Battle of Contreras

August 19–20, 1847 — Mexican-American War

The Battle of Contreras was fought from August 19–20, 1847, between the United States and Mexico, during the Mexican-American War. The outcome of the battle was an American victory and was immediately followed by the Battle of Churubusco.

Battle of Contreras, 1847, Americans Advancing

American forces at the Battle of Contreras. Image Source: Yale University Library.

Battle of Contreras Facts

  • Date — August 19–20, 1847.
  • Location — Padierna, Mexico, 15 miles south of Mexico City.
  • Opponents — United States of America and Mexico.
  • American CommanderWinfield Scott.
  • Mexican Commander — Gabriel Valencia.
  • Winner — The United States won the Battle of Contreras.
  • Fun Fact — The battle was fought at Padierna, which General Scott mistakenly referred to as Contreras. The mistake has never been corrected and the battle is typically referred to as the Battle of Contreras.
Winfield Scott, General, Mexican-American War
General Winfield Scott (USA). Image Source: Yale University Library.

Battle of Contreras Significance

The Battle of Contreras was important to the outcome of the Mexican-American War because American forces were able to continue to push north toward Mexico City. Following the victory, General Scott issued orders for his forces to immediately converge on Mexican forces along the Churubusco River.

Battle of Contreras History

The Battle of Contreras took place on August 19–20, 1847, about 15 miles south of Mexico City. Major General Winfield Scott’s American forces defeated the Mexican forces in Padierna, which they mistakenly called Contreras by the Americans. The American troops numbered around 8,500, while the Mexican forces had about 5,000 soldiers.

Scott Marches to San Agustin

Following the American victory at the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 17–18, 1847), General Scott moved his forces out of the lowlands and occupied Puebla on May 15. Meanwhile, Antonio López de Santa Anna moved his Mexican Army to El Peñon and established fortified defenses.

On August 15, Scott started his march out of Puebla, however, he did not march toward Santa Anna at El Peñon, which was east of Mexico City. Instead, Scott decided to avoid Santa Anna and approach Mexico City from the south and issued orders for the army to march to San Agustin using the Chalco Route.

Lee’s Scouting Mission

General Scott deliberated whether to advance directly towards Churubusco or avoid Mexican forces that had been deployed at San Antonio. 

The defenses at San Antonio were formidable because the approach to the town was dominated by an old lava bed, known as a pedregal, that was filled with sharp rocks and crevices. It was also approximately three miles long, making it dangerous for Scott’s army to cross over.

To help make his decision, he sent a scouting party, led by Major Robert E. Lee, westward to find a route around San Antonio. Lee reported there was an old mule path running along the southern edge of the pedregal that connected to a main road that ran north, along the west edge of the pedregal. Lee suggested improving the mule path so American artillery and infantry could use it to access the main road.

Robert E. Lee, 1838, Portrait
Robert E. Lee, circa 1838. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Scott Orders Road Improvements

General Scott sent a group of 500 men from the command of Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow to work on the mule path. The workers were defended by the rest of Pillow’s men, along with men from the command of Brigadier General David E. Twiggs. The Americans worked on the road for about a mile when they encountered Mexican resistance.

Mexican Resistance

General Santa Anna issued orders to General Gabriel Valencia, instructing him to take 5,000 men from the Mexican Army of the North and block any American advance from San Agustín toward Mexico City. Valencia responded by blocking the main road on the west side of the pedregal, however, he sent a contingent of men forward to Padierna.

Pillow Assesses the Situation

General Scott, who had a clear view of the movements of the Mexican forces from his headquarters at San Agustin, sent a message to Pillow, cautioning him not to initiate a confrontation because his men were focused on the road and not prepared for battle.

Upon reaching a hill named Zacetepec, Pillow was able to see beyond the pedregal. In front of him, he saw roughly 600 yards of rugged terrain, marked by sharp rocks, crevices, and narrow passages that sloped gently toward a ravine. This ravine ran parallel to the San Angel Road. Pillow also saw the Mexicans at Padierna and the heavily fortified high ground behind them.

