Marine Special Ops Take California

Lancers at La Mesa Artist: Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR

1st Lt. Archibald Gillespie, First U.S.M.C. Special Ops Officer

Mexico had achieved independence from Spain in 1821, but during the 12 years prior to 1846, four revolutions took place in the province of California. By the eve of the war with the U.S., California had become an independent republic.

New Mexico, like priceless California, was so far removed from the Mexican capitol that for years Mexican control was very ineffective. Its people had little commerce with Mexico and for a long time St. Louis was their main trading partner. Both provinces were ripe for plucking and President Polk was ready to annex these two plums.

Before the Mexican War began, President Polk already had his eye on conquering California (before he contemplated buying it for 25 million dollars). Texas had accepted admittance as a state of the Union on July 4, 1845, and Polk wanted to expand its boundaries. He especially wanted California for the U.S. if war should break out with Mexico.

On the night of October 30, 1845, Polk held a secret meeting in the White House with Marine First Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, who Navy Secretary Bancroft regarded as an accomplished and most trustworthy officer. Gillespie had been chosen to deliver the orders for invasion. He carried secret, memorized instructions to Thomas Larkin, the U.S. consul at Monterey, dispatches for Commodore John Sloat on the west coast, and personal letters to Army Lieutenant John Fremont who was “exploring” the far west for the Army’s Topographical Corps.

Sloat’s orders were “once war was declared to occupy ports as your force may permit.” All three men were ordered to use guile, infiltration and subversion to acquire California for the U.S. when the opportunity presented itself. As it turned out, each of the three carried out their orders in various ways.

Pio Pico, the California governor from Los Angeles, was often at odds with Jose Castro, the self-appointed military chief in Monterey. The province was governed so poorly that the Californios actually wanted to be acquired, preferably by the U.S. instead of England or Russia. The Californios considered the U.S. “the happiest and freest nation in the world destined soon to be the most wealthy and powerful.” The Americans in turn were impressed with the scale of the Californios’ industry. Some hacienda livestock totaled 2,000 horses, 15,000 cattle, and 20,000 sheep; albeit, this wealth had been obtained by the slave labor of 11 million Indians. Nonetheless, Pico settled his differences with Castro and set about forming an army to resist the American freebooters.

Traveling in disguise, Gillespie went via Vera Cruz, Mexico City and Mazatlan—where he located Commodore Sloat—and reached Monterey in April, 1846. He delivered his messages to Larkin and then went north until he met Fremont at Klamath Lake in May. Two days later, Polk urged Congress to recognize that “war exists.” It did so, and newly breveted Army Brigadier General Stephen Kearny, an 1812 veteran at Fort Leavenworth, was ordered to “conquer and take possession of California.”

Fremont and Gillespie rode south into California with rugged American settlers wearing buckskin and carrying rifles and long bowie knives. Gillespie, guarded by 12 Delaware Indians, went ahead to San Francisco Bay and there obtained powder, 8,000 percussion caps, and lead for 9,000 bullets from Commander Montgomery. Numbering 700, this group made up the largest foreign contingent in California.

In June, under attack at Sonoma, American settlers proclaimed the California “Bear Flag” Republic. Fremont took charge of the military force of the “one-village” nation and Gillespie became his executive officer in charge of training the “Bear Flag Army” into effective fighters. The Bear Flag was designed by William Todd, whose aunt had recently married a country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Fremont, without authority, had started a revolution without knowing war had been declared with Mexico. He then took his forces south to Monterey to start the rebellion there.

Commodore Sloat ordered the sloop-of-war Portsmouth, under Commander Montgomery, to Monterey to protect American lives and property. On July 7, he officially invaded California for the U.S., sending Captain William Mervine, U.S.N., ashore at Monterey with 85 marines and 165 sailors commanded by Marine Captain Ward Marston. They raised the American flag over the customs house and Second Lieutenant William Maddox stayed ashore with a Marine detachment as a garrison—the west coast’s first Marine Corps post. Northern California was now in American hands.

Two days later, the Bear Flag Republic became American and Montgomery, along with Second Lieutenant Henry Watson, landed with 14 Marines to occupy Yerba Buena (San Francisco). San Francisco was already loaded with Americans as the U.S. whaling fleet in the Pacific numbered 650 vessels with 17,000 commercial sailors rotating through their San Francisco base.

