Today, the Marine Corps Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the events of 168 years ago and the reference to “halls of Montezuma.”
In his book, Soldiers of the Sea published in 1918, Willis J. Abbot wrote:
Without meeting any notable opposition, General Scott’s army reached the valley of Mexico about August 12th. The Mexicans continued to withdraw, while the United States forces gradually pushed their way forward.
On August 19th, General Scott ordered that part of General Quitman’s division, including the marines, to remain in reserve at San Augustine de las Cuevas.
In announcing this decision, he wrote to the secretary of war on August 27th:
“I regret having been obliged, on the 20th, to leave Major General Quitman, an able commander, with a part of his division — the fine second Pennsylvania volunteers and the veteran detachment of United States marines — at our important depot, San Augustine.
“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.”
These two days, August 19th and 20th, were, indeed, red-letter days in General Scott’s campaign. They brought his signal success over the Mexican forces at Contreras and Churubusco and thus opened the way for the assault on Mexico City itself.
Though the marines had been entrusted with the highly responsible duty of guarding the rear of the army and its supplies and thus deprived of the privilege of participating in the actual fighting, they were soon to get an opportunity to show their prowess in combat.
First, however, came the futile armistice arranged between General Scott and N. P. Trist, special representative of President Polk, and President Santa Anna of Mexico, lasting from August 21 to September 6, 1847.
Hostilities were resumed on the latter day, and on September 8th the sanguinary battle of Molino del Rey was fought.
The marines then were still in reserve at San Augustine.
On September 9th, however, General Scott ordered them, together with the Pennsylvania volunteers, to advance to Coyoacan, just west of Churubusco.
By that time General Scott had decided to attempt the capture of Mexico City by an assault against Chapultepec.
Under this name is known a hill topped by a citadel about two and a half miles west of the capital. It is a narrow, volcanic ridge of rock about 200 feet above the level country, by which it is surrounded.
On three sides — to the north, east and south — it is extremely precipitous. Only in the west it is sufficiently sloping to permit military operations against it, though even there the ground offers many natural difficulties.
Its crest is occupied by a palace begun in 1783. After 1833 it was used as a military college of the Republic of Mexico.
It was in 1847 still used for that purpose, and not until much later did it become the famous presidential palace and pleasure ground which adds so much to the appearance of the city of Mexico.
But even then it was surrounded by a park, enclosed by high walls.
At the time of General Scott’s campaign the palace could be reached only by one road, winding its way up along the southerly side of the hill.
To the west there were a series of solid stone buildings — Molino del Rey. This formidable position seemed to General Scott and many of his officers the first obstacle that had to be overcome before the capital itself could be attacked.
He decided to attempt this undertaking at once, and to General Quitman’s division was assigned the difficult task of making the assault.
It was to be supported by another division commanded by General Pillow and still another under General Worth was to assist.
Quitman’s entire division, including the marines, was ordered to join these other forces by daylight on September 11, 1847, at Piedad, about two miles southeast of Chapultepec.
Batteries had been erected southwest of the hill and these were to be supported by the marines and their fellow fighters.
During the following day Chapultepec was continuously bombarded by the United States artillery. The assault itself had been set for September 13th.
Two storming parties, each numbering 250 men, were organized and were well supplied with scaling- ladders, pickaxes and crowbars.
Both were under the command of marine officers — Major Levi Twiggs and Captain J. G. Reynolds — a signal expression of confidence in the valor and efficiency of that corps on the part of the commanding general.
They were supported by the entire marine battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Watson, so that the corps carried the burden of the most difficult and dangerous part of the assault on its shoulders.
It acquitted itself with its customary dash, against which the Mexican opposition could not avail for long.
The storming parties and their support, the marines, rushed forward in the very face of the Mexican batteries, and long before the day was over, their work, combined with that of the artillery and parts of the other divisions, wrested the entire hill from the Mexicans and cleared all the surrounding ground of Mexican troops.
The way was clear now to the two western gates of the capital. As soon as the hill had been taken General Quitman gathered his entire division and with it moved directly against the city of Mexico, along the Tacubaya Causeway.
Carrying all obstacles and in the face of a tremendous fire of artillery and small arms from the batteries at the gate of Belen, through which the causeway entered the city, and from nearby roads still occupied by large bodies of Mexicans, the marines and the other units of Quitman’s division pressed onward.
About two o’clock in the afternoon the gate was in the hands of the United States forces. From then until dark the marines and their fellow victors were subjected to a steady fire of artillery from the Mexican batteries at the citadel and at other points.
By that time the second gate had been taken, too.
During the night the Mexicans withdrew and at dawn the city surrendered.
Cautiously Quitman now moved his forces along the city’s streets towards the National Palace.
There they found bands of natives bent on looting. They were quickly driven out.
To 40 marines under Lieutenant A. S. Nicholson, fell the honor of taking charge of the palace and of hoisting on it the United States flag for which they had fought so valiantly.
They quickly put it in readiness for the commanding general, who entered the palace with his staff at about eight o’clock on the morning of September 14, 1847.
It was this exploit of first raising the American flag over the ancient citadel of the Mexicans that gave the author of the ” Marines’ Hymn” the inspiration for his first line — ” From the Halls of Montezuma ”
September 13 and 14, 1847, thus became red-letter days in the long calendar of honorable achievement standing to the credit of the Marine Corps.
The Marine Corps Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows beside an image of the cover for the Marine’s Hymn sheet music, circa 1919.