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

The Battle of Buena Vista (Concluded)

Fighting for the plateau—The three columns of the enemy—Heroism of Lieutenant O'Brien—Junction of Lombardini and Pachecho—Attack on Angostura—Cowardice of troops—Critical moments—Arrival of General Taylor—Retrieving defeat—Cavalry movements—Desperate charges—Following up advantages—Night approaches—Carnage of war—Sufferings of the wounded—Flight of the Mexicans—Ruin of their army—Joy and triumph of the Americans—Movements of Santa Anna—Consequences of this victory—Departure of General Taylor.

At two o'clock in the morning of the 23rd, General Ampudia's division was reinforced by two thousand men, and began to force the American left. The pickets were driven in and a lively action began at daybreak. Lieutenant O'Brien, stationed at the upper edge of the plateau, near the mountain, came to the aid of the riflemen with a twelve-pounder howitzer and two guns. With great precision, he threw six or eight shells among Ampudia's troops pouring down the mountain slope upon the Americans. Still they came on, notwithstanding the terrible slaughter of their men. From the ridge between the two armies a Mexican battery hurled a plunging fire on O'Brien's guns and the soldiers on the plateau.

The battle now became general all along the line. The movements of the enemy had developed into three columns of attack. General Moray Villamil, with two regiments and two battalions of artillery, was attempting to carry the pass of Angostura. The two divisions of Generals Lombardini and Pachecho, moving one across the ridge and the other up the ravine toward the mountain, were to take the plateau. The extreme left of the American position was being assailed by Ampudia, acting in conjunction with the centre attack. General Ortega held the Mexican reserve on the ground first occupied by the enemy.

General Ampudia maintained a vigorous onset, while Lombardini led his column along the ridge toward the plateau, in a brilliant array of shining uniforms, gay equipments, and fluttering banners in full sight of the American army. Behind the ridge and hidden from sight was Pachecho's division coming up the ravine to join Lombardini on the plateau near the head of the third principal gorge cutting its edge.

General Wool was at this time at Angostura. General Lane, the next in command, ordered Lieutenant O'Brien to take position with his artillery and the Second Indiana regiment at the head of this gorge and hold the enemy in check. For twenty-five minutes O'Brien maintained the contest against a force ten times as great as his own. His guns mowed down whole platoons of the enemy. Their advance corps was completely destroyed. The Mexican guns on the ridge were severely retaliating upon these Americans, when O'Brien was ordered to move forward fifty yards to the edge of the gorge. The Second Indiana volunteers now hesitated to come up to his support under the galling fire to which he was exposed. General Lane hoped to drive Pachecho's division down the ravine. He was amazed to see the Indiana troops moving off in companies to the right instead of marching forward. Colonel Bowles, their commanding officer, had without authority given the rash order, "Cease firing and retreat." They were soon in a confused flight. General Lane, wounded and bleeding, with some of his staff officers, made heroic efforts to rally them. It was in this service that some of the bravest of his staff lost their lives. Riding in among the fleeing troops, Major Dix seized the standard of the regiment, and declared that he would carry it back alone into the battle and save Indiana from disgrace. Touched by this last appeal, some of the panic-stricken soldiers gathered around their flag, and under sound of drum and fife were led back to the conflict, where they joined the Mississippi regiment. The rest fled to Buena Vista, and announced that all was lost, when indeed their comrades were just entering the hottest of the battle from which they had ignominiously fled. Their cowardice had well-nigh lost the battle. The line was broken and several companies of Arkansas and Mississippi volunteers were forced to retreat toward Buena Vista.

Lieutenant O'Brien unflinchingly maintained his position, though cut off from his supporters. Loading his guns with double charges of canister shot he created terrible havoc in the Mexican ranks. At length, overwhelmed with the reckless troops who poured upon him like a flood, he retreated, leaving one four-pounder gun in their hands, since it had not a man or horse left to save it.

Lombardini and Pachecho were now able to unite their divisions on the plateau. They were met by the Second Illinois, Sherman's battery, and a squadron of dragoons, hurrying up as the Indiana regiment gave way. Artillery and musket shots were fiercely mingled in the death-dealing storm that now raged over this part of the plateau. The cavalry fell back into the ravine. The Mexicans, fighting with terrible earnestness and unsurpassed bravery, succeeded in turning the American left. The Illinois troops and the artillery were now between a fire in front and rear. They fell back and the enemy marched past their line, winning the coveted position.

