The last war on U.S. soil ended in 1848, unless you count the NRA v. common sense.
Steve Russell wrote the following article for The Rag Blog as a companion piece to his December 15, 2017 Newsweek cover story which is now posted online: “America and Guns: To Understand that Deadly Obsession, Come to Texas.” Steve, a retired Texas trial judge who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was a staff writer for Austin’s pioneering underground newspaper, The Rag, and now for its digital age rebirth.
Seth Thornton probably expected a cakewalk on April 24, 1846. He was to reconnoiter upriver while Croghan Ker took a similar patrol downriver from the site where their commander, Zachary Taylor, had planted the American flag on the north bank of the Rio Grande.
Ker found nothing.
Thornton found his way into the history books when he and his 80 men encountered a Mexican force of 1,600. Thornton lost 11 men killed and six wounded. The surviving Americans, including Thornton, were taken prisoner.
The Mexican commander, Anastasio Torrejon, loaded the wounded in a cart and delivered them to Taylor with a message saying he had no way to care for them. This act of decency presaged a negotiated exchange of able-bodied prisoners, and Thornton was released. He died in a subsequent engagement and so his life has come to stand for that one encounter that he lost so decisively.
As a result of what became known as the “Thornton Affair,” Congress declared war on May 13, the last war that involved engagements with enemy troops on American soil, requiring the participation of “a well-regulated militia.” Before the Mexican War was over, Congress had authorized 50,000 volunteers to back up the regular army.
The popular mythology in our time is that the U.S. Goliath smacked down the Mexican David to steal a bunch of real estate, a classic act of imperialism. The facts were more complicated, starting with Mexico having more men bearing arms than the U.S.
Neither side came away from the Battle of San Jacinto with respect for the other.
However, Texas had become a bone of contention that would not go away short of violence. Neither side came away from the Battle of San Jacinto with respect for the other, and that would be one reason why Seth Thornton would not anticipate much action. About 900 Texas militiamen (“volunteers”) had beaten 1,200 Mexican regulars.
Sam Houston had done his best to teach some military discipline to his rag-tag command while in the sometimes wild and hairy retreat all the way across the most populated part of Texas in what the history books call the “Runaway Scrape.” The volunteers got some practice in every soldier’s favorite skill, marching in formation. Marksmanship was something each man brought with him. Or not.
By the time the Mexicans offered favorable terrain for a fight, Houston had been required to send some of his impatient troops on phantom missions to avoid the open rebellion that kept threatening. At San Jacinto, Houston famously sent Deaf Smith to burn Vince’s Bridge to cut off Mexican retreat or further reinforcements.
‘Me no Alamo; me no Goliad.’
It was also prudent to keep his own undisciplined troops on the field, but the lack of discipline played out primarily in the mass slaughter of Mexicans trying to surrender, some unarmed and waist deep in the bayou. It was as a result of this war crime Texas acquired the colloquialism, “Me no Alamo; me no Goliad,” as an all-purpose disclaimer of responsibility.
On the Mexican side, they blamed the rout on General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had left 4,000 troops out of the fight and chosen a place for the battle that offered no line of retreat. There was also the folklore that Santa Anna had been dallying with a female slave, “the yellow rose of Texas,” when the battle began, and had been caught trying to escape dressed as a woman. The most outrageous rumors were untrue, but Santa Anna had many political enemies happy to kick him while he was down.
Partially because Mexico thought San Jacinto proved nothing but Santa Anna’s incompetence, it never recognized the Republic of Texas. The victors immediately fell into heavy debt and were willing to beg for annexation, but Texas was a bone of contention within the U.S. as well.
Texas elects a president
The question of Texas Annexation first showed up in the 1840 elections and would dominate in 1844. The internal issue was an increase in representation for slave-holders. The external issue was the allegation that annexation of Texas meant war with Mexico. A phrase came with the annexation debate that shrugged at war: “Manifest Destiny.”
“Manifest Destiny” is a curse to American Indians, since we were the occupants of the “empty” real estate the United States needed to achieve its destiny as a bicoastal power, protected from further foreign invasion by Generals Atlantic and Pacific. The curse was first uttered in the debate over Texas Annexation and later taken up as a political cudgel by President James K. Polk.
Manifest Destiny first came to the White House through the back door. John Tyler, the Tyler in “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” was elected VP behind the proud Indian killer William Henry Harrison, who was credited with putting down Tecumseh’s rebellion at the Battle of Tippecanoe.
The role of Shawnee medicine is controversial to all but the Shawnee, but the fact of the matter is that “Old Tippecanoe” had the shortest administration in the history of the U.S. at 31 days, a record of brevity Donald Trump does not threaten whether he leaves in an ambulance or a paddy wagon.
