Soldiers of Misfortune

[ Regional/Texas ]

Soldiers of Misfortune

The Somervell and Mier Expeditions

By Sam W. Haynes

The story of the Republic of Texas's ill-fated expeditions against Mexico.

1990

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 288 pp. | 16 b&w illustrations, 2 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-73115-8

The Somervell and Mier Expeditions of 1842, culminating in the famous "black bean episode" in which Texas prisoners drew white or black beans to determine who would be executed by their Mexican captors, still capture the public imagination in Texas. But were the Texans really martyrs in a glorious cause, or undisciplined soldiers defying their own government? How did the Mier Expedition affect the border disputes between the Texas Republic and Mexico? What role did Texas President Sam Houston play? These are the questions that Sam Haynes addresses in this very readable book, which includes many dramatic excerpts from the diaries and letters of expedition participants.

  • Preface
  • 1. "Carthage Must Be Destroyed"
  • 2. The Vásquez and Woll Incursions
  • 3. The Southwestern Army of Operations
  • 4. The March to Laredo
  • 5. The Battle of Mier
  • 6. "Our National Calamity"
  • 7. The Black Bean Episode
  • 8. "There Is No Hope of Release"
  • 9. "A Mysterious Silence"
  • 10. "A Fragile Peace"
  • 11. The Annexation Crisis
  • 12. Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The 1841 presidential inauguration of Sam Houston was an event requiring all the pomp and pageantry the little town of Austin could muster. Behind the Hall of Congress—a rather grand name for a flimsy wood frame building not much bigger than a large dogtrot—a dais had been erected underneath an enormous purple canopy. A crowd of one thousand people spilled out from underneath the tent as they waited for the ceremony to begin. They had come from all parts of the country to see Sam Houston sworn in on this crisp, clear day in mid-December, but most lived in Austin or its environs on the western fringes of the Republic. The inauguration represented a high-water mark for Austin society, and there were but few residents willing to miss the swearing-in ceremony, or the banquet and fancy-dress ball to follow.

At 11 A.M., Sam Houston and his Vice-President-elect, General Edward Burleson, emerged from the building and mounted the platform, escorted by a platoon of Travis Guards. They were followed by the leaders of the outgoing administration, Mirabeau B. Lamar and David G. Burnet, and a host of notables that included the U.S. chargé d'affaires and selected members of the Texas House and Senate. All eyes, however, were on Sam Houston. His appearance drew an immediate murmur of astonishment from many in the crowd, as he must have known it would. In striking contrast to the somber attire of the other dignitaries on the stage, both Houston and his running mate were outfitted in frontier dress. Houston, who had a reputation as something of a dandy, on this important occasion looked downright shabby in a linsey woolsey hunting shirt, pantaloons, and an old white, wide-brimmed fur hat. It was clear that the President-elect, with his politician's flair for the theatrical, had cast himself as a man of the people and was determined to look the part. The irony of the situation did not escape notice. Here was the new chief executive of the Republic, dressed like a rube before his rural constituents, who had turned out for the event in their very best finery.

If Houston saw any humor in this breach of protocol, there were probably not many who did. In spite of his victory at the polls the President-elect had few friends in the audience. Lamar was still a favorite with these western voters, while Houston was the preferred candidate in the more populated east. Among the many issues which divided the Houston and Lamar factions, certainly none was more contentious nor of more concern to the citizens who had gathered for the inaugural than the location of the seat of government. Austin had served as the capital for eighteen months, but in 1841 Lamar's prediction that the town would some day become "the seat of future Empire" must have seemed a remote possibility to all but the most credulous residents. Situated on the edge of the frontier, it was dangerously isolated and subject to frequent Indian attack. The cabins west of Austin had been burned out by Comanches or abandoned, while in the capital itself few residents were bold enough to venture onto the streets after the sun went down. The mass migration of settlers envisioned by Lamar had not occurred; indeed, many were leaving the frontier for the relative safety of towns farther east. At the time of Houston's inaugural the capital city of the Republic of Texas was little more than a string of crude shacks and barns nestled along Congress Avenue, a dirt track thirty yards wide leading down to the Colorado River. The President-elect, it was reported, "did not want to risk his scalp, up in that d——d hole," and favored moving the capital back to his namesake city, which had hosted the government during his first term. But Austin residents were determined to keep the government right where it was, knowing full well that without it and the income it generated, their town would disappear, to be reclaimed by the wilderness, like so many other ambitious but unsuccessful urban projects on the Texas frontier.

