As a substitute for rational thinking, some commanders fall back on racial stereotypes by which they can assure themselves that "man for man" their own soldiers are in some way superior to the enemy. Such a man was Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearney, who, at the battle of San Pasqual, in 1846, was guilty of such contempt for his Spanish-Californian opponents that he suffered a sharp reverse-and still had the effrontery to claim it as a victory and gain promotion for his "achievement"
With the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846, U.S. President James K. Polk and Secretary of War William Marcy decided to send Colonel Stephen W. Kearney, commander of the 1st Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, to march into New Mexico and to occupy Santa Fe. After seizing and garrisoning New Mexico, Kearney, now promoted to Brigadier General, was ordered to press on from Santa Fe with his "Army of the West" deep into California, in order to seize Monterey and San Francisco. Speed was of the essence as Polk wanted to ensure that if peace came with Mexico the United States would have a military presence in California sufficient to lay claim to that province.
The first part of his mission was accomplished with ease, and Kearney occupied Santa Fe on August 18, setting up a civilian government for New Mexico before pressing on into California just four weeks later. With him now rode a mixed group of civilians and soldiers: three hundred dragoons, a party of engineers led by Lieutenant Emory with two small howitzers, and hunters and guides under the experienced Antoine Robidoux and Jean Charbonneau. Unfortunately the party was very poorly mounted for the thousand-mile journey to the coast, many riding "devilish poor" mules, some of which broke down less than a day out of Santa Fe. With difficulty the party moved deeper into California through desert country until, on October 6, they encountered a group of riders who approached them yelling and whooping like Indians. It turned out to be the legendary frontiersman Kit Carson, with a nineteen-man escort, who was taking a message overland to Washington from Commodore Stockton at San Diego. It seemed that the struggle for California was over and that Stockton had raised the American flag in the harbor at San Diego. With John Charles Fremont already penciled in for governor, Kearney's "Army of the West" was no longer needed.
Kearney sent back the bulk of his force to Santa Fe and, keeping with him just 121 men and Kit Carson as guide, he pressed on toward San Diego, sending ahead by the hand of an Englishman named Stokes news that he had annexed New Mexico and established a civilian government there. In his letter to Stockton, Kearney asked for some well mounted volunteers as an escort. Stockton reacted promptly, sending Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie with a party of thirty-seven volunteer riflemen and a field gun. Gillespie told Kearney about the state of the country ahead and warned him that a band of insurgents led by Andres Pico (younger brother of Mexican Governor Pio Pico) was no more than six miles away at San Pasqual. In spite of torrential rain, which had lowered morale in Kearney's party, the general could not resist the opportunity of engaging the Californians. He called a council of war and planned a reconnaissance of the enemy camp, prior to an attack the following morning. A captain named Moore was loud in his opposition to this plan, trying to convince Kearney that he was underestimating the enemy, who were superb horsemen and far too strong for the American troops on their feeble mounts. It would be better to take the camp by surprise and strike the Californians while they were dismounted. Once on their horses the Californians would prove the masters. But Moore was overruled and Kearney insisted on reconnoitering the Californian camp.
Gillespie offered the services of his "mountain men" who could get in and out of the camp without arousing suspicion, but Kearney insisted that the task should be carried out by regulars, his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Thomas Hammond,with six dragoons and the Californian deserter named Rafael Machado. This was a most unfortunate choice, as it turned out. Machado led Hammond and his party into the valley of San Pasqual, to within half a mile of an Indian camp. The deserter learned from the Indians that Pico and his men, one hundred strong, were resting nearby, completely unaware of the American presence. But Machado was taking too long and Hammond's impatience got the better of him. He rode into the Indian camp with his men, swords clanking, setting the dogs barking. The commotion alerted the Californians, who leaped up shouting, "Viva California, abajo los Americanos." By sheer stupidity Hammond had blown Kearney's cover. As he and his dragoons turned and rode for their lives, pursued by Californian lancers, one of Pico's men found a blanket marked "U.S." and a dragoon jacket dropped in the flight. Pico was now convinced that Hammond's party was merely scouting for a much larger American force. The Californians rounded up their horses and prepared to abandon their camp.
Hammond returned to Kearney's camp to warn him that Pico had broken cover and the general now decided on an immediate attack, even though it was past midnight and the weather was so cold that the bugler could not even sound reveille. Some of the American troopers could hardly hold the reins of their horses, which, with the mules, were in no better state themselves, cold, sore and weak from lack of adequate fodder. Even worse, nobody had seen fit to check the American firearms, which had received a thorough drenching not long before. Unknown to Kearney, he was leading a virtually unarmed force against an unexpectedly dangerous enemy.
