As the ashes of the Alamo continued to smolder, Sam Houston feared another disaster could befall his Texas Army. Mexican forces under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna continued to sweep across Texas toward Fort Defiance, the presidio in Goliad that had been seized by the rebels in October 1835 at the onset of the war for independence. Houston ordered Colonel James W. Fannin to evacuate his 400-man force from Goliad and retreat to Victoria, a town 30 miles to the east behind the natural defense of the Guadalupe River. “The immediate advance of the enemy may be confidently expected,” Houston warned Fannin. “Prompt movements are therefore highly important.”
Fannin, however, lacked the same urgency as the orders he received on March 14, 1836. The finely bred, West Point-trained officer lingered for days as a 1,400-man army led by Santa Anna’s chief lieutenant, General Jose de Urrea, closed in on Goliad. Whether indecisive, stubborn or loyal to the rebels away on missions whom he did not want to abandon, Fannin remained in Goliad until the morning of March 19. By the time the colonel ordered the retreat, it was too late. Urrea’s advance riders had already spotted the Texan defenses, and the main army was just hours behind.
Even on the move, Fannin’s long-delayed retreat advanced at a sluggish pace. When one of their carts fell into the San Antonio River, the colonel told his men to halt and retrieve it. Over the protests of his officers, Fannin also ordered his troops to stop for more than an hour to allow their oxen to graze. While the livestock ate, the rebels’ stomachs rumbled since they forgot to pack any food.
When the Texans finally resumed their march in the afternoon, they quickly encountered the Mexican forces. Instead of taking cover in the nearby woods, Fannin ordered his men to form a square on an open prairie near Coleto Creek. With cannons stationed at each corner of the square, the Texans held firm. Although shot in the thigh, Fannin continued to lead the fight until darkness fell. Encircled by the enemy and low on ammunition and water, the desperate Texans worked through the night to dig ditches and haul overturned carts, dead horses and even fallen comrades to buttress the walls of their earthworks. When dawn broke, however, so did the realization that the arrival of Mexican reinforcements during the night had made their situation hopeless. Faced with annihilation, the Texans raised a white flag and were marched back to Goliad and incarcerated in the presidio chapel at Fort Defiance along with other rebels captured in the nearby area.
Fannin may have hoped, and even expected, that his men would be treated as prisoners of war and given clemency. If Urrea gave him that guarantee, however, he did not have the power to do so. A decree issued by Santa Anna in December 1835 ordered that all foreigners fighting against the government would be treated as pirates and executed. Urrea, however, urged his commander to be lenient. “This show of generosity after a hotly contested engagement is worthy of the highest commendation,” Urrea wrote to Santa Anna, “and I can do no less than to commend it to your Excellency.”
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Santa Anna, however, had no desire for such mercy. He ordered the immediate execution of the “perfidious foreigners” and dispatched an aide to Goliad to ensure that Lieutenant Colonel Jose Nicolas de la Portilla, who had been left in charge at Goliad while Urrea continued his march through southern Texas, carried out his brutal directive. An hour after Santa Anna’s execution orders arrived, Portilla received the contradictory message from Urrea to “treat the prisoners with consideration, and especially their leader, Fannin.” After an agonizing night weighing the two instructions, Portilla decided to uphold the wishes of the Mexican dictator.
As Palm Sunday dawned on March 27, the prisoners were divided into quarters. While the sick and wounded remained in the chapel, the other three groups were escorted on different roads out of town. Believing they were on missions to gather wood, drive cattle or even sail to safety in New Orleans, the rebels joked and swapped stories. As soon as they were ordered to halt a half-mile from the fort, however, the Texans realized their fates. The Mexican guards opened fire. Those not killed by the gunshots were butchered with bayonets. Back at the presidio, the Mexicans executed the wounded against the chapel wall and even shot them in their makeshift beds. The injured Fannin was the last to be slaughtered. His three dying wishes were to be shot in the chest, given a Christian burial and have his watch sent to his family. Instead, the Mexican commanding officer shot Fannin in the face, burned his body with the others and kept the timepiece as a war prize.
Nearly 350 rebels were executed in the Goliad Massacre, almost twice as many as were killed at the siege of the Alamo. The death toll would have been even higher if not for a Mexican woman known as the “Angel of Goliad” who convinced a Mexican colonel to spare the lives of approximately 20 doctors, orderlies and interpreters.
Santa Anna’s ruthless treatment of the captured soldiers had the opposite effect than what he intended. The “Napoleon of the West” was no longer seen as a brilliant military strategist but a cruel despot. The Goliad Massacre hardened attitudes toward Santa Anna throughout the United States and inflamed and unified the Texas resistance. Less than a month later, as Houston prepared his men for the decisive Battle of San Jacinto that would earn Texas its independence, he concluded his impassioned speech with the rallying cry: “Remember the Alamo! The Alamo! The Alamo!” His men thundered a reply with an addendum: “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”
Check out additional primary sources on the Texas Revolution at Texas Rising: Historian’s View.