The Complex Legacy of the Texas Revolution

Several decades ago, the great British historian J.H. Plumb, in his famous book The Death of the Past, not only described the distinction between the past and history, but predicted that the increasingly rationalistic west would soon throw off the illusions of the past, with its often manipulative distortions, and begin to operate on the more realistic plane of history.

What some Texans have called “the history wars” is essentially a conflict between the past as illusion or myth, and its nemesis, history. For most of the 180 years since the Texas Revolution, the past has dominated.  It is not hard to see why.

Think of the state’s early defining events—the Revolution, and later independence as a republic, making Texas the only state ever to have existed as a nation. But it was the Revolution, especially the battle of the Alamo, which made the Texas past the proud and stubborn thing that it is, still defiant and assertive against the forces of history, and of modernity, but no longer unchallenged.

The Power of the Alamo

The enduring power of the Alamo in myth and memory derives from its celebrated and absolutist essence: Victory or Death. Freedom or Tyranny. Good or Evil. Right or Wrong. As David Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” The key was being sure. 

And doubt was not in the makeup of Bowie and Travis, although Crockett’s political experience might have taught him to take a little time in fixing on the right. The story of the line drawn in the sand by Travis at the Alamo is stronger in memory and use than it is in the minds of most historians, but it is a perfect metaphor for the Alamo story: in life, war, morality—you have two choices, and two choices only; there is the line. Decide. Now.

One of the legacies of the Revolution, and of the Alamo, is that American democracy was able to grow in Texas, though not without vicious fighting with native populations and oppression of African American slaves and Tejanos. This kind of oppression was, sadly, not unique to Texas.

Even though the positive legacy of the Alamo and the Revolution has been far-reaching in its impact, it is also a hard fact that it has not been uniformly positive. To accept the legacy as unadulterated heroism traps it in myth and diminishes its great importance as history.

The Alamo and the Age of Romanticism

Any discussion of the Revolution must reckon with the Alamo’s long shadow. In dominating our memory of those days 180 years ago, the Alamo has obscured other potential legacies of the Revolution, principally that of the tragic events in and around the Presidio La Bahía in Goliad.

The Alamo hovers over the Goliad story and permeated the thoughts of the men involved in the Goliad campaign. Some of the men at the Alamo were previously well-known throughout the South—Jim Bowie, for one, was already renowned for his prowess as a fighter, and his famous knife was carried by men across the southern frontier.

David Crockett was much better known, indeed famous, throughout the United States; William Barret Travis was not so widely known, but in Texas he had already made his name as a firebrand during the disturbances at Anahuac in 1832. Their notoriety alone added drama to their actions at the Alamo, a drama that Goliad seemingly lacks.

But the tragic story of Goliad is laden with as much meaning as the battle of the Alamo. In fact, the story of Goliad is more resonant with our own confounding times than the famous fight at the Alamo.

The Alamo was one of the defining events of 19th century America, occurring at a time when men still fought duels over the slightest offense, and when a peculiarly southern code of chivalry— underestimated as a presence in the Texas Revolution—shaped the thoughts and actions of many Texan leaders.

Recall that the early 19th Century was smack in the middle of the Age of Romanticism. Nothing was more quintessentially romantic than the gallant sacrifice of one’s life in a noble cause. The novels of Sir Walter Scott were widely read, especially Ivanhoe, as was the poetry of the English Romantics.

So when the Alamo commanders sent their famous words—Victory or Death—to the world, both they and their world were in accord. The world saw the matter as they had seen it: The highest calling of a man of honor was to find his noble cause, and pledge his life—or death—to that cause. That the Alamo rose to iconic status almost at once is no surprise, for the Alamo epitomized much in the Age.

Goliad in the Shadows

But what of Goliad? Colonel James Fannin was in command there, although the use of the word command is even more out of place in the case of Goliad as it is in describing Sam Houston’s struggle to control his wayward forces during the later Runaway Scrape.

Shadowed by the reckless glory of Travis and Bowie, and by the mysterious workings of Sam Houston, Fannin could not find his own way by following their paths, no matter how he went about it, by turns impetuous, indecisive, and pulled in different directions by his refractory soldiers and the chaotic so-called government that never figured out who was in charge.

From the time he received a famous plea from Travis and Bowie for aid, delivered by James Bonham on February 19, to the final, tragic events at the Presidio La Bahia in Goliad on March 27, the specter of the Alamo—of its men and commanders—was continually with James Fannin.

