The Mexican-American War in California - Abridged

Prepared by Steve Beck

Though it is often given very limited space in some American History books, the Mexican-American War (4/25/1846 – 2/02/1848) was an extremely significant conflict in which the United States lost 13,000 soldiers in battle and at least that many who died later of disease contracted during the war. Mexico lost at least 50,000 lives and half of the territory of the nation. As a result of the “Mexican Secession,” the name by which the

American conquest is often referred, the United States acquired the entirety of what became the states of California, Nevada, and Utah, almost all of Arizona, and large parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, in addition to a large portion of Texas that had previously been disputed territory — essentially, all of the American West! California became, quite literally, the gold nugget of the newly acquired lands, but the battle for California, though filled with posturing and political and social intrigue, was not the violent military battleground that claimed so many lives. But, California did have military engagements, and a clash of proud and brave men from both sides, and even conflict within the ranks of each army.

It wasn’t until after the Bear Flag Revolt (June 14 – 18, 1846)

had transpired that the people of California became aware that Mexico and the United States were already at war when the insurrection occurred. On July 7, 1846, Commodore John Drake Sloat Commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron sailed into the California Mexican Capital of Monterey and raised the American Flag over important government buildings (War had been declared on 5/13/1846). Within a few days of his arrival in California, Sloat was retired from the command (a scheduled retirement due to health reasons), and replaced by Commodore Robert Stockton. A war that U. S. Army Brevet Captain John Fremont had been fomenting, through his arrogant treatment of the Mexican military and civil authorities and his questionable collusion with the Bear Flag revolutionaries, was now actually happening.

Fremont and his forces had been ordered by the Mexican government to leave California. But Fremont continued to filibuster around Northern California, even raising the American Flag over Gavilan Peak, near San Juan Batista, and taunting Jose Castro’s cavalry. Fremont lowered the flag and retreated, in the dead of night, from his hastily prepared embattlements and he headed to Sutter’s Fort. Fremont eventually rode toward Oregon when he was overtaken by marine lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, who had “memorized” (he claimed to have destroyed the originals) orders for Fremont directly from Secretary of War Marcy. Fremont returned to Sutter’s Fort and Northern California in time “to observe” the Bear Flag insurrection. Fremont’s small (about 60 men) but heavily armed and experienced semi-official army force of explorers and mountain men was now joined in California by the American Navy. Commodore Stockton (who did not have the authority) also gave Fremont the authority to seek recruits for a volunteer army and the “California Battalion” was formed.

Sutters Fort

The California Battalion was made up of men from the Bear Flag Militia and other men from New Helvetia and other parts of Northern California. Though an officer in the Topographic Corps of the U.S. Army, Fremont, and his California Battalion land force were acting under the command of Commodore Stockton and the United States Navy. This “command situation” created a conflict when Army General Stephen Watts Kearny and the Army of the West arrived in California in December 1846.

It was Fremont’s decision to recognize the command of Stockton, over Kearny, which eventually led to the arrest of Fremont and his eventual courts-martial. The official and unofficial relationship between Stockton and Kearny were extremely complicated. Kearny outranked Stockton, but Stockton was first on the scene and understood the situation in California. Kearny also carried orders from President Polk giving him the command in California and authorizing him to form a civilian government.

Stephen W. Kearny

Stockton questioned whether Kearny’s orders were still valid and their dispute led to

California never having a Territorial Government, but instead, California remained a “Military Protectorate,” until it became a State. This situation created great confusion and a huge void in the enforcement of civil and criminal law during the early days of the Gold Rush.

Robert F. Stockton

The “actual war” in California consisted of three major engagements, the Battles of San Pasqual (near the present-day San Diego Wild Animal Park), San Gabriel (near the mission at the narrows crossing the San Gabriel River, now known as Whittier Narrows), and La Mesa (which was about 3 miles south of the Pueblo de Los Angeles – near where Compton is today) and some minor skirmishes. The “Sutter Gun” was used in each of these engagements and is visible in the drawings of William H. (Gunner) Meyers. The Battle of San Pasqual, and a small skirmish between San Pedro and Los Angeles, were the only engagements in the entire war on all fronts, that were considered to have been lost by the Americans. The lost “skirmish” involved American Captain William Mervine, and a force made up almost entirely of sailors, trying to retake Los Angeles from the Mexicans after the locals, aided by a few Mexican soldiers who broke their parole, rose up against the military government of Archibald Gillespie and forced him to leave the pueblo.

Mervine’s inexperienced force consisted of about 300 sailors not accustomed to marching – especially through deep sand. The Mexican Californios continually harassed the marching sailors with a small cannon pulled by mounted riders, small arms, and displays of great horsemanship. Mervine eventually gave up and retreated to his ship at San Pedro. His force suffered four dead and several wounded. The Mexican Californios reported no injuries and maintained possession of Los Angeles – for the time being.

It was Sutter’s support of American forces during the war, and the failure of the U.S. government to compensate Sutter for the use of his Fort, manufactories, and livestock, that was one basis in the 1860s for Sutter’s request for compensation from the Federal Government. Another of Sutter’s complaints was that the American government did not enforce the articles of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War (the official end of war 2/2/1848—isn’t that fortuitous—nine days after gold was discovered at Coloma) and ensured that the rights of Mexican landowners would be protected.

It is also interesting that the “Donner Tragedy” happened during Kearny’s stay in California; and it was on Kearny’s march back east in July of 1847, with Fremont under arrest, that Kearny “cleaned up” the Donner Lake campsite. The remains of all carcasses (generally oxen, though some observers reported human remains – the wagon party survivors were not capable of burying the dead with so much snow) and unsalvageable equipment were put into the “Murphy Cabin” and it was set on fire.

For detailed information about the Mexican-American War in California, I recommend California Conquered by Neal Harlow. There are many good books about the Mexican-American War in general, but the two I enjoyed most were So Far From God by John S. D. Eisenhower and Eagles and Empire by David A. Clary.

What remains of the Murphy Cabin after it was set on fire. The rock once served as a chimney. Now has the names of the victims.

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