|Milvern Harrell: Survivor
of the Dawson Massacre
by Garland R. Lively
Milvern Harrell was born March 24,1824 near Troy in Lincoln County, Missouri, the son of William Harrell and Minerva Woods. He was the grandson of Zadock Woods who was an early Texas Pioneer that came to explore Texas in 1822. Zadock returned to Missouri enthusiastic about the vast and fertile lands of Texas and the prospects of obtaining a league of land (4,228 acres) for himself and each married man plus a smaller amount for unmarried men. Zadock Woods decided to join the Austin Colony and in October 1824 he led a group of Missouri settlers to Texas arriving about Christmas time. He presented letters of recommendation from the Governor of Missouri and filed a petition for his land grant in March 1826. Zadock first acquired land near Pledger, Matagorda county. Later, in May, 1827, Zadock was issued his league and labor near West Point, 10 miles west of LaGrange, in Fayette County, where he constructed a stockade that became known as Woods Fort. The Woods family thus became one of the "Old Three Hundred" families of the Austin Colony. Inspired by the tales of his father in law, William Harrell moved his family to Texas in 1838 and joined the Woods clan at Woods Fort in Fayette County.
arrived in Texas during a period of great turbulence. Although the Texans had defeated Santa Anna’s Army at the Battle of San Jacinto and declared their independence in 1836, the Mexican government refused to accept the independence of the fledgling Texas Republic and frequent clashes occurred between the two. In March 1842, the Mexican Army invaded Texas then occupied, Goliad, Refugio, and Victoria. On March 5, 1842, Brigadier General Rafael Vasquez launched a raid on San Antonio. Captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays could not recruit enough men to mount an effective defense and he was forced to retreat. Alexander Somervell assembled his militia and marched to San Antonio, arriving on March 15, 1842. The Mexicans however had already abandoned San Antonio on March 9,1842. General Edward Burleson was placed in command of the Texas Forces in San Antonio, but when the Mexicans retreated, and the threat subsided his forces were disbanded on April 2,1842.
That fall the Second Division of General Isidro Reyes’ Mexican Army of the North led by Brigadier General Adrian Woll, a French soldier serving in the Mexican Army, launched a second invasion of Texas during which he captured San Antonio on September 11,1842. The Texans later estimated Woll’s forces at 1500 men but Woll’s quartermaster, Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco, stated that the force consisted of 957 infantry and cavalry soldiers, twelve wagons of corn, 150 wagons of provisions, two artillery pieces (a six pounder and a four pounder), fifty head of cattle, 919 horses, and 213 mules. It is not known how many auxiliary forces Woll had including Texas Mexicans and Cherokee Indians. Woll who was Reyes’ second in command and Commandant General of the Department of Coahuila had been instructed by General Reyes on June 5, 1842, to conduct a reconnaissance to the Guadalupe River and proceed down it’s west bank to the Gonzales River. Woll was instructed not to remain in Texas for more than thirty days. Woll’s forces assembled at Presidio del Rio Grande and on August 24, 1842, they crossed the Rio Grande and marched towards San Antonio through Nogal Pass and a circuitous route though the mountainous wilderness to avoid detection.
Late at night on September 9, 1842, Antonio Parez warned mayor John William Smith that a large force of Mexicans was approaching. Mayor Smith convened a public meeting the following day to discuss Parez’s warnings but it was generally discredited. As a matter of caution, Mayor Smith established a company of 100 local Mexicans under the command of Captain Salvador Flores and another company of 75 locals under the command of Captain C. Johnson. Captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays, commander of the small ranger company stationed at San Antonio was placed in overall command of the three small units. Captain Hays and six of his men begin scouting the area for any signs of a Mexican advance. When Flores’ Mexicans detected about 100 mounted Mexicans north of the Presidio road they assumed that this was the entire force and were most likely Mexican bandits intent on looting the area. Since they had received no reports from Captain Hay’s scouts the city leaders assumed that the approach of a large force of Mexicans was merely a rumor.
On Sunday, September 11,1842, Woll entered the city of San Antonio under the cover of a dense fog and advanced to the military square with martial music blaring. His cavalry had surrounded the city and had blocked all approach routes. From the center of the square, Woll fired one of his cannon’s announcing to the world that the city was his. When the Texans became aware of the presence of the large force of Mexican regulars in the city about sixty of them rallied under the command of Captain Johnson and assumed defensive positions at Maverick’s corner near the home of Samuel Augustus Maverick Captain Flores and his group of local Mexicans also offered resistance but quickly retreated in face of the regular Mexican soldiers. Woll’s infantry supported by the two artillery pieces launched an assault on the Texans at Maverick’s Corner but determined fire from the Texans at the corner and from the roof of the Maverick house forced the Mexicans to retreat. Captain Hays and his small band of Rangers were still out scouting for the Mexicans when Woll entered the city and returned to an encampment on Salado Creek.
