The battle of Coleto, the culmination of the Goliad Campaign of 1836, occurred near Coleto Creek in Goliad County on March 19 and 20, 1836. Originally called "the battle of the prairie" and "la batalla del encinal [oak grove] del Perdido [Creek]," it was one of the most significant engagements of the Texas Revolution. The battle, however, cannot properly be considered as isolated from the series of errors and misfortunes that preceded it, errors for which the Texas commander, James W. Fannin, Jr., was ultimately responsible. The most exasperating decision confronting Fannin was whether to abandon Goliad after having fortified it, and if so, when. He had already been informed of Gen. José de Urrea's advancing Mexican army by Plácido Benavides, after the defeat of Texas forces under Francis W. Johnson and James Grant at the battles of San Patricio and CreekAgua Dulce. The Mexican advance caused the Texans to abandon the port of Copano, thus making Goliad considerably less important strategically, as Fannin knew. He had received word that the Alamo had fallen as well. Still, he continued to fortify Fort Defiance, as he christened the La Bahía presidio, and awaited orders from superiors to abandon the site, knowing also that a retreat would not be well received among his men, who were eager to confront the Mexicans.
More immediately consequential to the battle of Coleto was Fannin's dispatching Amon B. King's men and then William Ward and the Georgia Battalion to Refugio, a move primarily induced by the activities of Carlos de la Garza and his rancheros, who were operating as advance cavalry for General Urrea. Not only did the decision to send Ward and King into Urrea's known path dangerously divide the Goliad garrison, thus reducing by about 150 the men Fannin would be able to bring against Urrea at Coleto Creek, but the move became the main reason Fannin waited so long to abandon Goliad. He refused to do so until he learned of King and Ward's fate, even after he received Sam Houston's order to fall back to Victoria. Since King had taken the Goliad garrison's wagons and teams with him to Refugio, however, Fannin delayed his retreat further, awaiting the arrival of Albert C. Horton's men from Guadalupe Victoria, who were bringing needed carts and twenty yokes of oxen garnered by army quartermaster John J. Linn. Accounts are not in agreement, but Horton apparently arrived by March 16. In addition, by capturing virtually all of Fannin's couriers sent to find King and Ward, Urrea learned the details of the Goliad commander's plans and schemed accordingly. Fannin, however, was unable to find out his opponent's true strength or position, though on March 17 Horton's cavalry did discover Col. Juan Morales approaching with the Jiménez and San Luis battalions, 500 veterans of the battle of the Alamo whom Antonio López de Santa Anna had sent from Bexar to reinforce Urrea.
Fannin finally learned of King and Ward's defeat in the battle of Refugio from Hugh McDonald Frazer on March 17, but he still did not order the retreat to Victoria until the next day. March 18 was spent instead in a series of skirmishes between Horton's cavalry and Urrea's advance forces, which by then had reached Goliad. Fannin, thinking the fort was about to be besieged, kept the garrison on alert and attempted no retreat even that night, the result of a council decision based on Horton's observations. During this delay the oxen, which were to be hitched to the carts made ready for the removal to Victoria, were left unfed.
At last the Texans began their retreat, by 9:00 A.M. on March 19 under a heavy fog. Fannin insisted on taking nine cumbersome artillery pieces of various calibers and about 1,000 muskets, though he neglected to take enough water and food for more than a few meals. The carts were heavily loaded, the hungry oxen were tired and unruly, and progress was slow. Urrea, expecting to lay siege to the fort, was unaware of Fannin's departure until 11:00 A.M. But the Texans forfeited about an hour of their lead while crossing the San Antonio River; a cart broke down, and the largest cannon fell into the river and had to be fished out. Another valuable hour was lost when Fannin ordered the oxen detached for grazing after the column had proceeded about a mile past Manahuilla Creek. Jack Shackelford, Burr H. Duval, and Ira Westover protested this stop, arguing that the column should not rest until reaching the protection of the Coleto Creek timber. Shackelford particularly noted his commander's contempt for the Mexican army's prowess and his disbelief that Urrea would dare follow them-an assumption apparently common among Fannin's men.
