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The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 52571

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

May, 1846


The Mexico of 1845 had an elaborate military organization. In addition to the comandantes general-regularly one in each department or state-there were six generals at the head of the six military Divisions in which the political divisions of the country had been grouped. The college at Chapultepec provided a full course of instruction for officers; and though it seemed hardly worth while to spend three years there in order to become a second lieutenant, when one could leap at once into a captaincy or something better by acting as the tool of a revolting general, there were never less than one hundred students.[1]

At the head of the army stood a sort of general staff called the plana mayor; but the duties of this inefficient body fell mostly to the engineers, some of whom possessed excellent qualifications, while others-admitted to the corps for political or personal reasons-did not. The artillery, which included nominally four brigades with fourteen batteries, suffered from this all-pervading evil and also from defects of its own. Many of the guns had come down from olden times, though a large number of the field pieces equalled any the United States possessed; not a few were honeycombed; and the carriages were mostly of the old Gribeauval pattern. To convey ammunition, carts had to be obtained when needed. For the transportation of ordnance, mules or oxen were usually hired by contract; and, as the drivers had no acquaintance with artillery drill and tactics, battery evolutions were out of the question, and guns could be moved but slowly, if at all, during an engagement.[1]

The so-called Permanent infantry consisted substantially of three Light (Ligero) and twelve Line regiments, and there were also twenty-five Active (Activo) corps, large or small, which, though originally designed as a sort of reserve to be called out in emergencies, were now constantly under arms. Owing to the great extent of the country the regiments were broken into sections, which assumed to be independent; and for this reason drill, discipline and esprit de corps suffered greatly. Training and equipment left much to be desired. When four simple manoeuvres were understood, soldiers were pronounced perfect. For arms almost all the infantry had flint-lock muskets, many of which had been discarded by the British army. Firing from the hip to avoid the recoil marred their aim; and, partly in consequence of using too much powder, they generally fired high. Of horse there were ten Permanent and five Activo regiments besides numerous minor units. The cavalry included also nearly fifty Presidial companies, originally designed to guard the frontier against Indian raids; but these had almost vanished except in name, and the remnants were extremely inefficient. The mounted men carried in general a sword and a sort of blunderbuss called the escopeta, but many used lances instead of swords. About 3000 Coast Guards are also to be mentioned, but as a rule they were expected merely to defend the ports where they lived and the immediate vicinity. In all there may have been 32,000 men under arms in 1845.[1]

The medical corps suffered at all times from the low quality of its personnel and from its defective equipment; and the accommodations for surgeons in a campaign were so poor that many found pretexts for remaining behind when their corps took the field. The commissaries had peculiar difficulties to meet. A Mexican army drew supplies from places near it and not from government dép?ts; and when money failed, as it often did, payments had to be made with drafts on the treasury, which possessed an uncertain value. Hence people often would not part with supplies, the troops went hungry, and the natural tendency toward inefficiency and desertion was accentuated. In order to release the army from service in the interior, when hostilities became imminent in 1845, it was decided to organize volunteer corps; but almost every one, however anxious to see the United States chastised, preferred to let somebody else do the work.[1]

Mexico, then, did not exactly rise en masse to sweep Taylor away,[2] yet the forces gathered at Matamoros could be termed respectable. Arista seems to have had about 175 artillerymen, 3500 infantry, 1100 cavalry, 425 irregular horse under General Antonio Canales and some 500 Matamoros volunteers-in all, say, 5700 men including officers and ineffectives. His first brigade consisted of infantry led by García, a fine man and officer; the second, also infantry, had Vega, a brave and patriotic soldier, for commander; and the third brigade, cavalry, was under Torrejón, who possessed one excellent quality-the instinct of self-preservation. Canales could be described succinctly as a border ruffian and conspirator; and Ampudia, second in general command, was about the same thing plus a cosmopolitan varnish.[3]


After news of Taylor's intention to advance reached Matamoros, the Mexicans worked most zealously in constructing fortifications there, and by the end of April had a series of earthworks. Just above the city was erected Fort Paredes, laid out in regular style for 800 men, which guarded the ferry of Las Anacuitas. Two redoubts, crossing their fires, were planted opposite Fort Brown at a distance of seven or eight hundred yards; and two or three minor forts commanded approaches. Gabions or wicker-work strengthened the embrasures, and fascines and sand-bags were freely used. No guns heavier than 12-pounders defended the works, and no platforms were laid; but in general the ordnance was of brass, well cared for though somewhat honeycombed.[4]

For a number of reasons the garrison felt confident. Through deserters and spies they knew as much as they were capable of understanding about the American army. To Mejía our general seemed "more contemptible than the lowest of Mexican tailors," and to Ampudia "an absolute nullity." The martial Worth, who did impress them, left the front at the beginning of April because Polk decided against him on the question of brevet rank. Hitchcock had been compelled to go north on sick leave. For some good reason every infantry colonel and many others in high positions were absent. One regiment had not a field officer, and in another only a single company could boast a captain. Personally the officers in general were believed to lack harmony and zeal, and the men to be discontented, hopeless, unwilling to fight, and enfeebled by their hardships and misbehavior at Corpus Christi. According to Mexican reports our cavalry could neither shoot nor control their hard-bitted horses, and our infantry, chiefly composed-except the officers-of needy foreigners, came short in discipline, training and every other soldierly qualification save appetite. "Those adventurers cannot withstand the bayonet charge of our foot," said Mejía, "nor a cavalry charge with the lance."[5]


