The Mexican-American War on the Plains


By Randall Parrish in 1907


Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Army Train

In April 1846, Mexico declared war against the United States, and a month later President James Polk called into the field 50,000 volunteers. General Stephen W. Kearny was given command of the army intended for action in the West, and this force was divided into three separate commands. The first, led by himself, was destined to the Pacific coast; a thousand volunteers, under Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan were to descend upon Chihuahua; while the third division, commanded by Sterling Price, was expected to garrison Santa Fe and retain control of New Mexico.

In this connection, Colonel Henry Inman recorded an interesting story of the Plains, as follows:

“Early in the Spring of 1846, before it was known, or even conjectured, that a state of war would be declared, a caravan of twenty-nine traders, on their way from Independence to Santa Fe, beheld, just after a storm, and a little before sunset, a perfect, distinct image of the Bird of Liberty, the American eagle, on the disc of the sun. When they saw it, they simultaneously and almost involuntarily exclaimed that in less than twelve months the Eagle of Liberty would spread his broad plumes over the Plains of the West and that the flag of our country would wave over the cities of New Mexico and Chihuahua.”

The value of this vision and the truth of its fulfillment can be left to the judgment of the reader.

General Kearny’s army moved out onto the prairie from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in detached columns, during the Summer of 1846, and took up its long march through the wilderness. It consisted of two batteries of Artillery, three squadrons First U. S. Dragoons, the First Regiment of Missouri Cavalry, two companies of Infantry, and a detachment of Topographical Engineers. By August this force was concentrated in camp on the old Santa Fe Trail, about nine miles below Bent’s Fort, Colorado on the Arkansas River. The incidents and adventures of this march over the Plains have been recorded in detail by the commandant of the Engineers, Lieutenant W. H. Emory, and John T. Hughes of the Missouri Cavalry.

At the first planning of this expedition, it was gravely questioned by officials whether so large a body of troops could be marched such a distance over an uninhabited waste, having no base of supplies, and totally severed from all possibility of reinforcement. It was considered an experiment, and a dangerous one, yet an immense amount of provisions was carried in huge wagons, carefully guarded, and beef cattle were driven the entire distance. These subsisted entirely by grazing on the nutritious buffalo grass bordering the trail. At night it was the custom to confine them in a corral formed by the wagons, although occasionally they were tethered to an iron picket-pin driven fifteen inches into the hard ground. At the outset of the march, the horses made considerable trouble. Many of them being only half broken and unused to military display, the fluttering flags, the rumbling of wagons, the pealing trumpets, and the rattling sabers proved too much for their nerves, and there were numerous wild stampedes, the frightened animals scampering pell-mell across the prairie. Rider and arms left behind, the excited troop horse enjoyed to the full his liberty. No fatal accidents occurred, however, and the straying horses were all eventually recovered.

The troops marched in separate bodies. We have a record of such a detachment going into camp on the 9th of July, in what is now McPherson County, Kansas, where the trail crossed the Little Arkansas River. The mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies were so fierce as to drive men and horses frantic. Lieutenant-Colonel Ruff of the Missouri Volunteers was in command, and his men were very short of provisions. Knowing a loaded train was ahead near Pawnee Fork, he had sent a scout forward to halt it until he could come up.

Arkansas River Camp

Arkansas River Camp

While he waited for this scout to return, word reached him that Doniphan’s and Kearny’s men, just behind him, were also in a starving condition. To make sure of early relief he sent other couriers hastily forward to overhaul the wagon train, and one of them, attempting to ford the fork of the Pawnee River, was drowned. His body was recovered and given a military burial. This was the first loss that occurred to the expedition on the Plains. John Hughes, the author of Doniphan’s Expedition, wrote thus of the scene presenting itself as the soldiers approached the river. Comparing its appearance then with its appearance now, the great change wrought by settlement can be clearly realized.

“In approaching the Arkansas River, a landscape of the most imposing and picturesque nature makes its appearance. While the green, glossy undulations of the prairie to the right seem to spread out in infinite succession, like waves subsiding after a storm, and covered with herds of gambolling buffalo, on the left, towering to a height of seventy-five to a hundred feet, rise the sun-gilt summits of the sand hills, along the base of which winds the broad, majestic river, bespeckled with verdant isles, thickly beset with cottonwood timber, the sandhills resembling heaps of driven snow.”

It was on July 15th that these separate detachments formed a junction at Pawnee Fork, within the limits of what is now the city of Larned, Kansas. The waters of the stream were so high that fording was impossible, and the soldiers were immediately employed in cutting down cottonwoods and building a rude bridge. Over the tree trunks the army passed safe to the other shore, bearing in their arms the sick, and all the equipments of the camp. The horses were compelled to swim, while the empty wagons were floated across, and hauled up the slippery bank by tugging soldiers. This required the incessant labor of two days; and then the little column pressed resolutely forward, the infantry plodding along beside the cavalry, although the marching feet became terribly blistered, marking their passage with blood. Two days later, somewhere along the Arkansas River, Major Howard, an officer who had been sent forward to Santa Fe to learn the situation, rejoined them. His report was that the common people of New Mexico favored the conditions of peace proposed by Kearny, but that the officials were hostile and making active preparations to resist invasion. Two thousand three hundred men, he said, were already under arms in Santa Fe, while another large force was being rapidly organized at Taos. The little army of Americans received this startling news with gallant cheers, and pushed forward with new vigor, eagerly hoping for a fight.

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