I died twice last weekend, along with several of my friends. As I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I joined the Texas Army, the state’s ceremonial 1836 re-enactment group. Last weekend was the annual re-enactment of the Goliad Massacre, held at Presidio La Bahia. Of all the re-enactments of the Texas Revolution, this is one is the best. I’ve observed it for several years as a spectator and photographer. This time I was a participant.
Being on the inside looking out gave me a much different perspective on life, death, and human interaction when facing both.
First, let’s set the scene and begin with a very brief historical perspective. Presidio La Bahia is located just south of Gonzales. It was held by Texian forces under the command of Col. James Fannin. After the fall of the Alamo, Gen. Sam Houston ordered Fannin to remove his force to Victoria. Just a few miles away from the mission, which Fannin renamed Fort Defiant, the Mexican Army caught them and they fought day and night. Hopelessly surrounded and the Mexican forces bolstered by reinforcements, the Texians surrendered the next morning and were marched back to the fort, this time as prisoners.
A week later, the Mexicans informed their captives that they were being paroled. They would march to the coast and take a ship to New Orleans and freedom. The Texians were divided into three groups and marched out on different roads. A short distance from the fort, a halt was ordered. The troops then loaded their weapons and fired on the defenseless prisoners. A small handful managed to escape, but more than 400 men were executed. Col. Fannin and others who were too wounded to march were executed outside the chapel in the presidio.
The anniversary of the massacre is commemorated each year at Presidio La Bahia. The original chapel still stands and the rest of the compound has been reconstructed to be as historically accurate as possible. The Catholic Diocese holds services in the chapel and has done so since 1853. The rest of the site serves as a museum.
The beauty of the two-day re-enactment is that not only does it take place at the exact historical site, but it is also in a rural setting and you do not have to contend with crowded and noisy city conditions. The location lends itself to being one of the best-attended Texas Revolution re-enactments because it is in reasonable distance for re-enactment groups from San Antonio to Houston. It is graciously hosted by the Crossroads of Texas Living History Association.
Saturday is the big day for spectators. They can visit the different camps and get a taste of what life was like in 1836. There are three battle re-enactments held that day. The first and third are full battles with artillery (cannons), infantry, and cavalry. I participated in both of those as an infantryman in the Kentucky Mustangs. The middle battle is cavalry only and gives those on horseback the chance to show off a little more than they can when surrounded by infantrymen and cannons.
The third battle is the Battle of Coleto Creek, which ends with the surrender of the Texian forces and a march back into the presidio. This is where I died the first time. As the battle was nearing an end, I just fell to the ground a played dead until we were given the order to resurrect and march out.
The battles are entertaining for the crowds and even more fun for us on the field “burning powder.” Once we’re captured, that’s where the fun ends and the solemnity takes over. In the evening the re-enactors hold a candlelight tour, where different scenes are acted out for groups to see. This is very poignant and at times can be difficult for small children to witness. They get to see the brutality of the Mexican forces and the suffering and death of the sick and wounded Texians. They also get to witness the humanity of the Mexicans as they struggled with the order from Santa Anna to kill all the captives when they would have preferred to set them free.
I was part of the group in the chapel, which is where the sick and injured were kept in crowded and very unsanitary conditions. We were lying on the floor, decorated with bloody bandages, where we moaned and cried out to visitors for food, water, and mercy. The poor guests were sternly instructed before entering to give nothing to the prisoners and to take nothing from them. The guests were paraded past us into a side room where a surgical scene was played out.
I don’t know if it was the sternness of the warning or the way we played our parts, but I observed a lot that evening as I watched hundreds of people from my spot on the cold and very hard floor. Almost all of them had solemn and dreadful looks on their faces. Very few would make eye contact with us, and if they did it was very brief. The average person just walked by with their head down and only stealing quick glances at us.
The very few that did look our way seemed honestly apologetic. The would mouth “I’m sorry” and shrug their shoulders indicating they wanted to help but couldn’t. I imagine that is how the homeless who beg on city streets must feel – seen but unseen, pitied but not sympathized.
I realized as I lay there that I responded the same way when I was a tourist. Between tour groups I would look around and try to imagine what it was really like back then. My wife’s fourth-great uncle was one of those captured and executed at Goliad. Was he one of the wounded in the chapel? If so, where in this tiny place was he? Who occupied the spot where I sat slouched on the floor? I was miserable after two hours on the floor. What must it have been like for hundreds of wounded, starving, thirsty, dirty, and smelly men who were crammed in there for nearly a week with almost nothing to eat or drink?
On Sunday morning came the re-enactment of the massacre. The Mexican forces marched us out of the fort under the pretense of taking us to our freedom. A short ways out in an open field we stopped. As the soldados (soldiers) loaded their weapons, it dawned on us what was happening. As we turned to run, they fired. Most of us fell. A few survived and ran. They were gunned down. I fell in the first volley. It was my second death of the weekend.
My wife and son were among the spectators and Sandy told me she overheard a child asking his mother why we didn’t get up when everyone else left to return to the fort. Eventually we did, but I think the re-enactment brought the history to life in a meaningful and memorable way. The weekend was fun, poignant, sad, thrilling, and many other unspoken feelings wrapped up in one emotional package.
You have an opportunity to see the next re-enactment in our own back yard as the Runaway Scrape takes place at George Ranch Historical Park in Richmond on April 7. Two weeks later is the finale at San Jacinto on April 21. If you have not seen these events before, I encourage you to come out and experience Texas history in a way you can’t get in a classroom or on TV.