• Image by Tom Voss
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

State Highway 78 winds its way through the San Pasqual Valley toward Ramona. At a bend in the road a mile east of the entrance to the Wild Animal Park there is a roadside park. It is small and indistinct. One could, and many do, zip by it without a glance. Some might slow down — a few might even stop — if they knew what happened there 139 years ago. The site is a monument to a brief but bloody fight between General Stephen Kearny's heavy cavalry and a group of colorful and dashing native Californians of Spanish descent.The date was December 6, 1846. and the fight is known as the Battle of San Pasqual.

If it were not for the metal plaque fixed to a boulder near the center of the park, skeptics might frown. The site might be passed off as the efforts of some local Elks Club to give San Pasqual undeserved distinction, the type of social vanity that has given rise to "George Washington Slept Here" taverns in nondescript communities all over the Northeast. But the state seal legitimizes San Pasqual, offsetting its somewhat barren visage. By itself the monument is merely a bouldery hillside with overgrown weeds and a few lonely willows. It has none of the portraitlike presence of other battlefields. It is not Gettysburg, where the manicured serenity causes you unconsciously to tread lightly. Nor is San Pasqual like the Custer Battlefield, a grassy piece of Big Sky country where the wind is alive with the ghosts of Indians and cavalry troopers. In the lull there you can hear the muffled pounding of thousands of hooves and the sound of distant, desperate bugle calls.

While the Battle of San Pasqual had neither the magnitude nor the significance of Gettysburg or the Little Big Horn, it was the bloodiest battle ever fought on California soil. It was a side show of the Mexican-American War and did not affect the outcome. Yet it had the elements of a much larger struggle: cavalry charges, magnificent horsemanship, and hand-to-hand combat. It began with foolishness, error, and bravado, was fought with amazing courage, and ended, days later, with a lone gunshot cracking in the night.

California in the year 1846 was a Mexican province. Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1822, signaling the end of Spanish domination in the western and southern parts of the New World, a reign which had begun in the 1500s. But Mexico, too, was now losing its grip on the northern lands. The Oregon Territory was coveted by both the British and the Americans, and even the Russians hovered nearby. Texas had revolted from Mexico in 1836 and become an independent republic. In 1845 the Texans voted for statehood and were admitted into the Union of the United States. In distant California, where Mexican control was loose, life was fairly peaceful. The Californians were people of Spanish heritage, descendants of Spain's colonization of Mexico, which resulted in the elimination of the Aztecs and most other native Indian inhabitants over the next several centuries. California was also populated with numerous North American Indian tribes. and,hy the mid-1800s,most of these had been touched by the influence of the Spanish friars. There was peace, for the most part. between the Californians and the local Indians.

California was made up of six major pueblos: Santa Barbara. San Jose, Yerba Buena. Los Angeles. Monterey (the capital of the province). and San Diego. There were several ports. including San Francisco and San Pedro, and there were the ranchos. the settlements, the old Spanish missions. and the Indian villages. The new settlers — American fur trappers, explorers, or adventurers. and Englishmen off sailing ships — mixed in with the Spanish-Californians. They married the daughters of the rancho owners, became naturalized Mexican citizens, and started ranchos of their own. There was no standing army and no heavy tax burden. But this was all about to change. Manifest Destiny was rolling west.

The western boundary of the United States at that time was found in what is today western Kansas. With Texas newly added to the country, the southern boundary was now claimed at the Rio Grande River. Mexic,. unfortunately, claimed that the border was north of the Rio Grande. American forces under General Zachary Taylor were sent to the Rio Grande in the spring of 1846 to secure the claimed territory. There was a skirmish with Mexican troops, and several Americans were killed. On May 13, 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico. President James Polk was a believer in the policy of Manifest Destiny, the expansion of the United States to the Pacific, and he ordered that all Mexican territory in what was then called Upper California (much of the West and Southwest) be occupied and annexed to the United States. An army was to be raised to secure New Mexico, California, and surrounding areas, while other forces under generals Taylor and John E. Wool were invading Mexico itself. A fifty-two-year-old cavalry colonel named Stephen Watts Kearny was given command of the expedition, and his army was designated the Army of the West.

Battle monument

Battle monument

Kearny was a career soldier. He had been decorated at the age of eighteen for heroism in combat against the British in the War of 1812. In the 1830s, battles with the Plains Indians made the U.S. Army aware of the limitations of the infantry, and a presidential order organized the First Regiment of Dragoons (heavily armed cavalry) in 1833. Stephen Kearny, called by some historians the father of the U.S. Cavalry, was responsible for training the new horse soldiers. Kearny later came commander of the First Dragoons, leading the efforts to keep peace on the frontier near Leavenworth, on the Missouri plains. Kearny had a reputation for being stern but fair. In sensitive dealings with the Indians he was known for finding a peaceful solution if possible. but he was recognized as being capable of committing to action if need be.

Kearny's Army of the West left Fort Leavenworth in June of 1846. The rugged Missouri frontiersmen ho had been recruited for the army were disappointed in New Mexico: the Mexican government there gave up without a fight. On September 25. Kearny (now a general) left the major portion of his 1600-man army in Santa Fe. from where they would head south to join the armies that were fighting in the Chihuahua province of Mexico. He took 300 of his dragoons and set out for California.

