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On December 3, 1846, some seven months into the war with Mexico, a ragged detachment of U.S. 1st Dragoons marching from Santa Fe, led by Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny and guided by famed scout Kit Carson, climbed from the Mojave Desert onto a wooded plain and arrived at thriving Warner’s Ranch. 

Proprietor Jonathan Trumbull Warner was being held in American-occupied San Diego on charges of being an enemy sympathizer. (A naturalized Mexican citizen, he had changed his name to Juan José Warner.) In his absence Kearny’s starving men, part of what the general had grandiosely dubbed the Army of the West, indulged themselves amply in Don Juan’s food and California wine.

Two days later, in the cold, fog and rain, the troops continued their march south toward San Diego. Near Rancho Santa Maria they joined with Marine Captain Archibald Gillespie and a mounted detachment of the recently formed California Battalion. 

Gillespie’s unit numbered 39 Marines, sailors and “Bear Flaggers” (civilians who sought an independent Republic of California), and the combined force comprised about 150 reasonably well-armed men, two howitzers and a cannon—surely more than sufficient to deal with any Mexican units then operating in Alta California. 

Gillespie informed Kearny that Californios (residents of Spanish ancestry) had nearly wrested control of the southern half of the territory. The captain added that a small enemy force—75 land owners and vaqueros under ranchero Andrés Pico, a brother to Alta California governor Pío Pico—were bivouacked in the nearby Indian village of San Pasqual. 


In a moment of impolitic candor Gillespie bluntly appraised Kearny’s troops as physically depleted and unfit for combat, even against supposedly craven Mexican irregulars. The captain then volunteered his well-rested, experienced California “mountain men” to scout the enemy position. 

Kearny, reflecting his scorn of civilian soldiers, declined the offer and assigned Gillespie’s detachment the inglorious job of guarding the supply train at the column’s rear. Kearny also dismissed out of hand 1st Dragoons Captain Benjamin Moore’s suggestion of an immediate, massive strike and instead dispatched 10 dragoons under 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond to pinpoint Pico’s position.

Hammond and his patrol clattered their way down the dark road to San Pasqual, returning at about 2 in the morning to report they had stumbled across the enemy camp and alerted the Californios’ to their presence. Fearing the enemy would either flee or ambush his force, Kearny elected to attack. 

Basing his decision on advice from Carson and others, and naively drawing on his summer exploits in the nonviolent conquest of New Mexico, Kearny believed the undisciplined Mexicans would scatter at the first shot.

In flippantly underrating his opponent, Kearny discarded doctrine that had consistently worked for his regiment over its 13-year existence, opting instead to plunge ahead like an unseasoned shavetail fresh from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Perhaps the fault lay in the general’s preoccupation with his junior officers’ ambitions. 

In the wartime Regular Army brevet commissions and promotions piled up like cordwood, but Kearny’s Hotspurs-in-waiting—Moore, Hammond, Captain Abraham Johnston and Lieutenants John Davidson and William Emory—likely fretted aloud the war might end before they gained honors in the field.

So the usually cautious Kearny devised and pursued a half-baked plan for an all-out assault—rushing into combat, ignoring his dragoons’ exhaustion and inexperience, burying Gillespie’s rested and seasoned troops in the rear, attacking over unknown terrain, commencing the attack before daylight—all flowing out of his gross underestimation of the enemy. To borrow a popular phrase among period soldiers, General Kearny played the devil on his watch.

No analyst of the subsequent debacle should underestimate the pervasive power of alcohol. Sources strongly suggest drunkenness played a role at San Pasqual. In an article for the Nov. 13, 1868, edition of the Daily Alta California, correspondent Charles Pickett, who visited the site and spoke with locals, squarely blamed the defeat at San Pasqual on the men’s consumption of wine on the eve of battle. Gillespie’s fiery denial in the next day’s paper only fanned the flames of rumor. 

In his biography of Kearny, Dwight Clarke casually brushes aside Pickett’s accusation on the grounds Pickett wasn’t there and Gillespie was. But the journalist’s charge deserves more than a summary dismissal, for another source cites inebriation at San Pasqual, an account given by one who was present. Trooper Erasmus Darwin French, a trained doctor serving as Army surgeon Dr. John Griffin’s assistant, bluntly recalled the “officers [were] full of wine.” 

While at Warner’s Ranch officers and men alike had consumed a considerable amount of wine, likely the first alcohol they had had in several weeks. This liberal imbibing of spirits surely gladdened their hearts but may well have dissolved their judgment.


Standing on the bluff overlooking San Pasqual at predawn on December 6, Kearny gathered his men and, in heroic language perhaps borrowed from Lord Nelson’s famous signal before the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, told them their country expected them to do their duty. 

