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.”
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. |
General Santa Anna oil painting on display at the Museum of the City of Mexico.
Wikimedia Commons |
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
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.|
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Of Salado Creek, Texas 1936 Centennial Marker|
by Jeffery Robenalt,
Of Salado Creek, Texas 1936 Centennial Marker text|
by Jeffery Robenalt,
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.
Hill Tomb Historical Marker|
Photo courtesy Barclay
Gibson, February 2009
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
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.
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.
Portrait of Jack Hays|
|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.
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