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Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Man Who Shot Dillinger


Chales Winstead

The Great Depression was a time of grinding poverty, shanty towns, soup lines, and trains laden with tattered hoboes looking for work.  Thousands lost their homes and farms to foreclosure.  As a result, many blamed the banks for their misfortunes.  Gangsters, such as “Baby Face” Nelson, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, Alvin Karpis, and John Dillinger caught the public’s imagination.  Because they robbed the hated banks, they were often seen as heroes and modern day Robin Hoods.  Nevertheless, they shot people, especially police officers and bank employees with families to support.  The money they robbed didn’t go toward charities for the poor, but toward their own pockets. 


Back then, bank robberies were committed with an impunity that would dumbfound today’s  innocent, law-abiding public.  During the twenties, law enforcement in major cities, such as Chicago, were hampered by corruption, stingy budgets, and state and local jurisdictions that wouldn’t cooperate with each other.   To make matters worse, the bank robbers were heavily armed with submachine guns, automatic rifles, and shotguns, awesome military grade firepower the police could barely counter.  By the time police officers and sheriff deputies gave chase, the criminals were in another state jurisdiction, holed-up in back-alley apartments and remote farm houses, except for Bonnie and Clyde; who mostly just lived in their car.  Their stolen money could buy a whole lot of underworld support, especially informants who could warn them if the law was getting too close.  If you had the money and corrupt officials that looked the other way - crime paid!


That all changed during the early thirties with the emergence of the federal government’s crime fighting unit - the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI.  Under the leadership of a former government attorney, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI would become the nation’s premier law enforcement agency.  A self-disciplined, neatness freak, who lived with his mother, Hoover surrounded himself with suited, well-groomed, extremely loyal agents, mostly dapper Southern boys with law degrees.  However, they were also unarmed investigators with little, if any, police experience.  Hoover himself had never arrested anyone.  Snappy appearances were great for newspaper photos, but not so great for armed manhunts that could get you killed during a gunfight.  What the FBI needed to compensate for its youthful inexperience, especially against heavily armed, hardened gangsters, was a tough, frontier approach to law enforcement.  What better place to look than Texas.


Referred to as the “Cowboys,” these grizzled FBI agents from the Southwest weren’t anything like Hoover’s “young and grateful” type.  They wore cowboy hats, chewed and spit tobacco, drank, and packed oversize revolvers.  But more important, they could look you straight in the eye, and without hesitation, shoot you dead.  Charles Winstead, who often carried a .357 Magnum revolver, fit that type “to a T.”


Charles “Charlie” Winstead was born in Sherman, Texas on May 25th, 1891.  Unlike the buff, silent character portrayed by the actor Stephen Lang, in the movie “Public Enemies,” he was 5 feet, seven inches tall and weighed only 135 pounds.  Winstead was anything but silent, if riled, he wouldn’t hold back, vocally or physically; a trait that would eventually cost him.  In one incident, he struck a deliveryman who called him an “sob” over a parking space.  Before joining the FBI, Winstead served in the army during World War I and was a deputy sheriff in a number of Texas counties.  After joining the FBI, he was sent to the Dallas field office where he participated in unsuccessful hunts for Bonnie and Clyde and “Machine Gun” Kelly.  Though lacking in education, Winstead had a keen insight into the criminal mind and could conduct an investigation.  His big break came with his arrest of 1920’s bank robber Harvey Bailey in Rhome, Oklahoma.  Bailey was referred to as the “Dean of Bank Robbers.” So successful at his profession, he opened a chain of car washes and gas stations throughout South Chicago, eventually losing it all in the 1929 stock market crash.   In May, 1934, Winstead boarded an airplane at Dallas’ Love Field for a trip to Chicago; he was being transferred to help hunt down the most notorious bank robber in U. S. History - John Dillinger.


John Herbert Dillinger could probably never remember a time when he wasn’t in trouble.  Born on June 22, 1903 in Indianapolis, Indiana, he was a bully at school and stole cars as a teenager.  To avoid a further downward slide, Dillinger enlisted in the U. S. Navy but eventually deserted while his ship, the USS Utah, was docked in Boston Harbor.  He was later dishonorably discharged.  Out of a job, newly married,  and without an employable background, Dillinger turned to crime, robbing $50 from an elderly grocery store owner in Mooresville, Indiana.  He was arrested and received a 10 year sentence.  While incarcerated at Indiana State Prison, he learned the basics of bank robbery from fellow inmates, stating “I will become the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here.”  He was as good as his word after being paroled on May 10, 1933.  What followed was a string of 24 bank robberies throughout the Midwest with a gang of ex-convicts he knew in prison. To obtain needed arms and bullet proof vests, he brazenly held-up police stations. 


Dillinger’s career came to a screeching halt when police in Tucson, Arizona arrested him while he was hiding out.  He was extradited to Crown Pointe, Indiana to stand trial for a bank robbery in East Chicago.  The jail house was reinforced with additional guards, turning it into an armed camp.  A swarm of news reporters descended on Dillinger’s jail cell.  He took full advantage of the publicity, presenting himself as a heartfelt, working class type who only robbed banks to make a living. “I was just an unfortunate boy who started wrong,” he told reporters.  In one news photo, he had his elbow resting on the shoulder of the county prosecutor, as if they were the best of friends.  Dillinger’s public stock rose further when he escaped.  Using a hand-carved wooden handgun, dyed with shoe polish, he made a clean getaway without a shot being fired.  Afterwards, the bank robberies continued.


