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Battle of Coleto Creek

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The Battle of Coleto Creek took place on 19-20 March 1836 during the Texas Revolution from Mexico in Golilad County, one hundred miles southeast of San Antonio, Texas, USA. It was the apex of a series of ill-timed events resulting from the poor judgment of Texas Colonel James W. Fannin, Jr. during Texas's struggle for independence from the Republic of Mexico.

Background

Colonel Fannin led a garrison of about 420 men into the presidio “La Bahia” or “Fort Defiance” on 12 February 1836. Their purpose was to guard against the Mexican army’s advance into the interior of the Texas colonies. The fort covered about three acres in size with three foot thick stone walls eight to ten feet high. The Texans wanted to rename the fort and a lottery was held for the new name. Fannin drew the winning bid of “Fort Defiance”, beating out the two runners up, Fort Independence and Fort Milam.

Decision time

Fannin, as the commander at Fort Defiance, had to make a decision as to whether abandon the fort that he and his men had so diligently reinforced, or to flee the advancing Mexican army under the command of General José de Urrea. Fannin knew the Alamo had fallen, Francis W. Johnson and James Grant had been defeated at the battles of San Patricio and Agua Dulce Creek, respectively, thus relegating the strategic value of Fort Defiance less important. Fannin awaited orders from his superiors.

Acting Governor Robinison on 6 March wrote to Fannin, ‘..instruct you to use your own discretion to remain where you are or to retreat as you may think best for your safety..” Commander in Chief Houston wrote to Fannin on 8 March, “..Sir: You will, as soon as practicable after the receipt of this order, fall back upon Guadalupe Victoria, with your command..”

Fannin’s main concern now, regardless of what orders he had, was the safe return of Amon B. King and William Ward who had been sent out to safe guard the evacuation of Texas settlers. Despite the arrival of orders from General Sam Houston to withdraw, he waited for any word on this men’s fate. Couriers making into Fort Defiance brought word that Albert C. Horton was leading men, wagons and oxen to aide Fannin’s plight. Meanwhile, Urrea’s strength grew with over 500 additional troops of the Jimenez and San Luis battalions.

On 17 March, Fannin received word of the defeats and loss of King and Ward’s men, but instead of executing Houston’s orders, Fannin delayed his retreat by two more days.

Withdrawal

On 19 March 1836 CE at about 9:00 AM, Fannin’s troops began the retreat from Fort Defiance under the cover of a heavy morning fog. He ordered to taking of nine heavy brass artillery field pieces and over 1,000 muskets, but, leaving behind valuable food and water for the men. The Texans decided to burn the dried meat of over seven hundred steer against a wall rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the enemy. The column of smoke could be seen for miles.

Despite the large movement of Fannin’s men and wagons, the Mexican army was unaware of the Texans movements till nearly 11:00 and Urrea quickly ordered a pursuit by his cavalry and 360 infantry. The Texans two-hour lead was minimized by the overloaded and hard to handle oxen and carts which extremely slowed their march. Fannin’s overconfidence in his men’s ability and his lack of military respect for the Mexican army, caused him to allow the unhooking of his oxen for an hour of grazing at Manahuilla Creek. His officers protested such an order and opted for the protection of the timber line of Coleto Creek. Fannin overruled them. He didn’t have many options if the draft animals pulling the loaded wagons refused to budge. Not having the means of horsemen to use as scouts, the fast moving Mexican column caught up with the Texans about 1:30 PM. With the safety of the timber line within site, Fannin ordered his artillery to form a skirmish line while the rest of the column headed for the timberline, less than a mile away.

The Battle

Perceiving the danger, he then formed his men into a slow moving hollow square and continued toward the timber line of Perdido Creek, which was less than a mile away when the Texans were overtaken by Mexican cavalry.

Caught in a natural depression in the land, some six to seven feet below the adjacent grassy rolling hills, and now cut off from the safety of the tree line, the Texans prepared for a fight. The Texans hollow square was three men deep with each soldier having three to four muskets at the ready. A barricade of supply carts and equipment formed the barrier. In addition, the 300-plus Texans had bayonets and over forty pistols and an abundance of ammunition. Artillery was placed in the corners of the square with Fannin taking position on the right flank.

