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Welcome Mexican Invaders!

3 October 2007

The Town and Country gas station/truck stop in Sanderson, Texas is a regular stop of mine. A few railroadmen still live in what until the 1990s was the transfer point for railcrews between Del Rio and El Paso (after a train accident was laid to human error – the engineer apparently nodded off and killed himself, his brakeman and the crew of the oncoming train), who like the small-town atmosphere. The older guys tell me it was quite the place, full of cantinas, bars, restaurants and … loose women. You know, a modern wild west town.



Well, the transfer point was moved 90 miles west to Alpine (just about half-way between the two major cities, and supposedly, a more reasonable distance for engineers coming from El Paso), and Sanderson has become sleepy and semi-respectable. The trainmen who still live there are getting older and one of the wilder cantinas is now a Baptist Church.




Every time I read some breathless right-wing conspiracy nut (or watch Lou Dobbs) about Mexican Army units crossing into the U.S., I think of Sanderson. Yeah, the Mexican Army used to “invade” regularly. Poor Juan Lopez, stationed up on the lonely northern border, needed somewhere to go on a Saturday night for a beer, and to shoot pool and meet girls. And, unlike our sailors and marines who invade Tijuana on weekends, unlikely to end up in the local jailhouse.




It wasn’t that long ago that there was a “live and let live” attitude along the border, and town like Sanderson, and Presidio and Del Rio… and Boquillas del Carmen, and Ojinaga and Acuña… thrived by seeing the border as an opportunity and not as an inconvenience at best (and a threat at worst). And, at times, the Mexican Army was welcome in border towns – and not just on Saturday nights.




Thanks to a mention in Bender’s Immigration Daily, I downloaded a wonderful history book from an unlikely source – The Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. You don’t have to be a military historian to enjoy Matt M. Matthews’ The US Army on the Mexican Border: A Historical Perspective.




Downloading the entire book as a PDF file will take a while, but when was the last time the Mex Files recommending a Rand Corporation document be read for enjoyment?




Here is Matthews on one welcome Mexican invasion:




Cortina’s War

By the summer of 1859, relations between Mexican-Americans and Anglos in border towns like Brownsville, Texas, were exceedingly strained. According to Utley, “Mexicans of every station on both sides of the border hated the gringos for the Mexican War and for the oppression that followed.”28 Clendenen, on the other hand, wrote that “many Americans, with their point of view warped by the memories and myths of the recent war and the Texas rebellion, were fully convinced that all Mexicans were treacherous, undependable and cruel.”

This volatile state of affairs ignited on 13 July 1859 when Juan Nepomuceno Cortina shot and wounded the Brownsville city marshal who had beaten one of Cortina’s former employees. A well-known Mexican whose mother owned a large ranch north of Brownsville, Cortina had long resented the intolerance and injustice displayed by whites toward his Mexican brethren. After gunning down the marshal, Cortina fled to Matamoros. By the time he arrived in Mexico, his violent encounter with the Anglo establishment had transformed him into a champion of oppressed Mexicans. While many Mexicans lauded his actions, Cortina was considered by many Anglos to be nothing more than a trifling bandit.

Cortina remained in seclusion for more than 2 months, but on 28 September, he raided Brownsville, murdering four men and liberating the Mexicans held in the local jail. After running roughshod over the terrified Anglo population for nearly 24 hours, prominent citizens in Matamoros, perhaps fearing American reprisals, persuaded Cortina to leave Brownsville. Late in the afternoon, Cortina, accompanied by approximately 80 men, headed north. To ensure the protection of American citizens in Brownsville, a Mexican militia force from Matamoros crossed the Rio Grande and occupied the vacant Fort Brown. It was a surprising turn of events indeed. A Mexican military force crossed over onto US soil and occupied a fort abandoned by the US Army to protect xenophobic American citizens from a vengeful Mexican insurgent. A letter written at Point Isabel, Texas, and reprinted in The Charleston Mercury exposed perhaps the true nature of the events in Brownsville:

The facts are simply these: There are a lot of bad characters who have been imposing upon, murdering, robbing and maltreating the Mexicans. It got to such a pass that the rancheros thought it high time to strike a blow in self-defence, and exterminate these American evil doers at one blow. . . . If there had been a garrison at Fort Brown the thing would not have happened, as the Mexicans have a great awe of the ‘soldados.’ There is no doubt but that the Government has displayed a most wanton disregard for the interests of this frontier, in withdrawing every soldier for a line of over 400 or 500 miles in extent, on the borders of a country infested with thieves, murderers and wild Indians.

The political fallout from Cortina’s Brownsville raid was swift. With investors and politicians clamoring for protection, President James Buchanan directed the Secretary of War to order the US Army to return to the lower Rio Grande. General Twiggs, who was in San Antonio, promptly ordered two companies from Fort Clark back to Fort Brown. As the companies marched south to Fort Brown, Twiggs was bombarded with troublesome stories of a new massacre at Brownsville and the burning of the town by Cortina. Twiggs also received news that Cortina was marching on the Nueces River with an army of 800 men. Twiggs immediately ordered a company from the 2d Cavalry Regiment, four companies of infantry, and two artillery companies to the Nueces, under the command of Major Samuel P. Heintzelman. In Washington, the Secretary of War alerted US Army commands in Kansas and Louisiana of a possible movement to the lower Rio Grande. To his great embarrassment, Twiggs was informed that the latest intelligence regarding Cortina and the burning of Brownsville was false. While Washington halted the troop movements from Kansas and Louisiana, Twiggs ordered Heintzelman to continue on to Fort Brown. According to Clendenen, Twiggs ordered Major Heintzelman to “spare no effort to bring Cortina to battle and use every means at his disposal to destroy Cortina’s band. Marauders would be pursued to the Rio Grande, but the United States troops would not cross the river unless in ‘hot pursuit.’”