Houston was prepared for a cool reception. Since his arrival in Austin earlier in the week he had kept quiet on the subject of a possible change of venue for the government. There was no need to raise the ire of these voters any more than he had done already. But in "dressing down" for his inaugural audience Houston seems to have won few converts. These men and women were not so easily fooled by his humble dress. Rustic garb could not conceal the fact that the flamboyant Houston was no friend of the western settlers.

After an invocation by the Reverend R. E. B. Baylor, the Speaker of the House and the President-elect rose from their seats for the oath of office. On the inaugural stand Mirabeau Lamar watched the proceedings in silence (he had refused to give a valedictory). As Houston kissed the Bible to seal his oath, a salvo of cannon erupted from the arsenal nearby, and the crowd, taken by surprise, joined in with polite applause.

By all accounts, the new President's inaugural address was not a speech of hope and promise. Many listeners were annoyed that Houston used this opportunity to remind the crowd of the dismal record of the outgoing administration and to recite at great length the successes of his first presidential term. But the new chief executive had good reason to lament the affairs of the nation which he now undertook to lead for the second time. After three years of Lamar, the young Texas Republic seemed to have made no headway in its efforts to carve a place for itself in the sprawling American southwest. The nation's currency was virtually worthless, and the public debt—owed in specie—had swollen from less than two million to more than seven million dollars during Lamar's term, although by some accounts the figure was even higher. The foreign loans which Lamar hoped would inject new life into the country's flagging economy had fallen through. And yet the visionary Lamar was completely oblivious to the need for belt-tightening. He continued to create the illusion of empire, burdening the government with an unwieldy and expensive bureaucracy, outfitting a navy, and building a splendid executive mansion on a hill above Congress Avenue. The past three years had seen a succession of schemes come and go. Plans for a national bank, a national road, and a public school system were all abandoned due to lack of funds or as Lamar lost interest in them. Nor was the financial crisis the only obstacle Houston faced. In spite of Lamar's ruthless and costly policy of Indian extermination, angry tribes continued to threaten the lives and property of settlers on the frontier. In northeast Texas, a bitter feud between two rival bandit gangs had recently erupted into nothing less than a bloody civil war. The litany of problems seemed endless.

But Houston did not know the worst. The most distressing news of all had not yet reached Texas. Several hundred miles away, a ragged band of Texans was marching along a dusty road in northern Mexico—the miserable survivors of the Santa Fe Expedition. Three months earlier, in a last-ditch effort to rescue the failing fortunes of the Republic, Lamar had dispatched a force of 320 men across the desert to Santa Fe to establish a trade route with New Mexico. This lucrative market brought yearly revenues of five million dollars to merchants in the United States, revenues which could be diverted into the empty coffers of Texas. The Santa Fe region, he believed, was eager to gain its independence from Mexico and would welcome his offer of annexation and trade.

Lamar could not have been more wrong. From the start it was a quixotic mission with no hope of success. Ill-equipped and poorly led, the expedition soon ran into difficulty. After a tortuous march through uncharted territory, harassed by Comanches and weak from thirst and hunger, the exhausted Texans reached their destination only to find that the citizens of Santa Fe did not share Lamar's enthusiasm for his proposal. They surrendered to the Mexican garrison there without firing a shot.

