The Ambrose Bierce Site


My Hunt For Ambrose Bierce
by Leon Day

Finale at Ojinaga

While I'm having lots of fun with this history research, I can't in good conscience recommend it to anybody else. It's largely a matter of reading other people's mail. This offers few voyeuristic thrills, because by the time you get to look at the letters of famous folk they are not only well and truly dead, but their words have been cooling off in some research library for forty years or so, awaiting a grad student with a grant to organize it for public use.

It gets tedious sometimes. I recently spent hours screening some torrid and florid love letters between George Sterling and one of his postal lovers. A grad student had discovered them in the 1930s and offered them to the American Mercury, along with a chart showing that the entire 20-year correspondence was sustained by only four afternoons of good carnal contact. The editor, H.L. Mencken, declined to print his friend's work, pointing out that Sterling had written love letters to so many women for so many years, with such syrupy sentimentalism, that these particular missives had no special literary or biographical importance. I agreed, wishing only that his assessment had been at the front of the file, instead of the back.

But it does pay to read everything. When I started looking for the possible Bierce love-child, Blanche Bates wasn't the California actress that first sprang to mind -- the prime suspect was Phyllis Partington. She was a great singer on the West Coast, then went to New York City in 1906 and spent a year being trained up to operatic standards. For the next twenty years or so, she charmed audiences all over the nation under the stage name Francesca Peralta -- the last name borrowed from the Spaniard who had been cheated out of what is now Oakland, California by American real estate slicks in the 1850s.

This led me to the papers of Blanche Partington, which had been waiting for Bierce scholarship a long time. The Jack London searchers had plowed through it without noting that some stuff in these documents was special and important to other fields. Blanche's papers included some thirty or so letters from Bierce -- all charming, some important.

The common Bierce letter is like a little polished gem, thought out with the same care as he used in his articles and poems, but bestowed on a friend instead of an editor.

Who was Blanche? She was the beautiful, intelligent, and talented daughter of AB's friend J.H.E. Partington, a British artist who settled in California around 1890. Bierce was fifty and Blanche was twenty-six, and starting about 1892 their affair boiled merrily for a couple of years. Then Blanche left him to try on other men, some famous like Jack London, others, like the socialist writer Laurence Gronlund, now just historical footnotes. But this didn't interrupt a cordial and loving correspondence -- they still wrote back and forth, even after she answered his proposal of marriage in 1910 with the time-honored "Can't we be just friends?"

The exchange survived her flirtations with leftist politics and her conversion to Christian Science, a cult even more offensive to AB than conventional religion.

An example from January 13, 1913:

"Nobody sayed that anybody axed me, madam," he sayed. I agree to consider in the past two-and-a-half years a jest, a bit of play" a harmless make-believe "signifying nothing," a solemn fooling. And I promise never again to take you seriously, whatever you say or do. So forgive me -- it is not my fault that I lack the sense of humor.

Thank you for the exposition of Christian Science by one who knows nothing of the philosophies, ancient and modern, which he has the hardihood of ignorance to expound, and who untruthfully reads a meaning into the jargon of Mrs. Eddy.

The incident serves to "visualize" the incalculable distance between our planets. So I'm thanking you for despair. But, pardon the slip, why despair? Despair is a serious feeling, and I forget your brand-new bravery of cap-and-bells. Please wag your pretty head when you write to me- perhaps some hint of the sweet jangling may get into the ink and remind me that it is the new Blanche who is addressing her slave. But the Blanche of long ago- you will not forbid me to entertain a pleasant memory or two of her simple gravity, nor deny to her grave the tribute of my falling tear.

Ah, how earnestly, candidly, and utterly she gave her heart, her soul, her body! Yes, I promise not to take you seriously any more; but her! She is a tragic figure, lying white and still among her lilies, under the bowed, gray head of A.B.

A lady could get used to writing like this. By the time he left on his last adventure, Bierce seems to have had a file of four or five letters from Blanche, each her "last, but each requiring a reply by the rules of simple civility. In one, she asked about visiting him in the summer of 1913 in Washington. Bierce replied, June 27, 1913, "In having the last word" one should not ask questions."

