The Battles of Palo Alto and La Resaca
Ramón Alcaraz (Mexican Army Officer)
As soon as the government of the United States decided to consummate its unjust projects against the Mexican Republic, it determined to unite a force to sustain them. A considerable division under the orders of General Taylor, then a Brigadier General, encamped at Corpus Christi, June, 1845, in observation of our operations, and ready to advance to the Rio Bravo del Norte when ordered.
Since the unfortunate campaign of Texas, in the year 1836, a part of our army had been constantly on the frontier, more or less strong, which had fought at different times in the past years, with the Texans and adventurers who defended a cause as unjust as fortunate. These valiant soldiers occupied in this honorable enterprise, remained there almost abandoned by the carelessness of our Governors. They were separated from their families and relations, deserted constantly in our repeated pronunciamentos, and they felt sensibly themselves forgotten, while promotions and civil offices were distributed among those who had no title except favoritism, corruption, or notoriety in contests engendered by civil discord. The Government of General Herrera knew that peace would be broken between the two Republics, which ought to be brothers, and therefore ordered reinforcements to the army of the North, so that on our part we might have those preparations the most indispensable, for a war now certain to take place. It was not on this occasion, with a rebel Department, favored secretly by a treacherous neighbor, but with a powerful nation, whose elements of prosperity contrasted with the decayed state to which our madness and inexperience had reduced our dear country.
At the same time the danger hourly increased. Everything announced the close shock of the armies. The Government sent new orders to Paredes to march, carrying with him the division intrusted to his charge. But this General, seconded by some men as infamous as himself, instead of performing his duty and what his country required, rebelled openly against the Government and its institutions, proclaimed a system of anarchy, and directed his course to Mexico to secure a triumph in his revolution. Patriotism explained his conduct, in saying, that he had turned his back upon the foreign enemy to have civil discord reign, and to introduce a new element of confusion with the support of the monarchical party. This accusation so often reiterated, will be made by the complaining voice of a nation sacrificed, and will also be repeated by posterity. The treacherous pronunciamento of San Luis gave to General Paredes a fatal celebrity.
Meanwhile the troops destined for the frontiers returned to the capital, and while the diminished army of the North complained that they were abandoned by their own forces, the troops of the enemy under General Taylor received on the 15th of January, 1846, orders from their Government to advance, and indicating the convenience it would be to occupy the place known as the Fort of Saint Isabel.
Within two months from the receipt of this order regulating the march, it was executed. The enemy's army moved by the road of the Arroyo Colorado in the direction of Matamoros, where had been united all the troops which formed our force. The whole reserve upon this vast frontier did not exceed 80 men, to 1 of cavalry, at Saltillo. When the advance was understood, General Mejía, who commanded at the pass, despatched the commander of a squadron, Barragan, with a small party of cavalry in observation of the Americans. As the instructions of this General prohibited him committing acts of hostility, and as he was moreover short in numbers, he did nothing more than come up with them, retiring as Taylor's troops advanced.
The notice of the enemy's coming was not long in reaching the Fort. The worthy inhabitants of this very small population could not resign themselves to the disconsolate idea of living under a foreign yoke. They preferred destroying their little property, and to go in search of favor and protection in the arms of their brothers. They left the place where their children had been born, where their fathers had died, and they set fire to their habitations, moved by a patriotism worthy of all admiration. How glorious it would have been for the beautiful cities of the Republic which fell into the power of the North Americans, to have imitated the heroic and sublime example of the humble village of the Fort!
The enemy occupied this point, and put themselves immediately in communication with their fleet. Leaving there a small detachment, hastily throwing up some fortifications, and following on, the continued their movement towards Matamoros, in front of which city they arrived on the 28th of March.
Matamoros is situated on the west bank of the Rio Bravo, in a vast plain, composed of wooden and brick houses, fourteen leagues distant from the coast. The proximity of the enemy indicated that they would little hesitate to attack a place presenting such important difficulties to its defenders. Open on all sides, except that where the river flowed, little resistance could be made towards the interior, and what increased the danger was that the fortifications which had existed were reduced now to a small redoubt. This had been constructed to the west of the city, and at some 600 yards distant from it, upon the bank of the river at the ford called the Anacuitas. When the danger approached very close another redoubt, but even less than the other, was raised at el Paso Real. At 200 yards in the same direction followed a breastwork whose fire commanded the other points. Under the direction of Da Rita Giron, a battery was made between the two redoubts in a small grove. Time was urgent, and the circumstances required a hasty finishing of these works, which were soon in a condition to serve, thanks to the energy and efficacy of Colonel Carasco, who had charge of them.
