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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XVI

Laurels in a Lava Field


With the vanguard of the troops that followed the defeated Mexicans, Lee entered the city of Jalapa on April 19. It was a pleasant place of some 5000 people and had an elevation of about 4500 feet.​1 From Jalapa he hurried on to Perote, which General Worth took without opposition. There Lee helped to verify an inventory of the arms and ammunition in the old castle.​2 It was a tedious task, though performed in an ancient building that greatly interested Lee. During the intervals of work he found opportunity for reflection and prayer: "I endeavored to give thanks to our Heavenly Father for all his mercies to me, for his preservation of me through all the dangers I have passed, and [for] all the blessings which he has bestowed upon me, for I know I fall far short of my obligations" — thus he wrote Mrs. Lee on the 25th, after attending a service in the courtyard.3

A few days later he rejoined Scott, who had established himself in the governor's palace at Jalapa. Despite the recent victory the atmosphere of headquarters was not happy. Transportation was still far below the army's needs; there was no news of the arrival of reinforcements at Vera Cruz; the term of several thousand of the volunteers was about to expire, and they showed no disposition to re-enlist; Scott's suspicious nature led him to believe that the administration was withholding support at a time when he was sure that he could lead, with negligible losses, a properly equipped army straight to Mexico City.​4 His apprehensions were intensified by the arrival early in May of Nicholas P. Trist, chief clerk of the State Department, who was sent to conduct preliminaries of peace, without previous intimation to Scott either of  p250  his coming or of the nature of his mission. Both Scott and Trist lost their temper in an undignified exchange of letters before they reached an understanding.5

While Scott and Trist were firing long letters at each other, old "Fuss and Feathers" sent Worth forward to Puebla, which was entered on May 15, after a brush the previous afternoon with the enemy's cavalry.​6 Puebla is about 120 miles southwest of Jalapa, by the route Worth followed, and was at that time the second city of Mexico in population. It lay 186 miles from Vera Cruz and 93 miles, as the roads then ran, from Mexico City. Santa Anna's failure to defend so important a place could only mean that since the battle of Cerro Gordo he had not been able to collect an army capable of putting up a fight. Scott accordingly moved his headquarters forward, and on May 28 entered Puebla with his staff, Lee among them.7

Here occurred another long period of delay and dark misgivings while Scott waited for reinforcements. He saw to it that his troops were occupied with hard drilling, and he held nightly levees to amuse and to instruct his officers. Touchy, pompous, and vainglorious though he might be, Scott none the less was the most scientific soldier at that time in America, and around his supper table he discussed for two or three hours with the heads of the various divisions of the general staff the particular problem that then confronted the army, whether of transport, supply, drill, gunfire, or march. If no military matter pressed, he talked of other things, for his reading was wide and his culture was real.​8 These evening conferences were a very material part of the military education of Robert Lee. Equally instructive was his special duty. For Scott directed him and Major William Turnbull, chief topographical engineer, to make separate studies of the approaches to the city of Mexico, and to prepare a map. Each collected what data he could from travellers and natives and pencilled these on his map. When this information was verified, it was "inked in." The result was a map of substantial accuracy, though faulty in many details.​9 Scott examined the engineers' progress almost  p251  daily and especially desired them to make full investigation of the roads leading into Mexico City from the south, beyond Lake Chalco, as it was soon apparent that a direct advance on the city from the east, by the main road, if not impracticable, would be very difficult.10

On August 7, Franklin Pierce arrived at Puebla with a second contingent of reinforcements, 2500 in number. The American force now numbered 10,738 officers and men,​11 organized as follows:

Harney's Cavalry Brigade: Detachments of the 1st, 2d, and 3d Dragoons.
First (Worth's) Division:

First (Garland's) Brigade: 2d and 3d Artillery (dismounted); 4th Infantry; Duncan's battery.

Second (Clark's) Brigade: 5th, 6th, and 8th Infantry; one battery.

Second (Twiggs's) Division:

First (Smith's) Brigade: 1st Artillery (dismounted); 3d Infantry; rifle regiment; Taylor's battery.

Second (Riley's) Brigade: 4th Artillery (dismounted); 1st and 7th Infantry.

Third (Pillow's) Division:

First (Cadwalader's) Brigade: Voltigeur Regiment;​12 11th and 14th Infantry; light battery.

Fourth (Quitman's) Division:

First (Shields's) Brigade: New York volunteers (one regiment); South Carolina volunteers (one regiment).

Second (Watson's) Brigade: detachment 2d Pennsylvania volunteers; detachment U. S. Marines.​13

The size of this force led Scott to determine, with the greatest boldness, to abandon his line of communications and to undertake to live off the country while he pursued, found, and destroyed  p252  his adversary. The very morning after Pierce reported, Scott put Twiggs's division on the road to Mexico City. It was his belief that Santa Anna must make a stand to save his capital, but where he would give battle, and in what strength, Scott did not pretend to know.