When backed into a debating corner, Blanche's response is "Don't take this so seriously!" The problem arises from AB's awkward position as an attempted male chauvinist pig -- a real MCP doesn't expect any logic from a woman, much less bother correcting it. And he doesn't select female associates for brains, rather than face and figure, as Walter Neale reported.

Anyway, he discouraged her bid to visit him, noted that he wouldn't go to California that summer, and ended thus:

Pretty soon I am going away -- O very far away. I have in mind a little valley in the heart of the Andes, just wide enough for one. Others are there -- simple souls who have never heard of anything that we know about- but they don't take up much room in my scheme and dream.

This is my "last word"- do you think I shall find my Vale of Peace?

Sincerely Yours,

Should Bierce come alive, it wouldn't take him long to get up to speed in modern California. Some of the faddist jargon, like "visualize," survives, and most of the politics and religion of the left coast was present in his time in more vigorous, class-struggle form.

Now to the real "last word." I found it in Blanche's papers. It's unusual not just because it comes out of Mexico, but because it shows the signs of that origin. It's on ten sheets of 5x8 lined paper, not the classy Irish Linen Bond you see in most of his letters. This is the only Bierce letter from Mexico in the public collections. Carrie Christiansen made notes of some others, but they are missing. The postcards in the Yale Collection, sent to Carrie after the Tierra Blanca fight, may have been mailed from El Paso.

It would be easier to understand if we had the letter from Blanche that Carrie forwarded to Laredo. The reply Bierce sent from the border is missing, too. So we are looking at a north-bound elephant from the south -- but that's better than no view at all.

He wrote:

Chihuahua, Mexico, December 26, 1913
My Dear Blanche,

I have been regretting my harshness to you in my letter from San Antonio, Texas -- or was it from Laredo? I wrote in anger, having just read your letter forwarded from Washington, and was doubtless unjust. My anger was caused partly by your destruction of Miss Soule Campbell's new portrait of me, which I had made more to please you than for any other reason. You had asked me for a picture.

But you also asked me in the letter to "confess" that I cared for human sympathy, sentiment and friendship. This to me who have always valued those things more than anything else In life!- who have the dearest and best friends of any man in the world, I think,- sweet souls who have the insight to take me at my own appraisement (or, perhaps you would say, to pretend to). You don't know any of them; it would be better for you if you did. Evidently you share the current notion that because I don't like fools and rogues I am a kind of monster- a misanthrope without sentiment and without heart. I cannot help your entertaining that view, but you might have kept it to yourself. The "popular" notion of me I care nothing about, but when it is thrown at me by one whom I supposed immune to it by reason of years of friendly observation it naturally disgusts me. Still, I ought to have made allowance for the pressure of your social environment and for (pardon me) your limitations.

I was also impatient of your foolish notion that in the matter of my proposed visit to "the Andes" I was posing. I do not know why you think the Andes particularly spectacular -- probably because you have not traveled much. To me they are no different in grandioseness from the Rockies or the Coast Range -- merely a geographical expression used because I did not wish to be more specific. The particular region that I had in mind has lured me all my life -- more now than before, because it is, not more distant from, but more inaccessible to, many of the things of which as an old man I am mortally tired. What "interpretation" you put upon my letters regarding that spot you have not seen fit to inform me, which before rebuking me (I am not hospitable to rebuke) you should have done. I suppose you have a habit of 'interpretation". You worship a god who (omniscient and omnipotent) has been unable to make his message clear to his children and has to have a million paid interpreters, and you are one of them. (Pardon me; you invited me to "convert you from the error of your ways.") So little do I know of your "interpretation" that I was not even aware that I had written you of my intention to go to "the Andes." If I did, as of course I did, I must also have told you that I intended to go by the way of Mexico, which I am doing, though it now looks as if "the Andes" would have to wait.

My enemies are fond of saying that I cannot keep my friends. They are right to this extent: many of my friends I do not keep. I can endure many vices and weaknesses in a friend, but one thing I can not and will not endure -- the attribution of nasty little vices and weaknesses to me. When a friend offends in that way he (or she) sooner or later receives a formal note from me renouncing the advantage of further acquaintance. You and my foolish relatives are the only persons who have hitherto been exempt -- have offended seventy-and-seven times and I have overlooked it, but in the letter that angered me you passed the limit and (I say it with no feeling but regret) you go into the discard. No pleasure can come of a relation that is not inclusive of respect. If I am what you think me I am unworthy of your friendship; if I am not you are unworthy of mine. You will be spared henceforth the necessity of being either "ashamed" or proud of me, for I hereby withdraw your right to be either.