The Battle of Contreras Begins

Concerned with the safety of the men working on the road, Pillow moved some of his men ahead to engage the Mexicans at Padierna. However, General Valencia used artillery to support his men at Padierna, forcing the Americans to fall back.

The Battle Intensifies

Pillow decided to ignore Scott’s instructions and ordered his infantry to move forward and attack the Mexicans. He also ordered his artillery to cover the infantry as they advanced. However, the position of the Mexicans was too strong and the Americans were forced to abandon the attack.

General Valencia was certain the Americans were defeated. Because of this, he ignored an order from Santa Anna to retreat from Padierna. Meanwhile, three brigades of American troops moved around his left flank, blocking Valencia’s escape route from Padierna. Valencia was unaware of the movement.

Battle of Contreras, 1847, Americans Storm the Mexican Defenses
This illustration depicts American troops attacking the Mexican defenses. Image Source: A Complete History of the Mexican War, by Nathan Covington Brooks, 1849, Archive.org.

Night of August 19

On the night of August 19, Brigadier General Persifor F. Smith devised a plan to move American troops positioned on the San Angel road to the rear of the Mexicans at Padierna and attack at dawn. 

General Scott approved the plan and the Americans moved into position.

Smith was joined by Brigadier General George Cadwalader and Colonel Bennet Riley for the assault. Together, the three accounted for nearly 40 percent of the troops under the command of General Scott.

That night, Smith received reinforcements when Colonel James Shields and his brigade arrived. Shields was tasked with blocking the roads to keep Mexican reinforcements from making their way to Padierna.

August 20

At 6:00 a.m. on August 20, General Smith launched his attack on the Mexican rear. The Mexicans were caught by surprise and quickly routed. They tried to escape via the main road that ran north but were blocked by Shields and his command.

Casualties

American casualties were approximately 300 killed or wounded. The Mexicans suffered significantly higher losses, with around 700 killed, 1,225 wounded, and nearly 850 captured. The Americans also captured 22 Mexican artillery pieces.

Aftermath

Following their victory at Padierna, the Americans took defensive positions along the San Ángel Road and prepared for Santa Anna to launch a counterattack. However, Santa Anna pulled his men back and formed new defensive lines along the Churubusco River. General Scott, sensing he had Santa Anna at a disadvantage, immediately ordered his forces to move toward the Mexicans, initiating the Battle of Churubusco (April 20, 1847).

Battle of Contreras, 1847, Troops Cheering General Scot
American troops cheering General Scott following the battles on August 20. Image Source: Yale University Library.

Scott’s Official Report for the Battle of Contreras

The following is General Winfield Scott’s official report of the Battle of Contreras, which also includes the Battle of Churubusco since they took place on the same day.

It was written to William L. Marcy, Secretary of War, on August 28, 1847, and sent to Washington, D.C. 

Note: Section headings and additional spacing have been added to improve the readability of the report. It should also be noted that Scott incorrectly refers to the position of the Mexican forces as “Contreras,” instead of Padierna.

Headquarters of the army,

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

April 20

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.

American Forces Approach Contreras

In the night of the 19th, Brigadier Generals Shields, P. F Smith, and Cadwallader, 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.

Persifer Smith, General, USA, Mexican-American War
This illustration depicts General Persifer Smith. Image Source: A Complete History of the Mexican War, by Nathan Covington Brooks, 1849, Archive.org.

Scott Dispatches Worth and Quitman

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.

Lee Suggests a Diversion

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 Reinforces Smith

Shields, the senior officer at the hamlet, having arrived in the night, after Smith had arranged with Cadwallader 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.

Americans Move Into Position

At 3 o’clock A.M. the great movement commenced on the rear of the enemy’s camp, Riley leading, followed successively by Cadwallader’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.

American Diversion

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 — Cadwallader 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.

Americans Rout the Mexican Cavalry

In the mean time Smith’s own brigade, under the temporary command of Major Dimick, following the movements of Riley and Cadwallader, 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 Takes Prisoners

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.

Victory at Contreras

I doubt whether a more brilliant or decisive victory — taking into view ground, artificial defences, 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.

