Resaca de la Palma (1846)
And the Charge of the Second Dragoons
This night the American army and the Mexican army camped within sound of each other. The Mexican army was concealed in the brush and trees. Soon after daylight the scouting dragoons and Texas Rangers reported that the enemy was marching southward toward the Rio Grande River.
General Taylor called a council of officers. What should be done? Follow, or stay here, or retire to Point Isabel. Fort Mansfield was still being bombarded; the cannon, eight miles distant, could be heard.
The majority of the officers voted either to entrench here and send back for reinforcements, or else to return to Point Isabel and form a new column there. Only two voted to advance at once. Old Rough and Ready decided.
"I shall be at Fort Mansfield tonight, if I live. We will go forward, gentlemen."
The soldiers were in fine spirits. They had whipped the Mexican troops posted three to one; they felt able to do it again. They had the morale—and in battle, morale or confidence is three-fifths of an army's strength. The morale was equal to a reinforcement of a thousand men.
The Mexican forces could be seen winding down the road, toward the river. General Taylor followed slowly. He sent his sick and wounded back to Point Isabel, under an escort of dragoons. The wagon train was parked inside a breastworks. Lieutenant-Colonel Childs' artillery battalion, the Eighth Infantry and two of Captain Duncan's twelve-pounders were left to defend it.
All this had taken time. The sun of April 9 was past the noon mark when the column advanced. Old Zach was a man who made ready before he acted. To-day he did not intend to be hurried. There was too much at stake.
The column soon crossed the position that the enemy had first occupied, the day before. That was a horrid place. The work of the American artillery had been terrible. Mangled men and horses were strewn everywhere; the grass was crushed and red; arms and knapsacks and clothing and provisions were scattered widely; wolves and buzzards had been feasting.
There were wounded, abandoned by their comrades. They cried out for water, and water was given them from the American canteens. But General Taylor moved on.
The Rangers and a detachment of the dragoons commanded by Lieutenant Alfred Pleasanton scouted in the advance. Two hundred and twenty infantry skirmishers followed, deployed through the brush. Captain George A. McCall of Second Lieutenant Ulysses Grant's company, Fourth Infantry, commanded these. That left young Lieutenant Grant to bring on the company. He thought it a great responsibility, and wondered what he should do, in battle.
Old Zach directed that the main column halt at a pond, drink and fill canteens. The brave Lieutenant Jacob Edmund Blake, who had been riding hard, got off his horse and unbuckled his pistol holsters, to rest himself. One of the pistols discharged; it mortally wounded him. He was the same Lieutenant Blake who had so fearlessly counted the Mexican cannon, the day before.
The chaparral proved very thick. General Taylor moved with great caution, to avoid ambush. About three o'clock word came from the scouting cavalry that the enemy had been found, at bay in a strong position a mile ahead, where a ravine cut the road.
"Captain McCall will proceed with his skirmishers, draw the enemy's fire and develop his position," Old Rough and Ready ordered.
That was done right speedily. A masked battery suddenly opened upon Captain McCall's skirmishers as they stole through the brush; wounded three men. He halted his line and sent word to General Taylor that he, too, had found the enemy.
General Arista had indeed retired down the road, about four miles from the battle field of Palo Alto. Now he had received reinforcements of two thousand fresh troops; with his six thousand again he had been waiting since ten o'clock, at the Resaca de la Palma.
His position was as strong as he could have wished. There was a ravine or dry water bed—the Dry Bed of the Palm—which crossed the road from amidst the brush. It was of crescent shape, with the horns pointing north or toward the American army, and was four feet deep and two hundred feet wide. Its ends rested in ponds and swampy ground; brush surrounded it and fringed it. In front of it there were sharpshooters, lying low, out of sight; and a battery of three guns which from the left swept the road with cross fire. In the ravine itself there were infantry companies, protected to the breasts and resting their muskets upon the ravine edge. Behind the ravine there were two other batteries, of two guns each, posted on right and left and also sweeping the road; and more infantry. And in the rear of all there were the massed cavalry and a single gun.
General Arista thought that he had blocked the road. The Americans would not dare to attack, even if they came this far. He had unloaded his wagons, had unharnessed his animals; he had placed no reserve, to support him in case of need. He was here to stay. His fine tent had been stretched, and he sat in it writing dispatches announcing victory.
General Ampudia had said to their prisoner Captain Seth Thornton that a defeat was impossible; no force could drive them out. General Vega asserted that he considered the camp as safe as the City of Mexico; he would wager any amount of money that no ten thousand men could take it.
