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Dramatically illustrated newspaper accounts of the border clashes between U.S. and Mexican troops fascinated Americans and galvanized support for the Mexican War.

Showdown on the Rio Grande

By David A. Norris
4/29/2016 • Military History

The hot days at Fort Texas were about to get a lot hotter. In the three weeks since their arrival in late March 1846 soldiers of the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment had watched as Mexican troops rolled guns into position along the south bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, opposite the Americans’ rough earthwork fortress. Now a large procession across the river flowed from gun to gun, as priests in turn blessed each of the cannon pointing north. The 500 men at Fort Texas were caught between those guns and nearly 4,000 troops of Mexican Maj. Gen. Mariano Arista’s Army of the North, which had crossed the river on April 24. The Americans’ only possible relief force, 2,200 men under Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor, was two days’ march away. The governments of the United States and Mexico were not yet officially at war, but military events on the Rio Grande would soon outpace politics.

When the United States annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845, it acquired both a vast new territory and a potential war. Despite his defeat and capture at the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, and his pledge in a subsequent secret treaty to recognize Texas’ independence, President Antonio López de Santa Anna had never accepted the loss of the breakaway province. Mexico had officially repudiated the treaty, prompting nine years of cold war broken by sporadic border clashes and abortive invasions. The admission of Texas into the Union turned the boundary dispute with Mexico into a federal issue. Washington adopted Texas’ claim that the Rio Grande marked the international border, while Mexico insisted it ran along the Nueces River, more than 30 miles farther north. The diplomatic impasse worsened after annexation, and President James K. Polk ordered troops to southern Texas to defend the disputed tract between the rivers. Soldiers began landing at the mouth of the Nueces near Corpus Christi in July 1845.

It took months for the U.S. Army to scrape up an expeditionary force from men posted at its lonely frontier posts and sleepy, undermanned coastal forts. Even then dragoons turned up without mounts, while artillery units arrived with neither horses nor guns. Eager to save money, the Quartermaster Department had resisted sending Army horses, insisting instead that units capture and break Texas mustangs and adding that the tough, wiry animals could live off prairie grass instead of expensive feed. According to one disgruntled officer, however, the mustangs were about as useful as goats when it came to pulling heavy guns and wagons.

By October some 3,500 men were camped at Corpus Christi; they comprised more than half the entire U.S. Army and were by far the largest assembly of American troops since the War of 1812. Officers who for years had only drilled companies of men had to learn to maneuver as part of a regiment or a brigade. As cavalry made up a high proportion of the Mexican army, the men frequently practiced forming infantry squares to repel horsemen.

A great tent city sprawled across the wide, sandy beach. It dwarfed Corpus Christi, at the time a small, scruffy settlement that survived in large part on revenues from smuggling. On a map that stretch of the Texas coast seemed a good disembarkation point, but its waters were so shallow that none of the ships could land, thus goods and men had to be transferred aboard lighters. Smugglers turned an honest dollar by renting their shallow-draft boats to the Army.

The U.S. commander, Zachary Taylor, was born in 1784 on a Virginia plantation and reared on the Kentucky frontier before joining the Army in 1808. Nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready,” the tobacco-chewing 61-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 and Indian wars cared nothing for military pomp and splendor. On campaign he often dressed more like a dirt farmer than a general. Taylor’s men loved his courage, his willingness to share their hardships and his sense of humor, and they were happy to follow him when in February 1846 he finally received orders to march south into the disputed Rio Grande territory. Among his junior officers were Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis, George Meade, James Longstreet, William J. Hardee and Braxton Bragg—men who would make their names in a later, far bloodier conflict.

Supporting Taylor’s infantry was an artillery contingent of four 18-pounders and three of the Army’s five batteries of “flying artillery.” Under the command of Major Samuel Ringgold, the latter units were renowned for their extraordinary readiness and mobility. Gunners rode their own mounts, rather than having to hold on to the caissons and limbers, thus they could move, emplace and fire their brass 6-pounders far faster than regular artillery. The coming battles would be their first test in combat.

On March 27 the Americans raised the Stars and Stripes across from Matamoros

En route to the disputed zone Taylor split his army, sending a detachment to set up a coastal supply depot at Point Isabel while the rest pushed on to the border. On March 27 the Americans raised the Stars and Stripes on the Rio Grande across from Matamoros. There, under the glare of a Mexican army fast building its own fortifications, the troops built a strong earthen star fortress ringed by a moat. They dubbed it Fort Texas.

