© 1997-2009, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved
Mexican Independence | New Spain-Index


From Mexico and her Military Chieftains by Fay Robinson, 1847

Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was the Cura, or parish priest of Dolores, a quiet and secluded town in the state, or as it was then called intendencia of Guanajuato, midway between San Luis de Potosi and Guanajuato. He was a man of undeniable acquirements, who had read much and thought more, who was devoted to his duties and evidently anxious to promote a knowledge of the branches of industry then almost unknown in Mexico. He had introduced the silk-worm, in the rearing, of which in 1810 his people had made much progress, and had turned his attention to the cultivation of the vine, seeing, as all must who look at the peculiarities, of the soil and climate of Mexico, that it was calculated to become a great source of wealth. Hidalgo was a man of books; a mighty revolution had taken place on the American continent, of which he could not be ignorant, and the events of later date in Europe, officially promulgated had awakened a deep feeling in the whole people, to which he was no stranger. A quiet, unambitious, meditative man, he was far in advance of the most of his countrymen, but might have continued to dream of freedom yet restricted his sphere of action to his own cure, had he not, been called forth by one of those personal wrongs, in all cases found to be the most powerful means of awakening man to a perception of the sufferings of his neighbour.

It had ever been the policy of Spain not only to wring from Mexico and the other Indies the produce of their mines and peculiar wealth, but to prohibit them from the pursuit of all industry which would conflict with the interests of the mother country. Therefore, except in one remote part of the country whence it could never be brought to a market, the production of wine and the cultivation of vineyards had always been prohibited in New Spain or Mexico. Hidalgo had planted around his modest curacy a vineyard, which he was, by a positive order from the audiencia at Mexico, ordered to destroy. The quiet student had planted his vines in his leisure hours. In his lonely life they had been to him as children. He would not obey, and soldiers were sent to enforce the order. The fruits of his labor were destroyed; the vines were cut down, and burned; but from their ashes arose a more maddening spirit than possibly even the vine had previously given birth to.

This private wrong, added to the many oppressions to which he was subjected together with the mass of his countrymen, animated him, and may account for the stern, dogged, almost Saxon perseverance with which he began this contest, in which every chance was against him personally, and in favor of his country in the result. The dark spirit of the Spanish rule had met the only feeling which could contend with it, the resolution of a man who knew his country's rights and was determined to maintain them. The whole people thought as he did, and it was not difficult to form a party to sustain him. It has been said that the pulpit and confessional were used by him to promote his views; and if so, never were the powers which are sheltered by it, applied to a purpose against which so little can be said with justice. Certain, it is, that he used so little concealment that Allende, Aldama, and Abasolo, three Mexican officers in garrison at Guanajuato, and the first to, whom he imparted his plans, were ordered by the superior powers of Intendencia to be arrested. This mischance did not destroy the confidence of Hidalgo, who, having been joined by Allende on the 13th of September, 1810, three days after, on the anniversary almost of the arrest of Iturrigaray two years before, commenced the revolt by seizing on seven Europeans living in Dolores, and the confiscation of their property, which he immediately distributed among his parishoners.

There is a hackneyed Proverb, that no man is a hero to his valet-de-chambre, and that a prophet is without honor in his own country. This maybe so generally; but if so, it enhances the merit of Hidalgo, who was followed by all his parishioners. The news of his enterprise spread wide among the people, who had evidently been waiting long for the signal to act; so that within twenty-four hours, the patriot-priest was at the head of a force powerful, enough to enable him, on the 17th of September, to occupy San Felipé, and on the next day San Miguel el Grande; of which places the united population was more than thirty thousand. The property of the Spaniards was confiscated, and enabled him to add yet more to his numbers. In this enterprise Hidalgo had unfurled a rude copy of the picture of our Lady of Guadalupe, whose shrine has ever been looked on with peculiar reverence in Mexico, and gave to his undertaking the air more of crusade than a civil war. Unfortunately, the worst features of crusades and pilgrimages were imitated by his followers.