It is true that the latter half of your letter was apologetic, but that was insincere, for if one perceives that a letter is offensive, before it is posted, one can put it into the waste-basket.

So -- I bid you farewell.
Sincerely Yours,
Ambrose Bierce

I do not know how, nor when, you are to get this letter; There are no mails, and sometimes no trains to take anything to El Paso. Moreover, I have forgotten your address and shall send this to the care of Lora. And Lora may have gone to the mountains. As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.

I suppose the exchange is a good argument against writing letters. Notice that Bierce begins with a conciliatory tone, but when he reviews Blanche's track record, he becomes more and more annoyed, and finally writes her off entirely. Her last letter seems to have been a mirror image of his own, critical at the front and apologetic toward the end. But a criticism put to paper has a lot more emotional weight than a passing wisecrack. Before you perceive that you have said something unforgivable, the Post Office has committed you inexorably.

But, considering the long record of these people's affectionate correspondence, it wouldn't be out of line to speculate that they might have made up, if not kissed, had Bierce survived.

Note that one of Bierce's irritations concerns Blanche's interpretations of his "Vale of Peace" remark. He is at some pains to explain that he refers to a real place. It is not the metaphor of suicide that all Bierce life-writers have been combing his letters for since 1929.

When Bierce told his friends that he was going to Mexico to inspect the revolution, he got a uniform response: "It's dangerous! Don't go!"

He reminded all of them that a man of seventy-one has few reasons to fear death from violence, which is commonly quick work. The so-called "natural death," where one slowly declines surrounded by the cloud of sorrow emanating from those who love you, is immeasurably uglier.

Bierce was on record as favoring a quick death for everyone. He had seen enough of both ways to have an informed opinion. He was already on record as favoring rational suicide as a good choice compared to steady and painful decline. He was so sure that if he had such a personal plan he would not have concealed it.

Mercado left behind 200 men to keep order in Ciudad Chihuahua. Some of these guys started looting while the smoke of Mercado's trains was still visible. When Villa came in five days later, he established order pretty quickly, closing the saloons and posting his own troops outside the city.

Mercado's "peacekeepers" were arrested. The diplomats protested that they had promised the General that these 200 would be sent on to rejoin the federal forces when Villa took over. Villa explained, with frightening vehemence, that no foreigners had a right to commit him in any way. He charged the diplomats with the chore of expelling the Spanish to the border.

On inspection, it was found that some of this force had been conscripted straight off of death row. These Villa shot. Others had been justly serving long sentences, and they were imprisoned again. This left about 150 men who were given a choice of going home on parole, or joining the Division of the North. All of them knew that Huerta would respect no deal they had made with rebels. Villa's forces grew again.

Nobody chased Mercado. Villa was busy building the first modern army of Mexico, and setting up a revolutionary civil government for Chihuahua. He was printing his own money, enforcing its acceptance, and restoring commerce. He was fixing railways in three directions, chasing the bandit, Castillo, and buying supplies in El Paso for his push on Torreon, which Huerta had re-taken. And puzzling through the Rules of Civilized Warfare in his spare time.

The refugee rich were not molested by Villa on their way to the border. But on the night after the trains were burned, the emigre camp was raided and looted by Orozco's Colorados, who took everything valuable and portable. That was the last they saw of their protective escort, who got to Ojinaga as fast as you can ride skinny horses. Luis Terrazas, the richest man in Northern Mexico, was not molested though his family coach held $5 million in gold. He had enough personal retainers to resist theft. It is often said that Terrazas owned the entire state of Chihuahua, but this is hyperbole. He only owned the parts that he wanted.