It was all too much for the FBI to ignore and simply pass on to local law enforcement.  Under famed Special Agent Melvin Purvis, the Chicago FBI office ramped up the search for Dillinger; who suffered a leg wound while robbing a bank in Mason City, Iowa.  A break came when the owner’s wife of the Little Bohemia Lodge, near Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, notified authorities of Dillinger’s presence.  Dillinger, recovering from his leg wound, hid out in an upstairs bedroom along with fellow gang members, including the violent, hot-tempered “Baby Face” Nelson.  Purvis and his agents quietly surrounded the lodge.  Their plan unraveled when the car of a lodge customer came down the driveway. The agents yelled at the driver to stop, but he couldn’t hear them because he had turned on the car’s radio.  The agents opened fire, killing the innocent driver and alerting the gangsters inside the lodge.  Machine gun fire erupted from the lodge’s upstairs windows, holding off Purvis’ men long enough for Dillinger and his gang to escape out back, scattering into the nearby woods.  “Baby Face Nelson” shot and killed an agent before stealing his car and getting away.  Overly sensitive toward public criticism and the political repercussions that followed, Hoover pulled out all the stops to get Dillinger - dead or alive.  


After Winstead landed, he was driven to the Chicago office to meet Purvis and fellow members of the newly created “Dillinger Squad.”  It became obvious to squad members; they were not  here to capture Dillinger, but kill him.  Agents fanned out across the Midwest to question Dillinger’s family and close associates with no results.  A multitude of potential informants telephoned, but usually proved unreliable.  After months of searching, a reliable informant was finally found, a former madam from the Chicago underworld. 


Known in crime lore as “The Lady in Red,”Ana Sage was a Rumanian immigrant who had a talent for managing whorehouses.  Starting out as a “five and dime” prostitute at the Harbor Bay Inn in East Chicago, she eventually ran the place after the owner was sent to jail for selling hard liquor.  Sage was so successful that the Harbor Bay Inn became a well-oiled, established den of inequity at the going rate of $2 a tumble. In 1923, she rented an entire hotel for her operation, the forty-six room Koster Hotel, later referred to as “The Bucket of Blood” for all the knife and gunfights that occurred inside.  East Chicago’s corrupt police force kept her out of jail until her luck finally ran out.  Indiana’s reform-minded governor referred her to the federal immigration authorities for deportation.  With no whorehouses to run, Sage resided in a number of Chicago apartments she also used for call girl operations.  Among her girls was Polly Hamilton, a pretty sandwich shop waitress.  Introducing himself as “Jimmy Lawrence,” a clerk at the Chicago Board of Trade, Dillinger began dating her.  Facing deportation and knowing the real identity of Polly’s boyfriend, she decided to inform on Dillinger in exchange for not being deported. The FBI agreed to the exchange after Sage told them her, Hamilton and Dillinger would attend a movie theater on July 22, 1934.   She would be wearing an orange skirt to signal their arrival.  FBI agents surrounded the Biograph Theater along with members of the Chicago Police Department.   Purvis would light a cigar to signal Dillinger’s exit from the theater.  Shortly after the movie ended, Dillinger came out of the theater; Purvis lit his cigar.  Dillinger noticed their approach and tried to escape down an alley.  Winstead and two other agents opened fire with their handguns.  The steady-handed Texan fired the fatal shots that killed Dillinger.  One struck him in the back of the neck and exited just below his right eye.  Curiosity seekers surrounded the body.  Using their newspapers and handkerchiefs, they sopped up the blood as souvenirs.


Winstead received a letter of commendation from Hoover.  After helping track down “Baby Face” Nelson, he returned west, serving in FBI offices at El Paso and Albuquerque. Winstead had little use for Hoover’s imperious demeanor, telling one rookie, “Everyone at headquarters knows Hoover is an egomaniac, and they all flatter him constantly.  If you don’t, you’ll be noticed.”  It was a female news reporter that ended Winstead’s FBI career. Resentful of her questions, he insulted her and accused her of being a Communist after she downplayed America’s war effort during World War II.  Always sensitive toward the press, Hoover demanded an apology from Winstead. Instead, Winstead did what any prideful Texan with a disdain for federal popinjays would do.  He told him to, “Go to hell !”  Afterwards, he resigned from the FBI on December 10, 1942, four years short of receiving tenure for government retirement.  Winstead served as a captain in Army Intelligence during the war.  He was also briefly in charge of security during the secret A-bomb testing at Los Alamos, the “Manhattan Project.”  Before retiring and taking up horse ranching, he was employed as a sheriff’s deputy and private investigator in New Mexico.  Charles B. Winstead died of cancer on August 3, 1973 and was cremated at Albuquerque’s Fairview Park Crematory.          


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Rogue Rebels

 During the Civil War, Texas cavalry, west of the Mississippi, was known and feared for their daring and fighting prowess, but little could be said for their discipline.  Salutes were seldom used, if at all, and ranking officers were often addressed by their first name.  Under the command of a hypocritical Methodist preacher, one brigade of unruly Texans was not only undisciplined, but at times-out of control, a rouge unit beyond the purview of state and local authorities. 

The Reverend George Washington Carter was born in January, 1826, in Fauquier County, Virginia.  At the age of 21, he became a Methodist minister, serving congregations in Richmond, Petersburg and Fredericksburg.  In 1860, the Texas Methodist Conference invited him to become president of Soule University at Chappell Hill, Texas, an all-male Methodist College of around 150 students.  Because of the Civil War, the school closed its doors after most of the student body enlisted in the Confederate Army.  Carter, an ardent secessionist, resigned his position and then returned to his native Virginia.  In Texas, local politicians and businessmen, wanting to help the Confederate cause, raised companies under the authorization of the Governor of Texas.  Carter, on the other hand, obtained his authorization from the Confederate Secretary of War.  Commissioned a colonel, he sought enlistment terms of three years for his volunteers instead of the preferred one year most Texans signed up for. The Confederate Conscription Act of April 1862 solved his recruiting problem.  In the South, getting drafted was considered dishonorable, forcing most Texans to volunteer.

