In March 1843, 176 members of an unauthorized army of Texans captured in Mexico drew beans from a jar to determine which 17 among them would die for their alleged crimes.
By Peter F. Stevens
As war raged across the rugged Mexican countryside during the summer of 1847, Major Walter Lane led a detachment of Texas Rangers toward a small outpost known as the Hacienda del Salado, in central Mexico, surprising its residents at dawn. The American riders employed the local alcalde (mayor) as a guide to take them to their destination. He led them to a ditch on the outskirts of village, where the battle-hardened contingent found the graves of 16 of the 17 Texans who had been executed in the infamous “Black Bean Lottery” of March 25, 1843. Major Lane ordered the corpses of the unfortunate victims exhumed and placed in boxes for reburial in Texas. When the grim task was completed, Lane’s party headed back into the hills with the remains.
The grisly saga of the Black Bean Lottery rose out of the animosity between the fledgling Republic of Texas and Mexico, from which it had gained its independence through revolution in 1836. After winning election to the Texas presidency in December 1841, Sam Houston once again found himself at odds with his old adversary, Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna, whom he had defeated five years before at the decisive Battle of San Jacinto. Within days of taking office, Houston learned the outcome of an ill-conceived Texan raid into the Santa Fe region, which was still controlled by Mexico. The expedition, authorized three months earlier by his predecessor, Mirabeau B. Lamar, had left scores of Texans suffering in Mexican prisons. Meanwhile, Santa Anna had sworn to recapture Texas and plant Mexico’s “eagle standards on the banks of the Sabine.”
On March 5, 1842, General Rafael Vásquez and seven hundred Mexican soldiers seized San Antonio, Texas, throwing residents of the Texan frontier into panic. Though the small army soon retreated across the Río Grande, hundreds of angry Texans rushed west, anxious to avenge this insult.* President Houston knew that his government could not afford a war, but when a larger Mexican force of 1,400 soldiers under General Adrian Woll repeated Vásquez’s feat on September 11, Houston could see no alternative but to authorize retaliatory action.
Three weeks later, the Texas president ordered Brigadier General Alexander Somervell to organize a raid into Mexico. When Somervell arrived in San Antonio on November 4 to take charge of his new force, he encountered as motley and fractious an assemblage of recruits as Texas had ever seen. One of them, legendary Texas Ranger William A. A. “Bigfoot” Wallace, later described his comrades as “Dare-devils . . . afraid of nothing under the sun . . .” who had “left their country for their country’s good.”
The impatient band of rowdy frontiersmen and freebooters scorned the general’s attempts to instill discipline. Bound to his orders and bolstered by a handful of loyal, seasoned companies, Somervell struggled to ignore the specter of impending disaster, and on November 25, 1842, 750 Texas volunteers marched south from San Antonio.
With dissension marring their every step, this grandly-named “Southwest Army of Operations” reached the small Mexican town of Laredo on December 8, and only one day later, Somervell’s darkest fears about the caliber of his men were realized. Frustrated by their continual lack of supplies and anxious for action of any kind, a large contingent of the Texans tore into Laredo, sacking the defenseless town.
Appalled, Somervell forced the brigands to return their plunder and placed the worst offenders under arrest. On December 10, he delivered an impassioned address to his impatient troops. Although his speech garnered him renewed support from much of the army, nearly two hundred of his riders voted to quit the expedition and return to Texas.
Growing increasingly dubious about his chances for success, Somervell led his reduced ranks down the eastern bank of the Río Grande, then crossed the river and encamped outside the town of Guerrero. When the townspeople was unable to produce the supplies that the general demanded from them, the Texans’ discontent burst forth, rendering Somervell nearly helpless to control them. Further discouraged by a cryptic letter he had received from President Houston and convinced that remaining in enemy territory was “an act of imprudence,” Somervell ordered his army to retreat north to Gonzáles, Mexico, on December 19.
The order to retreat threw the camp into an uproar and Somervell’s most vocal opponents into open mutiny. Five of his eight captains took company votes on whether or not to quit the expedition. Happy to be rid of the vacillating general, about three hundred men voted to continue south. Although their motives varied, the bulk of this new, freelance army was, one Texan admitted, bent on plunder. That afternoon, the frustrated General Somervell and his remaining 189 troops began their long journey back to Texas.