Urrea had quickly left Goliad without his artillery and the full complement of his force in order to narrow Fannin's two-hour lead. Mexican sources indicate that he set out with eighty cavalrymen and 360 infantrymen. He discovered through his mounted scouts the location of Fannin's column and that the rebel force was considerably smaller than supposed, information that prompted him to return 100 infantrymen to Goliad to help secure Presidio La Bahía and escort the artillery ordered to join him as soon as possible. Horton's approximately thirty cavalrymen served as advance guards on all sides of Fannin's column. The unalert rear guard, however, which included Hermann Ehrenberg, failed to detect the Mexican cavalry. Meanwhile, the Texans had scarcely resumed the march after resting the oxen before another cart broke down; its contents had to be transferred to another wagon. Fannin then sent Horton to scout the Coleto Creek timber, now in sight, when the Mexican cavalry emerged from behind them. Upon overtaking the lumbering Texan position at about 1:30 P.M., the Mexican commander ordered his cavalry to halt Fannin's advance toward the protective timber. Fannin set up a skirmish line with artillery while the column attempted to reach Coleto Creek, about two miles distant.
Perceiving the danger, he then formed his men into a moving square and continued toward the closer timber of Perdido Creek, which was less than a mile away when the Texans were overtaken by Mexican cavalry. Caught in a valley some six feet below its surroundings, the Texans were trying to get to the more defensible higher ground about 400 to 500 yards distant, when their ammunition cart broke down. While Fannin called a council to determine the feasibility of taking what ammunition they could and reaching the timber, Urrea, seeing his advantage, attacked.
With little water, and situated in an open prairie covered with high grass that occluded vision of their enemy, Fannin's men made ready their defense. Their hollow square was three ranks deep. Each man received three or four muskets. Bayonets, rifles, more than forty pairs of pistols, and abundant ammunition complemented this arsenal. The San Antonio Greys and Red Rovers formed the front line; Duval's Mustangs and others, including Frazer's Refugio militia, formed the rear. The left flank was defended by Westover's regulars, the right by the Mobile Grays. The artillery was placed in the corners (except when moved as needed), and Fannin assumed a command position in the rear of the right flank. In addition, an outpost of sharpshooters formed around Abel Morgan's hospital wagon, which had become immobilized earlier when an ox was hit by Mexican fire.
Soon after Urrea's cavalry managed to stop Fannin's retreat, the Mexican general amassed his troops and attacked the square. The rifle companies under Morales assaulted the left, the grenadiers and part of the San Luis Battalion charged the right under Urrea's direct supervision, the Jiménez Battalion under Col. Mariano Salas attacked the front, and Col. Gabriel Núñez's cavalry charged the rear.
Sources differ widely about the numbers of men involved on March 19. Fannin defended his position with about 300 men. Urrea wrote that he had eighty cavalry and 260 infantry at the time the Texans were overtaken, a figure confirmed by Peña, who also stressed that most of the Mexican troops were Alamo veterans. Many Texas sources give unrealistically high numbers for Urrea's pursuit force. Clearly the Mexican general set out with only a small force of veteran troops to ensure catching Fannin, and left orders for a larger force, including artillery, to follow and aid in battling the Texans once they were caught. It seems likely that Urrea had between 300 and 500 men when he overtook Fannin, and after receiving reinforcements by morning, March 20, he had between 700 and 1,000.
The battle of Coleto lasted until after sunset on March 19. The Texans made effective use of their bayonets, multiple muskets, and nine cannons; their square remained unbroken. Dr. Joseph H. Barnard recorded that seven of his comrades had been killed and sixty wounded (forty severely), Fannin among them. The Mexican general was impressed with both the "withering fire of the enemy" and their ability to repulse his three charges. Ironically, Urrea retired because of ammunition depletion. His casualties were heavy as well, though accounts vary widely. He then positioned snipers in the tall grass around the square and inflicted additional casualties before Texan sharpshooters were able to quell these attacks by firing at the flashes illuminating the darkness. Ultimately, the Texans under Fannin suffered ten deaths on March 19.
Fannin's men hardly felt defeated and anxiously awaited Horton's return with reinforcements from Guadalupe Victoria. None came, however, for Horton was unable to cut through the Mexican lines. William Ward and the Georgia Battalion, defeated in the battle of Refugio, were close enough to hear the Coleto gunfire during their retreat to Victoria, but were exhausted and hungry. Urrea knew from captured couriers that Ward and Fannin would try to rendezvous at Victoria, so with the aid of Carlos de la Garza's men, he kept the Georgia Battalion isolated in the Guadalupe riverbottom until they surrendered. At the Coleto battlefield, Urrea posted detachments at three points around Fannin's square to prevent escape and kept the Texans on stiff watch throughout the night with false bugle calls.
