The Battle of Resaca de la Palma

May 9, 1846

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma was fought between the United States of America and Mexico on May 9, 1846, during the Mexican-American War. It was the second major battle of the war and took place near present-day Brownsville, Texas. American forces, led by General Zachary Taylor, won the battle. The victory helped end the Siege of Fort Texas, secured American control of the Rio Grande River, and set the stage for Taylor’s invasion of Mexico.

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 Resaca de la Palma Summary

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma was the second major conflict of the Mexican-American War. It took place on May 9, 1846, near the Rio Grande River, 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. Following the Battle of Palo Alto on May 8, Arista withdrew south, toward the Rio Grande River. Taylor followed and engaged Arista around 2:00 in the afternoon on the 9th. The battle raged for more than three hours, until American forces captured an artillery battery, forcing the Mexicans to scatter and move back across the Rio Grande into Mexico. As they fled, additional Mexican forces laying siege to Fort Texas also withdrew and retreated. The victory gave Americans control of the Rio Grande and led to the capitulation of Matamoros on May 17.

Battle of Resaca de la Palma Facts

  • Date Started: The Battle of Resaca de la Palma started on May 9, 1846.
  • Date Ended: It ended on May 9, 1846.
  • Location: The Battle of Resaca de la Palma 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 Resaca de la Palma.
Battle of Resaca de la Palma, 1846, Illustration
This illustration depicts the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Image Source: A Complete History of the Mexican War, 1849. Archive.org.

Battle of Resaca de la Palma History and Overview

During the Texas Revolution (1836–1836), Mexico believed the United States encouraged the uprising in order to annex 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.

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.

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.

The Battle of Palo Alto — The First Major Battle of the War

On May 7, Taylor started his return trip to Fort Texas and Arista moved into position to intercept him at Palo Alto, about 10 miles north of the fort. Taylor moved his army into position and prepared to engage Arista.

Around 2:30 in the afternoon on the 8th, the Mexican batteries opened fire and the battle started. American artillery batteries, under the command of Major Samuel Ringgold and James Duncan, returned fire. The Americans used their light artillery batteries, known as “Flying Artillery,” to their advantage and pushed back several Mexican attacks.

Although Major Ringgold was mortally wounded, Duncan was able to stop a final Mexican assault, forcing the Mexicans to withdraw. 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.

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. Arista was confident that his superior numbers — he had roughly 4,000 men, compared to 1,700 for Taylor — and strong defensive positions would give him significant advantages over the Americans. His artillery was running low on ammunition, so he placed the batteries where the road crossed the riverbed, to maximize the effectiveness of each shot. He kept the cavalry in reserve.

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.

Taylor Approaches Resaca de la Palma

Taylor moved his army to a position near the riverbed, which they called the Resaca de la Palma. Taylor sent advance parties out to engage the Mexican force in skirmishes and to gather intelligence. When his men returned, Taylor decided he would not be able to flank the Mexican line, so he decided to launch a dangerous frontal assault.

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma Starts

Around 2:00 on the afternoon of May 9, Taylor launched the assault on the Mexican line. In the first move, Captain Charles A. May led the 2nd U.S. Dragoons in an attack on a battery that was positioned on the right wing of the Mexican line. May and his men were able to overwhelm the battery and capture the Mexican General Rómulo Díaz de la Vega. However, the Americans were forced to fall back after coming under heavy fire from the right and left.

By then, the two armies were heavily engaged. The American line became disorganized and collapsed into smaller groups that fought hand-to-hand with the Mexicans.

After three hours of intense fighting, Captain Robert C. Buchanan found a way around the left flank of the Mexican line. He led the 4th Infantry across the riverbed, where they captured an artillery battery. The move caused the left wing of Arista’s line to collapse. Arista tried to send reinforcements, but it was too late. After two failed Mexican attacks, the Americans retained control of the battery.

