At nearly 6:00 a.m. on the morning of December 6, 1846, San Pasqual’s fog shrouded valley floor, became a stage. With the moon and morning stars shining bright above, the dawn’s early light was barely beginning to pierce the night’s veil of darkness. With barely the hint of a breeze, death looked on at the drama that was about to unfold. General Stephen Watts Kearny brought the American force to a halt at the top of San Pasqual Hill.
Sergeant Cox looked across the valley floor where just over a mile away, above and beyond the fog bank, lay the San Pasqual Indian Village. This was where they were told the Californios were camped. He could see several campfires in the village.
Kearny rounded up his officers and upper ranked non-commissioned officers as he addressed the dragoons, passing out his final orders before descending the hill. John listened attentively as over a hundred men sat in their saddles, many shaking from the cold.
Kearny told them to “Be steady and obey implicitly the orders of the officers; that their country expected them to do their duty; and that one thrust of the sabre point was far more effective than any number of cuts.”
Kearny then turned to his officers and told them the plan of attack. He told them that Captain Abraham Johnston would lead an advance guard of ten dragoons in the accompaniment of Kit Carson. Their primary purpose would be to locate and secure the enemy’s horses somewhere on the edge of the Indian village. Despite everything that Kearny had learned from Hammond’s botched reconnaissance, he was still operating on the premise that they were going to surprise the Mexicans. He assumed that the Californios would not be mounted at all and, that Johnston and his eventual twelve men would find all the Mexican’s horses tied up somewhere, waiting for the Americans to easily secure the prized catch.
Following the advance guard would be Captain Benjamin D. Moore, with Lieutenant Hammond, leading approximately one-hundred dragoons. General Kearny would be between the advance guard and Captain Moore’s unit. Accompanying the General would be Captain Henry Smith Turner, topographical engineers – Lieutenants William H. Emory and William H. Warner, Doctor and Captain John S. Griffin, Navy Lieutenant Edward F. Beale and Mountain Man Antoine Robidoux.
Captains Gillespie and Samuel Gibson would take up the rear with about twenty members of the California Battalion of Volunteers. With Gillespie was the small Sutter Gun that fired small four-pound cannonballs. The Sutter Gun was originally from Russia, poured around 1804 in Saint Petersburg. Russian fur traders brought the cannon with them years later to Fort Ross located in Northern California. A man named John Sutter, then bought the fort. When the Russians moved out, he acquired the cannon in the purchase. It was eventually appropriated by the Americans for use against the Mexicans, thus Captain Gillespie’s unit now had it in their possession. The ammunition carried with the bronze cannon were copper cannonballs and shot charges made of musket balls that were common at every trading post.
Behind Gillespie rode Lieutenant John W. Davidson and the two howitzers being drawn on carriages. Davidson’s men consisted of a few dragoons, at least three per gun. The carriages were in poor condition, barely being kept together with lashes of rawhide.
Davidson did not agree with the General’s decision to put him and his howitzers so far to the rear and begged Kearny to have his unit ride to the front of the column, but the request was denied.
Major Swords and approximately fifty men were to stay on top of San Pasqual Hill and protect the baggage strapped on their pack-mules.
With the word passed, the officers advised their non-commissioned officers accordingly of the plans of attack. As word was passed down the line, at the top of San Pasqual Hill, Kearny gave the order, “Forward.” The dragoons slowly began their decent in columns-of-twos down the hill.
Some began to remember talk that had gone around the campfires earlier. Some were saying the officers were warm and had strength from wine they had put in their canteens at Santa Ysabel two nights before. Some wondered if it was that or the fact the officers had barely a nap during the last twenty-four hours that made them appear numbed out to cold. The men had also been complaining about doing battle with such old-fashioned carbines like the ones they carried.
Before the soldiers had barely started down the bill, the alarm had already been sounded back at the Indian Village of the Americans’ approach. The Californios had just gotten their horses from nearby and were busy saddling them. Indians in the village gathered their families both young and old and began to flee into the nearby rocks upon the hills. This was not their fight.
Still concealed in the darkness of early dawn, the soldiers slowly descended the hill, down into the fog bank that hugged the valley floor.
Rather than wait and stage all the troops at the bottom of the hill before moving out, Kearny gave the immediate order to “Trot.” Captain Johnston, who was at the front of the Column, then began to slowly trot along the old caretta road with his advance guard.
The valley was about three-fourths of a mile wide at this location with the Indian Village a little over a mile away.
