by Tom Clavin
The following is an excerpt detailing the Mier Expedition, and it can be found in Follow Me to Hell: McNelly’s Texas Rangers and the Rise of Frontier Justice. The book is to be published on April 4, 2023, to coincide with the Rangers’ bicentennial.
William Fisher had served his adopted state with honor. However, in the last days of 1842, he was making the worst decision of his life in leading Texans further into Mexico instead of returning to San Antonio.
Born in Virginia, Fisher emigrated to Texas in 1834 and settled in Gonzales. In March two years later, he reinforced Sam Houston’s army with the company of volunteers he had raised and they participated in the Battle of San Jacinto. Fisher served for 11 months as the new republic’s secretary of war, then when Mirabeau Lamar became president, he appointed Fisher lieutenant colonel of a frontier cavalry regiment. He was in command of two companies of regulars at San Antonio at the time of the Council House Fight.
In 1842, Fisher had been elected a captain in Somervell’s army. When that campaign ended, he was elected leader of those members of the expedition who continued into Mexico. Fisher’s force moved on. approaching Ciudad Mier on December 20.
Another member of this expedition was William Alexander Anderson Wallace. Known as “Bigfoot,” he was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia. Wallace was 19 when he learned that one of his brothers had died in the Battle of Goliad in 1836. Pledging to avenge his brother’s death, he headed for Texas. By the time he arrived, however, the war was over. Wallace found he liked the spirited independence of the Republic of Texas and he decided to stay.
He cut quite a figure: Over six feet tall and weighing around 240 pounds, Wallace’s physique made him an intimidating man, and his unusually large feet earned him the nickname. According to one description, he was “plenty tall and brawny. In his prime, he had an arm spread of six feet six and he could swing his rifle as easily as a hoe. Black hair curled thick on his well-shaped head, and his eyes were so keen that he would never wear spectacles to the end of his long life.”
Wallace chose to follow Fisher and risk his “long life.” While there have been numerous accounts of this fatal foray into Mexico which became known as the Mier Expedition, a particularly colorful and detailed one—albeit requiring a few grains of salt—can be found in John C. Duval’s The Adventures of Big-Foot Wallace, published in 1870. Duval and Wallace were good friends and the latter purportedly narrates the story of his life.
On the 20th, the Texans approached Ciudad Mier unaware that 3,000 Mexican troops were in the area under the command of Generals Francisco Mejia and Pedro de Amudia. Thus, the day after Christmas, when the Texans got around to launching an attack, they faced a ten to one disadvantage. Still, as Wallace recalled, “The fire from our rifles was so rapid and deadly that they at length fell back in confusion, leaving the streets and plaza strewed with their dead and wounded.”
While they were able to inflict such impressive heavy casualties on the Mexicans—some estimates claim over 600 dead—the outnumbered and outgunned Texans were finally forced to surrender. Close to 250 of them were taken prisoner.
The victorious Mexicans, according to Wallace, “fastened us up in some deserted stone buildings, like so many pigs, where we were kept for five or six days with nothing to eat except a little dried beef. To wash this down, we were furnished with a limited supply of muddy water from the Rio Grande.” However, Wallace added, “There was no use to complain; we knew we were ‘in for it’ and principally through our own stupidity and folly, and we resolved to make the best of the worst situation in which we might be placed.”
They could not have imagined how bad the “worst situation” was going to get.
Under heavy guard, the Texan prisoners were marched toward Mexico City. This seemingly endless trek took the rest of December, all of January, and into February. “Whenever a poor fellow lagged behind the column for an instant, they seemed to take an especial pleasure in accelerating his speed by the vigorous application of the bayonet,” Wallace reported.
Along the way, when they arrived in a town “our guards paraded us several times around the public square, to give the good people a chance to look at the ‘wild Texans.’ We were hooted at by the mob, that was sure to collect around us whenever we stopped for a few moments, who would call us by all sorts of hard names, and pelt us with stones and clods of earth, and stale eggs.”
Miraculously, given their deteriorated condition, on February 11, 1843, 181 Texans managed to escape. But soon the lack of food and water to be found in the merciless surroundings had those men near death. Every morning “we continued our course over the dreary-looking mountains that rose up before us, and their barren and desolate appearance disheartened even those who had been the warmest advocates for seeking the protection of their solitudes,” Wallace, one of the escapees, recalled. “Not a single drop of water had been seen on the whole route, and, thirsty and dispirited, we wrapped our scanty covering around us and lay down upon the cold ground, and endeavored to forget our troubles in sleep.”
