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 Edge of Freedom–Review in Southwestern Historical Quarterly

By Bob Cavendish,  from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 115 (April, 2012): 428-429.

The Edge of Freedom: A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution. By John Willingham.

(Portland, Ore.: Inkwater Press, 2011. Pp. 404. Map, appendix. ISBN 9781592994465, 22.95 paper.)

“Include, also,” the review guidelines for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly state, “an evaluation of the author’s success in achieving purpose.” What, then, should the reader infer of John Willingham’s purpose in this “fact-based novel” of the Goliad massacre? Indeed, what ought to be the purpose of any historical fiction offered to historians and aficionados of Southwest history?

Intrigued with certain ambiguities surrounding the defeats at the Alamo and at Goliad, Willingham attempts to “suggest answers to mostly unanswerable questions,” “imagining and creating” as a novelist, while remaining close to traditional chronology. Historical fiction and docudramas have become, increasingly, the stuff of public history. How the past is understood, Daniel Aaron noted, is pertinent. Good historical fiction respects its framework while telling its story. How well does The Edge of Freedom pay homage to this revolutionary past?

Beginning with the San Antonio River ferry partnership between Carlos de la Garza and John Bower (both actual figures from the Texas Revolution), The Edge of Freedom narrates the impact of revolutionary Texas driving the two men into separate and rival camps. The narrative shifts easily among the competing perspectives of the Texians (Bower and Fannin’s command), the Tejano (de la Garza), and the Mexican (General José Urrea and his command). Here are the familiar events: James Fannin’s feeble move to reinforce the Alamo, the withdrawal from Goliad, the battle at Coleto Creek, and the infamous Goliad massacre. This novel’s “fiction,” however, is not in the sequence or nature of action but in the personal episodes and period dialogue. The Edge of Freedom is the human tragedy around Goliad in March 1836, of Fannin’s command indecision and Urrea’s struggle between duty and humanity. Conventional historians’ interpretations emerge from reports, letters, and diaries–reliable, “eyewitness stuff,” long on fact but sometimes ponderous. Good historical fiction recaptures the passion and immediacy at times absent within the bounds of standard chronicles.

The Edge of Freedom succeeds as a “fact-based novel” in its compelling blend of historical sequence and imagination: what likely occurred, and why? Despite the occasionally melodramatic language, “somewhere between the elaborate and formal diction of the late eighteenth century and the more florid language of the Civil War era” (359), we gain an appreciation of the consequences emanating from decisions and commitments reached by the various “adventurers,” ranchers, commanders, and others who are a part of this story.

The Edge of Freedom is not a broad strategic view of the Goliad campaign but is closer to the tactical level. Unlike Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, Willingham’s The Edge of Freedom remains closely tethered to actual events. James Michener once argued that meaningful literature inquires into real motives and behavior of humanity. The Edge of Freedom is an inventive glimpse into the choices and dilemmas that plague people caught up in political turbulence.

How accurate should a fact-based, historical novel be? The “typical historical novelist,” said Michener, is “a fairly honest researcher” who “knows what the facts are and ignores or abuses them at his or her peril.” Willingham’s annotated bibliography of fifty-seven primary and secondary sources follows an epilogue for seven of the principals (including Fannin).  Together these two elements indicate a respect he has for the era but more importantly, the purpose for which he writes.

The Edge of Freedom works best as a supplement to, instead of an alternative to, classic works of Texas’s revolution. Read alongside one of the contemporary general histories of the Texas republic or the Texas revolution (my vote: Stephen Hardin’s excellent Texian Iliad), The Edge of Freedom provides an enriching glimpse into the tragedy whose ghosts were evoked thirty-six days later on the San Jacinto prairies.