Battle of San Pasqual

The Battle of San Pasqual, also spelled San Pascual, was a military encounter that occurred during the Mexican–American War in what is now the San Pasqual Valley community of the city of San Diego, California. The series of military skirmishes ended with both sides claiming victory, and the victor of the battle is still debated.[7] On December 6 and December 7, 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny's US Army of the West, along with a small detachment of the California Battalion led by a Marine Lieutenant, engaged a small contingent of Californios and their Presidial Lancers Los Galgos (The Greyhounds), led by Major Andrés Pico. After U.S. reinforcements arrived, Kearny's troops were able to reach San Diego.


Following a clash of U.S. forces with Mexican forces near the Rio Grande, Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny was promoted to a brigadier general and tasked with multiple objectives to include the seizure of New Mexico and California, establish civilian government within seized territories, disrupt trade, and to "act in such a manner as best to conciliate the inhabitants, and render them friendly to the United States". Kearny's initial force consisted of 300 regular army soldiers, 1,000 volunteers from Missouri, and the Mormon Battalion. From Fort Leavenworth, via Bent's Fort, Kearny had New Mexico capitulate without violent conflict.[8] While in Sante Fe, Kearny established Fort Marcy, named after the Secretary of War William L. Marcy, who had ordered Kearny's force westward.[8]

En route from New Mexico, Kearny's force interacted with the Apache and Maricopa tribes, and captured a Mexican courier with news of American activities in California, with the news stating the Californios had capitulated.[5] Forces under Commodore Sloat had taken control a significant portion of Alta California.[9] Kearny had orders to assume command of U.S. forces in California with his, but sent back most of his force after meeting up with Kit Carson near Socorro on 6 Oct. and hearing of the seizure of California by Commodore Robert F. Stockton, Kearny keeping only Companies C & K, 1st Dragoons, about 100 men.[6]:137 Kearny, at that time with a force of 300 men, learning of escalating issues with the Navajo, and with the belief a smaller force could move faster, ordered 200 back to Santa Fe.[8] Kearny's force, guided by Carson, reached Warner's Ranch in California on 2 Dec., in a greatly weakened condition.[6]:187 They had just completed a 2,000 mile march; the longest march in U.S. Army history;[10] the force was travel weary and mounted mules and half-broken horses which were rounded up around Warner Ranch that were owned by California Capt. Jose Maria Flores.[5]

General Kearny's Army, most originating from Fort Scott:[11][12]

  • Captain Abraham Robinson Johnston – regimental adjutant, Company K, 12 mounted dragoons
  • Captain Benjamin (Ben) Daviess Moore[13] – Company C, 60 dismounted dragoons, some mounted on mules
  • Captain Henry Smith Turner – Kearny's Army of the West Adjutant general[14][15]
  • Lieutenant William H. Emory[16] – Chief Topographical Engineer, Corps of Topographical Engineers
  • Lieutenant William H. Warner – Corps of Topographical Engineers,[17] commanding four topographical engineering "mountainmen" Peterson, Londeau, Perrot, and Private Francois Menard
  • Lieutenant John W. Davidson – commanded 2 howitzers and 6 dragoons placed at the rear of the advance[18]
  • Second Lieutenant Thomas (Tom) C. Hammond – aide-de-camp[17][19]
  • Major Swords – assistant quartermaster[20] – rear guard for baggage train, officers' personal slaves, and civilians
  • U.S. Army Surgeon (Captain) Dr. John S. Griffin
  • Enlisted men:
    • Judge Pearce (Kearny's personal bodyguard),[13] Sergeant Williams,[13] Pat Halpin (bugler),[21] Sergeant Falls,[16] Sergeant John Cox,[16] Private William B. Dunne,[18] Private David Streeter,[18] Private James Osbourne,[18] (Private) Dr. Erasmus Darwin French (physician assistant)[18]
    • Company C: Corporal William C. West,[22] Private George Ashmead,[22] Private Joseph T. Campbell,[22] Private John Dunlop,[22]:346 Private William Dalton,[22]:346 Private William C. Leckey,[22]:346 Private Samuel F. Repoll,[22]:346 Private Joseph B. Kennedy,[18]
    • Company K: 1st Sergeant Otis L. Moor,[22] Sergeant William Whitness,[22]:346 Corporal George Ramsdale,[22]:346 farrier David W. Johnston,[22]:346 Private William G. Gholston,[22]:346 Private William H. Fiel,[22]:346 Private Robert S. Gregory,[22]:346 Private Hugh McKaffray[18]

Both Emory and Johnston kept journals during their journey from Santa Fe.[23]

