Mexican-American War: Siege of Veracruz

Siege of Veracruz
Landing at Veracruz, March 1947. Public Domain

The Siege of Veracruz began on March 9 and ended on March 29, 1847, and was fought during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). With the beginning of the conflict in May 1846, American forces under Major General Zachary Taylor won quick victories at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma before advancing to the fortress city of Monterrey. Attacking in September 1846, Taylor captured the city after a bloody battle. In the wake of the fighting, he angered President James K. Polk when he granted the Mexicans an eight-week armistice and allowed Monterrey's defeated garrison to go free. 

With Taylor at Monterrey, discussions began in Washington regarding future American strategy. It was decided that a strike directly at the Mexican capital at Mexico City would be the key to winning the war. As a 500-mile march from Monterrey over rugged terrain was deemed impractical, the decision was made to land on the coast near Veracruz and march inland. This decision made, Polk was forced to decide on a commander for the mission.

A New Commander

While Taylor was popular, he was an outspoken Whig who had frequently criticized Polk publicly. Polk, a Democrat, would have preferred one of his own, but lacking an appropriate candidate, selected Major General Winfield Scott who, though a Whig, posed less of a political threat. To create Scott's invasion force, the bulk of Taylor's veteran troops were ordered to the coast. Left south of Monterrey with a small army, Taylor successfully held off a much larger Mexican force at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847.

The sitting General-in-Chief of the US Army, Scott was a more talented general than Taylor and had come to prominence during the War of 1812. In that conflict, he had proven one of the few able field commanders and earned praise for his performances at Chippawa and Lundy's Lane. Scott continued to rise after the war, holding increasingly important posts and studying abroad, before being appointed general-in-chief in 1841.

Organizing the Army

On November 14, 1846, the US Navy captured the Mexican port of Tampico. Arriving at Lobos Island, fifty miles south of the city, on February 21, 1847, Scott found few of the 20,000 men he had been promised. Over the next several days, more men arrived and Scott came to command three divisions led by Brigadier Generals William Worth and David Twiggs, and Major General Robert Patterson. While the first two divisions were comprised of US Army regulars, Patterson's was made up of volunteer units drawn from Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

The army's infantry was supported by three regiments of dragoons under Colonel William Harney and multiple artillery units. By March 2, Scott had around 10,000 men and his transports began moving south protected by Commodore David Connor's Home Squadron. Three days later, the lead ships arrived south of Veracruz and anchors off Anton Lizardo. Boarding the steamer Secretary on March 7, Connor and Scott reconnoitered the city's massive defenses.

Armies & Commanders:

United States

Mexico

  • Brigadier General Juan Morales
  • 3,360 men

America's First D-Day

Considered the most heavily fortified city in the Western Hemisphere, Veracruz was walled and guarded by Forts Santiago and Concepción. In addition, the harbor was protected by the famed Fort San Juan de Ulúa which possessed 128 guns. Wishing to avoid the city's guns, Scott decided to land southeast of the city at Mocambo Bay's Collado Beach. Moving into position, American forces prepared to go ashore on March 9.

Covered by the guns of Connor's ships, Worth's men began moving towards the beach around 1:00 PM in specially designed surf boats. The only Mexican troops present were a small body of lancers which were driven off by naval gunfire. Racing ahead, Worth was the first American ashore and was quickly followed another 5,500 men. Facing no opposition, Scott landed the remainder of his army and began moving to invest the city.

Investing Veracruz

Sent north from the beachhead, Brigadier General Gideon Pillow's brigade of Patterson's division defeated a force of Mexican cavalry at Malibrán. This severed the road to Alvarado and cut off the city's supply of fresh water. Patterson's other brigades, led by Brigadier Generals John Quitman and James Shields aided in holding off the enemy as Scott's men moved to surround Veracruz. The investment of the city was completed within three days and saw the Americans establish a line running from Playa Vergara south to Collado.

Reducing the City

Within the city, Brigadier General Juan Morales possessed 3,360 men as well as another 1,030 offshore at San Juan de Ulúa. Outnumbered, he hoped to hold the city until aid could arrive from the interior or the approaching yellow fever season began to reduce Scott's army. Though several of Scott's senior commanders wished to attempt a storming of the city, the methodical general insisted on reducing the city through siege tactics to avoid needless casualties. He insisted that the operation should cost the lives of no more than 100 men.

Though a storm delayed the arrival of his siege guns, Scott's engineers including Captains Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston, as well as Lieutenant George McClellan began working to site gun emplacements and enhance the siege lines. On March 21, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived to relieve Connor. Perry offered six naval guns and their crews which Scott accepted. These were quickly emplaced by Lee. The next day, Scott demanded that Morales surrender the city. When this was refused, the American guns began bombarding the city. Though the defenders returned fire, they caused few injuries.

No Relief

The bombardment from Scott's lines was supported by Perry's ships offshore. On March 24, a Mexican soldier was captured carrying dispatches stating that General Antonio López de Santa Anna was approaching the city with a relief force. Harney's dragoons were dispatched to investigate and located a force of around 2,000 Mexicans. To meet this threat, Scott dispatched Patterson with a force which drove off the enemy. The next day, the Mexicans in Veracruz requested a ceasefire and asked that women and children be allowed to leave the city. This was refused by Scott who believed it to be a delaying tactic. Resuming the bombardment, the artillery fire caused several fires in the city.

On the night of March 25/26, Morales called a council of war. During the meeting, his officers recommended that he surrender the city. Morales was unwilling to do so and resigned leaving General José Juan Landero to assume command. On March 26, the Mexicans again requested a ceasefire and Scott sent Worth to investigate. Returning with a note, Worth stated that he believed the Mexicans were stalling and offered to lead his division against the city. Scott declined and based on the language in the note, began surrender negotiations. After three days of talks, Morales agreed to surrender the city and San Juan de Ulúa.

Aftermath

Achieving his goal, Scott only lost 13 killed and 54 wounded in capturing the city. Mexican losses are less clear and were approximately 350-400 soldiers killed, as well as 100-600 civilians. Though initially chastised in the foreign press for the "inhumanity" of the bombardment, Scott's achievement in capturing a heavily fortified city with minimal losses was staggering. Establishing a large base at Veracruz, Scott quickly moved to get the bulk of his army away from the coast before yellow fever season. Leaving a small garrison to hold the city, the army departed on April 8 for Jalapa and began the campaign that would ultimately capture Mexico City.