When Lieutenant John Richey was ambushed and killed by Mexican guerrillas in January 1847, the stage was set for a disaster unparalleled in American military history. The message Richey had been carrying provided information that could deliver an entire army of United States soldiers into the hands of the enemy.
The United States and the Republic of Mexico had been at war over territorial disputes since May of the previous year. Major General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation had won smashing victories over the Mexicans at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. By early September, Taylor had overrun the province of Nueva Léon and captured the fortress city of Monterrey. Shortly afterward, he linked up with a smaller army under Brig. Gen. John E. Wool. It seemed as if nothing could stop Taylor from plunging south, into the very heart of Mexico.
A young officer wrote home, ‘Taylor is short and very heavy, with pronounced face lines and gray hair, wears an old oilcloth cap, a dusty green coat, a frightful pair of trousers and on horseback looks like a frog.’ Admiring journalists had dubbed Taylor ‘Old Rough and Ready,’ though his troops preferred to call him ‘Old Zach.’
George G. Meade described the general as ‘a plain, sensible old gentleman.’ He usually lounged around camp in rumpled civilian clothes and bedroom slippers. Taylor’s men loved to tell the story of a young lieutenant, newly arrived in camp, who mistook the general for somebody’s servant. The lieutenant offered the ‘old fatty’ a dollar to clean his sword. Taylor duly sat down, polished the shavetail’s sword and pocketed the dollar.
By late November, shortly after capturing Saltillo, Old Zach was fit to be tied. In far-off Washington, D.C., President James K. Polk and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott had come up with a new campaign that involved an amphibious landing on the Gulf of Mexico at Vera Cruz followed by a quick thrust at Mexico City. Their plan effectively dealt Taylor and the Army of Occupation right out of the picture.
Worse was to come. Taylor wrote his son-in-law: ‘I [have] been stripped of nearly the whole of the regular force and more than half of the volunteers, and ordered to act on the defensive.’ The Army of Occupation was fast becoming the ‘Army of Unemployment.’ By January 23, Taylor was shorn of all but 500 of his regulars; the remainder of his 4,759 men were volunteers, 80 percent of whom had never heard a shot fired in anger.
No one had a greater interest in Taylor’s misfortunes than the man who ultimately received Lieutenant Richey’s lost dispatch. That was Division General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had returned from exile in Cuba to take command of the armies of Mexico. Most Americans found Santa Anna a comic figure; they mocked his arrogance, his Napoleonic pretensions and the 15 pounds of gold embroidery bedecking his coat. Yet he was a soldier of genuine talent. He was an absolute genius at procuring men, horses and guns from the impoverished countryside of Mexico. And by the middle of January 1847, he had 22,000 troops at San Luis Potosi, ready to march.
But where were they to go? Richey’s dispatch answered that, for it laid out the whole American plan in detail: Take Taylor’s best soldiers, give them to Scott and gamble everything on an overpowering surprise lunge from the sea.
To Santa Anna, the solution was clear. He would make a fast march north to Saltillo, catch Taylor by surprise and annihilate his dwindling army, then return south before Scott could make headway against Veracruz. After that, the Mexican general reasoned, it should be easy to keep Scott’s army confined near the coast, where yellow fever would surely erode the Americans faster than Mexican bullets.
On January 28, Santa Anna began his fateful march north. For three long weeks his army trudged through some of the worst terrain on the continent. Across miles of rain and ooze, along endless stretches of desert, it wound steadily north, scooping up small American patrols along the way. Reports of the advancing enemy army were rife in Taylor’s ranks. The general, however, scoffed at the rumors and the panic they inspired among his unblooded volunteers. Santa Anna, said Taylor, could never march a force larger than a corporal’s guard across the wastelands beyond San Luis Potosi. To demonstrate his disdain to the doubters, Taylor advanced his army south from Saltillo, to the sprawling Hacienda San Juan de la Buena Vista, where he set up a supply depot.
Taylor was seriously underestimating his determined adversary. On February 20, the self-styled ‘Napoleon of the West’ reviewed his forces. Thousands had perished or deserted in the hellish march, but he could still muster 15,142 of the finest soldiers of Mexico, including seven regiments of the line, the Hussars of the Guard, the Tulancingo Cuirassiers and nine cavalry regiments. Santa Anna also had 21 guns, hard to move and slow to fire, but of heavier metal than those of the Americans.
