A Thunder of Cannon
Archeology of the Mexican-American War Battlefield of Palo Alto
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The Mexican-American War transpired at a time when many armies of the world were phasing out their flintlock muskets in favor of more advanced percussion weapons. The flintlock ignition system operated on the principle that sparks result when a sharp piece of flint strikes steel. On a flintlock musket, the jaws of the cock gripped the flint, the latter partly padded with a leather or lead patch to secure the grip. With the pull of the trigger, the flint struck a hardened steel frizzen. The frizzen then pivoted forward, allowing the sparks to fall into a small pan of gunpowder. The powder burned, transmitting a spark through a small hole in the gun barrel and into the main powder charge, thus firing the weapon. The discharged projectile was a large lead ball that killed, or tore a gaping, ghastly wound, if it hit an enemy.

Loading and firing a flintlock musket was slow. Holding the weapon horizontally, the soldier pulled the cock back to half-cock and tipped the frizzen forward to expose the pan. He then drew out a cartridge from his cartridge box. The paper cartridge contained a measured amount of gunpowder, a round lead ball slightly smaller than the inside diameter of the gun barrel, usually weighing about one ounce, and often with two or three smaller lead balls, or buckshot, termed a "buck-and-ball" cartridge. The shooter then tore the end of the cartridge open with his teeth and poured a small amount of powder into the pan and closed the frizzen over it. The remainder of the powder was then poured down the barrel, followed by the lead balls and cartridge paper used as wadding, all of which was then seated firmly onto the powder with the ramrod. The flintlock could then be cocked for firing. The entire process required as many as 17 motions, but a trained soldier armed with a flintlock musket could get off two to three rounds a minute if he did not become rattled in the din of battle.

A percussion musket was simpler to load. The soldier poured all of the cartridge powder into the barrel, and then rammed home the lead balls. Then he pulled the cock, or hammer, to half-cock. He placed a small copper or brass cup-shaped percussion cap on the cone, or nipple, and loading was complete. To fire, one simply cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell onto the nipple, exploding a small charge of fulminate of mercury in the percussion cap, sending a spark through the nipple and into the main charge.

Mexican Firearms

India Pattern Musket

During the early 1830s, the Army of the Republic of Mexico began a program of replacing its worn out Spanish firearms. Mexico was unable to manufacture its own arms due to the dilapidated condition of its national arms factory, and the money needed for repairing the factory's machinery was nonexistent. Fortunately for Mexico, Great Britain possessed a vast surplus of Napoleonic Wars vintage armaments. In addition to captured French arms, Britain had some 440,000 India Pattern "Brown Bess" muskets in its arsenals (Hefter et al. 1958:53) (Figure 16). Mexico probably purchased quantities of these, as well as other, surplus weapons via private arms dealers or the East India Company (Kevin Young, personal communication 1993).

Figure 16. India Pattern "Brown Bess" Musket.

The Indian Pattern musket was a relatively inexpensive, inferior grade firearm that had been manufactured for the British East India Company, hence the name "India Pattern". In 1793 an ill-prepared Great Britain found itself once again at war with France. As a stopgap measure, the East India Company was required to sell all of its muskets to the Board of Ordnance, yet this was not enough to meet the growing needs of the armed forces. In order to speed up firearms production, the Board in 1797 required gunsmiths to cease manufacturing the superior Short Land Pattern muskets and, in its place, supply exclusively the India Pattern (Darling 1981:50).

The India Pattern musket was inferior in design to the earlier model Short Land musket. The metal fittings were simplified or eliminated and the barrel shortened from 42 to 39 inches; walnut for the stock was inferior grade; and less exacting quality control tolerances was allowed. Nevertheless, it provided a needed relief in the British arms shortage when introduced to the regiments in 1793-1794. Manufacture of the India Pattern continued until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 (Haythornthwaite 1979:21).

In spite of its substandard quality, the Indian Pattern musket was an effective weapon up to 100 yd. Overall length was 4 feet 7 inches, and weighed 9 lbs 11 oz; the bayonet added another 1.5 ft. and an additional pound. The musket was .75 caliber, and a seasoned veteran could load and fire it several times a minute. Powder and ball, encased in a paper cartridge, were ignited by flintlock mechanism, common to all small arms of the period (Meuse 1965:5).

By the 1830s, the British considered the India Pattern flintlock musket an obsolete weapon, gradually replacing it, by 1839, with the New Land Service percussion musket (Darling 1981:54). Presumably, because of such a huge supply of obsolete flintlocks, Britain chose to sell its India Pattern muskets to Mexico (Koury 1973:8). Furthermore, the British condemned many of these muskets as unserviceable before their sale to Mexico (Hefter et al. 1958:53).

Baker Rifle

The Mexican government purchased the clearance sale-priced India Pattern musket as its main firearm for their regular infantry. It also purchased quantities of the more expensive Baker rifle for their elite sharpshooter troops. Like the Indian Pattern musket, the flintlock Baker rifle was by this time an obsolete weapon, being replaced in the British armed forces by the percussion Brunswick rifle (James 1983:92). The British probably chose to sell to Mexico its oldest, least serviceable versions of the Baker rifle during the early 1830s, since, until 1839, it was still an official British small arm (Hefter et al. 1958:54).

The Baker, first issued to the British Army in 1800, was actually a rifled and more decorative version of a musket. Its initial .75 caliber musket bore was later reduced to a .625 caliber bore; this was the version purchased by Mexico. It had a 30 in. barrel mounted with a trigger mechanism made of brass instead of steel, as was the British musket. Also distinguishing the Baker rifle was a brass trigger guard that curved down away from the stock to form a type of pistol grip more accurate for shooting (Meuse 1965:10). Rifle fittings included a brass lidded patch box in the butt, and later patterns incorporated cleaning tools in the butt box as well (Haythornthwaite 1979:24).

The Baker rifle weighed 9 lbs 8 oz, minus the 2 lb bayonet. Like all rifles of this period, loose powder and ball were normally used with the Baker. The powder, carried in a flask or horn, was measured and poured into the muzzle. The .615 caliber ball, encased in a patch of cloth or leather, was pushed home with a ramrod. As the loading process required some time, the trained rifleman was capable of only about one shot per minute (Meuse 1965:10-12). For situations requiring more rapid fire, the Baker sharpshooter used prepared cartridges intended for the Baker cavalry carbine rifle. Without a patch for the ball, however, there was not a tight enough fit for accurate firing; the Baker rifle then became nothing but a short barreled, highly inaccurate musket (Meuse 1965:12).

Although slower to load than a musket, the Baker rifle was considered accurate for its time. A marksman in the British Army using the Baker rifle was expected to hit the enemy's cross-belts up to 200 yds and his head and shoulders thereafter (Haythornthwaite 1979:25). The Mexican Army provided the Baker rifle for their elite companies of cazadores (light infantry) and grenaderos (grenadiers) of the line battalions (James 1983:91). They also purchased Paget rifled carbines for their cavalry troops (Nesmith 1986:67). However, due to limited training, the Mexicans could not exploit the rifle to its full advantage (James 1983:91, 92).

Paget Carbine

The Paget flintlock carbine was the primary arm of the British cavalry until at least 1815, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The Paget was still in use by the British until the 1830s, when it was replaced by percussion carbines. Distinctive features of the Paget are the short barrel length, the swivel ramrod and the bolted lock with raised pan. Some of its brass furniture was exactly the same as that on the India Pattern musket, such as its upper ramrod pipe (Samuel Nesmith, personal communication 1993).


The escopeta, called a "scuppet" by U.S. soldiers, was a blunderbuss-type firearm used by Mexican cavalrymen who presumably were not issued the Baker carbine. This weapon used the antique-style miquelet lock characteristic of seventeenth century and early eighteenth century Spanish small arms. Unlike the firing mechanism of later flintlocks, the miquelet lock had a robust hammer able to hold irregularly shaped lumps of flint. Ideal for use by irregular light cavalry, almost anything could be rolled down the flaring-mouthed short barrel. The escopeta often had the "Catalan stock", an archaically-shaped butt with a square-cut end and "hook" on the underside (Haythornthwaite 1979:23). Escopetas saw long and hard service on the Mexican frontiers, a firearm often subjected to crude repair work with a corresponding loss in its overall effectiveness (Brown 1980:172).

Pistols, U.S. and Mexican

Mexico also purchased quantities of British flintlock pistols (Nesmith 1986:67), also presumably obsolete and condemned Napoleonic Wars surplus. During those wars, Britain manufactured a wide variety of pistols in pistol- and carbine-bore. Barrel lengths varied from the 12 in "Heavy Dragoon" pistol, to the 9 in "Light Dragoon". There also was an East India Company variety. The common "Land Pattern" pistol had a swivel ramrod; another pattern was the 9 in-barreled, carbine-bore pistol with swivel ramrod and raised pan (Haythornthwaite 1979:51). As in all national armies of the time, the Mexican Army only issued pistols to their cavalrymen and officers. Those who could afford it purchased their own brace of pistols, ranging from deluxe percussion versions of regulation patterns to ornate duelers.

