A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846by Chris D. Dishman
For three days in the fall of 1846, U.S. and Mexican soldiers fought fiercely in the picturesque city of Monterrey, turning the northern Mexican town, known for its towering mountains and luxurious gardens, into one of the nineteenth century's most gruesome battlefields. Led by Brigadier General Zachary Taylor, graduates of the U.S. Military Academy encountered a
For three days in the fall of 1846, U.S. and Mexican soldiers fought fiercely in the picturesque city of Monterrey, turning the northern Mexican town, known for its towering mountains and luxurious gardens, into one of the nineteenth century's most gruesome battlefields. Led by Brigadier General Zachary Taylor, graduates of the U.S. Military Academy encountered a city almost perfectly protected by mountains, a river, and a vast plain. Monterrey's ideal defensive position inspired more than one U.S. soldier to call the city "a perfect Gibraltar." The first day of fighting was deadly for the Americans, especially the newly graduated West Point cadets. But they soon adjusted their tactics and began fighting building to building.
Chris D. Dishman conveys in a vivid narrative the intensity and drama of the Battle of Monterrey, which marked the first time U.S. troops engaged in prolonged urban combat. Future Civil War generals and West Point graduates fought desperately alongside rough Texan, Mississippian, and Tennessean volunteers. General Taylor engineered one of the army's first wars of maneuver at Monterrey by sending the bulk of his troops against the weakest part of the city, and embedded press reporters wrote eyewitness accounts of the action for readers back in the States. Dishman interweaves descriptions of troop maneuvers and clashes between units using pistols and rifles with accounts of hand-to-hand combat involving edged weapons, stones, clubs, and bare hands. He brings regular soldiers and citizen volunteers to life in personal vignettes that draw on firsthand accounts from letters, diaries, and reports written by men on both sides. An epilogue carries the narrative thread to the conclusion of the war.
Dishman has canvassed a wide range of Mexican and American sources and walked Monterrey's streets and battlefields. Accompanied by maps and period illustrations, this skillfully written history will interest scholars, history enthusiasts, and everyone who enjoys a true war story well told.
"I have long believed the three-day siege of Monterrey deserves a book of its own. Christopher D. Dishman has done exactly that, giving this bloody battle, critically important and uncertain in its outcome, the focus it deserves. Impressively researched, readable, and rich in the human element, A Perfect Gibraltar is a welcome addition."—John S. D. Eisenhower, author of So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846–1848
"Using numerous primary sources including an ample number of Mexican sources, Dishman provides the most complete account of the Battle of Monterrey to date. Because Monterrey is a little-known battle in a forgotten war, this book will help rescue it from obscurity. I recommend this important work."—Timothy D. Johnson, author of A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign
"Useful for scholars but also attractive to a broader reading public, this first full-length book on the Battle of Monterrey provides a vivid and fast-moving narrative in which scenes of the battle come alive, supported by an impressive array of maps and illustrations. Dishman’s account grips the reader, even if the outcome is never in doubt."—Miguel Ángel González Quiroga, author of Nuevo Leo´n ocupado: Aspectos de la guerra Me´xico–Estados Unidos
"Dishman's substantive study highlights the difficulties of urban warfare and provides new perspectives on the United States’ war with Mexico."—Joseph G. Dawson, III, author of Doniphan's Epic March: The 1st Missouri Volunteers in the Mexican War
"The Perfect Gibraltar signals a maturing of Mexican War studies. Dishman takes the literature of the field to a new level by offering readers the short, quality battle study they expect from Civil War authors. His work should appeal to both the general reader and the scholar."—Richard Bruce Winders, author of Mr. Polk’s Army and Crisis in the Southwest
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A Perfect Gibraltar
The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
By Christopher D. Dishman
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Prelude to Battle
"The Plot is thickening." Lt. George Gordon Meade
In March 1845 Zachary Taylor was sixty-one years old. He stood five feet, eight inches high, with broad shoulders, a full chest, piercing dark eyes, and a thick, muscular frame. His tan, weathered face made him look like "he had been encamping out all of his life." The general was in good physical shape and could outmarch and outride people half his age. Disdaining formal dress, Taylor preferred a blue frock coat, jean pantaloons, and a black neckband. His campsite too was plain, typically consisting of a small tent, a stool, tin cups, and a camp chest that doubled as a locker and dinner table. The general's tent looked no different than the average private's. Despite army custom, Taylor refused to post a personal guard and did not use a protective outer tarp to ward off the elements, as many other officers used. His only vice was brown sugar, which he doled out to visitors on special occasions.
