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

The Army of the West

The march to Santa Fe—The Santa Fe trail—Hardships and sufferings in the desert—Reports of the enemy—Raton Pass—Ruins of the Temple of Montezuma at Pecos—Traditions—Gallisteo canyon—Flight of the Mexicans—Entrance to the capital—Address by General Kearney—Submission of the Mexicans to the United States.

In accordance with the plan of the Administration at Washington, the fifty thousand troops authorized by Act of Congress in April, 1846, were assigned to three divisions, the Army of Occupation, under command of Major-General Taylor, the Army of the Centre, under Brigadier-General Wool, and the Army of the West, of which Colonel Stephen W. Kearney, of the United States Army, soon made brigadier-general, was in chief command. This division was ordered to march to Santa Fe, seize upon the territory of New Mexico, and then push on westward to occupy California. The most important results of the war were, therefore, committed to General Kearney, for the eye of the Government was upon this part of the Mexican possessions as the most desirable spoils of victory.

The troops of the Army of the West were required to rendezvous at Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River, twenty-two miles above the mouth of the Kansas River. They were all Missouri companies, and with the exception of one battalion of infantry, mounted volunteers who had organized within twenty days after the Governor's requisition. The effective force numbered one thousand six hundred and fifty-eight men, and sixteen pieces of artillery. Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan, who had served in the Missouri war of 1838, was second in command, and the most popular, efficient, and prominent officer of this expedition.

The State of Missouri shared the war excitement with other parts of the Union. The Missouri River steamboats daily bore great crowds of friends and relatives to Fort Leavenworth to witness the departure of this little army on their adventurous march of two thousand miles to the Pacific, one half of which were to be through a hostile country. For a thousand miles the green prairies stretched like a sea between them and Mexican soil. Then billowy plains and alpine ranges must be overcome, hot, treeless deserts and wintry snows passed through, and the perils bravely endured of savage tribes and enraged peoples of unknown numbers resisting the invasion of their native land. It seemed like the long, last parting to friends, and each man of the expedition was exalted to the place of hero in the hearts of his countrymen.

A provision train of a hundred wagons and two mounted companies having been sent forward over the plains, the main body began their march on the 26th of June, 1846. Three days afterward, Colonel Kearney followed with the rear of his command. The column winding over these plains was a strange sight, inspiring the ardor and admiration of this venturesome frontier people. Over the Santa Fe trail for years had hung the horrors of scenes of bloodshed, famine, Indian cruelty and sufferings, from which a few would escape to tell the sad stories. It was tracked with the bones of men and beasts. For the first time, an army under the Stars and Stripes, with glittering guns and swords and all the trappings of war, and with the gayety of reckless men, was moving across these prairies, to invade the homes of an ancient people, foreign in speech, habits, and religion.

A merchant train in advance, consisting of four hundred white-capped wagons, was already dotting the undulating plains. Ere these could be over-taken, sixty-five miles of roadway west of Independence, had to be made partly through a thick timber growth, over ravines, high-banked creeks, tall grass or soft prairie mud, into which the heavy wagon wheels sank to the axle. Sometimes a hundred men were needed to draw a heavy wagon up the precipitous ridges of the table-lands. The heat was often very oppressive. The untrained cavalry horses, unused to military trappings or discipline, frequently broke loose and scampered over the wide prairies. From the 2nd of July, when the whole column was fairly entered upon the great Santa Fe trail, they traversed six hundred miles over a monotonous road without sight of habitations in the whole dreary expanse, till Fort Bent, on the Arkansas, was reached. Then the rolling, flower-clad prairie was for a few days a luxurious roadway for the march of an army. Springs, brooks, clumps of timber and occasional rivers, where they could bathe and refresh themselves, made convenient halting-places for the troops, and provision trains still kept them supplied with food. Soon, however, it became more difficult to overtake the wagon trains scattered along the route, and the soldiers were sometimes overcome by hunger and fatigue under the hot July sun. As they still moved westward fuel failed, and only dried buffalo chips, worthless in wet weather, could be found to warm their scanty food. By the loth of July drenching rains began, succeeded by excessively hot weather. When the animals and men, who had frequently been deceived by the mirages of the desert, at last reached the Arkansas River again, they rushed into it to slake their burning thirst in its muddy waters.

