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San Pasqual

Battle of San Pasqual

The Battle of San Pasqual (also spelled San Pascual) was a military encounter that occurred during the Mexican-American War in what is now the San Pasqual Valley community of the city of San Diego, California.

On December 6 and December 7, 1846, the Californios, and their Presidial Lancers, led by General Don Andrés Pico, (1810-1876), defeated Stephen W. Kearny's US Army column of 150 men, killing 18.

Background

General Kearny had orders to assume command of U.S. forces in California, but before entering California from Santa Fe, Kearny sent back 200 of his 300 mounted dragoons after hearing from messenger Kit Carson that all of California had already been captured by Commodore Robert F. Stockton and his 400 combined sailors and Marines, and John C. Frémont and his approximate 400 man California Battalion. After an 850-mile (1,370 km) grueling march across the Sonora Desert, Kearny and his mostly mule-mounted men finally reached California in a greatly weakened condition. There they met up with Captain Archibald Gillespie of the U.S. Marines, who with his small force of 36 men and a small howitzer had recently been driven out of Los Angeles. The total American forces amounted to about 139. Gillespie also brought a message from Stockton that informed Kearny of the presence at San Pasqual of a rebel force of about 150 men mounted on fresh horses led by Andrés Pico.

The Americans did not expect the Californios to be formidable adversaries, but Kearny still wanted to capitalize on a surprise attack if at all possible. He also wanted more exact information about the enemy force in preparation for an attack the following morning.

Lieutenant Thomas C. Hammond together with a Californio deserter, Rafael Machado, and a detachment of six dragoons (one report says three dragoons and still another eleven) were ordered to scout Pico's position which was located in a small Indian village in San Pasqual Valley. Hammond's scouting party was discovered by Captain Leonardo Cota and some of his Californio-Mexican Lancers, while training in the valley below. The element of surprise was lost. At midnight Kearny ordered an immediate advance. It had rained that night. Men, muskets, pistols and equipment were wet and cold, but the troops after over six months without any action were eager to engage the Californios. Early in the morning of December 6, 1846, the column proceeded by twos across the ridge between Santa Maria (present day Ramona, California) and San Pasqual. During the descent while it was still dark and with a low lying fog, Kearny's force became strung out by Captain Cota's lancers, underestimating the well trained lancers and followed by General Pico's swift advancement. Accounts differ as to what command was given and by whom, but Captain Abraham R. Johnson is thought to have prematurely initiated action.

Battle

A charge was initiated while Kearny's force was still three quarters of a mile (1.2 km) from Pico's encampment. About forty of the best mounted officers and men got far ahead of the main body of the force. The mules pulling Kearny's howitzers bolted, taking one of the guns with them. Pico's force was already mounted and easily managed to remain ahead of the pursuing Americans on their weary mules. Their fresh horses and superior horsemanship made it easy for them to manoeuvre as they wished, and they led the advance group of Americans even farther away from their main force. The Americans did not know the terrain and the Californios did. A second separation developed until about twenty eight Americans including Kearny were in the forefront of the charge. Damp powder reduced the effectiveness of the American carbines and pistols, and they were soon reduced to relying on their sabers alone. The Californios were armed with a mixture of firearms, sabers, long lances and lariats.

As the leading element of the American attack drew close to the Indian village, the Californios wheeled back and fired their few firearms. One of their first shots killed Captain Johnson, but the Americans continued on and were able to fire back. The Californios retreated, and the Americans pursued. Captain Benjamin D. Moore ordered a second charge. This further increased the distance between the American elements and further reduced the size of the leading element. When the Californios again turned back, they were able to deal with Captain Moore alone. He was quickly surrounded and killed. Other Americans caught up with the action, but their weapons misfired and many of them were wounded or killed by Californios using lances. Some were pulled from their horses by the Californio's lariats and then lanced. Most of the Americans were mounted on mules and were particularly vulnerable because of the mules reluctance to wheel. It was easy for the better mounted Californios to get behind the Americans and attack them with their long lances.

Both Captain Gillespie and General Kearny were wounded in the battle and several of the other officers were killed or wounded. Captain Henry Turner temporarily took command and organized a defensive position, which permitted the rest of the command to catch up with the battered lead element. Dr John S. Griffin, Kearny's surgeon, reported that the Americans had lost seventeen killed and eighteen wounded out of the fifty officers and men that actually engaged the enemy. The dead were buried in a mass grave. Pico's forces suffered two killed and 18 wounded in the battle.

American forces set up a defensive perimeter and sent Kit Carson, an accompanying soldier and an Indian guide to request reinforcements from the American fleet anchored in San Diego bay. Under the cover of darkness, Carson and his team were able to get to the American fleet and return with reinforcements several days later. At that time, the American soldiers travel to San Diego and unite with the American fleet there. There has been much debate as to which force won or lost the battle. Clearly, Kearny retained the battle area, the ability to operate and manuever, and also the initiative, though his losses were higher. After an extensive review of the battle in 1928, the U.S. Army War College declared that General Kearny had in fact gained a victory at San Pasqual.

Aftermath

Kearny sent dispatches carried by Edward Beale and Kit Carson and requesting urgent reinforcements to Commodore Stockton, who was headquartered at San Diego, 28 miles (45 km) to the south-southwest. Stockton quickly dispatched a unit of over 200 sailors and Marines, whose arrival caused the Californios to disperse, and Kearny's battered forces were escorted to San Diego, California.

The battle was the worst defeat for American forces during the Mexican-American War. While the Californios fared badly in Northern California, it was one of many battles and skirmishes where the Californios bested American forces in Southern California. Inexplicably, Kearny later recalled the battle as a victory for the United States, perhaps as way of covering up the embarrassing defeat.

Kearny Mesa, an area of San Diego, was later named after General Kearny. Kit Carson Park in San Diego's north east corner was named in honor of Kit Carson. Beale Air Force Base in Marysville, California is named after Edward Beale. In September 1942 Camp Gillespie was completed and named in honor of Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie. In 1944 it was handed over to the County of San Diego and rechristened Gillespie Field now a municipal airport.

Captain Benjamin D. Moore, who fell during the battle, was honored by the dedication and naming of Fort Moore in Los Angeles, California, which was memorialized with the Fort Moore Hill Pioneer Memorial.

See also

References

  • William B. Dunne, Notes on the Battle of San Pascual (Berkeley: Bancroft Library)
  • Sally Cavell Jones, The Battle of San Pascual (Masters Thesis, USD, 1973)
  • Executive Document Number 1, accompanying the President's message at the Second Session of the 30th Congress, December, 1848, including the Report of Commodore Stockton.
  • The U.S.-Mexican War in San Diego, 1846-1847: Loyalty and Resistance, by Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Journal of San Diego History, Volume 49, 2003, Number 1

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