Battle of Palo Alto

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Battle of Palo Alto
Part of the Mexican–American War
Palo Alto nebel.jpg
Painting by Carl Nebel [lower-alpha 1] [1]
DateMay 8, 1846
Result American victory
Flag of the United States (1845-1846).svg  United States Flag of Mexico (1823-1864, 1867-1893).svg Mexico
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United States (1845-1846).svg Zachary Taylor Flag of Mexico (1823-1864, 1867-1893).svg Mariano Arista
8 artillery pieces
12 artillery pieces
Casualties and losses
4 killed
48 wounded
2 missing
102 killed
129 wounded
26 missing

The Battle of Palo Alto (Spanish : Batalla de Palo Alto) was the first major battle of the Mexican–American War and was fought on May 8, 1846, on disputed ground five miles (8 km) from the modern-day city of Brownsville, Texas. A force of some 3,700 Mexican troops – most of the Army of The North – led by General Mariano Arista engaged a force of approximately 2,300 United States troops – the Army of Occupation led by General Zachary Taylor. [2] [3]

Spanish language Romance language

Spanish or Castilian is a Romance language that originated in the Castile region of Spain and today has hundreds of millions of native speakers in the Americas and Spain. It is a global language and the world's second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese.

Battle part of a war which is well defined in duration, area and force commitment

A battle is a combat in warfare between two or more armed forces. A war usually consists of multiple battles. Battles generally are well defined in duration, area, and force commitment. A battle with only limited engagement between the forces and without decisive results is sometimes called a skirmish.

Mexican–American War Armed conflict between the United States of America and Mexico from 1846 to 1848

The Mexican–American War, also known in the United States as the Mexican War and in Mexico as the Intervención estadounidense en México, was an armed conflict between the United States of America and the Second Federal Republic of Mexico from 1846 to 1848. It followed in the wake of the 1845 American annexation of the Republic of Texas, not formally recognized by the Mexican government, disputing the Treaties of Velasco signed by the unstable Mexican caudillo President/General Antonio López de Santa Anna after the Texas Revolution a decade earlier. In 1845, newly elected U.S. President James K. Polk, who saw the annexation of Texas as the first step towards a further expansion of the United States, sent troops to the disputed area and a diplomatic mission to Mexico. After Mexican forces attacked American forces, Polk cited this in his request that Congress declare war.


On April 30, following the Thornton Affair, Mexican General Mariano Arista's troops began to cross the Rio Grande. On May 3, the troops began to besiege the American outpost at Fort Texas. Taylor marched his Army of Occupation south to relieve the siege. Arista, upon learning of his approach, diverted many of his units away from the siege to meet Taylor's force. The battle took place on May 8, three days before the formal declaration of war on Mexico by the United States. Arista ordered two cavalry charges, first against the American right flank and later against the left. Both were unsuccessful. The American victory is widely attributed to superior artillery, while the U.S. "light" artillery was much more mobile and accurate than that of the Mexican forces.

Thornton Affair A battle in 1846 between the military forces of the United States and Mexico

The Thornton Affair, also known as the Thornton Skirmish, Thornton's Defeat, or Rancho Carricitos was a battle in 1846 between the military forces of the United States and Mexico twenty miles west upriver from Zachary Taylor's camp along the Rio Grande. The much larger Mexican force defeated the Americans in the opening of hostilities, and was the primary justification for U.S. President James K. Polk's call to Congress to declare war.

Mariano Arista President of Mexico (1851–1853)

José Mariano Martín Buenaventura Ignacio Nepomuceno García de Arista Nuez was a noted veteran of many of Mexico's nineteenth-century wars. He served as president of Mexico from 15 January 1851 to 6 January 1853.

Rio Grande River forming part of the US-Mexico border

The Rio Grande is one of the principal rivers in the southwest United States and northern Mexico. The Rio Grande begins in south-central Colorado in the United States and flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it forms part of the Mexico–United States border. According to the International Boundary and Water Commission, its total length was 1,896 miles (3,051 km) in the late 1980s, though course shifts occasionally result in length changes. Depending on how it is measured, the Rio Grande is either the fourth- or fifth-longest river system in North America.

That evening, Arista was forced to withdraw further south. The armies clashed again the next day at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma.

Battle of Resaca de la Palma

At the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, one of the early engagements of the Mexican–American War, United States General Zachary Taylor engaged the retreating forces of the Mexican Ejército del Norte under General Mariano Arista on May 9, 1846. United States troops were victorious and forced the Mexicans out of Texas.


