The Journal of San Diego History
July 1964, Volume 10, Number 3
Ray Brandes, Editor

By William L. Perkins

There is little doubt that the wheel is responsible for many of the marvels of today. Yet there have been times when it might have been better if this contrivance had not existed. The Americans who fought in the Battle of San Pasqual had good reason to reflect about this premise.

In the history of war, many disasters have been the result of some, perhaps minor, factor of error. But it took a pair of mountain howitzers literally dragged across the deserts of the Southwest to wreck the plans of the Army sent to California in 1846.

When the Mexican War broke out, the United States had military units in California and in Texas. Between these two points lay nearly 1500 miles of virtually uninhabited country. The only settlement of any size in this wilderness was the Mexican stronghold of Santa Fé, the gateway of the southern route to California. This war, which cost the United States some 13,000 casualties, was violently felt in Southern California.

Previous works on the San Pasqual affair have been, for the most part, studies of the battle. Scant attention has been paid to the eventful days leading up to the conflict, and yet, it was in these pre-battle days that the tragedy began. A close look at the troubles encountered by the Army on its march to California makes the wheel suspect as the true villain of San Pasqual!

To overcome the Mexicans at Santa Fé, to aid in the conquest of California, and to secure the lands that lay in between were the objectives of the force called the Army of the West. Commanded by Stephen Watts Kearny, then a Colonel, the force was organized at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in the summer of 1846. Nearly 1,000 men left Kansas in August, on what would become a most troubleplagued march.

As history has documented, the conquest of Santa Fé was more of a celebration than a fight. The city, with its officials in a state of confusion, and its military in flight, literally hung out the bunting for the soldados Americanos. The troopers stayed at Santa Fé nearly a month, setting up a government and resupplying for the overland journey to the Pacific. At Santa Fé, Kearny was advanced to the rank of General.

Two men with the Army kept excellent chronicles of the journey: Lieutenant William H. Emory, a topographical engineer; and Doctor John S. Griffin, an Army surgeon. This article finds its basis upon the writings of these men.

On September 25, the Army left Santa Fé, heading southwest for the Valley of the Rio Grande. Here, the first ingredients of the stewpot which boiled over at San Pasqual were mixed. The general, faced with the task of moving his forces across the wild and desolate area, overloaded his wagons with supplies of survival and warfare. This was his first error in judgment, for it was with great difficulty that the wagons passed over this section of the route.

The Chihuahua Trail over which the men traveled was ancient and well-used. This route which linked Santa Fé with El Paso and Chihuahua City had seen much traffic in legal as well as contraband trade. Kearny anticipated little trouble but quickly found it when he realized he had been sold a poor stock of mules at Santa Fé.

On September 26, the doctor reported that “All the men were mounted upon mules.” How could this have been? It has been suggested that the citizens of Santa Fé convinced Kearny that horses could not make it across the deserts, and traded him mules for his cavalry stock. This is an interesting thought, but certainly not logical. Whether Kearny made it to the coast or not would have been of little concern to these townspeople. More likely, their motive was profit. Griffin commented that the people of Santa Fé were not afflicted with conscience.

One of the many unexplained mysteries of the march was the decision of Kearny to use his draft animals to pull the heavy wagons down the Rio Grande. On September 27, Griffin observed, “. . . the mules purchased by the Quartermaster are extremely weak. Many of them are nearly given out….” The wheel was starting to take its heavy toll.

On October 3, 1846, after one week on the trail, Emory noted that the wagons had not come up, and that the troops had waited a full day for them. The next day, he said that the wagons mounted the sand hills but with great difficulty. By the 5th, the troops reached Socorro, a Mexican village on the river. At a place near here they planned to leave the Rio Grande. They had originally meant to cross the mountains by way of the road to the Santa Rita copper mines. The 5th of October, however, was a day of destiny for Kearny and his men.

In mid-afternoon Kit Carson, the celebrated scout, and his men galloped into Socorro. Kearny learned from this group that the war had ended in California, and that Carson was bound for Washington with the news. Kearny should have been joyous, but the word that the “Stars and Stripes” flew in every port on the California shores was bitter news for him. Among his instructions from the President was the order to take charge of affairs on arrival in San Diego. Now, Kearny was fearful that Fremont, already in that city, would usurp his command.

Kearny ordered Carson to guide the Army back over the trail on which he had just come. Carson hesitated, for he had hoped to proceed to Washington, but under threat of court-martial agreed to return to California. His one qualification, however, was his wish to abandon the wagons. Carson felt they were too heavy for the deserts ahead. Carson also insisted that the troops travel farther down-river before turning west. Kearny kept his wagons, and Carson his wish on the route to take.

