Small Wars Journal

“Accidental Guerrilla” Syndrome in California, 1836-1846

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 3:21am

Accidental Guerrilla” Syndrome in California, 1836-1846

James T. Houser

Sun Tzu’s injunction to “know your enemy” is never more critical than in counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare. During its COIN conflicts in the last hundred years, the United States military has fallen especially prey to the thinking trap of lumping all its opponents into the same category. COIN expert David Kilcullen identified this phenomenon as “accidental guerrilla syndrome” in his 2009 book of the same name. In this phenomenon, occupying forces mistake local and regional resistance movements fighting for their interests as part of a larger organization. In Kilcullen’s research on the GWOT, this phenomenon applied to local insurgencies in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Indonesia that made alliances of convenience with global terror organizations and were henceforth lumped in with them by American perception. Thus, they became “accidental guerrillas,” primarily concerned with regional issues but caught between mistaken Western perceptions and the machinations of al-Qa’ida and comparable movements.

The American military and its civilian superiors have always been more comfortable with unambiguous state-on-state conflict rather than more nebulous conflicts with multiple actors. This condition has held since the earliest days of colonial-era warfare; the problems of guerrilla warfare are not new. The “accidental guerrilla” syndrome, as well, is older than many military professionals might think, and American warfighters and leaders have fallen victim to it since before the Civil War. One of the clearest examples comes from America’s first foreign war, the Mexican-American War of 1846-1846, and the invasion of California. Here, American forces encountered Californian militia forces that fought to defend their homeland.

While the American invaders associated the Californians with the Mexican state, the militias were, in fact, a separate faction that had rejected Mexican attempts to reassert control throughout the previous decade. American dealings with the Californio leaders neglected this basic fact and made a potentially peaceful occupation into an uprising. What could have descended into a bloody and protracted guerrilla war instead ended in a negotiated peace due to unconventional approaches from an Army officer. The lessons of California are both timely and essential for understanding how “accidental guerrilla” syndrome can occur in many contexts, how unconventional thinking is especially critical in an unconventional war, and how American military culture has a long tradition of failing to understand non-state actors. There is much that we can learn from California – and much that has yet to be learned.

The Californio Rebellions

It will come as a surprise to some that before the American annexation of California, it was a lightly populated region remote from its mother country. California only had a population of about 7300 Hispanics in 1845, along with around 680 immigrants – mostly white Americans – and an unknown number of Native Americans who were not part of the body politic. Its Hispanic residents, the Californios, were a relatively well-educated and prosperous people who took full advantage of the open spaces for the raising of livestock. California was almost exclusively dependent on the Pacific for its connections to the Mexican heartland and had virtually no internal infrastructure.

Both the Spanish and the Mexican governments had treated California with something like benign neglect. With no military garrison, almost no taxes, and only minimal oversight from Mexico City, California was basically on its own - with the downside of no Californian representation in the central government. The Californios had grown used to this lack of interference in their local affairs and were defensive of their independence. They shared a collective identity as Californios but bore little outright attachment to a notion of Mexican nationalism.

The status quo changed in 1835 when the Centralist faction, allied with war hero Antonio López de Santa Anna, overthrow the liberal Federalist government in a coup d’etat. The Centralists passed a new Constitution of 1835 that replaced the Constitution of 1824. It revoked many of the privileges that the independent regions of Mexico formerly had; they imposed steeper taxes on the majority of Mexico, sent out centrally appointed governors from the Mexico City racial and urban elite, and outlawed all local militias. This reduction in autonomy even applied to far-flung border regions such as California, which had never known the heavy hand of state institutions and depended on the militia for self-defense.

California saw no reaction at first, but the abstract became real in April 1836 when their new Centralist Governor, Colonel Mariano Chico, arrived in Santa Barbara. Chico instantly encountered open displays of Federalist sentiment, urban disturbances, and veiled threats from Californio notables. The defeat and capture of Santa Anna by Texas rebels only weakened his position and prestige still further. By July, the veiled threats and pressure forced Chico to flee back to Mexico. His successor, fellow Army officer Nicolás Gutiérrez, proved no more enduring. His attempt to arrest Californio leader Juan Bautista Alvarado in October 1836 led to an uprising of both Californios and local American immigrants; they displaced Gutiérrez from Monterey on November 3. The actual violence was limited to a single cannonball striking the side of the Presidio where Gutiérrez had taken refuge.

