Despite its strong associations with the military, California is the site of relatively few significant battles or skirmishes. However, what is considered possibly the most important battle to have been fought on what is now American soil during the Mexican American War occurred in the San Pasqual Valley, north of San Diego and just east of Escondido, minutes away from the “San Diego Zoo Safari Park,” as the old Wild Animal Park is now known. In this battle, on December 6th, 1846, coming at the end of one of the many feats of heroic endurance performed by American soldiers and volunteers as they marched across the vast, desolate reaches of what was then Northern Mexico, two generals and a legendary American frontier hero nearly met their ends.
About four months earlier, General Stephen Watts Kearny had been dispatched from Fort Leavenworth leading the 1,700-man Army of the West with the goal of subjugating Mexican New Mexico and California. After taking New Mexico without resistance, Kearny reduced his army to 300 men of the First Dragoons and supporting Engineers, expecting little resistance elsewhere. Shortky after, he further reduced his force upon encountering the legendary frontiersman, Kit Carson, who had been sent east with word that California had been subdued through the Bear Flag Revolt. With his 140 men and Carson in tow, Kearny continued a long and arduous trek across the remaining thousand miles of desert, often finding barely enough water to sustain his small army, and ultimately arriving in California with a battered army, weakened horses and mules, and the unwelcome news that, in Carson’s absence, the local Spaniards and Mexicans, or Californios, had risen up against the American forces, seized Los Angeles, and largely confined the Americans in Southern California to San Diego.
When the Bear Flag Revolt broke out in Northern California under John C Fremont, the response by the Californio populace had been underwhelming. Most would have been born Spaniards, with just enough time having passed for one generation of native Californians to have reached maturity entirely under Mexican rule. This rule, however, had been less than inspiring, with government officials from Mexico generally not known for their integrity or ability. Even as the Bear Flag Revolt broke out, the civil governor of California in Los Angeles, Pio Pico, had been on the verge of open conflict with the military governor of California in the north, General Jose Castro. Many Californios felt little affinity for Mexico, and even after annexation by the U.S. continued to identify themselves as Californios rather than Mexicanos, and looked back to an increasingly romanticized Spanish era. Some saw the stability and wealth of the United States as a not entirely horrible alternative, and the merits of the American Constitution had been discussed in California as it had elsewhere. In San Diego, the leading Californios, led by Juan Bandini, welcomed Commodore Robert Stockton of the U.S. Navy, who subsequently took Los Angeles without opposition. This was an unstable situation, however, and as is often the case, one factor can shift the balance. This proved to be Lieutenant Gillespie of the U.S. Marines, who instituted a harsh military rule of Los Angeles, giving its people enough taste of a life worse than that enjoyed under Mexican rule to prompt a revolt. Gillespie was thrown out of Los Angeles, and bands of Californio militia were raised of volunteer farmers and ranch hands, men not trained in military discipline, but expert horsemen who practiced martial skills such as the use of the lance with great skill.
It was into this situation that Kearny’s battered and weakened army, finally arrived, joyously encountering their own flag for the first time in months when Lieutenant Gillespie arrived with a contingent of volunteers and sailors dispatched by Stockton to meet Kearny. Gillespie informed the general of a nearby part of Californios, who were led by General Andres Pico, brother of Governor Pio Pico in Los Angeles. Kearny, weakened but confident after the sparse resistance encountered by Mexicans in New Mexico and Apaches across the desert, determined to take the enemy by surprise and attack. However, a scouting party sent on the night of the 5th was detected by a dog, and a U.S. Army blanket left in the commotion alerted the enemy to Kearny’s presence. Nevertheless, Kearny determined to press on with the plan of attack.
