General Stephen W. Kearny
The war between Mexico and the United States began in May 1846 without the full support of Congress. The United States Navy occupied port cities in California, and the Army of the West, led by Stephen Watts Kearny, marched from New Mexico to the Pacific Coast.
At first the Californios — Spanish-speaking inhabitants of Alta California — offered little resistance. As American occupation continued to grow, the Californios fought back. Joseph Warren Revere: “[they] had complete possession of the principal points, and... superior skill in horsemanship. Their...persuasive arts with the rancheros...placed American forces in a quandary for supplies.” When the U.S. Navy occupied San Diego, Major Don Andres Pico headed south, from Los Angeles, with 150 Californios.
The Army of the West left Santa Fe on September 25, 1846, with 300 troopers from the First United States Dragoons. The enlisted men rode mules, since horses were scarce. Soon the officers had to ride mules as well.
Heading east, Kit Carson joined up with Kearny. He said, wrongly, that the Californios surrendered. Kearny sent 200 soldiers back to Santa Fe and headed to California with 103 enlisted men and Kit Carson.
The Army of the West survived the journey without loss of life. But, Johns writes, “the animals suffered from lack of water and proper forage, so the remaining mules could not be considered in prime condition.
“Even with the knowledge that the Californios controlled most of the area, the officers expressed no concern over the questionable condition of an army that must now proceed through enemy territory.” Thirty-nine members of the California Battalion joined the Army of the West on a mesa just south of the Indian village of San Pasqual.
On the cold, wet evening of December 5, Pico and his men rode into the village, “which lay on the western side of a barren mesa that juts into the eastern end of the long valley.” The Californios commandeered the huts, and the Kamiai Indians flew to the foothills.
Kearny wanted to attack the village at night but changed his mind. He sent a small scouting party, led by Lt. Thomas Hammond, instead. Some feared that, if discovered, the party might alert the Californios of the U.S. presence.
When Hammond and four others neared the village, an Indian said that Pico had about 100 men. Hammond, “whose impatience clouded his judgment,” pulled out his sword and made a commotion. As the scouting party left, a dragoon dropped his military jacket. A sentry gave it to Pico. “The awakened lancers saddled their horses and prepared for battle.”
The lancers “were not regularly trained soldiers, but simply a group of men recruited to defend their homeland. They lacked the usual equipment for fighting and possessed no heavy weapons of any kind. Their lances and reatas [bolo-like whips] seemed questionable arms in the face of carbines and howitzers.”
At 2:00 a.m. on December 6, the dragoons saddled their mounts in the rain. They rode to the southwest entrance of the San Pasqual Valley. When he saw the village fires, although ordered to proceed quietly, Captain Abraham Johnston “led a furious charge onto the plain accompanied by deafening shouts from the Americans.”
This advance guard outdistanced the main force and engaged the Californios in a brief skirmish. When the rest of the Army arrived, Johnston and a private lay dead. The Californios galloped off, the dragoons in pursuit. “The trail-weary mules could not keep pace with the [Californios’] newly acquired horses, and the disparity of mounts caused the troopers to become widely separated in the headlong chase.”
The Californio lancers reformed behind a rocky point, slightly hidden from view. They turned and attacked their pursuers, who were “strung out across the valley.”
As the lancers charged, the dragoons found that rain had dampened their powder. Weapons failed to fire; carbines proved difficult to reload. “While the troopers struggled with their faulty arms and fought with short sabers, the Californios decimated the opposition with their long lances.”
Predawn fog compounded problems. The dragoons couldn’t tell friend from foe, “since the volunteers from San Diego lacked uniforms and could not be distinguished from the enemy.” Also, hand-to-hand combat made the Army’s use of howitzers impossible.
The battle lasted at most a half hour. It involved fewer than half of Kearny’s soldiers. The Californios rode away before the rest of the soldiers reached the battlefield. American casualties: 19 dead, 17 seriously wounded. Kearny estimated six dead Californios, though his own troops said the figure was too high.
As the battered Army of the West moved toward San Diego, Californios followed its progress and banded together near a hill. The Army took the “desolate” rise of ground, “rocky, without wood, grass, or water.” The soldiers dug holes to obtain muddy water. And they named the place Mule Hill because, along with some dry beans, that’s all they ate for many days.
The Californios surrounded the hill. Before midnight on December 8, three men, including Kit Carson, snuck past the Californios’ sentries and made it to San Diego, where Commodore Robert F. Stockton ordered 215 men to rescue the soldiers.
“For five days the lancers had pressed their advantage over the Americans, but when Stockton’s sailors and marines joined the dragoons, the Californios returned to Los Angeles.... [They] rode off, leaving behind most of their cattle, which the soldiers happily accepted as battle spoils from their departed foe.”