Commanding the Mexican forces arrayed against them was 43-year-old General Mariano Arista, who had enlisted as a teenage cadet in Spanish forces toward the end of the colonial era. After Mexico gained its independence, he rose to command the Army of the North. Entrusted with defending Mexico’s claimed border with Texas, his force contained some of the nation’s best units.

Though war had not yet been declared, tensions flared across the riverine border over the next few months. In the most serious incident 1,600 lancers under Brig. Gen. Anastasio Torrejón crossed the Rio Grande upstream from Matamoros. On April 25 an 80-man force of U.S. dragoons under Captain Seth Thornton went to investigate and rode straight into an ambush. Torrejón’s men killed 11 dragoons, wounded six and captured the rest, including Thornton. As far as Taylor was concerned, hostilities had begun.

As serious a blow as the Thornton affair was, Taylor was actually more worried about his supply lines. His army was running low on food, and the lightly guarded Point Isabel depot was vulnerable to capture. In order to secure the vital port, Taylor and most of the army marched back to Point Isabel on May 1, leaving Major Jacob Brown, the 7th Infantry and a handful of artillerymen to hold Fort Texas.

While Arista believed an all-out attack on the fort would prove too costly, he thought a siege might reduce it. On May 3 the guns in Matamoros opened fire on Fort Texas, to which the Americans responded with counterbattery fire from their 18-pounders, quickly dismounting two of the Mexican guns. A Mexican heavy mortar emplaced behind the fort, set deep in the ground and protected by earthworks, was harder for the American guns to seek out. “No one can tell where the confounded things are going to fall,” wrote one soldier of its shells. Casualties mounted, and on the third day of the siege Brown himself was mortally wounded. The defenders also began running low on ammunition.

On March 7 Taylor was finally able to leave for the Rio Grande with his 2,200 men, 200 wagons and two more 18-pounders, each pulled by six yokes of lumbering oxen. Two batteries of flying artillery, under Ringgold and Captain James Duncan, rounded out the force. They marched about 7 miles before halting to make camp.

Taylor didn’t know it, but Arista was also on the move. Early on the morning of May 8 his 4,000 men waited for Taylor on the Matamoros Road at a place called Palo Alto (“Tall Timber”). The name derived from low ridges crowned with trees and brush that stood out from the surrounding prairie. The Mexican line, anchored by cavalry on each flank, stretched more than a mile. Around and behind it were dense thickets of chaparral, while between the armies lay coastal prairie pocked with rain-filled hollows.

By noon Taylor’s men had closed to within a dozen miles of Fort Texas when they caught flashes of sunlight glinting off polished Mexican lance tips and bayonets. The Americans approached through stiff, shoulder-deep prairie grass that 2nd Lt. Ulysses S. Grant of the 4th U.S. Infantry described as “pointed at the top, and hard and almost as sharp as a darning needle.” There was no natural shelter for the supply wagons, and the men suffered from heat and thirst during the march, but they arrived on the prairie to the welcome sight of a pond. Perched atop his horse, Old Whitey, and calmly chewing tobacco, the general ordered a halt. While “Old Rough and Ready” planned their opening moves, each company dispatched a platoon, loaded down with canteens, to the waterhole.

Even on horseback Taylor lacked a clear view of the enemy line, as it was largely obscured by the prairie grass and chaparral. But Lieutenant Jacob Blake, a young engineer with his advance guard, had made a daring horseback reconnaissance within 150 yards of the Mexican line, and his reconnoiter had revealed the location of concealed enemy batteries, as well as the swamp and wooded rise that protected Arista’s flanks.

At about 2 p.m. Arista’s guns opened fire on the American line, which had formed behind its batteries about a half-mile away. The Mexican guns—eight 4-pounders and two 8-pounders—threw copper projectiles that landed well short of their targets. Experiencing his first action, Grant recalled the enemy shot “ricocheted through the tall grass so slowly that the men would see them and open ranks and let them pass.”

Given the distance, the American gunners instead used solid iron shot, and their 18-pounders ripped into the Mexican line with especially deadly effect.

Noting the carnage wreaked by Taylor’s guns, Arista sent Torrejón’s lancers to either turn the American right or fall upon the wagon train. A flustered German-speaking messenger ran to warn Taylor, pointing frantically toward the right flank and sputtering, “Die Mexican! Die Mexican!” But stands of brush obscured the general’s view of the approaching enemy. After several anxious moments a staff officer who knew some German was able to coax more details from the messenger, and Taylor immediately advised Lt. Col. James S. McIntosh of the 5th U.S. Infantry to form an infantry square.

