July 16, 2013
Chapultepec Castle is not, by Mexican standards, particularly old. Though the 12th-century Toltecs named the 200-foot-high outcrop on which the castle stands the “hill of the grasshopper”—chapoltepec in Nahuatl, probably for the huge numbers of the insects found there—the castle itself wasn’t built until 1775, as a residence for Spain’s viceroy. It was converted to a military academy in 1833, which was the extent of its martial history until September 13, 1847, when two armies faced off there in the climactic battle of the Mexican-American War.
After more than a year and a dozen engagements on land and sea, the U.S. had yet to suffer a defeat. General Zachary Taylor had crossed the Rio Grande with an expeditionary force of a little more than 2,000 men and defeated much larger Mexican armies at Monterrey and Buena Vista. Winfield Scott, America’s most senior general and the hero of the War of 1812, had taken Veracruz with a brilliant amphibious assault and siege, and defeated Mexico’s caudillo and president Antonio López de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo. Then he had taken Puebla, Mexico’s second-largest city, without firing a shot.
There are any number of reasons why the Americans dominated the fighting. They had better artillery in front of them (rockets, siege weapons and highly mobile horse-drawn howitzers that could fire canister—20 or more lead balls packed in sawdust and cased in tin, which turned the American six-pounder cannons into giant shotguns). They also had a stronger government behind them (in 1846 alone, the Mexican presidency changed hands four times). However, the decisive American advantage was not in technology or political stability, but in military professionalism. The United States had West Point.
Though neither Scott nor Taylor nor their division commanders learned the military art at the U.S. Military Academy, virtually every junior officer in the Mexican campaign—more than five hundred of them—had. Under Sylvanus Thayer, who became superintendent in 1817, and his protégé Dennis Hart Mahan, the academy became more than just a fine engineering school. In accord with legislation Congress passed in 1812, the course of studies at West Point required cadets to master all the skills not only of an officer, but of a private and a noncommissioned officer as well.
It made for a revolution in military education. Mahan, an advocate for turning the military into a profession equal to that of physicians or attorneys, had completed a fundamental study of the art of war, which he would publish in 1847. The first American professional military journals—the Army and Navy Chronicle, the Military and Naval Magazine and the Military Magazine—all started publication between 1835 and 1839.
This environment produced the staff and line officers who accompanied Taylor across the Rio Grande and Scott from Veracruz to Chapultepec. One of them, Ulysses S. Grant (USMA Class of 1843), wrote, “A better army, man for man, probably never faced an enemy than the one commanded by General Taylor in the earliest two engagements of the Mexican War.” Scott shared his “fixed opinion that but for our graduated cadets the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably would, have lasted some four or five years with, in its first half, more defeats than victories falling to our share, whereas in two campaigns we conquered a great country and a peace without the loss of a single battle or skirmish.”
The academy graduates proved extraordinary in Mexico (and even more so in their subsequent careers in a far more bloody conflict). When Scott landed at Veracruz, his junior officers included not only Grant, but also Robert E. Lee (USMA 1829; commanding general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862). Captain Lee led his division through the “impassible ravines” to the north of the Mexican position at Cerro Gordo and turned the enemy’s left flank. The path to Mexico City, over the 10,000-foot pass of Río Frío, was mapped by First Lieutenant P.G.T. Beauregard (USMA 1838; general, Army of the Mississippi, 1861) and First Lieutenant George Gordon Meade (USMA 1835; commanding general, Army of the Potomac, 1863). Captain (soon enough Major) Lee found the best route to the relatively undefended southwestern corner of Mexico City, through a huge lava field known as the pedregal that was thought to be impassible; American engineers—accompanied by First Lieutenant George McClellan (USMA 1846; commanding general, U.S. Army, 1861)—improved it into a military road in two days, under regular artillery fire. The Molino del Rey, a mill that Scott mistakenly thought was being converted into a cannon foundry during a cease-fire, was occupied, after some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, by Lieutenant Grant and First Lieutenant Robert Anderson (USMA 1825).
