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Scholarly conflicts over the Texas Revolution are at times as bitter as the war itself and almost always of longer duration. More traditional historians view it as a heroic struggle of determined Americans against overwhelming odds. Deconstructionists view it as a shameless land grab, a scheme concocted by the "slaveocracy," that marked the beginning of a particularly unpleasant phase of Manifest Destiny. The first view is boastfully romantic; the second tends to dismiss legitimate as well as fallacious elements of older interpretations.
My purpose is not to review old fights or to pick new ones. A perfunctory glance at the bibliography will reveal that much solid work has been done on the Texas revolt of 1835-1836. What was lacking was a careful analysis of the military aspects of the war. Certainly books abound on the Alamo and San Jacinto, but the glare of those shining moments has obscured the less famous, but nonetheless, important incidents. The story needs to be told in full.
Political events have been discussed only to the extent that they had a bearing on the actions of the soldiers in the field. Professor Paul Lack's recent study, The Texas Revolutionary Experience: A Political and Social History, 1835-1836, precludes the need for another political history of the revolt for the foreseeable future. I have, nevertheless, listed several of the earlier political treatments in the bibliography for those whose curiosity strays in that direction.
My reasons for offering a military narrative go beyond a desire to illuminate the causes of the Revolution. Students of Texas history and nineteenth-century warfare have generally failed to grasp its lessons or view the conflict within a wider context. Professor Archie P. McDonald, to cite but one, laments that "Texas has no Hannibal, no Napoleon to formulate or demonstrate great tactical or strategic truths. It contributes no infantry maneuvers or artillery innovations of lasting significance. Its only real value is moral."
Dr. McDonald is correct—to a point. Compared to the Napoleonic wars that preceded it and the Mexican and Civil wars that followed in its wake, the Texas revolt appeared trifling indeed. Even so, for the student of military history, the fact that the war was sandwiched between these pivotal events renders it all the more significant.
Tactics during the 1830s underwent a remarkable transition. Countries such as France, which had previously relied on linear tactics and smoothbore muskets, began to experiment with open order formations and skirmishers armed with rifles. Although far from being in the forefront of tactical innovation, the Texas and Mexican forces were not totally unaware of military precedents. As early as 1824, the Mexican army established tirailleurs in rifle companies. That same year a proportion of men in both regular and militia companies were slated as light troops. While the image of the American leatherstocking and his long rifle has been popularized to the point of stereotype, it is nonetheless true that many Texas militiamen were highly proficient with that lethal firearm. Because they lacked the training and discipline to stand in the line of battle and perform the intricate maneuvers such formations required, Americans also fought as light infantry. In Europe commanders were trying to promote individual initiative among their riflemen; on the American frontier independent action was almost second nature. The point is not that the soldiers who waged the war in Texas were trained professionals establishing doctrine, but rather that they unwittingly explored some of the same tactical modes that more sophisticated European commanders were at the same time investigating by design.
Topography played a part. Time after time, Texians, reared the traditions of the North American woodlands, sought the protection of natural cover. When they did, they could be relatively certain that the precision of their rifles could keep the enemy at bay. Much of the war, however, was waged on the grassy prairies of the Rio Grande Plain, where trees and other natural cover were rare. Here, the Mexicans with their superior equestrian skills were formidable.
Geography also influenced the conduct of the war. By their presence in the fertile Brazos River bottom and the pine woods of East Texas, the Americans had rendered those regions cultural, as well as geographical, extensions of the North American woodlands. The plains south of the Colorado River were still predominantly the province of the tejano ranching culture. As cultural geographer D. W. Meinig observed, "It was not merely accidental that the two great Anglo-American disasters, at the Alamo and Goliad, took place beyond the margins of Anglo-American colonization, while their final triumph, at San Jacinto, took place deep within a country they had made their own."
I am a Texan. That fact, many insist, precludes any objective treatment of the Mexicans; I hope to convince them otherwise. A chauvinistic tone has admittedly marred many earlier studies published north of the Rio Grande. Whenever possible, Mexican sources were consulted, and I have attempted to understand and explain the monumental problems faced by the Mexican forces. The behavior of the individual soldado left a legacy of valor of which Mexicans should be proud and that North Americans should acknowledge.
