(UPDATE: Due to the ITC fire in Deer Park, the San Jacinto celebration and re-enactment have been canceled this year.)
Don’t expect to see a whole lot of me for the next three weeks unless you’re a Texas history buff, in which case you might be seeing me quite a bit.
As a member of the Texas Army – the ceremonial re-enactment group of the Texas Revolution – the next few weeks are going to be ridiculously busy. Because of the way the calendar lines up this year, we have three major events in a row. It begins this weekend in Goliad with the re-enactments of the Battle of Coleto Creek and the Fannin Massacre. They take place at Presidio La Bahia, a beautifully reconstructed fort which contains the original chapel and many rooms from what was briefly dubbed Fort Defiant.
The next Saturday, April 6, is the Runaway Scrape at George Ranch Historical Park. This event has been growing in popularity over the last few years and is a must-see for Texas history aficionados. This is followed by the largest celebration of the year, the re-enactment of the Battle of San Jacinto. It takes place April 13 at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site. Normally it would be a week later on the same weekend as the April 21 anniversary of the fateful battle but it was moved up a week due to Easter.
So, why should my busy schedule concern you? It’s not about me but the rich, engaging Texas history that I want you to come and experience. What most people know about this period of Texas’ storied past ended with their seventh grade history class. Sadly, a lot of that education either glossed over those momentous events or were incorrect to begin with. I know this from talking with people at the different re-enactments.
Growing up in Colorado, no one taught us Texas history. Any mention of the Alamo or the Texas Revolution was done in passing and probably didn’t even rate a question on a history test. So, when I moved to the Houston area 10 years ago I was very naïve and unknowledgeable about this very unique period of history. I had heard the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” but had no understanding of what it meant. I could not comprehend why people would want to remember a battle that ended in a terrible loss.
Today I understand it full well. The reason I know and care about it is because I started going to re-enactments and learning about it.
The first event I went to was at Washington-on-the-Brazos in 2009. That event celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence. My first exposure to the Texas Army was to watch the firing demonstrations of the muskets and cannons. There were no battles fought there, so the Army only does demonstrations. I thought it was cool because I used to shoot a black powder rifle during my days working as a mountain man at the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch in Red Feather Lakes, Colo., in the mid-1980s.
That triggered an interest in me to see other battle re-enactments in the area. Over the next few years I took my family to see re-enactments at George Ranch and San Jacinto. They were a lot of fun and very informative. In 2014, however, a couple things changed that ramped up my interest. The first was during a visit to Goliad when we discovered that my wife Sandy’s fourth-great uncle, Zachariah Short, was one of those massacred there. He was a fourth sergeant under Capt. Jack Shackelford’s company of Alabama Red Rovers. Suddenly we had a very real and direct connection to the Texas Revolution.
Also that year I got the idea of doing a book about the Texas Revolution re-enactors. I had seen plenty of books about Civil War and Revolutionary War re-enactors, but nothing on the Texas Revolution. So the following season I began following the Army around and shooting them with my Canon. For three years as an observer and the last year as a participant I made the rounds taking tens of thousands of photos and conducting countless interviews.
I began in 2015 back at Washington-on-the-Brazos and then followed it up with my one and only trip to the Alamo re-enactment in San Antonio. That year was the last time the re-enactors were allowed to do their thing at the Shrine of Texas Liberty. The next year the General Land Office took over the Alamo and moved the re-enactments off site.
The San Antonio Living History Association does do regular events at the Alamo but nothing on the scale of the old re-enactments. My hat is off to my friends in this group as they work very diligently to make sure the world does not forget not only what happened at the Alamo, but why. From the perspective of Santa Anna and his Mexican government, he was quashing a rebellion. From the Texian perspective, they were fighting to free themselves from a dictatorship. The 13-day siege ended on the morning of March 6, 1836, with the battle and deaths of the Alamo defenders.
From there we go to Goliad and Presidio La Bahia. Renamed Fort Defiant, the troops garrisoned there were under the inept command of Col. James Fannin. He failed to answer the call to reinforce the Alamo. Finally following orders to join Gen. Sam Houston’s men, he marched eastward only to stop for a break short of the sheltering cover of trees and the waters of Coleto Creek. There they were caught and surrounded by Mexican forces. After a two-day battle, Fannin and over 300 men, many wounded, surrendered and were marched back to Presidio La Bahia. Over the next week or so more than 100 other men were captured and imprisoned there.
On March 27, 1836, the prisoners were led to believe they were going to be sent back to the United States and freedom. They were marched out in three different directions, halted, and summarily executed. Fannin and a few others who were too wounded to march were killed back inside the fort.
The re-enactment of this event is outstanding for a number of reasons. First, it takes place at the actual spot where the real events occurred. Second, hosted by the Crossroads of Texas Living History Association, it is centrally located so an unusually large number of re-enactors from different groups attend. Third, due to its spacious and rural setting, there is plenty of room to accommodate large crowds. Finally, the candlelight tour in the evening is incredibly poignant.
That brings us back home to the Runaway Scrape at George Ranch. This is the smallest of the major re-enactments but the easiest for locals here to reach. It depicts the flight of civilians and the Texas Army as they fled the advancing Mexican forces and burned their homes and villages behind them, most notably San Felipe de Austin, to keep the spoils out of the hands of the enemy. No cabins are burned at George Ranch, but there are some cool battles to see.
This was a most frustrating period in time because so many wanted to avenge the Alamo and Goliad, but Houston knew they were in no condition to do so. Ruthlessly pursued by Santa Anna, Houston soon delivered the “Napoleon of the West” his Waterloo in the marches of San Jacinto. On April 21, 1836, Houston’s army caught the Mexicans, exhausted from the march, during a siesta and within 18 minutes routed the enemy and won their freedom.
This re-enactment is celebrated each year with a festival at the San Jacinto Battlefield State Historic Site. Thousands of people come out where they enjoy a carnival-like setting at the monument and then witness the glorious battle, complete with pyrotechnics, on the west side of the grounds.
I will be at all of these events in my period dress. I will also return to San Jacinto on April 21 for the annual San Jacinto Day Ceremony, at which time I will be made a full colonel in the Texas Army. I joined the Army last year and have completed all but two of the requirements for promotion. Potential colonels must first attend five events. They must then “shoot your plate.” That is a marksmanship requirement to shoot a paper plate five consecutive times at a range of 50 yards. That doesn’t sound too hard until you try to do it on a windy day with a muzzleloader.
I must now make a $100 donation to the Army’s general fund and also complete an essay showing I have knowledge of the Texas Revolution. You, my friends, are witness to the latter as I will formally submit this column as my essay.
Now, if only finishing my book were so easy. As I have been saying for the last four-plus years, yes, I am still working on it and yes, I will finish it this year. But first it’s time to burn some powder. Y’all come out and see us!