U.S. Cavalry and the Mexican War

1847-500

The 2nd Dragoons and the rest of the 1st Dragoons had joined General Zachary Taylor’s force which was attacking Mexico from across the Rio Grande. In May 1846, before the Rio Grande was reached, ‘Rough and Ready’ Taylor, as he was called, routed the Mexican cavalry at the Battle of Palo Alto with his infantry and artillery alone. Next day, however, while still short of the river, a splendid cavalry action took place. After sending his wounded to the coast, and leaving his wagon train under guard at Palo Alto, General Taylor moved forward with his army and came up with the Mexican force at Resaça. A deep ravine separated the two armies, but a road went round its eastern end. Behind the ravine and beside the road were placed the Mexican guns. When Mexican fire had halted the advance of the American infantry, General Taylor ordered Captain May to charge with his squadron of 2nd Dragoons round the east flank of the ravine against the guns guarding the road, while an American battery gave covering fire. This was just what Captain May liked doing, and he immediately thundered forward with his dragoons through the smoke, carrying the guns and scattering the Mexican infantry supporting them. And not only did he capture the guns. Rallying his scattered troopers under severe fire from Mexican infantry who had not been broken, he seized and carried off General la Vega himself. The American infantry then crossed the ravine and poured down the road at the double-quick, and the battle was won. Mexican losses at Resaça exceeded 1,000 even before the routed army reached the Rio Grande, where drowning raised the toll. The Americans had 33 dead and less than 100 wounded.

After the battle, Taylor continued towards the Rio Grande, and reaching Fort Brown prepared to cross the river. His crossing was completed by 20 May 1846, and he next moved against Monterrey, the capital of Northern Mexico. General Worth, who had been promoted after his successful campaign against the Seminoles in Florida, was in command of the force attacking Monterrey, and had to assist him in his task the famous Texas Rangers. Armed with rifles and Colts, mounted on wiry prairie mustangs, with outlandish dress and huge beards, and entering battle uttering horrible shrieks, they terrified the Mexicans. At Monterrey they acted as Worth’s shock troops. After making a wide encircling movement, they repelled a charge by Mexican lancers, and then dismounted and stormed the outer defences of the town. Finally, along with the rest of Worth’s force, they fought from house to house inside. This was the worst sort of dismounted fighting. The houses were built Mexican style, flush and almost blind to the street, with tough adobe walls and iron grilles on the few small windows. It took a full week to blast the defenders off the rooftops and out from behind the adobe walls and herd them in the centre plaza of Monterrey.

With a long line of supply and communication to hold behind him and no clear idea of just what he was expected to do in Mexico, Taylor was glad to get the city on any terms. He therefore signed an eight-week armistice with General Pedro de Ampudia and allowed the Mexican soldiers to march out of the town. It is hard to see how he could have taken them prisoner, since they outnumbered his entire force; but President Polk and the Commanding General of the Army, Winfield Scott, were outraged at what he had done. Taylor was ordered to redeem himself by marching at once on Mexico City. But he demurred strongly, and suggested instead that the assault should be made from the sea via Veracruz, by the route, in fact, that Cortes had used to capture the Aztec capital. To this Scott eventually agreed.

Meanwhile, the Mexicans counter-attacked Taylor’s forces which had reached Buenavista, south-west of Monterrey. Taylor had been reinforced, and among the troops which joined him from the north-west were two companies of the 1st Dragoons.

At Buenavista, Santa Ana attacked with 21,000 troops, against Taylor’s 4,500; and the battle that followed lasted two days and was the bloodiest of the war. In the first stage a large force of Mexican lancers and infantry advanced, and pushed back the American militia who were facing them, in spite of some spirited charges by the. Volunteer cavalry. The “routed militia fled through the local ranch and got crammed in the alleys between its buildings, where they were beset by the Mexican cavalry. This serious situation was resolved by the regular dragoons. Led by the redoubtable Captain May they thundered into the masses in the alleys, not caring greatly whether they struck friend or foe, and drove off the Mexicans. May’s charge proved to be the turning point of the battle. Immediately afterwards the whole American line began a general advance, which even the routed militia were prevailed upon to turn and join, and Santa Ana’s army was defeated. May, already brevetted twice for stirring charges, was again uplifted – now becoming ‘Colonel’ to his friends although still receiving a captain’s pay!

Some of Taylor’s troops were now sent to reinforce General Winfield Scott’s column advancing on Mexico City from Veracruz, and Taylor was ordered to hold on to the positions he had gained.

Scott’s cavalry was at first limited to three companies of 1st Dragoons, six of 2nd Dragoons and the newly raised regiment of Mounted Riflemen; the latter, however, having unfortunately lost most of their horses on the sea voyage, had thus to serve on foot – a great humiliation for a cavalryman! The wealthy Phil Kearny – nephew of Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny who led the dragoons to California – had mounted, at his own expense, his company of 1st Dragoons on splendid greys. These fortunately survived the voyage.

