A Thunder of Cannon
Archeology of the Mexican-American War Battlefield of Palo Alto
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Under the administration of President James K. Polk (1845-49), the U.S. sought to persuade Mexico to sell lands for U.S. westward expansion. Persuasion included steady diplomatic, economic and military pressure. The strategy of "graduated pressure" was conceived in an atmosphere ignorant of the realities of Mexican domestic politics. Since the loss of Texas north of the Nueces River, no Mexican government dared discuss the voluntary surrender of additional land to the U.S. for fear of being overthrown. In fact, a substantial number of Mexican citizens favored war with the United States to recapture Texas. Polk's diplomatic onslaughts convinced various Mexican leaders their aggressive northern neighbor was attempting to annex their country. Such suspicions regarding the motives of the U.S. effectively stifled Mexican efforts to steer the dispute toward a peaceful resolution.

Taylor's Army of Occupation: Corpus Christi

Polk's aggressive diplomacy included military threat. On May 29, 1845, Polk ordered Brevet Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to move 1,500 regular troops from Fort Jesup, Louisiana, to a point near the Rio Grande. Taylor chose Corpus Christi, Texas, for his base, located at the mouth of the Nueces River. By the end of July he and his troops were encamped there. During the succeeding months, the camp increased in size to approximately 4,300 men, slightly over half of the entire regular U.S. land forces. Taylor's force contained the elements of four infantry and one dragoon regiment plus a regiment-sized battalion of "red-legged infantry", artillerymen serving as infantry. The infantry and dragoon units arrived fresh from service on the Indian frontier, while the artillerymen came from coastal defenses (Bauer 1986:57).

Organization of infantry regiments was in 10, 42-man companies. Each regiment contained one company formed as a grenadier unit, although hand grenades no longer were used by the U.S. army. A second company was trained and equipped as light infantry that functioned as skirmishers and sharpshooters. Light infantry companies often were combined to form a special battalion.

U.S. infantry excelled at individual and company drills, but the normal practice of stationing troops in small, two- to five-company detachments offered little opportunity for battalion drill. Taylor instituted a battalion training program at Corpus Christi in autumn 1845, but its effectiveness was questionable. Although Taylor initially instituted a strenuous training program, the effort slackened as the harsh fall and winter weather attacked the troops in their poorly protected encampment (Henry 1973 [1847]: 14-52). However, despite a growing sick list and the presence of increasing numbers of grog shops, prostitutes and gambling dens, the army maintained its underlying discipline (Bauer 1986:60).

The horse regiments were dragoons rather than true cavalry; the mounted men were armed and trained to fight primarily on foot. Dragoon regiments consisted of 10 companies of 54 men each, normally deployed for frontier police duties stressing rapid movement by heavily armed men. Dragoons were too few in number to play a major role in the coming battles of the Mexican-American War. The artillery regiments were trained to serve both as gunners for the coastal defense batteries and as temporary infantry for supporting local militia. Their versatility allowed the artillery companies to function as the army's strategic reserve. One company in each of the four artillery regiments was armed as a light or field battery of four cannon, usually consisting of two 6-pounder guns and two 12-pounder howitzers (Bauer 1986:60).

In 1846 the U.S. Army contained no truly specialized troops. Fatigue parties drawn from line units and supervised by engineer officers did engineering work. The engineer officers were normally among the most promising graduates of West Point Military Academy, which in the 1840s was still the nation's largest single source of trained engineers. In May 1846, Congress authorized the formation of the Company of Sappers, Miners and Pontoniers, which would not see action until spring 1847.

Logistic support of the army in the field was the responsibility of the quartermaster, commissary, forage and ordnance departments. Each relied on hired civilians to man its wagons and depots under the control of officers belonging to the departments. Similarly, the medical department consisted of medical officers but no enlisted men. Nurses and others who helped staff the hospitals were either civilians or soldiers detailed to that duty. The regimental band also assisted in the removal of the dead and wounded (Huston 1966:129-131; Katcher 1976:9).

Prelude to War

In November 1845, President Polk received intelligence from the American consul in Mexico City that Mexico was willing to receive a diplomatic emissary "to settle the present dispute in a peaceful, reasonable, and honorable manner". Accordingly, he named Senator James Slidell of Louisiana as the new American minister to Mexico. Polk instructed the emissary to gain leverage for a boundary settlement by emphasizing unpaid American claims against Mexico, estimated to amount to more than $5 million. Polk hoped a nearly bankrupt Mexico would settle for money, offering a sliding scale of payments for various Mexican territorial cessions. Polk included determination of the Rio Grande as the boundary for Texas, which he insisted Santa Anna had acknowledged in 1836 and which the administration had already guaranteed to the Texans. For this minimum settlement Polk was willing to have the U.S. government accept the claims of its citizens against Mexico. The United States was willing to add an additional $5 million if Mexico would cede New Mexico (Graebner 1959:117-121). Polk also offered greater amounts for more land, including a top price of $25 million and assumption of claims for the cession of upper California (now the state of California), New Mexico and the Rio Grande boundary for Texas (Pletcher 1973:289).

In early December, Slidell arrived in Mexico City to negotiate. His mission, however, soon foundered in diplomatic technicalities. Herrera secretly agreed to negotiate with a U.S. comisionado (commissioner), but Polk apparently received a poor translation of Mexico's terms and mistakenly appointed Slidell as minister plenipotentiary, a high ranking diplomat. For Mexico to accept a minister would have implied restoration of full diplomatic relations and allowed Herrera's political opponents to charge he accepted the annexation of Texas. Mexico could not afford to grant such concessions before the negotiations even began and, therefore, on December 16, the Secretary of Foreign Relations, Manuel de la Peña y Peña, informed Slidell his credentials would have to be changed to commissioner before talks could begin (Bauer 1974:22-26).

Despite this snub of Slidell, Herrera was overthrown in January, 1846 by certain factions accusing him of weakness in dealing with the U.S. Major-General Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, Commander of the Army of the North, assumed the presidency. Paredes adopted a hard-line over the issue of the Mexico-United States dispute by vowing to uphold Mexican sovereignty all the way to the Sabine River.

Word of Slidell's failure reached Washington in January 1846. Polk's reaction was to increase pressure on Mexico by ordering Taylor to move his troops to the Rio Grande. Taylor departed Corpus Christi on March 8. The heavy artillery, supplies and the sick traveled by water under naval escort to the village of Frontón de Santa Isabela on Point Isabel, on the coast just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande. The troops marching overland traversed a desolate, semiarid land. As the leading elements of the U.S. army approached the Arroyo Colorado, about 30 miles from Matamoros, they encountered Mexican troops who threatened resistance. Taylor brought up his trailing brigades and prepared to make an assault crossing. His light companies and dragoons dashed across the stream on the morning of March 20, while the artillerymen stood by their loaded batteries; however, the Mexican patrol offered no resistance and retreated into the brush.

On March 24 the Americans reached the junction of the roads from Point Isabel and Matamoros, located within the area known as "Palo Alto", and bivoucked opposite Palo Alto pond. Their encampment was later termed "Worth's Camp", after Colonel William Worth (Scarritt 1846:1); Taylor had left Worth in charge of the infantry while he proceeded to the coast with the dragoons. Just before the dragoons and Taylor arrived, the Mexicans set fire to the village of Frontón de Santa Isabela. About two hours before Taylor appeared, the transports and their excort arrived from Corpus Christi. Taylor garrisoned the base with two artillery companies under Major Munroe and ordered work started on a fort (later named "Fort Polk") to protect the supplies (Henry 1847:61-62).