Some friendly critics have suggested that the title of this study is hopelessly pretentious. To compare the few months of intermittent border warfare with the ten-year siege of Troy, they charge, serves only to reinforce the image of the bombastic Texan that I profess to deplore. I plead only slightly guilty. Homer's epic has its fill of heroes, but it is also replete with villains, treachery, ambition, avarice, savagery, and inhumanity. Sadly, the reader will find all of these features in the story of the Texas Revolution. It is, nevertheless, a tale that has had a profound effect on the thinking of modern Texans. The Alamo, Sam Houston, Goliad, David Crockett, and San Jacinto have become part of an iconography that has instinctive meaning for Texans and other Americans. All too often, however, the images accepted are those offered by popular culture, not primary documents. That a president from Texas during the Vietnam War should have drawn an analogy between the 1836 siege of the Alamo and the 1968 siege of Khe Sanh demonstrates the power of the myth and suggests a relevance that extends beyond the borders of the state. It is necessary, therefore, to understand the military events of 1835-1836 in realistic terms.
Recently many of the traditional heroes of the Texas Revolution have come under fire. Some have intoned, for example, that William B. Travis, a slaveholder and a young man imbued with an active libido, is not a proper "role model" for today's children and that public schools should not bear his name. The narrative that follows contains a myriad of both heroes and villains; I leave it to the reader to sort one from the other. Most participants were neither—merely common soldiers who campaigned under harsh conditions, performed their duties bravely, and tried to survive.
Whenever possible I have allowed the participants to speak for themselves. The words are sometimes raw, the syntax often confused, the spelling almost always unconventional. Through it all, however, shines their indomitable spirit.
Most of my friends who spend their days in classrooms, offices, faculty lounges, and the various other groves of academe would be uncomfortable in the company of men who fought the Texas Revolution. Many were, by the standards of our day, crude, intolerant, even racist. They were certainly harder than we are; the frontier demanded toughness. Yet their actions and their grit made it possible for milder, more cultivated men and women to follow in their wake.
One of these was Swante Palm, a Swedish immigrant and a Renaissance man whose library formed the cornerstone of the library at the University of Texas. Polished, urbane, and learned, Palm was in most ways the antithesis of the rugged citizen-soldiers of the Revolution. They did have one thing in common: a shared vision of Texas. The backwoodsmen would not have been able to articulate it as well as Palm, but they would have understood his passion. Writing from the frontier town of Austin in 1857, Palm foretold the future:
The day will come when the cultures of the world will meet naturally here, when wisdom—unscornful of these surroundings—will look naturally upon the truths of life in this place; when life will be endowed with grace as well as with goods. Then books sent out of Texas, no less than books brought into Texas, will speak the common language of the heart, the mind and the human spirit.
I offer then, this, a book sent out of Texas. If, in telling the story of those who suffered the ordeal of the Revolution, I have captured a portion of their resoluteness, and if I have written in the "common language of the heart, the mind and the human spirit," I shall have earned my keep.
The American colonists of Mexican Texas were no strangers to war: they were born to it. Most descended from America's first revolutionaries, and many had fought with Andrew Jackson in 1815 at New Orleans, where they defeated British regulars fresh from victories against Napoleon's best. But other enemies lingered closer to home. Indians harassed the frontier. And while suffering numerous losses to raiding parties, the settlers never doubted their eventual triumph.
Mexico had need of such men in Texas, where the fierce and mobile Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches discouraged settlement and made life itself a gamble. Sweeping down from their camps west of the Balcones Escarpment, Indians struck in the night, stealing horses, burning ranches, killing men, and carrying off terrified women and children. Spanish, and then Mexican, officials knew that if the region were to serve as an effective barrier against foreign intrusions, it must be populated by loyal settlers who knew how to fight. Yet despite generous offers of land, few Mexican families could be lured to Texas.
Moses Austin, a former Spanish subject in upper Louisiana, proposed what appeared to be a workable solution, colonizing the area with former U.S. citizens who would become Spanish citizens and Roman Catholics. In 1821, after slight hesitation, government officials approved a grant permitting him to distribute twenty thousand acres among three hundred families. Austin's death coincided with the end of Spanish rule, but Stephen Fuller Austin set out to complete his father's work. The new Mexican rulers understood the wisdom of colonizing Texas and therefore acknowledged him as his father's heir. Soon other Anglo-Celtic empresarios established additional colonies along the fertile banks of the Brazos River, in the piney woods of East Texas, and on the grassy plains above the Nueces River.
