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Texas History

Books by
Jeffery Robenalt

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Massacre at Goliad:
A Texas Tragedy

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

The tragedy that was Goliad had its roots in the Tampico Expedition of November 15, 1835, when General Jose Antonio Mexia attacked Tampico, Mexico, with three companies of troops who enlisted for service at New Orleans. The attack was unsuccessful, and most of the men were captured the next day by Santa Anna’s troops. Twenty-eight members of the expedition, most of them Americans, were tried as pirates, convicted, and executed by firing squad. On the whole, the reaction to the Tampico executions in the United States was that Mexico was acting well within its rights.

The lack of protests to the Tampico executions led Santa Anna to believe he had found an effective deterrent to the Americans that he expected would soon flock to the assistance of Texas. At his urging, the Mexican Congress passed the decree of December 30, 1835, which directed that all foreigners taken in arms against the government of Mexico should be treated as pirates and executed. However, Santa Anna’s army took no prisoners at the Alamo. It was left to General Jose Urrea, commander of the Mexican forces advancing into Texas from Matamoros, to take action on the murderous decree.

General Jose Urrea

General Urrea was first faced with enforcing the decree when his troops captured the survivors of Francis W. Johnson’s party at the Battle of San Patricio on February 27, 1836. When he reported the prisoners to Santa Anna, the dictator ordered him to carry out the decree. Although reluctant, Urrea issued the order to execute the prisoners. However, when Father Thomas Malloy, a priest of the local Irish colonists, interceded on behalf of the condemned men, Urrea relented and sent the prisoners to Matamoros for disposition, thus washing his hands of their fate.

General Urrea’s respite was short-lived. On March 15, at Refugio, he was again confronted with the dilemma of enforcing the fatal decree. This time, thirty-three Americans were captured at the Nuestra Senora del Refugio mission, half of them members of Captain Amon B. King’s company. King and his men had angered the local citizens by burning several ranches and killing eight innocent Mexicans sitting around a campfire, and the people demanded justice. This made General Urrea’s decision much easier. He executed King and fourteen of his men, more for their murderous acts than to satisfy the decree, and released the others.

Goliad Texas - Presidio La Bahia
Goliad - Presidio La Bahia
Photos courtesy Stephen Michaels, April 2007

The Mexican advance continued until General Urrea’s scouts reported that the Texans were occupying Presidio La Bahia at Goliad. Sam Houston, the commander of the Texas army, ordered Colonel James Walker Fannin to abandon Goliad and retreat to Victoria on March 11, but Fannin hesitated to await word from Captain King, whom he had sent to Refugio with a substantial force. Though he learned of King’s fate on March 17, Fannin failed to order a retreat until the following day.

James W. Fannin

James W. Fannin

Wikimedia Commons

The Texans finally began their retreat, under the cover of a heavy fog, on the morning of March 19. Fannin insisted on taking nine artillery pieces and 1000 extra muskets on the march, slowing the pace considerably. Urrea was unaware of Fannin’s departure until two hours later, but the Texans wasted an hour of their lead struggling with the largest cannon while crossing the San Antonio River.

A mile past Manahuilla Creek, yet another precious hour was frittered away in the middle of the prairie, when Fannin ordered a halt to rest and graze the oxen. Many of the Texas officers protested the stop, arguing that the column should not halt until reaching the protection of the trees along Coleto Creek. Fannin chose to ignore their counsel. Ever since the fight at Mission Concepcion, prior to the siege of San Antonio, Fannin had held the Mexican army in contempt, and he was sure Urrea would not dare give chase.

The Texans had barely resumed the march when a supply cart broke down. While the supplies were being transferred to another cart, Fannin sent a party to scout ahead. As the Texans closed on Coleto Creek, Mexican cavalry emerged from the trees. Fannin immediately formed his men and artillery into a moving square and advanced on the creek, but their ammunition cart was next to break down. A hurried council was called to determine the feasibility of taking as much ammunition as they could carry and continuing the advance, but General Urrea took note of the confusion among the Texans and launched an attack.

Cut off in the middle of the open prairie with little water and much of their vision obscured by tall grass, there was little for the Texans to do but ready their defensive square to receive the Mexican attack. The sides of the hollow square were three ranks deep, with the artillery placed at the corners. Each man received three or four muskets. Bayonets, pistols and ammunition were also abundant. The Mexican attack was simultaneously launched against all four sides of the square, and the fighting raged until sunset.

Goliad TX - Fannin Plaza Cannon

"Used by Col. Fannin and his men
on Fannin's battlefield in Goliad County, in 1836"
On display in Fannin Plaza, downtown Goliad, Texas

Photos courtesy Sarah Reveley, 2009

During the night, Fannin’s situation became critical due to the lack of water and the inability to light fires to treat the wounded. A cold, rainy norther and the cries and moans of the wounded added to the misery and demoralized the Texans. The idea of escaping was discussed in a council of officers, but it was rejected when the men voted unanimously not to abandon the wounded. All that remained was to begin digging trenches and erecting barricades of carts and dead animals. However, by the time this was accomplished, General Urrea had been reinforced with the addition of fresh troops and artillery.

At sunrise, the Mexican artillery opened fire in preparation of resuming the attack, and Fannin was convinced that further resistance would be futile. After consulting with his officers, he decided to seek honorable terms of surrender and hoped that the Mexicans would honor them. Terms were drafted, seeking to guarantee that the wounded would receive proper treatment, and that the men would eventually be paroled to the United States.