On December 20, the renegades selected Colonel William S. Fisher to be their new leader. The tall, intelligent, self-styled mercenary had fought with equal fervor against Mexico in the revolution, against Comanche and Cherokee Indians, and as a hired gun for Mexican rebels during an 1839 revolt. The dissidents’ new commander had once served as President Houston’s secretary of war but now hoped to exploit the chaos reigning in northern Mexico and earn for himself “the riches of the land and the fatness Thereof.”
The next day found the Texans heading southeast, with a portion of their band floating down the Río Grande, “in as high spirits as ever a bridegroom went to his wedding with, and equal impatience.” Fisher’s legions crossed the river and regrouped on the west bank. On December 23, they entered the small village of Mier and directed its poor residents to bring to their camp a week’s supply of rations for 1,200 men, although the band of Texans totaled only about a quarter of that number. Somehow convinced that these destitute subsistence farmers held vast reserves of food and equipment, the Texans took the town’s alcalde, Francisco Pérez, hostage to insure the delivery of the provisions.
But December 24 brought the Texans no supplies. And on Christmas morning, a local sheepherder informed Fisher that about seven hundred Mexican troops under General Pedro de Ampudia and Colonel Antonio Canales had arrived at Mier. Colonel Fisher called a council of war to determine the army’s next move. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the men left little question as to their preferred course of action. Supremely confident in their fighting ability, every one of Fisher’s officers called for an immediate attack on the village.
Leaving about 40 men behind to guard their horses and supplies, Fisher led roughly 260 Texans toward Mier. By nightfall they had reached the outskirts of the village, which sat on the opposite side of the Río Alamo. The Texans eagerly forded the cold river in total darkness and a chilling drizzle, only to be spotted by an enemy cavalry patrol as they reached the far bank. The Mexican horsemen fired a few shots at the Texans, then turned and galloped into the village.
Their presence detected, Fisher and his men charged toward the village but were quickly halted by the fire of two six-pounder cannon that commanded the village square. Edging into Mier through the back of a house, the Texans slowly infiltrated the village, moving from house to house by breaking through the adjoining walls of each building. Fisher’s men were well protected inside the hard adobe exterior walls of the houses, and by midnight of Christmas Day, they were trying to get some sleep.
Before dawn broke, the battle began in earnest as Ampudia tried to use the two cannon to blast the Texans from their shelters. The Texas marksmen, whose rifles were far superior to their opponents’ muskets, responded by opening a murderous fire on the exposed artillery companies and the Mexican troops lining the village’s rooftops. Several hours of this sniping left Mexican corpses lining the streets. Finally General Ampudia ordered a contingent of his men to form ranks and drive the hated Texans from Mier. But after his splendidly-dressed troops had been driven back three times by around fifty of Fisher’s men, the Mexican general abandoned this strategy.
Although their losses were slight, the Texans’ situation was desperate. William Fisher was in agony after losing a thumb to a musket ball, and the entire force, hundreds of miles from home, was cut off from escape, low on ammunition, and had no hope of reinforcement. Fisher’s subordinates, Ewen Cameron and Thomas Jefferson Green, tried to rally the besieged troops, but their voices could hardly be heard amidst the chaos.
By mid-afternoon of December 26, Fisher recognized their situation as hopeless. Although a number of his men ached to continue the fight, he saw surrender as “the only means of saving the lives of even a portion of the command.” His poorly organized force had suffered only 33 casualties, while the blood of the Mexican soldiers, as General Ampudia later wrote, “flowed in the gutters of Mier.” With the expectation that they would be treated “with all the honor and consideration of prisoners-of-war,” Fisher and his ragged soldiers reluctantly surrendered and stacked their arms in the square.
General Ampudia had earned a reputation for dealing harshly with enemies, and had he known that the Texans were operating without the blessing of their government, it is likely that he would have been less than magnanimous in his treatment of them. But as it was, he viewed Fisher’s troops as citizens of a nation with which Mexico was at war, and so treated them equitably.
Five days after the battle, the well-guarded remnants of Fisher’s tired army bade farewell to their wounded and headed southeast toward their captors’ headquarters at Matamoros. While there, the prisoners were well fed and “treated with marked humanity by all the better classes of the population . . . .” They passed their time in good spirits, confident that they would soon be repatriated.
On January 13, 1843, however, General Ampudia received orders from Mexico City to march the Texas captives southward immediately. President Santa Anna recognized the Texans not as prisoners of war, but as robbers and bandits. Several of Fisher’s men–veterans of the disastrous 1841 Santa Fe raid–had been warned that waging war upon Mexico again would bring about their execution.