About a week after Mercado established himself in Ojinaga, the last of these unlucky straggled in and crossed the border. General Castro and a Federal paymaster came from El Paso with $70,000 in gold. In command on the American side, Major MacNamee let Castro pass, but interned the payroll and its custodian. This didn't make the soldaderas happy, but there was nothing to buy in Ojinaga, anyway, and very little across the river in Presidio, for Villa was buying out El Paso to supply his new army. Weapons were still contraband, but the Division of the North was going to have a real commissary, so it bought beans, cornmeal, rice and peppers (The beef was unwillingly supplied by Luis Terrazas). The new army was designed to move fast, so it bought crackers and sardines and canned salmon. Now a unit could fill its saddlebags and move three or four days without stopping to pillage civilians. The new army could leave the soldareras behind, for hospital trains went along. It was the first Mexican army in history to provide for the wounded.

While all this was a-borning, Mercado's force soured against the border. There were at least three factions among his officers, so he wrote a long explanation of his defeats and retreats, and sent it to Huerta. His messenger was the American soldier of fortune, Tracey Richardson, who was still working for Orozco. Richardson got across the river with no trouble, and proceeded to Mexico City. He reported to Huerta, who remembered with some humor that he had been trying to kill Richardson just the year before.

On 24 December, Ortega's Brigade left for the border. With 4200 men, ten guns, and six machine guns, Ortega was about as strong as his opponents. But his artillery crews were inexperienced, if not bald-assed ignorant. Mercado's defensive position was pretty good, as Ojinaga is built atop a mesa just south of the Rio Grande. From the top you have a great view and a great field of fire.

At the end of December, Ortega had seized La Mula Pass, the only good spot for defense between the end of the rails and the river. Mercado didn't try to take it back, and pretty soon the rest of Ortega's men encircled Ojinaga. There followed a week of desultory battle. Ortega's plan was to tempt Mercado's artillery so they would use up all their shell at long range, without much effect. It worked. The common range of a field gun in those days was about 6,000 meters, and the shell took 12 to15 seconds to get that far. If you were watching carefully, you could catch the flash of the gun when it fired, and order all your men back into shelter before they were hurt. Once in a while, Mercado would push his infantry into an assault, but Ortega's machine guns always stopped it. Wayward Federals waded the river and told how Mercado's officers shot the reluctant infantry.

Across the river, the US Army was stretching itself pretty thin. There wasn't quite enough cavalry to patrol the river and turn back Mexican deserters. The nearest railway and telegraph was seventy miles north at Marfa, yet the prospect of a major battle right on the border meant that the officers in Presidio needed to talk to Fort B1iss, and Fort Sam Houston, and maybe to Washington, DC. The Signal Corps was called in, and the problem became clear. There wasn't seventy miles of field-telephone wire to spare in the whole Continental US. It was all allocated to Coast Artillery, or Field Artillery, or strung up between lonely western forts. But the Signal experts noticed that the road was lined with barbed wire fencing to keep the cattle in check. They commandeered the bottom two wires, and with some splicing and patching, Presidio could talk to the world. But as yet, the town had nothing to say.

On 6 January 1913, Villa moved up with about 2000 men. Also in tow were a lot of newsmen, including a movie crew from Mutual News Service. If Bierce was around, nobody seems to have noticed, or recognized, or remembered him. Again, Villa was in no hurry. He gave Ortega's men a rest and a good feed from Luis Terraza's cattle. He didn't attack again until the night of 10 Jan, when Mercado's force collapsed completely and fled across the river, joining about 400 who had crossed earlier.

Four thousand-nine hundred ninety-seven Mexican nationals were interned by the US Army, 1461 of them soldaderas and children. They were marched to Marfa,and railed to Fort Bliss, and treated to three hots and a cot until Huerta left Mexico for Spain. Also interned were three Krupp Field guns, four machine guns, 1100 Mauser rifles, and 200,000 7mm cartridges. Villa got what was dropped or abandoned on the way to the river. It was pretty obvious to professionals that the Federal infantry still had resources for a last stand, if they had been so romantically inclined. But the artillery left not a single shell for Villa. Ortega had done his work well, and so had his rivals.