The dragoons rode down from the hills amidst the gloom and mist of early morning, their clanking sabers alerting the Californios to the impending attack. The battered condition of the horses and mules meant that the strongest few were in the front when General Kearny gave the order to “trot.” Mishearing this, Captain Johnson gave the order to charge, and despite Kearny’s attempt to halt them the first rank of horsemen rushed towards the Californios at full gallop. The dragoons fired such carbines as could be discharged after the rainy night; thereafter they were useful only as clubs in the battle. The Californios fired their own volley, striking Captain Johnson dead with a bullet through the forehead. Kit Carson’s horse stumbled, throwing Carson amidst the charging dragoons and breaking his rifle in two. Narrowly managing to avoid being trampled to death by scrambling out of the way, Carson subsequently followed his frontiersman’s instincts and, grabbing a carbine and ammunition from a fallen soldier, found cover and spent the rest of the battle sniping at the enemy.
The Californios quickly fled in the face of the charge out of the mist by the dragoons, terrifying at first glance in their battered and wearied state. However, the fresh horses of the Californios soon allowed them to clear away from their pursuers, while the dragoons and volunteers spread into ever smaller groups according to the fitness of their mounts. Seeing an opportunity and the poor condition of his adversaries, Pico ordered his lancers to turn and attack the Americans, quickly surrounding the initial small cluster. Captain Moore, in the lead of the dragoons, found himself cut off and made a rush for Pico himself, firing a pistol at close range, only to have it misfire. Drawing his saber, he exchanged blows with his adversary, a skilled fencer, before being struck in the side by two lancers who came to their general’s rescue. Knocked from his horse, he was shot and killed by a third lancer as he lay on the ground. Moore’s brother-in-law, Lieutenant Hammond, rushed to his aid, only to be fatally struck by a lance himself.
The Americans, only a quarter of whose force would actually enter the combat, continued to arrive in small waves as the clusters of mule-rising dragoons caught up to the battle. General Kearny was among these late-comers, shouting commands in an attempt to rally his forces and parrying the lances of his opponents with his saber with great skill. As he was so engaged with one of the lancers he was struck by another from behind, then another, and thrown from his mule. Surrounded by the enemy, his death seemed certain until Lieutenant Emory charged to his rescue, beating back the attackers with his saber. Two generals and a frontier legend had thus escaped near death in the Battle of San Pasqual.
Across the battlefield, still dark and misty, the battle broke into small skirmishes, with horsemen hunting for enemies and engaging in small clusters. The Americans were at a decided disadvantage, being mounted on wearied animals and armed with only short-range sabers or carbines-turned-clubs. The Californios, skilled horsemen on fresh mounts and experienced in the use of the lance and reatas, or lassos, in the use of which they were famed throughout Mexico, found it easy to keep a distance from their adversary and either pull him from his horse with the reata or, relying on his horse’s dexterity, parry an attack and quickly dash to the side, lancing the opponent in the side or back. In this circumstance Captain Gillespie, whose harsh rule of Los Angeles had perhaps personally encouraged many of the lancers to take up arms in the first place, and had led the San Diego troop along the hills and captured General Pico’s aide as the latter attempted to flank the Americans, was spotted and quickly surrounded by four lancers. Fending them off as best he could with his saber, he was speared and knocked to the ground where he suffered a second lance to the mouth and a third which punctured his lung. However, in the confusion of four mounted warriors scrambling after their target, he managed to elude his attackers and escape into the darkness.
Lieutenant Gillespie Fires the American Howitzer
Eventually the American cannon were brought forward and the Americans began rallying around the spot where General Kearny had been wounded. One howitzer was captured when the mule pulling it stubbornly refused to move, allowing two Californios to drag it away with their reatas, but the other was placed and fired by Gillespie, its canister shot capable of crippling the Californio force in one blow should it find a large group clustered together. This factor, along with the continued arrival of ever more Americans from the hills, led Pico to withdraw his forces to nearby hills, leaving Kearny and his men to tend to their wounded and send messengers to beg reinforcements from Stockton in San Diego. The Americans suffered 17 dead and 17 wounded, though two of the latter would subsequently die as well, while the Californio casualties are not accurately known.
