Unaware of a Mexican order issued the previous December to execute foreign prisoners,* the men under Col. J.W. Fannin — a dithering commander whose military competence didn’t quite equal his romantic aspirations — expected to be released in a matter of weeks. They were marched out this morning on some innocuous pretext and had bare moments to apprehend their impending fate before their guards mowed them down. (Fannin was individually shot apart from his troops.)
Nineteenth-century musketry was a mediocre tool for mass slaughter, especially when the targets were nearly as many as their executioners. A number of prisoners survived the volley and managed to escape the subsequent cavalry charge and bayoneting by leaping into a nearby river. A fortunate few others were intentionally preserved. This thorough site on the massacre** preserves several survivor accounts.
These memoirs also detail life in the unit and troop maneuvers that are certainly of interest; in these pages, of course, we are most drawn to the accounts of those who stared death in the face — like this (understandably melodramatic) description by Herman Ehrenberg:
Either life or death! Behind were the bayonets of the murderers, and before me was the sword of a coward that crossed my way to the saving stream. Determinedly I rushed upon him. Forward I must go, and — the coward took flight in characteristic Mexican gallantry. Now the path was open, near was the point of my escape.
Arriving at the other bank of the river, I looked around once more to where my comrades were dying, while the bullets of the still firing enemies whistled about me. The hellish exaltations of the enemy mixed with the cries of pain of my dying brothers sounded over to me. What feelings took possession of me here! I cast another look and a farewell greeting to my dead companions and turned to flee. I had to hasten if I did not wish to fall into the hands of the lancers who were now on this side of the river less than a half a mile below me.
Which makes an interesting stylistic contrast with the story of John C. Duval, similar in its events but strikingly low-key, even ironic:
Some one near me exclaimed “Boys! they are going to shoot us!” and at the same instant I heard the clicking of a musket locks all along the Mexican line. I turned to look, and as I did so, the Mexicans fired upon us, killing probably one hundred out of the one hundred and fifty men in the division. We were in the double file and I was in the rear rank. The man in front of me was shot dead, and in falling he knocked me down. I didn’t get up for a minute, and when I rose to my feet, I found that the whole Mexican line had charged over me, and were in hot pursuit of those who had not been shot and who were fleeing towards the river about five hundred yards distant. I followed on after them, for I knew that escape in any direction (all open prairie) would be impossible, and I had nearly reached the river before it became necessary to make my way through the Mexican line ahead. As I did so, one of the soldiers charged upon me with his bayonet (his gun I suppose being empty). As he drew his musket back to make a lunge at me, one of our men coming from another direction, ran between us, and the bayonet was driven through his body. The blow was given with such force, that in falling, the man probably wrenched or twisted the bayonet in such a way as to prevent the Mexican from withdrawing it immediately. I saw him put his foot upon the man, and make an ineffectual attempt to extricate the bayonet from his body, but one look satisfied me, as I was somewhat in a hurry just then, and I hastened to the bank of the river and plunged in. The river at that point was deep and swift, but not wide, and being a good swimmer, I soon gained the opposite bank, untouched by any of the bullets that were pattering in the water around my head.
The Texas state flower — the bluebonnet — blooms in front of the monument put up to the Goliad Massacre on its centennial. Creative Commons image from Matthew Lee High.
History buffs in the Goliad environs this weekend can catch the annual re-enactment of the Goliad Massacre this weekend at Presidio La Bahia.
* The order came from the top, but the general who captured Goliad had no stomach to carry it out. He asked for leniency … but received an emphatic confirmation of the execution order.
That Alamo of blood and legend, and the countervailing interpretations it eclipses, are much beyond our scope here, but we are attracted to notice the reputed summary execution of five to seven defenders who had surrendered or otherwise been captured during the fight. (A few dozen mostly civilian noncombatants in the former mission also survived, and were not executed.)
“foreigners landing on the coast of the Republic or invading its territory by land, armed, and with the intent of attacking our country, will be deemed pirates.”
Who counted, at this moment, as “foreigners” among the Anglo settlers trying to break away from Mexico and their supporters among from the United States to which Texas would eventually attach poses a historiographical riddle. But then, Santa Anna wasn’t there to write a dissertation, but to win a war — and he was said to be sorely annoyed at the defenders having tied him down for a week and a half.
