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The Forgotten War

Little-known battles near Brownsville helped establish the Rio Grande — instead of the Nueces — as Texas’ southern border.

By Karen Hastings

Visitors to Palo Alto Battlefield, a 1,500-acre swath of prairie and chaparral just 11 miles north of the Rio Grande, usually arrive with one question: What does this have to do with the Texas Revolution?

Their confusion is common. Most Americans — even most Texans — have trouble placing this opening clash of the Mexican-American War (1846-48) on the colorful timeline of U.S. history. They hear “Texas” and think “Alamo”; they sing “from the halls of Montezuma” and never picture a triumphant American army marching all the way into Mexico City. In a rush to get to the Civil War, many American history classes gallop through the 1840s and barely pause over an 18-month conflict in which American forces won most of the battles.

For sheer consequences, however, it’s hard to ignore the Mexican-American War: It established the Rio Grande as our nation’s southern boundary and added more than a half million square miles of what is now California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming to United States territory. Not to mention the Lone Star State.

War of Manifest Destiny indeed.

Today, Palo Alto is the only national battlefield dedicated to the Mexican-American War, but it is one of several sites in Brownsville connected to this often-neglected but pivotal conflict. A second battlefield, Resaca de la Palma, also has been partially preserved in the midst of fast-encroaching urban development. And on a University of Texas at Brownsville golf course hugging the Rio Grande, there are remains of the original Fort Brown, named for the officer who died protecting what was then an isolated earthen barricade called Fort Texas.

The city of Brownsville, which recently converted nine miles of old railroad tracks to a “Historic Battlefield Trail,” is also working to make its battlefields a draw for history buffs.

With bilingual exhibits and living history programs, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site aims to restore the Mexican-American War to its rightful place of importance in the grand and sometimes grim march of America’s continental conquest. “Restore” is certainly the correct term, says Palo Alto director Douglas Murphy.

“In the newspapers at the time, the opening battles were presented as one of the biggest events of American history. It was the equivalent of Bunker Hill and it would never be forgotten,” Murphy says.

Mexican-American War heroes like Gen. Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor and artillery genius Samuel Ringgold were household names. Dotting the United States map are numerous cities and counties named for then-celebrated battles and heroes of this “Event of the Century.”

“I personally have been to half a dozen Ringgolds around the country,” says Murphy. “These names were very popular for awhile, and now there’s probably nobody there that can tell you why it’s named that. People from Palo Alto County, Iowa, and Resaca, Georgia, come down here and they have no idea.”

That’s why the Palo Alto site was created, Murphy adds. “We don’t just present the battle here at the park. We made a commitment to preserve the whole war, because people just don’t know about it.”

On a bright, windswept day in May, a few busloads of high school students, Cub Scouts and other assorted history buffs unload onto an open field beside the Palo Alto visitors center. Their attention is drawn to a small band of what appear to be infantry and artillery soldiers from the 1840s, gathered beside canvas tents, a “six-pounder” cannon, reproduction flint-lock muskets and wooden cartridge boxes.

It’s the 161st anniversary of the Battle of Palo Alto — the start of the Mexican-American War. These local historical re-enactors — a Homeland Security agent, a middle school history teacher and a federal archaeologist among them — are setting the stage for this crucial battle. Later, these members of the Wild Horse Desert Historical Brigade, sweating in their Kersey wool fatigues of sky blue, will march to an overlook and fire a 21-gun salute beside an open field, where the forces of U.S. Gen. Zachary Taylor and Mexican General Mariano Arista met on May 8, 1846.

Texas had won its independence from Mexico a decade before and was now boldly claiming the Rio Grande as its southern border, although the Nueces River — 125 miles to the north — had been its boundary as a Mexican territory. Texas already had joined the United States in 1845, and tensions be-tween the U.S. and Mexico over this still-disputed territory were quickly reaching a fresh boil. At little Fort Texas, across the river from Matamoros, the fluttering Stars and Stripes only added to the heat.

News of a bloody skirmish April 25 at Rancho de Carricitos, about 25 miles west of present-day Brownsville, was the invitation President James K. Polk needed to ask for, and Congress to grant, a declaration of war on May 13, 1846.

“Mexico … has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil,” Polk told Congress. “She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war.”

By this time, the war’s opening battles had already been won.

Mexican bombardment of Fort Texas began on May 3. These hostilities would take the life of Maj. Jacob Brown, commander of the U.S. 7th Infantry, who eventually would lend a hero’s name to both the rechristened Fort Brown and the city of Brownsville.

On May 8, 1846, after leading his freshly supplied forces from Port Isabel, Gen. Taylor met Arista’s men at Palo Alto. It looked then very much as it looks today, open fields of tall sacahuiste cordgrass, ringed by patches of dense chaparral and trees that hint at the Spanish name for “tall timber.” Ulysses S. Grant, then a young 2nd Lieutenant facing his first battle, described the shoulder-high tufts of cordgrass as “hard and almost as sharp as a darning-needle.”

U.S. forces were outnumbered, but artillery — including two 18-pounder cannons drawn by oxen — won the day. As mostly ineffective musket balls whizzed overhead and bounced through the cord grass, Arista’s men were pounded by the “flying artillery” of Maj. Samuel Ringgold, a Palo Alto hero who would be mortally wounded that day.

American casualties were a handful dead out of about 2,300 soldiers. More than 100 Mexicans were killed with many more wounded out of around 4,000 men. Many were buried in mass graves on the field of battle. Arista began retreating that night to Resaca de la Palma — a dry oxbow of the Rio Grande only a few miles to the south — hoping for strategic advantage the next day.

