The Mier Expedition
Shooting the Decimated Prisoners drawn from life by Charles McLaughlin, one of the Mier prisoners.
McLaughlin's drawings were published in 1845 in Thomas J. Green's classic memoir Journal of the Texian Expedition Against Mier.
In the 1840s, the tensions between the Republic of Texas and Mexico entered a new and dangerous phase. Mexico staged several raiding expeditions into Texas, sacking San Antonio twice. Most Texans were outraged and demanded retaliation. President Sam Houston believed that Texas was in no way prepared for another war with Mexico, but to appease these critics, he organized a force under Alexander Somervell to raid Mexico in the disputed borderland between the Nueces and the Rio Grande.
Somervell recruited about 700 volunteers, most of whom had no regular military training. The expedition raided the border towns of Laredo and Guerrero; then Somervell decided to call it quits, fearing that to stage any further action would result in a fatal clash with Mexican troops. Many of the volunteers were incensed by Somervell's decision, and more than 300 elected to remain on the border with William S. Fisher rather than return home with Somervell.
On December 23, 1842, Fisher and most of the men crossed the Rio Grande and entered the town of Mier, where they met no resistance. They demanded supplies from the town, which the town's alcalde promised to deliver. The troops withdrew and waited. In the meantime, a large detachment of Mexican troops arrived in the town. On December 25, the two sides engaged in a bloody battle that lasted almost 24 hours. The Texans sustained thirty casualties and ran out of food, water, and ammunition. More than 200 Texans surrendered to Mexican forces, unaware that they had mauled the Mexican troops to an almost unbelievable degree, inflicting an astounding 800 casualties.
As far as the Mexicans were concerned, the Texans were privateers on an unauthorized raid and entitled to no consideration as military prisoners of war. They were initially sentenced to death, then ordered on a forced march to Mexico City. Fisher was separated from the group, but the men selected a leader from among themselves, a Scottish-born captain named Ewen Cameron. Along the way, Cameron led most of the prisoners in an escape attempt. The Texans tried to make a run back for the border, but they hadn't bargained on the harsh and dry conditions in the mountains. All but three were recaptured and returned to the town of Salado.
When he heard about the breakout, President Antonio López de Santa Anna ordered that the recaptured prisoners, some 176 men, be put to death immediately. The governor of the state of Coahuila, Francisco Mexía, refused to carry out the order and pleaded with foreign ministers in Mexico City to persuade the president to change his mind.
What happened next became known as the "Black Bean Episode," one of the most notorious atrocities of Santa Anna's career. He promised the foreign ministers that he would show mercy, and then modified his decree to order the decimation of the Mier prisoners; in other words, the execution of every tenth man. On March 25, 1843, the prisoners were forced to draw from a jar containing 159 white beans and 17 black beans. At dusk that day, those unlucky enough to draw a black bean were shot to death, as was Cameron as the leader of the escapees.
The remaining prisoners were put to work on a road gang. Then, most were thrown into the notorious Perote Prison in Vera Cruz, though a few were separated from the group and scattered into other prisons around Mexico. Over the next few months, some managed to escape, while others died of wounds, disease, and starvation. Diplomats from the United States and Great Britain worked for the release of the Mier prisoners. They were eventually paroled in piecemeal fashion, with the last prisoner going home in September 1844.
In 1848 the bodies of the men executed in the Black Bean Episode were returned from Mexico and were buried in La Grange, Texas.