CAPTAIN MAY'S RECONNAISSANCE

From:
ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.

General Taylor had concentrated his force of about 4,600 men at the hacienda of Agua Nueva, about twenty miles south of Saltillo. In order to determine the movements of the enemy, he decided to send out a strong reconnaissance force. This consisted of Companies D and E, Second Dragoons, two companies of the First Dragoons, some volunteer cavalry, and a section of the Fourth Artillery, in all about 400 men, under Captain May. They left camp February 20 and marched east, arriving at the hacienda of La Hedionda that afternoon. Captain May sent out patrols in all directions and, leaving his horses saddled, prepared for a defense of the ranch by placing bales of cotton around. It was noticed that signal fires were kindled on the hills, and he assumed his movements were watched by the Mexican cavalry. By ten o’clock all the patrols were back except one, and Captain May had information from a Mexican deserter that not only was the hostile cavalry in that vicinity but Santa Anna was only a short distance away with the main army of over 22,000. With this information Captain May left the ranch at once and returned to the general headquarters at Agua Nueva.

CAPTAIN MAY’S RECONNAISSANCE BEFORE THE BATTLE OF BUENA VISTA
From The Battle of Buena Vista, by James Henry Carleton.

Colonel May was ordered not to attack the enemy, but to avoid him, if possible; the purpose of this march being solely that of observation. At the same time that he was sent in this direction, Major Benjamin McCulloch, with a small party of Texas spies, was ordered toward La Encarnacion, for a similar object.

The rancho of La Hedionda and the hacienda of Potosi are situated, respectively, on the western and eastern sides of the same valley, and are about thirty miles distant from each other. Between them there extends, without any interruption, a level plain. At three o’clock in the afternoon, Colonel May arrived at La Hedionda, and immediately sent out piquets in various directions, to take a sweeping view of the whole valley. Hardly had he done so, when signal fires were lighted on several peaks to the right and left of his position, and a large one near the top to the towering mountain in the immediate neighborhood of Potosi, the smoke of which could be seen at a great distance. Immense clouds of dust were soon afterwards observed to rise in the direction of the hacienda, indicating evidently the march of troops. To the left of La Hedionda, there is a long range of hills shooting off into the valley, like a spur, from the chain of mountains which lies between Agua Nueva and that place, and stretching about half way across the plain. The clouds of dust appeared to be moving around the distant point of those hills from the right. Colonel May was aware that directly over this range of hills, and only five miles distant, was another rancho, called Guachuchil, and that there passed by it a road from Potosi to Agua Nueva, which came into that over which he had just marched, midway from where he then was to the latter place. He therefore imagined that the clouds of dust, which had moved around in the direction of Guachuchil, were raised by General Minon’s brigade, on its march to get a position between him and our main army, for the purpose of intercepting his return. To be sure whether such was the fact, he directed Lieutenant Sturgis, of the 2d Dragoons, with one man to accompany him, to proceed to the top of the range of hills before mentioned, in order to reconnoiter the valley in the neighborhood of the rancho beyond. This was at about five o’clock in the afternoon; and, as the ascent was very difficult, it was nearly sunset before the Lieutenant arrived at the summit. No sooner had he done so, however, than his comrades at La Hedionda heard a heavy volley of musketry at that point, and supposed he and the man with him had fallen into an ambuscade and been sacrificed. Night setting in, and some of the piquets, which had been expected to return before dark, not having yet come back, it was feared that they, too, had met with a similar fate. These events led Colonel May to believe that the enemy’s troops, in considerable force, were very near him; but where they were exactly, and in what numbers, he was wholly at a loss to determine. The peones at the rancho were exceedingly terrified, and either could not, or would not, impart any information on the subject. Colonel May decided to stay where he was until morning, and not to abandon the valley until he should know definitely what had been the fate of the officers and men whom he had detached. As he had no doubt he should be attacked during the night, he prepared at once for a vigorous defense of his position. Bales of cotton, which were found at the rancho in great abundance, were placed at each end of the street running through it; and, at each temporary breastwork thus formed, Lieutenant O’Brien had one of his pieces. The men were dismounted to occupy the different buildings and yards, while the horses were kept saddled and ready for any immediate service that circumstances might require.

The long hours of watching and anxiety wore slowly away, and the uncertainty, as to what had befallen the gallant fellows who were absent, filled every heart with despondency. By nine o’clock, all of the piquets had returned but one, of twelve men, commanded by Lieutenant Wood, of the 2d Dragoons; but none of them had seen anything of the enemy. As Lieutenant Wood and his party, and Lieutenant Sturgis, if alive and at liberty, should have been back hours before, there no longer remained a doubt but that they had either been destroyed or captured.

It was past ten o’clock, when a man, dressed like one of the peones at the rancho, desired to speak with Colonel May. This man* communicated the important intelligence, that General Minon was not only within a short distance (he was then at Guachuchil), but that Santa Anna himself, with an army of 30,000 men, was at La Encarnacion that morning, and would attack General Taylor, at Agua Nueva, the following day.

To stay at La Hedionda a moment longer was out of the question. Colonel May had all the regular cavalry of General Taylor’s army, and a section of the artillery – a number and description of troops that could not be spared in the event of an engagement; and it was instantly determined to make a forced march during the night, in order to join him before the battle should begin. The signal to advance was immediately made known to the enemy, by the discharge of two muskets on the very eminence where it was believed poor Sturgis had fallen; and two or three new fires blazed up on the adjacent mountains. Every one supposed that they were intended to give General Minon intelligence of the moment when the column should commence its return, and that he had already arrived at the junction of the two roads, or was making a rapid march thither, to cut it off. Everything was accordingly prepared for instant combat. A strong advance guard was thrown far to the front, and flankers were sent out two hundred yards to the right and left, to prevent surprise. The artillery kept the road, ready to come into battery at the shortest notice, being supported on the right and left by the 1st and 2d Dragoons, respectively, while the volunteer force brought up the rear. When the column had gotten well into the pass through the mountains, new signals, to indicate that it had done so, were made on their summits by burning fire-balls. Thus it moved on in the cold and the darkness, every man believing the next moment would find him in deadly encounter with the enemy, yet determined to cut his way to the support of the devoted little army remaining with our brave old general.

Contrary to expectation, General Minon did not make an attack, as he should have done. The night wore away, the deep defiles and narrow valleys were successively passed, and, before daybreak on the morning of the 21st of February, the column again joined the main army, after a march of sixty miles in less than twenty-one hours. The party under Lieutenant Wood also came in shortly afterwards. He had not been surprised, as all had feared, but had been unable to find the rancho in the darkness, until after Colonel May had left it and, what appeared remarkable, he had not discovered a single trace of the enemy in his whole tour.

* A deserter from the regiment of Coraceros, a native of Saltillo, named Francisco Valdes, passed over from La Encarnacion to the enemy, and gave him information of the movement. The execrable treason of this infamous wretch frustrated the best combinations.-“Santa Anna’s Report of the Battle.

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