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At the Mouth of the Rio Grande
I Fall in with H.M.'s Frigate Immortalité—Lynch Law Three Hours After Reaching America—Visits Across the Mexican Border—Cocktails in the Most Scientific Manner—At the Grand Fandango—The 3d Texas Infantry on Review—General Bee Hides His Pistols at a Dance—Mexican Girls Are a Badly Painted Lot—The Texan Rangers Sing "God Save the Queen!"—I Am Now Comparatively Reconciled to Shaking Hands with Everyone
2d March, 1863—I left England in the royal mail steamer Atrato, and arrived at St. Thomas on the 17th.
22d March—Anchored at Havana at 6:15 A.M., where I fell in with my old friend, H.M.'s frigate Immortalité. Captain Hancock not only volunteered to take me as his guest to Matamoros, but also to take a Texan merchant, whose acquaintance I had made in the Atrato. This gentleman's name is M'Carthy. He is of Irish birth—an excellent fellow, and a good companion; and when he understood my wish to see the "South," he had most good-naturedly volunteered to pilot me over part of the Texan deserts. I owe much to Captain Hancock's kindness.
23d March—Left Havana in H.M.S. Immortalité, at 11 A.M. Knocked off steam when outside the harbor.
1st April—Anchored at 8:30 P.M., three miles from the mouth of the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, which is, I believe, its more correct name, in the midst of about seventy merchant vessels.
2d April—The Texan and I left the Immortalité, in her cutter, at 10 A.M., and crossed the bar in fine style. The cutter was steered by Mr. Johnston, the master, and having a fair wind, we passed in like a flash of lightning and landed at the miserable village of Bagdad, on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande.
The bar was luckily in capital order—3½ feet of water, and smooth. It is often impassable for ten or twelve days together: the depth of water varying from 2 to 5 feet. It is very dangerous, from the heavy surf and undercurrent. Sharks also abound. Boats are frequently capsized in crossing it, and the Orlando lost a man on it about a month ago.
Seventy vessels are constantly at anchor outside the bar; their cotton cargoes being brought to them, with very great delays, by two small steamers from Bagdad. These steamers draw only 3 feet of water, and realize an enormous profit.
Bagdad consists of a few miserable wooden shanties, which have sprung into existence since the war began. For an immense distance endless bales of cotton are to be seen.
Immediately we landed, M'Carthy was greeted by his brother merchants. He introduced me to Mr. Ituria, a Mexican, who promised to take me in his buggy to Brownsville, on the Texan bank of the river opposite Matamoros. M'Carthy was to follow in the evening to Matamoros.
The Rio Grande is very tortuous and shallow. The distance by river to Matamoros is sixty-five miles, and it is navigated by steamers, which sometimes perform the trip in twelve hours, but more often take twenty-four, so constantly do they get aground.
The distance from Bagdad to Matamoros by land is thirty-five miles; on the Texan side to Brownsville, twenty-six miles.
I crossed the river from Bagdad with Mr. Ituria, at 11 o'clock; and, as I had no pass, I was taken before half-a-dozen Confederate officers, who were seated round a fire contemplating a tin of potatoes. These officers belonged to Duffs cavalry (Duff being my Texan's partner). Their dress consisted simply of flannel shirts, very ancient trousers, jack boots with enormous spurs, and black felt hats ornamented with the "lone star of Texas." They looked rough and dirty, but were extremely civil to me.
The captain was rather a boaster, and kept on remarking, "We've given 'em h—ll on the Mississippi, h—ll on the Sabine" [pronounced Sabeen], "and h—ll in various other places."
He explained to me that he couldn't cross the river to see M'Carthy, as he with some of his men had made a raid over there three weeks ago and carried away some renegados, one of whom, named Mongomery, they had left on the road to Brownsville. By the smiles of the other officers, I could easily guess that something very disagreeable must have happened to Mongomery. He introduced me to a skipper, who had just run his schooner, laden with cotton, from Galveston, and who was much elated in consequence. The cotton had cost 6 cents a pound in Galveston, and is worth 36 here.
Mr. Ituria and I left for Brownsville at noon. A buggy is a light gig on four high wheels.
The road is a natural one—the country quite flat, and much covered with mesquite trees, very like pepper trees. Every person we met carried a six-shooter, although it is very seldom necessary to use them.
After we had proceeded about nine miles we met General Bee, who commands the troops at Brownsville. He was traveling to Boca del Rio in an ambulance, with his quartermaster general, Major Russell. I gave him my letter of introduction to General Magruder, and told him who I was.
He thereupon descended from his ambulance and regaled me with beef and beer in the open. He is brother to the General Bee who was killed at Manassas. We talked politics and fraternized very amicably for more than an hour. He said the Mongomery affair was against his sanction, and he was sorry for it. He said that Davis, another renegado, would also have been put to death had it not been for the intercession of his wife. General Bee had restored Davis to the Mexicans.