The regulation U.S. military pistol of the period was a .54 caliber smoothbore with either a 8-1/2- or 6-in barrel (Figures 17 and 18). Both Model 1836 flintlock and Model 1842 percussion pistols were in service during the 1840s. However, Ordnance Bureau shipping records indicate pistol flints were not provided to Taylor's command between August 1845 and July 1846 (Bateman 1982:34). This is strongly suggestive virtually all of the U.S. pistols at Palo Alto were the percussion model.

Figure 17. U.S. Model 1836 flintlock pistol. Adapted from illustrations by André Jandot, in Hicks (1940).

Figure 18. U.S. Model 1842 percussion cap pistol. Adapted from illustrations by André Jandot, in Hicks (1940).

Regardless of model, all period pistols had one thing in common: they were quite inaccurate. A veteran British officer of the Napoleonic Wars once remarked that "Pistols...are only a superfluous addition of weight and incumbrance [sic]...We never saw a pistol made use of except to shoot a glandered horse"; another officer noted the range of a pistol was so limited that its discharge was pointless "until you feel your antagonist's ribs with the muzzle", at which range it was easier to use a sword (Haythornthwaite 1979:51).

U.S. Firearms

Conversion of existing military flintlocks to percussion design began in 1842. In 1844, the Springfield arsenal began manufacturing percussion muskets and the following year the armory at Harpers Ferry also began producing them. By 1846, these two factories produced over 17,000 percussion muskets; by the end of the Mexican-American War the national arsenals produced over 78,000 more (U.S. War Department Annual Reports of 1846:147; 1848:343). Ordnance Bureau records indicate over 100,000 percussion caps, in addition to 220,000 musket flints and 30,000 rifle flints, were shipped to Taylor's army between August 1845 and April 1846 (Bateman 1982:32-34). Yet Ulysses S. Grant, who was a breveted Second Lieutenant under Taylor's command, stated in his memoirs that the regular infantrymen were all armed with flintlock muskets (Grant 1885:46).

Regardless of the recognized superiority and availability of percussion arms, relatively few U.S. troops were armed with them during the entire Mexican-American War. The reason for this policy is that Ordnance officials did not want the soldiers to fight a war with unfamiliar weapons. Officials believed there was little time to train the troops with the new muskets before their deployment to Mexico, especially since virtually none of the drill manuals then in print addressed percussion arms. Also, officials were concerned an adequate supply of percussion caps could not be maintained. A soldier who lost his flint could use a local source, but a soldier without percussion caps had a useless weapon (Ordnance Board 1846; In McCaffrey 1992:41). Therefore, the U.S. infantry at Palo Alto probably were armed with Model 1816/1822 and possibly Model 1835 flintlock muskets (Figures 19 and 20). The percussion caps probably were for pistols, Hall Models 1833/1836/1842 carbines, and perhaps some refurbished 1819 Hall rifles. Possibly the Model 1841 percussion rifle (the "Mississippi Rifle") was present as a nonregulation firearm, used by the Texas Rangers. It is doubtful any Model 1842 percussion cap muskets were in use at Palo Alto (Stephen Allie, personal communication 1993).

Figure 19. U.S. Model 1816 flintlock musket. Adapted from illustrations by André Jandot, in Hicks (1940).

Figure 20. U.S. Model 1835 flintlock musket. Adapted from illustrations by André Jandot, in Hicks (1940).

Models 1816/1822 and 1835 Muskets

Models 1816 and 1822 flintlock muskets were virtually the same firearm pattern, differing only in minor variations (Figure 19). Manufactured for the U.S. military until the late 1830s, this weapon possessed the qualities of both sturdiness and excellent design, representing a U.S. achievement in manufacturing machine-made interchangeable gun parts meeting exacting specifications (Butler 1971:34-35). Model 1835 was the last flintlock musket manufactured for the U.S. military, incorporating improvements standardized in the Model 1822 French musket (Figure 20). Production of Model 1835 began in 1839, ending in 1845, even while the U.S. arsenals were already converting from flintlock to percussion design. Due to the planned phase-out of the flintlock ignition system, relatively few (approximately 30,000) Model 1835s were available just before the war (Butler 1971:37); this was not enough to meet the needs of the U.S. armed forces on a wartime footing and a limited budget. Thus, possibly both the 1816 and 1835 models were used in the first battle of the Mexican-American War. According to military historian Steven Allie (personal communication 1992), a new musket model was introduced to peacetime units only after regimental supplies of their serviceable older model became unfit or exhausted; even individual companies, scattered as they were along the frontier, might have different musket models. Fortunately, all U.S. military muskets of the period had the same .69 caliber bore, so at least ammunition could be communally shared, if not always musket parts.

Paradoxically, although the musket was the mainline infantry weapon, it was not subjected to intensive scientific experimentation in this country until the 1840s. In his tests at the Washington Arsenal in 1843 and 1844, Captain Alfred Mordecai found that:

...for the musket, the variation now allowed in the diameter of the bore is...unnecessarily great. But for these arms, a much more important change is that of reducing the windage, by increasing the diameter of the ball...I propose that balls for small arms shall be made by compression, instead of being cast (Lewis 1956:114-115).

An American civil engineer named Bosworth conducted some independent experiments. A strong supporter of rifled arms, Bosworth had some harsh words for the musket in his treatise of 1846:

In point of model, structure, and proportion...the musket for accuracy of ball-practice may be considered the worst. It is out of proportion in point of size, the caliber being too great for the weight of the piece...A ball projected with a full war-charge, can not be relied upon for any kind of accuracy; and the recoil is too severe for the strength of an ordinary soldier...It is conceded on all hands, that the musket-barrel is too light for its caliber (Bosworth 1846:80-81; In Garavaglia and Worman 1984:112).

The efforts of men like Mordecai and Bosworth soon resulted in changes. Between mid-1845 and mid-1846 the Washington Arsenal turned out a million and a half "pressed musket balls" and a million pressed rifle balls. To improve the cartridge as a whole, the Ordnance Department procured a quarter of a million tinfoil cartridges in 1844, but they did not work well in service (Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance 1846; In Caravaglia and Worman 1984:113).

Regardless of cartridge type, the musket used with it was, by the initiation of the Mexican-American War, of uniformly high quality. But a military musket or any other gun performs no better than the soldier shooting it. In touching on this subject, Bosworth noted the musket now all it ever has been, and in some points much improved...In the hands of one who has studied its properties, [it] will throw a ball with an accuracy that would surprise a large portion of those who are in the habit of using it. What we seriously want is more knowledge among the soldiery, both of guns and gunpowder... (Bosworth 1846:100-102).

Other small arms ordnance experts of the period echoed Bosworth's comment, but it was not until after the Civil War that the U.S. Army as policy required detailed small-arms training (Caravaglia and Worman 1984:113).


One type of smooth bore sometimes used by soldiers was the common civilian-type shotgun. In fact, the U.S. Ordnance Department issued a total of 43 "double barrel guns" in 1839-1840 (Garavaglia and Worman 1984:114); however, these may have gone to Florida for use against the Seminoles rather than to the West. Yet Captain Reginald Melton of the First Dragoons, who was on the Missouri River in the summer of 1842, carried with him a "large Colt's pistol" and "my old Damascus double-barreled shot-gun" (Spirit of the Times Sept. 10, 1842:2). During the Mexican-American War, it was not unusual for officers to carry their personal shotguns into battle since it was a very effective weapon in close-quarter fighting (Garavaglia and Worman 1984:114).

Hall Rifle

Within Taylor's command, Smith's Battalion from the U.S. Fourth Infantry was used as skirmisher/sharpshooters. This battalion was armed with the Model 1819 Hall flintlock rifle (Steven Allie, personal communication 1992). The Hall employed a rectangular breech block, bored from the front with a chamber to accept a .52 caliber round ball and powder charge. Hinged at the rear, the breech block pivoted upward by a finger lever beneath the gun, exposing the mouth of the chamber for loading with either loose powder and ball or paper cartridges. The breech block was then lowered by the finger lever. Between 1819-1833 Hall rifles were flintlocks; between 1833-1844, the last years of their production, they were percussion, in spite of much opposition by hidebound Ordnance officers (Gluckman 1965:173). Also, a great many of the flintlock Halls were converted before the Mexican-American War (Steven Allie, personal communication 1993). Therefore, it is possible some if not all the Hall rifles used at Palo Alto were percussion.

The Hall design was advanced for its day, but the technology to make it genuinely functional and reliable did not exist. By the 1840s, most Hall rifles in service had somewhat worn-out mechanisms, allowing considerable gas and flame to escape at the barrel and breech block junction (Butler 1971:139). Extensive firing increased this to the point where it not only greatly reduced the power and service life of the gun, but also created hazards to the shooter. For these reasons, U.S. troops did not favor the Hall in spite of its great superiority over musket loaders (Gluckman 1965:175).