Battle of Resaca de la Palma, 1846, May's Charge
This painting depicts Charles May leading his dragoons. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma Ends

With the Americans in control of the battery, the Mexicans panicked and fled. They moved south toward the Rio Grande River and dropped equipment behind them as they ran off. Taylor ordered his dragoons, artillerymen, and the 3rd Infantry Regiment to pursue the fleeing Mexicans. Taylor’s men captured some stragglers and then made their camp on the north bank of the Rio Grande. 

Battle of Resaca de la Palma Outcome

The American casualties were estimated at 45 soldiers killed and 98 wounded. The Mexicans suffered an estimated 160 killed, 228 wounded, and 156 captured.

Arista moved his army back across the Rio Grande River and prepared to defend Matamoros. His men who were laying siege to Fort Texas withdrew when his main force fled from the battlefield at Resaca de la Palma.

Arista held Matamoros for about a week, but abandoned it on May 17 and withdrew to Linares. General Taylor moved into the city and occupied Matamoros on May 18, starting the Occupation of Mexico. Arista was relieved of his command at the end of May.

Battle of Resaca de la Palma — Official Report By General Zachary Taylor

In the aftermath of the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, 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 to improve understanding of the report.

Camp Near Fort Brown, Texas — May 17, 1846

Headquarters, Army of Occupation

Camp near Fort Brown, Texas, May 17, 1846.

Sir — In submitting a more minute report of the affair of “Resaca de la Palma,” I have the honor to state that, early on the morning of the 9th instant, the enemy, who had encamped near the field of battle of the day previous, was discovered moving by his left flank, evidently in retreat, and perhaps at the same time to gain a new position on the road to Matamoras, and there again resist our advance.

Taylor Sends Scouting Parties

I ordered the supply train to be strongly packed at its position, and left with it four pieces of artillery — the two 18-pounders which had done such good service on the previous day, and two 12-pounders, which had not been in the action. The wounded officers and men were, at the same time, sent back to Point Isabel. I then moved forward with the columns to the edge of the chaparral, or forest, which extends to the Rio Grande, a distance of seven miles. The light companies of the first brigade, under Captain C. T. Smith, 2d artillery, and a select detachment of light troops, the whole under the command of Captain McCall, 4th infantry, were thrown forward into the chaparral to feel the enemy, and ascertain his position. About 3 o’clock I received a report from the advance that the enemy was in position on the road, with at least two pieces of artillery. 

Taylor Deploys His Army

The command was immediately put in motion, and about 4 o’clock I came up with Captain McCall, who reported the enemy in force in our front, occupying a ravine which intersects the road, and is skirted by thickets of dense chapparal. Ridgely’s battery and the advance under Captain McCall, were at once thrown forward on the road, and into the chapparal on either side, while the 5th infantry and one wing of the 4th was thrown into the forest on the left, and the 3d and the other wing of the 4th on the right of the road. 

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma Begins

These corps were employed as skirmishers to cover the battery, and engage the Mexican infantry. Captain McCall’s command became at once engaged with the enemy, while the light artillery, though in a very exposed position, did great execution. The enemy had at least eight pieces of artillery, and maintained an incessant fire upon our advance.

The action now became general; and although the enemy’s infantry gave way before the steady fire and resistless progress of our own, yet his artillery was still in position to check our advance, several pieces occupying the pass across the ravine which he had chosen for his position. 

Taylor Orders May to Attack

Perceiving that no decisive advantage could be gained until this artillery was silenced, I ordered Captain May to charge the batteries with his squadron of dragoons. This was gallantly and effectually executed. The enemy was driven from his guns, and General La Vega, who remained alone at one of the batteries, was taken prisoner. 

The squadron, which suffered much in this charge, not being immediately supported by infantry, could not retain possession of the artillery taken, but it was completely silenced. In the meantime the 8th infantry had been ordered up, and had become warmly engaged on the right of the road. This regiment and a part of the 5th were now ordered to charge the batteries, which was handsomely done, and the enemy entirely driven from his artillery and his position on the left of the road.

Charles May, Mexican American War, Illustration
Charles May. Image Source: A Complete History of the Mexican War, 1849. Archive.org.

