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  • "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

    The Texas Rangers
    at the Battle of Monterrey

    by Jeffery Robenalt
    Jeffery Robenalt

    In 1846, at the dawn of the war with Mexico, the United States Army had no cavalry branch, but instead relied on mounted infantry called dragoons. Although dragoons rode to battle, they were trained to dismount and fight as infantry. Unfortunately, these troops were too heavy and cumbersome to perform the normal tasks assigned to cavalry such as scouting enemy territory, screening the army’s movements, and swiftly delivering important dispatches. Prior to the initiation of hostilities, Major Jack Hays met with General Zachary Taylor in Corpus Christi and offered the services of his Texas Rangers to fill this critical void.

    Far from well-versed in the use and tactics of cavalry, and confident that his dragoons would prove satisfactory, General Taylor refused Hays' offer. Besides, as far as Taylor was concerned, the Texans were irregulars, not proper soldiers. While it was true the Rangers could fight like pure devils, they occasionally behaved like wild men. However, devils or not, Taylor soon changed his mind when he moved his army south into the Nueces Strip and found that his dragoons were no match for the well-mounted and highly mobile Mexican cavalry.

    Zachary Taylor Daguerreotype<FONT SIZE="1" FACE="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif"></FONT>
    Zachary Taylor Daguerreotype
    Wikimedia Commons

    After Mexican General Arista’s cavalry captured 60 dragoons without a fight, General Taylor asked Jack Hays for the services of Sam Walker and a few other Texas Rangers to keep his lines of communication open between Port Isabel and Fort Brown on the Rio Grande. While successfully accomplishing this mission, Walker and his men discovered that Arista was moving his forces into a position north of the river to ambush the American advance. The Rangers then made a daring night ride through the Mexican lines, warning Taylor in time to avoid the potential disaster and help set up the subsequent American victories at Palo Alto and Reseca de la Palma.

    In response to the early victories, President James K. Polk asked the United States Congress for a declaration of war, and General Taylor requested that the governor of Texas, James Pinkney Henderson, raise a regiment of Texas Rangers for service in Mexico. The Rangers began to filter down to the Rio Grande company by company, as soon as they had been mustered in; the first being those commanded by Ben McCulloch and Ad Gillespie. Unlike most of the men in Taylor's army, the Rangers who made up these companies were frontiersman of the first order, not young, inexperienced farm boys in search of adventure. In fact, it was generally held that McCulloch’s company was one of the finest ever assembled in the ranging service.

    As soon as McCulloch’s Rangers were encamped near Fort Brown, General Taylor ordered them to conduct a scout of the ground between Matamoros and Monterrey with the purpose of selecting the best route for the upcoming invasion. The patrol rode into Mexico on June 12, and quickly determined that the road to Monterrey through Linares was unsuitable for use as an invasion route due to a lack of water. After spending ten days deep in enemy territory and riding nearly 250 miles without removing their boots or spurs, the Rangers returned with word that the best invasion route lay through Cerralvo and the San Juan River valley.

    US Troops Marching On Monterrey
    US troops marching on Monterrey
    Painting by Carl Nebel
    Wikimedia Commons

    On July 9, General Taylor marched his army to Camargo in preparation for the advance on Monterrey. Following the occupation of Camargo, Taylor maneuvered his forces for the long-anticipated attack on Monterrey, by first capturing Mier, and then advancing toward Cerralvo on the western slope of the San Juan valley. Acting as the eyes and ears of the army during the advance required McCulloch’s Rangers to practically live in the saddle. In addition to their scouting duties, the Rangers aided Taylor’s forces by delivering important dispatches and suppressing local guerilla activity, thus protecting the army’s thinly-stretched supply lines.

    By September 12, Taylor’s main force was encamped at Cerralvo, poised to strike at Monterrey. Newly elected Colonel Jack Hays and the remainder of the Ranger regiment were encamped just across the San Juan River from Taylor at the small Mexican town of China. On the following morning, both columns marched south and joined up four days later at the little town of San Francisco, within view of the mountains that stood like rigid sentinels astride the northern approach to Monterrey.