Villa turned to more important things. But whether Bierce saw any of this action is yet a mystery. He wrote to Blanche that he was leaving for a destination unknown, but Villa was then running expeditions to all points of the compass. Ojinaga was not a battle of great intensity or many casualties, and both sides were careful of American sympathy. Had Bierce been killed there, or wounded, or even become seriously ill, he would have been taken to the river and transferred to US authority. A Californian who had been serving with Ortega was wounded. He was taken to the federal lines under flag of truce, and sent across the border without incident to the care of the US Army Medical Corps. Where an American was concerned, both sides were being very polite.

One commander at Ojinaga did not wait for internment. The durable Pascual Orozco slipped past Ortega the night before Villa's attack, and he didn't stop until he got to Torreon.

Here he swore to all listeners that he would never serve again under Mercado or Castro. He never had to, for both he and Huerta were in exile months before these perfumados were repatriated.

If you know the military-political history of these few months, some theories about Bierce become more plausible than others. McWilliams decided that since Bierce meant to go to Ojinaga, since that was the first major battle fought after his last letters, he must have been killed there. That would explain why we heard nothing from him after December, but as we have noticed, Ortega's Brigade was crawling with American specialists -- O'Reilly included. Bierce would have been noticed, dead, wounded, or sick. But what if Bierce failed to contact O'Reilly in Chihuahua City and missed the train to Ojinaga? There was still plenty of action to the south, and other scribes like John Reed were right in the middle of it. Notice that Ortega left on 24 Dec, and on the 26th Bierce is still scribbling at Blanche.

Let's remember what Bierce himself said about his trip to Mexico -- he wanted to find out whether Americans were abused as badly as the press reports suggested. So if he got as far south as Escalon, it would have been reasonable to go a little east and talk to such Gringos as were still hanging on in Sierra Mojada. If O'Reilly's story is correct, it was Bierce's own lynching that persuaded these few to evacuate. The Ojinaga theory explains two weeks of no letters, and if O'Reilly is truthful Bierce didn't get within reach of a reliable mailbox for more than a month.

Among the pressmen covering the battle of Torreon, George Weeks and Jimmy Hopper were actively on the lookout for AB. They asked everybody, and found several people who remembered a white-haired Gringo who had been traveling with Villa's southern point -- but none remembered seeing him for about a month. This agreed perfectly with O'Reilly's tale, but nobody had heard that story yet. Tex was too busy trying to stay alive to gossip about missing literati.

The Mutual News Service was disappointed with its Ojinaga footage. Although they had some dramatic film of Villa galloping up to the head of his columns, the actual attack happened at night, when the cameras of the time were useless. They didn't get any film of executions, for by this time Villa had heeded Hugh Scott, and decided to kill only federal volunteers. All these had skipped across the water before daylight. They were safely bull-penned in Presidio, and when Villa decently offered a herd of Terrazas's cattle to feed them, the Army declined. Things were already complicated by the fact that a lot of the 1300 starving horses and mules interned with the federals bore the brands of US-owned ranches and mines. The Army needed this stock to move its captives north to Marfa.

The Federals were pretty happy campers. They sang on the long trek to Marfa, sang again on the rai1s to Fort Bliss, and wept when they saw their stockade, set up with clean water, field kitchens, tents, showers, privys, clinics, and some other things their own government had never thought of. Mercado abused and denounced Orozco at long distance, which was the safest way to do it. Word drifted up from Mexico City that Mercado had better not return, unless he could explain himself really well.

About the time Bierce disappeared, the State Department released a list of Americans who had been killed in Mexico in three years of disorder. There were only 140, and many of those had been adventurers who couldn't expect safety. Others were routine victims of banditry, which had been common even in "peaceful," Diaz days. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan thought this a poor basis for invading Mexico, as many were urging.

At about the same time, a businessman on a train talked to General Leonard Wood -- and then talked to the press. General Wood had made it really clear that the US Army hadn't the strength to invade and conquer even Northern Mexico, much less the whole thing. Our Army was then authorized to have 100,000 warm bodies, and had about 93,000 really, because the pay was low, the promotion was slow, and the enlistment was seven years. About 1/5 of this number was tied up in coastal forts, and more still were busy stifling the Philippines. So about 50,000 rifles were all anybody could count on for any Mexican adventure.

