(As a respite from current events this week – what about another history post? I did have a write up about the aftermath of the Scott Walker recall, but it looks like that topic has already been covered, so … a bit of a diversion.)
The movies and popular culture seems to have it that after Houston’s smashing victory over General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Jacinto in April, 1836, everyone signed a peace treaty, made nice and went home. Oh, there was a little dust-up of a war ten years later, upon the occasion of Texas formally joining the United States. Common knowledge of this is confined to the memories of trivia buffs who remember that US Grant and Robert E. Lee served in it together as junior officers, and Marine Corps veterans who are taught the historical origin of references in the Marine Corps Hymn to the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli. Alas, peace on the borderlands between Mexico and the Republic of Texas did not fall like a gentle rain from heaven upon the signing of the Peace of Velasco. In fact, quite the reverse; Mexican national pride had been severely affronted by the loss of Texas – and Lopez de Santa Anna felt the sting most particularly. If he could not get Texas back, he would make things difficult.
All ten years of the existence of Republic of Texas were fraught with a constant low-level, simmering conflict with Mexico. Twice, Mexican armies boldly struck deep into Texas, as far as San Antonio. The second – Woll’s raid and the subsequent imprisonment of every male Anglo-Texan who had come there for the District Court session – set off a series of repercussions, the most immediate being the launching of a punitive expedition. For various reasons – chief among them being that the commander of it, Alexander Somervell, was not supplied and equipped sufficiently to take his force much farther than into the disputed “Nueces Strip” between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, and Sam Houston was not particularly keen on metaphorically poking a tiger in the nose with a sharp stick by sending Somervell’s army into Mexico – Somervell went no farther than Laredo and Guerrero along the Rio Grande before declaring that honor had been satisfied and that his army of volunteers and Texas Rangers could therefore decamp for home. Not coincidently, they were short on supplies.
However, there were volunteers among his army who had decided firmly the opposite – and that a retaliatory strike into Mexico was not only called for, but obligatory. The 19th century sense of honor demanded that an insult given be paid for in blood – and the ornery and cantankerous sense of independence which then and now defines Texas – demanded that such members of Somervell’s expedition who felt such, act upon their conviction. Just before Christmas of 1842, nearly three hundred of Somervell’s volunteers, including Rangers Samuel Walker and William “Bigfoot” Wallace, voted to constitute their own military and punitive force under the command of Colonel William Fisher – to proceed without dispatch, over the border, punch the Mexican tiger most definitely in the nose and secure the town and whatever supplies and riches lay within the border settlement of Mier. Or to go even farther into Mexico and harass the Mexican Army; Somervell and the main force returned to disband at Gonzales, and thence to return home.
Among the 300 volunteers who had formed their own corps and resolved to take Mier, was one Asa Hill, a farmer from Fayetteville, a small town located on the old road between Stephen Austin’s settlement at San Felipe and Mina – now called Bastrop. Asa was accompanied by two of his sons, Jeffrey, aged 28 and John Christopher Columbus – aged 13. Asa Hill had served in Sam Houston’s Army with his two oldest sons, and now he was off to a war again. That one of his sons was barely into puberty and serving as an active soldier was perhaps not terribly outside 19th century professional military norms, when British navy officer cadets commonly went to sea at eleven and boys not much older would serve as drummers in various armies. Life on the Texas frontier was hard enough, and children were expected to assume responsibilities early – even that of home defense, and there were boys in the Mier Expedition who were just a year or so older.
The company had managed to take Mier on Christmas Day, and barricade themselves into secure positions among the close-packed houses, but they were surrounded by a force of more than two thousand Mexican soldiers, commanded by one General Pedro de Ampudia – a force well-supplied with everything the Texans had not, including artillery. During the fight, John and five or six other boys had served as sharp-shooters, successfully picking off individual enemy soldiers trying to work a particular battery. But the odds were against; after twenty-three hours of fighting, both sides were exhausted and the Texans were nearly out of ammunition. They had seven dead and two-dozen wounded, including their commander and John’s brother Jeffrey. Colonel Fisher wrote out a letter of formal surrender, and ordered his fighters to stand down and surrender their weapons. Some of them, including John Hill, chose to break their weapons rather than do so. The last to give up his arms was “Bigfoot” Wallace, who supposedly stood 6 foot two inches tall and weighted 250 pounds, every inch of it wild-cat tough. The Texians were ordered to form a single line – probably every one of them remembering what had happened to the Texan volunteers at the Goliad six years before.
So much younger and smaller than the other Texian fighters, John Hill was noticed by the Mexican soldiers at once. He had turned fourteen during the time he had been with his father and brother in the punitive expedition into the boarderlands, but he had just survived twenty-three hours of house-to-house combat, and very desperately feared what might happen to himself, his family and his comrades. Life expectancies for Texian fighting men taken prisoner by Mexican soldiers over the last six years were almost always short, and usually measured in hours. Nothing in his small experience of life on the Texas frontier would have led him to expect anything other than the worst . . . especially when he was prodded out of the line and taken away to meet General Ampudia, face to face.
