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The Unintended Revolution

By Vincent P. O’Hara
4/20/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Mexico’s war of independence started out as a coup and ended—thanks to a charismatic priest—with the creation of a nation.

On August 25, 1810, Francisco Xavier Venegas de Saavedra, New Spain’s recently appointed viceroy, disembarked at Veracruz to assume the rule of Spain’s largest possession. Discontent had been simmering in the Americas since 1808, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain, arranged for his brother Joseph to be crowned Spain’s king, and imprisoned the legitimate king, Fernando VII.

Viceroy Venegas desired to know the people he was to govern, to get a feel for the mood of the land,  so he proceeded slowly along the precipitous highway that climbed from the coast, visiting with local officers and property owners along the way. New Spain was a vast and relatively prosperous land of more than six million inhabitants encompassing not only Mexico and Central America but also the American Southwest and Gulf Coast, and numerous islands in the Caribbean and Pacific, including Cuba and the Philippines. Crowning the viceroyalty’s social pyramid were approximately 15,000 Europeans of Spanish birth, who called themselves peninsulares, followed by just over a million Creoles, that is, whites born in New Spain. The next largest group, mestizos of mixed white and Indian blood, numbered nearly 1.4 million, while nearly 3.7 million were Indians.

The viceroy’s procession was near Puebla when a courier arrived bearing an urgent message. The mayor of Querétaro, a prosperous manufacturing and agricultural center northwest of Mexico City, had uncovered a revolutionary plot that involved Creole army officers, priests, and minor officials. Although the viceroy’s advisors assured him that an official piece of parchment on a stick would frighten off the plotters “like asses,” Venegas decided to curtail his procession. Although New Spain remained ostensibly loyal to Spain’s provisional government, revolution had already infected New Granada (modern Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador) and Rio de la Plata (essentially modern Uruguay, Paraguay, northern Argentina, and Bolivia). He reached Mexico City on September 14, amidst pomp, ceremony, and uncertainty.

The day following Venegas’s arrival, two young Creole military officers pounded along the track between San Miguel el Grande and Dolores, provincial towns northwest of Querétaro. Their names topped the viceroy’s list of suspected revolutionaries. One was Ignacio de Allende, a wealthy 31-year-old captain of the Queen’s Dragoons of San Miguel. An account described him as “an extremely handsome man of engaging manners and captivating address [and] passionately fond of dangerous sports and martial exercises.” His companion was a fellow officer, Juan de Aldama, whose father was Spanish.

That day they had received urgent messages from the wife of Querétaro’s magistrate. A traitor had denounced as an anti-Spanish cabal the “literary club” she and her husband sponsored. She warned Allende that troops were coming to arrest him, Aldama, and the plot’s other principal, the Creole parish priest of Dolores, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.

These privileged Creoles had joined the cause because they resented the political dominance exerted by the viceroyalty’s Spanish-born ruling class. As one wrote: “What we all want…is not to be subjects of the [Spanish, but rather] to take away the control which they unjustly have….[N]atives of the Kingdom…deserve [that control] and ought to obtain it.” Despite qualifications, talent, or wealth, a Creole like the priest Hidalgo, for example, could never become a bishop; nor could Allende or Aldama achieve a rank higher than captain.

An 1808 coup in which Spaniards had overthrown Viceroy José de Iturrigaray for being too pro-Creole had embittered the plotters and convinced them that only through force could their ambitions be realized. So Allende and his confederates had planned a countercoup—a coordinated uprising by Creole officers at Querétaro and other cities on October 2. The Creole officers would lead the country’s provincial regiments, manned by mestizos and mulattos (Indians were exempt from military service), and quickly seize power from the gachupines, as they contemptuously called those born in Spain.

Allende and Aldama reached Dolores at two o’clock in the morning on September 16 and woke the 57-year-old priest with the news of their betrayal. Miguel Hidalgo was a prominent intellectual who, after teaching 24 years at a university, had been banished to his backcountry parish for overindulging in a passion for gambling. He read the literature of the Enlightenment; the Inquisition had investigated him more than once. He had joined the revolutionary cause from frustrated ambition and perhaps boredom, but he also spoke three Indian languages and clearly he had more concern for the inequities New Spain’s undercastes suffered than did his gentleman confederates. In Dolores he had introduced industries like weaving, raising silkworms, viniculture, and the clandestine manufacture of weapons and, although he subcontracted his parish duties to another priest, he was a charismatic and influential figure.

