THEMATIC AND NARRATIVE SUMMARY: THE EDGE OF FREEDOM
The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution, is based on the events of the Goliad campaign in the Texas Revolution. The Goliad mass executions occurred on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836. The Alamo fell three weeks earlier, and in April of that year Sam Houston led Texian forces to a surprise victory over the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto, his men screaming “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!”
Multiple films and scores of books confirm that the Alamo story has certainly been remembered. It is a compelling story, but it has become as mythical as it is historical because of its treatment in book and film. The author of The Edge of Freedom believes that the Goliad story is too often forgotten because it reveals the complexities of life and of history that the emphasis on the Alamo often obscures. The controversial efforts of two men, Colonel James Walker Fannin, the Texian commander, and his Mexican counterpart, General José de Urrea, to save lives on both sides, despite the cruel edicts of General Santa Anna, deserve a greater share of our historical memory than they have gained thus far.
Since the Alamo, Texans have been associated with and sometimes admired for their brazenness and their aggressive stance toward enemies of the state and nation. For a state that has the Alamo and the subsequent establishment of the independent Republic of Texas as its central historical events, it is natural and arguably too easy to embrace values associated with radical individualism, defiance, and aggression. Two presidents from Texas have been accused, rightly or wrongly, of carrying those values into the international arena to the detriment of the nation and the world. Another Texas governor is now [in late 2015] striding across the national stage, and his values, more than those of his predecessors, reflect the traditional version of the Texas past. The story of Goliad acknowledges that in the same Revolution that raised the Alamo to iconic status and made possible a Republic, there was another story, not of weakness and abject surrender, but of the human and, yes, pragmatic desire to save lives rather than to expend them, and to defy tyranny by means other than lethal conflict.
Many of the Anglos who fought in the Texas Revolution did so as part of an idealistic quest to match the deeds of their forefathers who had won independence from the British. Many others were also imbued with a spirit of adventure or conquest, a volatile compound of romance, valor, anarchy, and violence. Their allegiance to this spirit was profound, and they found it difficult if not impossible to obey anything other than their will to express it. Travis, Bowie, Crockett—these men and their lesser-known contemporaries were almost the will incarnate, defying orders, reason, danger, and, in their final acts, literally choosing death over the defeat of themselves. Travis’s famous motto, “Victory or Death,” applied not only to their revolutionary cause but also to their attitude about their individual lives.
The Mexican president and commander-in-chief, Antonio López de Santa Anna, was their antithesis, a man bent on authoritarian control—repression against their expression. But he and the “adventurers,” as the Mexicans called the Texians, had one thing in common: they were all bound to an absolute, all or nothing view of life.
The Edge of Freedom contrasts Fannin to the other Texian leaders, especially Travis and Bowie, and contrasts General Urrea to Santa Anna. Urrea was a charge and slash commander who liked to operate on his own. He chafed under Santa Anna’s severe, authoritarian decree to execute captured Texians as pirates and struggled, in his sometimes contradictory way, to circumvent the decree. He did not want Fannin and his men to die. The willingness of Urrea and Fannin to compromise after a vicious battle near Goliad a week before the mass executions reflected qualities uncommon to their age of romantic, violent, or idealistic extremes. Unlike Travis at the Alamo, Fannin chose neither victory nor death, though a glorious, Travis-like death might have atoned for his personal failure as a commander. He accepted surrender, and he did so to save his men, including many who were wounded and without water. It was a pragmatic decision by a man whose previous actions were either indecisive or chivalrous (to use a word from Fannin’s time) in the extreme. His was a 21st Century decision on a 19th Century battlefield, an anachronism that has left Fannin and the meaningful events of the Goliad campaign neglected and misunderstood for 175 years.
There is an intriguing parallel story, likewise involving actual historical figures, that provides a more personal and local side to the novel.
In 1835, a young man named John White Bower came to Texas from Arkansas and bought land along the San Antonio River, about twelve miles downstream from Goliad. His land lay across the river from the rancho of Carlos de la Garza, who, in addition to ranching, operated a ferry at the spot, which came to be known as the Carlos Crossing.
The two young men became partners in the ferry operation, although that arrangement was soon interrupted by their decisions to fight on opposite sides in the Revolution. De la Garza became a prominent leader of the loyalist rancheros and their extremely effective spy network. His raids during the Goliad campaign were a major factor in forcing Fannin to divide his forces and delay his withdrawal from Goliad after being told to do so by Sam Houston. In the meantime, Bower played a similar but less influential role for the Texians under Fannin.
One of the most interesting aspects of their story is that after the bitter fighting of the Revolution and the racial and nationalistic enmity that ensued, they again lived as neighbors at the crossing. Thus their story shows what individual trust and mutual respect can achieve in the face of cultural tensions, vindictiveness, and narrow self interest.
Sadly, the larger story of Fannin and his counterpart, General Urrea, had a tragic ending. Despite the attempts of each man to bring some degree of humanity and reason to a chaotic situation, Santa Anna’s will prevailed. Most of Fannin’s 350 men were victims of a mass execution on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, near the Presidio La Bahía in Goliad. Among the witnesses to the slaughter was Francita Alavez, the “Angel of Goliad,” whose persistence and compassion led to clemency or escape for a few of the Texians. With her was a priest, Father John Thomas Molloy, a man whose theology had already been tested and transformed by his service in South America and Mexico. Devoted to humanity, the priest was shattered by the mass executions and its confirmation that humanity so often turns on itself, and if God is watching, He does not act.