Mexican-American War 170th: The Battle of Resaca de la Palma

Mexican War-header

When the sun rose on May 9, 1846, American soldiers were not sure if the day’s previous fight at Palo Alto would be continued. American artillery had shattered their Mexican opponents, but at the end of the fighting the Mexican forces, under the command of Gen. Mariano Arista, had only pulled back a little from the battlefield.

At first, Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor was not sure what to do. Though defeated, Arista still had a numerical advantage over Taylor’s force, and Taylor had a wagon train of supplies he had brought with him from Point Isabel that needed to be protected. Calling a council of war, Taylor laid the options before his officers. A majority of the officers, led by Col. David Twiggs, a War of 1812 veteran, spoke of staying put, digging in and waiting for reinforcements. But Taylor decided to keep pushing after Arista, and Cpt. Philip Barbour, 3rd Infantry, wrote, “His mind was doubtless made up beforehand.”[1]

Taylor did offer an olive branch to the officers who did not want to go forward. Orders went out to entrench a small fortification that the army’s wagons could be encircled around and defended in case Taylor had to retreat. After the soldiers dug the trench and the wagons driven in, Taylor left behind a handful of artillery pieces, including his large 18-pounders, behind to protect them. With the rest of his force, Taylor set-off down the road.

Arista had fallen back about five miles from Palo Alto to a place called Resaca de la Palma. A resaca was a dry riverbed that cut across the countryside and Arista’s position was also defended by thick chaparral—intertwining vegetation and undergrowth that one reporter wrote appeared as “a solid wall.”[2] Mexican infantry lined the resaca, using it like a trench and Arista placed artillery along the roadway that the Americans would come down. Satisfied with his defenses, Arista now just had to wait.[3]

Battle of Resaca de la Palma (U.S. Army)

Battle of Resaca de la Palma
(U.S. Army)

Marching from Palo Alto, Taylor ordered Cpt. George McCall, 4th Infantry, forward with two hundred men to act as skirmishers and scout out the Mexican positions. (McCall commanded the Pennsylvania Reserves 16 years later during the Peninsula Campaign and was captured at Glendale during the Seven Days Battles). McCall’s skirmishers moved up and soon began taking fire from the Mexican positions at Resaca de la Palma. Falling back, the skirmishers reported what they had found and Taylor prepared for his second battle in as many days.

Doubtlessly hoping to have a repeat performance of his artillery’s dominance the day before, Taylor ordered up “a battery of field artillery to sweep the position[.]” Lt. Randolph Ridgely, taking a cue from the largely ineffectual Mexican artillery fire the day before, brazenly pushed his battery up to within a couple hundred yards and began to spray the chaparral with canister rounds.[4]

While the artillery opened up, at least one infantry officer wrote that the cannons “had no effect upon them,” with the protection of the chaparral and resacas. Looking for a way to silence the Mexican pieces and clear the way for the infantry, Taylor turned to Cpt. Charles May, 2nd Dragoons, and ordered him to capture the Mexican guns covering the road.

May dashed forward, crying to his men, “Remember your regiment and follow your officers.” One of those officers was 2nd Lt. Alfred Pleasonton, who would eventually command the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps during the Gettysburg Campaign. The dragoons dashed down the road, swords flashing above their heads, closing in on the Mexican guns. As the Americans closed in, the Mexicans set linstocks to their guns, and the cannons “poured a terrible fire of grape and canister. . . which swept over the squadron. . .. Eighteen horses and seven brave men came in bloody mangled masses to the earth.” May’s men recovered the blasts and charged through the gun crews, dispelling the Mexicans and even capturing one of Arista’s lieutenants, Brig. Gen. Romulo Diaz de la Vega. But the dragoons’ momentum pushed them past the cannons towards Mexican infantry battalions that opened fire. The musketry scattered the dragoons, who, though retaining de la Vega, beat a hasty retreat back towards the American lines.[5]

Cpt. Charles May leads an attack at Resaca de la Palma (U.S. Army)

Cpt. Charles May leads an attack at Resaca de la Palma
(U.S. Army)