Getting to know Taylor was easy. He assumed no airs and possessed a casual, friendly demeanor. The general could often be found sitting on a ragged stool in front of his tent, laughing and chatting with his staff. Anyone could stop by to speak with him, regardless of rank. And it took a lot to get Taylor agitated, even in the grimmest situations; he rarely raised his voice to his own men.
Hard to discern from this description is that "Old Zack" or "Rough and Ready," as he was better known, was one of the most senior generals in the U.S. Army. By the summer of 1845, he commanded the most powerful army that America had fielded since the Revolutionary War. Taylor, a brigadier with almost four decades in the army, had battled Indians while stationed at some of the most remote outposts in the continent. In the Floridas he led a thousand soldiers against the Seminole Indians in 1837, culminating in a battle at Lake Okeechobee, one of the bloodiest clashes of the early nineteenth century. For the next ten years his duties kept him on the turbulent frontier, including as commander of the Second Military Department in present-day Oklahoma, then the heart of Cherokee Indian country. Taylor, whose real passion was farming, also spent time tending to his Louisiana plantation and selling some of his properties. In June 1844 the general was transferred to Fort Jesup, Louisiana, to command the First Military District, charged with protecting the Republic of Texas, which had petitioned for annexation to the United States, from Mexican invasion.
After Taylor arrived at Fort Jesup, events began to unroll that ensured he would play a leading role in any upcoming hostilities. In 1845 the United States offered annexation to the independent Republic of Texas. Texan leaders warned President Polk that if they joined the United States, Mexico would send troops north to conquer the renegade republic. To protect against invasion, Polk ordered Taylor to advance his troops to the coast near the Sabine River (the border between Texas and Louisiana) once the general learned that Texas had accepted annexation.
Polk had other, more ambitious reasons for moving troops toward Texas. Mexico had broken diplomatic relations with the United States in March 1845 after his predecessor, John Tyler, had signed a joint resolution offering Texas annexation. This ruined Polk's chances of accomplishing through diplomacy one of his most important goals—expanding the United States westward across the continent.
Like many Americans in 1846, Polk was an avowed expansionist. He believed that the United States had a duty to exploit the vast swathes of undeveloped land in Texas, New Mexico, California, and the Pacific Northwest and an obligation to bring republican government to the "backward" people of these territories. The United States, expansionists claimed, had a right and duty to mine, farm, and govern this land for the benefit of all mankind. Polk embraced this belief, known as Manifest Destiny, and intended to act on the expansionist promises he had made during his campaign. In his inaugural address he said, "Texas was once a part of our own country—was unwisely ceded away to a foreign power—is now independent, and possesses an undoubted right ... to merge her sovereignty as a separate and independent state into ours." Thus far the Mexican government had been unwilling to negotiate the sale of their remaining territory, but Polk hoped that a show of force might change their minds.
Under orders to march into Texas, Taylor and his men advanced in July 1845 to Corpus Christi, a small community on the Gulf of Mexico just south of the Nueces River. Three thousand regulars, with many of their officers trained at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, eventually settled in for a long, sandy stint on the coast.
Despite Polk's anxiety about an invasion, Mexican president José Joaquín de Herrera had no illusions about recovering Texas, which had won its independence almost ten years earlier. Herrera understood that his country did not have the resources or an army strong enough to wage such a campaign and that he had more-pressing issues at home. But he knew that he could not ignore Texas and hoped to prevent annexation by negotiating with the republic. Herrera believed that the best possible outcome was for Texas to remain an independent country with close ties to Mexico.
Unfortunately the Mexican president had little support for his peaceful stance. Most Mexicans believed that Texas was stolen by the United States in an organized plot. Critics wondered how he could negotiate with a country led by "usurpers" and "tyrants." The death knell for Herrera's administration came with the arrival of John Slidell, a U.S. minister appointed to negotiate the purchase from Mexico of California and New Mexico, for which Polk was willing to pay up to $40 million. Herrera thought that Slidell's mission was to make amends for Texas's likely annexation, rather than buy Mexico's territory.
The cauldron boiled over in December 1845, when Texas finally became part of the United States. Herrera's peaceful strategy had failed, and he now lost the favor of even his most ardent supporters. Maj. Gen. Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, a former ally, overthrew the weak president one month later. In his inaugural address Paredes promised to regain Mexican territory all the way to the Sabine River, thus threatening the new state of Texas. Reports that Herrera had refused to meet with Slidell reached Polk on January 12, 1846. The next day he ordered General Taylor to march his army from Corpus Christi into South Texas and the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Polk hoped this confrontational move would force Mexico into negotiations over Texas, New Mexico, and California.
