Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico

Editor’s Note:

 

Historians have long been puzzled by the career of Tyler Flanagan. Although a career navy man who attained the rank of Captain, he attended the Naval Academy but never graduated, never commanded a ship, and appears on few official records. Yet he seems to have turned up in places all over the world and been at present at numerous historic events between 1864 and 1910. In some old photographs he is seen in the company of such historic figures as Juarez of Mexico, the Czar of Russia, General William Sherman, and even the Queen of Hawaii, yet he left almost no official record behind. Some have speculated that Flanagan may have committed some crime for which his records were destroyed, or that he was some sort of undercover agent or spy, but why would a spy be so conspicuous and have access to so many highly placed people and in so many places?

The publication of Flanagan’s memoirs promises to throw new light on these questions and perhaps expose some less explored corners of history as well. This first volume covers the very beginning of Flanagan’s career and his first posting. It is a remarkable story and promises some new insights into some old events.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Flanagan’s memoirs also provide numerous examples of his talent for blarney. He is not above stretching the truth when it suits him, but he appears to have been honest in his writings, at least in those areas that can be verified.

John Reisinger,  2013

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1- THE ACADEMY

 

 

 

The minute the Secretary of State offered me a cigar I should have known I was in for it. Seward would never give you anything without expecting your right arm in return. He usually got it too. Of course, there was a war going on at the time, and he had been given a blank check by Lincoln to do what he wanted and damn the cost or anyone who got in the way.

Even so, I’d be hard pressed to name anyone who put me in as much pure hellish danger as Seward, because in the events that followed Seward’s offer of a cigar I came near to losing my life to an army of hysterical Frenchmen and Mexicans, my heart to a half crazy Belgian countess, and my freedom to a wild eyed Mexican señorita.  At times it seemed as if everyone in Mexico wanted to either shoot me, throw me in a vile dungeon, or frame me for some outrage I didn’t commit. All that and I never even smoked the cigar. Somebody said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation; mine has involved a fair bit of noisy desperation. But that’s another story, and I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

My name is Tyler J. Flanagan, and I’ve spent a good bit of my adult life in some of the most heathen, dangerous and foul smelling places on God’s green earth; and all for the sake of the United States government when it got in a tight corner and wanted someone to work informally to get it out. Any time there was something sneaky, dirty, or dangerous to be done in the name of old glory, someone would send for me, and all I wanted to send was my regrets. Along the way I’ve been taken hostage by the Koreans, shot at by Dervishes in the Sudan, attacked by Chinese Boxers in Peking, gotten caught in the crossfire between the Russian and Japanese fleets at Tushima, and almost had my head removed by a Filipino with a bolo knife. Why would anyone choose such a life, you might ask? Well, the truth is, I didn’t. You see, I wasn’t always an unofficial diplomat and spy; all I really wanted was a life at sea.

 

My parents came over from Ireland during the Great Hunger, what Americans called the Potato Famine, in 1847 when I was only four. My father joined the army and my mother became a downstairs maid for a wealthy family on Mt Vernon Place in Baltimore. After a few years, my father was stationed in New Orleans and died of the Cholera soon after.

I spent a lot of my time on the streets with my Irish pals, and as I grew up, I learned the value of blarney and to keep my head down in unfamiliar territory. I also developed a profound distrust of the intelligence and judgment of people in groups. Two heads may be better than one, but twenty heads are considerably worse. It’s a strange thing, but there’s few outrages a man won’t do if he’s got enough company.

 

As I got older, I spent a lot of time on Thames or Pratt Street around the piers. It was as smelly and foul a place as you could wish, with garbage floating in the slimy water and rats, both two and four legged varieties, everywhere. But Pratt Street was where the ships would dock after making the long trip up the Chesapeake Bay. The warehouses came almost to the water’s edge, and the harbor itself was a forest of masts and rigging. Well, for an Irish lad like me, standing bare footed and ragged among the barrels, greasy puddles, and trash, it was a vision of romance and adventure. It was there that I decided I wanted to go to the Naval Academy.

