Mexican-American War 170th: Siege of Vera Cruz

Mexican War-header

Morning of March 29, 1847 came and brought two long parallel lines of American troops. The soldiers, begrimed and dirty from the exertions of the past 20 days, formed a gauntlet that their defeated foe would march through. The rows of Mexican forces soon came out of their city, with its crumbling walls bearing testament to the ferocity of the American artillery fire. Stacking their muskets and presenting tallies of paroled prisoners, the Mexican soldiers turned over command of the city of Vera Cruz to Winfield Scott. The siege of Vera Cruz had concluded.


Since landing on the beaches of Vera Cruz on March 9, the American soldiers’ past three weeks had been one of almost constant work. Sleeping under the stars on the night of March 9, the next day found Scott’s men making their way inland, continuing to push Mexican pickets back to the city. As more and more troops landed Scott could begin the actual siege.[1]

Siege of Vera Cruz (US Army)

Or at least Scott had thought he could. Nature had other plans, though, and a series of northers blew the U.S. Navy ships out of alignment. Aboard those ships were horses, wagons, caissons, and, most importantly, cannon, that Scott needed to level the city’s defenses. Until the material could be brought ashore, Scott’s options against Vera Cruz were limited.[2]

While Scott waited for the northers to clear up and his operations to begin in force, he at least ordered his engineers to start working on roads and other networks that were necessary to bring up the artillery. Second Lieutenant George B. McClellan, just about a year out of West Point, found himself working on his first military project. “The work was very tedious, tiresome, and difficult,” the 20-year old McClellan wrote, “the work not at all facilitated by the shells and shot that continually fell all around us.”[3]

George B. McClellan as a 2nd Lt. during the Mexican War.

By March 13, with the northers dying down, the American troops finished their encirclement of the city—their lines totaling six miles from end to end. It wouldn’t be another six days, though, until the engineers would have enough materials to start work on batteries and lunettes. The sandy dunes of the beaches made work excruciatingly slow going. The guns inside Vera Cruz continued to boom away, sending shells exploding into the American camps, while small detachments of Mexican troops also left the city to skirmish with opposing pickets.

With engineers plotting the locations of the different batteries, it fell to the enlisted men in Scott’s army to do the manual labor. Lieutenant McClellan explained, “The tools for [the] working party were arranged on the beach in parallel rows of tools for 20 men each. . . Each man was provided with a shovel and either a pick, axe, or hatchets…” Working into the night, the Americans started to make up their time lost to the northers. The engineer corps were full of names who would become famous just 15 years later. McClellan found himself working under P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee, and around 3 a.m. on March 19, they were relieved by another party of engineers that included Isaac Stevens, who would be killed at the battle of Chantilly on September 1, 1862.[4]

By working nonstop, the batteries were quickly ready for artillery pieces. When it was found that the army’s ordnance was lacking, the Navy stepped in. Commodore David Conner returned to the US, and his replacement, Matthew Perry (who would land in Japan in five years), offered a battery of naval guns.[5]

On March 22, just four days after work began on the entrenchments, enough mortars were in place that the bombardment was ready to begin. Other guns would be brought ashore in the days to come, but the mortars would start the operation. Before opening fire, Scott officially demanded the city refuse. Vera Cruz’s defenders, led by Juan Morales, refused. Morales’s refusal reached American lines around 6:30 p.m., and Scott’s Inspector General, E.A. Hitchcock, “went to the top of a high sand-hill where a number of officers had assembled., and in some half an hour, saw the white cloud of one our mortars.” With the signal to fire, the American mortars began dropping their bombs behind Vera Cruz’s walls. “The roar of guns continued and continues from our batteries,” Hitchcock added. “Seven gunboats have hauled up near enough and are delivering. . . their shot into the city under fire of the castle. As I stood on the sand-hill and saw the artillery belching forth its lightning, I could not feel how very absurd is the whole tragical [sic] farce of war!”[6]

The bombardment continued around the clock, including from heavier guns brought ashore and a battery of Congreve rockets (the same type of rockets that awed Francis Scott Key in 1814).[7] Mexican guns fired back, both sides trying to blast their opponents’ ordnance to pieces. During the bombardment, Robert E. Lee ran into his brother, serving in the Navy and helping to fire the Naval Battery.

Just two days after opening fire, Scott got his first message from the city. But it wasn’t from Morales or any other Mexican commander, but rather from European consuls in Vera Cruz. The Europeans asked “for a truce to enable them, and the women and children of the inhabitants, to withdraw in safety,” Scott wrote. The American general refused the request, explaining, “They had in time been duly warned of the impending danger, and allowed [until] the 22d to retire, which they had sullenly neglected, and the consuls had also declined the written safe-guards I had pressed upon them.” In Scott’s opinion, they had made their bed, and now they had to lay in it.[8]

American bombardment of Vera Cruz

The consuls did not have much longer to wait though. Because of the American shelling “a considerable breach had been made in the wall surrounding the city.”[9] It was only a matter of time, and Morales decided enough was enough. Turning over command to a subordinate so he wouldn’t have to face Scott, Morales nonetheless gave the order to start surrender negotiations by March 25.[10] Those negotiations were finally settled on March 28, and the city was to be turned over the following day.

In their four day bombardment (the guns falling silent on the morning of March 26), American forces had thrown 6,700 shells, shots, and rockets against the city. All of the ordnance totaled 436,600 pounds.[11]

It was an awe-inspiring start to Scott’s campaign against Mexico City, and it came at a light cost to the besieging forces. Scott’s army lost about 64 men from the Mexican resistance, but they inflicted much worse on Vera Cruz. Morales had about 350 men killed from the siege, while the city’s population also faced the bombardment—some 400 civilians were killed by the American shelling.[12]

With Vera Cruz surrendered, Scott turned away from the city and faced into Mexico’s heartland.


[1] Timothy D. Johnson, A Gallant Little ArmyThe Mexico City Campaign (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 28.

[2] Winfield Scott, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott (New York: Sheldon & Company Publishers, 1864), 426; Raphael Semmes, Service Afloat and Shore During the Mexican War (Cincinnati: Wm. H. Moore & Company Publishers, 1851), 129.

[3] George B. McClellan, The Mexican War Diary of George B. McClellan, ed. William Starr Myers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1917), 56.

[4] Ibid., 62-63.

[5] Johnson, 37.

[6] Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Fifty Years in Camp and Field: Diary of Major General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, U.S.A, Edited by W.A. Croffut (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909), 244-245.

[7] Johnson 43.

[8] Scott, 427.

[9] Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: Literary Classics of America, 1990), 88.

[10] K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War: 1846-1848 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), 251-252.

[11] Johnson, 49.

[12] Ibid.

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