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

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma

Seeking intrenchments—Resaca de la Palma—Reconnaissance of General Taylor—The opening of the battle—Charge of Captain May—Friendship in the midst of battle—Capture of General La Vega—Breaking the Mexican line—The enemy routed—The Mexican headquarters—Flight of the defeated army—Panic at the river—Scenes in Matamoras—Captures—Joy in Fort Brown—Exchange of prisoners.

The Mexican general had met his opponent on the open field of battle, where every movement was as unobstructed as the maneuvers on a chess-board. Though possessing the advantage of numbers, he had been defeated by General Taylor mainly through the superior force and effectiveness of the American artillery. General Arista determined to meet his toe the next day in a strongly intrenched position.

Resaca de la Palma, on the road to Fort Brown, had been already fortified to resist the movement to relieve the beleaguered garrison. To this position the Mexican army retreated early in the morning of the 9th. The road here passed at right angles a ravine four or five rods wide, with water at the lower end so deep as to be almost impassable. The farther bank was covered with thick underbrush. The intrenchments were so constructed as to post the Mexicans on both sides of this chaparral. They were seven thousand strong, and their batteries commanded the narrow strip of road which afforded the only approach to Fort Brown. Beyond the intrenchments were the headquarters of General Arista, filled with a great amount of baggage, ammunition, and other valuable supplies for the army, and surrounded by the tents of the Mexican officers and soldiers, where great preparations were in progress for a feast in honor of the victory that was awaiting the approach of the Americans.

At the woods which sheltered the ravine, General Taylor halted his command, and ordered a reconnaissance, which exposed a masked battery, by the fire of which one man was killed and several wounded. Lieutenant Ridgeley, who had so much distinguished himself the day before at Palo Alto, was immediately ordered to the front, supported by the Third, Fourth and Fifth infantry regiments, with orders to bring on an engagement. Ridgeley charged at full speed on the enemy's batteries, followed by a portion of the infantry, the rest, under Captain McCall, advancing on the ravine to the left. The Eighth also entered the fight on the double quick. Ridgeley at once drew the fire of the Mexican battery and infantry, but replied so briskly with grape and canister that the Mexicans could not correct their range, and their balls passed over the heads of the rapidly advancing troops. Holding his ground, he fought with tremendous energy the Mexican veterans, who stubbornly contested every foot hard pressed by the gallant American soldiers, who formed in the ravine, and again and again charged through the chaparral, and mounting the opposite bank, drove the Mexicans from their intrenchments.

Lower down the ravine a company of the Fourth Infantry waded waist deep through the water under a sharp fire, and captured a gun which had been very effectively served by the Mexican gunners upon the American troops, and finally dislodged the Mexicans and carried their first line of intrenchments, though they made repeated efforts to recover their lost piece. The enemy still held the strongest ground, and the most gallant fighting remained to be done. To take their batteries was the most difficult. General Taylor personally ordered Captain May to the task.

"I will do it, sir," was the reply.

Riding up to his dragoons waiting impatiently to enter the battle, he gave the ringing order to charge.

"Men, follow me," he shouted, and dashed forward at headlong speed, with clattering hoofs and ringing sabres. In the full career of this brilliant charge, he was hailed by comrade Ridgeley, "Stop, Charley, and let first draw their fire," His guns flashed out their defiance to the enemy's battery, which almost instantly replied. Before the Mexican guns could be reloaded, Captain May and his followers were close at hand. Turning his horse upon the breastwork in front of the guns, May leaped over them with a few others, knocked the gunner from their pieces, and riding up to the commanding officer, who was in the act of reloading a gun with his own hand, summoned him to surrender. General La Vega yielded his sword, and was at once taken back to the American limes. But the brave Mexicans a second and third time rallied their forces, and recaptured the guns, turning them upon their foes, till the Fifth Infantry came to the support of the horsemen, and finally drove the heroic defenders of the battery from their strong position. The Americans now charged upon the Mexicans farther up the ravine, and overcame, by their unfaltering discipline, an equally dauntless foe. Finding it impossible longer to withstand their assailants, the defeated troops fled past General Arista's headquarters, pursued by the Fourth Infantry, who were surprised to find themselves In possession of the baggage and Military wealth of the Mexican army. The temptation to examine their booty was too great to continue the pursuit of the flying enemy—for a portion of these troops. Breaking Open General Arista's military chest, they found valuable maps minutely describing the topography of the country, which were afterward of great service In scouting expeditions. The camp-kettles were boiling over the fires, and a savory supper was soon prepared in them for the tired soldiers. Half-skinned bullocks were hanging on the trees, and other indications of a hasty departure were evident in the camp.

The battle was won, but of the many instances of personal bravery on both sides, some yet occurred worthy of mention.. While a few Americans were holding possession of these headquarters a Mexican officer came riding toward them. He was saluted with a volley of musketry, but still coolly rode nearer, receiving a second volley unharmed. Approaching still nearer, he escaped injury from a third discharge of musket balls. Then, his intrepid reconnaissance ended, he dashed off, and in a few moments returned with a squadron of lancers and drove the Americans into the chaparral. An American lieutenant, Cochrane, however, remained alone to receive the charge. Defending himself with his sword till he was crushed down by the horsemen, he fell, with seven lance wounds in his breast.

The issues of battle on either side often depend on the self-forgetful spirit of brave men, which in the moment of peril scorns both danger and pain. When the batteries were ordered to cross the lagoon, Lieutenant Duncan, being ahead, came to where the Fifth Infantry were engaged, and asked Colonel McIntosh if he would support him. He turned full upon Duncan, his face covered with clotted blood from many wounds, and said, "Yes, I will give you the support you need." Greatly moved at the sight and at the unflinching spirit of the wounded colonel, Duncan asked if he could be of any service to him.