He wished to attack Guanajuato, the capital of the province, and the depot of the wealth of the Spaniards in that country. The chief of the province, Riañon, a great favorite in Mexico, and a man universally respected for his courage and humanity, was in command of a large, body of troops; and as the population, seventy-five thousand men, had not as yet pronounced; Hidalgo was afraid to risk the attempt. The people, however, began at last to give evidence of a disposition to take sides with Hidalgo. Riañon determined not to defend the city, but shut himself up with all the Europeans, and the gold, silver, and quicksilver in the Alhondega or granary, a.strong building and amply provisioned, in which he evidently intended to defend himself. On the morning of September 28th, Don Mariano Abasolo, one of the Mexican officers before referred to as partisans of Hidalgo, appeared before the town in the uniform of the insurgents, and presented a letter from the cura Hidalgo, announcing that be had been elected Captain-general of America, by the unanimous choice of his followers, and been recognised by the ayuntamientos of the towns of Celaya, San Miguel, San Felipé, &c. That he had proclaimed the independence of the. country, the only difficulty in the way of which was the presence of the Europeans, whom it was necessary to banish, and whose property, obtained by the authority of oppressive laws, injurious to the people, should be confiscated. He promised, however, protection to the Spaniards if they would submit, and that their persons should be conveyed to a place of safety. Riañon replied modestly, but decidedly; and as he declined to capitulate, Hidalgo at once marched to the attack. His army consisted of twenty thousand men, but the mass of them were Indians, armed with bows, arrows, slings, machetes, and lances. Arms of obsidian, the volcanic glass so constantly referred to by the early historians of Mexico, which lay neglected since the days of Cortez, were now brought out; and a stranger contrast can scarcely be imagined than that presented the Aztec levies, and the beautiful regiment of La Reina and a portion of the troops of Celaya, which had joined Hidalgo on his march to Guanajuato. The army of Hidalgo immediately occupied numerous eminences, which commanded the Alhondega, and with their slings kept up such a rain of stones that scarcely a person could appear on the fortifications. The musketry, however, did great execution, scarcely a single ball being lost, so dense was the crowd around the building. The whole population of the town declared in favor of Hidalgo, and the fate of the garrison was sealed; though Riañon still persisted in his defence, which he prolonged by means of shells formed by filling with powder the iron flasks in which the quicksilver was contained, which were thrown by hand among the besiegers. The Spaniards at last, however, became confused, and resistance was given up. The great gate was forced open, and Riañon fell dead as all was lost.

The number of persons who fell in the defeat and after it, is not known, and among them were many Mexican families connected by marriage with the obnoxious Spaniards. One family alone is said to have lost seventeen members; and the obstinate and prolonged defence could only have been made by a considerable number. We wish we could close our eyes to what followed; but justice requires us to mention that all in the Alhondega were slain. The Indians seemed to delight in repaying on their victims the grudges of three centuries; a matter of surprise to all, for they had lain so long dormant and submissive that it was supposed they had forgotten or become regardless of their former distinct nationality. This is not, however, astonishing, for the history of that people which has been enslaved and forgotten its lost freedom is yet to be written. In the Alhondega was found a vast sum, estimated at five millions of dollars, the possession of which materially altered Hidalgo's views, and promised success to what had seemed at first to all but a premature attempt. The property of the Spaniards or Guachupines was surrendered to Hidalgo's troops; and so diligent were they in the lesson of rapine, that the Mexican troops of today, after thirty-six years of civil war, have scarcely improved on them. The action terminated on Friday night only and on the next morning not one building belonging to a European was left standing. The greatest scenes of outrage were committed, which Hidalgo certainly could not prevent. He, too, was a Mexican, with the blood of the aborigines in his veins; though a priest, human, and smarting under recent wrongs, and it is doubtful if he wished to. Policy, too, may have influenced him. He himself, if unsuccessful, was doomed, and he may have wished all around him should so deeply dye their hands in blood, they would be compelled to abide by him in the contest which had begun. The siege of the Alhondega of Guanajuato was the Bunker-hill of Mexico, and deserves the attention bestowed on it.