Hall also manufactured a breech-loading carbine specifically designed for the mounted trooper. The barrel was much shorter, the weight reduced and, on the first two models, the cleaning rod changed into a rod type bayonet with a triangular cross section. The Model 1833 Hall carbine also has the distinction of being the first U.S. firearm with percussion ignition (Gluckman 1965:318-320). Hall's first carbine model was produced as a .69 caliber smoothbore. This probably was due to the conviction that mounted troops generally fought at short range and that the larger caliber smoothbore barrel could handle buck, ball and buckshot loads, thus favoring short-range power and flexibility over long-range accuracy. Later models 1836, 1838, 1840 and 1843 carbines (Figure 21) also included rifled .52 barrels and .64 caliber smoothbore barrels. These later models used release mechanism variations that improved carbine use on horseback (Butler 1971:137).

Figure 21. U.S. Hall-North Model 1843 Percussion Carbine. Adapted from illustrations by André Jandot, in Hicks (1940).

One interesting advantage of all Hall percussion firearms was that the entire breechblock could be removed and carried around as a very crude pistol lethal at close range. Many U.S. soldiers during the Mexican-American War commonly practiced carrying this breechblock in their pockets while on leave, giving themselves added protection in close quarters (Chamberlain 1956; Butler 1971:138).

Weapons of the Texas Volunteers

Taylor's command included Walker's volunteer company of 75 Texas Rangers that functioned as mounted guides; approximately 25 of these volunteers participated at Palo Alto. Firearms used by Texas volunteers during the war varied since it was a requirement each man provide his own weapons. However, in 1840, the Texas government ordered 1500 muskets of the U.S. Model 1822 from Tryon of Philadelphia. This order proved too large for the republic's treasury. Woefully short of funds, the Texans purchased only 860 of the Texas-marked Tryon smoothbores, each marked with the star of Texas. The U.S. government eventually paid for the other 640 (Garavaglia and Worman 1984:76). In 1843, Captain Philip St. George Cooke and his dragoons overtook a large party of Texas freebooters on American soil and among the arms Cooke confiscated were two "Texas muskets". Beside their 47 rifles and two "American dragoon carbines", the Texans were carrying various other types:

15 English flint lock shot guns;
3 Tower [British musket] pieces;
1 Large American flint lock shot gun;
2 Double barreled flint lock, stub and twist, shot guns;
4 Percussion lock, double barrelled, stub and twist, shot guns;
1 American musket;
2 Texas muskets [mentioned above] (Nance 1963:92).

The Texans did not use the muskets strictly out of necessity. In describing the 1841 battle with the Mexicans at Mier, General Thomas Green of the Texas forces noted:

...some of the men [fell into] the water while crossing the river. One of the strongest objections to the rifle is the ease with which it is put out of order, and the difficulty of refixing it; if the powder should get wet, the difficulty of unbreeching is far greater than the drawing of a musket-load (Duval 1892:41-42).

The Texans' most desirable weapons were Colt's Paterson Arms pistols and carbines, featuring the innovative revolving cylinder mechanism, and the Model 1841 percussion rifle. The latter weapon, later termed the "Mississippi Rifle" due to its valuable service at the 1847 battle of Buena Vista, was used primarily by the Mississippi Volunteers during the Mexican-American War. During the 1840s, these rifles were manufactured by both the military and private contractors but none are known to have been issued to Taylor's troops (Butler 1971:82-83). There is debate whether or not the Texas republic purchased the Model 1841 for its army (Kevin Young, personal communication 1993); however, several of his Texan volunteer possibly had this firearm as their personal weapon.

Other firearms used on the Texas frontier include: the Jenks .64 caliber breech loading flintlock rifle; Jenks .54 caliber flintlock carbine; a variety of shotguns in 10 and 12 gauge; "Kentucky" flintlock rifles; and a variety of captured Mexican firearms, possibly including the India Pattern musket. Taylor may have authorized issuance of the above-described U.S. Army muskets, carbines and pistols to inadequately armed Texans.

Colt's Paterson pistols were used experimentally during the Seminole War in the early 1840s; veterans of that war were impressed with them. Consequently, General Taylor, in 1845, made an urgent request for the purchase of 150 Colt pistols and carbines to equip some of his troops. At least a portion of this requisition reached the army depot at Port Isabel two weeks before Palo Alto (Butler 1971:201). Revolvers were rare and valuable; therefore, 32 of these weapons, perhaps totaling the entire shipment, were issued to those most familiar with them, Walker's Company, much to the chagrin of Taylor's regular officers who apparently coveted revolvers as much for their prestige as for their firepower (Barton 1970:11-12). Since 1839, the Texas Navy had been armed with Colt revolvers and, in 1844, the Texas Rangers had them as well (Kevin young, personal communication 1993). Several models were in Texas service by 1846, in both .31 and .40 calibers. Cylinders for pistols had five chambers; carbine cylinders had 8 or 10 chambers (Koury 1973:43). The depot officer at Port Isabel issued the 32 Colt pistols and carbines to Walker's Company on April 20, 1846. Eight days later 13 of Walker's men in their encampment were surprised by Mexican guerrillas, killing or capturing most of the Texans. As a result of this skirmish, the Mexicans obtained 12 Colt pistols, 4 Colt carbines and 3 Hall rifles as well as boxes of percussion caps and cartridges (Nichols 1963:59).

The Jenks breechloading firearms were far superior in design and performance compared with the Hall breechloaders issued to U.S. troops. Nevertheless, just 100 Jenks carbines and rifles were procured by the military in 1839 for limited trial use; only the inferior Hall breechloader models were issued to U.S. troops during the Mexican-American War despite strong recommendations to the contrary by Army ballistics experts (Butler 1971:141-146).

Edged Weapons


Combining the offensive firepower of the musket with the defensive qualities of the pike, bayonets were considered indispensable by both armies. Santa Anna, in his General Orders for the Mexican attack on the Alamo in 1836, stated that "all armaments will be in good condition—especially the bayonets" (Hefter et al. 1958:33). A few months before Palo Alto, one Mexican general referred to the U.S. soldiers in Texas as "those adventurers [who] cannot withstand the bayonet charge of our foot [soldiers]..." (Washington Globe, 15 October 1845). On the day before the battle at Palo Alto, General Taylor reminded his infantry "their main dependence must be in the bayonet" (Wilcox 1892:51). So important did the U.S. army consider the bayonet, that official Ordnance returns sometimes divided serviceable muskets into two categories: "Muskets complete" and "Muskets without bayonets" (Hicks 1940:56).

To avoid the heavy casualties of a prolonged firefight, many tacticians advocated the immediate shock value of the bayonet charge. But charging an unshaken body of troops armed with muskets demanded high discipline; therefore, most bayonet charges were on enemies with low morale. In such a situation, the sight of a yelling mass of men advancing with level bayonets would be sufficient to turn them to rout. Often it was the fear of the bayonet, not the bayonet itself, that decided the battles of this period (Haythornthwaite 1979:27).

The India Pattern musket bayonet consisted of a triangular sectioned, 15 inch-long blade that was attached to a cylindrical socket, allowing for attachment to the mouth of the musket barrel. The bayonet was held in place by a right-angled slot passing over the foresight of the musket. Apparently, this was an insecure method since British soldiers used string and wire to prevent their India Pattern bayonets from being wrenched off by the enemy (Haythornthwaite 1979:26).

The bayonet for the Baker rifle was designed so that it could also be used as a sword. The flat blade was 23 in long, with one cutting edge. The brass hilt had a regular sword guard type, shaped like a "D", with a groove and catch in the side of the handle for attaching it to the rifle. The blade of the bayonet, positioned flat against the axis of the bore, had a tendency to catch the force of the explosion on the cross guard and on the flat of the blade, causing the rifle to whip to the right when fired. Only a few shots loosened the bayonet; after several firings the bayonet was either badly bent or completely broken off. The bayonet had a relatively heavy weight of 2 lbs, which made the rifle difficult to hold steady (Meuse 1965:13).

The bayonets for U.S. Models 1816/1822 and 1835 muskets were triangular sectioned, with a 15 inch blade attached to a cylindrical socket. Unlike the India Pattern bayonet, the U.S. Model 1835 bayonet had a clamping band that prevented slippage. Also, one bayonet could fit any other musket of the same model because of the U.S. method of manufacturing interchangeable parts for firearms (Allie 1991:4). However, a bayonet made for one musket model could not fit onto the barrel of a different model (Stephen Allie, personal communication 1992). Considering the importance General Taylor gave to the bayonet, the interchangeable parts limitation may have encouraged greater musket model uniformity within his command.

