Huerta and the Constitutionalists
Victoriana Huerta, general, usurper and defier of the President of the United States, has occupied so prominent a position in the recent history of Mexico that some brief account of his career is likely to be of interest. In respect to his origin we can only repeat what he is said to pride himself upon, that he is an Indian of the pure Aztec stock. He has some warrant, perhaps, for being proud of descent from the great warlike and conquering race of Mexico, even if he cannot claim the Montezumas for his ancestors.
Huerta was born in 1854, entered as a student in the Military College of Chapultepec, and graduated in 1876, at the age of twenty-one. Young as he was, he had diversified his military studies with an active interest in scientific subjects, especially in mathematics and astronomy, his proficiency in which was to be of much service to him in later life. On his graduation he was commissioned second lieutenant of engineers, and in 1879, when Diaz had begun to reorganize the army, Huerta, then a captain, suggested to the President a plan for the formation of a General Staff. His project was accepted, Huerta thus being the founder of the present General Staff Corps of the Mexican army.
When, subsequently, a commission was appointed to prepare a map of Mexico on a large scale, Huerta's studies in astronomy stood him in good stead, he being selected to accompany the commission to Jalapa, having charge of all its astronomical work, and remaining in this position for many years. During this time he led surveying parties over the rough mountain region between Jalapa and Orizaba, and for ten years directed the topographical and astronomical work of the map.
In 1901, being then a colonel, he took part in the campaign against the insurgent Yaquis, and later served in a campaign against an insurrection of the Maya Indians of Yucatan. In this latter service he was promoted brigadier-general. During a long subsequent period he was again engaged in work for the General Staff. Thus his life passed until 1910, with little indication of the characteristics and abilities he has,' since so markedly displayed. His life for thirty years had been mainly spent in quiet scientific work, useful, no doubt, yet not calculated to bring him into prominence. In the succeeding years he played a very different role.
When the Madero revolution began in 1910 Huerta was ordered to the field, where he became one of the leading officers in the campaign, though it cannot be said that it yielded him much glory as a military commander. He was first ordered to lead a force against a revolt in the south-western State of Guerrero, but before the slow work of organizing his army was complete the whole of Guerrero, with the exception of the port of Acapulco, was lost to the government, and Huerta was sent to deal with the insurrectionists in the much nearer State of Morelos. Here there was some marching and counter-marching, but nothing of value done. This ended his service in the Madero outbreak, Diaz resigning soon after, and Huerta commanding the force which guarded him in his hasty flight to Vera Cruz, there to take ship for Europe.
Huerta next entered the service of Francisco de la Barra, who succeeded Diaz as provisional president, and afterwards that of Madero, who was elected to the presidential office in October, 1911. In this service he was sent to deal with the rebels in arms, Zapata and Orozco. What he did in this campaign has been described in a preceding chapter. It may be said that he won no distinction from his service in the field, while his delay in operations and general lack of activity were such as to give the President warrant for doubting his loyalty.
The last chapter brings the record of Huerta's career up to that discreditable event in which he turned traitor to the man who had employed and promoted him. This event, as stated, ended in the assassination of President Madero under circumstances which gave rise to a general belief that Huerta himself was responsible for the murder of the Mexican president. It was a crime from which he chiefly profited, since he succeeded as Provisional President in title, as Dictator in fact; the command of the army and police and their support of his cause giving him a despotic control over the Mexican nation equal to that which President Diaz had formerly held.
He was not to hold this position without active opposition, especially in the north. Venustiano Carranza, governor of Coahuila during the Madero administration, and an earnest friend and supporter of Madero, refused from the first to acknowledge Huerta as President and lost no time in organizing a revolt against him. Carranza was a descendant of an old Spanish family which had been large landholders for generations and had accumulated wealth in agricultural pursuits. For ten or fifteen years he had been a senator from Coahuila, though independent of and vigorously opposed to the Diaz political machine. His campaign for the governorship of Coahuila brought Madero actively into politics, as a campaign orator in his friend's favor. Carranza was counted out, as was the case with all who opposed Diaz, and this injustice had much to do subsequently with inducing Madero to take up the sword against Diaz. Elected governor under the Madero administration, the assassination of his friend and supporter led Carranza to inaugurate the revolt with which we are now concerned.
Carranza's position in this insurrection was thus stated by himself to a correspondent of the London Times in October, 1913. He said: "I am the only leader recognized as supreme by all the chiefs of the revolution. What we fight for is the Constitution of our country and the development of our people. Huerta outraged the Constitution when he overthrew and murdered Madero. He continues to outrage it by attempting to govern despotically and refusing to administer fairly the laws, which are equal for all the land, which was formerly divided among the mass of the people, and which has been seized by a few. The owners of it compel those who are working for them to buy the necessaries of life from them alone. They lay a burden of debt upon the poor peons and make them virtually slaves, for as long as the poor people owe them money they cannot get away. If they try to do so they can be brought back and can be put in prison.
