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

El Paso and the Desert March

Captures in El Paso—Reconciliation of citizens—Diversions of soldiers—The carnival of wolves—Act of clemency—Ordered to Chihuahua—Privations of the desert—Hunger, thirst, add flames—Night scouting—The Governor's hacienda—The enemy in sight.

The victory of Brazito was a heavy blow to the government of Chihuahua. The invaders had met a well-organized force of the best troops that could be brought into the field, and had completely defeated them, though nearly twice their number. Mexican courage was weakened, and the constant boasting and high-sounding proclamations of their leaders hurling wordy contempt and slander§ on, the Americans now failed to arouse any enthusiasm. The fate of El Paso rested on the battle of Brazito. It was an opportune capture for the army of the invaders. They found here in store several hundred thousand fenegas of corn and wheat, and a great amount of hay and other fodder. A search for arms and ammunition resulted in the collection, of twenty thousand pounds of powder, lead, cartridges, and shot, five hundred stand of small arms, four hundred lances, four pieces of cannon, and several banners. At a point twenty-two miles below El Paso, where a strong body of Mexicans had been posted, several wagon-loads of ammunition and one field-piece were also captured.

The provisions, on which the soldiers now began to recruit after their privations included every variety of fruit, wine, and sweetmeats. All these and forage for the horses were, by orders of Colonel Doniphan, scrupulously paid for. Instead of bringing robbery and pillage upon their city, the inhabitants found that the American troops maintained great respect for their property, and the citizens vied with one another in bestowing kindnesses and social attentions upon their captors. Those who had been wounded at Brazito were on the best of terms with their recent enemies on the streets of El Paso, though they had fought under a black flag. Thus the hostility of the inhabitants was quelled by restraint from violence and crime, and the military government of the Americans was apparently preferred to that of the Mexican Republic.

The strong system of defences constructed near the city might have availed for some delay in the capture of El Paso, had not the commander of the Mexican forces been ill. General Leon, who had taken command, was declared to have led his men rashly to defeat at Brazito. In a few days there were signs of discontent at the situation among some of the people. On the loth of January evidences were found of the existence of a conspiracy to bring about an insurrection, in conjunction with one attempted at Santa Fe. The conspiracy was defeated, but the army were put on a closer guard, and the discipline in preparation for their march upon Chihuahua was made much more strict.

Among the diversions of the soldiers was the corralling one night of a pack of wolves that had come down from the mountains, attracted by the scent of cattle which had been slaughtered for the troops in a high inclosure. Leaping over the walls, they gorged themselves with blood and offal, but when inside found the walls too high to allow an escape. The soldiers the next day sprang in among them with their swords, and on the bloody arena, much to the amusement of their comrades, fought their victims, who turned upon them in a vain struggle for life.

Colonel Doniphan was a popular and kind-hearted commander. An instance of clemency occurred at El Paso which, under other circumstances, could not have been expected or allowed. Two soldiers on guard had fallen asleep during the night, and their guns had been taken from them by the officer of the guard. Arrested and brought before Colonel Doniphan, they were sternly charged with the high offence, which had imperilled the safety and lives of all their fellow-soldiers, and the honor of their country.

"We are sensible," they pleaded, "of the enormity of our offence. But, tired and exhausted, we could not preserve our wakefulness. We will endeavor not to commit a similar offence in the future."

"Then go," said the commander, "and hereafter be good soldiers and faithful sentinels. I will excuse you for the present." They departed, and were never at fault again.

El Paso was situated in one of the most beautiful and fertile spots in the whole province. Shut in by mountains on the east and west, which draw together to the river, it was isolated from other Mexican settlements. But its rich valley was filled with every luxury of fruit and vegetation. In this city of eight thousand inhabitants the troops were delayed for forty-two days waiting for increased artillery forces, which were ordered to follow Doniphan ere he left Santa Fe.

Major Clark, with one hundred and seventeen men and six field-pieces, arrived on the 1st of February, and on the 8th the little army of one thousand men, with merchant and commissary trains. were on their march to the city of Chihuahua. No tidings could be learned of General Wool, to whom Colonel Doniphan had orders to report. The States of Chihuahua and Durango were in arms to oppose this little army. Deserts which must yet be crossed would prevent a successful retreat. A cruel enemy, fighting under a black flag, would not spare any captives. It was a question of victory or death. But neither these soldiers nor their commander were daunted by such perils. It appeared far greater to their friends in Missouri, who knew that General Wool was not in Chihuahua to meet them, than to the troops themselves. Apprehensions of the fatal result of this venturesome march were saddening all hearts at home.

With cheerful obedience to orders, eager to accomplish the grand object of their march from the Missouri River across the plains, they destroyed all the powder and munitions of war which had been captured by Doniphan in El Paso, and which could not be used by his own troops. Five influential citizens of El Paso were taken as hostages for the protection of citizens of the United States left behind. Colonel Doniphan also organized on the march an effective corps of traders and teamsters, numbering one hundred and fifty men, well armed, and having valuable possessions at stake in the trains.