After Veracruz had been taken by storm, the American forces marching inland were forced to fight a series of actions against Mexicans in defence positions on mountain barriers across the National Road. At one of these, the Cerro Gordo, General Scott carried out a model operation to clear the way. First, Captain Robert E. Lee2 scouted round the Mexican flank and discovered a route to turn their position. Then, a flanking column swung round by it and cut the National Road while a frontal attack was keeping the Mexican defenders occupied. The Mounted Rifles played an important part in this battle, and not without loss, for they suffered 84 casualties.

After the battle enough horses were captured to mount two companies of Rifles, but the mounted men found that their infantry rifles were clumsy to use on horseback. After firing one shot they chose to charge the enemy rather than try to reload while mounted, which they could have done with a short cavalry carbine.

General Winfield Scott reached the outskirts of Mexico City in August 1847, and there defeated the Mexicans in two battles on successive days. In the second battle more horses were captured and more Rifles were able to revert to cavalry, this time some even doing so while the fighting was in progress. At one stage, Captain Phil Kearny at the head of his greys charged right through the enemy lines with twelve of his troops and captured a battery of enemy guns. Dismounted and isolated, they were so far ahead of their fellows that it seemed they must be lost; but the Mexicans proved too confused and bewildered to take advantage of the situation, and, quickly remounting, Kearny led his dragoons back through the Mexican ranks to safety, though one of his arms was shattered by a stray shot as he did so. This brave feat did not pass unnoticed by the Commander-in-Chief, for General Winfield Scott said later that he considered Kearny the bravest man he knew.

During the storming of Chapultepec castle, just before the entry of Mexico City, the Rifles charged the heights on foot, and next day received a striking acknowledgement by Scott, for it was their flag which was raised over the National Palace on its occupation. Also, when General Scott, escorted by Kearny’s dragoons on their grey horses, passed along the ranks of the Mounted Rifles drawn up as guards along his path, he exclaimed: ‘Brave Rifles! Veterans! You have been baptised in fire and blood and have come out steel.’ These words were later taken by the Mounted Rifles, who became the 3rd U.S. Cavalry in July 1861, as their regimental motto.

With the capture of Mexico City the war came to an end. The Americans occupied the place for nearly nine months until the end of May 1848 when a treaty of peace was finally ratified.

2 thoughts on “U.S. Cavalry and the Mexican War

  1. Throw in the story of the Xenophon-esque (actually the Missourians outdid them) campaign of Col. Doniphan and the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers (Mounted Rifles) and their attached artillery and infantry, the whole force between 800 and 900 souls, and you have a neat and well written little synopsis of the role of mounted riflemen in the war.

    Research the exploits of Captain Reid and the Missouri Horse Guards (Company D) and also the Chihuahua Rangers and the Missouri Dragoons (Co’s H and F if I remember correctly) but especially Captain Reid and you have one of the most astounding and dashing stories and actions of the entire war.

    The Missourian’s charge, led by Capt. Reid, at Sacramento is not outdone by any other action in the war to be honest and this inland campaign, which included fights with Native Americans and a successful pacification of the Navajo (involving Capt. Reid in the snow covered mountains) was crucial to the success along the coast for it diverted one of Mexico’s better commanders with a well equipped force.

    The best sources for the Doniphan campaign were written in 1848 to 1850 and can be found for free on archive.org. Far too many important details are left out by modern writers, they’re too obsessed with finding a way to take another shot at Americans and ‘Manifest Destiny’ to tell the story in its correct context with the real life details that immerse the reader in the events.

    Doniphan’s Expedition by Hughes, written in 1848
    Doniphan’s Expedition and the Conquest of New Mexico and California by William Elsey Connelley

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  2. Fantastic comment Tarzan and how right you are! You brought back memories with this one, I read all the books on Doniphan’s expedition back in the 70’s and it changed my view of the war and of many writers on the war. Knowing the details of the 5,000 mile march, unequaled by any mounted force in any conflict, truly separates the history buff from the serious history aficionado and separates the hit and run modern history writers and true timeless historians.
    The ‘Los Goddammies’ is what the Missourians were called by the locals, for they goddamned their way through Mexico.
    Capt. Reid’s mission to the Navajo through the mountains in heavy snow was nothing short of remarkable and incredibly brave, even more so that he got the Navajo to agree to a treaty. Maj. Gilpin was sent into the mountains as well.
    The Missouri Horse Guards, more so than the Chihuahua Rangers and the Missouri Dragoons, all three units of handpicked men, exemplified the esprit de corps and dash of the 1st Missouri Mounted Rifles.