As May retreated past him, Taylor reportedly turned to Lt. Col. William Belknap, commanding one of Taylor’s demi-brigades and shouted, “Take these guns and by God, keep them!”[6]

Belknap’s men, the 5th and 8th Infantry, moved in on the Mexican guns. The infantry moved in and began to trade volleys with the Mexicans taking cover in the chaparral. Moving forward after each volley, the Americans closed the gap and hand-to-hand fighting broke out as both sides stabbed and swung their muskets like clubs. “My orders was to make free use of the bayonet, which was done as far it be, or as the enemy would permit,” Taylor wrote after the battle.[7]

While Belknap’s men battled on the Mexican right flank, on the left flank, more American infantry attempted to maneuver the Mexicans out of position. Closing in on the chaparral, though, ranks fell apart and the men went into battle not with their battalions, but rather companies and sometimes, even smaller units. Cpt. Philip Barbour wrote he “pushed on with 12 men of my company, all I could keep together in the thicket,” and 2nd Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, 4th Infantry, added, “The chapparel [sic] is so dense that you may be within five feet of a person and not know it.” In this challenging environment, though, the officers who would command great armies during the Civil War proved themselves. Without regimental commanders or Taylor guiding them, second lieutenants and captains took charge of their men and struggled through the chaparral.[8]

Breaking through the dense vegetation, the American infantry found the Mexican left flank and began to roll it up. Mexican cavalry tried to dispel the disjointed infantry, but the company-grade officers, again shining, worked together, forming hodgepodge companies of mix-matched battalions to fire back. Barbour’s men from the 3rd Infantry formed a line with men from the 4th Infantry and opened fire, Barbour wrote, “and killing three, drove the rest back on the road.” With the success in the American center, Lt. Ridgely now brought some of his cannons closer to the chaparral and opened fire with close-range canister, scattering the Mexican left flank. Barbour wrote, “having driven back their infantry a deafening shout of triumph went up from the whole of our men which struck such terror in the Mexican ranks that they fled in all directions.”[9]

Unlike at Palo Alto, where Arista calmly brought his men off the battlefield, the Mexican forces wildly retreated from Resaca de la Palma. They ran to the Rio Grande and splashed back across towards Matamoros. Pursuing the Mexicans, “Eight pieces of artillery, with a great a quantity of ammunition, three standards, and some one hundred prisoners have been taken,” Taylor later reported. He went on to say, “The enemy has recrossed the river, and I am sure will not again molest us on this bank.”[10]

Philip Barbour, 3rd U.S. Infantry (Journals of the Late Brevet Major  Philip Norbourne Barbour)

Philip Barbour, 3rd U.S. Infantry
(Journals of the Late Brevet Major
Philip Norbourne Barbour)

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma had higher American casualties, due to the nature of the close-range fighting in the confines of the chaparral. Taylor’s official losses were 45 killed and 98 wounded. Again, Mariano Arista’s men had higher losses, reporting, 154 killed, 205 wounded, and 156 missing, of which the majority of the missing were “likely drowned while attempting to swim the Rio Grande to escape the pursuing Americans.”[11]

Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma left Taylor’s men exuberant. “The affair of to-day [Resaca de la Palma] lasted from one to four o’clock, and proved the superiority of our infantry, as that of yesterday did of our artillery. We have whipped them in the open plain, and we have done so in the bushes, and I now believe the war will soon be ended,” George G. Meade wrote to his wife. 3rd Infantry 2nd Lt. Israel Richardson gloated “the best troops Mexico could produce were arrayed against us and in a strong position of their own choice, but the last general charge of our entire line with fixed bayonets they could not withstand[.]”[12]

Taylor’s two victories also ended Arista’s hopes for destroying the American forts along the Rio Grande. After Palo Alto, Arista called his besieging troops off from the forts to act as reinforcements, but after the defeat at Resaca de la Palma they all retreated to Matamoros, allowing Taylor to get to the forts and re-supply them and reinforce the battered walls.

The Mexican-American War’s first two battles had been fought, and both had been overwhelming tactical American victories, with Resaca de la Palma also being strategically decisive. Now all that was needed to legitimize the battles was an actual declaration of war.

