The Alamo, Goliad, and the Age of Romanticism

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.

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 a deep 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 is, to me, the best description for the manly 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, at first on farms, but increasingly in cramped, dirty 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 he claimed were incapable of independent living); it was also 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 to sustain the institution that it could find.  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?

Sir Walter Scott, the famous novelist, was already well-known 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, which 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 and 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, to explore how that experience might have made him different from the other heroes of the Texas Revolution, and to see how his devotion to the Iliad likely guided him toward his place as the greatest figure in our state’s history.

But now on to the Alamo and Goliad.

The Southerners at Goliad, including Colonel James Fannin, the commander there, shared the aformentioned 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.

Imagining the conversation between Fannin and James Bonham, who implored Fannin to march with his men to reinforce the Alamo, one can see the earnest but passionate 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, and 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, with the inability of his force to ford the San Antonio River, because of all 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.

Just why did he divide his force?  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, 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, arriving at the Presidio, found as his eager 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 unprotected.

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 had received word that women and children were in danger from the enemy, barely twenty-five 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, and 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 the efforts of 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 179 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.

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 drunken 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. 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—and no Romantic himself but a man who, with superior force, might have won a more extended war.