“Remembering the Forgotten D-Day: The Men who Guided the Amphibious Landing at Callado beach during the Mexican War” is Chris Menking’s entry to the 2014 Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture Postgraduate Essay Contest. Chris is a PhD student at the University of North Texas.
On 11 May 1846, after many years of mounting tensions between the United States and its southern neighbor erupted into conflict, President James K. Polk asked the United States Congress for a declaration of war against Mexico. According to Polk, “the cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the Del Norte [Rio Grande]. But now . . . Mexico has . . . invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil.” What started as a border dispute regarding the newly annexed Texas spiraled into one of the United States’ first wars of aggression. This war defined the period in which it occurred, shaped the men who would command in the next war, and laid the groundwork for future military doctrine.i
President Polk and his cabinet sought the capitulation of the Mexican government as soon as possible. The war became expensive, and Polk saw no hope in settling the war without forcing the Mexican government to the table. His solution was to send an army to capture Mexico City and compel the Mexican government to accept peace terms. However, Major General Zachary Taylor’s army in northern Mexico could not make the march across the inhospitable land stretching from the Rio Grande to Mexico City, about six hundred miles of almost road-less country. ii
Consequently, Polk made the decision to launch an expedition from the Gulf of Mexico and to invade Mexico near Veracruz at Collado Beach. That city was the main port for the Mexican capital and there was a direct route to Mexico City from Veracruz. Major General Winfield Scott proposed an operation in a memorandum, which he presented to the president and his cabinet. General Scott’s plan was endorsed, and he began his preparations and to start his grand expedition to Mexico. The amphibious landing at Collado Beach marked the beginning of Scott’s Mexico City Campaign.iii
In American military history, the Mexican War is often a forgotten and little appreciated war. The significance of this war is clearly seen in the objectives achieved during its short duration: the logistical support of several armies, three invasions into Mexico, and the first American occupation of a foreign capital. The third invasion, and the achievement of the last objective, began with an amphibious assault by a force of almost ten thousand men. The historiography of the Mexican War is certainly sizeable and includes many respected historians, but within this set of works, the landing at Collado Beach often receives neglected. The landing at Collado Beach was a foundational event in American military history, and its significance must be represented within the historiography.
Three men guided the expedition to its ultimate success. Generals Winfield Scott and Thomas Sydney Jesup mobilized the Army of Invasion, supplied it, and moved it to the shores south of Veracruz. Commodore David Conner of the Home Squadron in the Gulf of Mexico shaped and executed many of the details of the landing. The cooperation between Scott and Jesup paralleled the coordination between Scott and Conner. These three men worked in a synergistic relationship that allowed them to execute an operation that they could never have achieved working alone.iv
The landing at Collado Beach was truly one of the defining moments in American military history. The careful organization and coordination designed by General Scott was executed expertly by Commodore Conner and his squadron. This joint operation demonstrated the importance of inter-service cooperation and laid the groundwork for executing large scale amphibious assaults. Such a day as that of the landing would not be surpassed by American troops until the Allied invasion of North Africa during World War II.
Major General Winfield Scott proposed the plan for an expedition against the city of Veracruz to begin a campaign to take the United States Army to Mexico City and end the war. Scott’s “Grand Expedition” required him to work with other commanders to ensure the operation was properly executed. He relied heavily on Quartermaster General Thomas Sidney Jesup and his Department to move and outfit his army for the invasion. Commodore David Conner proved to be an invaluable resource for Scott once they had rendezvoused at Isla de Lobos. This inter-department and inter-service cooperation shows how significant this operation was to the development of both logistical and joint operational history.
