In a cold drizzling rain at daylight 141 years ago, Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny's mounted troops swooped down into the San Dieguito Valley near Lake Hodges to attack a smaller force of crack Mexican Californios lodged in an Indian village there.
The result was disaster for the U.S. troops. In the bloodiest battle of the Mexican War, 22 American soldiers and one Mexican fighter were killed. The battle was over quickly, and the Americans retreated to a hill down the valley, where they remained surrounded for four days until reinforcements arrived from Old Town in San Diego.
On Sunday, the battle was repeated with full battle gear, blaring bugles, cannon booms, flashing sabers and blood-curdling battle cries--not once but twice--by about 100 volunteers playing the parts of the U.S. cavalry, the dashing Californios and the San Pasqual Indians, who were caught in the middle of the fight.
This year, the site of the re-enacted Dec. 6, 1846 battle was the San Pasqual Battle Monument State Historic Park, complete with a $1.2-million museum and plaques commemorating the American defeat and the victims of the encounter, the only battle of the Mexican War fought on California soil.
Uniformed Boosters of Old Town San Diego (Boots), fresh from a Saturday Christmas parade, played the U.S. Army of the West, while Charros of Escondido, authentically equipped, played the victorious Alta California Mexican band under the leadership of Maj. Andres Pico. Descendants of the San Pasqual Indians reconstructed housing of the earlier period for the re-enactment.
The scene, near the San Diego Wild Animal Park east of Escondido, drew about 550 spectators who watched the pageant and attended daylong demonstrations of horsemanship, music and dancing and talks about what it was really like in the mid-1800s.
A similar re-enactment was held last year for the opening of the park and museum, attended by about 250 spectators, most of them friends and families of the participants, but state Parks and Recreation Department spokesmen said that the event may become an annual pageant which could grow in popularity to rival similar historical presentations around the country.
Gil Neill, publicist for the event, said that the re-enactments went off without a hitch, and Kearny again was defeated by Pico. A modern-day snag kept civilians out of the battlefield this year when the Old Town contingent found that their insurance did not cover them against injuries to any but pageant participants.
In the original battle, 100 of Kearny's men charged into the Indian village at sunrise, hoping to catch the Mexican troops off guard. Unfortunately for the Americans, the faster cavalry outdistanced foot soldiers and cannons and the cavalry was slaughtered by the Californio troops in the Indian village before the bulk of the force could arrive.
Famed scout Kit Carson played a role in the battle, rallying survivors and leading them to high ground--Mule Hill--near the present site of the North County Fair shopping center on the shores of Lake Hodges.
There, the beleaguered U.S. troops, forced to kill and eat their pack mules to survive, held out against their Mexican enemies until troops from the U.S. fort in Old Town came up from San Diego to break the siege and rescue them.