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

The Invasion of Chihuahua

Recapitulation—Preparations for the expedition—The march begun—Scenes in the desert—Christmas festivities—A new shuffle of cards—Meeting the Mexicans in arms—The first battle—Victory of Brazito—Results—Capture of El Paso.

We have followed the Army of the West from its rendezvous at Fort Leavenworth to the end of its overland march to the Pacific coast. It has seized the northern half of Mexico, to gain which was the motive of the war. New Mexico has been captured. The Indian tribes of this territory and of Arizona have been subjugated with the Mexican inhabitants. The destinies of the rich province of Upper California have been forever linked with those of the American Union, to whose wealth and prosperity it will speedily contribute in fabulous measure.

The work assigned to the Army of the West is not yet fully accomplished. It must, in conjunction with General Wool, who is supposed to be approaching from the south, invade and reduce the important Mexican province of Chihuahua. This difficult task was intrusted to Colonel Doniphan. His men were impatient to undertake this service. After his return from the Navajo country, while the events already recorded were transpiring under Kearney's direction in California, Colonel Doniphan gathered his forces for the southward march. Leaving only enough properly to protect and garrison the capital of New Mexico and other points in the territory, he ordered ten pieces of artillery and one hundred and twenty-five men from Santa Fe. Two companies of light artillery under Captain Weightman and Major Clark also joined the invading force. The quartermaster and commissary departments were well provided with supplies.

On the 14th of December the march was begun by Major Gilpin with two hundred men in advance, followed by Lieutenant-Colonel Jackson with the same number on the 16th, and three days after Colonel Doniphan brought up the rear with provision and baggage trains. Again with an absurdly weak force did the American army attempt to enter populous provinces which, in the belief of the Mexican population, would speedily take up and destroy them.

The great desert, called Jornada del Muerto, extending from Fray Christobel to Robedo, a distance of ninety miles, lay in the line of their march. The ordinary terrors of this wilderness of sand, where there is not a particle of grass, and which is well named The Journey of the Dead, were increased by the extremely cold weather which now prevailed. With neither wood nor water, in the face of piercing cold winds, by day and night the columns struggled along the gravelly trail for three days. The men were allowed scarcely any repose, and had no warm food. Lighting up the road by setting fire to bunches of amole, or soap-weed, a kind of stunted palm, the teamsters urged forward their animals by the flashes of light thus produced. The soldiers, who had halted for a little rest, were roused at dawn to pursue their exhausting march, hungry and cold. It was well that man and beast entered upon this conflict with the desert, and with hunger, thirst, and cold, at the beginning of their march, when fortified by long recruiting from their Indian service. Many would otherwise have perished.

At Dona Ana, a small Mexican town beyond the desert, the three divisions were again united, and finding here abundant grain, forage, and provisions, they were soon in good heart for the march. They had now entered the boundaries of Chihuahua, and apprehended speedily a hostile attack. Mexican spies were hovering about them, two of whom were shot by some of the advance guard as they were trying to escape.

Christmas day found the men in high spirits and eager for a meeting with the enemy. They had arrived at Brazito on the march to El Paso, and had halted on the east bank of the river on an open plain, bordered next the mountain and river by a mesquite and willow thicket or chaparral. The trains were straggling in the rear, and the officers of the guard were engaged in card-playing, when a cloud of dust in front suddenly indicated that the enemy were approaching. The group watched for a few moments the dust, but continued their game. Suddenly plumes and banners flashed through the cloud. There was now no doubt as to who were approaching, and dashing down their cards, Colonel Doniphan, officers, and men flew to their positions, as the loud assembly call rang out to the scattered men and straggling groups in the rear. Dropping wood, water-buckets, and every other incumbrance, the men fell into line under the nearest standards, and the Missouri regiment was marshaled in quick time for their first view of the enemy.

The Mexicans were now drawn up in fine array on the right and left of Colonel Doniphan's force. Five hundred regular dragoons from Vera Cruz, in bright uniforms of blue and green with red trimmings, held the Mexican right wing; eight hundred Chihuahua volunteers were on their left with four pieces of artillery. Their brass helmets, plumes of horse-hair, and bright swords and lances glittered threateningly in the sunlight.

While the contending forces paused for a moment before the clash of battle, Colonel Doniphan in a few calm but assuring words incited his men to win the victory. A Mexican aid now dashed forward to within sixty yards of the American line, bearing a black flag from General Ponce de Leon, to summon the American commander to appear before him. The interpreter sent forward by Colonel Doniphan replied, "If your general desires peace, let him come here." "Then we will break your ranks and take him," was the Mexican's answer. "Curses be upon you, prepare for a charge. We neither ask nor give quarter." And wheeling his horse he rode back to the Mexican lines, waving his black flag.

The Mexican dragoons, at the trumpet's signal, charged boldly upon the American left, and were received by a deadly fire at short range, while sixteen mounted cavalrymen dashed upon the Mexicans, broke their ranks, and cut them down with their sabres. In the same manner a charge upon the commissary and baggage trains was repelled by the armed wagoners with a well-directed fire.

The Chihuahua infantry had now attacked the American right, and reached the chaparral from which they fired three rounds upon the Americans before advancing farther. Doniphan's troops received this fire with remarkable steadiness, throwing themselves to the ground at each discharge, till the impetuous Mexicans, confident of the effect of their bullets, had approached within sixty paces, crying out, Bueno! Bueno! Then suddenly rising from their faces, the Missourians poured such a volley upon them that they staggered, turned, and fled in great disorder.

Meanwhile the artillery was engaged upon the centre. The Mexicans advancing their line lost a brass six-pounder with ammunition, which was captured by the Howard Artillery battalion, the sergeant of which with a few men cut loose the dead horses and turned it upon its former masters. But one Mexican gun had been brought into action, when the Mexicans, repulsed at the same time on their right and left, broke their line and fled in a rout along the mountain-side, where they were pursued for a mile by a few mounted troops under Captains Reid and Walton.

This battle of Brazito was begun at three o'clock on the afternoon of Christmas. Within sixty minutes the enemy had fled, and the scattered Americans had returned to their position with a loss of a few horses, eight men wounded, and none killed. Five hundred American troops at the first onset fought with great steadiness fifteen hundred well-armed Mexicans, repelled their attack at every point, and inflicted with the aid of their comrades, who soon joined them, a loss upon the enemy of seventy-five killed and one hundred and fifty wounded. One piece of artillery, with a quantity of baggage, ammunition, and provisions, was captured, with which the victors completed their celebration of Christmas day.

Among the wounded Mexicans was their brave commander, Ponce de Leon. The thicket was stained with blood, and many died in the night before they were removed. The survivors were next day provided with a conveyance, and Doniphan's troops proceeded on their march to El Paso, twenty-five miles distant. They encamped near 'a small lake ten miles from the town, and during the night many Mexicans fled from their hiding-places in the mountains to El Paso. Here great confusion prevailed in anticipation of another attack. On the 27th, as Doniphan was drawing near, he was met, within six miles of the place, by a delegation of citizens. They bore a white flag, and sued for peace and protection, offering the surrender of the town. That night the American troops entered the city without opposition. El Paso was an important point. It was the key to New Mexico, and had been guarded by a force of two thousand seven hundred and forty Mexican troops and armed citizens. Colonel Doniphan found, confined in dungeons there, three American merchants who had been betrayed by a guide and delivered over as spies to the Mexican authorities.