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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of the American Military History Foundation
Vol. 1 No. 3 (Autumn 1937), pp101‑107

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p101  Resaca de la Palmaa
A Traditional Episode in the History of the Second Cavalry​b

By Thomas D. Roberts

[image ALT: A coat of arms; it is fuly blazoned in the text of this webpage.]

The Coat of Arms​c of
the Second Regiment Cavalry

The Blazon

Shield: Tenne, a dragoon in the uniform of the Mexican War mounted on a white horse, brandishing a sabre and charging a Mexican field gun defended by a gunner armed with a rammer all proper, in chief two eight pointed mullets or. Crest: On a wreath of colors the headdress of the dragoons of 1836 proper. Motto: Toujours Prêt.

Of the many stirring episodes in the history of the Second Cavalry, regimental tradition assigns particular significance to the charge of May's Squadron at the battle of Resaca de la Palma. It is true that other fields were more closely contested, that other actions claimed their dead and produced their heroes. From early days of Indian skirmishes in the Everglades to the great battles of the World War the record is eventful. But to the true Second Cavalry­man, Resaca de la Palma has come to be more than an event. It represents the spirit of the Regiment, the bright, dangerous excitement of the cavalry charge. And so, when considering the action, this growth of tradition must be kept in mind. While many of the exact details have been lost through passage of time, the story, as the Regiment has it, lives and is real.

General Zachary Taylor's "Army of Occupation," the little body of regulars who fought the opening engagements of the Mexican War, was a force weak in the mounted arm. Apart from Walker's company of Texianº mounted rangers, the only cavalry in the command were seven companies of the Second Dragoons. These seven companies, numbering about forty troopers each, contained many tried veterans of the late Florida War and were led by a splendid group of officers. Considered light cavalry, they were armed with musketoons carried on sling belts, heavy Prussian sabers and horse pistols. For tactical purposes, the companies were provisionally grouped into three squadrons. Since Colonel Twiggs, the regimental commander, was the only field officer present, command of the squadrons devolved upon senior captains. Companies C and F were led by the "brave but unfortunate" Seth B. Thornton. Croghan Ker, who had made such an enviable reputation in the Everglades campaign, commanded Companies B, H and K. Companies D and E followed the now legendary Charles A. May.

During the protracted period of armed demonstrations and diplomatic bickering which preceded open hostilities, the dragoons performed important services in security and reconnaissance. Indicative of the high reputation which the regiment gained at an early date is a remark in a letter from a staff officer of the army, who, discussing the prospects of the campaign, wrote: "The fact is, this regiment of Second Dragoons has the finest material in it of any in the service, and you may rely upon it, it will be heard from ere the war is over."

Indeed, it was heard from ere the war had officially begun, for it was the unfortunate privilege of Thornton's Squadron, upon being ambushed and cut to pieces by Torrejon's sixteen hundred lancers at La Rosia, to become  p102 the subject of a dispatch from Taylor to the War Department in which he announced, with characteristic aplomb: "Hostilities may now be considered as commenced."

The events of the next two weeks fairly justified Taylor's statement, for there followed a rapid series of engagements. In fifteen days of fast marching and determined fighting Old Rough-and‑Ready's twenty-five hundred shattered Arista's army of six thousand and harried the remnants south across the Rio Grande in indescribable confusion.

Commenting on General Taylor's conduct of this campaign, Steele remarks: "The effect of this victory Palo Alto and that of Resaca de la Palma was very important. By these triumphs Mexican authority was wholly and forever expelled from the soil of Texas; and the American troops gained a morale and prestige that they never have lost to this day. Up to that time American troops had seldom known what it was to go again an enemy and defeat him."

At Palo Alto, on May 8, 1846, it was apparently Arista's intention to go after the Americans. Dissuaded, however, by the extremely effective practice of Taylor's artillery and confounded by the ineptitude (some say treachery) of his own subordinates, he bivouacked on the field of battle and during the early morning hours of May 9 withdrew to a defensive position near the Resaca de la Palma, four miles from the battlefield of the previous day and  p103 about the same distance from the crossings of the Rio Grande at Matamoros.

Here the Matamoros road, Taylor's axis of movement, crossed the Resaca de Guerrero, an extensive, shallow ravine in which stood numerous pools of stagnant water. The terrain for several miles on either side of the Resaca was covered by an almost impenetrable growth of mesquite and chaparral. Where the Matamoros road crossed the ravine Arista established the key-point of his defense, three batteries, totalling seven guns, sited to sweep approaches along the road and the open ground to right and left in the bottom of the ravine. Infantry was posted in the undergrowth on the forward edge with a line of supports covered by the banks of the ravine itself. Skirmishers were thrown well forward. Considering the ground unfavorable for his mounted troops, Arista held these in reserve at some distance to the rear.

[image ALT: A map of the Mexican War battle of Resaca de la Palma, described in detail in the text of this webpage.]

The Cavalry Action at Resaca de la Palma

Sketch map based on contemporary sources and on USGS map "Texas, East Brownsville Quadrangle," Edition of 1936.

