Battle of Chapultepec Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The hilltop fortress of Chapultepec was a strategic obstacle to the U.S. Army in its advance on Mexico City during the Mexican War. Once the fortified hill was captured by U.S. forces in the Battle of Chapultepec, the Mexican capital became vulnerable to invasion and conquest, and the war entered its final stage.

Summary of Event

Following repeated military setbacks in the Mexican War during the spring and summer of 1847, the Mexican army found itself defending its capital from invasion by a numerically inferior but well-equipped and brilliantly led unit of the United States Army. General Antonio López de Santa Anna based his defense of Mexico City on several key geographic and military factors. It was Santa Anna’s hope that he could use these natural and man-made obstacles to his advantage and wrest a victory from the American invaders that might rally his country to expel the other American military units as well. If an overall victory in the war could not be achieved, a local victory at Mexico City might at least reduce the net loss to Mexico. Chapultepec, Battle of (1847) Mexican War (1846-1848);Battle of Chapultepec Mexico City;Battle of Chapultepec [kw]Battle of Chapultepec (Sept. 12-13, 1847) [kw]Chapultepec, Battle of (Sept. 12-13, 1847) Chapultepec, Battle of (1847) Mexican War (1846-1848);Battle of Chapultepec Mexico City;Battle of Chapultepec [g]United States;Sept. 12-13, 1847: Battle of Chapultepec[2530] [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Sept. 12-13, 1847: Battle of Chapultepec[2530] [g]Mexico;Sept. 12-13, 1847: Battle of Chapultepec[2530] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 12-13, 1847: Battle of Chapultepec[2530] Bravo, Nicolás Santa Anna, Antonio López de [p]Santa Anna, Antonio López de;and Mexican War[Mexican War] Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;and Mexican War[Mexican War] Worth, William Jenkins Pillow, Gideon Johnson Niños Héroes, Los

Both geography and weather were allies of the Mexicans that summer. Mexico City lies in the center of a large basin. This basin gathers the rainfall off the surrounding mountains into lakes. In the rainy season, the city itself is nearly an island, approachable by an army only over several raised causeways. September is part of the rainy season, so that fall, Santa Anna Santa Anna, Antonio López de [p]Santa Anna, Antonio López de;and Mexican War[Mexican War] had as his ally the swamps that surrounded his capital. The Mexicans counted on the environmental advantage their geography gave them over their adversaries, as well as the advantages that normally accrue to the defenders of any nation against an invading foreign army.

To strengthen their natural advantages, Mexican engineers had prepared numerous improvements to Mexico City’s defenses. Each of the causeways approaching the city was cut at several locations, impeding progress along them. The precise distance from the city’s defensive batteries to these cuts in the causeways would be known to the gunners manning those batteries. Thus, their guns could be prepared to fire on those locations with great accuracy. The approach to the city along the causeways was also opposed by fortified gates that were supported by bastions providing interlocking fire that could be rained down upon any attacking force. In a final bid to make Mexico City impregnable, Santa Anna had dug a moat around the city to slow attackers. General Santa Anna Santa Anna, Antonio López de [p]Santa Anna, Antonio López de;and Mexican War[Mexican War] thus had every reason to believe that he stood a good chance of succeeding in his defense of the Mexican capital.

One key to the defense of Mexico City was the castle of Chapultepec. Located on a high hill southwest of Mexico City, this fortified castle had a natural height advantage over potential attackers. In addition to defending the city, Chapultepec was the home of the Mexican military academy, Mexico’s equivalent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, so it housed a corps of military cadets and instructional staff.

Chapultepec guarded one of the causeways leading to Mexico City, the Tacubaya Causeway. Because it was guarded by the hilltop fortress, however, the Tacubaya Causeway was otherwise the least well defended of the approaches to Mexico City: The causeway itself was less fortified than the other causeways, because the defense provided by Chapultepec was believed to be sufficient. After the Americans reconnoitered the city, the commander of the U.S. forces, General Winfield Scott Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;and Mexican War[Mexican War] , determined to exploit the weakness of the Tacubaya Causeway’s fortifications in his invasion of Mexico City. In order to carry out this plan, the fortress atop Chapultepec would have to be reduced.

The hill of Chapultepec was steep, and only on the west side could it be assaulted. To strengthen its position, its west face was improved near its base with two smaller fortified buildings called El Molino del Rey and Casa de Mata, which were separated by approximately four hundred yards. The open space between the two buildings was defended by the battalions of Mina, Union, and La Patria of Iaxaca, reinforced by the companies of Puebla and troops from Queretaro. The Casa de Mata was defended by a brigade commanded by General Francisco Pérez and fifteen hundred soldiers of the Mexican regular army. All told, the hill of Chapultepec was defended by approximately ten thousand soldiers under the command of General Nicolás Bravo Bravo, Nicolás .

