The opening engagement of the Mexican War occurred when a reconnoitering force of about sixty Dragoons from the Second Dragoons left the encampment on the Rio Grande known as Fort Texas and were attacked by a force of over five hundred Mexican Cavalry and Infantry. The Dragoon’s lost sixteen killed or wounded and the rest were captured.
General Zachary Taylor moved quickly to reinforce his position. His immediate concern was that his supply base at Point Isabel, some 28 miles distant, would be threatened. He left a force at Fort Texas and returned to Point Isabel. There he strengthened his position and re-supplied his force, most notably with two hundred supply wagons and two more Artillery pieces. His force of 2,300 began the return march to Fort Texas.
General Arista’s Mexican forces, numbering 4,000, were also moving toward Point Isabel. The two forces met at a place called Palo Alto on 8 May 1846. The Mexican force out numbered the Americans nearly two to one and occupied a front about a mile wide in country which favored Cavalry. The Mexican Cavalry was superior in number to the Dragoons. Only the American Artillery was superior to the enemy’s. The battle of Palo Alto was primarily an Artillery affair and most of the Mexican dead were a result of the effective American fires. The Mexicans were using old fashioned bronze 4-pounders and 8-pounders that fired solid shot and had such short range that their fire did little damage. Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant reported that he saw their cannon balls strike the ground before they reached the American troops and ricocheted so slowly that the men could dodge them. American losses were light and the next morning saw the enemy retreating.
General Taylor ordered a pursuit but did not begin his advance until afternoon. This allowed the Mexicans to occupy a natural defensive line at a place where a large ravine cut across the main road. The sides of the ravine, known as Resaca de La Guerra, offered natural breastworks for frontal cover while their flanks were covered by natural ponds and thickets of chaparral. Their force was discovered, and General Taylor began preparations for the attack from another ravine known as Resaca de la Palma.
The dense Chaparral prevented effective employment of the American Artillery. The terrain restricted the ability of the mounted arms to function against flanks or rear areas. While the affair at Palo Alto had largely been an Artillery fight, this battle would shape up as an Infantry fight of small parties and hand to hand fighting. Mexican Artillery occupied a decisive position on the road and to the left of the road. General Taylor’s official report states: “The enemy had at least eight pieces of Artillery and maintained an incessant fire upon our advance. The action now became general, and although the enemy’s Infantry gave way before the steady fire and resistless progress of our own, yet his Artillery was still in position to check our advance- several pieces occupying the pass across the ravine which he had chosen for his position. Perceiving that no decisive advantage could be gained until this Artillery was silenced, I ordered Captain May to charge the batteries with his Squadron of Dragoons.”
Captain May’s order of the day to his men was to “Remember your Regiment and follow your Officers.” In his official report Captain May describes the action “I…was ordered by the General to charge the enemy’s batteries and drive them from their pieces, which was rapidly executed.” Lieutenant Randolph Ridgely, while commanding a battery of American Artillery attempting to make progress up the main road in the face of the enemy fire describes the action. “I moved rapidly to the front for about one hundred yards, and returned their fire, which was kept up very spiritedly on both sides for some time, their grape shot passing through our battery in every direction. So, soon as it slackened, I limbered up, and moved rapidly forward…several pieces fired canister when not distant more than one hundred or one hundred and fifty yards. After having advanced in this manner about five hundred yards, Captain May, Second Dragoons, rode up and said “Where are they? I am going to charge!” I gave them a volley and he most gallantly dashed forward in column of fours at the head of his Squadron.”
“Lieutenant Sacket and Sergeant Story, in the front by my side, had their horses killed under them, and Lieutenant Inge was gallantly leading his platoon when he fell”, reports Capt May. “We charged entirely through the enemy’s batteries of seven pieces – Captain Graham, accompanied by Lieutenants Winslip and Pleasonton, leading the charge against the pieces on the left of the road, and myself, accompanied by Lts Inge, Stevens and Sacket those on the direct road – and gained the rising ground on the opposite side of the ravine. The charge was made under a heavy fire of the enemy’s batteries, which accounts for my great loss. After gaining the rising ground in the rear I could rally but six men. With these I charged their gunners, who had regained their pieces, drove them off and took prisoner General Vega, whom I found gallantly fighting in person at his battery.”