VP John Tyler was an ex-Democrat elected as a Whig, and he proceeded to sabotage most of the Whig wish list on constitutional grounds — a fine irony in light of what would follow. He was on the outs with both parties and not in the running for 1844, but he was a believer in Manifest Destiny and therefore the Texas Annexation.
Polk used Manifest Destiny to clip Martin van Buren’s wings and snag the Democratic nomination from the favored ex-President. He rode the same issue to clobber the Whig candidate, Henry Clay, even though Tyler stole some of his thunder by signing a bill to annex Texas three days before his term ended.
The U.S. never let the Constitution get in the way of Manifest Destiny.
Texas had negotiated an annexation treaty but the Senate refused to ratify it, chiefly because they could not sort out the slavery issue. The death of the Texas Annexation Treaty left the “strict constructionist” John Tyler accomplishing the same thing by joint resolution. By strict construction standards, it was as unconstitutional as Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase — but this country never let the Constitution get in the way of Manifest Destiny even before the phase was uttered.
The conflict that began with the defeat of Seth Thornton’s patrol ended a dispute that had been festering since the motley band of civilian volunteers defeated the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto and Texas became an independent republic. Mexico made the border to be the Rio Nueces. Texas claimed it was the Rio Grande, and the United States inherited that claim in the Texas Annexation.
Polk made an offer to buy the disputed territory between the Rio Grande and the Rio Nueces. The Mexican president was at that time under some domestic political duress, and so needed an emphatic response. Mexico refused to sell and revised its position to consider the border to be the Rio Sabine, which took in all of the rich East Texas farm land.
Rebuffed, Polk sent Zachary Taylor to stake out the American position, and poor old Seth Thornton went down in history as losing the first battle of the Mexican War, which Congress duly declared on May 13, 1846.
Zachary Taylor opened Camp Belknap near Port Isabel, Texas, as a venue for the volunteers. Belknap processed between seven and eight thousand volunteers from eight states before it became apparent the rest of the war would be on Mexican soil.
The U.S. may have been outnumbered, but Mexico was out-generaled. Anyone who considers the outcome a sure thing is rationalizing in the rearview mirror.
When the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican War, Mexico had ceded not only the disputed real estate in Texas between the Rio Grande and the Rio Nueces but also Alta California. The new map was the embodiment of Manifest Destiny.
Racism saves Mexico
Manifest Destiny in the world of ideas was about American exceptionalism, the United States as God’s chosen nation. The mundane goals God allegedly endorsed included annexation of all of Mexico and of Canada. Sen. John C. Calhoun (D-SC) took to the Senate floor in 1848 to explain why all of Mexico would not fit God’s plan:
We have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race — the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race…. We are anxious to force free government on all; and I see that it has been urged … that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent. It is a great mistake.
‘A Canadian is just a disarmed American with health insurance.’
If Mexicans were too different to join the Manifest Destiny movement, Canadians became too similar, rendering annexation superfluous. A bill to annex Canada made it to the floor of the House as late as 1911, but the idea of seizing Canada never caught fire. As Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred observed, “A Canadian is just a disarmed American with health insurance.”
The Mexican borderlands remained a tough neighborhood, and the farmers and ranchers who lived there were long accustomed to mustering for the common defense and bringing their own weapons. Since 1828, defense of the northernmost Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas had been in the hands of three organized militias and countless informal ones rather than Mexican regulars. The militias backed up the Texas Rangers, established in 1823 by Stephen F. Austin as a force of 10 men. Austin apparently believed more than 10 riots at one time was unlikely in colonial Texas.
Comanches dispute land titles
The Comanches recognized neither Mexican nor U.S. sovereignty and they moved to patch things up with the Apaches, ally themselves with the Kiowas, and accumulate guns to replace more traditional weapons. Comanche riding skills made them a fearsome cavalry, as the settlers and the Indians engaged in a deadly tit-for-tat.
One Comanche revenge raid led to the sacking of Victoria and Linnville and an ill-advised attempt to escape back to the plains with too much booty and too many prisoners. A posse of Texas Rangers and militia overtook the raiders at Plum Creek and a one-sided battle ensued.
In an attempt to execute one of the captives, a warrior fired an arrow in her direction as he retreated. His aim was true, but the arrow failed to penetrate her whalebone corset and she was rescued with more injury from a bad case of sunburn than from the Comanche arrow.