General Woll then deployed his men in the belfry of a church and houses on the right and left flanks of the Texans. The Texans were then caught in a withering crossfire from the Mexicans positions and forced to surrender. Among the prisoners were some of the most prominent men of San Antonio including: Judge Anderson Hutchinson of the Fourth Judicial District; James W. Robinson, former Lieutenant Governor; C. W. Peterson, District Attorney; French S. Gray, assistant District Attorney; William E. Jones, Congressman; Samuel A. Maverick, Congressman; Andrew Neill, Lawyer; James L. Trueheart, District Clerk; David Morgan, District Interpretrr; and others including physicians, aldermen, and merchants.
San Antonio Mayor, John William Smith managed to escape and sent an urgent message to Colonel Mathew “Old Paint” Caldwell at Gonzales. As soon as Caldwell received Smith’s dispatch he gathered as many men and as much ammunition as he could and proceeded to Seguin and established a camp on the Cibolo Creek and began to recruit men and gather ammunition and supplies.
Texas forces consisting of 200 volunteers from Gonzales, Seguin, and other lower Colorado settlements gathered on Cibolo Creek near Seguin under the command of Colonel Mathew Caldwell and marched to Captain Hays’ encampment on the east bank of Salado Creek near San Antonio to repel the raiders. Caldwell’s forces united with Captain Hays’ ranger company of fourteen men that had been forced to retreat once more from San Antonio by the Mexican Army. Caldwell dispatched riders to the Texas settlements requesting additional reinforcements.
When news of Woll’s invasion reached Fayette County, Captain Nicholas Mosby Dawson , a veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto, recruited a company of volunteers underneath a live oak tree on the courthouse square in La Grange. Nathaniel W. Faison was the first man to volunteer, but Dawson could only recruit fifteen men. In addition to Faison, the other men recruited at La Grange included; Jerome B. Alexander, Zed Barclay and his two sons Richard A. and Robert, William Colton, Robert Eastland, George Hill, David Smith Kornegay, Edward T. Manton, Joseph C. Robinson, Joseph Shaw and maybe two or three others.
Believing Caldwell's forces to be in grave danger Dawson ordered his small company to engage in a forced march from La Grange to Salado Creek to reinforce Caldwell. Captain Dawson’s Company departed La Grange on September 16, 1842, and picked up additional recruits from the settlements of Fayette, Gonzales and DeWitt Counties until his company strength totaled 53 men. They crossed the river on the ferry and recruited John Bradley and Francis E. Brookfield in the process. John Bradley was the uncle of Samuel A. Maverick’s wife Mary Ann Adams and he informed the group that his niece was now safe in the household of Francis Brookfield in La Grange.
As they approached Black Jack, David Berry and his son-in-law joined the group. Dawson next passed through Mulberry (present Muldoon) where he recruited Richard McGee, Elam Scallorn, John Wesley Scallorn, and Thomas Simms. Allen H. Morrell and John Dancer both joined near Plum Grove. Dawson next arrived at Woods Prairie (Present West Point where Zadock Woods and his two sons Henry Gonzalvo Woods and Norman B. Woods, volunteered along with other Fayette County men including John Wesley Pendleton, brother in law of Henry Woods. Two brothers, Ned and James Trimble who were neighbors and close friends of the Woods family also joined the company.
When Dawson approached Waelder in Fayette, Milvern Harrell joined his grandfather, Zadock Woods and two uncles in Dawson‘s company. John Cummings and Patterson also joined the group.
When they arrived in DeWitt County When they arrived in DeWitt County Thomas J. Butler, Elijah Garey, Thomas Rice and William Savage all of DeWitt County, joined the Company. On the road through DeWitt County, Dawson’s company encountered Griffin, a slave of Samuel Maverick, that his wife Mary had sent to San Antonio with funds for her husband who was a prisoner of General Woll. Griffin was armed to the teeth and riding a good mule. He was also the only member of the party with any real funds so he was welcomed by the group. Griffin was with Samuel Maverick when he was captured and had hurried to the Maverick’s other home in Seguin to deliver the message to Samuel’s wife Mary Maverick. Mary Maverick describes the meeting:
“I called him to me and talked to him about going out to San Antonio to pass himself off as a “runaway”, follow to Mexico, and do anything he could to free or even aid Mr. Maverick, and he could have his freedom. He answered that to do anything for his master would delight him, and he had been wanting to ask me to let him go “as for freedom,” he added, “I do not want any more than I have, master has always treated me more like a brother than a slave,” and he choked up unable to say more. He took a gun, a good mule, some money, and made ready and started within a few hours.”
