John Willingham: Alamo Remembered; Goliad Often Forgotten

Roundup: Talking About History

[John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, culture, and election issues. He holds an MA in American history from the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Willingham can be reached at]

The Goliad massacre occurred on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, three weeks to the day after the fall of the Alamo. About three weeks later Sam Houston led Texian forces to a surprise victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, his men screaming, “Remember the Alamo, remember Goliad!” as they attacked Mexican President Santa Anna and his troops.

The battle cry no longer resonates with most Texans and is probably unknown to most Americans and people around the world. They remember the Alamo, but Goliad, out of place in its own time and misunderstood now, is largely forgotten.

Why? One explanation is the Alamo is seen as a glorious sacrifice in the cause of freedom while Goliad was a tragic failure in the cause of peace....

Col. James Walker Fannin surrendered his 300-man force on the prairie near Goliad on March 20, 1836, rather than face immediate annihilation at the hands of his Mexican counterpart, Gen. José de Urrea, who had surrounded the Texians.

Because of his poor judgment, the hubris of his men and chaos in the chain of command, Fannin led his men onto the prairie, overburdened with supplies and heavy artillery, only to run out of water and find himself at the mercy of Urrea's artillery after an intense battle March 19.

Urrea formally accepted an unconditional surrender from Fannin, but historians remain uncertain whether the two men reached a more conciliatory agreement. It is evident, however, that Urrea was reluctant to carry out Santa Anna's standing order to execute all Texian “adventurers” as pirates....

On March 27, Santa Anna issued a direct execution order to the officer charged with overseeing Fannin and his men while they were confined to the Presidio LaBahía in Goliad. After struggling with his conscience, the officer carried out the order, sending the Texians out of the old fort under guard, while most of them believed they were going to be released on parole.

Instead, they were bayoneted or shot, including Fannin. A few escaped, and several were saved through the intercession of two of Urrea's officers and the help of Señora Alavez, the companion of another Mexican officer....

One might not characterize the efforts of Fannin and Urrea as heroic. Fannin lacked the boldness of Travis or Bowie, even though he fought with distinction alongside Bowie at the battle of Concepcíon. Urrea tried to achieve two contradictory goals, and the degree to which he used deceit in doing so remains in question.

Yet if the murky accommodation that the two men reached was not heroic, it did reflect an understanding that the world is far more relative than it is absolute. Our own age is marked by ambiguous war and tenuous peace, by messy politics and economic peril. We are often frustrated by the shadowy and inconclusive nature of modern life.

Remembering the Alamo is an antidote to that uncertainty. There is nothing unclear about victory or death. Remembering Goliad reminds us of where we are.

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