Boys' Book of Border Battles - Edwin Sabin

With "Old Zach" At Palo Alto (1846)

"The Bayonet, My Hardy Cocks!"

All the camp at Point Isabel was excited by the sound. Officers and men collected in groups, discussing and listening. General Taylor issued orders to break camp at one o'clock and march for Fort Mansfield. Then about eleven o'clock the fire of the eighteen-pounders ceased. The fire of the Mexican bellowing mortars continued; so there had been no assault.

Old Zach, a tough fighter himself, believed that the fort should be able to hold out for a time, against merely a bombardment. He was not yet ready to move—he had not loaded his wagon train with the needed supplies, nor finished the entrenchments for protecting Point Isabel. He resolved that he must play the game and take chances. So he countermanded his orders; but he sent Captain Walker, with ten other Texas Rangers, escorted by one hundred dragoons under Captain Charley May, to get word direct from Major Brown.

They left in the evening. Captain May and his dragoons returned at nine o'clock the next morning, May 4, their horses blown. They had sighted the camp fires of a large Mexican force posted near Palo Alto on the trail only ten miles out from the Point; had circuited the camp and gone on, until Captain Walker and his Rangers had ridden ahead to enter the fort. None of the Texans had come back to the rendezvous. After waiting all night the dragoons had given them up; had made for the Point again, had put one hundred and fifty Mexican lancers to flight, and were here to report that the route to the fort was held by the enemy in strength.

General Taylor hastened his preparations. The Mexican batteries were still pummeling Fort Mansfield. Today, May 5, Captain Walker and his Rangers appeared. They had entered the fort; it was all right and confident. That was good news. But on the way to the Point the Rangers had been hard pushed. The whole country seemed full of Mexican lancers and guerillas.

"We will march to the relief of Fort Mansfield at the earliest possible moment," General Taylor said.

About noon of the next day the eighteen-pounders began to fire signal shots. Old Zach listened grimly. The bombardment had increased. Officers and men worked furiously loading the wagons with ammunition and food, and helping Point Isabel dig in.

In the morning the orders were issued, at last.

"The army will march today at three o'clock in the direction of Matamoros. It is known that the enemy has recently occupied the route in force. If still in possession, the general will give him battle. The commanding general has every confidence in his officers and men. If his orders and instructions are carried out, he has no doubt of the result, let the enemy meet him in what numbers they may. He wishes to enjoin upon the battalions of infantry that their main dependence must be in the bayonet."

"The bayonet!" That was the certain weapon—the American bayonet!

At two o'clock this May 7 the column started. The progress was slow, across the soft prairie. There was a long train of heavily loaded wagons; there were Captain and Brevet Major Samuel Ringgold's Third Artillery battery of four twelve-pounder howitzers and Captain James Duncan's Second Artillery light field battery; there were two long eighteen-pounders in charge of First Lieutenant William Hunter Churchill of the Third Artillery; there were four companies of the Second Dragoons, three companies each of the First, Second, Third and Fourth Artillery, serving as infantry, except the battery men; there were the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Infantry.

The wagons were drawn by oxen; so were the Churchill eighteen-pounders. The regiments had been cut down by illness and lack of recruits. The United States had not prepared for war. Some of the infantry companies contained only sixteen men. In all, the column numbered two thousand, two hundred and eighty-eight.

This afternoon it marched only five or six miles and bivouacked for the night "beside a pond where the mosquitoes and rattlesnakes were so plenty that we could not sleep."

It was reported that the Mexicans had abandoned their position in the way; perhaps there would be no fight, after all. But the guns of Matamoros were booming, Fort Mansfield was now and then replying; Old Zach moved on carefully as well as hopefully. Fight or not, he intended to get through.

This noon of April 8, twelve miles out of Point Isabel the advance dragoons came scurrying back. The enemy had been sighted again—he was in battle array on the plain of Palo Alto or Tall Timber, scarcely two miles before.

"Now we'll have it, boys!" was the word from man to man.

In a few minutes more the column burst out of the thorny thickets that enclosed the route; arrived at a water hole and at the same time saw the Mexicans. There they were, on ahead to the south, extending across the road in a front a mile and a half wide!

"Look at them! Just look!"

"My stars, what a host!"

But Old Rough and Ready did not seem a whit alarmed. He had the column halted.


By platoons, or half companies, the men were dismissed to the water hole, to drink and to fill their canteens.

"Column, attention!"

Old Zach went to work leisurely. He divided the column into right and left wings. The right wing was composed of the Fifth Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel McIntosh, on the flank; next, the Ringgold Battery C; then the Third Infantry, Captain Lewis N. Morris; Lieutenant Churchill's two eighteen-pounders; the Fourth Infantry, Brevet Major George Washington Allen: all under Colonel Davy Twiggs, with Lieutenant-Colonel Garland of the Fourth Infantry as brigade commander.