What followed was a nightmare. The Santa Fe prisoners were marched south under the custody of a Mexican officer with a distinct penchant for sadism, who drove them mercilessly into such a state of exhaustion that escape was unthinkable. At night they shivered without blankets on the frozen ground, or were locked up in rooms so cramped they could not sit down and gasped for air, nearly dying of suffocation. Along the way men died of exposure or were summarily shot for lagging behind. Their bodies were stripped of clothing and left by the roadside. Their ears were hacked off with a machete; the Mexican officer pierced them and strung them on a strip of rawhide to wear as a grisly necklace. Upon reaching the Rio Grande he was relieved of his duties and court-martialed for his excessive zeal. Thereafter the treatment of the prisoners improved, but the Mexican government, still smarting after its humiliation at San Jacinto and incensed that its former province now had the temerity to try and snatch away additional northern lands, was in no mood for clemency. The Santa Fe prisoners were marched one thousand miles into Mexico and thrown into prison.

***

There would be no honeymoon for the incoming administration, for partisan sentiments ran high in the Sixth Congress, and its members were a contentious lot under any circumstances. Many seemed to have little in common with the voters who had elected them into office. Hardscrabble farmers could not neglect their fields nor afford the time and the expense to represent their districts. A considerable number of these officeholders were young, single men, often lacking prior political experience or a stable profession, the gadabouts and adventurers and those anxious to make a name for themselves in a new land. Most could claim some distinction on the field of battle, either at San Jacinto or in some Indian skirmish. Ned Burleson was barely literate, but such were his credentials as an Indian fighter that voters had seen fit to elect him to the nation's second-highest post by an overwhelming majority. One man who had known him some years earlier remarked that "no one could even have dreamed of predicting that he would ever have been 'thought of' as the vice president of a republic nation." Evidence of valor was more than an asset for the would-be politician; it was virtually a prerequisite for office (and, for some, their only qualification). Not surprisingly, a spirit of calm deliberation was noticeably absent among such legislators. Debates were often boisterous affairs, and on occasion verbal attacks gave way to violence. Three weeks after the inaugural, David Kaufman, the former Speaker of the House, was shot and seriously wounded outside the Hall of Congress by Nacogdoches congressman James Mayfield. The new President might have preferred a Congress with more statesmen than sharpshooters.

All seemed to agree, however, on the need for budget-cutting in view of the fiscal crisis. Houston set the example by having Lamar's grand presidential mansion boarded up, taking lodgings instead at the Eberly House. The legislators followed suit by cutting their own salaries from $5 to $3 per day, and Houston's annual salary in half, from $10,000 to $5,000. The swollen public debt was suspended until the Republic could meet its obligations. Government offices were abolished, and the responsibilities of remaining ones curtailed for lack of funds, while Houston's request for a modest $300,000 public loan was voted down.

No sooner had Houston taken the oath of office than reports of the capture of the Santa Fe campaigners began to reach the capital, although it would be some time before these rumors were actually confirmed. Outraged at the harsh treatment of the prisoners, the nation demanded that Houston take suitably aggressive action. Tensions between Texas and Mexico, largely quiescent since 1836, erupted with a new and disturbing intensity. One broadside entitled A Voice from the West!!! was indicative of the belligerent attitude:

Fellow Citizens—The piteous cries, and dying groans of our imprisoned and slaughtered countrymen, come to our ears in every breeze that sweeps over the Western prairies; and call upon us, in the language of incarcerated and murdered fellow beings, who are of our own country, of our own acquaintance, and of our own kindred, to rise up and march to their rescue, or to avenge their blood! Fellow Citizens, shall those cries be wafted to our ears in vain?

The Texas Congress insisted that the new President issue a direct challenge to Mexico for its treatment of the Santa Fe prisoners. Opposed to any move that might provoke further hostilities, Houston urged caution. His allies in Congress ignored his warnings and added their names to a sweeping bill passed by both houses authorizing the annexation of all Mexican territory north of the Rio Grande and portions of the states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Durango, and Sinaloa as well. Thus Texas in effect laid claim to two-thirds of Mexico.

Houston could only scoff at such a proposal, and vetoed the bill without hesitation. With Texas staring bankruptcy full in the face, Congress had ordered him to wrest from Mexico's control an area of land larger than the United States (excluding the territories), and yet it could not find the money to fund an adequate mail service within its own borders. His veto message was a plea for sanity. "Texas only requires peace to make her truly prosperous," he stated. "I am inclined to believe other nations would regard it as a legislative jest inasmuch as it would assume a right which it is utterly impossible to exercise."