No very alarming degree of intelligence had appeared to direct the American operations. Our troops were on a point exposed to a convergent fire; Fort Brown enfiladed none of the hostile batteries, though it might have been planned to do this; near the cavalry camp stood thick groves offering shelter to assailants; behind our main position was a lagoon forming-with a bend of the river-almost a circle; and the enemy, once in possession of the single road, which ran for seven or eight miles through rough country, would have had the army in a bottle. All the ammunition and provisions were brought by wagon from the coast, exposed to attack at every step. The imperfectly fortified base at Point Isabel, stored with indispensable supplies, had a garrison of only two companies aside from two or three hundred sutlers, clerks, teamsters and the like; and vessels could approach the landing only by a narrow passage between two islands, which could have been closed by a few 6-pounders. Yet we should have encouraged Mexico beyond calculation, and might have been injured greatly in Europe, had we now given up Fort Brown.[6]

A number of small disasters overtook the Americans. Colonel Cross, chief of the quartermaster's department, went out and never came back. April 22 Lieutenant Porter and ten men, operating against the banditti, allowed their arms to get wet, and were scattered with loss by a party of Mexicans. Twenty of the Texas rangers commanded by Captain Walker permitted themselves to be surprised, and half of them were either killed or driven beyond recall. Taylor attributed these mishaps to a lack of experience, but the enemy regarded them as proofs of inferiority; and when Thornton's party succumbed, the enthusiasm burst all bounds. "Honor and glory a thousand and one times" to the "brave men" of the army, cried a Tampico leaflet, and a triumph in the anticipated battle appeared certain.[7]


From another source also the Mexicans drew encouragement. While Taylor's officers were nearly all West Pointers and perhaps quite all native Americans, many of the privates were in fact of European birth and a large percentage Roman Catholics. To these Mejía, Ampudia and Arista issued moving appeals based upon religious prejudice and alleged foreign condemnation of our course toward Mexico, gilded with generous promises of rewards for deserting, supported by the luring voices of gayly dressed sirens who lined the opposite bank of the river all day, and reinforced by two captured American dragoons, who were given back, and reported that deserters received handsome treatment. A considerable number of men, largely veteran offenders from the British army, stole across; most of the Seventh Infantry were believed ready to change sides; and the Mexicans boasted exultingly that "Old Taylor" himself would soon be over.[8]

Arista, who had spent several years in the United States, did not feel very sanguine. Ampudia's predictions of glory he regarded as "castles in the air," or as perhaps intended to raise expectations that Ampudia's successor would be unable to satisfy. But the officers and the troops felt impatient for combat. So loudly and so long had the charges of haughtiness, perfidy, aggressiveness and greed been reiterated against us, that all believed them true. The Americans were in their eyes accursed heretics, eager to trample under foot their holy religion: and they were also barbarians, capable of everything rough and cruel. In the event of their success the family hearth was to be polluted, the glorious, dearly-bought independence of the nation crushed, and the adored accents of the mother-tongue stifled. To the Indian rank and file the word "patriotism," indeed, meant little; but they loved their villages, and could imagine even worse tyrants than Mexicans. The name "foreigner" had a terrible sound in their ears, and fanatical devotion to the Roman church set their passionate natures aflame. At the first sight of the "detestable" Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze, they had loudly demanded battle, and later the confident hope of triumph gave a still keener edge to their enthusiasm. Taylor evidently despised the enemy, believing there was no fight in them; but those tawny fellows, though miserably clothed and apparently spiritless, were trained to "blind obedience," could fight like devils while their strength and fury lasted, and had now reached a good state of discipline. Even Captain Hardee of Thornton's command, a prisoner at large in Matamoros, believed the Mexicans would gain the coming battle.[9]

One of Taylor's most obvious needs in taking post on the Rio Grande was a light corps available for scouting, and in ordering him to advance, Marcy had expressly authorized him to call upon the Texans-by whom legs were valued chiefly as the means of sticking to a horse-for assistance; but nothing was done about the matter. On April 11 a friend in Matamoros warned him that an attempt might be made to cut his line to Point Isabel, but he did not seem to feel concerned. His troops were merely drawn beyond the effective range of Ampudia's artillery; the work of fortifying was quickened; on the 23d he described the fort complacently as "in a condition of defence"; and a week later he contented himself with having the road inspected for seven miles. Point Isabel, he said as early as April 12, could withstand attack.[10]

Fort Brown to Brazos Island

Arista, for his part, decided quite naturally, while on his way to Matamoros, that he would plant himself on the American line of communication, and prevent our army from receiving ammunition, provisions and reinforcements. Accordingly the 1600 men under Torrejón, after disposing of Thornton's command, passed Fort Brown, held the road for some days without the knowledge of Taylor, and then by a grave blunder were drawn away, and concentrated on the Rio Grande opposite Longore?o, eight or ten miles below the city, to protect the crossing of the other troops, who proceeded to that point by several routes in order to deceive the Americans. The last day of the month Ampudia with his brigade and four guns went over; and on May 1 Arista-leaving Mejía with about 1400 men to hold Matamoros-followed with his other brigade and eight pieces. Unfortunately for him three scows of little capacity were the only boats available; and as these had been taken to Longore?o in carts by a circuitous route nearly fifteen miles in length, so as to avoid exciting our suspicions, they were not in good order. One or two, in fact, seem to have been almost useless, and hence many precious hours were lost; but at any rate the army succeeded in crossing a swift river without injury almost under the eyes of the Americans.[11]