And so, with my newly found determination to be a blue water sailor, I applied myself in a way I hadn’t done before. The family that employed my mother helped out with some connections they had, and at age 18, I was accepted into the United States Naval Academy, future class of 1865. The War Between the States had just broken out, and that may have had something to do with my acceptance. You see, in spite of the occasional “No Irish need apply” signs around town, we were everybody’s darlin’s when there was fighting to be done.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2- THE CALL

It’s been my experience in life that good things usually come with a catch, and my Naval Academy career was no exception. Because it was deemed too close to the south and to southern sympathizers, the Academy had been relocated to an old hotel on Rhode Island. Somehow, this wasn’t what I had pictured, but I consoled myself with the thought that if it wasn’t Annapolis, at least it was better than being in the army and crouching in a muddy ditch while some screaming rebel tried to stick a bayonet in your liver.

Soon, I settled into the routine and was firmly entrenched somewhere just below the middle of my class. I could have done better, I suppose, but was distracted by one of the local lasses, misnamed Chastity by a hopeful clergyman father. In spite of her upbringing, Chastity seemed determined to break as many of the Ten Commandments as possible, but she was a fine looking lass, and she gave me a much needed taste of heaven while I served my time in purgatory.

 

One rainy morning, I was suddenly called to the Superintendent’s office. At first I was panicked at the thought that the superintendent might be some distant but vengeful relative of the fair Chastity.

What he had to say was even worse; I had been summoned to Washington, D.C. by the State Department!

I stuttered out a few words asking what this was about.

“I’m afraid the matter is confidential,” the Superintendent said solemnly, “but remember you represent the Navy, and the Academy. Your career here has not been exactly distinguished, but you have the makings of an acceptable officer, given the right circumstances.”

“Uh…and are these the right circumstances, sir?”

He shook his head slowly. “Frankly, I doubt it, but do your best.”

 

I had never been to the capitol before, and was thrilled at the sight of the congress building, with its dome still incomplete, and the partially completed monument to George Washington farther away down a grassy park area. I was also somewhat shocked to see the number of blue clad troops in the streets, not to mention fortifications and gun emplacements. In some places, I could see the wide and muddy Potomac River flowing lazily past, and on the other shore, the town of Alexandria Virginia, marking the too-close-for-comfort beginning of the Confederate States of America.

A carriage took me to a large office building near the White House, and I was greeted at the door by a sour looking individual who reminded me of a ferret.  He led me through a maze of hallways swarming with functionaries scrambling this way and that on various missions, as if someone’s pet canary had gotten loose and they were all trying to find it. Finally, we dropped anchor in front of a heavy door with a small brass plaque that said simply “William H. Seward”.

After a discrete knock, Dunbar opened the door and ushered me into a large office with maps on the walls, and a large globe in one corner. There at the desk sat William Seward, Secretary of State. I had seen his picture before, and was more puzzled than ever at being brought here.

Seward stood and greeted me warmly. He was a short, energetic man with a manner that was friendly, but intense. He had thick graying hair, a nose that would have done a parrot proud, and was in his stocking feet; rather casual for a cabinet secretary, I thought. I also noticed the room reeked with a haze of cigar smoke.

“Good morning Mr. Flanagan. Would you like a cigar? No? Well, I don’t blame you. It’s a filthy habit, but one of the few vices I can afford. Well, have a seat and we’ll get started.”

Get started doing what, I wondered?

Seward sat back at the desk and eyed me critically for a moment, as if I were a horse he was considering buying, and then spoke.

“Mr. Flanagan, when your father was in New Orleans some years ago, he was returning to camp one night and took a wrong turn into one of the less reputable streets near the French Market. He came upon some local thugs threatening a few Mexicans. There were a fair number of Mexicans in New Orleans at the time; refugees of the recent takeover of the government by our old friend Santa Anna.”

I nodded, not knowing what to say.

“Your father took out his sidearm and stood between the locals and the Mexicans until the locals finally slunk away. The Mexicans were relieved and grateful. One of those Mexicans was a full blooded Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca named Benito Juarez.”

He looked at me sharply. “And now, the very grateful Senor Juarez is the president of Mexico.”

Maybe that was it. Maybe Juarez wanted to give the Flanagans a cash reward for my father’s action in New Orleans.