Taylor and the dragoons rejoined the main body at Palo Alto, some 10 miles from the Rio Grande. on March 27. Upon arrival at the Rio Grande, the Americans began construction of a star-shaped, earthen walled fortress christened "Fort Texas". (Remnants of this fort can still be seen at the present-day Brownsville Municipal Golf Course). The Mexican commander at Matamoros, General Francisco Mejía, made no attempt to dislodge Taylor. Instead, he improved the artillery positions and earthworks of Fort Guerrero, located adjacent to Matamoros and across from Fort Texas. During this initial period of relatively peaceful confrontation, the Mexicans made strenuous efforts to induce U.S. soldiers to desert to their cause. At one time, the Mexicans believed the U.S. army's entire Seventh Infantry, a largely Irish and German unit, would desert en masse (Miller 1989:47). The actual number of deserters crossing into Mexico, however, was well under 100 men (Taylor 1846:302-303). On April 4, Mexico's Minister of War and Marine José Mariá Tornel y Mendevil ordered veteran officer Major-General Mariano Arista to command the Army of the North. Arista also received secret orders to attack Taylor's force on the Rio Grande (Bauer 1974:40-42).

During April, U.S. troops in Fort Texas experienced both hard work and boredom in the semitropical heat, their monotonous existence broken only on occasion by skirmishes with local guerrillas. On April 10, Chief Quartermaster Colonel Trueman Cross and Lieutenant Theodoric Porter were killed not far from Fort Texas. Mounted patrols were sent to apprehend or kill the guerrillas; one of these patrols was ambushed and a lieutenant killed (Meade 1913:52-53).

On April 11, Major-General Pedro de Ampudia arrived in Matamoros to supervise Mexican military operations. Shortly afterward Brigadier General Anastasio Torrejón followed with 2,200 troops. Ampudia immediately ordered Taylor to withdraw from his position on the river. Taylor both refused this demand and ordered a naval blockade of the mouth of the Rio Grande. thereby cutting Ampudia's maritime supply route. Ampudia took no overt action since he knew General Arista was about to replace him (Wilcox 1892:42-43).

On April 23, in Mexico City, President Paredes issued a manifesto in which he declared a state of war existed between Mexico and the United States. On the day following Paredes' declaration of war, General Arista arrived in Matamoros, assuming command of all Mexican forces in the north. Arista immediately held a council of war with his generals to detail an offense strategy. Later that day, April 24, Arista reviewed his assembled forces. General Mejía commanded the First and Tenth Line Infantries, the Second Light Infantry, the Seventh Cavalry, an elite battalion of zapadores (sappers), one squadron of auxiliary troops from different villas of the north, various presidial companies, and a battalion of the local national guard. General Ampudia commanded the Regiment of Light Infantry of Mexico; General Torrejón commanded the Fourth Infantry, the Eighth Cavalry and 80 cannoneers with six artillery pieces; and General Antonio Canales was commander of a mounted auxiliary regiment of irregulars. All of these troops totaled 5,200 men and 26 pieces of artillery (Sanchez 1985:10).

Arista also informed General Taylor hostilities between the two countries had commenced and launched his attack the next day (Bauer 1974:46-48). His plan called for Torrejón, with about 1,600 sappers, cavalry and light infantry, to cross the river at La Palangaña west of Matamoros. From there, they would strike east to sever the U.S. supply line to Point Isabel. Arista, with the main portion of the army, would cross at a point east of Matamoros and join with Torrejón's force (Roa Bárcena 1947:62; In Sanchez 1985:12), threatening the continued existence of Fort Texas.

Upon learning of Torrejón's crossing, Taylor sent out dragoon patrols to determine the location of these Mexican forces. On April 25, Torrejón ambushed a patrol led by Captain Seth Thornton at Rancho de Carricitos, 20 miles upriver from Fort Texas (Figure 9). The ensuing fight destroyed Thornton's command with 11 killed, 6 wounded and 46 captured, the latter including Thornton. News of the debacle reached Taylor on the 26th. Taylor sent a dispatch describing the clash to Washington, stating that "hostilities may now be considered as commenced" (Taylor 1846:96-97). The dispatch arrived on May 9; on May 11, the House of Representatives passed a bill declaring that a state of war existed between Mexico and the United States. The Senate voted in favor of the bill on the following day, and President Polk signed it on May 13 (Bauer 1974:48).

Figure 9. Map showing the vicinity around Palo Alto at time of battle.

Meanwhile, Torrejón's force moved toward the Point Isabel-Matamoros road after destroying Thornton's command. On April 28, a Mexican patrol surprised a party of Captain Samuel Walker's Texas Rangers at their encampment. Five Texans died, the others captured or disbursed. The Mexicans succeeded in accomplishing the first phase of their mission, cutting the Fort Texas-Point Isabel supply route.

Word of Torrejón's close proximity caused a near panic at Point Isabel. Major John Munroe, commandant of this supply depot, quickly improvised a 500-man force of artillerymen, Texas volunteers and sailors from ships in the harbor to defend the base (Jenkins 1851:48-49). Torrejón, however, did not advance on the port; neither did he remain at Palo Alto and wait for Arista's reinforcements as initially planned. Mexican strategy changed due to a rumor that U.S. snipers were in place to assassinate Arista while he and his forces crossed the Rio Grande. A suddenly worried Arista ordered Torrejón to abandon his position at Palo Alto and protect this troop crossing. Under these orders Torrejón and his command broke camp and headed south to Rancho de Longoreño, a Rio Grande crossing 13 miles downriver from Matamoros (Roa Barcena 1947:62; In Sanchez 1985:12). The Point Isabel-Matamoros Road was open again, if only for a few days.

Captain Walker, the company leader of Texas Rangers whose men had been so ignominiously surprised, delivered Munroe's appeal for assistance to Taylor on April 29. The general belatedly realized the importance of securing both installations. He put every man "not detained by other indispensable duty" to work completing the walls of Fort Texas so it could withstand a siege. Once accomplished, U.S. forces could march to the aid of Munroe and reopen the supply line (Jenkins 1851:99). Taylor's quickened efforts came none too soon. Ampudia led the first brigade of Mexican infantry across the river at Longoreno on April 30; Arista followed the next day with a second brigade. General Mejía remained behind with 1,400 men to protect Matamoros (Smith 1919:162-163).

Taylor learned of the crossing on the afternoon of May 1, too late to attempt an attack of the Mexican bridgehead. The American general logically assumed Arista's objective was Point Isabel. Taylor lost no time in starting for his supply base. Within two hours a relief force of about 2,300 men, led by Taylor, left for Fort Texas. The Mexicans watching from across the river rejoiced, for they assumed the departure signaled an American retreat (Niles National Register June 13, 1846:223). They were wrong. Major Jacob Brown remained at the incomplete fort with some 500 men of the Seventh Infantry, supported by two batteries of 18-pounders and a 6-pounder field battery. Brown's orders were to hold Fort Texas until Taylor's force returned with supplies sufficient to withstand a lengthy siege. Taylor's force marched until midnight, encamped at Palo Alto, rose early on the 2nd and arrived around noon. They immediately began improving defenses and organizing a train of some 270 supply wagons (Taylor 1846:289-190).

Once Arista completed ferrying his men across the Rio Grande on May 2, he divided his command: Ampudia led the Fourth Infantry, the Puebla Battalion, some sappers, and about 200 light cavalry toward Fort Texas; Arista's force of 3,500 men proceeded to Palo Alto, reaching that crossroads on May 3 (Roa Barcena 1947:64; In Sanchez 1985:13). The Mexican army was one day too late to stop the Americans from reaching Point Isabel; however, it could still block their return to Fort Texas.

The Mexicans soon discovered the water supply at Palo Alto was inadequate for their needs, and it was possible Taylor could take a short cut to Fort Texas by marching south of Palo Alto. Accordingly, Arista pulled out to Tanques de Ramireño, about three miles to the south on the Matamoros Road. This location had an abundance of good water, and from there he could watch the junction of trails to the Fort Texas-Matamoros area. Arista and his army arrived at Tanques de Ramireño on May 5 (Roa Barcena 1947:64).