Meanwhile, California had come alive. Elements of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet, some of which had been at anchor in Mazatlan, Mexico when the war actually broke out, went north and began seizing the coastal settlements of California in the summer of 1846. A group of adventurers, mountain men. and volunteer settlers under the command of explorer John Fremont was moving south out of Oregon to link up with Commodore Robert Field Stockton's naval forces. Some American settlers in California had begun a revolt of their own, attacking Californians in several pueblos in the north. The occupation of California was marked by I ittle bloodshed. Many Californians supported the American annexation, and there were others who did not care who ruled them. Some were determined to fight the Americans, though they were as yet unorganized and poorly armed. By August the Americans controlled all of California. San Diego was occupied in July, and Fremont and his mountain men enjoyed outings in the countryside around the pueblo for several weeks. Kit Carson, the famous scout, had been with Fremont. On September 15 Carson left the pueblo of Los Angeles bound for Washingtoo D.C. with dispatches from Comm dore Stockton. The dispatches consisted of Stockton's reports on the sueessful occupation of California.

But less than ten days after Kit Carn left California, the Americans were faced with a revolt. After Pio Pico, the Mexican governor of Caliornia, and his military commander, General Castro, fled from the Americans south to Sonora, a former captain under Castro named JoseMaria res became governor and commandante general. Andres Pico, the brother of the deposed governor, was appointed to a generalship under Flores. Together they organized the scattered Californian military irregular forces, volunteer rancho owners opposed to the Americans, and young vaqueros (cowboys) off the ranchos. into a guerrilla army. They struck in late September. Los Angeles had been governed since August by a harsh, tactless American marine captain named Archibald Gillespie. Gillespie. according to several biographers, considered the Californians and Mexicans to be an "inferior race," and his rule of Los Angeles served to stir some Californians to action more than their own leaders did. The Californians took particular pleasure in routing Gillespie's garrison and forcing it to march to San Pedro and board U. S. ships there. By mid-October all of the pueblos — with the exception of San Diego — and most of the countryside in California was back in the hands of the Californians.

San Diego at that time was merely a cluster of homes and buildings in what we today know as Old Town, with open land to the west down to the bay. The Americans arrived in San' Diego aboard the naval frigate Cyalle on July 29. The landing party included John Fremont. Archibald Gillespie, and Kit Carson, along with a small detachment of Marines. They raised an American flag to the plaza in Old Town. After several weeks of rest and outings in the countryside around San Diego. Fremont and the majority of the men went north to Los Angeles. A small garrison under Lieutenant Ezekiel Merritt was left behind.

The California revolt spread to San Diego on September 23, when a force of fifty Californians arrived from the north and began firing on the American garrison from Presidio Hill. Unsure of the strength of the opposing force, Merritt and his garrison retreated to the whaling ship Stonington, which was at anchor in San Diego Bay. They remained on board the ship for almost twenty days. In early October reinforcements arrived by sea, and a detachment of infantry and artillery went ashore at the harbor and moved inland to Old Town, The Californians withdrew and did not challenge the landing or the reoccupation of Old Town, although the American soldier who climbed the flagpole in the plaza to raise the flag came under sniper fire from the presidio above town.

The Californians threw a siege around the town, sniping from Presidio Hill, engaging in guerrilla raids. and preventing the Americans from foraging for food outside the area. At least one American was killed and a number wounded during these actions. On November 23 the Americans in San Diego and some Californians who were loyal to the American cause, including a prominent San Diegan named Miguel de Pedrorena. stormed Presidio Hill and drove the Californian snipers out. They pursued the fleeing Californians up Mission Valley as far as the mission itself. Before the end of November, Commodore Stockton arrived in San Diego and decided to fortify Presidio Hill. The hastily built fortification was called Fort Stockton (there is a monument to the site in today's Presidio Park). The commodore decided to make San Diego his headquarters while he awaited word from John Fremont, who was in northern California raising a force of American volunteers.

San Diego remained under siege. The Californians' strength increased. and the expedition, by the Americans to gather food from the nearby ranenos became extremely dangerous. Food became scarce, both for the American soldiers and for the Californians. almost all of whom were women and children left behind by the men who went out to join the revolt.

Another San Diegan who supported the Americans was Don Juan Bandini. Bandini owned a large home near the center of Old Town. He had fled San Diego during the initial revolt, fearing that the Californians would do him harm for supporting the Americans. Now that the Americans were back, Bandini returned to Old Town. The situation in San Diego remained a stalemate as November ended .

Kit Carson, riding east, and General Kearny, coming west. had no way of knowing about the turn of events in California. Thus when the two met on October 6 near Socorro, New Mexico.

Carson informed the general that California had been taken by Stockton and Fremont and all was calm. Carson also derided Californians of Spanish blood, pronouncing them cowards and assuring Kearny that he would find no fighting spirit in them. Based on Carson's report of the situation in California, which was backed up by the information in the Stockton dispatches the scout carried, and in view of the fact that Carson reported that the trail ahead to California had little food or water for a large force, Kearny made a fateful decision. He sent 200 of his dragoons back to Santa Fe and prepared to continue on to the coast with a token force of one hundred cavalrymen. A very reluctant Kit Carson was persuaded, with much insistence by Kearny, to turn around and accompany the dragoons to California. Carson was now near his home and family in Taos. He had not seen either for nearly two years, and by several accounts he almost deserted that night before being talked out of it by a friend. His dispatches were turned over to another rider to be taken to Washington.

