History Friday – The Angel of Goliad

A project for the Tiny Publishing Bidness this week reminded me again of a woman and incident in Texas history; a woman about whom very little is actually known, but has a full-length statue, a monument to her on the grounds of the old citadel of La Bahia, near Goliad, Texas. Her given name was Francisca or maybe Francita, but what her birth surname was is not known. Anything about her background, family and education is unknown, save that they were supposed to have been good. It is known that she was orphaned as a small child, raised by respectable connections and eventually became the common-law wife and companion of one Captain Telesforo Alavez, who already had legally-wed spouse. There are no contemporary images of her, and no interviews with newspaper writers or historians later in her long life. Her only mark and image remain in the memories and memoirs of the men whose lives she saved – an image of a brave and fiercely moral woman, unafraid to protest the evil of cruelty and murder. Thereby, as the saying goes, hangs a tale.

Francisca or Francita Alavez became known for her actions before, during and after the massacre of Texian troops and volunteers in 1836 at the Presidio la Bahia at Goliad, after being defeated after a bloody fight at Coleto Creek. I had blogged about this incident in the Texas War for Independence a while back – about how it was not nearly as well-remembered as the last stand at the Alamo. One was a gallant and heroic last stand, the other a particularly sordid mass execution ordered by Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the dictator and turncoat Federalist, a man of conveniently elastic virtue.
The presidio at La Bahia, like the Alamo, was another of those fortified strongholds in Spanish and then Mexican Texas. The Texian commander, James Fannin dithered and delayed, finally withdrew from it under orders, but was surrounded on the open prairie by Mexican forces under the command of General Jose de Urrea, and negotiated a surrender after his troops were pounded flat by Mexican artillery. Disarmed, and marched back to the old presidio, both General Urrea and the survivors expected to be paroled and kicked out of Texas. In the meantime, they were locked into the old presidio chapel (which still stands) at night and allowed during the day to go into the tiny courtyard adjoining it. General Urrea departed to conduct further operations in the field, leaving one of his subordinate commanders, Colonel Jose Nicholas de la Portillo in command of the old presidio. The general sent messengers to General and President Lopez de Santa Anna, then laying siege to the Alamo in San Antonio asking for clemency for his captives.

Unfortunately, Santa Anna was not in a particularly forgiving mood. He was brutally quashing a rebellion among Mexican states – a rebellion initiated after he had declared himself supreme leader and abrogated the 1824 Mexican Constitution. Texas was merely the last on his to-do list in that regard. In any case, Lopez de Santa Anna ordered Colonel Portillo to execute the captives as pirates and outlaws – all four hundred of them. Lopez de Santa Anna was not a man to be defied, although at least some of Portillo’s subordinate officers – and General Urrea himself were horrified. None the less, the orders were issued for execution. On Easter Sunday morning, the Texian prisoners who were fit to move were formed up into three groups of about a hundred each, marched out of the old presidio in three different directions under heavy guard … and within a short distance, the guards turned and opened fire on the unarmed prisoners. Those who survived point-blank fire were clubbed and bayonetted. About forty sick or wounded who were unable to move were dragged out of their beds and shot in the little courtyard by the chapel. James Fannin was executed last of all. The bodies were piled together, burned, and left out in the open to the buzzards and other scavengers. Their bones were found and buried later by the victorious Texans after the San Jacinto battle. A handful escaped in the confusion – but there were others who survived; kept out of the death march and hidden within the old presidio by sympathetic Mexican officers and one officer’s wife – Francisca or Francita Alavez.

For reasons unknown, Captain Alavez had deserted the official wife and her two children around 1834 and taken up with Francisca or Francita, instead. When he came to Texas early in the spring of 1836 with Lopez de Santa Anna’s task force to put down a continuing Federalist rebellion, Francisca accompanied him. She was considered his legitimate spouse and addressed as Senora Alavez. (Several other senior officers’ wives, and many ordinary soldier’s wives also came with their husbands; this was the ordinary custom of the time, the place, and that army.) That brief period in rebellious Texas is where Francisca Alavez made a shining mark in history – a shining mark of decency and moral courage. Early in March, 1836, at the very beginning of Urrea’s campaign, she is known to have successfully intervened on behalf of a Texian prisoner, Reuben Brown, taken at San Patricio, who were supposed to have been executed. Brown had refused a request from General Urrea that he go to la Bahia and convince Fannin to surrender right then and there. Brown refused and was about to be taken out and shot – but for the intervention of Senora Alavez and the local Catholic priest – who threatened to hold no more masses, if such orders were carried out – a very potent threat to devout Catholics.
Captain Alavez was serving as paymaster for Urrea’s forces and was first at the port of Copano with his wife – and then at La Bahia, following Fannin’s surrender. During the week that the Texians were held in the chapel compound, Francisca Alavez helped in tending to the wounded prisoners. She boldly took several men from the chapel during the nights and hid them in other parts of the compound or pleaded for some of them to be allowed liberty on account of their usefulness in various skills. She was aided in this by one of Portillo’s officers, the priest who had threatened to say no masses and by other officers who tactfully looked the other way – knowing that in war all things were possible. What they might do to the defeated might very well be done to them, were the fortunes of war reversed … as they very well might.