After turning back the Americans trying to recapture Los Angeles in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho, Capt. Jose Maria Flores sent about 100 men to San Luis Obispo to confront Lt. Col. John C. Fremont's 300 men moving south from Monterey, and sent another 100 men to watch Stockton's base at San Diego, but Flores kept the bulk of his men at Los Angeles.[6]:186

Captain Archibald Gillespie with 39 men, met Kearny on December 5 with a message from Stockton requesting Kearny confront Flores' men outside San Diego.[6]:187[24][25][26][27] The total American force now amounted to 179 men.[28][29]

USMC Acting-Captain (Lt.) Gillespie's Mounted Rifle Volunteers 'detachment' of the California Battalion:[12]

Captains Leonardo Cota and Jose Alipaz took a force to San Pasqual Valley with the intention to interdict and keep in check Captain Gillespie after his departure from San Diego. Later, Major Andrés Pico, after a failed search for a detachment of U.S. soldiers, joined forces with the captains and took command.[33] These Californios led a force consisting of landowners, sons of landowners, and vaqueros, many with well known and respected family names in the community:

  • Don Leonardo Cota:[34] Capt. Enrique Abilia (Los Angeles), Capt. Ramon Carillo (Los Angeles), Capt. Jose Maria Cota (Los Angeles), Capt. Carlos Dominguez (Los Angeles), Capt. Nicolas Hermosillo (Los Angeles), Capt. Jose Alipaz (San Juan Capistrano), Capt. Ramon O. Suna (San Diego)
  • General Andres Pico:[34] Don Leandro Osuna (San Diego), Capt. Juan Bautista Moreno, Capt. Tomás A. Sanchez,[18][35] Capt. Pablo Vejar,[18] Capt. Manuel Vejar

On the night of December 5, a Native American informed the Californio forces of the presence of Kearny's forces.[36]


A dragoon patrol under Lieutenant Thomas C. Hammond, guided by Rafael Machado, the son of Don José Manuel Machado (grantee of Rancho El Rosario and sent by the Machado family to assist Kearny), reconnoitered Capt. Andres Pico's force along the road at San Pasqual.[6]:187

While Machado sneaked into the camp, Lt. Hammond became suspicious he was being set up for an ambush and rode the dragoons into the camp, where they spoke with an Indian they found sleeping in a hut.[13] In a coincidence that has never been fully explained, a guard under the command of Machado's concuñado, the brother of a brother-in-law and future father-in-law, Captain Jose Alipaz, challenged the dragoons and alerted the camp to their presence.[13] While Machado quickly ran back to Hammond's scouting party, Alipaz sounded the alarm but was dismissed by General Pico, until a U.S. Army blanket and dragoon coat were discovered on the edge of camp by Pablo Véjar. With Capt. Alipaz, Captain Leonardo Cota and José María Ibarra (the Californio standing guard) chased the dragoons to the top of the next ridge with the battle cry of "!Viva California!".[6]:187[37][38] Pico was alerted, and the Californio camp prepared for the U.S. Army dragoons and marines to attack.[6]:187[37][38]

Kearny had planned a surprise attack at daylight, despite the damp weather wetting down their powder and the extremely poor state of the soldiers' equipment and mounts – mostly mules, as the horses had died on the preceding march.[6]:188[28]


Having lost the element of surprise, at midnight Kearny ordered an immediate advance from his camp nine miles away.[8] It had rained that night. Men, muskets, pistols and equipment were wet and cold, but the troops, after over six months without any action, were eager to engage the Californios. Early in the morning of December 6, 1846, the column proceeded by twos across the ridge between Santa Maria (present day Ramona, California) and San Pasqual. During the descent, while it was still dark and with a low-lying fog, Kearny's force became strung out and were caught in a disadvantageous position by General Pico's swift advance.[28] Kearny gave the plan of battle prior to proceeding down into the valley, to keep all casualties to a minimum, to encircle San Pasqual to capture fresh mounts.[5]

