At Goliad, 1836

(Continued from last week)

FANNIN 001One of the first things that General Sam Houston did after being reinstated was ordering Fannin to withdraw his men and stores fromPresidio La Bahia at Goliad to the town at Victoria.  He might have complied with Houston’s order were it not for a few logistical problems.  He had neither the wagons or the oxen needed to transport his heavy cannons.  Fannin had dispatched Captain Horton to collect them from Victoria, which in those days was probably between 30 and 40 miles. When Horton finally arrived back in Goliad on 16 March 1836, he had with him a number of wagons for cannon and stores, and twenty yokes of oxen.

Word of the Battle of Refugio reached Fannin on 17 March, brought to him by Hugh Frazer, who had managed to escape capture.  Meanwhile, General Urrea [1] was reading Fannin’s mail.  Mexican scouts were regularly picking off Fannin’s couriers and had a good idea what Fannin might do next.  Fannin, on the other hand, had no idea what Urrea was up to.  He could not estimate his strength and did not know the dispositions of Urrea’s forces —although, on 17 March, two of Captain Horton’s scouts discovered the approach of Colonel Juan Morales’ with two battalions (about 500 men) from the Alamo.  Morales’ men were combat veterans.

Fannin finally ordered a withdrawal from Fort Defiance on 18 March.  It wasn’t a hasty retreat, it wasn’t very organized, and it wasn’t uncontested. Fannin and his men were caught up in a series of minor skirmishes with General Urrea’s advance units.  Believing that Urrea was planning to besiege the fort, Fannin kept his garrison on alert for most of the night and attempted no withdrawal under the cover of darkness.  Urrea’s approach and that of Morales’ regiment caused Fannin and his men to lose their focus. No one had even bothered to feed the livestock that night.  Fannin began his formal withdrawal from Fort Defiance the next day —at about 9 a.m. The area was blanketed by a heavy fog. In his train were nine cannons of various weight and caliber, and 1,000 muskets.  Absent from the train was food and water.

General Urrea 001

General Jose de Urrea

General Urrea was unaware of Fannin’s withdrawal until around 11 a.m.  Fannin’s progress was painfully slow.  At around the same time that Urrea became aware of the retrograde, Fannin decided to halt the train to feed the oxen.  Captains Shackelford, Duval, and Westover protested: this was no time for dallying about.  Fannin’s response to this good counsel was arrogant dismissiveness.  He was not afraid of Urrea, he said.  A good commander doesn’t underestimate his enemy.

When General Urrea set off in pursuit, he mustered around 80-cavalry and an infantry battalion (about 350 men).  Urrea’s mounted scouts soon reported Fannin’s location and the approximate size of his force. Urrea was surprised; he’d imagined that Fannin had more men.  This news prompted Urrea to send one of his infantry companies back to Goliad, but he at the same time called up his artillery.

Captain Horton’s cavalry, numbering around 30-men, served as Fannin’s advance guard and flank security.  The rear guard was under the command of Captain Ehrenberg.  No one in his company noticed the approach of Mexican cavalry.  Fannin sent Horton to scout Coleto Creek, about two miles ahead.  No sooner had Horton disappeared from sight, Mexican cavalry emerged from a wooded area in the rear. The cavalry commander ordered a squadron forward to prevent Fannin from reaching the wood surrounding Coleto Creek.

While maneuvering his column into a moving square formation, wagons placed at each corner, Fannin established a line of skirmishers supported by artillery. The Mexicans had caught Fannin in a shallow depression, some six feet below the surrounding landscape.  Fannin urged his men forward to a more defensible higher ground around 500 yards ahead.  But then the ammunition wagon broke down.  Fannin picked this time to call a council of war.  General Urrea, seeing an advantage, attacked.

The situation for the Texians was dire.  Fannin had little water; his men were in an open prairie with grass high enough to diminish the vision of sharpshooters.  The hollow square formation was three ranks deep; each man received three or four loaded muskets, bayonets, rifles, and pistols were abundant. There was no shortage of ammunition.