Confronted by news that the coup plans of his young associates had been discovered and with the prospect of becoming a fugitive, Hidalgo decided to cast the die. He summoned the several dozen men he employed in his various projects and ordered them to imprison the town’s gachupine residents. Then, with dawn approaching, he rang the church bells and called Dolores to Mass. But this was no ordinary service. Pushed into premature action and lacking the core of trained soldiers, Hidalgo preached a powerful sermon to a curious crowd, ending with the famous Grito de Dolores, or Cry of Dolores, the gist of which was: “Long live Fernando VII! Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!”

That cry ignited Mexico’s 11-year struggle to win independence from Spain. The social and economic grievances of New Spain’s mestizos, mulattos, and Indians were far more profound than those of the Creoles, and Hidalgo’s cry for death to bad government and the ruling class sparked an overwhelming response that first surprised and then distressed his gentrified Creole conspirators. The coup they had envisioned turned into a true revolution.

That flood of popular support led to Hidalgo becoming the revolution’s leader and in the three months he held sway, he fought a series of battles that represented the movement’s best chance for military victory. The consequence of Hidalgo’s military failure was a decade of savage class warfare and devastation, the echoes of which haunt Mexico today. In the end, though, Hidalgo’s legacy was the birth of a nation.

After Hidalgo secured Dolores, he and Allende agreed to return to San Miguel el Grande, where Allende hoped to convince his regiment to rise up against the Spaniards. They led a rabble of townsfolk and freed prisoners from the jail armed, if at all, with lances, machetes, and slings. But as they proceeded through the countryside, Indians and mestizos flocked to their cause, unexpectedly swelling their ranks to more than 4,000 men. The heavily populated countryside had suffered a series of poor harvests and the undercastes rallied to Hidalgo because his cry stirred their longstanding resentment against New Spain’s gentry—and held the promise of plunder. Sensitive to their mood, Hidalgo devised a banner with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s dark-skinned patroness of the Indians, to further inspire their fervor.

San Miguel el Grande’s Spanish residents gathered in fear near the municipal building as citizens cheered the revolutionary force’s entry into town on the evening of September 16. The garrison, Allende’s regiment, the Queen’s Dragoons, disobeyed their officers and kept to their barracks. Allende parleyed with the Spaniards and guaranteed their safety and property in return for surrender. That night, however, much to Allende’s frustration, parties of drunken revolutionaries looted gachupine homes and businesses.

Allende angrily confronted Hidalgo about this matter, but the priest persuasively argued that the peasants deserved immediate rewards. He is said to have told his followers, “Take, my children, because everything is yours!”

And they agreed then that Hidalgo would be the warlord and Allende his second in command. The proud and hot-tempered Allende accepted the subordinate position because Hidalgo clearly commanded the greater following and enjoyed a national reputation. A letter the rebels had intercepted from the governor of Guanajuato, Juan Antonio Riaño, ordered Hidalgo’s arrest “because his talents, character, and reputation would render the revolution more vigorous and formidable.”

Riaño, a Spaniard of long service, knew Hidalgo well and had even hosted him in his mansion in Guana- juato, New Spain’s third largest city with 65,000 res- idents. The sack of nearby San Miguel sparked panic in the rich silver-mining center. Riaño mustered Guanajuato’s provincial battalion and fortified the few routes into the city, which was situated in a narrow, twisting canyon. Rich landowners and Spaniards from the countryside gathered their portable wealth and fled into town. But the feared assault did not materialize. Instead, on the morning of September 18, under the Guadalupe banner, and bringing the captured Spaniards as hostages, Hidalgo marched in the other direction to Celaya, a rich town on the plains of the fertile Baijo region of central Mexico.

At the gates of Celaya, Hidalgo demanded the city’s surrender and threatened, “If you open fire on my troops, we will cut the throats of seventy-eight Europeans whom we are holding prisoners.” The Spaniards and some of the provincial infantry regiment’s Creole officers fled for Querétaro by the city’s rear gate. The city council then surrendered and Hidalgo marched in. The town’s working classes eagerly joined the revolutionaries and a night of indiscriminate burning and looting followed.

Again Allende remonstrated with Hidalgo to moderate the violence and again Hidalgo refused; plunder would attract followers and such tactics would intimidate foes. However, Hidalgo was not alone in wishing to treat the Spaniards harshly. Aldama, when questioned on this matter replied, “If my father were living, I would make him prisoner with the rest.”

