by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Carrying forward from yesterday’s post highlighting a sketch map of the American engagement with Californio forces at the Río Hondo (then the San Gabriel River) near today’s Montebello on 8 January 1847, we move to today’s featured object from the museum’s holdings, another map showing the Battle of Los Angeles (a.k.a., Battle of La Mesa), fought the next day in modern Vernon, the industrial city south of Los Angeles.
As explained by Neal Harlow in his comprehensive study of the Mexican-American War in Alta California, California Conquered, American forces camped on the west side of the Río Hondo after its successful crossing on the 8th and experienced a false alarm of a possible Californio raid.
On the morning of the 9th, Californio Lorenzo Soto, sent out by U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton for reconnaissance of the movements of the defenders, returned to the American camp with a white flag “saying Frémont was at San Fernando, and they all anticipated meeting him near the pueblo in the morning.”
John C. Frémont, the renowned explorer and independent-minded Army officer, was in command of American volunteers and had marched down from the north and expected to join Stockton and Kearny in the final taking of Los Angeles. It turned out that he did not do so, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
In any case, the American force, ostensibly led by Kearny but coordinated largely by Stockton, broke camp at 9 a.m. and marched in the same hollow square formation as noted yesterday as it headed several miles to the west. It encountered the Californios and their line to the north and the Americans continued their march, being careful not to give their adversaries any advantage in trying to outflank them.
At 2 p.m., a California cannon shot burst out and Stockton had ordered his men to fall to the ground until the ball passed, so the locals were unduly hopeful of a successful strike when they saw the Americans hit the ground, only to see all of them rise and continue forward motion. Harlow wrote that “a number of charges were made [by mounted lancers] but were repelled, while Stockton . . . pelted the enemy with deadly aim.”
The Californios then went into a horseshoe-shaped formation and extended their line outward until the Americans, with their supply wagons and livestock in the hollow within the four sections of troops. Describing this as “a last desperate assault on all sides” by the native force, Harlow stated that:
at the sound of a gun, the Californians “noble cavalry” advanced, constantly increasing in velocity as they came, charging with horrible yells. As they approached within range, the American volleys began, but on they rode until, within fifty yards, it seemed it would be hand-to-hand. But they could go no farther, the fire was too lethal, and they turned to shelter in a nearby ravine. As the Americans departed, the Californians, always admired for their horsemanship, stripped the dead horses on the field without dismounting and carried off most of the saddles and bridles, their dead and wounded on horseback. It was perhaps 4:30, and he ambulatory engagement had lasted some two and a half hours.
From the battlefield site, now a gritty industrial area, the Americans could see the pueblo and an American held prisoner by California commander José María Flores later wrote that he could see the victorious force marching in a square with cannons on each side. Harlow said that the Americans decided against entering the town that day because Los Angeles “was known for its wine and aguardiente [brandy]” and that it was decided to do so on the following morning.
The main road leading to the pueblo was just a short distance north of where the battle was fought and the Americans then marched west and a bit north and reached the Los Angeles River. After crossing, camp was set up along the west bank about two miles, Harlow noted, directly south of the pueblo, in what appears to be near Alameda Street and Washington Boulevard.
The historian added that Lt. William H. Emory, who drew the sketch map of the Río Hondo crossing, made one of the Battle of Los Angeles. The version lithographed by Peter S. Duval of Philadelphia shows the formation the Americans utilized as they advanced west from the Rio Hondo and then swung slightly southward. The hollow square battle formation was depicted, with Emory writing that there were 100 wagons and cattle in the center, as was the initial positioning of the Californio defenders from a depression in the plains at the north with two nine-pound cannons placed on the rise to the south.
The locals then advanced to a second position west of the Americans with a smaller central core and two larger wings and executed the encircling movement in that last charge. Whereas in the Río Hondo sketch map, Emory showed the direction of retreat of the Californios, he did not do so with the Battle of Los Angeles map. What Harlow recorded was that about 400 locals with artillery were positioned in an orderly fashion between the American camp and the town and sixty more were by the river. While the invaders were prepared for another skirmish and raised the alarm, no such action followed.
The “Pueblo de Los Angeles” is shown as an agglomeration of a dozen rectangles on the west bank of the river and squeezed in between hills on both sides, with the several hills west including Bunker, Poundcake and Fort Moore, and to the east the Paredon Blanco (White Bluff) where Boyle Heights was later established by William Henry Workman and where Americans and Europeans (including John Rowland of Rancho La Puente) seized by Californios at the so-called Battle of Chino in modern Chino Hills east of Los Angeles were held prisoner. William Workman and Ygnacio Palomares of the Rancho San José, where Pomona is now, were able to free the prisoners around this time.
Harlow counted the casualties as three dead and about a dozen wounded on both sides, though one of the Americans was killed by an accidental gun shot during the engagement. When it came time for the Americans, now that the route into Los Angeles was clear, to break camp and march into the pueblo, three men approached on horseback conveying a flag of truce.
Prominent Californios Juan Avila and Eulogio de Célis were accompanied by William Workman, who, as was noted yesterday, met twice with Stockton on the march north from San Diego several days earlier and who was able to secure an amnesty for any Californios defending their homeland against the American invaders. The trio were there to surrender “their dear City of the Angels” to the conquerors if lives and property were protected.
While Stockton agreed to this, he did not trust Flores (yesterday it was noted that he exclaimed that he would have shot Flores if he could) and the Americans proceeded in a battle formation. As they reached the pueblo, apparently following what would now be Alameda Street up to Aliso and then crossing the zanja madre (or main irrigation ditch) and into the Plaza, the band in the invading force began to play.
It was reported that there were “drunken and desperate fellows” in the pueblo, displaying guns and offering mocking signs of welcome to the invaders, while on what was soon denoted as Fort Moore Hill overlooking the Plaza to the west, fighting broke out among men on horseback there. A force of 200 men and two cannon were ordered to take a position on the hill, while the remaining Americans were quartered in town. Archibald Gillespie, forced to take down the American flag in September was given the order to raise it again.
The Mexican-American War was over with the retaking of Los Angeles. Frémont, for whatever reasons, did not show up as planned and, instead, arranged his own capitulation treaty with the retreating Andrés Pico, Flores having fled immediately for Mexico, at Cahuenga Pass on the 13th. The aftermath of the conquest, specifically the difficulties between Frémont, Stockton and Kearny have been discussed here before and the arduous, difficult peacetime transition began largely with inter-American dissension and strife. Moreover, the Gold Rush was just a year or so away from being revealed.
As for William Workman, he played something of a significant role in the events of the American recapture of Los Angeles, through his meetings with Stockton at San Onofre and San Juan Capistrano and in bringing out the flag of truce and surrendering Los Angeles on the 10th. His involvement in freeing the prisoners seized at Chino is also noteworthy. Was his British origin and assumed or real neutrality a factor in all of this? There is no documentation one way or another, but Workman deserves some recognition for playing a part in one of the most important events in Los Angeles history, which took place 174 years ago this week.
The Battle of Los Angeles/La Mesa site is California Historic Landmark #167 and the address is 4490 Exchange Boulevard near Downey Avenue in Vernon. There is a concrete base next to some railroad tracks, but the brass plaque, placed there in March 1935 is long gone. The Los Angeles River, which ran straight south from the pueblo to the west of the battlefield in early 1847, later moved course during floods and runs to the east after a sharp curve just to the north.