Matamoros Expedition of 1835–36

By: Craig H. Roell

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: August 2, 2020

An expedition to attack Matamoros, Tamaulipas, during the Texas Revolution was a controversial and divisive element of the Texas strategy against Antonio López de Santa Anna. The roots of the controversy lay in the division within the provisional government between Governor Henry Smith and the General Council over whether to remain loyal to the Constitution of 1824 and support the liberals of Mexico in the Federalist cause against Santa Anna or to declare independence from Mexico. This division within the provisional government was mirrored among the commanders in the field, compounding the situation and contributing ultimately to disaster. Despite its attraction to Texas leaders, the expedition eventually led to the fall of the provisional government and to the near destruction of the Texas army in 1836.

Land speculation also ultimately contributed to what Sam Houston called "Matamoros fever." At Monclova, Coahuila, in the spring of 1835 the Federalist governor and the legislature of Coahuila and Texas illegally sold 1,500 to 1,600 leagues of public land in Texas in an attempt to raise revenue to finance the cost of opposing Santa Anna's Centralist forces. Among the buyers, some of whom were interested as empresarios, were Ben Fort Smith, Green DeWitt, Benjamin R. Milam, Thomas J. Chambers, Haden Edwards, James Grant, Francis W. Johnson, Robert R. Peebles, Samuel M. Williams, and John T. Mason, the last of whom was working through José Antonio Mexía. News that Santa Anna's troops were en route to Monclova forced these speculators to return to Texas, soon pursued by the Mexican dictator.

When the General Council was formed in October, one of its prominent members, Sam Houston, proposed that the Consultation should investigate and declare void all suspicious grants made by the Coahuila and Texas state legislature since 1833, a move designed to show Texas residents that Santa Anna's march northward was not just the result of a "speculators' war." Houston's proposal drew protest from the interested parties, and some of the so-called Monclova speculators then sought to organize a Mexican Federalist revolution, to be fought largely by American volunteers. To this end Valentín Gómez Farías and Mexía stationed themselves at New Orleans, Mason organized the "Friends of Texas" in New York, and Williams went to New Orleans, then Mobile, and finally New York. Significantly, Williams and Thomas F. McKinney were business partners. Their firm, McKinney, Williams and Company, then the largest commission-merchant enterprise in Texas, helped finance the Texas Revolution and also allowed the provisional government the use of company vessels to transport troops and supplies. McKinney, who was opposed to Governor Smith and General Houston, particularly shaped the policy of the General Council and expected compensation for his contributions to the Texas cause through Williams's Monclova land sales. Thus, coincident with the decision within the council to declare for loyalty to the Constitution of 1824 or for Texas independence was whether to validate or annul the Monclova land grants. The decision to attack Matamoros and perhaps induce Tampico into revolution as well brought these various quarrels to crisis.

The port of Matamoros at the mouth of the Rio Grande was an important source of revenue, which if seized could be used to defray the cost of the war. The city also commanded a strategic position for possibly paralyzing Santa Anna's movement and for launching the war into the interior of Mexico. The idea of attacking Matamoros probably originated with the Texas Hispanics of the Trans-Nueces area together with the Federalist insurrectionists of Tamaulipas and Coahuila, who were hoping to amass under General Mexía; Mexía had earlier led a successful expedition against the Centralists at Matamoros in 1832 (see MEXÍA'S EXPEDITION). There is some indication that Santa Anna himself devised the scheme with the hope of dividing Coahuila and Texas forces and transforming the contest into a national one. But it was Philip Dimmitt, commander since about October 14, 1835, of the Texan garrison at Goliad (formerly called La Bahía), who publicized the idea. Dimmitt was a member of De León's Colony and had many contacts among the American and Mexican Texans (the Texians and Tejanos) of the Victoria-Goliad-Refugio-San Patricio area, notably John J. Linn, Fernando De León, Plácido Benavides, and James Power. Indeed, Dimmitt probably channeled more information about Mexican plans and movements to the provisional government than any other single source. He was convinced that a Texas maneuver against the Centralists at Matamoros "would be approved and sustained by a majority of people in that section of the country" and would be forthcoming very likely in late November or early December 1835. From among the Mexican liberals supporting the Federalist movement to preserve the Constitution of 1824, including Mexía, José de Urrea, Antonio Canales, and Antonio Zapata, Dimmitt suggested that Gen. Lorenzo de Zavala lead the assault.