Outside of Fredericksburg, Texas, there is a gigantic batholith, the largest of pink granite in the U.S. It is known as Enchanted Rock because of the sounds it makes as the granite heats and cools. It was sacred to the Comanche, a place where a young man might go alone to the summit and seek a vision. Texas placed a plaque there with this inscription:
From its summit in 1841, Captain John C. Hays, while surrounded by Comanche Indians who cut him off from his ranging company repulsed the whole band and inflicted upon them such heavy losses that they fled.
The legendary Texas Ranger Jack Hays was supposed by Texan storytellers to have accomplished this feat with nothing more than a Colt revolver, holding the Comanches off until dark, when the superstitious savages were frightened away by the groaning rock.
‘Do white people normally fight in church?’
I told this story to an elderly Comanche medicine man, and he seemed amused. “Do white people,” he asked me, “normally fight in church?”
At the beginning of the Red River War, the last major Indian uprising on the Southern Plains, a 24-year-old buffalo hunter named Billy Dixon made “The Shot,” a legendary feat of marksmanship so unlikely Dixon always claimed he was more lucky than skilled. On the third day of the second battle of Adobe Walls, a group of about 15 Indians stopped on a ridge to consider their next move. Among them was the leader of the Indian forces, Quanah Parker, who had already had a horse shot from under him at a range of 50 yards on the first day.
Down in the Adobe Walls settlement, the other hunters egged Dixon on to try an impossible shot. With a .50/90 Sharps buffalo rifle, Dixon shot one of Parker’s men dead at a range that was later measured to be 1,538 yards.
Dixon later became an Army scout and a Medal of Honor recipient, but when he wrote his memoirs he devoted less than a paragraph to The Shot. At the time and for all of his life, Dixon insisted that The Shot was more luck than skill.
Winding down the Indian wars did not bring peace. After revolutions in both Texas and the rest of Mexico, conflicts in Mexico still threatened to spill over into Texas. The years between 1910 and 1920 were particularly dangerous in the borderlands.
Francisco “Pancho” Villa raided across the border. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing crossed into Mexico to capture or kill Villa, but had to be recalled to command troops in WWI, and residents along the border remained their own first line of defense.
Pancho Villa signed a contract for 20
percent of the box office.
Villa, catching on to the 20th century Zeitgeist, signed a contract with Mutual Film Company of Hollywood to embed cameramen with his troops for 20 percent of the box office. Equipment of the time did not do well except for distance work, so the exciting newsreels from Mexico remained largely after-action fakes done for the cameras. After Pershing headed for Europe, Villa kept both kinds of shooting south of the border.
Texas, then and now, remained a gun culture.
Guns, alcohol, and nose candy
My elderly stepfather had been hearing something scratching around on his rooftop in San Antonio for weeks. One night when he was in his cups — or, as it happens, his keg — he quietly deployed a ladder against an outside wall. He loaded his ancient double-barreled .12-gauge shotgun and crept up the ladder.
My mother related that she heard an explosion followed by a loud thump. Rushing outside, she found her husband lying on the ground on his back, trying to catch his breath. He had managed to discharge both barrels at once, and just one .12-gauge shell kicks enough that a prudent shooter will anticipate the gun bucking a bit. Simultaneous discharge of both barrels from the top of the ladder had rendered him airborne.
When he could breathe again, he was unable to report what caused him to fire — citing the darkness — but he did say he thought he had pulled only one trigger.
Austin City Councilman Richard Goodman proved in 1982 that nose candy and gunpowder do not mix. The Austin American-Statesman recounted the story upon Goodman’s death in 2005. Many of Goodman’s friends would have considered failing to include this disrespectful of his memory in a place that lives by the motto, “Keep Austin Weird!”
Neighbors called police with reports of a rifle-wielding man outside Goodman’s West Austin apartment, according to American-Statesman accounts at the time. Police found Goodman crouched in a driveway with a high-powered rifle in hand. He was shooting at snakes crawling in and around his apartment, he said. In fact, he was aiming at a garden hose in his front yard and had already shot out his car tire.
Police found 19 spent rifle shells at the apartment and charged him with discharging a firearm within city limits, a misdemeanor. Goodman admitted that he had used cocaine and sought treatment after the incident.
Second amendment as license to kill?
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the Second Amendment protects an individual right. I signed an amicus curiae brief supporting the position that prevailed not because I like it but because I consider it a correct statement of the law. The finding of an individual right created a widely held but incorrect belief that the laboratories of democracy could close up shop because any state regulation of firearms would be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court keyed on home defense, but the most extreme iteration of the individual right theory is that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to support insurrection when undertaken for adequate cause.
‘You take those cows, I’ll kill you.’