Their march in a few days brought them to herds of buffalo roaming the plains, who afforded the hungry men sumptuous fare. Three or four hundred of these wild beasts would break through the long extended column winding over the plain, and in their confusion many fell beneath the ready rifles of the soldiers and teamsters. Again the flowery prairie with its pink and blue lilies, and poppies and sunflowers, which had cheered the solitudes with their colors, changed to an arid plain. The route now led through a heated desert incrusted with alkaline earth like fine ashes, or hard with rain-washed pebbles, polished like glass by the winds and blistering hot to the feet, occasionally intersected by striped ridges of blue, red, and yellow sandstone. On this great desert for many months of the year neither dew nor rain fell, and the ground was whitened by the bones of thousands of men and beasts that had perished by starvation.

The main column reached Fort Bent the 30th of July. Here the troops rested till the 2nd of August, and the sick, who numbered about sixty, were left.

News previously received of the hostile preparations of the Mexicans under Governor Armijo was confirmed by the arrival of messengers from Santa Fe. The Comanche Indians were now seen hovering over the plains, and they even visited the camps, curiously examining the artillery. A detachment was sent northward to the Taos valley to offer peace to the inhabitants, and report their reception to Colonel Kearney, and on the 2nd of August the march was resumed through a still more inhospitable desert southwardly toward the Raton Mountains. There was neither grass nor shrubs for the famishing animals; the water was scarce, muddy, and bitter; the wheels sank to their felloes in the pulverized earth, and the wind drove the sand into the faces of men and beasts, so that with eyes, nostril, and mouth filled, they were wellnigh suffocated. Thus the panting column advanced for three days, till on the 5th of August they encamped on the banks of the Purgatoire, a cool mountain stream, having passed out of the desert and come in sight of the lofty Cimmaron and Spanish peaks rising thirteen thousand feet above the Gulf of Mexico in snowy grandeur before them. Cheered by these boundaries of the desolate plains, the men entered with new energy and spirit upon the rough roads and abrupt hills which were to be passed as they ascended the Raton Pass and came out upon a grand amphitheatre girt with steep hills of granite and basalt, where they enjoyed the first Sabbath's rest allowed them since they left Missouri.

The troops were now placed upon an allowance of rations not one third the usual quantity They had good reason to regret the comforts they had left behind, but cheerfully submitted to the privations of irregular and scanty supplies, to which unhappily they were destined ever afterward in this campaign. But the little army made rapid progress over the plains and through the mountain gorges. They accomplished from seventeen to twenty-five miles per day. Colonel Kearney, with about five hundred men, was in advance of Colonel Doniphan. Though the troops had met no enemy, there were among them quite frequent deaths by exhaustion and sickness. Not only provisions but ammunition was so diminished that the soldiers were restrained from wasting the latter on game, when an engagement with the Mexicans was so soon expected.

On the 14th of August the expedition arrived in the vicinity of the Mexican settlements, where they found a country covered with groves of cedars and pines, and the Mexican ranchos or farms in the vale leys surrounded with corn-fields and gardens.

The next day two items of news reached the army which greatly elated the troops. Colonel Kearney received his appointment from the President as Brigadier-General, and from the west it was announced that two thousand Mexicans were encamped in the canyon six miles from Las Vegas to oppose their march. The spirit of volunteer soldiers, depressed by the fatigues and hardships of the longest march ever made by an army on this continent, was now aroused. The line of battle was formed and ammunition distributed. The trumpet sounded the advance. Banners were flying and high hopes were entertained of a fight with the long-sought enemy. As the column in battle array passed Las Vegas, the Alcalde and prominent citizens of Las Vegas took the oath of allegiance to the laws and government of the United States from Colonel Kearney. But when, hurrying on to the canyon, the column prepared for the clash of arms, the disappointed troops discovered that the Mexicans had fled.