When Viceroy Venegas, a career military man who had distinguished himself against Napoleon, heard about San Miguel and Celaya, it was obvious that the situation required more than an edict, but his options were limited. He had no European troops to call upon. The army was organized into 10 provincial brigades and these were further divided into regiments and battalions stationed up and down the realm. Two of Guanajuato’s regiments had already defected, giving Venegas little confidence in the rest. That Allende and Aldama, among others, had joined the revolt confirmed his distrust of the Creole leadership. Nonetheless, the crisis revealed Venegas to be a man of decision.

He first established a blocking force at Querétaro, deploying there the Puebla Dragoon Regiment and the La Corona Regiment from Mexico City under Puebla’s governor, Col. Manuel Flon. He reinforced them with more Mexican dragoons and two grenadier battalions. As these troops marched north from the capital, the Puebla, Tres Villas, and Toluca Infantry Regiments marched in.

From Veracruz the viceroy raised two naval battalions and from Mexico City itself he organized several volunteer battalions. The provincial brigades north of the Baijo mustered, although they could do nothing to protect the capital itself. Gen. Félix María Calleja del Rey, a professional soldier from Spain and, more recently, a landowner by way of marriage into a wealthy Creole family, commanded the San Luis Potosí brigade. Using his wife’s money, he had recruited volunteers, armed and trained his brigade, and cast cannons. He responded to the viceroy’s orders to move south with a letter explaining that he could march only when his province was secure and he could field an effective force.

Meanwhile, Venegas launched a vigorous propaganda campaign against the revolutionaries. He controlled all three of New Spain’s printing presses and these began spewing broadsides against Hidalgo and his confederates, accusing them, for example, of planning the cession of Mexico to France. Venegas posted a bounty of 10,000 pesos on the heads of Hidalgo, Allende, and Aldama. The Bishop of Michoacán excommunicated all three, and priests throughout the viceroyalty defamed them from the pulpit.

None of these measures, however, helped Governor Riaño. On September 23 the revolutionary swarm left Celaya bound for Guanajuato, after having acclaimed Hidalgo as captain general of America, and Allende and Aldama as lieutenant generals. As he listened to reports of anti-gachupine skits being performed in the city’s plazas, and sarcastic poems circulating in the streets, the governor grew increasingly nervous. Riaño had but 400 soldiers, 80 cavalry, and several hundred volunteers. He decided that with so many townsfolk, particularly the rough-and-tumble miners, demonstrating disloyalty, he could not defend the city.

Riaño had recently completed a large public structure, the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, or government granary. It was a massive, masonry oblong described by a Spaniard after the battle for the granary as “a true fortress, one of the only ones in the kingdom.” On the night of September 23, Riaño quietly transferred his troops, the royal and municipal treasuries, the government archives, and all Spaniards, along with their personal fortunes, into the Alhóndiga. The public and private currency and precious metals concentrated there totaled three million pesos, or roughly 60 million current dollars. Riaño incorporated an adjacent hacienda and a convent into his defensive perimeter. He walled off several streets leading to the Alhóndiga and barricaded the other access routes. It was a strong position and the governor hoped to hold it until Calleja came to his rescue.

On September 26, with Hidalgo just two days away, Riaño wrote to Calleja again, “The seeds of rebellion spread. Security and confidence are gone. I have neither rested nor undressed myself since the 17th and for the last three days have not slept an hour at a time.” Focused on building his army in San Luis Potosí, Calleja ignored these desperate words. The only help the Spanish general sent were exhortations to hold out.

By this time Hidalgo led 20,000 men. The insurgents had swept through the Baijo accepting the allegiance of Salamanca, Irapuato, and Silao along the way. A hostage Spaniard described his force: “The Indians walked carrying their children, sheep, quarters of beef, and [as evidence of] the plundering they do, they bear doors, tables, chairs, and even beams on their shoulders.”

The revolution’s apparently irresistible momentum explained the tone of Hidalgo’s ultimatum sent to Riaño on the morning of September 28 as his unblooded army climbed the mountainside toward the silver city. “I am legitimately authorized by my nation to undertake the beneficent project which had appeared necessary to me for its welfare.”

He invited the Spaniards to surrender and join his other hostages in captivity. Those who did, he would consider Americans, and he promised that after the successful conclusion of the war he would restore their remaining property. For those who refused, “I shall use all force and stratagem to destroy them.”