At first the union was a happy one. The Mexican settlers, or tejanos, were happy to gain allies in their war against marauding Indians as well as opportunities for trade with the United States that had been denied them earlier. American immigrants were grateful for free land, no taxes, a liberal constitution modeled after their own, and a dispensation to retain their slaves even though Mexico had earlier abolished slavery. In 1825 empresario Green C. DeWitt reflected the spirit of cooperation by naming the capital of his colony after Rafael Gonzales, governor of Coahuila y Texas. Mexicans reciprocated in 1831, when they provided a six-pound cannon to defend settlers against roving tribes.
But by then the mood was already changing, for many U.S. citizens came to Texas uninvited. Mexican officials began to perceive these illegal immigrants to be a greater threat than the Indians. Pushed by the Panic of 1819 and pulled by the lure of free land, U.S. citizens had flocked to Texas with or without permission. Unlike those who received land grants, they felt little loyalty to Mexico. In April 1830, the Mexican congress passed a law forbidding further immigration from the United States; desirable settlers were excluded, but the flood of illegal squatters continued, thereby aggravating the situation. Colonists were alarmed when President-General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna overthrew the constitutional government and jettisoned the Federal Constitution of 1824. He ordered all illegal settlers expelled, and all Texians (as they now preferred to call themselves) disarmed. Austin rode to Mexico City to seek separate statehood for Texas. Discouraged at the lack of progress, he wrote an intemperate letter to the cabildo of San Antonio de Béxar urging it to act without government permission. Government officials intercepted the missive, and angered by what appeared to be sedition, President Valentin GOmez Farias had Austin arrested. Upon his rele~se two years later, Austin returned to Texas convinced that resistance to centralist tyranny was the colonists' only recourse. By that time, Santa Anna had annulled all constitutional restraints and assumed dictatorial powers. In May 1835, when Mexican federalists in Zacatecas rose in revolt, the self-appointed "Napoleon of the West" crushed them with a ruthlessness that was to become his trademark. Upon defeating the rebels, Santa Anna rewarded his centralist soldiers by allowing them two days of rape and pillage in Zacatecas; more than two thousand defenseless noncombatants were killed in that orgy of destruction. Texians received reports of the rape of Zacatecas with dismay and foreboding.
Nevertheless, prior to September 1835, the citizens of DeWitt's Colony had been staunch supporters of the Mexican government. On the tenth day of that month, however, a Mexican soldier entered Adam Zumwalt's storeroom and with little or no justification bludgeoned Jesse McCoy with the butt of his Brown Bess musket. This act of military brutality appeared to have altered the sentiments of the DeWitt colonists. Tales of centralist maliciousness, formerly dismissed as war party propaganda, seemed to have been authenticated. Suspicions were further confirmed when Colonel Domingo Ugartechea, military commander at San Antonio de Béxar, recalled the Gonzales cannon. Ugartechea could not have foreseen the consequences of that fatal command.
The cannon became a point of honor and an unlikely rallying symbol. Gonzales citizens had no intention of handing over the weapon at a time of growing tension between Texians and the Mexican government, especially since McCoy's beating, and they escorted out of town the squad sent to pick it up.
Angered by the Texian action, Colonel Ugartechea sent Lieutenant Francisco Castañeda and a hundred dragoons to redeem the cannon. Once Ugartechea had ordered its return, it became a matter of principle; his demands must be enforced. Ugartechea nevertheless ordered Castañeda to demand the cannon but if possible to avoid confrontation. Late in September 1835, presidial troopers left Béxar, as most settlers now called San Antonio, on what seemed a routine mission, making their way toward the tiny settlement on the banks of the Guadalupe.
When Castañeda's troops arrived on September 29, only eighteen Texians stood ready to oppose them. The settlers had removed the ferry and all the boats to the east bank of the rain-swollen stream. Gonzales pickets and the swift current prevented the dragoons from fording. Shouting across the torrent, Castañeda informed the armed citizens that he carried a dispatch for the alcalde. The defenders replied that they would allow one courier to swim across.
For once the rigid Mexican bureaucracy aided the settlers. Upon reading the message, Captain Albert Martin, leader of the Gonzales eighteen, replied that Alcalde Andrew Ponton was out of town; until he returned Castañeda must wait on his side of the river. Martin did not say so, but the Texians were determined not to surrender the cannon. In fact, as soon as he learned of the Mexican demand, Martin sent three men to bury the gun. The Texians needed time to assemble more men, and they gained it by stalling. Blocked by the river, the colonists, and the Mexican penchant for well-ordered procedure, Castañeda pitched camp about three hundred yards from the contested crossing, atop DeWitt's Mound, the highest ground in the area.