When Texas declared independence in 1836, its leaders claimed a western boundary that ran along the Rio Grande. Mexico in turn argued that the Nueces River was the northern boundary of its state of Tamaulipas. The Rio Grande claim was important to both Polk and Paredes because the western edge of the river runs through the middle of New Mexico. If the Rio Grande was the agreed-upon boundary, the United States could claim Mexican territory west to Santa Fe. A southern boundary on the Nueces River shrank Texas to about a third of that size. Soon after his inauguration, Polk assured Sam Houston, Texas's most influential leader, that the United States would honor the Texans' claim to the Rio Grande. The president also told the U.S. chargé d'affaires to Texas that he would "not permit an invading enemy to occupy a foot of the soil east of the Rio Grande." To Polk this claim was non-negotiable.
But Paredes viewed Taylor's advance as an act of war. This region was Mexican land, as was Texas before it rebelled, and Taylor's presence constituted an invasion. When Texas was a Mexican state, the Constitution of 1824 formalized the Nueces River as the boundary between it and Tamaulipas, so the border was inscribed in Mexican law. Paredes and his allies believed that Texas was the first step by the United States in an unbridled effort to expand across the continent, and that if left unchecked, Polk would soon be seeking to annex more Mexican territory.
When Taylor received Polk's order to march into the disputed region, he had been in Corpus Christi for six months. Because the general knew that war with Mexico was a possibility, he had been drilling his men relentlessly. The nineteenth-century U.S. Army was scattered as company- and battalion-size detachments across hundreds of isolated posts throughout the country. Regiments rarely drilled as complete units (a regiment in 1845 contained around five hundred men), so the army was woefully unprepared to fight set-piece battles against opposing forces of thousands of men. Taylor tried to remedy this deficiency quickly.
After a miserable winter in Corpus Christi, the 3,900 American soldiers began marching into the disputed territory in March 1846. Taylor encamped on the north bank of the Rio Grande directly across from Matamoros, Mexico, and ordered the construction of an earthen fort that could accommodate 800 men. Named Fort Texas, its presence infuriated the soldiers of the Matamoros garrison, who watched its construction from across the river.
On April 11 Don Pedro de Ampudia, commander of the Army of the North, arrived in Matamoros and demanded that Taylor withdraw his troops to the north side of the Nueces. Taylor's response was to order the U.S. Navy to blockade the Rio Grande to prevent Ampudia from receiving supplies by sea. Tensions ran high as the two armies stood within sight of each other. Taylor insisted that he would not march his men across the Rio Grande and that he hoped the two countries could avoid war. Ampudia, of course, saw the situation differently since from his perspective the Americans had already crossed into Mexican territory when they entered the disputed zone.
To Ampudia's dismay, he would not have a chance to command the army against Taylor. Paredes replaced him with Maj. Gen. Mariano Arista, a well-liked, red-headed officer who had studied for a short time in Cincinnati. Unlike Ampudia, Arista retained the loyalty of many northern soldiers, himself hailing from the region. "It is indispensable," Paredes wrote Arista on April 18, "that hostilities begin, yourself taking the initiative." Arista, like many Mexican generals, yearned for a decisive military victory to bolster his political support. Ampudia was a strong ally of Paredes, and the president only replaced him at the behest of senior northern leaders. Arista knew that repelling Taylor would solidify his position with Paredes and within national politics.
The Mexican troops were confident. They heard rumors that the U.S. cavalry was composed of ill-disciplined foreigners who could not shoot straight or maneuver their horses. One Mexican general summed up the feelings of his men: "Those adventurers cannot withstand the bayonet charge of our foot, nor a cavalry charge with the lance."
In April Arista sent a 1,600-man force of light infantry, cavalry, and sappers under Gen. Anastasio Torrejón across the Rio Grande to cut off Taylor's communications with Point Isabel, the U.S. supply base across from Corpus Christi that supported Taylor's operations near Matamoros. On April 25 Torrejón's force ambushed sixty American dragoons (cavalrymen who traveled by horse but fought like infantry) sent to investigate Mexican activity, capturing fifty and killing fourteen. "Hostilities may now be considered as commenced," Taylor wrote in his official report of the engagement, "and I have this day deemed it necessary to call upon the Governor of Texas for four regiments of volunteers." Taylor, knowing that a large-scale fight was now imminent, left a small garrison of 500 men at Fort Texas and marched toward Point Isabel to ensure that his supply base was secure.
On May 5 General Arista sent Ampudia, who was still commanding a division, to overrun Fort Texas in Taylor's absence. Ampudia bombarded the fort with mortars and cannons day and night. The garrison, under the command of Maj. Jacob Brown, built bombproof shelters out of barrels filled with pork and topped with sticks and earth. A sentry would call out the name of a Mexican battery when it fired—for example, "sand bag fort battery"—and those in its path would take cover or lay flat on the ground.
