Come and Take It: The Battle of Gonzales

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and the new state encompassed all the land from the Confederacy of Central America in the South (Not that “Confederacy”, Central America’s) to the Transcontinental Treaty Line of 1819 in the north (the borders of Oregon and Idaho, and California, Nevada and Utah today), and from the American Louisiana Purchase in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. For the next 24 years, Mexican Centralists and Federalists vied for power. Though nominally a federal republic as per the Federal Constitution of 1824, the Mexican government was always just one Centralist election victory away from dictatorship.

The liberal immigration policies of the Constitution of 1824 allowed for thousands of immigrants from the United States to settle in Mexico, mostly in the Mexican state of Texas. Far from Mexico City, the Anglo American colonists, known as “Texians”, and their Hispanic brethren the “Tejanos” had grown used to self-rule as the various factions in the newly independent Mexican government politicked and consolidated power. In particular, the Mexican law was written in the tradition of the Napoleonic Code i.e. “guilty until proven innocent” while the Texians, mostly colonists from the United States of America, were steeped in the tradition of English Common Law i.e. “innocent until proven guilty”. This fundamental difference in the understanding of law led to many accusations of tyranny against the Mexican government when it did exercise its authority. By 1835, the Mexican Centralists led by President Antonio López de Santa Anna, the “Napoleon of Mexico”, had taken power in Mexico City from the Federalists, and he repudiated the Constitution of 1824. The stage was set for a Texian and Tejano break with the Mexican government.

In 1831, Mexican authorities in San Antonio de Béxar lent the town of Gonzalez a small six pound cannon for protection against the frequent Comanche Indian raids. Four years later on 10 September 1835, amidst the tensions caused by Santa Anna’s dictatorial rule and the open formation of Texan militias to protect themselves from him, a Mexican soldier clubbed a Gonzales resident which caused widespread outrage and public protests against Mexican tyranny. The senior Mexican military commander in Texas, Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, thought it unwise for the upset residents of Gonzales to keep the cannon. He sent a corporal and five soldiers to retrieve the cannon from Gonzales’ “alcalde” Andrew Ponton. (An “alcalde” is a combination municipal magistrate, judge, and chief councilman of an area.) While the soldiers patiently waited, the town voted to keep the cannon, and sent them away.

Undeterred, Ugartechea dispatched Lieutenant Francisco de Castañeda with 100 dragoons on 27 September to seize the cannon. But this time the residents of Gonzales buried the cannon in a nearby peach orchard, and sent word to other towns to send their militia to prevent the Mexicans from taking the cannon. The Texians needed time for the militias to arrive, and delayed Castañeda at the river. The residents confiscated all the boats on the west side of the swollen Guadalupe River which forced the Mexicans to cross at the ford west of town. There they were met by the 18 men of the Gonzales Texian Militia company, now known as “The Old Eighteen”. Castañeda was under orders not to start a war and opened negotiations with the Texians. Captain Albert Martin, yelling from the east bank, told Castañeda that only Ponton could give up the cannon, and he was out of town. With no easy way across the river and with orders to not force an engagement, Castañeda’s men withdrew to a nearby hill while he continued to parley with the Texians at the ford. All the while Texian militias converged on Gonzales.

The stalemate continued for two days. By 1 October, there 150 Texian militia in the town and John Henry Moore was elected commander. Moore was one of the Old Three Hundred, who were the first Texian settlers to Mexican Texas, the owner and builder of Moore’s Fort at La Grange, and one of the most respected men in the area. That afternoon the Texians voted to initiate a fight, before their stalling backfired and the Mexicans brought reinforcements of their own. The Texians dug up the cannon, mounted it on cart wheels, and in lieu of cannonballs, gathered metal scraps for ammunition. The cannon was crewed by veteran artillerymen from the War of 1812.

At the same time, Castañeda was informed by a Coushatta Indian that the Texians were massing in the town and that they’d be about 300 strong soon. Not wishing to force the ford, the dragoons decamped and moved seven miles downstream to find another ford. That night they made camp on William’s Farm. Moore and the Texian militia with their cannon, now under a new banner, followed. Legend has it the flag was made from the wedding dress of Green DeWitt, the founder of Gonzales. The new makeshift flag was white with a star and the drawing of a cannon over the words, “Come and Take It”.

About 3 am on 2 October 1835, the Texians blundered toward the Mexican camp in the dense fog. Castañeda was alerted to their presence by a barking dog and several sentries fired into the midst. Only one Texian was hurt, and only because his horse threw him and bloodied his nose. Moore ordered everyone into the woods to wait for morning. Castañeda broke camp and withdrew to a defensive position on a small nearby bluff to await the attack.

At dawn the Texian emerged from the woods at stated firing on the Mexicans. 40 dragoons charged and the Texians withdrew back into the woods. One Mexican private was wounded, who would later die, and the dragoons retreated back to the bluff, not wanting to fight in the trees.

Castañeda again attempted to salvage the situation with negotiation, and asked why Moore attacked without provocation. Moore explained that the Texians needed the cannon to defend themselves whether against Indians or Mexican oppressors. He further stated that the Texians no longer recognized Santa Anna’s Centralist government, and were faithful to the Constitution of 1824. Castañeda, a federalist himself, sympathized with the Texians, and Moore even asked Castañeda to join their new hours old revolution. However, Castañeda declined and said his honor as a soldier was tied to following his superior’s orders.

Moore returned to camp and under their new flag the Texians fired their cannon at the Mexican camp. There would be second shot: the shot was too powerful for the makeshift carriage and the cannon fell apart. The one shot was enough though. One Mexican dragoon was killed. Outgunned and outnumbered, Castañeda, who did not wish further bloodshed and had specific orders to avoid stating a war, rode back to San Antonio de Béxar.

Despite Castañeda’s wishes, “the fight at Williams’ place”, which was just a small skirmish with few shots fired, was the first battle of Texas Revolution. Two days later Texian leader Stephen F Austin wrote, “War is declared – public opinion has proclaimed it against a Military despotism – the campaign has commenced” News of the fight spread like wildfire across the continent and it was renamed “The Battle of Gonzales” which made better headlines. Adventurers and settlers in the United States flocked to Texas. In Texas, Texian militias mobilized and concentrated at Gonzales. Austin was elected their commander. Within a few months after the Battle of Gonzales, Mexican troops were driven from Texas. Texian success sparked Federalist rebellions across the length and breadth of Mexico.

Gonzales’ cannon, the defense of which sparked the Texas Revolution, eventually ended up in San Antonio de Béxar. It was subsequently used in the defense of the Alamo in March 1836. Some would snarkily say that, “Santa Anna came and took it”. Though a Mexican victory, Santa Anna paid a heavy price for that cannon: the defense of the Alamo was instrumental in Texas winning its independence from Mexico. In April, the Texian army under Sam Houston, formed and trained during time bought with the blood of Alamo’s defenders, captured Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto in April. After a short time as an independent republic, Texas’ admission to the United States led to the Mexican-American War. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the war in 1848, Mexico ceded to the United States all of its northern states, including present day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and all Texan territory north of the Rio Grande.

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