It was that same night–the 20th–when Ben McCulloch and his spy company of Texas Rangers reconnoitered the sprawling Mexican camp and started counting. By the time his report reached Zachary Taylor, it was clear that the American army faced not merely retreat but outright catastrophe. Old Rough and Ready was deep in enemy territory, facing forces fully three times the size of his own. It was impossible to run–the hordes of enemy horsemen would cut his columns to pieces. There was no choice for the tiny army but to fight for its life.
To General Wool was delegated the task of choosing a field of battle. A short distance south of Buena Vista the road entered a sharp bottleneck in the hills, where an effective barricade could be erected. To the west, a weird tangle of arroyos made the ground impassable; to the east, a series of plateaus rose sharply toward the Sierra Madre mountains, giving a small force fair opportunity to baffle a larger one. There, the outnumbered Americans would make their desperate stand.
The sun rose dazzling in a cloudless sky on the morning of February 22, 1847. To the south, dark clouds of dust heralded the approach of the Mexican army. Taylor, mounted on his horse Old Whitey, reviewed his tiny army as the regimental bands banged out ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘Hail Columbia.’ Taylor’s 517 regulars included two companies of dragoons as well as three artillery batteries. The volunteers consisted of the Mississippi Rifles, the Arkansas Mounted, Brig. Gen. Joseph Lane’s brigade of the 2nd and 3rd Indiana, the 1st and 2nd Illinois, the 1st Kentucky Mounted and the 2nd Kentucky Infantry.
Captain John W. Washington’s 8-gun battery was posted to block the road; in support were the 1st and 2nd Illinois and the 2nd Kentucky. The extreme left, the most vulnerable point in the U.S. position, was guarded by dismounted Arkansas and Kentucky riflemen. The rest of Taylor’s army was posted to the rear, ready to reinforce as needed. According to Taylor, ‘The features of the ground were such as to nearly paralyze the artillery and cavalry of the enemy, while his infantry could not derive all the advantages of its numerical superiority.’
By 9 a.m., Santa Anna had arrived on the field after yet another of his agonizing forced marches and wheeled his men into position. He quickly formed a plan that was as simple as it was admirably suited to the circumstances. He would use his tremendous advantage in numbers to turn the American left wing. Then, with a quick thrust of his cavalry regiments, he would seize the depot at Buena Vista and cut the road of retreat for Taylor’s army.
At 11 o’clock that morning, Pedro Vanderlinden, Mexico’s surgeon general, formally presented Santa Anna’s demand for surrender to Taylor. It was a long and formal document, beginning, ‘You are surrounded by twenty thousand men and cannot in any human probability avoid suffering a rout and being cut to pieces with your troops; but as you deserve consideration and particular esteem, I wish to save you from catastrophe….’ Taylor exploded in fury. Turning to his adjutant, Major William Bliss, he allegedly roared: ‘Tell Santa Anna to go to hell! Major Bliss, put that in Spanish for this damned Dutchman to deliver!’
Whether or not that was Taylor’s immediate reply, Bliss’ translation to Santa Anna read: ‘I beg leave to say that I decline acceding to your request.’ Three hours later, the booming of a Mexican howitzer signaled the start of Santa Anna’s attack. Four battalions of light infantry under General Pedro de Ampudia began a wide flanking movement designed to overlap the American left. The Arkansas and Kentucky rifle companies met the thrust in the foothills. What followed was a desperate race by both sides for higher and higher ground, with booming volleys of Mexican musketry pitted against the slow, steady fire of American rifles. Darkness finally brought an end to the struggle.
That night, Santa Anna stalked the battlefield like a man possessed. He shoved more and more units toward his right flank and personally surveyed emplacements for his artillery. Finally, he harangued each regiment of his army in turn, far into the night. The weary Americans bivouacked in the hills fell asleep hearing the echoes of ‘Viva Santa Anna!‘ and ‘Libertad o muerte!‘
As darkness fell, Taylor left Wool in command of the army and rode north, accompanied by Colonel Jefferson Davis’ Mississippi Rifles and a squadron of dragoons. He wanted to inspect the defenses of Saltillo against the possibility of an attack aimed at cutting his rear.
