Mexican War:  Battle of Contreras


Battle of Contreras

Summary of the 17-minute battle
Report of Brigadier-General Cadwalader
Report of Major-General Winfield Scott
Map:  The Battle of Contreras

When night fell, the wearied Americans lay down and slept, expecting to renew the contest in the morning.  Generals Scott and Worth started early the next morning (Aug. 20) from St. Augustine for Contreras, and were met on the way by a courier with the news that the enemy's camp was captured.  The battle had been begun at sunrise by Smith's division.  While Generals Shields and Pierce had kept Santa Anna's reserve at bay, Smith's troops had marched towards the works in the darkness and gained a position, unobserved, behind the crest of a hill near the Mexican works.  Springing up suddenly from their hiding-place, they dashed pell-mell into the entrenchments; captured the batteries at the point of the bayonet; drove out the army of Valencia; and pursued its flying remnants towards the city of Mexico.  The contest, which had lasted only seventeen minutes, was fought by 4,500 Americans, against 7,000 Mexicans.  The trophies of victory were eighty officers and 3,000 Mexican troops made prisoners, and thirty-three pieces of artillery.

[Thanks to the web site Son of the South for this excellent summary of the battle.]

Official Report of Brigadier-General Cadwalader
Headquarters, 2nd Brigade, 3d Division
Mixcoac, Mexico, August 22, 1847

Sir:  In obedience to orders from division headquarters, I have the honor to report that, on the morning of the 18th instant, the 11th regiment of infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Graham, attached to my brigade, was detached with two companies of dragoons, under the command of Captain Kearny, for the purpose of covering a reconnaissance to be made near San Augustin by Captain Lee, of the engineer corps.  After proceeding about three miles, a heavy discharge of musketry was suddenly opened upon the column, bu a party of the enemy from the front and flank.  A charge from the dragoons and infantry effectually routed and dispersed the enemy, with some loss in killed and wounded, and the capture of five prisoners.  After the engineer officer had completed his observations, the column returned to the headquarters of the brigade at San Augustin.

On the 19th, my brigade, consisting of the voltigeur regiment under the command of Colonel T. P. Andrews, to which is attached the rocket and howitzer battery, under the command of Lieutenant F. D. Callender, of the ordnance; the 11th regiment of infantry, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Wm. M. Graham; and the 14th infantry, under the command of Colonel William Trousdale, took up the line of march from the village of San Augustin; being the advanced brigade of the 3d division, which had been ordered towards the position of the enemy at Contreras.  Having received orders to that effect, I threw forward the 11th regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel Graham, to occupy the road, when within sight of the advanced position of the enemy;  at the same time extending the voltigeurs, under Colonel Andrews, and the 14th, under Colonel Trousdale, up the side of the hill, which was on our right;  the howitzer and rocket battery being placed near the summit to command the road.

In this position, which moved forward and attacked the position of the enemy in front;  when, by the orders of Major-General Pillow, I followed in support of Riley's brigade, which was on its way towards the left of the entrenched camp of the enemy.  After a difficult march over a bed of lava rock, and passing two deep ravines and creeks, we came upon the road leading from Contreras to the city of Mexico.  As my advance arrived at this point, a very large force of the enemy - cavalry, artillery, and infantry - was observed coming up the road from the city, and approaching along the brow of the hills in our front - to repel which, I made immediate dispositions of my command, by taking advantage of favorable ground for forming my line of battle, hastening up the remaining regiments for that purpose - the enemy numbering at least six times the force of my command.  A volley from three companies of the 11th regiment drove back a body of cavalry supporting a reconnoitering party;  and the enemy perceiving our preparation, halted, and subsequently joined a very considerable force which was observed advancing on the right of the road.

Colonel Riley's brigade having turned to the left, at the village of Contreras or Encelda, I deemed it proper to take a stronger position, and accordingly moved my command to the crest of the hill upon which the village is situated.  Not long after this, I was joined by the 15th regiment, under Colonel Morgan - which regiment had been temporarily detached from the 1st brigade and placed under my orders - and subsequently, Brigadier-General P. F. Smith arrived with his command. 

Report of Major-General Winfield Scott to the Secretary of War

Major-General Winfield Scott, near Mexico City, to William L. Marcy, Secretary of War, at Washington, D.C. Dispatch communicating Scott's official report of the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.

Headquarters of the army,
Tacubaya, at the gates of Mexico, August 28, 1847.

Sir: - My report No. 31, commenced in the night of the 19th instant, closed the operations of the army with that day.

The morning of the 20th opened with one of series of unsurpassed achievements, all in view of the capital, and to which I shall give the general name - battle of Mexico.

In the night of the 19th, Brigadier Generals Shields, P. F Smith, and Cadwalader, and Colonel Riley, with their brigades, and the 15th regiment, under Colonel Morgan, detached from Brigadier General Pierce, found themselves in and about the important position - the village, hamlet, or hacienda, called, indifferently, Contreras, Ansalda, San Geronimo, half a mile nearer to the city than the enemy's entrenched camp, on the same road, towards the factory of Magdalena.

