Conquering California, Part 11 of 17: The California Campaign Begins
This is Part 11 of a 17-part series. If your brain leaks as badly as mine, you might have forgotten what happened in the last part. Try following this link, to get yourself up-to-date.
To start at the beginning, follow this link.
The California Campaign Begins
By mid-July, 1846, enough news and information had reached American forces in California to leave them feeling confident that a war with Mexico had begun. However, official notice of the U.S. war declaration with Mexico did not reach them until August 12, 1846. They should have used email.
Commodore Sloat was 65-years-old and tired of all this shit. The old fart wasn’t feeling well, and he just wanted a desk job. So on July 23, he transferred command of the Pacific Squadron to Commodore Robert Stockton who, at age 50, was younger and more eager for action.
It was a smart move for Sloat, as he ended up living 21 more years.
The young and yare Stockton commanded up to 650 marines and sailors. He got busy right away, and ordered Fremont to secure immigrant volunteers to assist with the occupation of northern Alta California.
It’s hard to say how big the pool of immigrants was, for Fremont to draw from, because the Mexican census had a citizenship question that left illegal immigrants feeling wary about answering honestly. Okay, maybe not. I just made that up. But some estimate this pool to be about 800 fighting-age males. And of these, Fremont managed to enlist 160 volunteers.
In addition, Fremont also commanded the California Battalion, consisting of his 60-man expeditionary force and 150 Bear Flaggers. Thus, Fremont offered a militia of 380 men, for the disposal of Stockton.
The American marines, sailors, and militia easily took over control of cities, ports, and pueblos in northern California, including Sonoma, New Helvetia (current-day Sacramento), Yerba Buena (current-day San Francisco), and Monterey. They were even able to occupy some southern Alta California pueblos and ports. And all while only rarely firing a shot.
The Occupation of Los Angeles
But southern Alta California still concerned Commodore Stockton. 8,000 people lived there, and most were Mexican. There were very few immigrants in that region. Most of the Californios lived in the Pueblo of Los Angeles, which was the capitol of southern Alta California, under Governor Pio Pico.
Pico and the citizens of Los Angeles strongly favored keeping California out of U.S. hands. They didn’t like us gringos. Therefore, Stockton figured he might have to use military force to capture the pueblo, in order to complete the conquest of California.
Stockton ordered Fremont to San Diego, to prepare to move northward to Los Angeles, if needed. He then landed 360 men in San Pedro, about 25 miles south of the pueblo. And that’s all it took to scare the hell out of the Mexicans. When this happened, Commandante General Castro and Governor Pio Pico got cold feet, and fled to the Mexican state of Sonora.
Therefore, on August 13, 1846, Stockton’s army entered Los Angeles unopposed. And boy was he happy. He figured he had the world by the tail, with all his recent success. His increased self-confidence drugged his brain, and put to sleep much of the natural worry and caution that good military officers are advised to maintain.
In his hubris, he left U.S. Marine Captain Archibald Gillespie in charge, with a small garrison of 36 men. Think about it. Just 36 men, to rule over thousands of upset Mexicans.
This was the same Gillespie, then a Lieutenant, who in May, had found Fremont in Oregon, and delivered the message from Washington that war was imminent. He may have been a good messenger, but putting this man in charge of a town like Los Angeles proved to be a mistake. Gillespie’s head was too big, and his garrison was too small.
Stockton left town, trusting Gillespie could handle the trivial matter of keeping order in this conquered pueblo. But he didn’t count on all this new authority going to Gillespie’s head. The captain realized that here he was, with a new, higher rank, and in charge of an entire town! And as far as he was concerned nobody had better dare challenge his authority.
Gillespie began behaving like a tyrant. He imposed martial law, which left the locals very angry. Then he and his garrison began browbeating and bullying the citizens. And they were a proud people, these citizens, who shared Governor Pico’s sentiments about U.S. occupation.
There was no way in hell they were going to stand for such disrespect coming from a pendejo like Gillespie.
Come on back in a few days, for Part 12: The Siege of Los Angeles.