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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History

LET IT END WHERE AND HOW IT MIGHT


THE ADVENTURES OF BEN THOMPSON SOUTH OF THE BORDER

by TOM BICKNELL

PAGE TWO

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER

On Saturday, June 22, the night before the surrender, Ben Thompson prowled the city's gambling halls seeking to enrich his pockets. A chance meeting at a dance hall forced him to settle a personal matter.

"...I determined that before the hour of departure I would take one more round to the gambling houses and other places of amusement (they were in full blast, not-withstanding the excitement), the truth is, my finances had again run low, and I was bound to....fill my purse. The gambling failed me. I came out poorer than when I went in. I drifted around with my friends, and at last entered a fandango hall and was soon engaged in dancing with the handsomest and most graceful senorita I ever saw,....As we passed a couple who attracted considerable attention by the energy they displayed in their movements, my eyes encountered those of the man.  The recognition was mutual and instantaneous. He was the man who had punched me with the pistol. That, however, was not the place or time for me to have an explanation with him. I went on with the dance but did not lose sight of my quick motioned friend, although I did not wish him to see that I had my eye on him. After a time the dance ended. My partner was seated, and, as is customary, I asked her what wine, confection or ices I should bring her. Before she answered, this man touched me on the shoulder and asked me to step outside the door with him. I excused myself on the plea of the lady. The devil was already jumping out of him through his eyes. He insisted, but had stepped back a pace or two, as if he expected me to comply with his request. I again said "No, you will excuse me" He then had his hand on his knife. He seemed to hesitate a moment, but only a moment, drew quickly and dashed at me. I was just in time : a step sideways and backwards avoided the blow. I struck him on the head with my pistol, and then, as rapidly as thought, shot him four times. I don't think he even moved after he fell - and he commenced falling on the first shot - nor did I shoot after he touched the floor. The sound of the report had not ceased before I was out at the door and in the dark. Pursuit was made, but I was some distance ahead and safely reached the quarters of General Mejia. His kindness will never be forgotten, nor even grow dim on the records of my memory. I explained to him, he said "Never mind, we will soon be far from here." He handed me two rolls of gold - two thousand dollars - and remarked : "Every man must be his own commissary." It was verging on to three o'clock. The general had not slept, nor did he propose to do so. I wrote to my wife and also dispatched a note to ........( a friend on the American side)....asking him to send over and get my mule....and keep him for me.  I was then ready.....let it end where or how it might."

The Dallas Herald published a full and detailed account of the surrender of the Heroic City of Matamoros.

"Further Mexican News"

" We are in possession of full files of Rio Grande papers....From them we extract full details of the 'Mexican Situation'

"The Surrender"

"The Heroic City was given up to the Liberal forces yesterday morning in accordance with the agreement entered into between General Mejia and (Liberal) General Juan de la Garza.  Early in the morning the garrison began to move towards the levee, carts, carriages and other vehicles being in demand.  General Mejia, evacuated the city with all the honors of war, taking with him his men, baggage, arms and ammunition.  The garrison is going to Bagdad on board the steamers Col. Holcomb, Eugenia and Col. Benedict.  Gens. Mejia and Olvera, with their staffs, left on board the Col. Benedict, with the remaining forces of the Contra-Guerillas amounting to forty men, and Major Gerrard with the following named officers - Capt. Gille, second in command of the company; Capt. Norris, Capt. Ben Thompson, Lieut. Fosser, Lieut. Sessum, Lieut. Hilliam and Lieut. Porche. The balance of the garrison left on board the steamers Holcomb and and Eugenia."

"The Imperial forces have all their arms and also two small pieces of artillery - six pounder's. At 11 o'clock A.M. all the troops were together on board the boats, only waiting the arrival of the Generals and staffs, to start off."

"Messrs. Emilio Velasco and Sanvedra came into town and are shown into an apartment of the City Hall, where Gen. Mejia, Gen. Olvera and Major Gayon were waiting for the Liberal authorities, in order to turn over to them the Heroic City. After giving up the city to the above named gentlemen, who received it in the name of General Juan de la Garza, Gen. Mejia, Gen. Olvera and Major Gayon started for the boats, which were only waiting their arrival to start on the trip down river."

"The town was comparatively quiet, considering such an occasion as the change of administrators. No trouble is anticipated. The largest portion of commercial houses in Matamoros have removed to Brownsville...and very few stores are open....."

