Commodore Robert F. Stockton’s Report on Military and Naval Operations in California, 16 February 1849, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

America’s first imperial war, the Mexican-American War, reached Alta or Upper California in summer 1846 and fighting ended officially with the second conquest of Los Angeles the following January.  On this day in 1849, a report was filed with the United States Senate by Secretary of the Navy John Y. Mason bundling the dispatches of Commodore Robert F. Stockton concerning his reporting of operations as naval commander.

The first document was dated 18 September 1846 and was penned by Stockton from Monterrey, the longtime capital of Mexican Alta California.  In the missive, the commodore referred to instructions left to his predecessor, Commodore John D. Sloat, stating that these “had been anticipated and executed” with a report sent back to Washington, including overland.

The images here are from the Report of the Secretary of Navy Communicating Copies of Commodore Stockton’s Despatches, Relating to the Military and Naval Operations in California, dated 16 February 1849, which is in the Homestead’s collection.

Stockton noted that some artillery had been seized in the recent campaign (a few spiked to render them useless, but others in good condition) and that “the elections as far as hard from have been regularly held, and the proper officers elected.”  This included the use of offices as carryovers from the Mexican period, such as alcaldes (the equivalents of mayors), ayunamientos (town councils) and judicial positions.  The commodore added that “the people are getting over their first alarm, and our friends are not now afraid to avow themselves.”

He alluded to the fact that while Governor Pío Pico and General José Castro remained in California with “so large a force together,” there was “a belief that we were not willing to run the hazard of a fight, and that if we did we must be beaten.”  Moreover, Stockton continued, “no one, foreigner or native, dared aid us even with advice or information.”  Since Pico and Castro “have been driven out,” however, “the aspect of things is changed, and all is going on as well as we ought to desire.”  Messages between Castro and a military commander at Mazatlán called for troop movements into California to fight the Americans, “but it is too late.”


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Stockton offered two main points in his report; first, that Monterrey and San Francisco were vulnerable to attacks from the interior, so he advised that “we must, therefore, hold the country along the sea coast as far south as St. Lucas [Cabo San Lucas in Baja California], and make the river Gila an a line drawn from that river across to the Del Norte the southern boundary, all of which is in our possession.”  The second point was that the territory in a map that he was to send east “should be retained by the United States, as indispensable to preserve the lives and property of our fellow citizens residing here, as well as to secure anything like permanent peace.”

Included in the missive were documents to and from California military officials, the earliest being from 7 August 1846 “on the road to San Pedro,” where Stockton was then anchored, when José María Flores, who later assumed overall control of military operations for the Californios when Castro fled and Pablo de la Guerra of Santa Barbara wrote Stockton for “explanations” of American actions and to ask “if we will be well received, according to the rights of war” in any discussions.  Stockton’s reply from the “Bay of San Pedro” was to the affirmative.

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Later that day, from “Head-quarters in the Mesa” in the plains south of Los Angeles, Castro sent a missive to Stockton “asking explanations on the conduct that he proposes to follow” and a garbled translation reads:

Since knowing that he wishes to enter into conferences on what is most convenient to the interests of both countries, the undersigned cannot see with serenity one pretend, with flattering expressions of peace, and without the formality that war between polished nations permits, to make an invasion in the terms that your lordship has verified it.

Castro added that he wanted “to avoid all the disasters that follow a war like that which your lordship prepares” and sent Flores and de la Guerra “to know the wishes of your lordship” when it came to any conferences held between the two parties.  He followed by averring “it must be on the base that all hostile movements must be suspended by both forces.”

In his reply, Stockton was terse in answer to Castro’s lengthy formalities, stating that he, too, deplored the state of war and that “I do not desire to do more than my duty calls upon me to do.”  While he didn’t want to make war on the people of California, “I must war against her until she ceases to be a part of the Mexican territory.  This is my plain duty.”

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The only way in which military operations could end was if “California will declare her independence under the protection of the flag of the United States.” Simply put, the commodore concluded, “if, therefore, you will agree to hoist the American flag in California, I will stop my forces and negotiate the treaty.”

It took three days for Castro to respond and this was “with inexpressible surprise” concerning Stockton’s statement and “the insidious contents of that note, and the degrading proposition which it involved.”  This spurred the ceremonious Castro to tell his opponent that he would “prove to you to what degree I am disposed to sacrifice myself to preserve without stain the position I hold.”

