Palo Alto Battlefield

Historical print of the Battle of Palo Alto

Historical print of the Battle of Palo Alto

Library of Congress (no known restrictions)

Natural battlefield

The prairie of Palo Alto was naturally suited for the first battle of the Mexican War. The low-lying, coastal prairie was surrounded by tree covered rises that inspired its Spanish name, "Tall Timber." The Matamoros to Point Isabel Road crossed the vast field on the western end. It was this very road Zachary Taylor's force of 2,300 men and 400 wagons were following.

In the early hours of May 8, 1846, General Mariano Arista led his 3,200 men onto this field. The Mexican general positioned his cannons on the roadway to block the U.S. advance. He also placed lines of infantry and additional artillery across the prairie. Arista capped his mile-long battle line with his cavalry. Using this formation, Arista hoped to outflank and crush the approaching U.S. Army.

Taylor's arrival

General Taylor arrived at Palo Alto around midday on May 8. As U.S. troops marched out of the cover of mesquite thickets at the northern edge of the field, they paused to entrench their supply train. When this was done, they advanced to within 700 yards of the Mexican lines. The stage was set.

The battle begins

When the Mexican cannon began firing, U.S. troops assumed battle formation, but did not advance to engage Mexican forces. General Taylor feared a charge would leave his supply train vulnerable to attack. The general decided to hold his infantry and cavalry in a defensive formation and rolled his artillery forward to respond.

Taylor’s use of 18-pound siege cannons was significant. The guns were originally intended for duty at Fort Texas. The devastating fire of these huge guns tore at the Mexican lines, causing numerous casualties. By contrast, Mexican artillery was much less effective and frequently fired short of the U.S. lines.

Arista responds

Arista attempted to answer the devastating effects of Taylor’s artillery by sending cavalry troops against the right flank of the U.S. line. General Anastasio Torrejón's lancers swept across the western edge of the field, but soon became bogged down by the uneven ground and dense growth.

By the time the charge reached its destination, the U.S. 5th Infantry had positioned itself to repel the attack. Torrejón's horsemen regrouped and attempted an attack on the U.S. supply train. Torrejón's charge was turned back again. This time Taylor's light artillery provided support against the charge.

Torrejón's withdrawal permitted U.S. forces to move forward along the road. Taylor’s continued concern for the supply train and a grass fire that erupted in the middle of the field prevented a full advance. As heavy smoke from the fire brought shooting to a halt, the U.S. advance resulted in little more than a rotation of the battle lines.

 
Print depicting death of Major Ringgold

Historic drawing of the Battle

Library of Congress (no known restrictions)

Combat continues

When the smoke cleared, the U.S. artillery resumed its devastating fire on the Mexican lines. Mexican artillerymen responded by directing their guns at the U.S. artillery, hoping to bring relief from the assault. The tactic met with limited effect but did strike one heavy blow Taylor’s force. One round from the Mexican artillery mortally wound Samuel Ringgold, the mastermind behind the U.S. light artillery.

As Mexican troops continued to fall, General Arista ordered a second cavalry charge. This time the attack was against the U.S. left flank. Once again, the U.S. light artillery showed its strength. U.S. cannoneers quickly re-positioned their cannons and spoiled a series of attacks on the U.S. supply train. Captain James Duncan's fire was so effective that he was able to advance his guns across the field. Only a concerted counteract by the Mexican cavalry halted his push forward.

Fighting fades

At 7 p.m. the fierce, four-hour cannonade came to an end. Mexican forces had depleted their ammunition and withdrew to the southern edge of the field. With darkness approaching and the ever-present concern for the safety of his supply train, General Taylor retired as well. U.S. forces set up camp behind their lines and prepared to resume fighting the following morning.

 
General Taylor at Palo Alto

Taylor at his army at Palo Alto

Library of Congress (no known restrictions)

Advantage...Taylor

Mexican troops had delayed the U.S. advance and maintained their siege of Fort Texas but the Battle of Palo Alto had clearly favored Taylor's forces. The constant pounding from U.S. 18-pounders and efficient use of light field pieces had inflicted heavy Mexican casualties. Arista's army suffered 102 killed, 129 wounded, and 26 missing. U.S. casualties numbered only 9 killed, 44 wounded, and 2 missing.

These casualty figures prompted General Arista to reject a second day of battle at Palo Alto. After spending much of the night burying their dead, Mexican forces withdrew early the next morning to Resaca de la Palma. The two armies would clash here for second time. This battle Taylor and his men would win decisively.

 
Palo Alto on a cool morning, mist visible

The mist visible on a cool morning at Palo Alto

Palo Alto Battlefield (public domain)

The field today

Palo Alto has escaped much of the development that has swept across the lower Rio Grande Valley, retaining much of its 1846 character. It is a vast plain still features razor-sharp cordgrass, dense thickets of mesquite, cactus and other thorny plants. Palo Alto vividly recalls the scene described by soldiers in dozens of letters and diary entries.

The park continues with efforts to preserve the battlefield, provide access, and encourage public understanding of this historically important site.

Other sites

Explore the other places that played an important role in the early stages of the conflict.

Rancho de Carricitos

Fort Texas

Resaca de la Palma

Did You Know?