The Secretary of War promptly denied that General Wood could have said that the US was basically impotent. But he had, he was right, and we were. Foreign businessmen were still managing to dance between the battlefields and turn up a profit. Elmer Jones was traveling in Durango when he met thirty toughs who began the conversation by leveling their rifles. They asked, "Viva Villa? Viva Huerta?" Jones scanned them in vain for a clue to their loyalty. Uniforms weren't much of a clue. So Jones said, "Viva Wells Fargo! "

This worked. It's hard to shoot a man while you're laughing with him. Jones kept running Wells Fargo's Mexican end through ten years of revolutionary chaos.

But Jones didn't have any safe way of sending the profits home. All the Mexican banks, and many foreign ones, were transparent to Huerta's spies. So Jones made his own bank. He dug up a patio stone in the courtyard of his home, converted the assets into gold and silver coin, and buried them. After a couple of years, he had $756,000 awaiting the happy days when it could be sent home by railway express. Then Jones was invited to dinner with purported president Huerta, who explained that the Mexican Government was issuing bonds, that all foreign companies doing business in Mexico had to subscribe, and that the objective analysts thought Wells Fargo's share was $756,000.

Jones noticed that he was flat out of secrets, and bought the bonds. A promise of payment, however implausible, is still better than an empty hole in your back yard. Huerta was now recognized by 27 nations, and many of them weren't just plain nations like the upstart USA, but empires. Their treasuries were co-signers for Huerta. Their diplomats were bond-peddlers. The ambassadors thought Huerta was a little rough, but they could house-break him in time, just as they had Diaz. These realpolitikers thought Wilson and Bryan were naifs -- "Siempre inocentes" unqualified to play in the big leagues.

But about the time Bierce was lost, Huerta missed the first interest payment on those bonds -- 26 January 1914. The sophisticates in Mexico City began to suspect they had been flim-flammed by a drunken Huichol Indian. On 3 February, the US decided that neutrality would be better served by selling arms to all Mexican factions than by forbidding exports entirely. What had changed?

Well, when Villa took Juarez, and then Ojinaga, the Constitutionalist forces had control of the whole US border. Obregon ruled in the west, and some way down the Pacific coast. Carranza and his rather poor generals Gonzalez and Natera, held the northeast and the Gulf Coast down to about Tampico. And Villa, the US Army's favorite bandit, held the center. Huerta could tax imports and exports, but they were more and more out of his reach.

Lots of federal cops were unhappy when the arms trade changed from smuggling to simple commerce. But some bean-counters in Washington saw a chance to unload 500,000 Krag-Jorgensen rifles and carbines into the Mexican havoc. This Villa nixed. He was capturing so many 7mm Mauser rifles that there was no reason to complicate things. The Krag was a good weapon, but everybody knew it had been almost obsolete in 1892 when the US took it. Please don't take offense if you own and shoot a Krag. They are fine rifles that served well in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection and can kill any game beastie in this hemisphere. But you can't cram in five rounds at a time, so while the Krag looked good in 1892, it was shaded a year later by the 1893 Mauser, slim, trim, fast, and elegant. Spain bought them, and so did a bunch of African DutchăBoersăwho were soon to be fighting the British Empire.

In the Cuban and Philippine fighting, US troops discovered that the bad guys had better guns. British troops in South Africa noticed that Mausers were better than Lee-Enfields. So far as national pride would permit, everybody wanted a Mauser. The 1903 Springfield is the US version of the 1898 Mauser, with some extra bells and whistles. US Ordnance thought the changes might evade the German patents, but the judges didn't agree, and royalties were negotiated.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a gun-nut. He wondered why the new weapon had to have a 30 inch barrel for the infantry, and a 24-inch tube for the Cavalry. With the new smokeless powder, performance would be the same for the shorter, neater gun. The Ordnance reply was that the Infantry thought a longer barrel would be an advantage in bayonet fighting. TR pointed out that the Infantry could have a longer bayonet much more cheaply than a longer rifle. And anyway, nobody had seen a real bayonet duel since Civil War days. TR prevailed.

The 1903 rifle proved to be a real sweetheart. French and British troops who got a chance to try it in WWI thought they were shooting a real gentleman's sporting gun. TR was the gentleman. The final exam for the Ordnance Corps was when TR took a 1903 to Africa on safari. He shot everything you could imagine, and many things you wouldn't without looking at books. Worked just fine.

