Published as an op-ed piece in the San Antonio Express-News, March 31, 2010The Goliad mass executions in the Texas Revolution occurred on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, three weeks to the day after the fall of the Alamo. In April of that year Sam Houston led Texian forces to a surprise victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, his men screaming “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” as they attacked Mexican President Santa Anna and his troops.
The dual battle cry no longer resonates with most Texans and is probably unknown to most Americans and people around the world. They still remember the Alamo; but Goliad, out of place in its own time and misunderstood now, is largely forgotten.
Why do we not remember Goliad, and hold the Alamo sacred?
One answer is that the Alamo is seen as a glorious sacrifice in the cause of freedom, while Goliad was a tragic failure in the cause of peace.
Another reason is that the heroes of the Alamo fought and died according to the all or nothing spirit of the age—“Victory or Death” was their rallying cry. But the surrender and subsequent mass executions at Goliad only three weeks later left behind the age of romantic sacrifice, and anticipated our own unheroic and ambiguous times in ways we may find disturbing.
Colonel James Walker Fannin surrendered his three-hundred-man force on the prairie near Goliad on March 20, 1836, rather than face immediate annihilation at the hands of his Mexican counterpart, General José de Urrea, who had surrounded the Texian force as it marched to join Sam Houston at Victoria.
Because of his own poor judgment, the hubris of his men, and chaos in the military chain of command, Fannin had led his men onto the prairie, overburdened with supplies and heavy artillery, only to run out of water and find himself at the mercy of Urrea’s artillery after an intense battle on March 19.
Urrea formally accepted an unconditional surrender from Fannin, but historians remain uncertain whether the two men reached a more conciliatory agreement. It is evident, however, that Urrea was extremely reluctant to carry out Santa Anna’s standing order to executive all Texian “adventurers” as pirates rather than grant them parole.
An effective, aggressive general—unlike Santa Anna—Urrea had to succeed in his march up the Texas coast but had to be wary of offending el presidente with too much success. At the same time, he wanted to side with his own ranking officers to delay or avoid the mass executions repeatedly demanded by Santa Anna.
Early in the morning of March 27, 1836, Santa Anna bypassed Urrea and issued a direct execution order to the lieutenant colonel charged with overseeing Fannin and his men while they were confined to the Presidio LaBahía in Goliad. After struggling with his conscience, the lieutenant colonel carried out the order, sending the Texians out of the old fort under guard, although most believed that they were going to be released on parole.
Instead, the men were bayoneted or shot, including Fannin, who had been wounded in the battle a week before. A few men escaped, and several were saved through the intercession of two of Urrea’s officers and the help of a Señora Alavez, the companion of another Mexican officer.
One might not characterize the efforts of Fannin and Urrea as heroic. Fannin lacked the brazen assurance of William B. Travis or James Bowie, even though he had fought with distinction alongside Bowie at the earlier battle of Concepcíon. Urrea tried to achieve two contradictory goals, and the degree to which he used deceit in doing so remains in question. Some historians also believe that Fannin was not forthright with all of his men about the terms of the surrender.
Yet if the murky accommodation that the two men reached was not heroic, it did reflect an understanding that the world is far more relative than it is absolute. Our own age is marked by ambiguous war and tenuous peace, by messy politics and economic peril. We are often frustrated by the shadowy and inconclusive nature of modern life.
Remembering the Alamo is an antidote to that uncertainty. There is nothing unclear about Victory or Death. Remembering Goliad reminds us of where we are.