On April 30, following the Thornton Affair, Arista started crossing the Rio Grande at Longoreno with his main army, first with General Pedro de Ampudia's 1st Brigade and four guns. Taylor prepared Fort Texas to withstand a siege while he moved most of his forces to protect his supply base at Fort Polk near Point Isabel, 23 miles northeast of present day Brownsville, Texas, and having a Gulf of Mexico pass suitable for ships. Fort Texas was garrisoned by Taylor with 500 men under Major Jacob Brown, including the 7th Infantry, Capt. Allen Lowd's four 18-pounders, and Lt. Braxton Bragg's field battery. [4]

Pedro de Ampudia Mexican politician

Pedro Nolasco Martín José María de la Candelaria Francisco Javier Ampudia y Grimarest was born in Havana, Cuba, and served Mexico as a Northern army officer for most of his life. At various points he was the governor of Tabasco, Yucatán, and Nuevo León. He also served a short term as Secretary of National Defense under President Benito Juárez.

Fort Brown

Fort Brown was a military post of the United States Army in Cameron County, Texas during the later half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Established in 1846, it was the first United States Army military outpost of the recently annexed state. Confederate Army troops stationed there saw action during the American Civil War. In the early 20th century, it was garrisoned in relation to military activity over border conflicts with Mexico. Surviving elements of the fort were designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Brownsville, Texas City in Texas, United States

Brownsville is a city in Cameron County in the U.S. state of Texas. It located on the western Gulf Coast in South Texas, adjacent to the border with Matamoros, Mexico. The city covers 81.528 square miles (211.157 km2) and has a population of 183,299 as of 2017. It is the 131st-largest city in the United States and 16th-largest in Texas. It is part of the Brownsville–Matamoros conurbation, with a population of 1,136,995 people. The city is known for its year-round subtropical climate, deep-water seaport and Hispanic culture.

The battle began as a result of Mexican efforts to besiege Fort Texas on May 3, General Zachary Taylor, in command of the Army of Occupation, receiving supplies from Fort Polk on Point Isabel, heard the distant report of cannon fire. [4] Taylor started his return to Fort Texas on May 7 with 2,228 men plus his 200-wagon supply train. General Arista immediately left his camp at the Tanques del Ramireno with his army, with the intention of blocking Taylor. Ampudia's brigade left the Fort Texas siege to join him. Taylor's scouts sighted the Mexican force at noon on the 8th. [5]

Siege of Fort Texas

The Siege of Fort Texas marked the beginning of active campaigning by the armies of the United States and Mexico during the Mexican–American War. The battle is sometimes called The Siege of Fort Brown, but this is not entirely accurate—the name Fort Brown was taken from Major Jacob Brown, who was one of the two Americans killed during the engagement. Major Jacob Brown should not to be confused with the War of 1812 General Jacob Brown.

Zachary Taylor 12th president of the United States

Zachary Taylor was the 12th president of the United States, serving from March 1849 until his death in July 1850. Taylor previously was a career officer in the United States Army, rose to the rank of major general and became a national hero as a result of his victories in the Mexican–American War. As a result, he won election to the White House despite his vague political beliefs. His top priority as president was preserving the Union, but he died sixteen months into his term, before making any progress on the status of slavery, which had been inflaming tensions in Congress.

The Army of Occupation was the name of the U.S. Army commanded by Zachary Taylor during the Mexican–American War.


A Mexican soldier at Palo Alto A Cazadore in action at Palo Alto.jpg
A Mexican soldier at Palo Alto

Facing north and moving left to right, General Arista's army consisted of General Antonio Canales Rosillo's 400 irregular cavalry in chaparral, Anastasio Torrejon's cavalry brigade consisting of the 8th, 7th and Light Cavalry, astride the Point Isabel road, then came General Jose Maria Garcia's brigade of the 4th and 10th Infantry with two 8-pounders, then General Rómulo Díaz de la Vega's brigade of the 10th and 6th Infantry with five 4-pounders, then the Tampico Corps, the 2d Light Infantry and a sapper battalion with a 4-pounder. Behind this line was Col. Cayetano Montero's light cavalry. [6]

Antonio Canales Rosillo was a 19th-century Mexican politician, surveyor, and military officer.

Chaparral shrubland or heathland plant community found primarily in the US state of California and in the northern portion of the Baja California Peninsula, Mexico.

Chaparral is a shrubland or heathland plant community found primarily in the US state of California and in the northern portion of the Baja California Peninsula, Mexico. It is shaped by a Mediterranean climate and wildfire, featuring summer-drought-tolerant plants with hard sclerophyllous evergreen leaves, as contrasted with the associated soft-leaved, drought-deciduous, scrub community of coastal sage scrub, found below the chaparral biome. Chaparral covers 5% of the state of California and associated Mediterranean shrubland an additional 3.5%. The name comes from the Spanish word chaparro, for evergreen oak shrubland.

Rómulo Díaz de la Vega President of Mexico

Rómulo Díaz de la Vega was de facto president of Mexico in 1855. He studied military science and rose to the rank of general.