"Another contributing cause of the revolution is the growth of a middle class. Formerly there were only the rich and the poor. Now there is a class between which knows what democracy and social reform mean in other countries and is resolved to take steps toward obtaining self-government. The first measure is the fair and free election of a president. We Constitutionalists refuse to recognize any president returned by force, and shall execute anybody who recognizes a president unconstitutionally elected, and directly or indirectly guilty of participation in the murder of Madero."
We quote these remarks as showing definitely the position taken by those active in the revolution of 1913, and also for their attempt to justify the shocking practice, common among those engaged in the conflict, of killing the wounded upon the field and shooting prisoners of war. It is a surprising doctrine to be held by a person of the education and prominent position of Carranza, and goes to indicate that the Mexicans have not got much beyond the era of barbarism. It is gratifying in this connection to learn that General Villa, the most conspicuous of the leaders in the insurrection, has decided in future to adopt the war ethics of civilized nations in general and abandon the frightful practice so long pursued in Mexico of murdering the helpless wounded and prisoners. Ever since 1810 a political theory has been held in Mexico to the effect that any one who takes up arms against the government is a convicted traitor, condemned by their law of war to be shot in cold blood. Insurgents adopted in requital the same bloodthirsty system, with the result that massacre of prisoners of war became a general custom. Under this view of the case the "Massacre of the Alamo," which excited such intense indignation in the United States, was simply putting in practice the custom long pursued in Mexican wars of insurrection. If Villa's recent declaration indicates that this savage practice is about to cease, it will be a new step in civilization gained by Mexico in the Constitutionalist war.
To return to the history of the conflict, it dates forward from February 28, 1913, when Carranza took a warlike stand against the Huerta rule by recruiting a band of insurgents, taking revolvers from the police, horses from public works, and money from the public funds and from bankers and merchants. As a result he was quickly in the field with a force of some strength and military equipment. The governor of Sonora joined in this movement of revolt, and it quickly spread to Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, organized resistance breaking out simultaneously in many widely separated sections of the north.
The first act in the war drama was played by General Obregon, whose feat against Salazar when a colonel has been described. He was now put in command of the forces raised, and fought a fierce battle with the Federal troops, driving them from the whole of Sonora except the port of Guaymas, which they continued to hold. At the same time Villa, who had so narrowly escaped execution at the hands of Huerta, and had no love for that personage, organized a force in Sonora, while Urbina did the same in the north of Durango. The greatest difficulty of the revolutionists at this stage of the conflict was the lack of arms and money, but this was partly overcome by the Madero family, which contributed $1,000,000 in support of the movement.
Operations developed rapidly, the revolutionists soon gaining possession of most of the railroad lines. Huerta, alarmed by this threatening outbreak, rushed troops to the north with all possible rapidity, his purpose being to gain control of the railroads and garrison the cities which they traversed, holding cities and roads alike with strong military forces. What he had in view was to push the enemy into the country between the railroads, and from the latter as bases of action to send out mobile columns against the scattered rebel bands. This plan was quickly detected by the revolutionists, who sought to counteract it by tearing up the rails and destroying the roads as far as possible. At the same time they warily kept out of reach of the Federal forces, being as yet in no condition to risk a general engagement.
Such continued the state of affairs for several months, the Constitutionalists confining themselves to what damage they could do to the railroads and to the work of increasing their strength. The Federals, on the contrary, were engaged in repairing the broken lines and similarly adding to their strength, both in men and equipment. Several old rebels, including Orozco and Salazar, were induced to join their army, commands being given them.
Two causes made the Federals slow in their operations, one being the time necessary to get the railroads into working condition and the detachment of forces to guard these lines, the other resulting from the peculiar make-up of the Mexican army. While the officers in command were usually competent, the men were ignorant and untrained, being impressed from the lowest class of the population and without experience in the art of war. Aside from this was the peculiar character of commissariat and transportation in these hastily organized regiments. The men were in the habit of bringing their women with them to cook their food and transport their provisions and camp supplies. Mules and wagons were lacking for transportation, and good artillery horses were equally wanting. The result was that, when removed from railroads, the Soldaderas (camp women) were depended upon to carry nearly everything, and also to obtain food for the soldiers. This state of affairs was decidedly in the way of their leaving the rails far behind them.
Obregon's force in Sonora and Villa's in Chihuahua were much better equipped in this direction. It was often necessary for them to make quick marches in the open country, and the use of such methods of transportation would have prevented all mobility of action. They therefore left their women at home and trusted to wagons, for which draft animals were easy to get, horses and mules being abundant on the plantations. Rations and ammunition were issued regularly, and the men were fairly well equipped. Obregon had in his ranks a considerable number of Yaqui Indians, among the best fighters in the land. But the great advantage of the insurrectionists in this campaign was that they were not dependent upon railroad lines. Their principal lack was in artillery, of which their supply was small.