    Early the next afternoon, the reconstituted Ranger regiment, accompanied by General Taylor and his staff, were the first troops to reach the long slope overlooking picturesque Monterrey, some three miles in the distance. Taylor ordered the army to encamp at a beautiful spring-fed grove of live oak and pecan trees that served as the fashionable city’s picnic ground — the troops dubbed it Walnut Springs — and began a careful study of Monterrey’s defenses. To the northeast of the city stood the Citadel, a formidable walled fortress surrounded by a moat and protected by cannons. The Santa Catrina River and a chain of rugged mountains covered the southern approach, and guarding the Saltillo Road to the west of Monterey were two steep, fortified hills, Federation and Independence.


    The plan devised by General Taylor called for two regiments of General William Worth's 2nd Brigade, reinforced by Hays’ Rangers, to march around to the west of the city. Worth was responsible for securing both Federation and Independence hills before launching an assault on the western quadrant of the city. In conjunction with Worth’s attack, Taylor would make a diversionary assault on the well-defended eastern quadrant of the city with his main force of regulars.

    Map of Monterrey's defence
    Map of Monterrey's defences
    Illustration from the "Personal Memoirs of General U. S. Grant — Complete by Ulysses S. Grant".
    Wikipedia
    Gen. Worth Division March On Monterrey
    Gen. Worth's division marches on Monterrey from the west, 1846
    Wikimedia Commons

    The battle for Monterrey officially began early in the morning of 21 September, after a night of cold rain and little sleep, when General Worth’s marching column was struck just west of Independence Hill by a regiment of Mexican lancers. McCulloch’s Rangers, riding at the head of the column, immediately dismounted and took cover behind a split-rail fence overgrown with brush and cactus. Using their rapid-firing Colt revolvers and deadly muzzle-loading shotguns to good advantage, the Rangers broke the fury of the charge and drove the Mexicans back. Before the shattered ranks of lancers could regroup, a battery of American 6-pounders wheeled into place, unlimbered their guns, and began to target the massed horsemen with highly accurate canister rounds. The Mexicans were forced to withdraw with heavy losses.

    As the Americans resumed their march, Worth’s column was brought under heavy fire from Mexican artillery batteries posted on Federation Hill. Although the barrage caused few casualties, General Worth was convinced that the guns on both hills would have to be silenced before he launched his attack on Monterrey. His first objective would be Federation Hill, and then the higher and even more heavily defended Independence Hill. The attack on Federation Hill would be led by 300 Texas Rangers, who would storm the hill on foot supported by the 5th and 7th Infantry regiments, a total of 860 men.

    The assault force boldly forded the Santa Catarina River and moved into position to launch the attack. The western face of Federation Hill was steep, offering little cover, and the Texas Rangers and infantry were forced to make the treacherous climb directly into the face of enemy artillery fire and the muskets of 500 Mexican soldiers manning the earthworks dug in just below the crest of the hill. The only salvation of the attackers was to move quickly. Any hesitation would simply add to the carnage. Screaming their defiance, the Rangers stormed the hill.

    The fury of the Texan charge drew the focus of the Mexicans’ attention and their heaviest fire, allowing the infantry to advance with little interference. When the 5th infantry crested the hill on the northern flank of the earthworks, lowered bayonets flashing in the sun, the Mexican line crumbled and fell back on Fort Salado at the opposite end of the hill. The retreat quickly turned into a rout, as the Mexicans abandoned their artillery pieces and fled from the wrath of the Diablos Tejanos.

    Without pausing to catch their breath, the Texans raced after the fleeing Mexicans, while the American infantry turned the captured artillery pieces and brought the enemy under fire with their own guns. Refusing to give the Mexicans an opportunity to regroup, the Rangers of Ad Gillespie's company pursued them up and over the earthen walls of Fort Salado. Faced with this terrible onslaught, the Mexicans, who had not yet been killed or captured, abandoned the fort and fled across the Santa Catarina River to the safety of nearby Independence Hill.