Back in Béxar, a Gonzales doctor with the unlikely name of Launcelot Smither attempted to intercede as a self-appointed peacemaker. While in San Antonio on private business, he had heard of his neighbors' refusal to hand over the cannon and "immediately remonstrated" to Ugartechea. The colonel listened to his pleas, then told Smither that, if he would ride to Gonzales and persuade the settlers to comply, he would order his soldiers not to take hostile action. Accompanied by a Mexican sergeant and two troopers, Smither rode out toward Castañeda's camp on the Guadalupe."
While Dr. Smither and his escort were riding to prevent bloodshed, messengers from Gonzales galloped to surrounding settlements calling volunteers to battle. A Fayette militia company under Colonel John Henry Moore responded. Other detachments came from Columbus, but they had been unable to choose a captain and were commanded in committee fashion by Edward Burleson, Robert M. Coleman, and Joseph Washington Elliot Wallace. Writing to San Felipe resident James B. Miller, Coleman reported, "We have as yet no head [but] there will be one chose to day." Even so, Coleman, who would later be an insubordinate thorn in the side of General Sam Houston, did not appear overly concerned. "We are all captains and have our views," he affirmed. Among egalitarian volunteers, an officer was merely first among equals, a man who displayed "natural" leadership.
In keeping with U.S. militia tradition, the assembled volunteers elected their officers. Captain Martin held titular command of the Gonzales contingent, but the reinforcements, unwilling to serve an officer they had not chosen, "required a reorganization." When the result of the election were tallied, Moore emerged as colonel, Wallace as lieutenant colonel, and Burleson as major.
In the meantime, Dr. Smither and his escort had traveled from Béxar to the Mexican camp in the "shortest time that distance could be rode." Once there he found a frustrated Castaneda; what had begun as a routine mission had developed into the makings of a conflict, and one for which the junior officer did not wish to assume responsibility. Three mounted Texians were currently scouting his position, and he asked Smither to take these men a message: he had no wish to fight settlers; he wanted only to talk with their commander, but his requests for communications had been repeatedly denied.
As Smither approached the Texian outriders, he recognized one of them as Captain Matthew ("Old Paint") Caldwell, a noted ranger captain and Indian fighter. The doctor explained Castañeda's position, giving Caldwell "all the particulars." Caldwell told Smither to return to the Mexican camp and remain there until dawn. He further directed Smither to assure Castañeda that he would not be molested that night and that, if that officer would come to Gonzales with Smither the next morning, "he should have any communication he wished" and would be "treated with all the respect of a gentleman." Smither returned to Castañeda with Caldwell's expressions of goodwill.
Despite those assurances, the settlers prepared for action. Moore had called a council of war, although there had been no declaration of hostilities, and Castañeda seemed content to remain on his side of the river. True, he had demanded the cannon, but thus far he had not attempted to take it by force. Moore and his council ultimately reached a decision, not for political or military reasons, but according to the dictates of homespun practicality. They determined that it would not do "to bear their own expenses and to ride the distance they had merely to meet the enemy and return home without a fight." Good men had been summoned to meet the foe, and if the Mexicans would not attack, the Texians would carry the fight to them. It remains uncertain whether they were aware of Caldwell's promise to Castañeda when they made the decision to attack, but at that juncture any promise to a centralista would have meant little.
Once the Texian officers determined their course of action, the men prepared for battle. A squad dug up the cannon and mounted it atop a pair of cart wheels. Lacking cannon balls, the townsmen gathered metal scraps to substitute for canister. The volunteers also readied their long rifles, shotguns, and even fowling pieces.
Nor were spiritual considerations overlooked. The Reverend W. P. Smith, a Methodist preacher, delivered a sermon replete with references to the American Revolution. He reminded the congregation that "the same blood that animated the hearts of our ancestors in '76 still flows in Our veins." Smith assured the men that, as one of Jackson's New Orleans veterans, he had examined the battle plan and judged it sound.
On the frontier, any combat experience apparently made a man an authority on tactics, but veterans of New Orleans were held in special esteem. Southerners celebrated January 8, the anniversary of Jackson's victory, with every bit as much fervor as July 4. Many Texians had friends or relatives who had fought behind the cotton bales, and their papers are replete with references to that contest, which seemed to validate one of the prevailing tenets of Jacksonian Democracy. After all, was not it there that the "unerring aim" of volunteer riflemen had smashed the serried ranks of British regulars?
