Ghosts Of War

More than 250 years of history are hidden at battlefields across the state, waiting to be discovered. I made it my mission to visit the places—both famous and forgotten—where blood was shed and lives were lost in the creation of Texas. And with apologies to my old teachers, I learned more than I ever did in the classroom.
Donald M. Yena’s painting of the Goliad Massacre, in which James Fannin and his men were executed by Mexican troops on March 27, 1836 and Jeff Wilson’s February 26, 2009, photograph of the presidio, which has been reconstructed.

God love her, Peggy Bayless got a lot of it wrong. So did many of the people who taught Texas history to our seventh-graders over the generations. Miss Bayless’s shortcomings were exposed recently during a three-month odyssey in which I visited battlegrounds all over the state. Time and again I learned about signal events that she had never mentioned and that I had never dreamed occurred. The trip covered more than a thousand miles and took me from the upper reaches of the Panhandle to the southernmost tip of the coast. The journey was an eye-opener, history exposed to the glare of fresh research and firsthand exploration.

I learned, for example, that the Texas Revolution—the original one at least—began not in 1835, as I was taught in the Arlington public school system by the learned Miss Bayless, but in 1812. That was the year the Republican Army of the North swept across the Sabine and later captured Nacogdoches, Goliad, and San Antonio from the royalist government of Spain before declaring independence on April 6, 1813. As Frank de la Teja, the chair of the history department at Texas State University, in San Marcos, has pointed out, when we celebrate Texas Independence Day, we should remember April 6, 1813, as well as March 2, 1836.

The Republican Army of the North was a ragtag band of Mexicans, Tejanos, Anglos, and American Indians commanded by José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, a native of the Rio Grande town of Revilla, and Augustus Magee, a former U.S. Army lieutenant. Gutiérrez was a patriot, Magee an adventurer. Their invasion of Texas from the no-man’s-land along the Louisiana border was the first step in a grander plan to free all of Mexico from the hated Spanish government. It resulted in the short-lived Green Flag Republic of Texas, so called because of the color of its battle flag.

That’s right, Miss Bayless, more than six flags flew over Texas. In fact, as I learned during my reporting, the correct number is closer to nine. There’s also a red-and-white banner that James Long and his filibusters flew when they occupied Presidio La Bahía, at Goliad, in 1821, and a flag with a red severed arm and a bloody sword that flew over the fortress a few months before the Texas Declaration of Independence (the one in 1836, that is).

My great adventure was conceived last summer on a visit to San Antonio when, in one of those eureka moments, it dawned on me that we’ve always treated battlefields as shrines rather than historical sites. We’ve forgotten why they are important, how they are interconnected, and how they shape our destiny. We protect the Alamo’s two remaining original structures, the chapel and long barracks, as if they were irreplaceable jewels, but we mostly ignore Alamo Plaza, where much of the fighting took place. The plaza has been allowed to degenerate into a commercial mess: The west wall, which was once William B. Travis’s headquarters, is now occupied by Ripley’s Believe It or Not; the north wall, where he died, is a post office.

So after consulting with several prominent historians and writers, I put together a highly subjective list of battlegrounds that had a special appeal to me and hit the road. I learned that some of our most interesting and important sites are sadly overlooked, a tragedy given the ferocious birth of our state. In so many ways, our history is written in the blood of the men and women—Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and Anglo—whose lives ended in violence. We’ve made almost no effort to understand these battles or tell people how to find their locations. Small wonder they are largely forgotten. I made it my mission to remember.

The Massacre at the San Sabá Mission

Location: Near Menard

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