Buchanan Attacks

The light companies of the first brigade, and the 3d and 4th regiments of infantry, had been deployed on the right of the road, when, at various points, they became briskly engaged with the enemy. 

A small party, under Captain Buchanan and Lieutenants Woods and Hays, 4th infantry, composed chiefly of men of that regiment, drove the enemy from a breastwork which he occupied, and captured a piece of artillery. An attempt to recover this piece was repulsed by Captain Barbour, 3d infantry. 

Mexican Forces Flee

The enemy was at last completely driven from his position on the right of the road, and retreated precipitately, leaving baggage of every description. The 4th infantry took possession of a camp where the headquarters of the Mexican general-in-chief were established. All his official correspondence was captured at this place.

The artillery battalion (excepting the flank companies) had been ordered to guard the baggage train, which was packed some distance in rear. That battalion was now ordered up to pursue the enemy, and, with the 3d infantry, Captain Ker’s dragoons and Captain Duncan’s battery, followed him rapidly to the river, making a number of prisoners. Great numbers of the enemy were drowned in attempting to cross the river near the town. The corps last mentioned encamped near the river; the remainder of the army on the field of battle.

American Casualties

The strength of our marching force on this day, as exhibited in the annexed field report, was 173 officers and 2,049 men; aggregate 2,222. The actual number engaged with the enemy did not exceed 1,700. Our loss was three officers killed, thirty six men killed and seventy-one wounded. Among the officers killed I have to regret the loss of Lieutenant Inge, 2d dragoons, who fell at the head of his platoon, while gallantly charging the enemy’s battery; of Lieutenant Cochrane of the 4th, and Lieutenant Chadbourne of the 8th infantry, who likewise met their death in the thickest of the fight. 

The officers wounded were Lieutenant Colonel Payne, inspector general; Lieutenant Dobbins, 3d infantry, serving with the light infantry advance, slightly; Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh, 5th infantry, severely, twice; Captain Hooe, 5th infantry, severely, (right arm since amputated;) Lieutenant Fowler, 5th infantry, slightly; Captain Montgomery, 8th infantry, slightly; Lieutenants Gates and Jordon, 8th infantry, severely, each twice; Lieutenants Selden, Maclay, Burbank, and Morris, 8th infantry, slightly. A tabular statement of the killed and wounded is annexed herewith.

Mexican Casualties

I have no accurate data from which to estimate the enemy’s force on this day. He is known to have been reinforced after the action of the 8th, both by cavalry and infantry, and no doubt to an extent at least equal to his loss on that day. It is probable that 6,000 men were opposed to us, and in a position chosen by themselves, and strongly defended with artillery. The enemy’s loss was very great. Nearly 200 of his dead were buried by us on the day succeeding the battle. His loss in killed, wounded, and missing, in the two affairs of the 8th and 9th, is, I think, moderately estimated at 1,000 men.

A Decisive Victory for American Forces

Our victory has been decisive. A small force has overcome immense odds of the best troops that Mexico can furnish – veteran regiments, perfectly equipped and appointed. Eight pieces of artillery, several colors and standards, a great number of prisoners (including fourteen officers,) and a large amount of baggage and public property, have fallen into our hands.

Recognition for Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma

The causes of victory are doubtless to be found in the superior quality of our officers and men. I have already, in former reports, paid a general tribute to the admirable conduct of the troops on both days. It now becomes my duty, and I feel it to be one of great delicacy, to notice individuals. In so extensive a field as that of the 8th, and in the dense cover where most of the action of the 9th was fought, I could not possibly be witness to more than a small portion of the operations of the various corps, and I must therefore depend upon the reports of the subordinate commanders, which I respectfully enclose herewith.

