December 5,1846, 8:30 p.m.
Ramona, California (Mexican Territory)
In the blackness of night, U.S. dragoons crowded around small campfires, the flames struggling to stay alive on damp wood. The freezing December night found twenty-five-year-old, Sergeant John Cox and, the other soldiers trying to stay dry underneath a cluster of oak trees running along a creek.
They had been pelted with rain, on and off all day long. They were hoping the trees would give them some protection from getting their uniforms soaked any further. Some were still finishing their dinner of tack, beans, and soup. Again, there was no meat except for whatever small animals they had been able to shoot during the day. Most of them could hardly wait to get to San Diego where they could hopefully restock up on much needed supplies. Others looked for areas to bed down for the night while still others, yet struggled to dry off their weapons, wet from hours in the rain.
Their bodies stunk. Their uniforms were in tatters and many had no shoes or boots left on their feet. Some had swords rusted in the scabbards while others fought to keep their weapons and ammunition from becoming casualties of the weather. The men were beaten and exhausted from the long trek across the desert from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their animals, what was left of them, were hungry, tired and cold as well. Many were unmanageable. But something was different tonight.
The talk around camp was that a large group of Mexicans were seen in the area. Perhaps there was even going to be a battle tomorrow.
John Cox was very aware of the talk. Earlier, the brass had held a meeting and sent out a scouting party to size up the Mexican forces known to be camped not far away. John knew that meant an attack was imminent. They had also been met by a Marine Corps Captain named Gillespie and, about thirty-five members of a small volunteer battalion including some Navy personnel. They had come out of San Diego to meet them and give them fresh intelligence information on the enemy in the area. While Gillespie and his men were camped about a mile-and-a-half away, Kearny’s Army decided to go further in hopes they could find sufficient water for their animals. The spot they found in a cluster of oak trees however, revealed no water but had provided a little cover from the rain.
Although the campfire talk rumored of battle, it also carried other conversations. The long trek from Fort Leavenworth was about over. They were but a day’s ride from the Pacific Ocean. Most of them had never seen the Pacific Ocean. Especially for them, it was indeed an accomplishment of which to write home about.
They had indeed endured one of the longest and grueling military expeditions in U.S. history. They had suffered for so long. The trek had taken its toll on their animals, equipment, and on the soldiers, themselves. There were the many nights away from home and the loneliness that devours the spirit of all men who must be away from their families and loved ones.
The end now seemed so near. Once they reached San Diego, they would meet with other American forces and the conquest of California would be soon at hand. They had already heard encouraging stories of the taking of Los Angeles and how easy the Mexicans would run in fear of the Americans.
As rain began to fall again, the soldiers wandered off to their tents for the night. Sergeant Cox chattered with a few other sergeants, making sure sentries were posted for the night. They wondered what was happening with the scouting party. So was General Stephen Watts Kearny.
The fifty-two-year-old General sat inside his tent, his thoughts broken only by droplets of rain making their way down through the oak trees and plopping on the tent cover. Kearny was a seasoned soldier who had very real aspirations of becoming California’s first American Governor. He was hoping the Mexican-American War, which until now had been nothing short of a few minor skirmishes, would be over in a few months.
Till now, the Mexicans had shown very little organized resistance toward the powerful American military machine now arriving into California. The General had been briefed thoroughly by famous Indian Scout, Kit Carson.
The thirty-seven-year-old scout was a little man with red hair and freckles. Often walking or standing with a stoop, Carson had told the General that the Mexicans would not dare make a stand against the American soldiers.
Kearny was also assured of this by the brazen Marine Corps Officer, Captain Archibald Gillespie. The red-haired Gillespie, who had already been in California for some time, told Kearny that the Californios had “a holy horror of the American rifle, and [would] never expose themselves to make an attack.“
General Kearny, being an avid cavalryman was also aware of one more important point. The Californios’ camp had one very needed and prized commodity, . . .horses. He saw an opportunity to replace more of his men’s starved and broken-down mules with fresh horses. He made a decision to go to San Diego via San Pasqual Valley in an attempt to pick up fresh horses.
They had just led a successful raid a few days earlier on December 3, led by Captain J.W. Davidson, who was in charge of the artillery section. They had been successful at appropriating a small herd of captured horses and mules from a nearby cache belonging to none other than General Flores of the Californios in Los Angeles. Davidson had even been successful at capturing a number of guns and lances.
Out of the herd, they managed to select some forty that they kept and, turned over to officers and a few select enlisted. The animals however, were not broken and were terrible in the saddle.
Indeed, everyone shared the idea of how grand it would look for them to end their long trip, riding into San Diego on freshly captured mounts from their enemy. This also meant they could turn around and move even quicker towards Los Angeles where they were immediately needed.
A decision had been made to send a reconnaissance party led by twenty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Theodore Hammond. The newlywed and first-time father of a newborn, was to take six to eight men and scout out the enemy’s camp. Hammond also was to take one of Captain Gillespie’s Mexican scouts, a young turncoat named Rafael Machado.