As the men stood “to horse,” sergeants and corporals inspected the mules and horses to ensure saddle girths were tightened and checked that weapons were loaded and primed. The troops then mounted, formed a column of twos and rode into the valley.

The approaching column of mounted dragoons, pack animals and three artillery pieces was anything but quiet. With sabers clanking against brass fittings, carbines, tin cups and other metal equipage, not to mention some 400 horseshoes striking rock, artillery limbers and cannons creaking and groaning, and mules braying under heavy loads, it must have sounded to Pico’s men like an approaching carnival.

Trotting smartly at the column’s head were Captain Johnston and Company K’s dozen dragoons, mounted on the command’s fittest horses. General Kearny, Captain Henry Turner, an escort and staffers closely shadowed Johnston’s vanguard. Behind Kearny came 60 dragoons under Captain Moore and Lieutenant Hammond, many of the men riding mules or unbroken horses recently filched from the Mexicans. 

Then followed Gillespie’s detachment of Marines, sailors and Bear Flaggers with the brass 4-pounder cannon expropriated from John Sutter’s northern fort, in turn backed by Lieutenant Davidson’s pair of mountain howitzers on battered carriages lashed together with ropes and rawhide straps. The remaining staff, a few Marines and the pack train brought up the rear under the command of Major Thomas Swords. 

The opening action would be quick, confused, shrouded in half-light and last no more than 15 minutes. None of its participants knew what was happening 10 yards away, and reports of its first five minutes yield a blurry description. Worse, many accounts proved self-serving and contradicted one another.


Captain Johnston’s men rode at a cautious pace down the narrow canyon. As they emerged at the north end of the long valley, they surprised two mounted Californio pickets, who turned and fled. Johnston and his men, their blood stirred by this initial success, immediately gave spur to their horses to chase them down. 

But as their pilfered mounts were not trained to maintain formation, the “charge was not made with our whole force or with as much precision as desirable,” recalled artist John Mix Stanley, who was attached to the force as a Corps of Topographical Engineers draftsman.

Johnston’s heavily encumbered chargers were no match for the swift horses capably ridden by the Californios, who easily outdistanced them. Approaching the village, the captain and his men thought they saw, off to their right, a shadowy group of vaqueros. 

Johnston’s dragoons sharply swiveled toward them, drew sabers and charged upslope. Trooper William Dunne, desperately trying to keep up with Johnston, later recalled that the confusion, low visibility and weakness of the mounts dissolved the onrushing vanguard’s formation. The fight quickly became chaotic, every man for himself. Although Kearny could scarcely make out the action ahead, the general sensed Johnston was engaging fleeing vaqueros and ordered his bugler to sound, “Charge as foragers!”

In the murky light Johnston could not see Pico’s men, given forewarning by their pickets, perfectly positioned to meet his charge. Out of the shadows a vaquero drew his escopeta, a big-bore musket, and fired into the gloom at the charging dragoons. 

The heavy ball struck Johnston in the head, instantly killing him—thus granting him the dubious distinction of being the first and only dragoon to die by gunfire at San Pasqual. Other Californios also opened fire but caused no serious injuries. Noting the steady advance of Kearny, Captain Moore and the remaining Americans, and knowing his ammunition was almost used up, Pico ordered a retreat down the road to San Diego. 


Moore—saber held high, cutting edge at tierce point and mounted on one of the regiment’s finest horses—raced onward. Unfortunately, most dragoons in his company were riding far inferior horses and mules and had fallen far behind. A small knot of troopers did manage to keep up with Moore. 

Together they crested a small rise only to confront a large group of menacing Californios. Trooper Asa Bowen recalled rounding the point and seeing “a million people making for us.” Rather than wait for reinforcements, Moore and his little band foolishly pitched into the enemy.

Moore was immediately lanced and unhorsed, but he managed to remount and resume fighting, saber still firmly in hand. Spying a lancer—possibly Pico himself—seeking to leave the field, Moore spurred his horse in pursuit. He was about to slash the man when the latter agilely spun his mount and, with his heavy wooden lance, shattered the blade of Moore’s saber. 

Ranchero Andrés Pico, brother to Alta California governor Pío Pico, led the Mexican irregulars. (U.S. Center for Military History.(

Tossing down the hilt in disgust, the captain reached for a pistol in his pommel holster when lances wielded by ranchero Leandro Osuna and others found their mark. Seeing the captain in distress, Lieutenant Hammond—Moore’s brother-in-law—charged forward to save him, only to receive no fewer than nine mortal wounds to the chest from the same lancers who had slain Moore. He lingered painful hours before dying.