The march to California was a nightmare. Aside from the danger of clashes with Mexican forces or marauding Apache and Navajo Indians, there were brutal physical trials. Food was scarce and the men were on greatly reduced rations. Water was hard to come by, and often when it was found. it caused sickness. The clothing they wore, more often limited to what they had been wearing since leaving Missouri, became rags. Horses and mules died daily; those that survived were too weak to be; ridden. Only the men who were ill themselves were permitted to ride.

The Army of the West followed the Gila River through what is today Arizona. Near the mouth of the Gila, Kearny's men captured a Californian messenger who was heading for Sonora with dispatches from General Flores in California. The messages told of the revolt, and revealed to the dragoons that {he car f ;29S were now in control of the entire country side. Kearny was shocked; Kit Carson was mortified. He could not believe that the Californians were capable of the feats described in the dispatches including Captain Gillespie's ouster from Los Angeles and the later defeat of a party of Americans from U.S. Navy ships which had landed and attempted to retake the pueblo. Still, Carson stuck to his conviction that the Californians would not fight. Kearny was now concerned about the size of us command, 121 men in all, but he had orders to reach the California territory, and he pressed on.

Kearny's troops forded the Colorado River. The ninety miles across he Imperial Valley, then nothing but a sandy desert, were hot and waterless. They passed close to the future site of EI Centro. Despite the hardships, there was a general air of anticipation and eagerness. To a man, the soldiers had been deeply disappointed at Kit Carson's report of peace and quiet in California. Now, after news of the revolt. the desire for action was reawakened. Dr. John S. Griffin, the battle surgeon for the expedition, wrote in his diary that excitement ran high and that the men expected a "small chunk of hell" when they got to California.

At the end of November, the First Dragoons reached the foothills of the coastal mountains in the Anza-Borrego region. They came up Carrizo Wash, past today's Ocotillo, and then followed a trail that ran roughly where County Route S-2 runs today. They came west to Vallecito (where the stagecoach station would be located years later), climbed up Box Canyon near today's Blair Valley, and then marched up the San Felipe Valley. The November 30 entry in the diary of Captain Johnston, Kearny's aide, said of the dragoons, "Poor fellows, they are well-nigh naked _ some of them barefoot — a sorry looking set." And then, in this, one of the last entries in his journal, some words that would be prophetic: "They will be ready for their hour when it comes."

Early on December 2 the dragoons met a group of Californian herders who confirmed Ihe news of the revolt. They also indicated, much to Kit Carson's delight, that the Californian forces had no army gathered and had been engaged in only guerrilla warfare.

That same day the force reached Warner's Ranch, sixty miles from San Diego. The ranch provided welcome rest and shelter. Since entering the mountains.the men had been chilled to the bone by winds off the snow-covered Cuyamacas. There had been icy rain. Inadequately clothed, the troopers found themselves missing the desert heat they had cursed only a week earlier.

San Pasquel Valley

San Pasquel Valley

Rancher John Warner was in jail in San Diego, imprisoned there by the Americans who suspected him of being loyal to the Californians. Warner's cattle and sheep, along with melons and grapes, gave Kearny's men their first good meal in many weeks. The Foreman of the ranch, an American by he name of Bill Marshall, and an English neighbor named Edward Stokes brought Kearny up to date on the local situation. Stokes was going into San Diego the following day, and although a declared neutral in the war, he lamely offered to carry any messages Kearny might want to send to Comnodore Stockton. Kearny quickly wrote out a note announcing his arrival and asking that Stockton send out a small force to meet him and guide him to San Diego. That same night the Americans learned of a party of Californians who were camped nearby. It was said that they had a number of fresh horses. A raiding party was sent out on December 3. The party captured nearly one hundred horses and mules at Aguanga, at the northern foot of Mount Palomar. But to Kearny's dismay, most of the animals were unbroken or too unhealthy to be of use.

December 4 found the Army of the West moving again. They rode through a chilling rain to Edward Stokes's rancho at Santa Ysabel. There they camped, and the officers ate a large meal of mutton, tortillas, and wine. The meal was delayed when some enlisted men stole and devoured the food that was originally cooked for the officers.

Source: battle map by eyewitness Lieutenant William Emory

Source: battle map by eyewitness Lieutenant William Emory

On the morning of the fifth of December, riding in a cold, heavy rain, the dragoons suddenly saw ahead a familiar but unexpected sight — the American flag flying in the breeze. Beneath the flag rode Captain Archibald Gillespie of the U. S. Marines and thirty-eight navy men and volunteer settlers of the newly formed California Battalion. This meeting occurred at Witch Creek, near the present-day community of Ballena, several miles west of Santa Ysabel on Route 78.

