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  • James Houser

February 23, 1847 - Mexican-American War & Battle of Buena Vista

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

I was so afraid of repeating my capstone topic ad nauseum during my year of military history that this ended up being the only article I did on the Mexican-American War all year. So no Cerro Gordo, Palo Alto, Mexico City or California/New Mexico Campaigns. Shame on me.

February 23, 1847. The barren ground of northern Mexico is shaken by the roar of cannon, the crack of musketry and the tramps of marching men and horses. The attackers will know it by the name of the local spring, La Angostura, but the outnumbered Americans will call it Buena Vista. The decisive battle of the Mexican-American War has begun.

The Mexican-American War is truly one of America's forgotten wars. Very few Americans could tell you much about it off the top of their heads. It started, of course, with the American annexation of Texas in 1845. Despite Texas breaking away and declaring independence nine years before, Mexico had refused to accept the loss of Texas and viewed the American annexation as, if not an invasion, something like it. They probably had a point.

I promised myself I wouldn't rewrite my thesis about the early Mexican War here, so I won't. Forgive my lack of detail.

When fighting flared up across the new U.S.-Mexican border in 1846, the small American army under Zachary Taylor won several victories in quick succession, marched south into northern Mexico, and captured Monterrey. He could go no further, though. South of Mexico's border states lies a vast central desert - the Chihuahuan desert - that very few could cross unaided. Taylor's supplies were already low, and his troops were mostly inexperienced volunteers with only a small core of regular soldiers. Trying to cross this desert with hostile Mexican forces in the area would be a recipe for disaster.

President James Polk and General-in-chief Winfield Scott had an alternate plan: instead of crossing the desert, they would land on the Mexican Gulf Coast at Veracruz and march inland to Mexico City. It would mean easier supply, better climate for the troops, and a quick dagger thrust at the heart of Mexico. The problem was that Scott would have to take some of Taylor's best troops to make this plan work.

This plan would leave Taylor with only 4,000 troops in northern Mexico, and that was about to be a problem.

Map of the Mexican-American War. Buena Vista is just below Saltillo in the center.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the most powerful man in Mexico and villain of the Alamo, had returned from exile to "save" his country from the American invader. He promptly assumed dictatorial powers and decided to build a massive army, with which he would march north and crush Taylor's reduced force. With almost 25,000 men, he set out from central Mexico across the vast desert. He quickly learned what Taylor already knew. By the time his army had finished crossing, he had lost 10,000 men to the crippling heat.

"Old Rough 'n Ready" Zachary Taylor, suddenly confronted with three-to-one odds, did not flinch. This was his great quality. Taylor was popular because of his good-ole-boy way of doing things. Despite being a US Army General, he could usually be found in a checkered shirt with a beat-up hat chewing on a weed. To some extent, what you saw with Taylor was what you got; he was a mediocre manager and administrator with average tactical or strategic ability and no gift for discipline. He was a fighter, though, and he never lost his cool.

Santa Anna's sunburnt, tired Mexican army arrived at La Angostura on February 22. Taylor, thanks to gifted subordinates, had picked a good defensive position. He was still outnumbered 4,000 to 15,000, though, and his opponent had much more cavalry. Taylor didn't retreat. He probably should have, given that the outcome was far from certain. Santa Anna demanded his surrender - a bit arrogant, true - and that raised Taylor's hackles. Damn the odds, he would fight.

Santa Anna attacked the following morning. February 23 was hot regardless of the month. The Mexicans came in great lines of infantry, brave and fierce. They scattered some small detachments of American volunteer cavalry, then routed some Indiana infantry. The American left began to crumble. Taylor, began hurrying reinforcements towards his threatened flank. Among the main units to delay this major attack was the Mississippi Rifles under Colonel Jefferson Davis.

Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot, based on a drawing by Carl Nebel, "Battle of Buena Vista," 1851

Even as the American line bent at an angle, the weight of Mexican numbers was answered with a weight of American artillery fire. Though the Mexicans had more guns by far, a consistent factor in Mexican War battles was the skill and courage with which Americans handled their artillery. The critical guns on the field today were handled by Captain Braxton Bragg. Taylor, seeing his line being overwhelmed, ordered Bragg to "Double shot your guns and give 'em hell!" With double charges of canister - shells full of lead balls, much like a shotgun - Bragg's small battery stemmed the Mexican assault just before dark.

"A little more grape, Mr. Bragg," Currier & Ives, 1847

As night fell, Taylor and Santa Anna both had reason to celebrate. Taylor had held his ground against high odds, but the Mexicans had inflicted heavy damage on the Americans and they stood a good chance of winning the next day's fight. But Santa Anna believed the Americans had reinforcements on the way, and he lost his nerve. His generals, cautious and worried about being trapped, persuaded him to retreat.

The problem, of course, was that there was only one way to retreat - the way they had come. Across the desert.

The Battle of Buena Vista, or La Angostura, could have been a Mexican victory. At multiple points the Americans could have lost the battle, and with it maybe the war. The most inexcusable reason is Santa Anna fleeing from an enemy that he had nearly destroyed after the enormous sacrifice it had taken him to get his army there in the first place. With this army's near-destruction, the Mexicans would never again have the well-trained troops needed to stop the Americans.

The American victory had another result. Taylor used it for all that it was worth, including for reasons beyond the war. "A little more grape, Mr. Bragg" would be the sanitized quote that earned him nomination, and election, as Whig President in 1848. In that role, he would try - and fail - to stop the slide to Civil War. Never a genius, he was a mediocre President when the country needed a great one.

When the country finally split, it would be Jeff Davis - a Buena Vista veteran - who led the South. His favorite general and fellow veteran Braxton Bragg would prove that he was a much better artillery captain than he was a general, and his terrible leadership would play no small part in ensuring the Confederacy's demise.

A lot could have changed this way or that had a spare bullet found Zack Taylor or Jeff Davis that odd day at Buena Vista. A lot could have changed if Santa Anna had stayed to wipe their army out the next day. But he didn't, and that's all there was.

Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jackson, and others barely missed Buena Vista. This small group of young lieutenants and captains were part of the troops sent to join General Scott for his march to Mexico City - but that, of course, is another story.

Book Recommendation: The best book for the Mexican-American War is Peter Guardino's The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), which is much more sharply critical of American involvement than older, more triumphal histories.

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