Back in New Mexico, Kearny’s force from Fort Leavenworth was on the march, and it was said that “the world is coming with him.” He had 1,458 men, 459 horses, 3,658 draft mules, and 14,904 cattle and oxen. His artillery consisted of twelve 6-pounders and four 12-pound howitzers. He was able to take Santa Fe bloodlessly after the officers of the New Mexican army of 4,000 Mexicans and Indians under Manuel Pico decided to give up without a fight. The senoritas were frightened of the rough-looking American occupiers but Kearny threw a big “kick-up” dance until dawn, and the local ladies recovered their composure. Kearny then set out for California with 300 dragoons, who were heavy cavalry. On the march, they encountered Kit Carson, “the celebrated mountain man,” who was on his way to Washington with an express from Stockton and Fremont announcing that they had taken California. Kearny sent 200 of his dragoons back to New Mexico and persuaded Kit Carson to return with him to California as a guide. They marched on to take control of the Pacific province.

The Californios, nearly all Mexican, didn’t really care who was running the territory as long as their dignity and sensibilities prevailed. However, the superior attitude exhibited by the conquering Americans caused many problems.

When Commodore Stockton took over command from Sloat, he legitimized Fremont and Gillespie and their 160 mounted men as the “California Battalion of Mounted Riflemen.” Stockton issued a proclamation annexing California to the U.S. In retaliation, Castro’s force moved on Los Angeles to join forces with Pico.

Stockton wanted to invade western Mexico, so he ordered Fremont to expand the California Battalion to 300 men to replace the sailors garrisoned along the coast.

The plan now was for Fremont to land in San Diego and march north in a pincer movement, while Stockton would land at San Pedro, 35 miles below Los Angeles, and march south to crush the Californios led by Pico and Castro. Stockton sent the battalion south by ship to San Diego to cut off the Mexicans operating near Los Angeles. It, plus some 80 Marines, raised the American flag at San Diego on July 30. Stockton sent a party including First Lieutenant Jacob Zeilin and his Marine detachment ashore to hold Santa Barbara. The Commodore then seized San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, with a force of sailors and Marines. He proclaimed the California port part of the U.S. and established a curfew on the residents.

Stockton entered Los Angeles on August 12 with 360 Marines and sailors, and Fremont arrived with a 120 horsemen. Gillespie stayed to hold San Diego with 48 Marines. Before Stockton sailed to Acapulco to join the Army, he named Fremont the Military Governor of California, and Gillespie as Commandant Captain of the Southern District, the center of Mexican influence.

Commandant Gillespie moved to Los Angeles and, without any experience, ruled with an iron hand. He held the Californios in contempt and treated them rudely. He initiated a form of martial law where he outlawed reunions in houses and forbade even two people to walk in the street together. Worse, the Americans were undisciplined and as a result the Californios “could have no respect for his men.”

Anti-American feeling rose and on September 23, 1846, 400 Californios under Captain Jose Flores attacked and put Gillespie’s band under siege. After three days, Gillespie led his men to a stronger position on a hilltop, but there was no water. Finally, on Sept. 30, outnumbered ten to one, he surrendered. The Mexicans permitted him to march out of San Pedro and board ship. He and his men boarded the Vandalia but instead of sailing, they waited for Stockton. Captain Mervine in the Savannah rescued Gillespie and his 225 men.

In San Diego, a detachment of the California Battalion had fled to the whaler Stonington and was besieged for a month. They were all that remained from the “conquest” of southern California. They were rescued by Lieutenant Archer Gray on the arrival of his 200 sailors and Marines.

In San Francisco, 100 Marines and volunteers led by Marine Captain Marston moved on Santa Clara to punish the rebels. The Mexican leader Francisco Sanchez surrendered and both sides ended up signing an armistice.

Stockton struck back. In October, Navy Captain Mervine led ashore 310 sailors and Marines, plus Gillespie and his force, to attempt the recapture of Los Angeles. The Mexicans set forth a scorched earth policy and moved all the foodstuffs into the interior. On Oct. 8, at Rancho Dominquez, the Americans lost after mounting three failed charges. That night, fast-striking Mexican lancers attacked and by the next afternoon the harassed American expedition had climbed back into its ships.

Late in October, Stockton himself arrived, landing sailors and Marines to hold San Pedro, and sent Gillespie down to San Diego with his own men plus 20 Marines. The men were very poorly armed—a third of them carrying only boarding pikes. The guns of the American warships could hold the ports, but the Mexicans drove the garrison of ten Marines out of Santa Barbara.

Then, word arrived that General Stephen Kearney, guided by Kit Carson, had reached California after a grueling march over mountains and through the Colorado desert. Stockton sent Gillespie and 39 volunteers to meet and reinforce Kearny’s troop of 110 men. Later, the Californios said that only the arrival of the Marines had saved Kearny.