While Washington wondered whether they could unload stale guns on Pancho Villa, Huerta went shopping with all the money he squeezed from foreign businesses. The amount of goodies needed couldn't be smuggled across the northern border. Huerta arranged for his rich friends in the US to buy up all the 7mm Mauser ammo they could find, all the 7mm rifles they could find that the US had taken in Cuba and the Philippines, a bunch of explosives from the Du Ponts, and assorted other stuff. All this went to NYC to be loaded on a Hamburg-America freighter, the Ypiranga.The Ypiranga then steamed to England, where she took on more stuff that the British had grabbed from the Boers, and 200 machine guns. After a final call in Hamburg, the ship set out for Veracruz.

So at the time the Wilson Administration caught on to the Ypiranga's mission, that chore was already legal commerce. Arms sales were OK across the border, much less from NYC to Britain and Germany back to Mexico. Huerta's friends in the US were too rich to pick on. But the voyage looked pretty smellyălike Kaiser Wilhelm meddling anywhere he could find a chance.

Might have been better to stop the ship on the high seasăbut it turned out there were treaties against piracy. The US didn't want Huerta to get the goods, though he was now just as entitled to them as anyone whose check didn't bounce. The US Navy was dispatched to Veracruz to occupy the port, supervise the unloading, and make sure Huerta didn't get any contraband. This made troubles.

On April 21, 1914, Admiral Fletcher put ashore 800 Marines to take the Veracruz Customs House. The local Federal commander had already been ordered to withdraw ten miles west toward Mexico City, as Huerta didn't want war. But the citizens were angry, and fired on the Marines. Fletcher put ashore 1300 sailorsăin those days bluejackets were trained infantry. While fighting boiled, the Ypiranga steamed in. Navy officers called on its captain, explained that the harbor was closed just now, but that in the morning he could tie up at the Custom House Dock and ship whatever cargo he had that wasn't contraband. That seemed fair, so the captain anchored in the outer harbor.

The next morning, as the fight was still boiling, the Navy looked around and noticed that the Ypiranga was gone. Her captain had pulled anchor at night and gone to Puerto Mexico, where he unloaded. The Navy couldn't chase him because the crews were ashore fighting civilians. Huerta got the guns after all. There were twenty dead sailors and sixty-three wounded. Veracruz had 126 dead and 253 wounded. Wilson was shocked at how much blood he had wasted without stopping a legal sale. Carranza denounced the US, and so did Huerta. Villa said he didn't mind much if the gringos fought Huerta. The Federals were about to loose Torreon, and then Zacatecas. July 10, Huerta got on a boat for Spain with the last two million pesos you could dredge from the treasury.

The Army took over in Veracruz, and investigated the chances of advancing to Mexico City. These looked poor. Roads and rails passed over a narrow causeway between swamps, where any resisting force would have the advantage. And anyway, the Army still didn't have enough warm bodies. Any advance would make Huerta a national hero, instead of just a usurper. The US forces parked in Veracruz until November, trying to win hearts and minds with civic improvements like garbage disposal. The surly citizens had been pretty happy all along with the former system, which was based on vultures and stray dogs. Vultures were protected, and shooting one got you a stiff fine. Veracruz was a beautiful city if you were looking at it, but not much fun if you had to smell it at close range. When the US withdrew, the vultures returned. I am told they are still there.

This is just one of the occasions when America might have slid into war with Mexico. Others happened in the Punitive Expedition of 1916, when we sent Pershing to find Villa or his organization. Had we really got into a serious invasion of Mexico, we would have been powerless to help Britain and France in WWI. The Germans noticed this right away.

But this project must come to an end. It began as a narrow examination of Bierce's absence. Then I got involved with the sins of the man's biographers. Of all the Bierce-appearance stories, only one seemed plausible, and I had to show the readers a lot of Mexican Revolutionary history in explaining that the others were careful propaganda. Then I had to test my chief witness, Tex O'Reilly. He stood up.

Time to put a cork in it. Can't keep going without making this into a book about the revolution, and Columbus, and Carrizal, and the Zimmerman Telegram, and who has Villa's head. I quit. But I'll be back.

Leon Day, 8 August 07


© 2007 by Leon Day

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