Also imprudently galloping ahead of his men, Captain Gillespie charged in, sword drawn, and quickly found himself hemmed in by lancers—several of whom recognized him as the detested former military ruler of Los Angeles. 

Gillespie had longed to show these brash, upstart vaqueros the harm he could inflict. Instead, the lancers closed in, one hooking the Marine’s back collar and unhorsing him. As he rose from the ground, a rider at his back drove a lance deep into his chest, another sliced open his lip and broke a tooth, and a third gashed his arm. Confused from pain and loss of blood, he slashed his way free to find help. 


The costly opening fight had already rendered Kearny’s dragoons hors de combat (“outside the fight”). Within moments three dragoon officers and 16 enlisted men lay dead or dying, with another 15 dragoons badly wounded—more than half of the force engaged in the initial contact. Among the severely injured was Kearny himself, having received two lance gashes. One vaquero was poised to deal the general a coup de grâce when Lieutenant Emory slashed his way to Kearny’s side and drove off the enemy. 

Racked by pain the general foolishly ordered a retreat. Confusion reigned supreme. Without effective leadership, all efforts to rally the men to order failed, and a hectic backward dash ensued. Gillespie described the 25 to 30 troopers then in the fight as “completely panic stricken; the best men of this command having already fallen in unequal combat.”

With the wounding of Kearny and the deaths of Johnston and Moore, Captain Turner became the senior line officer on the field. The screams of wounded and terrified troopers, mixed with the cacophony of battle, the Californios’ jeers and the squeals of panicked horses, sounded to Turner as if all hell had broken loose. 

Although he had never seen combat, he instinctively appreciated the peril lancers posed to troops in flight: To show one’s back was to invite the spear. At a glance he realized retreat would imperil the entire force. Sitting proudly erect in the saddle, saber at the ready, his calm demeanor masking a sickening inner fear, he cantered about the frightened men as if on Fort Leavenworth’s parade ground, exhorting them: “No, never, men. Never turn your backs on these men, or you will all be cut down. Dismount!” 

At Turner’s rallying cry the Americans drew their firearms, smartly formed a skirmish line and stood their ground. The morning dampness may have hampered reloading of their flintlock pistols, but each got off at least one shot. Trooper Bowen mentioned in his memoirs that some men drew pistols nestled in covered leather pommel holsters and thus unaffected by the climate. Using these, the dragoons drove off the menacing lancers, saving the day and their own lives. 


Too many historians conveniently, and incorrectly, pin the military disaster at San Pasqual on Hall carbines rendered useless by the morning dampness. True, the fulminate charges of percussion caps supplied with the weapon were often too weak to ignite the main charge, and even in the best of weather it sometimes took several trigger pulls to fire the gun. 

But unlike flintlocks, percussion carbines were perfectly functional in wet conditions. The double flaps of each dragoon’s leather cartridge box sheltered between 30 and 44 paper-wrapped cartridges, ensuring each round from a properly closed box was dry and effective. So, contrary to popular myth, the cold, fog and drizzle at San Pasqual had not been a deciding factor.

Carson’s own account of the fight refutes claims the carbines were useless. During the initial charge the scout’s horse fell, tossing him to the ground and breaking the stock of his trusty plains rifle. Scrambling free, Carson picked up a dead trooper’s carbine and cartridge box and “joined the melee,” noting no problems with that or any other Hall carbine in his autobiography. 

Further proof of the weapon’s utility came when Turner rallied the troops into a skirmish line, and they banged away at the enemy with their Hall carbines. Had the carbines failed, even Pico’s small band would have easily overwhelmed Turner’s makeshift formation. In short, the carbines did play a role in the clash.

Fifteen minutes after Moore’s fateful charge, Kearny’s slow-moving artillery finally groaned into action. The two mountain howitzers, each strapped to jury-rigged prairie limbers pulled by a pair of mules, wobbled to the front like a child’s homemade toys. Fighting the mules, the men sought to pivot the guns, business end toward the enemy, as Turner’s dragoons and Gillespie’s rifle-toting Marines, sailors and Bear Flaggers formed a defensive shield.


Dr. Griffin, an otherwise reliable witness to the battle, reported that lancers had attacked and slaughtered one of the three-man howitzer crews. But company returns for December 31 listed all men assigned to howitzer detail as unharmed. Given that the doctor kept to the rear and received his information secondhand, his testimony should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Gillespie offered a more accurate account. According to the captain, during the retreat Turner ordered the howitzer crews to fall back with the others to meet the reserves. One of the guns did so, and Turner’s men rallied around it. But the winded mules harnessed to the second howitzer wouldn’t budge. 