But it turned out that the General was curious – curious and possibly a little surprised. He asked of John if the Texians were so short of men that they would send children into battle. Where was his father, and what had he come to Mexico for? John – most likely relived that he was not about to be shot, insisted that he was not a child, he was fourteen, and a good soldier – and that he had come to Mexico to take care of his father and his brother, who were among the prisoners outside in the plaza. He related how he and the other boys had been ordered to pick off those Mexican soldiers of the cannon crew – and had done so until driven from their sniper’s nest by heavy fire which demolished their position. The General, a professional soldier of long and honorable service was impressed. He gave orders that John and those boys who had been with him be given fresh clothes, food, and quarters in the mansion where he was staying. John asked to be permitted to visit his father and brother, who were now confined in the jail. He was allowed to do so – and was also allowed to bring food to them. His brother had already been judged too badly injured to travel with the other prisoners, as they were being sent to Matamoros very shortly. John wanted to stay in the jail and do what he could for them, but Asa Hill told him he could better help his family by remaining with the General. Whatever happened to the other prisoners, his youngest son would be safe and out of harms’ way. As it turned out, Asa Hill was right on both counts.
On New Years’ Day, those prisoners able to move marched out under heavy guard. The injured were left behind to recuperate – but John himself was given a horse and liberty, riding with the General and his staff. Within days, he would be sent with an escort to Mexico City, on the orders of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – now and again the President of Mexico. This was one of the times where he was the President – and the orders were that John be delivered to him. Unfortunately when John arrived in Mexico City, His Excellency the President was indisposed, and John was delivered into the care of the Archbishop of Mexico City – a kindly man who incorporated John into his princely household for weeks. After some time, he received a letter from his mother back in Texas – forwarded by General Ampudia.
Meanwhile, the main body of Texian prisoners, to include Asa Hill, Samuel Walker and Bigfoot Wallace were being marched by slow stages – east to Monterray and Saltillo, and then south, deeper into the interior. Just short of Saltillo, two hundred of them overpowered their guards and fled north into the desert. They had no food and little water with them; they lasted for about a week before being recaptured in groups. By early March, all of the 176 escapees had surrendered or been rounded up, clapped in leg-irons and taken to Saltillo. His Excellency Santa Anna was outraged by the attempted escape, and issued orders that all of them be executed – an order which the regional commander, General Francisco Mejia categorically refused, as did the local provincial governor, and international outrage from the American and British foreign ministers forced Santa Anna to dial back and settle for simple decimation instead: only one in ten would be executed.
A Colonel Huerta was put in charge of deciding which of the Texians would die; seventeen black beans and 159 white were placed in a pottery jar and covered with a light cloth. The 179 prisoners were made to reach into the jar and draw a bean, and then hand it to Colonel Huerta: the officers first, followed by the others in alphabetical order. Colonel Huerta had the names of those who drew a black bean recorded. One of those who drew a black bean was James Cocke, who said stoically, “They only rob me of forty years.” He gave away his clothes to a fellow prisoner whose outer garments were in rags. The seventeen chosen were separated from the others, given a last meal, last rites from a priest if they wished it, blindfolded and executed in two groups. Asa Hill drew a white bean, as did Bigfoot Wallace. So did one of the officers, Ewan Cameron, but he was ordered to be executed anyway, being particularly hated by the guards. Cameron refused a blindfold and last rites; he tore open his coat and shouted “Fuerza!” (Fire) at his executioners.
The survivors continued their journey to Mexico City, still under somewhat of a cloud; were they prisoners or prisoners of war? Young John Hill certainly was not: he had finally had an audience with Santa Anna, where he boldly asked for his own release. He must have seemed like a frank and likeable boy – and Santa Anna had already heard about him from General Ampudia. Incredibly, he offered to adopt John as his own son, and school him as a soldier. John blurted out a reply: he already had a good father, and he couldn’t become a soldier of Mexico because he was a Texan – couldn’t he just be freed to go home? This frankness seemed to amuse and charm Santa Anna, and he repeated the offer of adoption and schooling – at the College of Mining in Mexico City. John asked to confer with his father. Asa Hill consented to Santa Anna’s proposal for John, apparently feeling that his youngest son’s prospects would thereby be very much brighter. Since most of the Mier prisoners were in chains and working at hard labor, he really can’t be faulted for wanting freedom and security for his young son.
John, in a second interview with Santa Anna, consented to the adoption, asking that his father and brother be freed and allowed to return to Texas. He also asked that he not be required to renounce his own citizenship. Asa and Jeffery Hill were released; eventually all the survivors of Mier and of the Dawson Massacre, and those taken prisoner by Woll in San Antonio would be freed. John would go to live with the family of the superintendent of the College of Mining. He would eventually graduate from the school with a doctorate in engineering and a degree in mining, design many of Mexico’s mines and railways and serve as Collis P. Huntingdon’s chief engineer. He corresponded regularly with his family, and made a journey to Texas in 1855 to ask their permission to marry. During the troubles in Mexico during the 1860s, John’s old friend and mentor, General Ampudia, wound up on the wrong side of matters – and John boldly interceded on his behalf.
John Hill died in 1904, at the age of 75.
(I worked some elements and characters involved in the Mier Expedition, the Black Bean Draw and the Texian prisoners at Perote Prison into ‘Deep in the Heart’.