The moment Madam Alavez arrived at Copano, she began her work of intercession and performed deeds of mercy for the poor[,] suffering Texans who had fallen into the hands of the Mexican enemy. —Pioneer Press, October 1920
A slim shadow darted toward the old church at the ruined fortress of Goliad. The smell of smoke stained the night air as the figure picked a careful path through the rubble inside the fortress walls. Moonlight starkly displayed the damage caused by the retreating forces of Colonel James Fannin’s command. Hundreds of Fannin’s men now lay on the hard ground, prisoners of General Jose de Urrea, one of Supreme Commandant General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s best commanders.
Pausing in a dark corner, Francita Alavez gazed toward the southwest gate and the dull gleam of a cannon positioned to fire on anyone who might attempt a rescue of the Americans. She shivered in the warm night as the knowledge of their fate bowed her shoulders. She knew what the captives did not. They believed they would be returned to the United States as prisoners of war. Francita had seen the order sent by Santa Anna to execute all of them.
As she had at Copano Bay almost the moment she arrived in Texas, Francita vowed to save as many as she could. On the eve of Palm Sunday, March 27, 1846, she slipped into the church and began the task.
“She had heard many tales of the bad, bold, immoral Texans, but like all good souls loath to think ill of others, scarcely believed they could be as bad as painted,” recounted the Pioneer Press in 1920. The article went on to outline what was then known about the woman who came to be called the “Angel of Goliad.” Little more is known today about the young woman who worked against a dictator’s orders at the risk of her own life.
According to a written recollection of schoolteacher Elena Zamora O’Shea, who learned about Francita years later through a family connection, Francita–or Panchita, as she was sometimes called–had been orphaned when young. A well-to-do family near San Luis Potosoi in Mexico raised the girl. O’Shea said that Francita was a sort of “better-class servant, of good blood and from a fine family.”
O’Shea went on to describe Francita as a “pretty, attractive, loving girl chafing at her position in this family and longing to be free and to have a fling at life.” Succumbing to the charms of the dashing Captain Telesforo Alavez, whom she knew to be married, Francita, “throwing all restraint aside went off with him to Texas in the campaign.”
Francita’s first encounter with the cruelties of war came at Copano. Mexican troops had just captured about seventy-five to eighty men after they had disembarked at the port. The Americans had come with William P. Miller from Nashville, Tennessee, to aid in the fight for liberty in Texas, then a part of Mexico. They were captured without arms and taken back to Copano.
“When she arrived at Copano with her husband, who was one of Urrea’s officers,” wrote Dr. Joseph H. Barnard, “Miller and his men had just been taken prisoners. They were tightly bound with cords, so as to completely stop the circulation of blood in their arms, and in this state had been left several hours when she saw them. Her heart was touched at the sight, and she immediately caused the cords to be removed and refreshments served them.”
Dr. Barnard credited Francita with saving his life at Copano. He and other witnesses who survived subsequent battles called Francita’s actions heroic, considering the absolute obedience expected by Santa Anna. Yet no one was sure of her true name, nor her marital status, nor the reason she defiantly continued to work against the Mexican army despite close ties to a Mexican officer.
Captain Alavez was paymaster for General Urrea. After leaving Copano, he and Francita caught up with the general who had marched rapidly toward the key military point of Goliad and the small garrison headed by Colonel James Fannin that had been defending the old fortress.
Fannin was one of those who’d signed a broadside published six months before, in October 1835, calling for freemen of Texas to “repair to Gonzales immediately armed and equipped for war, even to the knife.”
It was that kind of inflammatory rhetoric that had first brought General Santa Anna marching northward. Although Santa Anna traveled in opulent comfort, his soldiers had marched barefoot for hundreds of miles on little food, with only a small amount of ammunition, and through some of the most ferocious weather of the decade. Twice they were stopped by the infamous storms called “blue northers,” where the clouds on the horizon looked navy blue and howling winds brought sleet, snow, and freezing temperatures to the balmy Southwest.
Despite a swift but exhausting advance of more than 150 miles from Matamoras to Refugio, Urrea had pressed on toward Goliad, where he expected to encounter Fannin. The rapid march was part of an overall advance of Santa Anna’s generals toward key points. As more than 1,000 Mexican troops laid siege to the Alamo, Urrea caught Fannin on the open plain about a mile from cover at Coleto Creek. Fannin had made a mistake that would lead to the worst massacre of the war for independence.
Late in February, Fannin had received several urgent requests for help from the defenders of the crumbling, old mission-fort at the Alamo some ninety miles away. He had started on the road to San Antonio once, but turned back. Conflicting information on the location of the Mexican army and his lack of respect for its fighting skills led Fannin to delay a retreat from Goliad.
In a letter written a little over two weeks before the battle at Coleto, Captain Burr H. Duval described events to date to his father, William, the governor of Florida. “We are expecting an attack hourly,” Duval wrote. Fannin, he said, was unpopular, “and nothing but the certainty of hard fighting–and that shortly–could have kept us together so long.”
On Saturday, March 19, 1836, Fannin and his men were finally on the road in retreat from the fort. They’d buried the armament they couldn’t carry and burned provisions to keep them out of the hands of the Mexican army. Later, Fannin was criticized for taking too much of the armament while leaving behind the food for his men and the fodder for the oxen pulling the heavy carts.
“Although fully determined from the necessity of the case on retreating, we were by no means disposed to run. We confidently counted on our ability to take ourselves and all our baggage in safety to Victoria,” wrote Dr. Barnard in his journal.
The Battle of Coleto between Urrea’s troops and Fannin’s small force took place approximately six miles from Goliad. It had taken two days to get that far. Trapped by Urrea at a low point where they had stopped to allow the weary oxen to graze, Fannin’s untrained volunteers inflicted heavy damage on Urrea’s troops. During the first day of battle, Fannin formed the wagons, boxes, and crates into a defensive square. That night, without water for the wounded or much hope for the future, all the men voted against escaping to a forested area less than a mile distant. To escape would mean leaving the wounded behind. During the night, Urrea received reinforcements. More than 700 Mexican troops surrounded fewer than 400 Americans.
On March 20, Fannin capitulated.
Meanwhile, Captain Alavez and others had been detailed by Santa Anna to move into the abandoned fort. Francita learned of the terms of the surrender when the exhausted prisoners began to arrive. More than 200 men were marched back to the fort thinking they would be treated as prisoners of war. Urrea had dealt directly with Fannin, who agreed to surrender “subject to the disposition of the supreme government.”
There was nothing Francita could do as the prisoners limped wearily forward under Mexican guns. “Nobody had yet entered the fort when, after an absence of thirty-five hours, we arrived here from the battleground,” wrote Herman Ehrenberg. “The Mexicans evidently feared a concealed mine or some other scheme to cause them injury. Consequently we were the first ones to enter the desolate ruins again, but as prisoners, and were stuffed into an old church for the night. Literally stuffed, as we stood so close man to man that it was possible at the most for only one-fourth to sit down. It was well that the inner room of the church had a height of thirty-five to forty feet. If it had been lower, we would have suffocated.”
Francita listened to the muffled cries for water that carried from the church. As at Copano, she could not bear the suffering of the beaten men. At eight o’clock in the morning, said Ehrenberg, six men were detailed to go to the river for water. “The first load disappeared like a single drop on a red-hot stove.” The second and third days passed with only water provided–no food–for the prisoners trapped in the increasingly stifling church. They began shouting for the commanding officer and fulfillment of the terms of surrender, which they still believed meant they would be treated fairly and eventually released.
Francita was horrified to realize the prisoners believed they would be sent back to the United States. She could do little for them because determined guards stood at the side doors and several cannon threatened the entrance to the church.
Urrea had marched onward to the next battle but had sent a letter to Santa Anna asking for clemency for Fannin’s troops, as he’d promised the American commander. “I issued several orders to Lt. Col. Portilla, instructing him to use the prisoners for the rebuilding of Goliad. From that time on, I decided to increase the numbers of prisoners there in the hope that their very number would save them, for I never thought that the horrible spectacle of that massacre could take place in cold blood and without immediate urgency, a deed proscribed by the laws of war and condemned by the civilization of our country,” Urrea wrote in his diary. He went on to take Victoria, leaving the prisoners and the wounded behind under command of Portilla.
Meanwhile, the weather had turned hot, and the wounded had lingered on the battlefield for several days, suffering extreme thirst and pain from untreated injuries as they waited for carts to take them to the fort. As the injured troopers from Coleto were finally transported to Goliad, Francita worked feverishly with Dr. Barnard, whom she knew from Copano, and with Dr. John “Jack” Shackelford. She apparently spoke English because several survivors who did not speak Spanish repeated her words.
Santa Anna’s reply to Urrea’s request for clemency came back a few days later: immediate execution of the “perfidious foreigners.” Another letter on March 23 to Colonel Jose Nicolas de la Portilla ordered him to carry out the execution of all prisoners.
According to the memoirs of teacher Elena Zamora O’Shea, relating the story as told years later by Francita’s son, “she raved and railed against such commands. She begged and she pleaded for the lives of various individuals and was instrumental in saving several. She cursed the Captain [Alavez] and called him all sorts of names, ‘de Iscariotes hasto Luzbel.’ “
Francita was indeed beside herself. She stole into the fort with the help of some Mexican officers and concealed some of the prisoners. Drs. Barnard and Shackelford later made a special point of noting Francita’s activities on behalf of the captive troops; unfortunately, she couldn’t save them all. On the night of March 26, unaware that they were doomed, the captives sang “Home Sweet Home.”
At sunrise, March 27, 1836, the prisoners were roused, and those who were not wounded were formed into three columns. They were lighthearted, even singing, many believing they were going home. Fifteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin Hughes recalled the moment. “We were called out and told to hurry up and get in line to march to a place of embarkation, and we got in line rather hopping and skipping for joy at the thought of soon being home. We were just about starting, when I saw quite a number of ladies standing where we had to march by.”
As the columns marched out the gate, Francita watched in helpless rage. When young Hughes came near, Francita spoke to another woman, who spoke to an officer, who in turn detailed a trooper to pull Hughes from the ranks and put him with the ladies. Less than a mile from the fort, the columns, minus Hughes, were halted as the guards converged, raised their rifles, and fire at point-blank range. Most of the Goliad prisoners were killed. Some scrambled away and headed for cover as gun smoke drifted over the field. A few, a very few, managed to escape.
Hughes soon realized what Francita had done for him. “. . . in the instant of the halt the order was given to fire, and then I saw for the first time why I was taken from the ranks, and nudged up to the ladies, and immediately after some of the Mexicans came running back and began menacing me with their muskets and bayonets, as they had bayoneted all who [sic] were not killed outright–which they did, and even those who [sic] were killed were stuck through with the bayonet rather by way of sport, and such was the fate of 332 poor fellows that a few hours before were building high air castles, all to fall suddenly in a few hours with their plans.”
She’d saved the boy, but grieved for the ones whom died. Dr. Barnard saw her raging against fate. “During the time of the massacre she stood in the street, her hair floating, speaking wildly, and abusing the Mexican officers, especially Portilla. She appeared almost frantic.”
Barnard credited Francita with helping conceal several prisoners inside the fort and then spiriting them away after the massacre. “When she saw Dr. Shackelford a few days after, and heard that his son was among those who [sic] were sacrificed, she burst into tears and exclaimed: ‘Why did I not know that you had a son here? I would have saved him at all hazards.’ “
Fannin, whom had been wounded in the battle eight days before, was executed inside the fortress along with others unable to march to their deaths in the columns that had left the fort with a merry song. Both doctors were spared because medics were scarce among the Mexican troops. They and others were later marched out of Texas. They left behind the remains of their comrades in the form of a pile of burned bones upon the plain near Goliad.
Francita and Captain Alavez also departed, for the captain was given command of Victoria, a small town a short distance from the fortress. “As Santa Anna’s army came marching into Victoria from the river west of town,” said a descendant of the Quinn family of Victoria, “my grandmother looked up to find seven Americans standing in the doorway.” R. L. Owens reported that reminiscences of the family indicated his grandmother warned the men they would be shot if found at the Quinn home. They turned and started away toward Texana, “but the Mexicans pursued and fired upon them, killing three or four and taking the others prisoners.”
The men were taken toward the square to be executed, “but the wives of several officers threw themselves between the prisoners and the firing squad, and told the officers in charge they would have to shoot them before they could shoot these men, who had harmed no one.” The men were saved.
Another survivor, Isaac Hamilton, related that he, too, had been ordered shot at Victoria, “which fate I escaped by the intercession of two Mexican Ladies [sic].”
Francita stayed at Victoria with Captain Alavez from March 31 until May 14. In addition to her direct intercession against executions, she reportedly aided prisoners by sending them provisions and communicating with them as she was able. Then the captain and Francita were ordered to move again, this time to Matamoros.
“After her return to Matamoros, she was unwearied in her attentions to the unfortunate Americans confined there,” Dr. Barnard wrote in his journal. “She went to the city of Mexico with her husband [Alavez], who there abandoned her. She returned to Matamoros without any funds for support, but she found many warm friends among those who had heard of and witnessed her extraordinary exertions in relieving the Texas prisoners.”
Barnard’s account points out Francita’s bravery in managing to save many of the Mexican army’s enemies, given Santa Anna’s orders to execute all prisoners–which even his general did not dare disobey. “It must be remembered that when she came to Texas she could have considered its people only as rebels and heretics, the two classes of all others most odious to the mind of a pious Mexican.”
According to the account written about the turn of the twentieth century by Elena O’Shea, Francita had two sons, Matias and Guadalupe, by Captain Alavez while living with him in Matamoros. Elena said that Matias, as an old man working at the King Ranch in Texas, related some of the story of his mother and father. Matias claimed the founder of the ranch knew about the compassionate actions of the determined, young woman who worked tirelessly and at no little risk on behalf of the prisoners marked for death. Her descendants lived and worked in Texas, and proudly traced their ancestry back to the Angel of Goliad.
“Her name deserves to be recorded in letters of gold among those angels who have from time to time been commissioned by an overruling and beneficent Power to relieve the hearts of man,” summed up Dr. Barnard.