The Texas Revolution and War for Independence from Mexico initially rather resembled the American Revolution, some sixty years before— a resemblance not lost on the American settlers in Texas. At the very beginning, both the Colonies and the Anglo-Texans were far-distant communities with a self-sufficient tradition, who had been accustomed to manage their own affairs with a bare minimum of interference from the central governing authority. Colonists and Anglo-Texans started off by standing on their rights as citizens, but a heavy-handed response by the central government provoked a response that spiraled into open revolt. ‘Since they’re trying to squash us like bugs for being rebellious, we might as give them a real rebellion and put up a fight,’ summed up the attitude.

The Mexican government, beset with factionalism and seeing revolt against it’s authority everywhere, sent an army to remind the Anglo-Texan settlers of who was really in charge. The rumor that among the baggage carried along in General Martin Cos’ train was 800 pairs of iron hobbles, with which to march selected Texas rebels back to Mexico did not win any friends, nor did the generals’ widely reported remarks that it was time to break up the foreign settlements in Texas. Cos’ army, which was supposed to re-establish and ensure Mexican authority was ignominiously beaten and sent packing.

Over the winter of 1835-36 a scratch Texan army of volunteers held two presidios guarding the southern approaches from another attack, while representatives of the various communities met to sort out what to do next. First, they formed a shaky provisional government, and appointed Sam Houston to command the Army. Then, in scattershot fashion, they appointed three more officers to high command; it would have been farcical, if the consequences hadn’t been so dire. With no clear command, with military companies and commanders pursuing their own various plans and strategies, the Texas settlers and companies of volunteers were not much fitted to face the terrible wrath of the Napoleon of the West and President of Mexico, strongman, caudillo and professional soldier, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. He did not wait for spring, or the grass to grow tall enough, or the deep mud to dry out: he intended to punish this rebellious province with the utmost severity. Under his personal command, his army reached the Rio Grande at Laredo in mid-February, and laid siege to a tumbledown former mission garrisoned by a scratch force of volunteers –  San Antonio de Valero, called simply the Alamo. But this story is about the other presidio, and another garrison of Texans and volunteers; Bahia del Espiritu Santo, or Goliad.

Santa Anna had detached General Don Jose Urrea, with a force of about a thousand soldiers, a third of them heavy cavalry, to guard his eastern flank along the rivers and lowlands of the Gulf coast, and to mop up the Anglo-Texan garrisons at San Patricio and Goliad. A small force at San Patricio, which had embarked on an expedition to raid Matamoros— a scheme which can only and with charity described as half-assed— was surrounded and wiped out. Then it was the turn of Colonel James Fannin with 500 Texian and American volunteers at the presidio in Goliad. Three times couriers arrived from William Barrett Travis’ tiny garrison in the Alamo, begging for help and reinforcements from Fannin. The kindest thing one can say about Fannin is that he dithered indecisively. He was battered from each direction with bad news and the consequences of bad decisions, or even worse, decisions not made until they were forced upon him. He made an abortive attempt to march to San Antonio, to come to Travis’ aid –  but turned back after a few miles, assuming that relief of the Alamo was just not possible. In the mean time, spurred by the knowledge that they must either fight, or go under to death or exile, a new convention of settlers met at Washington-on-the-Brazos, and declared independence on March 2. In short time they had drafted a constitution, elected an interim government, and commissioned Sam Houston as commander of what army was left.

Houston went to Gonzalez, intending to rally the settlers’ militia there and lift the siege of the Alamo. He arrived there on the very same day that news came that Santa Anna’s army had finally broken through the walls. Travis’ rag-tag collection of volunteers had held for fourteen days. They had bought time with their blood. Houston sent word to Fannin, still holed up in the old La Bahia presidio, ordering him to retreat north. But Fannin had sent out a small force to protect Anglo-Texan settlers in a nearby town, and refused to leave until he heard from them. When he finally decided to fall back, and join up with Houston, it was already too late. Urrea’s column had already made contact. Fannin and his men moved out of Goliad on March 19th, temporarily shielded by fog, but they were caught in the open, a little short of Coleto Creek. They fought in a classic hollow square, three ranks deep for a day and a night, tormented by lack of water, and the cries of the wounded. By daylight the next morning, Urrea had brought up field guns, and raked the square with grapeshot. Fannin signaled for a parley, and surrendered; he and his men believing they would be permitted honorable terms. They were brought back to Goliad and held under guard in the presidio for a week, along with some stragglers who had been rounded up in the neighborhood, and a party of volunteers newly arrived from the States.