So it’s scarcely surprising that when the final attack on Chapultepec Castle began on that September morning in 1847, one of the columns was led by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Johnston (USMA 1829; commanding general, Army of Tennessee, 1863). Or that, when the Americans were pinned down after they’d fought to the top of the hill, Second Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson (USMA 1846; lieutenant general and corps commander, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862), commanding two six-pounder cannon at the far left of the American line, rushed forward in support. As he did so, a storming party of 250 men reached the base of the castle wall and threw scaling ladders against the 12-foot-high fortification. There, Captain Lewis A. Armistead (USMA, 1838, though he never graduated; brigadier general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863) was wounded; so was the officer carrying the regimental colors of the 8th Infantry, First Lieutenant James Longstreet (USMA 1842; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862), which were then taken by Second Lieutenant George E. Pickett (USMA 1846; major general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862). In an hour, the castle was taken.
And, in less than a day, so was Mexico’s capital. Jackson, who had been under fire for more than 12 hours, chased more than 1,500 Mexicans down the causeway that led into the capital “for about a mile…. It was splendid!” Grant, commanding a platoon-sized detachment, dragged a six-pound howitzer to the top of a church belfry, three hundred yards from the main gate to the city at San Cosmé, and put a withering fire on the Mexican defenses until he ran out of ammunition. A day later, Scott rode into the Grand Plaza of Mexico City at the head of his army. Though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo would not be signed until February of 1848, the battles of the Mexican-American War were over.
Not, however, the battle over the war’s narrative: its rationale, conduct and consequences. Los Niños Heroes—six cadets who from the Chapultepec military academy who refused to retreat from the castle, five of them dying at their posts and the sixth throwing himself from the castle wrapped in the Mexican flag—synthesize the Mexican memory of the war: brave Mexicans sacrificed by poor leadership in a war of aggression by a neighbor who, in one analysis, “offered to us the hand of treachery, to have soon the audacity to say that our obstinacy and arrogance were the real causes of the war.”
The enlargement of the United States of America by some 500,000 square miles, plus Texas, was certainly a valuable objective, but it’s uncertain that achieving it required a war, any more than the 800,000 square miles of the Louisiana Purchase did. Grant himself opined that the Mexican war was “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Even more uncertain is the argument, voiced by Grant, among others, the American Civil War “was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War.” The sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery might have been different without Monterrey, Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec, but no less pointed, and the Civil War no less likely—or less bloody.
However, it would have been conducted very differently, since the men who fought it were so clearly marked by Mexico. It was there they learned the tactics that would dominate from 1861 to 1865. And it was there they learned to think of themselves as masters of the art of war. That, of course, was a bit of a delusion: The Mexican army was no match for them. They would prove, tragically, a match for one another.
What the Mexican War created, more than territory or myth, was men. More than a dozen future Civil War generals stood in front of Chapultepec Castle in 1847—not just the ones already named, but First Lieutenant Simon Bolivar Bruckner (USMA 1844; brigadier general, Army of Central Kentucky, 1862), who fought alongside Grant at Molino del Rey and would surrender Fort Donelson to him in 1862; Second Lieutenant Richard H. Anderson (USMA 1842; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia 1863); Major John Sedgwick (USMA 1837; major general, Army of the Potomac 1863), the highest-ranking Union Army officer killed during the Civil War; Major George B. Crittenden (USMA 1832; major general, Army of Central Kentucky, 1862); Second Lieutenant A.P. Hill (USMA 1846; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863); and Major John C. Pemberton, (USMA 1837; lieutenant general, Army of Mississippi, 1862), who joined Grant in the steeple of the church at San Cosmé and defended Vicksburg against him 16 years later.
The Duke of Wellington spent his life denying he had ever said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Much more apt to say that the Battle of Chapultepec was won on the parade grounds of West Point, and that the Battles of Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg were won—and lost—in the same place.
