Fatal Distraction: The Origins of the Matamoros Expedition

By: Dr. Bruce Winders, Alamo Director of History and Curation

The Texan victories at Gonzales, Goliad, Lipantitlan, and Béxar quickly gave way to political infighting that left the Texans unprepared for Santa Anna’s counterattack. Understanding this phase of the Texas Revolution is critical to understanding the Texans’ defeats of early 1836.

Meeting in mid-October 1835, the colonists had gathered at San Felipe to form an interim government called the Permanent Council. In early November this body gave way to another meeting designated the Consultation. Although some delegates of the Consultation expressed a desire for immediate independence from Mexico, the majority decided to work with other Mexican Federalists, such as recently ousted vice president Valentín Gómez Farías, Lorenzo de Zavala, and General José Antonio Méxia, for the restoration of the Constitution of 1824. A statement to this effect — the Declaration of Causes -was issued on November 7. On November 12, the delegates elected Henry Smith governor and James W. Robinson lieutenant governor. The Consultation also voted to create a regular army and appointed Sam Houston its commander. These actions set in motion events that would fractionalize the Texan leadership at this critical time.

To some Texans, the way to keep Santa Anna’s troops from returning to Mexico was to take the war to Mexico. In fact, this desire had been one of the factors behind Mexía’s failed Tampico Expedition. Stephen F. Austin, who would shortly leave for the United States to raise money for Texas, hoped that Mexía or another Federalist supporter would occupy the inland port of Matamoros, which was strategically located near the mouth of the Rio Grande. Such a move would also give the Federalists control of an important customs house as well as bolster Federalist support in the Rio Grande valley. As long as Béxar remained in Centralist hands, though, Texans had little resources to spare for a march on Matamoros.

Cos’ surrender and evacuation of San Antonio in early December changed the situation. Frank W. Johnson, who took over from Edward Burleson as commander of the volunteers in Béxar, revived the notion of seizing Matamoros. By late December he had raised 200 men at Béxar and had departed Béxar for Goliad. Both Governor Smith and his Council approved the plan but had different ideas as to who should lead it. The governor ordered General Houston to oversee the expedition, who in turn assigned the task to James Bowie. The Council offered the position to Johnson, who surprisingly declined because of a dispute over commissions. The Council then selected James W. Fannin. Johnson reversed his decision and the expedition had three commanders. Bowie abandoned the project, but both Fannin and Johnson planned to proceed with the expedition.

Photograph of Colonel Frank W. Johnson, The McArdle Notebooks, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Throughout January, Fanning and Johnson — with the aid of Dr. James Grant — prepared to lead the volunteer army south. These maneuverings left the Texans in disarray. The garrison commander at Béxar, Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill, complained to both the governor and the Council that Johnson had taken horses, clothing, and supplies intended for use at his post and had left him with only 104 men. His plea for help eventually resulted in dispatching of James Bowie and William B. Travis to his assistance.

The troops in the Goliad area had to choose between following either Fannin or Johnson. Johnson’s command was spread out across the countryside south of Goliad gathering horses and supplies for the expedition. Houston, whose authority did not extend over volunteers and whose army of regulars did not yet exist, was given a furlough to negotiate a treaty between the new government and the Cherokee Indians. To make matters worse, a feud erupted between Governor Smith and the Council, with neither party having authority over the other and each issuing its own orders.

Texas lacked leadership just when a united front was needed. Santa Anna had collected a 6,500 man army at San Luis Potosí for the purpose of crushing the revolt. Divided into two main columns, one under Santa Anna and the other under José Urrea, the army was poised for advance on Béxar and Goliad as January 1836 ended.