Riaño put this demand to the assembled Spaniards and they declared their will to fight. Next he queried the troops and listened to their shouts of “Viva el Rey!” Finally, he assembled the city council, which justly felt deserted, and advised them that he would not surrender.

By the time Hidalgo received Riaño’s defiant reply, the revolutionaries were already streaming through Guanajuato’s narrow streets. An eyewitness recorded, “Far and near [the townspeople] could see ragged, many-colored banners with the picture of the Lady of Guadalupe in the center.”

While the banners “proclaimed religion, Guadalupe, Ferdinand VII, and America, and promised death to bad government, the cries of the irregulars reduced the cause to Long Live the Virgin of Guadalupe and death to the gachupines!”

Meanwhile, the royalists manned the granary’s roof, the hacienda, the convent, and the barricades. The cavalry mustered above the barrier that covered the river approach. The hills were crowded with onlookers, seated on the ground calmly, as if at a bullfight.

When Hidalgo’s van of eager irregulars armed with bows and arrows, spears, and clubs approached the first barricade, a volley sharply rebuffed them. Insurgents flocked toward the sound of gunfire and the captain general dashed from position to position attempting to control the deployment of his forces.

Musketeers from the Celaya Regiment and Indians armed with slings joined the spectators on the hilltops. Soon they sent a steady rain of stones and bullets rattling down upon the fortress roof and courtyard. Peasants pressed against the barriers and fell by the dozens before the defenders’ measured fire. But the insurgents, shouting their battle cry and reinforced by thousands of townsfolk, particularly some of the 10,000 miners that worked in the vicinity, steadily pressed forward. Stones piled up half a foot deep on the granary’s roof, driving the defenders inside.

After half an hour, Indians armed with lances topped one of the barriers. Riaño himself counterattacked with 20 men and restored the position. Then, returning to the fortress, the governor paused on the steps to survey the fighting and was struck in the head by a bullet.

Riaño had not designated a second-in-command. Upon his death, several candidates claimed this position. Discipline quickly broke down and the soldiers abandoned the barricades and fled into the Alhóndiga. The mob surrounded and slaughtered those dragoons stranded outside.

As the crowd pressed against the granary, sharpshooters firing from its narrow windows exacted a steady toll. Miners, wearing earthenware slabs on their backs like turtle shells, braved the gunfire and vainly attempted to break through the walls. Then, one miner smeared pitch on the granary’s giant wooden door and ignited it.

With the door burning, the civilians cowering inside panicked. Some started flinging money from the upper windows, hoping to divert the attackers. One official raised a white flag, but did not inform the soldiers manning the ground floor. When insurgents mounted the steps to receive the surrender, the defenders pitched improvised grenades, constructed from quicksilver flasks, and inflicted heavy casualties. This raised a cry of treachery among the Mexicans and, according to historian Carlos Maria de Bustamante, “the leaders gave orders to spare no one’s life.”

Soldiers formed in front of the door and when the vengeful crowd burst through the smoking portal, the troops had time for one volley before they were overwhelmed. The insurgents flooded into every corner of the granary in a frenzy for plunder. They butchered and stripped civilians. Here and there Spaniards fired shots in self-defense before they were cut down. Officers plied their sabers until they were skewered by lances. Pleas for mercy were answered with a club to the head.

The hacienda and convent quickly fell following the loss of the main position. By five o’clock the fighting had ended. As many as 600 Europeans had died, including the soldiers, but the insurgents lost at least three times that number. Hidalgo ordered trenches dug in the dry riverbed and filled them with the bodies of his men. The surviving masses indiscriminately plundered the city and wrecked the mining establishments. After two days, Hidalgo ordered a halt to the looting, but the wanton destruction continued for a third day.

Of the vast sums of money stored in the granary, little found its way into the revolutionary treasury, forcing Hidalgo to levy a war tax on Guanajuato’s battered citizens. He then organized his irregulars into battalions under officers he trusted, but in haste, knowing that the royalists were not standing still.

The Battle for Guanajuato seemed a propitious achievement in the nascent revolution. Hidalgo’s enthusiastic masses had stormed a strongly defended position and captured Mexico’s second leading city. But it also led to Hidalgo’s undoing. This battle and its aftermath demonstrated the captain general’s limited control over his army. The looting and loss of life had been appalling. Most of the Creole insurgents deeply regretted what had happened. The native barbarism drove most of the Creoles who were not yet committed to align themselves with the royalist cause.

