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  • "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

    The Battle of the Salado

    by Jeffery Robenalt
    Jeffery Robenalt
    In March of 1842, Mexican President Santa Anna retaliated for Texas President Mirabeau Lamar’s ill-fated "Wild Goose" expedition to Santa Fe by sending General Raphael Vasquez and a substantial force of soldiers across the Rio Grande with orders to occupy San Antonio. The border incursion caught the Texans by surprise, but fortunately the Mexican forces under Vasquez remained in San Antonio for only two days before withdrawing and marching back to the Rio Grande, their wagons piled high with plunder.

    Captain Jack Hays and his Texas Rangers dogged the Mexicans on the march back to Laredo, but his small force lacked the strength to do anything except harass the column. Angered by General Vazquez’s flagrant violation of the border, the Texas Congress passed a declaration of war against Mexico, but the current President, Sam Houston, knowing how ill-prepared the bankrupt Republic was for war, wisely vetoed it. “Texas would defend itself if need be,” he declared, “but we must not attack.”
    Jack Hays Statue, San Marcos TX
    Jack Hays statue in front of Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos.
    Photo by Jeffery Robenalt, February 2011
    Relations between Texas and Mexico remained at an uneasy standstill until Santa Anna decided to break the impasse by ordering French mercenary General Adrian Woll to cross the border with twelve hundred soldiers and again advance on San Antonio. To Santa Anna, this incursion was not meant to be a formal act of war, but merely a demonstration in force to accomplish three goals: first, to assert Mexican sovereignty across the Rio Grande; second, to chastise the Texans for their move on Santa Fe; and finally to let the expansionists in the United States know Mexico was prepared to act in the protection of its own interests.
    Oleo Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
    General Santa Anna oil painting on display at the Museum of the City of Mexico. Wikimedia Commons
    General Adrian Woll
    General Adrian Wool
    (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
    www.history.army.mil
    Cleverly avoiding the scouts Jack Hays had posted south of town, General Woll left the main road and made a night march through the hills, capturing San Antonio well before dawn on September 12. Like General Vasquez, Woll only planned to occupy San Antonio for a brief period, but he made good use of his time by capturing the members of the district court which happened to be in session, along with a number of other prominent Texans. With only a small force of Rangers, Hays could do nothing except send his men to gather the militia.

    S
    cattering over the countryside, the Rangers sent out the call and from all across central Texas individuals and small groups of men rode or walked to the relief of San Antonio. Soon more than two hundred volunteers gathered at Seguin, every man eager to drive the Mexicans out of the Republic.

    The volunteers cheered when Matthew “Old Paint” Caldwell, a recently released prisoner from the Santa Fe expedition, galloped into town at the head of a strong detachment from Gonzales and the Guadalupe Valley. The well known Indian fighter was immediately elected to the rank of Colonel and given command of the small Texas army. Jack Hays was selected to lead the forty-two man mounted detachment, most of them men from his own Ranger Company.
    Site of Battle Of Salado Creek today
    Salado Creek today
    Photo by Jeffery Robenalt, February 2011
    Site of Battle Of Salado Creek today
    Site of the Battle Of Salado Creek
    Photo by Jeffery Robenalt, February 2011
    By midnight on September 17, Colonel Caldwell and his two hundred and ten volunteers were encamped on the east bank of Salado Creek, six miles northeast of San Antonio, not far from the site of present day Fort Sam Houston. A natural earthen embankment on the east side of Salado Creek and a good stretch of timber provided the volunteers with excellent cover.

    From behind the embankment, there was a clear field of fire into a wide grassy prairie that rose gently from the creek to a low ridge nearly 800 yards away. Anyone foolish enough to approach the creek across the open prairie would be fair game for the accuracy of the Texans’ long rifles. To the rear of the position, a steep, heavily thicketed ridge rose nearly vertical from the far bank of the creek, rendering an approach from the west practically impossible.

    However, no matter how secure the position on the creek appeared to be, most of the volunteers were eager to abandon the camp and attack San Antonio. Fortunately, Caldwell realized his small force could never hope to drive General Woll and his 1200 soldiers out of the Alamo where the Mexicans had set up their headquarters. The only answer was to somehow lure the General into attacking the strong defensive position along the creek where the marksmanship of the Texans could be put to best advantage.


    After careful consideration, Caldwell came up with a plan. Early the following morning, he sent Jack Hays and a few Rangers to the
    Alamo. Following Caldwell’s orders, the Rangers rode along the mission's walls and shouted insults to the guards, challenging the Mexicans to a fight. Suddenly Mexican bugles began to blare and a troop of lancers galloped out of the compound in hot pursuit of their tormentors.

    Fleeing towards the Salado, the Rangers splashed across the creek a mile above Caldwell’s camp and reached the safety of the Texas lines well before the Mexican cavalry reined up on the low ridge to the east. After a brief rest, Hays led his Rangers in a series of skirmishes with the lancers. Putting their few Colt Paterson revolvers and muzzle-loading shotguns to good use, the Rangers managed to kill ten Mexican cavalrymen and wound twenty-three more before returning to the creek without suffering a single casualty.

    Early in the afternoon, General Woll arrived on the ridge east of Salado Creek at the head of 400 infantry, 160 dragoons, and two pieces of artillery. The guns were immediately brought forward and unlimbered. Soon they were banging away at the Texas positions along the creek, shells screaming in at regular intervals.

    The barrage did little damage, but Caldwell was thankful General Woll had left most of his artillery in the
    Alamo. A sustained bombardment from all of Woll's guns may well have driven the Texans away from the protection of the creek bank, and the inexperienced volunteers were ill-prepared to confront the well-trained Mexican troops in the open.

