Mexican-American War 170th: Battle of Cerro Gordo

Vera Cruz had fallen, and Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had to act. Serving as both Mexico’s president and the commanding general of its armies, Santa Anna prepared to move against the American forces beginning to make their way inland. Before marching, Santa Anna published a proclamation to the Mexican people. “I am resolved to go out and encounter the enemy,” Santa Anna wrote. “What is life worth. . . if the country suffers under a censure, the stain of which will rebound upon the forehead of every Mexican.” With a strong flourish, Santa Anna finished: “Mexicans! your fate is the fate of the nation! Not the Americans, but you, will decide her destiny! Vera Cruz calls for vengeance—follow me, and wash out the stain of dishonor!”[1] The result of Santa Anna’s promise to fight would be the battle of Cerro Gordo, 170 years ago today.

Winfield Scott’s troops marched inland from Vera Cruz on April 8, after having finalized the city’s surrender and preparing a base of supplies. The Americans moved for Jalapa, a city about 65 miles from Vera Cruz; there Scott’s men could rest for a short time before preparing for the final plunge down into the valleys around Mexico City.

It did not take long for the American vanguard to run into the Mexican positions. Santa Anna, with about 12,000 men, had picked what seemed like a perfect spot to make his stand against the Yankees. The Mexicans’ right flank rested on the Rio del Plan, which historian John Eisenhower referred to as a “substantial stream.”[2] Extending from the Rio del Plan, Santa Anna placed the middle of his lines atop the 1,000 foot high plateau called Cerro Gordo (Fat Hill), also known as El Telegrafo. Santa Anna’s left was protected by a number of smaller hills and what seemed like impossible approaches. The road to Jalapa, also known as the National Road, ran straight through Cerro Gordo; Santa Anna’s men pushed some 35 cannon into place and waited for their opponents.

 

Map of the battle of Cerro Gordo (US Army)

Captain Robert E. Lee recognized the difficult task awaiting Scott’s men when first contact was made between the two forces on April 12. He later wrote to his wife, “The right of the Mexican line rested on the river at a perpendicular rock, unscalable [sic] by man or beast, and their left on impassable ravines.”[3]

Yet there had to be way.

While the American army held up about three miles from Cerro Gordo, Scott’s engineers went to work. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, among others, began to scout and explore the ravines on the American right, Mexican left. It would be difficult, the engineers concluded, but possible, to get troops through those ravines and potentially outflank the heavy Mexican fortifications atop Cerro Gordo. Work began on April 16 cutting a rough road network out for American troops to advance through.

Skirmishers popped away at each as the two armies danced around one another. On April 17, though, the first serious fighting took place near Cerro Gordo. Major General David Twiggs, commanding a division of Scott’s force, got carried away and ordered an attack on an outpost of Mexican positions. Twiggs’s infantry drove in the Mexican pickets, who fell back to Cerro Gordo proper and the protection of the Mexican artillery. With his blood up, Twiggs pushed his men further, and as the American line became visible to the gunners atop Cerro Gordo, they were raked with shot and shell. Diving for cover, the Americans found themselves in a tight fix; a few battalions foolishly having chewed off far too much. Major Edwin V. Sumner, a future Union general, brought up his rifle battalion to try and help cover an American withdrawal. Instead Sumner toppled from his saddle as a Mexican musket ball bounced straight off his forehead. Dazed and confused, Sumner nonetheless recovered from his wound and the soldiers soon took to calling him “Old Bull Head.” The Americans soon thereafter retreated to safety and awaited the next day’s fighting.[4]

Maj. Gen. David Twiggs

Winfield Scott made his preparations on the night of April 17. Twiggs’s division, joined by another division of volunteers under Robert Patterson would utilize the road network created by engineers to try and get around the Mexican positions. To keep Santa Anna’s legions in place, Scott planned a diversionary attack to move against Cerro Gordon directly; that task went to Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow. The rest of the army, still coming up from Vera Cruz, would miss the battle.[5]

Morning of April 18, 1847 came and Pillow moved out, beginning the American maneuvers. A political appointee of Polk’s, Pillow lacked any formal military training, and it showed. Though guided by military engineers to where he should attack, Pillow changed the direction of his brigade’s advance at the last moment, instead forcing his volunteers to advance through a thick defile. With cheers and hollers, Pillow’s men began their charge against the Mexican position at Cerro Gordo.

