[pg. 9] GRANT AT SAN COSMÉ ***During the Mexican War Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, serving under both General Zachary Taylor and General Winfield Scott, was present at every major battle except Buena Vista. After his assignment to quartermaster duties in August, 1846, however, Grant took a much less active role in the fighting than he would have liked. His services at Monterey in September, 1846, though well-remembered by brother officers, were not officially recognized. It was not until the final campaign against Mexico City that Grant performed services in battle that were officially noticed, and only his activities on the last day of fighting brought him recognition in print and advancement in rank.
Grant seems to have been no less eager for recognition and advancement than other officers of the regular army. They all knew how slowly promotions and brevet advancement came in time of peace; those unrewarded for wartime service would probably remain indefinitely junior in rank to those who were. On August 23, 1847, reporting the recent action of the Fourth Infantry, Major Francis Lee could say only that “2nd Lieutenant U. S. Grant, regimental quartermaster, was usefully employed in his appropriate duties.”1 It then seemed all too likely that Grant would emerge from the war as a second lieutenant.
On the morning of September 13, 1847, General Scott launched his attack on the impressive fortifications of Chapultepec commanding the western approaches to Mexico City. As happened frequently in the Mexican War, the [pg. 10] bastion fell with a speed almost as disconcerting to the Americans as to the Mexicans. The next step in Scott’s plan was an advance up the causeways to the Belén and San Cosmé Garitas, or gates, which provided entrance into the city itself. Believing the Belén Garita to be the stronger of the two, Scott planned a feint in that direction with the major assault at San Cosmé. Leading the advance on San Cosmé was Colonel John Garland’s brigade of Brevet Major General William J. Worth’s division, and taking the lead in ducking through the archways supporting the. aqueduct on the causeway was Second Lieutenant Grant. What he did that day was best described by Grant himself in his Memoirs.
The City of Mexico is supplied with water by two aqueducts, resting on strong stone arches. One of these aqueducts draws its supply of water from a mountain stream coming into it at or near Molino del Rey, and runs north close to the west base of Chapultepec; thence along the centre of a wide road, until it reaches the road running east into the city by the Garita San Cosme; from which point the aqueduct and road both run east to the city. The second aqueduct starts from the east base of Chapultepec, where it is fed by a spring, and runs north-east to the city. This aqueduct, like the other, runs in the middle of a broad road-way, thus leaving a space on each side. The arches supporting the aqueduct afforded protection for advancing troops as veil as to those engaged defensively. At points on the San Cosme road parapets were thrown across, with an embrasure for a single piece of artillery in each. At the point where both road and aqueduct turn at right angles from north to east, there was not only one of these parapets supplied by one gun and infantry supports, but the houses to the north of the San Cosme road, facing south and commanding a view of the road back to Chapultepec, were covered with infantry, protected by parapets made of sand-bags. The roads leading to garitas (the gates) San Cosme and Belen, by which these aqueducts enter the city, were strongly intrenched. Deep, wide ditches, filled with water, lined the sides of both roads….When Chapultepec fell the advance commenced along the two aqueduct roads. I was on the road to San Cosme, and witnessed most that took place on that route. When opposition was encountered our troops sheltered themselves by keeping under the arches supporting the aqueduct, advancing an arch at a time. We encountered no serious obstruction until within gun-shot of the point where the road we were on intersects that running east to the city, the point where the aqueduct turns at a right angle….There were but three commissioned officers besides myself, that I can now call to mind, with the advance when the above position was reached. One of these officers was a Lieutenant Semmes, of the Marine Corps.2 I think Captain [John H.] Gore, and Lieutenant [Henry M.] Judah, of the 4th infantry, were the others. Our progress was stopped for the time by the [pg. 11] single piece of artillery at the angle of the roads and the infantry occupying the house-tops back from it.West of the road from where we were, stood a house occupying the south-west angle made by the San Cosmé road and the road we were moving upon. A stone wall ran from the house along each of these roads for a considerable distance and thence back until it joined, enclosing quite a yard about the house. I watched my opportunity and skipped across the road and behind the south wall. Proceeding cautiously to the vest corner of the enclosure, I peeped around and seeing nobody, continued, still cautiously, until the road running east and west was reached. I then returned to the troops, and called for volunteers. All that were close to me, or that heard me, about a dozen, offered their services. Commanding them to carry their arms at a trail, I watched our opportunity and got them across the road and under cover of the wall beyond, before the enemy had a shot at us. Our men under cover of the arches kept a close watch on the intrenchments that crossed our path and the house-tops beyond, and whenever a head showed itself above the parapets they would fire at it. Our crossing was thus made practicable without loss.