It was said that a Mexican General with a small force was camped not more than a few miles west in a place called San Pasqual. His force was rumored between one to two-hundred men with a stash of close to two-hundred horses. Needing to acquire more fresh mounts after crossing the desert, the Mexican’s camp at San Pasqual quickly became a select military target. The sergeants, along with Lieutenant Hammond, selected the men for this covert mission. The sergeants spoke briefly among themselves about the next day and the possibility of attacking the Mexican Army.
Sergeant Cox strode off to a small patch of damp grass underneath one of the large oaks that lined the creek. With his worn and muddy boots, his spurs coated in mud and grass, he prepared to crawl into his small tent. He could feel the harsh cold from outside trying to invade through his uniform. Once inside, his body struggled to build up whatever warmth it could. Soon, only the sentries were left awake.
Lieutenant Hammond and his party eventually reached San Pasqual Hill. From on top of the hill, they could see several sentry fires marking the location of the San Pasqual Indian Village located about a mile from the base of the hill.
They began their descent along the wet but smooth trail leading down the hill. By 8:00 p.m., the clouds had opened up, giving way to the moon, its brightness giving each soldier in the party his own distinctive shadow.
Rafael Machado advised Hammond and the soldiers again, that the village was where General Andres Pico and over one-hundred Mexicans were camped. The Lieutenant wanted to know where the horses were being kept but Machado didn’t know.
The group moved across the valley floor on an old caretta road that lead from the base of the hill. From the main road, they followed a trail leading towards the village. When they got just outside the village, they dismounted and while the rest of them waited with the horses, Machado and Sergeant Richard Williams prepared to creep into the village.
Despite the bitter cold, Williams took off his dragoon coat so as to not be immediately identified as a US. soldier inside of the village. As Williams laid his jacket down on the side of the trail, he wrapped himself in his military blanket to stay warm and be unrecognized. Machado and Williams then headed off into the village on foot.
They were careful to watch their step in the dark and to not slip in mud. The two moved slowly among the silent Indian huts until they came upon one with an open adobe pueblo with a small fire going inside.
As they peered inside, they could see several Californios asleep underneath blankets. An Indian sat next to the fire tending the embers.
Machado got the Indian’s attention and motioned him outside. The Indian exited the hut and Machado began some idle talk while Williams stood by in the darkness. Williams cautiously looked around and from the dim light of a nearby campfire, he saw packs and saddles staged close by.
While Machado and Williams quietly went to work inside the village, a young Lieutenant Hammond was growing ever impatient. Hammond and a few of the Army officers had their own reservations about the young Mexican turncoat named Machado.
Machado had already turned against his own people so how could he be trusted with the Americans? What if Machado was setting them up in a trap? What if Machado was really waking the Mexicans up and, getting them to capture the scouting party only to then go in route back and attack the rest of the Americans while they slept? All these thoughts were now swirling through the mind of Lieutenant Hammond as he squatted in nearby brush with the others waiting.
‘What is taking them so long?’ wondered Hammond.
He began to grow increasingly impatient. Finally, not able to wait any longer, the Lieutenant grabbed the reins to his horse, got on top of it and began riding the perimeter of the village. As he desperately tried to spot Williams or Machado, his movement was quickly spotted by one of the village dogs. The dog’s barking quickly caught the attention of sentries.
Machado and Williams also heard Hammond, and Williams knew exactly what was happening. He grabbed Machado and they began sneaking back out of the village. Meanwhile, the dog continued barking at Hammond, following his direction of travel. A Californios sentry named Jose Ibarra, began moving from a nearby campfire towards the barking dog. Ibarra, who was not aware of Machado and Williams inside the village, did not see the two slip out quietly into the darkness.
While Ibarra was trying to figure out what the dog was barking at, he began to also hear the movement of Hammond’s horse, and the clanging of his sword. At the same time, Machado and Williams were quickly working their way back to Hammond and the rest of the scouting party. Although Ibarra still couldn’t see anything in the darkness, he was concerned enough to run and summon his Officer of the Day. This resulted in several mounted Californios immediately riding out to where the dog had been barking.
Just as Machado and Williams had barely made it back to the group, several Greyhounds were now riding their way. Without even time to catch his breath, Williams dropped the blanket he was wearing and grabbed his horse along with Machado, and they joined the rest of the Americans. He didn’t even have time to pick up his dragoon jacket where he had left it on the ground. Just as Captain Bautisa Moreno rode up on their location, the Americans hastily exited, crashing through the brush and onto the main road taking them back to San Pasqual Hill.
Moreno and his men chased the American scouting party about half-a-mile, clear across the valley floor, all the way back to the hill.
The Mericans began the treacherous climb with their mounts back up San Pasqual Hill. The trail was small in the darkness of night, steep but “smooth.” As the Americans went up the hill as fast as they could, the Greyhounds stopped their pursuit at the base of the hill. The Mexicans yelled up to the American scouting party, “Viva California, Baja Los Americanos, Hihos De – – – -.” or “Live California, down with the Americans, Sons of a Bitches.”
The Americans rode approximately four-and-a-half miles back to their camp.