A Path to Mexico City

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.

American Artillery from Buena Vista Recaptured

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! 

Coming up, a little later, I had the happiness to join in the protracted cheers of the gallant 4th on the joyous event; and, indeed, the whole army sympathizes in its just pride and exultation.

Battle of Contreras, 1847, Americans Capture Meixcan Artillery
This illustration depicts Americans capturing artillery batteries at Churbusco. Image Source: A Complete History of the Mexican War, by Nathan Covington Brooks, 1849, Archive.org.

Scott Repositions His Forces

The battle being won before the advancing brigades of Worth’s and Quitman’s divisions were in sight, both were ordered back to their late positions — Worth to attack San Antonio in front with his whole force, as soon as approached in the rear by Pillow’s and Twiggs’s divisions, moving from Contreras through San Angel and Coyoacan. By carrying San Antonio we knew that we should open another — a shorter and better road to the capital for our siege and other trains.

Accordingly, the two advanced divisions and Shield’s brigade marched from Contreras, under the immediate orders of Major Gen. Pillow, who was now joined by the gallant Brig. Gen. Pierce, of his division, personally thrown out of activity late in the evening before by a severe hurt received from the fall of his horse.

After giving necessary orders, on the field, in the midst of prisoners and trophies, and sending instructions to Harney’s brigade of cavalry, left at San Augustine to join me, I personally followed Pillow’s movement.

Lee Scouts San Antonio

Arriving at Contreras, two miles by a cross road, from the rear of San Antonio, I first detached Captain Lee, engineer, with Kearney’s troop, (1st dragoons,) supported by the rifle regiment under Major Loring, to reconnoitre that strong point; and next despatched Major General Pillow, with one of his brigades, (Cadwallader’s) to make the attack upon it, in concert with Major General Worth, on the opposite side.

Scott Orders an Attack at Churubusco

At the same time, by another road to the left, Lieutenant Stevens, of the engineers, supported by Lieutenant G. W. Smith’s company of sappers and miners, of the same corps, was to reconnoitre the strongly fortified church or convent of San Pablo, in the hamlet of Churubusco — one mile off. — Twiggs, with one of his brigades (Smith’s — less the rifles) and Captain Taylor’s field battery, were ordered to follow and to attack the convent. Major Smith, senior engineer, was despatched to concert with Twiggs the mode and means of attack, and Twiggs’s other brigade (Riley’s) I soon ordered up to support him.

Next (but all in ten minutes) I sent Pierce (just able to keep the saddle) with his brigade (Pillow’s division) conducted by Captain Lee, engineer, by a third road, a little farther to our left, to attack the enemy’s right and rear, in order to favor the movement upon the convent, and cut off the retreat towards the capital. And, finally, Shields, senior brigadier to Pierce, with the New York and South Carolina volunteers, (Quitman’s division,) was ordered to follow Pierce, closely, and to take the command of our left wing. All these movements were made with the utmost alacrity by our gallant troops and commanders.

Finding myself at Coyoacan, from which so many roads conveniently branched, without escort or reserve, I had to advance, for safety, close upon Twiggs’s rear. The battle now raged from the right to the left of our whole line.

Scott Sends Reinforcements to Help Shields

Learning, on the return of Captain Lee, that Shields, in rear of Churubusco, was hard pressed, and in danger of being outflanked, if not overwhelmed, by greatly superior numbers, I immediately sent, under Major Sumner, 2d dragoons, the rifles (Twiggs’ reserve) and Capt. Sibley’s troop, 2d dragoons, then at hand, to support our left, guided by the same engineer.

Battles of Contreras and Churubusco, 1847, Map
Map of the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco. Image Source: A Complete History of the Mexican War, by Nathan Covington Brooks, 1849, Archive.org.

Worth Attacks San Antonio

About an hour earlier, Worth had, by skillful and daring movements upon the front and right, turned and forced San Antonio — its garrison, no doubt, much shaken by our decisive victory at Contreras.

His second brigade (Colonel Clarke’s) conducted by Captain Mason, engineer, assisted by Lieutenant Hardcastle, topographical engineer, turned the right, and by a wide sweep came out upon the high road to the capital. 