By about one o'clock in the afternoon on the first of May Taylor heard that Mexicans were below him, and awoke. He saw now that Fort Brown required munitions and food, and that Point Isabel could not, even yet, resist a serious attack. Tents came down in haste; the wagon train was made ready; and at about half-past three-leaving behind the Seventh Infantry commanded by Major Brown, with Captain Lowd's four 18-pounders, Lieutenant Bragg's field battery and the sick, under orders to hold out as long as possible-Taylor marched for the coast. No time was lost in getting there. The troops bivouacked that night on the damp, chilly plain without fires, and early the next morning set out again. The shallow, greenish-brown lagoons rimmed with broad, flat, oozing banks of mud, the marshes full of tawny grass, and the low ridges mottled with patches of herbage and bald surfaces of gleaming dry dirt, seemed interminable; but as hours passed the now sultry air began to be streaked with salt odors, and by noon the panting troops caught the sparkle of blue waves. Fortunately they could not hear the shouts of joy in Matamoros over what was called their precipitate flight.[12]

As it was necessary to strengthen the defences, all the troops now exchanged their muskets for picks and shovels. May 6 the engineer in charge was authorized to continue the work by employing a hundred laborers; and at about three o'clock the next day, escorting more than 200 loaded wagons, the little army, preceded by a body of dragoons, moved out on the return march. As the small garrison of Fort Brown had provisions for at least three weeks, and the Mexicans could not be expected to attack it seriously with Taylor approaching their rear, whereas they were practically sure to be met on the road, Taylor's best officers entreated him to gain freedom of action by leaving the train behind, which at most would have delayed it only a day or so; but he would not. No fears disturbed his mind. Reinforced with perhaps 200 men just landed at the Point, the army now with him numbered 2228, all told. Recent exercise and drill had left it in a splendid physical condition. Recollecting how long popular orators had been mocking at the "regulars," it longed to do something. The attacks upon Cross, Walker, Porter and Thornton had exasperated its temper; nothing could have pleased the great majority of the soldiers better than a fight; and the General felt very much the same way.[13]

When it had made about seven miles the army bivouacked, and early the next day it resumed the march. Soon after noon, when some ten or twelve miles more had been covered, a low, dark line could be seen across the plain in front, some two or three miles away. It was the Mexican army. As the pond or water-hole of Palo Alto lay near, the tired and thirsty troops were permitted to halt, rest a little, drink and fill their canteens; and then Taylor had them posted in order of battle. At the extreme right the Fifth Infantry led by Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh was placed, and on its left in succession came Major Ringgold's battery, the Third Infantry (Captain Morris), two 18-pounders on siege carriages under Lieutenant Churchill, and the Fourth Infantry (Major Allen). The Third and Fourth made up a brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Garland; and all the troops just mentioned, together with Twiggs's dragoons, some 250 strong, in two squadrons led by Captains Kerr and May, formed the right wing. The other wing, known as the first brigade and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Belknap, consisted of the Artillery Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Childs, Captain Duncan's battery, and the Eighth Infantry, posted in this order from right to left. The wagons were then assembled near the pond at the side of some woods, and Kerr was detached with his squadron to guard them.[14]


May 8, 1846


During these days Arista had waited for Taylor's return; but, in order to hasten that and perhaps accomplish direct results, he had ordered the guns of Matamoros to begin cannonading Fort Brown on the morning of May 3, and two days later, believing the garrison were near starvation, sent Ampudia to invest it. For the sake of water and to cover all of the roads that might be taken by the American army, he placed himself at Los Tanques del Ramire?o; and about noon on the eighth, learning of Taylor's approach, he set out for Palo Alto, some five miles away. Shortly before gaining that point he saw through his glass blue American dragoons in the far distance, and, as quickly as he could, put his troops in position. At the extreme right were placed about 150 horse under Noriega, and then came a 4-pounder, a corps of Sappers, the Second Light Infantry, the Tampico Veteran Company and Coast Guards, five 4-pounders, the First, the Sixth and the Tenth Infantry, and finally, beyond an interval of about 400 yards and somewhat in advance, Torrejón and the rest of the cavalry-their front extended, their right strengthened with two small guns, and their left reaching beyond the Point Isabel road to a piece of chaparral on a slight elevation beside a swamp. In the rear of the line were some thickets; just behind the right wing an eminence eighteen or twenty feet high rose above chaparral; protected by this lay a watering-place; and in front there were some boggy pools and wide fields of stiff grass almost shoulder-high.[14]

