The Battle of San Pasqual

On August 18, 1846, during the War with Mexico, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny occupied Santa Fe, declared himself military governor of New Mexico, and announced that the territory now belonged to the United States. On September 25 General Kearny departed Santa Fe for California with 300 troops of the United States Army's First Dragoon Regiment. His orders were to take control of California and establish a civil government there. Early in October he met Kit Carson on the trail at Socorro and was told that hostilities in California had ended and that Commodore Robert Stockton and Colonel John Fremont had already taken control of California. Kearny ordered two thirds of his detachment to return to Santa Fe and continued on with the remainder (including two howitzers) using Kit Carson as their guide. Late in November Kearny learned that after Carson left California there had been a rebellion and the American forces had been driven out of all of the southern California settlements except San Diego.

Travel was difficult and, during the crossing of the desert, men and animals suffered from lack of food and water. The detachment and its surviving mounts reached California in a greatly weakened condition. On December 3, 1846, they sent word of their arrival to Commodore Stockton in San Diego. On December 5 Marine Captain Archibald Gillespie joined them in Santa Maria Valley with 39 men and a four-pound brass howitzer. Gillespie also brought a message from Stockton that informed Kearny of the presence at San Pasqual of a force of about 150 Californios led by Andres Pico. Stockton deferred to Kearny but suggested that he should attack Pico at San Pasqual. Kearny's detachment was eager for action and an attack would not be inconsistent with his orders. (It is not clear exactly what motivated Kearny but some speculate that he attacked Pico expecting an easy victory and fresh mounts for his force.) The Americans did not expect the Californios to be formidable adversaries, but Kearny still wanted to capitalize on a surprise attack if at all possible. He also wanted more exact information about the enemy force in preparation for an attack the following morning.

Lieutenant Thomas C. Hammond together with a Californio deserter, Rafael Machado, and a detachment of six dragoons (one report says three dragoons and still another eleven) were ordered to reconnoiter Pico's position which was located in a small Indian village in San Pasqual Valley. Hammond's party was discovered by Pico's force and the element of surprise was lost. At midnight Kearny ordered an immediate advance. It had rained that night. Men and equipment were wet and cold, but the troops were eager to engage the enemy. Early in the morning of December 6, 1846, the column proceeded by twos across the ridge between Santa Maria and San Pasqual. During the descent Kearny's force was badly strung out due to the weakness of many of the soldiers mounts. After the valley floor was reached accounts of what happened next differ significantly. There was a low lying fog in the valley, it was still dark, and the command was spread out over a considerable distance. There was some confusion as to what command was given and by whom, but Captain Abraham R. Johnson is thought by most to have been the one to initiate action prematurely.

In any case, although a trot was intended, a charge was initiated while Kearny's force was still three quarters of a mile from Pico's encampment. About forty of the best mounted officers and men got far ahead of the main body of the force. The mules pulling Kearny's howitzers bolted taking one of the guns with them. Pico's force was already mounted and easily managed to remain ahead of the pursuing Americans. Their fresh horses and superior horsemanship made it easy for them to manoeuvre as they wished and they led the advance group of Americans even further away from their main force. The Americans did not know the terrain and the Californios did. A second separation developed until about twenty eight Americans including Kearny were in the forefront of the charge. Damp powder reduced the effectiveness of the American carbines and pistols and they would soon be reduced to relying on their sabers alone. The Californios were armed with a mixture of firearms, sabers and long lances. In addition many of them carried lariats.

As the leading element of the American attack drew close to the Indian village the Californios wheeled back and fired their few firearms. One of their first shots killed Captain Johnson, but the Americans continued on and were able to get off a few shots of their own. The Californios retreated and the Americans pursued. At this point Captain Benjamin D. Moore ordered a second charge. This further increased the distance between the American elements and further reduced the size of the leading element. When the Californios again wheeled they were able to deal with Captain Moore alone. He was quickly surrounded and killed. Other Americans caught up with the action but their weapons misfired and many of them were wounded or killed by Californios using the lance. Some were pulled from their horses by the Californio's lariats and then lanced. Some of the Americans were mounted on mules and were particularly vulnerable because of the mules reluctance to wheel. It was easy for the better mounted Californios to get in back of the Americans and attack them with the long lances.

Both Captain Gillespie and General Kearny were wounded in the battle and several of the other officers were killed or wounded. Captain Henry Turner temporarily took command and organized a defensive position which permitted the rest of the command to catch up with the battered lead element. Here again considerable confusion exists as to exactly why the Californios broke off the engagement. Several accounts credit it to the firing of one of the remaining howitzers. Another possibility was the fact that the main body of the force was catching up with the advance element. Whatever the reason, Pico's force withdrew and left the battlefield to Kearny. Dr John S. Griffen, Kearny's surgeon, reported that the Americans had lost seventeen killed and eighteen wounded out of the fifty officers and men that had actually engaged the enemy. Pico claimed that his force had lost one killed and twelve wounded but most scholars believe that the Californios suffered more casualties than that.

The night of December 6, 1847, the Americans buried their dead in a single grave and nursed their wounded. Captain Turner wrote a note to Stockton outlining their situation and requesting assistance. The morning of December 7 Alex Godey led a small group out of camp to carry Turner's message to San Diego. Later that same morning the reorganized command with Kearny once more in command broke camp and started for San Diego. The most badly wounded were transported on rough travois made from willow poles and buffalo robes. Pico's force followed closely looking for an opportunity to attack. A skirmish took place later that day during which the dragoons killed five Californios without loss to themselves. Following that contact Kearny decided to halt and camp for the night on the crest of a small hill. Short of rations the soldiers killed a mule for food. (From then on the hill has been known as Mule Hill.)

On December 8, 1847, the Americans used rocks and boulders to fortify their position and settled in to await relief from San Diego. That morning a prisoner exchange was arranged whereby the Americans recovered one of four prisoners that the Californios had captured earlier that morning. The name of the recovered prisoner was Burgess, a soldier returning to the unit from San Diego. He brought the disappointing word that Stockton was unable to provide any relief. That evening Lieutenant Edward F. Beale, Kit Carson, and an Indian named Chu-muc-tah left camp each carrying a message to Stockton reiterating the detachment's dire need for relief. The Californio ring around the camp was so tight it was fully expected that the messengers might well be caught so each man left separately to make the trip independently. As it turned out all three made it to San Diego where Stockton was already organizing a relief party.

On the morning of December 9, 1847, Kearny, fearing the worst, began preparing for a final battle with Pico's men. On December 10, Sergeant Cox died from his wounds and Kearny decided that they would try to break through Pico's encirclement the next day. In the very early morning hours of December 11 Lieutenant Andrew F. V. Gray arrived with 80 marines and 120 sailors. When daylight came the Californios faded away and the Americans resumed their march to San Diego. That night they camped at a rancho and freely helped themselves to the supplies that they found there. Lieutenant Gray tried to control the Americans, but General Kearny intervened on behalf of his half starved men. One of the sailors wrote in his diary that the Americans had cleaned out the rancho's larder better than a swarm of locusts could have done. Late in the afternoon of December 12 Kearny's force finally reached San Diego. Commodore Stockton met them at the edge of town and invited Kearny to share his own quarters.

Historians continue to argue about this engagement - some calling it a defeat for the Americans and a few proclaiming it a victory. Kearny understandably regarded it to be a victory, but admitted that the Americans had paid dearly for it. However the Battle of San Pasqual is viewed it was the most costly single engagement in the American conquest of California and demonstrated that the Californios could be capable combatants.

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