On the very Easter Sunday morning that the Texian prisoners were marched out of the presidio, Francisca Alavez even dared to have one prisoner removed from the doomed column – a fifteen-year-old boy soldier named Ben Hughes. After the massacre, it was reported that she publicly cursed Colonel Portillo and Lopez de Santa Anna for the disgrace which they had brought down on her country. She also went out and found one of the survivors, William Hunter, badly wounded and bayoneted, had him carried – or dragged him to a hiding place on the bank of the nearby San Antonio River. There she secretly cared for him, and when he had recovered enough to travel, gave him supplies so that he could travel.
From the Presidio, Francisca and her husband moved to Victoria, where she again protested abuse of the Texian prisoners at the hands of their captors and was unrelenting in her determination to prevent certain of them from being executed out of hand. And suddenly the war was done. To the shock of the rest of Mexico’s army, a substantial portion of it with Lopez de Santa Anna in command had been roundly defeated at San Jacinto. Lopez de Santa Anna had acquiesced to Sam Houston’s demands for Texan independence, and that his armies depart Texas without further ado.

And what happened to Francisca Alavez? Some accounts have it that she was abandoned by her husband almost at once upon their return to Mexico, but the one that I have relates that they lived in Matamoros for some years – and then he died or left her. She did have several children by Telesforo Alavez; one of them a son named Matias. Around the time of the centennial, interest in the events of 1836 was renewed and a published story in a Dallas newspaper brought forth the information from several elderly readers. One of them, Mrs. Elena O’Shea had once been a schoolteacher on the Santa Gertrudis division of the vast King Ranch. Matis Alavez was a worker there also, having been taken on the King Ranch strength in the 1880s. He had a family – and his aged mother came along with him. Richard King knew very well how Francisca Alavez had rescued Texans so many years before. Elena O’Shea recalled her as a very elderly bedridden woman. When she died, she was buried on the ranch. Her grandson, Matias’ son Gerardo later became ranch foreman of the Santa Gertrudis division.
And that, as Paul Harvey used to say – is the rest of the story.
The Angel of Goliad appears in this novel by John Willingham, which I thought to be very good; a sympathetic retelling of the fate of Fannin’s garrison at La Bahia. She also appears very briefly at the beginning of my own novel: Adelsverein – The Gathering.

Carl saw there were people at the gate, watching them march past; two well-dressed women and a little girl, with an officer and a sergeant attending them. The officer had more gold braid on his fine coat than any of the others, so Carl reckoned that he was one of their high officers. The younger woman looked very sad and distraught. She turned and spoke to the older woman and the officer and seemed to point at Carl and Ben. She looked as if she would weep and Carl wondered why. The gold-braid officer spoke to the sergeant, who bawled for the column to halt, and the officer came right up to the Becker brothers and Ben Hughes.
“You two . . . you are just boys, too young for this. Senora Alavez would have you stay. She insists.”
At a nod from the officer, the Mexican sergeant took Ben by the arm and pulled him away from the column and would have taken Carl, but that Carl resisted, saying,
“He is my brother, Pa told us we should stay together.” And Rudi set his arm around Carl’s shoulders and glowered at the officer.
He looked at them for a long moment, seeming to chew on his mustache, before he said again, “It would be better for you to go with Senora Alavez, boy.”
“I’ll stay with my brother,” Carl said firmly.
The officer looked sad and answered, “If that is your choice. Go with your brother, boy. Go with God.” He nodded curtly at the sergeant who bawled at the column to move again. The last sight Carl had of Ben was of him standing between the two women, watching after the marching column with a bewildered look on his young face. The officer looked as if he too were about to weep like the younger woman, and Carl wondered why.

11 thoughts on “History Friday – The Angel of Goliad”

  1. @ Mom: When, for a couple decades, I did field service work, many trips took me to central Texas. Your posts re Texas history inspired my already existing tendency to stop at roadside historical markers. Your snippets helped unpack some of the story of German immigrants. And, connected to the Original Post, your summary of Goliad, coupled with some subsequent net research, greatly aided my appreciating a couple huge paintings in Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum. (I hope they still are on display; for a couple years the museum has been closed for reconstruction, at least some of which is provoked by or promoting ‘woke’ evaluations of and retelling of history.)

