The Battle of El Brazito: A Clash of Armies

Battle DateDecember 25, 1846
LocationBracito or Brazito on the Rio Grande, approximately 30 miles from El Paso del Norte and 9 miles south of Las Cruces, New Mexico
Commanding OfficerColonel Alexander W. Doniphan
Opposing ForceMexican Army under Major Antonio Ponce de Leon
American Forces500 soldiers from the First Regiment Mounted Missouri Volunteers
Mexican Forces1,200 soldiers, including Chihuahua infantry, El Paso militia with a howitzer, and Veracruz lancers
American Casualties 7 wounded (all recovered)
Mexican Casualties43 killed, 150 wounded
OutcomeDecisive American victory
AftermathAmericans seized five tons of powder, 500 arms, 400 lances, and four artillery pieces at El Paso. Harassment of retreating Mexican forces by Apache natives

Narrative on the Battle

Alexander William Doniphan (Mathew Brady’s studio) (Library of Congress collection)

The Battle of El Brazito [Wikipedia Data], also known as the Battle of Bracito, was a pivotal clash during the Mexican-American War. This encounter took place on Christmas Day, December 25, 1846, when the regiment led by Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan of the First Regiment Mounted Missouri Volunteers faced the Mexican Army under Major Antonio Ponce de Leon. This battle unfolded near the Rio Grande, approximately 30 miles from El Paso del Norte and 9 miles south of present-day Las Cruces, New Mexico.

In October 1846, Doniphan was ordered by General Stephen W. Kearney to rendezvous with General John E. Wool in Chihuahua, Mexico. En route, Doniphan’s regiment halted their march on Christmas afternoon at 1 PM. However, the peace of the holiday was interrupted when the dust cloud of a Mexican scouting party was spotted to the south. Realizing the imminent threat, Doniphan promptly ordered his men to prepare for battle.

The Mexican force, led by Major Antonio Ponce de Leon, comprised the Chihuahua infantry on the left, the El Paso militia with a howitzer in the center, and the Veracruz lancers on the right. In a bold move, the Mexican commander demanded the Americans surrender. Doniphan’s response was defiant: “Charge and be damned!” He and his men used the parley delay to form their battle line.

The battle commenced with a frontal assault by the Mexican troops. Doniphan strategically ordered his men to hold their fire until the enemy was within close range. At a distance of fifty yards, the Americans opened fire with devastating accuracy. The Mexican regulars, unable to withstand the ferocity of the attack, broke ranks and fled. An attempt by Mexican lancers to attack Doniphan’s wagon train was thwarted by the teamsters. The Mexican forces retreated under the command of Captain Rafael Carabaja after Major Ponce was wounded, abandoning their howitzer, which was recovered by Lieutenant Nicholas B. Wright’s company.

Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, a member of the Army of the West, provided a vivid account of the battle:

“On Christmas day, at a spot called Bracito, when the regiment after its usual march, had picketed their horses, and were gathering fuel, the advance guard reported the rapid approach of the enemy in large force. Line was formed on foot, when a black flag was received with an insolent demand. Colonel Doniphan restrained his men from shooting the bearer down. The enemy’s line, nearly half cavalry, and including a howitzer, opened fire at four hundred yards, and still advanced, and had fired three rounds, before fire was returned within effective range. Victory seems to have been decided by a charge of Captain Reid with twenty cavalry which he had managed to mount, and another charge by a dismounted company which captured the howitzer. The enemy fled, with loss of forty-three killed and one hundred and fifty wounded; our loss seven wounded, who all recovered. The enemy were about twelve hundred strong; five hundred cavalry, the rest infantry, including several hundred El Paso militia; our force was five hundred – Lieutenant-Colonel Jackson with a part of the regiment arriving on the ground after the action. Colonel Doniphan gave credit ‘for the most essential service in forming the line and during the engagement’ to Captain Thompson, First dragoons, ‘acting his aid and adviser.'”

As the Mexican forces retreated, they were further harassed by Apache natives who had been observing the battle. On December 27, 1846, Doniphan’s men reached El Paso, where they seized significant military supplies, including five tons of powder, 500 arms, 400 lances, and four artillery pieces. Major Meriwether Lewis Clark, Sr. arrived with reinforcements on February 5, 1847, bringing about 100 men and a six-gun battery. By February 8, Doniphan led his forces southward, heading to Chihuahua, continuing their campaign in the Mexican-American War.

Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan’s decisive victory at El Brazito exemplified the strategic acumen and bravery of the American forces during the war. This battle, though fought on a day of peace, Christmas, showcased the relentless pursuit of American objectives in the war, setting the stage for subsequent successes in the campaign.

Final Thoughts

The Battle of El Brazito is a testament to the tactical brilliance and resilience of Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan and his regiment. Despite being outnumbered, the American forces were able to secure a decisive victory that had significant implications for the Mexican-American War. The battle demonstrated the effectiveness of American military strategy and the importance of leadership in overcoming daunting challenges. The events of this battle are intricately linked to the larger narrative of the war and serve as a pivotal moment in the history of American military engagements.

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