And the situation looked serious to Old Zach, when he arrived at half-past three o'clock, and from the rear of the Captain McCall skirmishers surveyed the defenses as best he could. Upon either side of the road the chaparral was dense, with only here and there a clear spot. He could not advance in line; he could not manoeuver in column. If he tried the road, his regiments would be wiped out by the fire of the batteries and the musketry.
But he was determined to pass, and he relied upon the intelligence of the American soldier.
The skirmishers had done well. By their accurate shooting they had driven the Mexican front line back to the ravine. Old Rough and Ready saw nothing to it but a regular Indian fight.
First, he sent Lieutenant Randolph Ridgely, with the Ringgold battery of the Third Artillery, forward to engage the enemy's batteries. The Ridgely guns ploughed gallantly through the brush, on the right of the road, to within three hundred yards of the ravine, and opened with canister and grape.
The Mexican batteries replied. They were served better than on the day before—the cannonading was fast and furious; but the American guns fired so rapidly that they gave the Mexican gunners no time for correcting their aim. Many of the Mexican balls passed too high.
General Arista sat in his tent writing his victory dispatches. His officers reported that the Americans were attacking. He said that it was only a skirmish and would not amount to much.
True enough, the cannonading was noisy but not so deadly as at Palo Alto. Lieutenant Ridgely 's battery was masked by the high brush; his gunners failed to get good aim. However, General Taylor was not depending, today, upon his artillery; his infantry soldiers were to show what they could do at close quarters. And glad they were, to go in.
The Third, Fourth and Fifth Regiments were deployed in extended order, on right and left, by squads. Little attention was paid to keeping in line; the squads rushed as they could, without commands—each squad following its captain or lieutenant or sergeant or corporal. In fact, the men fought about as they pleased. Only American soldiers could be trusted to do this. Every American soldier can think for himself, when necessary.
Now the chaparral on both sides of the road was filled with the little squads of shouting blue-coats. The thorny thickets were so heavy that the officers hacked with their swords, and the men pushed one another through, in football fashion. Squad lost sight of squad; the musket smoke hung bewildering; it seemed to be a confused man-hunt, but really there was no confusion; the scattered Americans pressed ever forward, firing whenever they glimpsed a red cap. Sometimes they were stuck fast in bogs, but they always got out.
The bold Lieutenant Ridgely advanced his guns, by rushes, to within two hundred yards, one hundred and fifty yards—one hundred yards. Duncan's battery and the Eighth Infantry were ordered up, to help him. The Mexican infantry in the ravine was giving way, the three Mexican cannon in front of the ravine were being silenced, but the four other guns were still thundering—there appeared to be no way of getting at them or around them. The curving points of the ravine could not be turned without fearful loss.
The sun was low in the west, and the Mexicans were holding the road. The four companies, two squadrons, of the Second Dragoons had been stationed in the rear, waiting. This was no country for cavalry. Even the light Mexican lancers had done nothing, today. But Old Rough and Ready sent his aide to Captain May, of the First Squadron, Companies D and E.
Captain May came up with his squadron.
"Shall I charge them, general?" he asked eagerly. "Charge those batteries, captain, nolens volens," directed General Taylor.
The Second Dragoons were troopers with a reputation for hard fighting in the Florida war with the Seminoles. Their discipline was perfect; no kind of country daunted them. Throughout the battle of Palo Alto they had sat their saddles, straining in vain, confronted by an overwhelming mass of Mexican cavalry, and condemned to watch the artillery batter the Mexican lines.
"Avenge Captain Thornton's command! Remember poor Major Cross! Remember poor Porter!" That had been the word passed from one to another. And now the time had come.
It was tough luck for the other squadron, the Captain Ker squadron, but no better leader could have been selected than Captain Charles A. May. He was a whirlwind—one of the best-known officers in the service. His reddish golden beard flowed to his waist; his bright hair flowed to his hips; tall and raw-boned, he rode an enormous horse and wielded the heaviest of sabers.
At Baltimore, on a wager he had forced his horse up the long steep steps of the City Hotel, and then had turned and ridden him down again. In the Baltimore street before the hotel he had leaped his horse over a cord of wood. On foot he was awkward, but in the saddle he fitted.
Now his face glowed.
"Prepare to charge, men!"
The eighty troopers required no further order. In a hurry they cast aside every ounce of weight not needed; they stripped to their shirts, and rolled up their sleeves over their bronzed, muscular arms. They settled themselves firmly in their saddles, and gripped with their thighs.
The bright blades flashed out.
"By fours, forward—trot—march!"
The eighty were to charge seven guns, in three batteries. Down along the road they thudded; they came abreast of the smoking Ridgely battery. Lieutenant Ridgely shouted.
"Hold! Hold on, Charley, till I draw their fire."
His guns spoke; the Mexican batteries answered instantly. Captain Charley May raised himself in his stirrups, and half turned, his great saber lifted.