Hidalgo did not remain long at Guanajuato, but while there established a mint and a foundry of cannon, for which he made use of all the bells found in the houses of the Spaniards. On the 10th of October he left Guanajuato for Valladolid, which he entered on the 17th without resistance the bishop and the old Spaniards flying before him. The news of his successes had spread far and wide, and recruits joined him from all parts of the country. By universal consent he was looked on as the head of the revolution, and distributed commissions and organized boards, which yet more extensively diffused his schemes and augmented the number of his partisans.

The city of Mexico was taken aghast at the capture of Guanajuato in which, besides the mere town, much more had been lost. The prestige of tacit obedience had been broken, the whole country was in arms, and the depot of one of the mining districts had been sacked. Vanegas, the new viceroy, who had been installed but two days previous to the outbreak, displayed great firmness and prudence, in spite of the persuasions of his counselors, who utterly contemned the Mexican people, and maintained that the first tuck of the drum would put them to flight. This was but natural; they had been long obedient, and persons who submit are always despised. It will be remembered that during the American Revolution, after more than one collision had taken place, persons quite as wise maintained that two regiments would suffice to march through the colonies.

The viceroy ordered troops from Puebla, Orizaba, and Toluca, to the capital; and at the same time, conferred important military commands on many creoles. ln this way he corrupted one from whom much was expected, the Conde de Cadena, who forgot his country and died afterwards in defence of the Spanish authority. Calleja was ordered to march with his troops, a brigade, from San Luis de Potosi, against Hidalgo, who was excommunicated by his supeperior, the bishop of Valladolid. As people naturally asked what offence he had committed to bring on him the ecclesiastical censure, the archbishop Lizana and the inquisition, against the authority of whom he was a bold man who would appeal, were induced to ratify this sentence, and pronounce an excommunication against any who should doubt its validity. The assistance derived from this spiritual power was more than neutralized by the conferring of offices on all the Spaniards who participated in the deposition of the viceroy Iturrigaray, whom the Mexicans considered to be a sufferer in their cause. This most injudicious course renewed all the feelings of disaffection which had been excited by the deposition of the viceroy, and was turned to the best advantage by the friends of liberty.

When Hidalgo reached Valladolid he was at the head of fifty thousand men, and in addition to the numbers who joined him there, he was reinforced by the militia of the province and the dragoons of Michoacan, both of which were well equipped and in good discipline. The most valuable addition he received, however, was in the person of Don José María Morelos, also a priest, cura of the town of Nocupetaro, an old friend whom he knew well, and on whom he conferred the command of the whole southwestern coast. On Morelos, after the death of Hidalgo, rested the mantle of command; and some idea of his enthusiasm may be formed from the fact that he set out, on the receipt of his commission, accompanied with but five badly armed servants, with the promise that within a year he would take Acapulco, a feat which he absolutely achieved. On the 19th Hidalgo left Valladolid, and on the 28th reached Toluca, which is but twelve leagues from the city of Mexico.

Vanegas had found means to collect about seven thousand men in and near the city of Mexico, under the command of Colonel Truxillo, and the afterwards celebrated Don Augustino Iturbide, then a subordinate officer in the royal artillery. This force was defeated by the insurgents commanded by Allende and Hidalgo in person, on the 30th of October, at Las Cruces, a mountain pass between Mexico and Toluca. Hidalgo's forces were supposed to have been in number not less than sixty thousand; those commanded by Truxillo did not exeeed seven thousand. In the first action, as might have been reasonably anticipated, the royal troops were worsted; the native regulars, however, behaved with gallantry and determination, and it was easy to see that the undisciplined and badly armed mob of Indians of which the curate's army consisted almost entirely, would be unable to resist the attack of a force much larger than that which had been repulsed.