On the other side of the lines, Taylor’s counterpart continued to breathe fire. At 2 in the morning, Santa Anna ordered his footsore infantry booted awake for a long night march designed to mass maximum punch against the beleaguered American left. This time, he would strike not at the extreme left, which at that point was securely anchored in the mountains, but rather at the vulnerable hinge where the left met the center. There, at a point held by the untried volunteers of the 2nd Indiana, a good, hard push could scatter Taylor’s green soldiers like straw before the wind.
As dawn lightened the sky on the 23rd, a newly emplaced Mexican battery of five 8-pounders greeted the Americans. During the night, Wool had reinforced his left with companies of the 2nd Illinois and three artillery pieces under Lieutenant John Paul Jones O’Brien. One of those guns, a 12-pounder, was able to keep the first tentative enemy probes at bay with long-range shrapnel.
At 8 a.m. the storm broke. While Mexican bands played hymns and priests clad in red and gold robes swung smoking censers of incense, Santa Anna massed infantry and cavalry under Generals Francisco Pacheco and Manuel M. Lombardini and ordered them to the attack. Lombardini’s infantry had managed to work its way forward at dawn to the shelter of a huge ravine, from which they suddenly emerged to confront the startled Yankees. Like the professionals they were, the 7,000 Mexican soldiers in gaudy coats and black leather shakos rapidly formed columns, wheeled and launched themselves at O’Brien and the 2nd Indiana with the force of a thunderbolt.
Keeping up steady volleys of musket fire, and supported by a scalding shower of grapeshot from the 8-pounders, Lombardini’s and Pacheco’s men came on so fiercely that O’Brien was obliged to pull his guns back. Colonel William Bowles of the 2nd Indiana, seeing the cannoneers rolling back their weapons, rashly assumed that the entire line was under orders to retire. He called out to his men, ‘Cease firing and retreat.’ At that moment, the 2nd Indiana simply dissolved. The men ran, and nothing could stop them. Fear spread like wildfire. A soldier recalled: ‘Mexicans came out of the ravine in masses. Men left the ranks in all the regiments, and soon our rear was a confused mass of fugitives, making for Buena Vista Ranch and Saltillo.’ The abandoned cannoneers blasted away at the advancing enemy with double charges of canister topped with handfuls of stones before they, too, were forced to limber their guns and flee.
On the extreme left, where the Arkansans had fought off General Ampudia’s attacks the day before, matters were little better. The Americans clung desperately to their mountaintop, faced with the threat of being thrown off at any minute by attackers whose numbers were four or five times their own. The guns of Lieutenants George H. Thomas and Sam French were the lynchpin of the defense. Finally, the overwhelming numbers of Ampudia simply swept around the defenders and raced down the other side of the mountain to exploit the breech in the American lines. Many of the Arkansans remounted their horses and fled north, toward the imagined safety of Buena Vista.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Illinois, seemingly immune to the panic that had infected their comrades, fought a stubborn slow retreat, a few companies fighting a division–and gradually became separated from the units struggling on the far left. Captain Braxton Bragg’s battery, together with Colonel William McKee’s 2nd Kentucky and Colonel John J. Hardin’s 1st Illinois, rushed to plug the widening gap.
In pushing forward so rapidly, Lombardini’s men unwittingly exposed a flank to the guns of Bragg’s and Captain Tom Sherman’s batteries. The Mexican ranks staggered under a galling enfilade, while the Illinois infantry continuously peppered their front with pointblank volleys of ‘buck and ball’ rounds–three buckshot atop a .69 slug. The drive through the American lines slowed, then stalled.
But not before the Jalisco Lancers and 4th Cavalry Regiment, under Julián Juvera, seized their moment and swept forward, swirling through and around the beleaguered American left and riding hellbent for Buena Vista and Taylor’s precious supplies. Once there, they would be the cork in the bottle that held the whole U.S. force.
It was only then, at the absolute crisis point of the battle, that General Zachary Taylor at last returned to the battlefield. He was followed by Davis’ Mississippi Rifles, the 2nd Dragoons under Brevet Lt. Col. Charles May, and a squadron of mounted Arkansas riflemen.
Wool galloped up to Taylor in despair. ‘General,’ he cried, ‘we are whipped!’ ‘I know it,’ Taylor quietly replied, ‘but the volunteers don’t know it. Let them alone; we’ll see what they do.’