King of the Wild Frontier
Covered by most any definition of “foreigner” would have been the Alamo’s most famous defender, Tennessee frontiersman and former U.S. Congressman Davy Crockett. He had arrived in Texas just a few months before, on a rendezvous with destiny.*
It’s a matter of dispute whether Crockett was among those last few executed; in an event this emotionally remembered, every version of the Crockett death scene — from “found dead of injuries amid a heap of Mexican casualties” to “cravenly bargained for his life” — gores someone’s ox.
Even if the account of Crockett’s presence among the executed derives from a disputed source — well, this blog has not scrupled to highlight the fictional and the mythological, those executions whose resonance transcends factual accuracy.
And even if Davy Crockett was not among those anonymous souls put to death this day, it is by his name that they have their tribute, as in the 2004 film** The Alamo:
On this date in 1860, a kid from Tennessee who had made himself President of Nicaragua got his grateful subjects’ comeuppance in the form of a fusillade.
It was westward the wagons that first bestirred the pioneering blood of William Walker, a scion of privilege with an Ivy League medical degree, who uprooted for San Francisco in 1849.
But the “grey-eyed man of destiny” had an altogether grander gold rush in mind, as he stared pensively into the middle distance.
The air was fervid with Manifest Destiny, and most Americans reckoned that the entire hemisphere was its rightful Manifestation. In a time when private settlers effected the statecraft of conquering the Great Plains, was it really any crazier for Walker to fancy privately conquering some distracted European power’s American colonies?
Walker was one of — soon to be the most famous of — a whole class of such characters: filibusters, a word etymologically rooted in piracy but now claimed by the bustling ranks of soldiers of fortune with private militias bent on detaching some parcel of land from south of the border, for money or glory or what have you.*
Oh, and “what have you”? That means slavery.
Nicely dovetailing the individual spur to derring-do, the South’s structural impulsion to expand slaveholding territories to maintain political parity encouraged — and often bankrolled — filibuster adventuring.
It is to these unwholesome fellows that the United States likely owes its sovereignty over Texas, which was pelted with Anglo filibustering expeditions in the early 19th century, helping set the table for the revolution that severed the Lone Star state from Mexico; arguably, the Texas Revolution itself was a (fantastically successful) filibuster.
So Walker had the glittering destinies manifest before his grey eyes when he put off the white collar career to play soldier. After an abortive 1853 attempt to set up his own country in Mexico’s Baja California — a jury instantly acquitted him of waging war on a neutral power; filibustering, and damn near anything that promised America more Manifestly Destined land, was as popular as it was illegal — Walker moved on war-torn Nicaragua under the guise of a “colony”. With a few hundred men, he was able to conquer the capital and set himself up as head of state.
Who knows whether he could have had a future if he’d done it differently. In the actual fact, he wasn’t as hot an administrator as his ego might then have been telling him. He revoked Nicaragua’s anti-slavery edicts, of course; though this sparked resistance, more damaging may have been revoking a Vanderbilt trade concession and bringing a tycoon into the private warfare game on the opposite team.
Cornelius Vanderbilt-backed opponents drove Walker out of Nicaragua in 1857. Not knowing when he was beat, the ex-Presidente kept knocking around stateside piecing together several expeditions, each sadder than the last … until in 1860, when a landing at Honduras collapsed, and he surrendered himself to a British (rather than American) officer. Europeans with colonies to exploit didn’t have much use for filibustering, and Walker had made everyone nervous by openly aspiring to conquer Nicaragua’s neighbors — including British assets. Rather than return him home where he could continue scheming to meddle in the future canal zone, the Brits handed him over to the Hondurans, who stood him in a court-martial, then stood him up against a wall.
And for a corner of Americana little-known to most in the U.S. — well, the colorful, nigh-unbelievable quality of the action has overridden its obscurity when it comes to the written word.
Various books about William Walker and Filibustering
* More familiar for most Americans is “filibuster” as a legislative maneuver — refusing to yield the floor during debate to forestall the passage of a bill. Not surprisingly, this usage came online at the same time mercenary filibusters were active, and proceeds from the word’s original sense of “piracy”.