When Arizona rancher Luther Wallace “Wally” Klump was arrested for contempt of court in a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees, Klump articulated his view of the Second Amendment to The New York Times in 2004:
The Second Amendment is my ace, and they know it’s my ace. The founding fathers gave the individual a gun to fight the tyranny of the government. What’s that mean? The bearer can kill someone in government if the reason is justified. But it’s never been tested. I told them, you take those cows, I’ll kill you as mandated by the Second Amendment.
Ten years later, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had his cattle seized by the BLM in a similar dispute. A call for assistance over the internet produced so many armed men that the BLM decided that collecting even 20 years of grazing fees was not worth anybody’s life. They released the cattle and continued the dispute in federal court.
Stephen Paddock was a 13-year-old middle school student in Los Angeles at the time Charles Whitman’s rampage from the University of Texas tower in 1966 killed 15, injured 31, and became the first high profile example of something that has become sadly commonplace: mass shootings of strangers with no apparent motive.
The video of Whitman in action showed that his crime attracted not just the eyes of Texas, but also the deer rifles of Texas. Early in the encounter, there is just Whitman’s muzzle flashes, but soon each muzzle flash is followed by clouds of cement dust as students below returned fire.
South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, the 2003 Nobel Prize winner for literature, was a graduate student in Austin in 1966, and what he remembered about the Whitman incident when he spoke to Texas Monthly was more about the response from Texans:
I hadn’t fully comprehended that lots of people around me in Austin not only owned guns but had them close at hand and regarded themselves as free to use them.
Whitman changed my experience of the scenic UT clock tower.
Speaking only for myself, Whitman changed the experience of the scenic clock tower. In 1966, I was at the stage of visiting Austin every chance I got and spinning fantasies of what they called “College” in the small town where I grew up in the Muscogee-Creek Nation AKA Oklahoma.
Since I seldom wore a wristwatch, I was accustomed to using the giant clocks for their intended purpose and I considered looking up a very cool way to tell time. Years later, I hurried around to meet classes farther apart than I’d experienced before and it felt like those clock faces were looking back at me. I imagined them over my shoulder even when not in the line of fire, I mean line of sight.
Stephen Paddock also experienced before Whitman/after Whitman, albeit from a distance, but a distance rendered less significant by videotape. The new style of crime had taken 96 minutes, not counting the murders before Whitman opened fire from his aerie, and cameras caught most of the action. Paddock grew up with the Second Amendment-as-individual-right controversy and arrived in Nevada less than a year after Cliven Bundy’s showdown with the BLM.
Between October 2016 and September 28, 2017, Paddock purchased 33 firearms, mostly rifles. His body was found in a Las Vegas hotel room with 23 rifles and a pistol after he shattered Charles Whitman’s record for carnage inflicted with military style weapons from an elevated firing position. Paddock killed 58 and wounded 546.
At this writing, the most recent mass shooting in Texas was Devin Patrick Kelley’s attack on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, during services on November 5. Kelley killed 26, including eight children, and wounded 20. Like Whitman and like Paddock, Kelley did his damage with a military style rifle. He broke off the attack when a neighbor to the church returned fire with his own military style assault rifle.
NRA makes policy
The National Rifle Association has made the public policy decision that civilians returning fire will be the primary defense against mass shootings and state legislatures have always done the NRA’s bidding.
Congress did not exactly cover itself in glory, either, when it allowed the NRA to stop legislation to ban mail order sale of firearms after Lee Harvey Oswald mail ordered an Italian military rifle and used it to kill the President. It was only after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy that LBJ was able to sign the Gun Control Act of 1968, finally cutting off mail order sales—and little else.
Thanks to legislators who fear one issue voters, public opinion does not matter. Even the opinions of NRA members do not matter since 1977. That was the year the hard right that has now taken over the country took over the NRA.
Thanks to the extremist coup within the NRA and the cowardice of the people elected to run state government, the primary ways Texans are better off in the face of an armed attack since Seth Thornton lost a gunfight with Anastasio Torrejon in 1846 is that the rifles we buy for self-defense are now semiautomatic and fire smokeless powder.
[Steve Russell comes to The Rag Blog after writing for The Rag from 1969 to the mid-seventies. He is retired from a first career as a trial court judge in Texas and a second career as a university professor that began at The University of Texas-San Antonio. He is now associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. Russell is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a ninth grade dropout. He is living in Sun City, just north of Austin, and working on a third career as a freelance writer. His current project is a book of autobiographical essays explaining how an Indian ninth grade dropout was able to become a judge and a professor without picking up a high school diploma or a GED.He can be reached at email@example.com. ]
- Read more articles by Steve Russell on The Rag Blog.