US CAVALRY [Dragoons] WAR WITH MEXICO, 1846-8

31. Captain (Charles A. May), 2nd Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1846: Dragoon officers wore a rather plain shell jacket for ordinary stable duty, marches, or active service from 1833 to 1851. Some had collars adorned with gold borders and laced blind buttonholes. Others, as shown here, had plain collars. Officers wore no stripes on their undress trousers. 32. Private, 2nd Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1846: The memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, an enlisted 1st Dragoon with Taylor’s army in northern Mexico, recount that the and Dragoons wore orange bands on their forage caps. This spirited steed is outfitted with the Ringgold saddle and horse equipment, which were adopted in 1844. 33. Sergeant, 1st Regiment of U. S. Dragoons, Undress, 1847: Company C was on Kearny’s arduous march from New Mexico to California in late 1846, virtually dismounting itself in the process. The men took the field against California rebels in January 1847 on foot. This sergeant has donned a pair of ‘breed’ leggings to protect his lower legs. He is armed with the US. Model 1843 Hall carbine and the Model 1840 heavy dragoon saber.’

 

Brevet Major General Stephen Watts Kearny, painted shortly after his triumphs with the Army of the West. The first lieutenant colonel and the second commander of the 1st Dragoons, he retained cavalry yellow [correction dragoon orange] on the collar and cuffs of his general’s coat.

When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, she embarked upon a collision course that would shortly involve her in a war with Mexico. The Mexicans had never recognized Texan independence, and they looked upon America’s action as the most blatant kind of aggression. Even before a Texas convention could convene at Austin on 4 July to accept the American offer, President Polk directed Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to enter the future state with a 3900- man ‘Army of Observation’. Taylor shipped his infantry and artillery from New Orleans to Corpus Christi Bay, but he had Colonel David Twiggs and the and US. Dragoons ride overland from Fort Jesup. They joined their comrades on the Gulf Coast roughly 400 sabers strong, having lost three dead and fifty deserters in the process.

President Polk had more on his mind than merely adding One state the He intended to negotiate the peaceful acquisition of New Mexico and Upper California. Still fuming over Texas, however, the Mexicans refused to deal, and Polk resorted to more drastic means to get what he wanted. On 13 January 1846, he had his Secretary of War order Taylor’s Army of Observation to the north bank of the Rio Grande, and on 8 March, ‘Old Rough and Ready’s’ 3000 effectives ambled out of their winter camp, headed by Colonel Twiggs and his 378 2nd Dragoons. Texas audaciously claimed the Rio Grande as her southern boundary, but the Mexicans fixed the line much further north along the Nueces River. By occupying the disputed territory, Polk hoped to bully Mexico City into parting with the provinces he coveted. Ironically, this unwarranted invasion brought him a full-fledged shooting war instead.

The Mexicans mobilized a large army at Matamoros to sweep the Yankee heretics from sacred soil. Receiving unsubstantiated reports that the Mexicans were crossing the Rio Grande in force on 24 April 1846, Taylor ordered Captain Seth Thornton and two companies of the 2nd Dragoons upriver to investigate. The next morning at Rancho de Carricitos, twenty miles away from Taylor’s camp, Thornton’s sixty-three troopers ran into 1600 angry Mexican cavalrymen. Eleven Americans were killed, six wounded and the rest captured, except for Thornton’s Mexican guide, who brought Taylor word of the disaster on the twenty-sixth. With his wonderful gift for under- statement, Old Rough and Ready sent Polk a message that read: ‘Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.’

After the usual preliminary maneuvers, a Mexican army of 3709 men gave battle with Taylor’s 2288 troops on 8 May 1846, at Palo Alto, Texas. The affair was largely an artillery duel, but a squadron of the and Dragoons was posted on either end of the American line to guard Taylor’s flanks. When 800 enemy cavalry- men tried to turn the Yankee right, Captain Samuel H. Walker and his company of twenty Texas Rangers pounced on their flank, sweeping their ranks with a devastating fusillade from their rifles and Colt’s revolvers. As the harried lancers reeled back, a squadron of the and Dragoons joined in and helped push the enemy left beyond its starting point. The fight ended largely in a draw, but the Mexicans sustained 257 casualties to Taylor’s fifty-five.

The next day, the Mexicans retired to a deep, dried-out river bed sheltered by a dense tangle of trees and chaparral known as Resaca de la Palma.

Following somewhat lackadaisically, Taylor sent Company C, 3rd U. S. Artillery, right up the Matamoros Road to tussle with the batteries at the Mexican center, while his infantry thrashed doggedly through the prickly undergrowth on either side. When his light artillerymen failed to silence the Mexican guns, Old Rough and Ready directed Captain Charles A. May and his company of the 2nd U. S. Dragoons to charge them.

