On December 19, 1842, dissension divided the men of the Somervell expedition. The band of about five hundred Republic of Texas soldiers had swept through South Texas, capturing Loredo and Guerrero along the way.
Alexander Somervell, the expedition’s commander, felt that crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico would be disastrous, but 308 of the men, probably feeling bold from their previous victories, wanted to push farther south, hoping to plunder under-fortified Mexican towns. Somervell and 189 others headed north, and the men who were left formed the Mier expedition, the most ill-fated of the raiding expeditions from Texas into Mexico.
Operating under newly elected commander William S. Fisher, the Texans reached Mier without opposition December 23. They retreated later that day on promises from the alcalde of fresh supplies. For two days, the troops camped opposite of Mier without receiving any rations. So on Christmas Day the troops recrossed the Rio Grande and engaged the Mexican forces, which outnumbered the Texans ten to one, in a day-long battle, losing thirty men while killing six hundred Mexicans.
The Texans, though, were low on gun powder and still without food. They surrendered in the late afternoon of December 26. The captured soldiers were ordered to Mexico City. But on February 11, 1843, en route to the capital city, the able-bodied Texans executed a successful escape plan. Unfortunately for them, their journey of making it to the border was far less triumphant. One hundred and seventy-six of the soldiers—all but three who escaped—were recaptured and brought to Salado. Every tenth man was ordered to die of execution by Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, in what became known as the Black Bean episode, because the seventeen men were chosen by drawing beans from a sack. If they picked a black bean, they were blindfolded and shot.
For the next year, the Mier men labored along roads outside of Mexico City, were transferred from prison to prison, and schemed of ways to return to Texas. Their escapes were varied: some tunneled under prison walls, others bribed guards, and a few were released at U.S. official’s request. Many, however, died due to disease, wounds, and starvation. On September 16, 1844, the last of the Mier group was returned to Texas, with one exception, John C. C. Hill.
Hill was a fourteen year old who joined his father and older brother as a member of the original expedition, and he apparently did his share of soldiering, killing at least twelve Mexicans during the Mier standoff. But after being captured and then recaptured after the failed escape, Hill was sent to Mexico City at the request of Santa Anna, who had apparently become fond of young Hill. Hill’s father and brother were still held in a Mexican prison.
Hill, though, pleaded with Santa Anna to release his brother and father. Santa Anna agreed, but there was one stipulation: Hill would become Santa Anna’s adopted son. Hill’s father accepted the terms and got the hell out of Mexico. Hill would go on to attend the Colegio de Minería (College of Mining) in Mexico City, graduating with a mining degree and a doctorate in engineering.
The almost inexplicable life of John Hill is the focus of a forthcoming biography from the Texas State Historical Association, A Brave Boy and a Good Soldier: John C. C. Hill and the Texas Expedition to Mier. Look for the book this March.