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Colonel William Barrett Travis watched with increasing trepidation as day by day the Mexican army grew by hundreds and then thousands. With fewer than 200 men he had been tasked with defending the all-but-indefensible sprawl of low buildings and open ground known as the Alamo. Sensing the hopelessness of his situation, Travis dispatched a stream of desperate letters begging for reinforcements. Several of these he directed to Col. James Walker Fannin Jr., commanding the garrison at Goliad, some 90 miles to the southeast.

An early Spanish mission settlement, Goliad was originally named La Bahía. Both names were then in common usage, though the latter was often mispronounced by Anglo Texians as “Labadie.” Fannin had renamed the presidio “Fort Defiance,” but that name and his garrison would be short-lived. The 32-year-old former Georgia slave trader and West Point dropout was disliked by his men, one of whom wrote, “He wishes to become great without taking the proper steps to attain greatness.”

By mid-February 1836 Fannin had taken charge at Goliad. The garrison soon grew to a force of more than 400 regulars and volunteers. On the 26th the colonel set out with 320 of his men and four cannons to relieve the Alamo. He made it scarcely a mile before deciding he was insufficiently provisioned. It would be his only attempt.

Fannin instead resolved to fortify Goliad, reasoning, “As soon as [the Alamo] falls, we will be surrounded by 6,000 infernal Mexicans.” Indeed, after the Alamo fell on March 6, the colonel received word a large Mexican force under Gen. José de Urrea was en route. Texas Army commander Sam Houston ordered Fannin to immediately withdraw to Victoria, but the dithering colonel remained frozen in place.

His own repeated pleas for help unheeded, Fannin finally marched his men from Goliad on March 19. Within hours the Mexican army caught them on an open plain. After a short, sharp engagement Fannin surrendered the next morning. Urrea returned the captives to Goliad, where Fannin sought honorable terms.

The Fannin Memorial Monument is near Our Lady of Loreto Chapel at the Presidio La Bahía. / Alamy
The Fannin Memorial Monument is near Our Lady of Loreto Chapel at the Presidio La Bahía. (Alamy)

It was a false hope, as months earlier Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna had mandated the execution of all such “pirates” in rebellion against him. When Urrea wrote his commander, seeking clemency for his prisoners, a furious Santa Anna chastised the general and ordered Urrea’s subordinate, Lt. Col. José Nicolás de la Portilla, to carry out his orders.

Portilla spared nearly 100 Texians—tradesmen, translators and doctors who might prove useful to his forces, as well as dozens of newly arrived volunteers captured earlier. On March 27—Palm Sunday—Mexican infantrymen and lancers formed some 300 captives into three columns and marched them separately out of Goliad, ostensibly to the coast and freedom.

But within a mile of the mission the guards in each column lined up their wards and shot them at point-blank range. Any prisoners still moving were bayonetted or impaled on the horsemen’s lances. Twenty-eight Texians managed to escape into the roadside brush. The Mexicans returned to Goliad, where they butchered all 39 of the wounded, including the garrison commander.

Fannin was among the last to die. According to a Texian witness spared for his language skills, Fannin gave the officer of the firing squad coins and his gold watch in exchange for a promise the watch be returned to his family, he be shot in the heart and not the face, and his remains receive a Christian burial. The officer promised, then pocketed the watch and had his men shoot the colonel through the face and roll his body into a ditch atop those of his men.

As at the Alamo, the bodies were later stacked on layers of cordwood and set afire. The bodies were only partially burned, however, and lay exposed to the elements and carrion animals for the next two months. Their bones were ultimately buried with honors in a single unmarked grave.

Goliad lacked two elements essential for it to claim the legendary status of the Alamo. One was the “holy trinity” of Travis, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. The other was the fact the Alamo defenders had died fighting, while the men of Goliad had been executed.

That said, the Palm Sunday slaughter marked the bloodiest massacre of the Texas Revolution, and the victims’ martyrdom prompted vengeance. When Houston and his Texians finally rained death on Santa Anna’s forces at San Jacinto, they shouted the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo! Goliad! Labadie!”

The fight and massacre are remembered in the Fannin Memorial Monument, on the site of the mass grave near the Presidio La Bahía.

this article first appeared in Military History magazine

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