Texas History: The Goliad Massacre

The days leading up to and including the massacre of Col. Fannin and his troops. Information on the importance of this battle in the struggle for independance.

In February 1836 while Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his 5,000 men were headed to the Alamo in San Antonio, Mexican General Jose Urrea left Matamoros and with 900 or so men and followed the coast of Texas northward.

The first Texan town they approached was San Patricio where he engaged in a skirmish on February 27, 1836 with Frank Johnson and about 50 Texans. By the end of the day all of the Texans except Johnson and four of his men had been killed or captured.

A few days' later Gen. Urrea's troops came across another group of 50 Texans under the command of James Grant and all but one of these Texans were killed.

The town of Refugio was now lying directly in the path of the Mexican troops and needed to be evacuated. Col. James Fannin, commander of the forces at Goliad, sent two groups of men to aid in the evacuation, one of about 30 men under the command of Aaron King and the other of 150 men commanded by William Ward. As with Grant and Johnson's forces, all of these men were killed or captured by the Mexican army.

At Goliad, Fannin had received a request by Col. William Barrett Travis at the Alamo to bring the remaining force of 350 troops as reinforcements to Travis' 83 men. Meanwhile, Texan General Sam Houston had ordered Col. Fannin to retreat back to the town of Victoria.

Due to indecision and five days of wasted time, Col. Fannin failed to accomplish either of these missions.

Shortly after Fannin and his men began their retreat, they found themselves surrounded on an open prairie and attacked several times by Urrea's troops. During the day the Mexicans were repulsed but the casualties were high. Gen. Urrea had lost 200 of his men and Fannin had 60 (almost 20%) killed or wounded.

The following morning on March 20, 1836, Col. Fannin made the decision to surrender to the Mexican Army. His troops were heavily outnumbered, had no water or supplies and many wounded. Believing Urrea to be an honorable man, he allowed himself to be lulled into believing if they surrendered, the Texans would be taken captive and eventually allowed to return to their homes. These were written terms upon which both sides agreed to the surrender. The Texans gave up their personal rifles, 500 spare muskets, nine brass cannons as well as their lives when they did finally wave the white flag of surrender. Under orders from Urrea, they were escorted back to Goliad and imprisoned in the Presidio.

What the Texans didn't know about Santa Anna was that he strictly enforced the Mexican decree of December 30, 1835 that all foreigners taken under arms would be treated as pirates and promptly executed. It was his belief that by doing so, the Americans coming to fight for Texas from New Orleans, La and other parts of the United States would end.

Gen. Urrea opposed the standing orders and sent letters to Santa Anna asking that the prisoners be spared. Incensed that the Goliad prisoners were still alive, Santa Anna sent word that all of the "perfidious foreigners" (prisoners) be executed immediately. Since Gen. Urrea had once before washed his hands of such cold blooded killing by sending previous prisoners to Matamoros, Santa Anna also sent an order addressed to " The Officer Commanding the Post of Goliad."

Col. José Nicolás de la Portilla, whom Urrea had left at Goliad happened to be the commanding officer and received on March 26 Santa Anna's direct order a mere two hours before he also received an order from Urrea. Gen. Urrea's order was to "treat the prisoners with consideration, especially their leader, Fannin."

It is said Portilla suffered a sleepless night weighing the conflicting orders but as the sun rose on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836 he felt he was bound to obey Santa Anna's order. His way of doing this was to break the unwounded Texans up into three groups and set them marching in differing directions. The largest group was sent towards the upper ford of the San Antonio River on the Bexar road. Another group was marched along the Victoria road in the direction of the lower ford. The last group was sent along the San Patricio road.

On the day before, Col. Fannin had been to Copano with Mexican officers where they were to try to charter a boat. Urrea had actually had plans to try and commandeer the vessel but Fannin was unaware of these plans. He reported back to his men at Goliad that the Mexicans were indeed trying to make arrangements for their departure. Being in good spirits as well as having been told they were to gather wood, drive cattle, be moved to Matamoros or the port of Copano, the prisoners followed orders willingly.

At prearranged spots along the three roads that were between one half to three-fourths of a mile from the Presidio, the guards on the right sides of the columns of prisoners proceeded to move and join the ones on the left.

It is unknown whether there was a prearranged moment or a signal that was to be given but the guards were too close to miss the prisoners. Upon the firing of the guard's weapons nearly all the Texans were killed during the first fire. Those who were able to break and run were pursued and slaughtered by bayonet, lance or gunfire. Only twenty-eight of these men were able to escape but the massacre itself wasn't over. Within the walls of the presidio was Col. Fannin, those who had been too wounded to march, doctors, orderlies and mechanics. Deeming the mechanics and medical personnel to be of use to the Mexican army, they were separated from Col. Fannin and the wounded that were promptly shot.

The bodies were piled high, set afire and then left to the mercies of the vultures and wild animals. It wouldn't be until June 3, 1836 that Gen. Thomas J. Rusk would come across them while pursuing Gen. Vicente Filisola's army retreating after the Mexican defeat at San Jacinto.

Gen. Rusk would oversee the gathering of the remains, digging of a mass grave and actual burial of the dead. It is said some of the twenty-eight survivors were in attendance.

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