  2. Glad that you found the posts entertaining and illuminating, Roy.
    One of the historians that I read a while back suggested that Lopez de Santa Anna’s actions – in regard to the Alamo and Goliad – brought his defeat at San Jacinto down on his own head.
    The Texians were rather divided, and a large element was not really keen on rebellion … until the fall of the Alamo, with no quarter given to the Texian garrison – and then ordering Fannin’s men all executed, rather than being paroled and thrown back on the US… it focused attention. It was either fight or die.
    If Lopez de Santa Anna had not been so brutal, the Texian rebellion might have fizzled out under the weight of his occupying army.

  3. Sgt Mom: “If Lopez de Santa Anna had not been so brutal, the Texian rebellion might have fizzled out …”

    There are so many points in history where small changes then would have resulted in major differences in our world today, including in the boundaries of what we think of as countries. What if Texas had remained part of Mexico? What if Napoleon had not needed the money, and the Louisiana Purchase had never taken place? What if the Czar had not needed money and Russia had held on to Alaska, and maybe taken parts of Canada too? In the future, people may ask: What if Biden*’s handlers had not thrown open the southern border?

  4. Santa Ana, and his campaigns seem to lose territory for Mexico, I joke in part had they brought him out of exile in Cuba, we would now own Northern Mexico, there is a certain parallelism with Israel and the Arab Armies, the Hashemites and the Fatimids had seized the adjacent provinces of the West Bank and Gaza respectively, and lost them in 67, had Syria not served as a base for Fatah and other outfits in that period, they would still hold the Golan heights

    Willaim Gibson’s Difference Engine, suggests a scenario similar to that premise, an early steam punk exercise, Britain was under the Cromwellian influence of Wellington, the colonies were mostly dis united and Mexico still holds the South West, If Nicholas the first had not blundered into Crimean War, it’s possible Alexander 2nd might not have had to give up Alaska, I’m sure he’s not regarded well by the current Siloviki

  5. Gavin: The Tsar didn’t need money. Alaska was almost worthless to Russia. They’d wanted to unload it for a decade – in part because it could easily be seized by Britain.

    As to small tweaks in history leading to major border changes: if Henry Clay had won the very close presidential election of 1844, there would have been no Mexican War, and the US might never have acquired the Southwest. Texas annexation was almost a done deal already, but the border would be at the Nueces, not the Rio Grande. And unless the Mexicans wanted to fight their way across the Grand Canyon, there would be an independent state of Deseret where Utah is; the Mormons might still practice polygamy.

    OTOH, if Nicholas Trist, the US negotiator with Mexico, had accepted dismissal by President Polk, the US would have acquired more territory, including Baja California.

  6. At the time of Guadalupe Hidalgo, there were only three areas of “civilization” such as it was, Texas, the Rio Grande Valley and California. Mexico had lost control of Texas and California and it was only a matter of time before they lost the upper Rio Grande. The rest was an Indian infested, uninhabited by Europeans, arid, wasteland that was considered uninhabitable aside from a few isolated settlements.

    Texas and California were entering the Union regardless of anything Mexico could do and the Rio Grande was nothing but a string of Pueblos and small farms that was completely indefensible from a military standpoint. But most important, the Rio Grande lay athwart the Southern Route to California and Manifest Destiny was not going to be denied.

    Mexico decided to trade what they no longer had along with what they never wanted for some gold and peace.

  7. MCS: “Mexico decided to trade what they no longer had along with what they never wanted for some gold and peace.”

    That is a fair point. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger issue — what we think of today as the sacred inviolable borders of countries (well, the boundary of the Ukraine, if not the boundary of the US) are mostly happenstances of history.

    Think of Alsace-Lorraine between Germany & France. Scotland & England became unified because of the accidents of royal lineage and the failure of the English ruler to produce an heir. Northern Ireland is united with England & Scotland because of bad things that were done centuries ago. What if the Canadian colonies had decided to join the American colonies in the Revolution? What if the Hawaiians had rejected joining the US?

    All countries’ boundaries are (to a greater or lesser extent) arbitrary and the products of historical accidents.

  8. well it was only a matter of time, Santa Ana did have a habit of provoking Settlers, kind of like Nasser in that way, or Sadat who was in his chain of command, the slave holding states did want to expand their territory, and they held the balance of power in the congress,

  9. “All countries’ boundaries are (to a greater or lesser extent) arbitrary and the products of historical accidents.”

    All country’s borders are determined by their willingness and ability to defend them, or not.

  10. I love your stories of Texas history, Sgt Mom.

    I seem to remember in my old foggy memory that Sam Houston could have inprisoned Santa Anna or executed him and he let him go

    Which again my memory is suspect but I believe he let him go to his later regret

    I have a friend from Houston who has origins that go back to Sam Houston. I tell her that she is Texas royalty and I’ve got to send this story on to her

    Thanks again!

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