The Mexican siege of Fort Texas began early in the morning of May 3, in conjunction with the batteries at Matamoros (Roa Barcena 1947:63; In Sanchez 1985:13). The rumble of artillery could be heard by those at Point Isabel, including a now-anxious General Taylor. Taylor sent several Texas Rangers to Fort Texas with orders for Major Brown to hold out at all costs. The Rangers made their way to the besieged fort, returning the next day with Major Brown's confident response. By May 7, Fort Polk was fortified and supply wagons ready to return to Fort Texas (Niles National Register June 20, 1846:254).

The Mexican siege consisted of an almost continuous artillery barrage from positions in Matamoros. The U.S. fort rationed its counter fire due to limited gunpowder; nevertheless, it was sufficient to discourage a major assault. Damage to the earthen walls of Fort Texas was minimal, while its defenders remained relatively protected inside bunkers; however, a U.S. sergeant died on the first day of the siege, and Major Brown was severely wounded on the morning of May 6. That afternoon the Mexicans made a formal request that the fort surrender, but acting commander Captain E.S. Hawkins rejected it. Major Brown died the afternoon of May 9, shortly before Taylor relieved the fort (Taylor 1846:292-294).

Taylor delayed his return to Fort Texas until sufficient volunteer reinforcements arrived on May 6, thus ensuring the safety of Point Isabel. The following morning he alerted the troops to be prepared to march that afternoon. "The Commanding General has every confidence," he told his men, "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 he may. He wishes to enjoin upon the battalions of infantry that their main dependence must be in the bayonet" (Taylor 1846:294-295).

Taylor burdened his column with some 270 wagons loaded with supplies, hindering rapid movement and possibly endangering the supplies in an engagement. He further limited his mobility by adding to the force a pair of 18-pounder siege cannon, each drawn by six yokes of oxen. Because of the late start and slow pace, the American force of 2,228 men bivouacked after marching only seven miles. They continued the march before the sunrise of May 8, with the commander riding in "a jersey wagon of ponderous materials and questionable shape" (Hamilton 1941:177-181).

Mexican scouts observed signs of the route Taylor chose and reported back to Arista during the early morning of May 8. The Mexican general, concerned the report might be misleading, sent out another patrol to reconnoiter. A scouting party of Texas Rangers ambushed this patrol just east of Palo Alto; most of the Mexicans escaped, returning to Tanques de Ramireño with solid evidence of the slowly advancing U.S. army. Arista immediately gave the order to break camp and march toward the enemy. He also sent orders for Ampudia to break off the siege and rejoin him at Palo Alto (Sanchez 1985:12).

Ampudia was on his way by noon, leading the Fourth Line Regiment of Infantry, a company of sappers, a pack train of 200 horses and two artillery pieces as well as Canales' mounted irregulars. Fearing Arista would do battle before his arrival, Ampudia set a fast-paced march to the place of rendezvous. While Ampudia marched, Arista positioned his battalions just south of Palo Alto pond and bisected the road with them (Sanchez 1985:13). By early afternoon Taylor's army cautiously entered the imminent battlefield, its location chosen by the Mexican general.

The Battle of Palo Alto

The plain of Palo Alto ("Tall Timber") took its name from the relatively tall stands of mesquite that began there and, interspersed with patches of open ground, stretched southward toward the Rio Grande. Then, as now, the roughly two mile diameter open plain was covered by stiff, shoulder-high and sharp-pointed grass that deals misery to anyone moving through it on foot. As soon demonstrated, this grass also has the peculiar ability to burn easily while still green. In addition to a semipermanent pond, Palo Alto included shallow depressions and old river meanders, termed bolsons and resacas, respectively, by the Mexicans. Due to recent heavy rains, these features on the day of battle held standing water or else were marshy. A belt of mesquite and scrub-covered low rises and resaca levees demarcated the northern, southern and eastern limits of the grassy plain. Bushes and tall mesquite both bordering and obscuring a resaca and its low, broad levee defined the western limits.

There were two roads connecting Matamoros with the Gulf on this side of the Rio Grande: El Camino de Santa Isabel and El Camino de los Indios. The former was usually travelled because it was six miles shorter. However, when it rained, this road was avoided due to the black clay mud that made it almost impassable. Because of the recent rains, Taylor's army had to take El Camino de los Indios, the so-called "wet weather road". To follow this drier road south through Palo Alto, the Americans first had to pass by a marshy area, El Tule Grande (present-day Tule Lake Bed) (Rayburn et al. 1966:40). The road then followed along the low levee demarcating the western limits of the prairie. By noon of May 8, however, the left flank of the Mexican army blocked this latter road segment.

The American army may have had its first view of the massed Mexican army at about the time they reached the southeastern end of El Tule Grande. Taylor then halted his column some two miles from the Mexican line to allow the wagon train to close. Then the Americans, still in column, moved forward again until they were about .75 miles from the enemy and adjacent to a body of standing water. Here they halted to water the horses and men. Arms were stacked and "every man was made to go to a pond, half of each regiment at a time, and fill his canteen" (Taylor 1846:177). This water source was Palo Alto pond and possibly the nearby resaca as well (Areas A and C, respectively, Figure 3).

Once refreshed, the troops formed in predetermined battle order to the right and left of the road. Taylor also used this time to move the wagon train into defensive position near the pond. One squadron of dragoons was stationed as wagon train guards (Bauer 1986:69). Taylor's plan was to mass troops on his right flank and rely on a bayonet charge. Whether this plan was based on a perceived relative weakness of the Mexican left, or the ground was better here for his infantry, or simply that the road ran there is unknown (Bauer 1974:53).

In keeping with his plan for a bayonet charge down the road, Taylor placed Brigadier General David Twiggs' right wing astride the road: Lieutenant Colonel James Mcintosh's Fifth Infantry took the extreme right, followed by Brevet Major Samuel Ringgold's field battery (Figure 10); Captain Walker's mounted Texas Rangers, numbering 25 men, performed right flank picket duty west of the road and within the mesquite thicket; the two 18-pounders under Lieutenant William Churchill, supported by Captain Lewis Morris' Third Infantry, held the road; and the Fourth Infantry, under Major George Allen, was Twiggs' easternmost unit. He held in reserve Captain Charles May's dragoon squadron.

Figure 10. Initial battle lines, approximately 1 p.m.

Brevet Lieutenant Colonel William Belknap's left wing deployed, from west to east, the "Foot" Artillery Battalion of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Childs, Captain James Duncan's battery and the Eighth Infantry led by Captain William Montgomery. Captain Croghan Ker's dragoon squadron had the dual responsibility of guarding the train parked near the pond and supporting the U.S. left wing.

Once positioned, U.S. troops had about an hour to stare at Mexican bayonets and lance heads glinting in the sunlight and enemy pennons and flags rippling in the Gulf breeze. Brightly uniformed Mexican troops formed a line stretching over one mile long, double that of the American line. General Arista could be seen as he rode his horse down the front of the line and exhorted his soldiers; they responded with tossed banners, cheers and shouts of "¡Viva la Republica!", mingled with strains of martial music from regimental bands (Wilcox 1892:53). "As a response to this sight, the [American] regimental colors were then stripped of their coverings, and amidst deafening cheers unfurled in defiance, and thrown to the breeze" (Thorpe 1846:74).

Taylor's battle order apparently was conceived and executed prior to intelligence regarding exact placement of Mexican artillery. Belatedly, Taylor sent Captain May and his dragoons to reconnoiter the Mexican line and, if possible, draw artillery fire. But the Mexican cannon were hidden by the tall grass and ranks of infantry. The dragoons returned defeated by the tall grass (Brooks 1965 [1849]:127). Lieutenant Jacob Blake of the Topographical Engineers, with civilian aide-de-camp Lloyd Tilghman, then volunteered for the task. They galloped down the entire length of the Mexican line within its musket range. No effort was made to drive off this unwanted inspection. At one point the two men dismounted, noted in detail the position of one of the Mexican batteries, remounted and returned to report (Henry 1950:57). Their reconnaissance "resulted, in the discovery of at least two batteries of artillery in the intervals of their cavalry and infantry" (Taylor 1846:2).