One of Pillow’s soldiers wrote that the American advance was “exposed to cross fires of grape and canister from about 20 pieces of artillery, and to the incessant fire of some thousands of muskets.”[6] One of Pillow’s regiments, the 2nd Tennessee, lost its lieutenant colonel, major, and four company commanders. In the mayhem of the attack, units began to break to the rear, and others intermingled, presenting a mass of confusion. With all of the swirling action, Pillow went down when shrapnel hit him in his elbow, “breaking the arm and cutting under the main muscle.”[7]

Maj. Gen. Gideon Pillow during the Mexican War. (LOC)

While Pillow’s attack failed in front of Cerro Gordo, the main American force wound itself around the high hill. Three brigades of infantry—two of regular troops and one of volunteers—were led into position by Capt. Lee. Then they were unleashed like a tidal wave. The Americans streamed up at their Mexican opponents. Though some Mexican officers had seen the flanking column and acted to oppose it, it proved too little, too late. A wild melee broke out, with officers to be famous some 15 years later swinging their swords above their heads. First Lieutenant Earl Van Dorn (a future Confederate general killed by a jealous husband) cut down Mexican troops around a battery while other units stormed forward. An American infantryman wrote that the chaotic action was “a kind of fighting which I hope to never see again.”[8] In that swirl of violence, Brig. Gen. James Shields (who had challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel in 1842) went down with a chest wound. Command of his brigade fell to an Illinois politician, Col. Edward Baker, who would be famously killed in 1861 at the battle of Ball’s Bluff.[9]

The pressure of the flanking columns began to break the Mexican line. Santa Anna’s men, sucked into defending against Pillow, found themselves confronted by three brigades of infantry where they had thought none could pass. The Mexican lines quickly began to break, leaving behind cannon and wagons. Following their defeated foes, the American soldiers soon found themselves drawn to the camps and treasures left behind by the quickly retreating Americans. The 4th Illinois, part of Shields’s/Baker’s brigade found one of the most unique trophies of the day: Santa Anna’s wooden leg. Fighting the French in 1838, Santa Anna had lost his leg in combat, and took to wearing the wooden prosthetic. In his hasty retreat from the battlefield, the Mexican president left behind the ornate fake limb.[10]

The Battle of Cerro Gordo

Three hours after it began, the battle of Cerro Gordo was finished. Another battle had ended with the Mexicans retreating from the field, leaving the Americans masters of the field. Scott’s operations on April 18 had cost his army about 400 losses total; Santa Anna lost exponentially more in the rout—likely about 1,000 killed and wounded and almost another 3,000 captured. As historian Timothy Johnson writes, “The Battle of Cerro Gordo was a disaster for the Mexicans, and the soldiers of both armies knew it.”[11]

A slight rain began to fall in the afternoon and evening of April 18, bringing an end to the slight American pursuit. For now the Americans turned to tending to the wounded; but the road to Jalapa was now fully open and the advance would resume soon.

_____________________________________________________________

[1]The American Quarterly Register and Magazine, May 1848, Vol. I., No. I, 569-570.

[2] John S.D. Eisenhower, So Far From God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848 (New York: Random House, Inc., 1989), 272.

[3] John William Jones, Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee: Soldier and Man (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906), 51.

[4] Timothy D. Johnson, A Gallant Little ArmyThe Mexico City Campaign (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 80; Thomas K. Tate, General Edwin Vose Sumner, USA: A Civil War Biography (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013), 36.

[5] Scott’s orders quoted in L.U. Reavis, The Life and Military Services of Gen. William Selby Harney (St. Louis: Bryan, Brand & Co., 1878), 197-199.

[6] Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer Jr., The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011), 71.

[7] Ibid., 72-73.

[8] Johnson, 87.

[9] K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War: 1846-1848 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), 267.

[10] Eisenhower, 295.

[11] Gallant Army, 96-97.

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12 Responses to Mexican-American War 170th: Battle of Cerro Gordo

  1. Chris Kolakowski says:

    There was a Confederate general John “Cerro Gordo” Williams. Any idea how he came by that nickname?

    • ncatty says:

      John Stuart Williams (1818-1898). The nickname “Cerro Gordo” was hung on him by a political opponent. Williams won the election and kept the nickname.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      To add to what has already been said. The nickname of “Cerro Gordo” seems to be sarcastic, as mentioned, by a political opponent. Various internet sources mention he got the nickname for gallantry at the battle, but we all know how accurate those sources can be. Williams commanded an independent company of Kentucky cavalry in Gideon Pillow’s brigade at Cerro Gordo. But the fighting at Cerro Gordo was done by the infantry and artillery- the landscape was atrocious for horses and barely passable. Pillow’s report only mentions Williams to say he commanded a company of troopers (and it’s worth mentioning Pillow has his name wrong, he calls him William).

  2. David Corbett says:

    Enjoyable read; thank you.

  3. tuffncuddly says:

    ECW=Emerging Civil War….Care about as much as the Crusades as Mexican War

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. The point to this on-going series of the Mexican-American War is to raise awareness of the conflict. It was a defining moment to the generation of officers that would lead Civil War armies. By contextualizing this time period, we can see patterns emerge and better understand.

    • We hope you’ll give the series a try–perhaps it’ll kindle a new interest for you. Context always helps make the study of history richer. As Ryan says, this was the conflict where so many familiar faces from the Civil War cut their teeth. Their shared experience here, and friendships formed, add a significant level of pathos and tragedy to the CW.

