The Battle of San Pasqual Staff Ride

As a learning culture, this battle’s unintended outcome has valuable lessons to offer the wildland fire service.

By Rex Hambly, Engineer – Engine 8332, Southern California Zone, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


The “Californio”/Republic of Mexico marksman waited patiently in the cold, damp morning air. His hands were stiff, but his focus was lightning hot. He heard someone yell “CHARGE!” in the distance.

Long before any of the 12 advancing American Dragoons ever saw him, he raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Captain Johnston square between the eyes, killing him instantly.

Chaos immediately descended upon the American Dragoons unit as they were outmaneuvered by their adversary.

This initial bout of confusion set the operational tempo for the entire Battle of San Pasqual.

The Bloodiest Battle

The Battle of San Pasqual took place in 1846, just outside of what is present day Escondido, Calif. Historians often refer to this fight as the bloodiest battle to ever take place on Californian soil. As a learning culture, this battle’s unintended outcome has valuable lessons to offer the wildland fire service.


Exploring the Lessons from this Historic Battle2

It is once again a cool morning, this time in early April, 2017—171 years later.

We are on the same ground where the Battle of San Pasqual between U.S. forces and the Californios/Republic of Mexico occurred.

Fifty men and women—representing local fire staff, United States Marines, and the Rio Hondo Wildland Fire Academy—have all come together to explore the lessons from this historic battle.

This day of learning begins when historian and retired U.S. Marine Colonel Stan Smith delivers his historically accurate and very intense “Warning Order.”

Wearing full battle dress from 1846, he quickly grabs all the Staff Ride participants’ attention:

“Mounted troops of Pico’s rebellion have encamped and taken-up positions in the eastern portion of this valley with the intent of attacking and destroying coalition forces of the American Republic, now in armed conflict with the Californios/Republic of Mexico.

You are to reconnoiter as to exact location of enemy forces and perform action using advantages of terrain and nighttime operations to beat-up the enemy camp, so as to achieve capitulation—while minimizing casualties to the extent possible.

They have the capability of eliminating U.S. forces available for action, given their ability to exercise superior local firepower and maneuverability. They can reinforce with organic and out-of-theater assets.”

First Stand: Decision Rock

The first stand on the Battle of San Pasqual Staff Ride is known as Decision Rock.

This granite promontory is located in a narrow canyon, just above the battlefield where General Kearny likely delivered his Leader’s Intent to the highly skilled, yet ill-fated American Dragoons. General Kearny’s intent has tremendous tactical significance. He wishes to have a controlled tempo of engagement with Johnston’s twelve Dragoons, thus giving time for the rest of the reinforcements to get into place. It also marks the “decision point” to engage the enemy.

One Staff Ride participant compared it to the Granite Mountain Hotshots decision to leave the relative safety of the burned ridgetop and descend toward the ranch house. Of course from hindsight, we have the luxury of knowing the outcomes for both the Granite Mountain Hotshots and Johnston’s Dragoons.

Similarities Between Firefighting and Warfighting

At this point, Sergeant Dan Bothwell, a U.S. Marine Scout Sniper Instructor, starts to inform the Staff Ride participants about modes of decision making, rules of engagement, and combat effectiveness. He relates this historic battle to modern-day wildland firefighting. We—significantly—learn that in both fire and warfighting, the enemy can often outperform our expectations.


After several hours of spirited discussion at Decision Rock, we move across the valley to the site of the actual engagement.

U.S. Marine Colonel Stan Smith now provides us a discussion on how to value and prioritize military objectives—which we relate to creating firefighting objectives.

Sergeant Bothwell talks about egress planning, and how a single casualty can completely alter the outcome of a mission.

Conclusion: Tactical Exercise

The Staff Ride concludes with a brief tactical exercise that is held in a dry riverbed.

We are all given explicit instructions to perform a very specific task.

When a target of opportunity suddenly arises, we must make a split-second decision: Follow instructions, or; Jump on and seize a novel opportunity—just like Captain Johnston did 171 years ago when he saw two enemy sentries in the early morning fog—and gave the order to “CHARGE!”.

Of course there were no lances, swords, or guns among us, but it was a great chance to test the ideas and concepts that we had studied throughout that day.

As the Staff Ride formally concludes, fire cadets and staff leave the battlefield with a newfound understanding of these historical events—and their relevancy today.

Any profound experience will always include follow-up questions. There was no shortage of such questions as participants said their goodbyes in the parking lot that day.



“What would you have done?”

“Would you charge given the same set of circumstances?”  

“Was Captain Johnston using analytical or recognition-based decision-making?”

“What would you do if the command structure broke down in your unit?”

Sometimes a question can be the best answer. On this day, and in the future, we can apply the new questions and lessons learned from the Battle of San Pasqual to our upcoming operations—both on wildland and all-risk incidents.

For more information on this Staff Ride contact Rex Hambly at:


One thought on “The Battle of San Pasqual Staff Ride

  1. One significant difference is that Marines (military in general) have a ‘loss of personnel’ scenario built into there tactics. The fire services does not. If you follow the 10 and 18 you might make it home.

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