History of the War with Mexico - H. O. Ladd

The Army of Occupation

March from the Nueces—Point Isabel—Matamoras—The Mexican army—Bloodshed—Capture of American cavalry—Walker's adventure—Opening communication—Bombardment of Fort Brown—Wounding of Captain Brown—General Taylor's march to relieve the fort.

The Army of Occupation was now become an invading force, whose encroachments upon Mexican territory in its forward movements toward the Rio Grande were likely to provoke hostility and bloodshed at any moment. General Taylor, under orders from Washington, left Corpus Christi on the 11th of March, and arrived at Matamoros on the 28th of the same month. The distance thus travelled by the troops between the Nueces and Rio Grande was one hundred and nineteen miles over a low and marshy country. When near Matamoros, General Taylor with the cavalry went forward to Point Isabel to meet the transports which were expected to arrive with troops and stores at that port. Finding these already in the harbor, he immediately established Point Isabel as a depot of supplies. He was here met by a deputation of fifty Mexican, who protested in vain against his occupation of the country. His arrival on the east bank of the Rio Grande Caused much commotion among the Mexican authorities and troops stationed opposite in the town. General Taylor at once unfurled the American flag, which the Mexicans regarded as a national insult, and dispatched a messenger to request that it be immediately hauled down. This was of course refused, with the statement that the flag was flying there by the orders of the United States Government, which still further exasperated the Mexican commander.

Matamoras had been fortified by a battery and breastwork at each end of the town, with a hexagonal fort mounting six guns in the centre of the line of fortifications. General Taylor at once erected Fort Brown, opposite the lower battery, and awaited the hostile action of the enemy. In about two weeks, General Ampudia, the Mexican commander-in-chief, having arrived with a strong reinforcement, summoned the American general to break up his camp within twenty-four hours, and retire to the other bank of the Nueces River while the Governments of the United States and of Mexico were deciding the question of the Texan boundary. The alternative was war, but this General Ampudia declared should be conducted, on the part of Mexico, conformably to the principles established by the most civilized nations. At the same time with this demand, the American consul and all American citizens were ordered immediately to leave Matamoras.

General Taylor, in reply, affirmed his own peaceful intentions; he declared that his Government had sought a settlement of the boundary question by negotiation and a special envoy, and that he had, in carrying out their instructions to occupy the left bank of the Rio Grande, carefully abstained from all acts of hostility. In the interests of justice and humanity and individual suffering, he regretted the alternative of war, the responsibilities of which would rest upon those who should rashly commence hostilities.

The presence of two opposing forces armed for war within sight and sound of each other, must inevitably lead to bloodshed and to acts exciting human passions. Two American officers, Colonel Cross and Lieutenant Porter, straying beyond the lines, were waylaid and killed. The Rio Grande was blockaded by the orders of the United States Government. General Arista, who had superseded General Ampudia in command of the Mexican army, introduced papers into the American camp offering the strongest inducements to the United States troops, especially those of foreign birth, to desert. Three hundred and twenty acres of land were promised to each private, and proportionately larger amounts to officers, if they would leave their ranks, even in the time of battle, and throw themselves into the arms of the Mexicans, who would gladly welcome them to their side. These appeals were not without effect.

Open hostilities soon began. General Arista sent twenty-five hundred men across the Rio Grande above and below the American camp to cut off communications with Point Isabel. General Taylor ordered two squadrons of dragoons to reconnoitre their positions. One of these under Captain Thornton, with about twenty-five men, proceeded twenty miles up the river, until he reached a farm-house and plantation surrounded by a high chaparral fence. Here he was surrounded by several hundred Mexican cavalry and infantry under General Torrejon. Charging upon them, Captain Thornton tried to effect a retreat by the narrow entrance into the enclosure, but was assailed by a sharp firing of musketry from the chaparral fence, and driven back. Dashing forward against this fence with his gallant charter he cleared the enclosure, but his men were un able to follow, and Captain Hardee taking the command was soon obliged to surrender, with the rights reserved to prisoners of war. Captain Thornton was also captured within five miles of the American lines, and was taken with the others to Matamoras. The Mexicans, greatly elated by the result of this first encounter, imagined that their superiority in arms was established, and General Arista's glowing dispatches to the Mexican Government were used everywhere in the country to awaken the zeal of the deluded people in support of the perilous venture of war with the Great Republic.

