The Battle of San Pasqual

One of the final military clashes of the Mexican-American War, the Battle of San Pasqual was fought near what is now Escondido on December 6, 1846, between the American Army and Californio forces. The battle pitted General Stephen W. Kearny and the U.S. Army of the West against Captain Andrés Pico and his band of Californio lancers—mounted troops armed with long, spear-like lances.

Kearny
General Stephen W. Kearny

In June of 1846, General Kearny led the First Dragoons (mounted cavalry) from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to wrest Santa Fe from Mexican control. After taking Santa Fe without any bloodshed, Kearny ordered Colonel Alexander Doniphan and a portion of the army to the Mexican State of Chihuahua. From Santa Fe, Kearny and the Army of the West rode toward California to seize Monterey and San Francisco. During a chance encounter, American scout Kit Carson informed Kearny that Commodore Robert F. Stockton’s naval forces had already captured San Diego. Kearny ordered most of his Army of the West to return to Santa Fe while Kit Carson led Kearny and 100 travel-weary, ill-equipped soldiers to San Diego to help defend the city.


Andres Pico
Captain Andrés Pico

Meanwhile, Andrés Pico marched his contingent of about 100 Californio ranchers and landowners south from Los Angeles to retake San Diego from American control. American scouts spotted the Californio forces after a heavy storm forced Pico’s 75 lancers to make camp at San Pascual (later changed to San Pasqual) Pueblo. Kearny then sent a large reconnaissance patrol to scout the Californio encampment. As the American scout party approached the camp, a guard dog alerted Pico’s men, causing the Americans to flee back to their own encampment. During the confusion of the retreat, the American scouts left behind weapons and apparel that bore the U.S. Army insignia. Pico’s forces prepared for battle with the American dragoons.

Kearny ordered his troops to confront the Californio forces shortly after the scouting party returned. As the American forces approached the Californio Camp, Kearny ordered his cavalry troops to trot. Captain A.R. Johnston misinterpreted the command, giving the Army of the West orders to charge at Pico’s forces. The American charge sparked the engagement, and Captain Johnston became one of the first casualties.

Although the American Dragoons gave chase to the Californios, Pico’s expert horsemen created enough distance from the Americans to mount a counter-attack. Pico ordered his troops to divide into two separate units and quickly charged towards the American forces. The travel-weary Americans and their mounts, unprepared for the counter-attack and the Californios’ long lances, sustained 21 dead and 15 wounded. The Californios had 15 casualties during the engagement; Pico reported only one death. Kearny, also wounded, led his forces to nearby Mule Hill. The Californios surrounded the encampment, retreating only after U.S. Navy reinforcements arrived from San Diego.

Battle Painting

The Californios may have won the battle, but they lost the war. On December 29, the combined force of Kearny’s and Admiral Stockton’s troops marched toward Los Angeles. They had bested General José Maria Flores’ Mexican Militia and occupied Los Angeles by January 10. Flores fled south into Mexico and left his command with Andrés Pico. Andrés formally surrendered the city and all of Alta California to the American forces. Lt. Col John C. Frémont and Andrés Pico signed the Articles of Capitulation, called the Treaty of Cahuenga, on January 13, 1847.

The battlefield at San Pasqual was acquired by the State in 1918, and the battle monument was erected in 1925. Each December, mounted volunteers reenact this final battle at San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park, east of Escondido.