The Battle of Palo Alto — Zachary Taylor’s First Victory in the Mexican-American War

May 8, 1846

The Battle of Palo Alto was fought between the United States of America and Mexico on May 8, 1846, during the Mexican-American War. It was the first major battle of the war and took place near present-day Brownsville, Texas. American forces, led by General Zachary Taylor, won the battle.

President Zachary Taylor, Official Portrait, 1849, Bush

President Zachary Taylor, Official Portrait, 1849, by Joseph H. Bush. Image Source: White House Historical Association.

Battle of Palo Alto Summary

The Battle of Palo Alto was the first major conflict of the Mexican-American War. It took place on May 8, 1846, near the Rio Grande, just north of modern-day Brownsville, Texas. The battle was fought between U.S. Brigadier General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation and Mexican General of Brigade Mariano Arista’s Army of the North. Although Arista’s army was poorly equipped and supplied, his men were considered the best-trained in the Mexican army. However, Taylor’s men won the battle, the first in a series of American victories in the conflict.

Battle of Palo Alto Facts

  • Date Started: The Battle of Palo Alto started on May 8, 1846.
  • Date Ended: It ended on May 8, 1846.
  • Location: The Battle of Palo Alto took place about 10 miles north of present-day Brownsville, Texas.
  • Campaign: The battle was part of the Texas Campaign of the Mexican-American War.
  • Who Won: The United States of America won the Battle of Palo Alto.

Battle of Palo Alto History and Overview

During the Texas Revolution (1836–1836), Mexico believed the United States encouraged the uprising for the purpose of annexing Texas. After the Republic of Texas was established, Mexico threatened to declare war on the United States if it annexed Texas. As a result, the United States did not make any attempt to annex Texas until 1844. Texas was formally admitted to the Union on December 29, 1845, as the 28th state.

The Nueces Strip — Disputed Territory Between Mexico and the United States

Not only did the United States gain Texas, but it also inherited the ongoing border dispute between Texas and Mexico. Following the Battle of San Jacinto (1836), which ended the Texas Revolution, General Antonio López de Santa Anna agreed to the Treaties of Velasco. The treaties identified the Rio Grande River as the southern border of Texas. 

However, the Mexican Government never approved the treaties or recognized the independent Republic of Texas. As a result, Mexico insisted the southern border of Texas was the Nueces River, not the Rio Grande River. The disputed territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande was known as the “Nueces Strip.”

When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, American officials hoped it would give them an opportunity to discuss the border with Mexico. However, it did not happen as Mexico cut off diplomatic ties with the United States.

The United States Army of Observation Moves into Texas

After Mexico cut off diplomatic relations with the United States, President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to take command of an “Army of Observation.” Polk ordered Taylor to take the 3,500 men and march into Texas up to the Nueces River, on the border of the Nueces Strip. Taylor marched into Texas and established a camp at Corpus Christi, where the Nueces River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. From there, Taylor drilled and trained his men for seven months.

Mexican American War, Army of Observation at Corpus Christi, 1845
The Army of Observation Camp at Corpus Christi, Texas. Image Source: Library of Congress.

It is widely believed that Polk, a staunch believer in the idea of America’s Manifest Destiny, was looking to provoke Mexico into war with the United States. The purpose was to claim California, New Mexico, and the Nueces Strip. On March 8, 1846, ordered Taylor to cross the Nueces, into the Nueces Strip, down to the Rio Grande — which Texans and Polk claimed was the true southern border of Texas. 

Taylor and his men built Fort Texas near present-day Brownsville, Texas, on the north side of the Rio Grande. It was directly across from the town of Matamoros, Mexico. In response, Mexican General Mariano Arista demanded that Taylor withdraw from his camp and move back north of the Nueces River. However, Taylor refused the request and Arista marched his army toward Fort Texas.

General Zachary Taylor, Mexican American War
General Zachary Taylor. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Taylor and his men built Fort Texas near present-day Brownsville, Texas, on the north side of the Rio Grande. It was directly across from the town of Matamoros, Mexico. In response, Mexican General Mariano Arista demanded that Taylor withdraw from his camp and move back north of the Nueces River. However, Taylor refused the request and Arista marched his army toward Fort Texas.

Construction of Fort Texas

Fort Texas, later renamed Fort Brown, was built by Brigadier General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation in the early spring of 1846. The fort was located on the north bank of the Rio Grande, opposite the Mexican village of Matamoros, near modern-day Brownsville, Texas. 

In February 1846, Taylor received orders from President James K. Polk to establish a supply base at Point Isabel. Taylor responded by moving his army south to the northern bank of the Rio Grande River, across from Matamoros, Mexico.

