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Old Rough and Ready at Monterrey

After victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, American General Zachary Taylor moved on the Mexican city of Monterrey. There, the defenders were determined to make a stand.

By Chris Dishman

On the morning of September 19, 1846, General Zachary Taylor and his advance party could see little through the mist that shrouded the city of Monterrey, Mexico, Taylor’s next objective in his ongoing northern campaign. The Army of Occupation had recently arrived in Mexico after an arduous journey in steamboats down the Rio Grande from south Texas, sent by President James K. Polk to defend the new state from Mexican incursions. Taylor, dubbed “Old Rough and Ready” for his habitually disheveled look, had already smashed the Mexican Army in the opening battles of the war at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, five months earlier.

After those battles, Taylor pursued the retreating Mexican Army to Matamoros, and after finding that city abandoned, made plans to attack northern Mexico’s largest city, Monterrey. Volunteers poured into Taylor’s army at Camargo, just south of the Rio Grande, where Taylor was preparing for the attack on Monterrey. The hot, humid climate and unsanitary camp practices bred rampant disease at Camargo, which resulted in the death of hundreds of Taylor’s men, largely from yellow fever.

Taylor’s army was about to face its stiffest test yet. At Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, the Americans had utilized a new weapon, “flying artillery,” which consisted of fast-moving, light artillery pieces pulled by horses. During the first two battles of the war, the mobile artillery cut down the pride of the Mexican Army, its cavalry, on the plains of southern Texas. The new weapon, however, would be useless in the streets of Monterrey, where it would be unable to penetrate the fortified structures of the entrenched Mexican forces.

For the Mexicans, there was disagreement about whether to defend Monterrey. The new general in charge of the northern Mexican army, General Pedro de Ampudia, believed that Monterrey had to be defended because the city guarded the primary route into central Mexico. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, just returned from exile, believed that the city should be abandoned so that the Mexican Army could gather its strength for one last, decisive battle at Mexico City. Those troops would be led by none other than Santa Anna himself, a man wishing to regain past glories and lead the Mexican nation to victory against another foreign aggressor.Ultimately, the Mexican secretary of war allowed Ampudia to have his way—Monterrey would be defended at all costs.

Ampudia, assisted by two of Mexico’s best engineers, set about fortifying the city. The Mexicans constructed two major forts, El Rincon del Diablo and La Teneria, to defend eastern Monterrey and reinforced the old Citadel just north of the city to guard the northern approach. An ornate bishop’s palace atop a high hill looked over the western entrance to Monterrey. Ampudia had picked a good spot for a defensive position. Each rooftop in Monterrey was built with the perfect breastwork: three-foot-high walls surrounded the roofs of each building in the city. The houses were difficult to penetrate from ground level because of their strong double doors, thick adobe walls, and barred windows. Mexican artillery was placed behind barricades on Monterrey’s main cross streets, making its thoroughfares virtual death traps for attacking troops.

The first shots of the battle came when Taylor’s advance party, located about 1,500 yards north of the city, was fired on by Mexican cannons located at the Citadel. One shot bounced just over Taylor’s head and drove straight through his advance party. The volunteers cheered “Old Zach” for his nonchalant response to the danger. Taylor’s fighting spirit and courage already were legendary, and the volunteers, who had not participated in the initial battles, were eager to see their general in action.

The Texas volunteers who accompanied Taylor’s advance party felt that the artillery shots offered the perfect time to taunt their long-standing nemesis. They rode their horses closer and closer to the Citadel while dodging the fort’s artillery fire. The scene was quite a spectacle for the volunteers, one of whom noted admiringly, “Like boys at play those fearless horsemen, in a spirit of boastful rivalry, vied with each other in approaching the very edge of danger. Their proximity occasionally provoked the enemy’s fire, but the Mexicans might as well have attempted to bring down skimming swallows as those racing dare-devils.”

Taylor settled his forces at El Bosque de San Domingo, or Walnut Springs, which served in peacetime as a picnic site for Monterrey’s elite. Fresh springs, pecan trees, and verdant grass patches created a place more suited for a caballero playing guitar for his sweetheart than an advance camp for an invading army. While the troops enjoyed their sylvan stay, Taylor’s engineers reconnoitered the city to develop a plan for the upcoming attack. Reconnaissance was difficult because numerous gardens, shrubs, and walls dotted the city’s suburbs, obstructing the engineers’ view of the city. Major Joseph K. Mansfield, Taylor’s lead engineer, suggested that their forces take the Saltillo pass, the primary route into Monterrey from the south and west. This action would seal off a Mexican retreat and prevent reinforcements from entering the city.

Taylor ordered General Williams Jenkins Worth, commander of the 2nd Division, to take the Saltillo pass. Worth, one of the war’s best generals, had temporarily resigned from the army earlier in the campaign because of a dispute with Taylor, thus missing the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Now, restored to command, he was determined to gain a “grade or a grave” in the coming fight.

Worth began his march at 2 pm on September 20 with regulars from the 2nd Division, Texas and Louisiana volunteers, and two batteries of horse artillery. The Texas volunteers under Worth included men whose names would be ingrained in Texas folklore: Jack Hays, Samuel Walker, Ben McCulloch, and R.A. Gillespie, among others. The Texans presented a frontier look compared to Taylor’s regulars. Most had long beards and mustaches, wore bright red and blue shirts, and carried a Bowie knife, rifle, and one or two Colt revolvers.

The following day, Worth’s troops met 1,500 Mexican lancers and an unknown number of Mexican infantry who were attempting to block their route to the pass. The Texas volunteers lined up behind a nearby fence, and with support from the light infantry and artillery they repulsed the enemy charge. Worth was now in possession of the Saltillo road, effectively severing the Mexican line of retreat and preventing reinforcements or supplies from entering the city.