Dimmitt communicated this plan to Gen. Stephen F. Austin, who also found it attractive, though Austin was more immediately concerned with assaulting Centralist forces under Martín Perfecto de Cos at San Antonio de Béxar. Austin also stressed that the expedition had to be led by a native Mexican such as Mexía to prevent charges of national or racial motivation. "Nothing will aid Texas so much as an expedition from New Orleans against Matamoros under Genl Mexia-It is all important," Austin wrote, because Mexía's success would help cause Cos's defeat by cutting off funds, troops, and supplies to Bexar. Austin also suggested that Zavala should publicize the project to the United States, because "even a rumor of such a thing would keep [Centralist] troops from being sent to Texas." Mexía, however, was preparing to launch an attack on Tampico instead. Zavala, who declined Dimmitt's invitation because of frail health, warned that a victorious attack on Matamoros would depend upon Mexía's success against Tampico.

During late 1835 Dimmitt pursued his plan against Matamoros, which by November had also gained the support of the General Council. Dimmitt's expedition against Fort Lipantitlán, a Texas victory that removed the only remaining fortified Centralist position between Bexar and Matamoros, was part of this strategy (see LIPANTITLÁN EXPEDITION). By mid-November 1835, however, Dimmitt began to doubt that the Federalists of the interior would be able to sustain the Constitution of 1824 with the Texans. He expressed his concern to Austin that an attack on Matamoros "would be as likely to be opposed as to be approved" by the citizens of northern Mexico. His concern stemmed from his learning of Mexican plans and movements through his contacts, and from his confrontation with James Grant and José María Viesca, the state's newly freed Federalist governor, who fled Monclova and passed through Goliad on the way to see Austin. Moreover, Mexía's attempt to stir up northern Mexican insurrection at Tampico in mid-November 1835 ended in defeat and helped to convince Dimmitt, along with Houston and Austin, that an expedition against Matamoros might suffer a similar fate (see TAMPICO EXPEDITION).

By this time the Goliad commander also increasingly favored complete independence for Texas, a move that would antagonize those claiming loyalty to the Constitution of 1824 and adhering to the Matamoros project. Nevertheless, Dimmitt continued to stress the advantages of occupying so strategic a position as Matamoros, and his contacts encouraged him to trust that Federalist cooperation would be forthcoming under Mexía, José María Gonzales, and Julian Pedro Miracle. In a widely publicized letter to San Felipe of December 2, he argued that the Matamoros revenues could help defray the cost of opposing Santa Anna, that the occupation of the port could possibly be used to barter peace, and that through the leadership of a Mexican national such as Mexía, a sizable force of Mexican Federalists and Texans could paralyze Santa Anna's movement and launch a war against the interior of Mexico. This missive in turn inspired Governor Smith to order Houston on December 17 to undertake the project, and concurrently, Lieutenant Governor James W. Robinson and Military Council chairman Wyatt Hanks to direct Gen. Edward Burleson to organize a Matamoros expedition as well.

Meanwhile, after the Texans captured Bexar in early December 1835 (see BÉXAR, SIEGE OF), most of the colonist-soldiers went home. Austin and then Burleson departed as commissioners to the United States, and Francis W. Johnson was elected to command the remaining army, which now primarily consisted of volunteers from the United States, who were becoming restless. A campaign against Matamoros would help retain their service. On December 17 Houston, operating under Smith's direction, wrote James Bowie, then at Goliad, "in the event you can obtain the services of a sufficient number of men . . . you will forthwith proceed . . . to Matamoros, and, if possible reduce the place and retain possession until further orders." At any rate, Bowie was to secure the port of Copano, which was Houston's proposed point of debarkation. The next day Houston ordered David B. Macomb, Almanzon Huston, and John A. Wharton to proceed as Texas agents to New Orleans to purchase supplies and send them to Copano. James C. Neill was then ordered to superintend Bexar, while William B. Travis and James W. Fannin, Jr. were detailed to recruit volunteers at San Felipe and Velasco respectively. Bowie left Goliad for Bexar, however, before Houston's order reached him.

