The Enduring Legacy of the Battle of Gonzales

This is the second of three guest articles by Jen Grant, a blogger for American Flags.

When I first read this article, I thought, “my audience (coming from all parts of the world and being more interested in world history) isn’t going to be interested in a tiny skirmish which took place somewhere in Texas almost 200 years ago”. But as I read on, I realised it raised issues of universal importance to do with the way we view history. I just love the way that a tiny incident groans with the weight of history which has been loaded on to it.

But first, a bit of context for my non-American readers.

The region which would become Texas was conquered by the Spanish empire in the 17th century, and was ruled as a part of the Viceroyalty of Mexico. When Mexico won its independence from Spain, in 1821, Texas passed into Mexican rule.

At that time the huge region was virtually unpopulated, with only 3,000 inhabitants in total (whether this included Native Americans, I don’t know). The Mexican government therefore decided to encourage American settlers to move in, and by the 1830s thousands had done so. They were allowed to live in their own townships and run their own lives, just as they had done in America.

When the dictator Santa Ana came to power in Mexico, he set about centralizing power in his own hands, which worried the new settlers. Their anxieties mounted when he showed himself ruthless towards those who opposed him. Sure enough, Santa Ana was soon intent on reducing the freedoms of the settlers to run their own affairs, and, after a few confrontations, despatched a force of 200-500 men to bring Texas the settlers to heal.

Part of this force, about 100 men, was ordered to the small settlement of Gonzales to reclaim a cannon which had previously been lent (or as the settlers claimed, given) to them to defend themselves against attack from local Native Americans.

This force was halted at the Guadalupe river, just in front of Gonzales, by a group of militiamen numbering only 18 men. However, while the stand-off proceeded, more settlers arrived, and soon outnumbered the Mexican force. 

The Texans attacked the Mexicans at dawn on the 2nd October. The attack consisted of the men  emerging from the cover of trees, firing their guns and then returning behind the trees. After a futile Mexican counter-attack in which their mounted troops charged at the trees and accomplished nothing, the leaders of the two sides arranged a meeting. The meeting resolved nothing, and after it the Texans fired one shot from the cannon (above which they flew a home-made banner with the words “Come and Take It (the cannon)!”, and this seems to have persuaded the Mexicans to withdraw. The Texans claimed this as a victory. 

In the event, the “battle” of Gonzales became the first skirmish in the Texas Revolution. This lasted from October 1835 to April 1836, and ended with the creation of an independent country, the Republic of Texas. Nine years later, the Republic was absorbed in the United States of America as the 28th State.

So that sets the scene: here is the article.


The Enduring Legacy of the Battle of Gonzales

As the first military engagement of the Texas Revolution, the battle of Gonzales played an important part in shaping the formation of the United States. While it’s less talked about than Gettysburg or Bunker Hill, the Battle of Gonzales is a crucial moment in our nation’s history. So, what exactly is the enduring legacy of the Battle of Gonzales?

The Battle’s History

The Battle of Gonzales marked the beginning of the Mexican withdrawal from Texas, as it was the first battle of the Texan rebellion. For historians, it defines the starting point of the Texan Revolution.

The battle, which began on October 2nd, 1835, was the result of attempts by the Mexican military (headed by the charismatic, yet corrupt and inept generalissimo, Santa Ana), to try and retrieve a small cannon which had been given to the settlers of Gonzales, Texas, as a defense against the attacks of the Tonkawa Indians. The Texans saw this as an encroachment on their sense of liberty and ability to defend themselves.

As a sign of rebellion, the settlers took a wedding dress, some ink and drew a crude picture of the cannon itself, along with a star and the words “Come and Take It,” which became known as the Gonzales flag (which they flew over the cannon).

While a sign of rebellion, this allowed the Texan settlers to taunt the Mexican authorities, and set up a situation where, if the Mexican authorities came to take the cannon, the settlers could claim they were, in fact, defending themselves. In reality, the cannon was merely symbolic, especially since the Mexican military had given the settler no cannon balls.

However, while preparing for a possible confrontation, the Texan settlers had filled the cannon with scrap metal, and on October 2nd, they attacked the Mexican camp and fired the scrap metal, sending the Mexican military into disarray. This was the shot considered as the beginning of the Texan Revolution. It is important to note that the gorilla-style aspect of the rebellion is most likely attributed to the fact that Texan settlers had experience of fighting the Tonkawa Indians, whose tactics they adopted in defense of the land they had decided to settle.

The Texan side suffered only a bloody nose by a man bucked by his horse. While small in scale, with only two fatalities (both Mexican), and only 100 cavalry forces on the Mexican side and 150 militia on the side of the rebellion, the Battle of Gonzales acted to cement the ideological perspective that served to eventually win Texas its independence. The Battle helped to instil the same values of independence, freedom and rebellion among the Texan population, as they had in the original militias that rebelled against colonial control in New England, leading to the American War of Independence.

Aside from an ideological perspective that is essentially founded in the minds of the people, the battle also constituted a small, though not negligible, step towards the formation of United States as we would come to recognize it today.

A Historian’s Take on the Battle

Historians have sometimes characterized the event as an “inconsequential skirmish in which one side did not try to fight,” according to historian William C. Davis. For the Mexican side, the battle is not remembered as a battle per se.

But on the other side, the Texas rebels declared their victory over the Mexican troops and their subsequent withdrawal. This withdrawal proved to be crucial in establishing the notion of a frontier battle against Santa Ana’s troops.

As the Texan Revolution progressed, the rebel militia had no option but to set themselves to push towards the natural frontier of the territory, the Rio Grande. As a result, the battle started America’s only war which would become a traditional war of territorial gain. This makes it different from battles won during the American War of Independence or the Civil War.

Others believe the event held great political significance, reminiscent of the fact that political values can be co-related to the external struggles experienced during the American War of Independence. As a result, the first battle in the Texan rebellion was, more than anything else, a political victory, which reverberated through the national consciousness.

The fact that it was a battle in which the opposing forces sustained such few casualties serves to underscore the success of the political will, and thus the force of the ideas presented. The actual military significance of the battle can be debated, because the reason for the Mexican withdrawal may not be attributed to these factors.

Final Thoughts

Essentially, the Battle of Gonzales then becomes a battle with no heroes, aside from ideas. As a rallying point for Texans who opposed Santa Ana’s policies, by cementing their allegiance to the more northern former British colonies, the battle served to define and unite an American perspective that could be duplicated and expanded. This perspective would eventually lead to the formation of America’s famed pioneering spirit, which eventually expanded all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

The Battle of Gonzales may only be truly considered a battle by the forces who believed they won it, and as such, only in the context of Texan history can it be considered militarily significant.

On the other hand, or as a result of its non-battle-like nature, its scope and significance goes beyond what one would normally expect from something so seemingly inconsequential.

While the Battle of Gonzales served as the precursor to the eventual creation of the Republic of Texas and ultimately the 28th State, the battle would help establish a pioneering perspective that would define the American mindset for the rest of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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