The fort was designed by Captain Joseph K. F. Mansfield and made entirely of earth. The walls were 9 feet tall and at least 15 feet thick at the base. The perimeter of the fort was protected by a trench that was 8 feet wide. The fort had six redans — arrow-shaped extensions — that gave it a star shape. Three of the redans faced Matamoros.

The Thornton Affair — the First Engagement of the Mexican-American War

On April 24, Taylor was informed that Mexican troops had crossed the Rio Grande and were headed toward Fort Texas. Taylor responded by sending Captain Seth Thornton and a small force to scout the area, see if they could find the Mexican force, and gather intelligence on it. 

The next day, Thornton and his men were at Rancho de Carricitos, just east of present-day Bluetown, Texas. The Mexicans surrounded them at the ranch and attacked, killing at least 11 Americans and wounding 6. 46 men, including Captain William J. Hardee, were taken as prisoners to Matamoros in the aftermath of the Thornton Affair.

Thornton Affair, 1836, Illustration
This illustration depicts the Thornton Affair. Image Source: Pictorial History of the Mexican War (1850), Archive.org.

The Siege of Fort Texas

Following the Thornton Affair. General Arista intended to move his army across the Rio Grande River in an effort to cut Taylor off from his supplies, which were at Point Isabel, about 25 miles northeast of Fort Texas.

However, Taylor received intelligence of Arista’s movements. On March 1, Taylor assembled 2,300 men and marched to Point Isabel to secure his supplies. At Point Isabel, Taylor proceeded to load 270 wagons with supplies for his men.

Two days later, on May 3, Arista crossed the Rio Grande and divided his army. He sent a force under General Pedro de Ampudia to lay siege to Fort Texas. Arista took the rest of his army and moved to block the road from Point Isabel back to Fort Texas.

Around 5:00 a.m. on May 3, the Siege of Fort Texas started when Mexican batteries opened fire. The Mexican batteries fired approximately 1,500 rounds against the fort in the first 24 hours and 3,000 over the course of six days.

Preparations for the Battle of Palo Alto

On May 7, Taylor left Point Isabel and started his march back to Fort Texas. The next day, Arista was informed Taylor was on the move.

Arista responded by moving his army to a flat plain at Palo Alto, extending across the Point Isabel-Matamoros Road, roughly 10 miles north of Fort Texas. The Mexican force, which consisted of around 3,700 men, formed a line across the road. The line stretched from the road eastward to a small rise. 

Meanwhile, Taylor, aware of Arista’s location, positioned his men near a small lake on the north side of the plain. It was there they prepared to engage the Mexicans.

The Battle of Palo Alto Begins

It was around 2:30 in the afternoon on May 8 when Mexican batteries opened fire on the American line, which was about half a mile away. The Americans responded when artillery batteries, under the command of Major Samuel Ringgold and James Duncan, returned fire. 

Battle of Palo Alto, 1846, Ringgold Directing Artillery
This illustration depicts Major Ringgold directing artillery at the Battle of Palo Alto. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The American 6-pounders were superior to the heavier Mexican guns because they could be moved quickly around the battlefield. The batteries, known as “Flying Artillery,” gave the Americans a significant advantage over the Mexicans.

Arista ordered General Anastasio Torrejón’s cavalry to try to turn the right wing of the American forces and destroy the supply wagons. However, Taylor’s men repelled the attack and heavy poured fire on the Mexicans, inflicting heavy casualties. 

Ringgold moved his guns closer to the Mexican forces. However, the Americans were forced to pause the attack around 4:00 p.m. due to a grass fire that obstructed their view of the battlefield.

An hour later, Taylor advanced the large 18-pound guns. They moved ahead 1,000 forward on the right and he pulled the left wing of his line back in order to maintain the entire line. Arista responded by altering his forces so his line remained half of a mile from Taylor. 

Arista ordered Torrejón to make another assault on Taylor’s right, but the American artillery repelled the attack. Arista responded by ordering his artillery to fire on Ringgold’s battery, which had moved closer and was in the range of the Mexican guns. Ringgold was mortally wounded in the attack, and the American batteries were forced to fall back.

Arista made another attempt to turn the left wing of Taylor’s line with an attack by light cavalry. However, Duncan saw them coming. He quickly moved his battery into position and fired canister shot directly into the Mexicas, inflicting heavy casualties. The Mexicans were forced to withdraw, and Duncan moved his battery closer to the Mexican line.

The Battle of Palo Alto Ends

By 7:00 that night, it was too dark for the battle to continue. Arista withdrew his army and set up camp. Taylor considered a night attack but decided against it. 

Battle of Palo Alto, 1846, Taylor Leading Troops
This illustration depicts General Taylor — on his horse — directing troops at the Battle of Palo Alto. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of Palo Alto Outcome

The Mexicans lost roughly 400 men, while the American casualties included six dead and 40 wounded. The battle was an impressive tactical victory for the Americans and was a testament to their superior artillery.