Seward’s voice interrupted my daydreaming and brought me sharply back to the somewhat mysterious business at hand.

“A few years after that, Juarez returned from exile and took over the government in a revolution. Well, instead of merely robbing the treasury for himself as most of those rascals would do, Juarez instituted some radical reforms that stirred up one faction or another, including a three year moratorium on repayment of foreign debt. What that meant was that anyone from another country who invested money in Mexico was left with nothing, at least for three years.”

Well, so much for the cash reward, I thought.

“A lot of the debt,” Seward continued, “was from Europe, and those countries were hopping mad. To make matters worse, they were given aid and comfort by anti-Juarez reactionaries in Mexico itself. Well, Napoleon III decided to take over Mexico and make it a French colony.”

“Now a temporary foreign occupation is bad enough,” he continued, “but a month ago, Napoleon III sent Archduke Maximilian of Austria and his wife Charlotte to Mexico City to make the arrangement permanent. With the blessings of the French government and the backing of French troops, the happy couple became Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota of Mexico. Juarez and the republican government had already been driven out to San Luis Potosi, and have now been pushed all the way to Monterrey in the north. The French army is steadily taking over the rest of the country while Maximilian sits on a throne in Mexico City.”

Well, thinks I, if the Frogs want to take over all that sand and cactus, what difference could it make? We had enough trouble with old Jefferson Davis.

“Now we have our hands full, so we can’t intervene directly. We can’t even send a token force because it might push the French to ally with the Confederacy. But a European power taking over a sovereign state to establish a monarchy in our backyard is intolerable, so we’ve got to stop them. That’s where you come in. We need a man to be our liaison with Juarez to keep us informed and to make sure he keeps pushing hard to get the French out of Mexico. We could send an envoy there, but Juarez doesn’t really trust Americans, and doesn’t want some pasty-faced diplomat looking over his shoulder.”

I still had no idea what this had to do with me, but I was about to find out.

“Two weeks ago, the War Department received a letter from Juarez addressed to your father. When the censor read it, he brought it to our attention.”

I was startled. “But my father is..”

“Dead. We know that, but Juarez doesn’t. He addressed the letter to the War Office so it would be forwarded to the appropriate address. The letter asks your father to come to Mexico to be an adviser.  Apparently, he’s the only American Juarez will fully trust. I expect it also has something to do with the fact that he was Irish. The Mexicans have a soft spot for Irish lads ever since that business with the St. Patrick’s Battalion in the last war. Whatever the reason, Juarez is looking to your father to save the day.”

I shook my head in sympathy, and relief. “What a shame. I wish I could be more help.” I was beginning to feel relief, but Seward’s voice stopped me.

“Oh, you can be a great deal of help, Mr. Flanagan. We have taken the liberty of sending Juarez a reply in your name, a reply in which you offer to come in your father’s place.”

I opened my mouth, but for once, blarney failed me.

“You are being withdrawn from the Academy and given a brevet commission as a Lieutenant. El Presidente could hardly take advice from a Midshipman. You will travel to Mexico and gain the trust of Juarez and advise him to fight on against the French at all costs. You will also try to discourage any friendliness towards the Confederacy, and will file a coded report each week. We’ll work out the details later. Do you have any questions?”

What I wanted to do was to holler for help, but what I said was “What about my mother?”

Seward smiled. “Oh, she’ll be informed. I’m sure she’ll be very proud her son is to be a diplomat. Any more questions?”

The only question I had was how in God’s name could I get out of this, but I didn’t seem in the appropriate place or company to ask it, so I kept silent.

So my fate was sealed. One day I was a Midshipman a year away from commissioning as an Ensign and assignment to a Navy ship; the next I was a brevet Lieutenant and roving diplomat and spy.

 

The easiest way to get to Mexico, I soon found out, was to be born there. Traveling great distances is slow and uncomfortable in the best of times, but going from the east coast of the United States to Monterrey in 1864 was only slightly less difficult than going to the moon.  The French controlled all the Mexican ports, so I couldn’t go by sea, and a direct land route was blocked by the Confederacy, so the only way to go was overland to the western states then south through northern Mexico. I took the train to the banks of the Mississippi and crossed over to St Louis and met a cavalry escort that took me on a long hot horseback trek across the baking desert. My escort consisted of mostly raw boned farm boys and immigrants freshly recruited from the cities. They were not everyone’s idea of spit and polish, but once, when they spotted some Comanches on a distant ridge, they had their carbines out and ready for business while I was still squinting in the distance.

