A remarkable cadre of West Point–educated officers banded together during the Mexican-American War, only to fight each other during the Civil War.
April 15, 1847. Captain Robert E. Lee walked out of General in Chief Winfield Scott’s command tent, mentally girding himself for the arduous physical challenge before him. Once again, the general had given him a task crucial to the Army’s success. This would be no mere placement of siege guns, with hundreds of men doing his beckoning. Captain Joseph Johnston of the Topographical Corps, a close friend of Lee’s, had taken musket balls in the thigh and arm while performing the early reconnaissance at Cerro Gordo, but his injuries were not in vain. Johnston’s scouting had shown that there might be a secondary path that would allow the American forces to maneuver around the Mexican defenses and avoid General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s National Road snare. Now Lee was setting out to confirm if such a path existed. If he failed, Scott would be forced to follow the same risky plan Brig. Gen. David E. Twiggs had nearly attempted, with all the carnage that was sure to ensue.
The particular tactic Scott had in mind—provided Lee could find an alternate route—was something known as a turning movement. This maneuver entailed seizing objectives behind the enemy line and forcing the Mexicans to turn to face this new threat. A successful turning movement would allow Scott to have more say in how the battle would be fought and to use his strengths (speed, better-trained and better-equipped troops, superior battlefield leadership) rather than let Santa Anna’s fortifications dictate the action.
Scott’s army was camped at Plan del Río, three miles east of Cerro Gordo. The bivouac was on a small, verdant plain hemmed by a swift river on one side and mountain crags on the other. It was here that the National Road began its winding path up through the mountains. Lee appraised the situation: “The right of the Mexican line rested on the river at a perpendicular rock, unscalable by man or beast, and their left on impassable ravines; the main road was defended by fieldworks containing 35 cannon; in their rear was the mountain of Cerro Gordo, sur rounded by entrenchments in which were cannon and crowned by a tower overlooking all—it was around this army that it was intended to lead our troops.”
The river—the Río del Plan—was swift but shallow and was lined with cliffs that would prevent a turning movement on the American left. Outlandish as it seemed, Lee would have to find a route through the “impassable ravines” on the American right for Scott to turn Santa Anna. It was the only chance to avoid a head-on attack.
Lee trekked out of camp on foot, knowing that the ground he’d be traveling over would be too steep for a horse. The morning air was heavy after a night of rain. He hiked carefully uphill and then continued farther north up a ravine. The ground was rugged, with scrub oaks, vines, thorns and dry, rocky stream beds making for slow going. It was no place for an army to move quickly or quietly, but it was certainly not impassable. Lee pressed on into a valley between two large hills. On his right rose Atalaya and to his left El Telégrafo. Santa Anna had placed gun batteries atop both of them. Lee came upon a clear spring and stopped to drink. He had been hiking for hours. His tunic was ringed with sweat and dust. As he paused for that much-needed mouthful of water, Lee noticed a small, well-worn trail, the first he’d seen in a while. Suddenly, Lee heard Spanish-speaking voices. He dropped down behind a log next to the spring. The log was large enough to hide behind, and the vegetation so thick that his blue uniform did not stand out. He pressed his body into the mud and lay motion less as a squad of Mexican soldiers settled in for their own water break.
One soldier sat down on the log. His body was inches from Lee. Bugs began biting Lee’s hands and face and working their way inside his uniform. He had no choice but to lie motionless and pray that he wouldn’t be noticed.
The soldiers stood to leave, but other soldiers soon replaced them. From the limited knowledge of Spanish he had picked up over the past eight months, Lee knew they were talking about the Americans and wondering about the attack to come. Many of the Mexicans thought Scott’s army was unbeatable. Bronchial and digestive illnesses had become rampant among the Mexicans, and those who had served with Santa Anna at Buena Vista were exhausted from the monthlong, thousand-mile march from there to Cerro Gordo. All in all, they were a sympathetic bunch, destined to fight a war that would gain them little in terms of money or social standing if they won. Yet Lee knew that if his presence became known, they would kill him on the spot.
Morning turned into afternoon, which became evening. Finally, the Mexicans wandered slowly back to their camp. In the darkness of the night, Lee did the same, picking his way through the rocks, thorns and scrub oaks.
He had succeeded. By locating the Mexican army, even inadvertently, Lee had found Scott’s trail to the Mexican rear.
Lee announced the news to a jubilant Scott, who ordered Lee to march out again immediately with a fatigue detail. This time he would not just search for a path but would widen the existing trail into something more suitable for an entire army, including cannons and horses. What Scott wanted, in just a single night, was nothing less than a road.
Once again, Lee delivered.
Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, then serving under Scott as a quartermaster, would later marvel at the accomplishment. “Roadways had been opened over chasms to the right, where the walls were so steep that men could barely climb them. Animals could not. These had been opened under cover of night, without attracting the notice of the enemy.”
Once again deeply pleased with Lee’s actions, Scott sent him off on a third great mission. This time, instead of scouting or supervising construction, Lee would show the way for a division of soldiers. He would be leading men into battle, so to speak, for the very first time in his life.
At 4:30 on the morning of April 17, with Lee as their guide, Twiggs’ division began a broad flanking movement to the left of the Mexican lines, following Lee’s impromptu mountain road. Their goal was to occupy the hill at Atalaya as inconspicuously as possible. There they would take up positions, rest for the night and then swoop down on the town of Cerro Gordo on the morn ing of the 18th. Their ultimate goal was to block the National Road to prevent Santa Anna’s army from escaping.
After a somber predawn breakfast of coffee, biscuits and salted beef (“The last meal for many a poor fellow,” one soldier sagely noted), they lined up in battle order. Each man placed his rucksack in a supply wagon, to be retrieved farther up the road after the battle—if all went well. The mood was heavy, and even those men who normally talked in the ranks were quiet. Few expected to do much more than skirmish with the enemy while driving them off Atalaya, with the big battle expected to take place the following day. But they had been camped at Plan del Río long enough to know the scale of the enemy’s fortifications. Anything could happen.
Walking quietly, Twiggs’ army set out. “It was no great won der either that the men were rather more reflective than usual, considering that very few of our number had ever been close in front of an enemy before, and we were approaching fortifications which we should have to carry by assault, at whatever sacrifice of life,” wrote one soldier in the 1st Artillery. “On coming to the head of the ravine, we were ordered to form in file, trail arms and keep perfect silence, the staff and field officers dismounting and leading their horses.”
Moving at a slow, deliberate pace, Twiggs’ men somehow remained undetected. By early afternoon, they were in position. Heeding Twiggs’ order that the American soldiers “charge them to hell,” they routed a small Mexican force, driving them clear off the hill. From the summit, the Americans could clearly see Santa Anna across the valley on the slopes of El Telégrafo, wearing civilian clothes and riding a gray charger as he maneuvered his troops into position for a counterattack. “Several of my men fired at him, but such a long range forbade accurate shooting,” wrote Lieutenant Dabney Maury, who was just moments away from having his left arm destroyed by a musket ball.
But Santa Anna’s counterattack was too modest and slow in coming. Before he could close, the Americans had time enough to hand-carry a lightweight cannon known as a mountain howitzer into accurate range. The howitzer was leveled at the Mexican troops as they marched toward the American lines at the base of Atalaya, its barrel loaded with rounds of grape. The Ameri can soldiers would long remember the howitzer’s opening salvo, cutting down more men with a single shot than most soldiers could ever remember having seen before. The Mexicans seemed utterly surprised. As Santa Anna watched from the safety of El Telégrafo’s summit, a Mexican band marched into battle with the counterattack. They kept playing their instruments right up until the instant that rounds of grape tore their bodies apart.
With the hill secured, Lee turned his attention to armament. Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson was one of the artillery specialists who helped haul a 24-pounder, a 12-pounder and a 24-pound howitzer over the cliffs and rugged terrain in order to position the weapons. The grueling labor was designed to put men and arms in place for the crucial action of the next day, when Scott would send the soldiers atop Atalaya charging through the valley below and up the slopes of El Telégrafo, desperately hoping they would turn Santa Anna’s army.
The battle for Cerro Gordo got under way at 7 a.m. on April 18. Lee was galloping a horse named Creole westward. He led a brigade of soldiers, once again showing the way. In all his reconnaissance missions, Lee had never actually seen the place where the National Road linked up with his trail. The time had come to find it.
While Lee went searching for the road, several interconnected maneuvers took place at once: Colonel William S. Harney led the assault of El Telégrafo, with its fortress and batteries on top; Maj. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow formed a diversionary attack to the left, hoping to mislead Santa Anna into thinking his was the main assault; Brig. Gen. James Shields followed a path roughly similar to Lee’s, seeking to capture the main body of troops at Cerro Gordo; and the rear elements of Scott’s army continued their movement up the Mexicans’ left flank, following the road Lee had engineered. General Scott, meanwhile, rode as far up the National Road as safety allowed in order to watch his grand plan be set into motion. The dragoons and most of the field artillery lingered nearby to provide reinforcement and to protect the general, just in case.
“The attack was made as ordered,” Grant recalled, “and per haps there was not a battle of the Mexican War, or of any other, where orders issued before an engagement were nearer being a correct report of what afterwards took place.”