Gillespie had come from San Diego, riding out in response to the message Kearny had sent via Edward Stokes. Stockton wrote back and informed the general that he had intelligence of a party of one hundred armed Californians with their mounts who were encamped at the Indian village of San Pasqua!. The commodore wrote that if Kearny saw fit he should "endeavor to surprise them." To this Captain Gillespie added his own exhortations. No doubt still possessed of a bruised ego after his ouster from the military governorship of Los Angeles, Gillespie confirmed Kit Carson's opinions of the Californians' fighting abilities. He told Kearny that the Californians, whom he had once described as having an "unholy horror of the American rifle" would flee upon sight of the American cavalry. General Kearny decided to make camp and hold a council of war. The main force camped near the present location of Ramona, probably in Clevenger Canyon. just to the northwest of town. Because of the lack of grazing for the animals, Gillespie's force camped some two miles away. There were no ranchos nearby and thus no livestock. As they had many times in the past months, the dragoons went to their army blankets hungry. This night, they were also cold and wet.

Only miles away the Californians were warmer and drier in the Indian huts at San Pasqual, but they were at the moment little aware of or prepared for the nearby danger. This was due almost solely to the poor judgment of their commander, Andres Pico. When Captain Gillespie and his force rode out of San Diego through the northern end of Mission Valley, they passed a cluster of adobe huts. Watching from inside one of the huts was Andres Pico's sister, who immediately sent word by a rider to Pico, who at the time was ten miles north of town. In addition, General Flores, Pico's commander, had received intelligence of the presence of Kearny as early as the Army of the West's arrival at the mouth of the Gila River, and had passed the information on to pico. But Pico refused to believe that Kearny's army existed or that Gillespie was out to meet anyone. Pico instead believed that Gillespie had gone out to raid the ranchos in the area and bring in food for the besieged and hungry Americans in San Diego. The logical route for Gillespie to return with a herd of livestock was by the trail through the San Pasqual Valley. Pico decided to ambush Gillespie at San Pasqual. On the fourth, he moved his eighty men to the Indian village. Much to the dismay of his troops, Pico sent the horses out to graze several miles from the village. Pico's vaqueros were armed with European-style cavalry lances, and a lancer without his horse is helpless. On the night of December 5, Pico and his less comfortable lieutenants bedded down in the Indian huts unaware that Kearny's dragoons were only miles away, planning to do battle in the morning.

General Stephen Kearny (left) and Andres Pico

General Stephen Kearny (left) and Andres Pico

A Kearny's war council Captain Benjamin Moore, who was among those most eager to see action, urged an immediate attack. With sixty or so men, Moore said he could swoop down on the unsuspecting Californians and capture them without a fight. At first, according to Dr. Griffin and one enlisted man, Kearny seemed in favor of this plan. According to another enlisted man on Kearny's staff, the general had also considered the possibility of going into San Diego by Gillespie's route through EI Cajon and Mission Valley, a route which was uncontested by Californians — thus avoiding a fight altogether. But Kit Carson was at the meeting, and he opposed Moore's pian. Carson argued vehemently for an all-out attack at dawn, insisting that the dragoons would meet no resistance. Kearny valued the scout's opinion. Carson reminded Kearny that the Californians possessed a stock of good horses, and this hit home. Kearny, a cavalryman at heart, must have been deeply disturbed over the mule-mounted troops he now commanded. The vision of making his entrance into San Diego on good horses, in true cavalry style, would have washed away any ideas Kearny may have had about avoiding a battle. Since. according to the respected Kit Carson and to Gillespie, who knew them, the Californians would not put up much of a fight anyway. the decision to rest the night and make a full attack at dawn did not seem unsound.

However, the decision is less understandable considering the condition of his command. The men were cold. wet, exhausted, and hungry. All were ill-clothed; some had no boots. They were riding mules. Added to those factors was the steady rain of the past few days. which had soaked the powder for their Hall carbines and the single-shot pistols they carried. Many of them certainly could not fire. Their other standard weapon, a three-pound cavalry saber, was not a favorite of many of the troopers. Through lack of attention and lack of use, many of the sabers were rusted in their scabbards.

All this Kearny must have known. Yet, the decision to attack was made. Although difficult perhaps for us to understand today, the entire Command was itching for a fight. Lieutenant Beale of the navy later told of the excitement and the "desire for a brush" with the Californians. Gillespie also later mentioned in one of his reports the great enthusiasm for battle he noted in Kearny'S dragoons. Even in their condition, or perhaps in part because of it, Kearny's men wanted a fight. Kearny himself surely would have suffered in their eyes had he denied it to them. And once again, there were the horses. Both Gillespie and Kit Carson mentioned Kearny's desire to seize the Californians' mounts as the major reason for his undertaking the attack. Gillespie reported that Kearny "decided to attack it [the enemy camp], and take away their horses."

Lieutenant Edward Beale

Lieutenant Edward Beale

There would be an attack, but only after a reconnaissance, Kearny decided. Captain Moore argued against this, certain that any such scouting party would be discovered and the element of surprise thereby lost. He pushed for his own plan. But Kearny insisted on a small reconnaissance, vetoing Moore's plan and apparently a similar one put forth by Gillespie. A young lieutenant named Thomas C. Hammond commanded the squad of dragoons that went out on the scouting mission that night. With them went Rafael Machado, a California deserter who had ridden from San Diego with Gillespie. Machado acted as guide.