When we reached a safe position I instructed my little command again to carry their arms at a trail, not to fire at the enemy until they were ordered, and to move very cautiously following me until the San Cosme road was reached; we would then be on the flank of the men serving the gun on the road, and with no obstruction between us and them. When we reached the south-west corner of the enclosure before described, I saw some United States troops pushing north through a shallow ditch near by, who had come up since my reconnaissance. This was the company of Captain Horace Brooks, of the artillery, acting as infantry. I explained to Brooks briefly what I had discovered and what I was about to do. He said, as I knew the ground and he did not, I might go on and he would follow. As soon as we got on the road leading to the city the troops serving the gun on the parapet retreated, and those on the housetops near by followed; our men went after them in such close pursuit–the troops we had left under the arches joining–that a second line across the road, about half-way between the first and the garita, was carried. No reinforcements had yet come up except Brooks’s company, and the position we had taken was too advanced to be held by so small a force. It was given up, but retaken later in the day, with some loss.
Worth’s command gradually advanced to the front now open to it. Later in the day in reconnoitring I found a church off to the south of the road, which looked to me as if the belfry would command the ground back of the garita San Cosme. I got an officer of the voltigeurs, with a mountain howitzer and men to work it, to go with me. The road being in possession of the enemy, we had to take the field to the south to reach the church. This took us over several ditches breast deep in water and grown up with water plants. These ditches, however, were not over eight or ten feet in width. The howitzer was taken to pieces and carried by the men to its destination. When I knocked for admission a priest came to the door, who, while extremely polite, declined to admit us. With the little Spanish then at my command, I explained to him that he might save property by opening the door, and he certainly would save himself from becoming a prisoner, for a time at least; and besides, I intended to go in whether he consented or not. He began to see his duty [pg. 12] in the same light that I did, and opened the door, though he did not look as if it gave him special pleasure to do so. The gun was carried to the belfry and put together. We were not more than two or three hundred yards from San Cosme. The shots from our little gun dropped in upon the enemy and created great confusion. Why they did not send out a small party and capture us, I do hot know. We had no infantry or other defences besides our one gun.
The effect of this gun upon the troops about the gate of the city was so marked that General Worth saw it from his position. He was so pleased that he sent a staff officer, Lieutenant [John C.] Pemberton–later Lieutenant-General commanding the defences of Vicksburg–to bring me to him. He expressed his gratification at the services the howitzer in the church steeple was doing, saying that every shot was effective, and ordered a captain of voltigeurs to report to me with another howitzer to be placed along with the one already rendering so much service. I could not tell the General that there was not room enough in the steeple for another gun, because he probably would have looked upon such a statement as a contradiction from a second lieutenant. I took the captain with me, but did not use his gun.3
Three days after the battle, Major Francis Lee submitted his report which stressed Grant’s efforts at the barricades.
At the first barrier, the enemy was in strong force, which rendered it necessary to advance with caution. This was done; and when the head of the battalion was within short musket range of the barrier, Lieutenant Grant, 4th infantry, and Captain Brooks, 2d artillery, with a few men of their respective regiments, by a handsome movement to the left, turned the right flank of the enemy, and the barrier was carried. Lieutenant Gore, who had attacked the enemy’s front, now joined Lieutenant Grant and Captain Brooks; they, with a few men of their regiments, followed the enemy to the second barrier, from which the 4th infantry was withdrawn by an order to assemble the battalion for the support of the howitzer battery….Second Lieutenants Grant and Judah, behaved with distinguished gallantry on the 13th and 14th.4
Colonel John Garland’s report added detail on Grant at the garita.