Slowly, on August 10, the army crawled up the Rio Frio range, the great natural barrier to an attack on Mexico City from the east. As the column started down the western slope Lee got his first glimpses of the great valley of Mexico, shining and verdant, spangled with white villages and girdled with mountains. Mexico City itself, with frowning walls and defiant towers, was plainly visible through glasses. "Recovering from the sublime trance," Scott wrote, "probably, not a man in the column failed to say to his neighbor or himself: That splendid city soon shall be ours!"​14 The sentiment of the average soldier, gazing downward on the plain, could not have been very different from that of Cortez and his conquistadores, three hundred and twenty-eight years earlier.

Some earthworks were found on the mountains, but these had been abandoned before they had been finished. No enemy was encountered until after the army had reached Ayotla, the last town on the road to Mexico. Here, on August 11, Scott established headquarters. To the west of Ayotla the road to Mexico, which was nineteen miles distant, was known to run on a narrow causeway through marshes, between Lake Texcoco on the north and Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco on the south. The most casual examination of this ground showed that it was as strongly occupied and fortified as Lee had been told it was when he was making his map at Puebla. Could the army assault the enemy's position or turn it successfully between the lakes? That was the question Lee was sent out on the 12th and 13th to answer. By evening on the second day he was able to report in some detail. His own description of the obstacles, written nine days later, was as follows:

[The enemy's] principal defence was at El Peñon, commanding the causeway. . . . The hill of El Peñon is about 300 feet  p253  high, having three plateaus, of different elevations. It stands in the waters of Lake Tezcuco [Texcoco]. Its base is surrounded by a dry trench, and its sides arranged with breastworks from its base to its crest. It was armed with thirty pieces of cannon, and defended by 7000 men under Santa Anna in person. The causeway passed directly by its base; the waters of the lake washing each side of the causeway for two miles in front, and the whole distance, seven miles, to the city. There was a battery on the causeway, and four hundred yards in advance of the Peñon; another by its side; a third a mile in front of the entrance to the city, and a fourth at the entrance. About two miles in front of the Peñon a road branched off to the left, and crossed the outlet of Lake Hochimillico [Xochimilco], at the village of Mexicalcingo, six miles from the main road. This village, surrounded by a marsh, was enveloped in batteries, and only approached over a paved causeway, a mile in length; beyond, the causeway continued through the marsh for two miles further, and opened upon terra firma at the village of Churubusco."15

Scott believed that he could storm the Peñon, but he knew it would cost him many lives and he wished to conserve his force for the major battle he felt sure he later would have to wage before he could enter Mexico. The route by Mexicalcingo, though difficult, was less so than the other. Scott accordingly decided tentatively to mask El Peñon and to turn the enemy's positions via Mexicalcingo.​16 Before this could be undertaken, word came from General Worth that some of his officers had returned from a reconnaissance made at Scott's order. They were convinced that the army could move around the lower end of Lake Chalco and could advance on Mexico from the south, avoiding all the works between the lakes. Scott had considered this line of approach while he was at Puebla, but had never reached a final decision regarding it. Now his problem, shown on page 254, was clearer.

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The reconnaissance to the south of Chalco had not been complete and some of the inferences drawn from it were to prove  p254  erroneous.​17 None the less, an advance in that direction offered so much the better chance of avoiding heavy losses that Scott promptly gave orders for the army to take the road around Chalco, leaving one division temporarily in front of Ayotla to delay the enemy.​18 The distance from Ayotla to San Augustin, on the road from Acapulco to Mexico City, was estimated to be twenty-seven miles.​19 While the army was slowly plodding around the eastern shore of Lake Chalco — which was more a marsh than a lake — Lee went ahead on the 17th and made a reconnaissance of the roads to the south and west of Chalco. On his return to Ochlomilco, where General Scott had stopped for the night with Pillow's division, Lee reported the facts and confirmed Scott in his purpose to advance on San Augustin. However, Scott did not deceive himself. He knew he would not have the element of surprise on his side, because he was sure the movements of his army had been observed and reported to Santa Anna. Consequently, he expected to encounter the whole of the Mexican  p255  army in the vicinity of San Augustin. Advancing steadily on that village he met with no opposition, but when he arrived there on the morning of August 18, he received a message from General Twiggs that made him even more certain that a battle was imminent. For Twiggs reported that as he had marched away from Ayotla on the 16th, with the rear division, he had encountered and had exchanged shots with a large force of Mexican cavalry, who must have discovered that the whole American army was moving to the south of Lake Chalco.

First reconnaissances showed singularly difficult terrain around San Augustin. The Acapulco road to Mexico City led northward to a hacienda known as San Antonio, distant about three miles. Although quite practicable for the wagon train and the artillery, this highway was swept for a long distance by gunfire from San Antonio, which was found to be heavily fortified. It was not possible to avoid this road by marching to the east of it, because there the ground was so soft that wheeled vehicles would be mired. Nor did it seem possible to turn San Antonio from the west, because the most conspicuous feature of the landscape was on that side — a great field of lava, more than five miles wide on its east-and‑west axis and three miles long, from north to south, broken into great blocks and fissures — a hopeless barrier to the advance of the guns or the trains.​20 Such a tract of volcanic scoria was known locally as pedregal and bore an evil name. Furthermore, even if a way for the infantry could be found through the pedregal, so that they could turn San Antonio without artillery support, their advance would be halted in another two miles at the town and river Churubusco, which had not been reconnoitred but were believed to be heavily fortified.​21 In short, an advance up the Acapulco road seemed an almost hopeless undertaking.

