General Kearny had orders to assume command of U.S. forces in California, but before entering California from Santa Fe, Kearny sent back 200 of his 300 mounted dragoons after hearing from messenger Kit Carson that all of California had already been captured by Commodore Robert F. Stockton and his 400 combined sailors and Marines, and John C. Frémont and his approximate 400 man Caifornia Battalion. After an 850-mile (1,370 km) grueling march across the Sonora Desert, Kearny and his mostly mule-mounted men finally reached California in a greatly weakened condition. There they met up with Captain Archibald Gillespie of the U.S. Marines, who with his small force of 36 men and a small howitzer had recently been driven out of Los Angeles. The total American forces amounted to about 139. Gillespie also brought a message from Stockton that informed Kearny of the presence at San Pasqual of a rebel force of about 150 men mounted on fresh horses led by Andrés Pico.
The Americans did not expect the Californios to be formidable adversaries, but Kearny still wanted to capitalize on a surprise attack if at all possible. He also wanted more exact information about the enemy force in preparation for an attack the following morning.
Lieutenant Thomas C. Hammond together with a Californio deserter, Rafael Machado, and a detachment of six dragoons (one report says three dragoons and still another eleven) were ordered to scout Pico's position which was located in a small Indian village in San Pasqual Valley. Hammond's scouting party was discovered by Pico's force, and the element of surprise was lost. At midnight Kearny ordered an immediate advance. It had rained that night. Men, muskets, pistols and equipment were wet and cold, but the troops after over six months without any action were eager to engage the Californios. Early in the morning of December 6, 1846, the column proceeded by twos across the ridge between Santa Maria (present day Ramona, California) and San Pasqual. During the descent while it was still dark and with a low lying fog, Kearny's force became strung out. Accounts differ as to what command was given and by whom, but Captain Abraham R. Johnson is thought to have prematurely initiated action.
A charge was initiated while Kearny's force was still three quarters of a mile (1.2 km) from Pico's encampment. About forty of the best mounted officers and men got far ahead of the main body of the force. The mules pulling Kearny's howitzers bolted, taking one of the guns with them. Pico's force was already mounted and easily managed to remain ahead of the pursuing Americans on their weary mules. Their fresh horses and superior horsemanship made it easy for them to manoeuvre as they wished, and they led the advance group of Americans even farther away from their main force. The Americans did not know the terrain and the Californios did. A second separation developed until about twenty eight Americans including Kearny were in the forefront of the charge. Damp powder reduced the effectiveness of the American carbines and pistols, and they were soon reduced to relying on their sabers alone. The Californios were armed with a mixture of firearms, sabers, long lances and lariats.
As the leading element of the American attack drew close to the Indian village, the Californios wheeled back and fired their few firearms. One of their first shots killed Captain Johnson, but the Americans continued on and were able to fire back. The Californios retreated, and the Americans pursued. Captain Benjamin D. Moore ordered a second charge. This further increased the distance between the American elements and further reduced the size of the leading element. When the Californios again turned back, they were able to deal with Captain Moore alone. He was quickly surrounded and killed. Other Americans caught up with the action, but their weapons misfired and many of them were wounded or killed by Californios using lances. Some were pulled from their horses by the Californio's lariats and then lanced. Most of the Americans were mounted on mules and were particularly vulnerable because of the mules reluctance to wheel. It was easy for the better mounted Californios to get behind the Americans and attack them with their long lances.
Both Captain Gillespie and General Kearny were wounded in the battle and several of the other officers were killed or wounded. Captain Henry Turner temporarily took command and organized a defensive position, which permitted the rest of the command to catch up with the battered lead element. Dr John S. Griffin, Kearny's surgeon, reported that the Americans had lost seventeen killed and eighteen wounded out of the fifty officers and men that actually engaged the enemy. The dead were buried in a mass grave. Pico's forces suffered two killed and 18 wounded in the battle.
American forces set up a defensive perimeter and sent Kit Carson, an accompanying solider and an Indian guide to request reinforcements from the American fleet anchored in San Diego bay. Under the cover of darkness, Carson and his team were able to get to the American fleet and return with reinforcements several days later. At that time, the American soldiers travel to San Diego and unite with the American fleet there.
Kearny sent dispatches carried by Edward Beale and Kit Carson and requesting urgent reinforcements to Commodore Stockton, who was headquartered at San Diego, 28 miles (45 km) to the south-southwest. Stockton quickly dispatched a unit of over 200 sailors and Marines, whose arrival caused the Californios to disperse, and Kearny's battered forces were escorted to San Diego, California.
The battle was the worst defeat for American forces during the Mexican-American War. While the Californios fared badly in Northern California, it was one of many battles and skirmishes where the Californios bested American forces in Southern California. Inexplicably, Kearny later recalled the battle as a victory for the United States, perhaps as way of covering up the embarrassing defeat.
Kearny Mesa, an area of San Diego, was later named after General Kearny. Kit Carson Park in San Diego's north east corner was named in honor of Kit Carson. Beale Air Force Base in Marysville, California is named after Edward Beale. In September 1942 Camp Gillespie was completed and named in honor of Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie. In 1944 it was handed over to the County of San Diego and rechristened Gillespie Field now a municipal airport.
Captain Benjamin D. Moore, who fell during the battle, was honored by the dedication and naming of Fort Moore in Los Angeles, California, which was memorialized with the Fort Moore Hill Pioneer Memorial.
From A Gil Blas in California, by Alexandre Dumas (1852)
In the meanwhile, after enduring unbelievable fatigue and suffering time and again for the lack of prime essentials, Colonel Kearny, with his 100 men, marched over the Rocky Mountains, crossed the sandy plains of the Navajo Indians, passed the Colorado, , after traveling through the lands of the Mohave Yuma Indians finally reached Agua Caliente.
