By David Vickers
Until recently, little had been written about the events that led up to the small, but significant fight on the Nueces River. Dr. Stephen L. Hardin's comprehensive work Texian Iliad devotes an entire chapter to the subject and before that, the regional historian Hobart Huson wrote extensively on the subject. Generally though, this aspect of the Texas Revolution has gotten little attention from historians.
The chain of events of which led to the capture of Lipantitlán and the battle of Nueces, began with the Texian capture of the formidable Presidio La Bahía at Goliad in early October of 1835. Earlier, in September, Mexican General Cos landed at the nearby port of Copano with his punitive expedition against the Texians. Cos stopped at La Bahía, but proceeded on to Béjar without reinforcing the garrison. A small force of Matagorda volunteers under George M. Collinsworth surprised the unwary and undermanned garrison, by battering down the gates of the presidio in the dead of night. The Texians managed to capture not only one of the most fought over and strategic fortifications in Texas, but also to cut off Cos' supply line to the port of Copano.
Phillip Dimmit, a Kentuckian and local merchant, was left in charge of the presidio after Collinsworth's removal to Béjar. Dimmit soon became aware of problems to the Southwest. A small cantonment on the Nueces River was still in the hands of the Mexican Army. Lipantitlán, as the fort was called, had been the sight of a Lipan Apache camp, but had been used for many years as a military station on the road to Matamoros. In about 1830, the Mexicans built a small earthen fort there on the recommendation of Mexican general Manuel de Mier y Terán, to watch over the Irish colonists at San Patricio, and to safeguard the route south into the interior of Mexico. Historian Hobart Huson states that the fort was built earlier, and had only been strengthened at the urging of Mier y Terán.1 Regardless of its origins, the fort was a cause of concern for the Federalist Texians. The presence of a Centralist stronghold so near was a serious threat to the Texian forces.
At the time, a dragoon company from Tamaulipas, commanded by Captain Nicolás Rodríguez garrisoned Lipantitlán. Its second-in-command was a young officer, popular with the colonists, Captain Marcelino Garcia. The Fortress was not a formidable structure by any account. Made of earthworks supported by fence rails to hold the dirt in place, with Jacales or huts of adobe and sticks as officers quarters and barracks. John Linn, a participant and chronicler of the battle described it as "answering tolerably well... for a second rate hog pen". 2
One Texian problem with Lipantitlán centered on another officer at the fort, Manuel Sabriego. The Texians captured Sabriego at Presidio La Bahía, and sent him to Stephen F. Austin, who was then commanding the Texian revolutionary forces. The Texians, at this early time in the revolution, were still espousing the Federalist Constitution of 1824, and calling themselves "Federalists". After Sabriego convinced Austin of his sympathies for the Federalist and thus the Texian cause, Austin paroled him. The duplicitous officer had gone directly to Matamoros to make a report to the Centralist authorities there. He then returned to Lipantitlán, and set up a spy network to report on Texian movements. Sabriego was an important player in the use of Centralist Tejanos, supporters of Santa Anna's government, to harass and spy on the Texians. Phillip Dimmit knew of the espionage generated by Sabriego, and began to formulate a plan to attack Lipantitlán with the intent to capture or kill him.3
By mid-October 1835, more reasons for the expedition had developed. Colonel James Power, empressario of the predominately Irish Colony at Refugio, reported to Dimmit that cannons belonging to the San Patricio colony had been confiscated and placed in the fort. He further reported that two large forces of dragoons were coming to the Nueces from Matamoros and Laredo to reinforce Lipantitlán. Dimmit began to fear, with probable cause, that Cos would use Lipantitlán as a staging ground for recapture of Presidio La Bahía.4
Another concern were the Irish of the San Patricio colony. Unlike the Refugio colony, the Irish at San Patricio seemed mixed in their loyalties to the Texian cause. At least part of them was sympathetic to the Centralists, including several of the current officials of the municipality. Part of Dimmit's intent was to place Irish sympathetic to the Texians in charge at San Patricio.