By volunteering, recruits could elect their officers, receive cash bonuses, and choose their preferred branch of service.  For most Texans, the choice was clear - cavalry.  As a result, Carter was able to raise three regiments of cavalry.  At first, his recruits were to be mounted as lancers, forsaking the more traditional sword and saber.  The lances, however, were not readily available; Colt revolvers, shotguns, and Bowie knives would have to suffice.  Each regiment was commanded by a Methodist minister with little to no military experience.  In addition to Carter’s own 21st Cavalry Regiment, Franklin C. Wilkes commanded the 24th Texas Cavalry Regiment and Clayton C. Gillespie commanded the 25th Texas Cavalry Regiment.  Collectively, they were known as Carter’s Lancers.

Problems began when Carter’s recruiting conflicted with Texas Governor Francis Lubbock’s efforts to comply with the Confederate government's demand for badly needed infantry regiments.  Texans, for the most part, had a deep disdain for marching on foot, preferring the comfort of a saddle and his own faithful steed.  Lubbock complained, “If it be so that such authority is vested in Colonel Carter or others I can only repeat what I have already said, that it will defeat every effort I can make to raise infantry.”

Carter ignored the governor’s protests.  Setting up two camps of instruction, in Austin County, for his 2,000 man brigade, he and his officers enjoyed an easy camp life of stewed beef, boiled him, roast chicken, and mashed potatoes washed down with rye whisky.  A train of black servants, owned by the officers, prepared their meals and serviced their tents.  Questions arose as to how they obtained their food, either paying for it directly with phony bank notes or seizing it outright from local farmers. Complaints began to mount and newspapers began to publish accounts of the Lancer’s misdeeds.  Among the most serious, Carter’s fondness for drink and his ensuing inebriation for days at a time.   To make matters worse, he was frequently absent from camp, leaving his officers to obtain food for their men and forage for their horses.  The Texas Republican newspaper suggested a church inquiry into Carter’s behavior.

Under such lax command, the Lancers began to take on the character of a bad college fraternity.  When Carter failed to produce back pay and those promised enlistment bounties, things got ugly.  Corncribs and smokehouses at nearby farms were ravaged and farmers insulted. Before arriving at Shreveport, on their way to Arkansas, their reputation preceded them.   Brigadier General Henry E. McCulloch, Commander of the Eastern District of Texas, would not allow Carter’s ruffians to camp near the district town of Tyler and closed all the liquor stores.  In Shreveport, the 24th and 25th regiments were charged with pillaging.  The 25th’s commander, Clayton Gillespie, was charged with being drunk and disorderly, even getting into a fight with one of his own men in a grog shop.  Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore complained to Confederate Secretary of War George W. Randolph that Carter’s men had “seized private property, entered houses of private citizens, brutally practiced extortion and outrage, and with bullying and threatening language and manner spread terror among the people.”  After ordering the state militia to Alexandria, Moore warned Secretary Randolph that if the Lancer’s officers were not dismissed, his “marksmen may save you the trouble if they come again.  There is a point to which patient endurance can exceed no further.”

The party ended in Arkansas.  General Theophilus H. Holmes ordered the 24th and 25th Texas cavalry regiments to dismount and turn their horses over to the quartermaster.  Instead of becoming lancers, they became easier to control infantry.  Carter’s own 21st regiment avoided the dismounting by attaching itself (sans lances) to Parson’s Texas Cavalry Brigade.  

Because Parson’s command was inducted into the Confederate Army at a later date than Carter’s 21s regiment, Carter claimed he was Parson’s superior.  Parson’s men were more loyal to the man than to the rank; they were not about to take orders from Carter.  As a result, both colonels, Carter and Parson, went their independent ways, only working together when necessary.   After the war, Carter served in the Louisiana legislature and became a lecturer.  His personal life took a rocky path with his marriage and divorce of three women.  His third marriage, at the age of sixty-nine, was to a twenty-one year old girl. The Virginia Methodist Conference tried him for immorality.  He died at the Maryland Line Confederate Soldier’s Home in Pikesville, Maryland on May 11, 1901.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

A Massacre Long Forgotten - The Battle of Medina Part 2


Routed from the field, General Toledo’s Republican Army fled toward San Antonio with the royalist cavalry, under Lt. Colonel Ygnacio Elizondo, behind them. The more than six hundred dead republicans on the battlefield were never buried but left to rot for nine years. To stamp out dissent in Texas, Arredondo took an unmerciful, heavy-handed approach toward any captured rebels. Wounded republicans on the battlefield were bayonetted on the spot. The Americans serving under Toledo met a more gruesome fate at the hands of Tejanos anxious to prove their support to the advancing royalists. Republican Captain Ephraim McClane wrote, ”They butchered most of those who had broken down, cut them in quarters, and suspended them on poles and limbs of trees like beef or pork for the packer; and when the enemy advanced, they displayed them as trophies of their loyalty.”  

Upon the royalists’ arrival in San Antonio, those who had supported the Republican government were rounded up and shot by firing squads. One prisoner, John Villars, reported three hundred male prisoners were placed in irons before Arredondo “had executed some of them, then dragging them round the public square, and then cutting off their arms and heads and placing them in public places- these scenes continued until he disposed of most of the unfortunate fellows.” Rebel property was confiscated and sold at auction; the money going to the royalist soldiers. In Arredondo’s eyes, all residents of San Antonio were guilty of treason. There were to be no trials, just incarceration followed by execution. One of Arredondo’s officers was especially impressed with his excessive brutality, a young lieutenant named Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

Female republican supporters suffered cruelty worse than slow death. Spanish soldiers confined them to a makeshift prison they nicknamed “La Quinta,” a Spanish term meaning country retreat. Inside, they were forced to grind corn on their hands and knees to make tortillas for the soldiers. While laboring constantly every day, the exhausted women were subjected to sexual abuse. Resistance could lead to a severe lashing or worse. While their parents were imprisoned or shot, the children were forced out into the streets to beg for food and shelter.

