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  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.





            The best route for the advance of the Army from San Augustine upon the City of Mexico indicated by the General reconnaissance of the 18th Inst. seemed to be by the Hills of Contreras. I was accordingly directed by You on the morning of the 19th to take charge of the working parties furnished by Genl [Gideon Johnson] Pillow’s Division & make a practical road for the Artillery & army by that direction, accompanied by Lts. [Pierre G.T.] Beauregard and [John Gray] Foster & followed by the Engineer Company. I pursued a good wagon road about a mile to the West as far as Mr Benfield’s residence. At this point the wagon road terminated and the Military road Commenced. Passing through a Cornfield, it was made to wind up a Spur of the Mountain & over a ridge of Lava along the base of a Knob thrown out on the right to its Northern extremity. Lts. Beauregard & Foster & the Officers belonging to the Engineer Company were placed in charge of respective portions of the Route with a detachment of Sappers & a Company of Infantry with each. The road was pushed forward by noon to the point mentioned & the Divisions of Genls Pillow & [David Emanuel] Twiggs with their field Batteries were enabled to reach that point. The reconnaissance of the day before was arrested a little in advance of this point by a body of Lancers & Infantry detached from the entrenched Camp of General [Gabriel] Valencia which guarded the Debouche of the path upon the main road to San Angel. In our further advance, finding that the working parties were exposed to the fire from Valencia’s Guns, they were ordered to rejoin their regiments & the progress of the road Suspended until this Obstacle could be removed. The Tools were repacked and Genl Twiggs division which had been advanced to Cover the Working parties pushed forward, with Lts. [George Brinton] McClelland & Foster, who had Completed their portions of the Road & Lt. [Isaac Ingalls] Stevens who had not reached the scene of Action. I advanced with the Rifle Regiment deployed as Skirmishers & Selected the best route for the Artillery through the impracticable field of Lava through which our route lay. On reaching a point within Canister range of the Enemy’s position, where protection was offered to the men by a ridge of Rock, & where Capt. [John Bankhead] Magruder’s Battery & Lt [Franklin Dyer] Callender’s Howitzer battery were advanced, the ground gently descended to the bed of [a ] Stream, in the deep Ravine beyond which the Enemy was Entrenched immediately behind the San Angel Road on the Hills of Contreras. The point was defended by 4 8 inch Howitzers & 4 16 pndr bronze pieces which added to the nature of the Ground rendered a direct attack inadvisable; it was therefore abandoned and the Batteries having already suffered much withdrawn.

            The Engineer Officers with me joined their different Columns & I accompanied Genl [Persifor Frazer] Smith’s Brigade with the Engineer Company under Lt G[ustavus] W[oodson] Smith[1] in their march to the right to turn the Enemy’s left & Rear. After proceeding with much difficulty about a mile over the Lava formation we crossed the Ravine out of reach of the Enemy’s Guns opposite the Village of San Geronimo and found Genl [George] Cadwallader’s Brigade then threatened by a large force of Cavalry & Infantry. Shortly afterwards, Col. [Bennet C.] Riley’s Brigade, which had been detached to the right earlier in the day & reached a position beyond the San Angel Road to the Enemy’s Left, fell back upon the Village. When Genl. Smith the Senior Officer present determined to attack the Large body of the Enemy Collected on the Crest of the Hill north of the Village under the Command of Genl Santa Anna, by the time his Dispositions were made & the Ground in front Examined, it became So late that fearing that there would not be sufficient day light, the Attack was postponed until the next morning & subsequently it was determined to neglect this force whose dispersion would affect but little our operation & returning to the original object, attack before daylight the entrenched position of Valencia by the rear. This would clear away the obstruction to the Advance of the Main body & turn their position of San Antonio & Churubusco. As soon as this was determined, at the request of Genl Smith I returned to report the State of Affairs to Genl Scott & See if a diversion in favor of the attacking force in rear Could not be made by an attack in front. On reaching the Ravine I found Genl [James] Shields’ Brigade which had been Sent to Support the troops that Crossed & gave him One of the Men Accompanying me to guide him to the Village where our Troops were bivouacked.[2]