The fighting continued all along the front. Dragoons kept up the fight where ever they were and tried to consolidate and continue to press the attack. Lieutenant Sacket, who had his horse shot from under him during the charge, ended up in a pool of water with his horse on top of him. With great difficulty he disengaged himself, but in the process lost his sword. He gained the bank of the pool of water and “seized a horse from a Mexican Dragoon, took a sword from a Mexican Officer, mounted his charger and joined the melee.” Following the action he returned the borrowed sword to the Mexican Officer.
Captain May escorted his distinguished prisoner back through the fighting, taking fire from the Mexican Infantry the entire way. Enroute he reported to LTC Belknap of the 8th Infantry Regiment that he had charged and carried the enemy’s batteries but, being unsupported, could not maintain possession of it. LTC Belknap immediately ordered the 8th to form in the road and charge the battery as a part of the battery was being retaken by the Mexicans. The 8th Infantry succeeded and the battery was secured.
By the end of the fighting Captain May was able to reassemble about one half of his Squadron and join in the pursuit of the now retreating Mexicans. Small bands of Dragoons also continued the battle. Corporal McCauley of D Troop (formerly a swordmaster at West Point) with six men, charged through the Mexican battery and went nearly to Fort Brown (Ft Texas). A platoon of the enemy’s lancers opposed them. Placing himself at the head of his little band – all well mounted – the Corporal dashed at the already demoralized enemy, cut down their Lieutenant, wounded a Sergeant of lancers, and caused the rest to fly in confusion, and with the loss of three men made his way safely back to the lines.
The battle is best summed up by Lt Rodenbough. “It is very true that May did only which every other Officer in that Army envied him the opportunity of doing, and would perhaps have done as well; that a mounted charge is the most exciting and most fascinating kind of military duty, and that our Infantry and Artillery might have accomplished the result unaided; but the fact remains that the enemy’s Artillery barred the further advance of our Army, that the key position was held by the Mexican batteries; that in the face of eight pieces of Artillery, which had been successfully holding our really superb Artillery and Infantry in check nearly an hour, eighty Dragoons charged and took the position, drove the enemy from his guns, captured a distinguished General Officer, and opened the way to as proud a victory as ever graced our arms, with one-tenth the loss of life which it would otherwise have cost the country. For aught we know now, without that handful of regular Cavalry the day might have been lost.”
ARMY’S SEVEN CORE VALUES DISCUSSION
DUTY – That Captain May conducted himself with a great sense of duty is evident from the almost instantaneous response to his orders. His Order of the Day: “Remember your Regiment and follow your Officers”, reinforces the obligation his troopers had to do their duty, to follow their Officers. That many portions of the force continued to fight on, even though the ranks of the Squadron had been severely disrupted during the charge, indicates to what extent Captain May’s subordinates believed in carrying out their duty.
HONOR – Captain May’s instructions to “Remember your Regiment…” indicates his sense of honor in being a part of the Second Dragoons. Captain May had been a charter member of the Second Dragoons since his assignment to H Company in 1836. He had served with the Regiment through the 2nd Seminole War in Florida where the Regiment earned its reputation for toughness, audacity and the ability to get the mission accomplished under the most trying of circumstances and conditions. The Second Regiment of Dragoons had often been split up due to numerous taskings. This was also true at Resaca de la Palma. Much of the Regiment was in charge of securing the 200 supply wagons. Colonel Davey Twiggs, the Colonel of the Regiment, was placed in charge of the Right Wing of General Zachary Taylor’s Army, leaving Captain May with essentially an independent command working directly for General Taylor. His thoughts were not of this position of heady responsibility, but rather were for his Regiment. By honoring his Regiment with his reminder to his troopers he inspired a sense of honor among his troops which undoubtedly helped increase their sense of duty.
