The Goliad Massacre
Welcome to Episode 32 of the Hidden History of Texas. This one is slightly out of sequence. It’s about the Goliad Massacre.
The Alamo has fallen, and Santa Anna is moving through Texas and that brings me to what has been known historically as the Goliad Massacre. While not as well known today, at least outside of Texas and among historians, at the time it is virtually impossible to measure how much support was generated for the cause against Mexico both within Texas and in the United States. One thing is certain, without a doubt, the news of the massacre contributed to the Texan victory at the battle of San Jacinto and helped in sustaining the independence of the Republic of Texas.
While Texans and Americans were horrified and angered by the execution of those in James W. Fannin, Jr.’s command, there was precedent for the massacre itself. Additionally, the order of the exterminations by Santa Anna, was permitted by Mexican law. Since this is the case, any discussion of the massacre must take the events and legislation that preceded it into consideration.
We must remember that one of the major concerns of Santa Anna was that the colonists would receive help from the United States. His order to treat the colonists and those who resisted as pirates was first tested after November 15, 1835, when Gen. José Antonio Mexía attacked Tampico and three companies who were from New Orleans. One company, which had poor leadership, immediately broke ranks and half of them, along with some wounded were captured by Santa Anna’s forces the next day.
Twenty-eight of the men were tried as pirates, convicted, and, on December 14, 1835, shot. Almost a month passed before they were executed, and this gave Santa Anna more than enough time to see the reaction from the United States, over Americans being executed. When there was no immediate reaction from New Orleans, Santa Anna felt he was within his rights to do so. This lead him to believe that he had found an effective deterrent to any American support or aid for Texas. Santa Anna then asked the Mexican Congress for an official decree which directed that all foreigners taken in arms against the government should be treated as pirates and shot. He received that degree in December of 1835.
His main army took no prisoners; and Gen. José de Urrea, commander of Santa Anna’s right wing was responsible for carrying out those orders. Urrea’s first prisoners were survivors of Francis W. Johnson’s party, captured near San Patricio on February 27, 1836. According to a report from Reuben M. Potter, Urrea “was not blood thirsty and when not overruled by orders of a superior, or stirred by irritation, was disposed to treat prisoners with lenity.” The general reported to Santa Anna that he held the San Patricio fighters as prisoners, Santa Anna ordered him to carry out the decree of December 30. Urrea complied, issuing the order to shoot both the prisoners and prisoners from the battle of Agua Dulce Creek.
Urrea though, had no stomach for such actions, and took advantage of the protests of Father Thomas J. Malloy, who was the priest of the Irish colonists, to send the prisoners to Matamoros. He asked Santa Anna to forgive him and essentially washed his hands of the prisoners fate.
However, Urrea was faced with the same dilemma in Refugio on March 15, 1836. This time 33 Americans had been captured in the fighting at Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission, with most of them coming from Capt. Amon B. King’s company. When King and his men burned local ranchos and shot eight Mexicans who were sitting around a campfire this action inflamed their enemies who wanted revenge. Urrea satisfied both his conscience and those around by executing King and fourteen of his men, while “setting at liberty all who were colonists or Mexicans.”
He faced a more complicated on March 20 after James W. Fannin’s surrendered at the battle of Coleto. Fannin’s men had agreed in writing several terms of surrender. The primarily it was agreed that Fannin and his men, including his officers and the wounded, would be treated as prisoners of war. It was also agreed that they would be eventually paroled and returned to the United States. Needless to say, after Santa Anna’s orders, Urrea could not, of course, agree to these terms, but he also knew that if he refused them it would mean another bloody battle. The Mexican and Texans couldn’t come to a final agreement and Urrea negotiated directly with Fannin and proposed, that Texans should give up their arms and become prisoners of war “at the disposal of the Supreme Mexican Government.”
Urrea assured Fannin that there was no known instance when a prisoner of war who had trusted the Mexican government had been executed. Fannin had no logical choice but to accept the terms, but he failed to inform his men of the conditional nature of the terms. Maj. Juan José Holsinger, one of the Mexican commissioners, gave the Texans a false sense of security by greeting them with “Well, gentlemen! In eight days, home and liberty!”
After Fannin’s men had turned in their arms, about 240 uninjured or slightly wounded men were marched to Goliad and imprisoned in the chapel of Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio at La Bahía. The other wounded Texans, about 50 or so, including doctors and orderlies, and Colonel Fannin, were moved Goliad over the next two days.
On March 22 William Ward, had been defeated in the battle of Refugio, surrendered near Dimitt’s Landing believing he had the same terms as Fannin and he and about eighty of his men of the Georgia Battalion were sent to Goliad.
Urrea, kept his promise and wrote to Santa Anna from Guadalupe Victoria, informing him that Fannin and his men were prisoners of war “at the disposal of the Supreme Mexican Government” and he recommended clemency. However, he left out of his letter the terms that Fannin and his men had drafted for their surrender.