The next day Americans set out for San Diego along a cart path through the hills, not wishing to give the hovering Californios an open valley in which to maneuver their horses. They came upon a ranch house, where they learned the Californios had tended their own wounded the previous night, and had just departed with commandeered livestock when the Californios approached in two columns. The Americans rushed for a hill, but were beaten to it by the Californios. Exhausted and bloodied as they were, the Americans nevertheless drove the Californios from the hill and with great exertion brought their wounded and two remaining cannon up the hill, losing the livestock in the process. Amidst another cold and damp night, besieged by the Californios, the Americans were forced to butcher two of their mules for food, giving the hill the name it still carries, Mule Hill. The next day the Californios announced they had prisoners to exchange, and the Americans received one of the men they had sent to seek help from Stockton in exchange for the Californio that Gillespie had captured in the battle. Learning that Stockton could spare no men, Kearny decided to send another messenger to press the urgency of the issue; the entire force of dragoons could realistically be wiped out without help.
The task of slipping through the enemy pickets fell to Kit Carson, who along with an Indian guide and naval lieutenant, undertook the vital mission. The men found it necessary to take their boots off as they crept through the brush, every noise carrying in the cold night air. Upon making it through the enemy lines, however, all three found that their boots had been lost amidst the crawling, and the rest of the trip across rocky and cactus-infested lands to San Diego would have to be made barefooted. All three eventually made it by separate paths, but it was Carson who earned the fame, his gallant barefooted trek through the night to save the American army being added to his growing legend as word of it spread back East. Convinced of the urgency of the situation, Stockton, who had already been cobbling together a rescue force despite his refusal of Kearny’s request, immediately dispatched a force of sailors and marines.
Back at Mule Hill, a Californio attempt at driving off the American mules by stampeding their own around the hill had backfired when the Americans scattered them with a cannon shot and brought down two with rifle fire close enough to be recovered, providing the Americans with a temporary boost of food. That night of December 10th, Sergeant Cox, who had been married the day before the Dragoons departed from Fort Leavenworth, died from his wounds, and Kearny resolved to fight his way free the next morning, reinforcements or no. However, as the Americans prepared for a desperate fight, the sounds of an approaching force was heard, and the besieged Americans were elated when they heard the word “Americans” in reply to their challenge. The rescuers were shocked by the horrid appearance of their countrymen, but they had successfully rescued them. The Californians fired a lone shot in defiance before departing from their reinforced adversaries.
Reinforcements Arrive from San Diego
From here, the Americans headed south to San Diego and the Californios traveled north towards Los Angeles. Along the way a group of eleven Californios broke off from the main column and had a misguided adventure in the vicinity of my home town, Temecula. Traveling to the Rancho Pauma, they felt the need to steal a herd of horses from the Pauma Indians, in retaliation for which the Pauma captured the eleven Californios and tortured them to death. When word of this reached Los Angeles, a band of Californio militia from San bernadino was dispatched to seek revenge, which they did by killing some forty Pauma warriors who they drew out of hiding with a feigned retreat, an event known as the Temecula Massacre. Meanwhile, shortly after reaching San Diego, such dragoons as were fit joined a force of some 400 sailors and marines in an advance upon Los Angeles. The Californios, who gathered their scattered militias into a force somewhat equal in numbers, were soundly defeated in two battles in which their artillery was literally outgunned by the American sailors acting under the direct supervision of Stockton himself, while the Californio lancers were neutralized by American rifles.
Just over a month after the Battle of San Pasqual, the self-proclaimed victor of that battle, Andres Pico (Pico claimed victory by having inflicted more damage, Stockton by his West Point standard of having held the field), signed the capitulation of the Californio insurrection, and Los Angeles and with it all of California was in American hands pending the outcome of the war.
- Peter Price, The Battle at San Pasqual and the Struggle for California, (San Diego: Pembroke Publishers, 1990)
- Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, (New York: Anchor Books, 2006)