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.


[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.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Halls of Montezuma”

  1. Now I more fully understand the honor from whence came “From the halls of Montezuma”. Thank you. I also remembered well Gen. Twigg of whom you wrote about; my feeble memory couldn’t process his death in battle until I read your footnote.

    Out of curiosity, how many Marines were involved in the assault and back then, what were the odds of surviving a wound given medical knowledge and treatments of that time?


    1. US Forces

      There were two rifles available for use in the Mexican-American War: US Model 1842 Musket (manufactured at Harper’s Ferry and the Springfield Armory). It was a percussion rifle, .69 caliber smooth-bore. It was produced with interchangeable parts. A total of 275,000 of these weapons were manufactured between 1844 and 1855. You can see a picture of the .69 ball here.

      The Model 1841 was a .54 Caliber percussion rifle produced from 1846 to 1855, about 26,000 produced in total. This weapon did not have a bayonet lug. Initially, the weapon was only provided to state militia rifle companies. It has a remarkable stock which was distinguished by a large patch-box on the right side of the rifle butt. It was sometimes referred to as the Mississippi Rifle—owing to its success by a regiment of Missippii rifles under the command of Jefferson Davis during the Mexican-American War. You can view the .54 caliber bullet here.

      I wanted to provide you with a visual reference for each of these projectiles so that you would have an appreciation of their lethality. Traditionally, muskets are not very accurate at long ranges due to their smooth bore. Rifles are more accurate at longer distances, which means that they were faster moving projectiles. At close range, the .54 Caliber round could possibly go through a man and impact the fellow standing next to him, or behind him. If the first man was lucky, the bullet wouldn’t have ripped up any organs … but the fact is that such an event would have been miraculous. Having something that large exiting your side or back would produce a hole you could stick several fingers into.

      Mexican Forces

      Mexican infantry formed in two kinds of battalions. The Permanente Battalion (Regular Army) very often named after Mexican war heroes; The Activo Battalion were national guard organizations named for geographical areas from which the battalion was formed. Each Mexican battalion was comprised of eight companies:

      Compañía Cazadores (light infantry) were used as skirmishers or flankers. They were armed with the British Baker Rifle or British Light Infantry Musket. The British Baker was a flintlock weapon using a .62 Caliber lead ball cartridge. The light infantry musket was popularly referred to as Brown Bess. This was a flintlock weapon that fired a .69 Caliber ball (effective to about 100 yards)

      Compañía Granaderos (Grenadiers) were mostly used in reserve. They were ordinarily armed with the British East India Pattern Musket. This weapon was manufactured between 1771 and 1840, was a flintlock musket projecting a .76 Caliber lead ball. Owing to its 2,425 foot pounds of energy, it had a maximum effective range of 200 yards.

      Compañía Fusileros (line company) numbered six in the battalion armed with the British East India Pattern Musket (see above specifics).

      Field Medicine

      To answer your questions about field medical care, there was what say today “good news and bad news.” Pain-free surgery expanded the magnitude and the duration of surgical procedures, which was begun around 1842. The effectiveness of the procedure using chloroform actually resulted in more amputations beginning around the period of the Mexican-American War. This continued into the American Civil War and it is now believed that a large number of amputations did not need to be performed at all. In the north, surgeons had tentage that keep out flies and such that would lay their larva in the wounds. The post-operational death rate was higher in the north. Conversely in the South, the maggots would actually eat the destroyed flesh, leaving the vibrant tissue, and the number of post-operative deaths was far lower. Southern surgeons also used leaches to perpetuate the flow of blood into repaired limbs, thereby saving the hand, arm, leg, and/or foot from having to be amputated.

      My first guess was that during the Mexican American War, anyone hit by a .76 Caliber lead ball was going to die. Statistics do not seem to bear this out. US deaths during this war were 13,283: 1,733 due to combat, 11,500 other (disease, accident), and of the wounded in action, 4,152. This suggests that if wounded, .76 Caliber ball or artillery, you stood a good chance of surviving the conflict. Among Marines, which consisted of one battalion, there were 40 killed in action, 47 wounded. Ninety percent of the officers and NCOs of the battalion were either killed or wounded.

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    2. Unbelievable statistics, sir. Only 1,733 deaths from combat versus over 11,000 via other means. Of those 1,733, it would seem many died from close quarters bayonet strikes as well.

      I thought all guns and “rifles” or “muskets” where rifled, even smoothbore… but now I guess that was silly and erroneous although rifling been around from before that war. That conical shot – isn’t that a form of Minie? Regardless, those suckers were absolutely huge. Some months ago, I had watched a documentary on such balls but had not until now even thought how devastating it was to be hit with one. That same documentary also described how such wounds would become infected if say, a ball, had hit a tree before striking a man. The minute splinters and other foreign debris would embed themselves into the flesh and therefore, be the source of deadly infections. Thank you for the education.


    3. When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your gawd like a soldier. –Rudyard Kipling

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  2. Although this campaign was covered in depth in a recent bio I read of Robert E. Lee, as usual you have much more to add. Passing “through a tunnel carved out by sappers” – wow. You almost miss that in passing, but what a noisy, dirty endeavor.


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