General Scott was a man who shaped the United States Army and led with experience and respectability. General Taylor’s men loved him for his rough-and-tumble nature, and his somewhat disheveled look seemed matched with many of the soldiers’ own natures. In contrast, General Scott – Old Fuss and Feathers – always presented himself in perfect military dress and expected his men to look and act as professional soldiers of the United States Army. Despite these expectations, he was loved by his men. He was thoughtful; he chose planning and preparation over brute force. His men could trust when they went into battle that Scott had chosen the best course of action, one that would favor victory while not needlessly sacrificing their lives. This concern defined Scott’s character. His willingness to embrace whatever would lead to success while keeping his men’s best interests in mind shaped the landing at Veracruz. This humility for the sake of success allowed Scott to work better with his peers, General Jesup and Commodore Conner, creating an environment of cooperation that any other candidate for his job could not have managed at the time. Likewise, Scott was a lifetime soldier but did not have the luxury of a West Point education. Knowing his inadequacies in engineering and other more recent technological developments, he surrounded himself with a staff of West Point graduates to bolster his ability to lead his army. General Scott was the right man for the invasion; without his focus on teamwork, it is unlikely that such an invasion could have been achieved. He effectively handled the problems of logistics and joint operation as well as the personal relationships that inherently went along with them.v
Despite the additional burden placed on Jesup and the Quartermaster Department by the invasion, General Scott’s prompt requisitions and frequent communication nullified most of the friction that could have occurred. In contrast to Taylor, Scott requisitioned supplies in advance and gave considerable thought to other preparations. Jesup moved south, in support of the invasion force, along the supply routes, leaving Henry Stanton in charge of the Quartermaster Office in Washington. Coordinating with Jesup, Stanton sent ordinance ships, shipwrights, and other supply ships as needed to support the preparation for the invasions. Scott and Jesup rendezvoused at Brazos Santiago and worked together to find enough transports to transfer their troops to Lobos. Even while Scott went to Camargo to attempt to confer with Taylor, Jesup continued to take “active measures to have everything depending on [him] ready for his operation.” One of the delays of the operation for Scott and Jesup arose from a dearth of information about the area around Brazos Santiago and the Rio Grande, information which Taylor could have provided. However, Jesup handled the resultant challenges in stride.vi
Generals Scott and Jesup overcame their differences from the Second Seminole War. Scott’s desire to execute a successful operation overshadowed any lingering hurt feelings. As an example of Scott’s willingness to bury the hatchet is Scott’s support of Jesup’s proposal to Secretary Marcy for an increase of the Quartermaster Department’s assigned officers. With Scott’s help, Jesup received the first department expansion in almost twenty-five years. Scott worked with Jesup and the Quartermaster Department to achieve ambitious goals in a short amount of time. Given such constraints, the Department performed admirably, and this was mostly due to the efforts of Jesup. Such cooperation and commitment to the invasion contributed to its ultimate success.vii
Commodore Conner – in command of the Home Squadron in the Gulf of Mexico – served as Scott’s right hand in planning and executing the final stages of the amphibious assault. Cooperation between military branches always has the potential to be strained for the commanders due to competing ideas and egos. Often, the confidence which makes many commanders excel within their branch can put them at odds with commanders from other branches who do things differently. This did not seem to be the case between Scott and Conner. Conner always was willing to help, offering information and suggestions, but always deferred to Scott for the final decision. Scott, too, welcomed Conner’s suggestions regarding the next, best course for the landing. Their willingness to work together and use the best ideas between the two men helped ensure that the landing went off without a hitch.viii
Scott’s ability to recognize his own weaknesses, unlike Taylor, allowed him to subordinate the Army to the Navy and to accept their help during the movement to the objective and the ship-to-shore phase of the landing. Scott’s wise humility allowed him to surround himself with those that ensured his success, be they his West Point trained staff or his peers in the Navy and Quartermaster Department. Scott’s letter of introduction to Conner illustrated his cooperative attitude:
You have, no doubt, been informed by the Navy Department that I am ordered to Mexico, and of the probability of our becoming, as soon as practicable, associated in joint operations against the enemy. I look forward with great pleasure to that movement. I shall do all in my power to render the combined service cordial and effective. Of your hearty reciprocation I am entirely confident. This is the beginning of a correspondence which the object in view will render frequent on my part, and I hope to hear often from you in reply, and on all matter interesting to the common service.”
While the cordiality of the letter was standard in writing at the time, there is no underlying contempt as with Scott’s correspondence with General Taylor. The common cordiality subsequently became true cooperation. ix
Scott’s demeanor alone did not explain his and Commodore Conner’s ability to work together. Conner assured General Scott that in “the joint operations contemplated against the enemy . . . you may rely on the cordial co-operation of the naval forces under my command.” Brig. Gen. Holland H. Smith of the Marine Corps later outlined the role of the Navy in the Gulf of Mexico in two broad roles: “to effect a blockade of Mexican ports and seize such harbors as were necessary to carry out this mission,” and “to support the Army by maintaining communication and, where required, to assist in landing operations on the seaward flank.” Along with Conner’s readiness to support General Scott as needed, these broad roles further reinforced the relationship necessary to execute such an audacious landing.x
General Scott did his best to keep Conner informed of his movements and up to date on his plan. This constant communication supported the cooperation that allowed a force of over ten thousand soldiers on upwards of eighty ships to meet on a small island off the coast of Mexico. The Army and Navy finally rendezvoused at Isla de Lobos some sixty miles south of Tampico.xi
Once the Army and Navy joined together at Isla de Lobos, the real test of joint operations began. Prior to the landing at Collado Beach, there was no such precedent in American history for such a large joint operation. If successful this landing would lay the groundwork for future joint operations and amphibious assaults. Scott’s arrival at Isla de Lobos on 21 February 1847 marked a momentous day in United States military history. Over the next two weeks, Scott and Conner worked well together to lay the foundation for the future of the United States military.