Hidalgo left Guanajuato on October 10. He perceived that it was time to capture the capital and conclude the revolution. He now led more than 40,000 men, but they were an untrained mob. Weapons remained a problem. His artillery train, for example, consisted of two cannons of brass and two fabricated from wood. One contemporary report noted that these weapons, could “serve their function [fire] perfectly, although to no great distance.” He also held 247 gachupine hostages in the Alhóndiga.

Aware that a royalist force was gathering in Queretaro, Hidalgo decided to first capture Valladolid (modern Morelia), capital of the rich province of Michoacán. Valladolid, which lacked a governor or a military chief, embraced Hidalgo as its leader when he entered the city on October 17—after the revolution’s leaders promised a municipal delegation they would respect property rights. (This time Allende made sure they did by firing on his own troops on one occasion.) The bishop, who had excommunicated Hidalgo, Allende, and Aldama three weeks earlier, had fled and left the cathedral locked, much to Hidalgo’s irritation. He ordered the church opened and sang a high Mass of thanksgiving.

The revolution’s leaders incorporated the Michoacán Infantry Regiment and the Patzcuaro Dragoon Regiment into their army—although most of the officers had fled with the bishop—as well as a volunteer battalion. Hidalgo began defining the social aspects of the revolt, declaring an end to slavery and the Indian tribute system, and reducing liquor taxes. He also increased his war chest by confiscating all the church funds and private monies deposited in the cathedral for safety, and accepting generous donations from Valladolid’s wealthy residents.

Then, on October 20, amid rumors that General Calleja would be leaving San Luis Potosí any day, Hidalgo led a host of 80,000 men east toward Mexico City, the capital. General Calleja, with 3,000 cavalry, 600 infantry, and four cannons, decamped from San Luis Potosí on October 24. Colonel Flon sallied from Querétaro with a similar division and met Calleja in Dolores, the birthplace of the insurrection. In several locations bands of up to several thousand men had sprung up, led by revolutionary leaders, either self-proclaimed or commissioned by Hidalgo, distracting the royalist forces.

When Venegas learned that Hidalgo’s horde was marching toward him, he had mustered about 7,000 troops and volunteers, with more on the way. He dispatched a trusted officer who had accompanied him from Spain, Lt. Col. Torcuato Trujillo, and 2,500 men from the recently arrived Tres Villas Infantry Regiment, a battalion of the Mexican provincial militia, and some dragoons, about 7,000 in all, to dispute Hidalgo’s passage.

Trujillo arrived near Toluca, in the valley west of Mexico City, and fortified the bridge where the Royal Highway crossed the Lerma River. Allende bounced him out of this position on October 29 by swinging a column over a crossing that was well to the south and advancing on a parallel road. Trujillo retreated to a pass in the mountains between Mexico City and Toluca called Monte de Las Cruces. At the pass, a company of volunteer lancers and two cannons served by sailors reinforced him.

At eight in the morning on October 30, irregulars leading Hidalgo’s army began skirmishing with Trujillo’s cavalry. Trujillo occupied a prominence south of the road that allowed him to enfilade the highway with his artillery. Two hills overlooked his position. On the southern hill he hid two of the Tres Villas companies, the lancers, and the naval artillery.

Allende exercised tactical command of the army in this battle. He planned to pin the royalist formation with a frontal attack while dispatching divisions to occupy the overlooking hilltops and block Trujillo’s retreat. The insurgents’ main body approached the pass at 11 o’clock, leading with the artillery, the Valladolid and Celaya regiments, and a battalion of Guanajuato miners. The San Miguel and Patzcuaro Dragoons flanked Allende’s force. He had more regulars than the royalists, but most of the Creole officers, repelled by the revolution’s populist character, had remained loyal to the viceroy and by now regimental discipline had deteriorated.

The miners and an Indian division demonstrated greater enthusiasm for the attack, although they were armed with axes and daggers in the first instance and slings, lassoes, and a few lances in the second. Allende sent the miners forward while he threw out a force of 1,200 men under Aldama on his right flank to occupy the prominence where the royalist detachment waited in ambush. The miners advanced with hats in one hand and axes or daggers in the other, shouting their battle cries of “Guadalupe!” and “Death to the gachupines!” A well-directed volley of grapeshot, however, repelled them in disorder through the provincial infantry, causing it also to waver.