Meantime Johnson had organized the volunteers at Bexar, and with Grant, his partner in the Monclova land deals, then won these men over to a Matamoros campaign independent of Houston. (Grant also had large landholdings in Coahuila, now under Santa Anna's control, and thus had additional interest in promoting the expedition to the Rio Grande.) Johnson then traveled to San Felipe to get formal authority from the provisional government for his expedition to Matamoros, as well as funds, munitions, supplies, and commissions for officers. "We can calculate with certainty on our liberals," Johnson informed Robinson about the Federalists and the citizens of Matamoros rising up against Santa Anna. "The moment is appropriate and should not be lost . . . You may rely on all going well . . . if we are not interfered with by the officers of the regular army." Grant and Johnson also launched a concerted effort to remove Dimmitt from command, a campaign that stemmed from the Goliad captain's increasing caution against attacking Matamoros, his recognition of Houston as commander-in-chief, and his reported disparaging reception of Grant and Viesca during their earlier passage through Goliad en route to San Felipe.

The controversy between the governor and the council heated up. Smith objected to Johnson and Grant's leadership because he distrusted their motives and allegiance. Indeed, there is evidence that the two men were attempting to join with Mexican liberals to establish a Republic of Northern Mexico independent of both Mexico and Texas, an objective that was apparently no secret to Austin, Houston, or Dimmitt. Smith also distrusted the glowing reports from the Mexican interior indicating that Mexican liberals were ready to unite in strength with Texans in a Matamoros campaign, pending clarification from Zavala and Viesca on whether the ultimate goal of the Texas insurrectionists was support for the Constitution of 1824 or independence. The council, however, later overrode Smith's opposition and authorized Johnson's command, on January 14, 1836. Driven to carry out the Matamoros project, the council on January 7 had already appointed Fannin as "agent" of the volunteer expedition, authorizing him to call on McKinney for provisions, transportation, and munitions. (Significantly, that same day Fannin accepted from Governor Smith a commission as colonel of artillery in the regular army, making him the second ranking officer under Houston.) In effect the council issued two commands, though its intention seems to have been to respect Fannin's earlier appointment. Both men began recruiting volunteers independently for an expedition that, including Houston's authority, now had three leaders.

Johnson and Grant, who decided to mobilize on the Nueces River at San Patricio, were able to enlist most of the 200 volunteers currently at San Antonio: the San Antonio Greys (formerly the New Orleans Greys) under William G. Cooke; the Mobile Grays under David N. Burke; the Kentucky Mustangs, which comprised the United States Independent Cavalry and the mounted men of the Louisville Volunteers, under Benjamin L. Lawrence and James Tarlton; the Louisville Volunteers, infantrymen under H. R. A. Wigginton; Thomas K. Pearson's artillery company; and Thomas Lewellen's company. With Johnson still at San Felipe trying to gain the council's authority, Grant promptly proclaimed himself "Acting Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Volunteer Army" and stripped the supplies, provisions, medicines, arms, and equipment that had accumulated at San Antonio, leaving only Neill and Juan N. Seguín in command of the small force remaining at the Alamo.

En route to San Patricio, Grant passed through Goliad, where he claimed superior rank over Dimmitt and commandeered the considerable stores, arms, and horses that Dimmitt's garrison had gathered. This action increased the existing antagonism between the two leaders because Dimmitt's men belonged neither to the regular army nor to Austin's volunteer army, but were an independent group of volunteers who had captured Goliad from the Mexicans and garrisoned it. Dimmitt was further incensed by Grant's questionable authority for carrying out the expedition that he himself had devised but now found increasingly ill-advised. Grant, proclaiming loyalty to the Constitution of 1824 and touting his command, further exacerbated the garrison's enmity by demanding under threat of force that Dimmitt lower the "bloody-arm" flag now flying over the presidio that symbolized the garrison's recently written declaration of independence from Mexico (see GOLIAD DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, and FLAGS OF THE TEXAS REVOLUTION). William G. Cooke of the San Antonio Greys commented on the explosiveness of the situation, writing that "Col. Grant and we all expected to have a fight with his [Dimmitt's] force," and throughout the encounter "both parties were kept in readiness for a fight." These actions caused Dimmitt to resign his command in protest about January 10, 1836, while Grant continued with his command to Refugio; there Johnson was to join the expedition (see GOLIAD CAMPAIGN OF 1835).