Facing south and moving right to left, Taylor, with a force of 2,300 men and 400 wagons, [7] placed Col. David E. Twiggs with Lt. Col. James S. McIntosh's 5th Infantry and Maj. Samuel Ringgold's artillery battery, followed by Capt. Lewis N. Morris' 3d Infantry with Lt. William H. Churchill's two 18-pounders astride the road, followed by Capt. George W. Allen's 4th Infantry, Lt. Thomas Childs' artillery battalion, Lt. Col. William G. Belknap's wing, James Duncan's battery, then Capt. William R. Montgomery's 8th Infantry on the American left. Lt. Col. Charles A. May's dragoon squadron guarded the left flank and Capt. Croghan Ker guarded the train. [8] Montgomery was slightly wounded during the battle, along with approximately ten other officers, some of them severely. [9]

Mexican infantry under US artillery fire Mexican Fourth line regiment, under artillery attack.jpg
Mexican infantry under US artillery fire

Taylor halted his columns and formed a line behind his batteries when the Mexican artillery started firing at 2 PM. The American artillery was very effective [10] while the Mexican artillery often fell short. Arista ordered Torrejon's cavalry to attack the American right, but progress was slow, allowing Twiggs to form the 5th Infantry into a square to meet them with a couple of volleys. [8]

A fire started from a cannon burning wad which halted fighting for an hour as the smoke paralleled between the lines of the opposing forces. [10] Arista pulled back 1,000 yards on his left and Taylor advanced accordingly, rotating the axis of the battle 40 degrees counterclockwise. May failed to turn the Mexican left before the artillery duel resumed. Child's artillery battalion formed a square to repel another Torrejon cavalry charge. Duncan's battery stopped Arista from turning the American left and then advanced with the 8th Infantry and Ker's dragoons to drive the Mexican right from the field. A charge ordered by Arista at this time resulted in the light cavalry fleeing along the Mexican line, taking the 6th Infantry with them. Fighting stopped with dusk and both armies camped for the night. [11]


The morning of the 9th revealed the Mexican army slowly moving south. Taylor sent forward a 220-man battalion under McCall to reconnoiter the Mexican positions. [12] The Battle of Resaca de la Palma would follow.

Major Ringgold was struck by a cannon ball and mortally wounded during the battle [10] but Ringgold's and Duncan's effective cannoneers with their "Flying Artillery"—the tactic of using light artillery to attack then quickly move to another location and fire once more, carried the day and won the battle for the Americans. [13] General Zachary Taylor emerged from the war a national hero. [14]

The battlefield is now Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park and is maintained by the National Park Service.

Battle of Palo Alto site Battle of Palo Alto site.jpg
Battle of Palo Alto site
Engraving memorializing the fatal wounding of Maj. Samuel Ringgold in the battle MjrRinggold Death LOC.jpg
Engraving memorializing the fatal wounding of Maj. Samuel Ringgold in the battle
Monument to the Battle of Palo Alto at West Point Palo Alto.JPG
Monument to the Battle of Palo Alto at West Point

Order of battle


Army of the North – Gen.div. Mariano Arista



Artillery – Gen. Tomas Requena


Army of Observation – Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor

1st Brigade "Left Wing" – Lt. Col. William G. Belknap

2nd Brigade "Right Wing" – Colonel David E. Twiggs

Fort Polk

Zachary Taylor established Fort Polk [lower-alpha 2] , near Point Isabel, 23 miles northeast of present day Brownsville, with a Gulf of Mexico pass suitable for ships' landings, on March 24, 1846 as a supply base for his operations leading up to the Battle of Palo Alto, and used it until 1850. He garrisoned it with two artillery companies under Major John Munroe. [15] Major Charles Thomas was the Depot Quartermaster using wagons and river steamers to supply Taylor. [16]

Taylor established camps for those heeding his call for volunteers at Point Isabel, the north end of Brazos Island, and along the Rio Grande between Barita and Fort Brown, at a place known as Camp Belknap.

Taylor's three brigades camped at Corpus Christi along the Nueces River in 1845 before the march south to the Rio Grande. Taylor's Camp Along Corpus Christi.jpg
Taylor's three brigades camped at Corpus Christi along the Nueces River in 1845 before the march south to the Rio Grande.
Point Isabel, the site of Taylor's supply base Fort Polk.jpg
Point Isabel, the site of Taylor's supply base

See also


  1. Painting is in error by depicting background mountains. The nearest in any direction are 240 miles away, near Monterrey, NL, MX.
  2. Not to be confused with Fort Polk in Louisiana

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  1. Stevens, 1864, p. 20
  2. Bauer, 1974, pp. 19, 57
  3. Frost, 1848, pp. 9-10
  4. 1 2 Bauer, 1974, p.49
  5. Bauer, 1974, pp. 52–53
  6. Bauer, 1974, p.53
  7. U.S. National Park Service, Essay
  8. 1 2 Bauer, 1974, p.54
  9. Montgomery, 1847, p. 156
  10. 1 2 3 Montgomery, 1847, p. 136
  11. Bauer, 1974, p.55
  12. Bauer, 1974, p.59
  13. Bauer, 1974, p.57
  14. A&E Television Networks,, Essay
  15. Bauer, 1974, p.39
  16. Bauer, 1974, p.84


Additional Reading

Coordinates: 26°01′12″N97°27′55″W / 26.02007°N 97.46538°W / 26.02007; -97.46538