The plan for the amphibious assault of Collado Beach grew out of cooperation between Scott and Conner. Initially, Scott thought the Army could make the landing alone using only Army transports. However, after conferring with Conner it became evident that the troops would have to land from naval vessels. The harbor across from Collado Beach was not large enough to house both naval warships and the transports. Conner convinced Scott to allow the landing force to be ferried to the landing area by warships and steamers under the Navy’s control. This was an important step for Scott. While there is little doubt Scott could have managed an amphibious landing, he realized the benefit of letting a naval officer handle the water transport part of the operation.xii
The battle plan for the landing began at Isla de Lobos. Once roughly half of Scott’s force arrived, he set sail for Anton Lizardo about fifteen miles south of Veracruz, which would be the location for organizing the troops. Scott planned to determine the number of troops necessary to begin the operation based on the Mexican army in the field, not in the garrisons and guns of the city and fort. The landing force was organized into three lines, or waves, for the assault. The first line was under the command of General Worth. It consisted of the First Brigade of Regulars, Captain Alexander Swift’s company of sappers and miners, and the field batteries of Captain George Taylor and Lieutenant George Talcott, to be transported on the frigate Raritan and the steamers Princeton and Edith. Swift’s company was the first of its kind ever assembled by West Point as a company of engineers to build and destroy artillery emplacements. The second line was under the command of Major General Robert Patterson. It included the First Brigade of Volunteers under Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow and the South Carolina Regiment of Volunteers, to be transported on the frigate Potomac and the steamers Alabama and Virginia . The reserves, placed under Brigadier General David E. “Bengal Tiger” Twiggs, were made up of the Second Brigade of Regulars, to be transported on the sloops-of-war Albany and St. Mary’s , the brig Porpoise, and the steamers Massachusetts , Eudora , and Petrita . General Worth and his men therefore received the honor of being the first to land on the beach.xiii
Given these allotments of troops, only five of the Army’s steamers would be needed to transport men and to tow surfboats into position in preparation for the landing. The surfboats – holding about forty troops each – were manned by a naval officer and sailors to effect the landing. In General Order No. 28, General Scott created a signal system to communicate between the ships in order to coordinate the landing. The flag system worked on a relay based on General Scott’s flagship Massachusetts or Commodore Conner’s flagship Raritan, depending on who was in charge of that portion of the invasion. Five flags were used for signaling; depending on which flag was where on which mast, other ships would know the order issued. Scott put a significant amount of thought into ensuring that his troops would land safely and in a proper line of battle when they reached the beach. With the aid of Conner’s squadron, Scott executed a splendid landing.xiv
This early form of a joint operation proved to be a success due to the diligent and gracious efforts of Scott and Conner working together to put their men ashore and, though not diminishing the achievement, in an unopposed landing. Conner noted, “the entire movement was a combined military and naval operation, in which circumstances so favored the army as to yield to it the most active, brilliant, and best-appreciated share of the work. Nevertheless, the navy did perform most arduous and important services. Among these was the descent, by which the army was placed under the walls of the enemy.” The cooperation between Scott and Conner can be looked at as a great example for how officers of all branches should behave during joint operations. Each should defer to the other when facing a situation that requires the other’s strengths. This synergistic teamwork defined the amphibious assault at Collado Beach.xv
General Scott took men from across the United States and landed them on a foreign shore under the threat of enemy fire. This was no small task. He overcame political intrigue, competition for his command of the Army of Invasion, the daunting logistical hurdle of supplying and moving all of his men, and the practical difficulties of putting roughly 2,500 soldiers ashore in a single wave. Scott managed to overcome these sizeable hurdles by surrounding himself with men who could support his efforts. The amphibious assault at Collado Beach was Scott’s first step on the campaign that would carry him to the halls of Montezuma.