Hammond and his men rode north for nearly ten miles and then down a mountainside to within a mile of San Pasqual. From there Machado and perhaps one dragoon went on foot to the village. Machado managed to get into a hut and bring out an Indian, who told him that Andres Pico and perhaps one hundred lancers were sleeping in the village. The Indians had been generally ill-treated by the Californians in this region, and they were not beneath betraying them. Pico's men, in fact, knew this, and were more than a little nervous about their commander's decision to camp in the village.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson

The two men talked on in the darkness, perhaps planning a way to get Kearny's men into the village unseen and thus effect a bloodless capture. But suddenly Hammond, who had grown uneasy thinking that Machado had been gone too long, came forward with the rest of his party. The noise and the foreign scent aroused a village dog, which began barking. A sentry then shouted a challenge. Machado sprinted off and rejoined Hammond, and the squad retreated up the mountain. The clanging of their sabers and the hooves of their animals were clearly heard in the village below. The camp was awakened.

Somehow, Andres Pi co refused to believe that the commotion had been caused by Americans. even though several of his own men who had dashed out had seen the dragoons running off. It was only later. when a patrol brought back a wool army blanket marked "U.S." and a dragoon's jacket, that Pico came to his senses. He ordered his men to their horses.

The reconnaissance squad returned to the main camp at two in the morning. Hammond reported to Kearny that they had been discovered, and Kearny ordered an immediate attack. There was an icy wind blowing off the Cuyamacas and it was so cold that the bugler could not blow reveille; sergeants passed the call to "Boots and Saddles" by word of mouth. Captain Gillespie's camp was notified. The two forces met several miles down the trail. The weather had cleared in the higher areas and the moon illuminated the trail brightly. The men could barely hold their bridle reins in the cold.

There was still a predawn semidarkness when the Americans reached the hilltop above San Pasqual. Below they could see the Californians' campfires through the shroud of mist. General Kearny gave his men a short pep talk, telling them to "be steady and obey orders." He reminded them of their duty and said that "one thrust of a saber point is more effective than any number of cuts." He also made it clear that they were to make every effort to take prisoners; there was to be no random killing. With the support of Gillespie's volunteers, the Army of the West, such as it was, totaled some 160 men. The moon had almost set and the day had not yet quite dawned when the cavalry slowly started down the mountainside.

Below, in the thick morning fog, Pico and his lancers were mounted and waiting. Their lances were eightor nine-foot poles made from willow or laurel. The blades were ten-inch-long metal points sharpened out of files and rasps. Some of Pico's men carried old carbines and pistols. The lancers themselves were not regular soldiers at all, just young, adventurous vaqueros off the ranchos of the land. They rode excellent horses and each was a Superb horseman. They were dressed in colorful vaquero costume; some wore leather, others had wool serapes. There 'were bright ribbons tied near the points of their lances. Pico, through his second-in-command Pablo Vejar, had given the order of the morning: "One shot and the lance."

Riding their stiff, tired, unmanageable mules, the cold and wet dragoons went down into the fog. Out in front rode Captain Johnston, Kit Carson, and twelve dragoons on the best of the horses. Next followed Kearny and his staff, and then Captain Moore, Lieutenant Hammond, and some fifty dragoons, with Gillespie's men trailing Moore and Hammond were brothers, in-law, having married a pair of sisters back at Fort Leavenworth. Moore was kind and popular; Hammond, impetuous and romantic, had gotten married on the highest hill above the fort — with himself, his bride, and the pastor all on horseback. Hammond was also a new father. Close by rode Sergeant John Cox, a newlywed.

The mules and horses were in sud widely varied states of health that the dragoons soon became spread out in j thin, uneven line down the mountain side. There were stragglers all alon] the hill. The advance guard and some of Kearny's staff had reached the bot'tom of the valley near the Indian viilage. Kearny gave the order to "trot," a medium-speed cavalry tactic. Bu according to Dr. Griffin and other, who were riding up front, Captain Johnston mistook the order tragically He drew his saber and yelled "Charge!" Kearny, surprised, said "I did not mean that!" but Johnston and the lead dragoons had surged off. There was no choice but to follow.

Johnston and his men quickly were more than a mile ahead of the next wave of Americans. As the first riders pounded out of the fog, the Californians fired a volley of rifle shots. Captain Johnston, in the lead, took a musket ball between the eyes and was dead before he hit the ground. Another dragoon also fell dead. Immediately after firing, the lancers turned around and retreated.

What was about to happen would all occur in little more than fifteen minutes. Captain Moore had seen the Californians turn and ride away. Thinking it was a rout, he ordered a second charge. Kit Carson had been riding alongside Johnston in the first group, but his horse had fallen, throwing him. The first shots rang out as he was untangling himself. He found his rifle broken in two. His mount had fled. Just as he stood up, Captain Moore and the second wave came charging out of the fog right at him. He had to dive out of the way. When they passed, he ran to the dead dragoon who was lying nearby' and took the man's rifle and cartridges. Carson then ran forward to join the fight.

The dawn was breaking and the fog was thinning slightly. Pico now saw how scattered, disorganized, and poorly mounted the Americans were. He would later say that he had not intended to become entangled in a battle that morning, but the sight of the Americans' disorderly charge was too much to resist. The Californians suddenly wheeled about, lowered their lances, and charged at full gallop.