General Pico and his Californios rode out from the main village to engage the Americans. The mounted Californios positioned below the road on both sides.
For Sergeant Cox, who was riding behind Captain Moore and Lieutenant Hammond, the attack was about to start. This was it! It was happening! The excitement was well accepted by the soldiers because it was at least taking their minds off the God forsaken cold that was engulfing their near-frozen bodies.
As the column slowly began to move into the fog, about fifteen dragoons, mostly those with horses instead of mules, were able to keep a steady pace behind Captain Moore and Lieutenant Hammond. Some of the dragoons however, were on wet, tired and stubborn mules while the rest were on “gentle” horses, many of which were having problems keeping up.
Up ahead through the pre-dawn darkness, Captain Johnston was suddenly startled. Just ahead of them, along the sides of the road were two mounted Californios. Both began to ride away from them at full gallop.
Johnston instantly knew what had happened. The two riders were forward sentries that had been posted along the road to warn of the Americans approach. If they got back to warn the village of the American’s approach, the entire element of surprise would be lost. Johnston immediately broke into a gallop yelling, “Charge.” The chase was on with Johnston and the advance guard, in a fierce attempt to catch the two before they could get back to the camp.
Sergeant Cox attempted to look ahead of Captain Moore and the General’s entourage as those up front of the two columns clearly heard Johnston yelling out “Charge.” He heard the rest of the advance guard begin yelling and the sound of their mounts galloping forward from them. No one knew that the advance guard was chasing the two sentries.
Not knowing that Johnston had taken off chasing the two Californios, General Kearny thought the young Captain had misunderstood the order to “Trot.” “Oh heavens, I did not mean that.” Kearny exclaimed.
The General and his party now also took off at full gallop. Following behind, Captain Moore now too sounded the command to “Charge.”
Captain Gillespie and his volunteers were still descending San Pasqual Hill as this was happening.
As Sergeant Cox began to take off, the bugler sounded “Charge as Foragers” meaning to all the soldiers, to break the two-by-two column formation and to form into an open charge across the field. The bugle’s haunting blast reverberated off the valley walls, echoing through the early morning darkness and becoming lost in the non-moving fog.
As with everyone else in the group, John’s adrenaline glands began pumping at full throttle. Things were starting to happen fast, maybe too fast. He could still hear the advance guard yelling somewhere up in the distance. The mounts directly in front of him were throwing up bits of mud and dirt. The air was filled with the sounds of rattling sabers and rifle slings.
Captain Johnston and his men charged across the valley floor. Despite the fog and darkness, dawn’s early light had made some obscure visibility barely fifty feet or less in advance. With his sabre drawn and riding at full gallop, Johnston looked ahead on the caretta road as well as upward to his right for the enemy’s campfires they had seen earlier around the Indian Village. Soldiers having just reached the base of San Pasqual Hill, were slowly coming up and out of the dry riverbed of the Rio Bernardo River.
Suddenly, Kit Carson’s horse went down throwing Carson onto the ground. Holding his rifle as he fell, the impact shattered it, causing it to break into two pieces. While his horse immediately struggled to get back up, Carson used his arms trying to protect himself from other dragoons dashing by on their mounts. He quickly rolled off to the side.
Trying to look for the campfires up ahead at the village, Johnston’s eyes now caught movement directly in front of him across the road. Just as the Army Captain began to barely make out General Pico and a slew of Californios right in front of him, a volley of gunfire ripped through the early morning air.
The remaining members of the advance guard heard a man cry out as if yelling out an order. It was General Pico giving the order to “Disparar” or to “Shoot.” Pico had suddenly found himself being charged upon by the Americans. The Battle of San Pasqual had begun.
From the advance guard back to John Cox, the Americans had been greeted with a horrific volley of gunfire from their left. The Mexicans weren’t asleep in their village after all. They were right on the road waiting for them. The dragoons were being ambushed.
Johnston and his advance guard had slammed into the enemy.
The Americans were thrown into instant chaos. Gillespie and his volunteers who were still descending the hill, heard the gunfire and were absolutely frustrated at not being there at the action.
At the very front of the line, General Kearny’s group and Moore’s arriving unit immediately began dismounting and scattering. Several of the dragoons in the advance guard including Private William B. Dunne found the cold was too severe to even attempt to fire their pistols.