The resaca (Area C, Figure 3) anchored Arista's left flank. This flank also bisected the road that led to Matamoros at a point where the road skirted the mesquite forest. Located somewhere within this forest was General Canales with some 400 irregular cavalry. Canales' force was not involved in the ensuing battle; the reason for their inaction is not known. General Torrejón's cavalry brigade held the road. His men were arranged with the presidiales on the extreme left, followed, as one moved to the right, by the Eighth Cavalry, Seventh Cavalry, and the Light Cavalry.

To the right of the Mexican cavalry stretched a long line of infantry interspersed with artillery batteries. General Ampudia arrived just in time for his Fourth Infantry to take its place on the left of this line. To its right was General de la Vega's brigade consisting of the Tenth and Sixth Infantry centered by two 8-pounders, then the First Infantry with five 4-pounders stationed on the right flank of the latter regiment. Completing the infantry line were the Tampico Coastal Guards, the Second Light Infantry, and a battalion of zapadores on whose extreme right stood a lone 4-pounder. The remaining light cavalry under Colonel Cayetano Montero waited between the infantry and two low rises or motitas (Area E, Figure 3) that also anchored the Mexican right flank, and around whose bases ran the road to Tanques de Ramireño (Area D, Figure 3). A protective screen of sharpshooters, termed cazadores, were thinly spaced in front of the Mexican line (Figure 11). Interestingly, Berlandier in his journal stated that Arista's army also included an unknown number of nomadic Indians as well (Berlandier 1847; journal entry dated March 23, 1847). The Mexican baggage train, hospital and camp followers were located several hundred yards to the rear of the Mexican center.

Figure 11. A Cazadore in action at Palo Alto. The rifleman in the foreground is of the Mexican Sixth line regiment, as indicated by the number "6" on the infantry bugle insignia, the latter worn both on his barracks cap band and on his cartridge box cover flap. Following illustrations by Hefter et al. (1958), the rifleman's uniform is distinguished by white lapels, a matching white band on his barracks cap, white turnbacks on his tailcoat, and faced with a colored plastron having plain brass buttons. White spatterdashes protect his shoes from the rain and mud. Black leather crossbelts are centered by a brass plate. Attached to the plate is a chain which secures a wire vent pricker and pan brush, tools used to service his rifle.

His canteen is a U.S. made tin model, and he is armed with a British made Baker rifle. To his waistbelt is attached the Baker snake design buckle. At the rifleman's feet are fragments of paper cartridges and a waistbelt with the brass buckle of the Mexican Fourth line regiment. Burning cordgrass in the background, the result of wadding from U.S. cannonfire, partly obscures a detachment of Mexican cavalry on the horizon. Another cazadore, wearing a leather shako, is nearby. Illustration by Gary Zaboly.

The actual total count of Mexican troops at Palo Alto is uncertain. One contemporary Mexican account set the number at 3,000 (Ramsey 1850:46; this source also said both armies were roughly the same size); and Arista later gave testimony at a Board of Inquiry that he had 3,461 enlisted men and 365 officers on his battle line (Anon. 1846b). Unclear, however, is if this number also included those troops not actually on the battle line, for example, Canales' irregulars. In contrast, contemporary U.S. sources consistently estimate a Mexican troop more than double or even more than triple Taylor's army of 2,228 men (e.g. Meade 1913:83; Niles National Register May 30, 1846:196).

The Mexican formation was conceived as a trap for an infantry attack coming down the road or across the plain. In either case, Mexican cavalry could envelop any attackers. The weakness of the formation was the length of the two man deep Mexican line; it absorbed all available men, with no reserves to contain a breakthrough or counterattack. Also, because Mexican artillery was difficult to shift on the battlefield, Arista could not significantly rearrange his formation once set (Bauer 1986:69-70).

Taylor ordered his infantry to advance in columns. Around 2:30 p.m. Mexican artillery suddenly opened fire and one of their solid shot arched over the advancing Americans and landed on an artillery caisson in their immediate rear, killing its driver. Seeing this hit, the Mexican soldiers yelled "¡Viva Mexico!" (Roa Barcena 1947:79; In Sanchez 1980:19). U.S. troops halted while the two field batteries wheeled into action. At the same time, the Eighth Infantry moved slightly back and to the left in square formation to secure the left flank. The other infantry units all moved from column into line formation.

Both Ringgold's and Duncan's light batteries moved forward about 100 yd in front of the American line and within 700 yd of the Mexican left flank. The two batteries opened fire with rapid, accurate and destructive precision. At the same time, the oxen-drawn 18-pounders, which had to stay on firm ground due to their ponderous weight, slowly swung into position on the road, under the personal supervision of General Taylor. They soon joined in and concentrated their fire on Torrejó's cavalry on the Mexican left flank (Taylor 1846:2; New York Herald May 28, 1846:2).

The Mexican Fourth Infantry Regiment had just arrived when the Mexican artillery commenced its fire. This regiment, still in column formation, had begun its advance onto the battlefield and taken its station next to the Tenth Regiment, already in line formation. To the Americans .5 miles away, it appeared the advance of the Fourth presaged a bayonet attack. All three U.S. batteries focused their fire on this particular regiment (Ramsey 1850:47). "Sometimes a single [U.S.] shot appeared to mow down a whole platoon of mounted men; and here, there, everywhere gaps opened in the [Mexican] infantry. With vivas the gaps instantly closed, but they would not stay closed" (Smith 1919:166) (Figure 12). U.S. artillery was, at times, inaccurate, since, according to one Mexican account, many enemy artillery rounds fell to the rear of the Mexican field hospital "which was obliged to change position" (Berlandier 1846:166; In Sanchez 1985:16).

Figure 12. Mexican Fourth Line Regiment, under artillery attack. The illustration depicts infantrymen in "arms at high" position, after Orga (1808:128, Figure 3). A private's uniform in this regiment is believed to have consisted of dark blue pants and a waistcoat fronted by a red plastron with plain brass buttons. The white leather crossbelts are centered by a brass plate showing the cut out number "4". Attached to the plate via a chain are the musket vent pricker and brush. The leather shako also has a brass plate with the number "4". Infantrymen carry either a keg-shaped, one-quart canteen as mentioned by Hefter et al. (1958), or a wooden round canteen obtained via U.S. stores prior to the war. The privates are armed with the British India Pattern "Brown Bess" musket. The wounded man on the ground is a First Sergeant, as noted by the fringed epaulettes on his shoulders. His damaged sword is an infantryman's briquet. In the lower left foreground is a fragment of a saddle cloth or shabraque, with a brass number "1" signifying the First line regiment. Illustration by Gary Zaboly.

At about this time it occurred to Taylor, or was pointed out to him, that a costly bayonet charge by the U.S. was not needed. The general, whose experience with artillery was nearly nonexistent, underestimated their impact in an open-field battle (Bauer 1986:69). One observer, then Brevet Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, noted most of the U.S. infantry during the entire battle "stood at order arms as spectators, watching the effect of our shots upon the enemy, and watching his shots so as to step out of their way" as the Mexican solid shot ricocheted and rolled through the tall grass (Grant 1885:92). In several U.S. units, notably the Artillery Battalion and the Eighth Infantry, officers had their men sit on the ground to avoid the bouncing balls (McIntosh 1846; Bauer 1986:71). For the most part the Mexican artillerymen focused their fire on the U.S. batteries because they were closer and, just as critical, the sole cause of mounting Mexican casualties.

The years of hard training paid off for Ringgold's men, as rapidly deployed batteries and sections of batteries moved at will around the battlefield "as if they were on a parade ground" (Bauer 1974:55). With rapid-fire accuracy, the gunners demonstrated their ability to pick specific targets instead of simply taking blank aim at masses of men (Nichols 1963:76). For example, one Mexican regimental band began to play the martial tune Los Zapadores de Jalisco ("The Engineers of Jalisco"), to try to bolster the morale of the troops. U.S. gunners of one fieldpiece took aim at the musicians and, with one explosive shell, destroyed the entire band (Curtis 1846; Robertson 1985:58).