More important to history and to our collective memory, however, is not Bonham’s mission, but the surrender by Fannin of his 300-man force to the Mexican General Urrea on March 20, following the fierce battle of Coleto Creek the day before; and even more important still is the tragic end that came to Fannin and most of his men on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836.

Most historians agree that the Mexican General Urrea sought to circumvent orders from Santa Anna to execute all prisoners, while Fannin agreed to something less than a capitulation in hopes of saving his men.  \Urrea risked severe censure, or much worse, in signing any such document. Both men relied on the honor of the other: Urrea believed that Fannin would keep his word and have his men lay down their arms, and Fannin believed that Urrea would do all he could to get the Supreme Government, if not Santa Anna, to grant clemency to such a large force rather than kill them all.

So in relying on honor, did not Fannin and Urrea meet the requirements of their chivalric Age? The answer is no. Although the ultimate mass executions of Fannin and his men caused greater outrage in America than the deaths at the Alamo, and provided equal motivation for Houston’s men at San Jacinto to kill Mexican soldiers trying to surrender, the fact that Fannin surrendered—that he failed to win or to die fighting—has subordinated the story of Goliad.

The cruelty and alleged perfidy of the Mexicans were fast absorbed into the collective memory, for memory welcomes injustice, another word for wrong, but memory abhors inglorious defeat.

A Slight to History?

So now when most people, most Anglo Texans, one should say, remember the Alamo, they see glorious death, indeed martyrdom, in the cause of freedom; but when they remember Goliad, even the outrage has faded, and there is no glory.

This as at least a slight to history, though it might comport with preferred ideas about the past.

The Alamo was an event of its Age, a defining event, iconic. But how much of the romance and chivalry of that Age do we find in modernity? How often do we, as individuals, set ourselves to a heroic task, our lives at stake, our weapons drawn in a battle to the end? Yes, our brave military personnel, our police and fire professionals, and many others of course, may be called upon in the course of their work to lay it all on the line.

And yes, there is in the legacy of the Alamo, the Revolution, and the Texas frontier a powerful and important call to individual strength and self-reliance, even in the face of daunting odds.

The point is not whether individualism and self-reliance are good in themselves; they are. The point is that when taken to the extreme, in disregard of others, and in defiance of reasonable compromise that is so much a part of the real world, they are anachronistic.

Goliad was only in small measure a part of its Age. It has paid the penalty for that. The only part of its story deemed worthy of remembrance has been the mass executions, disconnected in modern memory from the dramatic struggle to save lives that preceded them.

Yet to study real history is to accept its constant irony. In fact, Goliad was a 21st Century decision on a 19th Century battlefield, but it has failed to connect to the times it foreshadowed, our own times.  The principals strove to overcome their Age, their constraints, and their personal inclinations, in a pragmatic and, yes, honorable effort to save the lives of hundreds of men on both sides. They found a reasonable compromise. Their motives were for the most part good, though not without self-interest.

Would we understand such motives, such ends today? Would we, somewhat more accepting of the complexity of our world, now take a closer, more subtle look at what they did, and why they did it?

It is time now to look back and see the significance of Goliad, not only its resonance with the ambiguities of our time, but its deeper meaning as a tragedy. For what is more tragic than for good men and women, adversaries in war, to strive for peace and then die at the arbitrary whim of the powerful?

Is not peace sought in good faith after a bitter conflict as important as freedom fought for in battle?  Life is not much good without both peace and freedom. So let us remember the Alamo, and remember Goliad, for what they both actually were, and for what they both really mean to us today.

 

The Alamo, Goliad, and the Age of Romanticism–Essay

Note: This is a more personal version of the same essay that appears on the main page under the same title.

My novel THE EDGE OF FREEDOM, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution, is mostly about the Goliad campaign in the Revolution—but the more I have thought about it, the more I realize that the book is really about the relationship of Goliad to the iconic symbol of the Revolution—the Alamo.

First, the process of writing the book.  The Presidio LaBahía at Goliad has been one of the most important places in my life, and I’ll tell you why.  About 30 years ago–my home was then in Waco–my family and I often drove to the Gulf Coast for short vacations.  Of course, with young children we were in a hurry to get to the ocean, and the first few times through Goliad, we didn’t stop.  But after a few trips, I had to stop.  I had completed my master’s in American history at UT by that time, and though I had decided not to pursue an academic career because of the lack of jobs in history, I never lost my passion for it, and I had also written a master’s paper on Texas history.

After spending some time at the presidio, the place began to pose questions to me.  One question in particular kept coming up, and that question was this: What did James Bonham, the famous courier from the Alamo, and James Fannin, the commander at Goliad, say to each other when Bonham arrived there in February 1836?