Over six feet tall and as straight as an Indian, dapper Charley May looked the very image of a ‘dragoon bold’, and he had the bluster and panache to match. He was instantly recognizable with his striking, full beard and flowing, dark brown curls. As he approached the American 6-pounders, he hollered gaily to their commander, Lieutenant Randolph Ridgely, ‘Hello, Ridgely, where is that battery? I am ordered to charge it.’

‘Hold on, Charley,’ the gunner replied, ’till I draw their fire and you will see where they are.’

Ridgely’s fieldpieces then barked their challenge, the Mexicans answered, and before they could reload, May’s company sailed down the Matamoros Road in a column of fours. The enemy crews left their cannon and fled from the Americans’ waving sabers, but May and his cheering dragoons, caught up in the exhilaration of their first real cavalry charge, failed to check their foaming steeds for another quarter of a mile. The company ground to a quick stop, like an accordion, with the rear ranks slamming into those in front and turning the whole column into a mishmash of shouting men and rearing animals. Mexican infantrymen alongside the road fired their muskets into the milling Yankees, hitting nineteen dragoons and eighteen horses. May just got back to the battery, with six troopers still beside him, too few to hold it, and he scurried shamefacedly back to Taylor, only to hear the general bellow sarcastically at the 5th and 8th Infantry, ‘Take those guns, and by God, keep them!’

The doughboys went on to seize eight cannon and win the day, inflicting 5 I 5 to I 500 ‘ losses on the Mexicans at a cost of 122 Americans. Fortunately for May, his bugler, a Private Winchell, had possessed enough presence of mind to carry off a prisoner, who turned out to be no other than General Rómolo Diaz de la Vega, the commander of the enemy battle line. Hoping to assuage Taylor’s wrath over his bungled charge, May claimed to be the general’s captor. The American press hailed him as a national hero, and he was twice breveted up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His peers and subordinates who knew the real story, especially the and Dragoons’ buglers, hated May and looked on him with contempt. A trooper who later served under him called the headline hero ‘the cowardly humbug of the war’.

Two days later, acting on Taylor’s report of the Thornton debacle, President Polk asked the Congress to acknowledge that a state of war existed, alleging falsely that the Mexicans had invaded the country and ‘shed American blood upon American soil’. Both houses quickly passed a war bill that permitted the President to raise 50,000 volunteers and appropriated $10, 000, 000 for the prosecution of the conflict. Polk signed the legislation on 13 May and issued an immediate call for troops.

Fittingly enough, a large number of the volunteers were to be cavalrymen, who could more easily traverse the great western expanses over which the war would be fought. Between May and July 1846, the Federal government called on various states to supply mounted regiments: one from Kentucky; one from Tennessee; two from Missouri; one from Arkansas; one from Texas. They were organized on the regular model, with ten companies apiece. But the companies were supposed to be smaller, with sixty-four men in each. Enthusiasm for the war, however, often caused such limitations to be ignored. Company C, 1st Regiment of Mounted Missouri Volunteers, reported to its regimental rendezvous with 119 rank and file. Polk left it up to the states whether their sons would serve for one year or the duration of the hostilities, and they invariably chose the shorter enlistment period.

The regular army was also temporarily augmented. In 1847, Congress authorized the creation of nine infantry regiments and the 3rd Regiment of United States Dragoons – to serve until the end of the war. At the same time all regular cavalry regiments received a second major, a move inspired, no doubt, by the desire to extend field officer grade to the President’s brother, William H. Polk of the 3rd Dragoons.

The Mexican War was America’s first real cavalry war since the Revolution. The Mexican Army had at least fourteen regular mounted regiments and six active militia cavalry regiments. The 1st and 2nd U. S. Dragoons, toughened by ten years of fighting Indians or Herculean rides on the Plains, made light of such odds. The story is told of Sergeant Jack Miller of the 2nd, who was leading a small patrol that stumbled across five times its number of enemy guerrillas near Monclova that November. As his men grabbed instinctively for their carbines, Miller roared, ‘No firing, men! If twenty dragoons can’t whip a hundred greasers with the saber, I’ll join the Doughboys and carry a fence rail all my life.’ The Americans charged and bowled the Mexicans over with their heavier horses, killing six guerrillas, wounding thirteen and taking seventy prisoners. Only one of Miller’s men and three mounts were lightly scratched.

