Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park Uniquely Commemorates a Mexican War Battle

Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the 1846-1848 Mexican War, Mexico ceded to the United States all of the area indicated in white. Atlas of the United States map.

Commemorative activities at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park recently drew attention to a little known national park with an important distinction. Palo Alto is the only NPS unit that preserves a Mexican War battle site (and it does a fine job of it, too).

An Under-appreciated War?

The 1846-1848 Mexican War gets scant mention compared to say, the Civil War and World War II, but it had very important consequences. After the United States gained that victory (which was never in doubt), the terms of the Mexican surrender compelled Mexico to cede its provinces of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México. Mexico thus lost more than half a million square miles of land, which was over half of its territory. The United States acquired, in addition to undisputed control of Texas (with the Rio Grande River established as the U.S.-Mexican border), all of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona, and New Mexico, about half of Colorado, and the southwestern corner of Wyoming. Though not quite as large as the Louisiana Purchase, which totaled some 828,000 square-miles, this was land acquisition on a stupendous scale.

You’d think that a war yielding such splendid results would be commemorated in fine style, with appropriately grand representation in the National Park System. Yet this war flies pretty much under the radar, getting mentioned now and then as a proving ground for weapons and tactics or a baptism of fire for Civil War heroes like Ulysses S Grant, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. And there is only one largely unsung national park commemorating it – Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park.

A major reason for the Mexican War’s low profile is that nearly all of the fighting and dying took place on Mexican soil. But not quite. The first major battles took place in southern Texas.

Fighting and Dying for Honor and Territory

The United States and Mexico both claimed ownership of the land between the Rio Grande River and the Nueces River (located about 150 miles north of the Rio Grande). This was the ostensible “bone of contention” that the war was fought over. There were broader issues, of course. American expansionists drew Mexico into war because they wanted all of the Mexican land between Texas and the Pacific Ocean, while Mexico fought against hopeless odds to protect its honor as well as its territory.

The drift toward war gathered speed after Texas – still claimed by Mexico – was granted statehood in December 1845. The Mexican government promptly broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. In November, the Mexicans had refused an American offer to buy the disputed land, plus the two huge provinces of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México. The month before that, the United States had positioned 3,500 troops on the Nueces River in case they were needed to repel an invasion. More provocatively, a crude fortification (Fort Texas) was hastily constructed on the north side of the Rio Grande opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros.

Hostilities commenced in late April 1846 when a large detachment of Mexican cavalry attacked and overwhelmed a U.S. patrol in the contested territory, killing 11 U.S. soldiers and wounding others. Mexicans had shed American blood on American soil. Now this thing wasn’t going to be settled by any means short of war.

On May 3, 1846, Mexican artillery in Matamoros began a week-long bombardment of Fort Texas from across the Rio Grande, killing two Americans and wounding 13. An American force under General Zachary Taylor was promptly dispatched to relieve Fort Texas. War not yet been declared, and this relief force went by the interesting name “Army of Observation.”

The Battles at Palo Alto and Palma de Reseca

On May 8, as Taylor’s 2,400-man relief force drew near Fort Texas, it found the way barred by a larger Mexican force consisting of about 2,300 infantry and 1,200 cavalry under the command of General Mariano Arista. The first major land battle of the Mexican War promptly commenced. Fought on a thicket-rimmed, cordgrass-blanketed plain about five miles from present day Brownsville, it was named the Battle of Palo Alto (Spanish for “tall timber”).

The Battle of Palo Alto was not a clear-cut American victory, but a standoff won against superior numbers gave momentum to the American side. The Mexicans fought bravely and had both numerical superiority and a cavalry advantage, but their weapons, gunpowder, and tactics were not up to the task. Most tellingly, the Mexicans had no answer for the highly mobile horse-drawn artillery (“flying artillery”) that Taylor’s army employed with devastating effect against cavalry and infantry alike. The fighting ended at twilight. After burying their dead on the field at Palo Alto during the night, the Mexicans withdrew the next morning to scattered positions on the far side of a dry riverbed (reseca) that offered natural protection.

The Battle of Resaca de la Palma occurred on May 9, the day after the battle of Palo Alto. This time the fighting, an exceptionally vicious affair, resulted in a complete rout of Arista’s army, which abandoned its artillery and baggage and fled to Mexico after sustaining about 400 casualties. Many of Arista’s retreating soldiers were killed by pursuing Americans, and some even drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande.

Taylor's army didn't stop at the Rio Grande, but crossed into Mexico and captured Matamoros. Arista's army retreated southward toward Monterrey.

The Mexican War didn’t last very long by the standards of major wars. In a span of less than two years, U.S. forces invaded Mexico on two main fronts, won battle after battle (including the particularly hard-fought Battle of Monterey), captured Mexico City and other key cities, and forced Mexico to surrender. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war on February 2, 1848.

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

While the battles fought on Texas soil at the war’s beginning were greatly overshadowed by the larger, more strategically significant battles fought in Mexico, they have by no means been forgotten. In 1870, Brownsville residents erected a stone monument at Palo Alto to commemorate the battle fought there. Palo Alto Battlefield was finally designated a National Historic Landmark nearly a century later (in 1960), and it became a national park unit, designated Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site, on November 10, 1978. A redesignation this past March changed the name to Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park.

If you visit Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park today you’ll find that this relatively young, modestly sized park (3,408 acres -- 1,315 Federal and 2,093 nonfederal) has a small staff and limited visitor facilities and activities. There’s a visitor center with exhibits about the Mexican War in general and the Battle of Palo Alto in particular, as well as a 15-minute introductory film titled “War on the Rio Grande.” A half-mile trail with interpretive panels offers a nice overlook of the battlefield.

Palo Alto National Historical Park has entered a period of rapid development and will offer dramatically improved access and visitor activity opportunities in years to come. Acquiring additional land in the park’s authorized boundaries figures importantly in the park’s future. While the park already owns a 300-acre tract of the southern core battlefield where Mexican troops were concentrated, about two-thirds of the battlefield area remains privately owned. Fortunately, the development that has spread through the Rio Grande Delta has not obliterated the battlefield, which retains essential elements of its 1846 character.

A major step in the direction of improved access occurred last March when the Omnibus Public Land Management Act (the same legislation that changed the park’s title) placed the Resaca de la Palma Battlefield -- site of the May 9, 1846 battle that immediately followed the Battle of Palto Alto -- within the park’s authorized boundaries. The Brownsville Community Foundation currently owns the Reseca de Palma battlefield and manages it in partnership with the Park Service. The Park Service also helps to manage the site of Fort Brown (the former Fort Texas) on the Rio Grande.

Remembering

The worth of the park’s partnership with Brownsville Community Foundation was clearly demonstrated last weekend (November 13-14) when a commemoration of the Palo Alto and Palma de Reseca Battles was highlighted with an encampment, living history demonstrations, and battlefield illumination. The latter activity saw several hundred volunteers lighting 8,000 luminaries, one for each American and Mexican soldier who fought in these opening battles of the Mexican War. Over a thousand visitors came to see the illumination, which was also visible to thousands of motorists passing by on the adjacent roadway.

Postscript: It’s interesting to compare the symbolism of the Palma de Reseca battlefield illumination (one candle for each American and Mexican battle participant) with that of other battlefield illuminations held at other battlefield parks such as Antietam (one candle for each soldier of Union or Confederate soldier killed, wounded, or missing) and Gettysburg (one candle for each Union soldier killed or missing).