Conquering California, Part 12 of 17: The Siege of Los Angeles

This is Part 12 of a 17-part series. If you’ve already forgotten what happened in the last part, maybe I should hold a pop quiz. Oh, what the hell. Just follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


 

The Siege of Los Angeles

 

Captain Gillespie thought he could push the citizens of Los Angeles around. He saw Mexicans as an inferior race, and held contempt for them for giving up the fight so quickly.

But he didn’t count on the fact that these were rough-hewn folks, who didn’t stand for much shit. Hell, they were pioneers on the California frontier, and were no strangers to hardship and trouble.

Also, they had Captain Jose Maria Flores to help them out.

Captain Flores was a Mexican patriot. He had served under Commandante General Castro. He knew how to fight, and wanted to do whatever he could to keep Alta California in the hands of Mexico.

Those who want to bully others should keep guys like Flores in mind. Remember, you can only go so far while pushing people around, before the crowds part and a heavyweight stands before you, prepared to knock your block off.

On September 23, 1846, the Siege of Los Angeles began, when a firefight erupted between 20 or so Californios, and the occupying Americans. This struck a spark that ignited the Angelenos.

The next day, Captain Flores took advantage of the fervor, and organized several hundred Californios. They besieged Gillespie’s forces, and forced them to retreat to a high point, now known as Fort Hill. Soon, 600 indignant citizens had joined Flores’ forces, and they completely surrounded the improvised fort.

Gillespie’s situation grew desperate. His men had no water, and they were so outnumbered they had no chance of holding off such an overwhelming mob of pissed off people.

On September 29, Flores issued an ultimatum. Surrender within 24 hours, or face the consequences. Which would likely be a massacre.

On September 30, Captain Gillespie surrendered. He signed articles of capitulation, and then he and his troops came down from Fort Hill. And Flores was respectful and gracious. He allowed them to march out of town with all the honors of war. The defeated troops retreated south to San Pedro, where they boarded a ship and sailed away.

Map showing the retreat route of Gillespie, to San Pedro.

Flores then began reclaiming Alta California. Within days, his forces took back Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo to the north, and the territory to the south of Los Angeles, up to, but not including San Diego. That pueblo remained in American hands.

But the war was back on.

Flores’ early successes were impressive, but a sensible military analyst might consider them to be Pyrrhic victories. His forces were stretched thin. And he had only 200 men, and few arms and ammunition. It would be very difficult for him to defend this territory.

 

The Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun

 

The U.S. military quickly responded, by sending an intimidating force of 420 Americans. This included 203 United States Marines, and an assortment of sailors and Bear Flaggers, under the command of U.S. Navy Captain William Mervine. They landed at San Pedro, just south of Los Angeles, on October 6, 1846.

But immediately upon landing, an unfortunate event occurred, when a cabin boy was killed by friendly fire. Perhaps an omen? But with such a large force, what else could possibly go wrong?

Flores, who by now was General Flores, couldn’t spare many men to counter the invaders. But he managed to dispatch 50 mounted Californio lancers, under Captain Jose Antonio Carrillo. Plus, one lone cannon.

Their lone, 4-pound brass cannon (meaning, it fired 4-pound cannonballs) had been a ceremonial cannon, fired on special occasions in the Los Angeles Plaza. When American forces initially entered Los Angeles, it had been hastily buried on the property of an old woman. Hence, it became known as the Old Woman’s Gun. When the Siege of Los Angeles began, the Californios unearthed it and deployed it for battle.

On October 7, Captain Mervine’s infantry began marching north from San Pedro, over Manuel Dominguez’ 75,000 acre, Rancho San Pedro. And while they marched, they were harassed by the enemy from the hillsides around them. Perhaps another omen?

They stopped at some abandoned adobe buildings on Dominguez’ rancho, and made camp for the night. But they didn’t get much sleep. An advance detachment of Flores’ troops kept plinking at them from a distance, sending yet more omens.

The next morning they began to advance again, with bleary eyes and weary feet. And I wouldn’t doubt they were mad as hell at the Californios, for disturbing their sleep so much. They soon came to the Dominguez Hills.

And it was here that Carrillo’s meager forces, at great peril to themselves, and against all odds, bravely confronted this mammoth American battalion.

Carrillo had his lancers run their horses back and forth across the top of the Dominguez Hills, stirring up a vast, billowing dust cloud. This made it appear that there were many more troops than just 50 lancers.

Then his forces opened fire upon the Americans, with their lone, brass cannon. The Old Woman’s Gun. They’d fire from a hidden position in some brush, then withdraw it and quickly transport it to another hidden position. They’d fire again, and withdraw again, rapidly changing positions. This made it appear that they had much more than just one cannon at their disposal.

This is an old military trick, when outnumbered and outgunned, and is sometimes surprisingly effective.

The problem for the Americans was that they were ill-prepared for combat like this. They brought no horses, wagons, or artillery with them. They could not send mounted scouts up the hills to determine just how many troops they were actually facing. And they had no wagons to hide behind, or artillery to take out the cannon (or, cannons?) that continued to fire at them.

And they were caught out in the open like sitting ducks. It was a shooting gallery, for the Mexicans.

After an hour of being shot at from various, unpredictable positions, four U.S. Marines had been killed, and 12 others had been wounded. Meanwhile, there were zero casualties on the Mexican side.

Captain Mervine had enough. He and his battered forces got the hell out of there. They beat a retreat back to San Pedro, and within five hours had boarded their ships berthed in San Pedro Bay. They brought their 12 wounded Marines with them, as no man is to be left behind, but ten died from their injuries within a day. All-in-all, 14 U.S. Marines and one cabin boy were lost in this military humiliation.*

The Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun remains one of the few battles in history lost by the United States Marine Corps.

It was now apparent that the cakewalk was over. From here on, the conquest of California would be hard fought by both sides.


Come on back in a few days, for Part 13: The Battle of San Pasqual.


*Note: Accounts vary, from four to 14 deaths. By Captain Mervine’s own account, seven died, including one death from disease. However, battlefield commanders tended to undercount their losses, to save face. So I go with the high estimate of 14, plus one cabin boy.

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