To crush dissent throughout Texas, Arredondo dispatched Elizondo and five hundred cavalrymen east to the Louisiana border, taking prisoners (mostly Tejanos) along the way. Seventy-one rebels were executed. Elizondo took two hundred prisoners along with all the plunder his men could carry back to San Antonio. While camped on the Brazos River, one Elizondo’s officers, Lt. Miguel Serrano, lost his sanity over the horrors he witnessed. He stabbed Elizondo in his commander’s tent with a saber after killing Elizondo’s cousin, Captain Ysidro de la Garza. Elizondo later died on the way back and was buried on the banks of the San Marcos River. More executions followed after the prisoners arrived in San Antonio.  Their bodies were hung around the plaza for months as a grizzly warning throughout the city. As if the executions were not bad enough, there was an increase in Indian raids. In response, all males were forced to join the local militia after they were ordered to abandon their farms and ranches. Lipan Apaches and Comanches burned them to the ground and killed the livestock, leading to a severe meat shortage. Though peace overtures were made, they were only a temporary fix. Arredondo’s reign of terror lasted until the Spring of 1814 when he returned to Mexico, leaving Texas firmly in the Spanish control. To keep that control, defend against Indian raids and deter American encroachment, Arredondo approved the petition of Moses Austin (father of Stephen F. Austin) to establish a settlement in Texas.  On July 3, 1821, he switched his allegiance to an independent Mexico.  Arrodondo retired to Cuba where he died in 1837.

General Toledo, Henry Perry and Gutierrez escaped into the United States. Though eager to renew their revolutionary efforts, the U.S. was preoccupied with the War of 1812 and had little interest in supporting them. Gutierrez eventually returned to an independent Mexico where he was elected Governor of Tamaulipas. He died on May 13, 1841. Toledo made peace with the Spanish Government and later returned to Europe as a diplomat, dying in Paris in 1858. Perry never gave up his filibustering ways. He tried to seize La Bahia in Texas, leading fifty men in a doomed effort. In 1817, he committed suicide near Nacogdoches rather than surrendering to Spanish troops.

In the shadow of the Alamo, Goliad and San Jacinto, the Battle of Medina has become a mere historical footnote. Though the casualties were much higher and certainly more horrific than those of the Texas Revolution, there are few to zero historical sites concerning the battle and following massacre in San Antonio. To this day, the exact location of the battle has not been found. No graveyards, no breastworks, no relics and shifting soil has made a location an educated guess at best. Three markers exist for the battle’s possible site:

1)    A State of Texas marker at the intersection of U.S. Route 281 and Farm to Market Road  2537 in Bexar County.

2)    A State of Texas marker placed in 2005 at the intersection of Old Applewhite Road and Bruce Road near the community of Leming in Atascosa County.

3)    A marker (not recognized by the State of Texas) placed in 2013 by retired petroleum geologist Robert P. Marshall on Old Pleasanton Road based on Marshall’s own research.

A long-time Texas History enthusiast, Marshall used old maps, diaries, and his oilfield-honed mathematical skills to produce a 40-page report declaring he had found the site of the Battle of Medina. “I’ve taken the same approach as a geologist trying to find an oilfield, using facts and mathematics,” he stated. However, there is no archeological evidence to back his report. In 2022, a team of archeologists, anthropologists and volunteers searched the grounds near Losoya Middle School in San Antonio, unearthing a piece of iron grape shot and several musket balls – not a conclusive find. Today, with increasing interest in Tejano history and culture, the actual site may soon be found. Such a horrific battle and its aftermath certainly deserves more attention than it has in the past.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

A Massacre Long Forgotten - The Battle of Medina Part 1


The early 1800s was a time of European turmoil and North American power plays.  The Napoleonic Wars were at their height, the United States went to war with Great Britain (for the second time), Great Britain was scheming to undermine French interests in the Caribbean, and Spain’s New World empire was beginning to crumble.  Texas, a province of Mexico, became a jumping-off point for revolutionaries who wanted to liberate Mexico from Spain and filibusters who wanted to expand the U. S. border or seek personal gain.   

Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara was one such revolutionary.  After barely escaping a Spanish patrol in his underwear, the affluent blacksmith from Villa de Ruiz, on the Rio Grande River, traveled to Washington D. C. to seek support.  Wary of jeopardizing their relations with Spain, the U. S. Government would offer moral support, but no direct military assistance.  He had better luck in the Louisiana Territory, acquired by the U. S. through the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803.  Along the Louisiana-Texas border was a disputed zone between Spain and the United States called the Neutral Ground, where neither country had jurisdiction - ideal turf for outlaws, brigands, army deserters and Mexican revolutionaries on the dodge.   U. S. Agent William Shaler was appointed by U. S. President James Madison to observe Mexicos revolutionary activity.  Through his advice, Gutierrez assembled a small army of 450 volunteers in the Neutral Ground, mostly young American adventurers led by a twenty-four year old former U. S. Army officer, Augustus Magee.  The army was given the name the “Republican Army of the North.”  Because of Magee’s Scotch-Irish ancestry, it marched into Texas under a solid emerald green flag.  