[The Mexicans] had made a stand behind a breast-work, from which they were driven by detachments of the 2d artillery, under Captain Brooks, and of the 4th infantry, under Lieutenant Grant, supported by other regiments of the division, after a short but sharp conflict….The enemy then took position at the garita San Cosme, when they were supported by two pieces of artillery which raked the streets with grape and canister. Finding a secure position to the right of the second defence, I reorganized the command as it came up; mounted a howitzer on the top of a convent which, under the direction of Lieutenant Grant, quartermaster, 4th infantry, and Lieutenant [John H.] Lendrum, 3d artillery, annoyed the enemy considerably.
[pg. 13] Garland added that Grant had “acquitted himself most nobly upon several occasions, under my own observation.”5 The division commander, General William J. Worth, spoke of the howitzer at San Cosmé without mentioning Grant. “…a mountain howitzer was placed on the top of a commanding building on the left, and another on the church of San Cosmé on the right, both of which opened with admirable effect.”6 Later, in the list of officers deserving recognition, however, he mentioned “Grant, 4th infantry, especially…”7 The work of the troops in burrowing from house to house to reach the garita, Worth reported, “was greatly favored by the fire of the howitzers.”8 Worth, Garland, and Lee all wrote letters recommending Grant for brevet promotion in recognition of San Cosmé.
It was well that Grant’s superiors noted his services, for other officers involved in the attack were mainly concerned with their own achievements. Captain Horace Brooks’ report of the action at San Cosmé does not credit Grant with initiative.
I succeeded in reaching the fort with a few men. Here Lieutenant U. S. Grant, with a few more men of the 4th infantry, found me; and, by a joint movement, after an obstinate resistance, the strong field-work was carried, and the enemy’s right was completely turned.10
Captain John H. Gore, in writing Major Lee of his own services at San Cosmé, at least added detail on Grant’s actions.
Two days since, you mentioned to me that you did not know that I had taken the small breast-work immediately in front of San Cosme garita, but supposed that Captain Brooks, 2d artillery, and Lieutenant Grant, 4th infantry, were with or in advance of me. The following are the facts in the case: Our column advanced under a very heavy fire (as you know) to within some sixty yards of the angle of the San Cosme road; by this time our number had become so small, it was deemed prudent, apparently, to stop, and if possible get reinforcements. It was the good fortune of Captain B., Lieutenant G. and myself to be in advance. After firing some fifteen minutes, the two officers above named proceeded by our left, (round the English cemetery,) with a few men, and charged the [pg. 14] enemy on their right; I, at the same time made a rush upon the front, and we cleared the work. We had moved but a short distance before some of them ran; a small number, however, kept their places until we came within twenty yards. The moment was a very exciting one, and I do not know whether the two officers by the right or myself were first to reach the centre of the work, but do not contend for it, feeling, as I do, that they not only deserve all the credit given them, but much more, as do also all persons named in the general’s report. The command proceeded rapidly after the enemy, up the road. I was somewhat retarded in keeping back our color-bearer, (who had already been severely wounded, but begged permission to retain them, and did so until some fifty yards in front of the next work, when he fell, shot through the brain,) for fear they might be taken from our little party. I soon found myself in advance, and kept it, being the first person to arrive at the small breast-work, half way across the road, immediately in front of San Cosme; before reaching it, we were under very severe fire of shot, grape, &c. No officer of the army but myself reached the work at this time, and no officer, except myself, claims to have done so. Lieutenant Semmes, of the marines, and some fifteen men, most of them of my own company, kept near me and reached the work. Captain B., Lieutenant G., Lieutenant Judah and, I think, Lieutenant [John] Sedgwick obtained a position only a short distance in my rear, covered by a projection of some houses on our left. I held the work some fifteen minutes, and during the time heard the order from the rear to fall back, but determined to hold the place, and so informed my party; but, seeing the party near me had retired, and some of my own men gone, I reluctantly gave it up, seeing the danger my small force was in, and knowing we could do no good. In running back, Sergeant Donovan was shot by my side, by the fire from the gate. After the regiment was re-formed, and we took the same point a second time, by moving to the rear and round the right of the church, Lieutenant Grant and myself were the two first persons to gain it; one of our men shot a Mexican soldier at the work after our taking it. At this place, you will remember, Colonel Garland arrived (while we were waiting for mining tools) and kept us for some time.11
Gore was breveted major for services at Molino del Rey, five days before San Cosmé, and had not advanced in rank when he died five years later.
