Remember Goliad - And the Treatment of American Prisoners

The experience of Americans when surrendering to our enemies has not been good. Other writers on this site make the case for being sure we do it right and are right before going to war. This piece helps buttress that point.

On this day, March 27, 1836, at Goliad, one of the worst incidents in that long, sad history, occurred.


Col. Jose Nicolas de la Portilla, on the orders of Santa Anna ordered three ambulatory groups of the 445 men he reported as prisoner to be marched in three different directions from the La Bahia fort. At the end of each march, the troops suddenly opened fire at close range on the prisoners, immediately killing most and running down and killing most of the rest. Only 28 of those marched out of the fort, survived the massacre. Back at the fort, most of the 40 to 90 wounded, including James Fannin were also executed.

The bulk of the men massacred had surrendered with Fannin at Coleto on written promise of good treatment from General Jose de Urrea, even though he was aware of an executive order by Santa Anna that they should be executed upon capture.


The Angel of Goliad, Francita Alavez, the wife of Mexican Captain Telesforo Alavez is credited with interceding with the officers before the massacre to provide better treatment for the prisoners, with helping some escape before the massacre, with persuading the officers not to execute 80 men led by William P. Miller, who had been captured without arms in Copano, and later helping those prisoners after they had been transported to Matamoros. According to Texas State Historical Association, when she was later abandoned by Captain Alavez, Texans who knew of her heroic deeds befriended her.


When Sam Houston’s troops went into battle at San Jacinto less than a month later, it was not just “Remember the Alamo” that they shouted. It was also “Remember Goliad.”


Other outrageous outcomes for Americans captured in war are many:


· Fort Washington, 1776 - Of the 2,838 men captured after the fall of Fort Washington on Manhattan on November 16, 1776, only 800 survived the starvation, cold, and cramped quarters in which they were imprisoned.

· Tarleton’s Quarter - Waxhaws, South Carolina, May 29, 1780 – In a battle with Colonial troops led by Colonel Abraham Buford, British Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s men killed many who had laid down their arms and surrendered, earning the bitter name, “Tarleton’s Quarter.”

· Barbary Pirates – All who surrendered to Muslim Barbary Pirates in North Africa in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s were made slaves laboring under brutal conditions, many of whom perished.

· Dawson Massacre – Texas - September, 1842 – During the invasion of the Republic of Texas and occupation of San Antonio by Mexico, 53 men from Fayette County led by Nicholas Dawson were coming to join Matthew Caldwell’s troops attempting to repulse the 1,500 Mexican troops occupying San Antonio. Dawson and his men encountered 500 of those troops north of San Antonio and were surrounded. They fought for a good while, then attempted to surrender. The already wounded Dawson was killed while holding the white flag of surrender. Only 15 of the 53 survived the encounter, and only nine of those survived being taken back to Perote Prison in Mexico.

· Andersonville Prison – 1860’s – 13,000 of the 45,000 POWs held at this infamous POW camp did not survive.

· Indian Wars – especially against the plains Indians, including the Comanches and Apaches, captured men were brutally tortured to death.

· Baatan Death March, 1942 – 80,000 POWs were marched over 60 miles to a POW camp. Due to the brutal treatment on the march, only 54,000 made it to camp, and many more died after making it to camp. Most other Japanese POW camps were places where chances of death were high.

· Malmedy Massacre - Battle of the Bulge December, 1945 – 84 Americans captured during the Battle of the Bulge were machine gunned by the SS in a field at Malmedy.

· Communist North Korea atrocities against American POWs – There were at least 8 documented instances of execution of POWs during the war. There were multiple death marches as well. U.S. Senate report on the war estimated that two thirds of the Americans captured during the Korean War died in captivity, which was over 6,000 American deaths.

· Communist North Vietnam atrocities against American POWs – Prisoners in North Vietnamese and Viet Cong POW camps were tortured and mistreated. An estimated 25% of those held in Viet Cong camps died. The death rate was “only” 5% in North Vietnamese POW camps.

· Iraq 2003 – There are several reports of isolated executions of a few captured Americans during the invasion of Iraq. The Defense Department said that all 23 American prisoners captured during Operation Desert Storm were tortured or abused.

· ISIL Beheadings – press coverage of ISIL atrocities is harder to come by. But ISIL beheaded many European and a few Americans captured. Most were not soldiers, but journalists and humanitarian aid workers.


Circumstances will differ in the future. Knowing the future is difficult and gauging the intent and morality of American enemies at a moment in time is difficult. But knowing what has come before, in many circumstances, most Americans would be better off fighting to the death if possible than to be captured by our enemies.