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John Willingham – The Edge of Freedom

by Cathy B Stucker

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

My new book is The Edge of Freedom, subtitled A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.

The novel is a creative study of the relationship between the famous battle of the Alamo and lesser-known events going on near the village of Goliad at about the same time. Some of the Alamo heroes appear in the novel—Jim Bowie, William Barret Travis—and their influence and that of the famous battle colored many of the actions around Goliad. Their images haunted the Goliad commander, James Fannin. Bowie and Travis sent a messenger, James Bonham, to Fannin with an urgent request that he march to reinforce the Alamo. Why didn’t Fannin go to the Alamo? What did he and Bonham say to each other? This is an unanswerable question for historians, but I had to find my own answer. I put the two men together in my novel and let them talk. Then I found I had a much longer story to tell, which led me to a different understanding of both events and their places in history.

Tell us something about yourself.

I had several careers—firefighter, newspaper reporter, editor, social worker—but finally settled into a long stint as an elections official in Texas. I was an election observer in Bosnia and worked on a national task force after the U.S. election fiasco in 2000. But I always wanted to write fiction.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to begin research on the novel after going by the old fort in Goliad during family vacations more than 30 years ago. I finally stopped and spent some time there, and it was then that I decided I had to know what James Bonham, sent from the Alamo, said to James Fannin about marching to the Alamo’s defense. In answering that question in the novel, I found that the whole relationship of the Alamo and Goliad needed a reappraisal. I set the novel aside for many years, then in the late 1990’s, I read about two men, one Anglo and the other Tejano, who were partners in a ferry operation downriver from Goliad. The two men worked together then parted ways to fight on opposite sides in the Revolution. And then they renewed their partnership after the fighting was over. I knew then that these two men, John White Bower and Carlos de la Garza, would frame the larger story and serve as a perfect microcosm for what should have happened at Goliad instead of the tragedy that actually occurred there.

How did you choose the title?

The title came from my realization that freedom, the driving force in the Revolution, is double-edged, just like the famous knife of Jim Bowie. Freedom inspired many of the Texans, but freedom in the form of unbridled self-assertion almost gave Santa Anna victory. Texan commanders from Bowie and Travis, to Fannin, to Sam Houston himself, were beset by fighting men who simply would not be told what to do and wanted to fight no matter the circumstances. That the Texans lacked horses only added to their frustration: they couldn’t be as aggressive as they liked, and it drove them crazy, forcing them into old stone forts.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I have thought about being a writer since I was in my early teens, after being encouraged by an English teacher. In my junior year at the University of Texas, I decided to try for a career as a writer, although then my focus was on journalism. I work in that field for a few years, and then moved along; still, I wanted to write, and I kept trying.

Do you have any writing rituals?

During much of my work on The Edge of Freedom, I got up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to write for a couple of hours before going to work. Now that I write full time, I do about half my work in the mid-morning until noon or so, and half in the evening, from about 9:30 to 11:00.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

Almost all of the main characters in The Edge of Freedom were actual historical figures. The few who were not had name changes during the writing—for variety, symbolism, or a better 19th century sound.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

Writing The Edge of Freedom brought home to me the inherent rewards of the work itself. The sense of discovery inherent in writing fiction makes it fascinating. The excitement that occurs when you develop insights and write sentences that you never imagined you would write provide a sense of creative accomplishment that I, at least, can find in nothing else.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

If I were doing it all over again, I would try to have a much cleaner manuscript before reaching the galley stage. I wasted so much time and energy making up for mistakes that I should have seen earlier in the process.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

I read history, literature, and philosophy. Reading books in one these areas informs one or both of the other areas in a continual, ever-changing process. My favorite novelists are Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Thomas Flanagan, Willa Cather, and Patrick O’Brian. The poetry of Robert Frost, especially “West-Running Brook,” is important to me, along with poems of W.B. Yeats. I am close to completing a novel set in a county courthouse in modern-day Texas, during the first term of George W. Bush. Another historical novel set in Texas is in the wings.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

The ideal reader of The Edge of Freedom is curious about the interplay of history and mythic versions of the past, and about the ways in which memory ignores meaning that is complex or contradictory in favor of more black and white views.