Once the Californians had been alerted and surprise was lost, the Americans had little to gain by pursuing them. Yet Kearney was able to convince himself that Pico was barring the road to San Diego and therefore had to be driven off. In fact, nothing could have been further from Pico's mind, which was concerned simply with escape. It was merely the poor impression the American soldiers made on him that tempted him to stand and fight Kearney, aware of the deplorable state of his mules, was also keen to remount his troopers by capturing some of the horses the Californians had with them. But most telling of all was the impression given to Kearney that the Californians were cowards and no match for his men. How much this impression was gained from listening to men like Kit Carson we cannot be sure, but what is certain is that Kearney underestimated his enemy and failed to take precautions before encountering him. Kit Carson had certainly told the general that "all Americans had to do was to yell, make a rush and the Californians would run away." Nor was Gillespie free of blame, having expressed the view that "Californians of Spanish blood have a holy horror of the American rifle." In fact, Kearney may well have succumbed to the enthusiasm of some of his men, bored after a long march and eager for action. In any case, it was his decision to initiate the action and he was to blame for what happened next In the words of one observer, "Kearney, having made one of the longest marches in the history of the United States, was spoiling for a fight and intended to have it"
Kearney's men reached a ridge between Santa Maria and San Pasqual still in good order, and it was here that the general had his last opportunity to instill some discipline into his force. Informing them how much their country expected of them and encouraging them to charge with the point of the saber, he gave orders to surround the Californian camp and take as many men alive as possible. The column then began to descend the rocky path into the valley, and soon became blanketed in low clouds and fog. Confusion reigned. An order from the general to begin to trot was misinterpreted by Captain Johnston's men at the front and the captain suddenly drew his sword and shouted "Charge!", even though he was more than a thousand yards from Pico's camp. Kearney was heard to exclaim, "Oh heavens! I did not mean that!" One of the camp followers later wrote in his private journal what happened next:
Those which were passably mounted naturally got ahead and they of course were mostly officers with the best of the dragoons, corporals and sergeants, men who had taken most care of their animals and very soon this advance guard to the number of about forty got far ahead --- one and a half miles at least-of the main body while the howitzer was drawn by wild mules. In the gray of the morning the enemy was discovered keeping ahead and with no intention of attacking but their superior horses and horsemanship made it mere play to keep themselves where they pleased. They also began to discover the miserable condition of their foes, some on mules and some on lean and lame horses, men and mules worn out by a long march with dead mules for subsistence.'
Instead of proceeding as a compact force of riders, Kearney's men lost all cohesion and charged hell-for-leather after the Californians. An advance guard of twelve dragoons under Captain Johnston soon broke away from the men mounted on mules, and with everyone riding madly forward on as unimpressive an array of quadrupeds as ever graced the field of honor, it must have resembled a gold rush rather than a cavalry charge. Behind Johnston-a long way behind, as it transpired-rode Kearney, Lieutenant Emory, and the engineer, William Warner, while behind them, laboring along on mules exhausted by their thousand-mile journey, were a further fifty dragoons. At the back, dragging the guns, came Gillespie with his volunteers.
Captain Johnston rode straight into a party of Pico's men who opened fire, killing him instantly. Seeing more Americans approaching, the Californians rode off again as if in retreat and Captain Moore ordered his men to continue their charge. The chase lasted for another mile, until the American force was stretched out down the valley. Suddenly the Californians wheeled their horses around and charged the leading Americans, lances at the ready. The shock of seeing their fleeing foe turn and confront them made some of the Americans try to fire their rifles, only to discover that their powder was so damp it would not ignite. Thus disarmed, the dragoons were forced to resort to sabers and rifle butts, which were no match for Pico's lances. Captain Moore encountered Pico himself but his pistol misfired and before he could strike with his saber he was speared sixteen times by lances and fell dead from his saddle. The Americans were quite unaccustomed to this kind of melee in which the advantage always rested with the Californians' longer weapon. Almost every dragoon in the forward party suffered from the points of the willow lances. Even more surprising for the Americans, was the use made of the lasso, or reata, which Pico's men cast with unerring accuracy, pulling the dragoons from their horses and making them easy targets for the lancers. Seeing Moore mortally wounded, his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Hammond, rode to his side and died with him, pierced through and through by the lancers.
