John Gaston represents all those who paid the human price for the Republic of Texas. He died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836, but his Spirit returns to visit important places in Texas, places that made a difference in his life – and his death.
In this second installment of my BLOG, we find Johnny’s Spirit hovering around Presidio La Bahia. This is the military compound built by the Spaniards in 1749 to provide protection for Catholic missionaries in the various missions around southern Tejas. Today the community is known as Goliad.
Johnny may be settled on one of the wooden pews in the chapel, quietly reflecting . . . finally accepting the failings of Fannin to assist the men at the Alamo. A spirit couldn’t find a more peaceful resting place. The chapel is a place of forgiveness. But beyond the walls of this sanctuary reigns a host of ghostlings.
La Bahia is the home of phantoms. The spirits of men who were caught up in the nineteenth century scramble for land and power linger here, and sometimes they speak to visitors.
For the first sixty years the area was tranquil. American Indians worked alongside the Spanish missionaries who converted them. The peaceful culture attracted farmers, and the area thrived under Spanish rule. But then things changed.
By 1812 Spain was losing her grip on Mexico. The armies of Spain were spread across the globe, which was depleting the royal Spanish assets.
At about the same time, a Mexican revolutionary named Jose Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara took notice of the Spanish weakness. He led his men, trying to take power in Mexico City, but he failed. Gutierrez had maintained a lifelong goal of seeing his Mexican nation free of the Spaniards, and he had spent his adult years in that effort. Having lost Mexico City and reasoning that a small empire was better than none at all, he crossed the Rio Grande and set out to rule “just Tejas,” a smaller prize but one of great value.
Gutierrez went to Natchitoches to recruit from the hired guns and freebooters known to be congregating there. The ten-mile pocket of lawlessness along the Mississippi River – an elongated den of prostitution, drunkenness, gambling, and savagery – was a haven for mercenaries. Gutierrez would build his army from this population.
Drifting among the rabble-rousers in Natchitoches was an unlikely American named August Magee. He had little experience in fighting battles, but he, too, had designs on Tejas. Magee was a graduate of West Point, trained in logistics and engineering. The diverse backgrounds of Magee and Gutierrez made for an interesting mix of talent.
Gutierrez and Magee forged a partnership, shrouded in deceit. Both men secretly planned to conquer Tejas, create a little nation, and reign as president. There was tension from their first alliance, but they kept their plans private and moved on. They marched their rogues into the coastal plains, found the Goliad presidio abandoned, and made their camp in La Bahia.
Meanwhile, Manuel Salcedo, the Spanish governor of Tejas heard about Gutierrez and Magee headquartered in the old Goliad fortress. He moved his own troops as close as he could get. The Spanish troops headquartered in Mission Espiritu Santo, the very mission the Goliad presidio was built to protect. The distance between the two camps was one mile.
The two little armies skirmished off and on for four months. The losses were serious, and their enthusiasm declined. Eventually, in the dead of winter, the aggression stopped. There was no action for weeks, and a strange fraternization developed. The officers acknowledged each other in the mile of woods between their camps. The Spanish even invited the Mexican-American officers to come for dinner.
Having been trained at West Point and being focused more on compromise than combat, Magee must have decided to try negotiating his way around Salcedo. During one of the social calls as the commanders drank whisky with dinner, as they cajoled and enjoyed a more peaceful gathering – a less bloody meeting – the quixotic Magee agreed to surrender to Salcedo. He must have thought he’d made an honorable truce, saving lives and making some kind of peace.
Upon Magee’s return to his headquarters, he announced the terms to which he had agreed. The battle-hungry fighters were outraged. Everyone in the camp was indignant and felt betrayed.
Within days a Spanish courier presented a written document at the presidio, demanding the men march out and lay down their arms. Gutierrez rebuffed the courier and sent him back to Salcedo without reply.
Salcedo was furious. In a rage, he led his men the mile back to the fort and attacked the presidio, but his rage wasn’t enough. The men in La Bahia – having waited four months for a real fight – overtook the Spanish troops, claiming to have killed two hundred in the process.
Magee abandoned his leadership responsibilities and disappeared into his quarters while the fighting took place outside. His body was discovered the next day. Was it suicide? Murder? An accident? The cause of his death is still in unclear. Magee’s spirit lingers there even now, the first of two West Point scholars to meet death in that presidio.
From 1813 through 1821, the presidio in Goliad housed units from alternate armies, each taking a victory from the other over the years, with Spain and Mexico alternating control. Many nameless soldiers fell at the presidio, their souls rising up to linger in the rafters and watch as time and history passed by.
