From the military, political, and social perspectives, the outbreak of the Hidalgo Revolt commencing a decade of warfare ( 1810-21) caught the leadership of New Spain by surprise. While some bureaucrats, clerics, and criollo leaders had warned about internal turbulence or expressed foreboding about foreign invasions from France or Britain, no one— including the actual conspirators—could have predicted the wrenching internal conflagrations that in different forms endured for 11 years. Following Napolé4on's invasion of Spain and a coup in Mexico City led by European-born Spaniards on September 16, 1808, that toppled Viceroy José de Iturrigaray ( 1803-08), the country was awash with rumors. European-born Spaniards (or peninsulares, known by the more derogatory term gachupines), perceived criollo separatist plots and dark conspiracies for the general expulsion of their minority, backed by even more diabolical rumors of outright genocide. Mexican-born whites, the criollos, circulated similar reports of conspiracies against their class by the gachupines, who were said to support foreign invasions by the French, English, or Americans. Everywhere, an undercurrent of wild exaggerations created an atmosphere of disquiet that articulated suspicions and old divisions in Mexican society. With the benefit of hindsight, historians have turned up minor plots, eccentric messianic messages, millenarian tendencies, and some half-baked projects pondered by small groups of individuals who met to discuss the impact of international events.
In this highly charged climate, Spanish officials might have expected violence—riots, rural uprisings, or even some preemptive coup led by criollos. During 1809 and 1810, the regime redeployed some army units away from a cantonment at Jalapa designed to guard against a possible foreign invasion attempt at Veracruz to reinforce the garrisons of Puebla and Mexico City. Fearing some kind of attack, archbishop and interim viceroy Francisco Xavier de Lizana y Beaumont surrounded the viceregal palace in Mexico City with artillery and heavily armed troops. Aware of the rumors, some army commanders considered mobilizing provincial militia regiments and battalions at cities such as Guanajuato, San Miguel, Celaya, Valladolid, and Querétaro to undertake police duties, but nothing was done since suspicions circulated that Mexican officers and soldiers might be untrustworthy. Indeed, when a small group of criollos at Valladolid (modern-day Morelia) met with several subaltern militia officers returning from the Jalapa cantonment, talk soon turned from the dangers of a foreign invasion or a gachupín plot to the possibility of outright Independence for New Spain. There was discussion about a revolt headed by the provincial militias of Guanajuato and Valladolid. These units were to lead a force of 18,000 to 20,000 men, including Indians attracted to the cause by promises of exemption from tribute payment and other taxes. While informants denounced the 1809 Valladolid Conspirators, the concept of recruiting a large force of Indian and casta (non-white) soldiers resurfaced in other plots and even in loyalist defense proposals.
In the months prior to September 1810, the regime lurched from crisis to crisis, uncertain whether to focus on the danger of an external foreign invasion or some kind of internal uprising. Poor harvests in 1809, rising food prices, and high unemployment concerned provincial authorities such as Intendant Antonio Riafio of Guanajuato, who considered mobilizing militia troops. At Guadalajara, Zacatecas, Querétaro, and in other towns, local authorities detected heightened unrest and reported the presence of unknown enemies who might be planning popular insurrections. Even in Mexico City, gossip and loose talk about plots and conspiracies kept police officials and Inquisition spies at full alert. Bad news from Spain about military defeats, the collapse of the Junta Central government, and reports from Caracas in May 1810 of the Venezuelan insurrection, exacerbated fears and sent garbled messages resonating outward from the capital.
In the provinces, certain individuals such as the local curates, innkeepers, muleteers, and minor government bureaucrats transmitted and interpreted news, blending regional issues with broader rumors of gachupin plots. Conspiracies or at least discussions and apprehensions about future calamities produced a variety of responses. While some criollos considered collective action to advance autonomy or even Independence, the village and rural populace worried more about possible food shortages, defense of religion, and real or imagined abuses caused by the much disliked gachupines. In some districts, local curates whipped up an atmosphere of hysteria that helped set the scene for spontaneous uprisings and adherence to revolutionary movements.
Notwithstanding this background and the existence of warning signs, the explosive popular rebellion in the Bajío provinces that spread to other regions of New Spain shook the regime to its foundations. On September 16, 1810, the uprising led by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla of the town of Dolores produced a chain reaction of violence that for a time appeared likely to overrun Mexico City and to overwhelm the