1847 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

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On August 19 and 20 they began to tighten the noose by winning a pair of battles on the city’s outskirts. The Mexicans obtained an armistice on the pretext of seeking peace, but their demands were completely unrealistic, and it soon became clear that they were just stalling. On September 8 the Americans renewed the offensive with their only major misstep of the campaign. They attacked a small group of buildings called Molino del Rey, where the Mexicans were reportedly melting church bells to cast artillery pieces. After incurring almost 800 casualties (116 dead, 665 wounded—a fourth of those engaged), the Americans finally captured the installation. They found no evidence of a foundry—nothing, in fact, but the guns the Mexican troops had used to defend themselves.

With that misbegotten battle concluded, the Americans began planning the final push to the city’s gates. Over those last few days, Scott’s most valuable scout and engineer, Robert E. Lee, stayed awake for more than sixty hours straight while surveying terrain, carrying messages, and building artillery positions, before he finally fainted in his saddle from exhaustion. On September 12 the Americans began shelling Chapultepec, the last remaining fortification guarding Mexico City’s gates. Early the next morning an infantry attack captured the stronghold in another bloody struggle, the final major battle of the war. With Chapultepec’s fall, the remaining Mexican troops evacuated the city and municipal officials surrendered to the invaders.

In a brilliantly conceived and executed campaign, Scott had captured a well-fortified enemy capital with a greatly outnumbered army cut off from supplies and reinforcements. Wellington was as effusive in praise of Scott as he had earlier been dismissive: “His campaign is unsurpassed in military annals. He is the greatest living soldier.”

Unfortunately the war was not a board game that ended with the capture of the opponent’s flag. Peace negotiations went slowly, in part because neither side was sure who was in charge. Mexico’s government was in constant turmoil, and America’s chief emissary, Nicholas Trist, was recalled in November but wavered for weeks before deciding to ignore the order. While diplomats dithered, American forces dealt with snipers and rebels within Mexico City, beat off a siege of their garrison at Puebla, talked warily with separatists in Baja California and the Yucatán, made plans to occupy the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, skirmished with guerrillas who harassed their supply lines, occupied more towns and seaports, and quarreled fiercely among themselves over who deserved credit for the victory. Finally, on February 2, 1848, a peace treaty was agreed on. Formal ratifications were not exchanged until late May, and the last American troops did not leave Mexico until August, nearly a year after the capital had fallen.