The prevailing prejudice in America against the life of a common soldier and the titanic immigration from Europe that swept over the country in the 1840s ensured that the regular infantry and artillery regiments were composed largely of what an English visitor called a ‘rag-tag-and-bob-tail herd’ and ‘either of the scum of the population of the older states, or the worthless German, English, or Irish emigrants.’ Fully one half of Taylor’s troops were foreign-born. The dragoons were still drawn primarily from older stock Americans, and they considered themselves to be a far cut above their fellow soldiers. As Samuel E. Chamberlain, a teenaged private in Company E, 1st U. S. Dragoons, boasted:

I came to the conclusion that the Dragoons were far superior in materials to any other arm of the service. No man of any spirit and ambition would join the ‘Dough- boys’ and go afoot, when he could ride a fine horse and wear spurs like a gentleman. In our squadron were broken down Lawyers, Actors and men of the world, Soldiers who had served under Napoleon, Polish Lancers, French Cuirassiers, Hungarian Hussars, Irishmen who had left the Queen’s service to swear allegiance to Uncle Sam and wear the blue.

Our officers were all graduates of West Point, and at the worst, were gentlemen of intelligence and education, often harsh and tyrannical, yet they took pride in having their men well clothed, and fed, in making them contented and reconciled to their lot . . .

The volunteer cavalrymen, in their ebullient and ignorant fashion, considered themselves as good as any regulars and the match of any Mexicans – and some of them lived up to their own bravado. One of the first such organizations to get into the field was Colonel Jack Hays’s Texas Regiment of Mounted Volunteers, whose various elements linked up with Taylor’s army through the spring and summer of 1846. Hays’s outfit was an amalgamation of several companies of the famed Texas Rangers, led by such legendary Indian fighters as Captains Ben McCulloch and Samuel Walker. The appearance of their 500 men was nothing short of formidable, each one carrying a rifle and one or two Colt revolvers. Commencing his advance on Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León, on 19 August, Taylor was soon impressed with the rangers’ skill as scouts and exterminators of the guerrillas who infested his lines of communication.

The trouble with the Texans was that they were too prone to kill Mexicans on any pretext – including unarmed and unoffending men, women and children. Many of them nursed grudges as old as a decade against the ‘greasers’, and they were motivated as much by private vendettas as patriotism. Samuel Chamberlain called them ‘packs of human bloodhounds’, and any regular who tried to restrain their outrages found him- self just as apt to become the victim of Texan fury. However uncontrollable they were at other times, Hays’s Rangers were magnificent in a fight. When Taylor battered his way into Monterrey in a terrific four-day fracas that began on 20 September, the Texans were ever in the forefront. Following Colonel Hays’s standing orders to ‘Give ’em hell!’ – they smashed an enemy cavalry charge to pieces, and then slid off their ponies to fight beside the infantry, storming redoubts, palaces and the thick-walled adobe houses where the Mexicans took shelter.

Taylor owed Hays and his Texans quite a debt for the conquest of Monterrey, but he was not at all sorry to see them ride home when their six-month tour of duty expired on 2 October. ‘On the day of battle,’ he quipped, ‘I am glad to have Texas soldiers with me, for they are brave and gallant; but I never want to see them before or afterward.’

Taylor’s victories were to weave the charismatic mystique that would place him in the White House in two years, but much further to the north, relatively small bands of American cavalrymen were achieving something much more significant and lasting – without the same loss in blood.

From the end of June and into the first week of July, the Army of the West issued out of Fort Leavenworth, in staggered detachments to preserve the forage along the Santa Fe Trail, and disappeared into the endless prairie grasslands. The man responsible for this odd assemblage of 1700 regulars and volunteers was Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, and his mission was to incorporate the provinces of New Mexico and Upper California into the United States. To attempt so mam- moth a task, he was given the following forces: nearly 400 of his own 1st Dragoons from Companies B, C, G, I and K; 100 volunteer infantrymen in a two-company battalion raised in Missouri; a company of 100 St Louis cavalrymen called the LaClede Rangers; fifty Delaware and Shawnee scouts; and about 1,000 mounted riflemen in the nine companies of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers. The Army of the West was also burdened by the twelve 6-pounders and four 12-pound howitzers of Major Meriwether Lewis Clark’s Battalion of Missouri Volunteer Artillery, 1,556 wagons, 459 horses, 3658 draft mules, and 14,904 cattle and oxen. It required a good month for this host to cross the 537 miles to Bent’s Fort, and as it entered enemy territory, Kearny was forced to put his men on half rations.

