Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris
In the last quarter of the eighteenth century ideas of revolution were widely in the air. The people were rising against the tyranny of the kings. First in this struggle for liberty came the English colonies in America. Then the people of France sprang to arms and overthrew the moss-grown tyranny of feudal times. The armies of Napoleon spread the demand for freedom through Europe. In Spain the people began to fight for their freedom, and soon the thirst for liberty crossed the ocean to America, where the people of the Spanish colonies had long been oppressed by the tyranny of their rulers.
The citizens of Mexico had been deeply infected by the example of the great free republic of the north, and the seed of liberty grew for years in their minds. Chief among its advocates was a farmer's son named Miguel Hidalgo, a true scion of the people and an ardent lover of liberty, who for years longed to make his native Mexico independent of the effete royalty of Spain. He did not conceal his views on this subject, though his deeper projects were confided only to a few trusty friends, chief among whom was Ignacio Allende, a man of wealth and of noble Spanish descent, and a captain of dragoons in the army. These men, with a few intimates, consulted often and matured their plans, confident that the desire for liberty was strong in the country and that the patriot people needed only a leader to break out into insurrection.
Hidalgo's eager desire for liberty, long smouldering, burst into flame in 1810, when the Spanish authorities attempted to arrest in Querétaro some revolutionists who had talked too freely. Warned of their danger, these men fled or concealed themselves. News of this came quickly to Hidalgo and taught him that with his reputation there was but one of two things to do, he must flee or strike. He decided to strike, and in this he was supported by Allende, whose liberty was also in danger.
The decisive step was taken on the 15th of September, 1810. That night Hidalgo was roused from slumber by one of his liberty-loving friends, and told that the hour had come. Calling his brother to his aid and summoning a few of those in the secret, he led the small party of revolutionists to the prison, broke it open, and set free certain men who had been seized for their liberal ideas.
This took place in the early hours of a Sunday. When day broke and the countrymen of the neighboring parish came to early mass the news of the night's event spread among them rapidly and caused great excitement. To a man they took the side of Hidalgo, and before the day grew old he found himself at the head of a small band of ardent revolutionists. They at once set out for San Miguel le Grande, the nearest town, into which marched before nightfall of the day a little party of eighty men, the nucleus of the Mexican revolution. For standard they bore a picture of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, taken from a village church. New adherents came to their ranks till they were three hundred strong. Such was the movement known in Mexico as the "Grito de Dolores," their war-cry, the Grito, being, "up with True Religion, and down with False Government."
Never before had an insurrection among the submissive common people been known in Mexico. When news of it came to the authorities they were stupefied with amazement. That peasants and townspeople, the plain workers of the land, should have opinions of their own about government and the rights of man was to them a thing too monstrous to be endured, but for the time being they were so dumfounded as to he incapable of taking any vigorous action.
While the authorities digested the amazing news of the outbreak, the movement grew with surprising rapidity. Hidalgo's little band was joined by the regiment of his comrade Allende, and a crowd of field laborers, armed with slings, sticks, and spades, hastened in to swell their ranks. So popular did the movement prove that in a brief period the band of eighty men had grown to a great host, fifty thousand or more in numbers. Poorly armed and undisciplined as they were, their numbers gave them strength. Hidalgo put himself at their head as commander-in-chief, with Allende as his second in command, and active exertions were made to organize an army out of this undigested material.
The next thing we perceive in this promising movement for liberty is the spectacle of Hidalgo and his host of enthusiastic followers marching on the rich and flourishing city of Guanajuato, capital of a mining state, the second largest in Mexico. This city occupies a deep but narrow ravine, its houses crowded on the steep slopes, up which the streets climb like stairways.
The people of the city were terrified when they saw this great body of people marching upon them, with some of the organization of a regular army, though most of them bore only the arms of a mob. The authorities, who were advised of their approach, showed some energy. Resolving not to surrender and making hasty preparations for defence, they intrenched themselves in a strongly built grain warehouse, with the governor at their head.
Much better armed than the mass of their assailants, and backed up by strong stone walls, the authorities defended themselves vigorously, and for a time the affair looked anything but promising for Hidalgo's improvised army. Success came at last through the courage of a little boy, called Pipita, who, using as a shield a flat tile torn from the pavement, and holding a blazing torch his hand, crept through a shower of bullets up to the gate of the stronghold and set fire to it. As the flames spread upward, the insurgents broke in upon the frightened defenders, killing some and making prisoners of the others.
The common people of the city, in sympathy with the revolutionists, and inspired with the mob spirit of pillage, now rushed in disorder through the streets, breaking into and robbing shops and houses, until checked in their career of plunder by Hidalgo, who restored order by threatening condign punishment to any plunderers. He proceeded to make the city a stronghold and centre for the collection of arms and money, his forces being increased by the defection from the Spaniards of three squadrons of regular troops, while the whole province declared for the cause of the revolution.
While this was going on, the governing powers in Mexico had recovered from their stupefaction and begun to take active measures to suppress the dangerous movement. Shortly before a new viceroy had arrived in Mexico, Don Francisco Venegas, a Spanish general who had distinguished himself in the war with Napoleon. Fancying that he had a peaceful life before him in America, he began his work of government by calling a council of prominent persons and asking them to help him raise money from the loyal people for the support of their brethren in Spain who were fighting against Napoleon. Three days later the Grito de Dolores broke out and he saw that his dream of peace was at an end, and that he would need all the funds he could raise to suppress revolution in his new government.
The viceroy, an experienced soldier, at once ordered the troops in garrison at Mexico to Querétaro, strengthening them by rural detachments, and summoning garrisons from the north, west, and east. He issued at the same time a decree under which all Indians were released from taxation, and promised pardon to all rebels who should at once lay down their arms; a reward of ten thousand dollars being offered for the capture or death of the three chief insurgents, Hidalgo, Allende, and Aldama.
The civil authorities were vigorously supported by the clergy in this action against the revolution. Hidalgo and his chief comrades were excommunicated by the bishops, and the local clergy denounced them bitterly from their pulpits. The Inquisition, which had taken action against Hidalgo in 1800 for his dangerous opinions, now cited him to appear before its tribunal and answer these charges. But bishops and inquisitors alike wasted their breath on the valiant insurgents, who maintained that it was not religion but tyranny that they were banded against.
The revolutionists took possession of Valladolid on the 17th of October, without resistance, the bishop and authorities fleeing at their approach. As the bishop himself was gone, Hidalgo forced the canons he had left behind to remove the sentence of excommunication. The town was made a second stronghold of the revolution and a centre for new recruiting, the army increasing so rapidly that in ten days' time its leader took the bold step of advancing upon Mexico, the capital city.
The approach of the insurgents, who had now grown greatly numbers, filled the people of the capital with terror. They remembered the sack of Guanajuato, and hastened to conceal their valuables, while many of then fled for safety. As the insurgents drew near they were met by the army of the viceroy, and a fierce battle took place upon all elevation called the Monte de la Cruces, outside the city. A hot fire of artillery swept the ranks of the insurgents, but, filled with enthusiasm, and greatly outnumbering the royal troops, they swept resistlessly on, bearing down all before them, and sweeping the viceroy's soldiers from the field with heavy loss. Only his good horse saved Trujillo, the commanding general, from death or capture, and bore him in safety to the city.
Mexico, filled with panic and confusion at the news of the disastrous defeat of its defenders, could perhaps have been easily taken, and its capture might possibly have closed the struggle in favor of liberty. It certainly was a moment for that boldness on which success so often depends, but Hidalgo at this critical stage took counsel from prudence instead of daring, and, fearing the arrival of reinforcements to the beaten army, withdrew his forces towards Querétaro—a weak and fatal retrograde movement, as it proved.
The viceroy had another army advancing from the north, under the command of Calleja, a skilful general. Meeting Hidalgo at Aculco on his march towards Querétaro, he attacked him with such vigor that, after a hot combat, the insurgents were utterly worsted, losing all their artillery and many men. In fact, the whole loose-joined army fell to pieces at this severe repulse, and Hidalgo was followed to Valladolid with an insignificant remnant of his mighty host.
Calleja followed up his victory with a pursuit of Allende and a fierce attack on him at Guanajuato, forcing him to abandon the city and retreat to Zacatecas, which had proclaimed independence. Calleja, who had much of the traditional Spanish cruelty, now sullied his triumph by a barbarous retaliation upon the people of the city he had taken, who were most savagely punished for their recent plundering outbreak.
The remainder of this story of revolution is a brief and unfortunate one. Hidalgo gathered another army and led them to Guadalajara, where he organized a government, appointed ministers, and styled himself generalissimo. He despatched a commissioner to the United States, but this personage soon found himself a prisoner. Arms were collected and the army organized as rapidly as possible, hut his forces were still in the rough when, disregarding the advice of Allende and others, he resolved to attack Calleja. He advanced on the 16th of January to the Puenta de Calderon, where he found himself in face of a well-equipped and disciplined army of ten thousand men, superior in everything but numbers to his undisciplined levies. They fought bravely enough in the battle of the next day, but they were no match for their opponents, and the contest ended in a complete rout, the insurgents scattering in all directions.
Hidalgo hastened towards Zacatecas, meeting on his way Allende, Jiminez, and other leaders who had escaped from the fatal field of Calderon. The cause of liberty seemed at an end. Calleja was vigorously putting down the revolution on all sides. As a last hope the chiefs hastened towards the United States borders with such men and money as they had left, proposing there to recruit and discipline another army. But before reaching the frontier they were overtaken by their pursuers, being captured in a desert region near the Rio Grande.
The captives were now taken under a strong escort to Chihuahua, where they were tried and condemned to death. Allende, Aldama, and Jiminez were shot on the 26th of June, and Hidalgo paid the penalty of his life on the 27th of June, 1811. Thus, in the death of its chiefs, ended the first struggle for independence in Mexico. The heads of the four chiefs were taken to Guanajuato and nailed to the four corners of the stronghold which they had taken by storm in that city. There they remained till the freedom of Mexico was won, when they were given solemn burial beneath the altar of the sovereigns in the cathedral of Mexico. The Alhondiga de Grenaditas, the building to which their heads were attached, is now used as a prison, but its walls still bear the spike which for ten years held Hidalgo's head. Before it there stands a bronze statue of this earliest of the Mexican patriot leaders.
Shall we add a few words descriptive of the later course of the struggle for independence? The death of Hidalgo left many patriots still alive, and one of these, Moreles the muleteer, kept up the war with varying fortunes until 1815, when he, too, was taken and shot.
The man to whom Monies owed his downfall was Augustin de Yturbide, a royalist leader, who pursued the insurgents with relentless energy. Yet it was to this man that Mexico in the end owed its independence. After the death of Moreles a chief named Guerrero kept up the war for liberty, and against him Yturbide was sent in 1820. As it proved, the royalist had changed his views, and after some fighting with Guerrero he joined hands with him and came out openly as a patriot leader. He had under him a well-disciplined army, and advanced from success to success till the final viceroy found himself forced to acknowledge the independence of Mexico.
The events that followed—how Mexico was organized into an empire, with Yturbide as emperor under the title of Augustin I., and how a new revolution made it a republic and Yturbide was shot as a traitor—belong to that later history of the Spanish American republics in which revolution and counter-revolution continued almost annual events.