After Texians (as Texans were called in those early days) sparked a revolution in Gonzales, Texas, in October of 1835, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the dictatorial president of the relatively young Republic of Mexico, took his well-seasoned army into the heart of Texas to stamp out the rebellion. But first he had a law passed in the Mexican legislature that called for the summary execution of any armed foreigners captured in combat, equating the warriors fighting for Texas independence with “pirates.”
In March of 1836 Colonel James W. Fannin, thirty-two-year-old commander of Texian forces occupying the fort of La Bahia at Goliad, received orders to assist Colonel William Travis in the defense of the Alamo at San Antonio de Béxar, under siege with three hundred defenders to Santa Anna’s several thousand. As Fannin vacillated regarding the order, a second order, rescinding the first, called for Fannin to lead a retreat to Victoria, twenty-six miles away, where he hoped to concentrate forces to oppose Mexican General Jose Urrea who was quickly approaching from the south. Fannin hesitated, hoping other Texian forces would soon join him. Upon receiving news that his expected reinforcements had been defeated in battle, Fannin finally departed Goliad with over three hundred troops on March 19, unfortunately having allowed just enough time for Urrea’s advancing army to show up on Fannin’s doorstep, waiting just outside Goliad. To make matters worse, it was Urrea’s birthday, and he wanted a great victory over the enemy to mark the occasion.
Surrounded on every side, Fannin’s men made a heroic resistance and held off Urrea’s brave Mexican forces until dark. But when Mexican reinforcements, ammunition, and artillery arrived the following morning, Fannin and his staff, without water and provisions, voted to surrender, receiving assurances from Urrea that he would use his own personal influence with Santa Anna and that he would do his utmost to see that they were treated with dignity. Urrea then ordered the prisoners escorted back to Goliad, which was now reoccupied by Mexican forces.
Santa Anna’s brief delight over the victory at Coleto turned to rage when he heard the rebels had been taken prisoner and not killed in the field. The evening of March 26 a missive arrived from the dictator-general ordering Colonel Portilla, acting commandant at Goliad, to carry out the immediate execution of the Americans held prisoner under his watch. An hour later a message from General Urrea arrived as well: “Treat the prisoners well, especially Fannin. Keep them busy rebuilding the town and erecting a fort. Feed them with the cattle you will receive from Refugio.” Disgusted with the inhumanity of the one command but fearing to comply with the inferior authority of the other, Portilla reluctantly decided the following morning to obey his commander-in-chief and quickly made preparations for the execution of over three hundred prisoners.
The morning of March 27, 1836, Palm Sunday, Mexican guards told the prisoners to gather their personal items and form three companies. Escorted between double columns down three separate roads, one group was told they were going to gather wood, another that they were being taken to drive cattle, and the third that they were being escorted to Port Cabano in order to be deported to the United States. Five minutes later, the three companies were halted. On each road, one column of Mexican soldiers crossed through the line of prisoners to join their comrades on the other side. The full guard then raised their rifles in unison and shot the horror-stricken prisoners point-blank.
Those who did not die immediately were clubbed and stabbed. Some were able to break and run but were easily hunted down. A lucky few succeeded in feigning death and crawled to safety after their would-be executioners had returned to the fort. Thirty-nine Texians who had stayed behind, having been wounded in battle and unable to march, were gathered before the chapel and shot inside the fort.
Forced to witness the massacre of his men, Colonel Fannin’s execution was saved for last. Fannin presented three requests: to be shot in the heart and not the face, to have his personal effects sent to his family, and to be given a Christian burial. The Mexican soldiers then shot him in the face, divided his belongings among themselves, and burned his body along with other Texians killed that day.
Three hundred forty-two men were executed that Palm Sunday, their bodies either left where they lay or partially burned, their remains worried by dogs and wolves over the next several weeks as the revolution was played out. Local women stripped the bodies in order to wash, mend, and reuse the clothing. Witnesses say the river turned red with the washing.
There were, however, over one hundred prisoners who escaped with their lives. In addition to those who ran or crawled to safety, many Texians were saved by Francisca Alavez, wife, or mistress, of Urrea’s paymaster, who was subsequently dubbed “the Angel of Goliad” for her valiant and passionate efforts in their rescue, as well as by Urrea’s own wife, who was at the fort at the time of the massacre. Mexican Colonel Garay, one of Urrea’s chief officers, also interposed his authority and found excuse of one kind or another to mitigate the slaughter. Physicians and others with medical experience were spared in order to care for the Mexican wounded, and a large group of soldiers who had surrendered to the Mexicans elsewhere were excepted on the technicality that they had surrendered unarmed.
One month later at the Battle of San Jacinto, where Santa Anna was captured and the Texas Revolution won, among the rallying cries of the passionate warriors was “Remember Goliad! Remember La Bahia!” When word came to Goliad of Santa Anna’s capture, the Mexican guard hurriedly attempted to burn the exposed remains before abandoning the fort. These charred bones were subsequently gathered by Texian liberators and buried with Christian service and military honors. A memorial stands at the gravesite today, echoing the final words of the funeral oration made by Texas General Thomas Rusk: “While the names of those whom [Santa Anna] murdered shall soar to the highest pinnacle of fame, his shall sink down into the lowest depths of infamy and disgrace.”