by Charles M. Yates
"....The citizens of this municipality are all our enemies except those who have joined us heretofore; we have but three Mexicans now in the fort; those who have not joined us in this extremity, should be declared public enemies, and their property should aid in paying the expenses of the war...."
This passage from one of Travis' last letters to leave the besieged Alamo has always troubled me, as I am sure it has others. He had been surrounded by the Mexican Army for about ten days and yet the townspeople of Béxar had not rallied to his aid. While I am sure that some of the residents of Béxar were supporters of the Santanista cause; I am equally sure that many had a much more compelling reason, dating back some two decades, to be reticent about supporting revolutionary causes.
In August of 1812 a large group of adventurers, predominately from the United States, led by Augustus Magee and José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara congregated in the no mans land between Louisiana and Spanish Texas. Surreptitiously backed by the United States and with the full knowledge of President James Monroe, they crossed the Sabine River with the intent of freeing Texas from Spanish rule. Through propaganda and force of arms, they quickly over whelmed the Spanish garrison at Nacogdoches. They then proceeded to capture La Bahía and were soon threatening the largest settlement in Texas: Béxar. Magee had died, apparently from natural causes, shortly before the taking of La Bahía and this left Gutiérrez in preeminent command of the insurrectionist forces. Along the way to Béxar their ranks were swollen by liberal Mexicans, ex-Spanish soldiers, native born Tejanos and Indian allies to create a formidable army.
On March 29, 1813, a brief and bloody battle, known as the Battle of Rosillo, took place between the Republican insurgents and the Royalist garrison of Béxar just south of town. The Spanish force was routed and forced to retreat back into Béxar. In order to spare needless bloodshed, the Spanish military commander and Governor of Texas, Manuel Salcedo, agreed to capitulate and turn the town over to the insurgents. The rebels were welcomed by the residents of Béxar, many of whom had liberal leanings. Many of the Spanish soldiers who were garrisoned in Béxar even joined the rebel cause, along with many of the residents.
The Spanish government was in no mood to tolerate this threat of independence on the part of one of its internal departments. It had only been two years since Spain had put down the first attempt at Mexican independence led by a priest from Dolores named Father Hidalgo. The Spanish government had dealt harshly with Father Hidalgo and his followers and they would do the same with the insurgents in Béxar. Spain sent their most able and ruthless military leader, Colonel Joaquín de Arredondo, north to deal with the crisis.
Between March and August of 1813 the condition of the government of the newly independent Texas was anything but stable. In April, Gutiérrez formally declared an independent state and set up an interim junta to assist him in governing the new state. Gutiérrez ordered Salcedo and his officers to be taken to the Texas coast and placed on a ship bound for Tampico. Without orders and unbeknownst to the rebel leaders, the officer in charge of taking the captured Spanish officers to the coast brutally murdered them a few miles outside Béxar and left their mutilated bodies to the wild animals. Many in the rebel leadership were horrified when they found out what happened to Salcedo. Some of the prominent Anglos wanted no further part of the expedition and went back to the States. Many of the Indians became bored and went back to their villages.
By July, Gutiérrez had fallen out of favor with the Anglo portion of his army and the agents of the United States. Through a series of shenanigans that would have made Machiavelli proud, the junta governing Texas was persuaded by these agents to replace Gutiérrez with José Alvarez de Toledo. The composition and leadership of the insurgent force was changing, however the rebel force in Béxar could still field 1200 to 1400 effectives.
In early August, Béxar got word of Arredondo's march from the south. Toledo decided to spare the village the trauma of a siege or battle and elected to ambush Arredondo outside of town. On August 18, 1813 the stage was set for the largest and bloodiest land battle ever fought on Texas soil. The insurgent force of approximately 1400 men waited in ambush for the force of approximately 1800 Spaniards. In a complex series of miscalculations and misfortunes the rebels lost the element of surprise but the battle was joined nonetheless. The battle raged for several hours in the hot August sun through the dry, sandy country south of Béxar. Soon both forces were near exhaustion. At one point both forces broke off the engagement and were in the midst of retreating when Arredondo suddenly realized he had routed the rebel forces. He rallied his men and drove the rebels all the way back to Béxar.
