by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We conclude this post concerning the fascinating and instructive reports of February 1849 by U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton regarding military and naval operations in California during the Mexican-American War in 1846-47 with the last few pages of the document, including a lengthy letter from Stockton to Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, dated 5 February 1847.
The missive was written to explain, in great detail, what transpired at the end of the war as Stockton battled with Army Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny over who exercised authority over California as it was conquered by the United States.
Stockton, who commenced military action during the summer and fall during which he subdued the region only to have rebels strike back in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, claimed that he’d established a civil government and installed its officers, despite the temporary obstruction caused by the rebellion.
Kearny, on the other hand, who pacified New Mexico and was about four days into the march to California when he learned of the subjugation on the coast, had instructions from President James K. Polk to conquer California and then oversee its administration. When he tried to assert his authority, even after his disastrous defeat at the Battle of San Pasqual to Californios led by Andrés Pico and then Stockton commanded the force that marched north to take Los Angeles for a second time in early January.
Notably, it was Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont who arranged with Pico a capitulation at Cahuenga Pass that marked the official end of hostilities, an act agreed to by Stockton who then named Frémont active governor while he intended to sail to the west coast of Mexico to pursue military action that, he hoped, would culminate in meeting General Zachary Taylor at Mexico City.
This was delayed, however, by the brewing conflict with Kearny, who demanded Stockton yield to his authority, with the latter refusing claiming that his initial seizure of California and the installation of a government trumped Kearny’s orders. The general, in turn, stated that the complete conquest of the region did not occur until after the second seizure of Los Angeles, at which he was present. Therefore, he stood ready to carry out the orders given to him by Polk.
Consequently, on 5 February 1847, from the U.S. frigate Congress anchored at San Diego. Stockton wrote Bancroft to fully explain the situation, writing “I now proceed (as it is my duty to do) to give you a more detailed and circumstantial account of the battles on the 8th and 9th, as well as the preparations which preceded them.”
The commodore reiterated the situation when he arrived in San Diego after a failed campaign to march upon Los Angeles. He noted that he needed many provisions and that San Diego was full of what he called “insurgents” making the attempt to re-fortify and provision his troops all the more challenging. This was completed by 29 December 1846 and the march north began.
Stockton provided many names of officers and others who were involved in the move north towards Los Angeles, including Dr. John S. Griffin, who stayed in Los Angeles after war’s end and became one of the most prominent residents of the region. Griffin’s medical practice was very successful and he parlayed that into real estate investment’s including in Pasadena. Griffin may have been the source for an 1861 article in the Los Angeles Star that noted William Workman’s negotiation with Stockton concerning an amnesty for Californios in the upcoming battles near Los Angeles that ended the war in California.
William H. Emory, a captain with the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, was an accomplished surveyor and map-maker who came with Kearney from New Mexico. In 1848, his report of the journey was published by Congress and was widely known for its excellent maps and descriptions of the terrain and peoples (Indians and Mexicans, most importantly). Emory later worked on the U.S.-Mexico boundary and served with distinction in the Civil War as a colonel in the regular army and as a major general of volunteers.
A distinctive member of the American forces was Miguel de Pedrorena, a native of Madrid who resided in Peru before settling in San Diego in the late 1830s. He married María Antonia Estudillo, of a prominent family in that pueblo, and owned a couple of ranchos. He was a rare Spanish-speaking resident of California who joined the United States force in the view that conquest was inevitable and rose to the rank of captain. Pedrorena was a member of the convention that created California’s first constitution in late 1849, but died shortly after. One of his daughters married Joseph Wolfskill, son of William Wolfskill of Los Angeles.
Stockton’s description of the northward march to that pueblo is dramatic and seems reminiscent to a degree of Valley Forge:
Our men were badly clothed, and their shoes generally made by themselves out of canvass [sic]. It was very cold, and the roads heavy. Our animals were all poor and weak, some of the giving out daily, which much hard work to the men in dragging the heavy carts, loaded with ammunition and provisions, through deep sands and up steep ascents, and the prospect before us was far from being that which we might have desired; but nothing could break down the fine spirits of theose under my command; or cool their readiness and ardor to perform their dutyl and they went through the whole march of one hundred and fort-five miles with alacrity and cheerfulness.
While some Californios were seen along the march (no mention made of the appearance on 4 January of Workman and Charles Flugge at the behest of José María Flores to seek out potential peace terms), it was not until “a confidential person was sent to ascertain, if possible, their position; he returned and informed me that the enemy were in force between us and the ‘Rio San Gabriel.” Perhaps this was Pedrorena, but, in any case, this led to the battle along what is now called the Rio Hondo on 8 January 1847.
As Stockton mentioned those who were in command of the various companies involved in the conflict, he mentioned two other Californios in the service of the Americans, these being Captain Santiago E. Argüello and Lieutenant Luis Argüello of a prominent San Diego family, these men forming part of “the guard of the day,” with the former described as head of a “company of Californians.”
The commodore went into some detail about the American advance across the Rio Hondo, described as about 50 yards wide, and the ineffectual round balls and grape shot fired by the Californios. It was the rear guard that had some trouble with sand in the riverbed for the baggage carts, but even then “only one man [was] killed and one wounded, notwithstanding the enemy kept up an incessant fire from the heights” of the Montebello Hills.