Encouraged, Trujillo launched an attack on his left flank against Aldama’s troops, using his ambush force. He also tried to throw the insurgents off a height on his right flank. These subsidiary operations failed, however, and Allende succeeded in planting cannons on both hills.

Nonetheless, the insurgents could not dislodge the royalists and instead subjected them to a long bombardment with their poor artillery. The Spanish colonel, accepting casualties, held his ground until 5:30 that afternoon when, nearly out of ammunition, he retreated down the mountain, cutting through the thousands of irregulars blocking his route and bringing many of his wounded with him. He entered Mexico City the next day—his force intact although he’d suffered some 2,500 casualties.

Hidalgo followed Trujillo to Cuajimalpa, only seven miles from Mexico City, where he halted and made camp. The insurgents had suffered at least 2,000 deaths, and many were wounded. One traveler noted that “for more than five years after the engagement on either side of the pass of Monte de Las Cruces, both on the ascent and descent, for the distance of over a league, great heaps of human bones could be seen piled underneath the trees.”

Rocked by the carnage, about 40,000 men deserted the rebel army. Monte de Las Cruces demonstrated the problem of relying on masses of poorly disciplined troops—especially where there was no immediate prospect of loot to spur them on. A young, talented Creole officer named Agustin de Iturbide represented another problem increasingly plaguing the rebels: polarization, in what had become a class war.

Hidalgo had offered Iturbide a high command after the Battle of Guanajuato. Although he resented the ceiling Spaniards placed on his career as much as Allende did, Iturbide instead remained loyal and fought with Trujillo at Monte de Las Cruces.

Despite the casualties and desertions, the victory had opened the road to Mexico City for the rebels. As Venegas considered fleeing to Veracruz, Allende and Aldama urged Hidalgo to exploit the opportunity to assault the city immediately. Instead, hoping to replace the deserters, Hidalgo dispatched agents to recruit more followers. He also sent a letter to the viceroy demanding his surrender.

The next day the agents did not return and few recruits appeared. Hidalgo sent forth some more-senior leaders. They learned some agents had defected while others were hanging from gallows. Royalist propaganda, promises, and the clergy’s influence had anticipated Hidalgo; here the Indians and mestizos remained loyal while the Creoles considered his movement a bloody Indian mutiny. Nor did Hidalgo receive an answer from Venegas, who, gratified by nearly universal protestations of loyalty, elected to stay and fight.

Hidalgo paused three days at Cuajimalpa. General Calleja was still far away. He had taken back Dolores on October 30, sacking Hidalgo’s house and abusing the inhabitants before moving on to San Miguel el Grande, where he destroyed the properties of Allende and Aldama. Venegas could deploy several thousand trained troops and a similar number of volunteers, but he and his officers doubted the city could repel a determined attack by Hidalgo’s rebel army.

Despite the countryside’s indifference, Allende and Aldama continued to urge an immediate advance. Hidalgo, the gambler who had been willing to wager all in starting the revolution, had finally decided to play it safe. He told Allende that if the city fell and the army dispersed in an orgy of looting, then it would be vulnerable to Calleja when he arrived. He wrote to another leader that he lacked ammunition. Clearly, his failure to raise new forces in the Valley of Mexico surprised and depressed him.

Hidalgo retreated over the Monte de Las Cruces. They then headed toward Querétaro but instead blundered into Calleja’s army of 7,000 on November 7 as it marched south. Feeling that their 40,000 men were too dispirited to fight effectively, Allende occupied a hilltop, thinking to feign combat and then retreat. This maneuver, the so-called Battle of Aculco, proved only partially successful. While the revolutionary army disengaged, it lost several hundred men as well as all its cannons, baggage, and some Spanish hostages. The royalists lost a single man.

This battle was the final straw for the revolution’s original Creole leaders. Allende, Aldama, and most of the other Creole officers took a portion of the troops and marched to Celaya and then to Guanajuato where they hoped to manufacture weapons and mint money. Hidalgo turned toward Valladolid to raise more men.

In that city he heard that Guadalajara had fallen on November 11 to an insurgent force led by a peasant general, one of several uprisings inspired by Hidalgo’s success. They had slaughtered a royalist column by employing novel tactics, like falling to the ground when a cannon was fired and rushing it while it was being reloaded. Hidalgo welcomed the seizure of Guadalajara. He could use the printing press there and thought he could recruit a new army. After ordering the secret execution of 60 gachupine prisoners, Hidalgo headed north.

