Revolutionary Army

By: Paul D. Lack

Type: General Entry

Published: December 1, 1995

Updated: May 3, 2019

The Texas armies that took the field in the Texas Revolution in 1835–36 had little continuity in membership, leadership, or organization. Virtually all of the participants served as citizen-soldiers. Those who came from the ranks of the Texas colonists demonstrated a militia-like tendency to turn out during crises but then dismiss themselves at apparent lull times or to take off and care for the needs of their farms and families. A total of about 3,700 men joined the army between October 2, 1835 (the battle of Gonzales), and the concluding engagement of the war at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Only about 20 percent of the Texas residents who volunteered during this period served more than one stint in the military. Non-reenlistment resulted in the numerical inferiority of the Texas forces in the spring of 1836, particularly at the Alamo and in the Goliad area. The enrollment of about 1,500 recruits from the United States in the period from October through April partially offset this disadvantage in the size of the Texas army. Nevertheless, the army suffered from organizational chaos as well as episodic enrollment, so no commander succeeded in bringing more than a fraction of the full weight of his potential force into battle. A total of 1,300 men saw duty in the fall of 1835, 900 of them in the loosely conducted siege of Bexar. Yet, only about a third that number rallied to the call of Benjamin R. Milam when the Texans stormed the city from December 5–10. Similarly, more than 1,900 men turned out east of the Colorado River under Sam Houston and other leaders in March and early April 1836, but Houston led a mere 900 or so onto the San Jacinto battlefield. The others had been retained to guard the rear, received or simply took furlough, volunteered too late to make the engagement, deserted, or served with units that had detached themselves from the main army out of disgust with the general's policies.

Organizationally, the Texas forces from the first operated in a democratic manner. The revolutionary leaders called for an "ARMY OF THE PEOPLE," and the first volunteers formed themselves into units led by elected officers. Representatives of the companies who gathered near Gonzales established a board of war, which on October 11 oversaw a general referendum that selected Stephen F. Austin as commander-in-chief. Another set of recruits, initially led by George M. Collinsworth, forced the capitulation of the Mexican army at Goliad on October 9, but this Texas garrison then refused to submit to Austin's authority. It also split into numerous factions and nearly mutinied, a fate narrowly averted by the firm policies of commander Philip Dimmitt, the third man elected to that post. Reacting in part to Austin's frustrations in managing this democratic force, the Consultation on November 13 adopted its recommendation in establishing a regular army with Sam Houston as commander, though in practice the innovation had no impact. The soldiers refused to accept the new system, which threatened to impose longer enlistments and sterner discipline, or to submit to a general not of their own choosing. Fearing a dissolution of the siege forces, political authorities consequently backed down from forcing the regular army structure or Houston on the existing volunteers, who continued to choose their own leaders. The men elected Edward Burleson on November 24 when Austin departed on a diplomatic mission, and those who stayed on after Bexar capitulated chose Francis W. Johnson, in part because of his promise of a campaign against Matamoros.

Subsequent intervention by politicians seemed only to worsen the degree of military disorganization. Governor Henry Smith considered the Texas volunteers nothing more than "a mob, called an army," and despite his support Houston remained until March 1836, a commander without followers. Consultation plans for other units-a militia, auxiliary corps, and Army of the Reserve-also went largely unfulfilled. The council and governor extended their conflict into the military arena by naming rival leaders to command expeditionary forces against Mexico in January 1836. Would-be army heads Johnson, Dimmitt, Houston, and James W. Fannin competed for command of the forces that coalesced in the Goliad region, with varying claims of authority and strategic visions. A meeting of officers at Refugio conferred command on Fannin; however, Johnson continued to head his diminishing force, and the various units in many ways remained what a Houston partisan described as "independent volunteers." The fate of Fannin's command, whose far-flung units totaled about 675 men (more than 80 percent being recruits from the United States), resulted in part from its cacophonous origins and failed organization (see GOLIAD MASSACRE). A lesser number, amounting to no more than 245 men during February 1836, remained stubbornly in defense of San Antonio, but their numbers and unity also suffered from the absence of overall command. James C. Neill and some of his troops departed in mid-February, and in the vacuum occurred the usual acrimonious electoral contest, in this case between the adherents of William B. Travis and James Bowie.

