The Battle of Rio San Gabriel was a part of the California campaign of the Mexican-American War and occurred at the sites of present-day Montebello and Pico Rivera on January 8, 1847.
After the battle of San Pasqual, the battered Army of the West commanded by General Stephen W. Kearny went to the headquarters of Commodore Robert F. Stockton at San Diego. Stockton’s next objective was to recapture Ciudad de Los Angeles.
That settlement had been previously captured by Stockton’s forces, but was left in the command of Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie and had been lost to the Mexicans militia, commanded by General José Mariá Flores.
Kearny and Stockton initially disputed the right of command.
Although Kearny had superior orders from the War Department, he had previously sent most of his troops back to Santa Fe, believing that the war in California had ended, and his remaining force had been badly damaged at San Pasqual.
Stockton had a larger force and was familiar with the area, so Kearny did not initially dispute Stockton’s command of the campaign to recapture Los Angeles, which departed San Diego in late December with Stockton’s force of over 500 seamen and marines, as well as Kearny’s remaining force of about sixty dragoons.
U.S. scouts discovered the Mexican position at a key food along the San Gabriel River on January 7. Stockton and Kearny planned a crossing for the next day. The U.S. forces were formed into a hollow square with the artillery and baggage in the center.
Kearny ordered the artillery unlimbered to cover the crossing but Stockton countered the order and began to move across the river.
The crossing proved to be especially difficult as Flores was in a good position to contest the crossing from the heights across the river and the ford had patches of quicksand at the bottom of the knee deep water.
The U.S. force came under fire as it crossed, but due to poor ammunition and bad aim, the Mexican artillery proved to be ineffective. The U.S. officers and men manhandled their cannon across while the forward quarter of the square took cover on the river bank.
Stockton personally helped unlimber and direct the artillery which silenced both Mexican cannons.
The left flank of the square took a Mexican hilltop position and held it against a counterattack. Then the whole square charged forward shouting “New Orleans, New Orleans” in honor of Andrew Jackson’s great victory there that day thirty-one years ago.
The charge took the heights and Flores withdrew in good order. The battle had lasted only an hour and a half, but it was decisive in the campaign for Los Angeles.
Lacking resources to immediately pursue Flores, Stockton and Kearny stayed on the field overnight and resumed the pursuit the next day, quickly encountering Flores again for the Battle of La Mesa, at the confluence of the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers. On January 10 the U.S. forces reoccupied Los Angeles and Archibald Gillespie was able to raise the same U.S. Flag over the government house which he was forced to bring down a year before.
After Los Angeles and the whole of southern California was secured, the command issue between Stockton and Kearny heated up once again.
Stockton, who had been the initial military governor of California, later granted that post to his aide, Lieutenant-Colonel (later General) John C. Fremont.
Kearny, based on his more recent orders from the War Department, asserted that post for himself but was initially ignored, and Fremont represented the United States at the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga on January 13, 1847. Based on that snub, Kearny later brought charges against Fremont. A court-martial did convict Fremont, but he was quickly pardoned by President James Polk, and his career eventually eclipsed Kearny’s.
Some historians believe that the Battle of Rio San Gabriel was under-reported due to the influence of the politically-ambitious Frémont, and his father-in-law Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in order to make Frémont look better by downplaying Stockton and Kearny.
On January 10, 1847, Stockton established his headquarters in a home on Wine Street, now known as Olvera Street, in the pueblo settlement of Ciudad de Los Angeles and assisted in setting up a civil government; that home is still standing as part of the historic area. He left California overland on June 20, 1847, and arrived in Washington on December 1. He later served in the United States Senate, representing New Jersey.
Kearny left California in August 1847 for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and was reassigned to the war in Mexico.
A memorial located at the corner of Washington Blvd. and Bluff Rd. in Montebello is marked by a plaque flanked by two cannons.
The battle is re-enacted annually by volunteers in costume.
*This article was originally published at www.militarymuseum.org