Actually, no. Most of the militiamen were not armed with rifles. Still, even if they had been, the fog of gunpowder smoke shrouding the field after repeated volleys would have prevented individual-aimed fire. The British always insisted that U.S. artillery accounted for the majority of their casualties on that terrible day. Moreover, modern students of the battle maintain that Major General Sir Edward Pakenham bungled his assault by advancing his infantry only to halt them within range of Jackson's guns. Nevertheless, such inconvenient realities failed to jibe with treasured canards regarding the superiority of the "common man," so Americans simply ignored them. Thus, with rifles loaded, jugs in hand, and God on their side, the Texian militia sallied forth to meet the Mexicans.
Actually, both forces were on the move. A Coushatta Indian entered the Mexican camp and informed Castañeda that the Texians now numbered at least 140 men and more were expected. Knowing he could not force the guarded crossing, Castañeda abandoned DeWitt's Mound and marched his troops in search of another place not so well defended, where he could "cross without any embarrassment." Nightfall of October 1 found the troopers camped about seven miles farther upriver. The Texians began to cross at the ferry about seven o'clock that evening. Only 50 of Moore's 180 men were mounted. Once across the river, the group made its way toward the Mexican camp. Around midnight a thick fog slowed the Texians, but they stumbled forward in the darkness. At three o'clock, as they stealthily approached the camp, the yapping of a dog, followed by the report of a Mexican carbine, shattered the silence, costing the rebels the element of surprise. When the vanguards exchanged fire, a Texian horse reared and threw its rider. The cursing horseman arose from the hard ground, nursing his bloody nose. Whether or not he was proud of the fact, he was the first casualty of the Texas Revolution.
Both commanders were unsure of how to proceed. Moore ordered his men to take cover in a stand of trees along the riverbank until the rising sun cleared away the fog. Since the morning was "dark and cloudy," Castaneda could not determine the number of militiamen "lying in ambush down next to the river." The Mexican commander, incensed that the Texians had broken their word, moved his troops to a slight rise about three hundred yards to his rear. While awaiting the dawn, Texians whiled away the time feasting on watermelons foraged from a nearby patch.
The light of a new day, October 2, found both sides in a defensive position. The Texians discovered that they stood on the farm of Ezekiel Williams. A rail fence Williams had erected to keep livestock out of his corn patch blocked their cannon's field of fire; Moore ordered it knocked down. The militiamen checked their powder as the mist began to clear. Around six o'clock, they ventured out of their cover and began sniping at the Mexicans on the hill. Castañeda responded by ordering Lieutenant Gregorio Perez to attack with forty mounted troopers; the remainder of the command stood in reserve. In the face of the Mexican cavalry charge, the Texians quickly fell back to the cover of the wooded riverbank and fired a volley, wounding a Mexican private. Unable to penetrate the treeline, the horsemen returned to high ground "to wait for the fog to dissipate so that we could work."
As the Texians listened and waited, they heard the steady staccato of galloping hooves accompanied by an American shouting, "Don't shoot, don't shoot. I have a message." Gonzales men recognized the voice of Dr. Launcelot Smither. Earlier, when the sentries were attacked, Castañeda had summoned Smither and demanded an explanation. The doctor could only reply that he had merely repeated what Caldwell had told him. Castañeda angrily placed Smither under guard and confiscated his mules, money, and belongings. But when the fog broke, Castañeda needed an English-speaking envoy more than a prisoner and dispatched Smither with a message to the rebel leader.
The hapless doctor conveyed Castañeda's request for a parley, but his problems were far from finished. Smither seemed too friendly toward the Mexicans to suit Colonel Moore, so he ordered him to the rear under arrest. Having been taken prisoner by both sides that morning while serving the cause of peace, the doctor was understandably testy. Since the Mexicans still retained his mules, money, and clothes, he asked if he might at least go forward with a flag of truce to request their return. Smither later complained that "Moore said I could go ten paces in front and see but I could not go up." Under the watchful eyes of the indignant doctor, the two commanders met on neutral ground midway between their forces. Castafleda asked why he had been attacked. Moore replied that the Mexican troops were acting on behalf of the usurper Santa Anna and were defying constitutional authority. The Mexican lieutenant answered that his orders were only to request the cannon, not seize it; that he had no wish to fight American colonists; and finally, that he was also a republican. Moore fired back that, if Castañeda were a true federalist, he wore the wrong uniform and fought on the wrong side; if he were sincere, he and his troopers should join the Texians in their fight for the Constitution of 1824. Taken aback by this shocking invitation to mutiny, Castañeda responded that as a soldier he was obliged to obey orders. With nothing more to say, the antagonists returned to their respective cominands.