Worth’s troops soon discovered a new enemy fort when artillery shells suddenly rained down on them from a location not previously noted in the engineers’ reports. The fort was perched on top of Federation Hill, south of the Saltillo road. A small redoubt sat on the western edge of the hill and a larger fort, El Soldado, guarded the eastern approach. From El Soldado artillerymen could reach Monterrey with their cannons. Worth told his soldiers, “Men, you are to take that hill, and I know you will do it,” to which they responded, “We will!”

Worth sent Captain Charles Smith and 300 infantry, including dismounted Texas volunteers and artillerymen serving as infantry, to attack a redoubt on the western end of the hill. Smith’s men slowly worked their way up the 400-foot hill, grabbing thorn bushes and chaparral to pull themselves up the steep incline. They held their fire until near the top of the hill, then charged pell-mell over the redoubt. The Mexican troops attempted unsuccessfully to throw a nine-pounder gun down the hill, allowing the Americans to turn the cannon on the fleeing Mexicans who were running east toward El Soldado.

Worth ordered Brig. Gen. Persifor Smith, commander of the 2nd Brigade, to support the attack with the 5th U.S. Infantry and the Louisiana volunteers. Smith, knowing that he was not needed at the redoubt, collected the 7th U.S. Infantry and commanded his troops, “Take that other fort!” Each group of soldiers raced toward the fort in an effort to be the first ones there. R.A. Gillespie of the Texas volunteers was the first to enter the fort, followed closely by the 5th Infantry. One soldier from the 5th told the Texans, “Well boys, we liked to have beaten you,” and scrawled upon a captured cannon: “Texas Rangers and 5th Infantry.” While Worth was conducting his attack, Taylor directed a diversion in the east to prevent Ampudia from fortifying the hills. Taylor ordered Brig. Gen. David Twiggs’s 1st Division, under the command of Lt. Col. John Garland due to Twiggs’s illness, to “make a strong demonstration and carry the enemy’s advanced works, if it could be done without too heavy loss.” Garland, with 800 men from the 1st and 3rd Infantry, along with the Maryland and District of Columbia Battalion under Lt. Col. William Watson, followed Mansfield into the suburbs of the city. The troops marched for roughly 500 yards across the plain, pounded all the while by artillery from the Citadel and La Teneria.

Garland, believing that Mansfield wanted him to attack the fort from the rear, entered the town about 200 yards to the right of the fort. The American troops had not reconnoitered this part of the city and they immediately found themselves in a confusing mix of huts, stone walls, narrow streets, and irrigation canals. They were bombarded by cannons from the La Teneria redoubt, the Citadel, and a new fort they had not yet located, El Rincon del Diablo, which sat to the southwest of La Teneria.

Most of the Maryland and District of Columbia volunteers broke and retreated from the action. The regulars held strong, but were unable to navigate the unknown ground. American soldiers were dropping fast. Captain Braxton Bragg and his horse artillery galloped across the plain through the fire from the Citadel to support the infantry, but the artillery could do no damage against the Mexican fortifications or the troops who hid in doorways, behind buildings, and on roofs. Mansfield suggested retreating, and Garland pulled his troops out of the city. Captain Electus Backus, commanding a company of the 1st Infantry, did not receive the order to retreat. Instead, his men seized a building in the rear of La Teneria, from which point they could fire at the defenders.

Taylor, seeing his regulars retreating, ordered Maj. Gen. William Butler’s 3rd Division of volunteers and the 4th U.S. Infantry to support the attack. Three companies of the 4th Infantry led the advance, including a young lieutenant named Ulysses Grant who had sneaked away from his quartermaster duties to fight with the regiment. The three companies marched directly toward the redoubt, far in advance of the volunteers, and in an instant lost a third of their officers to enemy artillery and musket fire. Grant, who loved horses, was the only soldier on horseback during the charge, but miraculously was not hit. Tennessee and Mississippi troops soon followed, and about 200 yards from the fort an order was given for them to advance and fire. The fire of the volunteers was ineffectual against the redoubt. One soldier noted, “Our little band was fast melting away like frost before the sun.”

Jefferson Davis, colonel of the 1st Mississippi Regiment, could barely be heard over the fire of the artillery when he yelled, “Charge!” The Tennesseans and Mississippians charged directly into the fire from the redoubt. Lt. Col. Alexander McClung of the Mississippi volunteers, perched atop a wall surrounding the fort, waved his sword to encourage the troops. Captain Backus kept up an unrelenting fire from his position to support the attack. Brig. Gen. John Quitman, commander of the Tennessee and Mississippi regiments, led from the front during the charge. He had his horse shot out from under him, and a bullet pierced his hat. The Mexican position in the fort was reinforced by the 3rd Light Infantry Regiment, but the lieutenant colonel in charge of the regiment fled. The Mexican defenders retreated, and Captain Randolph Ridgley turned the captured Mexican artillery against El Diablo. The Tennesseans’ losses accounted for one-fourth of the casualties at the storming, and the regiment thereafter was known as the “Bloody First.”

What had started as a diversion was quickly developing into a full-scale assault against multiple positions in the city. The 1st Ohio, under Brig. Gen. Thomas Hamer, known as “Sledgehammer” to his troops, was ordered to support the diversion by entering Monterrey at a central point. Hamer’s men, much like Garland’s regulars, became lost in the confusing suburbs of north-central Monterrey. One soldier described the movement: “We moved rapidly through a labyrinth of lanes and gardens, without knowing or seeing upon what point of the enemy’s line we were about to strike. At every step discharges from the batteries in front became more deadly.” The troops withdrew at the suggestion of Mansfield.

Read the rest of the story in the August 2009 issue of Military Heritage.