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

The Battle of Sacramento

The line of march—Position of the enemy—Opening of the battle—Storming the intrenchments—Rout of the Mexican cavalry—Flight of the troops—Spirit of the troops—Spoils of the victors.

The little invading army was soon to confront the strongest force which the proud province of Chihuahua could raise for the defence of its beautiful capital. One thousand one hundred and sixty-four men, all Missouri volunteers, were marching between and in front of the four parallel lines of wagons thirty feet apart, which constituted the train of this Spartan band that dared to assail a great province. The horsemen rode in front. In this order they approached the Mexican forces occupying the brow of a rocky hill between the river Sacramento and a deep, dry arroyo. Their position was fortified by twenty-eight strong redoubts and intrenchments. Within these, according to the Mexican adjutant-general's report, which was captured after the battle, were four thousand two hundred and twenty men, commanded by Major-General Jose A. Heredia, aided by Generals Conde, Ugarte of the Mexican cavalry, Justimane of the infantry, and Angel Trias of the artillery, who was also governor and leading the Chihuahua troops.

The Mexicans were so confident, as they might well be, in the superiority of their numbers over the American troops, and in the strength of their position, that they had provided strings and handcuffs with which to drive them as prisoners to the City of Mexico. They moreover regarded these earth-works as the real defences of Chihuahua, which was but eighteen miles distant.

Colonel Doniphan, fully aware of the immense disadvantage he must overcome, boldly advanced his troops along the main road upon the enemy's front, till within a mile and a half of his works. Then turning to the right to avoid the range of the Mexican batteries, he crossed the arroyo and approached his position from the west, where the ascent of the hill was most narrow. As the baggage trains closely followed the column in its passage of the rocky arroyo, the general in command of the Mexican cavalry, with twelve hundred men, galloped down from the fortified hill to commence the battle. They were received by a raking fire of canister shot from the guns of Major Clark and Captain Weightman. Their ranks were thrown into disorder, and they fell back. A Mexican battery which had been hidden by their movement now vigorously replied to the American artillery, which was rapidly discharging twenty-five rounds to the minute. A terrific artillery fight continued for fifty minutes, in which all available cannon in the earthworks joined. It was strange that so few men were injured by the enemy's shot, which did fearful execution among the wagons and animals in the train. Many of the latter were killed, though their drivers escaped harm.

General Conde was obliged to retire his cavalry within their entrenchments, and Colonel Doniphan improved the opportunity to make a vigorous attack upon the redoubts in his front. Discovering a body of three hundred lancers advancing upon his rear, he first dispatched the battalion of teamsters to check their approach, and then having already ordered a charge upon the fortifications, his lines moved rapidly up the rising ground under the fire of sixteen guns in the redoubts and the fort on Sacramento hill on the opposite side of the river. The American troops were within five hundred yards of the works, when the three cavalry companies on the left, led by Captains Reid, Parsons, and Hudson, were ordered to carry the centre battery, which was sending the most effective shots into the American ranks.

By a misapprehension of the order, these companies were halted midway to the battery. It was a critical moment. If those gallant squadrons were faltering the day was lost. About twenty of Captain Reid's company, led by their intrepid officer, would not heed the order to halt, and leaping forward over the intervening ground, threw themselves upon the battery and captured it. The enemy rushed forward and succeeded in beating them back. The remainder of Captain Reid's company brought up a section of howitzers to the help of their comrades. Captain Weightman unlimbered his guns within fifty yards of the enemy, and poured in upon them a tremendous fire of grape and canister.

The Mexicans could not withstand this fire combined with the onset of the cavalry, and soon retreated, leaving the battery again in possession of the Missouri horsemen, who held it while the two other companies simultaneously carried the intrenchments on the left of Captain Reid and stubbornly held the ground.

The right wing of the American battle line now vied with the left in assailing the intrenchments. These were bravely defended by the Mexicans: Lieutenant-Colonels Jackson and Mitchell ordered their men to dismount, and, supported by their subordinate officers, they led them in a determined assault up to the cannon's mouth. These guns were enveloped in sheets of flame and smoke, so rapidly were they served. But the Americans, forgetful of everything but the intense desire for victory, climbed the ramparts and furiously attacked their enemies, who, amazed at such daring, fled from their works.