At this point the heavy garrison (3,000 men) in retreat was, by Clarke, cut in the centre, one portion, the rear, driven upon Dolores, off to the right; and the other upon Churubusco, in the direct line of our operations. 

The first brigade, (Colonel Garland’s) same division, consisting of the 2d artillery, under Major Galt, the 3d artillery, under Lieutenant Colonel Belton, and the 4th infantry, commanded by Major Lee, with Lieutenant Colonel Duncan’s field battery (temporarily) followed in pursuit through the town, taking one general prisoner, the abandoned guns, (five pieces,) much ammunition, and other public property.

The forcing of San Antonio was the second brilliant event of the day.

The Attack on Churubusco Intensifies

Worth’s division being soon reunited in hot pursuit, he was joined by Maj. Gen. Pillow, who, marching from Coyoacan and discovering that San Antonio had been carried, immediately turned to the left, according to my instructions, and though much impeded by ditches and swamps, hastened to the attack of Churbusco.

The hamlet of scattered houses, bearing this name, presented, besides the fortified convent, a strong field-work (tete du pont) with regular bastions and curtains, at the head of a bridge over which the road passes from San Antonio to the capital.

Scott’s Army Within Four Miles of Mexico City

The whole remaining forces of Mexico — some 27,000 men — cavalry, artillery, and infantry, collected from every quarter — were now in, on the flanks or within supporting distance of, those works, and seemed resolved to make a last and desperate stand; for if beaten here, the feebler defences at the gates of the city — four miles off — could not, as was well known to both parties, delay the victors an hour. — The capital of an ancient empire, now of a great republic; or an early peace, the assailants were resolved to win. Not an American – and we had less than a third of the enemy’s numbers — had a doubt as to the result.

Worth and Pillow Advance

The fortified church or convent, hotly pressed by Twiggs, had already held out about an hour, when Worth and Pillow — the latter having with him only Cadwallader’s brigade — began to manoeuvre closely upon the tete du pont, with the convent at half gun-shot, to their left. 

Garland and Clark Advance

Garland’s brigade, (Worth’s division,) to which had been added the light battalion under Lieut. Col. Smith, continued to advance in front, and under the fire of a long line of infantry, off on the left of the bridge; and Clarke, of the same division, directed his brigade along the road or close by its side. 

Americans Under Heavy Fire

Two of Pillow’s and Cadwallader’s regiments, the 11th and 14th, supported and participated in this direct movement: the other (the voltigeurs) was left in reserve. Most of these corps — particularly Clarke’s brigade — advancing perpendicularly, were made to suffer much by the fire of the tete du pont, and they would have suffered greatly more by flank attacks from the convent, but for the pressure of Twiggs on the other side of that work.

Americans Use Bayonets

This well combined and daring movement at length reached the principal point of attack, and the formidable tete du pont was, at once, assaulted and carried by the bayonet. Its deep wet ditch was first gallantly crossed by the 8th and 5th infantry, commanded, respectively, by Maj. Waite and Lieut. Colonel Scott — followed closely by the 6th infantry (same brigade) which had been so much exposed in the road — the 11th regiment, under Lieut. Col. Graham, and the 14th, commanded by Col. Trousdale, both of Cadwallader’s brigade, Pillow’s division. 

Garland Forces the Mexicans to Retreat

About the same time, the enemy, in front of Garland, after a hot conflict of an hour and a half, gave way, in retreat towards the capital.

Artillery Captures

The immediate results of this third signal triumph of the day were: three field-pieces, 192 prisoners, much ammunition and two colors, taken in the tete du pont.

Irons is Mortallly Wounded

Lieut. J. F. Irons, 1st artillery, aid-de-camp to Brigadier Gen. Cadwallader, a young officer of great merit and conspicuous in battle on several previous occasions, received in front of the work, a mortal wound. (Since dead.)

Key Positions Captured

As the concurrent attack upon the convent favored, physically and morally, the assault upon the tete du pont, so, reciprocally, no doubt the fall of the latter contributed to the capture of the former. 

