By: Patrick Shrier
The Battle of Buena vista was the bloodiest battle fought in the Mexican-American War and it was the last battle fought in the northern Campaign of General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850). The American victory at Buena Vista ended the threat of a renewed Mexican invasion of Texas and secured the American gains from Texas west to the Pacific Ocean. The battle was a close run thing; the Mexican army outnumbered the American by four to one. Only the choice of terrain and excellent American leadership coupled with Mexican misuse of their available forces that enabled the Americans to emerge victorious.
The battlefield of Buena Vista is in northern Mexico approximately seven miles south of the town of Saltillo on the Saltillo-San Luis Potosí road in an area known as La Angostura or the Narrows. The American forces were in position in the narrowest part of the canyon facing the south and the army of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was approaching from the south along the general line of the Saltillo-San Luis Potosi road. The battle lasted two days and when it ended, the American army still held the field suffering 735 casualties while inflicting over 1,500 on the Mexicans. The United States victory in the Battle of Buena Vista was the result of better use of the terrain and a greater understanding of what the troops were capable of by the American commander General Zachary Taylor.
The army of General Taylor at Buena Vista was very different from the force he had used to capture Monterrey in September of 1846. A large number of the regular units of Taylor’s army were transferred in December and January to bolster the army of General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) in preparation for the invasion of central Mexico. The army that fought at Buena Vista numbered 4,759 officers and men and was composed largely of war raised volunteer regiments. It consisted of six regiments of Infantry, two regiments of Volunteer Cavalry, two squadrons of Regular Dragoons, and three batteries of Artillery, one heavy, and two light batteries which were commanded by Captains Sherman, Bragg, and Washington. The only regular formations in the army were the artillery and Dragoons. Most of the volunteer regiments were unblooded, being replacements for regular units dispatched to the invasion of central Mexico under General Winfield Scott.
The Dragoons and artillery had served with Taylor since the beginning of the war and had proved their worth in combat. Less certain were the combat abilities of the volunteer regiments; all were one-year regiments raised for the war by their states and sent to serve in Mexico. The volunteer regiments either were nearing the end of their term of service or newly raised, which is why they were with General Taylor and not with General Scott at Vera Cruz.
The Mexican army numbered about 20,000 men and Santa Anna had requisitioned the units from the various states of Mexico. The army was not a homogenous whole it having been raised specifically for the campaign against General Taylor to retake Saltillo. The enlisted members of the army were largely peasants, press-ganged into the army, while the officers were a privileged elite, often paying for their commissions. The only regular component of the army was the cavalry and a few infantry regiments. The officers were remote from their men and it was common for the officers to enjoy great comfort while the men suffered during the campaign. The army lacked basic discipline, the soldiers threw away any equipment they did not want and the officers could not maintain march discipline, indeed, the generals were part of the problem. Despite the indiscipline, the Mexican army was still a formidable force with the solid core of the cavalry and Presidential Guard infantry regiment.
General Taylor chose the battlefield itself on 22 February 1847, when the army was encamped at Agua Nueva on the road to San Luis Potosi. On that day, General Taylor received confirmation from his cavalry that a large Mexican army was approaching. He chose an area along the Saltillo-San Luis Potosí road approximately seven miles south of Saltillo known as La Angostura or The Narrows, there was also ranch called Buena Vista in the area. The chosen battlefield could not have been better for defense if it had been built for that purpose.
At the site of the battle the Saltillo-San Luis Potosi road goes through a narrow defile in the mountains which provides level ground for attacking troops no more than 1,000 meters wide at the point where the defenses were set. To the east of the road, the ground rises sharply to the flanks of a mountain called Sierra del Pame, the slopes of which are cut by numerous draws running from east to west towards the road. Along western edge of the battlefield is a line of short steep foothills running in a north-south line in front of the Cerro de La Palma only two and one-half miles away from the road.
The broken terrain to the east and west of battlefield canalize an attacker into using the road and the less broken ground on the eastern side of the road. The draws and ravines on the east make it impossible for an attacker to move in an orderly fashion while giving the defending troops the high ground.
The American army was encamped at Agua Nueva on 20 February, when they learned of the approach of the numerically superior Mexican army. General Taylor left a portion of the Arkansas Mounted Volunteers at Agua Nueva to act as an advance and see to the removal or destruction of the American supplies stored there. The rest of the American army retreated to the Buena Vista position to prepare for the upcoming battle.
