Published on July 19, 2012 by Amy
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, General Stephen W. Kearny’s US Army column, along with a smaller force of Marines, engaged a small contingent of Californios and their Presidial Lancers, led by Capt. Leonardo Cota; eventually joined by Major Andrés Pico. After US reinforcements arrived, Kearny’s troops were able to reach San Diego.
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General Kearny had orders to assume command of U.S. forces in California, but before entering Alta 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 a grueling 850-mile (1,370 km) 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. Captain Gillespie in the preceding weeks had recently been driven out of Los Angeles, and now marched from San Diego with a message from Stockton, accompanied by a detachment of mounted riflemen, a native San Diegan, and Navy Lieutenant Beale who commanded a small howitzer commonly known as the “Sutter cannon”. The total American forces amounted to about 179.
Captain Archibald Gillespie’s message from Stockton informed Kearny of the presence at San Pasqual of a force of about 100 Californio Lancers mounted on fresh horses led by Captain Leonardo Cota. 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 and capture the Californios’ horse herd. 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, the 21 year old Rafael Machado and son of Don José Manuel Machado the grantee of the El Rosarito Ranch, and a detachment of six dragoons (light cavalry)—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. While Rafael snuck into the camp to gain intelligence – Hammond became impatient and mistakenly rode too close to the camp and the sound of the horses’ hooves in mud alerted Rafael’s sister’s brother-in-law and his future father-in-law Captain Jose Alipas who had arrived with a small force with Captain Leonardo Cota, and José María Ibarra the Californio standing guard. While Rafael quickly ran back to Hammond’s scouting party, Alipas sounded the alarm but was dismissed by General Pico until a US Army blanket and Dragoon coat was discovered on the edge of camp by Pablo Véjar. The element of surprise was lost and the dragoons were chased by the Californios to the top of the adjacent ridge top with screams of ‘Viva California!’. 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, and were caught in a disadvantageous position by General Pico’s swift advance.
Accounts differ as to what command was given and by whom; however, Captain Abraham R. Johnston is thought to have prematurely initiated action. According to Sides, Kearny ordered “Trot!” which Johnston at the front of the column misunderstood and repeated as “Charge!”. Kearny’s force at that time was 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, and long lances and reatas (braided rawhide lariat) which they used with great effect.
As the leading element of the American attack drew close to a Kumeyaay village, the Californios wheeled back and fired their few firearms. One of their first shots killed Captain Johnston, but the Americans continued on and returned fire. The Californios retreated, and the Americans pursued. Captain Benjamin D. Moore ordered a second charge. This increased the distance between the American elements and further reduced the size of the leading element. When the Californios reversed, they were able to confront Captain Moore and his forces 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 Californios’ lariats and then lanced. Mounted on mules, the Americans were particularly vulnerable because of the mules’ noted reluctance to wheel. The better mounted Californios easily outflanked the Americans and picked them off with the long lances. The two howitzers the U.S. troops brought to the scene were not unlimbered in time to take part in the action.
Both Captain Gillespie and General Kearny were seriously 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. Dr John S. Griffin, Kearny’s surgeon, reported that the Americans had lost 17 killed and 18 wounded out of the 50 officers and men who engaged the enemy. They buried the dead in a mass grave and the bloodied and badly cutup survivors were treated and nursed by their Californio guide’s sister Juanita Machado Alipas Wrightington. Pico’s forces suffered fewer casualties; some accounts state 2 killed and 12 wounded, whereas American witnesses claim a half dozen fatalities.
The next day, December 7, 1846, Kearny and his battered column continued its march towards San Diego. Californio lancers established a blocking position near what is now known as “Mule Hill”. General Kearny ordered Lieutenant William H. Emory and a squad of dragoons to engage and drive off the menacing lancers. The dragoons easily forced the lancers away now having dry powder in their carbines while inflicting five dead before among the fleeing Californios. That evening Kearny again established a strong defensive perimeter and then sent Kit Carson, Edward Beale and a young Indian guide for reinforcements from the American fleet anchored in San Diego Bay. Under the cover of darkness, Carson and his team reached the American fleet. The US forces traveled to San Diego and united with the American fleet there. Together they were able to “drive” Californio forces (who had previously abandoned the skirmish) out of San Diego.
General Kearny’s official report states: “On the morning of the 7th, having made ambulances for our wounded . . . we proceeded on our march, when the enemy showed himself, occupying the hills in our front, which they left as we approached, till reaching San Bernardo a party of them took possession of a hill near to it and maintained their position until attacked by our advance, who quickly drove them from it, killing and wounding five of their number with no loss on our part.”
Kearny sent dispatches carried by Lieutenant Beale and Kit Carson 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. Kearny had already determined the night before (December 9) to continue the march the next morning, when the new forces arrived and then escorted Kearny’s battered troops to San Diego, where they arrived December 12.
Some time after the battle, General Kearny wrote that the US had achieved victory since the Californios had “fled the field”, but, his was not a highly shared view. Officers of the United States Navy viewed the battle as a defeat of the U.S. Army, while the Californios saw the engagement as a victory. To this day, who won is disputed.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, historians debated which force won or lost the battle. Clearly, Kearny retained the battle area, the ability to operate and maneuver, and also the initiative, though his losses were higher. The victor of the battle is still debated. The battle is also unique in that it is one of the few military battles in the United States that involved elements of the Army, Navy, Marines, and civilian volunteers, all in the same skirmish.