To sustain the attack, they could not count on a sufficient force. The garrison was composed in the beginning of the battalion of Sappers, the 2d light, the 1st and 10th infantry regiments of the line, and the 7th of cavalry, the auxiliaries of the towns of the North, several companies of Presidiales, and a battalion of the National Guard of the city of Matamoros. The artillery consisted of 20 field pieces, served by one company. Two or three days after the coming of the Americans, the marines of Tampico arrived, the 6th infantry, and a battalion of the Guarda Costa of that place. These two sections being united, they formed a total of about 3,000 men.
The munitions were not scarce, if they were not abundant. But it was not so fortunate with provisions, because the necessary supply had not been obtained in time, and before the blockade of the port. From the interior of the country it was impossible to bring them, and much less now was there an opportunity.
On the morning of the 28th the roofs of the houses and the highest buildings were seen covered with the whole population, who waited with curiosity for the arrival of the enemy. At ten Mejía was sure that they were approaching, and ordered the generala to beat. In a moment they mounted the fortifications, the troops were placed under arms, and all prepared for the combat, believing that their hour had come.
At two in the afternoon some officers with a white flag presented themselves on the opposite bank of the river, making demonstrations that on our part a Commissioner should be named to enter into a conference with their chiefs. Mejía sent to the parley General Diaz de la Vega. Upon his landing on the left margin of the Bravo, at the same instant the flag of stars was displayed, and the chagrin is indescribable which the Mexicans experienced at this sight. For the first time this banner waved proudly before our forces, as if taking possession of what by every title properly belonged to us. Who then could have believed that the period was about to commence, not yet passed entirely, of our humiliations and misfortunes? Who would have imagined that this grasping flag, fanned by the breeze of victory, should float over cities the most beautiful, until it would be planted on the national palace of our conquered capital?
The soldiers of the army of the North were incensed in observing this insult of the enemy. Their cry was for the contest, and they beseeched their General to permit them to avenge the outrage. General Mejía endeavored to calm their patriotic enthusiasm, but he could not appease them; while his instructions forbade him giving battle, except in the event that all the probabilities of a favorable result were in our favor, or unless the American army passed the river, in which case they were to be resisted at all hazards, whatever might be the issue....
On the 8th it was positively ascertained from the spies, that the enemy, in number about 3,000 men, with an abundance of artillery, and numerous wagons, were directing their march from the Fort of Isabel to the entrenched camp in front of Matamoros. The General-in-chief at once determined to give battle; an opportunity which he had sought for so many days. At ten o'clock in the morning our cavalry went forth upon the spacious plain of Palo Alto: the infantry followed at two in the day, and there came in sight of the enemy.
General Arista gave the command to form immediately in the order of battle, and the corps were placed as follows:-On our right, supported by a small elevation of ground some eighteen or twenty feet high, was placed a squadron of the light regiment of Mexico, and from thence the line extended over the plain; next, 1 piece of artillery intervened, then the battalion of sappers, the 2d regiment of light, the battalion and company of the Guarda Costa of Tampico, a battery of 8 pieces, and, immediately after, the 1st, 6th, and 10th of the line. The infantry were commanded by Generals Diaz de la Vega, and Garcia.
At 400 yards distant came four squadrons formed from the cavalry corps of the 7th and 8th Light of Mexico and the Presidial Companies. In the interval of the first and second of these were 2 light pieces of artillery. General Torrejon commanded this force.
Our army in the order of battle, observed the enemy without opening their fire, until half past two o'clock in the evening, at which time the troops were informed that Ampudia was drawing on the engagement by instructions from the General-in-chief. His command was composed of one company of Sappers, the 4th regiment of the line, 2 pieces of artillery, and the 200 men, auxiliaries of the towns of the North. These were posted on our left flank at a sufficient distance, and sheltered by the wood. With the reinforcement thus received, our army counted 3,000 fighting men, a number equal, with a very trifling difference, to that of the enemy.
Let us pause for one moment, before undertaking to mention the sanguinary battles of this fatal war, and to direct our attention to these troops who opened this tragic drama, which, in its prosecution, has become a catastrophe to us. For the first time they came to measure their strength, and to sustain the rights of their respective nations; these sons of two distinct races, now meeting to appear before a Supreme Being, destroying each other in the new continent as they had destroyed in the old. The one assumed the work of usurpation and treachery; the other defended a sacred cause in which it was true glory to die as a sacrifice.
Immediately before commencing the action, the General-in-chief reviewed the line, rectified the corps one by one, represented the glory that would ensue from a triumph, and the gratitude which they might anticipate from their countrymen. His remarks were received with enthusiasm, the banners floated to the wind, the soldiers stood to their arms, the horses pawed the ground, the bands performed inspiring and beautiful music, and shouts filled the air of "Viva la Republica," as if bearing up to the throne of a just God, the cry of vengeance raised by an offended nation.