What I didn’t know then was that answering this question and the other questions that it spawned would take much of my time for three decades.

While writing scenes of the long debate that I imagine occurred between Fannin and Bonham, I eventually realized that I was seeing the Alamo from the perspective of Goliad, rather than seeing Goliad through the dominant lens of the Alamo.

And then I began to feel that, in the relationship of the Alamo and Goliad, one could see signs of one historical age fading away and hints of another age emerging, one similar to our own.

I believe that the Alamo was a signal event of the Age of Romanticism, a time when passion and idealism seemed to eclipse the previous Age of Reason. Romantics such as the English poet Lord Byron sought to sacrifice themselves to the great cause of freedom, in his case the cause of Greece against the Ottoman Turks. Americans saw the fight in Texas as a chance to share in the glory of their forefathers, and even Texans motivated by greed or a desire for adventure also could claim to be chivalrous warriors, knights in the cause of freedom, disdainful of both risk and brute reality.

Here I am concerned with a particular strain of Romanticism, one that took hold in the American South during the first half of the 19th Century.

That Southern Romanticism was (and still is, in some ways) characterized by the noble and, to use a word of those times, chivalrous devotion to heroic achievement, to fame and glory, to an idea of women– more on this later, in relation to Goliad—to an idealized past, and to an intense sense of personal honor and pride that would brook no insult or challenge.  Even a mild affront could turn into a duel.  The few paces between the dueling parties provided the only middle ground there was, with life and triumph on one side and death or defeat on the other.

The influence of this Southern Romanticism on the people and events of the Texas Revolution has not been the subject of extensive scholarship. But in my attempt to describe the influence, I am indebted to the work of the late Rollin G. Osterweis of Yale and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, emeritus professor at Florida, both of whom wrote about the Old South generally, rather than about the impact of the Romantic Age on events in Texas.

The term code of honor, to me, is the best description for the masculine version of Southern Romanticism, although Wyatt-Brown calls it the rule of honor.  Within that code there is the cult of chivalry, the glorification of military valor, the adoration of the hero, and the enshrinement of Southern women.

Why was the South receptive to this code of honor?  For one thing, the South was and probably still is a more physical culture than the rest of the nation.

To be sure, in the early 19th Century people in the North were no strangers to sometimes brutal working conditions that required great physical effort, yes on farms, but increasingly in cramped, dingy shops and factories.

But in the South so much of life was centered on the outside world—planting, harvesting, hunting, fishing; racing horses; forming militias to fight the Creeks or the Cherokees, and to capture runaway slaves; or, most urgently of all, to put down actual or feared slave rebellions.  And so there was an enduring martial spirit, beginning before the American Revolution, drawing strength from it, and carrying forward because of the still-violent Southern frontier and because of the need to keep slaves in check.

And of course it was heroic military action, above all, that could bring fame, glory, and the most fulfilling form of honor.  Not to mention that in a plantation society, a military vocation was often the best honorable alternative to being a great planter or a firebrand politician.

As the issue of slavery became more of a wedge between North and South, Southerners found ways to justify slavery, calling it a positive good.  A major apologist for slavery argued that not only was it a positive good for slaves, who after all—he claimed—were incapable of independent living; it was also, he believed, the key to honoring Southern women.

In the words of the Rev. Thomas R. Dew of the College of William & Mary:  “We behold the marked effects of slavery on the conditions of woman—we find her at once elevated, clothed with all her charms, mingling with and directing the society to which she belongs, no longer the slave but now the equal and idol of man.”

Thus did slavery emancipate the white Southern woman according to the Reverend Day.  Of course, most white Southern women did not live in households that owned slaves.  In fact, women were not the equals of men, were idols mostly when men needed something to fight over, and were expected to use their real or imagined leisure to instill in their sons the very code of honor that men cherished.

But the Reverend Day’s torturous justification of slavery had the effect of equating Southern womanhood with the survival of slavery at a time when the South needed all the reasons it could fine to sustain the institution. To denounce slavery was to threaten Southern womanhood, and so it became a matter of honor, that word again, to defend both, and to keep the South as it was, unsullied by crass and commercial Northern dominance.  Far from being evil, slavery was essential to maintaining the noble way of life, for what could be nobler than defending womanhood?

The novelist Sir Walter Scott was already famous when his book Ivanhoe appeared in 1820.  The book conquered the South—or, rather, it spoke romantically to the South in reassuring ways that the South needed.

