The month of March 1836 began with high hopes and idealism for Texas forces trying to free themselves from Mexico, but a string of military disasters pushed the Texas army to the edge of collapse. In the midst of these losses, one of the darkest incidents of the war occurred as more than 400 prisoners were executed at Goliad.
The Texas Revolution began in November 1835 after long-simmering disputes with Mexico exploded into open warfare. Events in Texas were part of a series of uprisings and rebellions that spread across Mexico, which had the effect of eroding the forces still loyal to the government. The commander of the Mexican Army, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, declared in December that any foreign prisoners taken would be immediately executed. Santa Anna was president of Mexico eleven times in its turbulent early history, willing to overthrow elected governments and subvert Mexican law whenever it suited him.
In the meantime, Texas settlers fought several small battles with Mexican forces and attempted to organize their resources. James Fannin, a Georgia native and one-time West Point cadet, served under Gen. Sam Houston, head of Texas forces, to piece together an army. Houston appointed him as a colonel. In January 1836, Fannin led an expedition toward Matamoros on the south side of the Rio Grande. When news came in February that Gen. Jose Urrea had taken the city, Fannin pulled back to Goliad to prepare their defenses at an old Spanish presidio Fannin had renamed Fort Defiance.
After the Alamo fell to Santa Anna’s forces in early March and all defenders killed, Houston ordered Fannin to withdraw toward Victoria. Fannin hesitated but ultimately left. On March 19, Urrea’s forces caught up to Fannin. The armies fought at Coleta Creek, but Fannin was outnumbered three-to-one. By the next morning, faced with low ammunition and many injuries, Fannin attempted to negotiate his surrender to Urrea.
The Geneva Convention would not be ratified for decades but already standards were expected for treatment of prisoners of war. Fannin agreed to surrender and give up all weapons. Urrea ordered them to march back to Fort Definace, now under Mexican control. By March 25, Fannin’s 240 men were joined by 80 more prisoners from the Texas loss at Refugio.
Urrea had no desire to execute these men and had promised that they would be treated well. He pled for the lives of the Texans, but Santa Anna would have none of it. He insisted they all be shot. Not trusting his general, Santa Anna sent orders directly to Urrea’s subordinate, Col. Jose Portilla, who commanded the garrison.
Portilla ordered his men to take the prisoners out of the garrison on March 27, Palm Sunday, and marched them into a nearby field. His officers lined up the Texas prisoners, took aim, and fired. A storm of bullets mercilessly cut through everything in their paths, and the Texas soldiers fell to their deaths. The sight of hundreds of bodies before Portilla and his senior officers was not enough. Several were still alive but wounded, and Portilla ordered them beaten to death. The eighty men wounded at Coleto Creek and too weak to move were then taken out and shot. Fannin was forced to watch the entire slaughter. He was then taken to the fort and executed.
The bodies – more than 430 men — were then put into a pile and burned. No effort was made at a burial. The remains were left to rot in the field.
A month later, after the Battle of San Jacinto, Santa Anna himself was a prisoner of war, felled by his own arrogance. Certainly thoughts of the slaughter of the prisoners at Goliad and the Alamo came to Santa Anna’s mind. The memories of those deaths were certainly in the minds of the Texas troops, many of whom called for revenge. Instead, he was forced to surrender and to order all remaining Mexican troops out of Texas. Santa Anna was sent to the United States and eventually released. He continued to cast a dark shadow on the unstable Mexican political situation until he was exiled from Mexico for good by 1855. Gen. Urrea, in the meantime, came to despise Santa Anna. Within a year, Urrea was leading an army against him. The effort to topple Santa Anna failed, and Urrea was sent to prison in 1838.
Texas had to face the consequences of the horrors at Goliad. It had lost hundreds of soldiers but also lost talented men ready to put their gifts to use for the future of Texas when the peace returned. Once the war ended, Gen. Thomas Rusk rode out to the site of the deaths. In June 1836, he had his men provide a proper burial. Identification of the individual dead was now impossible, but they were buried with full military honors. A memorial was erected at the site in 1938.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.