The Lance

Mexican light cavalry units used this weapon. There are no known accounts of U.S. Dragoons using the lance during the Mexican-American War; however, at least two squadrons of the Second Dragoons were trained as lancers while stationed at Fort Jesup, Louisiana, during the early 1840s (Rodenbough 1875:84). Mexican lances were 9 ft long including point and socket. The point had the form of a knife 8-1/4 in long with three or four cutting edges separated by concave bayonet-like gutters, a metal crosspiece at the lower end followed by a tube, and two iron straps 3 ft long to screw on to the shaft as added reinforcement to protect against breakage from impact. The shaft was 1-1/2 in thick. Under the crosspiece of the blade hung a two-pointed pennant showing regimental colors; it functioned both as an ornament and to scare enemy horses by fluttering in front of their eyes (Hefter et al. 1958:56). Mounted irregulars usually had lances of cruder design and quality (Stephen Allie, personal communication 1993). The lance was valued for its shock value, similar to that of a bayonet charge, and was especially useful for scouting and pursuit. A lancer, however, was defenseless once the lance point was deflected (Haythornthwaite 1979:52).


Swords, like pistols, were intended primarily for use by officers, noncommissioned officers and mounted troops of both armies. It is possible that regular troops in Mexican line regiments also were armed with infantry swords of French design, the sword called a briquet. Some swords were merely decorative or badges of office, but most were designed to be not only pleasing to the eye but functional as well. The type of sword pattern a Mexican officer might adopt was left more or less to his discretion. If following European custom, a Mexican infantry officer could have armed himself with either the straight-bladed sword or the curved-bladed sabre. Special units, such as artillery, regimental bands and sappers, were issued special sword patterns as an identifier; noncommissioned officers also had distinctive sword patterns. All cavalrymen of the period traditionally used the sabre, its curved blade most appropriate for the mounted slashing-and-stabbing attack. Likely, regulation issue swords and sabres derived in large part from British Army surplus stocks as well as from armories whose contents dated to the Spanish Colonial period. Each enlisted man of the Mexican Army usually carried his nonissue belt knife. Although a defensive weapon, it usually functioned as a tool for camp chores (Nesmith 1986:68).

In 1840, the U.S. armed forces adopted several new sword patterns, primarily copied from French and other European swords. Hickox (1984:6) suggests the need for new-pattern edged weapons was possibly inspired by the 1836-1842 Florida Seminole War although, at the time, there was an attempt to re-equip the armed forces after the European fashion. During the early 1840s, the U.S. Army adopted new swords for noncommissioned officers, musicians and infantry, and sabres for the dragoons. However, Taylor's command was partially equipped with previous models of edged weapons used in the Seminole War and earlier (Hickox 1984:iii). Specifically, military historian Stephen Allie (personal communication 1993) notes the Model 1833 Dragoon sabre was still issued during the Mexican-American War. The heavier Model 1840 Dragoon sabre, nicknamed "Old Wrist Breaker" (Elting 1977:124) was initially imported from Prussia. Not until 1845 were they produced domestically in large quantities. The Dragoon enlisted man's sabre had a slightly curved, single-edged blade and a brass half-basket guard and pommel. The Model 1832 Foot Artillery sword was a short, heavy arm with a straight, 19 in blade with grooves, called "fullers". The hilt was cast brass with a fish scale pattern grip, and the pommel featured an American eagle and shield. Overall, the sword was reminiscent of the ancient Roman short sword (Hickox 1984:15).

Infantry and artillery noncommissioned officers were issued swords with a straight, single-edge blade and a brass pommel and leather-covered wooden grip. Since commissioned officers had to buy their own edged weapons, they were allowed some latitude, expressing personal preferences in styles and decorations. However, infantry, artillery and staff officers usually carried the regulation Model 1840 sword (Elting 1977:124).

Cannon and Cannoneers

Although both the United States and Mexico had their own gun drill and specified numbers of gun crew members, the method of "serving" the gun was reasonably standard and usually involved five specialist crewmen, although in action some of their duties could be combined. Since the late eighteenth century, prepared cartridges had replaced the previous use of loose powder. A further development was fixed ammunition, in which the projectile had a wooden sabot or "shoe" that rested upon the powder of the cartridge. The following is from Haythornthwaite (1990:82-83):

After unlimbering, the gun was aimed by the senior gunner. Direction of shot was achieved by "traversing", that is, maneuvering the gun trail by means of handspikes and brute force. The barrel was then aligned using a device termed a "tangent sight". Once the gun was aimed, the second specialist crewman or "spongeman" swabbed out the barrel with a wet "sponge", a rammer with a fleece nailed on to the head, to clear the barrel of any smoldering residue from the previous shot which might prematurely ignite the next charge.

While the sponging was in progress the third crewman or "ventsman" put his thumb, encased in a leather stall, over the vent at the sealed end of the barrel to prevent the ingress of air which might cause smoldering material to blow back at the spongeman. The fourth gunner or "loader" then inserted the cartridge and projectile into the muzzle of the gun, whereupon the spongeman reversed his sponge and pushed the charge down the barrel with the rammer end of the sponge. The ventsman then inserted a "pricker" down the vent to puncture the cartridge, and then filled the vent with either a length of "quick match" (cotton soaked in saltpeter and spirits of wine) or, more common after 1800, with a quill or paper tube of mealed powder, to establish contact between the charge in the barrel and spark which would ignite it.

The fifth member of the crew, the "firer", then waited until the others had stepped clear before igniting the charge in the vent with a "linstock" or "portfire", a length of burning slow-match in a holder. This communicated with the gunpowder in the barrel which exploded with a loud roar, sending the projectile on its course and causing the gun to recoil sharply. The whole process was then begun anew, as the gun had to be re-aligned after every shot unless the enemy were at virtually point-blank range...

Rate of fire depended upon the time needed to re-lay the gun after recoil. Twelve to fourteen shots per minute could be achieved [according to historian Neil Mangum, this rate is highly doubtful] but this represented a waste of ammunition; in practice two round shot or three canister per minute was about the average. Gunners were careful not to waste ammunition and to fire generally only when the target was visible and not obscured by smoke.

Field battery ammunition used by both the United States and Mexico during this war consisted of four general types for all guns: round shot, shell, spherical case or shrapnel, and canister (Figure 22). Cannon ordnance is a significant artifact category on the Palo Alto battlefield; therefore, it warrants detailed discussion.

Figure 22. Ammunition for smoothbore artillery. a: stand of grapeshot; b: shell, complete fixed round; c: wooden cartridge block for separate cartridge; d: round shot, tied to sabot with tin straps; e: canister round, fixed; f: cut-away view of shell round; g: sabot for shell round and spherical case; h: cut-away view of spherical case round, showing lead ball shrapnel, wooden fuse plus and burster; i: cut-away view of canister, showing iron shot; j: tapered sabot for howitzer round (powder chamber in howitzers was smaller than the bore). Adapted from Coggins (1962:67).

Round Shot

Solid round shot was just what the name implies—a solid ball of cast iron. Many considered it to be one of the most useful projectiles during the whole era of smoothbore ordnance. Round shot performed two tasks: 1) it was well suited for destroying walls, carriages, wagons, etc.; and 2) they also were highly destructive when used against men or horses, particularly when the target was in the open and en masse, or could be taken alongside a line of men, termed "at enfilade".

To produce its greatest effect, the round shot had to arrive at its target with a high remaining velocity, and the flatter its trajectory, the more devastating was its impact on either animate or inanimate targets. It was, therefore, normally fired from guns rather than from horwitzers or mortars. Round shot was effective over a considerable range, stretching from well before to some distance after the point of impact with the ground, or "first graze" (a, Figure 23).

Figure 23. a) Trajectory of a solid round from a 6-pounder fieldpiece at 0° elevation; b) Problems in firing spherical cast shot. 1: trajectory correct, fuse too short; 2: trajectory correct, fuse correct; 3: fuse correct, trajectory incorrect. Adapted from Haythornthwaite (1979: 65).

Although the muzzle velocities of all smoothbore cannon were similar, the heavier the shot the greater its velocity upon reaching its target. At 1,000 yd from its point of departure an 18-pounder shot velocity is 840 feet per second (256 mps); for a 6-pounder, 450 fps (135 mps); therefore, the heavier the shot the greater its effect. As a result, an 18-pounder shot was three times more effective than a shot from a 6-pounder (Haythornthwaite 1979:59).

A round shot when fired fell steadily from the height of the muzzle until its first graze, about 300 yd for a 6-pounder at 0 degrees elevation; it then bounced or "ricocheted" until it hit the ground again (about 600 yd for a 6 pounder) at the "second graze"; it then usually bounced once more (about 50 yd for a 6-pounder). As the entire trajectory was below man height, anything in its path would be struck down. As velocity and accuracy decreased with bounces, it was ideal to have the first graze on the target, which could be achieved by elevating the barrel. Ricochet was considerably reduced in soft ground; such surface conditions may have existed at Palo Alto due to soggy soil at the time of the battle.