Houston himself had increasingly begun to doubt that a campaign against Matamoros was advisable, especially after Mexía's defeat. He was also aware that Santa Anna was moving troops in the area and was mindful of the ill feelings generated by Grant's actions at Bexar. He also believed that the council had exceeded its authority in authorizing the Matamoros expeditions. In an effort to prevent what he feared would be a military disaster, Houston admonished Governor Smith to approach the council. He cited Neill's protests of Grant's actions, which had left the Bexar garrison, much of it sick and wounded men, virtually destitute.

On January 10, enraged by Houston's report, Smith attempted to dissolve the council, which retaliated on January 11 and 12 by impeaching the governor and recognizing Lieutenant Governor Robinson as the acting executive. On January 7 Fannin had obtained from Robinson a furlough from his new rank as colonel in the regular army until April 1, so that he might concentrate on his duties as agent of the council; the council granted Johnson's authority on January 14. Fannin was then drawn into the fray between the governor and the council, and in turn he involved William Ward, commander of the Georgia Battalion and Fannin's second officer, thus embittering the two men against each other (a situation bearing on Fannin's later campaign against the Mexican army, the Goliad Campaign of 1836). In this chaotic situation instituted by the Matamoros expedition, Smith refused to resign, and Texas was essentially left without governmental leadership during the crucial months of late January and February 1836. Indeed, Santa Anna, informed that "a party of colonists . . . was making its way to Matamoros for the purpose of taking possession of that port," had already ordered General Urrea by January 15 to set out for that city and thence begin the campaign into Texas to secure the coast as far as Fort Lipantitlán. By month's end Urrea already would have a force large enough to make Fannin's recruiting efforts insufficient to attack Matamoros successfully.

Houston attempted to resolve the developing crisis with a personal appearance to Grant's command as it proceeded to Goliad and Refugio en route to San Patricio. On the morning of January 14, 1836, he encountered Dimmitt leaving Goliad with a small party. Dimmitt informed Houston that Grant, styling himself "Acting Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Volunteer Army," had impressed a stable of horses, most of which were private property. Upon entering La Bahía presidio later that night, Houston found Peyton S. Wyatt in command of the post, which was on the verge of hostilities with Grant's men. According to Cooke, the crisis was alleviated when supplies were exchanged, and Houston ordered a general parade and in an address to the troops on January 15 or 16 attempted to dissuade them from the campaign, asserting that the expedition was unauthorized because the council had not had a quorum. On January 17, in response to an urgent message from Neill at the Alamo calling for reinforcements, Houston sent Bowie, who apparently was with Houston or had arrived earlier, and about twenty others to Bexar with orders (bearing ultimately on Neill's discretion) to destroy the Alamo and retreat with the artillery to Gonzales. He also rushed a courier to overtake Dimmitt with orders to raise a force to relieve Bexar as well (or, if finding the Alamo abandoned, retreat to Gonzales). "I would myself have marched to Bexar but the Matamoras rage is up so high that I must see Colonel [William] Ward's men," Houston wrote Governor Smith from Goliad on January 17. "You have no idea of the difficulties I have encountered."

Nevertheless, Grant's force was determined to continue the march to Refugio, where it was to meet Johnson, be supplied from Copano, and receive reinforcements. Houston, knowing Fannin and Ward were supposed to be en route to Copano and Refugio with substantial numbers of troops and supplies, proceeded with Grant's 200 determined men to Refugio. There he probably intended to try to establish his authority prescribed by the governor and to stop the expedition, because "I have no confidence in them [the Mexican Federalists] and the disaster at Tampico should teach us a lesson. "

Houston, arriving at Refugio on January 21, found neither Fannin nor Ward; nor were they yet at Copano, although Grant's force was enlarged with the arrival of John Chenoweth's United States Invincibles and John M. Allen's company, now under Francis W. Thornton. Houston ordered Thornton and thirty-five regular troops to Goliad to relieve Wyatt, stressing that Goliad had to be maintained to protect Copano and the supply route to Bexar. Wyatt and his Huntsville (Alabama) Volunteers then left Goliad and joined the Refugio garrison, which also included Amon B. King's Paducah (Kentucky) Company. While waiting at Refugio for Ward and Fannin, Houston greeted Johnson, who arrived from San Felipe on the evening of January 20 bearing his and Fannin's authorization from the General Council for the expedition to Matamoros; Houston was shocked and angered by both the authorizations themselves, which he considered to be issued illegally, and by the realization that the council was overriding his own authority as commanding general.