That camp had been, unexpectedly, our formidable point of attack the afternoon before, and we had now to take it, without the aid of cavalry or artillery, or to throw back our advanced corps upon the road from San Augustin to the city, and thence force a passage through San Antonio.

Accordingly, to meet contingencies, Major General Worth was ordered to leave, early in the morning of the 20th, one of his brigades to mask San Antonio, and to march, with the other, six miles, via San Augustin, upon Contreras.  A like destination was given to Major General Quitman and his remaining brigade in San Augustin - replacing, for the moment, the garrison of that important depot with Harney's brigade of cavalry, as horse could not pass over the intervening rocks, &c. to reach the field.

A diversion for an earlier hour (daylight) had been arranged for the night before, according to the suggestion of Brigadier General Smith, received through the engineer, Captain Lee, who conveyed my orders to our troops remaining on the ground opposite the enemy's centre - the point for the diversion or a real attack, as circumstances might allow.

Guided by Captain Lee, it proved the latter, under the command of Colonel Ransom, of the 9th, having with him that regiment and some companies of three others - the 3d, 12th, and rifles.

Shields, the senior officer at the hamlet, having arrived in the night, after Smith had arranged with Cadwalader and Riley the plan of attack for the morning, delicately waived interference; but reserved to himself the double task of holding the hamlet with his two regiments (South Carolina and New York volunteers) against ten times his numbers on the side of the city, including the slopes to his left, and, in case the camp in his rear should be carried, to face about and cut off the flying enemy.

At 3 o'clock A. M. the great movement commenced on the rear of the enemy's camp, Riley leading, followed successively by Cadwalader's and Smith's brigades, the latter temporarily under the orders of Major Dimick, of the 1st artillery - the whole force being commanded by Smith, the senior in the general attack, and whose arrangements, skill, and gallantry always challenge the highest admiration.

The march was rendered tedious by the darkness, rain, and mud; but about sunrise, Riley, conducted by Lieut. Tower, engineer, had reached an elevation behind the enemy, whence he precipitated his columns; stormed the entrenchments; planted his several colors upon them, and carried the work - all in seventeen minutes.

Conducted by Lieut. Beauregard, engineer, and Lieutenant Brooks, of Twigg's staff - both of whom, like Lieut. Tower, had in the night, twice reconnoitered the ground - Cadwalader brought up to the general assault two of his regiments - the voltigeurs and the 11th; and at the appointed time, Col. Ransom, with his temporary brigade, conducted by Captain Lee, engineer, not only made the movement to divert and distract the enemy, but, after crossing the deep ravine in his front, advanced, and poured into the works and upon the fugitives many volleys from his destructive musketry.

In the mean time Smith's own brigade, under the temporary command of Major Dimick, following the movements of Riley and Cadwalader, discovered opposite to and outside of the works, a long line of Mexican cavalry, drawn up as a support.  Dimick, having at the head of the brigade the company of sappers and miners, under Lieut. Smith, engineer, who had conducted the march, was ordered by Brigadier General Smith to form line faced to the enemy, and in a charge against a flank, routed the cavalry.

Shields too, by the wise disposition of his brigade and gallant activity, contributed much to the general results.  He held masses of cavalry and infantry, supported by artillery, in check below him, and captured hundreds, with one General (Mendoza) of those who fled from above.

I doubt whether a more brilliant or decisive victory - taking into view ground, artificial defenses, batteries, and the extreme disparity of numbers - without cavalry or artillery on our side - is to be found on record.  Including all our corps directed against the entrenched camp, with Shield's brigade at the hamlet, we positively did not number over 4500 rank and file; and we knew by sight, and since more certainly by many captured documents and letters, that the enemy had actually engaged on the spot 7000 men, with at least 12,000 more hovering within sight and striking distance - both on the 19th and 20th.  All not killed or captured, now fled with precipitation.

Thus was the great victory of Contreras achieved: one road to the capital opened; 700 of the enemy killed; 813 prisoners, including, among 88 officers, 4 generals; besides many colors and standards; 22 pieces of brass ordnance - half of large caliber; thousands of small arms and accoutrements; an immense quantity of shot, shells, powder, and cartridges, 700 pack mules, many horses, &c. - all in our hands.

It is highly gratifying to find that, by skillful arrangement and rapidity of execution, our loss in killed and wounded, did not exceed, on the spot, 60; among the former the brave Captain Charles Hanson, of the 7th infantry - not more distinguished for gallantry than for modesty, morals, and piety.  Lieut. J. P. Johnston, 1st artillery, serving with Magruder's battery, a young officer of the highest promise, was killed the evening before.

One of the most pleasing incidents of the victory is the recapture, in the works, by Captain Drum, 4th artillery, under Major Gardner, of the two brass six pounders, taken from another company of the same regiment, though without the loss of honor, at the glorious battle of Buena Vista - about which guns the whole regiment had mourned for so many long months!

Mexican War:  Battle of Contreras
Copyright 2012  14th Infantry Regiment Association
Last modified: November 01, 2012