Round shot was much more destructive if fired at enfilade rather than through it (Haythornthwaite 1979:59); Captain Duncan noted in his official battle report that, in addition to shell and spherical case, he also used round shot in his enfilade of the Mexican line. Duncan further noted all three types of rounds he used were " well directed, that the whole [Mexican] advance, horse and foot, fell back in disorder to the bushes" (Duncan 1846:314).

Round shot were unpleasant things to meet in battle. They sliced men and horses in half, and were all the more daunting as they could be seen in flight by the recipient, who was often unable to evade them in the days of close-order fighting. There is a story of 42 Russian Grenadiers having been mown down by one round shot...and one group of 14 or 15 men was observed who had all been killed by the same round shot while standing precisely in the line of fire (Hughes 1969:51).

Round shot, and indeed all projectiles fired from smoothbore ordnance except mortars, were provided with a wooden bottom or "sabot". This was a circular plate of hardwood that fitted the bore, and was fastened to the projectile with tin straps. The sabot was largely destroyed as it passed from the bore, but it prevented the shot from rolling or turning over, and was of some value in helping to seal the gases behind it.


Explosive shell, or "shell" as it was usually called, was the forerunner of the modern and far more potent high explosive round. It was a hollow projectile, with the cavity filled to about 90 percent capacity with black powder. The charge was ignited by means of a time fuse ignited by the flame of the burning propellant charge. Shells were most effective when fired from howitzers, siege cannon and mortars since the stresses placed on the shell were less with those ordnance than lighter field pieces. Due to the inadequacies of black powder as a military explosive, fragmentation of the shell for a 6-pounder was limited to only four or five pieces, with correspondingly more fragments from an 18-pounder shell. However, for all of its ballistic weaknesses, the shell round had definite psychological advantages over solid shot; it could unnerve men and horses by its noise and the flash of its explosion as well as by its casualty-producing effects (Naisawald 1960:537-538).

Spherical Case

Spherical case or "case shot" was a form of projectile invented by British General Henry Shrapnel in 1784. It was sometimes referred to by its inventor's name, but more frequently termed case shot or case. It was hollow like a shell except the walls were not as thick, for example, a half-inch for a fieldpiece round. The cavity contained a number of lead musket balls held in a mass of melted sulphur or resin, a bursting charge of one ounce of powder, and a fuse to cause it to burst at the correct point on the trajectory (Hughes 1969:56). The 1849 Ordnance Manual specified 38 lead balls in a 6-pounder spherical case shot; an 18-pounder spherical case shot contained 120 (Mordecai 1849; Gibbon 1860: Appendix p. 35; Bartleson 1973:5).

Case shot was primarily an anti-personnel round and used at ranges beyond the maximum effective range of canister which was 300 yd for 6-pounders firing canister. The manuals of the day stated case shot should be fused to explode 50-75 yd in front of the target and 5-7 yd above it (Naisawald 1960:539) (b, Figure 23). The resulting wide pattern of explosion (for example, 6-pounder shrapnel had a spread of about 250 yd at point-blank range), compensated somewhat for miscalculation of the fuse length. Those unfortunates located directly below the explosion were killed or terribly wounded by high velocity lead balls and iron shell fragments. However, since shrapnel velocity dropped rapidly, the shrapnel thrown the furthest from the explosion might do little more than bruise (Haythornthwaite 1979:60).

Although case shot is much less accurate than round shot, the resounding noise and confusion it made on explosion was at least as significant as any real damage. Case was most effective against cavalry in column by frightening the horses as well as destroying the morale of the men (Gibbon 1860:387). One contemporary account of Wellington's Peninsular campaign stated "...a single shell had been known to kill every horse in a gun team even at long range; and it was a really destructive projectile. The French hated it because they could not reply to it..." (Hughes 1969:56).

The fuse during the Mexican-American War for common shell and spherical case was made of paper, consisting of a conical paper case containing the powder composition, whose rate of burning was shown by the color variant of the paper case. The gunner, therefore, estimated the distance of the enemy from his position, then chose the appropriate fuse for the projectile to correctly explode just over their heads (Gibbon 1860:278; Steven Allie, personal communication 1993).


The effect of a solid projectile is naturally confined to a narrow line of fire, running from the gun to the target. When engaging troops with round shot, the artillery, therefore, always sought to fire it at enfilade. It was not very effective against troops assaulting a position frontally and, to deal with that situation, the canister shot was developed. As the name implies, this projectile consisted of an elongated tin container the same size as the bore; inside the container were cast iron balls packed in sawdust. By the time of the Mexican-American War, U.S. Ordnance specified 27 iron shot in 6-, 12- and 18-pounder canisters. However, shot diameters for the three canister sizes were different: for the 6-pounder canister, shot diameter was 1.15 in; for the 12-pounders, 1.07 in; and for the 18-pounder, 1.68 in (Mordecai 1841).

The canister held its contents together in the passage up the bore and prevented too wide a spread at the muzzle. Upon explosion of the propellant, inertia forced the balls to shatter the face of the container as it hurtled down the tube, producing a swathe of balls over the whole frontage of the gun position from which it was fired. This was most effective, but only up to its maximum range (for example, about 300 yd for 6-pounder guns), since the remaining velocity of the balls was not high enough to do damage beyond that distance. Canister shot was, therefore, primarily a defensive weapon, although there are many recorded instances of its being used on the attack, such as by Duncan's battery at Palo Alto. Canister was a fearsome charge for infantry to face; closely packed lines of charging men were particularly vulnerable to the shotgun-like blasts of such rounds.

Two canisters could be, and often were, fired simultaneously from one gun or howitzer during the last stages of an enemy attack. There is a famous quote of General Zachary Taylor at Buena Vista when he supposedly gave the order: "A little more grape, Captain Bragg!" Alfred Pleasanton, who was there and overheard the actual conversation, reported the order went something like this:

"What are you firing, Captain?"
"Canister, sir"
"Double or single?"
"Single, sir".
"Then double it and give 'em Hell!" (Peterson 1969:107)


Grapeshot is mentioned by many contemporary writers, usually confused with canister. Genuine "grape" consisted of nine, 2.4 inch diameter iron balls packed around an iron column attached to a circular iron base, the whole covered with painted canvas tied with string, giving the appearance of quilting. Since 1841, U.S. Ordnance reserved grapeshot for naval and coastal cannon because it was not as efficient against personnel as canister, and because of damage it caused to the bore of brass guns (Peterson 1969:107; Haythornthwaite 1979:61). However, since U.S. 18-pounders were rated as both siege and coastal guns, grapeshot may have been present within the 18-pounder munitions chests at Palo Alto. The term "grape shot" was informally used by non-artillerists during the muzzle-loading period to describe the smaller shot within the canister and spherical case rounds. One should not presume battlefield accounts are describing grape shot as defined by artillery manuals of this period. Of course, since one's enemy presumably adhered to a different manual, U.S. infantrymen may have experienced, on occasion, "the real thing".

U.S. Artillery

U.S. artillery dominated Palo Alto, and its dominance continued throughout the Mexican-American War. At the outset of the war, the U.S. had an elite corps of artillery unexcelled anywhere in the world. This was achieved through a program that developed a whole new family of artillery pieces of the most advanced design. The artillery, in turn, was commanded by a new generation of professional officers provided by West Point Military Academy and the Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Virginia (Dillon 1975:ix).

Undoubtedly, the light or "flying" artillery batteries at Palo Alto ensured victory for Taylor's small command. Large credit is due to Major Samuel Ringgold who, years earlier, developed the tactic of rapidly deploying the new light artillery in support of infantry. Also, the unorthodox use of two 18-pounders in the forefront of battle, albeit slowly pulled by teams of oxen, gave unusually heavy support by decimating Mexican infantry and cavalry formations.

U.S. artillery in 1845 was organized into four regiments with 10 companies in each regiment, serving as separate companies occupying widely scattered posts. Company strength varied, as did training and equipment, but disciplined career soldiers filled their ranks. A select few trained with the new light 6-pounder gun companies known as "flying artillery" (Grant 1885:44). These served apart from the rest of their arm, a fact emphasized by the way in which they were routinely identified in reports and orders by their commanders' names instead of their regimental and company designations (Elting 1977:122).

Field service cannon consisted of: the gun, long-barreled cannon firing projectiles at high velocities in a relatively flat trajectory; the howitzer, a moderately short-barreled, light-weight cannon that lobbed a heavy projectile into an arcing trajectory for a moderate distance; and the mortar, a short barreled cannon firing projectiles for short distances in a very steep trajectory (Dillon 1975:12). Mortars were not used at Palo Alto by either army; however, they were present at Fort Texas, and used by Mexican forces during their siege of the fort.

By 1845, the U.S. Army possessed various types and calibers of the newly developed field, siege and garrison artillery; seacoast artillery was not included in the new family of weapons, but were part of the overall weapons system (U.S. Ordnance Dept. 1841:3-5). Of these varieties, only the 6-, 12-and 18-pounder cannon are described below since they were present at Palo Alto:

The 6-pounder gun served as the basic fieldpiece of the U.S. Army. A bronze, smoothbore piece with a maximum range of 1500 yd, the tube weighed 880 lbs and had an outside tube length of 65.6 in. The gun rode a standard two-wheel carriage with a box trail; it featured excellent maneuverability and a rapid fire capability (a, Figure 24).

