The Battle of Palo Alto:
The Battle of Palo Alto (May 8, 1846) was the first major engagement of the Mexican-American War
. Although the Mexican army was significantly larger than the American force, American superiority in weapons and training carried the day. The battle was a victory for the Americans and began a long series of defeats for the beleaguered Mexican Army.
The American Invasion:
By 1845, war between the USA and Mexico was inevitable
. America coveted Mexico's western holdings, such as California and New Mexico, and Mexico was still furious about the loss of Texas ten years before. When the USA annexed Texas
in 1845, there was no going back: Mexican politicians railed against American aggression and fired the nation into a patriotic frenzy. When both nations sent armies to the disputed Texas/Mexico border in early 1846, it was only a matter of time before a series of skirmishes were used as an excuse for both nations to declare war.
Zachary Taylor's Army:
The American forces on the border were commanded by General Zachary Taylor
, a skilled officer who would eventually become President of the United States. Taylor had some 2,400 men, including infantry, cavalry and the new "flying artillery" squads. The flying artillery was a new concept in warfare: teams of men and cannons who could change positions on a battlefield rapidly. The Americans had high hopes for their new weapon, and they would not be disappointed.
Mariano Arista's Army:
General Mariano Arista
was confident that he could defeat Taylor: his 3,300 troops were among the best in the Mexican army. His infantry was supported by cavalry and artillery units. Although his men were ready for battle, there was unrest. Arista had recently been given the command over General Pedro Ampudia and there was much intrigue and infighting in the Mexican officer ranks.
The Road to Fort Texas:
Taylor had two locations to worry about: Fort Texas, a recently-built fort on the Rio Grande near Matamoros, and Point Isabel, where his supplies were. General Arista, who knew he had overwhelming numerical superiority, was looking to catch Taylor in the open. When Taylor took most of his army to Point Isabel to reinforce his supply lines, Arista set a trap: he began bombarding Fort Texas, knowing Taylor would have to march to its aid. It worked: on May 8, 1846, Taylor marched only to find Arista’s army in a defensive stance blocking the road to Fort Texas. The first major battle of the Mexican-American War was about to begin.
Neither Arista nor Taylor seemed willing to make the first move, so the Mexican army began firing its artillery at the Americans. The Mexican guns were heavy, fixed and used inferior gunpowder: reports from the battle say the cannonballs traveled slowly enough and far enough for the Americans to dodge them when they came. The Americans answered with artillery of their own: the new “flying artillery” cannons had a devastating effect, pouring shrapnel rounds into the Mexican ranks.
The Battle of Palo Alto:
General Arista, seeing his ranks ripped apart, sent his cavalry after the American artillery. The horsemen were met with concerted, deadly cannon fire: the charge faltered, then retreated. Arista tried to send infantry after the cannons, but with the same result. About this time, a smoky brush fire broke out in the long grass, shielding the armies from one another. Dusk fell about the same time as the smoke cleared, and the armies disengaged. The Mexicans retreated seven miles to a gulch known as Resaca de la Palma, where the armies would battle again the following day.
Legacy of the Battle of Palo Alto:
Although the Mexicans and Americans had been skirmishing for weeks, Palo Alto was the first major clash between large armies. Neither side "won" the battle, as the forces disengaged as dusk fell and the grass fires went out, but in terms of casualties it was a win for the Americans. The Mexican army lost some 250 to 500 dead and wounded to about 50 for the Americans. The biggest loss for the Americans was the death in battle of Major Samuel Ringgold, their best artilleryman and a pioneer in the development of the lethal flying infantry.
The battle decisively proved the worth of the new flying artillery. The American artillerymen practically won the battle by themselves, killing enemy soldiers from afar and driving back attacks. Both sides were surprised at the effectiveness of this new weapon: in the future, the Americans would try to capitalize on it and the Mexicans would try to defend against it.
The early "win" greatly boosted the confidence of the Americans, who were essentially a force of invasion: they knew they would be fighting against huge odds and in hostile territory for the rest of the war. As for the Mexicans, they learned that they would have to find some way to neutralize the American artillery or run the risk of repeating the results of the Battle of Palo Alto.
Eisenhower, John S.D. So Far from God: the U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. Norman: the University of Oklahoma Press, 1989
Henderson, Timothy J. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States.New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2003.
Wheelan, Joseph. Invading Mexico: America's Continental Dream and the Mexican War, 1846-1848. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007.