“The Successful Maintenance of Our Belligerent Rights”: The Mexican-American War in Los Angeles from a Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 6 December 1847

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s meeting of the Homestead’s Fiction Book Club included a discussion of Winston Groom’s Kearny’s March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847 detailing the remarkable march of Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny with his Army of the West in June 1846 from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after receiving orders from Washington to head to California to seize that portion of Mexico.  There was a long stay at Santa Fé, New Mexico after which the journey continued.

After his volunteers left from there to go fight in Mexico and then meeting famed scout Kit Carson (a former apprentice at the saddlery of William Workman’s brother David at Franklin, Missouri some two decades earlier), Kearny pared his force down to just one hundred dragoons and scouts, mounted on mules.

While on the difficult trip through the deserts of what became Arizona, the general learned that the Californios revolted after an initial conquest of Los Angeles by Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton.  Pushing ahead rapidly, while food and water ran scarce, Kearny and his men finally arrived in bad condition into the area near San Diego in early December.

Coming upon Californio horsemen at San Pasqual, Kearny made a fateful decision to attack, despite recent rains that damaged weapons, a poor position, and the utter lack of knowledge of the superior horsemanship and use of lancers by the locals.  The battle was a thorough drubbing inflicted upon the Americans by the Californios, led by General Andrés Pico, who had almost no casualties, while 22 American were killed and Kearny seriously wounded.


Pursued by locals, Kearny and his much-reduced force stumbled into San Diego and joined by Stockton’s contingent, which was readying for a northern march along the coast to Los Angeles to retake that pueblo.  The two military leaders quickly butted heads over leadership, with Stockton taking the position that he’d done all the work in recent months to subdue California, while Kearny asserted his authority based on the orders he was given while in Kansas.

Their combined forces reached San Juan Capistrano early in January 1847, where they were met by envoys from José María Flores, a Californio commander.  One of these men was William Workman, whose British origins perhaps enabled him to serve as something of a neutral in the conflict.  The purpose was to arrange an amnesty for those locals who to defend Los Angeles in the impending battle.

A few days later, American and Mexican forces engaged at two battles near Los Angeles on the 8th and 9th.  The Americans seized the upper hand and the Californios retreated, allowing the former to march into the pueblo on the 10th, where they were met by Workman and two others wielding a flag of truce.

Meantime, John C. Frémont, who’d been present for the first capture of Los Angeles, arrived a couple of days afterward, having missed the planned rendezvous with Stockton.  Despite this, Frémont took it upon himself to arrange the Treaty of Cahuenga in today’s Universal City with General Andrés Pico, though it was not really his place to do so.

In the aftermath of the second seizure of Los Angeles, Stockton headed south to continue the campaign in Mexico and appointed Frémont as military governor of California.  Kearny fumed with what he considered subordination from the impetuous Frémont, though it took fresh reinforcements before the general could take full control of the situation.


After Kearny assumed responsibility for the postwar situation in California and established a civil government, he appointed a new military governor, Richard B. Mason.  He then headed back to Washington, but also arrested Frémont and had him taken to the nation’s capital to face a court-martial for various charges.

Though the tribunal found Frémont guilty, the proceedings did not make any of the main figures, including Stockton and Kearny look good.  President James K. Polk accepted almost all of the charges, but then ordered Frémont to report for duty, though the offended Pathfinder (famed for his explorations of the West in the early Forties) resigned his commission in protest.

As for Kearny, he was ordered to Mexico, became the military commander at Veracruz and then at the nation’s capital.  He contracted yellow fever and this, along with his weakened health from his injuries at San Pasqual, led to the end of his career.  Not long afterward, on 31 October 1848, Kearny died at St. Louis.

My part of the discussion was to discuss the broader context of the situation involving the American movement west, the threat of war with Mexico, the perilous exposure of Alta California, the infighting within the Mexican department, and the problems involved with the conflicts between Frémont, Kearny and Stockton; among other elements.

Among the artifacts from the museum’s collection that were brought to the discussion was an original map of the battle that took place along the Rio Hondo in January 1847 that opened the way for the American reconquest of Los Angeles and two federal reports, one from the House of Representatives and the other from the Senate, dealing with issues relating to the California campaign and both of which have been highlighted here before.


Tonight’s featured object from the collection is a Report of the Secretary of the Navy, John Y. Mason, dated 6 December 1847.  While the bulk of the report consists of reports and charts relating to the supplying of Navy ships, yards and docks; pay for enlisted personnel; pensions for veterans and their widows; and reports of naval activities throughout the world, there is some material about the situation in California.