Brigadier General John E. Wool, who was one of the longest serving and most experienced generals in the American army, emplaced the American troops. General Wool, in consultation with General Taylor chose the position from which the American army would defend. General Taylor returned to Saltillo in the company of the First Mississippi Rifles, two batteries of artillery and the Dragoons of Colonel Charles May to check the progress of reinforcements and left General Wool in charge of establishing the defensive positions.
General Wool emplaced the army such that the available artillery best supported the infantry. To the right of the American line the First Illinois Volunteers with a battery of Artillery were emplaced to control the San Luis Potosi-Saltillo road. Arrayed in echelon on the left of the road were the Second Illinois Volunteers and a company of Texas Rangers then the Second Kentucky Volunteers. On the extreme left were the First Kentucky Volunteers and the Arkansas Mounted Volunteers who had returned to the main body after completing their mission at Agua Nueva. Lastly, the First Mississippi Rifles and the Indianan Volunteer Brigade, the squadrons of the First and Second Dragoons, and two batteries of artillery were held in reserve about a half mile to the rear. (See Figure 1)
The Mexican army of Santa Anna consisted of three divisions of infantry, Lomdardini, Pacheco, and Ortega, along with the Juvera cavalry division all of which were named after their commanders. Santa Anna’s plan of battle was simple he would attack frontally with one infantry division while another attempted a flank attack on the American left supported by cavalry.
The battle began on 22 February Santa Anna formed up his entire army and made a great show of moving into position for the initial assault giving the American army plenty of time to be prepared. The first action was an advance by the Mexican cavalry who halted just out of cannon range, raised a white flag, and requested a truce. They presented a message to Taylor from Santa Anna in which Santa Anna insultingly requested the surrender of the Americans offering one hour for the American decision. General Taylor immediately answered, “Sir: In reply to your note of this date, summoning me to surrender my forces at discretion, I beg leave to say that I decline acceding to your request.”
A short while after General Taylor’s refusal to surrender, Santa Anna drew his army up with two divisions of infantry in the lead supported by several batteries of artillery and the cavalry division. Santa Anna placed his headquarters in the center with his personal bodyguard of a brigade of Hussars and left one brigade of infantry in the rear to guard the baggage train.
The Mexican attacked the American right around three o’clock where a brigade of Mexican infantry attempted to drive back the positions of the Illinois Volunteers, Washington’s battery, and the second Indiana regiment were defending along the San Luis Potosi-Saltillo road. The Americans easily stopped this attack and the fighting ended in a few hours with the coming of nightfall. At sunset, General Taylor returned to Saltillo with the Second Dragoons and Mississippi Rifles to ensure that the readiness of the city’s defenses were adequate. During the night, Mexican skirmishers attacked and drove in the American pickets that had been posted in front of the American lines overnight.
The battle was renewed next morning but the first thing Santa Anna did was to have his army celebrate Mass in full view of the American apparently hoping that the size of his force would impress and frighten the watching Americans. At the end of the Mass, around six o’clock the Mexican army moved into position and again attacked on the American center and extreme left flank. The weight of the attack on the center was overwhelming and the Mexican infantry had broken the American line by nine in the morning when General Taylor returned from Saltillo and immediately threw the Mississippi rifles into the fight and stopped the Mexican assault. The American counterattack was so successful that the Americans regained almost all of the positions they had lost in the morning.
Simultaneously with the fight on the plateau another force of three regiments assaulted on the American right along the road in an attempt to force the pass of La Angostura. The fire of two batteries of artillery and a regiment of infantry halted this attack. The Americans had set up a virtual fire-sack with two regiments of infantry and two batteries of artillery, as the Mexican infantry advanced up the gorge towards the plateau they were caught in a vicious crossfire and the attack stopped almost as soon as it began.
Meanwhile, on the extreme left of the American position along the base of the mountains, around noon a mix of Mexican cavalry and the San Patricio battalion of Irish deserters attempted to turn the American line and get into the rear of the entire position. The Arkansas and Kentucky Mounted Volunteers drove this attack off with the assistance of the Second Dragoons and some additional mounted volunteers. The fire of American artillery raked the Mexican cavalry as they retreated, the guns having arrived to late to take part in the initial action.