Alsey Silvanus Miller was the last man to join Dawson’s Company who joined at Nash’s Creek, about fifteen miles west of Gonzales where Dawson’s men camped for the night. Miller was originally with Captain Jesse Billingsley's company that was also camped on Nash’s Creek. While camped on Nash’s Creek the men formally elected Dawson as Captain and Dickerson as Lieutenant. During the night, John Wilson, a courier from Caldwell arrived urging the men to bring reinforcements as soon as possible and left instructions as to where he was located. Billingsley who had also ridden hard knew that his men and horses were exhausted and urged Dawson to remain with him for a few hours longer and rest some more before riding on together. Dawson declined his offer and when he departed at daylight on September 17, 1842, Miller rode with him.
s of Dawson’s Company included, Adams, John Beard, Church, Dickerson, Farris, Charles Fields, John Higgerson, T.B. James, Asa Jones, Linn, McCleary, and John Slack. There are no details about the time or location of recruitment.
Upon departure from Nash’s Creek Dawson pressed his men and horses even harder and marched forward at a frantic pace without further delay. The Company rode all day and throughout the following night and passed through Seguin at about daylight on September 18, 1842, but did not stop until they reached Cibolo Creek. Many of their horses were broken down and two men were already on foot. The Company had rode over a hundred miles with ammunition, food and blankets in just two days. Considering that thirty miles a day was considered a good pace for cavalry it’s no wonder that Dawson’s men and horses were exhausted.
Colonel Caldwell was anxious to drive the Mexicans from Texas soil but knew that his forces were not strong enough to attack the Mexicans in San Antonio. At sunrise on September 18, 1842, Caldwell dispatched Captain Hays and a thirty eight man detachment of Rangers with the intention of riding into San Antonio and provoking the Mexicans to launch an attack against the well prepared defensive position of the Texas forces in the bed of Salado Creek. Hays and his rangers rode to about a mile from the city where they dismounted, and prepared to conduct an ambush. Hays and ranger Henry E, McCulloch with six other men then mounted their horses and rode to within sight of the Alamo where Brigadier General Adrian Woll had stationed his Santa Anna Cavalry Regiment commanded by Colonel Cayetano Montero. The rangers taunted the Mexicans to come out and fight.
When Woll learned of the presence of the rangers near the Alamo, he immediately alerted his commanders, mounted his horse and proceeded to the Alamo. When he reached the Alamo the Santa Anna Regiment was already saddling up to pursue the Texans. The rangers were expecting to be pursued by about forty or fifty of the Mexican Cavalry. Instead, a force of about 150 cavalrymen from the Santa Anna Regiment emerged and chased the rangers toward Salado Creek.
General Woll followed the Cavalry with 200 infantry and two artillery pieces. Also included in his force, were twenty five of the Mexican residents of Bexar County led by Antonio Perez and known as the Bexar Defenders. The rangers fell back briskly across the mesquite-covered prairie toward Caldwell's position with the Mexican Cavalry in hot pursuit. The Mexicans made an effort to cut off Hays by passing his right flank. The fleeing rangers finally reached the safety of the trees along the creek bottom of Caldwell’s position. The Mexicans had fallen for Caldwell’s trap and been lured into a battle where the terrain was favorable to the Texans.
By 10:00 A.M. Woll's forces had been increased to include nearly his entire command. His forces included 130 local Mexicans from the Bexar Defenders and the Rio Grande Defenders. Woll placed his forces in two lines consisting of 200 infantry soldiers of the Santa Anna Battalion on his right and the Bexar and Rio Grande Defenders on his left. His artillery was deployed to support the infantry and he held 150 infantry soldiers in reserve.
After skirmishing all day Woll and after securing his rear launched his assault against the Texas positions, he held 150 of his infantry in reserve and with cannons firing and drums beating the Mexican Infantry charged forward, firing by platoons. The Texans were protected by an embankment from the cannon and stood their ground against repeated attempts by the Mexicans to overrun their positions. The Mexicans eventually fell back in confusion and great disorder.
Although Caldwell’s forces were succeeding at the battle of Salado Creek, a disaster was developing only a mile and a half away from Caldwell‘s embattled line. When his scouts reported to Brigadier General Woll that a relief column was advancing up the Seguin road he dispatched Colonel Caventano Montero with a Squadron of the Santa Anna Cavalry Regiment to advance on the column from the right and Colonel Pedro Rangel was directed to advance on the left with the second Squadron. He directed Lieutenant Colonel Juan Fernandez to place one of the two artillery pieces in the middle of the two Cavalry Squadrons. Woll placed his quartermaster, Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco in overall command of the forces
Captain Dawson had pressed his men hard and they had rode so fast and far that they were exhausted when they heard sounds of Colonel Caldwell’s stand against Woll’s forces. He dispatched Nathaniel Faison and Alsey Silvanus Miller to ride ahead to scout out the engagement at Salado Creek. Miller knew the area well as he had previously accompanied Ben McCulloch on scouting expeditions around San Antonio. While returning they were charged by three Mexicans, but after Miller killed one of them they managed to return safely. Upon their return they reported that Caldwell was engaged in a desperate battle with a superior force and that there was a force of Mexican Cavalry between them and Caldwell position. After learning of the presence of the Mexican Cavalry, Captain Dawson considered retreating back down the road and joining forces with Billingsley’s company of eighty men who were believed to be only a few miles behind him. He put the decision over whether to Join Caldwell or retreat towards Billingsley to a vote. The men , fearing for the lives of their comrades at Salado Creek voted to advance. Zadock Woods at age sixty nine was the oldest member of Dawson’ Company. When Dawson discussed the retreat to the men, Zadock Woods is credited with declaring, “We have marched a long way to meet the Mexicans, and I do not intend to return without meeting them. I would rather die than retreat.” Dawson’s company rode with haste in the direction of battle and straight into Woll’s two Cavalry Squadrons.