On August 12, 1812, the Republican Army captured Nacogdoches with little opposition.  From there, they marched into Trinidad, and then Goliad, occupying the Spanish fortress of La Bahia.  Decades later, La Bahia would be the scene of the Goliad massacre during the Texas Revolution.   A four month siege ensued after Spanish troops from San Antonio (at the time named San Fernando de Bexar) surrounded the fortress.  Magee died of disease (probably tuberculosis) and was replaced by Samuel Kemper.  Weakened by desertions, losses from skirmishes, and winter cold, the Spanish troops withdrew to San Antonio.  Tejanos (Hispanic residents of Texas) and Native Americans, dissatisfied with Spanish rule, began joining the Republican Army’s march on San Antonio - the Capital of Texas.  Gutierrez forced its unconditional surrender and brutally executed the Spanish Governor of Texas, Manuel Maria de Salcedo.  Instead of the Spain-free Republic he promised, Gutierrez formed a 12-man junta, appointing himself President-Protector.  Under a new constitution, the Republic of Texas left the Americans out entirely.  Gutierrez assumed the same autocratic powers held by the previous Texas governor.  Needless to say, Tejano residents doubted Gutierrez’s revolutionary intentions, especially after Salcedo’s execution.  To make matters worse, Americans and Tejanos in the Republican Army became distrustful of each other.  Discipline began to fall apart as American officers and volunteers began leaving Texas for long furloughs in the U. S., often replaced by raw, undisciplined new arrivals more motivated by greed than ideology.  Shaler was furious at Gutierrez’s machinations and sought his replacement.  The dream of an independent Mexico began to fall apart as Spanish forces assembled south of the Rio Grande to retake Texas.

On April 6, 1813, Barcelona born General Don Joaquin de Arredondo led an army of 2.500 into Texas.  To meet the Spanish threat, the Junta forced Gutierrez to resign, replacing him with Shaler’s hand-picked replacement, a Cuban and former Spanish naval officer named Jose Alvarez de Toledo; who had been representing Gutierrez’s interests in Philadelphia.  Resplendent in a gold braided uniform, Toledo cut a dashing figure, but not dashing enough to gain the respect of the Tejano community; who viewed him as a foreigner or outsider, undeserving of their obedience.  Facing collapse, Toledo reorganized the Junta and renamed the army the “Republican Army of North Mexico.”  In a move that proved disastrous, he divided the army along ethnic lines.  The Tejanos and Native Americans were placed in one division under Colonel Miguel Menchaca.  The American volunteers were placed in a second division under Colonel Henry Perry.  Before its division, the Republican Army operated as a cohesive single unit, regardless of the varying ethnicities.  Under the shade of a divided, ill-disciplined  army, a major catastrophe was brewing. 

Toledo led his army of 1,400 out of San Antonio on August 15, 1813, encamping six miles from Arredondo’s royalist camp between the Atascosa and Medina Rivers, about 20 miles south of San Antonio.  On August 18, 1813, Toledo formed his troops into an ambuscade to meet the advancing royalist army.  A lone royalist officer, scouting ahead of a cavalry detachment under Lt. Colonel Ignacio Elizondo, drew fire from the republicans.  Thinking they had encountered Arredondo’s advance cavalry guard, they surged forward, forsaking a prudent defensive line for an impetuous advance.  The soaring summer heat dehydrated Toledo’s troops, while the deep sand made it impossible to move and position their artillery pieces by hand.   Elizondo withdrew his cavalry, drawing the republicans toward Arredondo’s well positioned and concealed main army.  Against Toledo’s orders, Menchaca’s cavalry advanced into a hail of musket balls and grapeshot.  Menchaca was killed when grapeshot struck him in the neck.  The Americans tried to flank the royalist line and attack its ammunition wagons in the rear.  Their flanking maneuvers were fought off, forcing them to fall back.   Worried after most of his artillery was silenced during the republicans’ furious assault, Arredondo prepared to withdraw but was convinced at the urging of a defector from Menchaca’s command to advance instead.  After four hours of fighting, Toledo’s exhausted army was routed from the field.  Arredondo wrote:

So there was a most hard fought battle, reaching the extreme of having their artillery placed within forty paces of ours.  We kept up this most harsh struggle for more than two hours, and still no decisive result was recognized by either side.

The enemy, seeing such strong and tenacious resistance, and in consequence of the excessive damage which our fire did their troops, Toledo tried to surprise us on the right and the left flanks and in the rear.  But he was not so quick in his movements as I was in commanding an advance guard sent out on both flanks and a considerable picket force detailed as a rear guard.  We gained much advantage by this prompt arrangement, because the accursed plans and the fire of the enemy were met on all four sides.

What happened next could be compared to a present day war between rival drug cartels. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Captain Law

 Captain Oliver Law

In July 1936, an attempted military coup to overthrow Spain’s elected government led to civil war.  The Nationalists, under General Francisco Franco, occupied the western half and southern coast of Spain.  Wanting to establish a Fascist state and restore Spain’s monarchy, they were opposed by the Spanish Republic’s Popular Front, a loose coalition of Socialists, Anarchists and Communists.  Both sides sought foreign aid for their causes.  The Popular Front was aided by the Soviet Union.  Their Nationalist adversaries were supported by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy.  Franco’s forces converged on the capital city of Madrid, but were held back by Republican troops.  “No Pasaran!” (They shall not pass!) became the Republic’s battle cry.

Though the U. S. was neutral during the conflict, hundreds of idealistic young Americans journeyed to Spain and enlisted in two of the Republic’s International Brigades - the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Brigades.  These volunteers consisted mostly of Jews opposed to Franco’s Nazi allies, Labor Unionists, and Communists.

Because of the Great Depression, many Americans were disillusioned with the United States government and sought an alternative to the Capitalist economy they suffered under.  One alternative was Communism which supported lower-class workers and labor unions as opposed to upper-class private industrialists.   African-Americans were attracted to Communism because of its embrace of all workers regardless of skin color, a welcome alternative indeed to the grinding poverty, segregation and lynchings of the Jim Crow era.

Texan Oliver Law was one such African-American who wanted an alternative.  Born in West Texas where there were few, if any, employment opportunities for young Black men, he joined the army and was assigned to the all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment - one of the famed Buffalo Regiments.  For six years, the 24th guarded the Texas-Mexico border during Mexico’s revolutionary period.  Two years prior to Law’s enlistment, they guarded the U.S. Army’s Camp Logan near Houston.  After members of the 24th were arrested and beaten by the Houston Police, they marched on Houston, touching of a riot that left 15 white civilians and 5 black soldiers dead.  Nineteen members of the 24th were later tried and hanged.  