    Meanwhile, General Taylor’s diversion in the east had failed to meet with the same success. The attack had begun with an attempt to flank a Mexican fort located on a high hill in northeast Monterrey. The Americans stormed straight down the narrow streets, directly into the intense fire of Mexican soldiers concealed on barricades, fortified rooftops, and second story windows. To make matters worse, the smoothbore muskets of the regular army were not accurate enough to suppress the fire of the well-hidden Mexicans, and the American artillery shells could not penetrate the walls of the stout adobe and stone buildings. Taylor’s infantry was forced to withdraw with heavy casualties.

    Storming Of Palace Hill At Battle of Monterey
    Storming of Palace Hill at the Battle of Monterrey
    lithograph by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, c. 1855
    Wikimedia Commons
    On September 22, all the action took place on General Worth’s western front. Throughout the previous night, American artillery firing from Federation Hill had dueled with the Mexican guns on Independence Hill, but now the hill would have to be captured. On the eastern end of Independence Hill, nearest Monterey, stood the Bishop’s Palace, a stone, castle-like fortress bristling with cannon that was the key to the city’s western defenses. On the western end of the hill, the Mexicans had constructed an earthen fortification, Fort Libertad, to command the approach from the Saltillo Road. The fortification was manned with infantry and three batteries of artillery.

    From Fort Libertad, the western face of Independence Hill plunged steeply for eight hundred feet through rugged, rock-strewn terrain; an approach so formidable the Mexicans did not even bother to post sentries. However, in spite of the difficult terrain, Jack Hays convinced General Worth that the Mexicans could be taken by surprise. The assault force totaled 200 Texas Rangers supported by 300 infantry. Worth’s plan called for a coordinated attack by two separate columns. One, led by Ad Gillespie’s company, climbed the southwest face of the hill under the command of Sam Walker. The other, led by Ben McCulloch’s Rangers, tackled the even more imposing northwest face under the command of Jack Hays. The two columns would unite just below the summit of the hill and make the final attack together.

    The perilous climb began at 3:00 A.M. on 22 September, after a long night of thunderstorms left the jagged rocks on the cliff wet and slippery. In spite of a stiff, cold wind that continued to blow out of the west, the Rangers climbed to within 100 yards of the summit before they were spotted. Caught completely off guard, the Mexicans failed to react in time, and after firing a fierce volley, the Texans once again led the way in a screaming charge. The Mexican defense collapsed and the terrified soldados fled for the safety of the Bishop’s Palace. American casualties were light, but much to the Rangers’ sorrow, Ad Gillespie was killed by the thrust of a Mexican bayonet.

    At the urging of Colonel Hays, General Worth then advanced a company of Louisiana dragoons toward the Bishop’s Palace where they fired a volley before feigning a hasty retreat. The ruse worked, as the Mexicans poured out of the Palace in pursuit of the retreating dragoons only to crest a rise in the mesa and come face-to-face with the 5th and 7th Infantry regiments. The American infantry fired a well-coordinated volley before advancing with lowered bayonets, and the Rangers added to the confusion by opening fire on the exposed Mexican flanks from concealed positions along both sides of the hill.

    Pressing their advantage, the American infantry and Rangers quickly turned the Mexican retreat into another rout. A group of artillerymen who had hoisted a 12-pound howitzer up the steep face of the western slope added to the carnage by battering the gates of the palace with round after round of solid shot, and the remaining defenders fled toward the city. Worth spent the rest of the day consolidating his position and moving his forces into the western outskirts of Monterrey.

    Early the following morning, 23 September, the American assault on Monterrey began with coordinated attacks from the west and east. This time, however, instead of attacking directly down the narrow streets, the Americans employed new urban warfare techniques taught to them by the Texas Rangers. The Texans had gained experience fighting in Mexican-style cities during the siege of San Antonio in 1835 and again in 1842 at the infamous border town of Mier. Both towns were constructed similar to Monterrey, with narrow streets, a central square, and thick-walled buildings with shared interior walls and parapets lining their flat roofs.