The Mexican cavalry reformed and was reinforced by a brigade of infantry, and then in the afternoon, they attempted to attack the American baggage train at the farm of Buena Vista. The combined American mounted units and artillery halted and drove this attack off as well. The Dragoons and artillery pressed their advantage and drove the cavalry further back until the fire of the artillery and infantry of the American center caught them in enfilade. At this point, General Santa Anna requested a truce and during the truce, he ordered these units to retreat out of danger.
The retreating units met the Mexican reserve and began a fresh assault on the Illinois and Kentucky regiments supported by a single battery of artillery that were holding the American center. The Mexican force numbered about twelve thousand and under the pressure of their advance, the Americans retreated but the Mexican cavalry, which had gotten into their rear, trapped them. Two American cannons were captured after the gunners died almost to a man defending them. This was the true crisis of the battle as the Mexicans had almost broken the American lines.
General Taylor ordered the Mississippi Rifles, Second Indiana, and two additional batteries of artillery from the left to seal the breach and they arrived just in time to halt the Mexican attack. This was the last action of the day as afterwards the Mexican army withdrew because night was falling.
The Battle of Buena Vista was the bloodiest battle fought during the Mexican-American War, although it did not see the fiercest fighting, that would occur in the final battles in and around Mexico city that fall. The American army suffered a total of 264 killed, 450 wounded, and 26 missing during the battle while the Mexican army suffered between 1,500 to 2,000 dead and wounded.
The American army remained in position throughout the night expecting a renewal of the contest in the morning. As the sun rose on 24 February, the battlefield was empty except for the American army. Santa Anna had retreated towards San Luis Potosi during the night, and the battle was over. General Winfield Scott would begin the campaign in central Mexico in early march and Santa Anna quickly marched to Mexico City to rally a new army to attempt to defeat him. Buena Vista was the final battle of the northern campaign of the Mexican-American War.Figure 1. Initial Dispositions-Battle of Buena Vista, 22 February 1847
Image: Google Earth, www.earth.google.com
Unit Information, Brooks, Nathan C., A Complete History of the Mexican War: Its Causes Conduct, and Consequences: Comprising an Account of the Various Military and Naval Operations. From its Commencement to Treaty of Peace, Cranbury, NJ: The Scholars Bookshelf, 2006, pp. 207-209
The American army that General Taylor commanded at Buena Vista was not the army he had used to capture Monterrey only two months before. The American army at Buena Vista was mostly war-raised volunteer units; the bulk of the regulars were transferred to General Scott’s army in December and January for the invasion of central Mexico.
The most striking thing about the battle is the disparity in numbers; General Santa Anna fielded almost 20,000 men versus only 5,000 American troops a ratio of four to one. Conventional wisdom then and now holds that the American force should have been defeated. That the Americans were victorious is a testament to the wisdom of General Wool’s initial dispositions and the quality of the hastily raised volunteers. Despite the fact that at least two volunteer regiments routed during the battle; it was another volunteer formation, the Mississippi Rifles that saved the day when it seemed the Mexican army had broken the lines.
The one factor that had the most to do with the American victory is the quality of the leadership, American officers consistently led from the front. That the American officers did so is reflected in the casualty figures, of 334 officers in the American army twenty-eight were killed, almost 10% of total officers and 10.4% of total dead of all ranks. The comparable numbers for the Mexican army are unknown.
The quality of the American artillery, which were all regular units, was on a par with the artillery of the best European armies and they were put to good use during the battle. The light artillery was able to move rapidly from position to position and except for one instance in the afternoon, they provided unmatched support for the defending infantry.
The ground chosen by the American army was almost perfect for defense, the ground to their front was broken, and they had a smooth plateau to their rear, which allowed lateral movement during the battle. The dispositions of General Wool made maximum use of the terrain in concealing the American forces while allowing American pickets to observe the enemy approach over most of the battlefield. Lastly, the available artillery was emplaced such that the key terrain and likely avenues of enemy approach was covered by fire.
The Mexican army took such a drubbing the second day of the battle that General Santa Anna was forced to withdraw, not only was his army bloodied, but he suddenly faced a threat in his rear. If the Mexicans had been successful at Buena Vista, it is certainly likely that the Americans would have lost Saltillo and perhaps Monterrey. Buena Vista was the key battle that ended the Mexican threat to the northern theater in the Mexican war; this battle combined with General Scott’s landing at Veracruz ensured that the northern territories of Mexico would remain in American hands until the end of the war.
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