This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
A crowd of several hundred supporters showed up at the San Antonio train station on Sept. 24, 1911 to cheer the arrival of Bernardo Reyes, a Mexican general on the lam.
During his 45-year rise up the ranks, Gen. Reyes won widespread respect for his honesty and ability, two traits not normally associated with the corrupt officer corps. He even managed to fill the bill as Porfirio Diaz’s right-hand man without being tainted by the unpopularity of the detested tyrant. Reyes was, in the last analysis, the least rotten apple in the barrel.
Afraid his loyal aide might get ambitious ideas of his own, Diaz sent him on a meaningless mission to Europe in 1909. Recalled too late in May 1911 to save the senile despot from his well-deserved overthrow, Reyes decided to run for president in Mexico’s first open election in decades.
By September the general reluctantly realized he did not stand a chance against Francisco Madero, hero of the powerless peasantry. Forsaking the ballot for the more traditional bullet, Reyes slipped out of the country disguised as an invalid.
His destination was San Antonio, the Texas town fast becoming the home away from home for Mexican counter-revolutionaries. Formally welcomed by the mayor and two days later by Gov. Oscar B. Colquitt, Reyes assured both that he had nothing sinister up his sleeve, a routine disclaimer no one believed.
Not so naive as to expect the American officials to actually lend a helping hand, Reyes did count on his hosts leaving him alone to carry out his coup. After all, he reasoned, Madero had been extended the same courtesy during his stay in San Antonio, and turnabout was fair play in any language.
But the high-profile exile came under suspicion from the very start. As early as the day before he reached San Antonio, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico warned Washington that Reyes was up to no good and merited strict surveillance. Since the general took no special precautions, undercover agents easily infiltrated his inner circle.
The well-placed spies kept authorities posted on the unfolding plot. According to their first-hand reports, the arrogant general claimed to have the deposed dictator Diaz and every ranking officer in his hip pocket. Candid to a fault, Reyes revealed that the Mexican towns targeted for attack were those bordering El Paso, Laredo, Eagle Pass and Brownsville.
Though forced to postpone his invasion until after Madero’s inauguration, Gen. Reyes positively bubbled with confidence. Insisting the large ranchers as well as the military were on his side, he predicted a cakewalk to the capital.
By early November 1911, South Texas was crawling with Reyistas who had sneaked across the Rio Grande. In Duval and Refugio counties the rebels bought horses and equipment, while the sheriffs of La Salle and Webb openly assisted them.
Reyes’ withdrawal of $60,000 from a San Antonio bank signaled a coordinated crackdown by state and federal lawmen backed by the U.S. Army. The cavalry was ordered to the border to intercept would-be invaders, as Madero mobilized the Mexican military to hunt down the few that made it through the American dragnet.
A federal grand jury at Laredo indicted Reyes on Nov. 18, and he was immediately arrested at his San Antonio headquarters. By the time he posted bail, most of his followers were behind bars and practically his entire stockpile of arms and supplies had been confiscated.
Dazed by the sudden setback, Reyes was a general without an army. The unfavorable circumstances clearly called for retreat, but his remaining supporters demanded action. Accompanied by only two companions, Reyes again donned a disguise, gave the Americans the slip and headed for the river.
Ten days later, the general waded the Rio Grande on his not so triumphant return to Mexico. For two weeks, he played a deadly game of hide-and-seek with pursuing soldiers while searching for his phantom force that never materialized. Exhausted by the humiliating ordeal, he meekly surrendered on Christmas morning.
Careful not to make a martyr out of his opponent, Madero chose to incarcerate Reyes rather than shoot him. But the president paid for his caution and compassion, when the unrepentant rebel joined fellow officers in the February 1913 uprising that brought down the regime.
Despite his advanced age and the privileges of rank, Bernardo Reyes insisted upon leading the wild assault on the National Palace. He got his wish and a bullet to boot.
The very first to fall in the historic clash, Reyes seemed to have wasted his life on a lost cause. But Francisco Madero was betrayed by his own generals and died ten days later in a back-alley execution.
The bloodbath Mexicans called a revolution had only just begun.
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San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.Email | Print