The citizens of Brownsville were disappointed to hear that not all the soldiers were coming to their rescue. A correspondent in Brownsville reported:

We in Brownsville have learned with much regret that the American government have countermanded the order given to troops that were ordered to Fort Brown. God knows what they mean. Are we to be considered as belonging to the United States, or are we not? It is really too scandalous. We have now been more than two months on guard, and are just as badly off as at the commencement of the disturbance; I may say, indeed, more so, for the bandit Cortinas [sic] is daily increasing his force, and the United States will find to their cost, that no 200 or 300 troops will put a stop to this invasion and mutiny, unless something is done promptly.

Meanwhile in Brownsville, Cortina demanded the release of Tomas Cabrera, one of his officers who had been captured and locked in the town jail. When authorities refused his request, Cortina moved several hundred of his men across the Rio Grande, taking up a defensive position on his mother’s ranch north of Brownsville. On 25 October, a small force of Brownsville volunteers, Mexican militia from Matamoros, and approximately 40 apathetic Mexican civilians marched on Cortina’s position. The heterogeneous posse also brought along two small cannons. In the attack that followed, Cortina and his men quickly routed the confused rabble, driving them back into Brownsville and, in the process, captured both artillery pieces. One local newspaper reported the thrashing was so complete that it was too “painful for us to chronicle.”35 When Heintzelman learned of the battle, he filed a report noting that, not long after the first shots were fired, each man in the posse seemed “anxious to be the first to reach Brownsville.”

By the time Heintzelman arrived at Fort Brown on 5 December, the Texas Rangers who had been ordered to Brownsville by Texas Governor Hardin R. Runnels had already ignited an even larger firestorm. On 13 November, the Rangers, under the command of Captain William G. Tobin, dragged Cabrera from the Brownsville jail and lynched him. The provocative action served to further infuriate Cortina and persuaded even more Mexicans to flock to his banner. Toward the end of November, the Rangers and volunteers from Brownsville attacked Cortina again. They, too, were quickly routed. As word spread rapidly that Cortina intended to drive the Americans out of Texas, more recruits rushed to join him.

Heintzelman wasted little time in attacking Cortina. Early on the morning of 14 December, Heintzelman marched north out of Brownsville with his force of Regulars and Tobin’s Texas Rangers. At sunup, Heintzelman found Cortina’s ranch empty and ordered his men to continue moving north. After marching about 3 miles, Heintzelman discovered a small command of Cortinistas. With the US Army soldiers and artillery providing the backbone for Tobin’s apprehensive Rangers, Heintzelman quickly overpowered the Mexicans, scattering them in all directions. Heintzelman was not impressed with Tobin and his men. “We would undoubtedly have done better without the Rangers,” he concluded in his report. That night, however, Major John Salmon Ford’s company of Texas Rangers arrived to reinforce Heintzelman. Ford and his Rangers far surpassed Tobin’s men in discipline and fighting capabilities. A substantial rainstorm overnight ruined most of the gunpowder, causing Heintzelman and his command to abandon their pursuit of Cortina and return to Brownsville.

Determined to either destroy Cortina or drive him out of Texas, Heintzelman and 150 soldiers, two companies of Rangers, and two large howitzers left Brownsville once again on 21 December. On 26 December, Ford’s intrepid scouts informed Heintzelman that Cortina and most of his command were at Rio Grande City. Heintzelman also learned that some of Cortina’s command was occupying the abandoned US Army post at Fort Ringgold. About 2200 that night, Cortina changed camp sites, pulling his men out of Rio Grande City and leaving only a few pickets around Fort Ringgold. A little after midnight on 27 December, in an almost impenetrable fog, the soldiers and Rangers moved silently toward Rio Grande City. Ford’s Ranger command was to infiltrate past the Mexican forward outposts and take up blocking positions in their rear while Tobin’s Rangers assaulted Cortina’s right flank. Heintzelman planned to attack Cortina’s center 30 minutes after Tobin launched his attack.

Ford soon found that he could not work his way past the Mexican sentries without being detected. He, therefore, decided to charge directly into Cortina’s camp. The Mexicans fired blindly into the fog with the two artillery pieces they had previously seized and managed to launch a small countercharge against Ford’s Rangers. It was to no avail. Although more than a dozen of his men were wounded, Ford drove home his attack. While Cortina managed to save his guns, his men abandoned nearly all their equipment on the field as they fled north toward the town of Roma or into the river. By the time Heintzelman and Tobin reached the field, the fog had lifted, and Cortina’s artillery could be seen moving rapidly north toward Roma. Heintzelman ordered Ford to pursue the guns. While Ford and his Rangers rode north, Heintzelman’s cavalry killed a number of the Cortinistas running toward the Rio Grande. Once at the river, the US cavalry troops dismounted and, using their new Sharps carbines, shot and killed many of the Mexicans trying to swim the river.40 “We had fourteen Rangers wounded,” Heintzelman wrote in his official report. “We killed some sixty of his [Cortina’s] men. Persons who counted his men in town yesterday say that he had with him over five hundred and fifty men. He retreated so rapidly that at no time was more than a small portion of the command engaged.”41 Cortina managed to escape the melee by swimming the Rio Grande. Although he continued his raids for another 20 years, the combined efforts of the US Army and Texas Rangers had at least forced him out of Texas.



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