Houston was fearful as well, since Fannin's recruitment policy had included the proclamation that the volunteer force "should be paid of the first spoils taken from the enemy," that the defense of Matamoros would turn civilians into enemies and so be rendered desperate. Furthermore, "a city containing twelve thousand souls will not be taken by a handful of men who have marched twenty-two days without bread-stuffs, or necessary supplies for an army. If there ever was a time when Matamoras could have been taken by a few men," Houston concluded, "that time has passed by." In a most desperate but inspired speech, Houston addressed Johnson's command. He praised their courage, but pleaded with them to avoid disaster by waiting to attack Santa Anna's army within the borders of Texas "after long marches and other hardships have exhausted and demoralized them." He also told them that support from the Mexican Federalists was not materializing. Although Houston was initially greeted as an outsider and confronted displeasure and even a rebuttal by Captain Pearson, one witness, Hermann V. Ehrenberg, stressed that "cheers of joy greeted his eloquent appeal" as he managed to convince a majority of the men (about 200) to wait at Refugio for Fannin's and Ward's reinforcements. Despite this success Houston realized that the council's authorization of Johnson's command rendered his own useless, and he realized also that if he had remained with the army, "the Council would have had the pleasure of ascribing to me the evils which their own conduct and acts, will, in all probability produce." Therefore, he left the army to see Governor Smith, who, on January 28, granted him furlough until March 1 to help check the dissent generated against him for his opposition to the Matamoros campaign. Johnson and Grant, however, gathered the sixty to seventy men unswayed by Houston's pleadings and headed for San Patricio, still convinced that Federalist aid was forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Fannin, now the senior officer in the field, had independently recruited a sizable force for his own expedition to Matamoros, which the council had authorized. He sailed from Velasco on January 24, 1836, and landed at Copano on February 2 with about 200 men, including Ward's Georgia Battalion. Supplies from McKinney, Williams and Company had not yet arrived from New Orleans, so Fannin pressed them from the stores of the Columbus, the Flora, and the Invincible. On February 4 and 5 he marched out to join the men waiting at Refugio, from where "we will take up the line of march for Rio Grande." His optimism that his and Johnson's force would be substantially augmented by Mexican Federalists en route to Matamoros is indicated in a letter to Robinson of February 4: "Our friends, the liberals of Tamaulipas, are arriving in all quarters, and will form a most respectable addition to our force. . . . Everything looks most propitious, and unless our head strong countrymen, by a premature Decleration of Independence, rouse the jealousy of the Federal party victory is secured and by one blow, we may calculate over throwing the Tyrant, Santa Anna & his minions." However overly optimistic Fannin was, his letter also indicates at least a recognition that Federalist support depended in large degree on whether the Texan goal (or at least the Federalist perception of it) was to support the Constitution of 1824 or independence.

From San Patricio Johnson had informed Fannin two days earlier that these reinforcements from Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, which he believed were massing under Gonzales, Canales, and Francisco Vital Fernández, "will prove amply sufficient" to achieve success, "and the whole of the frontier Towns will immediately follow." He informed Fannin that Grant, with twenty men on the night of January 30, captured the Fort Lipantitlán commandant, Capt. Nicolás Rodríguez, and twenty-six Mexican soldiers with fifty horses about twenty miles south of San Patricio. Grant's men suffered no loss. Inspired, Johnson wrote that if Fannin and he acted quickly against Matamoros, the city would be taken and "not a shot will be fired." Until Fannin arrived, Johnson planned, he wrote Fannin, to "engage to keep Santa Anas partizans in play from the Town of Riogrande to Reyonosa, cut off any reinforcement he may wish to send to the coast & leave you thus to take possession of Matemoras & even Tampico if necessary without his being able to send aid to these points-I can raise the whole country agst. him & then the interior must move so as to compel him to a retrograde movement." This letter reveals the extent to which success depended on the action of Mexican Federalists. "Your energies must be kept active to prevent reinforcements by sea & then you play a perfectly secure game. Quickness in your present movements will prove the salvation of Texas . . . All depends upon you." Rodríguez and his men were put in the charge of Robert C. Morris at San Patricio, while Johnson and Grant made a second foray south.

