Why all the fuss over a mud fort?

A small company of Texas rebels rode out of Goliad on Oct. 24, 1835 with orders to attack the government garrison at Fort Lipantitlan.

As conceived by Capt. Philip Dimitt during the early days of the independence uprising, the Lipantitlan Expedition had two important objectives: the rescue of a couple of rebel prisoners and the destruction of the strategic fortification on the Nueces River. And by “destruction” Dimitt made it crystal clear to Ira Westover that he meant the death or capture of each and every defender.

The perfunctory nod from the Massachusetts-born merchant indicated acknowledgment rather than agreement with the instructions. Dimitt might be a frontier barbarian with no respect for human life, but Westover refused on principle to shed any more blood than absolutely necessary.

While James Power, the Irish empressario, completed a preliminary reconnaissance, Westover rounded up the horses and supplies generously donated by the residents of Goliad and Victoria. Leaving under the cover of darkness to avoid detection by enemy spies, the 35-man column slipped out of Goliad and slowly wound its way west.

Picking up reinforcements as he went, Westover had 60 combatants at his side on the night of Nov. 4, 1835, when the mud fort on the Nueces came into view. In the hope that the size of his force would convince the garrison to give up without a fight, he called for a volunteer to parley with the Mexicans.

After lengthy negotiations that lasted almost until midnight, the emissary returned to report that the prisoners were no longer on the premises. They had been transferred to the interior to thwart any rescue attempt.

As for the enemy, only a small fraction of the full complement of a hundred troops was present. Acutely aware they were outnumbered nearly three to one, the 22 soldiers were quite willing to surrender.

However, as a condition of their capitulation, the Mexicans insisted upon parole rather than confinement as prisoners-of-war for the remainder of the Revolution. As per this curious nineteenth-century custom, they would be granted their freedom in exchange for their weapons and their solemn promise not to take up arms again for the duration of the current conflict.

Over the strenuous objections of several subordinates, who argued long and loud that their orders excluded such a questionable compromise, Westover cut the dubious deal. Total victory without firing a shot was, to his way of thinking, well worth risking Dimitt’s wrath.

Moments later, the smiling Mexicans stacked their guns and exited the mud fort. While Westover traded salutes with his counterpart, grumbling could be heard in the rebel ranks. If the tables were turned, the Texans asked each other, could they count on the enemy to be so accommodating?

After spending the night in the vacant fort, the Lipantitlan Expedition left the next morning for Goliad. Lying in wait at the nearby Nueces was the bulk of the government garrison, 80 or so soldiers eager to avenge the loss of their home base.

The Texans waded into the river oblivious to the danger. When their unsuspecting quarry was waist-deep in the murky water, the enemy sprang the trap.

Even though they had the numbers as well as the element of surprise, the Mexicans still took a licking. The gutsy insurgents fought their way to shore and inflicted heavy casualties on the ambushers.

The half-hour skirmish ended with the frantic retreat of the government troops. Twenty-eight were dead or disabled, while the lone wound suffered by a Texan was a finger neatly snipped off by a stray bullet.

Westover’s men pleaded for permission to pursue the mauled Mexicans, but the mild-mannered merchant ruled out any mopping-up action. He simply did not have the stomach for further fighting.

Upon his return to Goliad, Westover was raked over the coals by the indignant Capt. Dimitt for his direct disobedience. On top of the inexcusable parole of a score of enemy soldiers, his failure to finish off the routed garrison had resulted in the reoccupation of Fort Lipantitlan. In the final analysis, the expensive excursion had accomplished absolutely nothing at all.

But the temporary commander-in-chief of the rebel army had a diametrically different opinion. Stephen F. Austin hailed the Lipantitlan Expedition as an inspirational success and its squeamish leader as the first bona fide hero of the Texas Revolution.

Four months later, the out-dated idea that war was a gentleman’s game cost Ira Westover his life. He was one of the helpless hundreds slaughtered in the infamous Goliad Massacre.

Now you can use a credit card to buy “Unforgettable Texans,” Bartee’s new book, on his website “barteehaile.com.” And while you’re there do a little shopping in the “General Store.”

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