Eventually, we came to the Mexican border and met up with a ragged-looking Mexican escort who resembled nothing so much as a pack of banditos that had stolen or scrounged a few items of military uniform. I said farewell to the Americans, and showing a lot more confidence than I felt, set off for Monterrey.

 

 

CHAPTER 3- El PRESIDENTE

 

Mexico wasn’t much to look at; in fact, anyone but a Mexican or a Comanche wouldn’t be able to tell where they were within a hundred miles either way. On the whole, it didn’t look much different from the dry scrub land we had just passed through; an endless range of rolling dry hills baking in the sun and hot as hell’s kitchen.

The men in my Mexican escort were sloppy and ill disciplined, but tough as an old boot. The leader, a painfully thin fellow with an uneven mustache, was Capitan Emilio Danza. He was about 25 or so, and had been with Juarez for five years. Danza was a veteran of the fight with the French at Puebla, on the road to Mexico City, where ragged Mexicans looking very much like my escort had fought the cream of the Imperial French Army to a bloody standstill before being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Americans tended to look down on the Mexicans, I knew, but I wagered there were a fair number of Frenchmen who didn’t any longer.

I rode alongside Danza. He was quiet at first, and I tried to draw him out.

“Have you seen many French troops, Capitan?”

He looked at me. “Too many sometimes, senor.”

“What are they like?”

Danza shrugged. “They have clean uniforms, new rifles, heavy artillery, and food in their bellies. They march in neat columns and attack in formation. But they die like anyone else. And when enough of them die, the rest will go home.” He spoke as casually as if he were talking of painting a barn.

 

The next morning, we came to the town of Monterey, headquarters of Juarez and seat of the government of Mexico, at least the government that was composed of Mexicans. The one composed of Austrians and Frenchmen was in Mexico City, several hundred miles to the south. As we approached, I saw armed men standing guard or marching everywhere. The rest of the troops were as ragged and irregular as our escort, and I wondered how they would stand up to an attack from the French.

The houses were mostly modest adobe affairs with thatch or tile roofs. Among these modest houses were several ornate cathedrals with tall bell towers gleaming white in the sun. In spite of the number of people about, the place had a sleepy air with pigs and chickens freely roaming the dirt streets. Our dusty column pulled up to a building that was being used as a headquarters, and a soldier in a dirty white uniform took our horses.

I washed up and was soon taken to the Obispado, the building being used as the presidential palace. It was a large structure on a hill that looked like a church being used as a fortress, or maybe the other way round. The place was white stucco with red tile floors and was surprisingly cool inside. Armed Mexicans were strolling everywhere, but only a few seemed to be actual soldiers.

I was led down long airy whitewashed corridors to a reception area and awaited my meeting with Juarez. Sitting in the hardback chair in my navy uniform, I felt out of place and far from where I belonged. After a few minutes, two ugly customers with huge mustaches and pistols in their belts came out of the big oak doors and a flunky came out to fetch me in to meet the president of the Mexican Republic.

I don’t know just what I was expecting; an ogre on a black throne, maybe. But what I found was a small black suited figure seated at a desk scribbling away at some papers. On the wall behind him hung a red, white, and green flag of Mexico; otherwise the room was plain. Juarez had a broad Indian face complete with a Roman nose. His thin black hair was plastered down on his scalp and he wore a white shirt with winged collar and a black tie. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have taken him for a clerk, or possibly an undertaker.

The flunky announced me and backed out of the room. The little man behind the desk looked up at me and any resemblance to a clerk vanished. His black eyes seemed to burn through to the back of my skull as he looked at me. In an instant I saw that here was a man of purpose and tenacity.

“Senor Flanagan,” he said, leaning across the desk to shake my hand. His grip made my hand feel like a horse had stepped on it. “Welcome to Monterrey. I am sorry about your father, but glad you could come.”

