“In Steady Discipline and Daring Courage”: Mention of the Seizure of California in a “Report of the Secretary of the Navy,” 6 December 1847

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

During America’s first imperial war, the Mexican-American War, the seizure of Alta California by United States forces took place in the last half of 1846 and the first days of the following year. The role of the Navy was particularly significant as an Army force did not arrive overland to the region until the end of 1846, by which time Los Angeles had been taken by Commodore Robert F. Stockton in mid-August, though a revolt by Californios chafing at curfews and other restrictions imposed upon them in their “parole” after the yielding of the pueblo led to the expulsion of the Americans, who were forced to retreat on the last day of September to ships anchored offshore at the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro and await reinforcements.

Stockton, who went south to San Diego and, thinking Alta California was secured, planned to go to western Mexico to continue the fight, was forced to return to retake the Angel City. Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny of the Army, after a long, arduous overland trek, committed a capital blunder at the Battle of San Pascual, when a continent of mounted Californio lancers took advantage of a terrible American position and their own superior horse-riding skills to inflict a quick and decisive defeat of the invaders. After Kearny and his remaining men recovered from that debacle, he united his force with that commanded by Stockton, who led the roughly 125-mile march from San Diego to Los Angeles at the end of the year and into the next.

When the combined American force reached the mission town of San Juan Capistrano early in January 1847, they were met by William Workman and two others bearing a letter from José María Flores, commander of Californio forces who sought terms with the Americans, but this brusquely rebuffed by Stockton. It was reported that Workman was able to convince the Navy commodore to allow for an amnesty for any Californios defending their homeland against this second assault on Los Angeles. This took place over two days on 8-9 January, first with a battle along the San Gabriel River, now the Rio Hondo, in which the Americans crossed the water course, engaged with the defenders and took the field. The second fight, the Battle of La Mesa, in what is now the industrial city of Vernon, led to another retreat from the Californios, who simply did not have the weaponry to adequately defend the city.

After the battle was over, the Americans made a westerly march, crossed the Los Angeles River, and camped along its west bank. On the morning of the 10th, the force moved northward into the pueblo, where they were greeted by Workman and two others bearing a white flag of truce. With the retaking of Los Angeles, hostilities in Alta California came to a definite close. While the Californio military leadership dispersed, General Andrés Pico, who superbly commanded his forces to victory at San Pascual, for which he was the object of great respect until his death three decades later, signed the treaty of capitulation at Cahuenga on the 13th with John C. Frémont, who had no role in the second conquest but was characteristically willing to take the glory of conducting the treaty with Pico.

Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is a hardbound version of a “Report of the Secretary of the Navy,” issued on 6 December 1847 by Secretary John Y. Mason (1799-1859). Mason, a native of Virginia, served in the House of Representatives for most of the 1830s, was a federal judge in his home state early the next decade, and became Navy secretary in 1844 under President John Tyler. When James Polk became the nation’s chief executive in March 1845, Mason was appointed the Attorney General, though he returned to being Secretary of the Navy in September 1846, a few weeks before the Californios reclaimed Los Angeles. and he retained that position until the end of Polk’s term. Under presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, Mason served as Minister to France, where he died in 1859 at age 60.

Mason’s report, spanning 365 pages, is mainly comprised of mostly mind-numbing statistical data presented in tables of bids and then purchases of all manner of supplies for the Navy, including lumber, engines, hardware, food, clothing, stationery, building materials and a great deal more. It is worth noting that, with the United States just about seventy years into its independent history, its naval forces were nowhere near as sizable and well-supplied as European powers, chiefly Britain, which fielded the most impressive Navy the world had yet seen and which was a crucial part of that island’s dominance of so much of the world at the time. American sea power did not begin to approach that of its former colonizer and other Western nations until decades later, but Mason began his report by noting that an 1844 act of Congress provided for adding 7,500 men to the Navy and, two years later, that amount was increased to 10,000 “with a direction that on the conclusion of the existing war with Mexico, the number should be reduced” back to the 1844 figure. Despite this, Mason noted that the ranks were no more than 8,000 during the previous year. Moreover, there were issues with securing enlistments because of the rapid growth of private commercial fleets and this impacted such areas as enhancing the Pacific squadron.

After briefly summarizing operations in the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia (mention was made “of our desire for friendly commercial intercourse” with Japan, which resisted outside contact until an American warship forced a treaty upon that island nation in 1854), and the eastern Pacific, Mason turned to California. He referred to his last report that “on the 22d of August, 1846, the forces of the United States, under Commodore Stockton, had entered the Cuidad de los Angelos [sic], that our flag was flying at every commanding position, and that California was in the undisputed military possession of the United States.” He added that with Stockton believing hostilities were ended, Stockton was working to continue the war “on other parts of the enemy’s coast and territory, when, in violation of their parole, the Mexican leaders in California, on the 23d of September, renewed hostilities; and in consequence of the small number which could be detailed to garrison the places occupied our forces, gained some partial advantages.” Of course, this meant the recapturing of the “cuidad” though Mason chose to parse his words carefully.