With the lancers on their heels, its panicked gun crew abandoned the weapon and fled for the safety of Turner’s line. Fortunately for the dragoons, the supply train had yet to bring up its ammunition. Knowing his Californios were too low on gunpowder to use the howitzer themselves, Pico wisely had his men detach the mules, lasso the gun and drag it from the field, lest it fall back into Kearny’s hands. 

The crew of the remaining howitzer wheeled it into position only to discover they, too, lacked ammunition. The ever-active Emory rode back to the pack train, secured a chest of balls and raced back to the gun with it. 

Its crew promptly rammed home a charge of gunpowder and a load of grapeshot and took aim. To set off the main charge, a crewman would hold a long match called a portfire against the touchhole atop the rear of its barrel. But in the chaos no one had bothered to secure, much less light, a portfire.

Quartermaster Major Swords, stationed in the rear, reported hearing but a single gun discharge—not the dragoon howitzer, however, but the Sutter gun. Its Navy crew smartly deployed the weapon, from which Midshipman James Duncan fired a round of grapeshot. Pursued briefly by Bear Flaggers, the Californios quickly retreated out of range. With that parting shot, at around 8 in the morning, the fighting ended for the day.

After Pico’s withdrawal Kearny’s men formed parties to gather the wounded and bury the dead. Kearny reported 18 killed and another 13 wounded, while Pico reported just one killed and 14 wounded. The Americans had captured Pico’s second-in-command, who was exchanged later in the campaign.


Sunrise brought little cheer to Kearny’s command. “The morning of the 7th,” wrote Gillespie, “dawned upon the saddest and most dispirited camp perhaps ever known in the American Arms.” An exaggeration to be sure, but their casualties and the ferocious courage of the Mexican troops—revealed to be anything but cowards—had shocked the dragoons.

The troopers quickly loaded their wounded onto makeshift travois and headed south with the command. In the aftermath of the battle Turner had sent riders ahead to seek reinforcements from U.S. Navy Commodore Robert Field Stockton, then anchored in San Diego Bay. (Arriving in Monterey five months earlier, Stockton had assumed command of all U.S. forces in California.) 

Claiming to lack sufficient horses and mules, the timid commander initially declined to send a relief force. Meanwhile, the Californios occupied the surrounding hills, content to shadow and harass the Americans. Kearny’s men reached Rancho San Bernardo and in the absence of its owner helped themselves to any food they found on the premises. 

After a short rest, they resumed their flight to safety. Continuously pressed by the enemy, the Americans forted up atop a rocky hill, and a desperate Kearny sent out three more messengers.

When the second batch of riders arrived in San Diego on December 9, Stockton finally dispatched a relief force of 120 sailors and 80 Marines under U.S. Navy Lieutenant Andrew Gray, which arrived to great fanfare early on the morning of the 11th. 

When the column marched into San Diego the next day, their seafaring comrades-in-arms showered them with accolades and, better yet, medical care, food and fresh clothing. The dragoons didn’t stand on ceremony when offered sailor uniforms, even though there were no boots available. 

While the dragoons rested, ate, refitted and recuperated, Kearny penned his after-action report to the War Department. Not surprising, he proclaimed victory over a “greatly superior” Mexican force, inflating enemy numbers to 160. 

Kearny baldly reasoned that, despite his own heavy losses, at day’s end he held the field and thus had vanquished the enemy. He pinned the loss of the howitzer not on its frightened crew but on runaway mules.


Despite the debacle at San Pasqual, Kearny remained well regarded among his officers and men, none of whom would publicly criticize him. One private lauded him as “the best exemplification of a republican soldier possible, rigorously strict almost to severity when on duty, but affable, just and kind when off duty.” 

One of his junior officers described him as “a rigid disciplinarian, and known only to the honest citizen to be respected and esteemed as a gentleman well qualified for anything in life.” 

In the weeks that followed a number of dragoons received surgeons’ certificates declaring them unfit for service due to their wounds. Adding insult to injury, the elite dragoons, having no sound horses on which to ride, were relegated to the march. 

In January 1847 Kearny and Stockton tramped north with their combined forces and captured the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Congress later awarded Kearny a brevet rank of major general for his actions in New Mexico and California. If lawmakers considered San Pasqual a victory, it was certainly a costly one.WW

California authors Will and John Gorenfeld are frequent contributors to Wild West. They adapted this article from their 2016 book Kearny’s Dragoons Out West: The Birth of the U.S. Cavalry, which is recommended for further reading, along with Lances at San Pascual, by Arthur Woodward, and Kearny’s March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846–1847, by Winston Groom.

By Will and John Gorenfeld