Thursday, July 4, 2019

A Rebel Seeks Aid for his Cause

In the summer of 1812, José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara was putting together a filibuster in the Neutral Ground between Louisiana and Spanish Texas. While weaving together a motley force of desperate men with disparate views, the Mexican revolutionary was well aware of the network of Burr Conspirators who had almost invaded Texas in 1806, and sought to tap these for his army.
Indeed, he had already reached out and obtained the very tentative support of Gen. John Adair of the Kentucky militia, who was a chief Burr protagonist. Adair was widely respected on the frontier, and it was hoped by Gutiérrez and his supporters, could bring thousands of volunteers to the cause. But there was a bigger fish than Adair: General James Wilkinson.
Wilkinson was the senior general in the United States Army, the Governor of Upper Louisiana (the Louisiana Purchase north of the Modern state) and like Adair, a confidant of Burr. But as the 1806 plot advanced, Wilkinson had gotten cold feet and panicked, defecting from Burr, exposing the plot to President Thomas Jefferson, and clamping New Orleans down under Martial Law, jailing his erstwhile associates and masterfully portraying himself as the savior of the Republic from a nefarious plot.
General James Wilkinson
In truth, Wilkinson had been plotting against the United States for years. He had been a paid spy for Spain, even as he had risen to the senior post in the U.S. Army. But he had also double-crossed his Spanish paymasters by sending his protégé Phillip Nolan into Texas, ostensibly to export wild horses, but more likely to plot plans to invade the Spanish lands, with his ultimate target the rich mines of New Mexico. It was Wilkinson who likely first suggested to Burr the idea of invading Spanish lands under the pretext of freeing them from tyranny. But successive American presidents, aware of rumors of Wilkinson’s schemes, kept him on the payroll, and as long as they did, he merely plotted, but did not act. Fear of giving up a certain job of power and responsibility for an uncertain scheme with the unpredictable Burr likely gave him cold feet in the end.
But Gutiérrez, who had been courted by former Burrites, knew of Wilkinson’s sympathies and sought to bring him into the cause. Perhaps he could be incited to do now what he had failed to do in 1806, now that there was a legitimate representative of the Mexican Revolutionaries with whom he could partner. So the rebel put pen to paper and wrote the general a note, dispatching it to be hand delivered by his trusted agent, Pedro Girard.

Gutierrez' original letter to Gen. Wilkinson,
National Archives, Letters Received, Sec. of War
Unregistered Series, Roll 6


The translated letter, which Wilkinson forwarded to the Secretary of War follows:


Natchitoches 16 July 1812

Although I have not the honor of a personal acquaintance with you, yet I know by reputation the noble, great & high qualities of your great soul, the greatness of which have made you for a long time past favorable to our glorious and just independence.

This encourages me to address you, believing that you will contribute with all your influence and power to favor the most just & greatest of causes which ever have been given rise to in this hemisphere, being interested in it the most sacred rights of humanity and the greatest interests of civilized nations.

I need not point out to you the duty of good men with respect to this cause, nor the great glories to be acquired by its exercise.

 Wilkinson added in his own hand:

 [The last paragraph of this letter cannot be read, written in the first instance by Gutierrez who writes & spells badly & copied by a worse hand the amount of it appears to be that Don Pedro Girard, his agent, has full force and will give any information to Genl. Wilkinson & his object was to induce persons to join the cause of the patriots.]

Wilkinson's signature on his letter to the Sec. of War
Girard met Wilkinson on a ship on the Mississippi River, as the general made his way back to New Orleans from an absence of several months in Washington. The two were known to each other. Wilkinson admitted this to his superiors in his report, but downplayed the association. “His agent Girard happens to be one of my ancient “employees” mentioned” in letters to the department, he said. The precise nature of Girard’s employment is unknown, but the quotations suggest he was a possible informant. Girard gave Wilkinson more information, but he did not pass it on because it was “scarcely worth the repetitions because [it is] not quite creditable.”

 “In sum,” Wilkinson wrote, “Mr. B. wishes to learn from me the disposition of the government and also my own dispositions & purposes, with respect to the Mexican conflicts. He wishes to get them and ammunition from me. He wishes to know what might be the feelings of the government in relation to the expedition they are projecting. He promises himself two thousand more men for the impending expedition, from Kentucky, Tennessee and this state, and the adjacent territory, but I have no clear evidence that they have as yet embodied two hundred. He had consulted Gen. Adair with regard to taking the command who was undetermined and it appeared are waiting events.”

 Unlike Wilkinson, who had landed on his feet after the 1806 Burr affair, Adair had been burned badly. He had lost a senate seat and his political career in Kentucky appeared to be shattered. Adair would wait, and wait. Ultimately, he would never join Gutiérrez in Texas.
Wilkinson reported further:

“I did not hesitate to reply, that [manuscript torn] the expedition to be not only unauthorized by, but in opposition to the dispositions of the government, that whatever might be the governmental or national sympathy, a scale of discretion and justice governed the conduct of the executive departments; and that no illegal assembly of the citizens of the U.S. in any, for whatever purposes could be satisfied or justified, and that where such appreciation had the tendency to involve the country in war, with a nation now at peace with us, it would at last be discouraged and discountenanced. Girard wishes something to say to Bernardo from me, for I declined writing.”