"The steamers Holcomb, Eugenia and Col. Benedict and another containing the garrison of Bagdad started down the river where it is expected the Sonora will be tomorrow to take the Imperial forces to Vera Cruz."

The reign of the Empire had passed forever from Northern Mexico. The loss of Matamoros and Bagdad was only one of many blows that fell against Maximilian's empire in the summer of 1866. Napoleon the Third, Emperor Maximilian's chief benefactor, abandoned him. Facing diplomatic pressure from America, the unending cost of this foreign venture and the rise of a united Germany, Napoleon agreed to withdraw the French army. The entire contingent would be out of the country by April 1867.

In Central Europe a land war sparked. The additional thousands of Austrian volunteers previously promised to join the Mexican Imperial army would not be coming as Maximilian's native Austria was engulfed in a struggle against Italy and Prussia. President Juarez had found his general in Mariano Escobedo and the Liberal party was now able to organize a regular army. In August, Maximilian's shrinking Empire lost a second valuable gulf-port town and its custom houses, when the Liberals successfully concluded the siege of Tampico.

Despite these political and military setbacks, Maximilian stated that he had no intention to abdicate the throne and would remain in the country. The commander of all French forces in Mexico, Field-Marshall Francois Bazaine, plainly told the Emperor that he was kept in power only by French money and French bayonets. These would soon be denied to him. The Emperor then attempted to find a political solution to his problems. In lieu of having negotiations between France and the United States, decide the fate of Mexico, he proposed a Mexican national congress in which all political parties and factions would participate. This congress would have the power to decide who would take the reigns of government.  President Juarez immediately rejected Maximilian's offer. The smaller political factions simply ignored it.

In December 1866, Bazaine issued a manifesto stating that French soldiers would no longer take part in any further military campaigns. The troops only would be permitted to defend themselves. Bazaine started to concentrate his army at Mexico City and at the key strategic points along the main road to the port of Vera Cruz. On February 5, 1867, the French army evacuated the City of Mexico and began their long march to the troop ships. But even without the continued military participation of the French army, the war was about to burn even fiercer.

With their fortunes at such a low ebb, the conservatives almost won the war with one bold stroke. Former President of Mexico, Imperial Major General Miramom took an audacious gamble. Undetected, he maneuvered his cavalry division near the city of Zacatecas and came within a whisker of capturing President Juarez and his entire staff. However, the lighting campaign quickly turned into a disaster, when General Escobedo, leading six thousand veterans, smashed into Miramon's flank and destroyed the Imperial cavalry.

For many months there was no substantiated word concerning the exact whereabouts of Major General Thomas Mejia and his division. In early 1867, Mejia had contracted typhus and never fully recovered all his strength. In February, the Brownsville Daily Ranchero could only speculate on General Mejia's location, movements and future plans;

"From the Interior"

"...nothing is known positively of Gen. Mejia. A force was said to be approaching Saint Luis Potosi from the lower country which might have been the Mejia division.

....in this connection we note, that the Monterey Boletin Oficial says Gen, Mejia is at San Miguel sick, and has asked to be relieved on the ground that the whole country has pronounced in favor of the Liberals. This may be true, but we incline to the opinion that the report is an artifice to deceive the Liberals.
...he will not be long in turning up somewhere; very likely in somebodies rear."

Ben Thompson related General Mejia's continued loyalty to the Emperor and of his own decision to fight to the end;

"Maximilian had met with the most serious reverses, his armies defeated, the fickle people rising, and some of his own generals pronouncing against him. He was on the retreat from the City of Mexico.  The covocation of his council had failed. Marshal Bazaine had orders from Napoleon to withdraw the French troops, and he was on the march to Vera Cruz.

Mejia was ordered to join Maximilian at Queretaro by rapid marches. Mejia, though a full-blood Indian of low birth, had by native talent and fortunes of war, risen to high command and he was faithful to the Emperor, one of the few Mexicans who did not turn traitor to him when the crisis came. He was prompt to conclude and instant in action. Volunteers were called for ; he well knew that only such as would volunteer would remain faithful to him in this hour of adversity ; besides, a slow march could serve no purpose, and would only expose him in the open field to attack and destruction by the enemy. Seven hundred and sixty-one men volunteered, I among the number.  Preparations for the march were made instantly, and four o'clock in the morning named as the hour to leave... The Mexican is fickle, ungrateful and treacherous. They saw the certain downfall of Maximilian ; no power on earth within reach could save him. Ever ready to espouse the stronger side, the soldiers who did not volunteer, joined by the citizens, were ready to declare for Juarez and massacre those who adhered top the Emperor. They were particularly malignant towards the alien mercenaries, and I fell within that class.

