On the Prairie of Palo Alto

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Wed Jan 22, 2003 7:57 pm

On the Prairie of Palo Alto: Historical Archaeology of the U.S.-Mexican War Battlefield, by Charles M. Haecker and Jeffery G. Mauck, Texas A&M University Military History Series #55, Texas A&M University Press, 1997.

A nice companion piece to the historical archaeological work on the Little Big Horn, and done in a similar manner, this book delves into the known history of the Battle of Palo Alto (May 8 1846) from the primary documents available from both the American and the Mexican perspectives, including personal accounts, maps and official reports. It also, of course, quite literally digs deeper into the subject by analysing the archaeological digs of the battlefield undertaken in 1993 by the National Park Service.

The battlefield is one of the few on present US soil not to be covered at this date by urban sprawl, and though it has been subjected to rather fierce souvenier hunting starting from the day after the battle to present, there were still some interesting finds located through the project.

The book of course begins with an historical overview of the why's and where-for's of the war, and thus the battle, and continues on into a fairly detailed chapter on the weapons, accoutrements and the soldiers taking part in the battle, and it is very well done. There is a chapter on the Topography of the battlefield, and gives a good overview of the analysis process for the documentary evidence of the battle, and continues on with the analysis of the physical evidence found during the dig.

There are actually a few surprises in the text. I personally had no idea that the Americans had used their 18-pounder cannon in the advance, much to discomfort of the Mexican forces. But of course the real credit for the American victory was awarded to the US Army's Flying Artillery Batteries, under Major Ringgold and Captain Duncan. The speed, firepower and audacity of the Flying Batteries used in both the advance and the defence totally dumfounded both the Mexican leadership as well as the Americans, in the form of General Zachary Taylor, but at least Taylor could sit back and enjoy the fruits of the victory, while the Mexican army was forced to endure the horrors of a close artillery bombardment, with all of the grim results in torn flesh and spilled blood.

All in all, and excellent work detailing the reasons for the American victory not only at Palo Alto, but at the battle the next day at Resaca de la Palma, and well worth the price.

Gordon



"After God, we owe our Victory to our Horses"

Gonsalo Jimenez de Quesada, 1543
Bob Rea
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Thu Jan 23, 2003 3:39 pm

I will pass your kind comments on to my friend Charlie. It is a good book and well illustrated to boot. Charlie is really into battlefield archeology. If it reminds you of the Little Big Horn research that might be because one of Charlie's mentors is Doug Scott who pioneered the work at LBH. I have worked with Charlie at the Washita and Sand Creek and other places. He is good at what he does. He is working on Apache War sites in New Mexico and Arizona and will hopefully have something published on those in time.

Bob Rea
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Thu Jan 23, 2003 4:23 pm

Bob, Very interesting! One of my best friends is working on his PhD in Historical Archaeology at UNReno, and I was amazed at the similar ideas that were expressed in both the Palo Alto book, and my friend's thesis. I told him it was a good thing he didn't have that book! But it is a pretty obvious place to start. Right now he is working on some US Army Telephone and Telegraph stations in Alaska from the turn of the last Century, which were abandoned before WWI with everything left standing. Pretty cool stuff! Thanks!

BTW, another friend's brother is an archaeologist for the State of Arizona, and got to go take a look at Cibicue Creek. They found piles of cartridges in various locations, and they of course could tell who was who... the non-Scout Apaches were for the most part using .50-70's, while the Scouts had .45-70's. Interesting stuff, that.

Gordon

"After God, we owe our Victory to our Horses"

Gonsalo Jimenez de Quesada, 1543
monahan
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Tue Jan 28, 2003 10:23 pm

I actually presented on talk on this battle to my class at the Combined Arms Services Staff School (CAS3) at Fort Leavenworth. I thought the Mexican War (and Punitive Expedition, for that matter) are forgotten chapters in our military history. This battle probably demonstrated the first real use of combined Arms in the American Army with dragoons, artillery and infantry being used to great effect. Also demonstrated the value of the Military Academy and the training the young lieutenants received there. Light artillery was really frowned upon at the time but was used to devastating effect in this battle.