Figure 24. U.S. fieldpiece. a: box-trail style gun carriage with caisson; b: 12-pounder field howitzer tube; c: 6-pounder gun tube. Adapted from Coggins (1962:66, 69).

The 12-pounder howitzer served as the primary field howitzer of the U.S. Army. A bronze, smoothbore piece with a maximum range of approximately 1,000 yd. the tube weighed 785 lbs and had an outside tube length of 58.6 in. The howitzer rode the same standard type of carriage as the 6-pounder gun, and had the same mobility with a corresponding firepower.

The 18-pounder guns within Taylor's train officially were intended for duty as siege, garrison and coastal artillery pieces. These cast iron pieces weighed 4,750 lbs. Normally following behind a battle force in a siege train, 18-pounders had limited mobility and were hauled by draft oxen or mules with civilian drivers (Mordecai 1849:4-6).

Ammunition supply for the artillery presented a logistical problem. Bulk quantities of this very heavy item followed behind the army in slow and unwieldy trains. On the battlefield, a caisson accompanied each field cannon, and limbers pulled by six-horse teams drew both the cannon and caisson. Each limber carried one ammunition chest, and each caisson carried two such chests. Prescribed loads, set according to the type of piece, filled the 600-pound ammunition chests (Dillon 1975:12).

In addition, there was a traveling forge wagon for field repairs and horseshoeing, and a battery wagon for extra supplies. In action these support wagons stayed well to the rear; only the limbers and caissons moved to the front (Peterson 1969:91). Except for the drivers, most gun crews walked behind the drawn equipment to avoid overworking the horses, but they mounted and rode the limbers and caissons when rapid movement was needed. The exception, by most accounts, was Ringgold's Company C, Third Artillery; it was a true "flying" or horse artillery in that each man had his own mount (Elting 1977:122). The other light companies with fewer horses were "mounted artillery" (Dillon 1975:19).

Mexican Artillery

The artillery branch of the Mexican Army also was officered by trained professionals. Many of its senior officers were foreign-born veterans of European wars, and most of its younger officers trained at Chapultepec Military College. At Chapultepec, they mastered the theoretical knowledge of artillery and perfected their gunnery.

Mexican cannon tubes were of mixed caliber, often old and obsolete, sometimes defective from long wear, thus potentially dangerous to operate. Gun carriages were mostly of eighteenth century-vintage Gribeauval design which, though perfectly serviceable, was heavier and less maneuverable than the "box trail" carriage design newly adopted for U.S. field artillery (Peterson 1969:88-90) (a, Figure 25). Gunpowder for cannon as well as muskets generally was of inferior quality, often propelling projectiles far short of their intended targets (Thompson 1846:173). Another weakness of Mexican field artillery was their poor logistical support and insufficient mobility. To move ammunition and ordnance, civilian carts and drivers were hired as needed. As the drivers were unacquainted with artillery drill and tactics, battery evolutions were awkward at best and moved slowly, if at all, during an engagement (Smith 1919:156).

Figure 25. Mexican fieldpiece. a: Gribeauval style gun carriage; b: 8-pounder Gribeauval gun tube; c: 4-pounder Gribeauval gun tube. Adapted from Peterson (1969:61), and Haythornthwaite (1979:58).

At Palo Alto, the Mexican army used at least 12 cannon of the 4- and 8-pounder sizes, and grouped into batteries. They fired both iron and copper solid shot and anti-personnel rounds, consisting of small copper ball shot encased in cloth, or in rawhide shrunk tightly around its contents. The Mexican use of copper shot was a curiosity to U.S. soldiers and war correspondents. The gullible believed copper, supposedly unlike iron and lead, could poison the wounded victim; why else would Mexicans use a metal that, in their experience, was more costly than iron? In fact, copper was an abundant by-product of Mexican silver mines. One observant U.S. soldier noted a predominance of copper shot at battles fought within the intensively mined Mexican interior. In contrast, all of the Mexican shot used within or near the coast was imported and thus made of iron (Furber 1848:199-200). In light of this, use of both iron and copper shot by the Mexican army at Palo Alto conceivably reflected the places of origin of their various military units.

Uniforms, Accouterments and the Soldier

U.S. Army

The Regulations For the Army of the United States (U.S. War Dept. 1841), are of little value in describing what the regular soldier wore during the Mexican-American War. Instead, details of such dress come from a variety of War Department publications, archives, and the few photographs and paintings by contemporary artists who followed the armies. Unless otherwise noted, the following descriptions are from Elting (1977:120-126):

For fatigue wear in ordinary weather, and for all services in 1846-47, infantry enlisted men were issued a jacket and trousers of sky blue, lightweight coarse wool called "kersey". The infantry jacket had 15 small white metal or pewter buttons decorated with the American eagle; uniform buttons for artillerymen and dragoons were made of brass with the American eagle design. Except for rank identifications, sergeants wore the same uniform. A dark blue cloth forage cap went with this uniform, used by all branches and manufactured in several styles. No insignia or colored bands are known on infantry forage caps (Stephen Allie, personal communication 1993).

Infantrymen wore a white buff leather belt over the left shoulder on which was secured at the center of the chest a lead-filled, brass circular plate showing the American eagle. Another white belt was around the waist, secured with a brass plate with raised "U.S." lettering. A black leather bayonet scabbard was attached to the waist belt either by a short sliding sheath called a "frog" or on a shoulder belt; certain noncommissioned officers wore a double frog on a shoulder belt for a sword scabbard. Knapsacks were non-rigid and made of canvas or India rubber, painted black, and marked with the regimental number in white (Elting 1977:120).

Both officers and men carried white cotton haversacks. Their flaps were marked in black to show the wearer's regiment, company and, for enlisted men, their number. In these, the soldiers carried their food. Allie (1991:5) describes cylindrical issue canteens made of tin or wood, an India rubber canteen with a brass spout, and canteens made of sewn leather. All of the canteens held from 2.5 to 3 Pt. Mexican gourds were preferred to U.S. issue canteens because they kept water cool on the hottest days (Elting 1977:122).

The cartridge box, suspended on the shoulder belt, was black leather and fitted to carry 40 paper cartridges in tin dividers. On its flap was a round, lead-filled brass plate with a raised eagle. The waist belt was an oval brass plate, also lead-filled, with raised "U.S." lettering. Percussion caps were carried, if carried at all, in special cap pockets on the jackets or in cap pouches. Each soldier, if armed with a flintlock, wore a small brush and a wire vent pricker suspended from a button on the front of his jacket or his cartridge box belt. Infantry line officers in campaign uniform wore a dark blue single-breasted frock coat, sky blue trousers and the same forage cap as the men. While on duty with the troops, a crimson silk sash was always worn. Shoulder straps edged in silver lace indicated rank, and all officers' buttons were silver plated (Elting 1977:120; Kevin Young, personal communication 1993).

Because of their elite status, each of the light artillery companies had special issue uniforms, at least at the beginning of the war. For example, Ringgold's Company C was dressed in dark blue "coatee", a short, close fitting coat with tails, red facings and shoulder knots, and yellow lace and buttons; sky blue trousers worn over short boots; and the "Ringgold cap", which was a shako with red cords and a horsehair plume. By July 1846, these uniforms were wearing out and were replaced with less flashy, general issue uniforms (Elting 1977:122).

The field uniform for dragoons consisted of a dark blue woolen jacket, blue-grey woolen trousers, and a visored, dark blue wool forage cap. Yellow braid decorated the collar and shoulder straps. Officers wore a deep orange sash. Just before the Mexican-American War, both dragoon regiments were reequipped with the new Ringgold saddle. Pistols were carried in covered holsters on either side of the pommel; extra clothing in a valise behind the cantle; and spare horseshoes, nails and grooming equipment in small pouches that hung from the cantle. The rolled "great-coat" was fastened over the pommel.

The U.S. Soldier

Except for a few Texas volunteers, Taylor's forces at Palo Alto were Regular Army professionals. Army muster rolls during the Mexican-American War show the average U.S. regular was approximately 25 years old upon enlistment (McCaffrey 1992:29), and usually from one of the northern Atlantic cities or adjacent interior towns. Recruiters went where they hoped to find prospects. Although the ideal recruit might be a sturdy young farmer, they took what they could find, namely laborers and newly arrived immigrants, who concentrated in northern cities (Coffman 1986:139).

