The Battle of Palo Alto

Print of the Battle of Palo Alto

Historical print of the Battle of Palo Alto

Library of Congress (no known restrictions)

Natural battlefield
The plain of Palo Alto was a natural battlefield. A low-lying, coastal prairie ringed by tree covered rises that inspired the Spanish name, "Tall Timber." Crossing this expansive field was the Matamoros to Point Isabel Road-the route followed by Zachary Taylor's body of 2,300 men and 400 wagons.

In the early hours of May 8, 1846, General Mariano Arista led his 3,200 men onto this field. The Mexican general set his cannons on the roadway to block the U.S. advance. He also lined infantry troops and additional artillery across the prairie. On either end of this mile-long line he positioned his cavalry. Using this formation, Arista hoped to flank and engulf the approaching U.S. troops.

Taylor's arrival
General Taylor arrived at Palo Alto around midday on May 8. As the 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, then 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. Fearing a charge would leave his supply train vulnerable to attack, General Taylor held his infantry and cavalry in a defensive formation and rolled artillery forward to respond. Most notable was his use of 18-pound siege cannons, originally intended for duty at Fort Texas. The devastating fire of these huge guns tore at the Mexican lines, causing numerous casualties. By contrast, the Mexican artillery was much less effective and continually fired short of the U.S. lines.

Arista responds
Arista attempted to answer by sending cavalry troops against the right side 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, but were turned back again. This time Taylor's light artillery provided support against the charge.

Torrejón's withdrawal to the Mexican line permitted U.S. forces to move forward along the road. But, 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 amounted to 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 withering fire on the Mexican lines. Mexican artillerymen responded by training their guns on the U.S. cannons, hoping to bring relief from the onslaught. The tactic had limited effect, though the barrage did mortally wound Samuel Ringgold, mastermind of 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. Quickly re-positioning their cannons, U.S. troops thwarted a series of attempts on the U.S. supply train. Captain James Duncan's fire was so effective that he was able to advance cannons across the field. Only a concerted counteract by the Mexican cavalry halted this push forward.

The 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. Approaching darkness and the ever-present concern for the safety of his supply train led General Taylor to cease fire 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)


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 the 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 in a battle Taylor and his men would win decisively.


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 of razor-sharp cordgrass, bounded by 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 stimulate 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

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