Unfortunately, Urrea was bound by Santa Anna’s orders and the Decree of December 30, and he lacked the authority to accept any terms other than unconditional surrender. In a face-to-face meeting, he made it clear to Fannin that the fate of the prisoners rested with Santa Anna. He could only promise to intercede on the Texans’ behalf. The document of surrender signed by Fannin states that the Texans surrendered “subject to the disposition of the supreme government.” Apparently this fact was never made clear to the men, since the accounts of several survivors indicate that the Texans were led to believe they were surrendering as prisoners of war.

Goliad TX - Presidio La Bahia
Presidio La Bahia
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, 2009

The Texans surrendered their arms and the uninjured and slightly wounded were marched back to Goliad and imprisoned in the chapel of the Presidio La Bahia. The wounded prisoners, including Colonel Fannin, were returned to Goliad over the next two days. On March 25, eighty prisoners from the Georgia Battalion, who surrendered near Dimitt’s Landing on the same terms accorded to Fannin, were added to the Goliad prisoners.

In keeping with his promise to Fannin, General Urrea wrote to Santa Anna from Victoria, where the majority of his forces had advanced, recommending clemency for the prisoners. However, the General mentioned nothing of the surrender terms the Texans had drafted. Santa Anna replied to Urrea’s letter by ordering the immediate execution of these “perfidious foreigners.”

Evidently, the dictator doubted General Urrea’s willingness to act as executioner, because he also sent a direct order to the “Officer Commanding the Post of Goliad ” to execute all of the prisoners he was holding. The order was received by Colonel Jose de la Portilla, whom Urrea had left in charge. Portilla spent a restless night considering his options, but he finally concluded that he had no choice except to obey Santa Anna. He ordered that the prisoners be shot at dawn.

As the sun rose on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, the prisoners who were able to walk were formed into three groups. The largest group, including the prisoners from the Georgia Battalion, was marched along the Bexar Road in the direction of the upper ford on the San Antonio River. Another group was led along the Victoria Road toward the lower ford, and the final group was marched in the direction of San Patricio. On the whole, the prisoners moved quietly and held little suspicion of their fate because they had been told a variety of lies; the most common of which was that they were to be marched to Matamoros or Copano for sea passage to New Orleans.

At previously selected locations, less than a mile from the presidio, the three groups were halted. The guards on the right side of the columns then countermarched to the join the guards on the left side. At a prearranged signal the guards raised their muskets and fired on the prisoners from point blank range. The wounded and dying were then bayoneted or clubbed to death, and most of those who had survived the initial volley were ridden down and lanced by Mexican cavalry. The men who were wounded in the Battle of Coleto were shot or bayoneted where they lay inside the presidio chapel.

After watching helplessly while his men were butchered, Colonel Fannin was the last prisoner to be put to death. Because of his wounded leg, he was taken to the courtyard in front of the chapel, blindfolded, and seated in a chair. He made three final requests; that his personal possessions be sent to his family, that he be shot in the heart and not the face, and that he be given a Christian burial. None of the three requests were honored. His possessions were stolen, he was shot in the face, and his body was burned along with the other approximately 400 Texans who met their fate that day.

Goliad TX Centennial Monument Fannin's Men and Cannon
The centennial monument to Fannin and his men just east of the Presidio
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, 2009

The remains of the prisoners were left exposed for the vultures and coyotes until June 3, 1836, when General Thomas J. Rusk was passing through Goliad in pursuit of a retreating Mexican column. After gathering the remains, Rusk had them buried with full military honors. On June 4, 1938, a massive pink granite monument was dedicated on the site as part of the Texas Centennial.

Goliad TX - Centennial Monument - Fannin's Men Shaft
The centennial monument to Fannin and his men
by Raoul Josset

Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, 2009

Although a military disaster, the tragedy at Goliad had a profound effect on the Texas Revolution. When the massacre occurred, Texas had no army, and the new ad interim government was floundering. Moreover, the Texas cause was fully dependent on the generosity and largess of the United States. If Santa Anna had simply dumped the prisoners on American soil, penniless and without means of support, the mismanagement and incompetence of the Texas government would have been exposed. Texas prestige would have fallen in American eyes, and aid may well have dried up.

Instead, the few survivors of the tragedy quickly spread the word, and the massacre at Goliad branded Santa Anna as an inhuman despot and the Mexican people, whether deserved or not, with a reputation for cruelty. A burning desire for revenge arose among the people of Texas, and Americans were now firmly united behind the Texas cause of independence. Soon the plains of San Jacinto would echo with heroic shouts of "Remember Goliad!” as well as "Remember the Alamo!"

© Jeffery Robenalt, March 1, 2012 Column


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  • References for "Massacre at Goliad: A Texas Tragedy"

  • Bradle, William R. (2007), Goliad: The Other Alamo, Pelican Pub Co, ISBN 9781589804579.
  • Casteneda, H.W. (1970), The Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution, Texas Graphic Ideas ASIN B003MOPMG1S.
  • Davenport, Harbert; Roell, Craig H. "Goliad Massacre": Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved 18 July, 2011.
  • Fehrenbach, T.R. (2000), Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans, Cambridge: Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-80942-7.
  • Hardin, Stephen L. (1994), Texian Illiad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution, Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, ISBN 0292730861.
  • Hopewell, Clifford (1998), Remember Goliad: Their Silent Tents, Netlibrary, ISBN 9780585294568.
  • Pruell, Jakie L.; Cole Everett B. (1985), Goliad Massacre: a Tragedy of the Texas Revolution, Eakin Press, ISBN 9789890154762.
  • Stout, Jay A. (2008), Slaughter at Goliad: The Mexican massacre of 400 Texas Volunteers, Naval Institute Press, ISBN 978159114832.
  • Wharton, Clarence; Barnard, Joseph Henry (1968), Remember Goliad: A Rollcall of Texas Heroes, Rio Grande Press, Glorieta, N. M.

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  • The Angel of Goliad by Murray Montgomery
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