            In Consequence of the dark rainy night and the impossible nature of the Ground, I did not reach San Augustine until between 11 & 12 O’clock, too late in the opinion of the Genl in Chief to withdraw a portion of General [William Jenkins] Worth’s division from San Augustin to make the desired diversion. I was therefore directed to return, and to Collect any Troops or Company I might find in front of the Enemy position and to organize what diversion I could. Leaving Genll Scotts Hd Qrt about 1 am & reaching the point where the Construction of the Military Road had been stopped & where Certain wagons & [Capt. Francis] Taylors battery were encamped I found the 9th Regiment Col. [Trueman B.] Ransom, 4 Companies of the 12th Col [Milledge L.] Bonham and a few Riflemen & sappers that had been lost or detached from their Companies & Collected by Lt Foster of the Engineers. Cols. Ransom & Bonham with great alacrity collected their Commands, but in Consequence of the darkness & Continued rain we did not get in motion until a short time before daybreak. On arriving at the position where Capt. Magruder’s Battery had been left the morning previous, the Company of Rifles left as a guard, joined the Colum which in the grey of the morning filed off to the right in front of & in full View of the Enemy’s Battery to take a Covered position in the Ravine on the Enemy’s Left. By the time the Command under Col Ransom had put their arms in order, Col Rileys Brigade was seen emerging from a Ravine in rear of the Enemy’s position & a little on their Right. Shortly afterwards Genl Smith’s Brigade emerged from the same Ravine & moved towards the Enemy’s Left. Col Ransom having passed his Command over the Ridge, his men gave a Good cheer and commenced their fire. Just after Riley’s Brigade had opened theirs, and was Sweeping over the slope towards the rear of the Batteries, the Enemy finding himself attacked on two Sides, opened his heavy Guns upon his front where he seemed to apprehend a further assault from the road upon which we had advanced on the 19th, & along which Col Ransom had discovered that morning. Being closely pressed by Col Riley, he soon gave way in all directions, abandoning his artillery, 22 pieces, his packs, ammunition, and retreated between the fires of Genl Smiths Brigade & Col Ransoms Command upon that of Genl Shields who held the Village of San Deroluma. Lt [Zealous Bates] Tower Led Col Riley’s Brigade and Lt Beauregard Genl Smiths headed by the Engineer Company under Lts Smith & McClelland. The march of these Collums over broken ground masked not only from the fire of but the view of the Enemy in a dark rainy Morning with accuracy and precision reflects much credit upon the Engineer Officers. Lt Foster was with Col Ransom’s Command.

            In addition to the gallant Services performed by these officers in the Attack upon the Enemy’s Works they Laboured assiduously all the day before at the Road and in Conducting the Troops the easiest routes. Lts McClelland & Foster having finished their duties assisted in serving the field pieces when their proper officers were disabled. The Capture of the Enemy’s position having removed the difficulty of the Continuance of the Military road Lt Beauregard was directed to make it practicable for the Wagons &c that had reached the top of the Hill as far as the San Angel road.

            Upon the arrival of the General in Chief upon the Field of Battle I was sent by him to reconnoiter the rear of San Antonio, upon which the troops that had been Engaged in the morning were moving, while Genl Worth was to threaten it in front. In pursuing the direct road from Coluacan [Coyoacan] to San Antonio I crossed the head of the 2nd Brigade of Genl Worth’s division, moving upon the rear of the road leading from San Antonio to Churubusco & on reaching it from the right found it had already been abandoned by the Enemy. Before my return to the General in Chief, the attack upon Churubusco had been ordered. Genl Twiggs Division had already attacked in front of the defences around the Church and Genl Worth’s was approaching the Battery at the Bridge which blocked the main road.

            I was directed by the Genl in Chief to lead the Brigades of Genls Shields & [Franklin] Pierce to its attack in rear. Advancing from Coluasan [Coyoacan] towards the City of Mexico until I had Crossed the Stream over which the Bridge of Churubusco is thrown, I Crossed the field obliquely to the rear towards the road from Churubusco to Mexico. Discovering a Large Mass of Infantry on the Churubusco Bridge, & apprehending a Fire from batteries to defend the rear, I drew out towards the City of Mexico, until I reached the large Quartet on the Mexican road about ¾ of a mile in rear of the Bridge of Churubusco. Throwing the left of his Brigade upon this building which offered protection against the Mass of Cavalry stretching towards the Gates of Mexico & his right upon the Building in the field in rear of which we had approached, Genl Shields formed his Line obliquely to that of the Enemy who not to be outflanked had drawn out from his entrenchments & extended his line from the Bridge to nearly opposite our left. Genl Pierce’s Brigade Coming up first after Genl Shields Brigade had Commenced the attack, took position to his right, enveloping the Building in the Field.[3]