On 9 March 1847 at 5:30 p.m., the Massachusetts fired a shot, signaling the beginning of the landing. The cannon silenced the murmur among the fleet; all eyes were fixed upon the surfboats as the sailors pulled hard to cover the four hundred fifty yards to the beach. The setting sun behind the dunes silhouetted the walls and castle of Veracruz. To everyone’s surprise, while the small surfboats closed in on the beach, not a single crack of musket fire was heard from the shore. The first wave of sixty-seven surfboats landed approximately two thousand five hundred men, and within five hours, about ten thousand troops moved ashore.xvi
The amphibious assault at Veracruz proceeded without a single casualty during the landing. The success of the operation resulted from the optimal cooperation between the Army and Navy. Eventually the military developed a doctrine for joint operations such as these, but General Winfield Scott and Commodore David Conner were pioneers who laid the groundwork for others to follow. More than just doctrinal foreshadowing, the cooperation demonstrated the need for commanding officers that knew when to lead and when to follow, men that saw their own limitations, and who worked with others to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Secretary of the Navy John Y. Mason noted that he “witnessed with lively satisfaction the evidences of zeal and cordiality which characterized . . . efficient cooperation with the army.” It would be several decades before joint operations received serious consideration again within the United States military.xvii
This important amphibious assault, both in its planning and execution, served as a reference point for those creating amphibious doctrine in the future. While most naval histories, such as that written by Robert W. Love, do not contribute greatly to the historiography of the landing at Collado Beach, there are a few that indicate this landing’s influence on later efforts. Gen. Holland M. Smith, of the United States Marine Corps, concluded that during the Mexican War “amphibious tactics reached a new level of development, which was little improved in the next seventy-five years.” Historian and Navy Captain Edward L. Beach furthers this idea when he writes that, “Conner’s dispositions were thoroughly studied by the United States Marines, particularly in the period between World Wars I and II, and provided a precedent for the amphibious landings in the second world war.” Such affirmations by a general officer of the Marine Corps, who specialized in amphibious operations, and a decorated Navy captain are strong support for the argument that this landing contributed to future American ventures in amphibious operations. Another naval historian, Stephen Howarth, notes that even the Japanese followed the Mexican War and were “deeply impressed by the Scott-Conner-Perry capture of Vera Cruz,” showing that other future naval powers also considered the Collado landing of some significance. While it would be several decades before the United States Navy and Marine Corps would begin formulating amphibious doctrines, it appears that this event, though forgotten by some, played a role in the development of later policies.xviii
The significance of the landing at Collado Beach on the Civil War is clear. Many of the commanding officers during the Civil War experienced the landing at Collado Beach firsthand. Rowena Reed writes that the landing “showed a much higher degree of organization and logistical efficiency than had ever been attained before in such an operation.” She adds that George B. McClellan learned “to throw invading armies quickly and unexpectedly against strategic points, and then maintain these armies until victory was attained.” While McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign did not end the war, it does demonstrate that the lessons of the Mexican War did affect the officers of the Civil War.xix
The logistics behind the landing were a feat on par with the landing itself. Mobilizing men and resources from across the United States, transporting them, and focusing them all on one small beach on the coast of Mexico are impressive feats that should not be overlooked. General Zachary Taylor’s relationship with the Quartermaster Department is a prime example of the difficulties a general could have when he refuses to cooperate with those supplying him. Scott saw that it was necessary to work with Thomas Jesup and his quartermasters in order to supply his army and mobilize the full power of the United States against Mexico. Despite delays, material and manpower shortages, and lack of transports, Scott and Jesup still managed to get Scott’s minimum number of troops with their supplies to Sacrificios for the landing. Their cooperation and determination saved what could have been a disastrous failure. This successful operation started the campaign that ended the war and earned the United States international prestige.