The best way to find out about my novel is to visit


Remembering the ‘Goliad Massacre’

Sunday marks 175th anniversary of Goliad killings.

By Scott Huddleston

Updated 11:32 a.m., Friday, March 25, 2011

John Willingham long has been fascinated with the horrific “Goliad Massacre,” which came three weeks after the 1836 Battle of the Alamo and further riled the Texans in their war for independence.

When the Waco-born author speaks Saturday at this weekend’s commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the execution of 342 men, he’ll likely contrast the Alamo with Goliad.

“When you ask people what they think about the Alamo, they tell you immediately what comes to mind: never give up; fight to the death; an absolute right and wrong,” he said. “Goliad is more complex.”

Lovers of history can explore the mysteries and relive the intense emotions through re-enactments, lectures and ceremonies in memory of the March 27, 1836, executions at Presidio La Bahía, near Goliad.

One highlight of a candlelight tour late Saturday is a re-enactment of Col. José Nicolás de la Portilla getting orders sent by Santa Anna to execute Col. James Fannin and his men who had surrendered at the Battle of Coleto.

“Even if you don’t know Spanish, the tension is so high the hair stands up on the back of your neck,” said Newton Warzecha, director of the 1749 presidio.

On the anniversary of the Palm Sunday massacre, readings of the story of Goliad survivor Isaac Hamilton and a “death march” from La Bahía to the execution site will be followed by a memorial service Sunday.

Visitors will walk in procession to the Fannin Memorial Monument, where the dead are buried, for a reading of the eulogy Texas Gen. Thomas Jefferson Rusk delivered June 3, 1836 — several weeks after Texans won independence at San Jacinto.

Willingham, whose book “The Edge of Freedom” focuses on Goliad, said the Alamo represents a romantic tale, while Goliad captures a pragmatic approach in the form of a surrender — a gambit to achieve peace. [Note: the term “romantic tale” was not mentioned in the interview. Rather, the author said the men fighting at the Alamo were characteristic of the Age of Romanticism, a time when many southern males valued chivalry, a martial spirit, absolute honor, and heroic individualism. “Romantic tale” suggests something frivolous or fanciful, far from the grim outcome at the Alamo.]

The executions outraged Americans and helped set the stage for a Texan victory at San Jacinto. But Santa Anna’s order also fanned racial tensions, Willingham said.

The Goliad tale includes elements of heroism through Francita Alavez, the celebrated “Angel of Goliad,” and Father Thomas Malloy. Together, they saved dozens of prisoners from execution.

“I see them as brave, persistent activists, driven by their religious faith,” Willingham said.

Historians have said Fannin made some bad decisions but stayed true to what he felt was in the best interests of his troops.

“It’s a fascinating moral-ethical conflict between a romantic age and a pragmatic age that requires compromise,” Willingham said. “When I enter the Alamo, I immediately feel a sense of reverence. At Goliad, there’s mystery, puzzlement and an intriguing challenge to try to understand it.”


Former elections official John Willingham to sign copies of his book

By J.B. Smith
Tribune-Herald staff writer

Wednesday March 16, 2011

Book signing

What: John Willingham will sign copies of his book “The Edge of Freedom”

When: Noon to 2 p.m. Thursday

Where: Barnes & Noble, 4909 W. Waco Drive

The rebels who turned the tide of the Texas Revolution rode into the Battle of San Jacinto with the cry: “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”

Texans still can’t get enough of the heroic last stand at the Alamo in March 1836. But the execution of hundreds of surrendered “Texian” revolutionaries that same month at Goliad doesn’t ring the same bells.

Waco native John Willingham will be at Barnes & Noble in Waco on Thursday to sign copies of his book.