Taylor could hear Ampudia's bombardment from Point Isabel and knew that the small garrison could hold out for only so long. He quickly accepted the offer of a daring Texas volunteer named Samuel Walker to sneak into the fort to determine the garrison's condition. Walker was already a legend in Texas, where his courageous exploits during battles with Comanche Indians were widely known. Leaving camp at nightfall and dodging Mexican soldiers and bandits for thirty miles, Walker miraculously entered Fort Texas unharmed. Brown reported that his men would hold out as long as necessary. Walker rode back to Point Isabel and gave Taylor the critical information. The general secured his base at Point Isabel, collected supplies, and began the return trip to Fort Texas. With two hundred wagons and two 18-pound cannons in tow, men and oxen trotted down the main road to Matamoros.
On May 8 Arista intercepted Taylor at Palo Alto—a flat, grassy plain in South Texas. The two sides deployed across from each other and prepared for battle. Mexican cavalry charged Taylor's flanks while American and Mexican artillery lobbed shells into each other's lines. U.S. infantry and cannons repulsed the horsemen, and Mexican losses began to mount. As the grass caught fire from hot cannon wads, sending thick smoke across the plain, Arista withdrew.
Palo Alto was a monumental day for the U.S. Army's artillery wing. For the first time in major combat, the army's new light artillery batteries, known as "flying artillery," proved their worth on the battlefield. In the past soldiers or draught animals had dragged the army's field artillery into place on the battlefield, and they rarely moved during the fighting. Their static position meant that the cannons could not respond to changes in battle formations, unexpected charges, or rapid infantry movements. If the enemy attacked the line in an area where artillery was absent, the larger cannons could not change position to assist in the defense. Samuel Ringgold, a major in the U.S. Army, pioneered a new method that relied on smaller, more maneuverable guns. Six horses pulled a light cannon and its ammunition rapidly across the battle zone so the artillery could respond to unpredictable situations and better support maneuvering infantry. The untested idea received little support from army leadership or Congress. Most military leaders believed that the best use of artillerymen was as infantry, believing that cannons rarely decided the outcome of a battle. These traditionalists, including Taylor, did not understand how fast-moving cannons could help win an infantry engagement.
After Palo Alto, however, Taylor was a believer. "Our artillery ... was the arm chiefly engaged, and to the excellent manner in which it was manoeuvred and served is our success mainly due," he wrote the adjutant general after the battle. Ringgold's men dashed around the battlefield with reckless abandon, running into the middle of fire fights to launch grape and canister shot into enemy formations. They wanted to prove the utility of their new weapon, and indeed they did—their cannons repulsed numerous cavalry charges and helped Taylor's army defeat an adversary almost twice its size. Unfortunately Samuel Ringgold never read that report; he was mortally wounded during the battle and died three days later. In his final hours he spoke with pride about the success of his light artillery, remarking to bedside visitors that his guns were as accurate as a rifle. Ringgold became known throughout the States as one of the first heroes of the Mexican War.
While Palo Alto was taking place, the small garrison of Fort Texas continued to hold out under intense fire. An up-and-coming officer named Braxton Bragg was in this besieged fort with his light artillery battery. He could only watch as the American and Mexican forces dueled with their big cannons and mortars. His small guns could repel soldiers and horses, but they did not have the range for a cross-river artillery exchange.
Braxton Bragg was one of Ringgold's star officers. Like most light artillerymen, Bragg had graduated from West Point. For Bragg and many of his fellow West Pointers, Taylor's campaign was the first army-against-army combat in which they had participated. These graduates filled Taylor's lower-grade officer slots, and they brought an unprecedented level of expertise to the U.S. Army.
Excerpted from A Perfect Gibraltar by Christopher D. Dishman. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Christopher D. Dishman is Chief of the Border Serurity Branch of the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis.
Chris visited the city of Monterrey, Mexico for work and being interested in military history, began reading about the battle. He learned that there was an amazing war story that occurred in the city, yet no author had yet dedicated a book to it.
Chris returned to Monterrey several times, consulted with historians based in the city, and spent countless hours in the US National Archives and the Library of Congress studying information, maps and lithographs. He built relationships and consulted with many experts on the subject and spent hours on Ebay and auction sites purchasing the original personal letters of the soldiers, getting their experiences in their own words. He first wrote a magazine article on the battle and then embarked on the book.
Besides Christopher's passion for military history he has published numerous articles on Homeland Security, terrorism and crime. Chris resides with his family in Dallas, Texas.
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