James Fannin is perhaps best known as the naive rebel captain who surrendered to General Santa Ana
during the Texas Revolution, only to be executed for what the Mexican government perceived to be treasonous acts. A slave trader, Western scout, and soldier, Fannin's short life was full of mischief, danger, and ultimately, tragedy,
Little is known about Fannin's pre-Texas life. James Walker Fannin, Jr. was born on New Years' Day, 1804, near Marion, Georgia. He was adopted by his maternal grandfather and raised on a plantation. When he was fifteen he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point and spent two years at the school before withdrawing in 1821. Sometime over the next five years he met and married Minerva Fort, and the couple had two daughters. By 1834 he had settled down to a small plantation in Velasco, a small colony in the Mexican territory known as Texas, where he made his living as a farmer and slave trader.
The causes of the Texas revolution are convoluted amidst the many charges fired between the two parties: the Mexicans claimed their generosity and hospitality was being overrun by the greedy and disrespectful colonists, while the Texans claimed taxation, policing, and harassment had run its course in full. In either case, Fannin was one of the early men chosen to represent the Texas settler's defense and security interests. On August 27, 1835, he wrote a letter to a soldier and fellow West Point cadet in Georgia, asking for financial aid and volunteer troops. A month later, Fannin and several of his fellow settlers began collecting money to attack and capture the Veracruzana, a Mexican ship parked off the Gulf coast.
Though the expedition never materialized, Fannin was named captain of the Brazos Guard, and on October 2, 1835, he and his troops participated in the first minor battle of the Texas Revolution, the Battle of Gonzales. As Santa Ana's troops cautiously moved up to secure Gonzales, Fannin sent off a hurried letter to Stephen F. Austin, demanding troops and aid. Austin responded by sending the entire Texas army to Bexar, and Fannin became a scout between the two towns, determining supply lines and general geographical conditions. It was on these scouting duties that he became friends with the legendary Jim Bowie.
He and Bowie finally camped the army near Concepcion on October 27, and the following morning the army attacked in a small but decisive victory against the Mexicans. By now, Fannin had been labeled a high priority target by Santa Ana. In November, he led several raids on Mexican supply lines in west Texas, but on November 22 he resigned from the volunteer army and began seeking enlistments for a new regular army. He convinced Austin and General Sam Houston to establish an auxiliary volunteer corps, and was made a colonel in the army, with the special assignment of enlisting men and contracting for war supplies against the Mexican defenses in Bexar (captured just two weeks prior.)
Fannin's strategy was a primarily offensive one. He believed he could decimate the formal and overly-kept Mexican forces, using similar attack formations as the original colonists had against the invading British forces during the American Revolution. He began devising an expedition to attack the Mexican troops in southern Texas at Matamoros. His troops were gathered in the small mission of Goliad, and by February were nearly 1450 strong. On February 12 he served as the commander in chief of the entire Texas army while Houston went on leave to regain position in the southeast.
Here, Fannin's timeline becomes especially thick. On March 10, Fannin learned that Mexican general Jose de Urrea had firmly captured Matamoros and was advancing on his position. By March 12, Fannin had fallen back to Goliad, and two smaller battalions from the expedition had faced Urrea, with disastrous results. Fannin quickly sent most of his expedition to nearby Refugio, to aid in fighting there. Fannin had no idea that 6 days earlier, the Alamo had fallen and all of its defenders had been killed. On March 14, Sam Houston sent instructions to Fannin to retreat further east, to Victoria - plans which overrode earlier instructions to aid the Alamo, which Fannin had reluctantly ignored with hopes of capturing Matamoros.
Once again, Fannin's reluctance proved fatal. The three major divisions that he had sent to Refugio had not yet returned, and Fannin opted to wait for them before retreating. This proved to be a crucial mistake, and when he learned of their defeat and capture on March 19, he quickly moved his troops out of Goliad. Unfortunately, the move was about a day too late, and after a brief battle at Coleto, Fannin and his roughly 400 men were captured, with their leader being wounded in the battle.
The Mexican Army, who had seen fit to show no mercy to this band of rabblerousers and troublemakers, executed all of the survivors on March 27. James Fannin was 32.
Today, James Fannin lives on, primarily as the head commander of the Texas army at the Massacre at Goliad. His name adorns many streets in Texas, as well as the city of Fannin (in Goliad County) and Fannin County.