The Revolution of 1836, as it came to be known, declared Alvarado Governor and produced an ambiguous Declaration of Independence (November 7, 1836), asserting that California was free until the Centralists restored the Constitution of 1824. This document explicitly appealed to Californian, rather than Mexican, patriotism. The Mexican government was scarcely in a position to respond due to California’s distance and closer, more threatening rebellions at home.

Instead, the Centralists dispatched Captain Andrés Castillero to seek rapprochement with Alvarado. Alvarado was already facing resistance from his fellow Californios, who had split into northern and southern factions, and Castillero was able to strike a deal. Alvarado would rescind the Declaration, accept the new Constitution, and lay down his arms; in return, the Centralists would allow him to continue as Governor. Alvarado hastily conceded to this offer on July 12, 1837, and the rebellion ended as quickly as it had begun.

In 1842, Alvarado’s term came to an end, and the Centralists dispatched a second governor – the affable Brigadier General Manuel Micheltorena – and this time sent him with a small number of troops. Micheltorena lasted until 1844 - almost two years - before the Californios expelled him as well, this time after a farcical “battle” that resulted in the death of a horse and a mule. Once again, the Californios self-appointed one of their own – Pio Pico – as Governor. Once again, the Mexican government negotiated an end to active resistance in return for the restoration of California’s autonomy and recognition of Pico as Governor.

The Californio pattern of rebellion was distinguished by three aspects: the Californio insistence on autonomy, the demonstrative and bloodless nature of their resistance, and the importance of rebellion as a form of both protest and negotiation. In both the 1836 and 1844 revolutions, the Californios sought autonomy within the Mexican state rather than outright independence. The 1836 Declaration of Independence was a front - a bargaining tactic intended to wring concessions of autonomy from the Centralist government. The Californio resistance was bloodless since they recognized that an excess of violence would raise the stakes and force the Centralist government to respond in kind; demonstrative acts of rebellion were more useful for their ends than outright violence. Finally, the Californios sought to present a strong and united front and use this to leverage concessions from the government. This method of rebellion as negotiation was a common tactic in northern Mexico at this time, and for the Californio rebels, it yielded dividends. In both 1836 and 1844, they achieved their goals of autonomy and recognition within the Mexican system.

Then, of course, the Americans arrived.

The 1846 American Invasion

The United States Navy had tipped its hand regarding California in 1842, when an erroneous report of war with Mexico led Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones to seize Monterey, only to withdraw once he realized his mistake. Jones’ descent was repeated in 1846 after Mexico and the United States had commenced hostilities. By August 1846, Commodore Robert F. Stockton’s Pacific Squadron had gained possession of Monterey without firing a shot. Simultaneously, American explorer and Army officer John C. Frémont had joined his surveying expedition of 60 with a force of 150 American immigrants and proclaimed a sham “Bear Flag Republic” unsupported by any Hispanic Californios. The American invasion was underway.

When Governor Pio Pico and his military commander José Castro came to grips with the invasion, they tried to negotiate. Castro proposed a ceasefire as a prelude to a general conference – “whatever conference may take place, it must be on the base that all hostile movements must be suspended by both forces, since, on the contrary, there will not be negotiations.” This was an exercise of Californio autonomy, a desire to avoid bloodshed, and a reliance on negotiation in the face of armed conflict. These were all tenets that Californios had learned in their struggle against the Mexican Centralists. To their surprise, Stockton rejected any negotiation, stating that “I do not wish to war against California or her people; but…I must war against her until she ceases to be a part of the Mexican territory.” He then demanded that California declare “independence” and raise the American flag – essentially, outright surrender as a precondition for negotiations. Stockton did not understand the Californian context of rebellion as negotiation, and only observed nation-states as viable participants in any such negotiation.