The governor of New Mexico mustered a motley army of 4000 to contest Kearny’s progress, but his force fell to pieces and dispersed as the Americans drew near. On 18 August 1846, three days after he had been notified of his promotion to brigadier general, the slim old dragoon occupied Santa Fe without having to fire a shot. Kearny stayed in New Mexico only long enough to institute a civil government and win the inhabitants over with his courtesy and respect for their religion. 0n 25 September, he set out for California with the 300 of his regular troopers still fit to ride. The 1st Dragoons must have made an interesting sight, for every man was mounted on a mule. The general had kept them constantly on the move with an inexhaustible list of special assignments, and the pace wore their horses down. Before he rode out of courier-range, Kearny instructed Colonel Alexander William Doniphan, a towering, sandy-haired lawyer and the commander of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers, to pacify the Indians in the province and then go down and capture Chihuahua, Mexico’s gateway to the northwest.

Kearny had embarked upon the most trying march of his long career. On 6 October, about ten miles below Socorro, he encountered twenty mounted Americans hurrying east. One of them was the renowned scout, Kit Carson, who was carrying dispatches from Commodore Robert Stockton marked for Washington announcing the fall of California to the U. S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron and Major John C. Fremont’s battalion of 234 mounted frontiersmen. Carson’s news caused Kearny to alter his plans. The route ahead would be difficult, lacking water and forage, and since California was already occupied, he sent 200 dragoons back to Santa Fe and exchanged his wagons for pack mules. After this was done, Kearny resumed his journey, retaining Kit Carson as a guide.

The closer the 1st Dragoons came to California, the more arduous the going – especially after they entered the Gila Desert. Men and animals reached and passed their breaking point many times, but somehow Kearny kept the column closed up and plodding on. To make matters worse, on 22 November, he met some Mexican horse traders who informed him that the Californians had risen in revolt against their insufferably arrogant American masters. Struggling out of the Gila and into the verdant San Felipe Valley on 2 December, Kearny sent a courier to San Diego to request an escort from Commodore Stockton for his small and weakened force. On 5 December, he was joined by Captain Archibald Gillespie, twelve ‘Horse Marines’ and twenty-six mounted riflemen.

Gillespie told Kearny that there were seventy-five Californian lancers blocking the road to San Diego at San Pascual. Urged on by Carson and the rash Gilles- pie, Kearny decided to attack the insurgents after a lieutenant and nine dragoons scouted their camp that night. Unfortunately, the mules and half-broken horses the dragoons were riding were still jaded from their long trek. When the Yankees charged their waiting opponents on 6 December 1846, the poor beasts were unable to keep together, and they carried the dragoons at varying speeds – singly or in small groups – into the enemy’s line. A continuous rain had ruined the powder in the Americans’ pistols and carbines, and they were unable to reach past the Californians’ lances with their sabers. The results were truly tragic. Kearny was speared twice by a young gallant who then bowed and rode off when it was apparent the general was no longer capable of defending himself. His subordinates but the dragoons drove their assailants off the rocky summit, killing five. Kearny then dug in right there and then, his troopers enduring a three-day siege and near starvation. The general’s second-in-command, however, had wisely sent Stockton a plea for help after the Battle of San Pascual, and at two o’clock on the morning of 11 December, some 180 Marines and sailors relieved the much-reduced Army of the West.

When Commodore Stockton sallied out of San Diego at the end of the month with 607 men to finally quell the rebellion, the partially recovered Kearny and sixty dismounted troopers of Company C, 1st U. S. Dragoons, went with him. On 8 and 9 January 1847, the Californians gave battle on the San Gabriel River and at La Mesa, and their power was broken. Stockton and Kearny took Los Angeles on 10 January, and the last of the insurgents surrendered three days later. California was now indisputably American, thanks in no small part to Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, but his intrepid devotion to duty hastened his untimely death in the following year.

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2 thoughts on “US CAVALRY [Dragoons] WAR WITH MEXICO, 1846-8

  1. “When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, she embarked upon a collision course that would shortly involve her in a war with Mexico.” No, it was a planned war of aggression on a neighboring country to grab land, lebensraum. The war didn’t just happen, it was planned to happen. It was made to happen. Let’s be honest here about the facts. Cheers. US and Mexico in 1845 = German and Poland in 1939. a planned war of aggression.

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  2. The caption under the painting of BG Kearny is incorrect as, while yellow was the color for the cavalry branch of the mounted arm, the color for the Dragoons was orange. The second branch of the arm, the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen had green for their color. The third and junior branch, the Cavalry bore yellow as their color. With the re-designation of all mounted regiments as Cavalry in April of 1861, yellow became the mounted arm’s color.

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