I took my cue. “Gracias, Senor Presidente. I have wanted to meet you ever since my father told me of you,” which was not exactly a lie, but not exactly the truth either. “I hope, in some small way I may serve the Mexican people as he would have.”

Juarez sat back in the chair and looked me over. Again the eyes bored into me. “You are young for a Lieutenant. Well, no matter. The necessities of war make us do many things. Do you know why I asked your father to come?”

“Because he came to your aid in New Orleans?”

“Because he displayed a sense of justice. He saw people who needed help and he gave it to them; without question and without hesitation; just as I am trying to do for the people of Mexico. Senor Flanagan, it is for justice that I fight; without question, and without hesitation.”

There was a lot more in this vein and I squirmed a bit in my chair. Juarez had risen and was pacing the room with those eyes drilling holes in me. I said to myself that here was as fine a fanatic as ever ordered an execution.

“I know what you are thinking, Senor Flanagan,” he said, and my heart almost stopped at the thought that he somehow knew I was mentally measuring him for a room in an asylum. “You are perhaps wondering if I am not a bit loco to think of holding out against the French and their Mexican reactionary allies.”

“Well, now that you mention it…”

“We are outnumbered, out financed, and underfed most of the time. Justice is a poor relation where self-interest is present. And that is why I asked your father to join me here; because he is one nortamericano who cares for justice.”

I knew that was my cue and I took it. “I am ready to do what I can, Senor Presidente,” I said, not that I really meant it. After all, every would-be dictator south of the border claimed to be fighting and slaughtering in the name of justice.

“I have two things to ask of you,” he continued. “First, I wish for you to take back to the United States what you will see here. They have heard of us through diplomats, of course, but I want them to hear from a man who cares for justice; a man I trust. In a few months, you will know everything you need to know.”

“You said there were two things; what’s the second?”

For the first time, Juarez smiled. It was a smile more of cunning than amusement.

“The second is somewhat more difficult, but we will discuss it later. In the meantime, I will leave you in the capable hands of Capitan Danza. Good day, Senor Flanagan.”

I rose to leave. “Thank you, Senor Presidente. And if you don’t mind my sayin’ so, it’s honored I am to be serving such a fine cause and such a fine people. I’ve met some of your lads and I have to say they’re a grand bunch of roughnecks. The Frenchies might as well pack their bags; that’s what I say.”

He smiled slightly. “You have confidence. Good. Let us hope it is contagious.”

It had been a short meeting, but I left feeling wrung out. I had never met anyone as single minded and determined as Juarez. And all that blather about justice for the common people. How naive did he think I was, anyway? It seemed the Irish weren’t the only ones with a bit of the blarney in them. But as I thought about it, I somehow couldn’t shake the feeling that Juarez had meant every word he said.

So I spent the rest of the day wandering around Monterrey. The day was hot, but not uncomfortable as I browsed idly in the marketplace. Amid the babble of voices, however, I thought I heard someone call my name.

“Flanagan…..”

I looked around and saw a woman standing behind me. She was about my age and had long black hair pulled back severely and tied in a large knot behind her. She wore a long dark blue dress with a high collar and a brooch at the neck. The woman was darkly beautiful, with large brown eyes and a full, sensual mouth. At the same time, though, she had an air of severity and single mindedness about her. Did they have Puritans in Mexico, I wondered?

I tipped my hat and bowed slightly. “Buenos dias, senorita. Coma esta usted?”

She looked at me as if I had let wind in church. “I speak English, Lieutenant. Save the Spanish until you can pronounce it better. It is bad enough when the Austrians and Frenchmen try it.”

“As you wish,” I said. “But how do you know my name?”

“I am Maria Velenziaga, and I serve as secretary to General Ortega, the hero of Puebla. There is little in Monterrey I do not know.”

I decided, somewhat unwisely, to try to turn her head with some blarney. “Well, Miss Velenziaga, it’s a sight for sore eyes you are by my soul. I’ve traveled for weeks in the heathen desert country to the north and passed among Indians and rattlesnakes. But I never knew there was such beauty in this harsh land.”

