Sunday, November 8, 2015

Come and Take It !

"Come and Take It" flag

By 1835, Texas was a colony on the verge of revolt.  President- General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had overthrown Mexico’s constitutional government and replaced it with himself.   The rise of Santa Anna’s Centralist government marked the beginning of hardened attitudes toward the Texan colonists.  The lure of cheap land, no taxes and Mexico’s constitutional government lured droves of U.S. citizens to Texas – legally and illegally.  Slavery, which had been abolished in Mexico, was openly practiced in Texas; local authorities could do little to prevent it.  To make matters worse, hundreds of squatters settled on land without Mexico’s permission.  Once encouraged to settle in Texas to help ward off Indian raids, the colonists were becoming a bigger threat to Mexico than the Comanches.  Things were about to change.

Santa Anna ordered all illegal settlers expelled and that all Texans be disarmed.  To demonstrate he meant business, Santa Anna ruthlessly put down a Federalist revolt in the province of Zacatecas.  As a reward, he allowed his troops to rape and pillage Zacatecas for two straight days.  Alarmed, Stephen F. Austin rode down to Mexico City to seek independence for Texas as an alternative to Santa Anna’s tyranny.  Instead, he was arrested and spent two years in prison.  Upon release, Austin was convinced resistance was the only recourse for Texas.

In 1831, a small, six pound cannon was presented to Gonzales impresario, Green C. DeWitt, for the defense of his colony against Indians.  In September 1835, Mexico’s military commander of Texas, Colonel Domingo Ugartechea, ordered the colony to return the cannon.  To retrieve it, he dispatched one hundred troops, under Lieutenant Francisco Casteneda, to Gonzales.  The good citizens of Gonzales weren’t about to let that happen. 

Upon reaching the Guadalupe River on September 29, a group of Gonzales militiamen (eighteen in all) refused to allow Casteneda to cross.  Casteneda, under strict orders to not provoke a fight and risk defeat at hands of those upstart Texans, complied and set up camp on a nearby hill.  The Gonzales militia, meanwhile, sent out a call to all neighboring settlements for help.  Noted ranger, Captain Matthew (“Old Paint”) Caldwell, sent word to Casteneda that his troops would not be attacked during the night and he would be respectfully contacted the following morning.  Such assurances were a means of stalling the Mexicans while reinforcements were gathered.  By October 1, the Texans had one hundred forty men to confront Casteneda.  The Mexicans moved seven miles upriver to attempt a less defended crossing.  Discovering Casteneda’s maneuver, the Texans decided to make their own crossing and attack his camp.  They stealthily ferried themselves across, but a thick fog prevented a coordinated attack and a barking dog took away the element of surprise.  Under fire from the alerted Mexican camp, the Texans fell back toward the Guadalupe and the protection of a tree line along the river.  The following day, Casteneda, ordered a charge by forty of his cavalry.  Armed with superior Kentucky rifles, the Texans delivered a volley that halted the charge in its tracks and forced the Mexicans to return to their camp.  A stalemate ensued until the fog lifted.

Before the fighting resumed, an unlikely messenger rode up to the Texans bearing a message; Casteneda wanted a parley.  The messenger, Dr. Launcelot Smither, was a self-appointed envoy sent from San Antonio to prevent bloodshed and encourage the return of the cannon.  Because the Texans broke their word that they wouldn’t attack, Casteneda didn’t trust the Anglo doctor’s motives.  Because he came at the behest of the Mexican military commander, the Texans didn’t trust him either.  Nevertheless, Smither set up a meeting between Casteneda and the Texan commander, Colonel John Henry Moore, on neutral ground between the opposing lines.  Cateneda asked why he was attacked when promised he wouldn’t be.  Moore replied that Casteneda was acting illegally on behalf of Santa Anna and in defiance of Mexico’s constitutional government.  Casteneda said he was not looking for a fight but was only requesting the return of the cannon.  He also stated that he, like Moore, was a Federalist, a supporter of the constitutional government.  Moore put Casteneda on the spot by suggesting he should switch sides and fight with the Texans.  Taken aback, he responded that as a soldier he was duty bound to Mexico’s present government – be it Federalist or Centralist.  The negotiations went nowhere and both commanders returned to their respective camps.  The Mexicans noticed the Texans had a new flag to stoke their rebellious spirit: a white flag with a black cannon barrel on it and the defiant words “Come and Take It” printed below it.  The tiny cannon itself was on hand and mounted on an ox cart - more frightening for its noise than its destructive force.  Unimpressive as a weapon, it was more than impressive in symbolic value. 

Upon Moore’s return, the Texans fired the cannon toward the Mexican camp and followed it with a spirited charge.  No cannon balls were on hand, only scrap metal was available for ammo.  Before they could close in, Casteneda’s men left the field and returned to San Antonio.  Casteneda wrote in his report that “since the orders from your Lordship were for me to withdraw without compromising the honor of Mexican arms, I did so.” 

The Battle of Gonzales was more of a glorified shoving match than a battle.  Two Mexicans were killed while one Texan received a bloody nose after falling from his horse – the first Texan casualty of a growing revolt.  Like Lexington of the American Revolution, Gonzales, the “Lexington of Texas,” marked the first act of armed defiance against Santa Anna.  As events unfolded, Santa Anna himself would try to come and take it on a more massive scale - the Texas Revolution had begun !

The cannon itself may have been captured at the Alamo and later melted down; nobody knows exactly.  Often seen today on the bumpers and rear windows of motor vehicles, the “Come and Take It” slogan is a popular symbol of Texas’ independent spirit.  Every October, the City of Gonzales celebrates the battle with its “Come and Take It Days.”   A fine replica of the cannon is on view at the Gonzales Memorial Museum.

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