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In answer to Stockton’s blunt statement of his duty to carry out hostilities until California was part of the United States, Castro wrote that he was “resolved to defend its integrity at all hazards, and to repel an aggression which, like yours, has no example in the civilized world—and more, if one attends to that, yet there is no expressed declaration of war between both nations.”  Actually, in May, the United States Senate voted 40-2 to declare war on its southern neighbor and Mexico responded likewise—it appears Castro was not aware of these events.

Responding further to Stockton’s message and intent, Castro issued the rejoinder that “never shall I consent to commit such a low act,” as raising the American flag, but “supposing that I should intend it, I would not do it under the degrading conditions which you propose.”  The idea of sacrificing California and “her liberty . . . offered her at the muzzle of the cannon” was so repugnant that the commander said “I will take care that this part of the Mexican republic . . . does not seal in this mode her disgrace and slavery.”

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The rhetoric rose as Castro told Stockton that the commodore must think “that not a drop of Mexican blood circulates in my veins, and that I am ignorant of my attributes, you offer me the most shameful of your propositions.”  As to raising the flag, there was a simple response: “Never, never, never.”  Any such action would come only with a level of force “making you responsible for all the evils and misfortunes that may be occasioned in a war so unjust as that which will be declared against this Pacific department.”

Notably, Stockton wrote his superior in Washington that he “did not answer his last letter, but by a verbal message, which does not properly belong to history.”  It certainly did and it is interesting that the commodore chose to not record this in the official report.

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Then, there is a translation of a letter from Mazatlán, dated 8 August 1846 by Lieutenant Colonel Rafael Telles [shown as “Felles” in the report], military commander there, to Castro, in which he wrote:

I have learned with true grief that the perfidious Yankees have taken possession of or invaded this department, which fatal event must keep you, as well as all good Mexicans to that territory, in the greatest agony.  But there is no despair; for, although at present Mexicans disagree in consequence of the bad administration of General Paredes [Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga, who was president through one of a regular series of coups d’etat for half of 1846], soon I believe that cause of discord will cease, and all will unite to recognize our rights and to overthrow the insolent usurper of the north.

After attacking “some selfish people” acting against the interests of California and Mexico broadly, Telles claimed that if the turmoil in the latter could be worked out, “the Californians can trust they will not have the sorrow again to see on their shores those wicked men, nor any others that may resemble them.”  That accomplished, he concludes, “perhaps soon I shall have the pleasure of marching to that country.”

Such an action never happened and the next document is Stockton’s commission written at Los Angeles on 31 August, which had been taken by the Americans, to Captain Archibald Gillespie, who the commodore left at that pueblo to maintain order.  Subscribing himself as governor and commander-in-chief of California (a claim subsequently challenged by Army General Stephen W. Kearny and by Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont), Stockton wrote Gillespie that “martial law will continue in force throughout the whole territory” but that “you will permit the civil officers of the government to proceed in the exercise of their proper functions, nor will you interfere in their duties,” except for security reasons.

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Those friendly to the Americans were to be permitted “to be out themselves, and to send their servants out before sunrise” as well as “to carry arms with them” if they were needed for protection.  Blank commission forms were enclosed for Gillespie to issue to “prefects and alcaldes, that in case the people should fail to elect either of those officers . . . you may fill up the blank with the name of some one you may think is qualified,” sending these forms to the commodore at San Francisco.

Stockton ended by requesting Gillespie to “write to me, as to the state of the country, and the feelings of the people within the department.”  Significantly, a postscript was added in which the commodore stated “sent that you may see how I have tempered the rigors of indispensable military law, with the appliances of peace.”

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On 2 September, Stockton issued a general order concerning the organization of an American army in California, which was divided into three military departments with a commander for each and for which there was to be a commandant for the whole of California, to which the departmental commanders would report.  Stockton, as governor, would “from time to time” issue directions to the overall commanding officer.

But, those “appliances” mentioned on 31 August quickly broke down in Los Angeles through the rash and impetuous behavior of Gillespie in the implementation of Stockton’s commission and the execution of martial law.  The near-total alienation of Spanish-speaking Californios and others fomented a revolt, which quickly removed Gillespie from his position of authority and unceremoniously forced his retreat to a ship anchored off San Pedro.

We’ll return with a second part to this post on Monday.

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