The novel had it all: the honor of chivalrous knights loyal to virtuous women under duress; the noble heroism, the glory of combat, and a convenient story line that could easily be translated to the American South. Just as the Norman knights were far superior to Saxon knaves, so were honorable Southerners superior to the narrow, grasping Northerners who now criticized the Southern way of life.

One aspect of the code of honor, however, was that it was too often dependent on external validation.  If it was thought that your wife or daughter had been slighted, you were honor-bound to retaliate, often violently, even if the slight was trivial or non-existent.  Everything depended on appearances.  No insult could be borne, compromise was unmanly, the middle way un-heroic.  Logic and reason counted for little when honor was a stake.  Such was the burden of Southern Romanticism.

So after wandering through the weeds of Southern intellectual history, what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with the Alamo and Goliad?

By way of transition, I want to relate a well-known story about Sam Houston and his mother that helps to illustrate what I have said up to this point.  A Virginian by birth, Sam was 19 when the War of 1812 broke out.  Mostly self-educated and absolutely devoted to Homer’s heroic epic the Iliad with its vivid story of the Trojan War, Sam no longer wanted only to read about larger-than-life men making their mark in history’s tablet; he wanted to be one of those men.

So he informed his mother of his plans to fight in the War.  Later, he spoke often of her response.  Handing him a musket, she said, “Never disgrace it; for remember, I would rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn back to save his life.” [Emphasis added.]

She then gave her son a plain gold ring.  Engraved inside the ring was one word:  “Honor.” You may know the rest of the story. Houston fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, under the approving eye of Andrew Jackson. Young Sam took a Creek arrow in his upper thigh, then rejoined the fight, leading a charge over breastworks, where musket balls smashed into his shoulder and arm.  These were not the last wounds Houston would receive but they cost him the most: some believe that his first wife, Eliza, who left him after only a few days of marriage, did so in part because of the hideousness of his wounds.  Whatever her reasons, Houston would allow no one to question her honor.

We will return to Sam Houston shortly in order to revisit his reading of Homer and to explore how that experience might have made him different from the other heroes of the Texas Revolution and how it probably helped him to become the greatest figure in the state’s history.

But now on to the Alamo and Goliad.

The Southerners at Goliad, including Colonel James Fannin, the commander there, shared the aforementioned romantic impulses, as did most of his men from the North or from Germany and other foreign lands. And I believe Fannin wished to be passionate and headstrong in the cause of freedom, as were William Barret Travis and Jim Bowie at the Alamo, men truly of their age and focused only on the honorable fight before them.

Let’s go back to that conversation between Fannin and James Bonham, who implored Fannin to march with his men to reinforce the Alamo. I imagine the earnest, thoughtful Bonham, a lawyer by profession, speaking eloquently in the voice of the Age, while James Fannin struggled painfully to meet the demands of the Age.

Yet when Fannin later answered the impulse to act in defiance of reality but in the spirit of the age, he did not win the glory he and his men wanted so badly.  His eventual effort to march to aid of the Alamo failed miserably because of the inability of his force to ford the San Antonio River, mainly because of the artillery they had brought along.

Historians have faulted Fannin for this and other shortcomings and failures, but the main criticism, especially by those who see the Revolution only through a military lens, has been that at a crucial point in March he divided his force, leading to further delays in leaving the presidio to join Sam Houston at Victoria after the fall of the Alamo was known. Even worse, the delay allowed the Mexican forces under General Urrea to catch up with him on open ground.

Why did he divide his force and delay going to meet Houston?  Well, blame it on men convinced that nothing, not military strategy, not the need to preserve the strongest Texian force left in the field, not—surely not—anything so trivial as mere military orders from Sam Houston or anyone else—none of these practical considerations could stand up to the honorable, the chivalrous imperative to march to the aid of a woman in distress.

And such was, or was thought to be, one Louisa Ayers. She was the wife of the tax collector of Refugio, whom he had left behind, unguarded, with other women and children. And this same Mr. Lewis Ayers now had as his knight-errant the former marshal of Refugio, Amon B. King, who himself had been so impatient to join Fannin and his men in Goliad that he had left his town untended.

After Mexican irregulars had looted the town, this marshal, now Captain King of the Refugio Militia, and Lewis Ayers demanded that Fannin send troops under King’s vengeful command to rescue the women and children in Refugio. Of course, typical of the chaos of the Texas Revolution, all of this happened just as Fannin received Houston’s order to join him at Victoria.