On September 18, 1842, between 3:00 and 4:00 P.M. Dawson’s Company was intercepted by the two Cavalry Squadrons. The cavalry had previously chased Jack Hays and his rangers out of San Antonio and were still in an angry mood. Dawson dismounted and positioned his men in a mesquite thicket on a small hill where Fort Sam Houston now stands. Norman Woods stated, “Captain, we are in a bad fix.” In response Dawson threatened to "shoot the first man who runs." The Mexicans halted some distance from the Texans while Colonel Carasco advanced and requested that they surrender. When Dawson failed to respond, Carasco returned to his troops and led them towards the Texan’s right flank. Carasco suddenly wheeled his forces around and charged directly at the Texans. Dawson calmly stepped forward took careful aim and dropped the leading Mexican officer and turned and smiled at his men. Dawson ordered his men to fire and the volley knocked several of the Mexicans from their horses and broke up the charge. The Mexicans retreated but continued firing from a distance until the other Cavalry Squadron appeared on the scene.
Carasco set up his artillery piece behind his Cavalry troops to shield it’s position. Colonel Montero moved his squadron to the right, while Rangel positioned the other squadron on the left. By this time Carasco had the Texans virtually surrounded and opened fire on the exposed Texans with a hail of artillery fire consisting of grape shot. The Texans endured the deadly barrage for about 30 minutes, losing most of their horses and sustaining many casualties in the process. After a heroic but futile resistance, Dawson, who was wounded in the hip, raised a white flag in an attempt to surrender, but his men kept firing, and the Mexicans fired, wounding him again. Dawson later walked up to three Mexican soldiers and again attempted to surrender again, and the Mexicans demanded that he surrender his arms. He handed his pistol to one of them, then the Mexican struck him with a sword on the top of his head. Dawson leaped forward and grabbed the Mexican but was killed in the process. Realizing surrender to be impossible, Dawson uttered dying words, "Let victory be purchased with blood." The Texans fought on with a fierce determination while some fled into the prairie in vain attempts to escape but were quickly overtaken and lanced or shot. Several of the Texans laid down their arms and attempted to surrender but the Mexicans slaughtered them. The Mexicans were sweeping all before them and the Texans were now engaged in a desperate hand to hand fight with knife, sabers, and rifle butts.
Alsey Miller took up the white mackinaw that Dawson had waved in token of surrender, mounted a horse and rode with it toward the Mexican lines, only to be fired upon.. Miller then galloped through the enemy toward the town of Seguin but was pursued by Antonio Perez and his Bexar Defenders. Miller’s horse quickly tired, but a fine horse owned by Edward T. Manton had fled the battle and was galloping by. Miller managed to catch Manton’s horse and was able to outrun the Mexicans. Miller later met up with General Burleson’s relief column and served as a scout and dispatch rider for him.
During the battle, when his son Norman fell to the ground, wounded in his hip, Zadock Woods rushed to his aid but he was hit by a Mexican bullet and fell dead over his fallen son‘s body. Henry Woods although wounded in the shoulder made his way to their sides and the wounded Norman handed him his pistol and pleaded with him to attempt an escape. Norman, knowing that he was too badly wounded to attempt an escape begged Henry to try to escape and care for his wife and children. Henry Woods who was himself wounded times attempted to surrender so he could remain with his brother, Norman. He advanced to within twenty paces of a Mexican officer and attempted to surrender and asked for quarter for himself and the other Texans, The officer nodded and rode on past him but he was attacked by four cavalrymen. Two of the Mexicans attempted to shoot him but their guns failed to discharge. One of the Mexicans hit him on the heard with his musket and the other struck him with a sword. Another Mexican attempted to run him through with his lance but he grabbed the lance of the Mexican Cavalry soldier and after killing him with his own lance, mounted the Mexican‘s horse and raced away. His actions so astonished the Mexicans that for a moment they did not pursue him. Finally one of the Mexicans took up the pursuit but Henry managed to keep him at a distance by pointing a pistol from the Mexican’s saddle at him. The Mexican gave up the chase and returned to his comrades. When his horse gave out he hid in some tall grass to wait until it became dark, then backtracked along Dawson’s route for eight miles until he became exhausted from the loss of blood from his three wounds and hid in some mesquite trees. About 9:00 A. M. the next morning he heard horses and discovered that it was John Wilson from La Grange on his way to San Antonio with a group of volunteers. Woods emerged from hiding still clutching the bloody lance and the startled John Wilson cared for him and assisted him in returning home. True to his word Henry returned to Fayette County, and after Norman‘s death he married his widow and raised his children as his own. Henry Woods and Alsey Miller were the only two Texans to escape slaughter or imprisonment.