With each passing year the idea of taking Tejas and her treasures continued to brew in the hearts of adventurous men in the United States.
Spanish authority continued to decline. In September 1821, a Mexican general named Iturbide took control of Mexico City and accomplished what hadn’t been accomplished for three centuries. Mexico was an independent nation.
With Spain out of the way, Tejas gained even more attention by those who would have her land and her free-range lifestyle. And more lives would be lost in Goliad.
During the last year of Spain’s struggle to maintain control of Mexico, a Missouri businessman named Moses Austin paid a visit to San Antonio and held a meeting with the Spanish authorities there.
In December of 1820, Moses Austin obtained an empresario agreement to bring three hundred families to settle in Spanish Tejas in exchange for the land they would occupy.
In June of 1821, Moses Austin knew he was dying. He made a deathbed plea to his son Stephen to take up the project and fulfill the empresario contract. Stephen agreed.
With the loss of authority by Spain in September of 1821, the Austin Empresario contract would have been obsolete. But Stephen went to the Mexican authorities and convinced them to honor it. He began to gather the names of families wanting to go to Mexico. By 1823 he was settling them, and the news of opportunities in Tejas began to spread.
The Austin Empresario contract put into motion a shift that would last many years. An immigration movement began just from the north and east of the Tejas border, first with citizens from the United States, and then the news spread to Europe.
This transition of the culture of Tejas was not easy. The Indians scalped, the rivers flooded, farms were burned, and children died. The adventurers stayed on, and more came. In the earliest days, the population was ten men for every woman. It was truly a man’s world without apparent law or regulation. But in time, effort was made to put some order to the place.
By 1835, Tejas had new leadership, partners with Stephen Austin. Mexican laws and procedures conflicted with the newcomers’ ideas. There were factions with various ideas of how to achieve their goals, but “their goals” were the same. Everyone wanted TeXas to be a place worth living in. And in 1835, everyone in Tejas agreed that having such a place was worth fighting for.
And so, the fighting began.
It was subtle at first. The loan of a cannon was recalled by the Mexican officials in October of 1835. The villagers won that challenge and retained their cannon.
The Mexican army occupied San Antonio in December, and the Texians liberated the town.
It seemed for a while that good fortune was on the side of the newest inhabitants of Tejas. They expanded their hold. A man named Sam Houston was appointed head of the volunteer army, and in early 1836 he sent troops to occupy the abandoned headquarters – El Alamo – of the recently defeated Mexican army in the Bexar district (now San Antonio). He also sent word to Goliad, instructing commander James Fannin to reinforce the troops in the Alamo in Bexar.
Fannin was the second West Point cadet to hold command at La Bahia. He was not as adventurous as other men in Tejas, but rather maintained a more dignified and reserved demeanor. His focus tended toward logistics rather than violence. Because of his leadership style, his troops never left sight of their presidio. Meanwhile, the Alamo troops in Bexar were slaughtered, and Fannin’s men were captured in the woods around Goliad.
On a day late in March, General Urrea’s Mexican soldiers rounded up Fannin and over four hundred men. They were marched outside of the walls of La Bahia and executed. Fannin was held back to endure the sight. The captives who were too injured to walk to the massacre were brought to a firing point behind the chapel. The men died just outside the walls where the Spirit of John Gaston huddles in the shadows, remembering and forgiving.
The crippled men were brought before the wall in small groups to suffer their slaying together, until only one crippled man remained. Fannin.
Fannin was assisted to sit in a chair – alone, in front of the wall outside the chapel. They asked his last wishes. “Gather my things and send them to my family,” he said. “Shoot me in my heart and grant me a Christian burial.”
A brief consultation took place amongst the members of the firing squad. They fanned out and took their place in the firing line. The muskets were raised – shots rang out.
Fannin’s body fell from his chair. He had been shot in the face. His belongings were ransacked while his body was dragged away to the pyre to burn with the other bodies. But as his physical self was disgraced, his spirit rose up, and there it is still today, in the chapel in Goliad.
John Gaston understands now. After all, living life as a human offers us opportunities, and our choices about them don’t always work out well. It is often looking back at life that things become more clear, and our spiritual selves are wiser.
John Gaston’s Spirit is content, having considered his own failings and those of his fellow warriors. But he isn’t quite ready to leave. He also remembers someone who saved lives in Goliad. A woman. We’ll tell readers her story in the next installment.
For more information about Goliad, I recommend the book written by a man who lived the experiences described above and survived to tell about them. Inside the Texas Revolution, by Herman Ehrenberg, written in his native German language and interpreted into English by Louis E. Brister and James C. Kearney
Contact Goliad State Park
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