In this action, it may be remarked, Truxillo committed an act which was ever considered by the patriots to justify all their subsequent outrages. An insurgent officer with a flag was decoyed within gunshot of the royal lines and basely assassinated. This Truxillo boasted of in his despatch, and was justified and applauded subsequently by the viceroy Vanegas, who maintained that the ordinary rules of war were not to be observed towards Hidalgo's forces. Vanegas was, however, so much terrified at the near approach of the native army, that he, too, found it necessary to appeal to superstition; and having ordered the image of the Virgin of Los Remedios to be brought in great state from its famous chapel, besought her aid, and laid at its feet his baton of command. This may account for the often repeated story, that in a proclamation the Blessed Virgin had been appointed captain-general of the forces of the viceroy. The public accounts circulated in Mexico represented Truxillo as having gained a great victory, though circumstances compelled him to retreat, and recall to our minds some of the events of our own day. It is a matter of curiosity, that no Mexican general before or since the revolution ever could be induced to confess that he was defeated. Every preparation was made to defend the capital, against which Hidalgo advanced till he was in sight of the towers and domes, when he first halted and then began to recede. On this occasion his conduct has been gravely censured, and Allende, a true soldier, was, it is said, most indignant. His courage cannot be suspected; he had witnessed, without attempting to check them, too many excesses, for his conduct to be attributed to humanity and a desire to save Mexico from the horrors of a siege or an assault, necessary evils, which all who appeal to arms are aware can neither be vindicated or prevented. The true reason was, probably, that he could not conceive that the viceroy could collect such a force, and was aware that another victory like that of Las Cruces would be his ruin. His forces had committed all possible excesses, and had suffered from the batteries of Truxillo so fearfully, that he knew they could not again be brought to the charge. So ignorant were they of artillery that they had attempted to muzzle the guns by cramming them with their straw hats, until hundreds had been thus slain. He was also nearly without ammunition; and we need not ask for more reasons.

He therefore commenced a retreat, but on the 7th of November fell in with the advance of the viceroy's army, commanded by Calleja. The viceroy's troops were chiefly creoles, who were wavering in their duty; and it is stated on the authority of officers who served there, that had Hidalgo delayed his attack, there is no doubt they would have sided with their countrymen. This was not done; the battle commenced, Calleja advancing in five separate columns, which broke the insurgent line and made all that followed a pursuit and a slaughter. The creole troops now had chosen their course, and for many years continued the chief support of Spain and the terror of the insurgents.

They seem to have been ever led by their officers, Cadena, Iturbide, &c., and it was not until the dethronement of the latter, when the Spanish flag was furled for ever in Mexico, that they seem to have remembered they had a country. We cannot but admire the consummate skill which enabled the viceroy to make men fight against their own interests; and the history of this part of the Mexican revolution will more than once recalI to us that part of the history of Italy made famous by the crimes and the talent of the Borgia and Sforza.

The number of Indians killed at Aculco is said to have exceeded ten thousand, but Hidalgo managed to collect a large army from the fugitives, and with most of the officers effected an escape to Valladolid. Allende retreated to Guanajuato, where he murdered in cold blood two hundred and forty-nine Europeans. Too much censure cannot be bestowed on this atrocity, which, however, will find a precedent in the history of most revolutions. At all events, it should not be explained of by the partisans of the viceroy, who had officially announced, that the customs of civilized war did riot apply to the followers of the heretic and rebel, Hidalgo. There is much excuse to be made for all insurgents, who are ever treated as traitors until their success covers them with the glare of fame, if not the true gold of patriotism.

Hidalgo arrived at Valladolid on the 14th of November, whence he proceeded to Guadalajara, which his subordinates had occupied on the day of his defeat at. Aculco. Here he was joined by the licenciate Ignacio Lopez Rayon, who afterwards became his secretary, and was to the establishment of a civil government in the provinces successively conquered by the insurgents, what Hidalgo and Morelos were in the military conduct of the revolution. Previous to the establishment of the junta of Zitacuaro, Rayon's first service, the insurgent was a man recognising no authority but arms, and their army but a band of men without any colorable authority.

On the 24th of November Hidalgo made a triumphal entry into Guadalajara, where, though still under excommunication, he participated in the Te Deum, in honor of his successes. It is here worthy of remark that the native clergy generally sustained him in his course, and paid no attention to the ecclesiastical decree against him.