      • tuffncuddly says:

        Dear Chris my name is Jeffrey Ross you probably don’t remember me do to the your popularity in the amount of people you meet I’m the disabled person that has to use talk to text so please forgive me for all the grammatical errors that make me even want to vomit when I look at it. First off I want to apologize to the author I want to apologize to you and I want to apologize to anyone that comes across that. The Mexican war has huge huge relevance and the Civil War due to the fact most of the major players like Robert E Lee and Ulysses S Grant and hundreds of others got their wartime experience. I believe this reply to you Chris is public so I won’t get into too many details I will just say I read nothing but World War II books for 20 years if you asked me to give you a hundred reasons why operation Market Garden failed off hand I could probably do it (1 reason is carpet bombing Germans who have been dug in for 6yrs isn’t gonna work, 99 more reasons is it was “montys” plan, the most overated General of the 19th and 20th century. And for all those who say he and his eight army beat Rommel I’m sorry your a ameuture WWII buff. When Monty took over the allies had wiped out the lufftwauffa ((Germany’s Air Force)), in the Mediterranean so the constant reinforcements fuel ammunition oil food men and everything you need to fight a war had stopped because the allies shut down every German transport plane and nearly every German tanker, leaving Rommel one of the most forward offensive generals of our time to fight defensive or half-hearted offenses that is why Hitler recall them to Germany because it was a no-win situation but I have digressed way too far, but for anyone wondering who the best German general of World War II was it’s not even close, ERIC VON MANSTIEN, who thought the battles of operation Citadel in the Battle of Kursk. He was so valued that he was America’s number one target after the war and he was actually the architect of NATO because he thought was so brilliantly against the Russians. A close runner-up would be Hines guderian who is the true creator of the Blitzkrieg it just happened, was the best at it I apologize I will get to my point lol)

      • tuffncuddly says:

        So Chris I would like to be able to send you a email privately if you have it. There are no excuses for what I did today I regretted it the second I had hit the send button. There are a lot of great authors and great articles on this site and if you’re not in the mood for one Let It Go There is absolutely no need for negativity and a great site like this. My severe frustration Chris is after studying World War II for 20 years I received Shelby Foote 3 volume set in the Civil War for a gift. It pry kicked around for a year before I started reading it in 2014 January. Since then I have bought and red 350 civil war books with my true love being Antietam. My anger this morning stems from the fact the book I want to write and have a lot of material written down already I have all secondary sources from all the books I bought on the subject. Sarah who in a male-dominated field has risen and is one of the greatest authors I have read and hopefully she opens doors for more women who don’t get the respect they deserve in the man dominated field. Sarah told me how to find the official records and went over what she could with me but as she said I need a mentor to really learn how to use it. All my friends are engineers or computer it people so I have no idea where to turn. I live in Detroit and I know Bryce a sunderow is considered a great researcher for my favorite publisher savasbeattie (unfortunately my manager does alot with N.C. Press and others but she has never done with SavasBeatie) I respect you very much Chris for all the work you’ve done and I nearly always agree with what you write I think as a civil war writer you are brilliant motivated and skilled yet still extremely interesting. I don’t know how nobody has written on the subject I want to write I know it would be at least 800 pages plus three appendices for just the different order of battles. I know it would have to probably be broken down into a couple books. But the subject has never been written about as a whole and two of the three battles haven’t been written about since 1990 or 1962 and I know there’s a huge market for it by the fact there’s monthly get-togethers at the particular battle sites. So as I said Sarah did what she could to teach me about the official records but as she said you need a mentor I cannot figure out how to find anything on them and I want to be known as one of the best researchers I know in a column I read Bryce A. Sunderow is is considered one of the best out there would somebody like that spend a couple days teaching me how to use the official records if I intern worked for free force a month or two helping him? I mean I sometimes stay up two three days reading on my subject I have the drive I have the will I just don’t have the mentoring to use what I really need which is the official records. I’ve sent e-mails back and forth to the three battle sites considering their monthly get-togethers and a lot of them have primary sources and are willing to help but to get all I need I need to understand the official records so after spending another five hours on them today and getting nowhere I decided to read some articles and that’s when I reacted negatively because I wasn’t in the mood for a Mexican War article which is absolutely no reason to leave a negative message. I had no right and again I apologize to the author over and over again and everyone who read my post. If you know of any way or anyone willing to trade time or money to show me how to use the official records please email me Chris jeffrey_r_ross@yahoo.com. thank you for your time and please forgive me for lashing out others because of my own inadequacies. Thank you and God bless

  4. Pingback: Mexican-American War 170th: An Occupation, a Diplomat, and a Pause | Emerging Civil War

  5. Pingback: Mexican-American War 170th: Battle of Churubusco | Emerging Civil War

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