Arista Withdraws to Resaca de La Palma

The next morning, Arista withdrew five miles south to Resaca de la Palma. When he arrived, he organized his forces in an attempt to minimize the effectiveness of the American artillery. 

American scouts spotted the rear of the Mexican Army as it left Palo Alto. The scouts notified Taylor, who was initially unaware Arista was withdrawing from the field. Taylor ordered the construction of an earthwork at Palo Alto to protect his supply wagons and then advanced, intending to attack the Mexican Army at Resaca de la Palma.

Battle of Palo Alto — Official Report By General Zachary Taylor

In the aftermath of the Battle of Palo Alto, General Taylor wrote an official account of the event and sent it to Roger Jones, Adjutant-General of the Army, in Washington, D.C.

Please note that section headings have been added, and text corrections have been made in order to improve understanding of the report.

Camp Near Matamoras — May 16, 1846

Headquarters Army of Occupation

Camp near Matamoras, May 16, 1846.

Sir — I have now the honor to submit a more detailed report of the action of the 8th instant.

Taylor Marches Out of Point Isabel

The main body of the army of occupation marched under my immediate orders from Point Isabel, on the evening of the 7th of May, and bivouacked 7 miles from that place.

Taylor Arrives at Palo Alto

Our march was resumed the following morning. About noon, when our advance of cavalry had reached the water hole of “Palo Alto,” the Mexican troops were reported in our front, and were soon discovered occupying the road in force. 

I ordered a halt upon reaching the water, with a view to rest and refresh the men and form deliberately our line of battle. The Mexican line was now plainly visible across the prairie, and about three-quarters of a mile distant. Their left, which was composed of a heavy force of cavalry, occupied the road resting upon a thicket of chaparral, while masses of infantry were discovered in succession on the right, greatly outnumbering our own force.

Organization of the American Line

Our line of battle was now formed in the following order, commencing on the extreme right: 5th infantry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh; Major Ringgold’s artillery; 3d infantry, commanded by Captain L. M. Morris; two 18-pounders, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Garland; and all the above corps, together with two squadrons of dragoons under captains Ker and May, composed the right wing, under the orders of Colonel Twiggs. 

The left was formed by the battalion of artillery, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Childs, Captain Duncan’s light artillery, and the 8th infantry, under Captain Montgomery — all forming the 1st brigade, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Belknap. The train was parked near the water, under the direction of Captains Crosman and Myers, and protected by Captain Ker’s squadron.

About 2 o’clock we took up the march by heads of columns, in the direction of the enemy, the 18-pounder battery following the road. While the columns were advancing, Lieutenant Blake, topographical engineers, volunteered a reconnaissance of the enemy’s line, which was handsomely performed, and resulted in the discovery of at least two batteries of artillery in the intervals of their cavalry and infantry. 

Mexican Batteries Open Fire

These batteries were soon opened upon us, when I ordered the columns halted and deployed into line, and the fire to be returned by all our artillery. The 8th infantry, on our extreme left, was thrown back to secure that flank. The first fires of the enemy did little execution, while our 18-pounders and Major Ringgold’s artillery soon dispersed the cavalry which formed his left. 

American Batteries Respond

Captain Duncan’s battery, thrown forward in advance of the line, was doing good execution at this time. Captain May’s squadron was now detached to support that battery and the left of our position. The Mexican cavalry, with two pieces of artillery, were now reported to be moving through the chaparral to our right, to threaten that flank or make a demonstration against the train. 

The 5th infantry was immediately detached to check this movement, and supported by Lieutenant Ridgely, with a section of Major Ringgold’s battery and Captain Walker’s company of volunteers, effectually repulsed the enemy — the 5th infantry repelling a charge of lancers, and the artillery doing great execution in their flanks. The 3d infantry was now detached to the right as a still further security to that flank yet threatened by the enemy. Major Ringgold, with the remaining section, kept up his fire from an advanced position and was supported by the 4th infantry.

The Grass Fire

The grass of the prairie had been accidentally fired by our artillery, and the volumes of smoke now partially concealed the armies from each other. As the enemy’s left had evidently been driven back and left the road free, and as the cannonade has been suspended, I ordered forward the 18-pounders on the road nearly to the position first occupied by the Mexican cavalry and caused the 1st brigade to take up a new position still on the left of the 18-pounder battery. The 5th was advanced from its former position and occupied a point on the extreme right of the new line. The enemy made a change of position corresponding to our own, and, after a suspension of nearly an hour, the action was resumed.

