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

The Battle of Palo Alto

Palo Alto—Sight of the enemy—Preparations for battle—Artillery practice—Charge of the Mexicans—Their repulse and heroism—Cavalry movements—Attempt to capture the wagons—The American line of battle advanced—Night ends the battle—The Mexicans retreat.

On the evening of the 7th of May, general Taylor left Point Isabel with twenty-one hundred men and a train of two hundred and fifty wagons, with the full intention of giving battle to the Mexicans and then relieving the beleaguered fort, whose signals from the heavy eighteen-pound guns had been heard that day. He marched eight miles that evening, and encamped. While on the march next day at noon, the Mexican army was reported in front. Pressing on with the wagon train, the columns kept the road, on the right and left of which were ponds of fresh water, and beyond these a thick underbrush. Farther on was a plain on which they advanced and deployed as they came in sight of the Mexican army drawn up in an imposing line of battle. It extended a mile upon the open ground, a division of cavalry occupying the right wing, with artillery in the centre and infantry on the left. Their bright uniforms of green and red, their glittering lances and fluttering banners, were a beautiful and stirring sight for the brave troops who, with but one third the number of their foes, were challenged to an open conflict on that plain. There were few, however, who were not eager for the battle.

The wagons were immediately formed into a square, and the columns deployed in front. General Taylor now ordered Lieutenant Blake alone to reconnoitre the enemy's force, and report the number and disposition of Mexican troops in line. The order was gallantly obeyed. Riding at full speed to within one hundred and fifty yards, and dismounting, he coolly surveyed the enemy with his glass. Perceiving a few Mexican horsemen riding out to meet him, he galloped the whole length of the line of battle, out-riding his pursuers, and returned to report to General Taylor an accurate description of the arrangement of the enemy's forces.

General Taylor now completed his plan of battle, and stationed his troops according to this, giving to the artillery, his most reliable and strongest arm, the most prominent part in the engagement. In ominous silence the two armies now approached each other. The tall prairie grass muffled the sounds of the artillery wheels and the tramp of thousands of men, and only the rattle of harness and gun trappings and the jingling of arms disturbed the air under the cloudless Mexican sky. It was an imposing and brilliant scene. Eight or nine thousand men were advancing for deadly conflict on an open plain, as in battles of old, with scarcely a sod up-turned for intrenchment, without fence or wall for shelter. The Mexicans held higher ground for their batteries than their opponents, who also had but one third their number of combatants. On the Mexican left there was a marsh of difficult passage, and girding the plain at a considerable distance behind them were the low trees and chaparral from which the battle took its name.

When within seven hundred yards, the Mexican batteries on their right opened fire from the rising ground, and their guns along the whole line were soon engaged. Their balls flew over the American troops, who were still advancing and opened to right and left upon the plain to give room for Lieutenant Churchill's eighteen-pounder battery to send their heavy balls in defiant answer crashing through the Mexican ranks. The Third Brigade of infantry, including also Ringgold's battery and Churchill's two eighteen-pounders, and a small cavalry force under Captains Ker and May, all commanded by Colonel Twiggs, had now taken place on the right of General Taylor's line. His left was composed of the Third Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel Belknap. This was made up of an infantry regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Child's battalion of artillery, and Captain Duncan's artillery.

Ringgold's and Duncan's batteries quickly joined their sharp peals with the thunder of at least thirty guns engaged on both sides. The skill of the American gunners was visible in the tremendous gaps that their shots made in the Mexican ranks. The infantry and dragoons, held back from the battle, watched with eager eyes and triumphant shouts their deadly effect. General Arista, perceiving how much his infantry and horsemen were suffering from the precise aim of the American gunners, ordered a regiment of lancers to advance upon the wagon train on the right of the American line. Now began the maneuvers of battle. Two regiments of infantry and part of Ringgold's battery were dispatched far to the right to flank the enemy's left and check his advance upon the train. The Mexicans with great bravery advanced, unchecked by the galling fire of grape-shot, till they came upon the Fifth Regiment of infantry formed into a square that hurled such a deadly volley upon them as to break their ranks. With splendid discipline the cavalry reformed under this fire, and still pushed on with heroic determination toward the wagons. Colonel Twiggs now ordered the Third Regiment of infantry far to the right to cut off their victorious progress. Unable to withstand this new movement they retreated by squadrons in good order, till scattered by the fire of another batters' which opened upon them.

Our men were now engaged all along the line. For two hours the artillery fire kept up a savage slaughter of the Mexicans. It was mainly directed against their cavalry, blowing horses and riders into the air, and hiding in the dust-clouds rising from the prairie the ranks of the veterans that composed this gallant army. Still the Mexicans held a heroic front to their foes, closing up their lines and pressing forward only to be hurled back again upon their position. The prairie-grass,, dried by the heat and flames of the guns, took fire, and the conflagration filled the air with blinding smoke, which rolled in sulphurous clouds over the battle-field. In the midst of this smoke the American guns were advanced till they held the position of the Mexicans at the opening of the battle.

After an hour's interval the fighting was renewed. The enemy was slowly taking a more protected position with the chaparral behind them, when Captain May, with his dragoons, made an ineffectual attack on their left, but was vigorously repulsed. Ringgold's battery was, however, doing terrible execution, and the Mexicans massed their fire upon it. In the midst of a tempest of balls, Captain Page fell, mortally wounded. Ringgold, who had done such gallant deeds, was cut down by a cannon-ball that took off both legs. With the loss of these two officers the artillery fire wavered; when Child's battery was ordered up with a battalion of troops to support the guns. General Arista then brought his Mexican cavalry in a dashing charge upon this part of the field to capture the batteries. The battalion awaited their approach, formed in a hollow square, but were soon thrown into confusion by the balls and musketry shot hurled upon them. They were only saved from retreating by the effective shot from Child's battery, which checked the Mexican cavalry and silenced their guns on their left.

Baffled in this movement to cripple the strongest arm of his opponent, General Arista now made another attempt to gain possession of the wagons. This was resisted by Duncan's battery, the Eighth Infantry and Captain Ker's command of cavalry. The Mexican cavalry intrepidly advanced, though fearful havoc was visible in their ranks. They could not, however, reach their merciless foes. Thrown into confusion, they were at last driven back to the shelter of the woods, as the darkness gathered upon the bloody field of Palo Alto, which had been contested for five hours with unquestioned bravery and skill on both sides. The men dropped upon the ground to sleep, with the expectation of another battle in the morning.

All the horrors of war had now been summoned to decide questions which might have had a peaceful solution. The bravery of the regular troops of both Republics had been tested and proved. The superiority of American soldiers, with numbers so small in comparison with their opponents, was justly claimed on this battle-field. Would their endurance be equal to another fierce struggle? The issues of this day's battle had rested upon the superior weight of the guns and skill of the artillerists. The decisions of the next contest would be, perhaps, in the hands and hearts of the infantry. With such thoughts the victorious Americans closed their eyes to rest in the midst of the agonizing and gory scenes and sounds of a battle-field where scores of brave men lay dead and dying in the night.

The losses of the two armies at Palo Alto were very unequal. The American general reported four killed and thirty-seven wounded. Two hundred Mexicans were killed, and twice that number wounded; though no accurate report of this day's casualties was probably ever made by General Arista. His official report places his entire loss at two hundred and fifty-two; but he was joined on the battle-field by General Ampudla with forces drawn from Matamoras, which suffered heavily, though the tragic events of the next day concealed the extent of the damage done to the Mexican army at Palo Alto.