General Urrea ordered his grenadiers to attack the right side of the square with rifle companies to the front and left while cavalry assaulted the rear. Advancing Mexican soldiers fired volleys and continued their slow advance toward the Texan lines. When they reached about one hundred yards, Fannin gave the order to open fire with rifle and cannon shot and canister. Mexican casualties were heavy, but Urrea gave the order to charge with bayonets with more deadly fire coming from the Texans. The Mexican shots had taken their toll with seven killed and over fifty wounded. Fannin himself was wounded three times and once in the thigh with a copper musket ball. A brief half-hour lull then ensued. The fighting lasted till dark.

Mexican snipers had taken a toll on the Texans. The cannoneers were now dead and there were no experienced replacements. The lack of water to sponge down the hot cannon barrels and any smoldering powder residue, coupled with no one to arm the cannon, made the Texan field pieces worthless. Even the animals had become targets of the snipers. The Texans could not move their cannon nor their wounded.

Meanwhile, during the night, Urrea received reinforcements and by morning, 20 March, he had between 700 and 1,000 soldiers and valuable field pieces. And to keep the Texans from becoming to comfortable, he ordered the playing of the false attack theme of “Sentinel Alerto!” throughout the night.

Ending

At 6:30 AM, on with the arrival of the Mexican artillery, shells were lobbed into the center of the Texan square. Fannin called a quick council of his officers. One group wanted to make a dash to the timber. One wanted to fight where they were and still one wanted to surrender. The Texan wounded was on all the groups mind. A white flag was raised to have a parley with the Mexican commanders. Three Texans were sent out to meet with three Mexican officers: Fannin, B.C. Wallace and J.M. Chadwick. The Mexicans sent Lt. Colonel Morales, Colonel Juan Holzinger and Aide Jose de la Gonzalez. Urrea knew of General Santa Anna’s order: all rebels taking up arms against Mexico would be considered pirates and rebels and executed. The Texans drafted their proposal while the Mexicans presented theirs; surrender at discretion otherwise, the attack would renew. It is a matter of debate today exactly what terms Fannin agreed to. No known existing copies in English of the terms exist. Urrea did write in his memoirs the only known details of the surrender terms.

The Texans surrendered, their weapons taken up by the Mexicans and the march began back to Goliad. The Texans were under the impression that in eight days, they all would be released and sent back to the United States. This fanciful ruse was a ploy by the Mexicans as to not alarm and panic their captives. The duty of executing almost four hundred unarmed men would fall to fort commander Colonel Jose Nicolas de la Portilla. His plan was to divide the captives into three groups. Each group was to be marched out of Fort Defiance and each was to take a separate road leading away.

On 27 March 1836 CE, 8:00 AM; Palm Sunday, one group was told they would be gathering their few belongings as they were to depart for Copano Bay. The two groups were told they would leave later, after they gathered wood and looked for stray cattle.

One group was marched out, positioned in front of a fence made of brush and to turn their backs to the guards. Another had the river to serve as a barrier of escape; the third was ask kneel before the firing squad. Each group could hear the distant and distinct echoes of musket fire and realized what was taking place. The Mexican army fired volleys into the men which killed some outright while the huge clouds of smoke allowed some to make a dash to nearby trees and rivers. In all, between twenty and thirty men did survive to tell their tales. Inside Fort Defiance, Fannin came out to the courtyard of Our Lady of Loreto chapel. Six Mexican soldiers and a captain from the Tres Villas battalion had Joseph Spohn translate to Fannin, that he was to be executed for “coming with an armed band to commit depredations and revolutionize Texas.” Fannin understood and ‘ showed no visible impression’ according to Sphon. Unable to stand for long, Fannin was allowed to sit in a chair and given a blind fold. Fannin asked to see the commandant, but was refused. Ultimately, Fannin told the captain he wished not be shot in the face, to have a Christian burial and that his gold watch be sent to his wife. The captain agreed to all his request then ordered his men forward. The firing squad advanced, stood two feet away from Fannin, leveled their muskets to his face, and fired. Fannin and at least forty wounded Texan prisoners were executed in addition to the others outside the fort. The final count of murdered Texans was 340. The bodies were stacked with wood and set ablaze. What the fire did not consume, the vultures, wolves and wild dogs consumed for nearly two months till a proper burial was provided by Texas General Thomas Rusk.

Bibliography

  • Goliad; The Other Alamo; Bradle, William R.; Pelican Publishing Co.,2007;ISBN:978-1-58980-457-9
  • James Walker Fannin; Brown, Gary; Republic of Texas Press; 2000; ISBN: 1-55622-778-7
  • Remember Goliad-Their Silent Tents; Hopewell, Clifford; Eakin Press; 1998; ISBN: 1-57168-195-7