Grant was promoted to first lieutenant to replace Sidney Smith, who was wounded while entering Mexico City on September 14, 1847, and died two days later. First Lieutenant Grant was also breveted captain for his services at San Cosmé. Then officials of the War Department realized that Grant was only a second lieutenant at the battle of San Cosmé; he could not properly be given a brevet rank two grades in advance of actual rank. This created a problem not resolved until 1851, when Grant [pg. 15] was confirmed as a brevet first lieutenant for service at Molino del Rey and thus was eligible for a further brevet for San Cosmé. The chief villain of the story seems to be the brevet system itself which created ranks that were, at least in part, imaginary, but were real enough so that no officer could afford to neglect them.
The consequences of what Grant did at San Cosmé were twofold. He demonstrated again, as he had at Monterey a year earlier, that he had the qualities of ingenuity and daring prized in young officers. Although he seems to have disliked military life and questioned the justification for the Mexican War, Grant showed his determination to prove himself as a soldier. In a practical sense, he won formal recognition of these qualities in a manner which probably encouraged him to remain in the army after the war.
It was some thirty-seven years before Grant wrote his own account of San Cosmé for his Memoirs. There is no evidence that he checked his memory of the events of that long-vanished day against documentary sources and yet his account is as clear, factual, and detailed as any contemporary report. He showed that he had given the final campaign against Mexico City much thought. “In later years, if not at the time,” he wrote, “the battles of Molino del Rey and Chapultepec have seemed to me to have been wholly unnecessary.” It would have been possible, he explained, to bypass these heavily fortified positions and make a direct assault upon the gates of the city, and, once bypassed, they would have been evacuated.12 The realization that the Mexicans were immobilized by their fortifications may well have provided a lesson useful later at Vicksburg.
[pg. 16] 1. House Executive Document, 30 Cong., 1 Sess., no. 8, appendix, 52. (Hereafter HED, 30-1-8).
2. Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, then a volunteer aide to General Worth, later became so prominent as commander of the Confederate cruiser Alabama that Grant probably intended humor by his vagueness about Semmes’ identity.
3. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885-6), 1, 149-150, 155-159.
4. HED, 30-1-8, appendix, 175-176.
5. Ibid., 170-171.
6. HED, 30-1-8, 392.
7. Ibid., 394.
8. Senate Executive Document, 30 Cong., 1 Sess., no. 1, 392. Facing this page is a detailed map of the area of battle.
9. Garland’s letter, dated Feb. 10, 1848, is noted in the Register of Letters Received by the Secretary of War, Record Group 107, National Archives, Washington, D. C. The letter itself has not been located. The recommendations of Worth and Lee will be printed in the first volume of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.
10. HED, 30-1-8, appendix, 174.
11. Ibid., 30-1-60, 1071-1073,
12. Memoirs, I, 154-155.
NEWS NOTES *** Lawrence A. Frost of Monroe, Michigan, is the author of U. S. Grant Album: A Pictorial Biography of Ulysses S. Grant from Leather Clerk to the White House, a 192 page publication of Superior Publishing Company, Seattle, which sells for $12.95. Frost has drawn on many institutions in putting together the best picture history of Grant ever compiled. Photographs are reproduced clearly on large (8 1/4 x 10 1/2) glossy pages, and the individual pictures are large enough to repay close study. The text, a brisk retelling of the Grant story, is somewhat longer than might be expected in a book designed as a picture history, and one might wish that it was more closely connected to the pictures. One might also wish that less space was devoted to well-known pictures of Civil War commanders, such as the half-page devoted to a standard photograph of J. E. B. Stuart, to leave room for pictures more relevant to the Grant story. Nonetheless, a surprising number of Grant pictures are printed here for the first time, and by supplementing photographs with engravings, paintings, and other representations of Grant and his career, Frost has created an intriguing book unlikely to be supplanted for many years.