Baghdad On The Freeway


Smarting from the “Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun,” the Americans prepared a full-scale campaign against Los Angeles. Colonel John Charles Frémont was dispatched overland from Monterey with a body of frontier riflemen. Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who was in charge of American operations against California, put into San Pedro with a force of sailors and marines. By this time the Yankees had a new respect for native arms. When their boats landed on shore they saw California horsemen dotting every hill. In the gap just east of Palos Verdes a cloud of dust showed where the main force of defenders was passing through. For several hours the dust continued to boil as the thunder of hoofs shook the ground. Stockton concluded that the Californians were far too numerous to risk battle. Returning to the ships, the Americans sailed for San Diego. Actually, General Carrillo had been running a vast herd of horses in a continuous circle so that the Americans viewing them through the pass thought they were one long column of cavalry.

Masters of maneuver on the battlefield, the Californians were still their own worst enemies. Intrigue and rebellion divided their camp, and in one disorderly night most of their horses stampeded out of town and were lost. Meanwhile General Stephen W. Kearny had led an American column overland from New Mexico, and though the Californians defeated him at the Battle of San Pasqual they were unable, for lack of horses, to prevent him from joining Stockton. By the end of the year the combined American column was marching northward to take Los Angeles.

His rear threatened simultaneously by the approach of Frémont from the north, Governor Flores saw the end approaching. Summoning all his defenses on January 8, he made a last attempt to ambush the southern column as it crossed the San Gabriel River. A heavy thicket of willows and mustard grass commanded the lower ford approaching Los Angeles. Here Flores hid his horsemen, ready for a sudden charge on the Americans as they floundered through the quicksand. But at the last moment a traitor revealed the ambush, and the Americans veered to the upper ford. Flores sallied north to oppose them, taking a high position back of the west bank. As the Americans slogged knee-deep into the river, Flores opened up with cannon, his grape and round shot splashing the water before them.

But this time the American jaw was set. When he had risen that morning, Stockton had told his aide that if the enemy would fight, he would “give the San Gabriel a name in history.…” As Kearny ordered the American artillery unlimbered to return the fire from the far bank, Stockton rode up and countermanded the order. Not a shot should be fired, he said, until the guns had crossed the river to cover an American charge. Once in the water, mules and wheels alike bogged down in the current. Quick to prove his point, Kearny notified Stockton that the guns could not cross in the quicksands.

“Quicksands be damned!” roared the Commodore. “The guns shall pass over!”

And leaping from his horse, he seized the ropes himself. Officers, men, and mules bent to the task while the water around them churned with enemy fire. In midstream a troop of Californians, decked with colored streamers and shining lances, charged the struggling column. Marines and sailors drove them back with musket fire. Arrived on the opposite bank, the American cannon were wheeled into position and soon boomed their answer to the enemy battery. Roused by the smoke of battle, Stockton himself aimed one of the pieces and fired it—the ball smashing the wheel of an enemy gun. Not to be outdone, Kearny stepped up, a pistol in each hand.

“Now, Commodore,” he announced, “I am ready for the charge.”

Under cover of their guns, the Americans stormed up the slope, beating off another cavalry charge as they went. Seeing the battle lost, Flores now ordered a retreat. With a loss of three killed and seven wounded, the Americans had won the battle of San Gabriel and sealed the conquest of California.

Next day when Stockton and Kearny resumed their march, Flores made a last, pitiful stand at La Mesa, on the outskirts of town. But it was little more than a skirmish. The gringos plodded relentlessly onward, their ox and mule teams raising dust across the plain. Next morning they marched into Los Angeles to the lively step of their band, while native hotheads sat on the hill above the plaza, catcalling and waving pistols.

As for the beaten Flores, he had already transferred his command to General Andrés Pico, brother of Pío, and fled to Mexico. Pico in turn spurred northward into San Fernando Valley to meet Frémont; but when he heard of the American victory at San Gabriel, he realized that there was little purpose in further resistance. Frémont accepted Pico’s surrender at the foot of Cahuenga Pass on January 13, 1847. For this breach of etiquette, both Pico and Frémont were soon suffering the ruffled displeasure of Stockton.

But the bloodshed at last was over, and California was American. Defeated by their own shortcomings, the Californians had at least proved that they were, as more than one American testified, “the greatest horsemen in the world.”