Battle of the Sacramento River

February 28, 1847 — Mexican-American War

The Battle of the Sacramento River was fought on February 28, 1847, between the United States and Mexico, during the Mexican-American War. The outcome of the battle was an American victory.

Battle of the Sacramento River, 1847, Mexican Assault

This painting depicts the fighting at the Battle of the Sacramento River. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Battle of the Sacramento River Facts

  • Date — February 28, 1847.
  • Location — Sacramento River, Chihuahua, Mexico.
  • Belligerents — United States of America and Mexico.
  • American Commander — Alexander Doniphan.
  • Mexican Commander — Pedro García Conde.
  • Winner — The United States won the Battle of the Sacramento River.

Battle of the Sacramento River Significance

The Battle of the Sacramento River was important to the outcome of the Mexican-American War because American forces were able to occupy and control Chihuahua.

Alexander Doniphan, Colonel, US Army, LOC
Colonel Alexander Doniphan (USA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of the Sacramento River History

In late 1846, Colonel Alexander Doniphan received orders to march from El Paso to Chihuahua to join U.S. forces under the command of Brigadier General John E. Wool. Doniphan arrived at El Paso near the end of December 1846 and found that Wool was marching to Saltillo. Doniphan decided to continue his march to Chihuahua, instead of turning back to El Paso.

Doniphan’s Force

Doniphan had about 930 men, mostly volunteers from El Paso along with the 1st Missouri Mounted Rifles. His force had six artillery pieces and a supply train of 315 wagons. He was joined by teamsters who were responsible for the wagons and some civilians who were traders.

Together, Doniphan and his men traveled roughly 300 miles to Chihuahua without facing any opposition from Mexican forces.

Mexican Defenses at Chihuahua

At Chihuahua, General Pedro García Conde assumed command of the defense of the city. He deployed 1,200 infantry, 1,200 cavalry, and 119 artillerymen with 10 cannons. He also had about  1,000 inexperienced rancheros under his command. 

Conde moved his forces to a plateau north of the Sacramento River, where they were shielded by a deep gulley on their northern flank. He placed his artillery on the north and northeast, believing Doniphan would make a frontal assault along the road that ran along the river.

Doniphan Prepares to Attack

However, Doniphan and his advisors decided to threaten the Mexicans from a different location. He moved his men to the west side of the plateau where he organized the wagons and his dismounted soldiers into columns and prepared to engage the Mexicans.

Battle of the Sacramento River, 1847, American Advance, LOC
This illustration depicts the American advance at the Battle of the Sacramento River. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Battle of Sacramento River Begins

Conde decided to attack Doniphan and ordered his cavalry to attack the Americans. However, they were met by American artillery and mounted troops and were forced to retreat.

Doniphan quickly ordered his men to dismount and attack the rear corner of the Mexican position. This maneuver led to the overrun of that corner, allowing Doniphan’s forces to move north and engage the remaining Mexicans from the rear and the flank. 

The attack proved highly effective, and American artillery fired on the Mexicans at a close range of 50 yards. Meanwhile, dismounted cavalry engaged in hand-to-hand combat, ultimately driving the surviving Mexican forces from the battlefield.

Casualties

Doniphan documented Mexican casualties, reporting approximately 300 killed and another 300  wounded. He also seized all of the Mexican artillery along with 10 wagons. U.S. forces suffered minimal losses, with only 2 killed and 7 wounded.

Aftermath

Doniphan entered Chihuahua on March 1 but found no Mexican troops there. He sent a small contingent to make contact with General Wool and inform him he was at Chihuahua. Soon after, Major General Zachary Taylor directed Doniphan to join him at Saltillo. Doniphan left Chihuahua on April 25 and marched 750 miles to Saltillo, arriving there on May 21.

President Zachary Taylor, Official Portrait, 1849, Bush
General Zachary Taylor (USA). Image Source: White House Historical Society.

Colonel Doniphan’s Report on the Battle of the Sacramento River

The following is Colonel Alexander Doniphan’s official report of the Battle of the Sacramento River. It was written to Roger Jones, Adjutant-General of the Army, on March 4, 1847, and sent to Washington, D.C. 

Note: Section headings have been added to improve the readability of the report. Further, at the time he wrote this report, Doniphan was unaware that American forces had won the Battle of Buena Vista and were no longer surrounded by the enemy at Saltillo.

Headquarters of the Army in Chihuahua,

City of Chihuahua, March 4, 1847.

Sir: — I have the honor to report to you the movements of the army under my command since my last official report.