Captain Abraham R. Johnston's advance guard, while still three-quarters of a mile (1.2 km) from Pico's forces, was ordered by Kearny to "Trot!", which Johnston misunderstood as "Gallop!".[6]:188 Seeing this Kearny exclaimed "Oh, heavens! I did not mean that!".[5] Forty of the best mounted pulled far ahead of the main body of the force, in violation of the Cavalry Tactics manual of 1841, which instructed a charge to begin at just 40 paces from the enemy "so as to arrive in good order, and without fatiguing the horses."[8] The mules pulling the howitzers bolted, taking one of the guns with them. Pico's mounted force remained ahead of the pursuing U.S. forces. Their fresh horses and superior horsemanship allowed them to outmaneuver and lead the advance group of dragoons away from the main force. The Californios had a distinct advantage over the U.S. soldiers in their knowledge of the terrain. A second separation developed until twenty-eight dragoons, including Kearny, were separated. Damp powder reduced the effectiveness of carbines to clubs and pistols to hammers, as described by a native woman that witnessed the battle. The Californios were armed with long lances and reatas (braided rawhide lariat), which they used with great effect. As a consequence, Johnston's charge was unsupported and his dragoons were forced to withdraw.[6]:188

As the leading element of the U.S. force's attack drew close to a Kumeyaay village, the Californios wheeled back and fired their few firearms. At this time Captain Johnston was killed by a bullet. Pico then withdrew a half mile to higher ground.[6]:188

A second charge ordered by Capt. Benjamin D. Moore further separated the Americans, and the Californios met his dragoons with a counter-charge by lancers.[6]:188 The charge was quickly surrounded, and Capt. Moore was killed. Gillespie arrived within fifteen minutes with the artillery. Mules are reluctant to wheel, and the horse-mounted Californios outflanked the Americans and captured one of the unattended howitzers. Gillespie used a sabre to fight off a vicious personal attack made by a group of lancers in revenge for his previous actions during his occupation of Los Angeles and the broken agreement to cease hostilities. He took a lance thrust just over the heart that pierced a lung. Kearny was wounded when he was lanced, and other dragoons were worked on by teams of Californios who, with fresh mounts, would yank dragoons off their mounts, hog-tie them, and then lance them.[5] Gillespie's men unlimbered the remaining howitzer – John Sutter's Russian-made bronze four-pounder – and were able to drive the Californio fighters from the field after Midshipman Duncan fired canister into them.[8] Either this action (traditional U.S. view) or the unusual degree of bloodshed (traditional Californio view), prompted Pico to withdraw.[6]:188 The U.S. forces fortified a camp on a low hill north of the valley, initially placing their dead on mules that were unable to transport them before burying them outside of the camp under cover of darkness.[39][40] The location of this camp is within the modern day San Diego Zoo Safari Park.[41]

Summarizing the battle, historian Owen Coy writes:

The Americans fought bravely against heavy odds, for their mules were unmanageable, and their sabers too short to cope effectively with the long California lances. ... The Americans were in no condition to pursue and indeed found themselves in a very unhappy plight.[42]


The next day, December 7, 1846, after assurances by Dr. Griffin that the worst of the injured could be moved, Captain Turner marched the column toward San Diego. Californio lancers established a blocking position near what is now known as "Mule Hill". Captain Turner ordered Lieutenant William H. Emory and a squad of dragoons to engage and drive off the menacing lancers. With dry powder in their carbines, the dragoons easily forced the lancers away, while inflicting five dead among the fleeing Californios.[43] That evening Kearny regained his command, established a strong defensive perimeter and then sent dispatches requesting urgent reinforcements, carried to Commodore Stockton by Lieutenant Edward Beale, Kit Carson and a young Diegueño guide named Chemuctah.[5] Under cover of darkness they each took different routes to the commodore's headquarters at San Diego, 28 miles (45 km) to the south-southwest. Stockton quickly dispatched a unit of over 200 sailors and marines, whose arrival caused the Californios to disperse. Kearny had already determined the night before (December 9) to continue the march the next morning. Stockton's unit then escorted Kearny's battered troops to San Diego, where they arrived December 12.[43]

Dr. John S. Griffin, Kearny's surgeon, reported that the Americans had lost 17 killed and 18 wounded out of the 50 officers and men who engaged Pico's lancers. When they arrived in San Diego, the wounded survivors were treated by their Californio guide's sister, Nurse Juanita Machado Alipas de Wrightington, known as the Florence Nightingale of San Diego for her charity work for the oppressed native peoples camped outside San Diego.[44]

General Kearny's official report states: "On the morning of the 7th, having made ambulances for our wounded . . . we proceeded on our march, when the enemy showed himself, occupying the hills in our front, which they left as we approached, till reaching San Bernardo a party of them took possession of a hill near to it and maintained their position until attacked by our advance, who quickly drove them from it, killing and wounding five of their number with no loss on our part."[45] Some time after the battle, General Kearny wrote that the U.S. had achieved victory since the Californios had "fled the field," but the Californios saw the engagement as their victory.[43]