Four o'clock came, and every man was ready - gun, pistol, knife, lasso, jerked beef, prepared corn, water gourd, active horse, brave heart and love for General Mejia who rode at the head, brave, faithful to the Emperor, as we to him "To Vueretaro to succor the Emperor," cried he ; " my comrades follow, endure and fight with me."

I have been on a great many rides, but this was the most energetic, determined, constant and compact I have ever participated in....twenty-three of the men fell by the way - they from exhaustion, and not from want of will to do or attachment to our glorious leader. We entered Queretaro on the fourth night, a little after twelve o'clock."

The Austin Southern Intelligencer published the reported movements of Maximilian and his top generals during February, 1867.

"Mexican News"

Miramon and Casillo, since striking the Liberals a terrible blow, are said to be falling back toward Queretaro. This movement is for the purpose of protecting the capitol which is threatened by the Liberals..... A great battle for the possession of the City of Mexico will soon be fought in that neighbourhood.....
..Maximilian had left the city going northward, with 6,000 men. His destination is the scene of war several hundred miles from the capitol.......Mejia again leads his command and with 600 men met Caravajal with 2,000 liberals and killed, captured and destroyed his whole force, taking cannons and baggage. This engagement occurred near Queretaro, about the 12th instant"


Maximilian did in fact leave his capitol on February 13, 1867.  the valley town of Queretaro was selected as the point of concentration for the Imperial armies for two reasons. First, it blocked General Escobedo and his army of the North from Mexico City. Secondly, Queretaro had long been a conservative bastion. Mejia had recruited thousands of Indians for the Imperial army from the tribes living in the mountain range northeast of the city. Strategically, Queretaro may have been an excellent choice, but tactically the town was an impossibility to defend with the available Imperial troops.

A foreign officer of Maximilian's staff left his assessment of the battleground selected by the Imperial high command;

"Anyone experienced in strategy had only to stand on the Hill of the Bells (the site of Maximilian's headquarters) to realize that Queretaro was the worst place in the world to defend, as every house could be reached by gunfire from the surrounding hills, and could only be protected if there were sufficient troops to occupy these hills."

TRAPPED

By March 5, Queretaro was surrounded by General Escobedo and a combined force of forty thousand men. In desperation Maximilian personally led a breakout attempt on April 22. After hours of fighting, the road to Mexico City was laid open but the Imperials were too exhausted to move through the opening in the Liberal lines. Instead, they staggered back into their own fortifications. The water supply was cut off on May 10. Food was becoming scarcer and anyone attempting to leave the city in search of it was shot down by Liberal troops. General Mejia was ordered to plan another breakout attempt for the night of May 14-15. Three thousand of his Indian tribesmen were to spearhead the attack. Mejia requested a twenty-four hour delay to perfect his arrangements. Maximilian granted the request.

Ben Thompson would later explain the fateful results of that Imperial procrastination.

" I am no admirer of emperor or kings, as such, but when the dignity is embodied in a grand personage, no man can fail to accord some degree of homage. Mejia was entitled to see and speak to his chief, whom he idolized. I could go where Mejia went. I was his close follower and humble friend ; he recognized and treated me as such. I heard the greeting between these men. It was full of fidelity on one side and gratitude on the other. I am not able to forget the impression Emperor Maximilian made on me. His presence was the magnificence of human appearance.  I will try to describe him. He knew that a few hours would decide his fate. Escobedo, the late antagonist of Mejia,....with a large force was in hot pursuit of the now fleeing head of the nation. Queretaro was the final point of retreat - this, all who reasoned, knew....

The interview and consultation between the Emperor, Miramon and Mejia hardly ended before the dread flag of Escobedo,...appeared....preparing to assault the wall. He (Maximilian) was met with open-handed treachery ; the defenses were yielded.... He and his generals were surrounded by Escobedo's best and most trusted men. The Emperor, Miramon and Mejia were prisoner's with no hope of rescue."

The siege of Queretaro had lasted seventy-two days and word of the great Liberal victory raced around the world. One newspaper subsequently published a letter it received that explained how the treachery of one of Maximilian's closest and most trusted officer hastened the fall of Queretaro and sealed the fate of the Emperor.