During the rout back to Béxar, Arredondo's men slaughtered every rebel they could lay their hands on. The wounded rebels were summarily dispatched, their bodies quartered and the various body parts hung from tree limbs along the way. The brutality of the rout would be exceeded in the days to come.
Panic gripped Béxar. Combatants and non-combatants alike fled for their lives toward Nacogdoches and the safety of the United States beyond. Arredondo sent soldiers after the refugees. It was understood by these soldiers that the taking of prisoners was not a priority and that Spanish justice should be administered quickly and efficiently to any rebel or their family that was caught. It was.
John Villars, an American from Kentucky, describes what happened next:
"Aradondo on ariving at Béxar made prisoners of every woman whose husbands were suspected of being friendly to the cause of the Revolution, and placed them in a place called Cuinta (La Quinta), where they were made to grind corn for the use of the army. The captives taken at Trinity were placed with them. They were treated with great brutality, whipped, ravished, and maltreated in every possible form; and they constituted the best portion of the population-- The brute who were placed as overseer over them was a sargent called Acosta, black ferocious villian who violated some of the prisoners daily and whipped others for their resistence.
Aradondo had in Béxar, among the males about three hundred prisoners, which he put in irons; and daily executed some of them in a manner most shocking; first shooting them, then dragging them around the public square, and then cutting off their arms and legs and placing them on public places-- These scenes continued until he dis[posed] of the most unfortunate of these fellows.-- The few who were not executed were liberated on the birth day of Ferdinand (October 14).
The Battle of Madina was fought on the 18th of August 1813. Aradondo left Béxar April 1814, leaving a strong garrison behind, and taking with him 13 or 15 american prisoner to monterey, where he set them at liberty; the narrator of these events being one of them."
Many of those who watched Arredondo's repriasals were the wives, daughters, mothers, sons and brothers of the men executed. The small children of the imprisoned women were turned out into the street and forced to beg for survival. If not for a few kind souls, many of these children would have perished. Upon release, the women found their men gone, either fled or executed; their children terrified and their property confiscated. Arredondo wanted to make certain the people of Béxar would never forget the price of insurrection.
The village of Béxar, at the time containing only about 1700 inhabitants, did not soon forget. The ferocity of Arredondo haunted them for years afterward. As late as September of 1817, the last Spanish Governor of Texas, Antonio Martinez, complained to his superiors that "...the houses confiscated from the rebels were useless because they cannot be rented due to the prevailing state of poverty and because of their dilapidated condition...".
Fast forward 22 years. By 1835 Béxar had grown to about 2200 residents, but many of the same families who had lived in Béxar in 1813 were still there. Names like Navarro, Menchaca, Tarin, Esparza and several others appear in the archives throughout the period. Near the end of 1835 a band of about 300 predominately Anglo settlers showed up outside Béxar and laid seige to the town. After vacillating for several weeks they attacked and defeated the Mexican Army garrison under General Cos and set up a provisional government. They then turned to the local populace and, in essence, said, "We are free men now. We have thrown off the yoke of oppression and ousted the despots. Come join us!"
But the residents of Béxar still remembered the first Texas Revolution. They also remembered the price paid for the failure of that first attempt. They remembered something else: a young lieutenant serving with Arredondo's army of retribution, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. As events progressed into February, 1836, the remaining 150-odd Alamo defenders were surrounded by a Mexican military force numbering approximately twice the number of Béxar inhabitants and headed by a man whose methods the residents knew all too well.
If I had been a resident of Béxar in early 1836 and my family had lived through the aftermath of the Battle of Medina, I'm afraid my response to the new defenders of the Alamo would have been "Hmmm. Been there; done that." And yet a handful of the locals still joined the Texian ranks and died behind the Alamo walls. Those few residents of Béxar who joined Travis in the Alamo may have been the only ones in the Alamo to fully comprehend the danger they faced, and yet they stayed. In a group of some of the most courageous men the world has ever known, this small group stands out.
It has been 23 years since the United States extricated itself from the Viet Nam War and still it is a touchstone of sorts. It was such a disastrous experience that even today when the United States debates sending troops to Bosnia, the Middle East or some other hotspot, someone always warns about the dangers of becoming involved in "another Viet Nam". We are not removed from those people of Béxar in 1836. We remember the past just as they did and try, albeit vainly at times, not to repeat it.
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