Saying that with a smile, I reached for her hand to kiss. I had heard that these Latins were fools for romance, and this one looked to be in dire need of a dose of the Flanagan charm. To my surprise, she pulled her hand away as if she had touched a hot stove, and her dark eyes flashed.

“I am glad you made the acquaintance of the rattlesnakes,” she said in a voice dripping with contempt. “Because if you try to touch me again, I will have you fed to them a piece at a time.”

I was startled, but kept my head. “I see. And would you be on the welcoming committee then, Miss Velenziaga?”

She ignored my sarcasm. “Why are you here, Flanagan?” she snapped.

“Why don’t you ask El Presidente Juarez? He invited me.”

“What did the Yankee government tell you to do here? Did they send you to spy?”

“If they did,” I said, pointing to my naval uniform, “don’t you think they would have sent me in a better disguise?”

“The Gringos are capable of anything; who can say? I am sure of one thing, Flanagan. Juarez and the Reform are too important to the people of Mexico to take chances. The people have hope for the first time in our history. And anyone who plays us false will answer for it.” She leaned over close to my face as she said this. “If you are a Gringo spy, Flanagan, your life will be short and your death will be long.”

Without another word, she spun on her heel and walked away.

“Now there’s a charming colleen, I must say,” I said out loud. “Probably on her way to a funeral.”

Yes sir, I thought, things could get very interesting in old Monterey town before this was over.

Juarez didn’t call on me again right away, so a few days later, I started going on patrols with Capitan Danza to get the lay of the land. The countryside was hilly and dry like everything else seemed to be in Mexico, and I was enjoying the ride. (My bottom had finally gotten accustomed to the pounding from the saddle.)

“How do you like Mexico, Senor Flanagan? Is it much different from El Norte?” asked Danza.

“Pretty similar at the moment,” I replied. “A lot of empty land and groups of people killing each other over it.”

He nodded and spit at a passing cactus. “If blood grew crops, no one would starve.”

I decided to change the subject. “What do you know about Maria Velenziaga?”

Danza looked at me curiously. “You have met her?” I nodded.

“She is very suspicious and some say she has spies among the people to warn of any plots or treachery. Be wary of her; the woman is dangerous.”

“Still,” I said, “she’s quite beautiful.”

Danza raised his eyebrows. “So is the rattlesnake, Senor, but I would not take one into my bed.” He reigned in his mount and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “We should turn back.”

As I prepared to bring the horse about, I noticed something.

“Emilio, is that smoke on the horizon?” He took out his field glasses and squinted at the wavy line of southern hills.

“That is not smoke. See? It drifts with the wind but does not rise. That is dust. A large group of men is coming our way. We must go see.”

Another hour’s ride brought us closer to the dust until it seemed to come from over the next rise.

“Dismount,” said Danza. “We will look over this hill and see what is there.”

We crept over the ground until we reached the crest of the rise, then carefully raised our heads until we could get a good look down the next valley.

“There is the source of your dust, senor,” said Danza.

There marching up between the next two hills was an army. The shuffling feet and the rattle and clank of equipment could clearly be heard, even at that distance. Five officers on horseback led the column, followed by a line of men marching four abreast. The column snaked back until it was lost in the lazy cloud of brown dust that it raised. The soldiers were wearing blue uniforms with red trousers, and carried rifles on the sling. Pinpoints of sunlight reflected off guns and insignia as the column wound along like some great blue and red serpent. “Who are they?” I asked in awe.

Danza handed me the field glasses. “See for yourself.”

I scanned the endless line of men until I saw two flags. One was red, white and green, and the other was red, white and blue. I put down the glasses. “The French,” I said. “They’re marching on Monterey.”

Danza nodded and took the glasses again. “Did you see the heavy set man in the front? That is General Bazaine, the French commander. It is said that the throne of Maximilian rests on his back. We have to get back to warn Juarez.”

We galloped back to Monterey as fast as our horses could take us. When we arrived at the first guard post, the sentry alerted the town and all hell broke loose. Republican soldiers were scurrying and assembling everywhere to a cacophony of shouts and bugle calls. Dogs and chickens in the streets scrambled for cover from hundreds of pounding feet. The whole city seemed to have gone mad. A troop of irregular cavalry clattered by and almost ran me down. In the tumult of voices, I heard one phrase over and over; “The French are coming.”