The Battle of Palo Alto Resumes

The fire of artillery was now most destructive; openings were constantly made through the enemy’s ranks by our fire, and the constancy with which the Mexican infantry sustained this severe cannonade was a theme of universal remark and admiration. Capt. May’s squadron was detached to make a demonstration on the left of the enemy’s position and suffered severely from the fire of artillery to which it was for some time exposed.

Ringgold Mortally Wounded

The 4th infantry, which had been ordered to support the 18-pounder battery, was exposed to a most galling fire of artillery, by which several men were killed, and Capt. Page dangerously wounded. The enemy’s fire was directed against our 18-pounder battery, and the guns under Major Ringgold in its vicinity. The Major himself, while cooly directing the fire of his pieces, was struck by a cannonball and mortally wounded.

Battle of Palo Alto, 1846, Ringgold Mortally Wounded
This illustration depicts the moment Ringgold was mortally wounded by Mexican fire. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Mexican Cavalry Charge on the American Right

In the meantime the battalion of artillery under Lieut. Col. Childs had been brought up to support the artillery on our right. A strong demonstration of cavalry was now made by the enemy against this part of our line, and the column continued to advance under a severe fire from the 18-pounders. 

The battalion was instantly formed in square, and held ready to receive the charge of cavalry; but when the advancing squadrons were within close range, a deadly fire of cannister from the 18-pounders dispersed them. A brisk fire of small arms was now opened upon the square, by which one officer, Lieut. Luther, 2d artillery, was slightly wounded; but a well-directed volley from the front of the square silenced all further firing from the enemy in this quarter. It was now nearly dark, and the action was closed on the right of our line — the enemy having been completely driven back from his position, and foiled in every attempt against our line.

Mexican Attack on the American Left

While the above was going forward on our right, and under my own eye, the enemy had made a serious attempt against the left of our line. Captain Duncan instantly perceived the movement, and, by the bold and brilliant maneuvering of his battery, completely repulsed several successive efforts of the enemy to advance in force upon our left flank. Supported in succession by the 8th infantry and by Capt. Ker’s squadron of dragoons, he gallantly held the enemy at bay, and finally drove him with immense loss from the field. 

The Fighting Ends

The action here, and along the whole line, continued until dark when the enemy retired into the chaparral in the rear of his position. Our army bivouacked on the ground it occupied. During the afternoon the train had been moved forward about half a mile and was parked in the rear of the new position.

American Casualties

Our loss this day was nine killed, forty-four wounded, and two missing. Among the wounded were Major Ringgold, who has since died, and Captain Page, dangerously wounded; Lieut. Luther slightly so. I annex a tabular statement of the casualties of the day.

Our own force engaged is shown by the field report (herewith) to have been 177 officers and 2,111 men; aggregate 2,288. 

Mexican Casualties

The Mexican force, according to the statements of their own officers taken prisoner in the affair of the 9th, was not less than 6,000 regular troops, with 10 pieces of artillery, and probably exceeded that number; the irregular force not known. Their loss was not less than 200 killed and 400 wounded — probably greater. This estimate is very moderate, and formed upon the number actually counted upon the field, and upon the reports of their own officers.

Battle of Palo Alto, 1846, Lithograph, Kellogg
Battle of Palo Alto. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Praise for His Men

As already reported in my first brief despatch, the conduct of our officers and men was everything that could be desired. Exposed for hours to the severest trial, a cannonade of artillery, our troops displayed a coolness and constancy which gave me, throughout, the assurance of victory.

I purposely defer the mention of individuals until my report of the action of the 9th, when I will endeavor to do justice to the many instances of distinguished conduct on both days. In the meantime, I refer, for more minute details, to the reports of individual commanders.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Z. TAYLOR,

Brevet Brig. Gen. U.S.A., commanding.

Battle of Palo Alto Significance

The Battle of Palo Alto is important to United States history because the American victory helped secure the Rio Grande River as the southern border of Texas and the United States.

Taylor’s first battlefield victory in the Mexican-American War set the stage for the invasion of northern Mexico. A week after the Battle of Palo Alto, and the subsequent Battle of Resaca de la Palma, U.S. forces crossed the Rio Grande and occupied Matamoros. Taylor was recognized as the first American hero of the war and was promoted to the rank of Major General. 

The Battle of Palo Alto was the first major engagement of the Mexican-American War and demonstrated the superiority of American artillery and tactics. The battle also revealed the lack of preparedness of the Mexican army and set the stage for subsequent American victories.

The Battle of Palo Alto was followed by the Battle of Resaca de la Palma (May 9, 1846).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Battle of Palo Alto — Zachary Taylor’s First Victory in the Mexican-American War
  • Date May 8, 1846
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Palo Alto, Mexican-American War
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 30, 2023

Taxonomies