Halls of Montezuma

Chapultepec CitadelIn early September 1847, American forces managed to drive the Mexicans from their positions near the base of the Chapultepec Castle in the Battle of Molino de Rey. The castle guarded Mexico City from the west. Army engineers continued to express interest in the southern causeways into the city, and so General Winfield Scott held a council of war with his generals and engineers on 11 September. Scott favored attacking Chapultepec, but the only general to agree with him was General David E. Twiggs[1]. Most of Scott’s remaining officers favored the attack through the southern gates, including (then) Captain Robert E. Lee. A young lieutenant by the name of P. G. T. Beauregard gave a textbook speech that caused Brigadier General Franklin Pierce[2] to change his vote in favor of the western attack.

Inside the city, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna commanded the Army of Mexico. He understood Chapultepec was an important defense for the city. The castle stood atop a 200-foot hill that was the home of the Mexican Military Academy. Santa Anna’s field commander, however, General Nicolas Bravo, had fewer than 1,000 troops. The official records of Mexico indicate that there were only 400 defenders. All additional troops were used in external walled redoubts of the castle to protect the rectangular shaped parade ground in front of the castle itself. High walls extending about three-quarters of a mile long, but one quarter mile deep protected this entire area. This area was critical because the slope from the hill from the west was so gentle that it actually encompassed the southern slopes. Additionally, the source of water for the castle was located within this area.

General Scott organized two storming parties: Captain Samuel Mackenzie led 256 men from Major General Gideon J. Pillow’s division and Captain Silas Casey’s force from Major General John A. Quitman’s division. Mackenzie would advance from the Molino eastward up the hill; Casey would advance along the Tacubaya Road. At the last minute, U. S. Marine Corps Major Levi Twiggs[3] replaced Captain Casey. Only General Twiggs division and (then) Brigadier General Bennett C. Riley’s brigade protected the American right flank.

The Battle of Chapultepec began with an artillery barrage at dawn on 12 September 1847. The assault continued all-day and halted at sundown. It resumed at first light on the following day. The barrage fell silent at 0800 and Scott ordered the infantry to make their attack. There were three columns in the attack formation: 11th and 14th Infantry under Colonel William Trousdale occupied the left flank; in the center were four companies of the Voltiguer[4] regiment under command of Colonel Timothy Patrick Andrews and the 9th and 15th Infantry moving through the swamp and western edge of the grove, and on the right were the remaining four Voltiguer companies under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Johnson.

General Pillow, although shot in the foot, called for reinforcements, which came from General Quitman. The attack faltered, however, when fired upon by the Moella Battalion artillery. Andrews’s column cleared the grove of Mexican troops and linked up with Johnson, but the attack by the 9th and 15th Infantry stalled waiting for scaling ladders. Colonel Ransom in command of the 9th Infantry was killed.

Battle at ChapultepecThe assault continued when Quitman brought up the 1st Brigade under Brigadier General Persifor F. Smith, organizing him on the right, and directed Brigadier General James Shields and the New York and Pennsylvania regiments into the assault. Brigadier General Newman S. Clarke’s brigade arrived on the western slope (along with scaling ladders), and it wasn’t long before the Voltigeurs planted their flag on the parapet of the castle. An assault of 120 handpicked Marines and soldiers attacked the hill from the south; the fighting was hand-to-hand, up close and personal with fixed bayonets as Americans struggled up the steep hill. The small assault force reached the castle at around 0930 and raised an American flag over the fortress. Soon after, General Bravo surrendered to the New York Regiment. Santa Anna watched the Americans take Chapultepec; he is said to have remarked, “I believe if we were to plant our batteries in hell, the damned Yankees would take them from us.”

Side note: During the battle, thirty men from the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a group of former US Army soldiers who joined the Mexican side, were executed. These men had been previously captured during the Battle of Churubusco and it was Colonel William S. Harney’s orders to hang them within Chapultepec—within full view of all hands, and at the precise moment the US flag replaced the Mexican tricolor atop the citadel.

General Scott arrived at the Chapultepec Castle and was mobbed by his soldiers. General Worth’s division was sent to support Trousdale’s men on the La Veronica Causeway (present day Avenida Melchor Ocampo) for the main attack against the San Cosme Gate. Trousdale, Garland, Clarke, and Cadwalader’s Brigades began their advance up the causeway.