The two works were only some 450 yards apart; and as soon as we were in possession of the tete du pont, a captured four-pounder was turned and fired — first by Captain Larkin Smith, and next by Lieutenant Snelling, both of the eighth infantry — several times upon the convent. 

In the same brief interval, Lieutenant Colonel Duncan, (also of Worth’s division,) gallantly brought two of his guns to bear, at a short range, from the San Antonio road, upon the principal face of the work, and on the tower of the church, which, in the obstinate contest, had been often refilled with some of the best sharp-shooters of the enemy.

Mexicans at Churubusco Surrender

Finally, twenty minutes after the tete du pont had been carried by Worth and Pillow, and at the end of a desperate conflict of two hours and a half, the church, or convent — the citadel of the strong line of defence along the rivulet of Churubusco — yielded to Twiggs’ division, and threw out, on all sides, signals of surrender. 

The American Attack Continues

The white flags, however, were not exhibited until the moment when the 3d infantry, under Captain Alexander, had cleared the way by fire and bayonet, and had entered the work. 

Captain J. M. Smith and Lieutenant O. L. Shephered, both of that regiment, with their companies, had the glory of leading the assault. 

Mexican Surrender is Received

The former received the surrender, and Captain Alexander instantly hung out, from the balcony, the colors of the gallant 3d. Major Dimick, with a part of the 1st artillery, serving as infantry, entered nearly abreast with leading troops.

The Battle Continues at the Convent

Captain Taylor’s field battery, attached to Twiggs’ division, opened its effective fire, at an early moment, upon the out works of the convent and the tower of its churches. Exposed to the severest fire of the enemy, the captain, his officers and men, won universal admiration; but at length much disabled, in men and horses, the battery was, by superior orders, withdrawn from the action thirty minutes before the surrender of the convent.

Those corps, excepting Taylor’s battery, belonging to the brigade of Brig. Gen. Smith, who closely directed the whole attack in front, with his habitual coolness and ability; while Riley’s brigade — the 2d and 7th infantry, under Capt. T. Morris and Lieut. Col. Plympton, respectively — vigorously engaged the right of the work and part of its rear. 

At the moment, the rifles, belonging to Smith’s, were detached in support of Brig. Gen. Shields’ on our extreme left; and the 4th artillery, acting as infantry, under Maj. Gardner, belonging to Riley’s brigade, had been left in charge of the camp, trophies, &c., at Contreras. Twiggs’ division, at Churubusco, had thus been deprived of the services of two of its most gallant and effective regiments.

Results

The immediate results of this victory were — the capture of 7 field pieces, some ammunition; one color, three generals, and 1,261 prisoners, including other officers.

Officers Killed

Captains E. A. Capron and M. J. Burke, and Lieut. S. Hoffman, all of the 1st artillery, and Capt. J. W. Anderson and Lieut. Thomas Easley, both of the 2d infantry — five officers of great merit — fell gallantly before this work.

Capture of the Citadel

The capture of the enemy’s citadel was the fourth great achievement of our arms in the same day.

Shields at the Mexican Rear

It has been stated that, some two hours and a half before, Pierce’s, followed closely by the volunteer brigade — both under the command of Brigadier General Shields — had been detached to our left to turn the enemy’s works; — to prevent the escape of the garrisons, and to oppose the extension of the enemy’s numerous corps, from the rear, upon and around our left.

Considering the inferior numbers of the two brigades, the objects of the movements were difficult to accomplish. Hence the reinforcements (the rifles, &c.,) sent forward a little later.

In a winding march of a mile around to the right, this temporary division found itself on the edge of an open wet meadow, near the road from San Antonio to the capital, and in the presence of some 4,000 of the enemy’s infantry, a little in rear of Churubusco, on that road. 

Establishing the right at a strong building, Shields extended his left, parallel to the road, to outflank the enemy towards the capital. But the enemy extending his right, supported by 3,000 cavalry, more rapidly (being favored by their ground) in the same direction, Shields concentrated the division about a hamlet, and determined to attack in front. 