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January 16, 2013
After serving two terms as president, Ulysses S. Grant settled in New York, where the most famous man in America was determined to make a fortune in investment banking. Wealthy admirers like J. P. Morgan raised money to help Grant and his wife, Julia, make a home on East 66th Street in Manhattan, and after two decades at war and in politics, the Ohio-born son of a tanner approached his 60s aspiring to join the circles of the elite industrialists and financiers of America’s Gilded Age.
But the Union’s preeminent Civil War hero had never been good at financial matters. Before the Civil War he’d failed at both farming and the leather business, and on the two-year, round-the-world tour he and Julia took after his presidency, they ran out of money when Grant miscalculated their needs. Their son Buck had to send them $60,000 so they could continue on with their travels. In New York, in the spring of 1884, things were about to get worse.
After putting up $100,000 in securities, Grant became a new partner, along with Buck, in the investment firm of Grant and Ward. In truth, Grant had little understanding of finance, and by May 1884, he had seen yet another failure, this one spectacular and publicized in newspapers across the country. Ferdinand Ward, his dashing and smooth-talking partner—he was only 33 but known as the “Young Napoleon of Wall Street”—had been running a Ponzi scheme, soliciting investments from Grant’s wealthy friends, speculating with the funds, and then cooking the books to cover his losses.
On May 4, Ward told Grant that the Marine National Bank was on the verge of collapse, and unless it received a one-day cash infusion of $150,000, Grant and Ward would be wiped out, as most of their investments were tied up with the bank. A panic, Ward told him, would most likely follow. Grant listened intently, then paid a visit to another friend—William H. Vanderbilt, richest man in the world, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
“What I’ve heard about that firm wouldn’t justify me in lending it a dime,” Vanderbilt told him. The tycoon then made it clear that it was his relationship with Grant that mattered to him most, and he made a personal loan of $150,000, which Grant promptly turned over to Ward, confident the crisis would be averted. The next morning, Grant arrived at his office only to learn from his son that both Marine National and Grant and Ward were bankrupt. “Ward has fled,” Buck told him. “We cannot find our securities.”
Grant spoke glumly to the firm’s bookkeeper. “I have made it a rule of life to trust a man long after other people gave up on him,” he said. “I don’t see how I can trust any human being ever again.”
As news of the swindle and Grant’s financial demise spread, he received a great deal of public sympathy, as well as cash donations from citizens who empathized and were grateful for his service to the nation. “There is no doubt,” one man told a reporter at the time, “that Gen. Grant became a partner to give his son a good start in life. He gave him the benefit of his moderate fortune and the prestige of his name, and this is his reward.”
Ward didn’t get very far. He served a six-year sentence for fraud at Sing Sing Prison, but he left Grant in ruin. After all was said and done, the investment firm had assets of just over $67,000 and liabilities approaching $17 million. Yet Grant would not accept any more help from his friends—especially Vanderbilt, who offered to forgive the loan. With no pension, Grant sold his home and insisted that Vanderbilt take possession of his Civil War mementos—medals, uniforms and other objects from Grant’s famous past. Vanderbilt reluctantly accepted them and considered the debt settled. (With Julia Grant’s consent, Vanderbilt later donated the hundreds of historical items to the Smithsonian Institution, where they remain today.)
Bankrupt and depressed, Ulysses S. Grant soon received more bad news. Pain at the base of his tongue had made it difficult for the 62 year-old to eat, and he visited a throat specialist in October of that year. “Is it cancer?” Grant asked. The physician, observing carcinoma, remained silent. Grant didn’t need to know more. The physician immediately began treating him with cocaine and a derivative of chloroform. Aware that his condition was terminal, and that he had no other way of providing for his family, Grant determined there was no better time to write his memoirs. He left the doctor’s office to meet with a publisher at the Century Co., who immediately offered a deal. As a contract was being drawn up, Grant determined to get to work on his writing and to cut back on cigars. Just three a day, his doctors told him. But shortly after his diagnosis, Grant received a visit from his old friend Mark Twain. The visit just happened to occur on the November day that Grant was sitting with his eldest son, Fred, about to sign the Century contract.