Some of the Texans continued to resSome of the Texans continued to resist while others laid down their arms. Heroic in the fight was Griffin, a slave of Samuel Augustus Maverick who, his rifle shattered, fought on with the limb of a mesquite tree until he was killed. Colonel Carasco himself later stated that Griffin was the bravest man he had ever seen and attempted have his men disarm him rather than kill him, but Griffin fought to the death. The battle was described as a massacre by the Texans but by all accounts, Colonel Carasco was an honorable and humane man who attempted to stop the slaughter and is credited with saving the lives of the fifteen surviving prisoners. In a little over an hour by 5:00 P.M. the battle was over. Mary Maverick describes the death of her loyal slave Griffin also called Joe:
“Our poor negro slave (Joe) Griffin was slain. He would go into the fight with them and although offered quarters several times he refused because he was thinking of his master now a prisoner, and too of his young masters, William and Andrew, now possibly slain; the desire for vengeance seized his brave and trusty soul, and he wanted to kill every Mexican he could. He was a man of powerful frame, and he possessed the courage of the African lion. And this faithful and devoted African performed prodigies that day. When his ammunition became useless because of the proximity of the enemy, he fought with the butt end of his gun, and when the gun was broken, he wrenched a limb from a mesquite tree and did battle with that until death closed his career. He received more than one mortal wound before he ceased fighting.”
Thirty-six Texans died on the field, fifteen were taken prisoner, and two escaped. Thirty Mexicans were estimated to have been killed and between sixty and seventy wounded. The dead on both sides were stripped nude and Roy Griffin was relieved of the $ 380 dollars in gold that Mary Maverick had given him. None of the prisoners had any money except Faison who had two dollars and a gold ring that the Mexicans took from him. The prisoners, Including Melvern Harrell and Norman Woods had their hands tied behind them and bound together in pairs they were marched to join Woll’s main party.
ors who were taken prisoner were; Richard A. Barkley, John Bradley, William Colton, Nathaniel W. Faison, Milvern Harrell, John Higgerson, David Smith Kornegay, Edward T. Manton, McCleary, Allen H. Morrell, Patterson, Joseph C. Robinson, Joseph Shaw, William James Trimble, and Norman B. Woods.
At about 5:00 P. M. Captain Jesse Billingsley and John Caldwell reached the high ground overlooking the Salado Valley with about seventy men from Bastrop County. From their position they could observe Caldwell’s battle where they could only pray that Dawson had reached Caldwell before the fight begin. Billingsley dispatched Samuel Walker to scout out a route for them to Caldwell’s position and retreated three miles to rest his men and horses.
Colonel Caldwell was not aware of tColonel Caldwell was not aware of the fight that Captain Dawson had engaged in but had heard the artillery fire and knew there was another action in the area. During the night Captain Jesse Billingsley and his company and another company commanded by W. J. Wallace from Bastrop County, rode into Caldwell’s camp. The following morning Caldwell sent John Henry Brown, William Burnham, Griffith Jones and Dr. Caleb S. Brown to investigate the reason for the artillery fire. When the men arrived they discovered a horrible sight with the naked bodies so mutilated by the cannon fire, sabre and lance wounds that they could not be recognized. One of the members of the party reflects on Zadock Woods’ death:
“Near him (Dawson) lay the gallant Woods. Brave old man! He had often wished to die on the battlefield; his wish alas! Too soon gratified. I had known him when I was a prattling child. He was an old man then. From him I had received many acts of kindness. And as I stood over him on that field of death and gazed upon the manly form from which the wind swept back his long silver hair, I wept, yes for him as for a father.”
Two days later the Mexican army retreated toward the Rio Grande, and Dawson’s men were buried in shallow graves in the mesquite thicket where they fell. Caldwell’s forces cautiously followed the Mexican Army but failed to attack them due to their superior numbers. Captain Jack Hays launched an attack against Woll’s rear guard near Hondo and captured the artillery pieces but Woll’s forces rallied and mounted a counter attack, forcing Hays to abandon the captured artillery. On September 22, 1842, the exhausted Texans abandoned further pursuit and Woll’s forces were able retreat across the Rio Grande River into Presidio Del Rio Grande in Coahuila. General Burleson, guided by Alsey Miller was advancing with a relief column and was critical of Caldwell for allowing the Mexican Army to escape.
ounds, Milvern HaBecause of their wounds, Milvern Harrell, Norman B. Woods, W. D. McCleary and John Higgerson taken first to the hospital at Presidio del Rio Grande in Matamoros for two months. The other Dawson prisoners were marched on to Mexico City where they arrived on December 22, 1842. After Norman Woods had recovered somewhat from his wounds he and Milvern Harrell with John. Patterson and W. D. MacCready plotted to escape. A dispute between John Higgerson and the others had arisen and he was excluded from the escape plans. On February 2, 1843, the four Texans slipped out on a bright moonlight after timing their guards passing the door and ran around the building towards the river, stumbling and falling along the way. Norman Woods who was still suffering from his wounds was quickly captured. The other three instead of proceeding directly to the river which was about a mile away ran up stream for about ten miles, and then cut towards the river, reaching it at dawn. Milvern Harrell describes the escape attempt in an interview with the Dallas Morning News in 1907.