The first important battle was one already spoken of, in which Obregon with 4,000 men came into contact with Ojeda with 1,600 Federal troops and guns, in the vicinity of Guaymas. The result was a complete defeat of the Federals, with a loss of 800 men and all their artillery, the rebel loss being only 200. The practice of killing the wounded and all prisoners who would not join the ranks of the captors rendered these losses in men practically total.
In the summer Urbina captured the city of Durango, capital of the state of the same name, and an important mining center for gold, silver, copper and iron. The Federal force there was annihilated, and the victory was followed by a scene fortunately not common in modern warfare, the victorious troops breaking into a frightful orgy of outrage, looting the city and committing depredations of all kinds.
At this time the headquarters of the Federals in the far north were the frontier cities of Juarez and Laredo, from which they controlled the railroads running southward from these places, though they were unable to keep them from being frequently broken by rebel inroads. Carranza's headquarters at the same time were at Ciudad Porfirio Diaz (formerly Piedras Negras), also on the Rio Grande at a point opposite Eagle Pass, Texas. This he left for a journey of consolidation to Sonora, and on October 7th the Federals captured the place, though the rebels before leaving destroyed the railroad and everything in the place likely to be of use to the new occupants.
The most important work of the campaign, however, was that accomplished by General Villa, who suddenly rose into prominence as an able tactician and made an inroad into the Federal domain that greatly alarmed the Huerta faction. He had been operating in Chihuahua with much success, and now, learning that a strong Federal army was marching northward from Torreon for the purpose of retaking Durango, he performed a series of strategic movements that utterly demoralized the enemy and gave him possession of the important stronghold named. The Federals were advancing in detachments, and his plan was to attack these in detail with a superior force. One such movement sufficed. He struck and utterly routed a detachment 800 strong, then marched rapidly toward Torreon. His sudden and successful stroke checked the movement northward, forces from Saltillo and Zacatecas also being met and defeated and the railroad to those points destroyed. On his appearance near the city the garrison fled in wild panic, leaving the place open for him to occupy without resistance.
It was October 1st when Villa, and his victorious followers marched in triumph into Torreon. The action of his troops there was in splendid contrast with that shown at Durango. Villa had his men under strict control and kept them in excellent order, shooting those found looting and checking disorder and all lack of discipline with a stern hand. The American interests, which were of importance in this city, were guarded by detachments sent by him, and in all respects his work was admirably performed. Heavy reinforcements soon reached him and his hold upon Torreon was vigorously maintained.
The loss of Torreon was a very severe blow to the Huerta administration, both from its importance as a railroad center and the effect upon the public mind of the loss of a stronghold so far south. It emboldened the anti-Huertists in Congress and led them to speak their minds with a freedom which they had not before ventured to show. But the shrewd ex-bandit chief did not propose to keep his army locked up in this locality while points of high importance farther north lay in the hands of the Federals, endangering his position. He consequently left Torreon under garrison, and marched north toward the city of Chihuahua, capital of the great state of the same name, repairing as he went the railroads which it had formerly been his mission to destroy. In this was shown a decided advance in the status of the Constitutionalist cause.
To retake Torreon was now the task entered upon by the Huertists, a large army for that quarter, 15,000 strong, being assigned for this work. They found themselves again baffled by the superior tactics of the rebels. Saltillo and Monterey were basic points in this movement, the garrisons of these cities being dangerously depleted for the purpose. The rebel leaders were quick to take advantage of this. Monterey, in which the garrison had been reduced to 1,000 men, was suddenly attacked by a force 2,000 strong. The alarm was at once sent to the armies on the march and they returned in all haste to ward off the attack. The rebel forces had no idea of waiting for them, but their temporary success enabled them to do immense injury to the railway service, 800 cars being burned and 19 locomotives dynamited. This operation delayed the relief of Torreon for a month or more. Meanwhile the loss of Torreon had greatly endangered Chihuahua, a still more important center of population and business. Villa was now advancing upon this city, and its safety from capture was far from assured. The Federal troops in the surrounding region were in consequence concentrated at this point, in the expectation that the approaching rebel force would make a strong attack upon it.
When Villa reached Santa Rosalia, the scene of his former engagement, he found it deserted by the Federal forces. His march continued until Chihuahua was reached and invested, minor attacks being made on it November 6th to 9th, which were easily repulsed. To garrison the city Juarez had been largely depleted of troops, only 400 being left at that point. Here was a new opportunity for the daring partisan. Leaving Chihuahua invested he made a dash northward, and on the night of November 14–15th surprised and captured Juarez.
