Goliad: March 27th, 1836

Ed. Note: Originally published 13 years ago. Dave Pilot wrote this shortly after his first visit to Presidio La Bahia, site of a Mexican slaughter of free men who’d wished to join Travis at the Alamo but stayed in Goliad per the orders of their commanding officer. While the glory awarded the fallen defenders in Bexar eluded the men of Fannin’s command, history’s unswerving eye makes it clear that their bitter sacrifices were no less substantial. With a new March 27th upon us, Outlaw Magazine invites you to learn a bit about their story.

….”Boys, they are going to kill us—die with your faces to them, like men!”……two other young men, flourishing their caps over their heads, shouted at the top of their voices: Hurrah for Texas! Can Texas cease to cherish the memory of those, whose dying words gave a pledge of their devotion to her cause?”

–Capt. Jack Shackelford, Survivor of the Massacre

The drive up the winding back roads from Corpus Christi to Goliad takes its travelers through land that has seen Indians and Texians, Mexicans and outlaws, holy men and Spanish conquistadors. The Gulf Coast plains give way to slow rolling prairies that hide their beauty behind low-slung mesquite shrubs and tumbleweeds, and the road that winds through this stark beauty truly does seem to go on forever. There is stillness to the landscape, and a hushed majesty that says “History was written here, and heroes’ blood makes this ground sacred.”

As Highway 77A snakes toward the south side of the little town of Goliad, a stark presidio appears off to the right and then can disappear again behind the trees and hills in a heartbeat unless you are looking for it. Its low black walls are unimpressive to the 21st-century eye, and in and of itself it appears as just an easily ignored reminder of days gone by. But if you turn the truck around and wind your way up the short drive to the Presidio la Bahia, you will realize that on her hallowed grounds time has stopped. And you will shed a tear when you have heard her story.

In the hot and frightening spring of 1836, shortly after Travis and Bowie and Crockett had fallen to Mexican musket balls and bayonets at San Antonio de Bexar, Col. James Fannin and his troops occupied the walls of la Bahia. They had spent considerable time fortifying their position, in what history sees as defiance of Sam Houston’s orders to reinforce the Alamo defenders. Fannin felt that his militia of irregulars would be better served building a stronghold in Goliad, which at the time was, along with San Antonio, one of the major cities in Texas. By March 14th, Houston had changed his orders and Fannin and his men were to withdraw to Victoria, some miles to the northeast. But Col. Fannin delayed for five fateful days. Finally, on March 19th, he and his troops began their retreat-only to find the forces of Mexican general Jose Urrea surrounding them at Coleto Creek. After a short battle, realizing that a massacre was imminent, Col. Fannin surrendered to Gen. Urrea under the promise of prisoner-of-war treatment for his men. Under Mexican guns the troops were marched back to the Presidio la Bahia and held for seven days. Supplies were scarce, as the Mexican army was under a no-quarter order from Santa Anna. When Fannin’s men had exhausted their own victuals, there were none to be had from the Mexican army. Hunger set in, along with the springtime humidity and heat of the Texas Gulf Coast region, and conditions became miserable. On the morning of March 27, 1836, the captive Texians were rounded up in the Presidio’s central parade ground and divided into two groups. The wounded were told to remain within the old walls and rest; those who could walk were organized into three columns and marched out of the walls to “gather supplies.” Within minutes the wounded in the center of the Presidio heard a volley of musket fire, and could only lie on the grass in terror as they heard their fellow soldiers outside the wall fight with bare hands against musket balls and bayonets and swords. In minutes the massacre in the fields outside Goliad was through, but the slaughter within the walls of la Bahia was just beginning. General Urrea’s soldiers, at the express orders of Santa Anna himself, put the wounded and immobile, helpless remnant of Fannin’s command to the sword one by one in front of the Colonel’s eyes. When it was done, James Fannin straightened his uniform and walked at gunpoint to a chair set out by the ancient chapel in the Presidio. Crushed by anger and sorrow, he maintained his dignity until the end and took his seat in order to be gunned down just yards from the old wooden table where the first Texas declaration of independence was signed.