The map in the journal is printed in black and white.
I colorized it for readability, and added the metric scale.

While the Mexicans were making these dispositions, Taylor, in thorough fashion, policed the battlefield of Palo Alto and reorganized his command. No special effort seems to have been made to maintain contact with Arista's retreating army. May's Squadron, it is true, was dispatched from its bivouac shortly after sunrise to ascertain whether or not the enemy had retired. However, reconnaissance was extended only to the outskirts of the wooded area north of the Resaca de Guerrero whence May returned late in the morning with information that the Mexicans had decamped.

At about noon Taylor decided to advance. Captain McCall with a mixed detachment of infantry, Walker's Texians and a platoon of dragoons under Second Lieutenant Alfred Pleasanton, received orders to enter the belt of chaparral and locate the enemy. Meanwhile the trains of the army were parked under the protection of the Artillery Battalion and Ker's Squadron.

McCall's advance through the tangled undergrowth in front of the Mexican position was, of necessity, slow. With the Rangers in advance, skirmishers on either flank and Pleasanton's platoon bringing up the rear, he combed the chaparral. Ultimately, while feeling its way blindly, the advance made contact with Mexican skirmishers who were thought to be stragglers from Arista's army. These the advance brushed aside, only to come suddenly under the fire of the batteries at the Resaca and at the same time to be assailed in flank by the first line of Mexican infantry. McCall realizing that he had collided with the hostile army, fell back to a position of security and dispatched three dragoons to report his dispositions to General Taylor.

The latter, at three o'clock in the afternoon, advanced to the attack. Covered by May's Squadron, the light artillery moved at a rapid pace down the Matamoros road followed by the regiments of infantry. A half-mile short of Arista's position, May was instructed to halt and await further orders. Ridgely's battery galloped through to support McCall and the infantry was deployed to the right and left of the road with orders to bring on the action.

May took up a position just clear of the road in the chaparral to the rear of Taylor's staff. Here, for nearly an hour, the squadron remained mounted,  p104 listening to the roar of battle to the front, with Mexican musket balls cutting the mesquite around them. While ten months of field service under Old Rough-and‑Ready had made first class soldiers of May's seventy-odd dragoons, frontier campaigning cannot be said to have improved the personal appearance of the individuals of the squadron, as judged by present-day standards. Indeed, Thorpe, a contemporary historian, mentions the fact that Captain May "wears his hair and beard very long . . . causing thereby much speculation as to the reason" and that "it is a singular coincidence that every  p105 man attached to May's Squadron is afflicted in the same way." However, despite their tonsorial afflictions, they were, to quote Sergeant Milton of Company E, "men upon whose countenances was clearly expressed a fixed determination to win." Stripped "to the buff" and relieved of every encumbrance, in high spirits after the successes of the previous day, the squadron eagerly awaited orders.

Magnificently supported by Ridgely's battery, which had galloped into action in the middle of the Matamoros road, the attack of the American infantry made steady progress nearly to the edge of the Resaca where forward movement was denied by the Mexican batteries. Taylor, who had followed the action closely, now rode to the front to reconnoiter. On the far side of the ravine were four enemy guns, two on each side of the road. Supported by infantry and admirably served, these guns swept all crossings of the Resaca. Promptly Taylor sent for May's Squadron.

The arrival of a staff officer calling for Captain May caused an instantaneous stir in the ranks of the dragoons. Reins were adjusted and seats were taken more firmly in the saddle while quiet words of speculation and confidence passed from neighbor to neighbor. The tension was broken by a brisk word of command from Captain May. With drawn sabers, the squadron moved down the road in column of fours at the trot.

After riding only a short distance, May encountered General Taylor. The squadron was brought to a halt.

"Captain May, you must charge the enemy's batteries and take them," directed Taylor.

May asked no questions. Turning to his squadron he issued a classic attack order: "Remember your regiment and follow your officers." The squadron moved forward at a gallop.

The heat was stifling and the dust, hanging in a low cloud among the close-grown thickets, blinded all but the leading set of fours. Several hundred yards short of the ravine the squadron came to a plunging halt. May had found further movement barred by Ridgely's battery, which, enveloped in a pall of smoke, was deployed across the road, pounding away at the enemy line. Dense undergrowth on either hand prevented movement around the guns. May caught sight of Ridgely, match in hand.

"Where are they?" yelled May, "I am going to charge."

Ridgely, begrimed with dust and powder, pointed down the road. "Wait until I draw their fire," he replied.

The battery fired a crashing volley and Ridgely ordered the guns manhandled clear of the road.

As the smoke of the last volley lifted, the leading ranks of the dragoons could see the Mexican guns, three hundred yards to the front on the far side of the Resaca. Protected by breastworks of timber and supported by a dark line of infantry, they were a formidable objective for the small squadron.

 p106  With May's command "Charge" the column broke into a mad gallop, sped by the cheers of Ridgely's artillerymen. At the entrance to the ravine the column passed three abandoned enemy guns. The cannoneers had fled. As the heads of the platoons reached the open ground in the Resaca, the leaders attempted to form line, but the swiftness of May's pace and the wild excitement of the moment made maneuver impossible.