Upon Moore's return, Lieutenant Colonel Wallace ordered artilleryman J. C. Neill to fire the gun toward the Mexicans clustered on the hill, and the first cannon shot of the revolution echoed along the Guadalupe. The Texians had defiantly raised a white banner. Painted in black was an image of the disputed cannon barrel; underneath appeared the challenge: "COME AND TAKE IT." The crack of Kentucky rifles followed the boom of the cannon. Wild shouts contributed to the cacophony as Moore led his men in a spirited charge. But the Texians did not close with the enemy. Mindful of his orders, Castañeda prudently quit the field and withdrew toward Béxar. In his report to Ugartechea, the lieutenant stated that "since the orders from your Lordship were for me to withdraw without compromising the honor of Mexican arms, I did so." Outnumbered and outgunned as he was, it would have been difficult for Castañeda to have remained on the field without "compromising the honor of Mexican arms." By the time rebel cannoneers were able to load for a second shot, the Mexicans had departed.
The "Lexington of Texas" was not a battle; it was not even much of a skirmish. Only later did historians label it the "Battle" of Gonzales. Unpretentious frontiersmen who fought there mostly remembered it as "the fight at Williams's place." The encounter resembled a shoving match more than a pitched battle.
Still, some elements of the melee merit consideration. The Anglo settlers fought as light infantry; the Mexicans as dismounted dragoons and on horseback. In terms of weaponry, Texian accounts refer to rifles, presumably of the Kentucky type, but some had shotguns and fowling pieces. The Mexican cavalrymen were armed with surplus Pagent carbines, which, while good firearms, lacked the range and accuracy of the long rifles. Unable to match the range of the Texian weapons with his inaccurate carbines, Castañeda had wisely ordered a withdrawal. Moore, unwilling to have his horsemen pursue a detachment twice their number, could only watch as the enemy rode away. That the Texians took "position...in the vicinity of a skirt of timber" is also significant. Schooled in the tactics of the woodlands, North American frontiersmen were accustomed to fighting behind natural cover. Despite Preacher Smith's bland assurances, the tactics employed were painfully amateurish. At no time did Moore attempt to sever Castañeda's lines of communication, an assignment for which his horsemen would have been well suited. After stumbling onto the Mexican sentries, Moore never tried to turn the flanks. Indeed, the screaming, headlong assault that comprised the fight resembled nothing more than a wild Highland charge.
Militarily, the clash outside Gonzales accomplished little, yet its political significance was immeasurable. Accounts differ, but apparently the Mexicans suffered few casualties, with no more than one or two killed. The fight did not last long enough for there to have been more. Total Texian casualties: one bloody nose. The important fact remained, however, that shots had been fired; blood had been shed; a fatal step had been taken. There could be no turning back. Spreading throughout Texas, the news brought recruits like the big Pennsylvania Dutchman Conrad Rohrer and North Carolina blacksmith Noah Smithwick. Those Texians who sped toward the Guadalupe in the days after October 2 were all in agreement that they were ready to fight, even though they had not agreed on their cause. In his dotage, Smithwick reportedly recalled: "Some were for independence, some were for the Constitution of 1824; and some were for anything, just so long it was a row."
While the militiamen in Gonzales gloried in their perceived victory, another expedition was being organized at the mouth of the Colorado Rivet in the coastal town of Matagorda. The slowness of communications and the intransigence of willful frontiersmen prevented any central strategic planning. Still, some action, coordinated or not, seemed in order, so the planters around Matagorda mustered a militia company to oppose the Mexicans.