Waco native John Willingham is hoping to correct that imbalance with his book, “The Edge of Freedom: A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.” The novel examines the tragedy of Goliad as a counterpoint to the Alamo story.

“Both events deserve extremely strong attention in Texas history,” Willingham said. “The Alamo will always be dominant. But it has obscured the deep meaning of what happened at Goliad. . . . The book is a dialogue between the Alamo and Goliad and attempts to understand them in the context of their age.”

Willingham, 64, is best known here for his career as McLennan County elections administrator from 1984-92. But his passion — and his master’s degree — is in history. He has spent the last two decades researching and writing “The Edge of Freedom.”

He said he felt compelled to try to get inside the heads of the Texians who surrendered at Goliad and the Mexican soldiers who reluctantly executed them on orders from Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

Now a resident of Portland, Ore., Willingham will visit Waco to sign books at Barnes & Noble from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday. The book tour was planned to coincide with the 175th anniversary of the Goliad mass execution on March 27, 1836.

Visit piqued interest

Willingham said his interest in the event began when he was living in Waco and taking vacations to the Gulf Coast on a route that passes near Goliad and its historic presidio, or fort.

On visiting the presidio, he imagined the meeting that took place between Goliad fort commander James Fannin and Alamo resistance leader James Bonham.

Bonham in late February 1836 asked Fannin to join him at the Alamo. Fannin’s troops started toward San Antonio, but his men decided to turn back because of logistical problems. If they had made it, the Texians still would have been vastly outnumbered at the Alamo.

“It seemed to me there was something so illogical and militarily unsound and even reckless for that small group of men to stay at the Alamo,” Willingham said. “I found that in my own mind that they were bound by the spirit of the age to be reckless in the cause of freedom.”

He said the defenders of the Alamo belonged to a Romantic age that glorified the gallant sacrifice of life to a cause, even a lost cause.

Negotiating surrender

Fannin ultimately took a different approach. Willingham said Fannin also had been reckless in splitting off his forces at Goliad to rescue civilians at Refugio when he knew the Mexican Army was on the march. But when Fannin finally found himself overwhelmed by that army at the Battle of Coleto Creek on March 20, he decided to save his men’s lives by negotiating a surrender.

He and Mexican Gen. Jose de Urrea hammered out the terms in writing: The Texians would surrender their arms and be taken as prisoners of war, with the understanding that they would be paroled. The Mexican army marched the Texians back to the Goliad presidio, and Urrea moved on toward San Jacinto.

Meanwhile, Santa Anna got word of Urrea’s actions and wrote a letter scolding him for taking prisoners of war. Under a new Mexican policy, the Texian rebels were considered pirates to be punished by death.

The Mexican commander at the Goliad presidio, Nicolas Portilla, weighed conflicting orders from Urrea and Santa Anna, but ultimately obeyed the president and executed most of the Texians, including Fannin, though some escaped.

A wiser decision

Regardless of the tragic outcome, Willingham said Fannin and Urrea made a decision that was wiser under the circumstances than fighting to the death, as other Texians did at the Alamo.

“My argument is that a pragmatic and honorable attempt to save lives in the cause of peace is as valuable to the art of collective memory as a heroic battle in the name of freedom,” he said. “In Texas, we have been unwilling to be able to understand that our heritage includes something more.”

A central character of the book is Carlos de la Garza, a Mexican loyalist who saved the lives of several Texian prisoners before the mass execution. Before the uprising, he was friends with the Anglo-American settler John Bowers, who became a revolutionary for the other side. Willingham uses their friendship as a lens for the whole conflict.

Carolina Castillo Crimm, a historian at Sam Houston State University, said Willingham’s book is commendable as a balanced portrayal of a war that led Mexico to surrender a huge part of its territories.

“I think he did a really wonderful job,” she said. “It really is important to use fiction in this instance to try to understand the attitudes and beliefs of both sides. For once, we see both sides and the tremendous dilemma that they were in.”

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