Fannin's position became critical during the night because the lack of water and inability to light fires made treating the wounded impossible; the situation was made even more unbearable by a cold and rainy norther. The cries of the wounded demoralized everyone. The lack of water, which was required to cool and clean the cannons during fire, also guaranteed that the artillery would be ineffective the next day, especially considering that the artillerists had sustained a high number of casualties. Furthermore, ammunition was low. A council among Fannin and his officers weighing these facts concluded that they could not sustain another battle. The proposition to escape to the Perdido or Coleto creek timber under dark and before Urrea received reinforcements was rejected, since after much debate the men unanimously voted not to abandon the wounded, among whom the unwounded all had friends or relatives. They therefore began digging trenches and erecting barricades of carts and dead animals in preparation for the next day's battle. By the time this was completed, the Mexican position had been reinforced with munitions, fresh troops, and two or three artillery pieces from Goliad. Urrea placed his artillery on the slopes overlooking the Texan position and grouped for battle at 6:15 A.M., March 20.
After the Mexican artillery had fired one or possibly two rounds, Fannin was convinced that making another stand would be futile. Another consultation among his officers produced the decision to seek honorable terms for surrender for the sake of the wounded, and to hope the Mexicans would adhere to them. Fannin's men apparently drafted terms of surrender guaranteeing that they would be considered prisoners of war, that their wounded would be treated, and that they sooner or later would be paroled to the United States. But Urrea could not ratify such an agreement; he was bound by Santa Anna's orders and congressional decree to accept no terms other than unconditional surrender. He made it clear to Fannin in person that he could offer only to intercede on the Texans' behalf with Santa Anna. The extant document of capitulation, signed by Benjamin C. Wallace, Joseph M. Chadwick, and Fannin, shows that the Texas commander surrendered his men "subject to the disposition of the supreme government"; but Fannin apparently did not make this fact clear to his men, since survivors' accounts indicate that the Texans were led to believe they were surrendering honorably as prisoners of war and would be returned to the United States. This discrepancy is significant only in light of the ultimate fate of Fannin's command. Nevertheless, traditional Texan renditions inaccurately imply some insidious conspiracy in the surrender episode.
Those Texans able to walk were escorted back to Goliad. Texas physicians were made to care for the Mexican wounded to the neglect of their own men. Many of the Texas wounded were not transported to Goliad for three days; Fannin himself was left on the field for two. Urrea, meanwhile, continued his advance to secure Guadalupe Victoria, from where he wrote Santa Anna recommending clemency for the Goliad prisoners. One week after Fannin's surrender, however, Santa Anna bypassed Urrea and ordered Col. José Nicolás de la Portilla, the commander at Goliad, to carry out the congressional decree of December 30, 1835, that captured armed rebels must be executed as pirates. Fannin's entire command, together with William Ward and the Georgia Battalion, was shot in the Goliad Massacre on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836.
Although the battle of Coleto is usually considered meaningful only as a prologue to the massacre, it does have separate significance. The sequence of events underscores the tragedy of Fannin's inability to make timely decisions crucial for success. This disadvantage was worsened by his disrespect for the capabilities of his enemy and a reluctance, common in the Texas army, to coordinate campaigns. Urrea, by contrast, showed skill in staying alert to Fannin's plans, keeping the Texans inside the presidio an extra day, pursuing and catching them by taking advantage of every opportunity, and isolating Ward's men near Victoria while successfully battling Fannin's command at Coleto Creek. Still, the Texans, though most were relatively untrained volunteers, obeyed their commanders and withstood the onslaught of seasoned enemy troops. The intensity of this battle produced heroism on both sides.
The battle's greatest significance, however, remains bound up in its consequences. Urrea's victory gained him greater esteem in the army but also incurred the jealousy of other generals, especially Santa Anna, who had only recently suffered through his difficult victory at the Alamo. Ironically, the triumph caused overconfidence among Mexican leaders, who, like Santa Anna, now believed the campaign against the rebellion to be nearing a successful conclusion. Finally, it was the Goliad Massacre and not the defeat and surrender at Coleto Creek that soured United States opinion against Mexico and gave Houston and the Texas army the second half of the rallying cry that inspired victory at the battle of San Jacinto: "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" The assumed location of the Coleto battlefield is now maintained as Fannin Battleground State Historic Site by the Texas Historical Commission and is near Fannin, Texas (once called Fanning's Defeat), on U.S. Highway 59 between Goliad and Victoria.