Texian volunteers, convinced that they were responding to a threat against their liberty, had seen their worst fears realized in mid-September 1835, when Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cós landed a punitive force of five hundred troops at Copano Bay. Cós, who was Santa Anna's brother-in-law, had been ordered to expel troublemakers and to disarm all colonists. This threat of being stripped of their weapons alienated not only peaceful old colonists but also a number of tejanos, many of whom were staunch federalists. In a letter to Henry Rueg, the political chief of Nacogdoches who had written an inflammatory proclamation, Cós made his position clear: "The plans of the revolutionists of Texas are well known to this commandancy; and it is quite useless and vain to cover them with a hypocritical adherence to the federal constitution. The constitution by which all Mexicans may be governed is the constitution which the colonists of Texas must obey, no matter on what principles it may be formed." The obdurate Cós misjudged the degree to which Texians would insist that those principals be federalist.
Reflecting the democratic spirit that Cós had so casually dismissed, on October 6, 1835, Matagorda volunteers met at the home of Captain Sylvanus Hatch to elect leaders. The twenty-man company had soon named provisional officers: Mississippian George Morse Collinsworth as captain; Dr. William Carleton as first lieutenant; and D. C. Collinsworth as second lieutenant. Volunteers included Samuel McCulloch, a freed slave formerly owned by Captain Collinsworth. At the meeting, the men decided to attack the Mexican garrison at the presidio of La Bahía outside Goliad, and they set out that same night. On the march, the men informed the officers that while the Collinsworths were still acceptable, they had decided to replace Dr. Carleton with James W. Moore. Officers were "provisional" indeed.
At first the expedition against La Bahía took on the nature of a kidnapping plot rather than a military operation. It was rumored that Cós had marched to Goliad with a military chest containing at least $50,000. Collinsworth and his band hoped to seize the money or else capture General Cós and hold him for ransom.
On the way, other contingents and individuals joined Collinsworth's original twenty. Men who had learned of the fighting—or the prospect of securing Mexican silver—were eager to share in the adventure. Encouraged by the additional recruits, Collinsworth sent word to surrounding settlements, inviting anyone who wanted to join him to assemble on the Guadalupe River outside Victoria. Settlers from throughout the coastal prairies responded to the call. On October 7, at the Victoria rendezvous, the party rested while local men and others enlisted in the rebel ranks. Tejanos José Antonio Padilla, Sylvestre de León, Plácido Benavides, and Mariano Carbajal joined the expedition at the head of about thirty vaqueros. Because Collinsworth failed to keep accurate muster roles, the exact number of men under his command is unknown, but he may have had as many as 125 by the time the expedition reached La Bahía.
While the company rested in Victoria, news arrived that the officers greeted with mixed feelings. General Cós had already left for Béxar with his war chest; the kidnapping scheme would have to be abandoned. But while Texian financial hopes lay in ruins, the military situation looked promising, for Cós had not reinforced the garrison at the presidio of La Bahía.
The news that Cós had departed made it necessary to alter the purpose of the expedition. The men drafted a document headed, "Compact of Volunteers under Collinsworth, dated Victoria, October 9, 1835." The forty-nine signatories expressed their loyalty to the federal government and attempted to quiet the fears of local tejanos. "The volunteers...declare in a clear and unequivocal manner, their united and unalterable resolution to give ample and complete protection to the citizens of this town, and to those also of every other which may enter—requiring only, that, the citizens of said towns stand firm to the Republican institutions of the Constitution of 1824." The document ended with words familiar to U.S. citizens in the group: "For the redemption of this resolution, we pledge our lives, our property, and our sacred honor."
Having agreed that their purpose was to defend the constitution, the members of the expedition resumed their march on October 9 in two columns. A small vanguard pushed ahead well in advance of the main body under Collinsworth. Eight miles outside Goliad, the main column halted to rest and reconnoiter. Before attacking, Collinsworth needed to know the strength of the Mexican garrison at La Bahía, and several Hispanic citizens of Goliad, or labadeños, volunteered the necessary information. These local tejanos not only kept the impending attack secret but served as guides.
From the labadeños, Texian commanders learned of the fort's vulnerability. Cós had not reinforced the garrison commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Sandoval. It consisted of Captain Manuel Sabriego, Ensign Antonio de la Garza, Cadet Juan de la Garza, and about fifty enlisted men—not enough to defend even the perimeter of the presidio. Cós, of course, had anticipated no attack.