As soon as formed, the Americans advanced in silence-the 18-pounders, drawn by oxen, following the road-while Lieutenant Blake reconnoitred the Mexican line within musket range to look for artillery. At about two o'clock Ampudia came in sight with the Fourth Infantry, commanded by Colonel Uraga, a company of Sappers, two 8-pounders, and about 400 irregular horse under Canales. Upon this Arista and his staff, a blaze of gold lace, passed rapidly down the line. It seemed strange to find in his position a tall, raw-boned man with red hair and sandy whiskers; but he showed the martial bearing of his nation, and harangued the troops with genuine Mexican eloquence. They were found ready for battle. Answering him with loud vivas they made ready their arms. The silken banners fluttered; the bands played; and at about half-past two or three o'clock, by the General's order, his artillery opened. The hostile armies were then approximately half a mile apart; and the Mexicans-drawn out, except the cavalry, only two deep on a front about a mile in length without reserves-seemed to number 6000, though probably not more than two thirds as many.[14]

Apparently Taylor's plan had been to force a passage by charging, for his aim was to reach Fort Brown, and his infantry had been instructed, the day before, to rely mainly on the bayonet; but he now halted. All his infantry except the Eighth regiment deployed into line. At strange words of command-"Haw, Brindle!" "Whoa, Brandy!"-ten yoke of oxen wheeled each ammunition wagon into its place; and the cannon advanced. At this juncture Ampudia's column approached the field. Canales led his men a considerable distance forward into the scattered chaparral on the Mexican left, probably with a view to cutting off Taylor's retreat, and thus put himself entirely out of the battlefield; but the rest of the command proceeded toward their appointed place between Torrejón and the infantry, and as this movement appeared to mean a charge, the American fire was turned in that direction. Without faltering, however, they moved up to the line and deployed, but their route was marked with the fallen.[14]

Now ensued about an hour of cannonading, supported by our troops with shouts that often drowned the roar of the guns, and endured by the Mexicans with unfailing constancy. Arista's pieces, though bravely and skilfully served, were mostly too light. The balls generally fell short, and as they ricocheted, our men stepped aside. But the American practice met every hope. Sometimes a single shot appeared to mow down a whole platoon of mounted men; and here, there, everywhere gaps opened in the infantry. With vivas the gaps instantly closed, but they would not stay closed.[14]

Arista, a bold and experienced officer, expecting Taylor to act on such a plan as Taylor seems actually to have formed, intended to charge both flanks of the advancing Americans with cavalry supported by infantry; but the American artillery surprised him almost as much as if Taylor had used shooting stars. Probably the right course for him would have been to attack anyhow, for his men were still eager to fight, a cannon could be discharged only about once a minute, and our batteries would not have done much more harm at 70 than at 700 yards. But apparently it seemed impracticable to wallow slowly for such a distance through the grass, the sharp edges of which would have cut the legs of his poorly dressed soldiers badly, under so withering a fire. Something had to be done, however, for the troops grew impatient. He therefore directed his right wing to prepare for a charge, and ordered Torrejón and his two small guns to attack the American right, rear and wagons. Reluctantly Torrejón obeyed. Passing to the left, his "red lancers"-probably a thousand strong and "portentous" with trumpets, banners and lance points-advanced through the scattered chaparral and across a slough, becoming somewhat broken on the way, and found themselves at another small morass. Evidently the nature of the ground on which he was likely to operate had not interested Torrejón.[14]

Taylor, sitting unconcernedly with one leg over the pommel of his saddle, writing, was notified of this movement and simply replied, "Keep a bright lookout for them." But some one-probably Twiggs, who commanded the right wing-had the Fifth Infantry march rapidly more than a quarter of a mile to the right and rear, and throw itself into a square. Torrejón awkwardly approached this body in column instead of line with some of the worthless Presidials in the lead, fired ineffectively, was answered with a disconcerting though not very injurious volley, and recoiled some 300 yards. He then sent word to Arista that a morass rendered his movement impracticable; but on receiving instructions to persevere, he made a circuit, advanced upon the second front of the square, and once more exchanged a volley. Now, however, he found our Third Infantry moving to defend the wagons, and saw two of Ringgold's cannon hurrying to the scene at a gallop, while his own pieces had not come up. As rapidly as possible, therefore, and quite willingly, he retreated, but not without a salute from our two cannon, which he was unable to return. This unsuccessful manoeuvre exhausted Arista's ingenuity, and he only waited now for darkness, hoping to get away and find a better position.[14]

During these operations a wad from Duncan's battery had fired the grass. The wind from the Gulf, nearly parallel to the American front, drove a wall of roaring, crackling flame and a cloud of thick smoke across the plain; and, as the armies could see each other only now and then and in spots, firing had to be suspended for nearly an hour. Meanwhile, believing the Mexican left had given way, Taylor shifted his position behind the screen with a view to advancing. Churchill pushed on by the road nearly to where Torrejón had been; the Fourth Infantry moved up to support him; the Fifth went ahead on the extreme right; the rest of the army made corresponding changes; and as a whole the line diverged now thirty or forty degrees from its original direction, while the wagons came nearly up to it.[14]

But the Mexican left had not yielded, and so Taylor found when he sent a squadron of dragoons to open the way. To avoid being enfiladed, Arista swung his line forward in excellent order, using the Fourth Infantry as a pivot, and again it stood firm under an artillery fire more destructive than at first. Indeed our Fourth Infantry began to suffer a galling cannonade, and Torrejón again assumed the offensive. Canister from the 18-pounders checked him, however, and after sharp musketry exchanges between the Mexican line and our Artillery Battalion, which had advanced and formed a square, serious infantry operations in this quarter came to an end. As for the artillery, Arista had now used up his 650 cannon balls; but the Americans kept at work until nightfall.[14]