Whether the lessons to be learned are about joint operations, cooperation between commanding officers, amphibious doctrine, or managing logistics well enough to execute a large-scale operation, the amphibious landing at Collado Beach demonstrated them all. Navy historians E.B. Potter and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz write that “for the first time in the history of amphibious warfare, the ship-to shore movement was entirely navy planned and navy controlled, a practice that would not become general until World War II.” This reaffirms the importance of the Collado Beach operation in the establishment of precedent on which future doctrine would be built. Despite the many lessons to be learned, the United States Army, like so many other military organizations, is notorious for forgetting many of the lessons that a war has just taught them. This operation should be looked to as an example of how to prepare for and execute a large scale amphibious landing. This, however, would not always be the case.xx
The effects of the Veracruz expedition were more far reaching than General Scott could have ever dreamed. It defined a generation and shaped the next, and its influence would continue to be felt throughout the following years. In the end, the landing at Collado Beach “augured well for the present, and was prophetic of the future.”xxi
i # James K. Polk, Diary of James K. Polk. , ed. Milo M. Quaife (Chicago: A.C. McClurg &, 1910), 384-386.
ii # United States Congress, The Mexican War, House Ex. Docs. No. 60, 30th Congress, 1st Session [Serial Set 520], 839; Zachary Taylor, Letters of Zachary Taylor from the Battle-fields of the Mexican War , ed. William K. Bixby and William Holland Samson (Rochester, NY: Kraus Reprint, 1970), 78-79.
iii # K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War, 1846-1848, (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 232-233.
iv # Bauer, Mexican War, 235.
v # Armistead L. Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee: His Military and Personal History Embracing a Large Amount of Information Hitherto Unpublished , ed. Marcus J. Wright (New York: J.M. Stoddart &, 1887), 50; Scott, Memoirs, 415.
vi # United States Department of War, Letters sent by the Office of the Quartermaster General 1818-1870 (Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985, National Archives, Washington, DC), Roll 21: 404, 437; Mexican War, 571-572; George T. M. Davis, Autobiography of the Late Col. Geo. T.M. Davis, Captain and Aide-de-camp Scott’s Army of Invasion (Mexico), from Posthumous Papers (New York: Jenkins and McCowan, 1891), 122; Kieffer, Maligned General, 249, 280.
vii # Mexican War, 568-569.
viii # Charles L. Dufour, The Mexican War: A Compact History, 1846-1848 (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1968), 198-200; Holland M. Smith, The Development of Amphibious Tactics in the U.S. Navy (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1992), 8-9.
ix # Mexican War, 842.
x # Smith, Amphibious Tactics , 10; Mexican War, 878.
xi # K. Jack Bauer, Surfboats and Horse Marines; U.S. Naval Operations in the Mexican War, 1846-48 (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1969), 68, 72, 75; Scott, Memoirs, 413; Mexican War, 847.
xii # Bauer, Mexican War, 241; Bauer, Surfboats, 78; David Conner, The Home Squadron Under Commodore Conner, with Philip S. P. Conner (Philadelphia: P.S.P. Conner, 1896), 18.
xiii # William G. Temple, “Memoir of the Landing of the United States Troops at Veracruz in 1847,” in Conner, Home Squadron , 65-66; Bauer, Mexican War, 241; Davis, Autobiography, 123; Mexican War, 843; Webb B. Garrison, Curiosities of the Civil War: Strange Stories, Infamous Characters, and Bizarre Events (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 428; United States Department of War, General and Special Orders Issued by General Winfield Scott, Headquarters of the Army, War with Mexico, 1847-1848(Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s-1917, National Archives, Washington, DC), Roll 1: 45; Gustavus W. Smith, Company “A” Corps of Engineers, U.S.A.’ 186-1848, in the Mexican War (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001), xiv-xvii. Patterson received the rank of major-general even though he only commanded a brigade because he was over volunteers.
xiv # John Lenthall Papers, Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia; General and Special Orders Issued by General Winfield Scott, Roll 1: 28.
xv # Conner, Home Squadron, 18.
xvi # Bauer, Mexican War, 242, 244; Bauer, Surfboats, 81-82.
xvii # David Conner, The Home Squadron Under Commodore Conner, with Philip S. P. Conner (Philadelphia: P.S.P. Conner, 1896), 37.
xviii # Robert William Love, History of the U.S. Navy (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992), 208-209; Holland M. Smith, The Development of Amphibious Tactics in the U.S. Navy (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1992), 9; Edward L. Beach, The United States Navy: 200 Years (New York: H. Holt, 1986), 159; Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1991 (New York: Random House, 1991), 160-161.
xix # Rowena Reed, Combined Operations in the Civil War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1978), xii, 35.
xx # E. B. Potter and Chester W. Nimitz, eds., Sea Power; a Naval History. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1960), 231-232.
xxi # George T. M. Davis, Autobiography of the Late Col. Geo. T.M. Davis, Captain and Aide-de-camp Scott’s Army of Invasion (Mexico), from Posthumous Papers (New York: Jenkins and McCowan, 1891), 125.