There are several variants of Taylor’s reply, but whatever he said, something akin to a miracle now had to be produced. Taylor’s left and center had been swung back like a huge door on a hinge, with the eastern wing now stretched fully a mile and a quarter all the way back to Buena Vista, toward which a routed mob of bluecoat soldiers was fleeing in utter panic.
Luickly Taylor made his dispositions. The dragoons and volunteer cavalry would rush to defend the supplies at Buena Vista, while Davis’ men would launch an immediate counterattack to in some measure restore the teetering left wing.
It was the hour of decision. The hapless Colonel Bowles, whose mistaken order had commenced the rout, snatched up a musket and fought in the ranks as a private for the remainder of the day.
The Mississippians made a proud sight as they formed ranks, wearing grand costumes more fit for 1812 than 1847. Each man wore a red shirt, a slouch hat and white duck pants; by their sides they carried 18-inch bowie knives. Far more important were their Model 1841 U.S. rifles and their well-earned reputation as ‘the finest marksmen in the world.’ The Mississippi Rifles now opened fire with murderous accuracy on Ampudia’s infantrymen as they swept down in waves from the mountains. A swift succession of shattering volleys dissolved the Mexican attack into complete confusion. A countercharge by the Mississippians, supported by the 3rd Indiana, then sent the enemy soldiers reeling back to their own lines.
Abruptly, a new threat appeared in the form of 1,500 Mexican lancers. They wheeled their horses toward the Mississippi redshirts, lances lowered for the charge. ‘Steady, boys!’ shouted Zachary Taylor above the roar of the battle. ‘Steady for the honor of old Mississippi!’
Davis, anxious to take full advantage of a cross-fire at short distance, formed his men on a plateau, the ranks taking the shape of a giant V with its open end toward the onrushing horsemen. ‘The enemy came forward rapidly and in beautiful order,’ Davis remembered, ‘the files and ranks so closed as to look like a mass of men and horses.’
Closer and closer the troopers came, banners dancing, the noonday sun glittering on their lances, until they were within 80 yards of the Mississippi position. There, they halted. Perhaps the lancers expected to draw an ineffectual fire from American muskets before charging home. If so, they wholly underestimated their opponents, who carried rifles accurate up to 500 yards instead of muskets. At 80 yards the blue, green and scarlet jackets of the Mexicans were so many bright targets. A single tremendous volley rang out. ‘It was appalling,’ one observer recalled. ‘The whole head of the column was prostrated.’ The lancers did not wait for more; they wheeled their horses and fled the battlefield. Jubilant, Old Zach stood in his stirrups and twirled his hat over his head. ‘Well done, Jeff! Hurrah for old Mississippi!’
While that was happening, Juvera’s cavalry reached the depot at Buena Vista. Within the stout adobe walls, Captain Enoch Steen and Major John Munroe were trying to organize a ragtag collection of fugitives into something resembling a defense. A slashing attack by the 1st U.S. Dragoons brought Steen some precious time; the dragoons struck Juvera’s ranks squarely in the middle, throwing his rear into irrevocable confusion. Some Mexicans raced back to their lines; others joined the attack on Davis. The rest of the Mexican force galloped madly around Buena Vista under a terrific fusillade from the American soldiers, who shot from roofs, windows, and from behind the shelter of ranch buildings. Unable to make any headway in his attack, Juvera led the remainder of his force west, ultimately riding completely around the American position and accomplishing nothing beyond pushing up the Mexican casualty lists.
A lull followed, albeit an all too brief one for the weary Americans. By 5 p.m., Santa Anna had patched together a collection of reserves from the remnants of Lombardini’s and Pacheco’s commands. Those men, several thousand strong, advanced against the American center. Facing them were the Illinois regiments of Colonels Hardin and William H. Bissell, together with McKee’s Kentuckians and a battery under Lieutenant O’Brien.
Under overpowering pressure, the blue line slowly but inexorably fell back. O’Brien, reduced to having green infantry man his guns because all his artillerymen had been killed or wounded, lost two 6-pounders and only just managed to save the rest of his battery. Hardin was killed while trying to seize the colors of the Hidalgo Battalion; his command was pushed back into a deep ravine, where Mexican infantry lined the rim and fired down into the Americans. Colonel McKee was slain, along with many others. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay, Jr., whose famous father had bitterly opposed the Mexican War, died calling on his men to leave him and save themselves. As Taylor later understated it, ‘The moment was most critical.’