The rebels had respected property in Guadalajara and the city greeted the captain general of America with a festival, a guard of honor, and martial music provided by a dragoon band. Hidalgo set about publishing lengthy replies to royalist propaganda, forming some of the trappings of a national government using royal institutions, and raising a new army. Despite the setbacks at Monte de Las Cruces and Aculco, the insurgent cause seemed hopeful. Populist leaders were springing up and winning victories. Tepic fell on November 23 and San Blas on November 30. Another insurgent column captured San Luis Potosí, despite Calleja’s precautions.

After the battle of Aculco, Calleja, who always moved deliberately, turned north and on November 24 he attacked Allende at Guanajuato. Maintaining the ill-founded rebel reliance on artillery, Allende deployed a dozen batteries of small cannons on hilltops lining the twisting road leading into the city. Rather than compliantly marching up the canyon through a storm of cannon fire, Calleja assaulted these unsupported positions one by one. Historian Hubert Bancroft recounts that, “so miserably had the cannon been mounted that they could only be fired in the one direction pointed; and the royalists, charging up the slope at places out of the line of fire quickly routed the insurgents.” Allende fled Guanajuato while a mob massacred as many as 200 Spanish and loyal Creoles imprisoned in the Alhóndiga. Calleja entered the city, erected gallows in every plaza, and hanged 69 citizens, most of whom he selected by lot.

Allende arrived in Guadalajara on December 9. Hidalgo greeted him royally. One insurgent wrote to his daughter, “when the two commanders entered the city, bells were rung everywhere, cannons fired salutes and there was general rejoicing.” This show, however, hid the tensions that simmered between the two leaders. Allende even considered poisoning Hidalgo, and one companion noted that Hidalgo became so careful that he would have someone sip from his glass before himself taking a drink.

After capturing Guanajuato, General Calleja regrouped. A royalist spy told him that the rebel army could field 6,000 mounted lancers; 5,000 archers; and 25,000 men armed with spears, clubs, and slings. However, the entire force possessed only 600 muskets. Calleja did not fear such a foe and decamped to attack Guadalajara.

Hidalgo and Allende disagreed on how to meet Calleja. Hidalgo wanted to risk all in one battle, using his entire strength. Allende felt the insurgent army remained too large and undisciplined to confront Calleja’s regulars. He wanted to abandon Guadalajara and divide the army into six independent divisions that could conduct a hit-and-run campaign.

Hidalgo prevailed, arguing that mass desertions would occur if the army fractured and that it would discredit the revolt to abandon Guadalajara without a fight. Moreover, revolution seemed truly popular. An eyewitness recorded, “The people [of Guadalajara], filled with ardor, mixed with the combatants, wishing to take part in that glorious contest. All was animation, all was life.” When the army marched, Hidalgo, clad in a resplendent uniform and mounted on a spirited horse, was so confident that he brought stores to supply their march on Mexico City, which was to commence immediately following Calleja’s defeat.

On January 17, 1811, Hidalgo awaited Calleja with 80,000 insurgents—of whom only a thousand possessed firearms—and 95 cannons in a series of strong positions south of the bridge over the Calderón River, 20 miles west of Guadalajara. Calleja had 3,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 10 cannons. The Spanish general, aggressive as always, prepared to attack the main insurgent position. On his left he dispatched Colonel Flon with four cannons to strike the enemy right flank while he planned to attack the other flank. The two divisions would complete their victory when they met in the middle.

Flon crossed a ford upstream from the bridge and, after overrunning some batteries, he assaulted Allende’s positions on a hill overlooking the river valley. Calleja marched toward the bridge, but after perceiving that crossing it would subject him to fire from concentrations of enemy guns on hills to the west and south, he instead positioned his artillery and engaged Allende’s left while dispatching two cavalry formations on a wide swing around the enemy. The insurgents, however, repulsed Flon’s division twice even though it attacked with great élan and, after running out of artillery ammunition, the royalists broke and fled. At the same time, rebel lancers drove back Calleja’s flanking movement.

At this point, with the battle running against him, Calleja demonstrated cool leadership. He sent a strong column of infantry supported by a pair of guns and two cavalry squadrons to Flon’s aid. When he saw that even this reinforcement would not restore the position, he decided, despite his earlier misgivings, to concentrate most of his army and all 10 field pieces on the far side of the bridge, to the left of the insurgent army and to charge the enemy center.

