What was the Battle of Cerro Gordo (1847)?

Introduction

The Battle of Cerro Gordo, or Battle of Sierra Gordo, was an engagement in the Mexican-American War on 18 April 1847.

The battle saw Winfield Scott’s United States troops outflank Antonio López de Santa Anna’s larger Mexican army, driving it from a strong defensive position.

Background

After United States forces captured the port of Veracruz on 29 March 1847, General Winfield Scott advanced towards Mexico City on 02 April by crossing the Rio Antigua. General Antonio López de Santa Anna, commanding Mexican forces in the area, had prepared fortifications at Cerro Gordo, near Xalapa, with more than 8,700 soldiers in a fortified defile, dominated by El Telegrafo. These included several batteries under the command of brigadier generals Luis Pinzon, Jose Maria Jararo, and Romulo Diaz de la Vega. Scott’s leading division, commanded by David E. Twiggs, reached the Cerro Gordo Pass on 12 April.

The Battle

On 12 April, Lieutenant Pierre G.T. Beauregard, of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, determined that possession of Atalaya Hill would enable the Mexican position to be turned. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant observe that, in order to determine whether a flanking movement was possible, “reconnaissances were sent out to find, or to make, a road by which the rear of the enemy’s works might be reached without a front attack.” These reconnaissances were made under the supervision of Captain Robert E. Lee and other officers, “all of whom attained rank and fame.” Grant continues that it was the roadways constructed by the engineers which achieved victory:

Under the supervision of the engineers, 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. The engineers, who had directed the opening, led the way and the troops followed. Artillery was let down the steep slopes by hand, the men engaged attaching a strong rope to the rear axle and letting the guns down, a piece at a time, while the men at the ropes kept their ground on top, paying out gradually, while a few at the front directed the course of the piece. In like manner the guns were drawn by hand up the opposite slope.

Twiggs’ division took the hill on 17 April, advancing up the slopes to El Telegrafo. Santa Anna reinforced El Telegrafo with Brigadier General Ciriaco Vasquez’s 2d Light, 4th, and 11th Infantry. Captain Edward J. Steptoe set up his battery on Atalaya Hill and Major James C. Burnham set up a howitzer across the river.

At 7:00 am on 18 April, Twiggs directed William S. Harney’s brigade to move against the front of El Telegrafo while Bennett C. Riley attacked from the rear. The combination easily took the hill, killing General Vasquez, and Captain John B. Magruder turned the Mexican guns on the retreating Mexicans. Simultaneously, James Shields’ brigade attacked the Mexican camp and took possession of the Jalapa road. Once they realised they were surrounded, the Mexican commanders on the three hills surrendered and by 10:00 am, the remaining Mexican forces fled. 199 officers and 2,837 enlisted men were taken prisoner by the Americans.

Order of Battle

Mexico was represented by the remnants of the Division of the North, totaling 5,650 personnel: 150 artillery, 4,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry: including the Ampudia Brigade (the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 11th line infantry regiments), the Vasquez Brigade (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th light infantry regiments) and the Juvera Cavalry Brigade (5th, 9th Morelia and the Coraceros cavalry regiments); plus reinforcements from the Capitol: the Rangel Brigade (the 6th Infantry Regiment, Grenadiers of the Guard, Libertad and Galeana battalions, two cavalry squadrons and eight guns), the Pinzon Brigade, and the Canalizo Special Cavalry Division. The 1,000-strong Artega Brigade, consisting of the Pueblo Activos and National Guard battalions, arrived at the end of the battle.

Aftermath and Legacy

Santa Anna, caught off guard by the Fourth Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry, was compelled to ride off without his artificial leg, which was captured by US forces and is still in possession of the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, Illinois. In the US the prosthetic inspired song parodies. Showman P.T. Barnum claimed acquired it for display in his museum. The prosthetic was eventually donated to the state of Illinois, where it was displayed in its military museum. A visiting Mexican official was apparently embarrassed at seeing the trophy displayed, and it was removed. It was later the subject of controversy about its return to Mexico. Some cannons captured by Americans at Cerro Gordo were brought back to the United States as war trophies. The Third Regiment of Illinois Volunteers brought back a six-pound cannon where it was displayed temporarily in the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, and whose current whereabouts are unknown.

Scott moved on to Xalapa, and William J. Worth’s division took San Carlos Fortress on 22 April. Scott then occupied Puebla on 15 May, before departing for Mexico City on 07 August.

Eponyms

Cerro Gordo County (Iowa), Cerro Gordo (North Carolina), and Cerro Gordo (Illinois), take their names from the battle.

Refer to Saint Patrick’s Battalion.

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