U.S. batteries sustained relatively minor damage during the entire battle. On occasion the two lumbering 18-pounders under Churchill's command were pulled forward down the road, then slowly repositioned with the aid of their respective oxen teams. These animals presented themselves as large, slow targets, yet most survived the battle unscathed. "It is understood that some of the oxen were converted into beef by the shot of the enemy during the action" (Churchill 1888:71).

The decimation of Mexican ranks induced Arista to abandon his plan to charge both U.S. flanks with infantry-supported cavalry. One historian speculated his first plan was the correct one, since Arista's men were still eager to fight and the U.S. batteries would not have done much more harm at closer range. Apparently, Arista believed it impractical for his men to wallow slowly forward through the sharp-pointed grass under such withering fire (Smith 1919:166). Something had to be done, however, since his troops grew impatient.

After about an hour of this punishment Arista ordered Torrejón, with some 1,000 lancers and two 4-pounders, to turn the U.S. right flank (Figure 13). Reluctantly, Torrejón obeyed. With sounding trumpets, they advanced through the grass, across a resaca and into the chaparral. The lancers horses soon bogged down in another, deeper resaca that suddenly appeared in the low brush (Smith 1919:167). Torrejón's slow progress through the morass was observed and reported to Taylor, who took a moment from message writing to laconically reply "Keep a bright lookout for them", then returned to his task (Bauer 1986:70). Colonel David Twiggs, who was in charge of the threatened right flank, reacted with more assertion. He sent his right flank regiment, the Fifth Infantry, about 500 yds to its right and front and into the brushy chaparral. There it formed a square (Twiggs 1846:19).

Figure 13. Battle lines, approximately 2-4 p.m.

Meanwhile, Torrejón's cavalry force regrouped once on firmer ground, then charged the U.S. Fifth en masse. The Mexicans in front included the unseasoned presidiales, many of whom discharged their escopetas at an ineffective range toward the enemy. The west face of the Fifth's square held their fire, then responded with a disruptive volley delivered at a range of about 50 yd. After two such charges and a loss of at least 10 men, the Mexicans retreated approximately 300 yd. American casualties in this attack was limited to a few wounded (Scarritt 1846:3). At about this time, the U.S. Third Infantry moved into a defensive square to the right and south of the train. Torrejón sent word to Arista that the resaca made such a maneuver impractical. Arista ordered Torrejón to try again. This time Torrejón's men maneuvered further north, then east, to avoid both the murderous fire from the Fifth and to get the baggage train. Instead, the Mexicans received a volley from another face of the Fifth's square, driving the Mexicans to retreat with considerable losses. Also, the defensive presence of the Third Infantry dissuaded any significant attack on the U.S. train.

At around this time, Torrejón's two 4-pounders finally crossed the swampy resaca and, with protection from retreating lancers, prepared to fire on the U.S. Fifth, located 400 yd away. But a section of Ringgold's battery, under the command of Lieutenants Randolph Ridley and Samuel French, arrived "at full speed" just in time to defend the infantry square. Walker's Rangers, assigned to protect the Fifth, leveled their rifles at the approaching enemy cavalry. U.S. guns opened fire with canister and spherical case shot "so promptly and with such effect that the enemy's artillery were completely routed and retreated precipitately [sic] under the protection of their cavalry without discharging a gun" (McIntosh 1846:3). "Walker's Rangers...gave them their rifle balls with their usual coolness and deadly aim" (Smith 1917:49). The Mexicans lost dozens of men with the remainder driven back to the Mexican line (Taylor 1846:2-3).

It was now around 4:00 p.m. The wind blowing in from the Gulf increased and smoldering cannon wadding discharged by Duncan's battery ignited the tall cordgrass. Smoke and flames quickly spread and obscured both armies, causing the cannon fire to slacken. Many Mexican wounded, lying on the field, tragically burned to death (Ramsey 1850:47). Taylor's men used the lull in the fighting to collect their dead and wounded, remove and repair gun carriages and caissons, replenish their ammunition and get water "for the men who were suffering greatly from thirst, as the prairie was in a blaze and the day intensely hot" (Peck 1970:23). Taylor also issued orders for a realignment. He had the 18-pounders moved down the road to a spot close to the original position of the Mexican left flank. The Fourth Infantry was to the left of these cannon; the Fifth Infantry moved forward and anchored the extreme right flank to prevent a repetition of Torrejón's earlier flanking attempt. The effect was to pivot the entire U.S. line counterclockwise (Taylor 1846:2-3).

Arista also used the time to realign his forces. He also pivoted in line counterclockwise, so his right flank advanced about 400 yd. His Fourth Infantry and lancers fell back to the south and east. The Mexican realignment left the wagon road open for a U.S. advance of the 18-pounder battery. As before the lull, several shallow pools of water lay between the two forces (Area F, Figure 3). These pools discouraged a frontal assault by either side; any effective infantry and cavalry attacks had to be confined to the flanks (McCall 1974 [1868]:453). The spatial distance between the battle lines remained nearly unchanged from what it was before the prairie fire (Berlandier 1846; Duncan 1846).

It was now around 5:00 p.m. The smoke lifted and the artillery duel resumed. Arista's artillery opened on Churchill's two 18-pounders that caused so much havoc on the Mexican line. In response, the 18-pounders opened temporary gaps in the Mexican ranks that closed nearly instantly. Taylor ordered May's squadron, supported by the Fourth Infantry and Ringgold's battery, to turn the Mexican left. May's men advanced against intense cannonading and small arms fire only to meet Torrejón's massed cavalry; May shied from pressing his attack with his 68 dragoons and fell back, losing two wounded men and four horses en route (McIntosh 1846:3). The fight was not totally one-sided. During this phase of the battle, the U.S. Fourth Infantry, positioned next to the 18-pounders now under attack, received "a most galling fire" from the Mexican batteries. The Fourth suffered several casualties, including Captain John Page whose lower jaw was blown off by roundshot. Eventually, this regiment was forced to pull back with May's dragoons and rejoined the right wing.

Childs' Artillery Battalion then moved up to take the place of the Fourth and held its ground between the 18-pounders and the Fifth Infantry. The infantrymen found some protection from the Mexican round shot and canister after their commanders ordered them to sit down in the tall grass (McIntosh 1846:3). While Mexican artillery kept the U.S. right pinned down, Arista ordered his cavalry to attempt another flanking attack. Once again, Torrejón organized his cavalry for a massive charge against the Americans, who crouched in the tall grass for protection. Churchill, in response, turned his 18-pounders against Torrejón's formation, breaking up the attack with canister. Repulsed but not destroyed, the Mexican horsemen then directed their attack on Childs' battalion, now standing and in square formation. The battalion fired a single close-range volley that finally drove Torrejón's men back to the main Mexican battle line position (Taylor 1846:3).

Because of the damage wrought by Ringgold's and Churchill's guns, the Mexican artillery concentrated on them. So effective was the counter battery fire that it drove Ringgold's unit back. During this withdrawal action, Major Ringgold was hit in both legs by a Mexican 4-pounder shot. Although carried from the field alive, he died two days later, aware that his "flying batteries" won the day (Twiggs 1846:2). The Mexican artillery attack continued for well over an hour. By then, they exhausted their supply of artillery ammunition (Bauer 1986:71).

Meanwhile, the Mexican units on the right flank began to waver under the galling fire of Duncan's battery. "The [Mexican] troops at last, tired of being slaughtered for no use, demanded with a shout to be led on to the enemy with the bayonet, for they wished to fight hand to hand, and to die like brave men" (Ramsey 1850:48). Arista granted them their wish. He ordered Montero's light cavalry, supported by the Second Light Infantry, Zapadores, and the Tampico Coastal Guards, to turn Taylor's left flank (Figure 14).