With their artillery firing in concentration, the royalist buglers sounded the advance. The issue was in doubt, especially since the insurgent army had been fighting well. Then a cannonball exploded a rebel munitions wagon, killing dozens of men around it and igniting a grass fire. A stiff breeze drove the fire into the rebel ranks and caused panic as men ran to escape the flames. Calleja’s troops charged and reached the heights with few losses, finding unmanned cannons loaded with grapeshot. In the ensuing rout, royal cavalry slew more than a thousand insurgents, although Colonel Flon fell during the pursuit.

Hidalgo, Allende, Aldama, and most of the other rebel commanders escaped, although Allende, fed up with Hidalgo’s leadership, in effect arrested the priest, warning him on pain of death neither to leave the army nor to speak out. Calleja marched into Guadalajara to a reception just as warm as the one accorded Hidalgo.

The Battle of Calderón was Hidalgo’s last gamble. His army fought well, but the superior discipline of the royalist forces prevailed. Although the rebellion would continue for another decade, never again did the insurgents have an opportunity to achieve their goal through victory in a single battle; nor did they ever again field such large forces.

With his army reduced to several thousand effectives, Allende decided to regroup in Texas. However, the defeat at Calderón had destroyed his cause’s credibility throughout the north. On March 21 the army was strung out in a long column for the passage through the desert, allowing the wells time to refill between thirsty contingents. Outside of Acatita de Baján, Coahuila turncoat troops, posing as an honor guard to welcome Allende, captured the unsuspecting rebels as each unit arrived. The insurgent leaders were taken to Chihuahua in chains. A royal court sentenced them to death. Firing squads executed Allende and Aldama in June, and Hidalgo on July 30, 1811. Their heads were cut off, transported to Guanajuato and hung from corners of the Alhóndiga where for 10 years they were a grim reminder to those contemplating rebellion.

But the populist revolt Hidalgo inspired far outlived his death. Francisco Venegas remained viceroy until March 1813 when, dissatisfied by his inability to bring the revolt to an end, the junta ruling Spain replaced him with General Calleja. Realizing he didn’t have enough troops to quell every uprising, Calleja tried to intimidate the Mexicans with summary executions and by burning rebellious villages to the ground.

Those policies simply spurred the desire to be free from Spain. The mestizo José María Morelos, who was also a priest, proved to be the insurgency’s most effective military commander, but loyalists eventually captured him, too, and Calleja ordered him executed in December 1815.

Mexican captains like Vicente Guerrero continued to lead small bands of irregulars, though they might be more properly called bandits than insurgents. Yet the unrest was noticed in Spain, which recalled Calleja in September 1816—this time because his brutal methods seemed to be prolonging the revolution.

In November 1820 the new viceroy ordered Agustín de Iturbide, the Creole officer who 10 years before had refused to fight for the insurgents, to chase down Vicente Guerrero. Iturbide did find Guerrero, but rather than battling, they reached an accord, jointly issuing the Plan of Iguala, which called for Mexico to become an independent kingdom; making Spaniards and Creoles equals; and preserving the position of the church and the privileges of the upper classes.

Beggared by a long and brutal insurrection, Creoles and Spaniards embraced peace on those conditions. In less than a year, after a campaign marked by reconciliation and generous terms for surrendered royalists, Iturbide triumphantly entered Mexico City. On September 28, 1821, a junta of the city’s leading Creoles and Spaniards signed the Act of the Independence of the Mexican Empire.

The Creole-led Royal Army was the agent of Mexican independence, just as Allende and Aldama had originally intended, but the price had been far beyond what they had ever imagined.

On October 25, 1821, an American diplomat reported to the U.S. secretary of state that, “Before the insurrection of the year 1810, the Kingdom contained six millions of inhabitants…the royal revenue exceeding $20,000,000 [however]…in consequence of the devastations committed by both parties in the long and cruel war between the Europeans and Americans the population cannot now be computed at more than four millions, the revenue at [little] more than half of what it was.”

Today, Hidalgo and Allende head the pantheon of Mexico’s national heroes. The country proudly displays their statues, and Hidalgo is regarded as a champion of popular rights. However, liberty from Spain did not disrupt the social stratification in Mexico or bring justice and prosperity to the nation’s undercastes. In fact, independence deepened the problems underlying the class and racial war that Hidalgo so easily ignited. Civil war erupted again in 1910 during the so-called Mexican Revolution, and even today the issues of caste, justice, and privilege in Mexican society continue to simmer.

 

Originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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