To John Cox, the volley of gunfire had been deafening. It had indeed caught the Americans off guard. He could hear the officers up ahead, some using obscenities as they tried to wheel their horses, stopping the charge. Everyone had seen the row of gun flashes coming from their left side but couldn’t see anyone to shoot at. The Californios were hiding down in a ravine with cover.
Pico’s group of Californios had immediately begun engaging what was left of the advance guard. The dragoons began taking lances from all around them. The soldiers then began taking cover as General Kearny and his officers arrived at the scene along with Moore’s unit.
As John Cox and others in Moore’s unit struggled to get up to where the engagement was occurring at, Kit Carson had managed to run a hundred yards to where the advance guard had taken fire at. He found the body of a private lying on the ground. Carson took the dead soldier’s rifle and a box of ammunition, ran a few yards away to some nearby rocks on a hill. From this position, Carson fired at the Mexicans who came within range of his rifle.
Captain Johnston and members of his advanced guard found themselves overwhelmed by Californios. In the fire and terror of close combat with an enemy, Johnston was fighting for his life. One Californio looked Johnston right in his eyes as he fired his weapon. ‘Robinson’ fell perfectly lifeless to the ground, shot right through the center of his head.
Back at the base of San Pasqual Hill, Captain Gillespie and his volunteers were just getting onto the valley floor. They were all very eager to get to the front quickly. However, strung out in front of them were many dragoons from Moore’s unit whose slower and worn out animals were trying to catch up.
Men in Gillespie’s Volunteer Battalion began to get angry with him, frustrated that Gillespie wouldn’t pass the slower dragoons and get up to the front lines. Gillespie however, being a disciplined officer, wanted to follow General Kearny’s orders to stay to the rear of Moore’s unit. Many of Gillespie’s civilian volunteers including Navy Lieutenant Beale skirted Gillespie, taking off for the front. Able to wait no longer, Gillespie himself charged forward with his unit and Sutter Gun in tow.
Pico began to see more and more dragoons arriving quickly on the scene. Out of the fog, he could hear sporadic gunfire from the Americans. Pico decided to pull his Californios back.
Captain Gillespie, who had been very anxious to catch up with Captain Moore, soon arrived on the scene with the rest of his men. They quickly began to engage the Mexicans. One Mexican rode by them almost defiantly with several shots being fired at him. Lieutenant Beale finally shot the rider out of his saddle as Doctor Griffin looked on.
However, in the early morning darkness and fog, identifying who was who had become difficult. At one point, another rider came dashing by looking as Mexican as the rest. One dragoon shot at him with his pistol and missed. Upon seeing this, another dragoon drew his sabre and was about to cut the rider down when Doctor Griffin recognized the man as one of the civilian volunteers from Gillespie’s unit and stopped the soldier.
Pico and his Californios had ridden out from the village to engage the Americans. Now, some of them began to fall back to the village. Pico however, quickly began to realize that the Americans were still coming and that they were getting boxed in with their back against the north valley wall if they didn’t move quickly. The Californios then made a break west to get out and around a “rocky point” that jutted outward towards the valley floor. As this movement began, Captain Moore saw what the Californios were doing. They were making a break for it.
With Pico pulling away from the action, Captain Moore was eager to pursue him. Captain Gillespie looked on as Moore and no more than fifteen dragoons took off after Pico and his troops towards the point. As Moore began moving out of the area in pursuit of Pico, Gillespie was again becoming agitated at having to wait before all his men caught up to him.
As Gillespie’s men began arriving, and as Gillespie was about to take off after Moore, he noticed a number of Mexicans moving through the brush near the village. These Californios were being cut off from the rest of their group. They slowly began to crawl through the grass, moving around nearby Indian huts trying to flee to Pico and the rest of the Californios.
Gillespie however, saw this as an attempt by the Mexicans to sneak around to the rear of the American force and attack them from behind. He immediately decided not to follow Moore but instead, deployed approximately twenty of his men. Having some of them even dismount, he had them begin to sweep the area between the road and the base of the hills on the north side of the valley, including the village.
Captain Moore, aware of what General Pico was trying to do, knew if they didn’t stop him and his band of Californios now, it could cause serious problems later. He knew if Pico cleared the point, he would be home free into the wide-open valley and lost to the Americans for good. Not only would this make the skirmish look bad for the Americans but, it also posed a threat that the Mexicans could be able to gather reinforcements and re-attack the Americans later. This, especially after now knowing what the American’s strengths were.
Moore was quickly becoming frustrated. His troops could not keep up with him on their poor mounts. Despite this, Moore continued after the fleeing Californios.
