by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted on several occasions on this blog, the American invasion of the Mexican department of Alta California during the Mexican-American War involved two conquests of Los Angeles. The first occurred in mid-August 1846 when U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton led his forces into the pueblo with virtually no military resistance from locals.
After, however, Stockton left the town in charge of a subordinate, Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, who then issued severe restrictions on the Californios, resentment built rapidly. Exasperated by the imperious Gillespie, the locals mounted a siege on the town in late September and forced him and his cadre of soldiers to retreat to a ship anchored offshore near San Pedro and await assistance.
Stockton organized a march to retake Los Angeles late in the year and was joined by General Stephen Watts Kearny. who marched his Army of the West from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and then blundered into an early December battle with Californios led by General Andrés Pico at San Pasqual near San Diego. Benefiting from heavy rainfall, establishing a superior position and using their renowned horse riding skills, Pico’s force of lancers overwhelmed Kearny’s men and inflicted a stunning defeat.
Kearny managed to straggle into San Diego with his survivors and then accompanied Stockton on the march north along the coast. South of San Juan Capistrano, on 4 January 1847, Stockton was met with a trio, including German Charles Flugge, Californio Domingo Olivas, and William Workman, a native of England. They bore a letter from Californio commander José María Flores, requesting a truce, but stating that the locals would defend themselves from American aggression. Enraged, Stockton dismissed the trio by labeling Flores a rebel whom he would shoot if possible.
The Americans continued north to the Mission San Juan Capistrano and, on the 5th, Workman, who either accompanied Stockton’s force or reappeared, met with the commodore, and according to Neal Harlow, in his excellent California Conquered:
induced Stockton to issue a proclamation, offering a general amnesty if the Californians would surrender Flores and return to their ranchos.
The march continued through what became Orange County and, camped along the Santa Ana River on the 7th, the Americans saw a contingent of Californios and were prepared for a fight. John S. Griffin, a surgeon with the Army and who remained in Los Angeles after the war and became a very prominent resident of the region, wrote that the “rascals are much better mounted than anything we can muster, and they know it.”
There was some harassment of the Americans and the capture of some Army vaqueros and John Forster, the English-born owner of much of what is now southern Orange County, but the Californios headed back towards Los Angeles. Camping on the 7th at the Rancho Los Coyotes near modern Fullerton, the Americans were informed by a woman widower that the locals intended to fight the following day. Still, Stockton ordered a dance to entertain his troops and Californios in the area, while having a ship at San Pedro ready with ammunition, supplies and boats for a retreat, if needed.
On the 8th, the march resumed and as they moved towards Los Angeles, Forster showed up warning that Californios were hiding in willows and mustard along the San Gabriel River along the road to the pueblo. Stockton headed northeast into the Rancho Paso de Bartolo in present Whittier and found locals readied to try to prevent the fording of what we now know as the Río Hondo (a new San Gabriel River was created by flood waters twenty years later.)
The Americans had to cross the river and then climb an embankment, behind which was a steep bluff. As a battle line was established, the locals massed on the opposite side and some were crossing the river to disrupt forward movement. Harlow wrote that “the Americans had that morning been reminded it was the 8th of January, the anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s glorious victory over the British at New Orleans” in 1815 at the end of the War of 1812.
Harlow also wrote that Californios were increasingly uneasy and divided about the war, but that “they had determined, however, to make a resolute, perhaps decisive stand at the San Gabriel” with some five hundred gathered there. Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a map, from a sketch by Army of the West topographer William H. Emory and lithographed by Peter S. Duval of Philadelphia, and titled “Sketch of the Passage of the Rio San Gabriel.” It shows the scene as the Americans advanced from the southeast—though it does not mention a battle in the title, it was stated as such in the legend at the lower right.
In any case, on the west side was a small plain on which there were eight units of cavalry. The bluff was denoted as a “bank 40 ft high” and, at the top, the Californios divided into three main sections, with a cavalry unit further south, an artillery division in the center, and a reserve cavalry company to the north. Andrés Pico was present as one of the commanding officers. Harlow wrote that a group of cavalry rode in behind the Americans then went ahead and crossed the river to join their compatriots.
The Americans came to the scene in a typical hollow square formation comprised of four divisions, including dragoons, an artillery company, mounted volunteers, Marines, musketeers and carabiners, and some Californios were included in the force. In the hollow were carts carrying baggage, oxen and mules.
Harlow added that the river was up to forty yards wide, with the water at knee depth and was “flowing with quicksand.” Undergrowth was along the bank, but it did not appear to be overly thick or problematic for either side, though obviously easier to negotiate for the cavalry.
At 3 p.m., the engagement began and, as the Americans entered the river, cannon fire was ineffective and shot from guns was poor in quality. As artillery was brought across, an initial blast disabled a Californio cannon, which greatly heartened the invaders and shook the defenders. After just a half hour, the Californios stopped shooting and the cavalry prepared to charge with lances at the ready. The Americans dropped to one knee and presented their muskets or pikes at 45 degree angles while the men standing behind cocked their weapons.
As the Americans launched their fire, the Californios quickly abandoned their charge and returned to the bluff and nearby hills. Skirmishers advanced towards these areas and the main Yankee force charged up only to find the locals were gone. In all, it was less than an hour and a half in which all the Americans, including the baggage carts, forded the river and some of the troops did not fire their weapons.
The Americans, unable to pursue the swift Californio horsemen, then stopped and camped at the south end of the battlefield in a space denoted with a “C” on the map. Harlow wrote that “the officers reviewed the battleground and agreed it had been a close affair,” although no animals were lost.
When Lt. William Emory, the topographer from Kearny’s Army of the West, whose published account of the long expedition to California became a vital guide to future migrants, especially during the Gold Rush, titled his map, he added that the passage wound up “discomfiting the opposing Mex. Forces.” So, while he used the word “battle” in locating the American camp after the crossing, his title indicated that the engagement was something less than that.
The Americans were roused by a midnight alarm, but there was no effort by Californios to attack or harass the camp, and it was quiet until the morning. We will pick up the story tomorrow with the resulting Battle of Los Angeles, fought on the 9th, and featuring another Emory sketch.
The Rio San Gabriel Battlefield is California Historic Landmark #385 and was marked in December 1945. A nice covered spot on Bluff Road just north of Washington Boulevard on the west bank of the Río Hondo in Montebello includes the marker and plaque–a marked contrast to the desecrated marker for the landmark site for the Battle of Los Angeles (but for that, see tomorrow’s post.)