On the 12th of February, following the river, the army halted fifty miles below El Paso, on the borders of the great desert, sixty-five miles broad, where the road, running through deep sand-drifts, was not supplied with one drop of water. Halting for one day to fill their haversacks and canteens, they left the Rio Grande on the 14th of February, and struck into the waste of sand that lay before them. The mules and wagons sank deep into the drifts. A dozen men tugged with tired mules at a single wagon, but twenty miles were passed before the first camp was made. At sunset of the next day the column passed through a canyon of volcanic mountains traversing the desert from north to south. A scouting party was sent forward to Carrisal, a small town on the other side of the desert, where a few Mexican troops had been stationed, but it had been abandoned by the garrison, and was surrendered by the Alcalde.

The march of the little army still in the desert did not cease till midnight of this day. Though they had made twenty-four miles, it was still twenty-one miles to a lake, and the mules and horses were nearly perishing, and helplessly crying for it. They were started again at the first streaks of light, but many sank down exhausted, and were abandoned.

The column had come within five miles of the Laguna de los Patos, when the men, burning with thirst, broke into a run to reach the lake. The teamsters finding it impossible to bring up their wagons, unhitched their animals ten miles away, and turned them loose, intending to leave their wagons sunk in the drifts, and thousands of pounds of flour and salt cast away in the desert. Just as all the wagons were about to be abandoned, a shower came providentially to their relief. A cloud burst upon the mountains toward the right of the trail, and the torrents rushing down their sides spread out upon the plains to revive man and beast.

Halting here all night, the next 'morning they came to the lake, where already most of the men had gathered, and slaked their intense thirst. Their terrible sufferings were relieved for a little while, and the country became more inviting. Passing Carrisal eighteen miles distant, the force arrived at Ojo Caliente, or Warm Spring. Here the water, springing from the base of a ledge of rocky hills, forms a basin one hundred and twenty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and four feet deep. The water in the basin, whose bottom was covered with white sand, was warm and perfectly transparent, and officers and men were wonderfully revived by the luxurious baths which were thus afforded.

But another desert was now to be passed, and in this another range of craggy mountains two thousand feet high, whose tops were covered with snow. There the men encamped on plains where neither wood, water, nor grass were to be seen, and where they had to endure an extremely cold night. But the next day they came to the Guyagas Springs, which sent out cool, refreshing streams upon the plain.

On the 25th of February they were pursuing their course along the borders of a lake twenty miles long, whose margin was incrusted with efflorescent soda that was used by the troops as a substitute for saleratus. But a new danger met them here. The tall grass had caught from the camp fires, and, fanned by a strong wind, the flames were sweeping rapidly over the plain. The fire spread from their last encampment at Guyagas Springs in the same way, and rushing over the mountains, descended into the valley like an army of demons. There it spread, till it became a roaring sea of flame twenty feet high, and advanced upon the train, skirting the lake shore. The ammunition wagons were in great danger. The fire gained upon the train, and it was necessary to run a part of it with the artillery into the lake. The road ran parallel to the lake. The men tried to trample the grass between the lake and the road and cut it down with their sabres, throwing it to the side of the opened space distant from the fire. Then setting a counter fire in the grass standing next to the wind, a space was burned toward the conflagration, which finally checked its progress on the lake side of the road. But it swept over the plain and over the mountain-sides, till all that could feed it was consumed, and men and animals camped another night without food or forage on the black and dreary plain.

On the south-western side of this lake was the extensive hacienda of the governor of Chihuahua, heavily stocked with immense herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. On the morning of the 25th seven hundred Mexican soldiers were seen guarding this property, and a scouting party was sent out that night to ascertain more fully the strength of their position and numbers. This party consisted of twenty-five Horse-guards under Captain Reid. To avoid the sentinels that they would be likely to meet in the roads, these men ventured to ford the lake itself in the night, though it was three miles wide and had been considered impassable. This daring feat was accomplished, and they cautiously approached the walls of the hacienda. Hindered by these walls from ascertaining what was within, they suddenly made a bold dash into the enclosure, and took possession of the place. They found several hundred inhabitants, but no soldiers. They had started but an hour before for Sacramento, where the enemy had a strongly fortified position, and were awaiting the approach of the Americans.

Being lavishly entertained by the superintendent of the hacienda, they remained here during the night, and rejoined the main column the next day.

As the Mexicans were now so near, another scouting party of six or eight officers was sent forward nine or ten miles, to ascertain their strength. From a high peak within five miles of the Mexican encampment, they had a full view with field-glasses of their position, so that their batteries could be counted and their force estimated. Colonel Doniphan then made a plan for the conduct of the march the next day, and on Sunday, the 28th of February, the whole force arrived in sight of the enemy, four miles distant.