            Our Troops being now hotly engaged and Somewhat pressed I urged forward the Howitzer Battery under Lt [Jesse Lee] Reno who very promptly brought the pieces to bear upon the head of Their Column with good effect. Perceiving that the Enemy’s Cavalry were Showing themselves on our Left and that our force was already greatly outnumbered, I hastened back to the Genl in Chief, who directed Maj. [Edwin Vose] Sumner to to take the Rifle Regiment and a Squadron of Dragoons to the support of that wing. About this time this Force reached the open Country in rear of Churubusco, the Enemy began to give way and before they had reached the position occupied by Genl Shields, had broken in all directions.

            Their front forced by Genl Worth’s division, & the main body driven in the main road to Mexico by our Infantry & Cavalry, I found the Troops in pursuit. I did not advance beyond the point where the Dragoons had halted.


Very Respectfully Sir,

Your most obt. Servt

R.E. Lee

Capt Engineers




Source: DeButts-Ely Collection of Lee Family Papers, Library of Congress

Transcribed by Allen Guelzo, 2017 July 28



[1] John Smith Lind was a long-time soldier. A native of South Carolina, he served in the army during the War of 1812. He commanded Scott's engineers during the Mexican War and was twice recognized for bravery in Mexico. He was wounded in the groin at Cerro Gordo. He died in 1858.

In Smith’s own report, he was “ordered by Captain Lee to take ten of my men, and select certain tools from the general engineer train, in addition to those always carried along with the company. I turned over the command of the engineer company to Lieutenant McClellan, who, under the direction of Captain Lee, proceeded at once to commence the work on the road from San Augustine to Contreras, in order to make it practicable for artillery. In about one hour and a half, I rejoined the command with the necessary implements for opening the road. Captain Lee directed me to retain the men I then had with me, and to take charge of a certain section of the road, to bring forward my wagons as rapidly as possible.... At this time my company was divided into five sections, each under an engineer officer directing operations on the road.” See Smith’s report, dated August 23rd, in the appendix to Message from the President of the United States, to the Two Houses of Congress at the Commencement of the First Session of the Thirtieth Congress, December 7, 1847 (Washington: Wendell & Van Benthyusen, 1847), 66-69.

[2] Winfield Scott’s report of this action credited Lee, “assisted by Lieutenants Beauregard and Tower,” for conducting “a reconnaissance...to the left of San Augustin, first over difficult mounds, and further on, over the same field of volcanic rocks and lava which extends to the mountains, some five miles, from San Antonio towards Magdalena.” The next day, “Captain Lee discovered a large corps of observation in that direction, with a detachment of which his supports of cavalry and foot under Captain Kearney and Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, respectively, had a successful skirmish. By three o’clock this afternoon, the advanced divisions came to a point where the new road could only be continued under the direct fire of 22 pieces of the enemy’s artillery (most of them of large caliber).... Captain Magruder's field battery, of 12 and 6-pounders, and Lieutenant Callender's battery of mountain howitzers and rockets, had also, with great difficulty, been advanced within range of the entrenched camp. ...The battle, though mostly stationary, continued to rage with great violence until nightfall. Brevet Brigadier-General P. F. Smith’s and Brevet Colonel Riley’s brigades (Twiggs’s division), supported by Brigadier-Generals Pierce's and Cadwalader’s brigades (Pillow’s division), were more than three hours under a heavy fire of artillery and musketry along the almost impassable ravine in front and to the left of the entrenched camp.” See “Appendix of Documents,” in The American Quarterly Register and Magazine 2 (September 1848), 575-576

[3] Scott’s report describes this action as “conducted by Captain Lee, engineer...in order to favor the movement upon the convent, and cut off the retreat towards the capital.... 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 better ground,) in the same direction, Shields concentrated the division about a hamlet, and determined to attack in front. ...I immediately sent, under Major Sumner, 2d dragoons, the rifles (Twiggs's reserve) and Captain Sibley's troop, 2d dragoons, then at hand, to support our left, guided by the same engineer.” See “Appendix of Documents,” in The American Quarterly Register and Magazine 2 (September 1848), 582.

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