Pursuing their march, they halted at the villages of San Miguel and Pecos to administer the oath of allegiance. Here was an abundance of fresh spring water, of grass and provisions, of vegetables, bread, milk, eggs, fruits, and chickens, which were freely furnished by the inhabitants, glad to accept the money of the soldiers for their produce. Strict orders had been given to the various divisions of the United States army to purchase their food and forage of the peaceable inhabitants of Mexico. These orders were generally obeyed in the early part of the war, and were strictly enforced in the expedition to New Mexico, where there was comparatively little opposition raised to the invasion and subjugation of the territory.

At Pecos the expedition came upon the interesting ruins of the village which was the traditional birthplace of the great Montezuma, and which had been the capital of the tribe descended from him. Here was the temple built of adobe bricks more than three hundred years old, in which for ages was kept alive the sacred fire that Montezuma is said to have kindled and commanded to be kept burning till he should return to deliver his people from oppression. The tradition still lingered that by accident the fire was at last extinguished and the village and temple abandoned. The troops found the temple within the stone walls eight feet high and four feet thick which entirely surrounded the village of Pecos. Its measurements were one hundred and ninety-one feet long, thirty-five feet broad and fifty feet high, with walls six feet thick. The interior was divided into compartments, having cells, stone cisterns, and tanks, while the outside turrets were tumbled to the ground. The Pueblo Indians during this war could not be induced to fight the American troops, though at first enlisted in it by the urgent pleas of the Mexicans. They had a tradition that help would come to them from the East to deliver them from Spanish rule, the prophecy of which seemed to them already fulfilled.

Don Manuel Armijo, the Spanish Governor of New Mexico, had by this time gathered a force of seven thousand men to oppose their invaders. Two thousand were well armed, and they had partially fortified the Gallisteo canyon fifteen miles from Santa Fe, in order to give battle there to Kearney's command. Armijo had sent a message to General Kearney, saying ambiguously that he would meet him on that or the following day. Hoping still for a peaceful interview, Kearney hastened forward, and arrived at Gallisteo Pass on the 18th of August. His men were in order of battle, but again he found no enemy. Dissension had broken out among the officers of the Mexican army, and the private soldiers, being peaceably disposed toward the Americans, had on this pretext abandoned the officers. Left without soldiers, Governor Armijo escaped with a few dragoons southward toward Chihuahua, and General Kearney, with less than two thousand soldiers, passed through a defile so narrow that but three or four men could walk abreast, and where seven thousand Mexicans with six pieces of cannon could have successfully resisted five times their number.

On the same day the American troops entered Santa Fe, took peaceable possession of the capital and the whole country in the name of the United States, after a march of nine hundred miles, accomplished in less than fifty days. Without the loss of a single man in battle, he planted the American flag in the plaza in front of the Palacio Grande, the residence of Governor Armijo and of the successive Spanish governors since the conquest.

As the flag was raised in the public square, a national salute of twenty-eight guns was fired from the Loma, a hill east of the town, where the camp ground had been selected, and the American cavalry rode with waving banners through the streets of the city. Not a moment had the army halted that day. Many of the animals exhausted sank down to die. The baggage wagons came through the night over the muddy and rough road, and the men lay down on the bare hill, where neither wood nor grass could be found, without food or drink, to find even there a welcome rest.

The next day, with the aid of an interpreter, General Kearney addressed the citizens assembled in front of the Palace, which had been taken as head quarters of the American army. He declared the peaceable intentions of the invasion by the United States troops, who had no thought of robbing them of property, domestic security, or religion. They were no longer Mexican but American citizens, and subject only to the laws of the United States, under which all men were equal. He counselled them to resort to no violence, but to take the oath of allegiance, and announced that all their officers would remain unchanged, except the governor, who had fled. He then administered to these officers the oath of allegiance to the United States, and amid the tears and shouts of the people, who had been made to believe that they would be robbed and outraged, General Kearney was received as their deliverer rather than conqueror. In the same way he received the allegiance of the delegates from the neighboring Pueblos, who came to offer submission.

By the orders of General Kearney, a flag-staff one hundred feet high was raised for the American flag in the plaza. The Mexicans in and around Santa Fe, notwithstanding the efforts of their priests and former rulers, were soon won to goodwill and apparent contentment under the new regime, by the fact that their property was not molested, their flocks were left undisturbed, their fruits, grain, and provisions scrupulously paid for in full value by their American conquerors, and their homes made secure from all violence.