Allende here joined him, and the two proceeded to provide artillery to replace the guns they had lost at Aculco. This was effected by bringing from San Blas, the great dockyard on the Pacific of the Spanish government of which Morelos had possessed himself a great number of guns, some of which were of heavy calibre, transported by Indians over the western Cordillera, thought then impassable, and over which no road has as yet been constructed, except at a few widely distant spots. Here he committed one of those actions which must forever stain his character. Upwards of seven hundred Europeans who had remained quiet at home, were imprisoned and brought out by twenties and thirties at night, taken to quiet places, and murdered. This system he had commenced at Valladolid, where during three days seventy persons were beheaded in the public square, because they were Spaniards.

There is reason to believe he intended to act on this principle throughout the war; for on his trial, an authentic letter was produced, written by him to one of his subordinates, in which he orders him to continue to arrest as many Spaniards as possible, and "if you find any among them entertaining dangerous opinions, bury them in oblivion by putting them to death in some secret place, where their fate may be forever unknown." If this be from an authentic letter, we can but be thankful that Hidalgo's career was soon terminated. He had, however, lived long enough to accomplish his mission, to arouse his people, and to take the steps which cast his country in that sea of strife from which it could only emerge with the boon of independence.

This atrocity so disgusted Allende, who was by no means mawkishly sentimental, that he was only prevented from leaving him by the approach of Calleja. The cannon obtained from San Blas were so numerous that Hidalgo determined, though he had but twelve hundred muskets, to risk a battle. Allende foresaw the consequences of the total want of discipline, and sought to dissuade him. A council of war was called, and as these bodies generally decide incorrectly, he was outvoted; and the bridge of Calderon, sixteen leagues from Guadalajara, was selected as the place of resistance and fortified. Calleja, after a delay of six weeks in Guanjanato, came in sight on the 16th of January, 1811, whea a general battle took place, which realized all of Allende's predictions. The Mexicans were partially successful in the beginning, repulsing two or three attacks, in one of which the Conde de Cadena was killed. They were finally thrown into confusion by the explosion of an ammunition wagon, and compelled to retreat, which they did in an orderly manner, commanded by Allende and Hidalgo, towards the provincias internas. Rayon returned to Guadalajara to secure the military chest, which contained three hundred thousand dollars. So delighted was Calleja at his success, that he did not attempt to pursue the insurgents, or to enter Guadalajara until four days after the battle. For this he was made Conde de Calderon, a title under which he reappears in the history of Mexico after the lapse of ten years. The insurgent generals retreated to Saltillo, at the head of four thousand troops, and there it was determined to leave them under the command of Rayon, while Hidalgo, Allende, Aldama, and Abasolo, who had ever been the souls of the revolution, were to set out for the United States to purchase arms and procure the assistance of experienced officers.

On the road, however, they were surprised by a former partisan, Don Ignacio Elizondo, who could not resist the temptation of so valuable a capture. They were taken to Chihuahua on the 21st of March, 1811, where, from anxiety to extort a knowledge of their schemes, the trial was prolonged till July, when Hidalgo, who had previously been degraded from the priesthood, was shot, his comrades sharing his fate. With the cowardice and pusillanimity peculiar to weak governments, an attempt was made to produce an impression that they repented; but persons are now living in Chihuahua who testify that they died bravely and boldly as they had fought, and Hidalgo persisted in his conviction that the knell of the Spanish rule had been sounded; that though the viceroy might resist, the end would come. He was buried in Chihuahua; and a few years since, before the breaking out of the present war, the place of his execution was pointed out to a party of American travellers almost as a holy spot, sanctified by the blood of the fighting Cura of Dolores. None can deny his valor and patriotism, and his excesses were perhaps to be attributed as much to the character of the enemies against whom he contended as to himself. Had it been his lot to contend against a humaner foe, it is not improbable that he would have been merciful. The cause he fought in was holy, and it is therefore the more to be regretted that be suffered it to be sullied with unnecessary bloodshed. In the long roll of Mexican leaders we shall have occasion to refer to, one thing is sure: few, indeed, are less bloodstained than Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.

© 1997-2009, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved
Mexican Independence | New Spain-Index