To add to all the above problems, Williams and Toole, two couriers with messages for the Federalists at San Patricio, were captured and imprisoned at the fort. When these men were sent to prison in Matamoros in late October, Dimmit and the garrison at La Bahía were outraged, and clamored for revenge against Lipantitlán. They were filled with regret at not having launched an expedition to rescue their comrades.
Finally, the capture of Lipantitlán would deny Cos his final line of communications with the interior of Mexico. The Texians would control the road south to Matamoros. By taking Lipantitlán, Dimmit would give valuable service to the Texians besieging Cos at Béjar.
Things began to fall into place by late October. Dimmit put together a force of about 30 men, under the command of Ira Westover, his adjutant and a Refugio native. Westover, a well-known merchant in the Refugio colony, had led a company of Irish during the capture of La Bahía. Two delegates to the provisional government, James Linn, another local merchant and community leader, and James Kerr, Austin colonist, Indian fighter and son-in-law of Linn, were sent along as "senior advisors'. Both Kerr and Linn reportedly had some military experience in the War of 1812. The group was most certainly a force of mounted riflemen, having been supplied by local rancheros with 20 mounts.5
The enlisted men of the expedition were probably a mixed group. Dimmit selected volunteers from the garrison, and though no muster roll exists, Huson states that most of the Texian troops were Refugio colony Irishmen. Unlike the Irish at San Patricio, who were divided on the issue, the colonists under the strong leadership of empressario Power, seemed to support the Federalist/Texian cause.6 The balance of the group was probably part of the Matagorda volunteers who had helped capture the Presidio earlier in the month. Some authorities express surprise that the Texians supplied no artillery to the expedition. However, considering the logistics of transporting any large artillery pieces across the prairie, it is probable that the Texians were more concerned with employing the element of surprise. Artillery, even a small field gun, would only be a burden that would slow the Texian advance.
The Texians left the Presidio in the first days of November and arrived first in Refugio where they recruited more volunteers. These included Colonel James Power the empressario who had kept Dimmit informed about the events at the cantonment on the Nueces. Power who possibly had some experience in the War of 1812 was to become the third of the three advisors to Westover. Power's brother-in-law, Francisco Portilla was chosen to guide the little force to the Nueces. Portilla, a scion of a local ranchero family, knew the country well.7
After stopping at Refugio, the small force proceeded to take the "lower road" to San Patricio. This road advanced southeast before turning back towards the Irish colony. A more direct route southwest from the presidio existed, but the Texians, for reasons not stated, had taken the indirect route. This proved fortunate. The Texian force reached the area of San Patricio, and stopped at a rancho about five miles below the town. Here they were informed by the locals that Rodríguez and the balance of the garrison at Lipantitlán were out on the upper road attempting to intercept them.8 Rodríguez's force was estimated to be about eighty men, far outnumbering the Texians.
The Texians arrived at the Nueces during the late afternoon of November 3rd or 4th depending on which source is cited (Linn says that it was the fourth). Recent rains had swollen the Nueces and the Texians had to rely on a canoe found by the river to ferry the men across a few at a time. The horses were taken across and the men reassembled on the west bank of the Nueces. They positioned themselves to attack the fort, which was only a few hundred yards across the river.
It was dark by the time Westover divided his force into two storming parties and placed them in position near the fort. By an accident of fate, James O'Riley, an Irishman who had been in the fort, stumbled into the Texian positions in the dark. O'Riley, whom Westover suspected of aiding the enemy, was shocked to find the Texians ready to pounce on the unsuspecting garrison. He informed the Texians that only a handful of Mexican troopers remained in the fort, and volunteered to go back to convince them to surrender. At the Irishman's urging the fort surrendered quietly. Westover and his men found the garrison occupied by about twenty men including members of the San Patricio colony. Westover stated that these Irish were there "some from choice and others from compulsion". The fort also had two four-pounder cannon and a few "escopets" (escopetas), or old Spanish muskets of dubious quality. 9
The Texians returned to San Patricio to rest, but came back to the fort the next day and attempted to partially destroy the fort. Some of the jacales were burned and they made an attempt to dismantle the earthworks of the fort. With little success, this attempt was soon abandoned. The Texians then began to cross the Nueces again using the same canoe.