Santa Anna’s reply to Urrea’s clemency letter on March 23 was to order the immediate execution of these “perfidious foreigners” and he repeated the order in a letter the following day. On March 23, Santa Anna, who doubted if Urrea would carry out the order, sent a direct command to the “Officer Commanding the Post of Goliad” to execute the prisoners in his hands.
Urrea had left Col. José Nicolás de la Portilla in charge at Goliad and he was the one to receive the letter. Two hours after he received Santa Anna’s directive Portilla received an order from Urrea, “to treat the prisoners with consideration, and especially their leader, Fannin,” and to employ them in rebuilding the town. While this seems a very humanitarian thing to do, Urrea was well aware that Portilla would not be able to comply. Because on March 25, after he received Santa Anna’s letter, Urrea had ordered reinforcements that would have resulted in too large of a force or the prisoners to be employed on public works.
Even though Portilla was somewhat conflicted by his orders, he realized that he was duty bound to obey Santa Anna. He then ordered that the prisoners be shot at dawn. At sunrise on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, the unwounded Texans were formed into three groups under heavy guard commanded by Capt. Pedro (Luis?) Balderas, Capt. Antonio Ramírez, and first adjutant Agustín Alcérrica (a colonel in the Tres Villas Battalion in April 1836). The largest group, including what remained of Ward’s Georgia Battalion and Capt. Burr H. Duval’s company, was marched toward the upper ford of the San Antonio River on the Bexar road. The San Antonio Grays, Mobile Grays, and others were marched along the Victoria road in the direction of the lower ford. Capt. John Shackelford ‘s Red Rovers and Ira J. Westover’s regulars were marched southwestwardly along the San Patricio road. The guard, which was to serve also as a firing squad, included the battalions of Tres Villas and Yucatán, dismounted cavalry, and pickets from the Cuautla, Tampico, and Durango regiments.
The prisoners were not suspicious because they had been told the purpose of the marches would be so they could gather wood, drive cattle, march to Matamoros, or even moved to the port of Copano for passage to New Orleans. Only the day before, Fannin himself, with his adjutant general, Joseph M. Chadwick, had returned from Copano, where, accompanied by Holsinger and other Mexican officers, they had tried to charter a vessel. Urrea had no intention of allowing Fannin to actually charter a ship, this was an effort by him to seize the ship. Since the vessel had departed he was unable to do so. Fannin, though still believe that Urrea would keep his word, and was cheerful and told his men the Mexicans were making arrangements for their departure.
During the march, at selected spots on each of the three roads, just about a half to three-quarters of aa mile from the presidio, the three groups halted. Guard who had been on the right of the column moved and formed with the guard on the left. At a signal, the guards fired upon the prisoners. They were too close to miss. Nearly all the prisoners were killed at the first volley. Those not killed and who tried to escape were chased and slaughtered by gunfire, bayonet, or lance. Fannin and some forty of wounded Texans who were unable to march were put to death inside the presidio under the direction of Capt. Carolino Huerta of the Tres Villas battalion.
24 of the two groups on the river roads managed to escape. Only 4 men of the group on the San Patricio road, road are known to have escaped. Records show that 342 were executed at Goliad on March 27. Only twenty-eight escaped the firing squads, and twenty more were spared as physicians, orderlies, interpreters, or mechanics largely because of the entreaties of a “high bred beauty” whom the Texans called the “Angel of Goliad”, and the intervention of Col. Francisco Garay. Many of those who eventually escaped were first recaptured and later managed a second escape. Two physicians, Joseph H. Barnard and John Shackelford, were taken to San Antonio to treat Mexican wounded from the battle of the Alamo; they later escaped.
The total number of prisoners is open to discussion, and it varies from the Mexican estimate of 445, to Texans estimate of 407. Some of the prisoners captured at Refugio were not executed because they were serving the Mexican army as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, or other artisans. The exact fate of others captured at Refugio is not known. They may have been added to the prisoners at Goliad and killed with Fannin on March 27.
The impact of the Goliad Massacre cannot be understated. Until this moment, Santa Anna’s reputation had been one of a cunning and crafty man, rather than a cruel one. At the time of the massacre, Texas didn’t have an army, and the newly created ad interim government seemed incapable of forming one. For the Texans to succeed they needed both material aid and sympathy of the United States. If Santa Anna had simple dumped Fannin’s and Miller’s men on the wharves of New Orleans penniless, homesick, humiliated, and distressed, and each being able to talk about how poorly the Texas leaders were working, Texas prestige in the United States would have begun to disappear, along with sources of help. But Portilla’s actions at Goliad and the fall of the Alamo, both gave Santa Anna and the Mexican people a reputation for cruelty and aroused the fury of the people of Texas, the United States, and even Great Britain and France. Santa Anna inadvertently helped to insure , the success of the Texas Revolution.
And that’s going to do it for this episode.
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