The concussion waves and ear-splitting blasts were not a familiar occurrence on the coastal prairie of what is now south Texas.
At mid-day on May 8, 1846, Mexican General Mariano Arista executed his first strategic move on the encroaching troops of U.S. General Zachary Taylor’s army, firing his cannons at the entrenched infantry. The conflict that ensued on the peaceful Palo Alto plain became the spark that ignited the Mexican-American War of 1846. The United States ultimately prevailed, and Texas, having been recently annexed as a state in the union, had finally settled a long-standing boundary dispute. As a result of the war the southwestern boundary of Texas was officially established at the Rio Grande River and not the Nueces River to the northeast, as the Mexican government had steadfastly proclaimed. Having a distance of approximately 150 miles between the two rivers this boundary resolution nearly doubled the size of the state. While the events of this war are today obscure and mostly noted by only our more dedicated historians, the influences of the outcome on our national history cannot be underestimated.
General Zachary Taylor
Not only did the outcome of the war make Zachary Taylor a national hero, it catapulted him to the highest position in national politics when he was soon afterward elected the 12th President of the United States. And while Taylor's leadership in the war secured his place in history, today, Texas' annexation has paid innumerable dividends as a leader in the U.S. economy and as a strategic asset with vast amounts of natural resources along with important coastal and inland ports. By securing Texas from Mexican sovereignty in 1848, the United States, for the first time, stood at the cusp of developing into a world power.
Resaca de la Palma and Palo Alto Battles
These first battles to defend Texas statehood were carried out at three main locations – Rancho de Carricitos, Resaca de la Palma, and Palo Alto. Today the “Resaca” is a state park, one of several wildlife preserves along the Rio Grande corridor that collectively make up the World Birding Center. These wildlife sanctuaries are dotted along a 120 mile-long chain from Roma, Texas to South Padre Island. The Palo Alto area preserves the original battlefield and nearby mesquite thickets under the direction of the National Park Service as a National Historical Park (NHP). Palo Alto Battlefield NHP is located just a few miles from Brownsville, Texas and its bustling residential communities and business district.
Palo Alto NHP is a placid stretch of prairie; a hallowed ground reserved to history, commemorating the conflict between two neighboring nations. Visitors can tour the battlefield, hike the trails, bird-watch, and view the informative exhibits. Recently, the National Park Service acquired the Resaca de la Palma battlefield and has incorporated this important historical location into the National Historical Park giving a richer and detailed story of the battles that occurred there.
Resaca Battlefield Illuminated
Over the last few years the U.S. Park Service has helped coordinate an annual memorial service to honor the fallen heroes of both sides of the conflict. Every November the Resaca de la Palma Battlefield Memorial Illumination is held at the Resaca battlefield grounds. Activities begin in the afternoon with a ceremony held at 5:00 p.m. to remember the veterans of the battles. During the celebration the park service conducts living history programs which include interpreters in period U.S. and Mexican military uniforms.There are other interpreters dressed in authentic civilian clothing of the time, adding to the sense that somehow you have traveled back in time. The interpreters demonstrate military camp life, fire real cannons and other weapons of the period, and conduct military drills of the era. As sunset approaches 8,000 luminaria – traditional Mexican holiday luminaries made of small brown paper sacks anchored with sand and supporting a candle – are lit by the visitors to the memorial service. Each luminaria commemorates a fallen soldier from both sides of the battle.
Attending the memorial is a great opportunity to enjoy the wonderful fall weather of the Rio Grande Valley and to learn about an important part of our history. The interpreters are very knowledgeable about the period and the military forces they represent while dressed in full regalia. They focus on all the details; from the red and blue uniforms of the Mexican army (which were modeled after the French forces of Napoleon), to the dark blue fatigue jackets, blue-gray trousers, and black leather accoutrements of the “flying” Artillery of the U.S. Regular Army.The muskets are mostly of the Brown Bess design, the famous flintlock long-arm of the British Army. The white canvas campaign tents of the troops are well represented as well, furnished with the tools for camp cooking, navigation, and communications by signaling. Children of all ages enjoy the demonstrations and the informative talks given by the interpreters. When I was there last November the kids (as well as the adults) were captivated by the explanations of how mortar shells were used, how the cannons are loaded, and of course, watching the cannons being fired.The ground shaking report and billows of black powder smoke are something to experience up close.
As the sun sets and twilight approaches visitors rush onto the battlefield, propane lighters in hand, as if they were the troops in battle themselves. On this solemn occasion they are not plunging headlong into a military clash, but instead, hurrying to the nearest luminaria to light it, and to reflect on the sacrifice of one man who fought and died for his country so many years ago. While the history surrounding Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma and the events that had a deep and lasting effect on two nations has faded into the mist of the past, for one day each year all who gave the ultimate sacrifice are remembered. And when, collectively, the luminarias shine in the magenta colored skies of dusk, the sight of eight-thousand candles in endless rows across the coastal prairie inspire one to reflect on our past heroes like no other deed could.
Battlefield at Twilight
As the twilight fades into the night the activities continue. The interpreters busily tend to their cannons and fire off round after round in the darkness to the "oohs" and "aahs" of the crowd. Families stroll among the luminarias enjoying the cool November evening. As the evening memorial draws to a close the thousands of flickering candles glowing burnt orange in their paper sacks takes on a semblance of one of our hallowed military cemeteries. Just like the endless rows of white headstones in a sea of green grass the burnt orange flicker in the inky sea of night is just as powerful a reminder; only in this case it is only for one night. And while this memorial is as fleeting as the night it is nice to know it will all be played out, once again, next year.