Captain Moore was alone at the head of the second charge. The Californians came at him. He found himself face to face with Andres Pico. Moore fired his single-shot pistol at Pico but missed. Both men drew tncir sabers. As they began to duel, Moore was run through by two other lancers. He fell from his horse. Another lancer shot him with a pistol, and then he was lanced again. Dr. Griffin would later count more than a dozen wounds on Moore's body. Lieutenant Hammond saw his brother-in-law go down and rushed to aid him. The dragoons behind him saw him turn and yell back, "For God's sake men, come up!" As he did, a lancer struck him in the side. He fell near Moore. badly wounded.

The dragoons on the field fell into a vicious hand-to-hand fight. Unable to fire their wet rifles and apparently not confident of their sabers, the Americans tried to face the eight-foot lances with their rifles held as clubs. The Californians on their superb horses were frightening opponents. The dragoons' mules were awkward and difficult to turn. The lancers easily got behind the cavalrymen and brought them down. Other Californians used ropes to lasso the Americans from their mounts. On the ground and helpless, they were lanced where they lay.

Captain Gillespie arrived quickly and noticed a group of lancers in the riverbed on the left flank. He ordered his men to veer off into the willows along the bed and clear them out. In the process they captured Pablo Vejar, Pico's aide. Most of the American vanguard had been killed or wounded within minutes of the lancers' charge, but as Gillespie's volunteers joined the battle, there was immense confusion. These volunteer mountain men wore hunting jackets and other nonmilitary clothing. In the fog and the heat of combat, the dragoons on the field mistook them for Californians. Several were attacked and clubbed by Kearny's men. Gillespie himself was in the thick of the fray trying to rally the faltering dragoons. His shouts mixed with the curses and screams.

"Show a front, don't turn your backs. Face them, face them!" he shouted. Several Californians who had lived in Los Angeles suddenly recognized the Marine. A shout went up: "iAqui esta Gillespie! iAdelante! iMatale!" Gillespie was rushed by a crowd. An excellent swordsman. he warded off several lance thrusts with his saber, but then a lance to the neck knocked him from his horse. Another lance pierced his chest to the lungs. Still another hit his face, cutting him and breaking a tooth. He might have been killed, but the Californian with the best opportunity to do so chose that moment to wheel about and go after Gillespie's fleeing horse, which wore a beautiful silver saddle. Gillespie managed to recover his saber from the ground and fight his way out of the lancers around him.

General Kearny and his staff had meanwhile ridden out of the fog and into the battle. Within moments Kearny had been wounded twice, saved from death by Lieutenant Emory, who rode in with his saber and fought off Kearny's opponent. Dr. Griffin, after narrowly dodging a lance, began to aid the wounded. There were many. Bodies were strewn about the valley floor. Lieutenant Hammond had risen and stumbled to the rear. then collapsed nearby. Captain Gillespie, covered with blood, was still on his feet and still in the fight. Kearny, wounded in the arm and buttocks by a lance, refused to let the doctor treat him until the more seriously wounded had been treated. But as Griffin obeyed, Kearny passed out.

Only minutes had passed. More dragoons and the artillery wagons now came up. One of the mules pulling an artillery wagon suddenly bolted and dashed toward the Californians. They killed the mule and the driver, roped the howitzer, and dragged it off. The Americans' second howitzer was then rallied. General Kearny would later write in his official report on the battle that the American howitzers were not brought into the action, but only came up at the close of it. But Kearny was unconscious at this point. No other eyewitnesses mention artillery with the notable exception of Captain Gillespie. Gillespie said that in passing to the rear he came to the second howitzer and, finding the gunners without a match, lit his "seegar machero" and fired the gun. He too, then passed out.

Historians still argue over whether or not any cannon shots were fired at San Pasqua!. Artillery or no, the lancers now retreated from the field. More of the lagging dragoons were now arriving from the rear; this too, could have driven the Californians off. Becauseof the dispersion of their force, only forty-five or fifty of the dragoons had actually been involved in the fighting, out of the 160 men in the command. Of the forty-five, thirty-six were now casualties. Eighteen were dead and as many were wounded, several of them mortally. The high percentage of casualties among the combatants gave the Battle of San Pasqual the dubious honor of being one of Americas bloodiest ever.

General Kearny, now revived, wanted another charge. Captain Turner, who had assumed command when Kearny was wounded, dissuaded him. Dr. Griffin also spoke out, telling Kearny that many of the wounded were unfit to ride. Griffin was working madly. After suffering for two hours, young Lieutenant Hammond died. Kearny decided to make camp. A boulder-strewn hillside on the northern slope of the valley across from where the fighting had ended was chosen as the campsite. (This camp is the location of today's battle monument along Highway 78.) The dead and wounded were gathered up and moved.

Dr. Griffin discovered that all of the dead except Captain Johnston and one dragoon had been killed by lances, and he noted that the lancers "seem to aim their lances so as to strike a man near the kidneys." Griffin was kept busy through that day and into the night treating the wounded dragoons.