What was to be done; what alternative offered? Only one: About two miles west of San Augustin, the "San Angel" road was known to run. This led in a northeasterly direction to Churubusco, where it joined the Acapulco-Mexico City highway. If a passage could be made from San Augustin to the San Angel road, then San Antonio could be turned and perhaps no battle would  p256  have to be fought till Churubusco was reached. The situation, graphically represented, was thus as shown on page 257.

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Before he had been many hours at San Augustin, Scott did the sensible, obvious thing: he determined to ascertain by accurate reconnaissances whether the direct road northward toward Mexico City by San Antonio was as difficult as had been reported; and, secondly, whether a route could be opened across the pedregal to the San Angel road. On the first mission he sent Captain James L. Mason with an escort; to the important task of finding if there was a way over the pedregal he assigned Lee, accompanied by the 11th Infantry and two companies of dragoons. The latter were under command of Captain Phil Kearny, whose dead body Lee was one day to send across the lines in northern Virginia.

Lee soon found a road that led over some mounds to the west of San Augustin, and then followed the edge of the pedregal. It was no boulevard, to be sure, but it was passable for infantry and within some work it could be made practicable for artillery. For nearly three miles he made his way westward until he reached the side of an eminence in the pedregal, known as Zacatepec. There his escort encountered a strong Mexican force, which exchanged shots and then fell back toward the western edge of the pedregal. The Americans pursued for a short distance and took five prisoners, but as they were unfamiliar with the trail through the lava, they soon abandoned the chase. Lee climbed to the top of Zacatepec and from that height was able to see that the enemy was in strength on the San Angel road and had thrown up a fortification on a hill near the village of Padierna. This settlement, which the Americans mistook for the village of Contreras, lay almost due west from the route Scott's troops were following. Lee's long-range examination convinced him that this position could be occupied without great loss.22

Unable to go farther that day Lee returned to San Augustin. The immediate conclusion to be drawn from his reconnaissance was plain: the Mexicans he had encountered manifestly had come from the San Angel road; if they could cross the western part of the pedregal Scott's men could too. When they reached the other  p258  side of the lava field, they would be on the San Angel road and could avoid San Antonio altogether. Lee's judgment that this was the best strategy was confirmed in his mind by the news that the reconnaissance up the Acapulco road had been halted by fire from the hacienda of San Antonio, where the Mexicans were on the alert and were as strongly fortified as had been reported.

That night Lee attended a council of war, summoned by the commanding general. Scott went over the reports one by one, beginning with the senior officer. Mason, who had reconnoitred on the Acapulco road, was all for assaulting San Antonio with the bayonet, and was convinced that infantry could take the place by a flank movement a short distance into the pedregal on the western side of the Acapulco road. Lee argued that the advance could be made with fewer casualties by moving through the pedregal and up the San Angel road. A silent auditor, Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, of the navy, was much impressed by both engineers. "The services of Captain Lee," he attested, "were invaluable to his chief. Endowed with a mind which has no superior in his corps, and possessing great energy of character, he examined, counselled, and advised with a judgment, tact, and discretion worthy of all praise. His talent for topography was peculiar, and he seemed to receive impressions intuitively, which it cost other men much labor to acquire. Mason, though a very young man, was scarcely, if at all, his inferior in this respect. . . ."23

General Scott gave no final orders before the council broke up, wisely waiting on developments, but he virtually decided to deliver his main attack by way of the San Angel road.​24 Lee was instructed to start early the next morning with the engineer company and 500 men from Pillow's division to put the track across the pedregal in condition for artillery. The rest of Pillow's troops and the whole of Twiggs's division were to protect the road builders. The other commands were to remain that day around San Augustin. Formal orders to this effect were issued before the night was over.25

Never, perhaps, in American history did a force of such limited  p259  numbers include so many men of future eminence as the column that filed westward from San Augustin on the morning of August 19. Twiggs and Pillow, the commanders, are now mere names, but some of their subordinates will long be remembered. Lee was in general charge of the reconnaissance; Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.P. G. T. Beauregard was one of his assistants. Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.G. B. McClellan of the engineer company was there with his captain, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Gustavus W. Smith, who was subsequently a major general in the Confederate armies. Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph Hooker was assistant adjutant general to General Pillow. One of the two light batteries that accompanied the infantry was commanded by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.J. Bankhead Magruder, who, in the early spring of 1862, opposed McClellan on the peninsula of Virginia. Magruder's lieutenant was an awkward young man who had been transferred from the dismounted 1st Artillery, when Magruder had received his guns. That morning, perhaps for the first time, Lee saw this quiet "Mr. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson" who was to be his own most trusted lieutenant fifteen years thereafter, the "Stonewall" of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Under the direction of these men the troops slowly advanced, covering the working party engaged in the difficult work of turning a mule path into a road fit for artillery and wagons. By 1 P.M., on August 19, the road had been constructed to a point within range of the fortified position of Padierna, which was believed to be under command of General Valencia. The place was found to be armed with twenty-two guns, most of them heavy.