Lieutenant Sackett, commanding the leading platoon of Company E, drew up a little ahead of May.

"No fair," screamed May, "You took the jump on me."

At this moment Sackett's horse fell with a musket ball through his body, catapulting the hasty rider into a pool of water. May regained the lead.

Just after Sackett's fall the guns of the Mexican batteries poured a volley of canister into the leading ranks of the charging dragoons. Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Inge dropped from his horse, a bullet in his throat. Eighteen of the squadron's horses fell. A dozen saddles were emptied. May, superbly mounted on an enormous grey Canadian charger, put his horse at the breastwork of the right-hand battery. His saber flashed as he cut down a gunner. A few of his better mounted troopers followed. The horses of most refused, however, and led by Sergeant Milton, who was soon to be shot down with a shattered thigh, the remainder of the company turned to the right to pass around the obstacle, in hope of gaining the enemy's rear.

Captain Graham, at the head of Company D, with true instinct of leader­ship, swerved to the left as he entered the ravine. Directly to his front was the other enemy battery. With a shout his men were among the guns, riding down the cannoneers, pursuing them into the chaparral.

Meanwhile, the supporting Mexican infantry, stationed in the undergrowth on either flank of the two batteries, recovered from a momentary confusion and opened fire on the pursuing dragoons. May realized that he could not maintain his position without support and attempted to rally his command. His troopers had become so scattered, however, that he could assemble only six men. Most of Graham's company, after over-running the left battery, had turned to the left-about and were recrossing the ravine. Corporal McCauley, a former sword-master at West Point, with his set of fours, had continued straight down the road at a dead run, headforemost through an amazed platoon of Mexican lancers and on to Fort Brown, four miles distant. Eighteen officers and men had fallen. Eighteen horses had been killed, ten wounded.

With his six men, May rode back through the battery. A small group of Mexican gunners, led by General of Brigade de la Vega, had reoccupied the position. Scattering these new opponents and making a prisoner of General de la Vega, May and his party regained the American lines.

As they crossed the ravine they met the leading elements of the Eighth and Fifth Infantries who were advancing to follow up the charge. At the  p107 brink of the ravine, the ubiquitous Ridgely was again going into action. However, the fight was practically finished. The batteries had been silenced. Grimly going to work with the bayonet, the American infantry quickly over-ran the position.

It required the rest of the day for May to reassemble his scattered squadron. Twenty-five percent were casualties. The horses had suffered even more heavily. Many troopers had lost their way in the dusty underbrush. But there had been enough glory for one day. While May's sergeants counted noses and established bivouac in the fateful Resaca, Ker, with his fresh squadron, chased the last of Arista's broken army across the Rio Grande. Texas had been won and the Second Cavalry had gained an undying heritage of valor.

[image ALT: A Sturm-und‑Drang engraving of a battle scene in which six horsemen charge and overrun a cannon defended by three soldiers, two of whom brandish rifles — one of them appears to have been shot a second before — and the third, a drummer, lies dead in the foreground. It is meant to depict a scene of the Mexican War battle of Resaca de la Palma.]

F. O. C. Darley

W. Ridgeway

A contemporary print showing Captain May's Squadron charging the Mexican batteries. The immense popularity gained by the event is indicated by the large number of such illustrations which were issued immediately afterwards, three at least by N. Currier alone. All of these prints were highly ficticious and usually show the dragoons charging in full dress uniform.

Note: The material for this article has been taken from numerous sources, chief among these being T. F. Rodenbough, From Everglade to Canyon; Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico; M. F. Steele, American Campaigns; T. B. Thorpe, Our Army on the Rio Grande; A. C. Ramsey, The Other Side; "An Army Surgeon's Notes of Frontier Service" in Jour. Mil. Ser. Inst., vol. 40, p435 et seq.; C. M. Wilcox, History of the Mexican War; and MS. records and returns of the Second Dragoons on file at Regimental Headquarters.

Thayer's Notes:

a Not to be confused with the Battle of Resaca, in the War between the States, fought May 13‑15, 1864 in and around Resaca, Georgia — a village named by soldiers returning from the Mexican War.

[decorative delimiter]

b For a quick view of the battle from the standpoint of an infantry unit, see A Historical Sketch of the Fourth Infantry from 1796 to 1861, pp13‑14.

[decorative delimiter]

c For the image in the journal, which was (a) black-and‑white, (b) incorrect, (c) somewhat pasty, I've substituted the official coat of arms found on the 2d Cavalry Regiment Insignia Page at the United States Army Institute of Heraldry; that page provides full detailed information on this and the Regiment's other insignia, their symbolism, and their official use. The image, like all other publications of the U. S. government, is in the public domain.

The journal itself, in the following issue (Vol. 1, No. 4, pp198‑199) printed a correction of their black-and‑white image: the conventional hatchings used to represent heraldic colors had been garbled, so that they didn't match the blazon and the true colors.

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Page updated: 10 Apr 20