As the men moved southward, the travel became more difficult. The Doctor recorded in his diary that the troops were on the worst stretch of road yet encountered. Emory noted on October 9, “The road is unbroken, obstructed by bushes, and so bad the wagons only made 11 1/2 miles, and the teams came into camp blown and staggering after their day’s work.”

The deep sand of the river terraces in the Valley of the Rio Grande soon proved Carson to have been correct about the wagons. These transports averaged 5,000 pounds loaded, and required six to eight mules per wagon. On the 10th, the decision was made to abandon them. A party was sent back for pack animals and saddles. In four days the men returned, dejected that no other animals were available.

Earlier, Kearny had determined to leave two-thirds of his command in Santa Fé to wait for Philip St. George Cooke, who followed the Army of the West with the Mormon Battalion. Again, Kearny decided to reduce his strength, keeping only Companies “C” and “K” of the First Dragoons. All animals except those mounted by the cavalry were pressed into pack-duty.

Rid at last of the mule-killing wagons, Kearny felt that the force could move with a minimum of trouble. This would have been the case, except that he made another fateful decision. He chose to keep two of his howitzers!1 Whatever might have been gained by giving up the wagons was lost ten times over by the howitzers. The backbreaking toil and the expenditure of mules involved in getting these guns down the Gila River sealed the fate of the First Dragoons and contributed heavily to their losses at San Pasqual.

Historians are divided in opinions as to why Kearny chose to keep the howitzers when it seems apparent that anything with wheels would put a terrible drain on the animals. Some authors have suggested that Kearny saw his cavalry mounted on mules and his private stock of animals carrying packs. Did the General think the howitzers would at least give his troops some military appearance? Others not so kindly disposed to Kearny claim the choice was a vain-glorious attempt to show who was boss! Whatever the reason, the consequences were tragic.

Five days later, the Army left the Rio Grande. Travelling over well-trodden Indian trails, the men crossed the mountains in four days. The passage was made “without adventure worth mention.” The easy travel of the mountain trails, however, came to an abrupt end on the Gila River.

Again the Army became bogged down in sand because of the wheeled vehicles. The howitzers were not particularly heavy, but the wheels upon which they were mounted were so narrow they sank into the sand at every turn, and so short in circumference that even a small stone caused them to swing about.

Toward the end of the day October 21, Emory wrote, “This has been a hard day on the animals. The howitzers did not reach camp at all….” The following day he added this postscript, “The howitzers came up at 9 o’clock, having in the previous day, their shafts broken, and, indeed, everything that was possible to break about them.”

On October 26, the troops struggled along the trail on short rations; more than half of the men were on foot. The howitzers used up the mules so fast, that the cavalry was forced to give up its mounts for the hauling of the guns. The diaries reflect a growing feeling of discouragement on the march and complete disgust for the howitzers. As Emory put it, “Soon after breaking camp, the banks of the river became gullied on both sides by deep arroyos. We covered 16 miles in 8 1/2 hours of incessant toil to the men and misery to the mules. Some did not reach camp at all.”

By now, it had become evident that the howitzers were wearing down the men and mules. Each day the Army fell further behind schedule. On October 30, the entries in both diaries contained dire predictions of impending doom, the mules are breaking down fast….”

November 1, the troops were now thifty–five days out of Santa Fé. According to Carson, the average crossing between Santa Fé and San Diego took 55 days. On this basis, Kearny should have been, at this time, two-thirds of the way to San Diego. But such was not the case! Instead, the army was locked in a struggle with the howitzers; uphill, downhill; over sandy trail and rocky trail. Their progress forward slowed to a crawl. Emory’s entry of November 2 contained this rueful statement, “As day dawned we looked anxiously for the howitzers … which are impeding our progress.”

One could conclude that even Kearny would have had enough of the howitzers. The struggle to move them even a mile was taking the heart out of the Army. Emory put into words what was probably the most prevalent thought in camp when he wrote, “The howitzers did not reach camp last night. Since the 1st of November we have been travelling with incredible labor and great expenditures of mule power.”

Despite the terrible toil of animals, Kearny drove his Army harder than ever, for he had learned that warfare had been openly renewed in California. The General was more determined than ever to get there before hostilities ended.