Upon arriving he fell in with a small troop of Americans, commanded by Captain Gillespie, who told him definitely what was taking place in California and warned him that ahead of him was a troop of seven or eight hundred men commanded by General Andres Pico, who was in control of the country. Colonel Kearny counted his men. There were only 180 all told, but they were resolute and well-disciplined soldiers. He then gave the order to march on the enemy. Americans and Californians clashed on December sixth out on the plain of San Pasqual.
The engagement was terrific; for a time the small American forces were defeated and nearly routed. Ultimately, however, they were victorious. Colonel Kearny, who from then on was made general, received two wounds, and had two captains, one lieutenant, two sergeants, two corporals, and ten dragoons killed. The Californians, on the other hand, lost two or three hundred soldiers. [This is exaggerated. The losses of the Californians were probably slight.]
The following day, a detachment of marines sent by Commodore Stockton joined Kearny whom they had been sent out to meet. Thus reinforced they continued to march on toward the north. On December eighth and ninth, he had two more clashes with the Californians but in these engagements, as in the first battle, he emerged victorious. At the same time Castro, now a fugitive, encountered Captain Fremont, and after being surrounded by him, capitulated. A few Californian troops still remained in the vicinity of Los Angeles.
From Seventy-five years in California; a history of events and life in California by Douglas S. Watson--by William Heath Davis (1929)
Lieutenant Beale was sent out by the commodore to meet Kearny and guide him to San Diego. On reaching San Pasqual , at which place Kearny had then arrived, Beale found that the general had from I 20 to 130 men with him, all suffering severely from cold and lack of food. The winter was an unusually severe one, snow and frost prevailing, which was very seldom known in that latitude, and the men had experienced many hardships on the way from New Mexico to this point. They had no horses, only mules. Lieutenant Beale informed General Kearny that he had been sent by the commodore as a guide, and that it would be advisable to avoid meeting Don Andres Pico and his force of cavalry, consisting of about 90 men, who were then in the vicinity of San Diego, having been dispatched from the main body of Californians near Los Angeles for the purpose of watching Stockton's movements and preparations, and communicating information of the same to headquarters. Commodore Stockton, knowing of Pico's presence in the neighborhood, and that he had a well-mounted force, in fine condition, thought it best for Kearny's troops not to meet them, probably surmising that the latter were not in very good fighting condition, after their long march during the cold weather; or, probably, he had been informed of this by Captain Snook. Upon Lieutenant Beale's communicating Commodore Stockton's views to Kearny, the latter promptly responded, "No, sir; I will go and fight them," and declined to act upon the suggestion of the commodore.
Beale had observed the starved appearance of the men and their bad circumstances generally. He intimated to Kearny that as they were worn out with their recent march and had not found time to recruit, they were hardly in a fit condition to meet the Californians, who were numerous, as well as brave, and not to be despised as enemies. He also represented that the mules would be no match for the horses in a battle, even if in the best condition. Kearny declined to be influenced by the argument, being determined to have a fight. He was saved the necessity c.f moving to meet the Californians, however, for the latter having learned of Kearny's force at San Pasqual , shortly appeared there, and, led by Don Andres Pico, made an attack upon the 6th of December.
When the Californians observed the appearance of Kearny's men, and how they were mounted, they remarked to each other, " Aqui vamos hacer matanza ." ("Here we are going to have a slaughter.") They were mounted on fresh horses, and were armed with sharp-pointed lances and with pistols, in the use of which weapons they were very expert. A furious charge was made upon Kearny's force, whereupon all the mules ran away as fast as their legs would convey them, pursued by the Californians, who used their lances with great effect, killing about twenty-five of Kearny's men and wounding a large number (including General Kearny) of the remainder (nearly all of them in the back), who were all in the predicament of being unable to control the half-starved mules which they rode at the time of the stampede. The general, however, managed to rally his men and the mules, and, taking a position, held it against the attacking forces, who were not able to dislodge him. The Californians withdrawing from the immediate scene of action, Kearny buried his dead, while expecting that at any moment the enemy would renew the fight.
In this conflict Beale was slightly wounded in the head. At his suggestion Kearny moved his force to the top of Escondido mountain, which lay in the direction of San Diego, marching in solid form, so as to be able the better to resist any attack that might be made, the mountain offering advantages for defence which could not be procured below. While there encamped they were surrounded and besieged by Pico and his troops who made another attack, but without success.
In the battle just described, Don Andres Pico, who was brave and honorable, displayed so much courage and coolness as to excite the admiration of the Americans. He never did an act beneath the dignity of an officer or contrary to the rules of war, and was humane and generous. If he saw one of the enemy wounded, he instantly called upon his men to spare the life of the wounded soldier. Kind and hospitable, Pico was held in great esteem by the Americans who knew him.
While Kearny was thus besieged, Lieutenant Beale volunteered to make his way through the enemy's lines and communicate to Stockton the intelligence of the general's position and circumstances. It was an act of great daring; but by traveling in the night only, and part of the time crawling on his hands and knees, to avoid discovery, he finally reached San Diego, nearly dead from exhaustion, his hands and limbs badly scored.
When he came into San Diego he was little more than a skeleton; his friends hardly knew him. He gave an account of what had transpired and of the condition of Kearny's force. As soon as his mind was relieved of the message he became utterly prostrated from the sufferings he had undergone, and shortly after was delirious. It was some time before he recovered. Stockton and the other officers of the squadron showed him every attention.
A force of two hundred men, with some light artillery, was immediately sent to rescue Kearny's troops and escort them to San Diego, also conveyances for the wounded, with full supplies of provisions. The Californians moved back as this force approached, not venturing further demonstrations. The troops, with the wounded, were brought to San Diego.