It was no jest. Congress, reflecting the public furor, passed the bill over Houston's veto. But if it could defy the President, it could not defy the simple truth: there was no revenue to proceed with a war against Mexico. When Congress adjourned as scheduled in early February, there were no plans for an invasion. The legislators had given vent to their rage with empty threats, but they had accomplished nothing. With his country tottering on the verge of collapse and its people bellowing for war, the President packed his bags and made the four-day trip by mule to Houston City, no doubt hoping that the crisis would soon blow over.

The controversy did not die with the close of Congress. Houston was assailed from all quarters for his refusal to be swept up by the martial fervor. Even some of his political allies and closest associates counseled aggressive action. "In the name of outraged humanity, can we not—shall we not mete out to the authors of so much barbarism and cruelty the full measure of a nation's vengeance?" Washington D. Miller, the President's young secretary, asked his chief. In a distinctly rabid tone Miller continued:

"Let the avenging sword be drawn!... Westward the star of empire makes its way," and like the wise men of old, the Angloamerican race will be true to its course.... Fully do I believe, that as sure as the morrow's sun will rise, the irrevocable destiny of that people points to an absolute dominion as extended as the continent itself. Heaven has decreed it; and will employ agents equal, by benign favor, to the splendid accomplishment. "Delenda est Carthago." [Carthage must be destroyed.]

Sam Houston could not share his young colleague's flight of fancy. Realistically, Texas could not hope to wage an offensive war against Mexico. Houston estimated that an invasion would require no less than five thousand men at a cost of $2,500,000 And yet Texas had no standing army. Prior attempts to raise one had been disastrous, for Texas soldiers—from commanding officers to the lowliest privates—had little taste for discipline. There was only one arsenal, and this was so depleted by the Santa Fe Expedition and Indian raids that the government could lay its hands on no more than 395 rifles and 581 barrels of powder.

In the minds of most Texans, these were trifling matters. Few shared the President's fear that another invasion of Mexico might end in tragedy. The Santa Fe Expedition had not tarnished the Republic's self-image of invincibility (although Andrew Jackson believed that Lamar's "wild goose campaign" had done the reputation of Texas such damage that it would take three San Jacintos to restore it). An unswerving faith in their own fighting abilities and the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race stilled all doubts. The Mexicans, they were convinced, were simply no match for them; it was cowardice even to contemplate defeat against so unworthy an adversary. Cultural chauvinism ran rampant in North America in this age of Manifest Destiny, and nowhere were such views more in evidence than in Texas, where the Revolution appeared to portend the inexorable advance of the white race across the continent. The miscegenation of the Indian and Hispanic peoples had created a lower breed, Anglo-Americans believed, rendered all the more inferior by a hot, tropical climate which left them listless and phlegmatic. Joseph Eve, the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Texas, offered his own "impartial comparison of the character of the two races of men" in a report to President Tyler which, it hardly needs to be said, reflected a point of view shared by most Anglo-Saxons living west of the Sabine:

... the Texans [are] bould and fearless to a fault, chivalrous, intelligent enterprising and patriotic, who fight in defence of their all, their wives and children, their homes and property, and their civil and religious liberty; whilst the Mexicans are a feeble mongrel Priest riden race, composed of Spanish Indian and negro; nine tenth's of them ignorant and servile, bound in chains of superstition, which bangs upon them like an incubus, and holds all the faculties of the mind in a hopeless state of stupidity and bondage extinguishes every inducement to noble valorous and patriotic deeds and leaves them in the lowest depth of poverty misery and woe almost beyound the reach of remedy....