Both Johnson and Fannin urged Robinson to keep silent on the question of independence for Texas until Mexican liberals were able to counteract the Centralists, but both leaders relied far too greatly and dangerously on Federalist support, especially when one considers that such cooperation depended on the Texas colonists' remaining loyal to the Constitution of 1824. They also underestimated Urrea's ability to squelch their cooperation by exposing to northern Mexicans and Tejanos what he considered the disloyalty of the Texas colonists. As Urrea marched toward Matamoros he pursued Gonzales's "rebels," caught many, and incorporated them into his own division. "They subsequently rendered very good service during the campaign as guides and scouts," Urrea wrote. He also noted in the towns a "great adherence to the constitution of 1824" by the Mexican people, who believed as well that the colonists in Texas were upholding it, and so would be "disposed to take up arms and join their cause." Urrea understood the consequences and recognized the need to keep these people loyal. "I took advantage of every opportunity to make them keep the peace, disclosing to them the true views of the colonists, thus succeeding in keeping them quiet." Thus he arrived in Matamoros on January 31.

Fannin's faith in Johnson's unrealistically optimistic view was shattered by information he received on February 7. He learned through Plácido Benavides that Gonzales's force was "entirely dispersed," that the Centralist garrison at Matamoros now numbered a thousand or more, and that Santa Anna was moving to invade Texas and suppress the rebellion at Goliad and San Antonio while using Matamoros as a trap to defeat the Texas expedition, of which he had knowledge. Benavides's warning came from the alcalde of Matamoros and was enclosed in a communication to Fannin by Morris, to whom Benavides gave the information before joining Grant, who was still out with Johnson. In the meantime Rodríguez and his men, whom Morris had paroled, were able to escape. The warning caused Fannin to abandon the Matamoros project, send reinforcements under Cooke to aid Morris, and begin to remove his headquarters to Goliad. Nevertheless, the provisional government, to whom Fannin had chosen to acknowledge his allegiance, still stressed to its agent as late as February 15 that he should proceed toward the Matamoros campaign and avoid any retrograde movements.

But Cooke reported from San Patricio, "we found that Morris had been misinformed." Grant had returned with apparently new information regarding Fernández's promised Federalist support. Fernández, commanding general of Tamaulipas, seems to have informed Grant that he was willing unite with the Texans at the Rio Grande with 1,800 men. Morris then informed Fannin that he "no longer intended to serve the Governor of Texas" because he "had received the appointment to the command of a regiment in the Federal Service of Mexico." Thus inspired, Morris, Grant, and Johnson left San Patricio with their men and headed for the Rio Grande, leaving Cooke in charge of the artillery at San Patricio. (It should be noted that Urrea was later able to press on largely because Fernández supplied needed bread and hardtack when the army had virtually none.) Upon receiving Cooke's letter of February 9 noting Johnson and Grant's departure, Fannin, then still at Refugio, dispatched Burr H. Duval's company on February 11 with teams to retrieve the artillery. Fannin withdrew to Goliad on February 12, leaving companies under King at Refugio and John Chenoweth at Copano. That he appreciated his circumstances more than did Johnson and Grant is indicated in a letter to acting governor Robinson of February 16-the same day Urrea sent out Lieutenant Rodríguez to scout the road as far as the Nueces River. Fannin noted that young J. Hampton Kuykendall and his companion, Pantaleón, had just arrived from Matamoros with news that the Mexican army was crossing into Texas in three divisions, that he was taking measures to remove to Bexar, and that the Texans must rely on themselves: "No aid need be expected from Mexicans."