Men died during the night while others, dazed by the relentless sun, wandered away from the staggering column of Texans, never to be seen again. Wallace was one of about 60 men who discovered a Mexican military encampment and promptly surrendered. “The Mexicans seized us at once, tied us in pairs together, and laid us on the ground. We begged and implored them, in the most piteous terms, to give us some water.” Each prisoner was allowed a small cup. The next morning, they were back on their feet, finally reaching a waterhole by early afternoon.
The prisoners were marched back to Saltillo where they learned that an outraged Santa Anna had ordered all the escapees to be executed. When the document from Mexico City arrived and was about to be read aloud, Wallace and “some of the more sanguine among us fully thought that the paper contained an order for our release, and eagerly crowded around the interpreter to hear the joyful news.” Instead, they were “stunned and confused” by the death sentence.
Gen. Francisco Mejia thought the execution of men in such a piteous condition would be a dishonorable act and he refused to follow the order. Instead, Col. Domingo Huerta was selected to command the detail escorting the prisoners to El Rancho Salado. By this time, diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Texans by the foreign ministers of the United States and Great Britain led Santa Anna to compromise: Now only one in 10 of the total of 176 prisoners had to be killed.
To help determine who would die, Huerta had 159 white beans and 17 black beans placed in a pot. The Texan officers and enlisted men, in alphabetical order, were ordered to draw. The first man to draw a black bean was Major James Decatur Cocke. He held up the bean between his forefinger and thumb and with a smile of contempt said, “Boys, I told you so; I never failed in my life to draw a prize.” He later told a fellow Texan, “They only rob me of forty years.” Fearing that the Mexicans would strip his body after he was dead, Cocke removed his pants and gave them to a companion who had drawn a white bean and whose clothing was in worse shape.
As Wallace recalled about his comrades’ courage, “Those who drew black beans seemed to care very little about it. Occasionally, one would remark, as he drew out the fatal color, ‘Well, boys, the jig is up with me’ or ‘They have taken my sign in at last’ or something of a similar character, and then give way to the next, apparently as unconcerned as if he had no interest whatever in what was going on around him.” Bigfoot Wallace, of course, drew a white bean or his recollections would never have been recorded.
The condemned men were allowed to write letters home. On the evening of March 25, 1843, they were shot in two groups, one of nine men and one of eight. They were later buried in a freshly dug ditch. However, one man, James Shepherd, survived the firing squad by pretending to be dead in the courtyard under the bodies, and he escaped in the night. Alas, several weeks later he was recaptured and brought back to the same courtyard, where he was shot and this time stayed dead.
The survivors who picked white beans wound up in the horrid Perote Prison in the state of Veracruz, along with the 15 survivors of the Dawson Massacre and as many as 50 other men captured by Gen. Adrian Woll during his campaign. Some of the Texans escaped from Perote or died there. Many were prisoners until they were finally released by order of Santa Anna on September 16, 1844. One of them was William Fisher. He had been wounded during the attack on Mier but survived that and the Black Bean Episode. After his release, Fisher returned to Texas, where he died at his home in Jackson County less than a year later.
During the Mexican-American War, when the U.S. Army occupied northeastern Mexico, Capt. John E. Dusenbury, a white bean survivor, returned to El Rancho Salado and exhumed the remains of his comrades. He traveled with them on a ship to Galveston and then by wagon to La Grange in Fayetteville County. By this time the remains of the men killed in the Dawson Massacre had been removed from their burial site near Salado Creek in Bexar County. The remains of both groups of men were reinterred in a large common tomb in 1848, in a cement vault on a bluff one mile south of La Grange, with the ceremony attended by over a thousand people.
What of Bigfoot Wallace? While incarcerated in Perote he fell ill with the one-size-fits-all “jail fever” and barely survived. He recalled being released on August 22, 1843, and with several other men he had to make his own way back to Texas. En route, Wallace contracted yellow fever and again almost died. It was not until December, having sailed from Veracruz to New Orleans (arriving just as a hurricane hit the city), then a steamer to Texas, then a journey by horse, that he finally arrived in San Antonio. He had been gone almost two years.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.