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You are Captain James Duncan, commander of Battery A, 2d United States Artillery. Your battery consists of four 6- pounder cannon drawn by teams of horses, making them highly maneuverable and extremely mobile “light artillery.” Your unit’s 50 Soldiers travel by riding atop the horses pulling the cannon and their accompanying caissons of ammunition or by sitting on the caissons. Your battery is part of Brigadier General Zachary Taylor’s 2,400-man Army of Observation, a regular U.S. Army force sent to the Mexican border area near the Rio Grande River when war with Mexico seemed likely following the United States’ annexation of Texas in December 1845.

Five days ago, May 3, 1846, Mexican General Mariano Arista, commanding the 3,500-man Army of the North, attacked the small American garrison at Fort Brown, an outpost on the Rio Grande across the river from Matamoros, Mexico. In response, Taylor decided to lead his army 25 miles from its location on the Gulf of Mexico coast to relieve the fort.

Now, May 8, the general and his army reach Palo Alto – a 2-milewide open plain about 10 miles from Fort Brown – and discover Arista’s army arranged in a mile-long battle line blocking the Matamoros Road. Taylor immediately orders his outnumbered men to establish a half-mile-long line facing the Mexicans. After deploying his infantry, he directs you to send three of your four cannon to the far left of the American line to guard against an enveloping maneuver by the enemy. You, meanwhile, stay behind in the center of the line with your battery’s remaining 6-pounder.

At 2:30 p.m., the enemy infantry begins crossing the 700 yards separating the two forces. Both sides are armed with muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets with an effective range of only 50-100 yards. In comparison, your cannon have a range of 1,500 yards. As the Mexicans advance against the center of the American line, you realize you must get your 6-pounder into action immediately – but where should you position it for maximum impact?

Sergeant Wilson, your gunner, says, “Captain, the Mexicans are well within our cannon’s range. Let’s unlimber right here and commence firing at once!”



Ever since Sweden’s 17th-century warrior-king Gustavus Adolphus introduced mobile field artillery to the battlefield, cannon have been important weapons in determining the outcome of combat. Although in the 19th century’s first decade Napoleon often moved his artillery forward to support massed infantry attacks, as mid-century approaches, cannon are still typically deployed alongside or directly behind the infantry to provide defensive fire.

Yet beginning in the early 1840s, Major Samuel Ringgold, a gunnery commander in Taylor’s army, began developing offensive minded tactics that seek to capitalize on the mobility and maneuverability of a new generation of horse drawn light artillery guns nicknamed “flying artillery.” Since improvements in cannon construction have greatly increased the guns’ range over inaccurate smoothbore infantry muskets, Ringgold’s aggressive tactics entail moving the light artillery well forward of supporting infantry lines – but still out of musket range – to blast apart enemy infantry attacks.

Here at Palo Alto, the broad, open plain provides perfect long-range fields of fire for artillery and a chance to employ Ringgold’s innovative tactics. Yet the effectiveness of artillery emplaced defensively has been demonstrated time and again, while Ringgold’s offensive artillery tactics remain untested.


You realize you must choose between two very different courses of action:

The first option is to emplace the 6-pounder in a defensive position directly behind the American infantry to help the foot soldiers repel the enemy attack as it closes on Taylor’s battle line. This plan offers several advantages: it keeps your artillerymen near infantry support, gets the cannon into action as quickly as possible, positions it to fire over the heads of the U.S. infantrymen to disrupt the advancing enemy line before it reaches the Americans, and allows the gun crew to engage any Mexican infantrymen who might break through the U.S. ranks.

The alternative choice is to use your cannon offensively, racing it forward a few hundred yards beyond the infantry to blast the advancing Mexicans long before they can close on the American line. Although this leaves your artillerymen with no infantry support, it keeps your cannoneers safely out of range of the Mexicans’ smoothbore muskets. Once the enemy line advances nearer, horses will drag the cannon back out of musket range so it can once again blast the enemy ranks with impunity.


Turning to Sergeant Wilson, you announce, “No, Sergeant, we will not unlimber the gun here. Rather than waiting for the Mexicans to come to us, we will take the fight to them! We will race the cannon well beyond our infantry line and repeatedly blast the enemy ranks as they move toward us. Remaining just out of musket range, we will alternately fire and then quickly use the horses to move the gun back as the Mexicans advance.

“Now, bring up the teams pulling the cannon and caisson and follow me through the infantry line to our first firing position. Tell the men to hold on tight and don’t spare the whip on the horses. Forward!”


 Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief.

HISTORICAL NOTE: Taylor’s May 8, 1846, victory against Arista’s much larger Mexican army at the Battle of Palo Alto was fueled by American “flying artillery” batteries led by a new breed of daring and resourceful officers. Using the aggressive offensive tactics pioneered by Major Samuel Ringgold, American batteries of highly mobile light artillery raced over the battlefield, blasting to shreds Mexican infantry attacks and turning back Arista’s attempts to outflank the American battle line.

Although offensive artillery tactics featured prominently in U.S. victories throughout the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, Ringgold did not survive the Palo Alto battle. He was mortally wounded leading his battery forward to disrupt a Mexican attack. Total casualties at the battle were nine Americans killed and 45 wounded, and 128 Mexicans killed and 130 wounded.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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