Doniphan Leaves El Paso del Norte

On the evening of the 8th of February 1847, we left the town of El Paso del Norte, escorting the merchant train or caravan or about 315 wagons for the city of Chihuahua. Our force consisted of 924 effective men, 117 officers and privates of the artillery, 93 of Lieut. Colonel Mitchell’s escort, and the remainder the 1st Missouri mounted volunteers. We progressed in the direction of this place until the 25th, when we were informed by our spies that the enemy, to the number of 1,500 men, were at Inseneas, the country seat of Gov. Trias, about 25 miles in advance.

February 26

When we arrived, on the evening of the 26th, near that point, we found that the force had retreated in the direction of this city. 

February 27

On the evening of the 27th we arrived at Sans, and learned from our spies that then enemy, in great force, had fortified the pass of the Sacramento river, about fifteen miles in advance, and about the same distance from this city. We were also informed that there was no water between the point we were at and that occupied by the enemy; we therefore determined to halt until morning. 

February 28

At sunrise on the 28th, the last day of February, we took up the line of march and formed the whole train, consisting of 315 heavy traders’ wagons and our commissary and company wagons, into four columns, thus shortening our line so as to make it more easily protected. We placed the artillery and all the command, except 200 cavalry proper, in the intervals between the columns of wagons. We thus fully concealed our force and its position, by masking our force with the cavalry. 

When we arrived within three miles of the enemy, we made a reconnoissance of his position and the arrangement of his forces. This we could easily do — the road leading through an open prairie valley between the sterile mountains. 

Terrain of the Battlefield

The pass of the Sacramento is formed by a point of the mountains on our right, their left extending into the valley or plain, so as to narrow the valley to about one and a half miles. 

On our left was a deep, dry, sandy channel of a creek, and between these points the plain rises to sixty feet abruptly. This rise is in the form of a crescent, the convex part being to the north of our forces. 

On the right, from the point of the mountains, a narrow part of the plain extends north one and a half miles further than on the left. 

The main road passes down the centre of the valley and across the crescent, near the left or dry branch. 

The Sacramento rises in the mountains on the right, and the road falls on to it about one mile below the battle-field or entrenchment of the enemy. 

We ascertained that the enemy had one battery of four guns, two nine and 6-pounders, on the point of the mountain on our right, (their left,) at a good elevation to sweep the plain, and at the point where the mountains extended furthest into the plain. 

Arrangement of Mexican Forces

On our left (their right) they had another battery on an elevation commanding the road, and three entrenchments of two six-pounders, and on the brow of the crescent, near the centre, another of two 6 and two 4 and 6 culverins, or rampart pieces, mounted on carriages; and on the crest of the hill or ascent between the batteries and the right and left they had 27 redoubts dug and thrown up, extending at short intervals across the whole ground. 

In these their infantry were placed and were entirely protected. Their cavalry was drawn up in front of the redoubts in the intervals four deep, and in front of the redoubts two deep, so as to mask them as far as practicable. 

Mexican Forces Attack

When we had arrived within one and a half miles of the entrenchments along the main road, we advanced the cavalry still further, and suddenly diverged with the columns to the right, so as to gain the narrow part of the ascent on our right, which the enemy discovering, endeavored to prevent, by moving forward with 1,000 cavalry and four pieces of cannon in their rear masked by them. 

American Counterattacks

Our movements were so rapid that we gained the elevation with our forces and the advance of our wagons in time to form before they arrived within reach of our guns. The enemy halted, and we advanced the head of our column within twelve hundred yards of them, so as to let our wagons attain the highlands and form as before.

We now commenced the action by a brisk fire from our battery, and the enemy unmasked and commenced also. Our fires proved effective at this distance, killing fifteen men, wounding and disabling one of the enemy’s guns. We had two men slightly wounded, and several horses and mules killed. 

The enemy then slowly retreated behind their works in some confusion, and we resumed our march in our former order, still diverging more to the right to avoid their battery on our left, (their right,) and their strongest redoubts, which were on the left near where the road passes. 

After marching as far as we safely could without coming within range of their heavy battery on our right, Captain Weightman, of the artillery, was ordered to charge with two 12-pound howitzers, to be supported by the cavalry, under Captains Reid, Parsons, and Hudson. 

The howitzers charged at speed, and were gallantly sustained by Capt. Reid; but, by some misunderstanding, my order was not given to the other two companies. – Captain Hudson, anticipating my order, charged in time to give ample support to the howitzers. Capt. Parsons at the same moment came to me and asked permission for his company to charge the redoubts immediately to the left of Capt. Weightman, which he did very gallantly. 