The Texans were indignant and felt that the terms of their surrender at Mier had been violated. Nevertheless, after separating Fisher, Green, and three other officers from their troops to discourage escape attempts, five hundred Mexican defensores under the command of Colonel Antonio Canales began herding the Texans toward Mexico City.
In the absence of the other officers, the Texans elected Ewen Cameron as their leader. Like Fisher, Cameron had fought on the side of Mexican rebels in 1839. He had sparred with Antonio Canales before, and the two hated each other. Canales likewise had no love for the Texans, and his militia used their musket butts and sword points freely to prod their captives forward. On February 10, the 209 Texans arrived at the Hacienda del Salado, where they were reunited with Fisher’s party, which had arrived the previous day. The Texans quickly decided to attempt an escape the next morning.
As they gathered around their breakfast of boiled rice in the early morning light of the 11th, however, Cameron and a few other Texans observed Fisher and his officers ride out of the ranch under heavy guard. Their plan having been detected, the Texan leaders were being sent on toward Mexico City. Deprived once more of their senior officers, Cameron nonetheless concluded that the remaining Texans were easily a match for the guard and declared that, “The break will be made this morning if I have to make it all alone and single-handed.”
Most of Cameron’s weary comrades eagerly supported his decision and slowly congregated in the center of the courtyard, which was surrounded by ten-foot-high walls. They were now guarded by a force of about two hundred Mexican soldiers who had replaced Canales’ men before the prisoners’ arrival at Salado. “An unbroken silence reigned over the band,” Texan Joseph McCutchan later recalled, with “every eye fixed on Cameron, head erect, eyes steady.”
Suddenly, the Scot tossed his tattered hat high into the air, and the Texans “poured from our dens like a pack of ravenous wolves.” Charging toward the inner door of the courtyard, Cameron and a Texan named Samuel Walker hurled aside two sentries and broke for the outer door. Their whooping comrades swarmed the astounded Mexicans, who belatedly opened fire. The hail of musketry had little effect on the melee, and a vicious hand to hand clash broke out beyond the ranch walls. The Mexicans soon wilted before the prisoners’ ferocious onslaught.
The Texans disarmed their stunned guards, pillaged the arms and ammunition stores in an outer enclosure, and drove the Mexican soldiers into flight. Within minutes Cameron’s haughty Texans were alone in the courtyard, and shocked Mexican troops were scattering into the hills. Five Texans and five Mexicans lay dead or dying in the dust.
Leaving their wounded at the ranch with about twenty men who had not joined in the break, the Texans immediately set out for the Río Grande. But their plan held scant promise of success, as the region between Salado and the river was an unfamiliar, mountainous desert that soon would be crawling with pursuing Mexican cavalry. For several days, the escapees headed northeast on the main roadway, scavenging from small ranches and relying on their fighting prowess to carry them home. Then, in spite of Cameron’s protests, the Texans abandoned the road and were soon adrift in the trackless desert.
Wandering across the arid wastes, the exhausted escapees tossed away their weapons as they were driven by hunger and thirst to forage for insects and snakes and to burrow for water in the parched earth. Some of the men desperately shoveled moist dirt into their mouths, while others, maddened by their thirst, stooped to drinking their own urine. The bulk of the prisoners scattered across the barren valleys, where their Mexican antagonists were patiently waiting, and by February 25, all but roughly a dozen of Cameron’s men had been recaptured.
Chained in pairs and looking like sun-blistered scarecrows, the Texans lurched into Saltillo on March 1, unaware that an angry Santa Anna had ordered the execution of the entire band. The commander charged with carrying out the executions, General Francisco Mejía, defiantly declared “that he would be murderer for no man or government,” and during the next three weeks, British and American diplomats protested to the Mexican president. Santa Anna grudgingly retracted his original order, resolving instead to shoot one tenth of the prisoners.
On March 25, Colonel Domingo Huerta was waiting for the Texans when they trudged back under guard into the familiar courtyard of Salado. That afternoon the 176 debilitated prisoners received the grim, unexpected news that every tenth man would be shot at sunset. To determine who among them would face the firing squad, the Texans were to draw beans from a small earthen jar. Those who drew a white bean would live; those who drew a black one would die.
A jar filled with 159 white and 17 black beans was brought forward. Huerta, aware that Cameron would draw first, made certain that all the black beans were near the top of the pile. But the wily Cameron thrust his hand deeply into the jar and pulled out a white bean. To Huerta’s dismay, the three Texans who followed Cameron also drew white. The colonel ordered a soldier to give the jar a vigorous shake, and the fifth man to draw, Captain William Eastland, came away with the first black bean.