"Yes," he replied, "give me some water and show me my regiment."

The flag of the Tampico Veterans, who had fought heroically at Palo Alto, was the last to disappear from the field. The Mexican color-sergeant bore the standard on the field till his regiment was totally destroyed by our guns. Then, tearing the tattered banner from the staff and trying to conceal it about his person, he fled toward the Rio Grande. Overtaken and captured by our horsemen, his flag became afterward a trophy in the National Capitol at Washington; but its history perpetuates the fidelity of veteran soldiers of another race, who counted their country's honor dearer than life.

The battle of Resaca de la Palma was one of the most celebrated victories of this war. The aggregate of General Taylor's forces was two thousand two hundred and twenty-two officers and men, and the number actually engaged was but seventeen hundred. The Mexicans fought with great advantage of position, under cover of woods and thick under-brush, with the natural defence of a ravine, and strong intrenchments. The American loss was thirty-nine killed and eighty-three wounded. Fifteen officers were included in this loss, showing their constant presence at posts of danger.

The enemy had a force moderately estimated by General Taylor at six thousand men. Nearly two hundred of his dead were buried by the Americans on the field. In killed and wounded the Mexican loss in the engagements of the 8th and 9th was one thousand. This disparity of losses, and of numbers of the two armies, was a cause of wonder and of most favorable comment wherever the fame of these battles extended.

General Arista was regarded as an accomplished officer, and he had the best part of the Mexican army in his command, the veterans of many a battle-field in the brief history of their Republic. They fought with the bravery and persistency of highly disciplined troops, and their deeds of valor excited the admiration of their victors. The superior quality of the American troops was, however, apparent even to their foes. Not a battalion faltered to give them encouragement. The daring courage and coolness of the officers who led their men to the charge, worked the guns, or, sword in hand, cut down the foe, contributed largely to these splendid victories.

Enthusiasm for the military genius of General Taylor was kindled among his countrymen, who, since the war of 1812 with Great Britain, had lacked a military hero, and he received the most flattering testimonials from military critics of Europe. Whether it were genius or indomitable courage which won these battles, General Taylor overcame four times the number of his own men engaged; though the enemy, so superior in numbers, did not retire till one seventh of their force was placed hors du combat, and they were driven at the point of the bayonet, "throwing their muskets at our men in the spirit of desperation, swearing that they were devils incarnate." When the Mexicans saw the charge of May's dragoons, many of them left their ranks and fled. It was one of the most brilliant deeds of modem warfare.

Eight pieces of artillery, a large number of prisoners, including fourteen officers, and a great amount of baggage, fell into the victor's hands.

The after scenes of pillage, murder, and flight were added to the horror of the battle. Rancheros, who had waited to plunder the American trains, now robbed the camps of their countrymen and hastened away. Many, however, like fiends, hovered over the battle-field that night, barbarously murdering with their daggers the wounded of both armies and plundering them of every valuable. The Mexicans, in their retreat, fled from the woods toward the river, which was about four miles distant. Beyond the battle-field of Resaca de la Palma, two roads led to the upper and lower ferries. Along these rushed in confusion, about six o'clock in the evening, squads of cavalry and infantry struggling to reach a place of safety. The infantry threw away their cloaks, muskets, and cartridge-boxes to speed their flight. The horsemen urged on their wounded or jaded steeds, regardless of the fallen, till they fell themselves exhausted on the road. Hundreds of Mexicans hid themselves in the dense woods that lay between the battle-field and the river, hoping to escape from these under the cover of the night. Pursued by the Americans, in despair they crowded down upon the ferries, where only one flatboat remained. Here the cavalry charged upon those on foot, and the wretches were driven into the river, where, cursing their countrymen who had thus forced them to death, and clutching at one another in their agony or calling on God to help them, they sank to a watery grave. A shower of grape-shot from Fort Brown, hurled at the fugitives on the upper ferry, added to the consternation and panic.

As the American troops in pursuit emerged from the woods near the river and saw the flag flying from the fort, they raised exultant cheers for their comrades who had unfalteringly endured one hundred and forty hours of bombardment, and the valley rang with the hearty response of the garrison.

General Taylor's cavalry were too few to cut off the enemy's retreat, and having no boats with which to cross the river, his troops returned, after five hours' fighting, to partake of the captured viands in the Mexican camp and bivouac upon the battle-ground.

When the news reached Matamoros that the day was lost, consternation and chagrin seized upon the inhabitants. For two or three hours they had busied themselves in caring for the wounded who had been brought into the city in sacks, hung over the backs of mules, burros, or horses, the only ambulances provided for the sufferers. The arrival of fugitives turned their hopes of victory to rage. Ampudia was among the first who arrived in the town and announced General Arista's defeat. Hundreds of soldiers ere the day closed were wandering about the streets demoralized by defeat. Groups of officers discussed the causes of their disaster. Women furiously tore down and stamped upon the wreaths with which they had decked their houses for victory, rent their gay apparel in frenzy of grief, and joined their lamentations with the shrieks of wounded soldiers still brought bleeding in sacks across the river. Other citizens gathered their effects and fled, only to be plundered by lawless soldiers on the country roads. Social order and decency was for a time lost.

The Mexicans left their dead to be buried and their wounded to be cared for by their victors on the battle-field. General Taylor treated them with the humanity and respect due to the fallen. An exchange of prisoners was proposed by General Arista, which was agreed to by General Taylor, and effected on the 11th of May. Among the American officers exchanged were Captains Thornton and Hardee and Lieutenant Lane.