Villamil's column had meanwhile attempted to take La Angostura. The conflict was sharp and brief. Washington's battery was served with irresistible effect upon these troops. They were badly routed and sought shelter in the third gorge and the large ravine near it.

This success on the American right relieved troops there which were despatched to the centre. Three regiments of Kentucky and Illinois troops and one section each of Bragg and Sherman's batteries were thus added to the combatants on the plateau.

But the enemy were in nearly entire possession of the plateau, and the critical moment of the battle had arrived. Victory had been almost won by the gallant Mexicans, when General Taylor arrived upon the field from Saltillo and took command of his sorely pressed troops. He found the battle line to be now two miles in length and parallel to the mountain, being also one mile wide from the plateau to the road. The enemy's cavalry and a small part of their infantry were nearly opposite to Buena Vista, while the American line of defence was very irregular and facing the mountain. The key to the position was the pass of Angostura. That was still held by the Americans. The enemy did not attempt to take it, and this was a fatal mistake for their cause. Their artillery in front remained comparatively inactive.

General Taylor first sought to strengthen his left and retrieve what had been lost. It was now noon, when the sturdy Mississippi riflemen were led into action and General Wool brought up the Third Indiana regiment from the right. Colonel May's dragoons were ordered back from the left to the plateau. The head of Ampudia's column marching by our troops was checked by a tremendous fire from the Mississippi rifles, moving at right angles upon them from the head of a ravine. The Mexicans soon wavered and turned back to their main line, forced by the onset of the Mississippians.

Then they turned upon the enemy's cavalry and drove them back with the help of some Indiana troops. The day was brightening on the left. Moreover on the plateau the artillery were gaining some advantage, when Santa Anna brought up with immense exertion a heavy battery and some companies of American-Irish deserters, called the San Patricio Battalion. It enfiladed the Americans on the plateau with a very destructive fire, but the American batteries still maintained their advantage and finally broke the attacking column, part of which fell back to Santa Anna's reserves, the rest joining Ampudia, fighting vigorously on the left. Sherman and Bragg were ordered thither and their bloody work was again renewed.

"Down the hills of Angostura still the storm of battle rolls,

Blood is flowing, men are dying: God have mercy on their souls!

Who is losing? who is winning? over hill and over plain

I see but smoke of cannon clouding through the mountain rain."

The tide of battle was shifted now to the Mexican right and the vicinity of Buena Vista. The Mexican general had two objects to accomplish in this part of the field, to capture the American wagon train, now near Buena Vista, and to gain possession of the hacienda itself. Ampudia's cavalry in fine array moved down upon the commands of Colonels Yell and Marshall, who with the aid of May's dragoons and two guns under Lieutenant Reynolds drove them back to the base of the mountain.

General Torrejon with his cavalry, having with difficulty crossed the ravines in the rear of the original American line, now bore down upon the wagon and supply train. Met by the Arkansas and Kentucky mounted troops, for a while mingled in wild confusion, they fought hand to hand. A part of the Mexicans dashed through the street of Buena Vista, where they were assailed by a murderous fire from the housetops. A part turned back toward the mountain, hastening out of the range of Reynolds' canister shots.

Another brigade of Mexican horsemen now attempted to cut their way across the plateau through to the road. They were received by Mississippi and Indiana troops in two close lines, forming an angular front of deadly rifles and muskets. A quick succession of volleys met the horsemen dashing forward. Thrown into confusion, rank after rank strewed the earth, and finally they turned and fled to the mountains.

"Down they go, the brave young riders, horse and foot together fall,

Like a ploughshare in the fallow, through them ploughs the Northern ball."

General Taylor now following up the favorable turn in the battle, sent May's dragoons, with three sections of artillery, to drive the Mexicans back along the mountain. They retreated into range of guns on the plateau. Nine pieces of artillery were crushing their lines down, when Santa Anna sent a flag of truce to General Taylor "to know what he wanted." It was an artifice to gain time. During the suspension of the firing these troops, numbering five thousand or six thousand, escaped from their perilous situation.

