LET IT END WHERE AND HOW IT MIGHT
THE ADVENTURES OF BEN THOMPSON SOUTH OF THE BORDER
by TOM BICKNELL
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
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.
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
"Further Mexican News"
" We are
in possession of full files of Rio Grande papers....From them we extract
full details of the 'Mexican Situation'
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."
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."
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....."
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
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.
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
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.
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
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"
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
....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
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
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.
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."
Southern Intelligencer published the reported movements of Maximilian and
his top generals during February, 1867.
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"
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;
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."
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.
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....
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.)"
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........
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.
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....."
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."
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
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"
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
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
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."
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."
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."
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
RETURN TO TEXAS
Ben Thompson eluded the fate of his leaders but he almost succumbed to another.
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
returned to his hometown of Austin and was reunited with his family after
an absence of almost four years. The Mexican adventure had ended.
[Historic People Index]
[Ben Thompson Index]