McIntosh’s voice boomed out: “Fifth Infantry! Form square!” The tedious drilling at Corpus Christi was about to pay off. Two sides of McIntosh’s square, bolstered by two of Ringgold’s guns under Lieutenant Randolph Ridgely, faced the onrushing horsemen. Torrejón’s lancers, slowed by the soggy field and peppered by American musket volleys, drew up some 40 yards short of the square. The lancers returned fire but were soon driven back. Torrejón regrouped and struck at Taylor’s left, but the Americans again repelled the charging horsemen. Two hours into the fight burning wads from the American guns sparked fires in the prairie grass, choking the battlefield with smoke and suspending the fight for nearly an hour. Torrejón’s cavalry hadn’t returned to its original position on the Mexican left, and under cover of the smoke Taylor pushed his right to about where the enemy line had been.

When the smoke had cleared sufficiently, the American gunners immediately opened fire. The gaps they tore through the Mexican ranks were plain to see, but Taylor recalled that the “constancy” of the enemy troops under this terrible fire was “a theme of universal remark and admiration.” Arista’s artillerymen brought their guns to bear on the deadly artillery, particularly Ringgold’s battery, which had pushed out well out in advance of Taylor’s right. The major was surveying the action from atop his celebrated white thoroughbred, Davy Branch, when a 4-pounder ball hit saddle-high, breaking two pommel-holstered pistols, killing the horse and tearing through Ringgold’s upper thighs without breaking the bones. Thrown to the ground, the mortally wounded major waved on his men. “Don’t stay with me!” he barked. “You have work to do.”

The fighting surged back and forth, neither side gaining a decisive edge by the time darkness fell. Taylor held the position the Arista’s army had occupied that morning, but he had not been able to break the Mexican line. Still, the Americans had sustained only four killed and 48 wounded, compared to Arista’s 250-plus casualties. The moon shone gently through the haze of the still-smoldering grass fires as the exhausted men settled into camp. Lieutenant Blake, who had survived his daring gallop before the entire Mexican line that morning, tossed aside his pistols before turning in. One struck the ground and discharged a ball that killed him.

Early on May 9 Arista fell back from Palo Alto and staked out a new defensive line at Resaca de la Palma, 5 miles south along the Matamoros Road. Buffered by stretches of dense chaparral and trees, the dry former riverbed of the Rio Grande made a fine breastwork. Arista knew the superior American artillery would be of little use in this tangled labyrinth. On the other hand, his cavalry also couldn’t maneuver in the chaparral.

Just after dawn Taylor summoned 13 of his officers to a council of war. Their mood was cautious; while they had held their own against a larger enemy force, only four of the officers favored an aggressive attack. The rest wanted either to dig in and await reinforcements or to return to Point Isabel. Taylor thanked them for their opinions, then stated bluntly, “I will be in Fort Texas before night, if I live.”

Of course the only clear route to the fort was along the Matamoros Road, by then well covered by the muzzles of Mexican artillery where the road crossed the resaca. Arista, certain the American commander would consider his line impregnable and leave it alone, settled into his tent to write reports.

Taylor sent his wounded to Point Isabel, left the supply train under the protection of the 18-pounders and a pair of 12-pounders, and set off after Arista. Around 2 p.m. the light companies Taylor had sent probing through the chaparral reported contact with the enemy. The light troops and Ringgold’s battery, now under Ridgely’s command, engaged the Mexican guns on the Matamoros Road, while the 3rd, 4th and 5th U.S. Infantry regiments spread out to either side in the chaparral.

Ridgely faced three Mexican batteries, numbering eight guns in all. Backing the guns was the Tampico Battalion, among the Army of the North’s finest units, whose men never wavered, even as Ridgely’s guns tore into their ranks. After sustaining heavy return cannon and musket fire and repulsing a charge by Mexican lancers, Ridgely sent for help.

Captain Charles May’s 2nd Dragoons charge the Mexican gun line at Resaca. In so doing they captured Mexican Brig. Gen. Rómulo Díaz de la Vega. (John Ludlow Morton/Library of Congress)

Taylor sent Captain Charles May of the 2nd Regiment of Dragoons to charge the Mexican batteries. As May approached Ridgely’s position, he asked the artilleryman to point out the enemy guns. “Hold on, Charley, till I draw their fire, and you will see where they are.” After a furious exchange, and before the Mexican gunners could reload, the bugle sounded the charge, and May’s 60 dragoons broke into a gallop, disappearing into the smoke between the lines. The dragoons rode down or stampeded the enemy gunners from their pieces, but the momentum of the charge carried them past the guns. May’s dragoons were so scattered by the time he reined up, he found himself with scarcely a half-dozen men.

