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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we continue this post examining the published report of U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton, dated 16 February 1849, and comprising material relating to military and naval operations in California during the 1846-47 campaign in the Mexican-American War, we pick up with documents at the end of 1846.

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On 23 November, Stockton wrote a lengthy dispatch from his headquarters at San Diego to Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, in which he referred to the recent rebellion of the Californios against American forces, stating “all the Mexican officers in the territory, with the exception of one or two, had violated their oaths, and again taken up arms against the United States.”

The commodore continued that,

the war in California being, as I supposed at an end . . . I was about to transfer the government of California to other hands . . . when I was informed by express that the Mexican officers had violated their oaths, and commenced anew the war by a midnight attack on the party of fifty men left at Ciudad de los Angeles.

What was left unsaid was that the garrison Stockton left at Los Angeles after it was taken in August was commanded by Captain Archibald Gillespie, whose heavy-handed treatment of the Californios led directly to the uprising.  Stockton referred then to a proclamation by José María Flores, commander of Californio forces, who was on parole, and which “will give you some idea of the disposition of those depraved men.

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The plan was to have Major John C. Frémont, then in the north, to bring his troops to San Francisco where Stockton was so that two could go in two vessels: Frémont to “surprise the enemy at Santa Barbara,” while Stockton was to head for San Pedro “and march to the city, where I would certainly be able to calculate within a day or two, the time I would receive his co-operation.”  He also ordered a ship to go to San Pedro to render assistance to Gillespie.  Stockton wound up going to Monterey, though, because of statements that an attack on American forces was imminent there.

Stockton, having fortified Monterey, sailed to Santa Barbara, only to find that Frémont was not yet there for some reason, and then moved on to San Pedro.  There he learned from Captain Mervine of the Savannah that Gillespie and his fifty men were allowed to retreat to that location, while Mervine marched toward Los Angeles but “he had an engagement  . . . [and] had not taken any artillery with him, and they had driven back to his ship, with the loss of four men killed and some wounded.”  Mervine then waited for Stockton.

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Despite Mervine’s lack of foresight in not bringing the armaments that might have beaten back the Californios, Stockton observed that, because the locals were renowned horsemen, “in truth, nothing short of a locomotive engine can catch them [sic] well mounted fellows.”  The commodore added with a heaping helping of disdain,

Elated by this transient success, which the enemy, with his usual want to veracity, magnified into a great victory, they collected in large bodies on all the adjacent hills [Signal Hill, Palos Verdes, etc.], and would not permit a hoof except their own horses to be within fifty miles of San Pedro . . . [I] therefore determined to do so in the face of their boasting insolence, and there again to hoist the glorious stars in the presence of their horse covered hills.

This strange statement belies the lack of coordination by the Americans while denigrating the success of the locals defending their homeland against the invaders.  It got even weirder, however.

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Stockton explained that, when his order to land was given, the volunteers among the Americans “failed to land in time, in consequence of a fancied force of the enemy,” in other words, it was assumed there were far more Californios in the field than there actually were.

The marines and sailors, however, did land “and performed the service in a most gallant manner,” with the result that “the enemy fired a few muskets without harm and fled,” so that the Americans planted the stars and stripes there.  These forces then camped for several days while “the insurgents” remained on the nearby hills.

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Stockton’s men “became almost worn out by chasing and skirmishing with and watching them” but did not further engage because “I had given up all hope of the co-operation of Major Frémont,” who often followed his own orders and delayed his movement south as ordered by Stockton as will be discussed below.  Additionally, the Californios drove off everything that could be used as provisions by the Americans “for our march to the city” of Los Angeles.

The commodore then decided to get back on ship and head south “to get animals somewhere along the coast, before the enemy could know or prevent it, and to mount my own men, and march to the city by the southern route.”  The fragmented American presence turned the situation into a farce in the face of a force of determined Californios, who lacked the weaponry but not the will to fight for their territory.

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When Stockton arrived in San Diego, he received a message from Frémont claiming that locals in Monterey took all the horses and cattle so that there were not enough for transportation and supplies, which caused the delay in moving south.  The major stated he would quell an insurrection where he was, obtain the horses and supplies and then head south.  The commodore then returned to San Pedro and sent Mervine and the Savannah to Monterey to assist.

Back in San Diego, Stockton reported that plenty of animals were obtained, though the Californios there launched an attack that was “soon driven back, with the loss of two men and horses killed, and four wounded.”  There were also near daily skirmishes with the loss of one American killed and another injured.  He added that, if he could procure another 100 horses, “before long, I expect to be a general of dragoons, as well as commodore, governor, and commander-in-chief [italic in the original,” a prideful statement, to be sure.

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It should be noted that Stockton’s grand plan, under the assumption that California was so easily pacified, was announced in a 19 September letter to Mervine that he and Frémont would sail to Mazatlán or Acapulco and “to land and fight our way to the city of Mexico as I can” so that “I would that we might shake hands with General Taylor at the gates of Mexico.”  He wrote to Frémont at the end of that month that he wanted to know where 1,000 men were obtained for that planned movement, observing that time “is more precious than ‘rubies’.”

Three days after that last message, on 1 October, Flores issued his proclamation from Los Angeles to his fellow Californios noting that it had been a month and a half since the “lamentable fatality, fruit of the cowardice and inability of the first authorities of the department [General José Castro, Governor Pío Pico and others, presumably]” and that “we behold ourselves subjugated and oppressed by an insignificant force of adventurers of the United States of America, and placing us in a worse condition than that of slaves.”

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He blasted “despotic and arbitrary laws” along with “contributions and onerous burdens” which would only bring “the ruin of our industry and agriculture,” leading to the loss of property.  He asked

And shall we be capable to allow ourselves to be subjugated, and to accept, by our silence, the weighty chains of slavery?  Shall we permit to be lost the soil inherited from our fathers, which cost them so much blood and so many sacrifices?  Shall we make our families victims of the most barbarous slavery?  Shall we wait to see our wives violated—our innocent children punished by the American whips—our property sacked—our temples profaned—and, lastly, to drag through an existence full of insult and shame?   No! a thousand times no! Countrymen, first death!

Flores, who was nothing, if not a powerful purveyor of populist rhetoric in the face of the invasion of his homeland, asked his fellows if they didn’t feel their hearts beat with anger and their blood boil, so that they could “rise to take up arms to destroy our oppressors.”  He offered eight articles in his proclamation, said to be signed by more than 300 persons, including

  • the Californios intended to remain part of Mexico “free and independent”
  • that any authority granted by America “are held null and void”
  • that all “North Americans” as enemies of Mexico were to be expelled
  • that all Mexicans from ages 15 to 60, who did not take up arms against the Americans “are declared traitors and under pain of death”
  • that any Mexicans or foreigners who aided Americans were to be treated likewise
  • that the property of Americans who aided the enemy was to be confiscated and used for war expenses and those “persons shall be taken to the interior of the republic”
  • that anyone opposing Flores’ plan was to “be punished with arms; and
  • residents of Santa Barbara “and the district of the north” would be asked to join in his campaign.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with more fascinating correspondence and details from this vital document concerning the prosecution of the Mexican-American War in California.

One thought

  1. When one takes a look at the statements and correspondence of the principals involved on the American side (and at the proceedings of Fremont’s court martial), it is amazing that they were able to accomplish anything. So much in-fighting and finger-pointing!

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