LOYALTY – INTEGRITY – SELFLESS SERVICE – Many young Captains, finding themselves with an independent command and working directly for the Commanding General, may have been tempted to switch loyalties. Some men of ambition, finding themselves with such an opportunity to excel, may have been tempted to act out of self serving interests. Perhaps the temptation to gain the Generals eye in the hopes of career advancement would have been the compelling reason for some to act. In Captains May’s and others actions during this battle we see no such baser instincts at work.
Captain May remained loyal to his Regiment. His actions show only a dedication to his sense of honor and duty. He remained true to his own Order of the Day. Having taken the position and capturing a distinguished prisoner, many would have called it a day, especially with their force so scattered and disrupted by the action. Captain May continued to rally his troops and re-organize his Squadron so as to continue his support of the battle.
Lieutenant Sackets’ actions also speak highly of the feeling of loyalty and selfless service, of acting out of a sense of honor and duty. Having not only been un-horsed, but finding himself under the horse, who could have faulted him for remaining out of the action? Lt Sacket was not of that type. With the battle raging around him, it must have been hard to extricate himself from a muddy pond with his mount pinning him to the mud bottom. Then, presumably unarmed, Lt Sacket un-horses a Mexican Dragoon, takes his horse, dis-arms a Mexican Officer, takes his sword, and then re-joins the struggle.
COURAGE – This action, by the entire force of Dragoons, must be the equal of nearly any other act of war. The prospect of charging through constricted terrain, past entrenched Infantry and into the teeth of eight enemy Artillery pieces must have seemed extremely daunting to those who would make the charge. To do so certainly took a great deal of courage. Following the initial charge through the Mexican batteries, Captain May with six Dragoons returned to the gun emplacements to ensure that the Mexican Artilleymen could not continue firing. This band of seven must have felt very outnumbered. This small band not only prevented the gunners from regaining their guns, but resulted in the capture of a Mexican General Officer as well. It was reported that the move to safeguard and speed their prisoner to the rear was made under a gauling cross-fire from the Infantry. To continue the mission under such fires certainly displays great courage.
It is said that the true measure of greatness for a leader is not how the soldiers act in their presence but rather how they act when not under direct control of their leader. The exploits of Corporal McCauley are again a display of great courage. Having charged through the positions of the Mexican batteries and finding himself in their rear area facing their lancers, who would have faulted the Corporal for shying away from direct engagements and finding his way back to his lines? Instead the good Corporal with his band of six Dragoons chooses to attack! This courageous and audacious act resulted in the death of the Mexican platoon’s leadership and the scattering of the remains of the platoon.
RESPECT – Soldiers fight for any number of reasons. It is thought to be rare though, that Soldiers fight for higher ideals (i.e. freedom, democracy, etc). It is also thought to be rare for Soldiers to fight for higher echelons of organizations, though some Divisions and Regiments have engendered such strong feelings of unity and esprit. It is more commonly thought that Soldiers generally fight for each other. The respect for each other and the bond of the smaller unit is what compels most men to fight. Most men do not wish to let down their buddies.
Since its inception, the Second Dragoons had often found its elements fighting as smaller elements of the parent Regiment. Squadrons were formed and employed by combining two Troops. At times the individual Troops would be involved, and at others detachments were sent alone or as part of another branch (i.e. Infantry or Artillery) to support a mission. This tendency and tradition for the Dragoons to fight as smaller elements must have developed a strong reliance and respect of each other. Perhaps this is why Captain May seems to give no thought to personal ambitions and appears to act solely from a sense of duty and honor. Perhaps the respect for his Soldiers and the need to be respected by his Soldiers compelled Lt Sacket to so forcefully re-join the fight? Perhaps it was mutual respect that propelled Corporal McCauley into the Mexican lancers?
The actions of Captain May and the Second Dragoons certainly gained the respect of the Regiment, the Army and the American people. To this day this act epitomizes the values and actions of the United States Cavalry.