"Further about the Queretaro Surrender

From a Private Letter

San Luis Potosi, May 18, 1867.

You ask for news from the seat of war ; luckily the time for giving you news is favorable. The war, I think is closed, at least for the present, certainly for all time, as far as the emperor is concerned. On the 15th inst, the city of Queretaro was taken by the Liberal forces. For some days, it seems that private negotiations had been going between three General officers of the Imperial forces and the Liberals, which was finally concluded, by the Imperial officers agreeing to sell one of the principal forts, for 3000 ounces, ($48,000). It is said that General Lopez was the principal man that was engaged in this transaction ; he was high in the confidence of the Emperor, and finally sold him. (this is the same Lopez that was at one time Matamoros.)"

Maximilian and Lopez had been very close and the Emperor had honored Colonel Lopez greatly by agreeing to be Godfather to his newborn child. Maximilian pulled Lopez up into the hierarchy of Imperial commanders through many promotions. He was specially chosen to command the Empress regiment. In the end, none of this mattered to Lopez, for he was always a poor man in need of money........

FLIGHT

The Emperor and his generals found escape impossible, but not the lesser officers and men of the Imperial army. Ben Thompson perceived an opportunity to escape, and with a friend, seized it.

"Jean Lefebre and I determined to escape if we could.  The capture of the Emperor and his two trusted, most trusted generals, Miramon and Mejia, gave a confused rejoicing to the enemy that permitted escapes that would otherwise have been impossible. We did escape from the town, changed our horses by force, or fraud, if you choose to call it so, and fled in the direction of Vera Cruz, wither we knew General Bazaine had with drawn the French troops, the desire of our lives was to reach and get inside French lines. The ride towards Queretaro, under Mejia was to succour the imperiled Emperor ; now it was to save our own lives - no longer useful to the chief, but dear to us. Our lives! What will we not do to keep them....."

"Two hundred and eighty miles ; no American, no Frenchman, who was....(a) friend to Maximilian ; the country aroused ; every Mexican an enemy, and none but Mexicans on the line of flight, How we reached the protection of the tri-coloured flag....I never knew and will not try to tell."


"History has recorded the fate of the captured, and of him who hesitated..."

The trial of Maximilian, Miramon and Mejia for treason began on June 12. The Emperor steadfastly refused to attend the proceedings and rather than drag him, tied and gagged, into the courtroom, the Liberals tried him in absentia.

General Mejia attempted and amazing and brilliant legal strategy. He shocked the Liberals when he publicly called upon their leading general, Mariano Escobedo, to act as his defence council. earlier in the war, a captured Escobedo had been released by Mejia, who furnished him with money and a horse to make his escape. Escobedo now publicly refused to defend Mejia in court and the newspapers quoted him as saying " he would see him dammed first"

Despite protests from the United States government, the court unanimously condemned the three defendants to death. They were executed by firing squad. Ignoring world opinion, President Juarez was determined to send a message to the royal houses of Europe. The return of Maximilian's bullet-riddled corpse to Austria would put the proper exclamation to his message. Stay out of the internal affairs of Mexico, now and forever.

AN OFFER REFUSED

On the night before the scheduled executions, Tomas Mejia said goodbye to his young wife and newborn son. But before the dawn broke Mejia had one final visitor. Mariano Escobedo stepped into Mejia's cell and made a miraculous offer. In repayment for Mejia's previous act of kindness to him, Escobedo would provide money, a horse and freedom. Mejia asked if the offer also included the Emperor and General Miramon but Escobedo answered that he did not have the power to grant freedom for the others. Mejia simply replied, "then let me stay and die with my Emperor."

The Dallas Herald published the following account of the executions that took place June 19, 1867, on the Cerro de la Campana, the Hill of the Bells.

"Latest from Mexico!

Details of the execution of Maximilian, Miramon and Mejia!

We are in receipt of the Brownsville Ranchero of the 6th inst, maintaining a letter from San Louis Potosi with full particulars of the murder of the Emperor Maximilian and his generals at Queretaro.