He would not find it.

On May 9, Taylor again engaged the Mexican Army and sent them fleeing across the Rio Grande, where — according to letters from soldiers who were there — many drowned in treacherous currents.

Thus opened the 18-month Mexican-American War, a war of conquest that sent the United States marching all the way to the fabled “Halls of Montezuma.” It’s an unfamiliar and troubling image for many Americans — then and now — and a lingering sore point in Mexican-American relations. As one Palo Alto soldier quoted in James M. McCaffrey’s Army of Manifest Destiny put it: “It was a beautiful morning; the winds were singing; the sun was shining bright; and the sweet fragrance of the prairie flowers was wafted along by gentle winds; and yet, surrounded by all this loveliness, were two Christian armies about to meet and kill each other.”

When the fighting ended in 1847, the American flag was flying over the National Palace in Mexico City, and battles had been won all the way to San Francisco. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established today’s Rio Grande border and — for a price tag of $15 million — added territory four times the size of France to a nation that now stretched from sea to shining sea.

“That one image of our army in Mexico City really makes people stop and think,” says Murphy. “That’s the one image that tells them this was much larger than a bunch of border skirmishes along the Rio Grande. It was the first two campaigns in what essentially was a war of conquest into Mexico.”

But as events like Goliad and San Jacinto led to the Mexican-American War, so the dominoes of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma continued falling toward the Civil War. In that bloody state-against-state conflict only 15 years later, the memory of Palo Alto was blotted out by Vicksburg and Antietam, Gettysburg and Appomattox.

UT-Brownsville history professor emeritus Anthony Knopp says Civil War issues of slave-versus-free states also distorted the memory of the Mexican-American War. And our national Wild West mythology didn’t help either.

“When you tell people the outcome of the war with Mexico, they say ‘Oh really?!’ Part of our national mythology is the conquest of the West, but we don’t think of it as a military conquest so much as cattlemen and miners and settlers coming out in wagon trains. How we acquired that West has sort of slipped past us in our historical mythology.”

Today, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site seeks to present a balanced account of the entire war. Rather than glorifying American victories, interpretive panels tell both sides, in Spanish and English, and note the valor and sacrifice of all soldiers who did their duty.

“We try to bring the actual battle and events down to certain individuals on both sides: The soldiers who were here,” says Murphy. “And we get a variety of responses. We’ve had Mexicans who have complained it’s clearly biased against Mexico, and we’ve had Texans who’ve said we’re following Mexican marching orders.

“We just try to preserve the two views and how the war was seen at the time. It happened, and there was right and wrong on both sides. I honestly think if you do it that way, people are smart enough to make up their own mind.”

Meanwhile, while decades of farming and souvenir-taking have altered the site, there are still clues buried at Palo Alto that could help tell its story. With no official U.S. battle map — the Army map maker accidentally shot himself after Palo Alto — questions remain. Careful archaeological grid surveys are validating historical accounts and yielding evidence of how the battle actually unfolded.

A reported mass grave of Mexican battle casualties has never been found, but six-pound cannon balls, metal buttons and other items are still being pulled intact from the ground with the help of volunteers and metal detectors.

“Our long-term goal down here in Brownsville is we want to tell the integrated story of the beginning of a very significant war. It’s all three elements: Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma and Fort Brown,” says Knopp. “It all started here.”

Visiting Brownsville’s Battlefields

The Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site includes a visitors center and a half-mile trail to the site of this opening clash of the Mexican-American War of 1846. In this tranquil place, visitors can easily imagine the battlefield as it was that day. Flags mark the approximate placement of Mexican and American forces, and work is underway to preserve and restore the landscape to its original open prairie bounded by dense thorny thicket. The park entrance is just north of the intersection of FM 511 and Paredes Line Road (FM 1847).

To the south, north of the intersection of Price and Paredes Line roads in Brownsville, visitors can also see what remains of the Resaca de la Palma Battlefield. Now preserved by the Brownsville Community Foundation, a partner with the National Park Service, it includes a new walking trail as well. Annual memorial events around the May 9 anniversary of the battle have featured hundreds of luminarias lit in honor of the American and Mexican soldiers who fought and died there.

Intrepid history detectives can also hike to the UT-Brownsville Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course driving range, where an old Army cannon marks remnants of the original star-shaped Fort Brown earthworks. Historic markers near the driving range parking lot give some background information. The university took over the grounds of Fort Brown after World War II and has preserved several post-Civil War buildings.

This fall, the city of Brownsville dedicates a new nine-mile, rails-to-trails hike-and-bike project that runs from the downtown Federal Courthouse through neighborhoods and across several resacas, to Palo Alto. Plans are to line the Historic Battlefields Trail with palm trees rescued during the expansion of Brownsville’s U.S. Highway 83.

On both the trail and at Palo Alto itself, birders will encounter many of the “Valley specialties” that make the Lower Rio Grande Valley a birdwatcher’s paradise. Checklists available at the park note several species — such as the black-bellied whistling duck, vermilion flycatcher and olive sparrow — first documented by Palo Alto soldiers such as U.S. Capt. John Porter McCown and Mexican Capt. Jean Louis Berlandier.

The Palo Alto visitors center includes picnic tables and bilingual exhibits, plus a selection of books in English and Spanish to fill in gaps about this often neglected part of American military history. Check with park rangers for special living history events and other programs.

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