Lee saw that the road-making could go no farther till Valencia was driven off. He so reported to General Twiggs, returned the working parties to their regiments, and ordered the engineering tools repacked. General Twiggs thereupon directed Captain John McClellan​26 of the topographical engineers and Lieutenant George B. McClellan of the engineer company to go forward and find a location for the two American batteries. These officers, however, soon encountered a Mexican picket line and were forced to return. A regiment was then advanced, and the enemy was driven back. Lee accompanied these troops, who halted on the edge of a ravine, 30 yards from the Mexicans. Lee next selected a position for the batteries on the most favorable ground he could  p260  find, sheltered somewhat from the enemy, with the wagons safe from the Mexican fire.​27 The batteries, brought up with much difficulty, began a cannonade with the enemy on most uneven terms. While Lee stood with the artillerists, a solid shot took off the leg of Preston Johnston, nephew of his friend Joseph E. Johnston. The boy dropped by the side of the gun and died that night.28

The ravine that lay between the American troops and the Mexican position was deep and rough and was coursed by a rapid stream that flowed northward. Swept by the Mexican fire, the declivity was considered impassable. Some expedient other than a frontal assault had to be found, and speedily. If this were not discovered, the American batteries would be destroyed and the opportunity lost, because Mexican reinforcements could already be seen advancing down the San Angel road in great numbers. The alternative quickly suggested itself. Almost at the same hour, several of the commanding officers near the front realized that the best movement was to attempt to turn the enemy's left, by advancing through the pedregal and westward across the San Angel road. Such a manoeuvre, if success­ful, would force the enemy from his high ground and, at the same time, would cut him off from a retreat to Mexico City. General Pillow ordered Riley's brigade to start the operation, and close behind Riley he sent Cadwalader. A little later General Persifor F. Smith, of Twigg's division, who had been on the left of Magruder's battery, filed away by the right flank, on his own initiative, and followed virtually the same route as Riley and Cadwalader.

All these troops, and a few others that General Scott sent on their heels, got safely across the pedregal and beyond the San Angel road. There they found themselves, some 3300 strong, in a situation full of advantage but, potentially, full of danger as well. They were in and around the little Indian village of San Geronimo,​29 on a high ridge that ran from southwest to northeast between two ravines. Half a mile south of them was the Mexican position  p261  they had set out to turn. The approach to it was across a ravine and up a hill, through orchards, standing corn, and thick underbrush. North of the Americans and on the same side of the road with them another force of Mexicans was observed less than a mile away, mustered on elevated ground. This force consisted of all arms of the service and seemed to be preparing to advance. Estimates of its strength ran as high as 12,000. The Americans, in a word, were between two forces. If they could hold off the northern column they could keep it from reinforcing the Mexicans to the south of them, and then they might be able to deliver the intended attack on Padierna from the rear. But if the Mexicans discovered the real situation and were good enough soldiers to make a simultaneous attack from the north and from the south, the Americans might be wiped out. Roughly sketched, the situation was that shown on page 262.

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Position of American and Mexican forces adjacent to San Angel Road,
at nightfall, August 19, 1847.

General Persifor F. Smith, who believed himself the senior officer on the west side of the San Angel road, at once prepared to attack the large body of Mexican reinforcements to the north of his position, but before he could get his scattered troops deployed, night overtook him, and a heavy cold rain began to descend.​30 The troops had no shelter and little fire wood. Contact with the reserves on the eastern side of the road was uncertain; from Scott's headquarters the column was completely cut off by distance, darkness, and the nature of the ground.

Lee had come across the San Angel early in the evening, at the instance of General Scott, who was then at Zacatepec. Lee probably knew that the General believed it possible for the Americans west of the San Angel road to hold off the Mexican forces north of them while driving the other Mexican troops from the entrenched position at Padierna. Scott, indeed, had been much pleased with the prospect that the occupation of San Geronimo would prevent the reinforcement of Padierna. He had not been especially alarmed to find his advanced column between two Mexican forces. To strengthen the hold on San Geronimo he had sent Shields's brigade forward, unknown to Smith. But while Lee may have known this to be Scott's estimate of the situation, he brought no orders when he reported to General Smith.

 p262  After sundown General Smith called Lee to confer with him and General Cadwalader. Two of the engineers had been up the ravine to the south of San Geronimo and had found it unguarded. The occupants of the work at Padierna evidently were still of the belief that the Americans could and would attack only from the front. On the basis of this information a decision was reached  p263  to deliver an attack on Padierna from the rear, before daybreak, disregarding for the time the reinforcements to the north of San Geronimo. The opinion of these officers, it would seem, was that the Mexicans were poor fighters and that, if the troops at Padierna were routed quickly, the others would not stand, much less attempt a counterstroke.

