Following Brig. Gen. Rafael Vásquez's raid on San Antonio in March 1842, Texan volunteers gathered in that city to launch a retaliatory raid into Mexico. The release and repatriation of the Texan Santa Fe expedition prisoners, however, was considered a gesture of peace and good will from the Mexican government, causing President Sam Houston to withdraw his sanction from the planned incursion. The diplomats' visions of peace, however, were shattered within a month when the Mexican army struck again, carrying off a larger scale version of the Vásquez raid. That fall Brig. Gen. Adrián Woll, a French soldier of fortune serving in the Mexican army, crossed the Rio Grande with 1,000 regular infantry, 500 irregular cavalry, and two pieces of artillery and, on September 11 entered San Antonio.
In response, approximately 200 volunteers from Gonzales, Seguin, and other lower Colorado River settlements marched under Capt. Mathew Caldwell to the east bank of Salado Creek, seven miles from San Antonio. There they united with Capt. John C. Hays's fourteen man ranger company that had been driven from the city with Woll's approach. Caldwell, wishing to precipitate a fight but not strong enough to attack the Mexicans in San Antonio, dispatched Hays's men into the town at sunrise on September 18 to draw out the enemy. If Woll could be lured into the open prairie, Caldwell reasoned, the Texans, although outnumbered, expected to give a good account of themselves from their fine defensive position in the bed of Salado Creek. Only thirty-eight horses in the Texan camp were fit for duty, thus only thirty-eight men could go into Bexar as decoys. Hays, accompanied by Henry E. McCulloch, William A. A. "Bigfoot" Wallace, Robert A. Gillespie, and thirty-four other Texans, arrived a mile from the city between nine and ten o'clock in the morning, dismounted, and prepared an ambush. Hays and McCulloch then remounted and, taking six men with them, boldly ventured to within half a mile of the Alamo, taunting the Mexican cavalry to come out and fight. Hays had hoped to be pursued by about forty or fifty Mexicans. Instead, 400 to 500 cavalrymen chased them toward the Salado. Woll had just completed preparations to move against Caldwell, and when Hays and McCulloch made their appearance, Woll's whole force of cavalry was already in the saddle, ready to give chase. Woll said he "would go in person and drive the Texian wolves from the bushes." He accordingly rode out with nearly his whole force, including a large number of the Mexican residents of Bexar, to attack Caldwell's position. As Hays, McCulloch, and their half dozen companions approached the Texans hiding in ambush, Hays ordered them to mount and fall back. The rangers fell back briskly across the mesquite-covered prairie toward Caldwell's position, where their comrades were camped among the cottonwoods, cedars, and live oaks of the creek bottom. For the first four miles the Texans, with the advantage of a lead of one half a mile, kept out of reach of the Mexican cavalry without much difficulty. Too soon, however the fresh horses captured by Woll on the eleventh began to gain on the somewhat jaded mounts of the rangers. As the Mexicans gained ground, the Texans threw off blankets, hats, and raincoats in an attempt to lighten their horses' loads. McCulloch, commanding the rear guard of ten picked men, pressed close upon the heels of the foremost rangers. "The race," wrote Reverend Z. N. Morrell, "was an earnest one." The Mexicans made a desperate effort to cut off Hays by passing his right flank. McCulloch kept between him and the Mexicans, sending couriers every half mile or so urging Hays to put for the timber, and finally, when the timber was reached, McCulloch had only one man with him, Creed Taylor. These two had been targets for the Mexicans for the last half mile at a range of 150 to 200 yards. From 100 to 200 shots were fired at them on the run, but not a ball struck man or horse.
The men in camp had slaughtered a beef that morning and were engaged in cooking and eating when Hays's men dashed in, closely pursued by Mexican cavalry. The Texans' ruse, however, had its desired effect. The battle was joined on terrain favorable to the Texans. Every man was soon at his post and ready for action. "The enemy crossed the Salado above us," wrote Miles S. Bennet, and took a position several hundred yards to the east. At about 10:00 A.M. Woll's entire command, estimated to be 1,500 men, formed and maintained continuous fire, recalled N. B. Burkett, but "on account of the distance we did not pay a great deal of attention to them." Caldwell sent out a typically confident call for help. "The enemy are around me on every side, but I fear them not," he wrote to the men of the nearby settlements. Vowing to hold his position until reinforced, "Old Paint" invited the Texans to join in the sport. "It is the most favorable opportunity I have seen," he assured his neighbors. "I can whip them on any ground, without help, but cannot take prisoners. Why don't you come? Hurra for Texas." Throughout the day Caldwell's men continued to circle their positions making themselves conspicuous so that their fighting force might appear to be greater in number to the enemy.