The Californians stayed near, although out of range of rifle shot. After nightfall the dead were buried beneath a willow tree in the camp. There was no food for the men again that night. Captain Turner wrote a message to Commodore Stockton in San Diego asking for a relief force to be sent with food and supplies. The note read in part, "I have to suggest to you the propriety of dispatching, without delay, a considerable force to meet us on the route to San Diego. . . ." Turner's tone was somewhat ambiguous, asking that help be sent "without delay" but also indicating that the dragoons would still continue on along "the route to San Diego." The note was entrusted to four volunteers under mountain man Alexis Godey. Before dawn they slipped out of camp and headed for San Diego.

Kearny and his men were now lamenting the decision to send the 200 dragoons back to Santa Fe. The trail to San Diego was controlled by the Californians, there was no food and little water, and the wounded needed care. On the next day, December 7, Kearny was well enough to mount his horse. Makeshift litters were built out of willow and the wounded were strapped to them and pulled behind mules. The small army moved out again. They followed a trail west (the route that Highway 78 now takes west from the battle monument), turning southwest upon reaching the hills at the west end of the San Pasqual Valley. The path they took next is approximately the course thai San Pasqual Road now takes toward Interstate 15. After about five miles, avoiding the low ground near the San Dieguito River, they came to the Rancho San Bernardo (close to where Interstate 15 now crosses Via Rancho Parkway). The rancho was deserted, but Kearny's men managed to collect I some cattle and chickens. They herded these animals in front of them and started off again in a southwesterly direction, the open route to San Diego.

The Californians suddenly attacked, half a mile from the rancho. One small group rushed the column, firing rifles, and another group took control of a small, rocky hill and began firing down on the Americans. Lieutenant Emory took eight men and bravely charged the hill. Although outnumbered nearly four to one, Emory's rush routed the lancers from the hill. Amazingly, none of Emory's men was wounded.

Once more the dragoons dismounted and made camp, this time on the hill Emory had taken. Their situation was serious. The wounded had suffered greatly in the movement; the cattle and chickens had been driven off in the skirmish and there was no way to retrieve them; and the San Dieguito River was dry, leaving them with no ready supply of water. Hunger pains drove the men to slaughter several mules, and thus the hill was christened Mule Hill. Mule Hill can still be seen today, as can the boulder battlements the dragoons erected to fortify the hill. It is just east of the northeastern tip of Lake Hodges, where the San Dieguito River (or San Pasqual Creek) runs into the lake. Lake Hodges was not there in 1846, and the dragoons had to dig holes in the soft sand below the hill to get water.

On the morning of December 8, some of the Californians came up Mule Hill under a flag of truce. They said that they had just captured four Americans, and they offered to trade them for any four of their men the Americans held. Herein is a clue that the lancers may have suffered more casualties at the battle than they were later to admit. Pico would always claim that he had not had a single man killed and only a dozen or so wounded. Pablo Vejar years later reported two lancers had died. Most of the other Californians at the battle named one young vaquero boy as the only fatality on their side. But Kearny claimed in his report that the Californians left six of their men on the field, and an American enlisted man would say years afterward that six lancers were buried along with the dragoons in the common grave at the camp on the night of December 6. Still, it is now generally agreed that the Californians suffered no more than two killed and perhaps a dozen or more wounded. Historians, though, have neglected the clue in Pico's offer of a prisoner exchange. To ask for four of his men back, he must have been missing at least four men.

The Americans held only one prisoner — Pablo Vejar. He was exchanged for an American named Burgess, one of the four who had gone to San Diego for help. Burgess reported that the party had made it to San Diego, but that Commodore Stockton had refused to send aid. Stockton's reply, which the returning messengers had hidden in a tree when they realized that they were about to be captured, stated that he had no horses with which to mount a rescue effort and no wagons to help carry the wounded. He mentioned also that Godey, the leader of the messengers, had told him that the dragoons were capable of carrying on by themselves. Although some historians have criticized Stockton for not responding immediately, the commodore was influenced by the combination of Turner's understated message and Godey's neglect in not giving Stockton the true picture. In his defense, Godey did not know that the dragoons had retired to Mule Hill and were in worse shape than when he left. Stockton changed his mind after the Godey party left to rejoin Kearny, and a relief force was gathered the next day to start from the San Diego Mission and march to relieve Kearny.

The news of Stockton's refusal moved Kearny to consider leading his men in another attempt at making San 'Diego on their own. But after Dr. Griffin reported that the wounded should not yet be moved, and after Lieutenant Beale and Midshipman Duncan of the navy, both of whom had ridden out with Gillespie, vowed that their commodore would in fact come through with a rescue, the general decided to remain on Mule Hill. But he also decided that Stockton needed to understand fully the gravity of the situation. That night Kit Carson, the adventurous Beale, and an Indian (whose name has been lost to history) crept off the hill. They had to avoid three skirmish lines of lancers. Removing their boots to avoid making any noise, the three crawled on their stomachs through the cactus. There were several close calls before they cleared the California lines. In the process, all three lost their boots, and 'they would walk the more than thirty miles to San Diego, over cactus and rock, in bare feet. The three split up and took different routes into San Diego in the hope that at least one of them would make it. They walked all night and through the day of the ninth of December.