To cover the attack on Padierna, a strong demonstration by the troops in front of that place was desirable. But how was it to be assured? The forces west of the San Angel road were by this time wholly separated from those in the pedregal; the blackness of the night was unrelieved except by occasional flashes of lightning; a torrential rain was falling; the way across the pedregal was difficult and dangerous. But as soon as Smith stated that he would like to communicate his plan and position to Scott, Lee volunteered to carry the message to the commanding general, whom he believed to be still at Zacatepec. Smith accepted the offer. The understanding was, however, that Smith would deliver his attack, whether Lee returned from Scott or not.31

It was near eight o'clock when Lee left San Geronimo with a few men and started down the hill toward the pedregal. He had been over that part of the route only once, and it was too densely dark for him to observe any of the landmarks. There was nothing to guide him but his singularly developed sense of direction, and an occasional glimpse of the hill of Zacatepec when the lightning flashed. Groping his way along, step by step, he reached the road and crossed it in safety. Next, at some point in that black maze — he did not know exactly where — he must find the American outposts and risk being shot before he could give the countersign. Ere long, above the roar of rain, he heard the slow, uncertain tramp of a large body of men. From the direction of their advance they must be Americans, but what if they were not? Doubtless Lee stepped aside and waited until they were close enough for the next flash of lightning to show their uniforms. A  p264  crash of thunder, a ghostly glare for an instant, and he recognized them. They were Shields's men, moving to join Smith.

Leaving one of his companions to guide these troops to San Geronimo, Lee plunged into the pedregal.​32 Around great blocks of lava he felt his way, and across crevasses he was forced to jump in the dark. When the lightning showed an abysmº over which he could not spring, he had to skirt it, with every risk of losing his direction. There were fully three tortuous miles of this, in unrelieved night. At last, drenched and sore, Lee stumbled to Zacatepec, only to find that Scott had returned to San Augustin.

What should he do? Stay there till daylight and let Smith make his attack without the desired demonstration in his front? Not so long as the blood of "Light-Horse Harry" flowed in the veins of his son! Tired legs and bruised feet would have to carry him three miles more through the pedregal. So, on he went, gratified for every pick-stroke that had taken the edge from any of that accursed lava on trail where the pioneers had labored to make a road. Three miles must have seemed thirty, and Lee's strong body was close to exhaustion when finally he saw dim lights in the houses at San Augustin. Still wet from the rain, every muscle numb and aching, Lee stepped into Scott's headquarters at 11 o'clock. He found the General calmly writing his report of the day's operations, confident of the outcome but naturally anxious for news from the other side of the pedregal. No information had come during the evening. Seven officers whom Scott had sent out in turn to carry messages to General Smith had all returned without reaching him.​33 The commander listened admiringly to Lee's report, cordially approved Smith's dispositions, and prepared immediately to order the desired demonstration against the front of the Mexican position at Padierna. He decided also to send part of Worth's division forward in case it should be needed.

Before the orders could be given two other callers were announced — General Twiggs and General Pillow. These division commanders had started from Zacatepec for San Geronimo during the evening, but had lost their way and had barely escaped falling into the hands of the enemy. Twiggs had injured his foot, and  p265  the two had been forced to retrace their steps to Zacatepec, and thence, finding Scott gone, they had followed to San Augustin. Scott decided to keep Pillow with him for the night, but he sent Twiggs to collect troops for the demonstration.

As Twiggs was uncomfortable and in pain, and had already lost himself once in the pedregal, Lee accompanied him back toward Zacatepec. It was the third time he had made the journey that day, but there was nobody else at hand who knew enough about the road to guide Twiggs in his effort to locate those of his men who remained east of the San Angel road. This midnight mission doubtless was undertaken on horseback, and the darkness was not so Stygian, for the worst of the storm was over and through still-dripping clouds the moon now and again was visible to light the way. Slowly the General and Lee went forward until they reached Zacatepec, near which they found the headquarters of Brigadier General Franklin Pierce, senior officer in that part of the pedregal. They told him of Scott's orders to make a demonstration in front of the entrenched camp, but as Pierce had been hurt the previous day when his horse fell, he was unable to take charge of this operation. The command devolved on Colonel T. B. Ransom of the 9th Infantry.

It was now 1 o'clock. General Twiggs was worn out and returned to a battery position for rest, but Lee was so determined to see Scott's orders executed that he went on to Ransom's bivouac. There he explained what was required of Ransom and offered to guide the troops to what he considered the most advantageous position for a demonstration, namely, the ground occupied the previous day by the advanced American batteries. It took some time to get Pierce's wet and weary men in motion, and when they started they had to grope their way over the lava blocks. The rain had slackened. however, and ere long it ceased altogether. Day was dawning and Lee had been in the field nearly twenty-four hours when Ransom's men filed into the position where, on the 19th, Magruder, Collendar, and Jackson had fought.

