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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This third part of the post on the remarkable report, dated 16 February 1849, of U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton concerning the military and naval operations that took place in 1846-47 during the American invasion of Mexican California leaps ahead from the spirited revolt by Californios to recapture Los Angeles to Stockton’s response in coming months.

Anchored in the frigate Congress off San Pedro on 26 October 1846, a general order was issued by brevet captain and adjutant Jacob Zeilin on Stockton’s behalf stating that Captain Archibald Gillespie, whose imperious behavior to the locals precipitated their uprising, would, with fifty men, land at San Pedro at 4 a.m. “to surprise the enemy.”

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Care was to be taken so that “the cars of the boats must be muffled, and the men pull [their oars] without the least noise, and perfect silence must be observed.”  Should Gillespie find the needed assistance “he will fire a rocket” to signal other boats from the ships to come ashore.  On the other hand, if he did not meet opposition in seizing any buildings, he was to conceal his men “so as to shoot any spies that many venture inside of rifle range,” though Zeilin was quick to add “never shooting too quick [original italics].”

If Gillespie did not need help, the remaining forces were then to land at 8:30 and then relieve the captain and his men so they could have their breakfast,  Otherwise, those troops following immediately on his signal requesting assistance were to be led by Captain William Mervine from the Savannah and Lieutenant John W. Livingston of the Congress, respectively, though Stockton “intends to lead on the attack, if there be one, in person.”

Two days later, another general order issued under Stockton’s directive by Zeilin, by which the commodore “comments the determined courage with which the officers, sailors, and marines landed (in despite of the false alarm as to the enemy’s force) and again hoisted the American standard at San Pedro.”

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Stockton added that, because of his duties as well as “the entire want of camp equipage, or other necessary accommodation.” he remained on board the Congress while “the troops are in camp on the beach,” but he assured his “brave comrades” that “he will superintend and direct all your operations, and when in danger he will be, as he was yesterday morning, in the midst of you.”

He continued that all men had to be prepared to immediately “march to the Puebla [sic, of Los Angeles] to support Major Frémont’s volunteers, or to go on board of ship to the relief of our gallant brothers in arms at San Diego and Monterey, who are threatened with an attack by overwhelming forces.”  Stockton concluded by telling his “brave men” that he was “satisfied you will give the most willing aid to all his operations in defense of the honor and glory of our country.”

As mentioned in part two, however, Frémont did not head south as he and Stockton had planned to take back Los Angeles, but remained in the north stating he did not have the supplies necessary for the trip and that the threat of rebellion in the north was too grave.  Any attempt to march towards Los Angeles was thwarted, as well, by Californio resistance, leading Stockton to abandon the attempt and move south to San Diego to regroup with reinforcements and supplies for a final push to take back the City of Angels.

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The next document in the report, then, is his missive to Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft from headquarters at “Ciudad de los Angeles,” dated 11 January 1847.  In it he mentioned his last letter describing the defeat of Mervine in the attempt to march from San Pedro and Frémont’s failure to leave Monterey “since which time I have not heard from him,” as well as Stockton’s being “surrounded by the insurgents at San Diego, and entirely destitute of all means of transportation.”

Moreover, the recently arrived overland Army force of General Stephen Watts Kearny was surprised on 6 December by Californios led by General Andrés Pico, brother of the departed governor Pío Pico, at San Pasqual and pummeled into an ignominious defeat because of rain, extremely poor positioning, fatigue and other issues.

This included securing animals 240 miles south of San Diego, in Baja California, and driving them up so they could be used in the march to Los Angeles.  Stockton continued:

I have now the honor to inform you that it has pleased God to crown our poor efforts to put down the rebellion, and to retrieve the credit of our arms with the most complete success.  The insurgents again elated by the defeat of General Kearny at San Pasqual, and the capture of one of his guns, determined with his whole force to meet us on our march from San Diego to this place, and to decide the fate of the territory by a general battle.

On 29 December, Stockton and his force headed north from San Diego, including 600 men from four ships (the Portsmouth and the Cyane in addition to the others mentioned above), sixty dragoons from Kearny’s troops, and sixty mounted riflemen under Gillespie.

