South of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico lays the former battlefield site of the Battle of Buena Vista (also known as “La Angostura”) that took place on February 22-23, 1847.  

General Zachary Taylor with an army of nearly 5,000 marched to this site after taking the Mexican stronghold city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.

It set up a defensive position and awaited the 15,000-strong Army led by General Santa Anna that had marched north from Mexico City via San Luis Potosi (over 500 miles) to stop the American invasion of northern Mexico once and for all.

Buena Vista was the largest battle of the U.S.-Mexico War and has been scored as a draw or inconclusive by some historians. Americans claimed victory, but so did Mexico. Both sides won and lost positions throughout the two days of intense fighting. Low on supplies to continue the fight, the Mexicans withdrew after two days of fighting. The American army was shocked and relieved to see empty Mexican camps the morning of the third day. Supplies were also a challenge for General Taylor with the supply chain being precariously reliant on transfers from Point Isabel and Matamoros nearly 250 miles away.

General Santa Anna wrote the following letter from the battlefield the night it evacuated Buena Vista/La Angostura. He pleaded for supplies from Mexico City government leaders. His army had marched north across desert and tough terrain and in bad winter weather with little food and water sources. It had just endured two days of fighting against the American army that was determined to hold northern Mexico. The Mexican General wrote the following (translation by author):

Republican Liberation Army. General in Chief.

[I]t is seven o’clock at night . . . the Army under my command, after a painful march through the long desert … has had to hold a two-day battle against the Army of the United States of the North, under the command of General Z. Taylor, composed of eight to nine thousand men, with 26 pieces of Artillery. Both Armies have fought fiercely and desperately. Today the action began at six in the morning, and ended at sunset. The field is strewn with corpses and the blood has flowed in torrents. Two flags remained in our possession that I have the honor to send … with the bearer, three pieces of artillery, two of the caliber of six and one of four, with their endowments of ammunition, . . . and although the battle has not been decided, I can assure you … that how many times the battlefield has been disputed, it has been taken by the troops of the Republic, as the indicated trophies attest; more than two thousand corpses of the enemies, buried in the battlefield and several prisoners, whose number is not known until this hour.

For our part, . . . among the Generals, Chiefs, Officers and Troops, we will have lost between dead and wounded, according to what is calculated, about a thousand men, . . . the results of the combat, in two continuous days. In one of the first charges of this day, my horse was wounded and killed by shrapnel.

The strong position of the enemy has freed him from a complete defeat because, a few hours before my arrival at this point, he withdrew from the Aguanueva field, where he was, due to news he had of my movements, and he stood in this place, . . . . and can be compared to the famous Thermopylae pass; but the enemy must have known in these two days that neither the roughness of the mountains, nor the strength of the positions, nor their advantages, whatever they may be, stop the Mexican soldier when he fights in defense of the rights of his country; these soldiers are worthy of all consideration, and I can boast of saying that I am at the head of an Army of heroes, who not only knows how to fight bravely, but also to suffer hunger and thirst for forty continuous hours, as I have seen, because that is what the service of the Nation has demanded. The only thing that afflicts my situation at this time is not having a biscuit, not even a little rice, to feed so many wounded, because we have spent these days with only meat; and you will see the reason I have had in complaining, for the abandonment in which this Army has been held for two months and in saying that it is not possible to run the campaign with good success without providing the Army with what the War demands. I am thinking, therefore, early tomorrow morning to move my field to Aguanueva, three leagues distant, to provide myself with some stew that must have reached the Hacienda de la Encarnacion; and if I manage to do what is necessary and take care of the wounded, who so hinder the movements, I will recharge, despite having opened my wound due to the fatigue that has caused me to ride a horse for twelve hours a day. . . .

La Angostura Camp at Buenavista, February 23, 1847.

U.S. Historian Justin H. Smith, who identified Santa Anna’s letters in Mexican National Archives, added the following footnotes to clarify or correct Santa Anna’s statements:

• Smith points out that General Taylor had nearly 5,000 troops and asserts Santa Anna’s estimate of 8,000-9,000 was exaggerated as field commanders can do in final reports.

• Smith estimates American casualties (killed, wounded, prisoners, and missing) at 666 and asserts Santa Anna’s 2,000 estimate was incorrect.

• Smith estimates Mexican casualties at 1,800 and asserts Santa Anna’s 1,000 estimate was incorrect. General Taylor’s battle report estimates 1,500 Mexican casualties.

• In the final line, Santa Anna refers to his leg wound being reopened after riding on the battlefield for two days. The wound pertained to his leg amputation near the knee that was caused by French cannon fire in 1838 fighting a French attack of Mexico in the coastal city of Veracruz.

Letter Source: Smith, Justin H., ed, American Historical Association Annual Report 1917 (Smithsonian Institution 1920), pp. 413-414.

Map Source: Lavender, David, Climax at Buena Vista: The American Campaigns in Northeastern Mexico 1846-47 (J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia 1966), p. 14.

Photo Source: Mayer, Brantz, History of the War between Mexico and the United States, with a Preliminary View of its Origin (Wiley and Putnam, New York, 1848).

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Salomon Torres, director of event initiatives for the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service and co-founder of the upcoming Rio Grande Guardian-sponsored conference, “To Conquer. To Defend. Conference to commemorate the 175th Anniversary of the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848). For more information on the conference, click here

Editor’s Note: Salomon Torres will have copies of the general’s letter (in Spanish) at the U.S.-Mexico War Conference on December 9 in Port Isabel, Texas. 

Editor’s Note: Click here to read a previous story about the U.S.-Mexico War by Salomon Torres.

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