In 1846 the United States and Mexico stood at an impasse. The breakaway Mexican province of Texas had proclaimed independence in 1836 and was accepted as the 38th U.S. state in 1845. Now American expansionists were eyeing New Mexico and California. In April 1846 some 2,000 Mexican troops captured a detachment of U.S. dragoons in a disputed border zone, lighting a match. On May 13, President James K. Polk pressed for war, stating that “American blood has been shed on American soil.”
The Mexican-American War established public perception of the professional, West Point–trained officer— Sherman and Johnston, Grant and Lee, Jackson and others fought in Mexico as brothers in arms. General Winfield Scott’s amphibious landing and siege of Veracruz, Mexico, stands out. As the expedition called for 25,000 regular, volunteer, Navy and Marine forces, Scott contracted for the construction of large flat-bottom boats, each capable of landing a 40-man company—precursors to the Higgins boats of a hundred years later.
At midafternoon on March 9, 1847, Scott and his naval commander, Commodore Matthew Perry (who would open Japan to the world a few years later), landed the troops a few miles south of Veracruz while gunboats bombarded the coast, much like Allied forces would at Omaha Beach in 1944. Unlike on that costly day in World War II, however, the Americans landed without resistance and had 8,600 men ashore by 11 p.m.
At Veracruz, Brig. Gen. Juan Morales concentrated his 3,360 men and artillery in specific strongpoints, while Scott steadily expanded the U.S. beachhead. Once Scott’s siege guns were in place on high ground outside the city, he demanded surrender, which Morales refused. But on March 29 the Mexican colors were lowered on Fort San Juan de Ulúa. At the cost of some 100 Mexican civilians, 80 Mexican soldiers and 13 American lives, the United States had won its first major amphibious operation and opened the door for the march on Mexico City.
- Check your materiel. Scott knew he needed landing craft, naval fire support and siege guns to reduce the city. Prior planning won the day.
- The Navy can be useful. A “mosquito fleet” of small gunboats harassed the Mexicans, distracting them long enough for Scott to secure the beachhead.
- Ignore bureaucratic promises. Before Morales arrived in Veracruz, he was assured of its “impregnable” fortifications. Instead he found two mediocre stone forts, a dilapidated defensive wall and artillery that was either obsolete or worn out. In an added insult, Mexico City never sent reinforcements.
- A strong staff is essential. Most great leaders have benefited from excellent officers. Scott landed at Veracruz with Robert E. Lee, George G. Meade, P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston. Only a halfwit could lose with such men.
- Plan your assault. In a foreshadowing of World War II, Scott mounted a beachhead landing under close fire support. Naval gunboats provided covering fire while landing craft moved ashore and the Army unloaded its fieldpieces.
- Counterattack a landing in force. Morales mounted a handful of weak assaults with insufficient men, coordination or support. As the Germans and Iraqis would discover in the 20th century, giving beachhead forces time to build up is a recipe for defeat.
- If besieged by superior numbers, get out while you can. Morales’ pride got the best of him. Instead of spiking his guns, burning his supplies and bugging out, he allowed his army to be surrounded, yielding a strategically important hub along with intact forts and cannons.
- Bombardment is overrated. The Americans rained more than 6,700 shells on Veracruz over four days. While the action demoralized defenders, actual casualties numbered fewer than 200.
- Be prepared to govern. Fresh from the Western frontier, Scott and his officers knew what it took to run a city. They placed price controls on food to prevent hoarding, set up military commissions to try U.S. troops who committed crimes and, to the chagrin of the U.S. infantry, closed all liquor stores.
- Plan beyond the beachhead. The march on Mexico City was the true impetus for the landing. Weeks prior to the assault, Scott had his quartermaster plan the logistical needs of a 25,000-man army on the march. The nearly 3 million pounds of supplies landed at Veracruz enabled Scott to win his great victory and secure undisputed control of what would henceforth be called “the American West.”
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.