Mason, who served as ambassador to France, U.S. Attorney General, a member of the House of Representatives and a federal judge, as well as two stints as the Navy secretary, wrote about the 22 August 1846 seizure of Los Angeles by Stockton, adding “our flag was flying at every commanding position, and that California was in the undisputed military possession of the United States.”

He went on to note that, after Stockton headed to Mexico

In violation of their parole, the Mexican leaders of California, on the 23rd of September, renewed hostilities; and in consequence of the small number which could be detailed to garrison the places occupied by our forces, gained some partial advantages.

Conveniently omitted from the account was the fact that Captain Archibald Gillespie, who had 30-40 men under his command when left to oversee the garrison at Los Angeles, treated the locals with contempt and instituted harsh curfews and other conditions.  This is what primarily led to the revolt by the Californios, who, moreover, were seeking to reclaim their territory.

This circumstance included the Battle of Chino, during which Americans and Europeans, including John Rowland, Workman’s longtime friend, business partner, and co-owner of Rancho La Puente, were captured by Californios and marched to what is now Boyle Heights for a lengthy imprisonment.  Later, Workman and Ygnacio Palomares, co-owner of Rancho San José in today’s Pomona area, arranged for the freeing of those prisoners.


Bypassing everything that took place between late September and late December, Mason went on to state that

on the 29th of December, the Commodore [Stockton], with about six hundred officers and men [from four naval vessels] in cooperation with Brigadier General Kearny, with about sixty men of the 1st dragoons, and about fifty mounted riflemen, marched from San Diego for the capital of the Californians [Los Angeles.]

Again, nothing was said about the conflicts between Stockton and Kearny and Mason continued by noting the 140-mile march that brought the combined force to confront the Californios on 8 January 1847 at the San Gabriel River (now the Río Hondo).  The result was that the Americans “drove him [the native force] in a most gallant manner from a strong and advantageous position” from an elevated location.

What then followed was the Battle of La Mesa in the modern Vernon/City of Commerce area, where “with a similar result, the enemy was driven from the field, and our forces entered the Cuidad [sic] de los Angelos [sic] without further resistance.”  Mason went on to proclaim that “by these energetic measures the insurrection was quelled, and by a subsequent capitulation [engineered by Frémont without authority] all hostilities in California ceased and have not been since renewed.”

The secretary added:

In this unprecedented march of the sailors of more than one hundred and fifty miles inland [it was 140 miles just above this in the report], and in their severe encounters with the enemy [who were lacking in supplies and ordnance, however] they are reported to have vied with their brethren of the army in steady disciline and daring courage.  They have, in the emergencies in which the country was placed before the arrival of troops, served in the most creditable manner as infantry, artillery, and dragoons.

Mason added that for both Alta and Baja California, not only was military occupation completed, but “trade carried on without interruption, and the civil government in successful operation.  Further on in the report, Mason expanded on the question of trade, observing that naval and army officers were collecting duties on commercial transactions with

the most considerate regard for the commerce of American citizens and of neutrals, and the smallest possible interference with lawful trade compatible with the successful maintenance of our belligerent rights.

The secretary was sure to add that “the scale of duties prescribed and enforced by the officers, as a right of military occupation, was far below the onerous duties levied by the Mexicans.”  The idea was to have the collected funds used for the Pacific Squadron by its commanding officer, though no accounting was provided as of the date of the report (by contrast, the squadron in the Gulf of Mexico collected between 30,000 and 40,000 dollars).  There was also brief mention of the seizure of ships in the Pacific and the establishment of a court to determine what to do with captured goods, as noted also below.


Elsewhere in the report is a portion of a dispatch sent by Secretary Mason to Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones, well-known for his imprudent seizure of Monterey, then the capital of Alta California, in 1842 on the mistaken assumption that war between the U.S. and Mexico had been declared.

This missive, dated 28 October 1847, noted that the federal government policy  was “to interfere, in as small a degree as possible, with neutral commerce.”  Additionally,

the interests of the inhabitants of California, present and prospective, will be promoted by a liberal encouragement of trade in her ports occupied by us; while the best service which the navy can render is by lawful blockade to exclude from Mexican ports, not so occupied by us, foreign supplies, and especially of munitions and articles contraband, which will enable the enemy to protract the war.

It was also of concern that international law with respect to neutral parties in theaters of conflict be strictly observed in that, say, a British merchant living and working in Mexico was to be considered as if a citizen of that country.  With that in mind, the dispatch noted that “a prize court [for determining the legality of seized vessels and goods] has been organized in California, by the military governor.”


These documents are interesting and informative sources concerning the American invasion and seizure of Mexican California, including its last capital of Los Angeles, and, though they often omit important material, they also illuminate the perspective of U.S. military personnel in the nation’s first war of conquest.



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