(A view from inside the compound of the Loreto Chapel, where 300 of Fannin’s company were imprisoned for a week)

Fannin and his men all assumed they would be disarmed, and sent back to the United States. Three English-speaking professional soldiers among Urreas’ officers assumed the same, and were appalled when Santa Anna sent orders that all the prisoners were to be executed. Urrea himself had asked for leniency and Colonel Portillo, the commander left in charge of Goliad was personally horrified at this development –  but he obeyed orders. On Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, those of Fannin’s garrison able to walk— about three hundred of them– were divided into three groups, and marched out of town in three different directions, before being shot down by their guards. Forty wounded were dragged into the courtyard in front of the chapel doors and executed as they lay on the ground. Fannin himself was shot last of all, knowing what had happened to his men. Reportedly he asked only that he not be shot in the face, that his personal belongings be sent to his family, and that he be given decent burial. He was executed at point blank range with a shot in the face, his belongings were looted and his body was dumped into a trench with those of others, and burnt, although many were left where they lay. A handful survived by escaping into the brush and down to the nearby river, during all the confusion. Another handful of prisoners were kept out of the columns, concealed in the Presidio by one of Portillo’s officers, or rescued by Francita Alavez, later called the Angel of Goliad, the common-law wife of Captain Telesforo Alavez.

Santa Anna, who until then had been thought of as a competent soldier and a more than usually slippery politician was thereafter branded a brute and — as he was decoyed farther and farther into Texas in pursuit of Sam Houston —an overreaching and arrogant fool. A month later, when Houston had finished falling back, and back and back, and training all the men who had gathered to him, he turned and fought and Santa Anna’s grand army disintegrated, as Houston’s men shouted “Remember the Alamo!” –  and “Remember Goliad!”

(Presidio La Bahia’s Loreto Chapel stood for many years, although the citadel’s walls and barracks disintigrated over time. They were reconstructed, beginning in the 1960s. Today, it is the only significant location from the Texas War of Independence to still appear much as it did in 1836.)

5 Comments

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    The Americans had up-to-date weapons, a short supply line from New Orleans and DuPont gun powder. Some were professional mercenaries recruited in the South with the promise of 380 acres of land. The Mexicans received their supplies from a Gulf port near Matamoros, because overland supply from the interior of Mexico was interrupted by raids of Comanche and Apache. Some of the Mexican soldiers were Mayas from Yucatan who froze to death on the march during winter to San Antonio. Many were barefoot. At the same period – in the south of Brazil – an almost identical war raged between the government of Brazil and a separatist movement in the state of Rio Grande do Sul: It lasted for ten years and was fought with lances and sabres. See: Faroupilhas.

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    Correction: See REVOLUCAO FARROUPHILA. (1835-1845) There are also interesting images of cavalry charges. But, between you and me: Today, Brazil has the world’s largest commercial cattle herd – 170+ million (vs. 80+ in U.S.) and the “cowboy” 2010 in Brazil prefers mules: Mules are more intelligent, need less water, heat tolerant. surer on their hooves, and closer to the ground. To get a couple thousand head to swim across a river – is no problem for Brazil’s “peao boiero” – see youtube video TRAVESSIA VACADA RIO, this also lead to other videos – with working cowboys on their mules. The cattle in Brazil is “bos cebu” race Nelore – engineered for tropical terrain and “green beef”. Some sleep at night, in hammocks, strung between trees: You got to watch out for jaguars! There is also a huge horse race in Brazil – CAVALO MANGA LARGA MARCHADOR. Three 60+ men in Brazil untertook the longest “ride” on record – (about a year) from the border of Uruguay to the border of French Guyana – on Manga Larga Marchador.

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    Thanks, Valeria – see, what really happens is often more interesting than what we can make up!
    (In the southwest, they often preferred mules as well, especially for heavy hauling!)

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    Richard Brewer

    Interesting Celia. A group of Fannin’s troops were the Mustangs from Bardstown, Ky, including the Duval brothers. Most were executed by Santa Anna, but the one that Duval County is named for survived. Bardstown is very close to where Lincoln was born and one of the men from there, George Glasscock ( Georgetown city and Glasscock County TX are named for him) fought in the Black Hawk War in Illinois in two of the same units as Lincoln, came to TX in 1834. He fought in the Battle of Bexar in Dec 1835. Ben Milam, killed at Bexar, was also from KY and Stephen Austin was in KY when the Alamo fell, speaking to a Church in Louisville. Small world.

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    The Duval brothers were characters in The Edge of Freedom – a novel about James Fannin by John Willingham. Frontier Texas was an amazingly small place! I am fairly sure that just about everyone who was anyone during the Republic years knew each other!

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