José Nicolás de la Portilla, a lieutenant colonel in the command of Mexican general José de Urrea during the Texas Revolution, was born in Jalapa, Vera Cruz, in 1808. After the battle of Coleto at the end of the Goliad Campaign of 1836, Portilla was placed in charge of James W. Fannin, Jr., and his men during their imprisonment at La Bahía. On March 26, 1836, Antonio López de Santa Anna, informed of Fannin's surrender and surprised that Portilla had not already carried out the law condemning as pirates "all foreigners taken with arms in their hands, making war upon the nation," ordered the Goliad commander to execute the prisoners in compliance with the national decree. With this order Santa Anna included specifications on how the executions were to be carried out. Portilla, according to his diary, kept the order a secret from all except Col. Francisco Garay, Urrea's second in command. Later in the evening of March 26 Portilla received a communication from Urrea, then at Guadalupe Victoria, directing him to "treat the prisoners with consideration, and particularly their leader, Fannin." "What a cruel contrast in these opposite instructions!" Portilla wrote in his diary. After a restless night, the Goliad commander determined that Santa Anna's orders were superior. He isolated and spared William Parsons Miller and his men, who had been captured without arms at Copano, and formed the rest of the prisoners—more than 400—into three groups. First adjutant Agustín Alcérrica, Capt. Luis Balderas, and Capt. Antonio Ramírez then marched them out of the fort at dawn on March 27, 1836, and had them shot (see GOLIAD MASSACRE). "There was a great contrast in the feelings of the officers and the men," Portilla recorded. "Silence prevailed." The Goliad commander expressed his anguish and horror at becoming a public executioner in a letter to Urrea, who received the message at Victoria on March 27 between nine and ten in the morning, after the executions had been carried out.
After the Goliad episode Portilla's brother, Manuel, who was serving with Santa Anna's army, was among those captured at the battle of San Jacinto. José Portilla was sent by Urrea to the detachment under the command of Vicente Filisola, and he participated in the retreat of the Mexican army after San Jacinto. He remained in the Mexican army after the Texas Revolution and participated in the Mexican War. His military career again became controversial when, as brigadier general, a rank he achieved in 1856, he sided with French intervention in Mexico. The emperor Maximilian named him ministro de guerra y marina in 1867. Although Portilla was expelled after the fall of the French empire, he returned to Mexico. He died in Mexico City in 1873. Portilla's role in the Goliad Massacre is a controversial aspect of the Texas Revolution. His contemporary and countryman José Enrique de la Peña denounced him as "a blind and willing servant" who wished to "have his zeal recognized." Santa Anna hypocritically proclaimed that Portilla "is responsible for the cruel and inhumane manner of carrying out the execution to the nation, to the world, and to God." Such scholars as the noted historian Hubert H. Bancroft have assigned the official blame to Santa Anna, noting Urrea's recommendations of mercy and Portilla's hesitation and his sparing of Miller's men. Also, Santa Anna hardly kept secret the authority Congress granted him in December 1835 after José Antonio Mexía's Tampico expedition, allowing him to execute prisoners on the spot on grounds of piracy.