By the way, the Fort Leavenworth Museum lent me a dragoon outfit in which I gave my talk. I used a sabre as a pointer. Cheesy, perhaps, but got the highest grade in the class

Timothy P. Monahan
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Pat Holscher
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Tue Jan 28, 2003 10:28 pm

<blockquote id="quote"><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica" id="quote">quote:<hr height="1" noshade id="quote"><i>Originally posted by monahan</i>
<br />I thought the Mexican War (and Punitive Expedition, for that matter) are forgotten chapters in our military history.
<hr height="1" noshade id="quote"></blockquote id="quote"></font id="quote">

I quite agree.

Pat
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Sat Feb 01, 2003 2:31 pm

It is interesting that among the masses, even military historians, both of the forays into Mexico are conveniently forgotten or ignored (they are about as un-PC as you can get!), but oddly enough, at least among most of the collectors and 19th/Early 20th Century Army enthusiasts that I know, they are favorite subjects. It is VERY interesting to me how these rather small affairs (for everyone but those who were directly involved) had enormous consiquences to the US. The Mexican War certainly was not only a training ground for the 1861-'65 War, but a testing ground for many new arms and combinations of arms, as well as the last hurrah of true Napoleonic Tactics. More than that of course, it shaped the historical geography of the US more than any other acivity in our history, other than the original Revolution, and the Louisiana Purchase. By taking almost half of the geography of Mexico, we of course added a third to our own country, which had enormous results in the culture, economy, distrubution of the populace, and of course politics of the US both internally and internationally. Many of the participants of this forum are living in lands which, if not for that war (or the cultural/political events which led to it), would be in the realm of sovereign nations other than our own. Heck, chances are good that California would have been taken by Britain, and I would be speaking English now! Quite.

The Punitive Expedition of course was also a training ground for the officers who came to prominance during our involvement in WWI, indeed as well as WWII, showed the way technologically viz-a-viz motorized transportation and arial observation, and of course was the last major campaign carried out with our own favorite, Horse Cavalry. The political ramifications were legion as well, but primarily in the distrust of the American Government by Latin Americans, and of course particularly Mexicans. It was not the Army which preformed miserably in the campaign, but the Wilson Administrations craven disregard for rational dealings with various factions of Mexicans that failed.

Anyway, I have always found both periods to be absolutely fascinating, and it is sad that so many people in the US are in total ignorance of both of our incursions into the lands and politics of our Southern neigbor. The Mexicans aren't!

Timothy, sounds like you did a great presentation! Or at least an interesting one, which seems to be half the battle. Bully!

Gordon

"After God, we owe our Victory to our Horses"

Gonsalo Jimenez de Quesada, 1543
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Sun Feb 02, 2003 11:40 am

Gordon raises an interesting point as to the Mexican War and the Punitive Expedition being forgotten conflicts. The Mexican War, it seems to me, is far more forgotten at that. Ask most seniors in college about it, and I'm sure the vast majority would not know it even had occured. The Punitive Expedition is a little more remembered, perhaps because film makers have used it as a backdrop to some western films, and perhaps because it is usually given footnote treatment in histories about the US role in World War One.

Of course, they aren't the only forgotten ones. The War of 1812 isn't studied that much, and the most forgotten of all has to be the Philippine Insurrection. There are a couple of good general histories of the Mexican War in print, but are there of the Philippine Insurrection? If there is one, somebody ought to mention it here as I would like to read it.

The whys and wherefore of why they are forgotten are interesting in and of themselves. I think the Punitive Expedition is mostly ignored as W.W.I looms over it. We like studying the PE because of the role of cavalry in it, as well as the exceedingly interesting characters involved. But compared to the huge causalities at the Somme, or Verdun, prior to our involvement in the Great War, or those of the Argonne, etc., after it, it is small wonder that so little light shines on it. Still, if we were to find ourselves transported back to 1916, I wonder who we would really worry more about, Prussian field marshals or Colorados and/or Villistas just over the border?

The Philippine Insurrection seems to have been forgotten by collective force of will of the populace. It had become an embarrassment while it was ongoing, and it seems everybody just collectively decided it was over, and would never be mentioned again. Interesting. It's repercussions are still felt in the Philippines, and the loosing side never really laid down their arms completely. Some fight on now. It seems that the US just couldn't quite reconcile itself to the war and what all it involved. Pity the poor soldier sent to it, to fight, and then be completely forgotten, even while the fighting went on.