"As early as six o'clock the troops that were under the command of General Escobedo were formed up on the 'Cero de la Campasa' a short distance from the city, where the execution was to take place. The people of Queretaro were flocking in thousands to the place to see the closing scenes in the life of the men whom they all loved. As the clock strikes seven the church bells send up the dreaded toll, and announce the fact that the prisoners had left their prisons for the last time and are now upon their way to the place of execution. After the lapse of a few moments they appeared in sight, drawn in carriages, surrounded by a large guard.  The Emperor first, Miramon next and Mejia last. As they near the place, convulsive sobs break from the crowd. All are deeply moved and affected.  When at length the carriages stop, and the prisoners get out amongst the vast concourse you could hardly see a dry eye, tokens of dissatisfaction were manifest, and of all those present, the condemned man seemed less than any others interested in what is taking place. Maximilian upon alighting the ground, saluted the people in an easy graceful manner, and with elastic step approached the fatal spot."

"The prisoners were dressed in plain clothes, their arms were not bound, neither were they blindfolded. After taking their position the Emperor and Miramon spoke to the persons present. The Emperor spoke in a clear and firm manner and with nothing of the bravado. He seemed to feel his situation. He said... He had never done an act that had not been for the good of Mexico, and hoped that his blood might stop the further effusion of blood, in the country."

"Miramon spoke from a paper...The only regret, ...he felt in dying was that...his children might be pointed at as the children of a traitor...but he told them that he was no traitor. He had always opposed the Liberal party from principal....He was satisfied to die, a man could in no nobler cause, than to die for his country....He closed with 'Viva Emperor! Viva Mexico!'"

"Mejia made no address. He however, sent for Escobedo the day before, and said to him that he would die a poor man, that during the time that he had been in service, he had never made an effort to make money, and his only wealth consisted of forty head of cattle which were in the mountains. He asked as a favour, to whom he owed considerable would not press his wife to pay his debts when she came into possession of the money left her by the kindness of the Emperor."

"After Miramon had ceased speaking the guard were drawn up, the prisoners standing facing them - Emperor called the sergeant to him and drawing from his pocket a handful of twenty dollar pieces gave then to him and requested that after his death he divide it amongst his companions and asking them as a favor to aim at his heart. The sergeant then resumed his place; the officer in command gave the signal, the volley was fired and the prisoner lay stretched upon the ground.  The Emperor was not quite dead, there was considerable quivering of the muscles of the body, although five balls had entered his breast, two other soldiers were called up who shot him in the side as he lay on the ground. Miramon and Mejia were killed by the first volley, each had received four balls in the breast. A sheet was immediately thrown over the body of the Emperor by the doctor who was in attendance and who was to embalm the body. The three bodies were then taken possession of by their respective friends and removed from the ground."

"The call was sounded, and the troops moved back to their quarters but thousands remained upon the ground for hours, kept there as it were by some supernatural agency.  That Maximilian died because his case was unjust, no sane person who entertains ideas of right, or wrong, can for a moment believe."

RETURN TO TEXAS

Ben Thompson eluded the fate of his leaders but he almost succumbed to another.

" To Vera Cruz I must go ; this I knew ; but after reaching there, what then? My mind recurred to my early dream of seeing the Pacific slope, and trying my fortune there;......I had the money, and all I had to do was, when comparative quiet should be restored, to pass back to......the great City of Mexico ; from thence to Mazatlan, and onward to San Francisco. It was feasible.....I had resolved; I would do it. But when the fever struck me I saw my hopes fade....

I had by great effort, fought blighting disease, and beat it back from me, but at sight of the city, energy gave and I was seized with the most malignant type of the yellow fever. The conviction fastened itself upon me that this sickness would end in death. I had seen thousands die; so few recover in sickness so deadly as mine. But I did not die; the sickness was long, and I rose a skeleton. Months had elapsed. The French were gone, and I, indebted for my life to the noble Sisters of Charity, Sister Josefa having had special charge of me..... When I was sufficiently recovered to think and look about me, I found my money greatly decreased, though I know as I live that all the missing coins had been expended on me in my sickness and invalidism; besides, a stray newspaper, the New York Herald, found its way to me, and from it I learned that civil government had been established in Texas, J. W. Throck-morton elected Governor. My heart longed for home. There was no barrier to my return; no reason why I should longer expatriate myself. I had done nothing for which I was afraid to meet the gaze of twelve jurors and hear the charge of any honest judge. I returned, and was again clasped in the arms of my wife and to the heart of my mother."


Ben Thompson returned to his hometown of Austin and was reunited with his family after an absence of almost four years. The Mexican adventure had ended.

Tom Bicknell


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