In 1925, Law left the army for employment opportunities in the Midwest, finding work in a cement factory in Bluffton, Indiana.  He next moved to Chicago where he found steady work as a cab driver until the Great Depression hit.  Unemployed, Law worked intermittently at the docks and at restaurants.  Spurred by the Depression era’s activism and radical politics, he joined the Communist Party.   Working with Harry Haywood, the head of the U.S. Communist Party’s Negro Department, Law organized a protest over Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia.  On August 31, 1935, he spoke to the protesters before the Chicago Police beat and then arrested him.

Still angered over Ethiopia’s occupation, Law was determined to fight Mussolini’s troops, who were fighting in Spain for the Nationalists.  He couldn’t travel to Ethiopia and fight them, but he could fight them in Spain.  Law joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, where his prior army service proved useful.  After crossing the Spanish border from France, he and his fellow Americans hiked to Albacete, the headquarters of the International Brigades.  Prior to training, the International Brigade’s Commissar, a paranoid French Communist named Andre Marty, harangued them with Marxist rhetoric.  Because of the Republic’s dire situation on the battlefield, the training would be minimal.  Government-provided boots were selected from a ragged pile.  Used and poorly fitting, they had bloodstains from their prior owners who no longer needed them.  Their weapons were mostly antiquated Russian rifles shipped from Mexico and wrapped in Mexico City newspapers- leftovers from the Mexican Revolution.  Lincoln volunteers called them “Mexicanskis.”  Helmets, if worn, were paper-thin, French Adriens worn during World War I - not very effective against bullets.  “It doesn’t protect you from anything at all, except for clods of earth,” recalled civil war writer Ludwig Renn.”   The food consisted of chick peas, or gorbanzas, and olive oil.  Combined with dirty water, the brigade’s diet often led to chronic diarrhea.

Franco’s forces received more advanced weaponry from Nazi Germany.  In addition, they had more experienced troops such as the Spanish Foreign Legion and the Army of Africa, which consisted of ruthless Moorish units from Spanish Morocco.  Because of his failure to take Madrid by direct assault, Franco tried to surround it and cut it off from Republican territory. The Nationalists advanced from the north to the Jarama River west of Madrid, heavily defended by the Republicans.  Among them was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which was decimated after a suicidal assault on a well entrenched Nationalist position.  Law was commended for his performance and given command of a machine gun company; he was promoted to Captain. Law was now in command of white troops - the first Black officer in U.S. History to do so.  He told a reporter, “We came to wipe out the Fascists.  Some of us must die doing that job.  But we’ll do it here in Spain, maybe stopping Fascism in the United States too, without a great battle there.”  When the U.S. military attaché for Spain, Colonel Stephen Fuqua, visited the Lincolns, he encountered Law in his captain’s uniform.  “I see you are in a Captain’s uniform,” said Fuqua.  Law replied pointedly, “Yes I am, because I am a Captain.”  Fuqua responded condescendingly, “I’m sure your people must be proud of you, my boy.”  As casualties rose among the Lincolns’ officers, Law was promoted to commander of the brigade.  Unfortunately, his command wouldn’t last long.  On July 9th, 1937, at the Battle of Brunette, Law was severely wounded.  As he was being carried away in a stretcher, he raised his fist and cried out, ”Carry on boys!”  He later died and was buried in Spain.  His grave has never been found.

Out of the 3,015 Lincoln Brigade volunteers, 681 were killed.  In 1939, the International Brigades were withdrawn and sent home after a parade in Barcelona.  There was no parade for them back home in the United States.  Instead of being lauded for their anti-Fascism, the Americans of the Lincoln Brigade were more often viewed as subversive Communists in league with the Soviet Union. The American public was suspicious of them, shunned them, and subjected them to police surveillance.  During the McCarthy Era, they were blacklisted from employment and harassed by the FBI.  For the Black members, it was worse; the Jim Crow Era was still in full swing.  One former Black Lincoln volunteer recalled, “Spain was the first place that I ever felt like a free man.”

The Nationalists were victorious.  Franco became Spain’s dictator until his death in 1975.  For his support, Hitler would receive raw materials from Spain for his war machine.  In addition, 45,000 Spanish volunteers served in the German Army during its invasion of the Soviet Union. 

Though the war receives scant attention today, the Lincoln Brigade’s cause was championed by many famed journalists and authors, including Andre Malraux, George Orwell, Robert Capa, Herbert Matthews, Martha Gellhorn, and Ernest Hemingway, the author of the classic Spanish Civil War novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Deadly Beans


The Drawing of the Beans at Salado

During the Autumn of 1842, Sam Houston, the President of the Republic of Texas, was in a quandary.  General Santa Anna, his defeated adversary at San Jacinto, had regained power in Mexico and reneged on his promise to support Texas independence.  Financial problems and government instability prevented the wily dictator from launching another invasion on what he still considered a rebellious Mexican province.  Instead, Santa Anna dispatched a number of military expeditions into Texas to raid its settlements.  After San Antonio had been occupied and plundered by Mexican troops under General Raphael Vasquez, enraged Texans wanted immediate revenge.  Texas, however, was flat broke and had no standing army, relying instead on ill-disciplined militia units.  To make matters worse, the Texas arsenal was practically empty, consisting of only 2 brass cannons, 581 kegs of powder, and 395 muskets - barely enough for a single company.  Aid from the U.S. was not forthcoming because Texas was a slave republic.  Northern politicians were opposed to slavery and had little enthusiasm for the Lone Star State, much less its annexation.  As a result of these shortcomings, Houston was opposed to conducting military operations in Mexico.  When the Texas Congress passed a bill to raise an army, he vetoed it.


