The Battle of Palo Alto in early May 1846 demonstrated to a young Lieutenant Ulysses Grant the effectiveness of mobile light artillery used to great effect against an opponent of near equal strength. During the 1861-1865 war and with virtual unlimited troops, artillery and supplies, Grant was mostly ineffective against an opponent of greatly inferior numbers who most often employed captured artillery and supplies against him. Robert E. Lee can certainly be faulted for not sufficiently fearing the king of battle’s massed effect at Malvern Hill and Gettysburg.
Lieutenant Grant’s Lesson at Palo Alto
“[At the Battle of Palo Alto], Taylor fought his artillery in line with and sometimes in front of his infantry, the practice sanctioned since 1800. Those small brass 6-pounders and small cast-iron 12- and 18-pounders look like children’s toys nowadays, but Lieutenant Grant saw that they were “a formidable armament.” They outranged the Mexican artillery, whose feebly glancing solid shot came up so slowly that one could step over them, and as for Mexican flintlock muskets, “at the distance of a few hundred yards a man might fire at you all day without your finding it out.”
In his first engagement Lieutenant Grant had a happy moment of command when his captain made a reconnoissance and a happier one when he captured a colonel in braid and buttons. But he also got the first chapter of a lesson that was to sink deep.
So far as the Americans were concerned, Palo Alto was almost entirely an artillery action. Colonel Childs, Major Ringgold, and Captain Duncan maneuvered their batteries as if they were platoons of cavalry and fired them almost as if they were pocket pistols. All afternoon they took at least an eight for one toll from the Mexicans, who could never get near them.
So a function had been found for “light artillery” and Lieutenant Grant had learned about fire power. In four years of the Civil War he only twice forgot the superiority of metal to human flesh. He imparted the lesson to William Tecumseh Sherman, and a great part of the defeat of the Confederate States of America was inflicted in the muggy Mexican sun on May 8, 1846.
For the far more brilliant Lee, who had as much chance as Grant to learn the lesson, never learned it. He remained confident that the courage of the Southern infantryman could prevail against the Northern barrage and sent them against it too often – at Gettysburg pushing the best part of his army against a semi-circle of guns that unhurriedly went on shooting them down as they came.
There is no reproach in that fact: the texts show that a full year of the first World War had passed, and half a million men had been killed in their tracks, before any commander learned about the power of massed fire what Ulysses Grant, whose campaigns all of them studied, learned in the six hours of Palo Alto.”
(The Year of Decision: 1846, Bernard DeVoto, Little, Brown and Company, 1943, excerpts pp. 194-195)