Marc Simmons One of the most obscure conflicts of the Mexican War was the battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales fought on March 16, 1848 in southern Chihuahua. Few people have heard of it and only seldom is it mentioned in standard books on the war.
Why that's the case is worth relating, because the episode is closely linked to New Mexico's history.
This sorry affair had its beginning in Santa Fe where Gen. Sterling Price commanded the U.S. army of occupation, following the takeover in 1846. He is best remembered now for leading soldiers to Taos and putting down the uprising there that had resulted in the assassination of Gov. Charles Bent.
Throughout 1847, a capital newspaper, The Republican, had repeatedly and loudly called for an invasion of Chihuahua. American merchants in that province, who had close ties to Santa Fe's mercantile class, were being persecuted by the Chihuahuan government, the paper reported.
Gen. Price warmed to the idea of a march against Chihuahua City, where he might win some glory. Thus he wrote to the secretary of war in Washington proposing to invade not only Chihuahua but Durango and other provinces to the south.
In preparation, the general formed companies of mounted volunteers made up of American civilians who had come over the Santa Fe Trail as merchants or teamsters. They comprised the Santa Fe battalion and would spearhead the invasion.
While waiting for word from Washington, Price sent 500 men downriver to hold El Paso and 125 more to guard Socorro.
In early February of 1848, rumors reached El Paso that a 3,000-man Mexican army was moving toward that city. An appeal for help was sped northward.
The small detachment of the Santa Fe battalion at Socorro bravely raced down the Rio Grande to support its comrades.
As one of them wrote to his parents: "I know not what our fate may be. You may hear that we are all whipped and killed or that after hard fighting were victorious." As it turned out, neither was to be the case.
Upon receiving the appeal from El Paso, Gen. Price had assembled his troops of the regular army and dashed forth at full speed to relieve the town. On arrival, he discovered that the reported Mexican invasion had been a baseless rumor, nothing more.
Shortly, a dispatch from the War Department, written three months earlier, finally caught up with him. It instructed the general to defend Southern New Mexico, but not to go farther south. Hungry for battle, Price disobeyed orders and plunged across the river into Chihuahua.
Reaching the outskirts of Chihuahua City, the American forces were met by a delegation of citizens who informed them of word from Mexico City that a peace treaty had been arranged and all fighting suspended.
Price refused to accept the news. Advancing into the city, he was told that Gov. Angel Trias, government officials and the Mexican garrison had retreated to avoid a confrontation.
Not to be denied his victory, Gen. Price went in pursuit. At the town of Santa Cruz de Rosales, he found that the citizens and troops, commanded by their governor, had fortified the place.
Deploying the companies of the Santa Fe battalion to lead the attack, Price opened the battle. It quickly became brutal hand-to-hand combat, shifting from house to house. The slaughter was grim; the outcome inevitable. Santa Cruz de Rosales fell to the Americans.
It did so almost six weeks after the peace treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had been signed in Mexico City, Feb. 2, 1848.
Notwithstanding that he had ignored orders to confine his operations to New Mexico, Gen. Sterling Price won widespread approval for his action. In Santa Fe, The Republican heaped praise upon him, as did the Missouri papers. Even President James K. Polk congratulated the general for his "gallant services."
Understandably though, history has not been quite so charitable toward the devious architect of the pointless and tragic battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales.
Historian Marc Simmons is author of numerous books on New Mexico and the Southwest. His column appears Saturdays.