Goliad was a small community located on the banks of the San Antonio River in the far northern Mexican province of Tejas. The town was home to a mission and presidio since the mid-18th century. Goliad was one of only three Mexican outposts in the area; the others were San Antonio and Nacogdoches.
In the 1820s, increasing migration of American citizens across the Sabine River into Mexican territory was the cause of much friction. Conditions deteriorated further when the foreigners became more independent and clashed with Mexican officials. General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the frequent president of Mexico, desired an end to repeated violations of Mexican sovereignty in which U.S. citizens would cross the border to offer armed support to friends and relatives living in Tejas.
In the early 1830s, the Mexican Congress enacted legislation that prescribed the death penalty for foreigners who took up arms against the Mexican government. In November 1835, a unit of the Mexican army captured an armed band of Americans which had been recruited from New Orleans for a raid against Tampico. The foray had utterly failed and 28 of the invaders were convicted of piracy and executed.
In February 1836, Mexican General José de Urrea captured a number of U.S. citizens at the village of San Patricio, but declined to follow the execution order issued by Santa Anna. A few weeks later, Urrea captured 33 Americans at Nuestra Señora del Refugio. Some of his prisoners had participated in an ambush that resulted in the loss of several Mexican lives. On this occasion, Urrea followed his instructions by executing 15 foreigners, but sparing non-U.S. citizens in the party.
At about this time, Texan forces under Colonel James W. Fannin took possession of neighboring Goliad from a small Mexican unit. Then Urrea's army appeared; the Texans fled from Goliad, but were quickly trapped by the superior Mexican force. Fannin entered into negotiation on behalf of his party of nearly 350, asking that his soldiers be treated as prisoners of war in accordance with prevailing international standards.
Urrea was again in a bind; his orders from Santa Anna clearly called for the execution of foreign soldiers. In addition, Fannin’s men, while badly outnumbered, were still heavily armed and likely to fight if pressed. In a face-to-face meeting, Urrea persuaded Fannin to surrender in return for Urrea’s support for a petition of clemency. The Texans then gave up their arms and marched back to Goliad, confident that their freedom would be secured in several days.
Urrea upheld his end of the bargain and quickly dispatched his support for clemency. Santa Anna, distrustful of Urrea, sent orders to execute the captives directly to the commander of the small garrison at Goliad, effectively bypassing the general. On March 27, 1836, the prisoners were divided into three groups and marched to separate locations outside the community. A signal was given and the heavily armed guards opened fire on the captives; those who survived were bayoneted. The day’s toll was 342 killed. Twenty-eight managed to escape and, over several days, find their way back to friendly surroundings. Twenty wounded men unable to walk were saved, thanks to the protestations of a prominent local woman, Franchita Alave, and supportive medical workers. Alave was later remembered as the Angel of Goliad.
For much of the early going in the Texan Revolution, little harmony existed within the rebel cause. Personal jealousies, differing agendas and misunderstandings prevented cohesion. However, the roughly simultaneous events at the Alamo and Goliad galvanized Texan public opinion, which now perceived Santa Anna as a demonic rather than romantic figure. Without this newly inspired unity, the Texans’ chances of succeeding in their bid for independence would have been slim.
See Texan Revolution Map.