A stern and unvarnished accounting of the bare facts of the encounter known as the Battle of Gonzales, or the “Come and Take it Fight” would make the proceedings rather more resemble a movie farce than a battle. But almost at once, that encounter on the banks of the Guadalupe River was acknowledged by those involved and historians ever since, as the Lexington moment in the Texas War for Independence. In brief – late in September of 1835, a party of about a hundred Mexican soldiers from the military presidio in San Antonio de Bexar attempted to repossess one small 6-pound iron (or possibly bronze) cannon from the civil authorities in Gonzales. It was the second request; the original one had been backed by only five soldiers and a corporal. The cannon was old, had been spiked and was generally useless for making anything other than a loud noise. It had been issued to Green DeWitt’s colonists out of the military arsenal some five years previously, when the American settlers on Green DeWitt’s impresario grant feared Indian raiders, and the Mexican authorities did not have such a high degree of apprehension over what those obstreperous Americans were getting up to.
The Anglo-Texian residents of Gonzales first stalled the request for the cannon’s return, suspecting that the true motive behind the request was an attempt to disarm, or at least intimidate them. They appealed to higher authorities on both sides, asked for an explanation, finally refused to turn it over, and sent to the other Anglo settlements in Texas for aid in making their refusal stick. They hid all the boats on the river on their side, baffling the Mexican commander, one Lt. Francisco de Castaneda – for the Guadalupe was swift and deep at that point. He struck north along the riverbank, looking for a shallower place where he and his force could cross – but in the meantime, companies of volunteers from other Anglo-Texian settlements had been pouring into Gonzales – from Mina (now Bastrop) from Beeson’s Crossing, from Lavaca and elsewhere. There were well over a hundred and fifty, all of whom had dropped whatever they were doing, as farmers, stockmen, merchants and craftsmen – and hurried to the westernmost of the Anglo settlements. That they arrived so speedily and with such resolve was of significant note, although their eventual encounter with Castaneda’s soldiers was somewhat anticlimactic. Just around dawn on October 2nd, the two forces more or less blundered into each other in morning fog … in a watermelon field. One of the Texian’s horses panicked and threw it’s rider when the soldiers fired a volley in their general direction. The rider suffered a bloody nose – this was the only Texian casualty of the day. A parley was called for, held between Castaneda and the Texian leader, John Moore, of present-day La Grange (who had been elected by the men of his force, as was the custom – a custom which remained in effect in local militia units all the way up to the Civil War). The lieutenant explained that he was a Federalista, actually in sympathy with the Texians – to which John Moore responded that he ought to surrender immediately and come over to the side which was valiantly fighting against a dictatorial Centralist government. The Lieutenant replied that he was a soldier and must follow orders to retrieve the cannon. Whereupon John Moore waved his hand towards the little cannon, which had been repaired and mounted on a makeshift carriage. There was also a brave home-made banner flying in the morning breeze, a banner made from the skirt of a silk dress. John Moore’s words echoed those on the banner, “There it is on the field,” he said, “Then come and take it.” At his word, the scratch artillery crew, which included blacksmith Almaron Dickenson (who within six months would be the commander of artillery in the doomed Alamo garrison), fired a mixed load of scrap iron in the general direction of Castaneda’s troops. Honor being satisfied, Lt. Castenada retired, all the way back to San Antonio, doubtless already writing up his official report.
No, they won’t give the damned thing back, they’ve fixed it, and they’re bloody pissed off and demonstrated that with vigor. I have the honor to be yr devoted servant, Lt. F. Castaneda, and no, don’t even think of sending me out to truck with these bloody Americans again – they are really pissed off, they have guns and there are more of them than us!
So, yes – pretty much an anticlimax. The Texians had nerved themselves up for a bloody fight, and in six months they would get it. But why the “Come and Take It Fight” got to have the considerable press that it has in the history books – the history books in Texas, anyway – it’s a bit more complicated than the bald narrative of a couple of days in the fall of 1835 on the banks of the lower Guadalupe River might indicate.
By that year, the American settlers, or Anglo-Texians who had been taking up grants of lands in Texas for almost ten years were getting entirely too obstreperous for the peace of mind of centralist and conservative, top-down authoritarians such as General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. In a way, it was a clash between two mind-sets regarding civil authority and the proper involvement of ordinary citizens in the exercise of it. One favored central, top-down authority by well-established and ordained elites. Those lower orders did as they were ordered by their betters – and no back-talk allowed. The other mind-set, that of the Anglo-Texian communities – had no truck or toleration for political elites, practically no stomach for doing as they were ordered, and felt they had a perfect right to concern themselves with the running of their communities. This appeared as the rankest kind of sedition to the central government in Mexico City, sedition and revolution which must be firmly quashed . . . only the more they quashed, the greater the resentment and deeper the suspicion, which resulted in more meetings, fiery letters and editorials, stronger determination to manage their affairs themselves, and finally drove even Stephen Austin into open rebellion. He had always been the conciliatory towards Mexican authority, and the most exasperated with American hot-heads looking to pick a fight with that authority, but at long last, even his patience had reached a snapping point. A year-long stint in prison on vague suspicions of having fomented an insurrection and another year of restriction on bond to within Mexico City had soured him on agreeable and gentlemanly cooperation between the Anglo-Texians and the Centralistas.
Pardoned and released, Austin returned to Texas just as the Mexican government led by Lopez de Santa Anna decided to crack down, once and for all. A large military force led by Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos was dispatched to sort out why Texians were not paying proper import duties on imported goods, end all resistance to the Centralist government, and arrest the most vociferous critics of the Centralist administration and the Napoleon of the West, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. It was rumored among the Anglo Texians that among General Cos’ baggage train were 800 sets of shackles and chains, intended for the use of bringing prisoners back to Mexico for trial and execution. The demand for the return of the Gonzales cannon came just at the very time that General Cos had landed with his soldiers, and was marching towards San Antonio, as the seat of civil and military authority in Texas. Farcical, anticlimactic and slightly ridiculous as the “Come and Take It Fight” was – it was still the spark that set off serious and organized resistance among the Texians. And within six months, the war which threatened would become all too real and all too tragic, especially for Gonzales – which eventually suffered the loss of a good portion of leading male citizens – and even the physical town itself.
(Originally posted at my book-blog. The lead-in and aftermath of the ‘Come and Take It’ fight are dramatized in Daughter of Texas.)