By the time Kearney reached the scene of the action, chaos reigned and he was unable to give any coherent commands. It was every man for himself. Matters grew graver as Kearney himself succumbed to a lance thrust in the back. Gillespie and his mountain men were singled out by the Californians, who bitterly hated them, and Gillespie himself suffered numerous wounds, including a lance thrust over the heart. Crippled but undaunted, Gillespie fought his way back to the artillery pieces, which had by now arrived, and brought one into action with the help of a naval midshipman, James Duncan. The Californians, dragging off one of the guns, now broke off the engagement and rode away down the valley. It had been a brief encounter, possibly lasting less than fifteen minutes, but American casualties had been very severe. No more than fifty of the Americans had come into action, but of these twenty-one died and seventeen were seriously wounded. Losses among the officers and NCOs were particularly severe: Captains Johnston and Moore, Lieutenant Hammond, two sergeants and a corporal were all killed by lance thrusts. General Kearney and Captains Warner, Gillespie and Gibson were all seriously wounded, along with Antoine Robidoux.
It had been a thoroughly bad battle from the American point of view. It has been claimed in Kearney's defense that because Pico abandoned the field the Americans were thereby victorious, but it is a ridiculous assertion. Pico had never intended to fight; his only concern was to escape from his pursuers. In his own words he "could not resist the temptation" to attack the Americans because their pursuit was so disorderly and their appearance, on mules, aroused the contempt of his followers, men born to the saddle. Kearney had seriously underestimated his opponents, always a serious mistake in a commander, and knew little of their technique of fighting. His advantage rested in the training of his professional troops and in his own appreciation of the military art. It did not consist in chasing thoroughbred horses on blown mules, or matching damp powder and sabers against lassos and lances. Gillespie should have been able to tell him something about the way the Californians fought, but it is clear that Kearney was not in a hurry to listen. Dr. John S. Griffin, who was present at the battle, mournfully commented, "This was an action where decidedly more courage than conduct was shown." One of Moore's dragoons put it more pointedly: "such another fight was unknown-it was a disgrace" while a number of his men felt that it would have been no more than he deserved had the general died of his wounds. Had he waited for daylight, they suggested, there would have been far fewer casualties. Kearney blithely reported the battle as a victory, "but (we) paid most dearly for it"
Kearney's performance at San Pasqual earned him promotion, but might instead have won him a court-martial for incompetence. In almost every way his leadership was at fault. The bloody skirmish at San Pasqual was an unnecessary battle, fought to satisfy a general's ego and to indulge the jaded appetites of a group of adventurers masquerading as soldiers. As a professional soldier himself, Kearney made almost every mistake in the book. When Pico's camp was discovered, he ignored Gillespie's offer of help and allowed the blundering Hammond to alert the Californians to his presence. He took up the challenge of pursuing an enemy of unknown numbers and firepower by night and with a force inadequately mounted and with rifles soaked by torrential rain. Even though an alternative route to San Diego was available, he claimed that Pico was barring his route to the coast and had to be challenged. Having conceded advantages in mobility and firepower to the enemy, Kearney also prepared to fight them on unknown terrain and in such poor visibility-from darkness and mist that his own men had great difficulty in telling friend from foe. But above all, and this is unforgivable in any commander, he allowed the prejudices of others (notably Kit Carson) to persuade him that his enemy was unworthy of respect. Underestimating the qualities of the Californians, notably in their horsemanship and in the superiority of the lance and lasso in close-quarter fighting, he allowed his force to rush blindly to destruction. Once in action Kearney failed to impose himself on his men and allowed Johnston's erroneous order to disrupt the actions of the entire force. A swift countermand might have brought up even the advance guard in its tracks. Better by far to allow the Californians to escape than to allow his own force to be cut up piecemeal.
With General Kearney incapacitated, Captain Turner, the ranking officer, sent an urgent message to Stockton at San Diego asking for help, but before the news of the disaster reached Stockton, the "Army of the West" had clashed again with Pico's force near Rancho San Bernardo. Kearney's force was now surrounded by the Californians, who obviously hoped to starve them into surrender. Fortunately, within two days, Stockton's relief force of one hundred sailors and eighty marines led by Lieutenant Gray of the U.S.S. Congress raised the siege and escorted the exhausted survivors of Kearney's "army" into San Diego. Kearney's march from Fort Leavenworth had been a triumph of exploration and endeavor, and the general had shown astuteness in dealing with his civil duties in establishing a government in New Mexico. Unfortunately, it was as a military commander that he failed both himself and his men in the wholly unnecessary battle at San Pasqual.
Updated 8 February 2016