The battle is unique, as it was one of the few military battles in the United States that involved elements of the Army, Navy, Marines, and civilian volunteers, all in the same skirmish.[7] During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, historians debated which force won or lost the battle. Clearly, Kearny retained the battle area, the ability to operate and maneuver, and also the initiative, though his losses were significantly higher; however, he did not implement his battle plan, his ammunition was compromised, and he outran his artillery and supply line. According to Geoffrey Regan:

It had been a thoroughly bad battle from the American point of view. It has been claimed in Kearny's defense that because Pico abandoned the field the Americans were thereby victorious, but it is a ridiculous assertion.[46]

Historian Lt. Colonel Cory Hollon cited Kearny's misjudgments: the battle was arguably unnecessary; the operating environment disadvantaged Kearny; he was unaware, or possibly misinformed, about the character of the threat; Kearny overestimated or misused his friendly forces; and Kearny culminated at San Pasqual because he had overextended his supply chain, resulting in a poorly prepared force facing an underestimated enemy. Hollon states that Kearny's misjudgments resulted in nearly disastrous consequences for the Army of the West and put the United States’ plans for conquest and empire in peril.[8]

In late December 1846, Kearny's force began its march to Los Angeles. It consisted of a mixed force of Army dragoons, Navy sailors, Marines, volunteers and artillery. Although there was contention on leadership of U.S. forces in California, this and Stockton's combined forces went on to engage the Californios at the Battle of Rio San Gabriel, resulting in a Californio retreat. The following day the Battle of La Mesa resulted in another Californio defeat, leading to the surrender of the Pueblo de Los Ángeles and later the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.[8] Historian Hollon wrote:

The combat losses at the Battle of San Pasqual often overshadow the success of the overall campaign. While Kearny made a poor decision to engage the Californios at San Pasqual, the operations on either side of the battle revealed a brilliant military mind coordinating complex actions across the expanse of a continent.[8]


See also


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  2. John C. Pinheiro (1 January 2007). Manifest Ambition: James K. Polk and Civil-military Relations During the Mexican War. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-275-98409-0. ... at best must be described as a Pyrrhic victory ...
  3. Dwight Lancelot Clarke (1961). Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 232. ... it was certainly a Pyrrhic victory.
  4. Hollon, LTC Cory S. (29 April 2013). Operational Art in the Campaign of Stephen Watts Kearny to Conquer New Mexico and California, 1846-7 (PDF) (Master's Thesis). U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Retrieved 15 March 2017. The first battle of the war for Kearny was a Pyrrhic victory at San Pasqual, but Kearny recovered and led a large force in a successful operation against prepared forces of Californios.
  5. Niderost, Eric (26 May 2016). "Mexican-American Clash at San Pasqual". Military History. McLean, Virginia: Sovereign Media. Retrieved 15 March 2017. The lancers left the field, enabling the Americans to technically claim a victory, albeit a mostly Pyrrhic one. Three officers and 21 men were dead, and another 17 were wounded.
  6. Bauer, K.J., 1974, The Mexican War, 1846–1848, New York:Macmillan, ISBN 0803261071
  7. "San Pasqual Battlefield Site Location Project". San Pasqual Battlefield Site Location Project. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
  8. Hollon, Lt. Col. Cory S. (Winter 2015). "'A Leap in the Dark' The Campaign to Conquer New Mexico and California, 1846–1847" (PDF). Army History. Washington, D.C. PB 20-15-1 (94): 6–25. Retrieved 28 June 2018.
  9. Coy 1921, p. 4 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain..
  10. "Your Affectionate Son, Robinson: American Expansionism and the Life of Captain Abraham Robinson Johnston, 1815–1846". The Journal of San Diego History. 62.
  11. Wainwright, Capt. R. P. Page (January 1895). "The First Regiment of Cavalry". Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States. XVI (73): 177–196.
  12. Sabin, Edwin Legrand (1935). Kit Carson Days, 1809–1868: Adventures in the Path of Empire. 2. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 525–540, 950. ISBN 0-8032-9238-4.
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Further reading

  • Dunne, William B. Notes on the Battle of San Pascual (Berkeley: Bancroft Library)
  • Executive Document Number 1, accompanying the President's message at the Second Session of the 30th Congress, December, 1848, including the Report of Commodore Stockton.
  • Jones, Sally Cavell, The Battle of San Pascual (Masters Thesis, USD, 1973)
  • Sides, Hampton, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, Doubleday (2006), hardcover, 462 pages, ISBN 978-0-385-50777-6
  • Todd, Charles Burr (1925). The battles of San Pasqual : a study : with map, itinerary and guide to the battle fields. Progress Pub. Co.
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