Approximately 40 percent of regular soldiers were foreign-born, many of whom had yet to become culturally assimilated. One captain, complaining that fully one-half of his company did not understand English, observed "...they never could comprehend the difference between the command to 'charge' their muskets, 'charge' the enemy, and 'charge' the United States for services rendered" (Coffman 1986:141). Men enlisted for a variety of reasons: some to escape entangling domestic problems; some their creditors; others saw the Army as a means of existence until the period's economic recession ended; and many immigrants joined to learn the language and customs of their new country. The anti-foreign riots sweeping U.S. cities during this period forced many of them into the Army for their own safety (Katcher 1976:4). A study of soldiers' letters, journals and reminiscences by one historian reveals desires for personal glory and adventure, as well as a need to avenge deaths incurred during the Texas Revolution and subsequent hostilities between the Republics of Texas and Mexico. There also were those who entered the service with the sole purpose of making the government pay for their transportation to the frontier. Once there, these men deserted (McCaffrey 1992:30, 31).

Usually, however, desertion was due to the rigors of war and camplife. During the entire Mexican-American War, more than 14 percent of the regulars (2,850 men) deserted, many of whom embraced the Mexican cause (Irey 1972:296). Deserters, if captured, were usually hanged, although those who deserted before the outbreak of hostilities were lashed on the back 50 times and branded on the cheek bone near the eye with a "D" (Chamberlain 1956:226). Probably the main reason why soldiers deserted was the harsh treatment meted out "at the hand of young snot-nose and tyrannical officers...", and "ignorant and brutal officers..." To immigrants who had recently left the British Army, it seemed incredible that "...conceited Yankee subalterns should be free to strike enlisted men at the slightest provocation and inflict painful, humiliating punishments" (Lewis 1950:187-188).

Regular soldiers, unlike most of the volunteers who arrived after Palo Alto, were well-drilled and relatively well-disciplined. When possible, most career officers adequately attended to the welfare of their men. As a result, the rate of fatalities due to diseases caused by unsanitary conditions was significantly lower for regular soldiers than for later volunteers (Smith and Judah 1968:272, 289-290).

At the time of the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, most of the senior officers assigned to the regiments were absent because of age or illness, some of them incapacitated for years but still holding field-grade positions in a regiment, that is, colonel, lieutenant colonel or major. Nevertheless, veterans of the War of 1812 held key leadership positions: For example, Taylor was 62 years of age; McIntosh, 59; Twiggs, 56; Worth, 52; and Worth's second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel William Belknap, was also 52. None of these commanders attended West Point "...and each was prepared to fight in 1846 as his army had fought in 1812" (Lewis 1950:133). However, also present and in significant numbers were lieutenants, captains and young majors who were products of West Point and years of fighting Indians or serving in some frontier garrison. The pride and determination of these young officers were expressed in letters, diaries and autobiographies. They were resolved to prove the merit of a small professional army in combat against a similarly organized enemy. Furthermore, victory had to be achieved before they could be overwhelmed by volunteers who, they felt, would receive credit for any succeeding victories. Lieutenant Gordon G. Meade was worried they would not get into action fast enough: "We are all anxious to give [the Mexicans] a sound thrashing before the volunteers arrive, for the reputation of the army; for should we be unable to meet them before they come, and then gain a victory, it would be said the volunteers had done it, and without them we were useless..." (Meade 1913:45).

The Mexican Soldier

Authentic pictorial material on the appearance of the Mexican soldier during this period is scant. Unless otherwise noted, Hefter et al. (1958) compiled the following information, largely from printed texts on dress, equipment, armament and accouterment; drawings associated with uniform decrees and contracts were no longer available to the authors. Also, one should realize such uniform decrees specified the ideal. Mexican troops frequently had to be raised by arbitrary methods and organized and equipped in a hurry with insufficient funds. (See Appendix C—Finding a Face: El Soldado Mexicano—for further details.)

Many of the principal organizers and leaders of the Mexican military were former officers of the Spanish Army. Under their influence, the Spanish and British patterns of the Napoleonic Era prevailed in tactics, ordnance, uniform, armament and drill. The result was an Army that was "picturesque but somewhat outmoded" (Hefter et al. 1958:50). The Mexican uniform regulations of 1841 specified distinctive uniforms for regular and light infantry, artillery and cavalry units. Infantry uniforms consisted of a tailcoat with cloth facings in a combination of distinctive colors different for each of the 12 line and 3 light regiments. All standing militia companies shared the same uniform design of blue tailcoat, red collar with embroidered company initials, and white pants.

Varying colors, indicating regiment and rank, were displayed on collars, lapels, cuffs, bars and piping. Uniform regulations specified embroidered regimental numbers on collars and stamped on all buttons, yet none of the Mexican buttons found at Palo Alto during the 1992 and 1993 field season were numbered. Likewise, no numbered Mexican buttons have been recovered to date from Texas Revolutionary sites, and only very few of these have the Mexican snake-and-eagle crest. The latter were probably reserved for officers (Kevin Young, personal communication 1993). A brass "0" (FS 295) was also recovered from the Mexican battle line at Palo Alto, the artifact identified as a portion of a regimental uniform insignia for the Mexican Tenth Infantry. This object possibly was worn on a shako (Samuel Nesmith, personal communication 1993). All ranks in the regular army wore plain white canvas pants in the summer and dark blue wool pants in the winter. Boots, if worn, were sometimes covered by buttoned gaiters.

The active militia regiments had been in the field so long there was virtually no difference between them and the regulars. They were ordered, in 1842, to wear dark blue coats with red collars, cuffs, turnbacks and lapels with yellow piping. Trousers were sky blue with red piping, and the regular army shako was to be worn (Katcher 1976:26). Mexico's northern frontier was defended by companies of presidiales, eight of which were in Texas. The companies in Texas, including those that fought at Palo Alto, wore blue wool coats with low red collars and narrow cuffs. Their trousers were blue and hats black and broad brimmed. Cartridge boxes were plain brown, and their bandoleers had the presidio name embroidered on them (Katcher 1976:27).

The Dress Regulations describe the military headgear of the Mexican-American War in very general terms. Contemporary illustrations show at least 20 different models of shakos, helmets, caps and hats in use. A typical infantryman shako was a visored black leather cylinder at least 7 in high, with a colored pom-pom, silver cord and tricolor cockade. It was fronted by a brass shield stamped with a regimental number, and had a chinstrap of metal scales fastened by a pair of decorative metal pieces. A typical cavalryman headgear was a brass or leather, combed helmet with a long horsetail, and fronted with a silver Mexican eagle. Soft cloth forage or barracks caps were issued to all Army branches and ranks.

Line cavalry wore standard sky blue coatees with scarlet collars, cuffs, piping and epaulets; plain white metal buttons; and the regimental number on collars. Foot artillery were dressed in blue tailcoat and pants, and the collar was crimson with an embroidered exploding bomb. Engineer, sharpshooter, medical, musician and other specialized units each had their own uniform colors and styles, usually with more brass emblems than worn by ordinary enlisted men. All officers of the rank of colonel and below wore the same regimental colors as their units, but they also had fringed and embroidered epaulets, gilded buttons and colored silk sashes; the decorative excesses stipulated for earlier officer uniforms were prohibited by 1841. Generals, however, were allowed such field dress fineries as gold epaulets with heavy bullion fringes, intricate gold and silver collar embroidery and jeweled medals.

Uniform accouterments for the regular infantryman included: a hide or canvas knapsack that held spare clothes, rations, musket flints and the like; a strapped burlap blanket; a crossbelt supporting a 40-round tin cartridge box and scabbard bayonet; and a canteen of either wooden drum or tin style. Gourds were also used as nonregulation canteens in both Mexican and American armies. A cavalryman was issued a belted saddle roll, bandoleer, pistol holsters, cartridge box, canteen, riding gauntlets, and various horse furniture, including a canvas sack with horse grooming accessories.

The above uniforms and accouterments generally were supplied to relatively small, elite corps as they were difficult to supply the entire armed forces. The complaints of General Ciriano Vázquez from Jalapa, written in 1842, were typical of the Mexican Army during the war with the United States which began four years later:

The greater part of the rank-and-file of the 2nd Active Battalion, 7th Regiment, are short of overcoats, blankets or any heavier garment that could serve them as cover on rainy and cold nights or when asleep in their quarters, it being necessary for them to go to sleep dressed, with the result that the only uniform issue they possess is quickly destroyed. To avoid this damage and provide them with an indispensable item that will make their service more bearable...have the kindness to inform His Excellency the President about the great necessity of providing them at least with one coarse frieze blanket each.

Three months later, Vázquez received one canvas uniform per man. This consisted of: a shirt, jacket, stock, trousers and barracks cap. However, he was told it was impossible to obtain the regulation one wool and two canvas uniform sets per soldier (Katcher 1976:23).

The average Mexican enlisted man was an Indian of small build with a height averaging 5 ft 2 in (Hefter et al. 1958:52), who was forcibly impressed into the Mexican Army for a 10 year service. Often the Indian recruit spoke no Spanish and his entire service time usually was spent in an alien region far from home. The ranks also numbered conscripts taken en masse from prisons as well as unmarried men without influence. Some were unlucky enough to have been caught in one of the yearly dragnets while in dance halls, streets and other public places. The desertion rate was understandably heavy. Those who were of mestizo heritage and of proven competence conceivably could become noncommissioned officers, and even reach officer rank (Hefter et al. 1958:60). At Palo Alto, the Mexican army was made up of line regiments, sapper battalions, guard units, presidial companies and auxiliaries; all came from various Mexican states reflecting the diverse cultures, language groups and split loyalties found within nineteenth century Mexico (Hefter et al. 1958:63).

