General Stephen Watts Kearny (1794-1848) and his “Army of the West” occupied Santa Fe on August 18, 1846 without firing a shot (although considerable blood was shed only a few months later with the Taos Revolt in January 1847). In December 1846, though, as the United States prosecuted the Mexican War (1846-1848), there was a battle fought in southern New Mexico that the Americans called the Battle of Brazito. (The Mexicans called it La Battalla de los Temascalitos.”)1
General Kearney left Santa Fe bound for California by late September 1846, leaving Colonel Alexander William Doniphan (1808-1887) in command until Colonel Sterling Price (1809-1867) could replace him. Once Price arrived, Doniphan and his Missouri volunteers marched south along the Rio Grande and reached the village of Doña Ana by mid-December.
A detachment of Doniphan’s command reconnoitered to the south while the main body and the supply trains were stretched out for miles along the Camino Real, or Royal Road. J. T. Hughes, a soldier in the Missouri Cavalry of the day, wrote the following account of what happened then.
“On the morning of the 25th of December , a brilliant sun, rising above the Organ Mountains to the eastward, burst forth upon the world in all its effulgence. The little army, at this time not exceeding 800 strong, was comfortably encamped on the east bank of the Del Norte [Rio Grande]. The men felt frolicsome indeed. They sang the cheering Yankee Doodle and Hail Columbia. Many guns were fired in honor of Christmas Day. But there was not need of all this, had they known the sequel.”
The march had continued past noon when Doniphan called a halt for the day. Camp preparations were underway when someone noticed a large cloud of dust approaching from the south, and soon advanced scouts reported that the enemy approached.
Hughes, again: “The bugler was summoned. Assembly call was blown. The men, dashing down their loads of [fire] wood and buckets of water, came running from all quarters, seized their arms and fell into line under whatever [unit] flag was most convenient. As fast as those in the rear came up, they also fell into line under the nearest standards. The officers dashed from post to post, and in an incredibly short space of time the Missourians were marshaled on the field of fight.”
The Mexicans, commanded by General Antonio Poncé de Leon, amounted to about 1,300 men: more than 500 of them regular dragoons from Vera Cruz and Zacatecas, and the remainder volunteer infantry and cavalry from El Paso and Chihuahua. They formed a battle line to the east. It is important to note that most of the Missourians were armed with 1841 model “Mississippi” rifles of .54 caliber, albeit of the muzzle loading variety, and sabers. The Mexicans were using .70 caliber smoothbore muskets, which were much less accurate and had a shorter range, and lances.
The Missouri sharpshooters repulsed several charges by Mexican soldiers on both flanks and a considerable degree of confusion in the Mexican ranks resulted.
Hughes reported, “Not more than 500 of Col. Doniphan’s men were present when the battle commenced. The rest fell in line as they were able to reach the scene of the battle. Those who had been far in the rear during the day when they heard the firing came running in haste with their arms in their hands, to bring aid to their comrades, who were then engaged with the enemy. This created such a dust that the enemy supposed a strong reinforcement was marching to our support. This circumstance, also contributed to strike terror into the Mexican ranks.”
Some sources report that the battle lasted for an hour, but Hughes wrote,
“. . . the battle continued about 30 minutes.” Mexican causalities were 71 killed (one sources says 43 were killed) five captured and an estimated 150 wounded, including General Poncé de Leon himself. Among the Americans, eight men were wounded; none killed.
Doniphan and his command marched into El Paso on December 27 where they seized five tons of powder, 500 arms, and four artillery pieces. They left El Paso and marched on south to Chihuahua in February 1847.
As to where, exactly, the Battle of Brazito took place, no one seems to be quite sure. Charles Haecker has done a lot of work in trying to pinpoint the battlefield, and even he is not sure. Geographer Hal Jackson writes that Brazito School, south of Las Cruces, is pretty close to where the fighting took place.
1 Brazito translates from the Spanish as “little arm.” In this case it was a small arm of the Rio Grande near where the fight took place. Temascales are, according to archaeologist Charles M. Haecker, “beehive-shaped ovens used as sweat lodges by the native inhabitants of the region.” The hills near the battlefield apparently reminded the Mexicans of such structures.
Philip St. George Cooke, The Conquest of New Mexico and California, an Historical and Personal Narrative, Horn and Wallace
Charles M. Haecker, “Brazito Battlefield: Once Lost, Now Found,” New Mexico Historical Review, July 1997
J. T. Hughes is quoted from A History of the Mesilla Valley-1903 by Maude Elizabeth McFie (Bloom), annotated by Jo Tice Bloom
Hal Jackson, Following the Royal Road, A guide to the Historic Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, UNM Press
Rathbun & Alexander, New Mexico Frontier Military Place Names, Yucca Tree Press
(Don Bullis’ latest book, New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia, is scheduled for publication by Rio Grande Books in the near future.)