At the end of a toilsome November 6, Griffin wrote, “The howitzers have been left in the mountains. The great difficulty of getting anything along with wheels caused the loss of another day … Lord knows when they will arrive, though I know the men worked like devils to get the cursed things ahead.”2

Fifty-seven days out of Santa Fé, the ragged Army reached the Colorado River. Kit Carson had earlier been quoted as saying that no one ever left the Gila Trail with a full stomach. The troops of Kearny were no exception.

After a rest of two days — a part of which was spent gathering food and rounding up fresh animals — the Army crossed the Colorado and pushed northwest toward Warner’s Hot Springs. The deserts were still no kinder to the force. Clouds, heavy with rain, hung over the mountains on their left, but this only frustrated the troops more. The water holes they could find were salty and forage for the animals was scarce. An unusual fog, reported by Emory as “rolling in from the Gulf,” and their arrival at the springs of Vallecito, was probably their only saving grace.

Some time during the day of December 2, the Army reached the head of San Felipe Valley, turned northwest by west into the oak-dotted valley of Buena Vista Creek, and after a short march, arrived on the plain of what is now Lake Henshaw. It takes little imagination to feel the relief these men must have experienced at this time! Despite the cold wind from early December snows fingering at their worn clothing, this section of the back country must have seemed like paradise to the First Dragoons.

Upon arrival at Warner’s, Kearny hoped to obtain fresh horses and mules. Once again fate would deny this. No animals were available. There were, however, reports that some belonging to General Flores were grazing nearby. The men who needed rest, were instead, put to the task of rounding the animals up. Emory was quite critical of this and complained, “Tired as our people were, nightfall found them in the saddle….”

The unfortunate circumstances which overtook Kearny and his troops at San Pasqual have been blamed on many things: poor judgment, lackadaisical scouting, and bad timing. The decision to attack has been laid to the vanity of Kearny and over-indulgence of his troops on the night of December 5, 1846. It may be true that all these factors were present, but the real cause for defeat quite possibly goes much deeper than these human characteristics.

In retrospect, in August 1846, the Army of the West left Kansas when there was a war to be won. The glory of a conquest at Santa Fé was taken from them by a retreating foe. Next came the incredible march, during which the fat plum of California was snatched from their grasp and later offered again. While on the march, the men faced fatigue, privation, thirst, and starvation. Add to these the exhaustive struggle to pull the howitzers to California. One need not be surprised at the turn of events of San Pasqual!

That the troops may have been “spoiling for a fight” is probably the understatement of the times! The need to face an enemy was great. The need to accomplish the task they had set out to do — to draw blood, and if necessary — to bleed, was by now most important.

The sound of “Boots and Saddles” at 2 o’clock in the morning of December 6, must have been greeted with mixed emotions in the camp of the Dragoons. With eyelids heavy from needed sleep, and bodies stiff with fatigue and cold, the men probably felt irritated at being aroused in the middle of the night.

One can feel, when reading the accounts of the battle, the quickening heart-beat as the word spread through the camp that here it was at last! A fight! A contact with a foe they had traveled 1500 miles to meet.

These men knew the job they had been sent to do. Griffin scrawled in his diary that morning, “…we are off in search of adventure.” Right or wrong, they approached their date with destiny with an “…ardor of anticipated victory.” They fought their battle in the best traditions of the military, even though many unexpected problems arose. Mistakes were committed, as evidenced by the lop-sided casualty list, but it was only after the dust settled and the clamor of battle died away that the furor of criticism began which still surrounds the violence at San Pasqual.

The mistakes of the battle were justified as committed under the pressure of brash haste, which had been the theme of the march since its beginning in August. By December, the need to act with cautious appraisal had been thrown over in the struggle to make contact with the enemy.

The exact causes of the Battle of San Pasqual may never be known, but quite possibly they began with irrevocable finality on the 10th of October, 1946: the moment General Stephen Watts Kearny chose to keep those accursed howitzers.


1. The Army field pieces were described by Capt. Abraham R. Johnston, of the First Dragoons, as being: short-barreled heavy guns, mounted on wheels roughly three feet in diameter, three feet apart. They fired a 12-lb. ball.

2. Added to the woe these weapons caused the men is the ironical fact that neither proved to be of any use at San Pasqual. One was captured by Pico, and of the other, nothing was ever heard again.

Mr. Perkins, a native Californian, has lived in San Diego since 1939. He has held a life-long interest and study of the application of geology, petrology and paleontology to historical studies related to San Diego County. This article marks his first appearance in this Quarterly as a contributor.