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!” 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.” 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.
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.
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.”
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.
 John S.D. Eisenhower, So Far From God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848 (New York: Random House, Inc., 1989), 272.
 John William Jones, Life and Letters of Robert E. Lee: Soldier and Man (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906), 51.
 Timothy D. Johnson, A Gallant Little Army: The 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.
 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.
 Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer Jr., The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011), 71.
 Ibid., 72-73.
 Johnson, 87.
 K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War: 1846-1848 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), 267.
 Eisenhower, 295.
 Gallant Army, 96-97.