The left wing was composed of the artillery companies serving as infantry, under Captain and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Childs of the Third Artillery; Captain Duncan's flying Battery A of the Second; the Eighth Infantry, Captain William R. Montgomery : all commanded by Major and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel William G. Belknap of the Eighth. General William J. Worth had gone home from the Rio Grande, to wait until a disagreement over his rank had been settled.

The wagon train was to be left at the water hole, defended by Captain Croghan Ker's squadron—Companies H and K of the Second Dragoons.

At two o'clock everything was ready. By heads of regiments, in columns of platoons, the American army advanced. Lieutenant Churchill's eighteen-pounders took to the road, in the center. The grass was shoulder high, and stiff and sharp pointed; the sun was hot. Old Zach occasionally halted the columns, for a rest, while he and his staff surveyed the enemy through their spy-glasses.

The Mexican array grew plainer. Within only half a mile of it General Taylor deployed his columns into line of battle, and halted again. What a splendid sight the enemy made! There appeared to be six or seven thousand Mexican troops, in gay uniforms. Their long ranks glittered with the lance tips of the cavalry, fluttering red and blue pennons; with the bayonets of the infantry, and now and then with the brassy sheen of a field piece.

Their rear was covered by the trees of the Palo Alto, which had thrived beside the shallow Rio Grande River when it flowed there instead of farther south. Their right rested upon a wide mass of chaparral or dense brush cloaking a ridge; their left rested across the road, upon a brushy lagoon or stagnant pond. The main portion of the army was east of the road, facing the American left.

The ground between the two armies was flat moist prairie, rife with the stiffly pointed grasses, and dotted with brush.

On account of the high grass the number of Mexican guns could not be figured out. The guns were concealed behind the front line of skirmishers. The gay army had ceased to move for position. It stood perfectly still. So did the lines of blue. The men in the blue ranks felt odd. It was a silence as of death. Could the two thousand American Regulars defeat those six thousand Mexican veterans? The American Regulars had fought the British, and the Indians; they never had met the Mexicans—but everybody knew that the Mexican army was well trained, by French methods, and had been in the field many times.

Captain May was ordered to take his two companies of dragoons and draw the enemy's fire—wake up the cannon, so that they might be located. The dragoons trotted forward, on a feint; but the enemy appeared not to see them.

Old Rough and Ready rode slowly along the American front. He wore a shabby snuff colored duster, and sat his horse with one leg hooked around the pommel—woman fashion. He paused before each battalion, and eyed it; said a few words.

"The bayonet, my hardy cocks! The bayonet's the thing!"

First Lieutenant Jacob Edmund Blake of the topographical engineers now dashed out. He sped straight for the right of the Mexican line; approached to within one hundred yards—eighty yards. There he halted, and dismounting calmly swept the line with his glass. He was counting the cannon.

One volley from the Mexican muskets, and all would have been over with Lieutenant Blake. The American ranks held their breaths. But the Mexicans did not fire upon them. They acted puzzled. Two officers cantered for him, as if thinking that he bore dispatches. He paid no attention to them, and they also halted, to stare.

Lieutenant Blake was in no hurry. Presently he vaulted into the saddle again, dashed on, for the other end of the line, made a survey there, and returned in safety.

The Mexicans may have thought him crazy, but it was a very daring feat.

The Mexican army had twelve guns and six thousand men. It was commanded by General Arista himself. General Ampudia was serving under him. The right wing, of light cavalry, artillery, sappers, and the crack Tampico Coast Guards, was commanded by General La Vega; the center, of three regiments of the line, with cannon, was commanded by General Garcia; the left wing, chiefly of cavalry, was commanded by General Torrejon—the same who had captured the Thornton and Hardee dragoons at La Rosia.

For twenty long minutes the two armies had stood in line, fronting one another; and not a shot. The Taylor soldiers nervously chewed bits of hard tack, to moisten their lips; they talked low, wondering what was to happen. The majority of them never had been under fire. On a sudden a jet of white smoke spurted from the right of the Mexican line—a solid ball sent the dust flying, between the two armies. The ball had fallen short. Another followed, and another; by the half dozen they came. A few whistled overhead, but the greater number landed before; rolled and bounded through the grass. They were easy to dodge. The men coolly opened ranks and let them ramble on. That was a test of discipline.

"Batteries to the front!"\

Huzzah! The Ringgold and Duncan guns and the Churchill eighteens forged into the open space, right, left, and center. The two yoke of oxen to either of the eighteen-pounders tugged stoutly—minded the cannon shots not in the slightest.

