Lesson Plan

Casualties of War

Mexican-American War Image

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8
State Standards:
Texas State Social Studies Standards 7th Grade Standard 4: The student understands how individuals, events, and issues shaped the history of the Republic of Texas and early Texas statehood.
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


In this lesson, students do an interactive activity to compare the casualty rates of volunteers and regulars due to battle wounds vs. disease. Next, they study battle statistics and discuss what they mean. By the end of the lesson, students will be able to answer the questions:

*How did disease affect U.S.-Mexican War soldiers?

*Were regular or volunteer soldiers better able to survive army life? Why?


A 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.
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.
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.

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.


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.



*Print off one copy of the following for teacher-use: "Dividing the Class", "Regulars and Volunteers", and "Combat Deaths". 

*Make one copy per student of each of the following: "Regulars", "Volunteer Soldiers", and "Advise the General". 

*Count the number of students that will be particiating in the lesson. Use the "Dividing the Class" directions to prepare for the lesson experience.


Teachers, use this worksheet to divide the class into regular and volunteer soldiers.

Download Dividng the Class

Teachers, use this worksheet to divide the regular and volunteer soldiers into groups that died as a result of the war and groups that survived the conflict.

Download Volunteers and Regulars

Teachers, use this worksheet to divide the class into those who died of battle wounds versus those that died due to disease.

Download Combat Deaths

Students, use this worksheet to learn about regular soldiers.

Download Regulars

Students, use this worksheet to learn about volunteer soldiers.

Download Volunteer Soldiers

Lesson Hook/Preview

*Explain to students: "In a game of kickball, some players volunteered to play but have no experience, while the regular players have experience but were forced to play. If you were captain of a team, would you rather choose volunteers or the regular players? Why?" 

*Tell students, "Today, we are going to learn how there were regulars and volunteers in the Mexican-American War as well. At the end of class, you will be giving General Zachary Taylor advice on whether he should have used regulars or volunteers in the Battle of Palo Alto." 


1. Use the Dividing the Class worksheet to divide students into two different corners of the room.

2. Tell the class that they are all U.S. soldiers during the U.S.-Mexican War. The smaller group represents the regular or permanent army and the bigger group represents the volunteer army.

3. Use the Deaths of Volunteers and Regulars worksheet to further divide each group into two different areas. Tell the larger group of volunteers and the smaller group of regulars that they represent those who died during the war.

4. Use the Combat Deaths PDF to further divide each group into two other areas. Tell the smaller group of volunteers and the larger group of regulars they died due to combat wounds. 

5. Ask students why they think that a higher percentage of regular soldiers died of combat wounds and a higher percentage of volunteer soldiers died due to disease. Be sure to mention: discipline, ability to survive a soldier's life (e.g., monotony of daily drills, daily fatigue duty, boredom), and hygiene.

6. Give the regulars a Regular Soldier worksheet and the volunteers a Volunteer Soldier worksheet.

7. Have the two groups (regulars and volunteers) work together to complete the worksheets.

8. Tell each group to develop a persuasive argument for why they (regular or volunteer) are a better soldier.

9. Conduct a debate about why the group is a better soldier. Allow each group enough time to present and to respond

10. To assess the lesson, ask the students to write a letter of advice to General Zachary Taylor on whether it would have been better to have the regular army or a volunteer militia fight in the Battle of Palo Alto. These materials are available in the assessment section of this lesson. 


  • regular army: permanent army of a country with professionally trained soldiers.
  • militia: group of citizens who are not part of the regular army with some military training who are called to active duty only in an emergency.

Assessment Materials

Advise the General

Students write a letter to General Zachary Taylor giving feedback on whether he should have used volunteer-militia or professional soldiers in the Battle of Palo Alto.

Advise the General

Download Assessment

Rubric/Answer Key

The rubric below is based on group discussion and the written response titled "Advise the General".

Above proficient
Group discussion:  Offers information which directly relates and builds on the topic.
Written Response:  Thoughtful answers. Effective and accurate use of writing conventions.
Group discussion:  Offers information which directly relates to the topic.
Written Response:  Completed. Effective and accurate use of writing conventions.
Below proficient
Group discussion:  Offers very little information of which some relates to the topic.
Written Response:  Incomplete. Writing conventions are not always followed.

Supports for Struggling Learners

*After separating each group of volunteers and regulars into cause of death or survival, ask students to record thoughts and observations on the board. Students can use these thoughts as a scaffold during the debate. 

*Print off the teacher-directions for students to use during debate preparation. 

*Encourage students to take notes during the debate to assist with the assessment. 

*Create teacher-chosen heterogeneous groups for the debate. 

Enrichment Activities

*The statistics in this lesson are from the essay "The Immigrant Soldier in the Regular Army During the Mexican War" by Dale R. Steinhauer (source cited below). Have students use these statistics to calculate the percentages of regulars vs. volunteers in their family, school, city, or another group.

Overview of American forces in the Mexican War
   % of the Army  Overall Deaths  Combat Deaths
 Regulars  27%  32%  60%
 Volunteers  73%  66%  40%

Additional Resources

Steinhauer, Dale R. "The Immigrant Soldier in the Regular Army During the Mexican War." Papers of the Second Palo Alto Conference, Brownsville, TX, 1997.

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Last updated: July 30, 2015