As for the Mexican War, it seems something like that also occured in regards to it. It was controversial while it was being fought, and the US had never really fought a war like it before. People felt uncomfortable about the war, to a certain degree, before it started, and then felt uncomfortable about the Mexican governments refusal to surrender even as their country was being occupied. The desertion rate in the war was huge, which was an embarrassment to the Army. And then there was the San Patricios who joined up with the Mexicans. All in all, it is as if the country, once the ended, decided "Whew, glad that's over, lets learn our lessons and try to fix what was wrong, and not repeat our errors."

Still, to the extent that the Mexican War is remembered in the US, it is remembered with guilt. It seems to be the generally accepted line that the US was an unjust invader of a friendly foreign power, in order to steal their land. I confess, knowing little about the war well into my adult years, that was sort of my view as well. However, having read up on it now, I think that current line, which seems completely a accepted, is wholly wrong. In looking at the Mexican War, I can't see how it could have been avoided. No US government could really have accepted Mexican refusal to accept the loss of Texas after Texas entered the US. No Mexican government could have agreed that Texas was lost. The US Army could not avoid garrisoning US claims, even though it didn't seek war. The Mexican Army was so internally corrupt, that it's officers couldn't back down from war without loosing their jobs, if not their heads. While it was a tragedy, it is perhaps best that peace was secured by US representatives eager to simply end the war without pressing for as much as they could have taken, and my Mexican representatives who recognized they had to secure a peace even though their own government would disapprove of what they had done.


Pat
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Sun Feb 02, 2003 8:27 pm

<blockquote id="quote"><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica" id="quote">quote:<hr height="1" noshade id="quote"><i>Originally posted by Pat Holscher</i>
<br />
It seems that the US just couldn't quite reconcile itself to the war and what all it involved. Pity the poor soldier sent to it, to fight, and then be completely forgotten, even while the fighting went on.

Pat
<hr height="1" noshade id="quote"></blockquote id="quote"></font id="quote">

Gee, that must sound uncomfortably familiar to some of the participants here.
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Wed Feb 05, 2003 8:00 pm

Kelton, your on the mark there. When I was in college, I took an interesting class on Warfare in the Modern World, and one of the interesting things in it was a comparison between the US involvement in teh Philipines at the Turn-of-the-last-Century and Vietnam (lucky for me I was a tad young to hit that one head-on). The professor was actually a really interesting fellow, with no major axes to grind, BTW, so it was a very interesting class, and had a couple of vets from various wars in it, the classes were quite lively, with plenty of first-hand commentary. But the Philipines/Vietnam comparison really stuck with me.

The biggest thing that hits you is that in both cases, none of the participants really wanted the US Troops to be there, least of all the Americans themselves. But the parallels are frightening, down to and including a program to reduce American troop involvement in the day-to-day fighting and patrolling called, I kid you not, "Philipinization". Did I hear an echo there? Sounded like it... Also problems with the "New and improved" weapons/ammo, and the early disinclination to use Cavalry, which was later proven to be of great utility (Horse vs. Armoured, but still, the point remains, I think).

Of course the BIG difference was that as far as the PI's were concerned, we were there to stay. The odd situation of the Spanish troops holding on to positions in the face of Filipino attacks until releived by the Americans, who were at least nominally allies with the Filipinos, is bizarre to say the least. Little things like the Royal Navy's Far Eastern Fleet placing itself in Manila Bay, between the tiny US Naval forces holding on by their fingernails in Manila and Cavite, and the GERMAN Far Eastern Squadron, which was hoping to pick up some of the crumbs from the desinegration of the Spanish Empire, is flat strange. But the Brits had helped Dewey all the way, from providing coal in Hong Cong at pretty much cost, to protecting the US fleet from the Germans. The RN had looked upon the USN as a junior partner in the Far Eastern waters for some time, and this simply made it apparent to everyone. But there was never any question, from the moment Undersecretary of the Navy TR Roosevelt cabled Admiral Dewey to take Manila, that we intended to keep it, whereas I don't think ANYONE had any desire to make the Republic of South Vietnam anything but a separate entity, though firmly under our "Guidance", as it were. Interesting stuff.

Gordon

"After God, we owe our Victory to our Horses"

Gonsalo Jimenez de Quesada, 1543
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