DECEMBER 9, 2009 7:37AM

The Other Alamo

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  Old Cannon-mount Goliad

(Cannon, on corner tower of Presidio La Bahia) 

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.

Gate at Goliad Citadel
(Gateway between Loreto Chapel courtyard and the main enclosure)

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.


(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. There is a very large and enthusiastic living history community, who stage  reenactments every year - I am told that the evening candle-light tour of the encampment, where all light comes from lanterns, campfires and candles is especially convincing.)

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Thanks for the fascinating history lesson (and the beautiful pictures). I had never heard anything about this.

Thanks, Alan - outside of Texas, everyone knows about the Alamo, but practically no one has ever heard of the Goliad - it's all just local history, after all. One of the curious nuances is that many of the well-established Anglo settlers in Texas didn't want to go independent at first, as they had a very nice situation - and many of the Tejanos (Mexican Texans) rebelled because they wanted to restore the Mexican constitution of 1824, and didn't like the way Santa Anna had set himself up as a dictator ... it all got pretty complicated, and quite interesting, actually, but none of these nuances ever make it as far as the movies... which is where most people have learned whatever they do know about it all!
Fascinating. Thanks for adding to my store of military history. The Alamo, thanks to -- usually inaccurate -- movies and books has become something of a cliche, sadly. Goliad deserves to be better known.
I always found it odd that so little is known of Goliad, when so much is known of the Alamo. Goliad mission and presidio are both truly wonderful places to visit. Terrific pictures you have given us along with the (as usual) fantastic history lesson!
That is one of those odd things, P: maybe come of it can be accounted for by noting that the Alamo was one of those 'last stands at Thermopylae' sort of things, and pretty much fought to the last man. Also, at the time Bowie was a minor celeb, Crockett a pretty major one, and Travis's letters from the Alamo were electrifying.
Fannin, OTO, dithered and delayed, was erratic in his actions, finally fought a loosing battle, surrendered ... and then he and the rest were executed in pretty squalid and brutal circumstances.
There have been some historians who theorized that Santa Anna brought his woes in Texas on his own head: if he had just dumped the Goliad survivors back on US territory - and done the same with the Alamo - having not made a grand show of "no quarter", they would have ended up looking like a bunch of shabby, ineffectual losers. He would have looked large, in charge and magnanimous. (He had a huge regular army, and no small amount of leadership skill in that respect.) But he made martyrs out of the Alamo and Goliad garrisons, which unified the rebellious Texans, and then he split his forces and followed Sam Houston far, far into East Texas ... and then was captured alive himself...

Still, I find the unknown stories really alluring: That's why I wanted to write "To Truckee's Trail" - everyone has heard about the Donner Party, hardly anyone about the Stephens-Townsend Party, which preceded them by two years, got caught in the same place in the Sierras ... etc.
yes, I think you are correct about why the Alamo has withstood the test of time so successfully vis-a-vis Goliad. To fight to the death rather than surrender is the primary difference. I also think your speculation about the consequences had Santa Ana simply exiled the Texicans is very intriguing, and might have resulted in a pretty major historical shift. Manifest Destiny might have been limited to the Pacific Northwest, or redirected toward British holdings to the north.
Well, so many of the Anglo-Texians decamped to East Texas in the "Runaway Scrape" - all the Anglo settlements were essentially emptied out for fear of Santa Anna's army, that chasing out the remainder of Sam Houston's army, and returning the various volunteers, disarmed and in an inglorious straggle ... would have altered the whole picture. But as it was, Santa Anna's brutality turned to bite him in the *ss. He didn't look strong - he looked like a barbarian.