One of the things that make studying history interesting is the way seemingly unconnected people and events are linked to each other, often in ways that you would never guess, and they they could never have known.
Today, March 27, is the anniversary of the Goliad massacre. More than 400 Texian volunteers, at that time the largest military force the Texans could muster, were marched out of the Presidio La Bahía near Goliad and executed by Mexican soldiers under the command of Lt. Colonel José Nicolás de la Portilla, on orders from General and President of Mexico Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. “Remember Goliad!” became a rallying cry for the Texians, and along with “Remember the Alamo!” carried them forward to victory at San Jacinto a few weeks later.
Santa Anna’s order to execute the Texians at Goliad was given the color of legality by his citation of what was known as the “Tornel Decree,” a proclamation made months before by the Mexican Foreign Minister, José María Tornel y Mendívil, that henceforth all foreign combatants captured on Mexican soil “shall be treated and punished as pirates,” i.e., subject to execution. And that’s where one of the most prominent officers of the Texas Navy comes in.
The Tornel Decree was issued after an abortive landing Tampico by a group led by former Mexican General José Antonio Mexia, who hoped to start a rebellion that would overthrow Santa Anna’s centralist Mexican government. Mexia’s rebellion was probably doomed from the start; most of his “troops” were would-be American settlers who’d been duped into coming along, in the belief that they were going to Texas. When the fight for Tampico turned against them, Mexia and many of his men managed to get away on an American schooner that happened to be lying in the port. Thirty-one of Mexia’s men were captured; three died of their wounds, and the other 28 were executed. A few weeks later, Tornel issued his infamous decree, allowing anyone captured under arms on Mexican soil to be executed without benefit of trial.
Now here’s the connection to the Texas Navy: Mexia’s second-in-command, who recruited would-be settlers in New Orleans, helped organize and supply the expedition, and who urged the reluctant filibusters ashore at Tampico, was none other than Charles Edward Hawkins – former Midshipman in the U.S. Navy, former Captain in the Mexican Navy, and future Commodore of the Texian Navy.
After getting away from Tampico, Hawkins landed at Brazoria, where just before Christmas 1835 he offered his services to the provisional Texian government. They sent him on to New Orleans, where Texian commissioners were working to assemble a naval force. The commissioners in New Orleans – Stephen F. Austin, Branch T. Archer, and William H. Wharton – had bought a former U.S. Revenue Cutter, Ingham, and renamed her Independence. Hawkins, as an experienced naval officer without any other ties and (presumably) score to settle with Santa Anna’s government, had found his place.
Image: Execution of the American filibusters at Tampico, from a booklet published in New York in 1836.