A day or two after this reconnaissance, dispatches reached General Taylor from Point Isabel announcing the danger of that post. A company of Texas rangers, part of the force which had opportunely arrived from Texas and Louisiana, had by forced marches reached Point Isabel just at the time when the movement of the Mexicans had cut off Taylor's communications with that point Captain S. H. Walker, then commander, attempted the bold adventure of cutting his way through the Mexican force with only seventy-five men. Attacked by an overwhelming force of the enemy, most of Walker's men returned to Point Isabel. Walker, however, followed by only six men, with indomitable perseverance and many narrow escapes pushed through to Fort Brown, and reported the danger threatening General Taylor's depot of supplies.

His little army was in a desperate situation, with a hostile force every day increasing in front and rear, his own troops divided and his supplies cut off. He determined, therefore, to meet the enemy, and fight him at any cost, Fort Brown could be easily defended. Placing it in command of Major Jacob gown, with five hundred men, consisting of a regiment of infantry and two companies of artillery under Captain Loud and Lieutenant Bragg respectively, General Taylor marched with the rest of his force toward the threatened post. He accomplished the march without meeting the enemy.

General Arista at first mistook General Taylor's movement as a retreat from his position, and so reported it to the Mexican Government, with great exultation proclaiming the retreat as an act of cowardice on the part of the Americans. He attempted at once to make what he supposed would be an easy capture of the garrison of Fort Brown, and opened fire on the 3rd of May upon the fort from a battery of seven guns. Major Brown returned this fire with great vigor. His guns were eighteen-pounders, and their effect was soon visible on the Mexican battery of eight-pounders, which slackened but continued its firing for five hours.

General Taylor, hearing the guns from Fort Isabel, twenty-two miles distant, dispatched Captains May and Walker, with their dragoons, to ascertain the condition of the fort. They reported it as able to maintain the assault of any Mexican forces that might be brought against it. During the bombardment the Americans, for a while, directed their firing upon Matamoras with some effect upon the low buildings, but the garrison mainly resorted to their bomb-proofs during the latter part of the day, reserving their ammunition. The first day's bombardment was, therefore, heralded by the Mexicans as a great victory to their arms, supposing that the effectiveness of their own guns had caused a great loss of life among the Americans, who were, in fact, quite unharmed. During the night of May 4th the Mexicans crossed the river in large force and erected a battery in the rear of Fort Brown. At dawn the fort was hotly bombarded from this new fortification, and returned the firing with great spirit. The next day the enemy was less vigorous in his attack, but on the 6th of May such a storm of balls and shells was hurled upon the, garrison, that only the large space occupied by Fort Brown saved them from great loss. The men remained unflinchingly at their posts, maintaining for several hours a defensive fire from the fort. Major Brown had been instructed not to hazard his position by any sally upon the enemy's works, but to send for aid to Point Isabel when needed. While on one of his frequent rounds to inspect the conduct of his men at the guns this gallant officer was struck by a piece of an exploding shell, losing a leg and being otherwise so injured that amputation did not save his life. He died in three days, sincerely lamented by his men, who held his soldierly character in high esteem. While lingering in agony in the close air of the bomb-proof, he cheered his devoted troops in their arduous duty, and urged them not to surrender.

The condition of the garrison was now very serious under the prolonged bombardment of the Mexicans, and they fired at intervals signal guns for assistance. As soon as these were heard, the enemy redoubled their firing, hoping to capture the fort before relief could arrive. Believing that they had made great slaughter in the garrison, General Arista humanely summoned Captain Hawkins, now in command, to surrender. The summons was refused, and a tempest of deadly missiles from the enemy's batteries followed. Being nearly out of powder, the Americans were obliged to maintain the mortifying attitude of silence. The 7th of May dawned, with no cessation of bombardment. The Mexicans approaching the fort gained shelter of some houses near it, but did not venture any assault, hoping first to exhaust the powder of the Americans by drawing their fire.

At noon of the 8th, the men were showing great weariness from the long-continued bombardment from the enemy's batteries in four different directions, and watching for assault by the confident foe. They had become indifferent to the peril which surrounded them, and discouraged by the hopeless condition of their commander. Suddenly they were aroused by the sound of cannon in the direction of Point Isabel. The stirring peal of battle rolled in heavy volleys over the plain. The meson flew to their guns with new zeal, and a shout that carried disappointment to the hearts of the enemy. General Taylor was marching to their succor. He had met the foe, and the battle of Palo Alto was begun: Wherever the fighting was, they believed their General would win a victory.