"G'lang, Buck! Spot!" their drivers urged. "You're fat enough. If you're killed you'll make good beef."

The guns were swiftly unlimbered and wheeled.

The cannoneers had stripped to their red flannel shirts, had tucked up their sleeves and tied their suspenders around their waists.

The eighteen pounders were ready.

"Number One, fire!"

It spoke with a resounding crash, while the American soldiers cheered wildly.

"Too high, men," Lieutenant Churchill said. "Try another."

They tried with Number Two.

"Too low, men. Try again. The third time's the charm."

At the third shot Lieutenant Churchill sprang into the air.

"That's it, that's it, my lads! You have them now. Keep her at that."

Every ball from the eighteen-pounders was tearing through the mass of cavalry near the road upon the Mexican left. The Ringgold howitzers were throwing shell into the same cavalry with fearful effect. The Duncan six-pounders had joined in with solid shot. All the guns of either army were in hot action.

The Mexican gunners aimed at the American batteries; the majority of the balls still fell short of the line; they came bounding as before, and the soldiers dodged them. The American gunners aimed at the Mexican ranks, and did not miss. The solid shot opened broad lanes—sometimes tossed horse and man high; the shells blew whole squads to fragments.

Yet the Mexicans stood bravely. Each gap was quickly closed. The ranks acted like veterans—and veterans they were, of battles in Texas and in revolutions at home.

The Mexican advanced line of skirmishers had been driven helter-skelter back upon the main line. But there was no escaping that dreadful hail from the American guns manned by those red-shirted demons of "Yahnkees." Major Ringgold saw to this. He was an expert in field artillery, and commanded the two light batteries; encouraged the gunners—had them shift their aim from point to point, and directed them to select certain men as their mark. Thus they fired the cannon like rifles.

The infantry stood at order arms, watched and cheered. Old Zach was clearly getting the better of the Mexican generals. He did not attack; he simply held his ground and from the distance ripped the enemy's line to tatters. The Mexican artillery was more in number, but was no match in action. The fierce duel continued for an hour. Still the Mexican ranks did not break, did not give back an inch. They were indeed brave men, those Mexican soldiers.

Now they evidently had wearied of being shot at. And that was so the ranks were appealing to their officers, either to be moved into the shelter of the trees, or else to be led forward to close quarters.

General Arista consented. General Torrejon, the famous cavalry commander, was directed to sweep out with his lancers and dragoons, a battery and a support of infantry, and turn the American right; pass around to the baggage train, if possible.

Old Rough and Ready instantly saw the movement. The Ringgold and the Churchill guns centered upon the column—shattered it, but making its way through the chaparral it only swung wider and came on. The Fifth Regiment obliqued at the double to meet it; formed a square, and as General Torrejon delivered a volley and then charged on right and rear, one side burst with a frightful eruption of buckshot and ball which killed and wounded twenty of the lancers and sent the rest into the thickets.

Another portion of the Torrejon detachment had kept on, farther out, for the wagon train. The Third Infantry, panting through the heavy grass, headed it off. Lieutenant Randolph Ridgely and two guns of the Ringgold battery stopped the Torrejon guns.

All the field was filled with horses galloping riderless or bearing crouched lancers; with dead and wounded men and animals; with cheers and powder smoke and thunderous reports. The grass blazed up. The flannel powder-bags of the Churchill eighteens had set it afire. In a few minutes the space of prairie between the two armies was a broad sheet of flame; the pungent smoke drifted into the Mexican lines.

It was a terrible sight. The gunners could no longer see to shoot. The cannonading ceased, until the fire should pass. General Arista rearranged his line under cover of the smoke. He retired his battered left wing, and changed front in half direction. Old Zach saw. The road was almost clear, for the Mexican left had been resting upon it. So he promptly ordered the eighteens to be trundled down the road, and the artillery battalion, Captain Duncan's light battery and the Eighth Infantry to support, near the road.

By this movement the American right was advanced until it had occupied the place where the Mexican left had rested. It held the road, with its fresh battalions. The Mexican new line was facing the road, from the east.

The grass had burned off, in an hour. The battle broke out again. Old Rough and Ready stayed on the defensive. General Arista was forced into the attack, because the American cannon were once more shattering his ranks.

The Mexican artillery fire had grown accurate. It was being concentrated upon the eighteen-pounders in the road opposite the Mexican right. The Fourth Infantry was ordered up, to support the eighteens, at the rear. A solid shot sheared off the jaw of Captain John Page—carried with it the head of Private Lee and also pulverized his musket stock; drove one of his teeth into the back of Lieutenant Henry Wallen.