Colonel Twiggs, the second in command, was particularly active on both days, in executing my orders and directing the operations of the right wing. Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh, commanding the 5th infantry; Lieutenant Colonel Belknap, commanding the 1st brigade; Lieutenant Colonel Childs, commanding the artillery battalion; Major Allen, Captains L. N. Morris and Montgomery, commanding respectively the 4th, 3d, and 8th regiments of infantry, were zealous in the performance of their duties, and gave examples to their commands of cool and fearless conduct. Lieutenant Colonel McIntosh repulsed, with his regiment, a charge of lancers, in the action of Palo Alto, and shared with it in the honors and dangers of the following day, being twice severely wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Belknap headed a charge of the 8th infantry, which resulted in driving the enemy from his guns, and leaving us in possession of that part of the field.

Captain Duncan and Lieutenant Ridgely deserve special notice for the gallant and efficient manner in which they maneuvered and served their batteries. The impression made by Captain Duncan’s battery upon the extreme right of the enemy’s line at the affair of Palo Alto, contributed largely to the result of the day; while the terrible fire kept up by Lieutenant Ridgely, in the affair of the 9th, inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy. The 18-pounder battery, which played a conspicuous part in the action of the 8th, was admirably served by Lieutenant Churchill, 3d artillery, assisted by Lieutenant Wood, topographical engineers. The charge of cavalry against the enemy’s batteries on the 9th, was gallantly led by Captain May, and had complete success. Captain McCall, 4th infantry, rendered distinguished service with advanced corps under his orders. Its loss, in killed and wounded, will show how closely it was engaged. I may take this occasion to say that, in two former instances, Captain McCall has rendered valuable service as a partisan officer. 

In this connexion, I would mention the services of Captain Walker, of the Texas Rangers, who was in both affairs with his company, and who has performed very meritorious services as a spy and partisan. I must beg leave to refer to the reports of subordinate commanders for the names of many officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates, who were distinguished by good conduct on both days. Instances of individual gallantry and personal conflict with the enemy were not wanting in the affair of the 9th, but cannot find a place in a general report. The officers serving on the staffs of the different commanders are particularly mentioned by them.

Samuel Walker, Texas Ranger, Photograph
Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers. Image Source: Library of Congress.

I derived efficient aid on both days from all the officers of my staff. Captain Bliss, assistant adjutant general, Lieutenant Colonel Payne, inspector general, Lieutenant Eaton, aide-de-camp, Captain Waggaman, commissary of subsistence, Lieutenant Scarritt, engineers, and Lieutenants Blake and Meade, topographical engineers, promptly conveyed my orders to every part of the field. Lieutenant Colonel Payne was wounded in the affair of the 9th; and I have already had occasion to report the melancholy death of Lieutenant Blake, by accident, in the interval between the two engagements. Major Craig and Lieutenant Brereton, of the Ordnance department, were actively engaged in their appropriate duties; and Surgeon Craig, medical director, superintended, in person, the arduous service of the field hospitals. I take this occasion to mention, generally, the devotion to duty of the medical staff of the army, who have been untiring in their exertions, both in the field and in the hospitals, to alleviate the sufferings of the wounded of both armies. Captains Crossman and Myers, of the Quartermaster’s department, who had charge of the heavy supply train at both engagements, conducted it in a most satisfactory manner, and finally brought it up, without the smallest loss, to its destination.

I enclose an inventory of the Mexican property captured on the field, and also a sketch of the field of “Resaca de la Palma,” and of the main route from Point Isabel, made by my aid-de-camp, Lieutenant Eaton.

One regimental color (battalion of Tampico) and many standards and guidons of cavalry were taken at the affair of the 9th. I would be pleased to receive your instructions as to the disposition to be made of these trophies — whether they shall be sent to Washington, &c.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant.

Z. TAYLOR

Bvt. Brig. Gen. U.S. Army, commanding.

Battle of Resaca de la Palma Significance

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma 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.

A week after the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, U.S. forces crossed the Rio Grande and occupied Matamoros. At that point, the Army of Observation became the Army of Occupation. Taylor was recognized as the first American hero of the war and was promoted to the rank of Major General.

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma was followed by the Battle of Monterrey (September 21–24, 1846).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Battle of Resaca de la Palma
  • Date May 9, 1846
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Resaca de la Palma, Mexican-American War
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date September 28, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 1, 2023

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