Figure 14. Final battle lines, approximately 5-7 p.m.

Duncan's battery, whose targets had been obscured by grass fire smoke, at that moment was hitching up the guns to go to the assistance of Ringgold. Duncan spotted the emergence of Mexican cavalry from the chaparral and realized that, left unchecked, enemy horsemen could reach the supply train. Duncan quickly shifted his guns to shield the wagons, unlimbered in full view of the enemy and within point-blank range. He placed one section directly in front of the Mexican column and the second section where it could fire canister into the Mexican flank. In his report written four days after the battle, Duncan described what he modestly termed "the important operations of the day":

A strong body of the enemy's infantry, supported by two squadrons of cavalry, debouched, from the extreme right point of the chaparral, and moved steadily forward to the attack:—one section of the battery opened upon them, with round shot, shells, and spherical case. So well directed, that the whole advance, horse and foot, fell back in disorder to the bushes. The other section played in the meantime upon the masses of cavalry, that had halted at the sight of the guns as before mentioned. Although these shots were well delivered, and each one made an opening through an entire squadron, this part of the enemy's line stood unshaken (Duncan 1846).

The artillerymen were soon joined by Ker's squadron and the Eighth Infantry, but it was the fire from Duncan's battery that forced the Mexicans to break off their attack. The Mexican soldiers tried to return the fire but were frustrated by the setting sun shining directly in their eyes (Ampudia 1846; In Sanchez 1980:20). When the Mexicans finally fell back, Duncan took advantage of the smoke to move his guns unobserved to within 300 yd of the Mexican right flank. From there, he opened an unexpected enfilading fire that rolled back the Mexican line. Noriega's cavalry increased the panic among the infantry by riding through them (Bauer 1974:55). Arista and some of his officers halted the flight, but to prevent a rout ordered a second attack by the broken infantry units, supported by Montero's Light Cavalry Regiment. The Mexican troops were too disheartened to push home the attack and were easily turned aside by a sweep of Duncan's cannonfire along the lengths of their columns. They fled across the front of the Mexican line, taking all the troops as far as the Sixth Infantry with them (Bauer 1974:57).

It was now around 7:00 p.m. Because the Mexican artillery had expended its available ammunition, Arista ordered his army to withdraw onto the mesquite-obscured ground behind his right wing where they would bivouac for the night. This was the time for the U.S. infantry to come in with the bayonet and turn the retreat "into a rout or a roundup". But darkness was approaching, and exposing the train of wagons to the possibility of capture or cavalry raid was unwise. So as the Mexicans fell back to the edge of the trees, Taylor's forces bivouacked. "The surgeon's saw was going the livelong night", as searching parties brought in the wounded (Henry 1950:61). Lieutenant Grant wrote home "We then encamped on our own ground, and the enemy on theirs. We supposed that the loss of the enemy had not been much greater than our own, and expected of course that the fight would be renewed in the morning..." (Lewis 1950:146).

From their camp, the Americans could see the yellow-orange torchlights as Mexicans moved about the battlefield where their comrades had fallen. The Mexicans gave up trying to bury their dead because they lacked pickaxes and shovels. Many of their dead, therefore, were left unburied (Sanchez 1980:21). The wounded were brought to the field hospital for rudimentary care, but the surgeon to whom the medicine chests had been entrusted disappeared with them during the battle; the luckier among the wounded were piled into wagons and sent back to Matamoros. Worst of all, Mexican morale had been dealt a devastating blow.

U.S. casualties at the battle of Palo Alto included 5 killed, 43 wounded and 2 missing; an additional 2 officers and 8 enlisted men later died of their wounds. Mexican losses were substantially higher. Arista admitted to losing 252 killed, while Lieutenant George Meade, after interviewing captured Mexican officers, placed the number closer to 400 (Meade 1913:82; Brooks 1965:36). However, in his official account of the battle, General Arista stated that his army lost only 102 men (Anon. 1846b).

The battle proceeded not as Taylor anticipated since he abandoned his initial plan of a bayonet charge. According to military historian K. Jack Bauer, Taylor's apparent flexibility probably reflected his inexperience as much as anything. Palo Alto was his first large engagement and the first time he had seen the "flying artillery" in action; their performance could not have failed to impress him. Also, the battle was the only time Taylor saw cavalry perform in battle. Their flexibility and speed, theorizes Bauer, "clearly worried a general whose force was hobbled by a large and vulnerable wagon train". This threat to the train and his flanks is the probable explanation for Taylor's decision not to attack (Bauer 1986:73).

In a tactical sense, Taylor's men had won the battle since they held the field at little cost to themselves while inflicting heavy casualties on the Mexicans. But strategically the battle was a draw. Neither side had accomplished its objective: Taylor had not reopened the road to Fort Texas, and Arista had not destroyed the American force.

Post-Battle History

May 9, 1846 to May 8, 1893

Arista's army withdrew the morning after the battle. Taylor's army followed the retreating Mexican force several hours later but only after defensive measures were taken for the U.S. wagon train. (For discussion of the ensuing battle at Resaca de la Palma, see Appendix B, this report). Lieutenant Jeremiah Scarritt, Taylor's staff engineer, reported, "On the morning of the 9th [General Taylor] directed me to secure the train in the best manner 12 o'clock, I had the train so that it could resist any attack of cavalry—come in what direction it might and it would have required very steady cavalry to have marched upon it" (Scarritt 1846:7). A participant of the 1893 commemoration of the battlefield described these defensive measures as having become "barely traceable earthworks" (Portmess 1893). The earthworks were positioned in the immediate vicinity of the pond where, the day before, U.S. troops, their horses and wagon train livestock got water. Two 18-pounder cannon, two 12-pounder howitzers and a detachment of artillerymen were left with the teamsters for the wagon train's defense (Henry 1847) (Figure 15).

Figure 15. Lieutenant Scarritt's sketch of earthen fortification. Note placement of two 18-pounders and two 12-pounders behind earthen redoubts and abutting Palo Alto pond. Wagons are depicted as rectangles.

A week before the 1893 commemoration, local resident Felipe Martinez, purportedly Arista's guide at Palo Alto, gave a battlefield tour. Martinez described a levee of the resaca as a "ridge" where Taylor halted his army, allowing his men to fill their canteens from the nearby pond. Presumably the wagon road ran along the top of the levee. A newspaper article describing the 1893 commemoration noted "...This ridge is now known as fortincitos, meaning little forts. After the battle the army returned to this ridge and erected these forts, three in number..." (Brownsville Herald, May 9, 1893).

Champion (n.d.:2) placed one of the three fortifications at the pond facing northwest. The other two, he believed, were to the east and alongside the wagon road. If correct, such placement is suggestive that the two easternmost fortifications were constructed paralleling the wagon road. This probably provided some protection for those wagons still arriving during the battle, not after the battle. Lieutenant Scarritt's account describes the construction of only one fortification after the battle to protect the now consolidated wagon train at the pond. Recent land leveling activities in and around the now dry pond may have obliterated any vestiges of this defensive position surviving after 1893. An inspection of the pond area during the 1992 field season also revealed the presence here of a number of small, shallow depressions. Presumably, these depressions are the result of relic hunters' search for Scarritt's position.

With his wagon train now secured, Taylor began his cautious advance following the Mexican army. The U.S. soldiers marched through the battlefield and the area where the Mexican army had decamped just a few hours before. The grisly remains of the battle left a strong impression on Captain W.S. Henry:

I took advantage of a halt [of the army] to go over the field of battle. It was truly a shocking sight: our artillery had literally "mowed them down"; there were heaps of dead lying hither and yon, with the most ghastly wounds I ever saw; some had died with a smile on their countenance, others, in the agony of death, with a fierce convulsive struggle had caught at the rank grass, and died with their hands clinched firmly in it, looking defiant at the enemy. It was a shocking picture (Henry 1973 [1847]:94-95).