The memory of the Mexican-American War also contributed to one Civil War battlefield. Returning Mexican War veterans named one Georgian town Resaca after the American victory of May 9, 1846. Eighteen years later to the day, Federal troops closed on Resaca, Georgia and began fighting the opening stages of the Atlanta Campaign.

______________________________________________________________

[1] Philip N. Barbour, Journals of the Late Brevet Major
Philip Norbourne Barbour
(New York City: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1936), 58-61.

[2] T.B. Thorpe, Our Army on the Rio Grande (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846), 93.

[3] Stephen A. Carney, Guns Along the Rio Grande
Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma  
(Washington, D.C.: United States Army, 2005), 21.

[4] Niles’ National Register, Gen. Zachary Taylor’s Official Letters from Point Isabel, His Brief Notes on the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma,”  May 30, 1846.

[5] Thorpe, 96-97.

[6] K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War: 1846-1848 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), 62.

[7] Zachary Taylor, Letters of Zachary Taylor: From the Battle-fields of the Mexican War (Rochester: N.p, 1908), 46.

[8] Barbour, 58-61; The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 01: 1837-1861, Edited by John Y. Simon, Southern Illinois University Press, 96.

[9] Barbour, 58-61.

[10] Niles’ National Register, Gen. Zachary Taylor’s Official Letters from Point Isabel, His Brief Notes on the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma,”  May 30, 1846.

[11] Carney, 26.

[12] The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade: Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913); Jack. C. Mason, Until Antietam: The Life and Letters of Israel B. Richardson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), 25.

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8 Responses to Mexican-American War 170th: The Battle of Resaca de la Palma

  1. Ron Vaughan says:

    Another great article! I note that you did not correct the West Point Atlas maps that show Arista’s strength as 6,000. This was close to correct, if one counted all the troops back in Matamoros. I note that you did have the accurate number of 3,500 for the two battles.
    It seems that Arista had good strategy in the days leading up to Palo Alto, and his deployment there made sense. However ever, his deployment the second day almost totally ignores the most likely American attack on his left. What was he thinking? Reportedly, some Mexicans felt he had betrayed them.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Hi Ron, I think that the Army map cites 6,000 because Arista call for help, taking troops away from the siege at the American forts. Not that all 6,000 on the battle field, but they are at Arista’s disposal, as you mention.
      Arista certainly carries the blame for the failure at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. He’s out of command by early June, and command of the Mexican forces fall to his second-in-command, Pedro de Ampudia in command, who will be responsible for the defeat at Monterrey, as we’ll get to. Arista does become one of Mexico’s presidents, however, so he has a brief shining light. I think Arista’s overconfidence came from his use of the chaparrals and resaca, thinking the Americans could be forced to come straight on. But as the American infantry proved, with effort, the chaparral could be defeated in small numbers, and that was Arista’s undoing.

      • Ron Vaughan says:

        Taylor claimed he fought 6,000, because Arista’s papers were captured, which detailed that his entire force at Matamoros, besieging Ft, Texas, and those facing Taylor added up to 5,700. Taylor apparently used the total for bragging rights, to say he beat 3 to 1 odds.
        As you commemorate the 170th anniversaries, I hope you do not over look the events connected with California and New Mexico. Thank you again for bringing the war to the group’s attention.

      • Ryan Quint says:

        Thanks for the follow-up Ron. As the history of the war progresses, I will admit that my focus will be on the operations of Taylor and Winfield Scott. However, fear not, because we do have some great pieces by other ECW writers in the works for operations in other theaters of war, as well as covering the Mexican perspective, as well as we can.

  2. Dave Powell says:

    And “Resaca” became a place in North Georgia – which, 17 years later, would become the scene of another battle – with some of the same players, I think.

  3. David Corbett says:

    Fine article-thanks !

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Thanks for the comment, and stick around! The war’s going to enter a bit of a lull as both sides take stock of the situation, but then comes the influx of volunteers and new West Point grads and we’re off to the races.

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