On our left, however, import

ant events occurred. From the first Captain Duncan's battery, which made two fire-units because handled in sections, played a brilliant and effective r?le, supported by the Eighth Infantry and either Kerr's or May's dragoons, and advancing or retiring as the course of the battle dictated. When Arista's change of front threw his right forward nearly 700 yards and seemed to threaten a flank attack, these pieces became more active and more daring than ever, and under their blasting discharges, aided more or less at this time by the 18-pounders, the Mexicans fell rapidly. Again they grew impatient-not principally because they were suffering so terribly, but because they were inactive, and because hints that Arista had sold them began to arrive from Ampudia's quarter; and finally the extreme right wing broke.[14]

After a time some of the officers and Arista, who exposed himself bravely throughout the battle, induced these troops to go back, and as they were still in much confusion, the remnants of Noriega's corps, reinforced with 200 men from Torrejón, were ordered to support them. The cavalry, however, badly demoralized themselves, dashed blindly at a trot against the infantry; the resulting disorder extended even to the Tampico men; and these desperate corps, ordered to charge as the only possible way to prevent them from bolting, moved forward aimlessly in succession. Duncan, when he saw this large force advance, withdrew a little, still firing; but soon under cover of the smoke he came up again, and gained an enfilading position. Suddenly with a sharp crack his guns opened, and against the fading horizon his shells and shrapnel could be seen bursting, with almost the regularity of signal rockets, over those dark masses. Driven like sheep by this fire, the Mexican right wing turned toward the left and hurried across the entire field, presenting their flank and to some extent their rear to the Americans at a distance of 200 paces or even less, while, in a somewhat more orderly manner, the First Infantry, which stood next in line, followed them. Now was the time to decide the battle; but, though Taylor had come to this part of the field, nothing could be done, for it was feared that should a charge be made, the enemy's cavalry might reach the wagons, and cripple our army by destroying the provisions. Indeed, the Americans appear to have drawn back a little toward the train; and the disordered Mexicans, having reached the extreme left and finally the rear of their line, were re-formed.[14]

It was now about seven o'clock. The Americans had lost five killed and forty-three wounded, and the Mexicans probably seven times as many. The afterglow of sunset lighted up the dun clouds of smoke. Darkness was close at hand. Necessarily, therefore, the struggle ended; and while the Mexicans retired through the chaparral to the low eminence behind the original position of their right wing, and there camped in order of battle, the Americans bivouacked where they stood, or in the fitful glare of the still burning grass gave attention to such of both armies as could be discovered lying on the field. At last the prairie fire burned out; the smoke of battle drifted away; the full moon appeared; and the tired troops, watched over by pacing guards, slept between the stacks of arms like images.[14]

Important moral results had been gained by the Americans, but they were not aware of the fact, and expected the battle to be resumed. At about seven o'clock the next morning, however, as the light mist slowly dissolved, their astonished eyes beheld the Mexican line gliding off into the road; and presently, like the tail of a huge serpent, its rear wound away into the chaparral, and vanished. Taylor gazed and reflected, moved a short distance, waited to ascertain through a party of dragoons that it was a genuine retreat, consulted with some of his principal officers, and then decided on pursuit; but the forenoon had to be spent in erecting breastworks and planting four heavy cannon to defend the train, which he now saw should be left behind; and he merely sent forward a composite force of 220 men, under Captain McCall of the Fourth Infantry, to harass the Mexican rear.[15]



Arista turned this delay to good account. The chaparral and woods that his troops had been seen to enter extended with some interruptions to the Rio Grande, a distance of approximately seven miles; and two hours before noon, after marching about halfway through it, he stopped at the Resaca de Guerrero. The Resaca was an ancient channel of the river, but it now consisted merely of a shallow, muddy ravine somewhat in the shape of a bow, several hundred feet wide and three or four feet deep at the banks, lying substantially east and west across the route, with its concave side toward Palo Alto. At the bottom of it, both to the right and to the left of the road, lay narrow ponds, and the space between the water and the banks was rather closely filled with bushes and small trees. Facing round here, Arista planted three or four guns at the right, or east, of the road from Palo Alto where it approached the Resaca, two at least-hidden with branches of trees-on the southern bank of the Resaca, and other pieces at suitable points toward his left. The infantry were placed in two wings divided by the road, with much the greater weight on the right hand, some of the troops taking position just in the rear of the ravine, some behind its northern bank, and some in the chaparral still farther forward. The headquarters tent was pitched in a small clear space or placeta about 500 paces back on the left of the road, and Torrejón's cavalry halted in the same road still farther away; while Canales with two guns, placing himself on the left a considerable distance back from the Resaca, guarded a cross-road leading to Arista's rear.[16]

The Mexican position, besides covering every line to Fort Brown, offered a number of other advantages. It did not call for much use of artillery, and therefore neutralized Arista's deficiency in cannon ammunition. The woods made it impossible for the Americans to employ that dreaded arm effectively. The bank of the Resaca formed a natural breastwork, and it seemed likely that the troops, protected in this manner, would be confident and firm. But evidently a bold and enterprising enemy could take advantage of the woods to conceal his movements; and evidently, too, Arista's main batteries could fire only in the direction of the road, since there were Mexicans in advance of the Resaca both to right and to left. Another handicap lay in the impossibility of surveying the field and manoeuvring troops-particularly the cavalry; the soldiers, unable to see far, lacked that sense of union and support which Mexicans peculiarly needed; and the want of reserves, though to a certain extent a part of the Fourth Infantry stationed on the right behind the Resaca could act as such, was an additional source of weakness.[16]

