While Santa Anna lay siege to the Alamo on Feb. 25, 1836, Gen. Jose Urrea was mopping up a forgotten fiasco known as the Matamoros Expedition.
In retrospect this harebrained military campaign stands out as the supreme folly of the Lone Star Revolution, a reckless roll of the dice that directly contributed in the slaughter at the Alamo and Goliad. But in the early days of the uprising, the invasion of Mexico offered a tempting and popular short-cut to victory.
San Antonio had not yet succumbed to the rebel blockade, when the sure-fire strategy was suggested on Nov. 29, 1835 by the spokesman for the New Orleans Greys. He explained that the Louisiana volunteers were tired of waiting for the encircled Mexican troops to surrender and were anxious to get the revolutionary show on the road by storming Matamoros at the southern tip of Texas.
The impatient proposal was eagerly embraced by Dr. James Grant, a frustrated empressario dead-set against independence, and Philip Dimmitt, commander of the Goliad garrison. Encouraging fellow Texans to take the offensive, Dimmitt wrote on Dec. 2 that the move against Matamoros “will enable us to hurl thunder back in the very atmosphere of the enemy.”
The seizure of San Antonio eight days later pushed the scheme to the top of the Texans’ agenda. The hazy plan was hastily adopted more on gut feeling than military merit.
Even Gov. Henry Smith and Sam Houston, who soon emerged as the chief critics of the expedition, initially jumped on the Mexico-bound bandwagon. Following instructions from his civilian superior, Houston put James Bowie in charge of the Matamoros mission on Dec. 16.
By the time the Council, the rebel ruling body, approved the attack on Christmas Day, the unpredictable Tennessee exile had changed his mind. Convinced the capture of the Mexican town would impede independence, Houston balked at obeying an order from the Council to lead the campaign.
Taking advantage of the chaos created by Houston’s insubordination, Francis W. Johnson convinced the confused Council on Jan. 3, 1836 to give him the assignment. When Johnson quit three days later after a quarrel with Gov. Smith, the task went to James Fannin. The next day, however, Johnson asked to be reinstated, and the Council solved the problem by sticking the expedition with a pair of co-commanders.
Infuriated by the replacement of his own choice, Gov. Smith sent Houston to the front on Jan. 8 in the hope he might reach the troops before Johnson and Fannin. Then on Jan. 10 the sharp-tongued Smith condemned the whole affair as a predatory escapade and his Council foes as snakes in the grass.
The members of the Council retaliated by declaring themselves “the immediate representatives of the people” and removing Smith from office. That same day lieutenant governor James Robinson filled the vacancy and in his first official act signed on as a supporter of the march on Matamoros.
Meanwhile, Houston personally punctured the respective bubbles of Grant and Johnson. After a lecture from Old Sam on the fatal flaws of the foolhardy adventure, all but 70 followers took a hike. Mission accomplished, Houston washed his hands of the Matamoros Expedition and vanished on an extended leave of absence.
While Grant and Johnson cried on Robinson’s shoulder, Col. Fannin reported on Feb. 4, “everything looks most propitious.” His diagnosis was, however, dangerously premature because two days later the advance party of Santa Anna’s invading legions was sighted.
Robinson did not have to read between the lines of Fannin’s next communication to realize the Georgian was badly shaken by the unexpected turn of events. In his reply of Feb. 13, the acting governor assured Fannin that the Matamoros offensive was as viable as ever and stubbornly insisted San Antonio and Goliad were safe from attack.
As Santa Anna surrounded the Alamo, Gen. Urrea systematically annihilated the scattered forces of the Matamoros Expedition. He surprised Francis Johnson at San Patricio on Feb. 27 killing or capturing all but five members of the 50-man contingent. Johnson was one of the fortunate five and would live until 1884.
Four days later, James Grant’s smaller group suffered a similar fate. The good doctor and 14 companions were killed, six were taken prisoner and the remaining half dozen escaped. Five of the six joined Fannin and perished in the Palm Sunday massacre.
Paralyzed by indecision and self-doubt, Fannin waited at Goliad for Gov. Robinson and the Council to tell him what to do. He ignored repeated appeals for reinforcements from the Alamo defenders and the pleas of his own staff to retreat before it was too late.
Unknown to Fannin, the Council had disbanded after Robinson’s last message. There was no one left to issue orders, and soon no one would be left alive at Goliad.
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