During this temporary halt Major Belknap placed several of his men on burial detail, interring eleven badly mangled Mexican bodies (Belknap 1846). An official battlefield inspection report, as well as the musings of several of the idle curious, noted the effectiveness of canister and spherical case shot on massed troops. For example:

I visited the place...where the two 18 pounders were for a time directed, convincing evidence of the skill with which our Artillery was used were still perceptible upon that part of the field, for although [the Mexicans] were permitted to bury their dead, and afterward returned in numbers and spent considerable time in that employment, I counted some thirty bodies stretched out as they fell in that immediate vicinity... (Frost 1859:669-670).

Army Surgeon Madison Mills wrote:

...During this halt, which was fully four hours, I took occasion to go over the whole field of battle and saw sights that made my heart sick...Groups of men on horseback, others on foot (camp followers) were riding or running over the field in all directions, looking at the enemy's dead and wounded and picking up trophies of the ever memorable battle of Palo Alto...They left dead on the field at least 200 and from appearances must have buried a large number. I saw two large graves newly covered with brush and dirt; in the immediate vicinity of which I found instruments and dressings which told me that some of my own species [surgeons] had been there. What havoc and what horrid wounds our artillery made. I saw heads and limbs severed from their bodies and trunks strewed about in awful confusion. Many a body I saw that had been cut in twain by our 18 pdrs and such ghastly spectacles I hope never to behold again. I picked up a lance and a few other trophies from the field which I hope to retain and take home with me...The 1st Brigade buried a number of the enemy's dead but there were about 150 left on the field unburied...(Mills 1846).

The American dead were temporarily buried on the battlefield, their grave location(s), like the Mexicans', presently unknown. One post-battle casualty was soon added to the relatively small number of American graves: Topographical Engineer Lieutenant Jacob Blake was accidently killed after the battle when he unbuckled his holsters and dropped them on the ground; one of the pistols discharged, killing him almost instantly. That night, after the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, his body was taken to the Palo Alto battlefield and buried by torchlight (Thorpe 1950 [1846]: 147). Major Ringgold's remains were later removed for reburial at his home in Maryland (Portmess 1893). A few days later the battlefield was flooded. This lasted for weeks, due to unusually severe seasonal rains. The more shallowly buried bodies reportedly floated away; others were exposed to the vultures and wolves (Portmess 1893). Thereafter, the battlefield became an object of curiosity for the newly stationed off-duty soldiers at Palo Alto. Collecting souvenirs of the battle probably was their major pastime. Several companies of volunteers joined them later that summer (Champion n.d.:2.). No doubt there were civilians who, while traveling through Palo Alto, stopped to look for mementos as well.

Seven months after the battle a Tennessee volunteer wrote:

...Nothing was to be seen on the ground, save the graves, many of which had been disturbed by the wolves and the scattered skeletons of very many who had not found a burial. Those laid as they fell: here in rows, from the sweeping effects of the artillery; there singly, from musketry or bayonet... (Champion n.d.:2).

Except for its occasional use as pasture for Fort Brown's livestock, the battlefield entered a phase of civilian exploitation. On July 14, 1847, the Army of Occupation newspaper, the American Flag, published in Matamoros, carried this advertisement:

Palo Alto House. This house is now open for the reception of guests on the battleground of Palo Alto. Comfortable conveyance furnished from the opposite side of the river, at a reasonable price. Preparation is being made for horse-racing to come off on Sunday next and we advise those who wish to see "lots of fun", not to fail going (American Flag 1847, July 14).

The "house" or inn was just off the Matamoros-Point Isabel wagon road. Its probable location has been identified by NPS Archeologist Jake Ivey, who noted structural traces and an associated trash dump dating to circa 1845-1855 (Ivey 1992). These traces may be the inn, or one of several houses known to have existed on the battlefield site (Champion n.d:3). An inspection of this site during the summer of 1992 resulted in the location of one copper and one iron ball shot. Since the battlefield is .5 miles to the south, these artifacts probably were dropped by guests of the inn, and not a direct result of battlefield activity. Since its discovery in January 1992, relic collectors have removed artifacts from the inn location (Walter Plitt, personal communication 1992).

According to the above newspaper advertisement, the battlefield was becoming a local tourist attraction. Officers stationed at nearby Fort Brown sometimes gave informal tours of Palo Alto to visitors. Major attractions included the location of the Mexican mass graves and the battle lines, the latter still visible where the cordgrass was trampled down, along with the occasional scatters of horse and human bone (Coker 1992:92-93). U.S. troops were stationed at Palo Alto shortly after the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, no doubt adding to post-battle impact on the battlefield.

A reminder that Palo Alto was still very much on the frontier occurred in May 1849, when a band of Comanches attacked a wagon train as it passed in front of the Palo Alto Inn. The following year 10 robbers broke into a house at Palo Alto, killed the resident and took everything portable (Champion n.d.:3).

In 1853, the Port Isabel-Matamoros road was relocated further to the west. Shortly thereafter, the little community of Palo Alto was abandoned (Champion n.d.:4). During the 1992 survey, archeologists recovered post-battle artifacts, dating to the turn of the century, in relative abundance on or near the presumed route of the abandoned wagon trail. These findings support historical accounts that local ranchers still used the trail, although abandoned as the main route between Port Isabel and Matamoros (Champion n.d.:4).

The battlefield, although now almost literally off the beaten track, was not forgotten. In 1853 President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna issued a decree calling for commemoration of all Mexican soldiers who had fallen in the war against the United States, including those who had fallen at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. In addition, Santa Anna requested the Mexican war dead who lay in the United States be exhumed and returned to Mexico for a dignified reinterment. Presumably United States officials took no action and there is no documentation of any attempts by private parties to locate and remove Mexican remains.

For the next several decades the battlefield remained essentially as it had appeared in 1846, an expanse of cordgrass bisected by a wagon road, bounded by mesquite thickets and resacas and used as a pasture. On May 8, 1893, a private group of citizens from Brownsville dedicated a monument on the Palo Alto battlefield. The monument, consisting of a marble tablet "like a quartermaster's tombstone", was placed approximately 100 yd south of the barely discernable wagon fortification at the pond (Pierce 1917:30-31).

Post-1893 To the Present

During the early 1900s the Army used Palo Alto and surrounding unoccupied lands as a firing range. Uncounted numbers of 75 mm artillery rounds exploded over the battlefield, scattering their lead ball shrapnel. In later years these lead balls caused some confusion with the battlefield archeological record (Bond 1979:4).

In 1914 General James Parker, commander of the Brownsville Military District, initiated interest in the placement of monuments at historic sites in the Brownsville area, including the Palo Alto battlefield. In a memo to the Adjutant's Office, General Parker described Palo Alto battlefield as... "on an old partly unused route, [the battlefield's] position is unknown to the inhabitants of that vicinity, except a few old persons... [the battlefield] is an open plain covered in places with salt marsh grass...the terrain is flat with a few clumps of mesquite trees which mark the position of some of the old roads..." General Parker also noted in this memo that the 1893 monument was damaged and its inscription partially obliterated "so that even the name of the battle is partly gone". Shortly thereafter, General Parker directed the installation of an upright, Civil War vintage 18 pounder cannon barrel a few hundred feet south of the 1893 monument (Parker 1914). In 1917, a Board of Officers of the First Provisional Infantry Division convened in Brownsville to determine battlefield locations in the area. The Board toured the Palo Alto battlefield under the guidance of Judge Frank C. Pierce, an historian of the Rio Grande Valley. Pierce's knowledge of the battle was based in part on his interviews of a battle participant named Wabeski (according to Brownsville historian Col. Bruce Aiken it should be spelled Werbiski), who claimed he had been an enlisted man in May's Dragoons (Pierce 1917:105). Neither name spellings, however, appears on muster rolls of any of the units that fought at Palo Alto.

