Major Levi Twiggs was the younger brother of David E. Twiggs, born in Richmond County, Georgia on 21 May 1793. Upon the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, the nineteen-year-old Levi Twiggs wanted to join fight but was prevented from doing so by his parents, who insisted that he remain with his studies. Levi obediently continued his studies at Athens College for several more months. Ultimately, however, Levi was unable to repress his passion for military service and, having been motivated by the reported exploits of Commodore Decatur of the American Navy, Levi left school and begged his parents’ permission to join the United States Marine Corps.
Levi was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on 10 November 1813. After his initial training and indoctrination, Levi was assigned to the Marine contingent at Patuxent River. The mission of these Marines was to oppose any passage of the British fleet, which was then hovering along the coastal regions of the Chesapeake Bay. During this initial assignment, Lieutenant Twiggs displayed exceptional leadership ability and energy in leading his small force of Marines, traits that would continue to distinguish his service as a U. S. Marine.
He was next assigned to the frigate USS President, then commanded by Commodore Decatur. Twigg’s assignment would be as second-in-command of the Marine Corps detachment, then numbering around 56 seasoned Marines. Upon reporting aboard ship, however, his senior officer was not present, and Twiggs assumed command of the detachment.
USS President sailed from New York on 14 January 1815. Due to ill-marked channel markers, the ship ran aground along the outer banks of the harbor. Stranded on a sandbar for a full lunar cycle, the ship lifted and dropped with the incoming tides. It was not long before her hull had been significantly damaged, her timbers twisted, and masts sprung. Damage to the keel caused the ship to sag amidships. It was Commodore Decatur’s judgment to return to port for repairs, but once the ship was clear of the sandbar, strong winds and tidal currents contrived to push her out to sea.
Decatur realized that his ship was unseaworthy. Under these circumstances, he set a course to avoid the British fleet, which was believed to be operating along the coast of the Chesapeake Bay. Decatur set out in search of a safe port for much-needed repairs.
Within a few hours, Decatur spotted enemy sails on the horizon. President being sluggish underway, Decatur ordered expendable cargo thrown overboard, but the British frigate HMS Endymionsoon overtook President and began delivering broadsides. President put up a gallant defense and unmercifully raked the enemy with ball, bar, and chain shot, but ship’s damage adversely affected her maneuverability and HMS Endymion was a better ship. The battle raged for hours as Endymion and President jockeyed for advantages. Decatur finally surrendered his ship to the British at midnight.
During the President’s engagement, Twiggs acquitted himself with gallant energy and a cool frame of mind while under fire, displaying the composure of a more experienced officer. His men having discharged more than 5,000 cartridges with accurate and deadly fire, Commodore Decatur pronounced the detachment’s combat efficiency as “incomparable.”
Taken as prisoners of war, the President’s officers were transported and detained in Bermuda until the peace accord was signed. Upon return to the United States, Commodore Decatur and ship’s officers were referred to a court of inquiry and court-martial but all were acquitted of wrong-doing. Meanwhile Commodore Decatur offered First Lieutenant Twiggs glowing praise for his performance of duty.
From 1816 to 1823, Twiggs was attached to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During this time, he became engaged to and married Pricilla Decatur McKnight . In 1824, Twiggs was once more ordered to sea, this time under the command of Commodore Lewis Warrington’s West Indian Squadron where he served for two years in efforts to suppress piracy in the Caribbean, Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and Lucayan Archipelago. On his return, Twiggs was assigned to the Navy Yard at Philadelphia. He was advanced to brevet Captain on 3 May 1825. In November of that year, he assumed command of the Marine Barracks at the Norfolk Navy Yard (in Virginia). In June 1826, Captain Twiggs was ordered to Florida where he participated in the Seminole Indian wars.
The Seminole Indian Wars were a trial for the Americans. They confronted with dangerous hostiles, of course, but also had to contend with dangerous reptiles, pestilence, swamp fevers, and dehydrating heat and humidity. From 1828 until 1843, Major Twiggs served in routine assignments at various posts and stations in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. His overall performance of duty was regarded as exceptional.
In 1843, Major Twiggs assumed command of the Marine Barracks at the Philadelphia Navy-Yard. By this time, Twiggs had earned an enviable reputation as a professional Marine and a refined southern gentleman. During his long period of thirty-four years’ service, Major Twiggs requested leave of absence on one occasion: the illness of a member of his family. He was absent from duty for one week in 34 years.
Considering the size of the United States in 1846, comparing that to its population, the Mexican-American War was a massive undertaking. If one were looking at a list of navy vessels in 1846, one might easily conclude that the size of the Navy was massive. It was not. There were but two squadrons: The Home Squadron (Commodore David Conner, later Matthew C. Perry), and the Pacific Squadron (Commodore John Sloat, later Robert F. Stockton, W. Branford Shubrick, James Biddle, and Thomas ap Catesby Jones). Each of these squadrons had ships, of course, and a list of them would appear impressive. There were ships of the line, but most of the Navy’s vessels were cargo ships, revenue cutters, paddle steamers, riverine craft, and barges. Nor was the war (which is to say, the Navy’s mission) confined to old Mexico. There was a war to be won in California, as well—which was largely a Navy operation supported by the Army. In Mexico, it was an Army operation, supported by the Navy.