The wild-eyed, bearded captain managed to round up his dragoons for a return sweep, and when they reached the enemy guns May found Mexican Brig. Gen. Rómulo Díaz de la Vega pinned between the wheels of one of the pieces, refusing to surrender to anyone but an officer. When May confirmed he was a captain, the combative general agreed to turn over his sword. His opponents and American newspapers alike admired de la Vega’s stubborn valor, and Taylor later handed him back his sword.

Back home May’s charge became the most celebrated incident of the battle, inspiring countless romanticized prints. His superiors, though, scoffed at the public perception of the young dragoon captain single-handedly winning the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Indeed, caught in a heavy infantry crossfire with no reinforcements on the way, May was forced to abandon the captured guns and return to Taylor with his prisoners. His men didn’t even pause to spike the pieces, and Mexican gunners re-manned them as soon as the dragoons galloped away.

As May returned to the American line, Taylor snapped to his infantry officers, “Take those guns, and by God, keep them!” The 8th Infantry, which had just come up, joined the 5th in an attack that ultimately overran the enemy batteries. Around the captured guns desperate Mexican foot soldiers clawed their way into the chaparral, shoving their comrades ahead of them into the interlocking tangle of thorns. Musket balls cut branches and slashed leaves. Whole companies dissolved into bands of a half-dozen or fewer men, and the battle disintegrated into countless little skirmishes and bayonet fights. Retreat, at least fast enough to avoid being shot in the back, was impossible.

Grant, finding himself temporarily in command of his company, wrote that he pushed blindly through the chaparral somewhere on the right flank, “taking advantage of any clear spot that would carry me towards the enemy.” Although he and his men couldn’t see their opponents, the lieutenant recalled that “balls commenced to whistle very thick overhead…so I ordered my men to lie down, an order that did not have to be enforced.” When the firing died down, Grant again moved forward and soon found a clearing in the brush. Spotting a handful of Mexican soldiers, he and his men charged, capturing them with no resistance. Grant was sending the prisoners to the rear when a private appeared from the front with a wounded American officer. The disappointed young lieutenant realized his men had “recaptured” Mexican troops already secured by advancing Americans. “The Battle of Resaca de la Palma would have been won, just as it was,” he mused, “if I had not been there.”

About the time Grant was rounding up his prisoners, the entire Army of the North was crumbling. The terrific slaughter, the capture of their guns and their loss of confidence in Arista had doomed their stand at the resaca. As retreating Mexicans burst from the brush near Fort Texas, heading for the Rio Grande, the men in the fort opened fire on their former besiegers. The crossing proved as deadly as the battle itself. Many soldiers drowned while trying to swim the river. Still others died when a Mexican officer capsized a ferry by jumping his horse onto it.

News of Taylor’s victories reached Washington 10 days after Congress had declared war

American losses over the two days of fighting at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma totaled 37 killed and 137 wounded. Arista claimed 600 casualties, although U.S. reports put his losses far higher. Taylor’s men captured the Mexican general’s personal papers and baggage, as well as eight guns (six of which were loaded when captured), hundreds of British-made flintlocks marked with the arms of King George IV, and the colors of the Tampico Battalion. To the average American foot soldier, though, the most important items captured were thousands of Mexican cigars.

News of Taylor’s victories reached Washington on May 23, 10 days after Congress—responding to news of the Thornton skirmish—had declared war on Mexico. Up to that time many Americans, including senior government officials, had considered it a waste of money to maintain a standing army, not to mention the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Volunteers and militia, they had argued, could handle any national emergency better than the “epauletted loafers” of the professional ranks. Now, however, just such an army filled with West Point–trained officers had smashed a larger enemy army, and with minimal American casualties. The general public was thrilled, and many doubters were convinced of the value of the national military academy.

New tunes such as the “Palo Alto Triumphant Grand March” and “The Battle of Resaca de la Palma” waltz swept the country. Theatrical productions, heroic poems and Currier & Ives prints celebrated the battles. Several towns popped up named Palo Alto, Resaca and Ringgold. Two such towns in Georgia—Ringgold and Resaca—hosted Civil War battles. And the roar of guns would again echo across Texas’ own Palo Alto battleground. On May 12–13, 1865, nearly 19 years to the day after Zachary Taylor’s unlikely victory, the last battle of the Civil War raged at nearby Palmito Ranch. MH

Freelance writer David A. Norris is a frequent contributor to HistoryNet magazines. For further reading he recommends John S.D. Eisenhower’s So Far From God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846–1848, and the website of the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park [nps.gov/paal].

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