Accompanying his growing awareness of the seriousness of the situation, Fannin also began doubting his abilities and pressed the council to relieve him of the burden of command and "make a selection of one possessing all the requisites of a commander." Fannin believed that Houston "will answer the present emergency"; but in Houston's absence, he nevertheless assumed the task and sought to remove to Bexar. Still, as late as March 1, more than a week after his friend, James Butler Bonham, arrived with Travis's pleas to bring the army to relieve the Alamo, he still pressed the government to relieve him.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Grant's men were raiding the San Patricio countryside as far south as Colorado Creek for horses for their expedition south. While Johnson and thirty-four men returned to San Patricio with over 100 animals, Grant proceeded south toward Aqua Dulce Creek with twenty-six men, including Morris and several rancheros under Benavides. On the way he attempted to capture another herd at Camargo rancho. Neither party was apparently aware that Urrea's army was in the vicinity, though the Mexican general was kept informed of Johnson and Grant's movements by his numerous scouts, which included many Tejano rancheros disaffected with the Texans.

During a freezing cold and rainy norther Urrea cautiously surrounded San Patricio. He surprised Johnson's men at three o'clock the morning of February 27 and defeated them in the battle of San Patricio. Johnson was among those who escaped to Refugio; the remaining survivors were sent to Matamoros and imprisoned. Urrea then backtracked to find the remaining Texans. On March 2 the Mexican general surprised and defeated Grant's command in the battle of Agua Dulce Creek. Captured survivors were also sent to Matamoros, thus becoming, ironically, the only members of the Matamoros expedition to reach their destination (see MATAMOROS PRISONERS). Grant, who was killed in the fray, had dispatched Benavides to attempt an escape to warn Fannin at Goliad of Urrea's proximity. Benavides successfully delivered the message and returned to his rancho at Guadalupe Victoria.

Fannin, having completed Fort Defiance (as he had christened the old La Bahía presidio) was still torn between standing siege at Goliad and reinforcing Travis at the Alamo. Fannin indicated in a letter to Robinson of March 1 not only that he knew Urrea was en route, but also that the Mexican army at Bexar would next descend on Goliad, and that he had to fall back to his supplies, which were still at Matagorda, Dimitt's Landing, and Cox's Point. Yet he remained paralyzed, ordered by the government not to make a retrograde movement while awaiting orders to the contrary. On March 4 the convention appointed Houston commander-in-chief of all the regular, volunteer, and militia troops. Houston attempted to take over Fannin's command and issued to him the long awaited order to retreat; but by then Fannin had already engaged Urrea. Through a series of poor decisions and tragic events, Fannin divided his command, which was defeated piecemeal by Urrea in mid-March in the battles of Refugio and Coleto. The survivors of these engagements, more than 300 men, were not sent to Matamoros, but were executed in the Goliad Massacre.

From the Texas viewpoint, the Matamoros expedition of 1835–36 was one of the most disastrous components of the Texas Revolution. It brought to crisis the developing quarrel between the governor and the council and paralyzed the provisional government. It seemed to reveal the disadvantages of asserting independence for Texas instead of remaining loyal to the Constitution of 1824. It showed the lack of realism in the thinking of Texans, who discounted reports warning of Santa Anna's approaching army while relying on rumors of great numbers of volunteers arriving from the United States and, more importantly, massive support by the Federals of the Mexican interior. Thus, the expedition proved a major factor in the events leading to the defeat of Texas forces at the battles of the Alamo, San Patricio, Agua Dulce Creek, Refugio, and Coleto-disasters that led to the Goliad Massacre.

Hobart Huson, Captain Philip Dimmitt's Commandancy of Goliad, 1835–1836 (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1974). Hobart Huson, Refugio: A Comprehensive History of Refugio County from Aboriginal Times to 1953 (2 vols., Woodsboro, Texas: Rooke Foundation, 1953, 1955). Frank W. Johnson, A History of Texas and Texans (5 vols., ed. E. C. Barker and E. W. Winkler [Chicago and New York: American Historical Society, 1914; rpt. 1916]). W. Roy Smith, "The Quarrel between Governor Smith and the Council of the Provisional Government of the Republic," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 5 (April 1902). David M. Vigness, The Revolutionary Decades: The Saga of Texas, 1810–1836 (Austin: Steck-Vaughn, 1965). Dudley Goodall Wooten, ed., A Comprehensive History of Texas (2 vols., Dallas: Scarff, 1898; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1986).

Time Periods:
  • Texas Revolution

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Craig H. Roell, “Matamoros Expedition of 1835–36,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 24, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 2, 2020