The remainder of the two battalions of the first regiment were dismounted during the cavalry charge, and, following rapidly on foot, and Major Clarke advancing as fast as practicable with the remainder of the battery, we charged their redoubts from right to left with a brisk and deadly fire of riflemen, while Major Clarke opened a rapid and well-directed fire on a column of cavalry attempting to pass to our left so as to attack the wagons and our rear. 

The fire was so well directed as to force them to fall back; and our riflemen, with the cavalry and howitzers, cleared after an obstinate resistance. 

Our forces advanced to the very brink of their redoubts and attacked them with their sabres. When the redoubts were cleared, and the batteries in the centre and our left were silenced, the main battery on our right still continued to pour in a constant and heavy fire, as it had done during the heat of the engagement; but as the whole fate of the battle depended upon carrying the redoubts and centre battery, this one on the right remained unattacked, and the enemy had rallied there five hundred strong.

Major Clark was directed to commence a heavy fire upon it, while Lieut. Cols. Mitchell and Jackson, commanding the 1st battalion, were ordered to remount and charge the battery on the left, while Major Gilpin was directed to pass the 2d battalion on foot up the rough ascent of the mountain on the opposite side. The fire of our battery was so effective as to completely silence theirs, and the rapid advance of our column put them to flight over the mountains in great confusion.

Captain Thompson, of the 1st dragoons, acted as my aid and adviser on the field during the whole engagement, and was of the most essential service to me. — Also, Lieut. Wooster, of the United States army who acted very coolly and gallantly. Major Campbell, of Springfield, Missouri, also acted as a volunteer aid during part of the time, but left me and joined Captain Reid in his gallant charge. Thus ended the battle of Sacramento.

The force of the enemy was 1,200 cavalry from Durango and Chihuahua, with the Vera Cruz dragoons, 1,200 infantry from Chihuahua, 300 artillerists, and 1,420 rancheros, badly armed with lassos, lances, and machetoes or corn knives, ten pieces of artillery, two nine, two eight, four six, and two four pounders, and six culverins or rampart pieces. — Their forces were commanded by Major General Heredia, General of Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora, and New Mexico; Brigadier General Garcia Conde, formerly minister of War for the Republic of Mexico, who is a scientific man, and planned this whole field of defence; General Uguerte, and Governor Trias, who acted as brigadier general on the field, and colonels and other officers without number.

Our force was nine hundred and twenty-four effective men, at least one hundred and twenty-four effective men, at least one hundred of whom were engaged in holding horses and driving teams.

Mexican Casualties

The loss of the enemy was his entire artillery, ten wagons, masses of beans and pinola, and other Mexican provisions, about three hundred killed and about the same number wounded, many of whom have since died, and forty prisoners. The field was literally covered with the dead and wounded from our artillery and the unerring fire of our riflemen. 

American Casualties

Night put a stop to the carnage, the battle having commenced about three o’clock. Our loss was one killed, one mortally wounded, and seven so wounded as to recover without any loss of limbs. I cannot speak too highly of the coolness, gallantry, and bravery of the officers and men under my command.

Commendations for Officers

I was ably sustained by the field officers, Lieut. Colonels Mitchell and Jackson, of the first battalion, and Major Gilpin, of the second battalion; and Major Clarke and his artillery acted nobly, and did the most effective service in every part of the field. It is abundantly shown, in the charge made by Captain Weightman with the section of howitzers, that they can be used in any charge of cavalry with great effect. Much has been said, and justly said, of the gallantry of our artillery, unlimbering within two hundred and fifty yards of the enemy at Palo Alto; but how much more daring was the charge of Capt. Weightman, when he unlimbered within fifty yards of the redoubts of the enemy! 

Possession of Chihuahua

On the 1st day of March we took formal possession of the capital of Chihuahua in the name of our government.

We were ordered by General Kearny to report to General Wool at this place. Since our arrival, we hear he is at Saltillo, surrounded by the enemy. Our present purpose is either to force our way to him, or return by Bexar, as our term of service expires on the last day of May next.

I have the honor to be your obedient servant,

A. W. DONIPHAN,

Colonel 1st regiment Missouri Volunteers.

Citation Information

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

  • Article Title Battle of the Sacramento River
  • Date February 28, 1847
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of the Sacramento River, Mexican-American War, Colonel Alexander Doniphan
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 31, 2023

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