Ringgold's battery came in for a share. A cannon ball struck Major Ringgold in the right thigh, tore through his horse and out through his left thigh. Upon the ground, he waved his men to their guns.

"Don't stay with me, any of you. You have other work to do. Go ahead."

He had graduated from West Point in 1818, had studied in the military schools of Europe, and was the officer who had organized the flying artillery branch of the United States army.

Palo Alto


General Taylor was sitting his horse, watching the work of the long eighteens and the howitzers. It was a dangerous spot.

"You had better retire a little, general. The balls are falling all about you, sir."

"No, sir," Old Zach answered. "Let's ride a little nearer and then they'll fall behind us!"

General Arista tried again to checkmate the fearful precision of those American batteries, and bring on close fighting. His men preferred musket balls and even bayonets to solid shot and to shell; their hearts were sore.

He detached the crack Tampico Coast Guard battalion, the Second Light Infantry, his sappers and part of his Seventh Cavalry, to charge under Colonel Montero, behind the fire of all the batteries, and break the American left; and at the same time General Torrejon and cavalry, with a regiment of infantry, were to break the American right.

Captain and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan had his battery well out to the front, toward the left. The air was clearer, here. He saw the Montero column—sent an aide to Lieutenant-Colonel Belknap, commanding, with the word; and he himself dashed like mad down the front of the line, his battery rumbling and tossing after. He rounded a point of burning grass right in the path of the Mexicans; alone with his battery of four guns he wheeled into action. It was a surprise for Colonel Montero.

With two guns the. battery opened upon the cavalry, leading the column; with two guns it riddled the infantry, following through the chaparral. The four guns vomited flame and smoke and canister. This one feat made Duncan's battery famous as a fighting unit.

The Mexican cavalry piled up in confusion; the infantry halted in the chaparral; Colonel Montero seemed not to know what to do. The Eighth Regiment, and Captain Ker's squadron of Second Dragoons from the wagon train hastened to the support of Colonel Duncan. Colonel Montero retreated.

But the charge on the right was making way, helped by the smoke. The eighteens, and the Ringgold guns now served by Lieutenant Ridgely, had not stopped it. The artillery battalion of Lieutenant-Colonel Childs was farthest on the right, around which the lancers of General Torrejon were swerving.

"Form square!"

The battalion formed square; the officers, including General Taylor's staff, were inside. Only Old Zach and his orderly, Sergeant Mickey Dowling of the dragoons, remained out.

"Come in, general! For Heaven's sake, sir, don't expose yourself."

But the staff called in vain, while the Torrejon ranks galloped nearer. Then said Mickey:

"Plaze, gin'ral, go inside. Sure, sorr, go inside or we'll all be kilt entoirely."

Old Rough and Ready looked at him, and without a word entered the square, with Sergeant Mickey waiting for him to go first.

The eighteens changed to canister; the Torrejon horsemen scattered; they could not out-face the storm. It was the last attack of the day. General Arista slowly reformed his columns and withdrew in the dusk to the chaparral ridge on the southeast.

Guarded by double lines of sentries the General Taylor army bivouacked upon the bloody field. The officers and men, especially the hardworked red-shirted gunners, were very tired.

Their loss had been only four killed, three officers and thirty-nine rank and file wounded; but among the wounded Captain Page of the Fourth Infantry (Lieutenant Grant's regiment) and the gallant Major Ringgold were mortally injured. Fort Ringgold on the Rio Grande River in Texas bears the name of the gallant father of the United States celebrated flying artillery.

The Mexican loss was given out by General Arista, afterward, as one hundred and two killed, one hundred and twenty-seven wounded, twenty-three missing: total, two hundred and fifty-two. And almost all the casualties were from artillery fire. It had been an artillery battle, this first battle of the Mexican war. Bayonets had not been needed, but the Americans had won, opposed by position and by number odds of nearly three to one.

Fort Mansfield, eight miles south, had heard the battle din. Old Rough and Ready was marching to its relief—he had met the Mexican army—and with what result? Had he held his ground, or had he been forced back? The fort had been under bombardment for six days and five nights; Major Brown had lost a leg and was dying

"Men, go to your duties; stand by your posts; I am but one among you," he had ordered.

Captain Edgar Hawkins of the Seventh Infantry was in command—he had been summoned to surrender and had agreed with his officers to fight to the end. The signal guns were notifying General Taylor that Fort Mansfield still resisted; but if no reinforcements came—if the column of Old Rough and Ready failed to get through with food and ammunition, then the fort was doomed.

After dark tonight a runaway Mexican soldier entered. He said that the Mexican army had been defeated. All the garrison leaped upon the parapets and cheered and cheered. Let the enemy fire; Fort Mansfield would wait for Old Zach, who was surely coming.