While crossing, they placed sentries in an advanced position up the Goliad road. They had only managed to get half of their force across, when the sentries returned with the news that Rodríguez had received word of the Texian capture of Lipantitlán and was approaching with his detachment.10
The half of the Texian force that had managed to get across the rain-swollen river formed a skirmish line in the timber growing along the Nueces. The dragoons dismounted and took a position on a rise overlooking the river and the Texian line. They opened fire at about two hundred yards, and the Texians returned " with more accurate fire". 11 The "Battle of the Nueces" had begun.
One of the most dramatic moments of the battle occurred about this time. A Mexican officer, unidentified in the accounts, but probably Marcelino Garcia, Rodriguez's second-in-command, distinguished himself by his gallantry. Linn observed "A Mexican officer - a brave fellow- stood on the declivity of a slight elevation and fired guns at us as fast as his men could load them and hand them to him" 12
The officer's show of bravery did not last long. James Kerr, the old Indian fighter and veteran, probably handy with a rifle, made the officer a special target and managed to wound him. His men carried him off the field.
The Mexicans attempted to outflank the Texians who were led by some of the San Patricio Irish, including the Alcalde, Sheriff and Judge. Accounts differ as to how many of the colonists had allied themselves with the Mexicans, but at least nine or ten were part of the flanking attempt. The small flanking force managed ride to the timber on the right of Westover's line, and dismount for an attack, but the men still across the river were alert, and began to fire into this force. The fire had telling effect and the group fell back with several wounded, including the Irish officials.
By most accounts, the Texians at the Nueces carryed rifles, which outstripped the Mexican muskets for distance and accuracy (Mexican dragoons probably carried the British Pagent Carbine). Accurate Texian fire began to take its toll. The main force facing the Texians began to withdraw in some confusion. Linn stated that a fine horse "with a splendid saddle"13 charged through the Texian lines. The Texians watched as Rodríguez and his men withdrew.
The fight had lasted about thirty-two minutes. Different accounts give different casualties numbers for the Mexican forces, but the numbers do not differ greatly. One participant gave the number of Mexican killed at eight with about twelve to fourteen wounded.14 First Sergeant Bracken was the only wounded among the Texians. While reloading his rifle, he had started to run the ramrod down the barrel, when a Mexican musket ball carried away three fingers on one hand and with the same shot broke the other.15
After the Mexican withdrawal, Texians again crossed to the east bank of the Nueces. Soon after dark, a cold, wet norther blew in causing great discomfort for the Texians. After some discussion, it was decided that, because of the inclement conditions, the artillery captured at the fort would be thrown into the river. Prospects for getting these cannon back across the rain soaked prairies to La Bahía were not good. The Texians also decided that they would be safer from attack camped on the edge of the prairie above the river. This was decision was soon reversed however when it was found that the citizens of San Patricio were very hospitable to the Texians. The norther was making things uncomfortable out in the open and the Texians were delighted to find space in the warm homes of the Irish Colonists. Apparently, if any of the San Patricio Irish harbored ill feeling against the Texians, the Texian victory diminished it.
The next day a messenger sent by Rodríguez approached with a white flag. The Mexicans had no surgeon and asked that their wounded be sent over to the Texians side for treatment. Among the most seriously wounded was Marcelino Garcia. He was taken to the home of the local Empressario, James McGloin, where he lay in great pain throughout the night. Garcia was not only a popular figure with the Irish at San Patricio, but also a friend of John Linn, who comforted him as he lay dying from his wound. Linn stated that he expressed regrets for the conflict that had developed between the Texians and the Mexicans, and laid the blame for the problems on Santa Anna. He gave Linn his horse. After his death the Texians buried him with "all the honors of war".16
Apparently, the capture of Sabriego, one of the main objects of the expedition, had not been accomplished. Sabriego had run from the battlefield early in the fight, fearing the anger of the Texians over his violation of parole, and headed south for Matamoros.17
The Texians, still full of bravado over their recent success, sent a courier back to Rodríguez asking if he wanted another fight. Rodriguez refused saying that the Texian rifle fire was more than he could stand. The defeated Mexican force retreated towards Matamoros, while the Texians, after doing as much damage as possible to the fort, headed back towards the Presidio at Goliad.