As the Texians made their way toward the fort, a fortunate accident brought them a valuable recruit. In the darkness, the main body missed the road and became entangled in a mesquite thicket. While attempting to find their way out, one of the men sighted a person crouching under one of the trees. When hailed, the figure answered, "My name is Milam." He was Benjamin Rush Milam, a native of Kentucky and one of the first Americans to trade and settle in Spanish Texas. In 1819 he joined an ill-fated filibustering expedition under General José Felix Trespalacios and Dr. James Long. In 1822 he was captured and imprisoned by Mexican officials. When, however, Mexico adopted a federal constitution, Milam joined the Mexican army, became a Mexican citizen, and sought an empresario grant in Texas. Returning to Texas, he assisted Arthur G. Wavell in settling American colonists along the Red River. In 1835 Milam traveled to Monclova, requesting a land commissioner who could grant legal titles to the settlers in the Red River area, but on his return trip he was arrested. He escaped after a stint in a Monterrey jail and had just ridden over four hundred miles when Collinsworth's contingent found him. Delighted to be reunited with fellow Texians, he joined the ranks as a private.
After the detour through the brush, the main body finally reached the lower ford of the San Antonio River about a mile south of Goliad and rejoined the vanguard. Collinsworth sent a deputation to the civil authorities demanding surrender of the town. At approximately eleven o'clock on the night of October 9, the envoys returned with the alcalde's answer: they would not surrender without a fight. Either not all labadeños were federalists, or the Goliad officials thought it too early to take sides in an uncertain conflict. Collinsworth was not upset, for if the town's city fathers were not responsive, neither were they openly hostile. The attitude of the tejanos was understandable; they could not determine which side was likely to win and declined to expose themselves to retaliation by siding with the federalists.
In the early morning darkness of October 10, the Texians assaulted the presidio of La Bahía. With axes provided by local tejanos, they broke through the door of Sandoval's quarters, then accepted his surrender. Hearing the commotion, the Mexican soldiers fired from their barracks, and Samuel McCulloch, the freedman, took a bullet in the shoulder. In the glooms the flashes of the garrison's muskets served as targets for the rebel riflemen. During a lull in the shooting, a Texian spokesman called on the enemy to surrender. The Mexicans asked for terms. The insurgent interpreter angrily replied that the colonists would "massacre everyone of you, unless you come out immediately and surrender. Come out—come out quick!" A Hispanic voice responded: "Oh, do for God's sake keep them back—we will come out and surrender immediately." In less than thirty minutes, the presidio of La Bahía had been won.
The capture of the fort gave the insurgent federalists a crucial strategic advantage and a windfall of much needed provisions. With Goliad under rebel control, Cós was cut off from communication with Copano Bay, the nearest port through which he could obtain supplies and reinforcements. Unable to reach Cós by sea, the centralists could send him supplies only by the long and difficult overland route across the deserts of northern Mexico. In the fort, Collinsworth found a large number of muskets, but most had been discarded as unfit for service. In a "Report of Arms Captured at Goliad," settler Ira Ingram listed: "200 stands of Muskets and Carbins—some of which Might be made Serviceable by small repairs but the greater part are broken and entirely useless." He also mentioned "44 Lance Heads and From 100 to 200 Bayonett [that] will be very useful in case of a charge."
Collinsworth treated the Mexican prisoners courteously. Ensign de la Garza, who had suffered a painful wound, was given the freedom of the town. The other captive officers were sent to Gonzales for disposal by empresario Stephen F. Austin, who received them cordially. Captain Sabriego, who was married to a labadeña, convinced Austin that he was a dedicated federalist and was released to rejoin his wife and family at Goliad. Austin sent the other two Mexican officers to San Felipe with the admonition that he wanted "them treated as Gentlemen and that their situation should be made as agreeable and comfortable as possible.
Back at Gonzales, confidence was high as the call "On to Béxar" sounded throughout the Mexican camp. A majority of the men were not devotees of poetry, yet all could appreciate the sentiment of N. T. Byars's verse:
Boys, rub your steels and pick your flints,
Me thinks I hear some friendly hints
That we from Texas shall be driven—
Our lands to Spanish soldiers given.
The American settlers were eager to continue the conflict. The New York Star described the volunteers who flocked to fill rebel ranks as "mostly muscular, powerful men, and great marksmen; and whether at a distance with a rifle, or in close combat, they will be terrible." Reflecting this attitude of supreme self-assurance, Gonzales veteran David B. Macomb crowed, "The Anglo-American spirit appears in everything we do; quick, intelligent, and comprehensive; and while such men are fighting for their rights, they may possibly be overpowered by numbers, but if whipped, they won't stay whipped." Although at the time it appeared idle bravado, subsequent events would prove his words prophetic.