    At El Bracito, on Christmas day 1846, 500 of the 900 Missourians were attacked by 1300 Mexican troops, 514 of which were Mexican Dragoons, an old and famous mounted corps from Vera Cruz, the rest were infantry backed by 4 guns.
    A Mexican messenger came forward with a black flag (representing no quarter) and demanded Doniphan to surrender himself immediately, he was told no, the Mexican said ‘We will break your ranks and take him there’. Doniphan’s interpreter said ‘Come and take him then’

    The Vera Cruz Dragoons made a bold charge at the Missourian’s left and the dismounted riflemen held their fire until they were close and opened a punishing fire into them, at that moment Capt. Reid charged into their confused formation with just sixteen men! They broke through to their rear and began inflicting a great slaughter on them with their sabers. The famous Vera Cruz Dragoons fled back up the slope of the mountain where the Mexican lines were entrenched.
    On the right the Chihuahua cavalry and infantry mixed on foot and came within gunshot of the dismounted Missourians on the right and hiding in the chaparral fired three volleys into their lines, but Doniphan had had the men all lie on the ground. The Mexicans came forward and many cried ‘bueno, bueno’, I’ll quote John T. Hughes who was there: Whereupon our whole right wing, suddenly rising up, let fly such a galling volley of yager-balls into their ranks, that they wheeled about and fled in the utmost confusion’
    The Mexicans began a general retreat and Capt. Reid, having mounted more men and Capt. Walton with his mounted company pursued them some ways killing more.

    Mexican loss was 71 killed, 5 captured and over 150 wounded, the Missourians had 8 men wounded. The captives spoke of their astonishment at the marksmanship of the Missourians.

    Reid and the Horse Guards were sent into a village (sometime before Sacramento I believe) that had just been depredated upon by indians and Reid and his men pursued them for two days, whipped them and returned with liberated horses, mules, sheep and all of the captives that had just been taken. Legendary stuff. Nothing the Texas Rangers or the Mississippi Rifles did outdid the Missouri Mounted Volunteers, Doniphan’s march was simply unequaled, but such are the quirks of history that some become famous and others do not.
    They rode and fought and froze and crossed multiple Jornada del Muerto, not just the famous 90 mile one, and fought two battles against much larger forces and won both, on half and quarter rations the entire time.

    Doniphan’s tactical display at the Battle of Sacramento in Chihuahua against a force four times the size of his own and which was entrenched on a high, narrow and long mesa that was sheer walled and expertly fortified, was the best of the war in my opinion.
    The battle involved much more, but the highlight was the charge of Capt. Reid and his ever-ready Missouri Horse Guards across the open plain under cannon fire and up that sheer bluff and over the barricades and into the fortifications of the Mexican’s was the finest cavalry moment in American history. The charge of Captain Weightman’s horse artillery right behind him was glorious.

    From Doniphan’s official report – “The force of the enemy was 1,200 cavalry from Durango and Chihuahua, with the Vera Cruz dragoons, and 1,200 infantry from Chihuahua, 300 artillerists, and 1,420 rancheros, badly armed with lassos, lances, and machetes,
    or corn knives, ten pieces of artillery, 2 nine, 4 eight, and 2 four-pounders, and six eulverins, or rampart pieces.
    Their forces were commanded by Major General Hendea, general of Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora, and New Mexico ; Brig. General
    Justiniani, Brig. Gen. Garcia Conde! formerly minister of war for the republic of Mexico, who is a scientific man, and planned this whole field of defence; Gen. Uguarte, and Governor Trias, who acted as brigadier general on the field, and colonels and other
    officers without number.
    Our force was nine hundred and twenty-four effective men, at least one hundred of whom were engaged in holding horses and driving teams”.

    “The Mexicans lost 304 men, killed on the field, and a large number wounded, perhaps not less than 500, and 70 prisoners, among whom was Brig. Gen.Cuilta, together with a vast quantity of provisions, six thousand dollars in specie, 50,000 head of sheep, 1,500 head of cattle, 100 mules, 20 wagons, 25 or 30 caretas, 25,000 pounds of ammunition, 10 pieces of cannon of different calibres, varying from 4 to 9 pounders, 6 culverins or wall
    pieces, 100 stand of small arms, 100 stand of small colors, 7 fine carriages, the general’s scrutoire, and many other things of
    less note.
    Our loss was Major Samuel C. Owens, killed, and 11 wounded, three of whom have subsequently died.”

    A ragtag column of Missouri horsemen, in the heart of northern Mexico, 1,400 miles from home, completely cut off with no supply line and having no idea of where Gen. Wool’s army was, who was supposed to have captured Chihuahua, defeated a force of over 4,200 Mexicans entrenched atop a fortified, rocky plateau with 28 strong redoubts and supporting entrenchments and 10 guns and 6 culverns. They took possession of Chihuahua the following day.

    It was the greatest feat of arms of the war and the greatest by a mounted force in any war.

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