An interesting aspect of the fight on the Nueces is the Irish contingent with the Mexican forces. Some sources suggest the Centralists pressed at least some of the Irish into service. However, it is safe to assume that a portion of the group was there because they objected to the Texian's revolt against their recently adopted country. The Irish colonists had few of the complaints that the Anglos in Austin's colony had raised. They were Catholic, and had no problem with the state religion of Mexico, and they had been well treated by the Mexican government. A Federalist supporter at San Patricio, John Turner, stated that the community there was still divided in their loyalties weeks after the battle.18
In contrast, the Irish of the Refugio colony seemed to rally behind their Empressario James Power, in support of the Texians and the Federalist cause. Irishmen from the Refugio Colony made up Westover's original company during the capture of the Presidio. Many of those same Irish settlers died for the Texian cause the following spring with Fannin's command.
The success of the expedition to Lipantitlán and the Battle of the Nueces is debatable. Dimmit later made the claim that Westover had not accomplished any of his orders given him. No written order exists, but Dimmit suggests that the adjutant disobeyed the oral orders given to Westover. The Texians failed to capture Sabriego, and the fort itself still partially stood. Dimmit apparently ordered the return of the ordinance from the fort. The Out of expediency, the Texians dumped their small cannons into the river because inclement weather created logistical problems in bringing them back.
Other Texian leaders were full of praise for Westover and his command. Houston said that they had "handsomely acquitted themselves in the affair and so deservedly won the reputation for themselves and glory for their country". 19 Austin reported to the provisional government that "the enemy has been driven from the river Nueces by a detachment of the volunteers who garrison Goliad, and by the patriotic sons of Ireland from Power's colony."20 Despite Dimmit's criticism of the mission, Many Texian leaders saw the Battle as at least a minor victory.
Dr. Stephen L. Hardin suggests that the battle was a success in three ways. Politically the San Patricio Federalists regained control of the municipality and declared support for the Constitution of 1824, giving the Texians a strong foothold in the south. In Military terms the defeat of the Lipantitlán garrison denied Cos in Béjar his last link to the interior of Mexico. In addition, the defeat of a trained Mexican force by untrained volunteers at 2 to 1 odds was a significant stroke for the Texians.21
Whether it is remembered by modern historians or not, the capture of
the cantonment and the battle of the Nueces was a contribution to the early
efforts of the Texas revolution. It was at least a minor military success,
and a morale booster for the Texians. The participation of the Irish colonists
on both sides of the conflict, reveals how complex the argument between
the Federalists and Centralists became during the early stages of the war,
before it became an all out revolution against Mexico. If nothing else,
the fight on the Nueces is simply a tragic/comic tale of the revolution
that should be told along with the more dramatic and well known stories
of the Texian struggle for Independence.
Austin, Stephen F. The Austin Papers. Compiled and edited by Eugene C. Barker. 3 vols.
Washington, D.C., and Austin: American Historical Association and University of Texas, 1919-1926.
Hardin, Stephen L., Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Huson, Hobart, Captain Phillip Dimmitt's Commandancy of Goliad, 1835-1836: An Episode of the Mexican Federalist War in Texas, Usually Referred to as the Texian Revolution. Austin: Von Boeckman-Jones Co., 1974.
Huson, Hobart, Refugio: A Comprehensive History of Refugio County, 2 vols. Published by the Rooke foundation, 1953, 1958.
Jenkins, John H., ed. The Papers of the Texas Revolution, 1835-1836. 10 vols. Austin: Presidial Press, 1973.
Linn, John J., Reminiscences of Fifty Years in Texas. 1886; reprint,
Austin: State House Press, 1986