On 29 December, however, he went on, Stockton “with about six hundred officers and men from ships Congress, Savannah, Portsmouth, and Cyane” and in conjunction with Kearny (spelled “Kearney” here) “with about sixty men of the 1st dragoons, and about fifty mounted riflemen” made the long march from San Diego to Los Angeles. At the San Gabriel River, Mason explained, the Americans “drove him [the enemy] in a most gallant manner from a strong and advantageous position,” followed by the La Mesa encounter “with a similar result” so that “the enemy was driven from the field, and our forces entered the Cuidad de los Angelos [sic] without further resistance.” Thanks, Mason continued, to “these energetic measures the insurrection wsa quelled, and by a subsequent capitulation [at Cahuenga between Frémont, who was notably not mentioned, and Pico] all hostilities in California ceased and have not been since renewed.”

The secretary referred to the march from San Diego as “unprecedented” and the two battles near Los Angeles as “severe” so that naval personnel “are reported to have vied with their brethren of the army in steady discipline and daring courage.” Moreover, these men “in the emergencies in which the country was placed before the arrival of [Army] troops, served in the most creditable manner as infantry, artillery, and dragoons.” He concluded this section by stating, according to communications from the Pacific squadron, “I am happy to state that everything was tranquil in Upper and Lower California; the military possession complete and undisturbed; trade carried on without interruption, and the civil government in successful operation.” Elsewhere, Mason reported that with the seizure and occupation of such places as Monterey, San Francisco and San Diego, as well as Tampico and Veracruz in Mexico proper, “the commanding officers of the army and navy, respectively established and collected duties [said to be lower than those charged under Mexican authority] on commerce” and were ordered to maintain “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.”

An aspect of naval operations that existed through the end of the Spanish-American War at the close of the nineteenth century involved “prize money” incurred through the seizure and sale of enemy vessels. Because it was not practical to have such craft sent back to the United States around the Horn of South America “it was indispensable that the legality of the capture should be submitted to judicial investigation.” Consequently, Mason wrote, “at the request of the commanding naval officer, a prize court was organized by the military officer exercising the functions of civil government in California.” Orders were handed down “that in no case will the prize money be distributed until the proceedings of the court, showing the condemnation and sale, shall have been transmitted and passed in review by the department.” There was a formula established at the beginning of the nineteenth century for how such “prize money” was to be remitted to naval personnel.

Mason, in concluding his report, noted that estimates for appropriations for the Navy for the current fiscal year amounted to over $10,300,000, a few hundred thousand more than appropriated by Congress, with big ticket items including the building of four steamships and work on the dry dock at New York City. He also provided a table of appropriations and expenditures, along with available aggregated funds, for the current and previous two fiscal years (1845 and 1846) showing that, while there were excesses in spending above appropriations, the available funds were enough to cover expenses. Mason added that “the system now established for disbursements of money and supplies in the navy, is satisfactory in its results,” even though the surfeit of pursers often meant that commanding officers had to take on that role, so the secretary called for the hiring of a dozen pursers at $1,000 per year would remedy the situation.

There is one additional bit of information, while not related to California, that is worth a brief mention. Uriah Brown (1784-1853) was a Connecticut-born inventor who lived in Baltimore during the War of 1812 (this is where Francis Scott Key was when he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and came up with a “liquid fire” that could be discharged from an ironclad steamship, giving a demonstration in that city in 1814. For more than three decades, Brown tried to convince the federal government to fund his project, but without avail. During the Mexican-American War, however, Brown finally got his opportunity and two commanders and a lieutenant, however, wrote Mason on 16 October 1847 from Washington of a demonstration of the “liquid fire” concept. Unfortunately, for its inventory, the trio determined that the range of just 200 feet maximum as well as safety concerns that conceivably could mean “the certain destruction of all on board” led to a opinion that was “conclusive against its practical utility.” Brown was one of only three gentiles appointed by Joseph Smith to be on the Council of Fifty of the Mormon Church, though he was soon rejected, offered to sell his “liquid fire” concept to Brigham Young not long after Smith was killed at Nauvoo, Illinois, and, in 1851, went to Salt Lake City to sell his “liquid fire” concept to church leaders, but without success.

This report is an interesting artifact of Navy reporting on the seizure of Mexican Alta California during the Mexican-American War, as well as the general state of the military branch. As noted above, the rapid expansion of the Navy many decades later included a significant presence in this region, including at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and, especially, in San Diego.

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