The Americans decided that before the stronghold at the top of the hill could be taken the positions at the base of the hill needed to be neutralized. With that goal, American general William Jenkins Worth Worth, William Jenkins , with a corps of approximately three thousand men, stormed El Molino del Rey and Casa de Mata positions on the morning of September 8, 1847. This action is known as the Battle of El Molino del Rey. The Mexican defenders gallantly resisted the assault and turned back the initial thrust of the American army. However, with superior artillery, the Americans rallied and the lower positions were taken and destroyed.

With the lower fortifications destroyed, the Mexican defenders at the top of Chapultepec were the last bastion protecting Mexico City from the U.S. Army. If their position should fall, the Americans would have a clear path of attack along the Tacubaya Causeway and would very likely take the capital. General Bravo made his dispositions with this knowledge in mind. The castle itself, at the peak of the hill, was encircled by walls ten feet high and reinforced with bastions and redoubts containing both infantry and artillery. With these advantages and the approximately eight thousand men remaining on the hill, General Bravo Bravo, Nicolás would have to defend Chapultepec.

On the afternoon of September 12, 1847, the attack began with an artillery barrage. At 9:00 a.m. on September 13, the Americans began their assault as General Worth Worth, William Jenkins and General Gideon Johnson Pillow Pillow, Gideon Johnson led their troops up the hill. A withering fire welcomed the invaders, but the Americans proved unstoppable. One at a time, the redoubts were overrun. Finally, after more than an hour of fierce fighting using fascines and scaling ladders, the castle wall fell to the advancing foe. When it became obvious that the position must fall and that the weary survivors of the defense should withdraw to the capital, General Bravo gave the order to retreat. Six cadets of the military academy refused to obey and continued fighting until all six were killed. These six cadets have become known as Los Niños Héroes Niños Héroes, Los and are revered in Mexican lore as heroes.

The defenders of Chapultepec had been unable to prevent their American adversaries from conquering their position. However, they had earned the respect of those adversaries, who were forced to acknowledge the bravery of the defenders, especially Los Niños Héroes. The retreating Mexican army was pursued to the Belan gate by the U.S. soldiers, who would soon add the occupation of Mexico to their list of conquests in this, the first U.S. imperialist war.

Significance

With the fall of Chapultepec, the Mexicans lost their last and their perhaps best chance to defeat their American invaders. Had they won, halting the American advance, it might have been possible for the Mexicans to limit their territorial losses in the war to those territories that the United States had already occupied. Because they failed at Chapultepec, however, the Mexican capital became vulnerable to attack. It was soon conquered by General Scott Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;and Mexican War[Mexican War] . With the loss of its capital and of the army that had defended it, Mexico was left with no option but to sue for peace and accept the terms laid down by their its, the United States.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, N. C. A Complete History of the Mexican War: Its Causes, Conduct, and Consequences. Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1965. Intensively researched, thorough look at the war from an American perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Francaviglia, Richard V., and Douglas W. Richmond, eds. Dueling Eagles: Reinterpreting the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2000. Series of essays, some written by Mexican scholars, reinterpreting the war from both a twentieth century and a Mexican perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">George, Isaac. Heroes and Incidents of the Mexican War. Hollywood, Calif.: Sun Dance Press, 1971. A careful look at the causes of the war and a synthetic look at Alexander W. Doniphan’s expedition to El Paso.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mansfield, Edward D. The Mexican War: History of Its Origin. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1848. Writing soon after the events and from an American perspective, Mansfield provides an in-depth look at the military actions of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Cecil, ed. and trans. The View from Chapultepec: Mexican Writers on the Mexican-American War. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989. A compilation of insightful essays by Mexican scholars on the war, including the political environment, how the war was seen by contemporary Mexicans, and how they viewed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ruiz, Eduardo Ramón. The Mexican War: Was It Manifest Destiny? New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. A series of essays exploring the war and its origins from a Mexican perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Santoni, Pedro. Mexicans at Arms: Puro Federalists and the Politics of War, 1845-1848. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1996. An analysis of Mexican political and military history during the period of the Mexican War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scheina, Robert L. Santa Anna: A Curse upon Mexico. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2002. A military and political history of Santa Anna, depicting him as a political opportunist but a brave and resourceful military leader.

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