Twain had made a considerable amount of money from his writing and lecturing but, was, once again, in the midst of his own financial troubles. He’d suffered a string of failed investments, such as the Paige Compositor—a sophisticated typesetting machine that was, after Twain had put more than $300,000 in it, rendered obsolete by the Linotype machine. And he had a manuscript that he’d been laboring over for almost a decade in fits and starts. Twain had been after Grant to write his memoirs for years, and he knew a publishing deal was in the works. Grant told Twain to “sit down and keep quiet” while he signed his contract, and Twain obliged—until he saw Grant reach for his pen. “Don’t sign it,” Twain said. “Let Fred read it to me first.”
When Twain heard the terms, he was appalled: The royalty rate was only 10 percent, too low for even an unknown author, let alone someone of Grant’s stature. He said he could see to it that Grant would get 20 percent if he would hold off on signing the Century contract. Grant replied that Century had come to him first and he felt “honor-bound” to keep to the deal. Then Twain reminded his host that he had offered to publish Grant’s memoirs years before. Grant acknowledged that that was true, and ultimately allowed Twain to persuade him to sign with what would become Charles L. Webster & Co., the publisher Twain formed with his niece’s husband. Out of pride, Grant refused a $10,000 advance from his friend, fearing his book might lose money. He agreed, however, to accept $1,000 for living expenses while he wrote. Twain could only shake his head. “It was a shameful thing,” the author later recounted, “that a man who had saved his country and its government from destruction should still be in a position where so small a sum—$1,000—could be looked upon as a godsend.”
Even as he sickened over the next year, Grant wrote and, when too tired for that, dictated at a furious pace each day. On the advice of doctors, he moved into a cottage in the fresh Adirondack air at Mount McGregor in upstate New York. As word of his condition spread, Civil War veterans made pilgrimages to the cottage to pay their respects.
Twain, who was closely supervising Grant’s writing, also finally finished his own manuscript. He published it under the title The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the United States in February 1885. It was a huge and immediate success for Charles L. Webster and Co., and it has done rather nicely ever since.
On July 20, 1885, Grant—his neck swollen, his voice reduced to a pained whisper—deemed his manuscript complete. Unable to eat, he was slowly starving to death. Grant’s doctors, certain that his will to finish his memoir was the only thing keeping him alive, prepared for the end. It came on the morning of July 23, with Julia and his family beside him. Among the last words in his memoirs were the words that would eventually be engraved on his tomb: “Let us have peace.”
Twenty years before, Grant had stood at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral and wept openly. Grant’s Funeral March, through New York City on August 8, 1885, was the longest procession in American history to the time, with more than 60,000 members of the United States military marching behind a funeral car bearing Grant’s casket and drawn by 25 black stallions. Pallbearers included generals from both the Union and Confederate armies.
Earlier that year, Webster & Co. had begun taking advance orders on what was to be a two-volume set of Grant’s memoirs. Published that December, the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was an immediate success; it ultimately earned Julia Grant royalties of about $450,000 (or more than $10 million today), and today some scholars consider it one of the greatest military memoirs ever written. Between that and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charles L. Webster & Co. had quite a year.
Books: Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year, De Capo Press, 2012. Mark Perry, Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America, Random House, 2004. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Charles L.Webster & Company, 1885-86.
Articles: “Pyramid Schemes Are as American as Apple Pie,” by John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2008. “A Great Failure,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 7, 1884. “Grant’s Funeral March,” American Experience, PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/grant-funeral/ ”The Selling of U.S. Grant,” by Bill Long, http://www.drbilllong.com/CurrentEventsVI/GrantII.html “Read All About Geneseo’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrel,” by Howard W. Appell, Livingston County News, May 16, 2012. “Museum to help spotlight Grant’s life, legacy,” by Dennis Yusko, Albany Times Union, November 23, 2012.