Now we Irish seldom shirk from a good fight, but, on the other hand, we’re not stupid. I wanted no part of the slaughter that was looming. It wasn’t my country or my fight. Besides, I assured myself, the United States was officially neutral, and who was I to create a diplomatic incident? So I contrived to hang about the Obispado with the rest of the more official diplomats to keep out of harm’s way. As with many other things I’ve done in my life, this was a mistake.

I had no sooner arrived at the entrance hall under the dome when a gruff looking officer in a dragoon cap asked if I was Flanagan. When I admitted I was, he said that Juarez had asked that I be taken to the field to observe the battle. The pace of the French advance indicated that it would be several days before they arrived and could mount an attack. Meanwhile, the army would be moved to the town of Saltillo about 50 miles away. I tried to act more eager than I really was, which was not too difficult, and soon found myself on the way to Saltillo, where the army of Juarez would meet the French.

Juarez stubbornly remained in Monterrey until the last minute, a decision that almost cost him his life, but I was on the southern edge of Saltillo at the time awaiting the Frogs. The Republican army was placed in several uncoordinated defensive positions around Saltillo as a burly figure on a black horse observed from a ridge.

“That is the great General Ortega,” said Capitan Danza reverently. Danza had accompanied me from Monterrey, and was almost as anxious for a fight as I was to avoid one.

We rode up to Ortega, who was standing with several underlings and looking at the scene with a brass telescope. He was stocky, almost fat, and had a great bushy black mustache to go with his longish and unkempt hair. He wore a rather fancy blue officer’s jacket with as much gold braid as an admiral on a good day. Presently he snapped the glass shut and nodded in satisfaction.

“Now let the snail eaters come. The army of the north is ready.” Ortega’s command was called the army of the north to distinguish it from the Republican army operating south of Mexico City under the able command of General Porfilo Diaz.

“Are you Lieutenant Flanagan?” he suddenly said, turning to me.

“Yes, General,” I replied snapping my best salute. “I’ve been sent to observe and admire your brave boys as they stand against the French. And isn’t it a fine day for it, though? There’s just enough breeze to take the dust away and make the flags wave smartly.”

“And does everything meet with your approval, Lieutenant?” he said sarcastically.

“Splendid, General, just splendid,” I replied. “Though I was just wondering….”

“Yes?”

“Well, General, if you don’t mind my asking, I was simply wondering if you might not be better off with your army placed on that ridge all in one place, instead of scattered about as they are.”

Several of the staff looked at each other deeply shocked. Ortega looked at me as you would look at your shoe right after you had stepped in manure. “I must cover all the approaches. I cannot do that if my men are all standing in one place.”

“The French, General!” someone shouted. The French column was just appearing from behind a hill on the other side of a flat area. The long line of troops formed into ranks with artillery on the flanks and cavalry behind. Mounted officers scurried back and forth helping the army group for an attack. Finally, everything was in place and the two armies stood facing each other in an unearthly silence. The only visible movement was the various battle flags flapping in the hot breeze.

With a bugle call we could faintly hear, the mass of men started moving towards us. I felt a cold fear in the pit of my stomach as I watched, and noticed the glint of the sun on a thousand fixed bayonets. Meanwhile, the French artillery opened up with a rumble and a puff of smoke from each field piece. The balls made a faint rushing sound when they passed overhead, nearly scaring the bejabbers out of me. A bit lower, I thought, and Tyler Flanagan would be spread around the field like jam on a biscuit.

 

In a few minutes, it became obvious what General Bazaine was trying to do, and it became just as obvious that he would succeed. With the Mexican defenders spread out to cover all the approaches to Saltillo, the Frogs concentrated their attack on a few key points. In a few minutes, a blue and red tide overran the Mexicans in a hail of crackling rifle shots and a gray fog of gun smoke slowly drifting in the breeze. Ortega was beside himself with frustration.

Will our hero survive? Will he accomplish his mission? Will he ever turn the head of the enticing Maria without losing his own?

Read the rest of Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico