Former McLennan elections official John Willingham to sign copies of his book

Waco native John Willingham will be at Barnes & Noble in Waco on Thursday to sign copies of his book.

The rebels who turned the tide of the Texas Revolution rode into the Battle of San Jacinto with the cry: “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”

Texans still can’t get enough of the heroic last stand at the Alamo in March 1836. But the execution of hundreds of surrendered “Texian” revolutionaries that same month at Goliad doesn’t ring the same bells.

Waco native John Willingham is hoping to correct that imbalance with his book, “The Edge of Freedom: A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.” The novel examines the tragedy of Goliad as a counterpoint to the Alamo story.

“Both events deserve extremely strong attention in Texas history,” Willingham said. “The Alamo will always be dominant. But it has obscured the deep meaning of what happened at Goliad. . . . The book is a dialogue between the Alamo and Goliad and attempts to understand them in the context of their age.”

Willingham, 64, is best known here for his career as McLennan County elections administrator from 1984-92. But his passion — and his master’s degree — is in history. He has spent the last two decades researching and writing “The Edge of Freedom.”

He said he felt compelled to try to get inside the heads of the Texians who surrendered at Goliad and the Mexican soldiers who reluctantly executed them on orders from Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

Now a resident of Portland, Ore., Willingham will visit Waco to sign books at Barnes & Noble from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday. The book tour was planned to coincide with the 175th anniversary of the Goliad mass execution on March 27, 1836.

Visit piqued interest

Willingham said his interest in the event began when he was living in Waco and taking vacations to the Gulf Coast on a route that passes near Goliad and its historic presidio, or fort.

On visiting the presidio, he imagined the meeting that took place between Goliad fort commander James Fannin and Alamo resistance leader James Bonham.

Bonham in late February 1836 asked Fannin to join him at the Alamo. Fannin’s troops started toward San Antonio, but his men decided to turn back because of logistical problems. If they had made it, the Texians still would have been vastly outnumbered at the Alamo.

“It seemed to me there was something so illogical and militarily unsound and even reckless for that small group of men to stay at the Alamo,” Willingham said. “I found that in my own mind that they were bound by the spirit of the age to be reckless in the cause of freedom.”

He said the defenders of the Alamo belonged to a Romantic age that glorified the gallant sacrifice of life to a cause, even a lost cause.

Negotiating surrender

Fannin ultimately took a different approach. Willingham said Fannin also had been reckless in splitting off his forces at Goliad to rescue civilians at Refugio when he knew the Mexican Army was on the march. But when Fannin finally found himself overwhelmed by that army at the Battle of Coleto Creek on March 20, he decided to save his men’s lives by negotiating a surrender.

He and Mexican Gen. Jose de Urrea hammered out the terms in writing: The Texians would surrender their arms and be taken as prisoners of war, with the understanding that they would be paroled. The Mexican army marched the Texians back to the Goliad presidio, and Urrea moved on toward San Jacinto.

Meanwhile, Santa Anna got word of Urrea’s actions and wrote a letter scolding him for taking prisoners of war. Under a new Mexican policy, the Texian rebels were considered pirates to be punished by death.

The Mexican commander at the Goliad presidio, Nicolas Portilla, weighed conflicting orders from Urrea and Santa Anna, but ultimately obeyed the president and executed most of the Texians, including Fannin, though some escaped.

A wiser decision

Regardless of the tragic outcome, Willingham said Fannin and Urrea made a decision that was wiser under the circumstances than fighting to the death, as other Texians did at the Alamo.

“My argument is that a pragmatic and honorable attempt to save lives in the cause of peace is as valuable to the art of collective memory as a heroic battle in the name of freedom,” he said. “In Texas, we have been unwilling to be able to understand that our heritage includes something more.”

A central character of the book is Carlos de la Garza, a Mexican loyalist who saved the lives of several Texian prisoners before the mass execution. Before the uprising, he was friends with the Anglo-American settler John Bowers, who became a revolutionary for the other side. Willingham uses their friendship as a lens for the whole conflict.

Carolina Castillo Crimm, a historian at Sam Houston State University, said Willingham’s book is commendable as a balanced portrayal of a war that led Mexico to surrender a huge part of its territories.

“I think he did a really wonderful job,” she said. “It really is important to use fiction in this instance to try to understand the attitudes and beliefs of both sides. For once, we see both sides and the tremendous dilemma that they were in.”

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