at the volunteer forces who mobilized after the outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico. Note the man carrying an umbrella instead of a sword. (LOC)

An 1846 poking fun at the volunteer forces who mobilized after the outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico. Note the man carrying an umbrella instead of a sword. (LOC)

While he played babysitter to the volunteers and regulars, Taylor also finally received his orders from Washington. Winfield Scott decided to use Taylor’s force, grown now to some 10,000 men (of whom about 3,000 were regulars) as a prong to attack straight into the heartland of Mexico.

Taylor’s objective was the city of Monterrey, the capital for the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. Located about 190 miles from Matamoros, Monterrey (spelled in the 1840s as Monterey) was nestled high in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, and guarded the approaches into the heartland of Mexico. An American army could not march to Mexico City from the Rio Grande without first passing through Monterrey. As historian Stephen Carney notes, “By taking Monterrey, Taylor would open the avenues of advance southward toward Mexico City.”[2] Once they got to finally see the city, American soldiers realized its importance and numerous soldiers began referencing to Monterrey as a Gibraltar.[3]

The nearly 200-mile trek would take some time, though, and that march started on June 5 as Taylor’s vanguard left Matamoros. Taylor’s columns snaked their way further into Mexico, not meeting any organized resistance, but the American soldiers were keenly aware of the irregular Mexican forces that shadowed their marches.

            While no Mexican regular forces opposed Taylor’s march, they were more than preparing for the inevitable fight at Monterrey. After their dual defeats in May and their hurried evacuation of Matamoros, many Mexican soldiers wanted revenge. The Mexican forces were now under the command of Don Pedro de Ampudia, who had served as second-in-command along the Rio Grande. Turmoil continued to grip Mexican politics, limiting what resources Ampudia had at his disposal. That turmoil included coups in Mexico City and the climatic re-emergence of Antonio López de Santa Anna (more on that later). So as Taylor’s columns closed in on Monterrey in the middle of September, Ampudia’s troops fortified homes, placed artillery batteries, waited for their Yankee opponents.

Zachary Taylor's march to Monterrey in the summer and fall of 1846 (U.S. Army)

Zachary Taylor’s march to Monterrey in the summer and fall of 1846 (U.S. Army)

The American soldiers reached the outskirts of the city on September 19 and the following day Taylor reconnoitered the ground, trying to find ways to attack into the Mexican bastions.  He found Monterrey “naturally very strong & completely fortified, supplies with a large amount of artillery.”[4] On September 20, Taylor began to ready his orders for the taking of Monterrey to begin tomorrow, September 21.

For the American soldiers, they steeled themselves, knowing they would soon have to charge into the streets of Monterrey, while Mexican soldiers knew that the fate of Mexico’s heartland depended on them holding Monterrey.

September 20, 1846—170 years ago—was the 250th Anniversary of Monterrey’s foundation, but rather than celebrations, there would soon be heavy fighting and bloodshed in the streets.

____________________________________________________________

 

[1] 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), 3.

[2] Stephen A. Carney, Gateway South: The Campaign for Monterrey (U.S. Army Publications) (http://www.history.army.mil//html/books/073/73-1/CMH_Pub_73-1.pdf), 7.

[3] Christopher D. Dishman, A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010) xv.

[4] Zachary Taylor, Letters of Zachary Taylor: From the Battle-fields of the Mexican War (Rochester: N.p, 1908), 59.

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