As the drawings continued, Mexican troops posted on the surrounding walls turned occasionally to watch the proceedings. Some, one prisoner remembered, seemed deeply moved, while others watched “as though they had heavy wagers upon the result.” Physically and mentally drained by their long ordeal, most of the Texans took their turns at the jar with stoic resignation. After the seventeenth fatal black bean had been drawn, the condemned men were allowed a final visit with their officers, to whom they gave their last requests.
As the sun slowly set, nine of the condemned Texans, bound with cords and blindfolded, were made to sit on a log in front of a wall, staring blindly toward the red-capped firing squad. For seconds that seemed like an eternity, silence filled the courtyard. Then the curt command to fire shattered the stillness, and the first salvo tore into the Texans, knocking them from the log. It took the sloppy-shooting Mexican troops several volleys to quiet the anguished cries of the dying men.
The remaining eight prisoners were then led to the place of execution, and the process was repeated. When the muskets fell silent ten minutes later, one man, Henry Whaling, remained alive, despite twelve wounds, cursing his tormentors with his remaining breath. Colonel Huerta approached him and, placing his pistol against the contemptuous Texan’s head, pulled the trigger, sending Whaling to join his comrades in death.
The detail sent to cart away the ravaged corpses for burial the following morning found only 16 bodies. Seventeen-year-old James Shepherd, his cheek and arm shattered by musket balls, had only pretended to be dead, then crawled away from the ranch during the night. Four days later, however, the luckless boy was captured outside Saltillo and immediately put to death.
Huerta had carried out his bloody punishment to the letter, but to Santa Anna, the hated Ewen Cameron remained a loose end. The surviving Texans were quickly put back on the road to Mexico City, eight hundred miles to the south. Near the end of their trek, they rested for a night in an Indian village called Huehuetoca. When they again headed south at dawn on April 26, Cameron remained behind. Santa Anna, who had expected Cameron to die at Salado, had decided that the need to eliminate this Scottish terror outweighed concerns for justice, and so he had ordered him shot. As the sun slowly climbed into the morning sky, Cameron bared his chest to a firing squad and cried, “Fire!” The Mexicans readily obliged.
The ordeal of the remaining Mier prisoners continued for many months, as relations between Texas and Mexico deteriorated even further. After reaching the Mexican capital, the prisoners were put to work building a road from Santa Anna’s residence to the nearby village of Tacubaya. During this time, Samuel Walker and several others managed to escape. When the road was finished, the Texans hoped they would be released, but to their dismay, they were marched 160 miles east, where on September 21, 1843, they were deposited in the gloomy castle at Perote. There they joined William Fisher, the other officers who had avoided the Black Bean affair, and about 35 other Texans who had been captured during the fighting at San Antonio a year earlier.
Languishing in the squalid cells of the imposing stronghold, the Texans were plagued by cold, lice, and occasionally typhus. As the months passed, several prisoners managed to tunnel out of the castle, although most were later recaptured. Some tried to slip out with the San Antonio veterans when they were released in March 1844, an act that spurred prison officials to place the Mier veterans in chains that they would wear for the balance of their captivity.
Finally, on September 15, 1844, Santa Anna declared a general amnesty for the remaining Texas captives, whose numbers had dwindled considerably. In the 18 months since the Salado executions, Santa Anna had released a few men for diplomatic reasons, and the ranks of the Texan force had been further thinned by fatalities and escapes. Just 104 threadbare men, roughly one-third of their original number, stumbled out of the Perote fortress to begin the long trip home.
From a military standpoint, the Mier expedition was insignificant. The individual Texans who survived the long ordeal came home to a transient nation on the verge of joining the United States, one whose people had largely forgotten them. The Mier veterans, however, stood by their actions and swore vengeance upon the nation at whose hand they had suffered. When Mexico and the United States went to war in 1846, survivors of Salado marched with the American armies of Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. In battles at Monterrey, Buena Vista, Vera Cruz, and Cherubusco, their memories of the Black Bean Lottery triggered bloody retribution against Santa Anna’s army.
*Following the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 that ended the Texas Revolution, a vast expanse of territory remained in dispute between Mexico and the new Republic of Texas. While Texas claimed land as far south and west as the Río Grande, Mexico drew the border much farther north and east. The boundary was not settled until the end of the 1846-48 war between Mexico and the United States, which by then included the state of Texas.
Peter F. Stevens is a freelance writer from Quincy, Massachusetts.