    From the bloody street fighting in San Antonio and Mier, the Texans had learned to “mouse hole” from house-to-house by using battering rams, picks, sledge hammers, and occasionally explosives, to smash through shared walls and bypass enemy strong-points. Once inside a building, they would systematically work their way to the roof and clear it before continuing their advance to the next building. The process was tedious and time consuming, but it resulted in far fewer casualties. The Texans had also learned not to approach street barricades head-on, especially if they were fortified with artillery. Instead, once cleared, they would place their own snipers on the rooftops to kill any artillerymen foolish enough to approach the guns.

    The Texans and Mississippians fighting under Jefferson Davis in the east also possessed rifles rather than smoothbore muskets. The barrels of these weapons were rifled which spun the bullet as it exited from the muzzle, making them much more accurate than standard issue muskets. The rifles allowed the Texans and Mississippians to hit the well-hidden Mexican soldiers, who rarely showed more than their head above a parapet or a glimpse at a window or hole in a wall. Unfortunately, although many of the techniques employed at Monterrey are still used in urban warfare today, the lessons were not retained by the U.S. Army of 1846 and had to be relearned later.
    Battle Of Monterrey
    Battle of Monterrey
    Wikipedia
    Under intense pressure from the American assault, Mexican troops grudgingly abandoned their well-fortified positions and slowly withdrew toward the center of the city. Eventually, they were trapped in the area of the central plaza and cathedral, along with the civilians who had remained in Monterrey, where they suffered under a nearly continual bombardment from the deadly American howitzers. General Ampudia soon determined that his only course of action was to negotiate, and surprisingly, General Taylor not only agreed, but also granted liberal terms. In exchange for a two month armistice, the Mexican army surrendered Monterrey, but was permitted to withdraw from the city with their arms intact.
    Jack Hays Statue, San Marcos TX
    Jack Hays statue in front of Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos.
    Photo by Jeffery Robenalt, February 2011
    As for the Texas Rangers, who had contributed much to the effort at Monterrey, and felt as if a hard-earned victory had been snatched from their grasp, Taylor’s decision to accept an armistice was a bitter pill to swallow. After years of struggle with Mexican incursions and atrocities, such as the slaughter at the Alamo and the merciless executions at Goliad and Mier, the Rangers were forced to stand by and watch as the Mexican army marched away. However, General Worth was more than appreciative of the Rangers’ sacrifice, and had much to say of “the distinguished gallantry of Colonel Hays and his noble band of volunteers. Hereafter they and we are brothers, and we can desire no better security of success than by their association.”

    The Texans were not alone in their disappointment with Taylor’s armistice. A furious President Polk insisted that General Taylor and the U.S. Army had no authority to negotiate an armistice with the enemy, “only to kill them.” Most government observers also agreed that allowing the Mexicans to retreat with full battle honors and all their weapons was pure folly. Polk would now shift the focus of the war to General Winfield Scott and the invasion of Vera Cruz, where Jack Hays and the Texas Rangers would once again play a key role in the American effort.


    © Jeffery Robenalt
    "A Glimpse of Texas Past"
    September 3, 2012 Column
    jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com
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    References for "Texas Rangers at the Battle of Monterrey"

  • Carney, Stephen A. (2005), Gateway South: The Campaign for Monterrey, Department of the Army, ISBN 978-0160723742.
  • Clary, David A. (2009), Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent, Bantam Press, ISBN 0553806521.
  • Davis, Joe Tom (1989), Legendary Texans, Vol. IV, Eakin Press, Austin, TX, ISBN 0-89015-669-7.
  • Dishman, Christopher (2010), A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle of Monterrey, Mexico, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 0-8061-4140-9.
  • Eisenhower, John S.D. (1989), So Far from God, The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848, Random House, ISBN 978-0-8061-3279-2.
  • Fehrenbach, T.R. (1968), Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY, ISBN 0-02-032170-8.
  • Henderson, Timothy J. (2008), A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0809049678.
  • Hudgison, Chris (2009), The Battle of Monterrey: Urban Operations during the Mexican War, Infantry Magazine, March-June 2009, www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_mOIV/is_2_98/ai_n35625551.
  • A Continent Divided: The U.S.- Mexico War, www.library.uta.edu/usmexicowar.
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