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Christopher Columbus Hill
was just 13 years old when he saddled up a horse and rode away with
his father Asa Hill and brother Jeffrey to defend Texas from Mexican
general and dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in 1842.
This was six years after Santa Anna had surrendered to Sam
Houston at the Battle
of San Jacinto and promised to invade Texas no more forever, a
promise that lasted long enough for Santa Anna to gather soldiers
and march them north across the Rio Grande to finish what he'd started
and his volunteer army interrupted his plans.
Asa Hill and his son James had joined the Texas rebellion after the
Alamo fell, and both were at San Jacinto when Santa Anna surrendered.
They were ready to finish the fight once - actually twice - and for
all. John begged to go with Asa and Jeffrey (James was too sick to
go) until his reluctant mother finally gave in and sent him on his
way with her blessing. As he prepared to ride away, James offered
him a rifle he'd used to great effect at San
"Brother John," James said, handing the rifle to his little brother,
"this is not to be surrendered." The Hill father and sons fought at
the battles of Laredo and Guerro then pressed deeper into Mexico,
to the town of Mier
about 75 miles from the Mexican border. More than half the original
force of 700 had left the
expedition by this time, but the Hills were among the 261 who
ignored warnings of a large Mexican force waiting for them at Mier.
The warnings turned out to be accurate. Asa, Jeffrey and John were
captured, and Jeffrey was badly wounded.
When the Mexican soldiers ordered the prisoners to hand over their
weapons, John remembered the promise he'd made to brother James and
refused, choosing instead to splinter his rifle against some nearby
curbstones. The officer in charge sent the now-14 year old Hill to
General Pedro de Ampudias's office for punishment.
The general, who had recently lost an adopted son in battle, took
a liking to the willful young man and arranged for him a meal, bath
and new clothes. John took food to his father and brother, who were
happy to see the boy safe, even in the clutches of the enemy, though
many of the Hills' fellow prisoners were less understanding.
Ampudia gave John a written introduction and sent him with a military
escort to Mexico City to see Santa Anna, but the would-be ruler of
Texas was ill and taking no visitors. Before a meeting could take
place, the old despot had sent Asa Hill and 220 or so other prisoners
on a forced march across the Chihuahuan desert to Mexico City. One-hundred
and eighty one prisoners escaped near Salado, but the Mexicans recaptured
all but five.
A deeply displeased Santa Anna decreed that all the prisoners be executed,
but ultimately resolved to execute just one in every 10, thus creating
Black Bean lottery that required all the prisoners to draw drew
a bean from a jar. Those who drew a white bean lived. The ones who
drew a black bean were shot. Asa Hill's bean was white. (John's brother
Jeffrey was too wounded to make the march to Mexico City and arrived
there with the rest of the wounded two months later.)
it had been with Ampudia, Santa Anna took an immediate liking to John
C.C. Hill when the two finally met. He decided to adopt the boy and
make of him a Mexican soldier, but Hill refused to take up arms against
Texas or the United States. So Santa Anna offered to send him to the
College of Mines instead. John went to talk it over with his father
in prison. These kinds of adoptions weren't all that rare in the wars
of the 1880s - the Hills even had a Mexican boy they took home with
them from San
Jacinto. Asa gave his blessings, but John stipulated that Santa
Anna release his father and brother as part of the deal.
Hill, known as Juan Cristoban Hill in Mexico,
later married the daughter of a Spanish general and became one of
the country's leading engineers and influential citizens without ever
assuming Mexican citizenship. He remained an outspoken defender of
Texas all his life, a member of the Texas Veterans Association and
an honorary member of the Texas State Historical Association.
But Hill never turned his back on his Mexican benefactors either.
When the Mexican government sentenced Ampudia to death for his alleged
loyalties to the deposed Maximillian, Hill interceded on the general's
behalf and arranged his release.
It's a peculiar thought, but Hill is probably the one person who could
have identified the calamitous Mier
Expedition as the best thing that ever happened to him, not that
he ever did. He probably considered the rifle his brother gave him
and the promise he kept as the turning points in his singular life.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
March 10, 2018 column