General Urrea ordered massed battalions against all sides of the moving square, which was no longer moving.  Fannin’s defenders included around 300 men; Urrea’s initial attack involved around 350 men. After the arrival of reinforcements, Urrea fielded between 700 and 1,000 men.  The battle raged until after sunset on 19 March.  The Texians made good use of what they had.  At the end of the day, Fannin had lost 7 killed, 60 wounded, 40 of those severely, including Fannin himself.

Urrea withdrew his force after sunset.  He was out of ammunition and he’d lost a good number of his force killed or wounded.  Fannin’s men had acquitted themselves well, and they knew it.  They were motivated but also anxious for Horton’s return with reinforcements.  The men would not be reinforced because Captain Horton was unable to cut through the Mexican lines.  Colonel Ward’s battalion, which was withdrawing from Refugio, through Goliad toward Victoria, was exhausted.  General Urrea ignored them.  He knew where they were going, and he had plenty of time to overtake them.

During the night, Fannin and his men paid a heavy price for their failure to take with them adequate stores of water.  The men needed water to drink, the medics needed it to treat the men’s wounds, and water was needed to swab out the cannons after each salvo.

A darkened camp made treating the wounded next to impossible; the pathetic cries of the wounded worked against Texian morale.  Fannin’s officers petitioned him to avoid another battle, suggesting they could make away in the dark.  The men refused, however.  They would not leave their wounded friends behind.  Fannin’s only other option was to dig trenches and await the next attack.

1836 ArtilleryThe next morning, Fannin’s men faced a renewed enemy.  They were facing well-rested fresh soldiers.  Everyone had adequate ammunition.  Urrea had placed his artillery on surrounding slopes overlooking Fannin’s position.  General Urrea was grouped for battle at 6:15 a.m.  It only took two salvos from Mexican artillery to convince Fannin to seek terms of surrender.  The men asked to be treated as prisoners of war; they wanted medical treatment for their wounded friends; they wanted, in time, to be paroled back to the United States.

General Urrea met with Fannin and made it clear to him that he was not able to accept these terms of surrender.  He was bound under orders to accept no terms beyond unconditional surrender.  General Urrea also made it clear to Fannin that at the order of the Mexican Congress and Presidenté-General Antonio López de Santa Anna, he and his men would be executed. All that Urrea could do, and what he would do, is write a letter to General Santa Anna asking for mercy. With this understanding, Fannin surrendered his men “subject to the disposition of the supreme government.” Whether Fannin explained this to his men, we cannot know.  What we do know is that Fannin and his men were executed under the laws of Mexico at the time, and no one tricked the Texians into surrendering;

After Fannin surrendered, General Urrea continued his advance into Victoria.  True to his word, Urrea wrote to General Santa Anna recommending clemency for Fannin’s garrison.  Santa Anna responded a week later, ordering Colonel José Nicolás de la Portilla [2], in command at Goliad, to execute Fannin’s men as pirates. Accordingly, Fannin’s entire command, along with William Ward’s Georgia Battalion, was shot on Palm Sunday, 27 March 1836.  Not everyone died, however [3].

Today, Texans remember James Fannin as a hero of the Texas revolution.  I do not share this view.  Fannin may have died heroically, but he was no hero.  He was also unqualified to serve in any military capacity above the rank of private.  Fannin’s poor leadership not only failed his men, but his lackluster performance also failed the purpose for which they died.

Santa Anna c 1852

Antonio López de Santa Anna c.1850

From the time the earliest Americans made their way to Texas, around 1811, people living in Texas were no stranger to violence inflicted upon them by native Americans, outlaws, and renegades.  What did shock them in 1836 was the savagery of Hispanic society.  Texians were stunned in the aftermath of the Alamo, but no one was prepared for the mass execution of Fannin and his men at Goliad.  Whether Presidenté-General Antonio López de Santa Anna [4] (shown right) was a monster by ordering the mass murder of Fannin and his men, it was a fate experienced by other rebels at the time.  It was also a fate promised well in advance, couched in simple terms, so that even the simplest mind could understand it.