“As we were still suffering from our wounds, we were placed in a house at the Presidio del Rio Grande, just across the river on the Mexican side. Here we were guarded and kept confined for two months. Finally we planned to make our escape, but gave it up, as we concluded that we could not cross the river. A Frenchman came in soon after, and telling him of the plans we had entertained, he said that crossing the river would be easy, as it was low at that season. Encouraged by this, we again determined upon escaping.”
“Having noticed that the soldiers played cards a good deal, and satisfying ourselves that their guns were unloaded, one bright moonlight night, after the guard had passed the door, we slipped out and ran around the house towards the river. The ground was covered with rocks, and we fell several times. My uncle, Norman Woods, as he had not recovered from his wound, was easily retaken, but a man named Pattison (Patterson), myself and McReady ran on. We did not go directly to the river, which was only a mile or two distant, but ran upstream for 10 or 12 miles, reaching it about daylight. We looked for a shoally place to cross, as we thought there the water might be shallow. As Pattison was the eldest of the three, we followed his advice. He selected a place where the river was narrow and bent in towards the Texas side. A sandbar lay out in the water a little distance, and a high bluff arose on the opposite side of the river. After wading past the sandbar, Pattison suddenly stepped into the deep water, and swimming forward called us to come on, that we could swim over. The water was icy cold, and we had been confined until we were weak. We had gone only a little distance when McReady called to us that he could go no further, and sank. Pattison and myself swam on. A jeans coat that Pattison had tied around him had slipped off, and he asked me to get it for him. I turned back for the coat, and taking it by my teeth, swam after him. On nearing the Texas bank we got into a swift current, and were washed rapidly downstream. Pattison called out to me that he could go no further, but must drown, and sank almost immediately. By this time I was completely exhausted and was helpless in the current. Thinking every second would be my last, I was suddenly washed upon a rock in the river, and carried high upon it, the water being only about six inches over its surface. I stood up and straightened myself. It was sleeting now, and I was almost frozen. I decided that I could not reach the Texas side, and knowing that I would freeze where I was, I went back to the Mexican side of the river. There was a long smooth beach where I reached the bank, and I ran up and down it for some time to loosen my joints, which had become stiff from being in the water so long.
“Then leaving the river and going up a hill to get my location, I saw a house in the distance, and went toward it. A Mexican, seeing me approaching, came down to meet me. When he drew nearer, I recognized him as a Mexican I had known at San Antonio, and with whom I had traded. He came up and taking off his overcoat threw it around me. I went up to the house with him where he had a big, bright fire burning in the chimney. He would not let me go near it, but would have me move up a little at a time. His wife brought in some hot coffee for me, and I thought it was the best I had ever tasted. After getting warm, I told them that I desired to lay down, as I was sleepy. A bed was prepared, and I slept from about seven o'clock in the morning until two or three o'clock in the afternoon, and on awakening I saw four Mexican soldiers in the room. They had been scouring the country in search of us, and came to the house where I was. Of course, they carried me back with them.”
“Soon after this we left the Presidio for the City of Mexico. At Satillo we were joined with the Mier prisoners and kept with them until we were librated. (Milvern Harrell's story in the Dallas Morning News, June 16, 1907.)
Once recaptured, Milvern was reunited with Norman Woods and they along with prisoner John Higgerson were taken forty miles west to San Fernando where they were joined by prisoners Van Ness, Fitzgerald and Hancock. They were then marched to Mexico City and incarcerated in the prison at Satillo with the Meir prisoners on February 5, 1843. On February 11, 1843, John Higgerson was killed while attempting to escape with some of the Mier Prisoners. Milvern was the only Dawson prisoners with the Mier prisoners when they were all transferred to Perote Prison on March 15, 1843. The remaining Dawson prisoners had been joined with the Bexar prisoners on October 9, 1842, at San Fernando. These ten prisoners and the Bexar prisoners were sent to Perote Prison and did not join the Mier prisoner until Melvern Harrell and the Mier prisoners were transferred there.
, Norman Woods spent two months in a hospital at San Luis Potosi. He later was joined by some of the survivors of the Satillo escape and marched with them to Mexico City, where he arrived on April 26, 1843. The prisoners were then incarcerated in the Powder Mill prison near Mexico City before joining the others at Perote Prison in September 1843.