The sheer heartlessness of the massacre, which left 342 men lifeless on the edge of the Hill Country, still taints the place today. You feel its menace as you walk toward the heavy wooden door that serves as entrance to the Presidio, and you can almost catch the scent of death as you step softly into the courtyard where wounded men became dead men one at a time. The only respite is found within the walls of the old chapel, which is the only completely original building remaining in the compound. The still coolness of the air inside is magnificently calming, and like most old Catholic missions, this one draws your spirit immediately to thoughts of the Almighty. There is an air of peace and fortitude that emanates from the thick stone walls, and as the Texas sun splashes through the old stained glass you can hear the friars’ chants and the priests’ prayers echoing down through the centuries. At the front, still standing before the altar, is the very same wooden table that once held a piece of paper firm under Texas patriots’ pens; a piece of paper that became the Goliad Declaration of Texas Independence. Signed in December of 1835, it became a death sentence for Colonel James Fannin and his men, and Colonel Fannin died in a wooden chair outside the walls some 10 yards south of where the table still stands. It is impossible to stand at this altar without whispering a prayer of gratitude and sorrow for what was lost in the surrounding fields.

As you leave the chapel, there is a baptismal sanctum on your right near the front door with votive candles available. As I entered it on my last visit and lit a candle to pay my respects, I realized that my candle was the fourth one lit that morning. In perfectly synchronized descending order the candles were burned down to the first one, still barely lit; they formed a line that seemed to symbolize the four generations that have come since March of 1836 and the ever greater heights that Texas has climbed since that horrible day in the courtyard of the Presidio. The flame that burned in the hearts of Colonel Fannin’s men still burns bright in the hearts of Texans today; it is an everlasting testament to the sacrifices made at Bexar and Goliad that we have come so far. It is enough to make a grown man cry. I know.

Leaving the chapel is difficult. It is the one place in the Presidio where peace holds sway. But you must leave the sanctuary and walk the parade ground that was soaked with red blood one hundred and sixty-four years ago. You must pay your respects. And as you walk the grounds, or stand atop the low-slung battlements, or peer through the holes bored through bunkhouse walls for defenders to fire their muskets against attackers, you are struck by what seems by modern standards to be the sheer futility of defending such an installation. You wonder at the courage it took to walk through the gates into these walls with full intent of carving a nation out of Gulf Coast wilderness. For a time your heart swells with pride as thoughts of Houston’s victory at San Jacinto cross your mind. But then, as you turn and walk through the low doors and once again see the bright green grass of the parade ground dancing in the sun-drenched Texas wind , you remember that Houston’s troops screamed “Remember Goliad!” as they put Santa Anna’s troops to the sword. And you remember that the vast expanse of wind-blown grass in front of you is the birthplace of that bitter battle cry. The ghosts are everywhere, the menace is still present, and your soul wells up with sorrow too strong to voice and tears too big to cry.

A hundred yards or so beyond the Presidio walls a granite monument atop a small grassy mound pierces the blue sky. It is a short and solemn walk to the mound, past the small cannons mounted before the monument facing la Bahia. Atop the knoll, the base of the monument holds 342 names etched in stone. As you stand and read them, one by one, and reflect on the reason for their existence, you slowly come to realize that the mound you are standing atop is their grave. Beneath your feet in silent repose fallen Texas heroes lie forever in the loving embrace of the land they fought and died for.

“Some endeavored to make their escape, but they were pursued by the ruthless cavalry and most of them cut down with their swords. A small number of them stand by the grave-a bare remnant of that noble band. Our tribute of respect is due to them; it is due to the mothers, sisters, and wives who weep their untimely end, that we should mingle our tears with theirs. In that mass of remains and fragments of bones, many a mother might see her son, many a sister her brother, and many a wife her own beloved and affectionate husband. But we have a consolation- yet to offer them: their murderers sank in death on the prairies of San Jacinto, under the appalling words, “Remember La Bahia.” Many a tender and affectionate woman will remember, with tearful eye, “La Bahia.” But we have another consolation to offer. It is, that while liberty has a habitation and a name, their chivalrous deeds will be handed down upon the bright pages of history. We can still offer another consolation: Santa Anna, the mock hero, the black-hearted murderer, is within our grasp. Yea, and there he must remain, tortured with the keen pain of corroding conscience. He must oft remember La Bahia, and while the names of those whom he murdered shall soar to the highest pinnacle of fame, his shall sink down into the lowest depths of infamy and disgrace.”

Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Rusk, who found the bodies, upon formal burial.

Twenty-eight men survived the massacre that morning. Three were spared because they were doctors and General Urrea felt they could be helpful to his command. Many of the rest were helped by a local Mexican woman known today as the Angel of Goliad, while some were simply able to cross the San Antonio River before the Mexican cavalry could cut them down. Across the century and a half between their fears and our modern struggles, their message of courage and commitment to what is true and right and noble rings loudly and unmistakably across the hills of south Texas. Make it a point to listen.

~ Dave Pilot

Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.

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