Half an hour after parting company with General Bee we came to the spot where Mongomery had been left; and sure enough, about two hundred yards to the left of the road, we found him.
He had been slightly buried, but his head and arms were above the ground, his arms tied together, the rope still round his neck, but part of it still dangling from quite a small mesquite tree. Dogs or wolves had probably scraped the earth from the body, and there was no flesh on the bones. I obtained this my first experience of lynch law within three hours of landing in America.
I understand that this Mongomery was a man of very bad character, and that, confiding in the neutrality of the Mexican soil, he was in the habit of calling the Confederates all sorts of insulting epithets from the Bagdad bank of the river; and a party of his renegados had also crossed over and killed some unarmed cotton teamsters, which had roused the fury of the Confederates.
About three miles beyond this we came to Colonel Duffs encampment. He is a fine-looking, handsome Scotchman, and received me with much hospitality. His regiment consisted of newly raised volunteers—a very fine body of young men, who were drilling in squads. They were dressed in every variety of costume, many of them without coats, but all wore the high black felt hat.
Notwithstanding the peculiarity of their attire, there was nothing ridiculous or contemptible in the appearance of these men, who all looked thoroughly like "business." Colonel Duff told me that many of the privates owned vast tracts of country, with above a hundred slaves, and were extremely well off. They were all most civil to me.
Their horses were rather rawboned animals, but hardy and fast. The saddles they used were nearly like the Mexican. Colonel Duff confessed that the Mongomery affair was wrong, but he added that his boys "meant well."
We reached Brownsville at 5:30 P.M., and Mr. Ituria kindly insisted on my sleeping at his house instead of going to the crowded hotel.
3d April (Good Friday)—At 8 A.M. I got a military pass to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, which I presented to the sentry, who then allowed me to cross in the ferryboat.
Carriages are not permitted to run on Good Friday in Mexico, so I had a hot dusty walk of more than a mile into Matamoros.
Mr. Zorn, the acting British Consul, and Mr. Behnsen, his partner, invited me to live at the Consulate during my stay at Matamoros, and I accepted their offer with much gratitude.
I was introduced to Mr. Colville, a Manchester man; to Mr. Maloney, one of the principal merchants; to Mr. Bennet, an Englishman, one of the owners of the Peterhoff, who seemed rather elated than otherwise when he heard of the capture of his vessel, as he said the case was such a gross one that our government would be obliged to take it up. I was also presented to the gobernador, rather a rough.
After dining with Mr. Zorn, I walked back to the Rio Grande, which I was allowed to cross on presenting Mr. Colville's pass to the Mexican soldiers, and I slept at Mr. Ituria's again.
Brownsville is a straggling town of about 3000 inhabitants; most of its houses are wooden ones, and its streets are long, broad, and straight. There are about 4000 troops under General Bee in its immediate vicinity. Its prosperity was much injured when Matamoros was declared a free port.
After crossing the Rio Grande, a wide dusty road, about a mile in length, leads to Matamoros, which is a Mexican city of about 9000 inhabitants. Its houses are not much better than those at Brownsville, and they bear many marks of the numerous revolutions which are continually taking place there. Even the British Consulate is riddled with the bullets fired in 1861–1862.
The Mexicans look very much like their Indian forefathers, their faces being extremely dark and their hair black and straight. They wear hats with the most enormous brims, and delight in covering their jackets and leather breeches with embroidery.
Some of the women are rather good-looking, but they plaster their heads with grease and paint their faces too much. Their dress is rather like the Andalusian. When I went to the cathedral I found it crammed with kneeling women. An effigy of our Saviour was being taken down from the cross and put into a golden coffin, the priest haranguing all the time about His sufferings, and all the women howling most dismally as if they were being beaten.
Matamoros suffers much from drought, and there had been no rain to speak of for eleven months.
I am told that it is a common thing in Mexico for the diligence to arrive at its destination with the blinds down. This is a sure sign that the travelers, both male and female, have been stripped by robbers nearly to the skin. A certain quantity of clothing is then, as a matter of course, thrown in at the window, to enable them to descend. Mr. Behnsen and Mr. Maloney told me they had seen this happen several times; and Mr. Oetling declared that he himself, with three ladies, arrived at the city of Mexico in this predicament.
4th April (Saturday)—I crossed the river at 9 A.M., and got a carriage at the Mexican side to take my baggage and myself to the Consulate at Matamoros. The driver ill-treated his half-starved animals most cruelly. The Mexicans are even worse than the Spaniards in this respect.
I called on Mr. Oetling, the Prussian Consul, who is one of the richest and most prosperous merchants in Matamoros, and a very nice fellow.