A still more serious feature of Arista's situation was the condition of his troops. Many, and probably most of them, had not eaten for more than twenty-four hours. The sufferings they had witnessed and the neglect of their fallen comrades had worked upon their feelings. The dreadful effectiveness of the American artillery had been profoundly discouraging; many of their officers had proved unworthy of confidence; and above all, accustomed to the duplicity of Mexican leaders and unable to understand their general's inactivity the day before, many concluded that Arista, who was accused of seeking American support for his alleged revolutionary scheme, had betrayed them. This idea, if we may trust common sense and Mexican intimations, was suggested or at least encouraged by Ampudia himself; and the co?peration of all these depressing influences had spread a general conviction through the army by the forenoon of May 9 that a great disaster would befall it that day. A few, it was said, broke their weapons in despair; and utter dejection could be read in the faces of every corps. Some reinforcements were drawn from the city, but they did not materially improve the situation.[16]


Taylor, then, advancing at about two o'clock, after detaching most of the Artillery Battalion and perhaps Kerr's dragoons to guard the train, moved forward to the edge of the woods, and halted at what was called the Resaca de la Palma to await information. The advance corps under McCall, which consisted principally of the light companies of the first brigade under Captain C. F. Smith, was now feeling its way toward the enemy. At a little after two o'clock, turning a bend in the road, it found cannon in front. Instantly they fired. About half a dozen Americans fell, and the rest quickly withdrew. At three o'clock McCall's report arrived at headquarters. Taylor pushed on immediately, and in about an hour came up with the advance party. Ringgold's battery, now commanded by Lieutenant Ridgely, was sent forward on the road, and McCall's command, thrown into the chaparral on both sides, began a slow and painful advance through the bushes. Almost immediately it found itself in contact with the enemy.[16]

Under such circumstances McCall could give the battery no support, of course, and the only reasonable expectation was that Ridgely's men and horses would be shot from the woods, and his guns be taken. That, however, made no difference to him. His orders were to advance, and advance he would. Once a body of lancers charged his guns, but by a combination of courage, skill and good luck he routed it. Some of the Mexican artillery seems to have moved up the road a little way after McCall retired; but Ridgely, pushing on even into the very smoke of the enemy's cannon, drove them in spite of stubborn resistance beyond the edge of the Resaca, and then sent back for troops to help him capture them. When the battle became more general he continued to fire upon the Mexican batteries; and, as far as he could without endangering Americans, he also swept the woods with canister, frightening the enemy with a terrible noise in the tree-tops that reminded them of the slaughter at Palo Alto.[16]

To right and to left the battle soon raged. All the Americans on the ground, numbering about 1700, were put in. No general guidance could be exercised. "Chance was the lord of all save the good right arms" of the troops, wrote an officer. In such woods and thickets lines could not be formed. Even companies found it impossible to remain intact. A field officer was no more than a captain, and a captain no more than a subaltern. All got into the work promptly, and all did their best when there. As fast as they could, singly or in little squads, they pushed on, cheering and shouting. Often it required one's utmost exertions to squeeze through or hack through the dense and thorny chaparral under pelting showers of bullets. Now there was shooting, and now the cold steel struck fire. "My orders was to make free use of the bayonet," said the General afterwards, and the orders were borne in mind. Here Lieutenant Meade, the future victor of Gettysburg, had a chance to win his spurs; and he was but one of many heroes, though perhaps the most conspicuous in his quarter.[16]

Nor did the Americans have it all their own way. Those Mexicans who fought at all this day, fought like tigers. On the right near the road the Second Light Infantry, which had been placed there in ambush just before the real battle opened, stood firm; but most of its field officers were struck down, and it had to give way. A company of Uraga's regiment did nobly close by, and every man of it, we are told, was either killed or wounded.[16]

Farther toward Arista's left, however, our men pushed forward rather easily, though it seemed evident from the firing that Mexicans were in front. Gaining ground in this direction some Americans probably came upon a path which led round the western end of the pond, and gave access to the Mexican flank. Just before the battle began Ampudia learned of the path, and stationed a company of the Sappers and a company of the Fourth Infantry in this quarter; and later he sent another detachment from the Fourth with a gun. Besides these meagre forces probably no corps guarded the left except a few Tampico troops. These also fought well; but the splendid silk banner of the Veterans, the bravest corps in the army, was captured, and only at heavy cost could they fight their way back. Meantime the rest of Uraga's regiment came over from beyond the road, but it could not stop the Americans; and brave Captain Barbour, followed by a small party, soon approached the placeta. The effect was electrical. Nobody knew how many troops were following him. Canales took flight. The sense of defeat, already imparted by hurrying soldiers of the Second Light, spread across the road from the broken left, and at about half-past five o'clock Arista's right wing, the strength of the army, crumbled like a sand fort struck by a wave. Except perhaps one, all the corps dissolved; and in a moment, as it seemed, nothing was left but a mob of fugitives.[16]