The infantry were observed almost the moment they arrived, because the Mexicans were expecting a renewal of the attack from that quarter. Soon Lee found Ransom's men falling about him,  p266  as they answered the fire that was being poured into them. But the action did not last very long. Between 6 and 7 o'clock there was a nervous pause in the Mexican fire, visible confusion in the entrenched camp, and, in a few minutes, the roar of volleys from the crest of the hill above the Mexican guns. Then blue-coated men began to stream down the hillside through the growing light, and the Mexicans started to run. The attack that had been planned before Lee had left San Geronimo was being delivered from in rear of Padierna, and the Mexicans were being routed. Seventeen minutes after the first gun was fired, the whole earthwork was in the hands of the Americans, and those of the garrison who could escape were fleeing up the San Angel road. They were joined quickly by the thousands from the plateau above the American position, for these troops, who had been much mystified by the attack, quickly caught the panic and offered no resistance.34

Lee went over the captured position and there found Joe Johnston, now acting as lieutenant colonel of the Voltigeur regiment. Johnston had just heard of the death of his nephew late the previous evening and "his frame," in Lee's words, was "shrunk and shivered with agony." Lee held out his hand and burst into tears at the sight of his friend's grief.​35 As soon as he could compose himself, he rode back toward San Augustin to join Scott, whom he met on the way to the scene of action.36

The General realized that much depended now on the speed with which the enemy was followed up. He knew, as did the other commanders, that there was a crossroad north of the pedregal. At the village of Coyoacan, this crossroad divided. The upper, or northern fork, ran to the village of Churubusco. The lower fork led from the San Angel road to San Antonio, the advanced position of the enemy on the Mexico City-Acapulco highway. If, therefore, the United States troops could reach and  p267  hold the fork to San Antonio they would have a direct line of advance on that position from the flank and rear. General Scott had prudently anticipated this possibility and had left one brigade to mask San Antonio while ordering the rest of Worth's division to cross the pedregal and move up the San Angel road. As soon as he found that the enemy on the San Angel road had been routed, Scott directed Worth to hurry back to San Augustin, to advance up the Acapulco road, and to attack San Antonio from in front when Pillow and Twiggs approached it in rear, down the lower fork of the crossroad from Coyoacan. The situation around 7 A.M. was about that shown on page 268.

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General situation at beginning of American pursuit of Mexican army to Churubusco, about 7 A.M., August 20, 1847.

As he rode steadily toward Coyoacan on the crossroad leading from the San Angel road, Scott was in his glory, enjoying every moment of his triumph and giving his orders rapidly and with a quick understanding of each new development. He soon ordered Lee forward to reconnoitre the lower fork which Pillow's division was to follow, in the attack on the rear of San Antonio. Before this movement could be initiated, however, word came that the enemy had hurriedly evacuated San Antonio for fear of being enveloped, and was retreating up the road toward Mexico City.

Meantime, a hot fire was opened from the northeast through the standing corn beyond Coyoacan. The enemy evidently was making a stand somewhat along the upper fork of the crossroad on the way to Churubusco. A hasty examination was made of ground about which the engineers previously had been able to learn little. It was found the Churubusco ran due east through cultivated fields, more a mill stream or a canal than a river. Where it crossed the Mexico-Acapulco road, at the village of Churubusco, a heavy bridgehead had been thrown up, with a deep wet ditch. About 450 yards to the southwest of the tête du pont was the convent of San Mateo, which the Americans consistently misstyled San Pablo. This enclosure covered the flank approach to the bridgehead, by way of the northern fork of the crossroad, and had been converted into a temporary fort, with artillery and a strong garrison. To troops and officers just arriving the terrain was confusing. Some time elapsed before the United States forces understood the nature of the conventual buildings, hidden, as they were, by the head-high corn.


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Disposition of American forces for final attack at Churubusco and Partales Ranch, August 20, 1847.
Worth advanced up the Acapulco road from San Antonio to Churubusco and deployed his troops across the bridgehead. Pillow joined him. The two divisions slowly but vigorously fought their way forward. Twiggs was ordered to take the convent. So confident was Scott of victory, despite the stubbornness of the Mexican resistance, that he decided to send Shields north of the river, with Pierce in support, to advance eastward to the Acapulco road, and to cut off the enemy's retreat to Mexico City from the bridgehead at the village of Churubusco. Lee was instructed to lead the troops across the Churubusco and to select a position for them. Lee himself is the best narrator of what followed: "Discovering a large mass of infantry on the Churubusco bridge, and apprehending a fire from batteries to defend the rear, I drew out towards the City of Mexico until I reached the large hamlet [in reality the ranch de los Partales] on the Mexican road about three fourths of a mile in the rear of the bridge of Churubusco. Throwing the left of his brigade upon this building which offered protection against the mass of cavalry stretching towards the gates of Mexico, and his right upon the building in the field in rear of which we had approached, General Shields formed his line obliquely to that of the enemy, who, not be outflanked, had drawn out from his entrenchments and extended his line from the bridge to nearly opposite our left. General Pierce's brigade coming up just after General Shields' brigade had commenced the attack, took position to his right, enveloping the building in the field."