The gallant O’Brien slowly rode his wounded, limping horse to the rear. He himself had been shot through the leg while trying to withdraw his battery. He left the field, however, with one abiding consolation: ‘I was…delighted to find that I had maintained my ground sufficiently long to cause the victory to be secured, for, at this moment, the rest of our artillery arrived and came into action.’
These were the guns of Captain Bragg’s light artillery, a company in which everyone, from captain to private, rode into battle. The little 6-pounders of the ‘flying artillery’ were considered among the most mobile cannons in the world, and now they came rattling across the battlefield at breakneck speed, the horses urged on by gunners who used the flats of their swords as whips.
Rapidly unlimbering into battery, Bragg’s guns faced an onrushing horde of enemy infantry. Glancing nervously behind him, Bragg asked Taylor, ‘Who is going to support me?’ Taylor, his leg hooked over the pommel of his saddle, coolly replied, ‘Major Bliss and I will support you.’ In truth, more substantial reinforcements were at hand–the Mississippi Rifles and U.S. Dragoons were already well on their way at a dead run.
As Bragg’s cannoneers bent to their work, Taylor reined in Old Whitey in order to take a closer look. ‘What are you using, Captain, grape or canister?’
‘Canister, General,’ replied Bragg.
‘Single or double?’
‘Well, double shot your guns and give ’em hell, Bragg.’
And the good captain proceeded to do just that. Three separate salvos at 50 yards were enough to shatter the Mexican attack and send Santa Anna’s proud regiments scurrying back across the field to safety.
A similar deliverance came for the Americans trapped in the ravine, with their exit from the gorge blocked by a squadron of Mexican lancers. From the road came the roar of Captain Washington’s guns, and the lancers wheeled about to face that new threat. Spherical case shot began bursting over the heads of the Mexican horsemen, shrapnel ripping horses and riders alike. Lieutenant W.H.L. Wallace later wrote: ‘I’ve heard many sweet sounds…but the whistling of that shell was the most grateful sound that ever greeted my ear. I turned, fatigued as I was, to see the effect. It was terrible. The main body of Lancers scampered back over the hill.’
Within the hour, a blinding torrent of rain swept the battlefield. The day’s fighting was over.
That night, Santa Anna and his generals held a council of war. The Mexican commander had lost some 3,500 men killed, wounded or missing–almost one-quarter of the entire attacking force. Taylor’s losses were 271 killed, 387 wounded and six missing. The American army remained in a precarious position, with one wing resting on little more than a prayer, and was still heavily outnumbered, but the Mexican army was a spent force. Too little sleep and too much hard marching, combined with that terrible butcher’s bill, had plunged the morale of the soldados Mexicanos to the bottom.
For the Americans, the misty dawn of February 24 brought first amazement, then celebration. Upon seeing the Mexican army in retreat, Taylor and Wool embraced in the middle of the battlefield and wept like children. Said Captain Carleton: ‘…a sound went along our lines ever to be remembered. It was but a single cry at first, then a murmuring which rose and swelled upon the ear like the voice of a trumpet: then a prolonged and thrilling shout: ‘Victory! Victory! The enemy has fled! The field is ours!”
The triumph was even sweeter for Old Zach than he could have realized on that glorious morning. By the next year, he would be elected president of the United States. Jefferson Davis, whose V formation had saved the day for the bluecoats, would later ride his reputation to the presidency of the Confederate States of America.
In the end, Santa Anna did what so many beaten men have done before and since. He went home and declared a victory. As proof of his achievement, the general displayed O’Brien’s captured 6-pounders. To win that pair of guns, Santa Anna had wrecked his army from top to bottom; in the seven months left before the fall of Mexico City, his soldiers would never win another battle.
At Padierna on August 20, 1847, Captain Simon Drum of the 4th U.S. Artillery recaptured O’Brien’s lost 6-pounders. The guns had one last, long journey before them, for they were to be taken to West Point and there displayed in the administration building beneath a plaque that read, ‘Lost without dishonor, recovered with glory.’ *
This article was written by Robert Benjamin Smith and originally published in the February 1997 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!