After a day of desultory skirmishing and artillery and small arms fire, the Mexican right and left wings attacked, leaving a clear field of fire open through their center "to play with their cannon." "We whipped them in about fifteen minutes," wrote Burkett, "shooting some of them down within twenty steps of our lines." Among the slain was Vicente Córdova, leader of the abortive rebellion of 1838. After this, according to Thomas Jefferson Green, Woll "used every persuasion to make his men charge the Texians, but to no purpose. The Texian rifle, when directed by steady nerves . . . was awfully destructive." As the night came on and the firing ceased, Woll retired from the field. In the day's fighting, the Mexicans reportedly lost sixty men killed and many more wounded, while only one Texan was killed and nine to twelve were wounded. Most of the Texas volunteers were eager to counterattack and free the prisoners held within Woll's lines.
While Texan arms were enjoying success on the Salado, a tragedy was transpiring not far away. In response to Woll's invasion, Capt. Nicholas M. Dawson had raised a fifty-three man company and marched down from La Grange. Nearing Caldwell's embattled line on the eighteenth, it was intercepted by a column of several hundred irregular Mexican cavalry supported by a battery of two field pieces. After a spirited but futile resistance that saw half of the command cut down by artillery fire, Dawson's men began to surrender. Once the Texans were disarmed, however, the Mexicans again fired upon them. Two escaped and fifteen were marched away to Perote Prison in Mexico. Of these men, only nine would survive to return to Texas (see DAWSON MASSACRE).
Unfortunately for the Texan cause, a hard rain fell all of the next day, and consequently no advance was made. About midnight several of the Texans entered the Mexicans' camp "to engage in a little `sport'" and found that Woll had stolen "a trick from George Washington's book by burning his camp fires" and had evacuated the city under cover of darkness. On learning that the Mexicans had begun their retreat, the Texans followed, but were halted for the night by the muddy crossing of the Medina River below San Antonio. No further contact was made with the retreating Mexicans until Woll was overtaken at the crossing of the Hondo River by Hays's company, riding half a mile in advance of Caldwell's main army. Pressing rapidly forward about 3:00 P.M., the rangers came up with Woll's rear guard strongly positioned and supported by a battery commanding the road from the north. With no knowledge of the artillery's presence, Hays charged the Mexican rear guard, driving it back upon Woll's main force and overrunning the guns before the enemy had fired half a dozen rounds. The boldness of the charge took the Mexican army by surprise, no doubt saving Hays's command many casualties. Hays's horse was shot from under him but only two of his men were wounded. Woll, discovering that the rangers were supported neither by infantry nor artillery, rallied and recaptured the battery. Severely outnumbered, the Texans fell back three or four hundred yards into a dry creek bed where Caldwell's main body joined them and began to fortify the position in anticipation of another Mexican attack.
Among the Texan officers, however, a heated difference of opinion arose as to the practicability of successfully attacking the enemy. The usually aggressive Caldwell held a council of war, and more time was lost in discussing the situation. McCulloch came to the front and called for volunteers to advance, and Judge John Hemphill urged the importance of an immediate attack. But, according to John Holland Jenkins, "a lethargy had fallen upon the command that effectually retarded further progress." As night approached on the 22nd, the Texans stood in their ranks, "suffering for water and tantalized almost to madness by the delay and want of harmony among our leaders." At three o'clock next morning, Woll hustled his troops across the Hondo and force marched them toward the Rio Grande. At this point, pursuit by the Texans was abandoned. The fall of 1842 had been exceptionally rainy, and the rivers between San Antonio and the Rio Grande were experiencing an unwonted flow. Had the command held together, continued its harassment of the retreating Mexicans, and awaited the arrival of the squads and companies of volunteers already on their way to the army, Bennet believed, Woll's army could have been destroyed before it reached Mexican soil. As it was, Caldwell's volunteers returned from the Hondo deprived of their showdown fight with Woll's command. Only a few miles up the road toward San Antonio they met the vanguard of Edward Burleson, arriving with reinforcements. Green spoke for the army when he observed that "General Burleson may not be considered a tactician in the strict sense of the term, but he never failed to observe one rule in winning battles more important than all the minutiae of the drill: that rule is, to fight."