The fort on the Sacramento Hill was also carried by a part of this right wing, and its destructive cross fire silenced.

The left wing had now dismounted, and, led by Major Gilpin, they were clambering up the steeper heights, where the Mexicans had posted three brass four-pounders, protected by embankments and by ditches that were lined with troops. For a while they held their ground bravely against the assaulting party, but they could not endure the demoniacal shouts and rush of the Americans in the charge. Pouring over the intrenchments, these furious troops snatched the matches from the hands of the Mexican artillerists, as they were in the act of discharging their pieces, and made them prisoners. Relentlessly pursuing those who escaped, they drove them from one rampart to another, till General Heredia, having rallied his men several times in vain, was obliged to retreat. Cond6's cavalry formed their lines again and again to resist the Missouri squadrons, but were finally driven in confusion down the hill. Then, when the Mexicans were routed along their whole line, the Americans began a pursuit, fighting and slaughtering their foes till the darkness of night fell upon the scene.

For three hours and a half these volunteer soldiers, who had met their enemy but once before in battle, engaged four times their number behind well-constructed and heavily-armed intrenchments. They completely routed the army of Central Mexico, which lost three hundred and twenty men killed, five hundred and sixty wounded, and seventy-two made prisoners. Colonel Doniphan officially reported a loss of only one officer killed and eleven men wounded. The discrepancy can be accounted for only by the utter inaccuracy of the Mexican aim.

The Mexicans retreated mainly toward Durayer, but without sufficient discipline to hold them together; they were so dispersed among the ranches and villages that they could never again be rallied. The captures of spoil by this victory were enormous. The specie, provisions, and ammunition gathered for such a large force fell into the hands of the Americans, who were wellnigh overwhelmed with the amount of plunder. Among these captures were six thousand dollars in money, fifty thousand sheep, eleven hundred head of cattle, one hundred mules, twenty-five thousand pounds of ammunition, and ten cannon.

There could not have been a more complete surprise to the Mexican people than this American victory. On the hills in the vicinity a thousand non-combatants had gathered to witness the stirring scenes of a battle, and rejoice in the defeat of the foolhardy Americans. The Mexican priest Ortiz, who had accompanied Colonel Doniphan from E1 Paso as an hostage, said to Colonel Doniphan before the battle, "Your force is too weak to contend against such a force as the Mexican army, and in so strong a position. You will all be inevitably destroyed or captured and put into chains. The Mexicans will whip you without ' a doubt. I beg that you will permit me to remain out of danger. "

The colonel assured him of safety in either issue of the battle. After it was over, he said good-humoredly:

"Well, Ortiz, what do you think now about the Mexicans whipping my boys?"

"Ah, sir, they would have defeated you if you had fought like men, but you fought like devils."

The spirit of battle was incarnate in every one of these Missourians. A volunteer who had the care of seven horses, while their riders, having dismounted, were preparing to charge, called to Colonel Doniphan as he was galloping by:

"See here, Colonel, am I compelled to stand here in this tempest of cannon and musket-balls and hold horses?"

"Yes," he replied, "if you are detailed for the purpose."

The volunteer tied the bridles together, saying with an oath, as he picked up his gun and sabre and started in the charge, "I didn't come here to hold horses. I can do that at home."

A sergeant who was one of the first to leap into the entrenchments on the right found himself alone. Unable to reload his carbine and pistols, he threw them aside, and defended himself by hurling rocks at the foe, till he was rejoined by his comrades.

As Colonel Doniphan rode from rank to rank before the action began, he said of his men: "I could see nothing but the stern resolve to conquer or die. There was no trepidation and no pale faces."

Yet these men had been in the service nine months, marched two thousand miles, and had not had one dollar of pay.

"They have had half rations, hard marches and no clothes," said their leader; "'they curse and praise their country, but fight for her all the time!"

After such heroic fighting and the exhausting pursuit of the panic-stricken Mexicans, the victors returned to the deserted camps within the intrenchments to feast upon the luxurious fare which the citizens of Chihuahua had provided for their friends.