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Mexican-American War: Battle of Cerro Gordo

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Mexican-American War: Battle of Cerro Gordo

Battle of Cerro Gordo

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Cerro Gordo - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Cerro Gordo was fought April 18, 1847, during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

Armies & Commanders

United States

  • Major General Winfield Scott
  • 8,500 men

    Mexico

  • General Antonio López de Santa Anna
  • 12,000 men

  • Battle of Cerro Gordo - Background:

    Though Major General Zachary Taylor had won a string of victories at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterrey, President James K. Polk elected to shift the focus of American efforts in Mexico to Veracruz. Though this was largely due to Polk's concerns about Taylor's political ambitions, it was also supported by reports that an advance against Mexico City from the north would be impractical. As a result, a new force was organized under Major General Winfield Scott and directed to capture the key port city of Veracruz. Landing on March 9, 1847, Scott's army advanced on the city and captured it after a twenty-day siege. Establishing a major base at Veracruz, Scott began making preparations to advance inland before yellow fever season arrived.

    From Veracruz, Scott had two options for pressing west towards the Mexican capital. The first, the National Highway, had been followed by Hernán Cortés in 1519, while the latter ran to the south through Orizaba. As the National Highway was in better condition, Scott elected to follow that route through Jalapa, Perote, and Puebla. Lacking sufficient transportation, he decided to send his army forward by divisions with that of Brigadier General David Twiggs in the lead. As Scott began leaving the coast, Mexican forces were gathering under the leadership of General Antonio López de Santa Anna. Though recently defeated by Taylor at Buena Vista, Santa Anna retained immense political clout and popular support. Marching east in early April, Santa Anna hoped to defeat Scott and use the victory to make himself dictator of Mexico.

    Battle of Cerro Gordo - Santa Anna's Plan:

    Correctly anticipating Scott's line of advance, Santa Anna decided to make his stand at a pass near Cerro Gordo. Here the National Highway was dominated by hills and his right flank would be protected by the Rio del Plan. Standing around a thousand feet high, the hill of Cerro Gordo (also known as El Telegrafo) dominated the landscape and dropped to the river on the Mexican right. Approximately a mile in front of Cerro Gordo was a lower elevation which presented three steep cliffs to the east. A strong position in its own right, Santa Anna emplaced artillery atop the cliffs. To the north of Cerro Gordo was the lower hill of La Atalaya and beyond that the terrain was laced with ravines and chaparral which Santa Anna believed was impassable (Map).

    Battle of Cerro Gordo - The Americans Arrive:

    Having assembled around 12,000 men, some which were parolees from Veracruz, Santa Anna felt confident that he had created strong position on Cerro Gordo which would not be easily taken. Entering the village of Plan del Rio on April 11, Twiggs chased off a troop of Mexican lancers and soon learned that Santa Anna's army was occupying the nearby hills. Halting, Twiggs awaited the arrival of Major General Robert Patterson's Volunteer Division which marched in the next day. Though Patterson held a higher rank, he was ill and allowed Twiggs to begin planning an attack on the heights. Intending to launch the assault on April 14, he ordered his engineers to scout the ground. Moving out on April 13, Lieutenants W.H.T. Brooks and P.G.T. Beauregard successfully used a small path to reach the summit of La Atalaya in the Mexican rear.

    Realizing that the path could allow the Americans to flank the Mexican position, Beauregard reported their findings to Twiggs. Despite this information, Twiggs decided to prepare a frontal attack against the three Mexican batteries on the cliffs using Brigadier General Gideon Pillow's brigade. Concerned about the possible high casualties of such a move and the fact that the bulk of the army had not arrived, Beauregard expressed his opinions to Patterson. As a result of their conversation, Patterson removed himself from the sick list and assumed command on the night April 13. Having done so, he ordered the next day's assault postponed. On April 14, Scott arrived at Plan del Rio with additional troops and took charge of operations.

    Battle of Cerro Gordo - A Stunning Victory:

    Assessing the situation, Scott decided on sending the bulk of the army around the Mexican flank, while conducting a demonstration against the heights. As Beauregard had taken ill, additional scouting of the flanking route was conducted by Captain Robert E. Lee from Scott's staff. Confirming the feasibility of using the path, Lee scouted further and was nearly captured. Reporting his findings, Scott sent construction parties to widen the path which was dubbed the Trail. Ready to advance on April 17, he directed Twiggs' division, consisting of brigades led by Colonels William Harney and Bennet Riley, to move over the trail and occupy La Atalaya. Upon reaching the hill, they were to bivouac and be ready to attack the next morning. To support the effort, Scott attached Brigadier General James Shields' brigade to Twiggs' command.

    Advancing onto La Atalaya, Twiggs' men were attacked by Mexicans from Cerro Gordo. Counterattacking, part of Twiggs' command advanced too far and came under heavy fire from the main Mexican lines before falling back. During the night, Scott issued orders that Twiggs' should work west through heavy woods and cut the National Highway in the Mexican rear. This would be supported by an attack against the batteries by Pillow. Dragging a 24-pdr cannon to the top of the hill during the night, Harney's men renewed the battle on the morning of April 18 and assaulted the Mexican positions on Cerro Gordo. Carrying the enemy works, they forced the Mexicans to flee from the heights.

    To the east, Pillow began moving against the batteries. Though Beauregard had recommended a simple demonstration, Scott ordered Pillow to attack once he heard firing from Twiggs' effort against Cerro Gordo. Protesting his mission, Pillow soon worsened the situation by arguing with Lieutenant Zealous Tower who had scouted the approach route. Insisting on a different path, Pillow exposed his command to artillery fire for much of the march to the attack point. With his troops taking a battering, he next began to berate his regimental commanders before leaving the field with a minor arm wound. A failure on many levels, the ineffectiveness of Pillow's attack had little influence on the battle as Twiggs had succeeded in turning Mexican position.

    Distracted by the battle for Cerro Gordo, Twiggs only sent Shields' brigade to sever the National Highway to the west, while Riley's men moved around the west side of Cerro Gordo. Marching through thick woods and un-scouted ground, Shields' men emerged from the trees around the time that Cerro Gordo was falling to Harney. Possessing only 300 volunteers, Shields was turned back by 2,000 Mexican cavalry and five guns. Despite this, the arrival of American troops in the Mexican rear sparked a panic among Santa Anna's men. An attack by Riley's brigade on Shields' left reinforced this fear and led to a collapse of the Mexican position near the village of Cerro Gordo. Though forced back, Shields' men held the road and complicated the Mexican retreat.

    Battle of Cerro Gordo - Aftermath

    With his army in complete flight, Santa Anna escaped the battlefield on foot and headed for Orizaba. In the fighting at Cerro Gordo, Scott's army sustained 63 killed and 367 wounded, while the Mexicans lost 436 killed, 764 wounded, around 3,000 captured, and 40 guns. Stunned by the ease and completeness of the victory, Scott elected to parole the enemy prisoners as he lacked the resources to provide for them. While the army paused, Patterson was dispatched to pursue the Mexicans retreating towards Jalapa. Resuming the advance, Scott's campaign would culminate with the capture of Mexico City in September after further victories at Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec.

    Selected Sources

  • PBS: Battle of Cerro Gordo
  • The Aztec Club of 1847
  • US Grant Memoirs: Battle of Cerro Gordo

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