General Quitman quickly reformed his troops in Chapultepec. Detailing the 15th Regiment to guard the castle and prisoners, he ordered a feint toward the Belen Causeway. The Morelia Battalion, commanded by General Andres Terres, manned the Belen Gate.

By the time Worth started his advance down the San Cosme, having fended off an attack by Mexican cavalry, it was 1600 (4 pm). Garland’s Brigade used the arches of the aqueduct to advance to the right. Clarke’s men passed on the right through a tunnel carved out by sappers.

Marine Captain George Terrett led First Lieutenant John Simms, Second Lieutenant Charles Henderson,[5] and 36 leathernecks in pursuit of enemy troops as they fell back toward the city. Terrett and his Marines raced up the San Cosme causeway under heavy fire. Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant and twenty soldiers of the 4th Infantry used the bell tower of San Cosme Church to place a mountain howitzer. On the north side Navy lieutenant Raphael Semmes[6] duplicated Grant’s successful maneuver.

Lieutenants Simms and Henderson attacked the gate with 85 men but soon found the gate too heavily defended. Simms and Marine Second Lieutenant Jabez Rich led seven Marines in an attack from the left side of the gate while Lieutenant Henderson, even though wounded in the leg, launched a simultaneous attack from the front. Captain George Terrett, led a group of Marines behind the Mexican defenders and, climbing on the roof, unleashed a deadly volley on the artillery gunners. Altogether, the Americans seized the San Cosme Gate, sustaining six casualties. The Mexican defenders were now in full retreat, sweeping Santa Anna along with them as they fell back into the city and subsequently withdrew from the battle.

At dawn on 14 September, as Quitman and Worth prepared to assault the two entrances to the city, the Americans realized that Santa Anna had pulled out. Quitman’s men raced through the crowded streets into the Grand Plaza and took the Mexican National Plaza, where before had stood the Halls of Montezuma. Marines were stationed there to guard the palace, and when Scott marched into the city, he discovered the streets well secured.

Among the lower ranking American officers that participated in the Mexican American War, many served as general officers in the American Civil War. These included Daniel H. Hill, Ulysses S. Grant, George Pickett, James Longstreet, Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. Officers who once served with one another in the crucible of combat turned against one another. It was nothing short of awful.

TWIGGS Levi Maj USMCThere is also another legacy: the performance of U. S. Marines in the Battle of Chapultepec and subsequent occupation of Mexico City, are memorialized by the opening verses of the United States Marine Corps hymn: “From the Halls of Montezuma….”

During the battle at Chapultepec, 90 percent of the Marine officers and noncommissioned officers who fought were killed —including their commander, Major Levi Twiggs. In honor of these officers and NCOs, Marine Corps tradition maintains that all officers and noncommissioned officers shall be entitled to wear a red stripe on the trousers of the Dress Blue Uniform. Commonly referred to as the blood stripe, it serves as a reminder to all Marines of the blood that was shed in the capture of Chapultepec.

Notes:

[1] General Twiggs (1790 – 1862) was a US soldier during the War of 1812, Mexican American War, and American Civil War. He was the grandfather of John Twiggs Myers (Handsome Jack of the Marines).

[2] Fourteenth President of the United States

[3] Major Levi Twiggs was the younger brother of General David E. Twiggs. Levi commanded the U. S. Marines

[4] Meaning line or light infantry

[5] Charles Henderson was the son of then Marine Corps Commandant Colonel Archibald Henderson

[6] After Semmes lost his ship in a squall, he was assigned to fight with the Army.

Another Good Read

The First Marine Division is the ground combat element of the I Marine Expeditionary Force; the same division that had fought on Guadalcanal, at Khe Sanh, and in the retaking of Kuwait. In 2003, the 1stMarDiv was assigned to participate in the invasion of Iraq and the taking of its capital city, Baghdad. The March Up (to Baghdad) would take these Marines 740 miles across a hot and dangerous desert —they would do it in record time. Speed, as one expert noted, was the division’s best tool in overwhelming the enemy. Telling the story of The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the United States Marines are two contract writers who had unprecedented access to Marines and their commanders —both of whom are retired Marines: Colonel Bing West and Major General Ray L. Smith.