Now, after all you have read so far about Southern Romanticism, consider this question: What would William B. Travis have done if he had been the commander at Goliad rather than at the Alamo, and received word that women and children were in danger from the enemy, barely 25 miles away, and in urgent need of rescue? What would Travis have done if he had then learned that the very force he had sent to save those women and children also had to be rescued? What would the age have demanded of Travis? For a Southern commander to have ignored these pleas would have brought dishonor to him and his men. Their code, and their romantic age, demanded action, the consequences be damned. It was all or nothing.

Or, expressed in language more resonant: “Victory or Death.” Travis’ famous words from the Alamo declared not only the determination to die honorably for a cause but also declared, in the spirit of the Age, that nothing mattered but the code—fighting another day be damned; joining a force that might actually attain victory—be damned. Brute reality, the certainty of annihilation, be damned. There were only the bare, powerful, absolute words of the code: “Victory or Death.” As in a duel, the honor of the Texians had to be preserved; they could not run away, no matter the cost, no matter the odds.

Yet, when Fannin sought to act in the spirit of the Age, immortal glory was not the result. The Refugio relief mission not only cost Fannin time, but also left him about one hundred men short when he finally met General José de Urrea on the field of battle at Coleto Creek, near Goliad, on March 19, 1836. And on March 20, 1836, when Fannin heard the cries of his wounded and saw the newly-arrived Mexican artillery demolishing his trench work with salvos of grape shot and chain, the all or nothing, victory or death demands of his age ran smack into a very different reality from the one Travis had disregarded at the Alamo.

Given the choice of leaving his wounded on the field to die or waiting, with almost no ammunition remaining, for the Mexicans to kill them with artillery fire and bayonets, Fannin and his officers finally decided that they should try to save the wounded and maybe even the entire force of 300 men. One imagines that rarely was the tension between honor and humanity so great as it was during the deliberations among Fannin and his men.  

Pulled both ways, Fannin finally placed his trust in General Urrea. Together they groped for common ground, hoping that a vaguely worded surrender document might buy enough time for Urrea to circumvent the brutal decree of Santa Anna that all Texian captives be executed.

I believe that both men deserve our respect for rising above the impulses of the age to fashion an imperfect compromise meant to save lives. But, because they made a pragmatic 21st century decision on a 19th century battlefield, their efforts to save lives and similar attempts by Francita Alavez, the real Angel of Goliad, and others on the Mexican side, have not received the respect that they deserve, either during their own age or during the complex, ambiguous age their actions anticipated, namely our own.

If the Alamo was a glorious sacrifice in the cause of freedom, then Goliad was a bold if risky gambit in the cause of peace.  While we honor those who were killed in Goliad more than 180 years ago, let us honor as well what men and women on both sides tried to do before the slaughter of Fannin and almost all of his men took place on Palm Sunday, 1836.  The deepest tragedy of Goliad was that the risky gambit succeeded only for a few.

So this is what my fascination with the dialogue between James Bonham, the Alamo courier, and James Fannin, the commander at Goliad, has wrought: a desire to sort out the passions of the Age, to find out not only what the men might have said, but to discover, through fiction and research, why they said what they said, and to glimpse some of the cultural currents in their historical moment.

Finally, I want to return to Sam Houston, and his fascination with Homer’s Iliad. The first two lines of the Iliad are these:

“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles

“The accursed rage that brought great suffering to the [Greeks].”

For it was the rage and impulsive actions of Achilles that led to even more killing, of his own people, of the Trojans, of Hector, and then to the terrible destruction of Troy–and all because Achilles felt that Agamemnon had violated his honor. The noble Achilles, instead of placing the needs of his people first, nursed a personal hatred and thereby lost his true honor. For true honor owes its first allegiance to something beyond the self; there is no real glory for the hero without this higher purpose.

So it was that Sam Houston, grown to early middle age, did not surrender to rage, impulse, or pride, or follow his personal siren song into the haven of seclusion, but instead endured insults and hints at his lack of courage in order to fight another day after the Runaway Scrape; and on that other day, April 21, 1836, at the battle of San Jacinto, he won. He was a man who cared less for appearances at that stage of his life than he did for his country. Even the name, Runaway Scrape, shows what many believed about Sam Houston before his great victory.

A Romantic, yes; but a Romantic with the wisdom of the ancients fixed in his brain, a Romantic who knew not only the greatness that individuals may achieve but also the terrible consequences that often ensue when human passions rule.

And after that day at San Jacinto, though wounded yet again, he refused to let his passions control him and rejected imprudent demands from his men; and he spared Santa Anna, and by sparing him and obtaining a pledge that all Mexican forces would leave Texas, he never had to fight General José de Urrea, a real professional soldier, unlike Santa Anna. No Romantic himself, Urrea was a man who, with superior force, might have won a more extended war.