Meanwhile, back with Gillespie’s unit, one Mexican was still trying to flee the area. He was a forty-four-year-old Captain in the Californios named Pablo Vejar. Vejar was on top of his horse and had shouted to several other Californios that he was going to stop for a minute to catch his breath. Four Americans nearby heard Vejar shout in the early morning darkness and immediately rode upon him.
Vejar then spurred his horse up from the bottom of a ravine, in an attempt to get to the top and ride back down upon the Americans. However, in the process of doing so, his horse caught one of its hooves in a gopher hole and the large animal came crashing hard onto the ground.
Suddenly, Vejar found himself pinned underneath his horse, his spur caught on the cinch. The four Americans chasing him, opened fire sending musket balls impacting the ground all around his head. Vejar played dead and the Americans rode off.
Then, Vejar’s horse began struggling to get back up thus attracting the attention of other approaching American soldiers. They too opened fire at Vejar and again, Vejar played dead. As the soldiers quickly rode off, Vejar’s horse finally got to its feet. Two more American’s then rode up, both of them dressed more like civilians than soldiers. Vejar picked up his lance and stood ready for them as one of them, a member of the California Volunteer Battalion named Phillip Crosthwaite, fired off his pistol sending the musket ball screaming past Vejar’s face.
The two Americans came to a stop on both sides of the Mexican Captain. Crosthwaite’s partner, a half-breed named Beatitude Patitoux, then aimed a loaded rifle at Vejar and said, “Damn you.”
Vejar looked over at Crosthwaite and noticed he was on a familiar white horse. It bore the brand of Juan Machado, the Mexican turned traitor and scout for the Americans. Vejar offered his lance to Crosthwaite in an act of surrender. Vejar however had a sly plan. When Crosthwaite grabbed the lance, he would pull him off the horse and onto the ground.
This plan was frustrated though by the fact that Patitoux kept his rifle pointed dead on at Vejar. Patitoux kept on insisting that they execute Vejar on the spot and get on with the rest of the battle, but Crosthwaite argued against it citing Captain Gillespie’s orders to treat any prisoners with respect. This became especially difficult when Vejar handed over his lance which was still covered in fresh blood from fellow American compatriots.
Lieutenant Edward F. Beale then rode up and, he and Crosthwaite prepared to ride back into the battle leaving Patitoux to take Vejar back to the rear.
Feeling that the “half-breed” from Canada would kill him if he were left alone with him, Vejar took immediate exception with Beale on his decision to ride away with Crosthwaite.
Beale responded by saying, “The Americans are not chuchos [mutts]. They won’t kill you.” Patitoux responded by saying, “Let’s go.”
Unable to say anything more, Vejar was taken away to the rear by Patitoux while Beale and Crosthwaite rode away into battle.
Also found and taken prisoner was a lone Mexican boy named Francisco Dorio Lara. Lara had become terrified when Pico and the rest of the Californios rode off to meet the Americans, so the Mexicans left him in the camp. When the Americans finally stormed the area, they found him hiding inside one of the Indian huts.
Two Americans and one of Kearny’s Indians escorted the boy out of the hut whereupon the boy delivered up his gun and openly surrendered. With this done, the two Americans rode on to join the rest of the battle leaving the boy with the Indian. The Indian then simply turned and executed the boy on the spot with his musket.
One of the civilians under Gillespie found another Mexican hiding inside one of the huts.
The Californio was wounded and had decided to hide rather than mount his horse and ride away. A volunteer named William Russell took the Mexican outside and began to beat him on the head with his cutlass. The attack was so savage that Russell broke his sword in the process and then in frustration, ran him through with the point.
Gillespie’s unit continued the sweep of the area. Moving towards Moore’s direction of travel, Lieutenant Davidson continued moving along the caretta road with his howitzers. He was headed towards the rocky point too, leaving Gillespie and his troops behind. He was trying to catch up with the rest of the soldiers who were also trying to catch up to Captain Moore.
Sergeant Cox was now halfway between where they had just skirmished, and the rocky point that Moore was chasing the Californios towards. As one of Moore’s Sergeants, John was desperately trying to bring his dragoons up and still catch up to his commanding officer. Moore had already disappeared way up the road into the early morning darkness. Also, up ahead of John was General Kearny and some of his staff.
John thought the battle was probably over. The Mexicans had gone. There was little chance of the Americans being able to catch up to them, especially with their tired, worn and broken-down mules. What he didn’t know was that the battle had only just begun.