Battle of Buena Vista - Conflict & Dates:
The Battle of Buena Vista was fought February 23, 1847, during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848)
Armies & Commanders
- Major General Zachary Taylor
- 4,759 men
- General Antonio López de Santa Anna
- 15,142 men
Battle of Buena Vista - Background:
With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in May 1846, Major General Zachary Taylor's Army of Occupation quickly won victories at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Heavily reinforced during the summer, Taylor pressed south and captured the fortress city of Monterrey in September after several days of brutal fighting. In the wake of the battle, Taylor offered the Mexicans a two-month ceasefire. Despite the victory, President James K. Polk was livid that Taylor had agreed to a ceasefire, stating that it was the army’s job to “kill the enemy” and not to make deals.
Annoyed with Taylor and concerned about his political ambitions, Polk devised a plan for a new campaign in conjunction with Major General Winfield Scott which called for landings at Veracruz followed by a march on Mexico City. To support this plan, Taylor was to send the bulk of his troops to the coast for embarkation and remain on the defensive at Saltillo. Irate, Taylor ordered Brigadier General John E. Wool, who was operating in Chihuahua to rejoin him. When the troop transfer was complete, Taylor was reduced to 500 regulars. The rest of his 4,759 men were volunteers, most of which had not seen action.
In January 1847, Lieutenant John Richey was ambushed and killed by Mexican forces. Searching his body, they found letters detailing the American plans. These were forwarded to General Antonio López de Santa Anna who had returned from exile in Cuba to take command of the Mexican Army. Assembling a force of 22,000 men at San Luis Potosi, Santa Anna intended to quickly crush Taylor and then move to the coast to block Scott. Departing on January 28, he force marched his men north for three weeks, losing around 7,000 men through desertion and exhaustion in the process.
The Battle of Buena Vista:
Unwilling to sit idle, Taylor disregarded his orders from Polk and probed south to Agua Nuevo. Aware that Santa Anna was on the move, Taylor dispatched Major Ben McCulloch to scout for the enemy. Learning that Santa Anna was approaching, Taylor withdrew ten miles north to the mountain pass south of Buena Vista on February 21. A strong defensive position with impassable arroyos to the west and rising plateaus to the east, Buena Vista offered the smaller American force advantageous ground for making a stand. Taylor detailed Wool to lay out the defenses.
Blocking the road, Wool supported the barricade with Captain John W. Washington’s 8-gun battery as well as the 1st and 2nd Illinois Volunteers and the 2nd Kentucky Volunteers. On the heights to the left were placed volunteer riflemen from Arkansas and Kentucky. The remainder of the army was held in reserve to reinforce where necessary. Arriving on the field on February 22, Santa Anna sent Surgeon General Pedro Vanderlinden to demand Taylor's surrender. A refusal was delivered by Captain William Bliss which stated "I beg leave to say that I decline acceding to your request."
Santa Anna immediately sent forward troops under General Pedro de Ampudia in an attempt to turn the American left on the heights with the goal capturing the American depot at Buena Vista and cutting off Taylor's line of retreat. Encountering the riflemen, Ampudia's men clashed until nightfall with each side seeking higher and higher ground. With the end of the fighting, Taylor departed for Saltillo to ensure that his rear area was protected. Angered by Ampudia's failure, Santa Anna spent the night shifting his forces to assault the American left-center (Map).
Anticipating a threat in this area, Wool reinforced his line with elements of the 2nd Illinois and three guns under Lieutenant John Paul Jones O’Brien. Around 8:00 AM, Santa Anna ordered infantry and cavalry under Generals Francisco Pacheco and Manuel M. Lombardini to attack. Moving through a ravine, Lombardini's 7,000 men caught O'Brien and the 2nd Indiana Volunteers by surprise. After brief fight, O'Brien was compelled to pull his guns back. This action was misinterpreted by the 2nd Indiana as a general retreat and they began fleeing back toward Buena Vista Ranch.
To their left, the Arkansas riflemen fought a bitter action in an attempt to hold the high ground. Though supported by artillery under Lieutenants George H. Thomas and Samuel French, they too were overwhelmed and forced to fall back. With the American left collapsing, only the 2nd Illinois stood firm, conducting a slow, fighting retreat. To support them, Wool shifted Captain Braxton Bragg's battery, the 1st Illinois, and the 2nd Kentucky to plug the breach. Firing into Lombardini's exposed flank, they inflicted heavy losses and halted part of the Mexican drive.
As this fighting swirled, the Jalisco Lancers and 4th Cavalry Regiment, under General Julián Juvera, slipped through the battle and rode hard for Buena Vista. At this point, Taylor arrived on the field followed by Colonel Jefferson Davis' Mississippi Rifles, the 2nd US Dragoons, and a squadron of mounted Arkansas infantry. Dispatching the horsemen to defend the depot at Buena Vista, Taylor directed Davis to halt an approaching column led by Ampudia. Opening fire with great accuracy, they cut down the Mexican infantry before driving off a column of 1,500 Mexican lancers. While Davis was making his stand, Juvera's men attacked Buena Vista. Unable to pierce the American defenses, they rode off to the west.
Following a lull, Santa Anna launched another attack around 5:00 PM with troops drawn from Lombardini and Pacheco's commands. Hitting the American center, the encountered the 1st and 2nd Illinois, 2nd Kentucky, and O'Brien's guns. Overwhelming the Americans, they began forcing them back. While O'Brien worked to save his guns, the 1st Illinois was forced into a ravine where the Mexicans fired down on them. Understanding the critical nature of the situation, Taylor summoned Bragg's fly artillery to the scene. Unlimbering in the face of the approaching Mexicans, Bragg's guns opened fire with double canister as Davis' men and dragoons rushed to his support. Three quick salvos shattered the Mexican attack and sent the Mexicans reeling. The trapped 1st Illinois was soon rescued by the arrival of Washington's guns which drove off their antagonists.
Battle of Buena Vista - Aftermath
His last assault defeated, Santa Anna held a council of war as night and heavy rains descended. Having lost 594 dead, 1,039 wounded, 1,800 missing, and 294 captured, he elected to retreat south. Taylor, whose position remained precarious, lost 267 dead, 456 wounded, and 23 missing. The final major battle in northeastern Mexico, the stunning American victory carried Taylor to the presidency the following year. On a similar note, the military reputation won by Davis aided him in becoming the future president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Returning to Mexico City, Santa Anna led a campaign against Scott in which he was roundly defeated.