Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock forms Mexican Spy Company
June 5, 1847
The young West Point cadet raised his right hand on July 17, 1817, and swore this oath:
“I, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, appointed a Third Lieutenant of Artillery in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.”
Hitchcock did not say that he would always agree with his government or the orders he received. And before the end of his illustrious 47-year career, he would find himself in direct disagreement with both.
Hitchcock was a man of character, not afraid to speak openly and fight for his beliefs. He was a thinker, devoted to lifelong learning. And he was an officer — a Soldier — who was called on more than once to perform his duty even as he had grave concerns about his government’s decisions.
Early in his career, Hitchcock was assigned to West Point as an instructor. For a man who valued scholarship, military discipline, and the pursuit of excellence, it was a perfect match. He greatly admired the superintendent, Maj. Sylvanus Thayer, calling him “one of the most accomplished officers and one of the most finished gentlemen of the army.”
Hitchcock loved the intellectual discourse he shared with the other young assistant professors, finding them cultured and enlightened. Likewise, he enjoyed the gentlemanly conduct of the cadets. This was where Hitchcock was promoted to captain and he expanded his mind with an impressive reading list.
It all came to an end when he was faced with a personal dilemma. Hitchcock felt that Thayer issued an illegal order and went to considerable trouble to make his opposition known. But when he protested, Hitchcock found himself arrested, relieved of duty, thrown out of the academy, and reassigned to the frontier.
Hitchcock took his complaint to the secretary of War and eventually to the president. He was put under an enormous amount of pressure to change his opinions so that they would not be contrary to his superiors, but he refused to relinquish his principles, preferring instead to take the assignment to the dreaded frontier.
Enroute to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, Hitchcock received the incredible news that the commandant of cadets had resigned, and he had been appointed to replace him. It took two months of travel to get back to New York, but Hitchcock assumed command of the Corps of Cadets on March 13, 1829, “having maintained my principles and my sense of rectitude.”
After serving a number of years in Florida during the Seminole Wars — another conflict of conscience — Hitchcock was moved to the Texas border in 1836, the same year that Texas gained its independence from Mexico. He watched as tensions rose between his own government, the new Republic of Texas, and the government of Mexico.
When James Polk was elected in 1844, the new president’s “manifest destiny” campaign virtually assured that the U.S. would claim the land between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean — either through purchase, settlement, invasion or war.
Hitchcock was deeply opposed to annexation of Texas, believing it was driven by greed and overzealous expansionism and would ultimately lead to an unnecessary and unjustifiable war with Mexico. Not only did his prediction of war prove true, but he would be a key part in it. His knowledge of regulations and doctrine, combined with his years of experience in administration and organization made him a perfect candidate for the role of inspector general.
When the U.S. entered into war with Mexico in 1846, it had no intelligence service and very little knowledge of the terrain or conditions in Mexico. In addition, Hitchcock needed security in order to send dispatches to other commands over dangerous roads that were patrolled by either Mexican forces or bandits.
An American commander arranged for the parole of a Mexican bandit leader, Manuel Dominguez, giving him freedom in exchange for service to the U.S. Army. Dominguez reported to Lt. Col. Hitchcock who gave him duties as a courier, hoping he could successfully navigate the robber-infested territory.
Hitchcock made this entry in his journal on June 5: “I have taken into service a very extraordinary person — a Mexican, rather portly for one of his profession, but with a keen, active eye and evidently ‘bold as a lion’ or an honest man. He has been a very celebrated captain of robbers and knows the band and the whole country. I have engaged him to carry a letter to the commanding officer at Jalapa, and if he performs the service faithfully, I shall further employ him.”
Dominguez seemed eager to please his new American boss, even turning down a full, written pardon from Gen. Santa Anna to continue in his new duties. Dominguez did not let Hitchcock down, gaining his trust and causing him to write, “Through this man I am anxious to make an arrangement to this effect: that, for a sum of money yet to be determined, the robbers shall let our people pass without molestation and that they shall, for extra compensation, furnish us with guides, couriers, and spies.” Thus was born the Mexican Spy Company.
Nearly 100 men were assigned to Dominguez, each to be paid $20 per month for their services. Hitchcock wrote that these men “were employed as runners from Puebla, and by means of them the general-in-chief was accurately informed of all Mexican movements in the towns adjacent to Puebla, and the highway was constantly explored, clear into the city of Mexico, at a time when everybody passing in and out of Mexico underwent the most rigid examination. These spies usually entered the city as market people from Chalco, by way of the canal, selling apples, onions, etc.”
After the war ended, Dominguez, as a fugitive from Mexico, moved his family to New Orleans. Despite their proven loyalty to the United States, and repeated efforts by Hitchcock to get compensation from the government for his services, Manuel Dominguez was left to support his family as best as he could.
Ethan Allen Hitchcock was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1988. His contribution to MI stems from his understanding the need for intelligence both to conduct war and ensure peace. But his enduring legacy is an example of a man of competence, commitment and character.