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Gabriel Valencia

1794 - March 25, 1848

A Continent Divided: The U.S.-Mexico War

Gabriel Valencia

c. 1794—March 25, 1848

Very little is known about the early life of General Gabriel Valencia, who is remembered primarily for his defeat by General Persifor Smith at the 1847 Battle of Churubusco during the U.S.-Mexico War. According to one contemporary biographer Valencia was born to "respectable parents" about 1794 and although he entered "the army at the usual age," his advancement through the ranks was reportedly slow due to his having no "peculiar aptitude for the profession of arms."

In 1839, following decades of relative obscurity, Valencia made a name for himself by putting down a rebellion, led by generals Urrea and Mejia against the government of interim president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. With only 1,200 men and a half dozen artillery pieces, Valencia surrounded the insurgents at Acajeta, a small village near Puebla, and defeated them. Despite a shortage of cannons and cavalry, government troops inflicted heavy casualties, killing or wounding two-thirds of the rebel forces. General Mejia was captured and subsequently executed. Urrea was afterward captured while attempting to foment a revolt in Northern Mexico. In 1840, he escaped by bribing his guards and again attempted to overthrow the government. Although Urrea seized control of the presidential palace, Valencia's troops surrounded it and Urrea was forced to capitulate.

During the civil war that broke out in Mexico in 1841 Valencia, along with Miñon, Paredes, and others abandoned their support for the government and took the insurgent side, supporting Santa Anna, who had since been replaced by Bustamante, in his attempt to regain the presidency, which he succeeded in doing after the two sides agreed upon a truce.

On December 31, 1845, following the deposal of President José Joaquín de Herrera, Valencia served as interim President until replaced on January 2, 1846 by Mariano Paredes, who had instigated the insurgency. After the U.S.-Mexico War began in May, Valencia took no active part in the conflict until after General Winfield Scott commenced his invasion of Central Mexico in the spring of 1847.

In late August 1847, as Scott's forces advanced toward the capital, General Valencia took up a position at Contreras, a small town to the south of Mexico City, where he hoped to stop the American advance. Santa Anna, who thought that Scott was more likely to strike next at San Antonio, ordered Valencia to march the 7,000 soldiers under his command, said by some to be the "flower of the Mexican troops," to Coyoacan while sending his artillery on to the convent at Churubusco. When Valencia adamantly refused to obey, Santa Anna replied that he (Valencia) must take sole responsibility for whatever fate befell him and his men.

After the U.S. army reached San Agustin, another small town near Mexico City, Winfield Scott sent Captain Robert E. Lee on a reconnaissance that revealed the best route forward was a trail that lay along the edge of a large, rugged lava bed called the Pedregal. On August 19, while superintending a work party sent to widen the road, in order to make it passable for wagons and artillery, Lee skirmished with troops commanded by Valencia, whose army was camped on the west side of the Pedregal. When Gen. Persifor Smith decided to attack Valencia, Lee crossed the three-mile wide Pedregal on foot during a dark and stormy night to inform General Scott. Lee then guided the reinforcements across the ancient lava bed's craggy terrain. The subsequent Battle of Contreras or Padierna, which reportedly lasted less than twenty minutes, was an American victory that resulted in the capture of eighty Mexican officers, 3,000 men, and thirty-three artillery pieces. Valencia's disobedience of his superior officer's orders was afterward credited with making it easier for the Americans to take the capital, which was done on September 16, something that might have been more difficult, if not impossible, if Valencia had fallen back and consolidated his troops with the 12,000 under command of Santa Anna.

On January 2, 1848, while quietly residing at a hacienda near Mexico City, General Valencia was himself taken prisoner by Pennsylvania troops and a small contingent of Texas volunteers under the command of General Wynkoop, who had been searching the countryside for the elusive guerrilla leader Padre Jaruata. Valencia remained in custody until one o'clock in the morning on March 25, when he suddenly died, according to one U.S. newspaper account, in Mexico City "of a violent attack of apoplexy."

For further reading:

Alcaraz, Ramon, et al. The Other Side; or Notes for the History of the War Between the United States and Mexico (New York: John Wiley, 1850).

Oswandel, J. Jacob. Notes of the Mexican War, 1846-47-48 (Philadelphia: 1885).

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