While these signal successes were being achieved by Villa and his troops, the Constitutionalists were winning victories in other directions. On November 14th General Obregon captured Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, and all of Tepic except its capital and San Blas. In the east they held great part of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. The intermediate States of Chihuahua and Durango were also largely in their hands. Thus little remained to give them full possession of northern Mexico. In the south, also, the administration had serious troubles to deal with. The bandit Zapata was committing depredations widely in Morelos and Herrera. There was also a formidable rebellion among the Indians of the States of Puebla and Vera Cruz. Affairs thus looked critical for Huerta and his supporters.
The war was carried on by Carranza in the old savage fashion of slaughtering the wounded and prisoners, and in the case of Durango of looting captured cities. But Villa had shown a tendency to far more humane measures in the prevention of depredations at Torreon, and was soon to display a new spirit in preventing the murder of the wounded, thus indicating that the opinion of the world was beginning to influence the Mexican war policy.
Turning now from warlike events, let us see what was taking place in the political centers. In the history of Mexico votes had always counted for little, the cases being exceedingly few when there had been anything approaching a fair election. In the words of one critic: "Votes do not govern Mexico, have never governed it in the past, and are not likely to govern it for a long time to come." Without pretending to foresight as to the future, it can safely be said that the presidential election of October 26, 1913, was in full accord with the above remark. It was a farce pure and simple. By the terms of the Constitution a president is chosen by electors balloted for in districts. In the election in question there were only 10,000 votes in all in the Federal District, that in which the capital is situated, and a very light vote elsewhere, there being none at all by the people of the northern states under rebel control. Such an election is worthless as a means of obtaining the sentiment of the people. As the Constitution requires that one-third of the voters must go to the polls, the result was legally null and void.
The candidates for the presidency included General Felix Diaz, nominated by the so-called Labor party, Senor Gamboa by the Clericals, Senor Calero by the Liberals, and Dr. de la Fuente by a section called Liberal Republicans. Huerta, according to announcement, was not a candidate at all, yet the army, whether or not under orders, voted for him unanimously, with General Blanquet for Vice-President.
It was expected that Congress, which was to have met on November 10th, would declare the election unconstitutional; but the true Congress had ceased to exist, its membership being largely in prison. As above stated, the capture of Torreon by General Villa had emboldened the opponents in Congress of the Huerta administration to speak freely against the government. In consequence the dictator, on October 10th, declared the Congress dissolved and arrested 110 members of the Chamber of Deputies, who were thrown into prison. This high-handed proceeding was probably intended as a lesson to recalcitrant members. In the election of October 26th a new Congress was chosen, most of its members being, as was alleged, creatures of Huerta. Immense majorities were given to Huerta's son, his brother-in-law, and his private secretary as members of the new chamber, this going far to indicate the worthlessness of the election as a record of public opinion. The feeling of the government at Washington was that such a Congress should not be permitted to meet. It did meet, however, on November 20th. Four days previously Senor Aldape, Minister of the Interior in the Huerta Cabinet, had been forced to resign for having ventured to advise that the administration should make some concessions to the United States. Evidently the dictator was carrying matters with a high hand.
There was dissension elsewhere than in the Cabinet. For some time a lack of harmony had appeared to exist between Huerta and Felix Diaz, to whom the former owed his position as Provisional President. After the balloting for president this feeling of enmity grew tense, and Diaz, threatened by some of Huerta's men, was forced to flee for his life to an American warship at Vera Cruz. Even when out of the country he was not safe, for at a later date an attack was made on him in a cafe at Havana, where he was wounded by some Mexicans thought to have been emissaries of Huerta.
Another event succeeding the election was a decree by Huerta announcing an increase of the army to a maximum of 150,000 men. (It at that time numbered 65,000 men with 250 pieces of artillery, more than half of which were of the most modern type.) He also, in view of the lack of funds, issued a decree making bank-notes legal tender for any amount, further disturbing business, since it was known that little or no specie lay behind this paper. All this made it appear that Huerta's position had become a desperate one, and that his lease of political life was likely to be short. This was the opinion entertained by the United States government and widely by the American people at large.
The Constitutionalists were ready to make peace, but only on the acceptance by the Mexican people of the following conditions:
1st. The elimination from the government of Huerta and his supporters.
2nd. Complete surrender to the Constitutionalist cause of the political faction opposing it.
3rd. Restoration of the Constitution as the basis of the Mexican government.
4th. Selection of a Provisional President acceptable to the Constitutionalists, and suitable provision for a popular election.
5th. Guarantee of a change in the land laws so that deeds to land would be more generally distributed.
6th. Ratification of the confiscation of the Terrazas, Creel, and other large landed estates.
7th. Nullification of all acts of the Huerta regime.
Such were the planks of the platform for which the Constitutionalists were fighting. The confiscation spoken of in the sixth plank of the platform relates to an event which will be spoken of in a subsequent chapter.