The Americans heard that the Californios leader Andris Pico, the Governor’s brother, was at the Indian village of San Pasqual. While the American force outnumbered the Mexicans two to one, Kearny’s men were totally worn out from the grueling march. At San Pasqual, 100 Mexicans attacked them. With wet ammunition on both sides, the Battle of San Pasqual became a melee between Mexican lances and American sabers. Gillespie’s detachment bravely charged but it was a disorganized maneuver due to worn mounts and damp powder.

The Americans got the worst of it. Kearny was lanced twice; Gillespie was thrown from his horse, his saber pinned beneath him. A Californio’s lance thrust from the back struck him above his heart, making “a severe gash open to the lungs.” Another lancer aimed his weapon at Gillespie’s face, cut his upper lip, broke a front tooth, and laid him on his back. Gillespie passed out from loss of blood.

In addition to Kearny’s two lance wounds, 22 Americans were killed and 18 more wounded. Some of the Marines had more than eight spear wounds. It was the bloodiest of the battles for California. The Californios had none killed and 12 wounded, but the Americans had held the field. The American dead were buried under a willow tree and the night howled with wolves attracted by the smell. The wounded were carried Indian-style on travois—two stretcher poles dragged behind a horse. They had no fodder for their animals and were short on water as well. Kearny camped at San Bernardo where the men ate mule meat. Capt. Turner sent for help from San Diego and the Army of the West moved westward. Kit Carson, who the Mexicans called El Lobo, meaning The Wolf, tried to reach San Diego in advance, walking the 30 miles barefoot through cactus.

Stockton sent 215 Marines and sailors under Lt. Gray to escort Kearny’s men to San Diego. The Californios quit tailing the Yankees and melted away.

Then, Stockton set out once again to take Los Angeles by marching 140 miles from San Diego with 600 Marines and sailors.

Mexican Lancers

The Californios’ lancers were not like the European trained lancers who came mostly from the upper class. Instead, they were local hide-hunters who went after wild cattle with lances. They were expert horsemen who could ride all day, and could even unsaddle another horse without getting off their own horse. They became very proficient in handling the 12-foot lance, with entire families taking up the art. And lances were cheaper than powder and ball. They used them with great skill and the Marines noticed they always seemed to aim for their kidneys.

Fremont moved south with the California Battalion and 428 men. Slaughtering 13 beeves daily, the Marines ate ten pounds of meat per day—the most food they ever had. Fremont camped in the Santa Ynez Mountains and reached Santa Barbara, but Stockton and Kearny moved on Los Angeles without waiting for him to arrive. By this time, the Marines’ shoes had given out and they wore canvas rags instead, but they reached the San Gabriel River.

Seven miles from Los Angeles, the enemy under Flores, with 500 men and four artillery, made a stand on the bluffs behind the San Gabriel River. The Californios stampeded a herd of wild horses against the American lines and opened fire as the Americans crossed the river.

With Zeilin’s Marines holding the right flank, the Americans waded the knee-deep river under fire and charged the enemy. The enemy’s front fled, but the Mexican horsemen struck both flanks. The Americans fought, marched, and slept in open squares with their supplies in the center. It was the only way to ward off the lancers. With cannon on each corner of the square spewing grapeshot, the Mexicans were beaten off. That day was the anniversary of the War of 1812’s “Battle of New Orleans.” It became their battle cry, as the sailors on the left and the Marines on the right took the initiative. The Americans charged up the bluffs and it was over in 90 minutes. Only one American was killed, though this was the Marine Corps’ largest battle in California.

The Mexicans made one more stand during this two-day running battle, at La Mesa, three miles from the white walls of Los Angeles, in what today is Vernon. Three times the Mexicans charged, but the artillery cut them down. At last, the Mexicans rode off into the mountains, leaving the road to Los Angeles open. Again, Gillespie was wounded. On January 10, with the band playing, Stockton and Kearny led their men into Los Angeles. Gillespie put up the American flag that he had taken down four months earlier. Fremont now entered Los Angeles with a surprise capitulation signed by the Californios at Rancho Cahuenga north of Los Angeles. Kearny’s secret orders now became apparent—he revealed that he had orders from Washington to subdue the country, and establish a civil government with himself as the leader. In any event, all of California had finally been conquered.

The conquest taught one important lesson: if the U.S. wanted to extend its concept of Manifest Destiny on hostile coasts, it would need amphibious forces to put ashore. California was finally won when the U.S. could land a force strong enough to hold. The conquest of California was due to the mobility of Stockton’s ships and the well-disciplined Marines and seamen of his “gallant sailor army.”

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