Perote Prison, originally known as Perote Prison, originally known as the Castle of San Carlos was located in the Mexican State of Vera Cruz and was constructed over a seven year period in the 1770s to guard one of their main trade routes and serve as a depository for treasure awaiting shipment to Spain. The massive stone fortress covered twenty six acres and was surrounded by a moat. It was used as a prison by the Mexicans and housed some 300 members of the ill fated Santa Fe Expedition that were captured in December 1841, plus the Dawson prisoners and about 200 of the Miers prisoners who had surrendered December 26, 1842. There were also the sixty Texans from San Antonio known as the Bexar prisoners who had gathered in Samuel Maverick’s home when Woll had occupied San Antonio. The Bexar prisoners and the unwounded Dawson prisoners arrived at Perote Prison on December 22, 1842. William E. Jones, one of the Bexar prisoners describes conditions at Perote Prison.
“The first four days after our arrival we were allowed to go about the castle. On the fifth we were chained in pairs and on the eighth or tenth day we were put to work, packing sand stone, lime, etc. into the castle. Our food consisted of poor beef, one day in three, beans, potatoes, rice and bread -- badly cooked-- the rations of these articles were always small, not being sufficient for a hearty man. At night we were locked up -- in the morning the doors were opened -- at nine o’clock paraded and counted -- put to work immediately afterwards.”
Despite Texan objection the prisoners were not considered as prisoners of war and were forced to perform common labor. The prisoners were allowed to communicate with friends, receive money and gifts and purchase items from the local Mexicans. On July 2, 1843 sixteen of the prisoners managed to escape through hole they had bored in the wall. Seven of these were recaptured, but the others made it back to Texas. Included in those that escaped to Texas was David Smith Kornegay and Richard B. Bartley, a close family friend of the Woods and Harrell families.
nement at Perote Prison Norman Woods contracted the Yellow Fever and became seriously ill. Milvern Harrell still refused to attempt any more escapes, because he was dedicated to caring for his uncle, Norman Woods, who desperately needed his care. Due to his delicate condition, Norman was not required to wear chains as were the other prisoners. Milvern continued to care for Norman Woods whenever the Mexican soldiers permitted him to be with his uncle, until Woods finally died on December 16, 1843 in Perote Prison. William James Trimble died the same night of “Vomito” and both he and Norman Woods were buried in the prison Moat.
Excerpts of three letters from NormExcerpts of three letters from Norman Woods while in Prison:
“ I was shot across the hip at the time that Captain Dawson ran out with the white flag. It was Carascoes order for his soldiers to disarm us then put us to death. We were released from this order by General Woll. I was left on the ground as dead until they came to stripping us and tearing the clothes off of me I had recovered enough to ask for quarters, which was granted by a sargent who kept off the soldiers with his sword. I had received five wounds with the sword. Four on the head and one on the left side, which nearly proved fatal. I was carried into Bexar that night and the next morning left for Precedio Rio Grande in an open wagon. Here I was separated from the rest of the boys that were not wounded and have never seen them yet. I remained in Precedio one month, until I was entirely recovered and from there was marched to San Fernando forty miles west of this place.”
“Richard A. Barkley, D. Kornegay and fourteen others made their escape from the castle of Perote by digging through the wall. They are without a pilot. God knows whether they will make good their retreat. Three have already been taken, the rest have not yet been heard of. I receive letters from Joe and Milvern once a week....Tell Aunt Azubah and Minerva not to grieve after Joe and Milvern as it will be a good schooling for them. They will get the use of the Mexican language which may be of use to them in after years.--Norman Woods to Family”
“Never heard of Gonzalvo’s escape until January. You have no idea the satisfaction it gave me to think that he had made his escape and that I still have a brother that would take care of you and our little family. No tongue can tell what I have suffered but I have never despaired. I have tried to live for your sake and our little family......Jane, you must do the best you can. Try and have our little children go to school all you can. All my troubles is the abscence from you and my family. I am satisfied that Gon is a brother to you and a father to our little children--Norman Woods to wife Jane”
“From losing the handkerchief off of my head I took a severe cold which settled in my wounds which caused me to keep my bed for about two months. From this place I was removed to Saltillo where I remained some fifteen or twenty days in a state of delerium. Here Milvern had a great deal of trouble with me, my being entirely helpless. At this place Mier prisoners overtaken me and we went on together four days march to the Salado where the boys stampeded. Myself not being able to go with them I prevailed on Milvern and Richard Keen to stay with me and assist me in getting along. We came on to San Louis Potosi where I remained in the hospital about two months. Milvern and the rest of the boys went on to Perote. I remained at this place until the unfortunate boys that broke at the Salado was recaptured and came up, those that survived. From here we all took up the line of march to the City of Mexico, where we landed on the 26th of April. The most of the time during my captivity I received kind treatment and two bits a day on which I lived as well as I wanted to.”