Once across, the Americans positioned into flanks and deployed a 9-pound gun that delivered a direct hit on a Californio cannon, disabling it and “astounding the enemy so much.” With some charging by the locals fended off by various companies on the American flanks, it was decided to charge “the heights” with the Californios “centre contested for a few moments, then [they] broke in retreat.” One wing of the locals fled across the river, while another withdrew behind its artillery in a ravine, with American artillery fire enough so that they were “driven from their guns, until they finally retreated.”
The Americans lost two men with nine wounded, while those of the Californios could not be determined “as they carried away both killed and wounded upon their horses.” Camp was made and, while “the pickets having been fired upon,” soldiers were “soon under arms in the most perfect order,” though no further action was met with.
On the morning of the 9th, Captain Jacob Zeilin and thirty marines went to a rancho three-quarters of a mile away, probably the Lugo family headquarters of Rancho San Antonio, and learned that no enemy soldiers were in the area, so at 9 o’clock, the Americans marched “over the plain of the Mesa, towards Ciudad de los Angeles” about six miles before meeting a deployment of Californios, this being in the vicinity of the present city of Vernon.
An exchange of artillery fire was followed by a charge by the Californios, but return fire “from the musketry” of two companies and from cabineers “being well delivered . . . their courage failed and caused them to draw off.” More small artillery fire followed and “the Californians now retreated, and we pursued our march along the Mesa, and crossed the Rio San Fernando [Los Angeles] about three miles below the town, where the Americans camped, having lost one man with five wounded. In all, he reported three dead and fourteen wounded and gave the general casualties of the locals at from 70 to 80.
On the 10th, the march to Los Angeles started late because of cold and the short distance to get to the pueblo and Stockton continued:
We entered the city of the Angels, our band playing as we marched up the principal street [Main Street] to the square [Plaza], our progress being slightly molested by a few drunken fellows who remained about the town. The riflemen, having been sent to the heights commanding the town [what became Fort Moore west of the Plaza], were soon followed [by others] . . .
Captain Archibald Gillespie was given the privilege of raising the American flag, having had to take down the Stars and Stripes when he was unceremoniously removed by the Californio revolt several months before. With this, Stockton concluded by writing, “my narrative is done. Our friends and the territory have been rescued.” He added that “we had, of course, to simplify military tactics for our own use” during the campaign, mainly to order troops to form lines and squares, fire, repel charges, and to charge.
Stockton highlighted that “celerity and accuracy” of the men under his command “even to the rapid movements of the Californian cavalry,” adding that his sailors, with few weapons, were “victorious over an equal number of the best horsemen in the world, well mounted and well armed with carbines and pistols and lances.”
The commodore concluded by commending “these gallant officers and men for their heroism . . . [and] recommend them to you for the greatest reward a patriot may claim—the approbation of the country.”
On 11 January, Emory, serving as an acting adjutant general gave Stockton a brief listing of the numbers of casualties in both battles, while Dr. Griffin provided, on the same date, a detailed listing by name of those who were killed and wounded. One of the dead was “shot by accident,” which might indicate friendly fire or a self-inflicted wound. One of those injured was Gillespie, though it was one where he was “slightly contused by spent balls.”
This report is an important one concerning American actions in the conquest of Los Angeles and California in late 1846 and very early 1847, including brief mention of William Workman’s role as a negotiator on behalf of the Californios, perhaps because he was British and was seen as something of a neutral party.
As for the conflict between Stockton and Kearny, Neal Harlow in California Conquered, his detailed study of the war in California, identified Stockton and Frémont as egotistical, difficult and too eager to assume authority not in their purview, while Kearny was balanced, patient and lacking in self-interest and, therefore, was the right figure to take over the government of California in the postwar period.
Kearny moved swiftly to thwart Frémont’s determined efforts to assume the governorship he felt he was entitled to maintain and had “The Pathfinder” arrested and sent east for court-martial. Charged with mutiny, disobedience, and conduct prejudicial to order and discipline, Frémont was found guilty on all county (one was for an I.O.U. of $5,000 given to F.P.F. Temple for a little island in San Francisco Bay received from William Workman, who was granted it by Governor Pío Pico in 1846, called Alcatraz. The island was eventually seized as federal property and remains so as a national park.)
Clemency was recommended, however, and Frémont resigned his commission even as Polk only recognized two guilty counts and ordered him to return to duty. Frémont returned to California, obtained a large rancho called Mariposa in the Sierra Nevada foothills, won election as one of the state’s first senators and ran as the first Republican candidate for president in 1856, though he lost.
Kearny went to Mexico for the remainder of the war, serving briefly as Mexico City’s military governor and died shortly after the end of the hostilities, in October 1848, on the Caribbean coast of yellow fever. Stockton, seeking official approval for his actions contrary to those of Kearny, remained in California for a period that traveled overland to the east and met with President Polk in November, but the meeting apparently was short and uneventful. He retired in 1850, won election as a senator from New Jersey the next year though served just two years to run a canal company. During the Civil War, he was appointed militia commander for New Jersey and died in October 1866.