The Battle of Buena Vista:
The Battle of Buena Vista (February 23, 1847) was a hard-fought battle between the invading US army, commanded by General Zachary Taylor
, and the Mexican army, led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna
. Taylor had been fighting his way southwest into Mexico from the border when most of his troops were reassigned to a separate invasion to be led by General Winfield Scott
. Santa Anna, with a much larger force, felt he could crush Taylor and re-take northern Mexico. The battle was bloody but inconclusive and both sides claimed it as a victory.
General Taylor's March:
Hostilities had broken out between Mexico and the USA in 1846. American General Zachary Taylor, with a well-trained army, had scored major victories at the Battles of Palo Alto
and Resaca de la Palma
near the US/Mexico border and had followed up with the successful siege of Monterrey in September of 1846. After Monterrey, he moved south and took Saltillo. The central command in the USA then decided to send a separate invasion of Mexico via Veracruz and many of Taylor's best units were reassigned. By early 1847 he had only some 4,500 men, many of them untested volunteers.
Santa Anna's Gambit:
General Santa Anna, recently welcomed back to Mexico after living in exile in Cuba, swiftly raised an army of 20,000 men, many of whom were trained professional soldiers. He marched north, hoping to crush Taylor. It was a risky move, as by then he was aware of Scott’s planned invasion from the east. Santa Anna rushed his men north, losing many to attrition, desertion and illness along the way. He even outpaced his supply lines: his men had not eaten for 36 hours when they met the Americans in battle: he promised them American supplies after their victory.
The Battlefield at Buena Vista:
Taylor learned of Santa Anna's advance and deployed in a defensive position near the Buena Vista ranch a few miles to the south of Saltillo. There, the Saltillo road was flanked on one side by a plateau accessed by several small ravines. It was a good defensive position, although Taylor had to spread his men thinly to cover it all and he had little in the way of reserves. Santa Anna and his army arrived on February 22: he sent Taylor a note demanding surrender as the soldiers skirmished. Taylor predictably refused and the men spent a tense night near the enemy.
The Battle of Buena Vista Begins:
Santa Anna launched his attack the following day. His plan of attack was direct: he would send his best forces against the Americans along the plateau, using the ravines for cover when he could. He also sent an attack along the main road to keep as much of Taylor’s force as possible occupied. By noon the battle was progressing in favor of the Mexicans: volunteer forces in the American center on the plateau had buckled, allowing the Mexicans to take some ground and direct fire into the American flanks. Meanwhile, a large force of Mexican cavalry was making their way around, hoping to surround the American army. Reinforcements reached the American center just in time, however, and the Mexicans were driven back.
The Battle of Buena Vista Ends:
The Americans enjoyed a healthy advantage in terms of artillery: their cannons had carried the day at the battle of Palo Alto earlier in the war and they were again crucial at Buena Vista. The Mexican attack stalled, and the American artillery began pounding the Mexicans, wreaking havoc and causing massive loss of life. Now it was the Mexicans’ turn to break and retreat. Jubilant, the Americans gave chase and were very nearly trapped and destroyed by the massive Mexican reserves. As dusk fell, the weapons went silent with neither side disengaging: most of the Americans thought the battle would be resumed the next day.
Aftermath of the Battle of Buena Vista:
The battle had ended, however. During the night, the Mexicans disengaged and retreated: they were battered and hungry and Santa Anna didn't think they would hold for another round of combat. The Mexicans took the brunt of the losses: Santa Anna had lost 1,800 killed or wounded and 300 captured. The Americans had lost 673 officers and men: about 1,500 more deserted.
Both sides hailed Buena Vista as a victory. Santa Anna sent glowing dispatches back to Mexico City describing a triumph with thousands of American dead left on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Taylor claimed victory, as his forces had held the battlefield and driven off the Mexicans.
Buena Vista was the last major battle in northern Mexico. The American army would remain, but took no further offensive action: the Americans would pin their hopes for victory on Scott's planned invasion of Mexico City. Santa Anna had taken his best shot at Taylor's army: he would now move south and try and hold off Scott.
For the Mexicans, Buena Vista was a disaster. Santa Anna, whose ineptitude as a general has become legendary, actually had a good plan: had he crushed Taylor like he planned, Scott's invasion might have been recalled. Once the battle started, Santa Anna put the right men in the right places to succeed: had he committed his reserves to the weakened part of the American line on the plateau he might have had his victory. If the Mexicans had won, the entire course of the Mexican-American War may well have changed. It was probably the Mexican's best chance to win a large-scale battle in the war, but they failed to do so.
As a historical note, the St. Patrick's Battalion, a Mexican artillery unit comprised largely of defectors from the United States Army (mainly Irish and German Catholics, but other nationalities were represented), fought with distinction against their former comrades. The San Patricios, as they were called, formed an elite artillery unit charged with supporting the ground offensive on the plateau. They fought very well, taking out American artillery placements, supporting the infantry advance and later covering a retreat. Taylor sent an elite squad of dragoons after them but they were driven back by withering cannon fire. They were instrumental in capturing two pieces of US artillery, later used by Santa Anna to declare the battle a "victory." It would not be the last time that the San Patricios caused great trouble for the Americans.
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