But now coming up the third gorge are seen the Mexican reserves composed of their best troops; joined with those retreating front their right they made a column of twelve thousand men. Before these the Illinois and Kentucky troops fell back and took shelter in the second gorge. The Mexicans, driving O'Brien and his guns before them, reaching this narrow ravine, poured a tremendous fire upon the Americans massed there. They endeavored to retreat by its mouth to the road, covering their rout with their dead and wounded. But the mouth of the gorge was closed by Mexican lancers. Dashing upon these in vain, they fell under their horses' feet pierced and dying. But help came unexpectedly when all seemed doomed. Washington's battery, hurling spherical case-shot among the enemy, drove them in confusion from the gorge, from which the Americans now escaped with heavy loss, including several of their bravest officers.

The other part of the Mexican reserves had meanwhile been advancing in the face of a terrible fire upon O'Brien's guns, from which he was finally obliged to retreat when nearly all his horses and gunners were killed or wounded. But Bragg and Lane and Davis, who had been ordered from the left to support him with their commands, as they came up in front of the fresh troops of Santa Anna, fought them with unsurpassed fury. Line upon line fell beneath that fiery tempest of death-dealing missiles, till the enemy, again repulsed, fled to the ravine, leaving the ground covered with their fallen comrades. The batteries soon after silenced the sharp firing of the battalion of San Patricio, and Colonel May was sent to the left to guard against any other flank movement that might be attempted.

The firing slackened at sunset and ceased with nightfall.

"Sink, O Night, among thy mountains! let thy cool gray shadows fall

Dying brothers, fighting demons! drop thy curtain over all!

Through the thickening winter twilight wide apart the battle rolled;

In its sheath the sabre rested, and the cannon's lips grew cold."

Darkness closed over the field. Thousands of Mexicans were still in front, and preparations were made for another day's fighting. But when the first streaks of light broke upon the fields, a faint cry was heard, that soon increased into glad shouts on every side. No enemy was in sight. They had retreated to Agua Nueva, leaving to the Americans the field covered with their dead and wounded. "Victory! Victory! The army has fled! The field is ours!" The mountains echoed the glad shouts of heroes that had fought and won the greatest battle of the war.

General Taylor's troops on the battle of Buena Vista numbered four thousand six hundred and ninety-one. Santa Anna had over twenty-one thousand, besides General Miņon's brigade of two thousand cavalry. The Americans lost two hundred and sixty-four killed and four hundred and fifty wounded. The Mexicans lost two thousand five hundred in killed and wounded, and four thousand missing soldiers, who deserted on the night of the 23rd, fleeing to the east and west toward their homes.

The route to Agua Nueva was strewn with the bodies of dead and dying Mexicans, and with everything that would be left in a forced and hurried flight.

The scenes on that bloody field, on plateau, mountain slope, in the narrow gorges and ravines, are indescribable. With unfeigned sorrow the Americans buried the dead and gathered the wounded, who were removed to Saltillo. The Mexican in his wounds and death was no longer a foe. Canteens and knapsacks were emptied to supply the needs of these brave men now deserted by their comrades, and their hands were warmly pressed in dying agonies.

General Taylor having taken in the fight three hundred Mexicans, arranged with Santa Anna for an exchange of prisoners, and thus recovered his cavalrymen captured before the battle. Santa Anna fell back from Agua Nueva to Encarnacion. He sent to the capital of Mexico false tidings of a great victory, which was everywhere celebrated. But his shattered army in its march, filling houses and towns with wounded and dying soldiers, and the disorganized bands returning to their homes, soon told another story, and from that time the people of the Republic despaired of success.

Had General Taylor been defeated and his little army destroyed at Buena Vista, the war would have been prolonged, and the enthusiasm of the Mexicans roused to new confidence and outlay of life and treasure. Doniphan's expedition from New Mexico into Chihuahua would have ended in final disaster, and subsequent victories by the United States in Mexico would have required far greater forces. This victory virtually ended operations in Northern Mexico. Buena Vista was a brilliant close to the achievements of General Taylor's campaigns. Leaving General Wool in command of his troops, a large part of whom were soon sent to General Scott, he returned to Louisiana on leave of absence, where he received ovations of grateful praise and honor that prepared for his subsequent elevation to the Presidency of the United States.