Things are not simple in the borderlands; not now, and when the Presidio la Bahia, or Goliad, was a key strong-point held by rebellious Texians in the War for Independence. A few years ago, I wrote that â€œ. . . Ambivalence is the other name of the river that runs through the Borderlands.â€ That kind of ambivalence permeates this novel about the Goliad campaign â€“ of which readers outside of Texas have hardly ever heard. Like the Alamo, it was garrisoned by Texian settlers and eager volunteers lately come from the United States, who came to fight for . . . well, what was it they were fighting for? Independence from Mexico, defense of a little patch of the United States established in the borderlands? To uphold the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and those hopes that that Coahuila y Tejas should be semi-autonomous â€“ not ruled by an autocratic dictatorship from distant Mexico City? Or maybe, because many were Scotch-Irish borderers, who gravitated to any fight going like a trout going upstream? All of these things, or some of them â€“ the answer varies, depending upon the various characters in John Willinghamâ€™s sensitive and fact-based novel.
â€œRemember the Alamo!â€ and â€œRemember the Goliad!â€ became battle-cries on the field of San Jacinto, when Santa Anna was ignominiously defeated by Sam Houstonâ€™s scrappy army. Like the Alamo, the men of the Goliad were defeated by an overwhelming force. Unlike the Alamo, they did not go down fighting, with a last handful of survivors executed afterward. Perhaps that is why so few know of it. There is fame everlasting in a glorious last stand, but surrender and mass executions are only pitiful and sordid â€“ even when relieved by small glints of luck and heroic mercy. Events as they played out at Goliad emerged as being much more complicated and human. The characters muddle through a tangle of cross-purposes and confusion in time of war, although the author is aided immeasurably by the fact that there were survivors and witnesses who left comprehensive eyewitness accounts. Distilling them into a single coherent narrative is the work of historians. What the author of historical fiction must do â€“ as this author has â€“ is to take the historical record about specific events and people, and use them as secure anchor-points. Then one must leap off from there and weave the story between them, as if with spider-silk, to catch our attention and involvement by adding conversation, observation and emotional insight.
There are three main characters â€“ all of whom existed and took a very real part: ranchers John White Bower and his neighbor and business partner Carlos de la Garza, who indeed ran a ferry operation across the lower San Antonio River. Texian and Tejano, they remained friends and partners before and after the war, in which they fought as their primary sympathies inclined them â€“ on opposite sides. In the end their loyalty is to their own Texas: to their families, their kin and their friends â€“ no matter on what side. Then there is James Fannin â€“ militarily skilled, but ultimately and tragically doubtful of his abilities as a commander. He is the figure most clearly and sympathetically drawn. In the scramble that was the rebellion of the Anglo-American settlers in Texas, he had all the right qualifications for command of the garrison at Goliad. He had attended West Point, and taken part in early and successful actions against the Mexican forces in San Antonio. His tragedy was to be put in a situation requiring him to be resolute and decisive â€“ even intuitive â€“ in a rapidly changing situation. He was overwhelmed within weeks; his self-confidence dissolved by degrees. Finally he was only able to react to a situation that he could not control. His final act in command was to surrender what was left of his men, hoping to save their lives; the ultimate tragedy was that it did not. On Palm Sunday 1836, by the direct order of Santa Anna himself, Fanninâ€™s surviving men were slaughtered at point-blank range by their guards. James Fannin was executed last of all, knowing what happened to them.
The characters of various Mexican officers are also carefully drawn, as much from what is historically known as from imagination; General Urrea, who had accepted Fanninâ€™s surrender in good faith, Colonel Portilla, who carried out Santa Annaâ€™s orders to execute the prisoners, and Colonel Garay, who risked his own life and career by sheltering certain of them from execution. They all justifiably feared Santa Anna, and what he was capable of doing to them and to their own families. To their credit (in reality and in this book), the author makes clear they obeyed with varying degrees of reluctance, and created various pretenses to spare certain prisoners. The character and motivations of Francita Alavez, the so-called Angel of Goliad are also explored; she is unambiguous, fiercely moral and fearless in her insistence that the executions are wrong. Unable to convince those in authority to ignore the orders, she acted boldly and openly in rescuing prisoners from the death march, and in sheltering them afterwards.
All in all, The Edge of Freedom is a completely satisfactory read. The writing is spare and polished, reminiscent of Hemmingway in describing a world that is almost completely masculine. The author also possesses that relatively rare gift of having a good ear for 19th century conversation. This fictional retelling is an excellent and painless introduction to a comparatively little known but dramatic episode in Texas history.
Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her Adelsverein Trilogy is also available through Amazon.com. More about her books, including Daughter of Texas, due for release in April 2011 is at her website www.celiahayes.com.