The general situation at this time is shown on page 270.

Lee's account continued: "Our troops being now hotly engaged and somewhat pressed, I urged forward the Howitzer battery under Lt. Reno, who very promptly brought the pieces to bear upon the head of their column with good effect. Perceiving that the enemy's cavalry were showing themselves on out left, and that our force was greatly outnumbered, I hastened back to the General-in‑chief, who directed Major Sumner to take the Rifle regiment and a squadron to the support of that wing."​37 Even with this help the Mexicans could not be outflanked. The ground  p270  was too boggy and the enemy too strong. No offensive could be organized except a frontal attack on the road. Shields ordered this. Slowly the volunteers went forward in the face of very heavy fire, and when they saw the Mexicans waver they charged. As they reached the road they met Worth's troops advancing up it, for the bridgehead had been taken, the convent of San Mateo had been stormed, and the victory was won.​38 Lee joined the infantry in pressing forward. Some of the cavalry pursued to the gates of Mexico.39

 p271  Lee doubtless sought repose as soon as he could get it after the close of the battle. He had been on his feet or in the saddle almost continuously for thirty-six hours, had thrice crossed the pedregal, and had been in all three of the actions, that of the 19th in the pedregal, that of Padierna, and that of Churubusco. But he had his reward. General Twiggs wrote of him in his report of the battles: "To Captain Lee, of the engineers, I have again the pleasure of tendering my thanks for the exceedingly valuable services rendered throughout the whole of these operations. . . ."40

More specifically, General P. F. Smith reported: "In adverting to the conduct of the staff, I wish to record particularly my admiration of the conduct of Captain Lee of the engineers. His reconnaissances, though pushed far beyond the bounds of prudence, were conducted with so much skill, that their fruits were of the utmost value — the soundness of his judgment and personal daring being equally conspicuous."41

Similarly, General Pillow mentioned him in this language: "I cannot in justice omit to notice the valuable services of Captain Lee of the engineer corps, whose distinguished merit and gallantry deserves the highest praise; and who, in the execution of his duties, was ably assisted by his assistants previously mentioned."42

In like strain, General Shields, remembering Lee's help in the marshy field above the Rio de Churubusco, said of him: "It affords me pleasure, and I but perform my duty, too, in acknowledging my great obligations to Captain R. E. Lee, engineers corps. . . ." And in the body of his report, describing the arrival of his forces on the field, he said: "I established the right upon a point recommended by Captain Lee, engineer officer, in whose skill and judgment I had the utmost confidence. . . ."43

Noting that General Twiggs had come to his camp during the night of August 19‑20, General Pierce said that officer was "with  p272  Captain Lee of the engineer corps, whose distinguished services on both days will not, I am sure, be over­looked. . . ."44

In short, every general under whom he served at Padierna (Contreras) and Churubusco had praise for Lee, precisely as they had at Cerro Gordo. General Scott added a final tribute when he named the officers of his staff who deserved commendation, among them "Captain R. E. Lee (as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring)" — the only officer for whom he had such words.​45 Lee later received the brevet of lieutenant colonel, as of August 20,​46 and he gained much in professional prestige. When General Scott testified in the Pillow court of inquiry he said that Lee's two journeys across the pedregal on the night of August 19‑20 constituted "the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign."​47 Lee did not glorify his own exploits. On August 22, having no time to prepare a formal report to the bureau of engineers, he adopted an expedient common with the general staff and wrote an informal account of the recent battles, which he addressed to Mrs. Totten, wife of his commanding officer. In this there is no mention of any personal experience, except that of meeting Joe Johnston after the entrenched camp of Padierna had been captured.48

The Author's Notes:

1 A pleasing description of Jalapa will be found in Semmes, 187 ff.

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2 Mexican Reports, 301‑2.

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3 Jones, L. and L., 52.

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4 Ex. Doc. 60, 1st sess., 30th Cong., 944 ff., 954, 963; 2 Rives, 413‑414, 427; Hitchcock, 257.

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5 2 Rives, 418 ff.

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6 Ex. Doc. 60, 1st sess., 30th Cong., 994‑95.

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7 Ibid., 993. There was an unfounded report in the army, while Lee was at Puebla, that he had been sent under a flag of truce on a mission to Mexico City. An Artillery Officer in the Mexico War, 247, 258.

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8 Hitchcock, 256.

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9 Copy in the Lee Maps, Virginia Military Institute.

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10 2 Ripley, 184; Lee to Totten, MS., Jan. 1, 1848; Eng. MSS., 993; Hitchcock in Sen. Doc. 65, 1st sess., 30th Cong., 523, cited hereafter as Pillow Inquiry. This is the report of the court of inquiry called to investigate the charges made against General Gideon J. Pillow by General Scott.

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11 2 Rives, 448‑49; Semmes, 280‑81; Hitchcock, 271; 2 Scott, 466.

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12 Voltigeurs, in the original French military application of the term, were "irregular rifle­men," used as skirmishers or as sharpshooters; later the term meant simply rifle­men.