The battle was long, hot, and varied; but, ultimately, success crowned the zeal and gallantry of our troops, ably directed by their distinguished commander, Brig. Gen. Shields. 

Shields Secures Another American Victory

The 9th, 12th, and 15th regiments, under Col. Ransom, Captain Wood, and Col. Morgan, respectively, of Pearce’s brigade, (Pillow’s division,) and the New York and South Carolina volunteers, under Cols. Burnett and Butler, respectively, of Shields’ own brigade, (Quitman’s division,) together with the mountain howitzer battery, now under Lieut. Reno, of the ordnance corps, all shared in the glory of this action — our fifth victory in the same day.

Changing Commands Due to Injuries

Brigadier General Pierce, from the hurt of the evening before — under pain and exhaustion — fainted in the action. Several other changes in command occurred on this field. Thus Colonel Morgan being severely wounded, the command of the 15th infantry devolved on Lieutenant Colonel Howard; Colonel Burnett receiving a like wound, the command of the New York volunteers fell to Lieutenant Colonel Baxter; and on the fall of the lamented Colonel P. M. Butler — earlier badly wounded, but continuing to lead nobly in the hottest of the battle — the command of the South Carolina volunteers devolved — first on Lieut. Col. Dickenson, who being severely wounded, (as before the siege of Vera Cruz) the regiment ultimately fell under the orders of Major Gladden.

More Officers Killed

Lieuts. David Adams and W. R. Williams of the same corps; Capt. Augustus Quarles, and Lieut. J. B. Goodman of the 15th, and Lieut. E. Chandler, New York volunteers — all gallant officers, nobly fell in the same action.

Shields Takes Prisoners

Shields took 380 prisoners, including officers; and it cannot be doubted that the rage of the conflict between him and the enemy, just in the rear of the tete du pont and the convent, had some influence on the surrender of those formidable defences.

Worth, Pillow, and Shields Advance Toward Mexico City

As soon as the tete du pont was carried, the greater part of Worth’s and Pillow’s forces passed that bridge in rapid pursuit of the flying enemy. These distinguished generals, coming up with Brigadier General Shields, now also victorious, the three continued to press upon the fugitives to within a mile and a half of the capital. 

Harney’s Cavalry Charge

Here, Col. Harney, with a small part of his brigade of cavalry, rapidly passed to the front, and charged the enemy up the nearest gate.

The cavalry charge was headed by Captain Kearney, of the 1st dragoons, having in squadron, with his own troop, that of Captain McReynolds of the 3d — making the usual escort to general headquarters; but being early in the day detached for general service, was now under Col. Harney’s orders. 

The gallant captain not hearing the recall, that had been sounded, dashed up to the San Antonio gate, sabreing, in his way all that resisted. 

Of the seven officers of the squadron, Kearney lost his left arm; McReynolds and Lieut. Lorimer Graham were both severely wounded, Lieut. R. S. Ewell, who succeeded to the command of the escort, had two horses killed under him. Major F. D. Mills, of the 15th infantry, a volunteer in this charge, was killed at the gate.

The Battles of August 20 End

So terminated the series of events which I have but feebly presented. My thanks were but freely poured out on the different fields — to the abilities and science of generals and other officers — to the gallantry and prowess of all — the rank and file included. But a reward infinitely higher – the applause of a grateful country and government — will, I cannot doubt, be accorded, in due time, to so much merit, of every sort, displayed by this glorious army, which has now overcome all difficulties – distance, climate, ground, fortifications, numbers.

Affects of Mexican Casualties

It has in a single day, in many battles, as often defeated 32,000 men; made about 3,000 prisoners, including eight generals (two of them ex-presidents) and 205 other officers; killed or wounded 4,000 of all ranks — besides entire corps dispersed and dissolved; captured 37 pieces of ordnance — more than trebling our siege train and field batteries — with a large number of small arms, a full supply of ammunition of every kind, &c., &c.

These great results have overwhelmed the enemy.