In September 1843, the survivors of the ill fatted Miers Expedition were transferred to the Perote Prison and incarcerated with the Dawson and Santa Fe prisoners. They were all members of an expedition led by Alexander Somervell sent to the Rio Grande River area to stage raids into Mexico and rescue the Dawson prisoners in retaliation for the invasion of General Woll. When President Houston and Somervell came to the conclusion that an invasion of Mexico was not practical the force was disbanded and ordered to return home. The Texans however still seething over the Woll invasion refused orders to disband and 308 of them remained and reorganized under the command of William S. Fisher into what became known as the Mier Expedition.
42, the Texans crossed the River and launched an attack against Mier in Mexico. They entered Mier without opposition and commandeered supplies for the locals and returned to Texas. When the supplies were failed to be delivered the 261 of the Texans again crossed the Rio Grande and attacked Mier on December 25, 1842. In the meantime General Pedro De Fisher had arrived in Mier with a force of Mexican soldiers. The Texans were outnumbered by about ten to one but managed to hold out until the following day when they agreed to surrender. The survivors were marched to Mexico City where they were held until their transfer to Perote Prison.
After his return to Coahuila, Adrian Woll was promoted to Major General by the Mexican government that considered his campaign a success and designated him as Commander of the Army of the North. Woll formed a government commission to arrange an armistice between Mexico and Texas. James W. Robinson, one of the Dawson prisoners at Perote Prison offered a set of proposals to the commission to settle the dispute between Mexico and Texas. President Santa Anna allowed Robinson to return to Texas and present the proposals to President Sam Houston. President Houston declared a truce with Mexico on June 15, 1843, and on February 14, 1844 commissioners of both governments signed an armistice at Salinas on the Rio Grande. Milvern Harrell was released from Perote prison on March 24, 1844. On 16 September 16, 1844, the remaining 105 prisoners were released.. Milvern Harrell was one of only six out of the fifteen Dawson survivors who were captured, who made it back to Texas alive after being paroled along with fellow survivors; Faison, Manton, Morrell, Robinson, and Shaw.
Milvern Harrell married Malinda Dixie Petit on June 29, 1849, in Gonzales County, Texas and had three sons and three daughters. He died August 10, 1910, in Gonzales County, Texas. His reminiscences of his Mexican experiences were published in the Dallas Morning News on June 16, 1907. When he died in 1910, he was the last survivor of the Dawson massacre.
Show Footnotes and
Brown, John Henry, “History of Texas from 1685 to 1892”, 2 vols., St. Louis: Daniell, 1893
Friend, Llerena B. "Sidelights and Supplements on the Perote Prisoners," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 68 - 69, January 1965-April 1966
Harrell, Milvern, “Reminiscences of Milvern Harrell“, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume XIII, April 1910
Hawkins, Wallace and McGrath, J. J., “Perote Fort, Where Texans were Imprisoned, Southwestern Historical Quartely“, Volumne 48, Number 3.
McGarth, J. J., and Wallace Hawkins, "Perote Fort-Where Texans Were Imprisoned," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 43, January 1945
Nance, Joseph Milton, "Adrián Woll: Frenchman in the Mexican Military Service," New Mexico Historical Review 33 (July 1958).
Nance, Joseph Milton, (editor), "Brigadier General Adrian Woll's Report of His Expedition into Texas in 1842," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 58 , April 1955
Nance, Joseph Milton, “Attack and Counterattack: The Texas-Mexican Frontier,” 1842 “ Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964
Pilcher, Walter F., ‘Nathaniel W. Faison, Dawson and Perote Prisoners’, The Handbook of Texas.
Spellman, Paul N. ed., "Letters of the `Dawson Men' From Perote Prison, Mexico,” 1842-1843," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 38. April 1935
Stapp, William P., “The Prisoners of Perote: A Journal“, Philadelphia: Zieber, 1845
Wade, Houston, “The Dawson Men of Fayette County,” Houston,, 1932.
Weyand, Leonie L., “Early History of Fayette County,” 1822-1865, M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1932.
Woll, Adrian, “Report to General Isidro Reyes concerning the battle of Salado, 20 September”
Winkler, E. W., "The Bexar and Dawson Prisoners," Southwestern Historical Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association Volume XIII, April 1910.
Copyright © 2009 Garland Lively
Written by Garland Lively. If you have questions or comments on this article,
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About the author:
Garland R. Lively is a retired United States Army officer with a keen interest in military history. He served two tours as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and later worked in various Department of Defense command and control systems positions. After retiring from the Army in 1986 Mr. Lively accepted a position with a Washington D. C. based DOD consulting firm as the head of their European operations where he continued his work in DOD and NATO command and control systems. After retirement in 1993 Mr. Lively moved to his farm on the Brazos River near Waco, Texas where he has pursued his life long passion for military history and genealogy. Mr. Lively has written fourteen genealogy books and numerous articles about southwestern history.
Published online: 05/10/2009.
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