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13 2 Scott, 463‑65.

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14 2 Scott, 467.

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15 Lee to Mrs. Jos. G. Totten, Aug. 22, 1847; Pillow Inquiry, 461.

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16 All this is controverted. The admirers of General Worth claimed that full credit for the choice of the route by way of Lake Chalco belonged to him. Colonel E. A. Hitchcock (Pillow Inquiry, 526) denied this, even going so far as to assert that the operations against El Peñon were a feint.

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17Ripley, 189‑90 and appendices Nos. 1 and 2, pp647‑648. Appendix I contains Lee's summary (Aug. 14) of the intelligence reports on the roads south of Lake Chalco.

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18 Scott's report, Mexican Reports, 303.

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19 Ibid., 304.

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20 Hitchcock, 274‑75; Semmes, 378; Scott in Mexican Reports, 304.

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21 The best brief description of the ground is in 2 Rives, 459 ff.

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22 Scott, in Mexican Reports, 304; Smith, ibid., 349‑50; Cadwalader, Mexican Reports, Supplement, 119; Graham, ibid., 124; Hitchcock, 275; 2 Ripley, 211. Graham's report is the fullest.

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23 Semmes, 379. Mason, an officer of great promise, died in 1853. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Cullum, No. 843.º

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24 Lee, in Pillow Inquiry, 78.

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25 G. O. 258, Aug. 19, 1847; Pillow Inquiry, 470‑71.

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26 General Twiggs consistently spells John McClellan as John McLellan, but Cullum gave it as here printed.

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27 Scott, Mexican Reports, 304; Twiggs, ibid., 324; Smith, ibid., 352; Lee, Pillow Inquiry, 79; 2 Ripley, 220; English Soldier, 251‑52.

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28 Lee to Mrs. Totten, Aug. 22, 1847; Pillow Inquiry, 465.

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29 Names were much confused by the American commanders in this battle. Several of them in their reports mistook the village of San Geronimo for the ranch of Ansaldo, which lay just below it.

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30 Santa Anna's report of Nov. 19, 1847, quoted in Pillow Inquiry, 537.

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31 Lee, in Pillow Inquiry, 75. There is a conflict of evidence here. Hunt (Long, 56‑57) quoted an unnamed captain as saying that Lee stated he must return to Scott, as if had orders to do so. The anonymous captain was not at the council of war. Smith was present, and he wrote in his narrative (Mexican Reports, 327) that Lee "offered to return to General Scott (a most difficult task) and inform him," etc. The text follows Smith. See also Smith in Pillow Inquiry, 100, and Cadwalader, ibid., 84‑85. There was no formal council of war in the church of San Geronimo. Hunt was misinformed on the point.

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32 Lee, in Pillow Inquiry, 79.

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33 2 Scott, 475.

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34 Scott, Mexican Reports, 305 ff.; Twiggs, ibid., 323; Smith, ibid., 352; Hitchcock, 277; 2 Ripley, 235; P. F. Smith, Mexican Reports, 327 ff.; Pierce, ibid., Supplement, 105; T. B. Ransom, ibid., 113; I. I. Stevens, Campaigns of the Rio Grande and of Mexico, 66‑67; Trist, in Pillow Inquiry, 123.

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35 Lee to Mrs. Totten, Aug. 22, 1847; Pillow Inquiry, 465; Johnston quoted in Long, 71; R. M. Hughes: General J. E. Johnston, 28‑29; D. H. Maury (op. cit., 40‑41) mistakenly placed this incident at Chapultepec.

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36 It is impossible to say where Lee rejoined Scott, but it was before General Worth's column was turned back from the pedregal to the Acapulco road for a direct assault on San Antonio (Pillow Inquiry, 77).

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37 Lee, undated letter, probably to Mrs. Lee, H. A. White: Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy (cited hereafter as White), 42. Lee represented Pierce's brigade as following Shields. The other accounts reverse the order.

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38 Scott, Mexican Reports, 309‑314; Shields, ibid., 344; Smith, ibid., 353.

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39 The American losses in the battles of Padierna (Contreras) and Churubusco were 1056; the Mexican casualties, never accurately reported, were estimated at about 6000, including 2637 prisoners (2 Rives, 487). After the battle the Americans learned that they (p271)were right in supposing that the troops at Padierna were under General Valencia, who was at odds with General Santa Anna. The latter had commanded the troops north of San Geronimo on the San Angel road and later at Churubusco. Valencia had considered himself victor in the fighting of Aug. 19, and had refused to withdraw from Padierna on Santa Anna's orders. The total Mexican force engaged on Aug. 19‑20 was around 17,000.

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40 Mexican Reports, 325.

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41 Ibid., 332.

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42 Ibid., 337.

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43 Mexican Reports, 344.

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44 Mexican Reports, Supplement, 105.

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45 Mexican Reports, 315.

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46 Cullum, 420.

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47 Pillow Inquiry, 73.

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48 Lee to Mrs. Totten, Aug. 22, 1847; Pillow Inquiry, 461. Cf. ibid., 301, 311.

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