American Casualties for the Day

Our loss amounts to 1,053 — killed 139, including 16 officers: wounded, 876, with 60 officers. The greater number of the dead and disabled were of the highest worth. Those under treatment, thanks to our very able medical officers, are generally doing well.

Quitman at San Augustin

I regret having been obliged, on the 20th, to leave Major General Quitman, an able commander, with a part of his division — the fine 2d Pennsylvania volunteers and the veteran detachment of U. States marines — at our important depot, San Augustin. It was there that I had placed our sick and wounded; the siege, supply, and baggage trains. If these had been lost, the army would have been driven almost to despair; and considering the enemy’s very great excess of numbers, and the many approaches to the depot, it might well have become emphatically the post of honor.

Scott Considers Attacking Mexico City

After so many victories, we might, with but little additional loss, have occupied the capital the same evening. But Mr. Trist, commissioner, &c., as well as myself, had been admonished by the best friends of peace — intelligent neutrals and some American residents — against precipitation; lest, by wantonly driving away the government and others — dishonored — we might scatter the elements of peace, excite a spirit of national desperation, and thus, indefinitely postpone the hope of accommodation. 

Scott Stops at Mexico City

Deeply impressed with this danger, and remembering our mission — to conquer a peace — the army very cheerfully sacrificed to patriotism — to the great wish and want of our country — the eclat that would have followed an entrance — sword in hand — into a great capital. — Willing to have something to this republic — of no immediate value to us — on which to rest her pride, and to recover temper — I halted our victorious corps at the gates of the city, (at least for a time,) and have them now cantoned in the neighboring villages, where they are still sheltered and supplied with all necessaries.

Negotiations and Armistice

On the morning of the 21st, being about to take up battering or assaulting positions to authorise me to summon the city to surrender, or to sign an armistice with a pledge to enter at once into negotiations for a peace — a mission came out to propose a truce. 

Rejecting its terms, I dispatched my contemplated note to President Santa Anna — omitting the summons. 

The 22d, commissioners were appointed by the commanders of the two armies, the armistice was signed the 23d, and ratifications exchanged the 24th.

All matters in dispute between the two governments have been, thus happily turned over to their plenipotentiaries, who have now had several conferences, and with, I think, some hope of signing a treaty of peace.

Commendations and Praise

There will be transmitted to the adjutant general reports from divisions, brigades, &c., on the foregoing operations, to which I must refer, with my hearty concurrence in the just applause bestowed on the corps and individuals by their respective commanders. I have been able — this report being necessarily a summary — to bring out, comparatively, but little of individual merit not lying directly in the way of the narrative. Thus I doubt whether I have, in express terms, given my approbation and applause to the commanders of divisions and independent brigades; but left their fame upon higher grounds — the simple record of their great deeds and the brilliant results.

To the staff, both general and personal, attached to the general headquarters, I was again under high obligations for services on the field, as well as in the bureaux. I add their names, &c.; Lieut. Col. Hitchcock, acting inspector general; Major J. L. Smith, Captain R. E. Lee, (as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring) Captain Mason, Lieuts. Stevens, Beauregard and Tower — all of the engineers; Major Turnbull, Capt. McClellan and Lieut. Hardcastle, topographical engineers; Captain Huger and Lieut. Hagner, of the ordinance; Captains Irwin and Wayne, of the quartermaster’s department; Capt. Grayson, of the commissarial; Surgeon General Lawson, in his particular department: Captain H. L. Scott, acting assistant adjutant general; Lieut. Williams, aid-de-camp, and Lieut. Lay, military secretary. Lieut. Schuyler Hamilton, another aid-de-camp, had a week before, been thrown out of activity by a severe wound received in a successful charge of cavalry against cavalry, and four times his number; but on the 20th, I had the valuable services as volunteer aids, of Majors Kirby and Van Buren, of the pay department, always eager for activity and distinction; and of a third, the gallant Major J. P. Gaines, of the Kentucky volunteers.

I have the honor to be, sir, with high respect, your most obedient servant,

WINFIELD SCOTT

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Battle of Contreras
  • Date August 19–20, 1847
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Contreras, Mexican-American War, Winfield Scott
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 12, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 25, 2024

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