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The 150-mile march took ten days “and found the rebels, on the 8th day of January [1847], in a strong position on the high bank of the ‘Rio San Gabriel,’ with six hundred mounted men, and four pieces of artillery, prepared to dispute our passage across that river.”  The location of this site was along the Rio Hondo (the current San Gabriel channel created in floods just over twenty years later) in the City of Montebello.

Stockton continued that his troops crossed the river “against the galling fire of the enemy, without exchanging a shot” until they reached the west bank “when the fight became more general.”  The result was that “our troops having repelled a charge of the enemy, charged up the bank in a most gallant manner, and gained a most complete victory over the insurgent army.”

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On the 9th, the Americans moved across “the ‘Mesa’ to this place,” where “the insurgents made another desperate effort to save the capital and their own necks” by hunkering down in a ravine.  There “they opened a brisk fire from their field pieces on our right flank, and at the same time charged both on our front and rear.”  This was beaten back and the Californios “fled and permitted us the next morning to march into town without any further operation.”

Having “rescued the country from the hands of the insurgents,” Stockton lamented the continuing absence of Frémont because this “will enable most of the Mexican officers, who have broken their parole, to escape to Sonora” in northern Mexico.  But, he was “happy to say that our loss in killed and wounded does not exceed twenty, whilst we are informed that the enemy has lost between seventy and eighty.”

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Stockton ended his missive by promising to send further details of the two conflicts “and the gallant conduct of the officers and men under my command, with their names.”  That day’s general order to his troops from the new headquarters at Los Angeles congratulated officers and enlisted men for “the brilliant victories” as well as “once more taking possession of the ‘Ciudad de los Angeles.”

He added that he was impressed by “their gallantry and good conduct” and “the steady courage” of his men, the latter particularly cited in the crossing of the Rio Hondo “against the galling fire of the enemy” and “their gallant charge up the banks,” which, he claimed “has perhaps never been surpassed.”  As for the 9th, he praised their deflection of the Californio attack with “cool determination,” ending with the statement that the force “extorted the admiration of the enemy and deserves the best thanks for their countrymen.”

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A postscript noted that he included a translation of a letter from Stockton’s counterpart, José María Flores “to negociate [sic] a peace honorable to both nations.”  The commodore noted he provided a verbal answer “to his renowned general and commander-in-chief,” but as Flores “violated his honor,” Stockton “would not treat with him nor write to him.

Flores’ correspondence, dated 1 January 1847 from the “Civil and Military Government of the Department of California,” began by stating that “he has been informed . . . [that] the differences which have altered the relations of friendship” between the U.S. and Mexico “have ceased.”  Flores added that “several foreign gentlemen, settled in this country” asked the general to arrange an understanding with Stockton “in consequence of the evils which all feel are caused by the unjust war you wage.”

The general affirmed that he was “animated with the strongest wishes for the return of peace, [and] it would be most painful to him not to have taken the means to avoid the useless effusion of human blood” by seeking an agreement to end the conflict.  He added

The undersigned flatters himself with this hope, and for that reason has thought it opportune to direct you this note, which will be placed in your hands by Messrs. Julian [William] Workman and Charles Flugge, who have voluntarily offered themselves to act as mediators.

Still, Flores could not resist pronouncing that, should Stockton not accept the idea of a truce “to the evils under which this unfortunate country, of which you alone are the cause, may the terrible consequences of your want of consideration fall upon your head.”  He continued that his troops would “bury themselves under the ruins of their country, combating to the last moment, before consenting to the tyranny and ominous discretionary power” of the invaders.

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Having fired this riposte at Stockton, Flores ended by noting that he “still confides you will give a satisfactory solution to this affair, and in the mean time has the honor of offering to you the assurance of his consideration and private esteem.”

Other accounts, including one by an unidentified member of Stockton’s force who wrote about it in the Los Angeles Star newspaper in 1861, stated that Workman was able to convince Stockton to issue a general amnesty to any Californios participating in the remaining conflicts against the Americans, meaning the two battles the commodore discussed above.

Next, we move to the postwar portion of this fascinating and revealing report.

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