Francis J. “Bing” West served as an infantry officer during the Vietnam War, first as the platoon leader of a mortar platoon, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, later with a Combined Action Platoon that fought for 485 days in a remote village, and also as a member of the Marine Corps reconnaissance team that initiated “Operation Stingray”: initiating small unit attacks behind enemy lines. Colonel West also served as Under Secretary of Defense (International Security) in the Reagan Administration. He has been to Iraq and Afghanistan numerous times and has written nine books about his experiences as a US Marine.

General Smith also served in Vietnam, and since then commanded infantry units at all levels. He is entitled to wear the Navy Cross, Silver Star (2 awards), Bronze Star, and Purple Heart Medal (3 awards). While on active duty, General Smith served as Executive Officer 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, Deputy Commander, Marine Corps Base, Japan, and Commanding General, 3rd Marine Division.

The March Up takes the reader directly to front line action as the Marines, under the leadership of a man West describes as a werewolf on the battlefield, (then) Major General James A. Mattis, attempts to achieve their objectives before the Iraqi Army can organize a cogent defense. West and Smith use the Army command’s order to halt in place for resupply as a primary example of the cultural differences between the two services. General Mattis didn’t have time for stacking BBs; what he needed in terms of logistics support, he carried with him.

The sixty or so years of combined military experience enable authors West and Smith to understand the strategy and tactics of the Marine advance. They tell us what went right, and what went wrong. No other journalists had such unfettered access to infantry leaders; no one else had the mobility to cover the entire battle area. No other writers had as sophisticated an understanding of what was unfolding before them. Throughout the march to Baghdad, West and Smith observed eighteen separate combat units in the 1stMarDiv, and this enabled them to capture a dramatic and personal account of how the Marines fought this battle.

West Smith CoverThey also tell us of the unspeakable cruelty of war. Struggling to cross the Diyala River, the Marines find their first significant opposition. The number of bridges is limited; the Marines need pontoon crossings to help propel them forward. Searching for type equipment, the Marines encounter an Iraqi tanker truck and fire upon it, killing its operators, only to discover later that the Iraqi men were unarmed. The authors want us to understand that senseless tragedies are all too common in war; what happened there is emblematic of what is meant by the term, “fog of war.” Combat troops don’t know what they don’t know —but their lives depend on making snap decisions.

The March Up is about war, and death: the death of the enemy and the innocent. It is about death by lethal fire, and death by accident. How do our warriors deal with this day after day? How do Marines deal with the killing of carloads of civilians, who in their enthusiasm to get out of the way of clashing forces, race their family sedan toward Marines barricades, forcing the Marines to “open up” on them? Knowing what happened today, how do our Marines prepare themselves for the next day’s operations?

The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the United States Marines —only $11.00 on Kindle, or free in your local library.

Service Rivalry — Always

Muscle Man 001There were three senior officers hiking in the wild of western Virginia when they unexpectedly came upon a raging river nearing its high water mark. They needed to get to the other side but were clueless about how to get the job done. The Air Force colonel lifted his arms and raising his eyes toward heaven loudly prayed: “God, give me the strength to cross this river! Amen.”

Suddenly the Air Force colonel had muscled arms and strong legs and was able to swim the river. It took him about an hour, however, and he almost drowned during the swim across.

Kayak Man 001The Army colonel then raised his arms and looking toward Heaven prayed: “God, give me the strength and the tools to cross this river! Amen.” Suddenly a one-man survival raft appeared with an oar and the soldier used it to cross the river. It took him quite some time, however, and he almost capsized a couple of times.

USMC E3It was finally time for the Navy captain to cross the river. Having carefully observed all that had transpired on the bank of the raging river, he raised his arms into the air and prayed: “Please God, give me the strength, the tools, and the intelligence to cross this river! Amen.” Suddenly God transformed the Navy captain into a Marine Corps lance corporal, who promptly consulted his map, hiked upstream a few hundred yards, and walked across the bridge.

Another Kind of Hero

Somewhere out there, there is 40 pounds of explosives waiting to destroy an American life. On the battlefield, terrorism takes the form improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We used to refer to such things as booby traps (meaning a device used to catch the unwary); they have always had a profound psychological effect on military forces —and a devastating effect on civilian populations, as well. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the disposal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, coalition forces remained in that country and assumed a new mission: nation building. The axiom used by former-president George H. W. Bush was, “If you break it, you own it.” George W. Bush broke it.