"Men, follow! Charge!"
With a terrific yell, away they went. Captain Pike Graham and D Troop swerved to the left, for the two-gun battery behind the ravine, on that side. Captain May and his E Troop galloped straight along the road, for the other two-gun battery. They say that his untrimmed beard and hair streamed like the tail of a comet. With him were First Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike Inge, Second Lieutenant George Stevens, and Brevet Second Lieutenant Delos B. Sacket.
Young Lieutenant Sacket, less than two years out of West Point, had forged to the lead. The musket balls were whistling.
"That's not fair, Sacket!" Captain May called. "You got the jump on me."
On his long-legged bay he passed Lieutenant Sacket. The cannon had been reloaded in haste. Just as E Troop bored in, the grapeshot hissed in scathing shower. Down lunged Lieutenant Sacket's horse, pitching him heels over head into a pool of water in the ravine and then falling upon him. But he wriggled out, scrambled to the top, ran on, seized a Mexican horse, grabbed a Mexican officer's sword, and pursued the galloping squadron.
Lieutenant Inge had toppled, shot through the throat while leading the first set of fours close behind Captain May. That one burst of grape had killed Lieutenant Inge, seven privates and eighteen horses; had wounded Sergeant Muley, nine privates and ten horses.
The squadron surged through the ravine, and up. Captain May vaulted his huge horse right over the two Mexican cannon; he swung his giant saber, cleaving a lane—the gunners shrank and fled; his men followed. The charge carried clear beyond the guns. What with the men killed, wounded and dismounted, Captain May found himself with only six to rally. The Mexican cannoneers had closed behind him; the Mexican infantry bayonets threatened him on both flanks. He and his six wheeled; his saber rose and fell; the very sight of his tossing hair and long blade scattered the enemy. Again he reached the battery. One Mexican officer was there, trying to recall the gunners, and about to apply lighted match to a piece. A brave man, he. Captain May already had struck at him, on the charge in; now was upon him once more.
The officer threw down his match and touched his breast, with a gesture of giving up.
"General Vega is a prisoner," he said; and he handed over his sword. It was General Diaz de la Vega himself.
The other Mexican battery south of the ravine had been carried by Captain Pike Graham, First Lieutenant Oscar Fingal Winship, Second Lieutenant Pleasanton and their Troop D. Corporal McCauley (who had been sword-master for the West Point cadets) and six men had galloped so madly on, down the road, through the Mexican line, that they had almost reached Fort Mansfield. When they returned, cutting their way back, they were only four.
But here at the rear of the ravine the battle was not yet over. Ridgely's Battery C had galloped forward again in the wake of the May dragoons; had halted at the very edge of the ravine. The enemy across was rallying to retake the guns. The dragoons were too few in number. Then on came the Eighth Infantry. It charged in column down the road, Colonel Belknap himself bearing the colors. Part of the Fifth Regiment joined it. The remainder of the Fifth, with the Third and Fourth, ran yelling through the brush, to cross the ravine at both ends. Duncan's battery hastened in, for shorter range.
In the brush Major James McIntosh of the Fifth had an adventure. His horse had been shot down. Then six Mexican soldiers sprang upon him. He had no time to draw his pistols from the holsters. Bayonets were stabbing at him; wounded him in arm and hip. The soldiers pinioned him from behind, and crossed two bayonets in his mouth. He knocked one out; the other pierced through, and out at the back of his neck. "I felt my teeth go," said Major McIntosh. He fell, and played 'possum until the soldiers left. Then he got up.
Duncan's battery plashed through a lagoon and arrived. Captain Duncan saw Major McIntosh; did not know that he was injured.
"Major! Can you support my battery!" he called. Major McIntosh turned, his face bloody.
"Yes, sir. I will give you the support you need."
"But you're wounded, major! What can I do for you?"
"You can give me some water, sir, and show me my regiment.
A soldier was detailed to guide brave Major McIntosh into the road. He charged on with his regiment. The Eighth and Fifth crossed the ravine near the road. The crack Coast Guard Regiment of Tampico met them and fought with them hand to hand. Bayonet clashed against bayonet, musket butt en-countered musket barrel. Such a hurly-burly, as again and again the mass of men surged back and forth! The Tampico Coast Guard broke. The Mexican soldiers threw their guns at the Americans, in despair.
"The Yahnkees are demons. They do not fight like men."
The Tampico color bearer tore the fringed silk banner, made by the Tampico women, from its staff, and wrapping it around him fled. Later he was caught by a dragoon and a foot soldier. He then had the banner in his hat. It was sent to the War Department and may be seen in the trophy cases today.