But if the Texas experience was any indication, the Anglo-Saxon destiny to rule the continent was, in 1841, anything but manifest. Despite the imperial ambitions of Houston's predecessor and the grasping aggrandizement of the Sixth Congress, Texas could do no more than hold its own, occupying a belt of land from the Sabine to the Colorado rivers. The Republic existed in a curious state of limbo, still claimed by a nation whose culture and customs it abhorred and denied a union with the country to which it felt a natural allegiance. Although the problems which beset the infant Republic were many and complex, Texans attributed their woes to a single source—Mexico, which periodically threatened to reconquer its former province. Although it had as yet made virtually no effort to do so, American and international banks were unwilling under the circumstances to provide the capital Texas so desperately needed. "[Mexico] is the cause of all our difficulties," the Austin City Gazette editorialized, "the source of a heavy national debt—crippled commerce—neglected if not paralyzed husbandry; and an emigration, less by four-fifths, than it would have been under other circumstances."

Many Texans believed that the looming specter of Mexican invasion was the sole source of the Republic's problems; remove that specter with a profitable invasion of its own, so the reasoning went, and Texas would find the prosperity that had thus far eluded it. Indolent and idle though the Mexicans were believed to be, the towns in the lower Rio Grande Valley were reputed to be rich and would yield valuable plunder to a conquering horde of Texans. Silver and other valuables were there for the taking, livestock could be captured and driven north across the river, indemnities could be paid by Mexican towns to be spared from the torch. Francis Moore, the editor of the Telegraph and Texas Register, suggested that no less than $100,000 could be extorted in this manner from Monterrey and Saltillo alone, as well as "a proportional sum from other towns." The newspaperman declared: "Our citizens could not engage in a more lucrative business than in carrying on offensive war with Mexico." A policy of government-sponsored pillage seemed a convenient and acceptable way to sustain the Republic during its current economic crisis.

The furor that followed the news of the Santa Fe Expedition had its origins in six years of frustration. Underlying the outrage which Texans expressed at the mistreatment of the Santa Fe prisoners was the conviction that an inferior people had managed to deny them their rightful place on the continent. At a public rally at Houston in March, citizens cheered as one speaker promised that "the insults of that weak, imbecile, and nigger republic of Mexico would be avenged in the most signal manner." In the prevailing climate of economic uncertainty, Texans were particularly anxious to seek redress for their martyred and imprisoned countrymen. Despite the Republic's misfortunes, its reputation for Spartan heroics remained a wellspring of national pride; indeed, the martial symbols of its brief but violent past would ultimately prove more enduring than the nation itself. Francis Moore called upon "the unemployed young men who are not yet engaged in permanent business" to equal the heroic accomplishments of 1836. With a talent for hyperbole unmatched among the gazetteers of Texas, Moore predicted that "the footsteps of their enslaved countrymen traced in blood ... shall guide them in the path of glory." In the aftermath of the Santa Fe episode, the desire for retribution had become nothing less than a quest for national vindication. The Republic had suffered too many setbacks to ignore this most recent affront to its legitimacy. "Vengeance," Washington D. Miller conceded, "is all that is left us."

In 1841, few believed that San Jacinto had been the final, decisive conflict. The Anglo and Latin American cultures seemed destined to clash again. Not since the Revolution had Texans been so determined to wage war against their southern neighbor. Many Texans had come to the conclusion that the time had come to settle the matter once and for all. Recklessly, impulsively, they howled for war.

 

Sam W. Haynes is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"Those interested in the Republic of Texas and the diplomatic history leading to annexation... will come away from this book with a new understanding of the human cost of the Texans' vainglorious attempt to attack Mexico."
—Western Historical Quarterly

"The author, perhaps for the first time in American published accounts of the Somervell/Mier fiasco, takes pains to honestly represent the Mexican point of view in this affair. All told, Soldiers of Misfortune emerges as an exceptionally well-informed, sensitive, and readable account of a pivotal series of events in Southwestern history."
—Journal of the West

"Sam W. Haynes has provided an excellent, well-written account of the ill-fated Texas expeditions against Mexico in the 1840s. Not only does the author cover these events in entertaining detail, he scrupulously places them in the context of the political and diplomatic realities of the Texas Republic. He also takes care to be even-handed in his treatment of Texans and Mexicans.... superb storytelling and penetrating analysis."
—Password