To combat these American forces, Iraqi and other insurgents used IEDs. It became the leading cause of death and injury among coalition forces in the region; 60% killed or injured in 2010, averaging 2.5 injuries per incident. In the case of those killed in action, injuries were so massive that there was no way to prevent their death. Among those military personnel that did survive IEDs, many also suffered significant brain damage from the concussion of the explosion. None of these people will ever return to their pre-war normalcy.

How did our troops survive in this environment? How did they even muster the courage to go on patrol, realizing that there was an IED out there just waiting for them? In the Marines, the squad looks after one another. Add to this mix the dog handlers augmenting each combat patrol. An experienced set of eyes and a dog’s ability to sniff out explosives will help to save the lives of Marines; not always, but in most cases. The cost: serious injury and death among dog handlers and their canine Marines. It is an amazing story.

Hartley - Blue 001On 8 February 2012, Lance Corporal Jarrett Hartley and his dog Blue accompanied 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, 3/3 into Loya Darvishan, Southern Helmand Province. While passing through a tiny village, Afghan National Army partners stopped to search a suspicious compound. They found several mortar castings; enough to prompt a more detailed search of surrounding compounds. The patrol avoided adjacent roads due to the increased threat of IEDs; they opted instead to cross into a nearby field, which took them through an arid canal. However, before the Marines entered the canal, Corporal Hartley noticed a darker patch of dirt that looked recently disturbed.

Hartley halted the patrol and sent Blue to sniff for explosives. Moments later the Labrador retriever laid down next to the area, confirming the presence of an IED. He had just saved several of a dozen lives. Hartley remarked, “While we’re on patrol, everyone looks to Blue and me to keep them safe. If we mess up, my friends will be blown up—because of my mistake.” Hartley was then 21-years old, a rifleman by training, and a volunteer to become a dog handler. But why would this young man place himself into such a dangerous position? Easy enough, he said … “I wanted to help protect Marines from getting hurt.”

Hartley’s previous tour in Helmand Province was running and gunning for insurgents as a member of his platoon. After training as a dog handler, his responsibilities changed. He remained with his platoon, but now he had to think and care for two; now he was carrying a much heavier responsibility on his shoulders. Marine and dog have become IED hunters; they do everything together, from patrolling to boarding helicopters for movement to other areas of the province. Together, the screen pedestrians, the work vehicle checkpoints, and they rest together after exhausting patrols. They experience the biting sandstorms, the bitter cold, and the scorching heat of the summer months. Through it all, Blue seems to realize that he has an awesome responsibility, too. He acts as if he understands that he is a front line defense against death and serious injury.

Nevertheless, the dogs are dogs and they like to goof off just as all dogs like to goof off. They like to jump in pools of water, chase other animals, and they get tired. Some times the animals are playful, other times they are moody. They are a challenge to their handlers, but they are saving lives and some times, at great cost to themselves.

Lucca 001Recently, an eight-year old Belgian Malinois named Lucca accepted her medical discharge from the U. S. Marine Corps and made her way back home to live with her first handler, Gunnery Sergeant Chris Willingham in Finland. As she hobbled through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with her handler, Marine Corporal Juan Rodriguez, human passengers stood and applauded the hero dog that lost her leg while looking out for her fellow Marines. On that day, Lucca detected a buried explosive, alerted her Marines, and immediately began to search for other explosives. What she did not know was that the enemy had booby-trapped the IED. When the IED exploded, Corporal Rodriguez could hear her screaming and yelping. He ran to her and began to administer life saving first aid. “It was rough,” Rodriguez said. (See Notes 1, 2)

In between combat patrols, a dog handler is likely to play with their dog; playing fetch is one popular pass time and it is here that these animals provide another invaluable service; they boost the moral among fellow Marines and each of these dogs finally finds a way into their hearts. No, they are not pets. They are highly skilled working animals. No, they are not just government property. They are life savers, morale boosters, and genuine American heroes.

Notes:

  1. Writer Maria Goodavage told Lucca’s story in an excellent book titled Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca. You can find the book at Amazon.
  2. Picture of Lucca and GySgt Willingham by Los Angeles Times photojournalist Gary Friedman