    While the laborers conscripted into Woll’s service were busy setting up a huge, pavilion-like tent to shield the General and his staff from the broiling rays of a merciless
    Texas sun, the Mexican drummers began to beat a steady tattoo of commands. Responding to the beat, the Mexican infantry formed up in four long lines of battle facing the creek, with a thin line of skirmishers well to the front and the dragoons in the rear to act as a reserve. Cavalry served as a screen for each flank. General Woll was now prepared for what he thought would be an easy victory.

    For the next two hours, Caldwell was content to send out fifteen to twenty skirmishers at a time to mix it up with the Mexican skirmishers. He was hoping to lure General Woll into launching an all out attack across the open prairie before the Frenchman decided to send for more artillery. Time passed slowly, and still Woll refused to take the bait.
    Battle Of Salado Creek TX 1936 Centennial Marker
    Battle Of Salado Creek, Texas 1936 Centennial Marker
    Photo by Jeffery Robenalt, February 2011
    Battle Of Salado Creek TX 1936 Centennial Marker text
    Battle Of Salado Creek, Texas 1936 Centennial Marker text
    Photo by Jeffery Robenalt, February 2011
    During this lull, two riders bearing bad news suddenly burst through the Mexican lines on well-lathered horses and reined up in front of Caldwell, nearly shouting their breathless message. Responding to "Old Paint's" call for assistance, a detachment of 53 volunteers out of La Grange under the command of Captain Nicholas Dawson had been cut off and surrounded several miles from Salado Creek.

    After an unsuccessful cavalry charge, the Mexicans had stood off and shelled the unlucky Texans with artillery until the battered volunteers raised a white flag and laid down their arms. Ignoring pleas for mercy, the Mexican troops moved in and bayoneted the wounded and many of the others, taking few prisoners.
    Lagrange Tx - Monument Hill Centennial Monument Historical Marker
    Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, February 2010
    Lagrange Tx - Monument Hill Centennial Monument
    Monument Hill 1936 Centennial Monument
    Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, February 2010
    Monument Hill Tx Tomb Historical Marker
    Monument Hill Tomb Historical Marker
    Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, February 2009
    Monument Hill

    Word of the atrocity quickly flashed up and down the Texas lines, and many of the furious volunteers demanded an immediate attack on the Mexicans. Wisely disregarding the rumblings of discontent, Caldwell continued to bide his time, and the veteran Indian fighter's patience was finally rewarded when General Woll took the bait he had been offering. Once again the drums began their steady beat as the Mexican officers drew their swords and signaled the infantry and dragoons to advance across the open prairie.

    The outcome of the battle was exactly what Caldwell had hoped for. The Mexicans marched forward to the beat of their drums as if on parade, bayonets glistening in the late afternoon sun, and the Texas marksmen, concealed behind the cover of the earthen embankment, delivered volley after volley of devastatingly accurate rifle fire into the enemy’s massed ranks. Mexican soldiers fell by the score, most of them hit in the head or center-punched in the chest. One Texan remarked the fight “was an easygoing affair” and “seemed like child’s play.”

    Toward sunset, General Woll, now thoroughly cowed by the pinpoint marksmanship of the Texas volunteers, reassembled his battered troops and ordered a retreat to San Antonio. During the brief encounter, only one Texan had been killed. The Mexicans left sixty bodies on the battlefield and filled their wagons with another forty-four dead and one hundred and fifty wounded. The following day the Mexicans held a mass funeral in San Antonio rather than the grand victory fandango they had planned earlier.

    General Woll’s troops evacuated San Antonio on September 20, taking a herd of five hundred cattle and whatever wagons and carts they could lay their hands on piled high with plunder. Two hundred Mexican families seeking protection from the town’s enraged Anglo citizens also accompanied the column. Caldwell called a council of war, and a vote was taken. Thanks to the persistence of Jack Hays, it was decided to pursue the Mexicans and attack them if possible.

    Hays and the Texas Rangers led the pursuit, catching up with the Mexican rear guard near the Arroyo Hondo in mid-afternoon on September 22. By then Woll's main column had crossed the river and assumed good defensive positions along the west bank. Only a company of infantry and a few cavalry remained on the east bank to protect two cannons and the Mexican families who had not yet crossed.

    Caldwell gave Captain Hays permission to assault the Mexican guns and promised to support the attack with his infantry. Led by Hays, the Rangers made a valiant mounted charge into the face of the Mexican cannons, killing all five artillerymen as they galloped past. However, Caldwell failed to support the effort as promised, and a determined advance by the Mexican infantry forced the Rangers to spike the guns and withdraw.

    John Coffee Hays (Jack Hays) portrait
    Portrait of Jack Hays
    Wikimedia Commons
    Jack Hays was furious with Caldwell, but fearing the Mexican cannons, the volunteers had simply refused to advance on the strong position along the river, and there was nothing the veteran militia leader could have done to make them move. General Woll led his tired and badly bloodied force away from the river during the night and reached the safety of the Rio Grande on October 1. Refusing Caldwell’s order to withdraw, Hays and the Rangers had dogged Woll’s column all the way back to the border, occasionally skirmishing with the Mexican cavalry.

    Even though the Rangers were disappointed with the outcome of the Battle of the Salado, welcome news awaited them upon their return to San Antonio. Finally bowing to the growing tide of political pressure, President Houston had ordered General Alexander Somervell to organize an expedition for the purpose of conducting a patrol in force along the Rio Grande, with authority cross the border if he deemed it necessary. At long last the Rangers would have an opportunity to take the fight to Mexico.

    ©Jeffery Robenalt
    "'A Glimpse of Texas Past"'
    February 21, 2011 Column
    jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com

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    About Jeffery Robenalt

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    This page last modified: February 21, 2011