After dinner we went to a fandango, or open-air fête. About 1500 people were gambling, and dancing bad imitations of European dances.
5th April (Sunday)—Mr. Zorn, or Don Pablo as he is called here, Her Majesty's Acting Vice-Consul, is a quaint and most good-natured little man—a Prussian by birth. He is overwhelmed by the sudden importance he has acquired from his office, and by the amount of work (for which he gets no pay) entailed by it—the office of British Consul having been a comparative sinecure before the war.
Mr. Behnsen is head of the leading firm. The principal place of business is at San Luis Potosi, a considerable city in the interior of Mexico. All these foreign merchants complain bitterly of the persecutions and extortion they have to endure from the government, which are doubtless most annoying; but nevertheless they appear to fatten on the Mexican soil.
I crossed to Brownsville to see General Bee, but he had not returned from Boca del Rio.
I dined with Mr. Oetling. We were about fourteen at dinner, principally Germans, a very merry party. Mr. Oetling is supposed to have made a million of dollars for his firm, by bold cotton speculations, since the war.
We all went to the theater afterwards. The piece was an attack upon the French and upon Southern institutions.
6th April (Monday)—Mr. Behnsen and Mr. Colville left for Bagdad this morning, in a very swell ambulance drawn by four gay mules.
At noon I crossed to Brownsville and visited Captain Lynch, a quartermaster, who broke open a great box, and presented me with a Confederate felt hat to travel in. He then took me to the garrison, and introduced me to Colonel Buchel of the 3d Texas regiment, who is by birth a German, but had served in the French Army. He then prepared cocktails in the most scientific manner. I returned to Matamoros at 2:30 P.M.
Captain Hancock and Mr. Anderson (the paymaster) arrived from Bagdad in a most miserable vehicle, at 4 P.M. They were a mass of dust, and had been seven hours on the road, after having been very nearly capsized on the bar.
There was a great firing of guns and squibs in the afternoon, in consequence of the news of a total defeat of the French at Puebla, with a loss of 800 prisoners and 70 pieces of cannon.
Don Pablo, who had innocently hoisted his British flag in honor of Captain Hancock, was accused by his brother merchants of making a demonstration against the French.
After dinner we called on Mr. Maloney, whose house is gorgeously furnished, and who has a pretty wife.
7th April (Tuesday)—Mr. Maloney sent us his carriage to conduct Captain Hancock, Mr. Anderson, and myself to Brownsville.
We first called on Colonels Luckett and Buchel. The former is a handsome man, a doctor by profession, well informed and agreeable, but most bitter against the Yankees.
We sat for an hour and a half talking with these officers and drinking endless cocktails, which were rather good, and required five or six different liquids to make them.
We then adjourned to General Bee's, with whom we had another long talk, and with whom we discussed more cocktails.
At the General's we were introduced to a well-dressed good-looking Englishman, Mr. ——, who, however, announced to us that he had abjured his nationality until Great Britain rendered justice to the South. Two years since, this individual had his house burnt down; and a few days ago, happening to hear that one of the incendiaries was on the Mexican bank of the river, boasting of the exploit, he rowed himself across, shot his man, and then rowed back.
I was told afterwards that, notwithstanding the sentiments he had given out before us, Mr. —— is a stanch Britisher, always ready to produce his six-shooter at a moment's notice, at any insult to the Queen or to England.
We were afterwards presented to ——, rather a sinister-looking party, with long yellow hair down to his shoulders. This is the man who is supposed to have hanged Mongomery.
We were treated by all the officers with the greatest consideration, and conducted to the place of embarkation with much ceremony. Colonel Luckett declared I should not leave Brownsville until General Magruder arrives. He is expected every day.
Mr. Maloney afterwards told us that these officers, having given up everything for their country, were many of them in great poverty. He doubted whether —— had a second pair of boots in the world; but he added that, to do honor to British officers, they would scour Brownsville for the materials for cocktails.
At 3 P.M. we dined with Mr. Maloney, who is one of the principal and most enterprising British merchants at Matamoros, and enjoyed his hospitality till 9:30. His wine was good, and he made us drink a good deal of it. Mr. Oetling was there, and his stories of highway robberies, and of his journeys en chemise were most amusing.
At 10 P.M. Mr. Oetling conducted us to the grand fandango given in honor of the reported victory over the French.
A Mexican fandango resembles a French ducasse, with the additional excitement of gambling. It commences at 9:30 and continues till daylight. The scene is lit up by numerous paper lanterns of various colors. A number of benches are placed so as to form a large square, in the center of which the dancing goes on, the men and women gravely smoking all the time. Outside the benches is the promenade bounded by the gambling tables and drinking booths. On this occasion there must have been thirty or forty gambling tables, some of the smaller ones presided over by old women, and others by small boys.
Excerpted from The Fremantle Diary by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1954 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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