That all changed after Mexican General Adrien Woll surprised and briefly occupied San Antonio with 1,500 men.  After looting San Antonio for the second time, Woll left with 52 prisoners in tow.  Near Salado Creek, he confronted an 80 man militia force under Colonel Matthew Caldwell.  Woll’s cavalry tried to break Caldwell’s defensive line and took a drubbing from his sharpshooters.  Captain Nicholas Mosby Dawson arrived on the scene with 50 men, only to be slaughtered by Woll’s artillery.  Sheltered in a mesquite thicket, Dawson’s remaining men tried to surrender but were cut down in what would later be called the “Dawson Massacre.”  The public’s clamor for revenge intensified, too much for Houston to simply ignore; he issued a call for volunteers.


Houston had no illusions of immediate success against Mexico’s army; he favored a defensive position along the Texas border where volunteers could be properly trained and readily supplied with what little was on hand. Instead of appointing a tough, two-fisted commander that would take the fight into Mexicos interior, Houston chose a portly, feckless town merchant who he could micromanage - Brigadier General Alexander Somervell.  One militia member remarked, His very looks and deportment combined to prove him no General.”


Militias from all over Texas converged on San Antonio, where Somervell set up a loosely managed headquarters and nightly fandangos offered a less than military regimen.  Many were volunteers from the U.S., later described by a historian as “a rabble of adventurers and self-willed men unable or unwilling to subordinate their impetuous desires to the general good.”  Instead of issued uniforms, they wore an odd assortment of coonskin hats, sombreros, buckskin breeches and moccasins.  Nevertheless, their long rifles gave them a decided edge over Mexico’s antiquated muskets and spirits ran high.


On November 13, Somervell’s ragtag army of 700 set out for the Medina River.  Its first target was the border town of Laredo; a town decimated from Comanche and Apache raids.  Plagued by freezing rain, mud, misdirection and malnourishment, the Texans arrived in Laredo and found out the Mexican soldiers there had withdrawn.    Pleased that they wouldn’t have to fight entrenched troops, they were less pleased with Laredo’s utter lack of provisions.  The only thing the town alcalde could offer were 6 scrawny cows and a few sacks of flour.  Angered by the meager offering, many of the Texans began plundering Laredo’s ramshackle homes.   Furious over the looting, Somervell ordered his men to return the items they stole.    After he apologized to the alcalde, a mound of lifted booty was grudgingly assembled for return to Laredo’s residents.  Somervell next marched across the Rio Grande and captured the town of Guerro.  Like Laredo, there were only threadbare civilians and little loot to plunder.  With minimal support from President Houston, no military objectives in the offing, an army devolving into chaotic mob, and converging Mexican troops, Somervell prudently ordered his men to disband and return home.  Outraged at Somervells orders, 308 chose to continue the expedition, mostly to search for horses, cattle and sheep herds to rustle.  They would soon wish they had left with Somervell.


The expedition was now under Colonel William S. Fisher, a reckless, bombastic former Secretary of War under Houston.  Always searching for praise and glory, Fisher’s saw his chance to shine.  The shine took a dull tone when he entered the Mexican town of Mier on the Rio Grande.  Again,  the Texans requested supplies from the town’s alcalde, taking him hostage to ensure delivery.  Mexican troops arrived in Mier and cut off Fisher from the supplies.  Undeterred, he decided to attack Mier and seize them.  Hours of bloody street fighting ensued with the Texans seemingly getting the upper hand.  A staggering eight hundred Mexicans became casualties compared to thirty on the Texas side.  However, they were outnumbered, running out of ammo, and low on moral.  Fisher was in agony after his thumb was shot off.  Only the fear of a “no quarter” defeat kept them fighting.  The Mexican commander, General Pedro de Ampudia, deceptively offered a way out - surrender and be honorably treated as prisoners of war.   Fisher fell for the ruse; he surrendered. 


Now prisoners, they were dishonorably forced to march on foot to Mexico City.  Referred to as “Los Diablos Tejanos,” they were jeered by Mexican villagers along the way while church bells signaled their approach.  At the town of Salado, they decided to cheat an uncertain fate; they overpowered their guards and then escaped into Mexico’s treacherous countryside.  To avoid recapture, they took a circuitous route through the mountains only to become lost.  The escapees, worn-out from the march, became exhausted and dehydrated to the point of collapse - only three made it back to Texas.   The rest were recaptured and returned to Salado, where they were placed in irons.  Santa Anna wanted to execute all of them but was persuaded to take a less drastic measure - execution by lottery.  The prisoners were forced to draw dried beans from an earthen jar.  If a white one was drawn, you were spared.  A black bean meant execution by firing squad.  Seventeen selected black beans.  William “Bigfoot” Wallace cleverly felt the beans after noting the size of the black beans; he drew a white one.  After writing letters to their loved ones, the condemned were blindfolded and seated on a log bench.  A local priest sprinkled holy water over the execution site.  Because of the poor quality of the Mexican muskets, the prisoners were shot multiple times to ensure their deaths.  The remaining prisoners, manacled in pairs, were again force marched to Mexico City and internment at a dark, foreboding prison.