A pervasive sense of crisis in early March stimulated the Convention of 1836 to name Houston major general and commander in chief of the army, with authority of "subordination" over all land forces, whatever their origin. His successor, Thomas J. Rusk, inherited a force somewhat demoralized by the San Jacinto victory and convulsed by departures of many veterans and additions of fresh recruits. He demonstrated rare gifts as leader of a democratic army and managed to gain the cooperation of other headstrong, ambitious leaders and to retain his popularity with the men because of his "easy familiarity with the privates," in the words of one soldier. Nevertheless, Rusk's command continued to function largely free of external political control. When President David Burnet attempted to establish cabinet authority in July 1836, by naming Mirabeau B. Lamar commander with the rank of major general, yet another exercise in military democracy-complete with mass meetings, speeches, and polling of the troops-resulted in the retention of Rusk.

Almost without exception only volunteers performed military service in the Texas cause in 1835 and 1836. A conscripted militia system, authorized by the convention on March 12, 1836, never came into existence. The men generally accepted few restraints on their individual liberties, and their popularly chosen officers exercised only minimal authority. Soldiers even participated in tactical decision-making. At the Bexar siege in November 1835, a majority of the men proved unwilling to obey Austin's initial assault orders, but soon a sizable group rejected their officers' decision to retreat in early December, and joined the attack of December 5–10 instead. Fannin's chronic indecision throughout February and March largely reflected the internal debates that divided his men. Houston kept his own counsel, but his decision to engage Mexican forces under Antonio López de Santa Anna derived partly from awareness that much of the Texas army would have dissolved rather than retreat farther. Poor discipline also characterized this "army of the people." Desertion, disobedience of military regulations, and disorderly conduct of various descriptions occurred regularly, despite attempts by every commander from Austin to Houston to limit supplies of liquor. The soldiers went to the field of action without being trained to restrain their fondness for loud talking, irregular riding and shooting, wrestling contests, fistfights, and general melees. Since the government proved unable to provide the troops with a dependable supply of food or regular arms and clothing, the recruits had to resort to impressment of private property. This method resulted in frequent civilian complaints, but even with infusions of supplies captured from the enemy or shipped in on government credit, the soldiers suffered from exposure and inadequate diet. These commissary shortcomings exacerbated army discontent and politicization.

Volunteers generally considered politicians to be wealthy shirkers, deficient in patriotism. In addition to seeking to redress governmental neglect of military needs, the army promoted radical views of the purpose of the revolution. The men showed little enthusiasm for the cause of Mexican Federalism and instead favored early independence. Disappointed that the Consultation failed in November 1835 to agree, the Goliad garrison adopted a declaration of independence itself, brimming with anti-Mexican rhetoric, on December 20 (see GOLIAD DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE). The soldiers increased their participation in the political process in early 1836. They generally asserted rights to suffrage, resisted efforts to impose residence requirements on United States recruits, and entered into convention delegate elections at Nacogdoches and Goliad. When barred from the regular polling, as at Bexar, they chose a separate delegation. Military influence at the convention was reflected in the triumph of independence and in a land policy that protected the interests of the volunteers. Between May and October the army continued to exert a powerful political influence. Units of the military blocked an interim government diplomatic effort by preventing the release of prisoner Santa Anna. In July one group of soldiers attempted a kind of coup d'état by an extralegal impeachment of President Burnet, a threat that he survived while subsequently clinging to office with little real power. Even President Houston faced a struggle in asserting civilian control over the military, which he accomplished finally by reducing the size of the army through furlough in the spring of 1837.

However much it suffered from disorganization, weakness of command, and irregular discipline, the army of the Texas Revolution displayed considerable zeal in battle and served as a revolutionary force. Its influence advanced the cause of independence and helped Texas to adopt a goal of fierce anti-Mexican nationalism. See also ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS.

Eugene C. Barker, "The San Jacinto Campaign," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 4 (April 1901). Eugene C. Barker, "Texan Revolutionary Army," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 9 (April 1906). Henry W. Barton, "The Problem of Command in the Army of the Republic of Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 62 (January 1959). William C. Binkley, The Texas Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1952; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1979). Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Muster Rolls of the Texas Revolution (Austin, 1986). Harbert Davenport, "Men of Goliad," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 43 (July 1939). Harbert Davenport, Notes from an Unfinished Study of Fannin and His Men (MS, Harbert Davenport Collection, Texas State Library, Austin; Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin). Sam Houston Dixon and Louis Wiltz Kemp, The Heroes of San Jacinto (Houston: Anson Jones, 1932). John H. Jenkins, ed., The Papers of the Texas Revolution, 1835–1836 (10 vols., Austin: Presidial Press, 1973). William T. Riviere, "Sam Houston's Retreat," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 46 (July 1942). Amelia W. Williams, A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and of the Personnel of Its Defenders (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1931; rpt., Southwestern Historical Quarterly 36–37 [April 1933-April 1934]).

Time Periods:

  • Texas Revolution

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

Paul D. Lack, “Revolutionary Army,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 23, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995
May 3, 2019