A weary diplomat boarded the Independence at New Orleans on April 7, 1837 for the last leg of the long trip back to Texas. Pressing business in the United States caused William H. Wharton to miss the Battle of San Jacinto, but he would at least be home in time to celebrate the first anniversary of Lone Star independence.
Stephen F. Austin, Branch T. Archer and Wharton passed through the Crescent City in January 1836 on their way to Washington, D.C. to solicit support for the revolution. Although his companions returned to Texas soon after the rebels’ victory, Wharton stayed behind to lobby for a speedy annexation.
Procrastination by the Potomac politicians forced the frustrated envoy to lower his expectations and wait for the foreign government simply to acknowledge the presence of the new nation. When Andrew Jackson, in the last act of his presidency, signed the paper recognizing the Republic of Texas, Wharton was the happiest man east of the Sabine.
After a month of exhausting overland travel, the naval vessel seemed like a luxury cruise ship. A week out of New Orleans, Wharton could see the mouth of the Brazos River through the morning mist. That meant Velasco, his ultimate destination, was only 4 miles down the coast.
Suddenly, two Mexican warships came into view, heading straight for the Independence. Wharton took heart as George Wheelwright deftly dodged the pursuers only to lose hope, when a shower of shrapnel knocked the captain out of commission.
A junior officer grabbed the helm but did not have a chance against his faster and more experienced foes. While the horrified inhabitants of Velasco watched helplessly from shore, the Independence was boxed in and boarded.
The sailors and their civilian passenger were taken into custody and transported to Matamoros for indefinite detention. John Wharton immediately went to Sam Houston and demanded to know how he planned to obtain his brother’s release. Given the state of war that still existed between Texas and Mexico, the president explained there was not much he could do.
Upset by the inaction of her own government, Sarah Ann Wharton decided to go over Houston’s head and make a personal appeal to the U.S. Bravely setting out on horseback, she broke a leg in a bad fall before reaching the border.
Sarah Ann Wharton was carried by stretcher back to the family plantation, where a letter from her husband was waiting. Assuring his worried wife that he was alive and well, William Wharton wrote that the Mexicans seemed open to a swap.
Under constant pressure from the captive’s kin, Houston agreed in early May to pay for the rental of a rescue ship and provide 30 San Jacinto prisoners-of-war for the exchange. Weeks later John Wharton found a suitable schooner and sailed south sometime in July.
On the night of Oct. 2, 1837, as the anxious brother waited off Matamoros for permission to enter the hostile harbor, a gale blew the small ship aground. Two crew members drowned, and the Mexican bargaining chips scurried to freedom.
The next day on the streets of Matamoros, the soaked survivors bumped into a familiar figure, the former resident priest of the Austin colony. Michael Muldoon found the wanted men a place to hide and something to eat, while he worked to come up with a way to get them out of Mexico alive.
Whenever Texans were in trouble, they could always count on the generous Irishman. During the colonial period, he tolerated their convenient conversion to Catholicism and never held the masquerade against them. While Austin endured months of solitary confinement in a Mexican dungeon, the priest helped the frail empressario keep body and soul together.
Muldoon informed John Wharton that his brother had long since escaped and undoubtedly was awaiting his own return. Although modesty and caution prevented the padre from revealing his part in the ingenious plan, Muldoon had supplied the clerical costume that enabled William Wharton to walk out of jail disguised as a priest. He also had aided the officers and crew of the Independence in their successful flight.
Anyone other than Father Muldoon would have told the third batch of Texans they were on their own, that he was fresh out of miracles. After all, at some point the rash of disappearances was bound to make even myopic Mexicans suspicious, and a collar offered no immunity from the harsh consequences of his Christian charity.
If the holy man had such second thoughts, he kept them to himself. A few nights later, he managed to spirit John Wharton and his companions out of Matamoros.
At the Rio Grande, the tongue-tied Texans expressed their gratitude as best they could, waded the shallow river and scrambled up the opposite bank to safety. They glanced over their shoulders for a parting glimpse of their benefactor, but Michael Muldoon had vanished into history.