Ex-congressman negotiates release of Texan expedition

Waddy Thompson did not let the fact that he had been a private citizen for two weeks keep him from asking one more life-saving favor of Santa Anna on March 23, 1844.

Texans naively presumed their neighbors in New Mexico would jump at the chance to join the Lone Star Republic.  So, in the summer of 1841, President Mirabeau Lamar sent more than 300 soldiers, merchants and a grab bag of adventurers to deliver an engraved invitation and to stake Texas’ claim to the lucrative trade of the Santa Fe Trail.

But the Mexican army was waiting for the trespassers.  Tricked into surrendering by a snake in their own grass, the so-called Pioneers were disarmed, shackled and forced-marched hundreds of miles into the interior of Mexico.

The capture of the Santa Fe Expedition caused an angry uproar not only in Texas but also throughout the United States.  Newspapers, state legislatures and public rallies put extreme pressure on the federal government to take swift and effective action.

Secretary of State Daniel Webster instructed his minister to tell the Mexicans in no uncertain terms that Washington expected the immediate release of every American and humane treatment of the Texans.  When the request was ignored, President John Tyler appointed an ex-congressman as a special envoy to intercede on the prisoners’ behalf.

Waddy Thompson, Jr. of South Carolina was the man for the job.  During his three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Whig had tirelessly championed the Texas cause.  He overcame foot-dragging by President Andrew Jackson and the opposition of New England fanatics, led by former White House occupant John Quincy Adams, to obtain diplomatic recognition for the new nation 11 months after the Battle of San Jacinto.

Thompson was hardly surprised by his chilly reception in Mexico City.  Relations between the two countries had been strained since Texas independence, and over the years he had said a lot of harsh things about his hosts.

But the unwelcome foreigner warmed Santa Anna and his cabinet right up by speaking to them in Spanish at their first meeting.  He had gone to the trouble of learning the language, something unheard of for a U.S. diplomat in those days.

Thompson made such a positive impression on Santa Anna that the dictator agreed to face-to-face talks about the Santa Fe prisoners.  The two must have hit it off because in a matter of weeks every American was homeward bound.  Freedom for those captives with Texas addresses took much longer, but in time they too were released.

In September 1842, Mexican troops struck San Antonio for the second time in six months.  They stayed only long enough to massacre a small force commanded by Nicholas Dawson and to take three dozen civilians back across the border as human trophies.

Upwards of 500 Texans gave chase, but the raiders beat them to the Rio Grande.  Most turned back, but the rest kept going and fought a Christmas Day battle with Mexican regulars in the border town of Mier.  Running low on food, water and ammunition, 176 capitulated in the mistaken belief they would be treated as prisoners-of-war.

Their captors went back on their word – if, in fact, it was ever given – and orders were issued from on high for their execution as bandits.  As soon as Waddy Thompson learned of the imminent mass murder, he hurried to the office of the foreign minister.

The official running the show in Santa Anna’s absence refused to hear him out.  “They are not American citizens, and you have no right to interpose on their behalf.”

“They are human beings and prisoners-of-war!” Thompson retorted.  “It is the right and duty of all nations to see that Mexico does not violate the principles and usages of civilized warfare.”

But the foreign minister would not budge.  “Then, sir, shoot them as soon as you choose,” said Thompson rising to his feet.  “But let me tell you that if you do you will at once involve a much more powerful enemy than Texas.”

His parting words changed history and saved lives.  The death decree was amended to spare nine out of every ten Texans.  The condemned were selected by lot with the unlucky drawing infamous black beans. 

Thompson spent his last 14 months in Mexico City lobbying for better conditions for the Mier prisoners and negotiating for their eventual release.  Two weeks after submitting his resignation, he paid a final call on Santa Anna.

After exchanging pleasantries, Thompson asked “The Napoleon of the West” what he planned to do with the 36 Texans kidnapped in San Antonio a year and a half earlier.  “Do you intend to keep them always?”

The persuasive southerner gradually wore down Santa Anna, until he finally asked for the names of the prisoners the visitor wanted let go.

“All of them,” Thompson answered.  “How can I distinguish between men, all strangers to me personally, whose cases are in all respects the same, and why should you?”

Waddy Thompson left Mexico a few days later with 36 very happy and very grateful Texans.

Bartee’s three books and ten “Best of This Week in Texas History” column collections are available for purchase at barteehaile.com.

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