The missions included blockading Mexican ports, or seizing and hold them, amphibious operations, and riverine assaults. At this time, the entire Marine Corps consisted of only 63 officers and 1,200 enlisted men. These were distributed about the Navy’s ships of the line, and guarding shore activities (Navy Yards). In order to provide a battalion of fighting Marines, the Commandant of the Marine Corps (Colonel Archibald Henderson) was required to strip the barracks at Boston, Gosport, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia to no more than a sergeant’s guard. Additionally, new recruits were shipped out with inadequate training. There were simply an insufficient number of Marines to man a 600-man combat regiment. Henderson decided to form a battalion, instead. Three hundred Marines formed the battalion, divided into six-line companies.
General Zachery Taylor approached Mexico through Texas. He commanded a force of about 4,000 soldiers. General Winfield Scott commanded a force of about 12,000 Army, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel. The Mexican force outnumbered the Americans —by 20,000 troops. The Mexicans had the ability to replace their war casualties. The Americans didn’t have this flexibility.
With only 63 Marine officers serving on active duty, there was a scramble to be included in the Marine Battalion. Major Levi Twiggs one of these. The battalion departed the United States on 2 June 1847. More than 300 officers and men sweltered in the heat as the sailing ships slowly made their way south. The ship stopped for supplies at Havana, Cuba on 17 June with only two days in port. The battalion of 22 officers, 2 Navy doctors, and 270 enlisted men arrived at Veracruz on 29 June under the command of brevet Lieutenant Colonel Samuel E. Watson. Another 66 Marines arrived from Pensacola, Florida a few days later.
Watson’s battalion remained near Veracruz for two weeks before marching inland. He was ordered to join Winfield Scott’s army, then at Puebla. Upon arrival, the Marines were attacked to General Franklin Pierce’s  brigade. Bad weather, deep sand, and enemy harassment hampered the Marine’s progress. Pierce assigned the Marines to form a rearguard for the brigade
On 21 July, Pierce’s brigade reached the National Bridge over the Antigua River. The Marines repulsed an enemy attack as they approached the bridge. In the fighting there, young Second Lieutenant George Decatur Twiggs, Levi’s son, serving with the 9thUS Infantry, was killed in action.
The march had taken three weeks; the Marines and soldiers of Pierce’s brigade were weary as they finally reached Puebla. Scott was ready to move —but the troops needed a rest. They got two days. Scott assigned Watson’s Marines to General Quitman’s 4thInfantry Division. Quitman assigned Watson to command a brigade consisting of a detachment of the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment and the Marine Battalion. Major Twiggs, as Watson’s executive officer, assumed command of the Marine Battalion.
Meanwhile, Mexican President-General Antonio López de Santa Anna fortified Mexico City and all approaches to it. Scott was taking a big risk marching inland; outnumbered, hampered by citizen insurgents and unfamiliar terrain, Scott faced the real possibility of being cut off from any retreat to the coast. It was a rough route of march, the same one taken by Cortez in 1519. The Americans marched through wide valleys and scorching deserts. There was a steep climb to a narrow plateau, the apex of which was 10,500 feet above sea level. From the point, the Americans could see the valley of Mexico, encircled by rugged mountains.
Scott’s force moved steadily toward Mexico City. The Americans fought a series of minor engagements along the way. On 20 August 1847, the Mexicans were defeated at Contreras and Churubusco and fled toward the capital. Enroute to Mexico City, the Marines were assigned to guard the supply train. When engagements erupted, the Watson’s Brigade (and the Marines) were kept in reserve. On 23 August, both sides agreed to an armistice and a peace commission met in an attempt to bring an end to the fighting. From the Mexican point of view, the willingness of the Americans to even discuss peace at this stage was a sign of weakness; they used the armistice period to further reinforce their positions. The ceasefire ended on 6 September—Scott claiming that the Mexicans had violated the terms on several occasions and the Americans moved forward once more.
On 11 September, General Scott convened a war council to discuss the next step. After listening to what his subordinates had to say, Scott decided on an assault upon the Castle of Chapultepec before going into Mexico City. Sited on a hill overlooking Mexico City, the citadel was the key to the city … American batteries began shelling the citadel on 12 September. Major Twiggs led a detachment of Marines to reconnoiter to determine enemy concentrations. Twiggs and his Marines came under heavy fire, and Major Levi Twiggs fell, mortally wounded. The Marines, however, had accomplished their mission by drawing the Mexicans out of the fortress.
On the day the Marines entered the citadel, Sam Watson was directed to assume command of the Army’s 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, and with Twiggs killed in action, Major William Dulaney assumed command of the Marine Battalion. Watson’s health, however, had given out and he departed Mexico City for return to the United States in early November. He died at Veracruz, Mexico on 16 November 1847. He was laid to rest in the same grave as Major Twiggs at Veracruz.
- A Continent Divided: The US-Mexico War, Center for Greater Southwestern Studies, University of Texas, Arlington, 2019
- Winters, J.D. The Civil War in Louisiana, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963
- Warner, E. J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959
- Russell K. Brown, New Georgia Encyclopedia, History and Archeology, 29 Jan 2010: John Twiggs
 Priscilla was the daughter of Captain James S. McKnight, U. S. Navy. When McKnight was killed in action, she was adopted and raised by Stephen Decatur. Priscilla was the mother of Lieutenant George Decatur Twiggs, US Army, who was killed in action during the Mexican-American War while serving with the 9thUS Infantry, engaged with the enemy at Natural Bridge in the Mexico City campaign on 12 August 1847. She never recovered from the loss of both her husband and her son in the same war.
 President of the United States, 1852-1856.