Pico and Castro fled south to Mexico to seek reinforcements, leaving their fellow Californios to carry on the fight. Stockton established small garrisons in the coastal towns, including Los Angeles. After a few weeks of occupation, however, the Californios of Los Angeles revolted on September 24, 1846, and expelled the small garrison with no casualties to either side. The garrison was allowed to surrender and withdraw with its arms. This was in the pattern of previous Californio revolts. In essence, an urban rebellion had ousted the enemy in a bloodless victory with a show of force, and now negotiations could take place. To mollify their opponents, the Californios failed to exploit multiple opportunities to destroy American forces throughout the Los Angeles revolt.

Stockton, however, still refused to negotiate or treat with the rebels. When rebel leader José Flores sent an offer to open negotiations in January 1847, Stockton swore that “I could not recognize (Flores)…as an honorable man, or as one having any rightful authority…he was a rebel in arms, and if I caught him, I would have him shot.” How was this supposed to bring an end to hostilities?

The struggle had already turned deadly. Colonel Stephen W. Kearny’s small Army of the West, approaching overland from New Mexico, was confronted by a band of mounted Californios at San Pasqual on December 6. The Americans had the worst of the ensuing battle with 17 killed – already more than had died in the previous two California rebellions combined. The Californios probably could have annihilated Kearny’s force at San Pasqual, but refrained from launching further attacks. Kearny himself almost died in the battle, but nevertheless united with Stockton and continued to engage the Californios with no hope of negotiations.

It fell to the worldly, ambitious John C. Frémont to perceive negotiation as a way to end the conflict. According to his memoirs, a Californio matriarch named Bernarda Ruiz persuaded him to approach the rebels with “just and friendly terms of compromise.” This made-for-TV story, true or not, represents Frémont’s revelation that the Californio rebels were not associated with the Mexican state or willing to fight to the death. They were a separate faction with which he could negotiate. Without the knowledge of Stockton or Kearny – technically his superiors – Frémont approached the rebels. On January 12, 1847, he and the rebel leaders negotiated a generous peace at Cahuenga that offered significant concessions to the Californio insurgents. Though Stockton was enraged at the presumption, it was a fait accompli. The conquest of California was at an end.


The Americans based their invasion of California on the presumption that all opposing forces were agents of the Mexican state, that armed civilians were simple rebels, and that all hostile activity was undertaken based on outright violence rather than in a demonstrative or posturing sense. The Californios based their resistance to the United States on past experience with their government: a lack of casualties or outright violence, demonstrative shows of force and willingness to fight, and constant offers of negotiation. Commodore Stockton, and later Colonel Kearny, spurned attempts to negotiate because they did not recognize the Californios as a faction of their own. Frémont recognized this possibility and, without further bloodshed, ended a conflict that was spiraling rapidly out of control.

The Californio militias that fought the American invasion were motivated by local patriotism and a sense of their own identity and nationality, separate from that of Mexico. American failure to perceive this led to early missteps in policy, resulting in an insurgency that claimed American casualties before it came to an end. American leaders’ misinterpretations of Californio intentions were nearly disastrous; they rejected multiple Californio attempts at peaceful negotiations that had succeeded in their native context.

The “accidental guerrilla” syndrome was alive and well in California in 1846. American leaders stumbled on a complicated political situation without proper context or intelligence. In a situation that diplomacy could have resolved early, they responded with reflexive force. Only Frémont’s unconventional thinking, however motivated or inspired, prevented the crisis from escalating further. The American military establishment still has its problems with leaders that go against the grain of conventional thought, with understanding the nature of its enemy, and with the misuse of force in situations that call for intelligent, subtle approaches. The experience of the 1846 California Campaign is not as distant as we think.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Army, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

About the Author(s)

Staff Sergeant James Houser is a United States Army 19K (Armor Crewman) and has served in the Middle East and Korea. He is a recent graduate of Norwich University’s Master’s in Military History program, with an emphasis on early American military history. He currently serves as an OC/T (Observer/Controller-Trainer) at Fort Stewart, Georgia.


Thank you for your comment. I referred to the Mexican-American War as the first foreign war because it was the first American conflict conducted primarily on foreign soil, dealing with a foreign population in unfamiliar territory. I contrast this with the Indian Wars or the War of 1812, which were mostly waged within American territory.

V. Staif

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 3:52am

Thank You very much for this text. Why do you describe hat war of 1846 as being the 1st foreign war, what about that between the US and Britain in the 2nd decade of the 19th century?