Our batteries opened their fire, which was answered by the superior artillery of the enemy, placed at 600 yards from our line. The forces of Ampudia followed, approaching together. The 4th regiment of the line moved forward in good order, in close column. The Americans observed this, and received it with a very spirited discharge of cannon. The 4th not disconcerted, calm amidst the danger so great, as if on parade, continued its movement, till coming up to the line, where it deployed to the front on the left of the 10th.
The fire was now destructive and deadly. The enemy, whose object was to reach their entrenched camp in front of Matamoros, availed themselves of a stratagem to set fire to the grass, which was in front, so that a dense smoke arising, their operations might be hid. In this way an hour was passed, when Torrejon ordered a charge of cavalry on the right wing of the enemy. This manoeuvre was executed by filing to the left. At a certain distance from the enemy, and when already some confusion had been caused by the large space traversed over, some one stopped the charge by saying, that the troops in front were going to pass them. All the corps halted, and at the same instant, the two pieces which the Americans had placed on this part of the field, were fired, causing some havoc. The disorder increased, and our cavalry, instead of charging, retreated. There was in truth no real obstacle in advancing, except some smouldering ashes which had to be ridden over; no obstacle certainly in the road.
The artillery of the Americans, much superior to ours, made horrid ravages in the ranks of the Mexican army. The soldiers yielded, not overwhelmed in a combat in which they might deal out the death which they received-not in the midst of the excitement and gallantry which the ardor of a battle brings forth, but in a fatal situation in which they were killed with impunity, and decimated in cold blood. The action was prolonged for whole hours under such unfortunate auspices, and the slain increased every minute. The troops at last, tired of being slaughtered for no use, demanded with a shout to be led on to the enemy with the bayonet, for they wished to fight hand to hand, and to die like brave men.
The General-in-chief did not decide at once to comply with their wish. At this time some disorder occurred among the corps on our right, which wavered. Arista hastened to the spot, re-established discipline, and finally ordered the charge they had craved. At this minute it was beginning to draw on to night.
To execute this manoeuvre, the army was supported from the left in the cavalry of Torrejon, and from the right in the light squadron of Mexico, along with the 7th regiment, which was weakened to be placed there. This force in moving inclined upon our infantry, in which it introduced disorder. Our troops being disconcerted, trampled on each other, and did not come up to the enemy, but passed within pistol-shot of the batteries, which broke them, destroyed them, and obliged them to retire by the left of our line of battle. What contributed also most effectually to produce this bad result was, that instead of forming the army in columns to approach the enemy, they advanced in line.
Fortunately the Americans did not avail themselves, nor scarcely notice the disorder in our force, for at this time night had completely closed in. Thus believing the attack to be more serious and dangerous, they retired to the shelter of their wagons. The Mexicans did the same, upon the hill which had supported their first position.
The fire began to spread. Its sinister splendor illuminated the camp, in which a short time before resounded the roar of artillery, and in which now were heard heart-rending groans of our wounded. As most of these were from cannon-shot, they were horribly mutilated. The sight deeply saddened, and the misfortune was complete, when nothing could be done to alleviate their sufferings, for the surgeon who carried the medicine-chests had disappeared at the first fire, without breathing where he had deposited them. There was no other choice than to send some of them to Matamoros in the carts that had brought provisions. The rest were left abandoned on the 9th in the field.
The enemy were so far from believing they had gained a triumph, that on the night of the 8th a council of war took place, in which a majority of the officers voted for a retreat to Fort Isabel. Taylor insisted on advancing, and to his firm decision it is owing that they did not fall back. But this fact proves most clearly, that in the battle of Palo Alto the honor of our arms was well established.
The Mexican army passed the night sad and dispirited. Although the action had been undecided, there prevailed a fatal presentiment of a rout. There commenced to be credence given to rumors of treason which had been circulated before. The battle of the next day was dreaded in advance, for the persuasion existed that in contending for victory it would not be won by the greatest skill and valor, but that ambition and treachery were intent on immolating the Republic to their stupid views by the shedding of Mexican blood.
Far be it from us to entertain the belief criminating with treason what was done by General Arista, who, perhaps, might be accused of other faults, but in no way of this, nor also of cowardice; for it is well known that during the whole action the danger endowed him with valor that has merited recommendation and eulogium....
Ramon Alacaraz. The Other Side: Or Notes for the History of the War Between Mexico and the United States Written in Mexico. Albert C. Ramsey, translator. (New York:1850), pp. 33-38, 45-50.