The Board incorporated Pierce's information with what they learned from written accounts (e.g., Ripley 1970 [1849]; Wilcox 1892) to reconstruct the approximate positions of the United States and Mexican battle lines. The Board determined the 1893 monument was correctly placed where the U.S. army initially deployed, that is, immediately south of the old wagon road and the pond. The U.S. army's next position, at the initiation of cannon fire by the Mexicans, was approximately 600-800 yd further to the south and east. The U.S. army's final right flank position was estimated to be approximately 1300 yd further to the southeast, making a partial left wheel (Champion n.d.).

The Board recommended General Parker's monument be moved to a place marking the main action of the battle, that is, the U.S. army's right flank, approximately where the Fifth Infantry and Ringgold's battery repulsed the Mexican cavalry attack. The Board's recommendation, however, was never acted upon. In 1938, Palo Alto battlefield was recorded in the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings. The site at the time encompassed approximately 50 acres, located east of the junction of Farm Roads 1847 and 511. These roads were the western and southern boundaries of the battlefield, respectively. In 1960, the battlefield was designated as a national historic landmark by the NPS under the authority of the 1935 Historic Sites Act (NPS 1979). It was around this time that General Parker's cannon barrel monument was moved to its present location, the northeast corner of the intersection of Farm Roads 1847 and 511 and where there is a state of Texas granite marker dated 1936 (NPS 1979).

Although recognized as an historic landmark since 1893, the battlefield underwent various localized land alterations since the early twentieth century. In addition to the exploding 75 mm rounds, there occurred excavations for ponds and a major drainage ditch, damming of a resaca, removal of mesquite thickets, strip plowing for the planting of experimental grazing grasses, placement of a buried natural gas pipeline, land leveling within and around Palo Alto pond, and deep plowing for crops.

Relic collecting has had an immeasurable effect on the battlefield since the day after the battle. As examples, there is an undocumented account of the owner of a battlefield portion who, during the 1930s, removed "hundreds" of cannonballs from his plowed field and dumped them into a resaca (Marian Harr, personal communication 1992); Dr. Vidal Longoria, one of the land owners of the battlefield, related there were two concentrations of cannonballs in one of his plowed fields, but relic collectors took them all during the 1960s (Vidal Longoria, personal communication 1992); and, in at least one instance, a collector resorted to using a backhoe to locate the fabled payroll chest that General Arista somehow managed to misplace on the battlefield (Bond 1979:43). The use of increasingly sophisticated metal detectors by collectors also has resulted in a significant loss of artifacts normally protected by vegetation cover and soil deposition.

Recent Research

In 1974, Texas A&M University Anthropological Laboratory personnel conducted preliminary field studies along several proposed routes for the Brownsville-Matamoros railroad relocation project. The resulting report noted two of the routes would cross the battlefield site, necessitating compliance with the provisions of Section 106 of the 1966 Historic Preservation Act (Shafer 1974). Shafer failed to locate any battle-related artifacts, but did recommend a proton magnetometer survey be conducted to locate and recover metal artifacts and detect subsurface soil anomalies such as burials and earthworks (Shafer 1974:5).

In 1976, the Brownsville Navigation District contracted with the Texas A&M Anthropological Laboratory to conduct intensive investigations on the Palo Alto battlefield. The contract included a documentary research program and a reconnaissance survey of the presumed battlefield area. The resulting report (Baxter and Killen 1976) noted a number of discrepancies in the historic reports and maps of the battle, concluding that "a major portion of the battle occurred just north and northwest of Loma Alta" (Baxter and Killen 1976:55), an extensive low hill situated approximately .5 miles to the southeast of the actual battlefield. Much of this conclusion was based on the assumption that the lead balls found in the supposed battlefield area were deposited by combatants at the battle of Palo Alto. Researchers later determined these were actually the above-mentioned lead ball shrapnel derived from 75 mm artillery rounds. Also, in the opinion of another researcher, none of the other artifacts collected during the 1976 survey could be definitely attributed to the 1846 battle (Bond 1979:4).

Following the authorization of the Palo Alto Battlefield NHS by Congress in 1978, the National Park Service initiated a research project seeking to delineate the parameters of the battle. Reevaluation of the battlefield location problem was prompted largely because of information supplied in 1979 by Mr. A.A. Champion of Brownsville, a longtime student and investigator of the battle. Champion strongly recommended any further research should concentrate on the area commemorated as the battle location in 1893 and 1914 rather than the Loma Alta area. For over 50 years Champion visited the site and, by using an aerial photo with information obtained from eyewitness accounts of the battle, had identified historically significant topographic features (NPS 1979:14-18). Champion's recommendation was independently supported by two previously unknown sources that surfaced at this time: two maps drawn by battle eyewitness Jean Louis Berlandier, which provided views of the locations of the opposing forces as well as some of the area's topographic features; and Lieutenant Scarritt's written descriptions, including a sketch of the wagon fortifications (Scarritt 1846) (Figure 13).

In March 1979, a team of archeologists from Texas A&M and the NPS conducted a reconnaissance level survey of the Loma Alta area and the area identified by Champion as the actual battlefield location. A few battle related artifacts were found, but nothing definitive was determined. The NPS decided to conduct an intensive archeological survey, including the use of a proton magnetometer, metal detectors, aerial photography analysis, and limited test excavation. Accordingly, Texas A&M developed a research design accepted by the NPS. Fieldwork followed during June and July 1979. The final report, Palo Alto Battlefield: A Magnetometer and Metal Detector Survey, by Clell L. Bond, was submitted to the NPS in September 1979.

According to Bond (1979:58), this survey failed to produce large quantities of statistically testable information; archeologists only recovered 20 artifacts directly attributable to the battle. This was not enough artifacts to address the specifics of the survey research design. However, it did meet the overall project purpose, that is, the location of the Palo Alto battlefield by artifactual evidence. Bond concluded use of a proton magnetometer was inappropriate due to the numerous and recent man made soil anomalies and the relatively small magnetic variation caused by isolated artifacts. Bond also concluded metal detectors, although potentially capable of locating quantities of artifacts, would be greatly hindered by the existing vegetation (Bond 1979:58). The report recommendations were as follows:

1) to conduct further documentary research and reporting, and examine the Mexican archives;

2) document Mexican arms and accouterments, and especially Mexican cannon ordnance possibly used in the battle;

3) interview and analyze information from individuals who collected artifacts from the battlefield; and

4) further delineate the location of the Mexican and U.S. battle lines by conducting a more thorough field investigation. The report recommended that such survey use metal detectors along a series of north-south transects, incorporating those areas where significant numbers of artifacts have been found.

It was the researcher's experience that the cordgrass, growing in dense clumps often 3 ft across and 4 ft in height, usually obscured the ground surface. Even when mowed with a tractor driven rotary mower, the remaining stiff stubble prevented the search coil of a metal detector from making contact with the ground surface, thus preventing a reliable subsurface survey. Bond recommended 100 percent removal of the sample area vegetation in future site investigation (Bond 1979:58-60).

No further professional archeological investigations of Palo Alto occurred during the next 13 years. However, in 1991, the NPS contracted with Walter Plitt III, Chairman of the Palo Alto Battlefield National Park Committee, to provide provenience information for those artifacts recently located on the battlefield by collectors. The resulting document (Plitt 1992) provided important artifact patterning data, incorporated in this report. In addition, the NPS continued to support historical studies of this battle. This support is especially demonstrated by essential research of the Mexican archives, conducted by NPS Historian Dr. Joseph P. Sanchez (Sanchez 1980; 1985). Also, the NPS assisted the efforts of local interested parties who helped make this park a reality.

All of the above actions ultimately led to the Palo Alto Battlefield NHS Act of 1991 and the preparation of a general management plan. This plan included funding for an additional, more intensive archeological survey of Palo Alto battlefield. The survey occurred during July-August 1992, with a follow-up survey in March-April 1993.

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Last Updated: 25-Feb-2009