I do not believe it is possible for soldiers to kill others on the field of battle unless, or until, they learn to hate their enemy.  This is usually achieved after witnessing the death or injury of their brothers-in-arms.  Fear, by itself, isn’t enough.  In 1836, owing to the events at the Alamo and at Goliad, Texians who fought at San Jacinto in April so hated the Mexican forces that they behaved as men deprived of their senses.  It was a bloodletting of unbelievable scope; Mexican soldiers suffered the consequences of obeying the orders of their general.

Sources:

  1. Costeloe, M. P. The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  2. Green, S. C. The Mexican Republic: The First Decade 1823-1832.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1987
  3. Lord, W. A Time to Stand.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961
  4. Roberts, R. and James S. Olson. A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, New York: Touchstone Publishing, 2002
  5. Bancroft, H. H. History of the North American States and Texas, San Francisco, 1886
  6. Davenport, H. “Men of Goliad,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1939
  7. Jenkins, J. H. The Papers of the Texas revolution(1835-1836) Austin: Presidia Press, 1973
  8. Pruett, J. L. with E. B. Cole. Goliad Massacre: A Tragedy of the Texas Revolution.  Austin: Eakin Press, 1985
  9. Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans Open Road Media. Kindle Edition

Endnotes:

[1] José de Urrea (1797-1849) was a competent career military officer with service in the Spanish and Mexican armies.  Urrea, while remaining a staunch federalist, always performed his duty with vigor and distinction.  He easily defeated small groups of Texian forces in conflicts at San Patricio, Refugio, and Coleto.  General Urrea also fought during the Mexican-American War.  He was ultimately defeated by cholera, which took his life on 1 August 1849.

[2] Colonel Portilla lived an eventful life until 1873. He supported the French intervention of Maximilian between 1856-1867, served as Mexico’s equivalent of Secretary of the Navy in 1867, but after the fall of Maximilian, Portilla was expelled from Mexico.

[3] Twenty-eight prisoners escaped by feigning death. Three of the 28 participated in the Battle of San Jacinto.  The “Angel of Goliad” was a Mexican lady whose merciful heart and courage induced General Urrea’s officers to disobey the orders of Antonio López de Santa Anna to shoot (kill) all of Fannin’s men.  She was the wife of Captain Telesforo Alavez, Captain of the 6thCompany of General Urrea’s cavalry.  She was known as Pacheta Alevesco, a rendering of Panchita Alavez,  She saved twenty more of Fannin’s men, including Ben F. Hughes, a fifteen-year-old orderly in Captain Horton’s cavalry.

[4] Santa Anna was the president who would not go away.  He served as Mexico’s president 1833-1835, 1839, 1841-1842, 1843-1844, 1847, and 1853-1855.  He was vice president 1837-1839.

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2 Responses to At Goliad, 1836

  1. Kid says:

    From the Wikipedia on the Mexican-American war..

    The victory and territorial expansion Polk envisioned[5] inspired great patriotism in the United States, but the war and treaty drew some criticism in the U.S. for their casualties, monetary cost, and heavy-handedness,[6][7] particularly early on. The question of how to treat the new acquisitions also intensified the debate over slavery. Mexico’s worsened domestic turmoil and losses of life, territory and national prestige left it in what prominent Mexicans called a “state of degradation and ruin”.

    You’ve said Mexico never accepted losing and it sure seems that way. Good thing they never built up their military to be a threat the US.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I have written a few pieces on the Mexican American War. The thing about Mexico is that no one living there can escape their past. The problem with Mexico today is that it is a Hispanic society, which affects every aspect of Mexican culture and tradition. Antonio López de Santa Anna fancied himself the “Napoleon of the West.” It may have been so —and still, a hand full of American sharpshooters kicked his ass. There is a lesson in there, somewhere—

      Like

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