Commodore Stockton was at a ball at Juan Bandini's home in Old Town on the night of the ninth. The band

from the navy ship Congress was providing the music. At about six o'clock that night the Indian messenger arrived in San Diego, totally spent, and relayed Kearny's renewed plea for relief. Four hours later a delirious Lieutenant Beale was carried to Bandini's house, where he confirmed the need for immediate help. Kit Carson, who had chosen a longer route, arrived in San Diego on the morning of the tenth. By the time he arrived, Stockton's relief force of sailors and marines, under Lieutenant Andrew Gray of the navy, had already left Mission Valley and was marching for Rancho San Bernardo.

Back at Mule Hill, Kearny was preparing for the worst. On the ninth, after Carson, Beale, and the Indian had left, Kearny ordered that all nonessential property be burned. He wanted to leave nothing for Pico and the Californians. (An archaeological study of Mule Hill in 1970 turned up many artifacts, still charred from the fire, that the dragoons had disposed of.) On the evening of the ninth Pico's men attempted to drive the dragoons from the hill by stampeding· a herd of mules through their position. The dragoons drove the mules off with rifle fire and a cannon shot, killing several in the process and augmenting their supply of mule meat.

On December 10, Sergeant Cox, the newlywed, died of the lance wounds he had received on the sixth. He was buried at the foot of Mule Hill. Dr. Griffin informed Kearny that most of the wounded could now ride or stand the trip, though several, including one who would die later in San Diego, were still in bad shape. Kearny decided to wait no longer for Stockton. He gave the order that the First Dragoons would attempt to break out the next morning.

What of the Californians? With the Americans entrenched on the hill, there was little they could do. They possessed mainly the lances, and a lance is not the weapon to use to attack a fortified position. The Californians had no desire to charge up the hill through rifle and cannon fire. They could only wait until the Americans were either starved into surrender or ' made a break for the open ground where the cavalry lances could be used against them effectively. Andres Pico received a note from his commander General Flores on the tenth. The note instructed him to "press the siege"as Flores's men had found Stockton's hidden refusal message and now thought that no aid was coming.

Sleep was difficult for the dragoons on the night of the tenth, as they would be moving out, and in alllikelihood into battle, in the morning. At about 2:00 a.m. the sentries on the hill heard the approach of marching men. The alerted sentries sent out a challenge, and the reply out of the darkness was, "Americans!" A force of 200 sailors and Marines marched into the small camp to a loud welcome. They brought clothing, tobacco, and beef jerky. They were in turn given hot mule soup by the hosts of Mule Hill. Sometime later, after things had quieted down, a frustrated Californian fired a single rifle shot in the night, which was the last shot fired in the Battle of San Pasqual.


San Pasqual Postscript

The American force left Mule Hill . for San Diego on the morning of December 11, 1846. The relief force was hoping for a fight with the Californians, but by daylight they had all but vanished, riding north to regroup for the defense of Los Angeles. Late on the afternoon of December 12, in a heavy rainstorm, Kearny's Army of the West, which Lieutenant Emory had described a 51 few days earlier as the most "tattered and ill-fed detachment the United States ever mustered under her colors," marched into San Diego.

The final toll of the dead at San Pasqual was twenty-one. The dead dragoons remained under the willow tree until 1848, when they were exhumed and moved to a cemetery in Old Town, a square bordered by Hancock, Trias, Moore, and Hortensia streets. In the 1850s the bodies were moved to a plot in a cemetery on Point Loma. Captain Moore and Lieutenant Hammond were buried in separate graves, and the dragoons were put in a common grave marked "Sixteen U.S. Soldiers." Years later, in the 1880s, the dragoons were finally put to rest in a plot at Fort Rosecrans Cemetery farther out on Point Loma. A plaque and boulder from the San Pasqual battlefield now mark the gravesite.

Captain Johnston's body had been exhumed in the early 1850s and sent to San Francisco, from where it was to be shipped to his family in Ohio. A warehouse fire caused the coffin to be confused with a similar box, and thus a box of machine parts was sent to Piqua, Ohio, and buried with full military honors. Johnston's body was discovered sometime later. It vanished soon after. Sergeant Cox's body was never found. The burial party that searched for his grave in 1848 could not locate it, nor could searchers in the 1970 study of Mule Hill.

Several other small battles followed the Battle of San Pasqual, until the Californians under Andres Pico surrendered to the Americans and signed the Treaty of Cahuenga on January 12, 1847. For California, the war was over.

Stephen Kearny's reputation suffered from the Battle of San Pasqual and from incidents soon after, in which he and John Fremont clashed over who was governor of California. Kearny had Fremont arrested and court-martialed, and although Fremont was convicted, he was a national hero and Kearny became unpopular for challenging him. General Kearny went on a very brief tour of duty in Mexico in 1848, where he contracted yellow fever. Complications from the fever led to a serious case of dysentery. Kearny was ill for months. On October 15, 1848, Kearny's wife Mary gave birth to a baby boy. On October 31, Stephen Watts Kearny died at the age of fifty-four.

The battle site at San Pasqual is SOOn to experience a rebirth of sorts. Construction of a museum housing displays, dioramas, and exhibits is scheduled to be completed sometime this summer. The project is under the auspices of the California State Parks and Recreation Department.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader

Close