Perote Prison was a massive, medieval-like stone fortress that could hold 10,000 people.  Once called the Castle of San Carlos, it took seven years to build.  Perote had only one entrance and was surrounded by a moat.  Water was provided by an underground reservoir, but the food was sorely lacking.  The daily fare consisted of a few ounces of bread, a half pint of cornmeal, and potatoes covered with sprouts.  There was no furniture in the cells, just a cold stone floor with a mat to sleep on.  Though they surrendered to be treated as prisoners of war, the Texans were forced to perform grueling manual labor such as road repair and shoveling out latrines.  The few comforts allowed were writing letters to loved ones, receiving money and gifts, and purchasing goods outside the prison.  Overall, conditions were very harsh and the prisoners, especially those without money, suffered extensively from illness and starvation.   Seventeen managed to tunnel out through their cell floors or walls before bribing their way to Vera Cruz and boarding ships bound for the United States.  The rest had to rely on the goodwill of Santa Anna for a release date.  After pressure from British and U. S. Government officials,  Santa Anna released the prisoners on September 16, 1844.  One hundred five made it back home after two years in captivity.  Mostly forgotten, no warm public welcome awaited them.  The republic they had fought for was about to become the newest addition to the United States.  Texas no longer had a need for freebooting, rogue armies.  It wasn’t until 1850 that members of the Mier Expedition were awarded $300 in back pay.  Unlike Texas veterans from other wars, they didn’t receive land grants.  The prisoners executed and buried at Salado were exhumed during the War with Mexico, stuffed into sacks, and then reburied at Monument Hill in La Grange, Texas.             

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Frontier Hitman


Jim Miller

For many Americans, the Old West was a time where the line between good and bad was clearly defined.  An outlaw was always an outlaw - a life on the dodge until incarceration or a violent execution brought about their demise.  Where money is concerned, that line can become blurred.  A man who appears to have an upstanding, normal, and rewarding life with a wife and child can actually be a cold, calculating killer for a price.  Such was the case with James Brown Miller.

With his suit, hat and long, black overcoat, Jim Miller could easily be mistaken for a Wall Street business tycoon.  He never smoked nor drank while often attending church.  Born in Van Buren, Arkansas, young Jim moved to Evant, Texas with his mother and siblings after his father died.  They moved in with the mother’s parents, whom Jim apparently didn’t like.  A short time after, they were both found murdered.  At the age of eight, Jim was arrested, but was never prosecuted.  With an astonishing knack for getting out of trouble, it wouldn’t be his last arrest.

Miller next moved in with his sister and husband near Gatesville.  Like his grandparents, he developed a dislike for his brother-in –law, dispatching him with a shotgun blast while he was asleep on the front porch.  This time Miller was sent to prison, but the conviction was overturned on a technicality.  He moved on and became a ranch-hand at the ranch of Mannen Clements in McCulloch County where he met and later married his daughter, Sallie.  During that time, Clements was killed by Ballinger City Marshal Joe Townsend.  Miller responded by almost shooting off Townsend’s arm with a shotgun.  Forced again to move on, he headed for the Texas-Mexico border region; a region rife with violence and corruption held only in check by the Texas Rangers.   He became a bartender in San Saba County, a deputy sheriff in Reeves County and a town marshal in Pecos where he gained a reputation for killing Mexicans by claiming they were trying to escape after arresting them.  To bolster his corrupt authority, he surrounded himself with known gunfighters who killed anyone that threatened Miller’s growing criminal empire.  Otherwise, Miller was a popular resident and a member of the Methodist Church.  The folks in town fondly referred to him as “Deacon Jim.”  

Unfortunately, Miller gained the enmity of Pecos County Sheriff George A. “Bud” Frazier, who accused him of murdering cattleman Con Gibson, who was witness to a conspiracy involving Miller to kill Frazier.  What followed was a blood feud that could only have been scripted in Hollywood.  On two occasions, Frazier opened fire on Miller while he was out in public.  Miller cleverly wore an iron vest, secured under his long coat that protected his chest from Frazier’s bullets.  He ended the feud on September 13, 1896 by blowing Frazier’s head off with a shotgun while resting it on a saloon door in Toyah, Texas.   Frontier justice in those days was often not blind but corrupted in full sight, especially by friends and cohorts who sat on the jury - Miller was acquitted. 

Killing was becoming second nature to Miller by the time he moved to Ft. Worth in 1900.  He and Sallie opened up a boarding house where Miller hired himself out as a professional assassin for $150 on up depending on the victim’s stature.   His clients were usually ranchers who wanted neighboring farmers killed for fencing in their properties or sheep herders competing with them for grazing space.  Victims were killed in Miller’s signature style – a shotgun blast to the head or upper body.  In Orr, Oklahoma, Miller killed U.S. Deputy Marshal Ben Collins with a shotgun blast to the face.  Miller was hired by a man named Port Pruitt who Collins had shot and partially paralyzed.  Although he was arrested, Miller took the precaution of killing the witnesses, forcing his acquittal. 

His gun for hire practice came to a head when Miller was hired to kill popular U.S. Marshal Gus Bobbit.   Ada, Oklahoma was an often lawless town where disputes were often solved with a gun.   Ada saloon owners Jesse West and Joe Allen were involved in scamming Indians into selling their land; a practice known as “Indian Skinning.”  In exchange for their reservation land, Indians were given 160 acre plots by the Federal Government.  With the help of corrupt officials, the Indians were plied with liquor to persuade them to sell their lands for ridiculous prices, sometimes as low as $50.  Bobbit publicized the corrupt practice and urged residents to vote out corrupt officials.  Those who profited from “Indian Skinning” couldn’t afford such publicity and notoriety; they hired Miller to assassinate Bobbit.  On February 27, 1909, Bobbit was shot while driving his wagon home from Ada.  He died an hour later, but not before instructing his wife to offer a $1,000 reward for his assassin.  That following April, Miller and the men who hired him: Jesse West, Joe Allen, and Berry Burrell were arrested.  Bobbit was a popular, upstanding figure in Ada and the locals were afraid his murderers would get off scot-free.  On April 9, 1909, a lynch mob stormed the Ada jailhouse and dragged the four to a livery stable where ropes were thrown over the rafters.  Asked to confess his crimes, Miller told the mob he had killed 51 men.  He asked that his long, black coat be draped over his shoulders.  Miller was hanged after telling his executioners, “Let her rip!”  All four were photographed in macabre fashion, swinging from the rafters among the stalled horses.  Miller’s body was shipped back to Fort Worth before being buried at Oakwood Cemetery.