He was right: Scott’s plan unfolded brilliantly. The main body of Twiggs’ division had crept up the left flank entirely undetected, with Santa Anna believing that the previous day’s skirmish had revealed the extent of the American force on his left. As a result, even though Pillow’s forces moved forward along the wrong route, the Mexicans had no inkling that a large force was in their rear. Lee and elements of Shields’ and Brig. Gen. Bennett C. Riley’s brigades completely cut off the National Road out of Cerro Gordo. (During the movement, Shields was felled by a rocket that tore through his lung but did not kill him. Colonel Edward D. Baker, until just a few months earlier an Illinois congress – man, assumed command of the brigade.) Scores of Mexicans fled toward Jalapa before the road could be closed, but once the American noose was cinched, others risked their lives to escape by scrambling down the cliffs above the cold waters of the Río del Plan and wading to the other side. Then they fled back up the road, soon to fight another day.
As he charged into battle atop Creole, Lee thought of his son, Custis, wondering how he might protect the child if he were there alongside him. As if to echo those thoughts, he came across a Mexican drummer boy whose arm was crushed and whose body was pinned beneath a fallen soldier. A girl stood over the child, distressed. Lee dismounted to help. “Her large black eyes were streaming with tears,” he would write to Custis a week later. “I had the dying man lifted off the boy and both carried to the hospital.” The battle of Cerro Gordo was over by 10 a.m. More than 3,000 Mexicans were taken prisoner. Hundreds of Mexican soldiers died. Santa Anna had been forced to escape by clambering hastily out of his stagecoach, cutting a saddle mule away from the rest of the team and then galloping off through the chaparral. The Mexican general was in such a rush that he left behind his personal papers, a chest full of money and even his cork leg.
Scott was not without his own losses. Two hundred and sixty-three Americans died. “The rough and rocky road, cut through the rugged defiles and dense chaparral by our troops, is now lined with our wounded,” wrote one American. Corpses lay in thick piles about the vast battlefield, drawing their first flies, even as the Americans cheered Scott when he rode into their midst. He delivered an impromptu speech to his men after the battle, telling of his pride in their gallant action. He was so overcome by the unlikely triumph that he let a tear roll down his cheek as he spoke. Many of the soldiers cried right along with him, thrilled at their victory but far more happy just to be alive.
Back at the battlefield, a cold rain fell all day. Burial parties picked through the bloated corpses, finding Mexican and American bodies side by side on the steep and rocky slopes of what the Americans called Telegraph Hill. The air smelled of rotting flesh and decay. Thick clouds of flies buzzed around the corpses, which were already turning black. Many of the bodies lacked limbs, and some had already been shorn of their boots, wallets and wedding rings by scavenging volunteers who had crept out onto the battlefield to steal from their fellow soldiers.
One member of the burial detail thought something was unusual about one of the dead. For starters, he wasn’t bloated and didn’t smell of death. There was just a small round hole in the right side of his uniform, where the musket ball had passed through his intestine. On closer examination, he appeared to be breathing. The man was an officer, and his body was quickly placed atop a stretcher and taken to the surgeon of the regiment, Dr. Adam McLaren. The wound was cleaned and patched, and the patient placed under close supervision. Further investigation revealed that he had been in reserve with the rest of General William J. Worth’s division but was so eager to do battle that he’d found his way into the fight.
“Among the wounded on our side,” Grant wrote to his wife, Julia, in his description of Cerro Gordo, “was Lt. [Napoleon J.T.] Dana, very dangerously.”
Dana would live, but his war was over.
Lee’s first taste of combat had left him a changed man. He had seen for the first time the effects of cannon fire on the human body and the emotional cost of injury to noncombatants. He would never view war the same way again. “You have no idea what a horrible sight a field of battle is,” he wrote his son.
But Cerro Gordo had altered him professionally, too. Lee was now on the fast track to greatness. Twiggs took pains to praise Lee in his official after-battle report. “Although whatever I may say may add little to the good reputation of Captain Lee, of the engineer corps, yet I may indulge in the pleasure of speaking of the invaluable services which he rendered me from the time I left the main road, until he conducted Colonel Riley’s brigade to its position in the rear of the enemy’s strong work on the Jalapa road. I consulted him with confidence and adopted his suggestions with entire assurance. His gallantry and good conduct on both days deserve the highest praise.”
Scott was no less sparing. “I am impelled to make special mention of the services of Captain R.E. Lee, engineers. This officer, greatly distinguished at the siege of Vera Cruz, was again indefatigable, during these operations, in reconnaissance as daring as laborious, and of the utmost value.”
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.