I learned this about American, and more specifically, Texas history this evening. It is a chilling story of how captured fighters to earn their independence from Mexico were systematically executed by something as small as chance.
The story begins on the 20th of December, 1842, the 308 Texan soldiers who ignored orders to pull back from the Rio Grande to Gonzales approached Ciudad Mier. They camped on the Texas side of the Rio Grande.
261 soldiers participated in the attack on the town, while the others remained behind as the camp guard.
The Texans were unaware that thousands of Mexican troops were in the area under the command of Generals Francisco Mejia and Pedro de Ampudia.
Although they inflicted heavy casualties on the Mexicans, 650 dead and 200 wounded, the Texans were forced to surrender on the day after Christmas Day.
243 Texans were taken prisoner and marched toward Mexico City via Matamoros and Monterrey for punishment.
On the 11th of February, 1843, 181 Texans escaped, but the lack of food and water in the mountainous Mexican desert forced 176 to surrender or be recaptured by the end of the month.
When the prisoners arrived in Saltillo, Coahuila, they learned an outraged Santa Anna ordered the execution of all the escapees, but Governor Francisco Mexía of the state of Coahuila refused to follow the order.
The new commander, Colonel Domingo Huerta, moved the prisoners to El Rancho Salado. By this time, diplomatic efforts on behalf of Texas by the foreign ministers of the United States and Great Britain led Santa Anna to compromise that only one in ten would die. Which is the definition of decimation– one-tenth.
To help determine who would die Huerta had 159 white beans and seventeen black beans placed in a pot. In what came to be known as the Black Bean Episode or the Bean Lottery, the Texans were blindfolded and ordered to draw beans. Officers and then enlisted men, in alphabetical order, were ordered to draw. The seventeen men who drew a black bean were allowed to write letters home and then were executed by firing squad.
On the evening of 25th of March, 1843, the Texans were shot in two groups, one of nine men and one of eight. According to legend, Huerta placed the black beans in last and had the officers pick first, so that they would make up the majority of those killed.
The first Texan to draw a black bean was Major James D. Cocke. As a witness recalled, Cocke held up the bean between his forefinger and thumb, and with a smile of contempt, said, “Boys, I told you so; I never failed in my life to draw a prize.” He later told a fellow Texan, “They only rob me of forty years.” Fearing that the Mexicans would strip his body after he was dead, he removed his pants and gave them to a companion whose own clothing was in worse shape. He was shot with the sixteen others who drew black beans on that gruesome day. His last words were reported to have been, “Tell my friends I die with grace.”
The seventeen that drew black beans in the lottery were James Decatur Cocke, William Mosby Eastland, Patrick Mahan, James M. Ogden, James N. Torrey, Martin Carroll Wing, John L. Cash, Robert Holmes Dunham, Edward E. Este, Robert Harris, Thomas L. Jones, Christopher Roberts, William N. Rowan, James L. Shepherd, J. N. M. Thompson, James Turnbull, and Henry Walling.
Shepherd survived the firing squad by pretending to be dead. The guards left him for dead in the courtyard, and he escaped in the night but was recaptured and shot. Eastland County, Texas is named after William Mosby Eastland.
Captain Ewen Cameron had drawn a white bean, but was ordered executed anyway by Santa Anna. As he waited to die, Cameron refused to confess to a priest. Standing before the firing squad, Cameron declined the offer of a blindfold, declaring, “For the liberty of Texas, Ewen Cameron can look death in the face.” He then opened his hunting shirt and yelled at his executioners, “Fuego!”, meaning fire in Spanish.
The white bean survivors, including Bigfoot Wallace, and Samuel Hamilton Walker finished the march to Mexico City and were imprisoned at Perote Castle along with the fifteen survivors from the Dawson Massacre. Some of the Texans escaped from Perote or died there, but most remained captive until they were released, by order of Santa Anna, on the 16th of September, 1844.
Captain Ewen Cameron sure had some balls to face off against his executioners as he did so. Even after drawing a white bean, his fate can be seen by many to be unjust and unfair.
But to think about how a man’s life would be decided by the drawing of something as simple back then as a bean, had to be terrifying. The rest as they say is actual history.