During all this, Taylor, exposing himself as much as any one, had been fighting at the centre. The proper course to adopt there was to charge the Mexican guns on the road with infantry, but for some reason he sent May's dragoons against them. In a way the effort succeeded. Slashing as they galloped, the horsemen quickly ran over the batteries-more than a quarter of a mile beyond them, in fact; and then, coming back in a scattered condition, had a chance to slash again, for the batteries had been reoccupied. But the thickets on both sides were full of Mexican infantry. Against their muskets the dragoons were mere targets-broad ones, too; and before long the squadron, much the worse for its charge, recrossed the Resaca. Taylor was disgusted. Turning to Belknap and the Eighth Infantry he exclaimed, "Take those guns, and by -– keep them!" A part of the Fifth joined Belknap; and these men, rushing in furiously all together, yelling like fiends, after a brief though sharp struggle with the artillerymen-for the supporting infantry had now abandoned their position-captured the pieces. But the battle had already been won.[16]

Before McCall had shown himself Arista, dazed perhaps by his reverse at Palo Alto, valuing too highly his new position, and probably overestimating the injury inflicted on Taylor the day before, had made up his mind that no immediate attack was to be expected, and after placing the army had withdrawn to his tent, and busied himself in writing. Even when firing began, he said it was only a skirmish; and after our troops reached his left flank, he merely ordered Ampudia and the rest of the Fourth Infantry to go and settle things in that quarter. When Americans appeared at the placeta, however, he awoke. Pouring curses on the cowards of his army, he hurried to the cavalry, and taking the place of Torrejón, who had refused to charge, dashed up the road. His men lanced a few lingering American dragoons and helped a few comrades to escape, but the battle could not be saved. On one side of the road at least, Americans already held the chaparral, and like May he could not stand against protected infantry.[16]

At the head of the cavalry he retreated, therefore, and turning to the left crossed the Rio Grande by one of the lower passages. Other fugitives got over at various points; and a great number, passing Fort Brown, which was about three miles from the battlefield, crowded to the Anacuitas ferry. Here they found a couple of scows; and some troops, that had been engaged all this time in annoying Fort Brown, stood on guard. But the fleeing soldiers were panic-stricken, the boats moved slowly, and the Americans were looked for at every moment. Men fought for places. Clothing and arms were thrown away. Many tried to swim or fell accidentally into the water, and an unknown number perished in the swift current.[16]

"Rio Bravo! Rio Bravo!

Saw men ever such a sight

Since the field of Roncesvalles

Sealed the fate of many a knight?"

But the Americans did not come. Taylor had scarcely any fresh troops except those guarding the wagons nearly or quite five miles in the rear. May's dragoons had been used up. Apparently no effort had been made to communicate with Fort Brown, and have its defenders-now tired but not exhausted-sally forth to help reap the fruits of the expected victory. Taylor only claimed to have captured "a number" of this utterly broken army facing a difficult river. Even badly wounded men got safely across, it would seem; and very soon, in spite of everything, nearly four fifths-that is to say, about 4000 besides those under Canales-of the troops commanded by Arista on the first of the month appear to have been in safety on the south shore. He lost on May 9, according to his official report, 160 killed, 228 wounded and 159 missing, but the accuracy of the figures may be doubted. Fourteen officers, eight guns and a large amount of property were captured by the Americans, while their casualties were only 33 killed and 89 wounded.[16]

During the whole week so dramatically concluded, Fort Brown had been under attack.[17] On May 3 it replied vigorously, though with trifling results, to the guns of Matamoros; but as Taylor, with more than a month of good weather and about 300 wagons at his disposal, had neglected to bring up a stock of ammunition, it fired only occasionally after that in order to notify both friend and foe that its courage still held good. On the 4th Canales occupied the road, and on the next day Ampudia arrived with four guns and nearly a thousand men. Arista, however, believing his cannon were not heavy enough to breach the wall and confident that hunger would soon reduce the garrison, forbade assault. The besiegers made themselves extremely disagreeable; but by this time the Americans had bomb-proofs and "gopher holes," and, aside from the death of Major Brown, met with no serious losses. Taylor's profound silence, after as well as before the battle of Palo Alto, caused intense anxiety; but when the cannon began to "bark" again on the 9th, and especially when a throng of panic-stricken fugitives could be seen rushing past, haggard faces put on smiles. Finally a solitary messenger approached at a gallop with his reins on the horse's neck, waving cap and sword, and shouting "Victory!" and the long strain ended in exultation.[18]


The Mexican army was now hanging like a plum, overripe, shaken by the wind and ready to fall. To the British consul it seemed utterly demoralized, and beyond the possibility of reorganization. Yet there it was permitted to rest and recuperate undisturbed. The official explanation said that although a pontoon train had been proposed a long time before, the dim prospect of hostilities had not seemed to warrant that expense; but like numerous other official statements put out in the course of the war, this explanation hid more than it told.[19]