By 11 :00 p.m., General Kearny and his staff officers had finished meeting inside the General’s tent. They had been debriefed by Lieutenant Hammond after his scouting mission. As Hammond told of them being discovered by the Californios, General Kearny had called a Council of War with his staff officers. Captain Benjamin Moore voiced his opposition to a plan by Kearny to immediately attack the Mexican camp.
Moore, from Bourbon County, Kentucky, was thirty-six years old and a widower with two children. As an officer at Fort Leavenworth, he, like other officers, frequented the home of appointed Court Judge, Matthew Hughes in Platte, Missouri. The attraction was the several lovely Hughes daughters who attracted many an officer’s eye.
He courted the twenty-year-old Martha Hughes, married her and they had a son in 1840 and a daughter in 1842. Then tragically and unexpectedly, Moore’s wife died in 1843. This resulted in Captain Moore having to leave his two children with his in-laws while away on military excursions.
Mrs. Moore’s younger sister then married in 1845, Lieutenant Theodore Hammond. Besides becoming Moore’s brother-in-law, Hammond found himself assigned to him as his lieutenant. This night, they stood together in the General’s tent.
Moore argued that because the scouting party had been discovered, the Californios would surely be waiting for them. Moore told the officers present that the Mexican force was considered to be as many as two-hundred and were known to be expert horsemen. He tried to convince the group that it would be near suicidal to go up against such a force when their own men, were hungry, cold, and, many riding tired, worn and wet mules or unbroken horses.
Despite this, Kearny had made a fateful decision. They would pull up camp at 2:00 a.m. and ride to San Pasqual for a pre-dawn attack against the Californios.
With the Council of War adjourned and, destiny in the making, Navy Lieutenant Edward F. Beale and Mountain Man, Alexis Gody, rode off, headed back to Captain Gillespie’s camp about a mile-and-a-half away with Kearny’s orders to break camp at 2:00 a.m..
As 2:00 a.m. came around, the officers and men were lucky to have had even a few hours of sleep. Having been awake now for almost twenty-four hours with the exception of a small nap, the ice-cold night air began to immediately shiver them awake. It was indeed difficult for the soldiers to come out from under the warmth of their blankets and into the blistering cold.
Kearny wanted everyone ready to go immediately so there was havoc as everyone attempted in the dark to quickly prepare to mount.
John looked over at the bugler, Pat Halpin. He waited for him to sound the call but the severe cold kept him from putting his lips to the ice-cold piece of metal.
John kept busy issuing orders and making sure his men were ready to go. John was excited as was everyone else. The word was that they were going to make a surprise attack on the nearby Californios camp and capture some horses.
Famous Scout Kit Carson and Captain Gillespie had assured everyone that the Mexicans upon being confronted, would either run or surrender.
As everyone awoke and prepared to move out, John and the rest of the soldiers could care about nothing but trying to stay warm. Their blankets and musty uniforms, damp from earlier rain had caused their bodies to shake from cold that cut deep to the bone.
Looking for any way to stay warm – any way to get their minds off the freezing temperatures, they began to talk about going to the Californios’ camp to take their horses. Excitement slowly began to build as the soldiers talked about how fast and easy it would be taking on the Mexicans and, riding into San Diego with the captured horses.
With enthusiasm building among the ranks, a bugler sounded “Boots and Saddles” and Kearny with his soldiers, moved out for San Pasqual. Lost in the darkness was the rag-tag appearance of the soldiers. Many had no gloves, others without boots, their spurs without rowelings to guide their mules with, and many wearing blankets as they rode. They were all mounted, had no wagons except for two howitzers which were pulled along on carriages.
Captain Gillespie and his men were already waiting on the trail when Kearny rode up with his dragoons. Gillespie suggested having his Sutter Gun, a small four-pound cannon, brought up to the front of the column after he saw the Army’s two accompanying howitzers mounted on carriages which looked as if they would fall apart upon the first firing. Kearny however, ordered it to the rear and even put some of Gillespie’s Volunteer Battalion to guard the baggage with Major Thomas Swords. Even after this, Gillespie attempted to have the General change his order and allow the Sutter Gun up to the front of the column, but the request was denied.
Captain Moore led the soldiers along the trail that lasted about four-and-a-half miles till they arrived atop the valley on San Pasqual Hill.
Moore was John Cox’s Commanding Officer, and this put the sergeant up front behind him along with Lieutenant Hammond. When the sergeant wasn’t talking with one of the troops or another sergeant, he was riding in the now moonlit night thinking of other things. His worn-out gloves left his bare fingers numb from the cold, trying to hold onto the reins of his mount. His body shook from the cold, especially since he wasn’t moving but rather, just sitting in a saddle. He paid no attention to his growling stomach, or how difficult his half-broken mount was in negotiating the trail.
He just wanted to finish this trip and arrive at the ocean. After taking the Californios’ horses, they would finally arrive in San Diego by next nightfall. He was was looking forward to getting into San Diego where they could get resupplied and, maybe he could get a letter off to his new bride. It would be a grand letter too. It would brag of their victory at San Pasqual and tell of their arrival, finally at the Pacific Ocean.