Infantry regulations detailed a variety of relatively complex tactical maneuvers performed to perfection by elite, veteran units. Less was expected from the trooper in the line regiments, who just was drilled to march in simple column formation and dress ranks on the firing line (Thompson 1846:173). Musket drill was a simplified version of contemporary European armies (Hefter et al. 1958:Plate XI; Haythornthwaite 1979:18), and live-round musketry practice was virtually nonexistent. It was once observed that a Mexican soldier's first experience at firing a musket was at his first battle (Thompson 1846:173).

The infantryman had to overload his musket to compensate for the bad gunpowder. To protect himself from the resulting heavy recoil he fired from the hip, thus causing the musket ball to fly on a high trajectory, well over the heads of the enemy ranks (Smith 1919:10). In light of this, it is not surprising Mexican generals placed their faith in the bayonet charge. Despite their poor training, obsolete weaponry and virtually nonexistent logistical support, the Mexican soldier possessed stamina and undeniable bravery. The battle at Palo Alto both tested and amply demonstrated these virtues.


Strategy is that aspect of military science dealing with the planning and directing of projects and campaigns. It involves the mass handling and movement of troops, artillery and equipage for waging war within a theater of operations. Tactics, "the armored fist of strategy", represents the means by which the field commander on the battlefield achieves the goals of the strategy planners. The attack or defense, the maneuvering of soldiers in an advance or withdrawal, patrolling and skirmishing, the commitment of additional troops, are all tactical elements (Darling 1981:9-10).

Mexican and American armies were essentially governed by the linear formation, a tactic used as an integral aspect of European-style warfare since the late seventeenth century. Using this tactic, troops marched to the place of battle in columns consisting of two or more files of men, a maneuver best suited for mobility. Upon reaching the battlefield, troops then maneuvered into a somewhat rigid line formation in ranks three or four men deep. This enabled most, if not all, of a battalion's muskets to fire simultaneously. Innovative modifications to line formation tactics occurred during the Napoleonic Wars; many European countries adopted them as standard practice for their armies. Early nineteenth century line formation tactics developed by victorious England were largely adopted by the United States and Spain and, later, by the Republic of Mexico. Unless otherwise noted, the following information comes from Haythornthwaite (1990:97-102):

Line Formation

Although British regulations strongly recommended the use of a third rank, by around 1800 the use of a two-rank line was almost universal. By forming the line in two ranks, the frontage and resulting firepower of a battalion increased by one-third. However, this also resulted in shrinkage in firepower when gaps caused by casualties were closed by men moving in towards the center of the line. As a result, spaces could appear between battalions or even between companies of a battalion which, if they became too great, could cause a weakness in the battle line.

British tactics required delivery of musket fire in several ways: either a massed volley by the entire battalion (not popular as the line would be undefended until all had reloaded); by ranks, in which case one rank would be loaded at all times; or by subdivision, either company or platoons, so that musketry would be issuing from some part of the line at all times. This sometimes was termed a "rolling volley", as alternate companies or platoons fired in succession from one end of the line to the other.

Loading and firing was done in precision by word of command. With bayonets fixed, the attacking force advanced with some form of musical assistance—fifes, drums and bugles in a U.S. army, large regimental brass bands "beside a horde of trumpeters and buglers" (Deas 1870:103) in a Mexican army. If necessary, noncommissioned officers kept the alignment of ranks straight or evenly spaced. Due to the inaccuracy of the smoothbore musket, the attackers were relatively casualty free until they reached a point 80-100 yd from their objective. The Revolutionary War officer who reportedly exhorted his men, "Don't fire until you see the whites of his eyes," was not making a statement for posterity but giving a necessary order.

Now came the first crucial test of the foot soldier: the ability to hold his fire for the next fifteen seconds or so needed to negotiate the advance to a point fifty yards or less from the enemy. Here at point-blank range, the order to fire was given. Then, as one synchronized machine and without breaking stride, the men reloaded and delivered a second volley, and if the distance allowed, a third. At the moment of impact, as it closed in upon its opponent, the attacking force turned to the bayonet (Darling 1981:11).

Flanks of the outermost ends of a line were most vulnerable against an attack delivered at right angles to the line. As a result, Great Britain, as well as the United States, Spain and Mexico, adopted three basic formations to secure the flanks: a company at the extreme end of the line could be "refused", that is, remaining in line but thrown back at an angle to cover the flank; a company could be deployed in column on the flank; or, in the case of a long battle line, an entire battalion could be arrayed in column-ready formation to form a square in the event of a threat by cavalry. In this kind of warfare, rate of fire became more valuable than accuracy. Speed and precision had to be combined with discipline, needed factors for the soldiers to continue loading and firing "...among the heaped-up bodies of their motionless or writhing comrades" (Montrose 1960:336).

Column Formation

As required by British tacticians, an army arrived on the battlefield in groups of battalions (during this period one battalion consisted of approximately 400-600 men) in march formation, then formed into line of battle or columns of attack. There was a difference in formation between a column in march and a column of attack: a column in march had a frontage of perhaps six or eight men and an immense length; in attack, a column had a frontage usually greater in length than depth. Although mobile, the only muskets a column in attack could use were those of the first two or three ranks of the leading company. With so few muskets effective at the head of a column, the attacking battalion obviously was at a disadvantage against a line formation that could bring all its muskets to bear simultaneously. Thus, if the defending line remained steady and unshaken, its concentrated musketry directed against the head of the attacking column virtually could destroy the leading ranks of the latter. Also, since its depth and mass was greater than the ranks in line formation, an attack column was especially vulnerable to artillery fire.


A skirmish line of men, preferably armed with rifles, deployed in front of the main body to protect the initial column deployment. They delivered their fire not in volley but "at will" and aimed at specific targets, such as officers and artillerymen. This type of fire could cause disorder in the ranks of the enemy line, which was largely powerless to reply. Musketry delivered in volley at skirmishers would cause few casualties since the targets were not in line formation, and artillery fire was less effective against skirmishers because they were not tightly packed as a line or column. Another function of skirmishers was to screen the advance of attack columns behind them. If correctly done, the attack columns would burst upon the enemy line with a degree of surprise, especially if delivered with the rapid pace that columnar formation allowed. The bayonet, a shock instrument, was expected to carry the assault at the final moment of the attack (Preston 1956:192-193).

Square Formation

Infantry in line were extremely vulnerable to an aggressive cavalry charge. If cavalry could catch a unit in line, especially from a flank, a massacre could ensue as the line was "rolled up" and trampled beneath the charge. The "square formation" was the solution to the cavalry threat. This formation allowed companies of the line to fold back upon those in the center to produce a square, or more commonly a rectangular, formation. Each side faced outward to present an almost impenetrable hedge of bayonets against which cavalry was powerless. The weakness of the square was its vulnerability to artillery fire, enforcing the dictum that cavalry attacks ideally should be accompanied by horse artillery. Otherwise, a square was almost invulnerable. The only cavalry capable of inflicting much harm were lancers who, if they survived the square's musketry, could reach over the hedge of bayonets and poke at the infantry with their lances. Very few examples of cavalry breaking square exist, and then only if the infantry were demoralized.

How effective was the musket, not only as a weapon but as a determining force on the battlefield of linear tactics? Colonel George Hanger, a British officer during the Napoleonic Wars, had this to say about the regulation firearm of this period:

A soldier's musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many of them are), will strike the figure of a man at eighty yards; it may even at 100; but a soldier must be unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, provided his antagonist aims at him; and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you may just as well fire at the moon and have the same hopes of hitting your object. I do maintain and will prove, whenever called on, that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common soldier's musket, by the person who aimed at him (Lord 1989:39).

In 1804, Robert Jackson, an inspector-general of British Army hospitals, made a report regarding volley firing:

Such explosions may intimidate by their noise: it is mere chance if they destroy by their impression...History furnishes proof that the battle is rarely gained by the scientific use of the musket: noise intimidates; platoon firing strikes only at random; the charge with the bayonet decides the question.. (Fuller 1925:97).

Of course, at Palo Alto, neither army employed the culminating bayonet charge demanded by linear tactics. Instead, the Americans simply battered their opponents from a safe distance with their artillery, and most of the Mexican infantrymen never came within 400 yd of their enemy counterparts. Until this battle, artillery was a branch of weaponry limited to a largely defensive role on European and New World period battlefields. Linear tactics were practical only as long as the primary weapon was the smoothbore musket. This tactic became outmoded after the acceptance of the rifle as the standard infantry arm.

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Last Updated: 25-Feb-2009