A portion of the Fourth Regiment waded a pond breast high, in the ravine; scrambled out and up, and ran on. The men burst into the General Arista headquarters camp. General Arista was not there, now, writing his dispatches, but much plunder was: in the large, handsome tent a silver table-service, and a fine meal half prepared, upon the table; elegant furniture, and a carved military chest. They forced the chest open; it contained rich clothing, and a full set of military maps—which proved very handy for General Taylor. Beef carcasses were hanging from the trees of the camp; savory kettles were simmering over fires; a train of pack mules was grazing in a clear space of two acres. This was a camp of comfort, very different from any camp of Old Rough and Ready.
A Mexican officer, horseback, cantered near, just as the detachment was continuing down the road. Three times the Fourth Infantry men fired a volley at him, before he left. In a minute he came back, cutting them off with a bevy of lancers.
"Fall back, men! They're too strong for us." That was the cry.
The Fourth Infantry detachment slowly retired. The gay lancers charged. A volley emptied several saddles. But First Lieutenant Richard E. Cochran of Delaware, instead of retiring had darted behind a clump of bushes. The lancers rode him down, he parried the thrusts with his sword until a lance at last pierced his breast.
The lancers clattered on, led by the officer upon a splendid white horse.
"Shoot that man on the white horse!"
At the next volley the officer and horse collapsed; so did the Mexican who had lanced Lieutenant Cochran. The enemy scattered and pelted away.
It was the closing combat of the battle of Resaca de la Palma, in which seventeen hundred American soldiers of Old Zach had out-fought six thousand Mexican soldiers of General Mariano Arista. The battle of Palo Alto, May 8, had been a battle of artillery and of tactics—a generals' battle, with the American army on the defensive. The battle of Resaca de la Palma, May 9, was a battle of the ranks—a private soldiers' battle, with the American army on the offensive.
All the Mexican army was in wild retreat, pellmell, down the road and south through the brush, for the Rio Grande and Matamoros.
The Croghan Ker dragoons, the Childs artillery battalion and the Duncan battery pursued. As the fleeing soldiers dived from the chaparral for the river-crossing near Fort Mansfield, the fort guns opened upon them. The one ferry, loaded to the guards, was swept by grape. Hundreds of the Mexicans were drowned in the muddy current. The rout was complete.
Fort Mansfield had been saved. It had again been listening anxiously to the cannon and musketry fire, only four miles distant; it had hoped, it had feared—when the foremost of the dragoons galloped for it, it received them with a spunky round of grape; and then it found out.
Its name had been changed to Fort Brown, in honor of the memory of Major Jacob Brown, who had died after losing his leg. For six nights and seven days it had been under the cross fire of three batteries. Only two persons had been killed and thirteen wounded by the two thousand seven hundred shot and shell, but everybody was worn out.
As an officer in Old Zach's field force said: "I would rather have fought twenty battles than have passed through the bombardment of Fort Brown," which today is Brownsville, Texas.
Back upon the field of Resaca de la Palma, General Vega had been delivered to General Taylor. Captain May himself handed the sword to Old Zach. The soldiers passed upon the way had presented arms, in salute to the captive. General Vega had raised his hat, in surprise. Here at headquarters General Taylor saluted, and extended his hand.
"I assure you I deeply regret that this misfortune has befallen you, general. I take great pleasure in returning you the sword that you have this day worn with so much gallantry."
That touched General Vega. He saw that he had met a chivalrous enemy.
"Your army was well handled, senor. It deserved the victory," he said.
"All my men are generals, sir," answered Old Rough and Ready.
In the Mexican camp the Americans were cheering, crazed with joy over their triumph. This night they bivouacked upon the spot, and fared well, with no longer any fears for the safety of Fort Brown. They were tired and the guns that had bombarded Fort Brown were silent—all Matamoros was reported to be in disorder.
The loss to the General Taylor army in the battle was three officers and thirty-six rank and file killed, twelve officers and seventy rank and file wounded. By General Arista's own returns the loss of the Mexican army was one hundred and sixty killed, two hundred and thirty wounded; but General Taylor believed that the total losses in the two battles numbered one thousand.
Besides, many prisoners including fourteen officers, almost all the Mexican artillery, three stands of colors, five hundred pack mules, and General Arista's personal baggage had been taken.
It was a blow for Mexico, and a stunning shock to the people of Matamoros. These Americans had proved to be a new type of fighters, who bided their time, gave away not an inch to threat and bluster, and came back like thunder-bolts. They feared neither noise nor numbers.
A Mexican poet wrote:
General Taylor issued General Orders No. 59:
Prisoners were exchanged for Captain Thornton, Captain Hardee and the other dragoons. Having been reinforced, on May 18 Old Zach marched his troops across the Rio Grande, into Matamoros. Texas had been cleared.