A bridge might have been in readiness; but, though several officers had been laboring for more than a month to focus Taylor's mind upon the subject, "the old gentleman," wrote Meade, "would never listen or give it a moment's attention," Flat-boats and scows, towed by the light steamers belonging to the army, might have been sent from Point Isabel into the river, and the troops, reinforcements and light batteries, crossing at the much-used ferry of Burrita, less than twenty miles from Matamoras, and by land appearing at the town, say, in early morning, could probably have taken army, cannon and ammunition substantially complete. Instead of doing anything of this description, Taylor now sent down to Point Isabel for mortars and for plank to make into boats, and went there himself. A slight illness delayed him further; and in eight days nothing was accomplished in the direction suggested beyond placing at Burrita a battalion of the First Infantry and some 200 volunteers just landed at Point Isabel.[19]

Still, though let alone, Arista occupied no enviable position. He was commonly charged with incompetence, treason or both. Many of the officers had forsaken their troops in the hour of danger, and were now viewed with distrust and contempt. The men felt exhausted and profoundly disheartened. Even the dogs kept still. Provisions, ammunition and funds were scant. Fierce complaints and recriminations became rife. Panic brooded over all. Taylor's inaction seemed an encouraging sign, however, and on the 17th a request for a suspension of hostilities, accompanied with hints of a peaceful settlement, was made by Arista. This petition Taylor rejected. But, not aware that a general's first duty in war is to eliminate the fighting strength of the enemy, he said that Arista might retire with his army, the sick and the wounded, if he would give up all public property. In fact, as if anxious to fight these men again after letting them get nicely rested, he threatened to bring Matamoros down about their ears, unless they would move to a safer place.[20]

Arista had been ordered to hold the city as long as possible, but a council of officers pronounced it indefensible; and, besides feeling no violent wish to sacrifice himself, he doubtless realized that nobody was ready to stand by him. He therefore ordered now an immediate retreat, and a wild scramble ensued. The transportation facilities were entirely inadequate. Some of the guns and ammunition had to be thrown into the river. The troops of Canales were dismissed. A large number of men deserted; and the rest, leaving four or five hundred sick and wounded in the town, hurried away. Fatigues and miseries almost unspeakable were their lot, and also for some time a terrible fear of pursuit. Heat, cold, thirst, famine, tempest, sickness, desertion, a route lined with dead animals, sleep in the mud as profound as the sleep of the grave, troopers carrying their horse furniture, deaths from exhaustion or broken hearts, and even suicides-these made up the record. Finally, almost at the end of the month 2638 men, according to an officer, crawled painfully into Linares, and a week later Arista received orders to place Mejía in command.[21]

Taylor, all this while, had been proceeding in his deliberate way. Boats were made and put on the river two or three miles above the town, and early on the eighteenth troops began to cross; but when the first of them were over, a report that Arista had retreated was confirmed, and the greater part of the army, retracing their steps, used the regular Anacuitas ferry. As they approached Fort Paredes the city officials-dressed all in white, bearing white flags and riding white horses-came forth to surrender Matamoros. No terms of capitulation were granted, but the General said he would protect persons and property, and allow the civil laws to continue in force; and already he had promised to respect the religion of the people. To their surprise the Americans appeared to find themselves among friends, for the lately implacable but seldom tactless Mexicans came up smiling, cried "Amigo, amigo!" and with sunny enthusiasm offered their hands; and although a feeble pursuit of Arista produced only insignificant results, the victors felt well content. Their superiority as fighting men had been demonstrated. Their artillery had evidently surpassed the Mexican artillery in both mechanical and personal qualities. The officers had exhibited the finest courage, esprit de corps and skill. An army supposed to outnumber ours three to one had been scattered, and a prestige of the utmost value at home, in Mexico and in Europe, had been gained.[22]


Regarding Taylor, thoughtful officers did not feel enthusiastic, however. The General had shown himself slow, unskilful, wanting in penetration and foresight, and poorly grounded professionally. Nine tenths of the regular officers felt that no talents had been displayed by him, even in the battles. He had shown, said Meade, "perfect inability to make any use of the information" given him. In the opinion of another excellent officer he seemed "utterly, absurdly incompetent to wield a large army." He had failed to realize the difficulties of his position; had undervalued the enemy; and, as Bliss admitted, had had "no conception" of the Mexican preparations. This last fact dimmed his credit, even for courage, in the minds of discerning critics. But, after all, his resolution had been superb and inspiring. He had succeeded; and among us Americans "Nothing succeeds like success." The reports written for him read admirably. Terse remarks of his, often tinged with soldierly humor, delighted the general taste at home, and mere questions of tactics or strategy signified in comparison rather less than zero. Besides, he was so democratic-no military stiffness, no West Point "aristocracy" about him. A tidal wave of popularity rose in his favor, and soon Thurlow Weed of New York, the Warwick of the Whig party, came out for him as Presidential candidate. A commission as brevet major general and other official honors did not fail to arrive.[23]

At Mexico the news of these events produced utter amazement and consternation. The public, reported the British minister, had been assured "in the most inflated Tone that Victory would follow the steps of the Mexican Army and that annihilation and dishonour would be the portion of their enemies." Even General Vega, a man of sense, had predicted a victory that would end the war. Now, alas, the cards had fallen badly. "Profound and bitter sorrow," as it privately admitted, was the feeling of the government. Down like a plummet went expectations, confidence and courage; down went the plausible hope of Paredes that all the nation, glowing with pride and enthusiasm over a victory, would rally about him; and down also, reported Bankhead, went his monarchical scheme, which four out of five on the Congressional committee appointed to draft a new constitution had favored.[24]

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