“Tell him to have patience,” Wilkinson told Girard, “to wait the maturation of the fruit,  to trust in the justice of God, to believe in my devotion to the liberty of mankind, and to merit the friendship and protection of my country, by respecting its government and supporting its laws.” 
Wilkinson, the great conspirator, who had dreamed of invading Spain for years, would not do so. News had already arrived of the United States’ Declaration of War against England, and the general, responsible for the entire Southwest, would have more than enough to worry about preparing for the defense of New Orleans. In two years, he would be reassigned to Canada and his place taken by a more able, and more loyal, officer, General Andrew Jackson.
But the revolutionaries would march anyway. In fact, they already had, 10 days before Wilkinson’s meeting with Girard. The advanced force of the army commanded by Augustus Magee and Gutiérrez, had already entered Texas, routed the first Spanish forces, and would take Nacogdoches within a day of Wilkinson’s letter.
Sources: U.S. National Archives: Letters Received by the Secretary of War Registered Series, Roll 49; Letters Received by the Secretary of War Unregistered Series, Roll 6.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Alamo Hero Charles Despallier: Third Generation fighter for Texas Liberty

Today is the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo. One of the defenders who died that day was Charles Despallier. Typical histories note him as simply an outsider, like many, with no real ties to Texas. But the fact is, Charles’ family had fought for Texas for decades before that date.
One of the key figures in the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition of 1812-13 was Bernard Despallier. He was a French Creole from Louisiana who had served as a militia captain in the Spanish service there, and was loyal to Spain even when it went to war with France. As a result, felt himself threatened when the French and later Americans got control of the province, and asked and was permitted to settle in Trinidad de Salcedo in 1806. He married a Tejana, Maria Candida Grande.
When the Spanish expelled foreigners three years later, Despallier was sent back to Louisiana. When Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara came through Nacogdoches, Despallier befriended him and when the Mexican rebel returned from Washington, D.C., Despallier was one of his confidants as he put together his filibustering expedition. Despallier was also a gifted writer and began composing (in Spanish) propaganda pamphlets to send into Texas. Governor Salcedo would later single out Despallier and Gutiérrez as the two people most responsible for the expedition that invaded his state.
When Augustus Magee led the expedition into Texas in early August, 1812, the number of Hispanics in the army was small enough to count on one hand. But as soon as they began bringing in deserters, and after the fall of Nacogdoches brought new volunteers, a sizeable Hispanic troop was now available. Despallier, fluent in Spanish and probably somewhat competent in English too, was selected to lead this contingent, since Bernardo Gutiérrez was at that time still in Natchitoches organizing things.
Bernard Despallier continued to lead Spanish/Mexican troops, ultimately joined by Miguel Menchaca, who became the principle leader of that contingent of the army. As a native Tejano, Menchaca took a greater role as that contingent swelled. By the Battle of Medina, the Spanish/Mexican troops likely outnumbered the Anglo volunteers.
Despallier suffered personal losses in the rebellion. After the rebels had taken Nacogdoches and Trinidad, they sought to send in infiltrators into Bexar to bring in propaganda pamphlets that Menchaca had written. One of the men chosen for this task – a man in his 60s named Luis Grande – was Despallier’s own father-in-law. When they were captured by Governor Salcedo, Grande was likely executed. (I’ve found a sentence of death for his co-conspiritor, but not for Grande).
After the defeat at the Medina, Bernard Despallier fled to Texas. He was one of the few people exempted by name in the later Spanish offer of amnesty. Instead, a reward was placed on his head. Bernard stayed in Natchitoches in exile, raising his family. Son Blaz Philipe Despallier had been born in Texas in 1809, and sometime during or shortly after the expedition, Bernard’s wife bore another son, Charles. Both sons would later fight for Texas.
As Mexico became independent and opened up, Bernard Despallier was too old to return to Texas, but his sons were connected to many of the early Texas settlers. Victor Madison Despallier, another son, was a friend and attorney for James Bowie. Charles Despallier immigrated to Texas, where he became influential enough to be one of the signers of the Goliad Declaration of Independence of 1835.
When the Texas revolution broke out, Charles was likely involved from the beginning. His brother Blaz Philipe came to Texas to join them. The brothers were no doubt fired in their eagerness  by their father’s stories of his own Texas revolution – and the memory of their grandfather Luis Grande. They fought in the Battle of Béxar, in which the Texas forces, led by Ben Milam, took San Antonio.
Blaz Philipe after the battle served as a scout for William Barret Travis, but at some point he had contracted disease in the campaign, a not-infrequent occurrence during war in that era, and returned to Natchitoches to recuperate. Nonetheless, his younger brother Charles remained at the Alamo. He served as a scout as well and took out messages from Travis pleading for aid. He returned with the “Immortal 32” of Gonzales, and stayed in the mission for the remaining days of the siege, dying in the final battle. Lists of Alamo defenders include him, but also include a “Carlos Espalier” who is likely a double counting. (Historians disagree on this point, but since the original French of the name is D’Espallier, it is almost certainly a reference to the same person).
Charles Despallier, therefore, one of the dead who fell 183 years ago today, was not just some adventurer who had never heard of Texas, but a third-generation fighter for Texas liberty. He deserves to be remembered as such.