181 years ago: A small cannon fires a big shot in Gonzales

This cannon at the Gonzales Memorial Museum is said to be the one sparked the Battle of Gonzales in 1835. Photo from the Library of Congress.

This cannon at the Gonzales Memorial Museum is said to be the one sparked the Battle of Gonzales in 1835. Photo from the Library of Congress.

This weekend will mark 181 years since a small cannon in Gonzales fired the shot that is said to have sparked the Texas Revolution. You remember it, right?

No, a couple hundred valiant Texians weren’t surrounded by Santa Anna’s massive army. They didn’t die gallantly. There was no folk-hero frontiersman there. All that is why you remember the Alamo.

The Battle of Gonzales was much smaller in scale. A playground shoving match compared to the Alamo’s fight to the death. Going through the facts for the first time in years, I’m struck by why the battle (and its now-ubiquitous flag) is such a touchstone for gun-rights supporters. Let’s recap quickly:

  1. In 1831, the Mexican government gave its citizens in the DeWitt Colony a small cannon so they could defend themselves against Indian attacks. (The cannon was said to have been ‘spiked’ — a barbed spike hammered into the touch-hole — making it more of a noisemaker than a death-dealer.)
  1. In 1835, the Mexican government, facing the looming threat of revolution in Texas, demanded the colonists give the cannon back. But though the citizens around Gonzales had been loyal to the government, relations went downhill, particularly after a Mexican soldier clubbed a Gonzales man with his rifle. The Gonzales residents refused to give the cannon back.
  1. Santa Anna sent a military force of 100 soldiers to retrieve the cannon. The Guadalupe River was up after heavy rains when they arrived and the Mexican force could not cross to reach Gonzales. If they had, the Texians’ 18-man force would have likely presented little trouble.
  1. Over the next few days, the river stayed up, the Mexicans stayed put and the Gonzales militia attracted reinforcements from nearby communities. They made their wee cannon as functional as possible, put it on wheels and voted to attack.
  1. Emboldened by their new might, the Texians crossed the river late on Oct. 1 and crept up on the Mexican force in the early hours of Oct. 2. Hidden by a heavy fog, the Texians attacked at dawn and … drew back. Both sides fired at each other to little effect.
  1. The commanders of each side met and the Texians explained that Santa Anna wasn’t giving them orders anymore. Then the Texians hoisted a home-made (some say from a wedding dress) flag over their cannon that said “Come and Take It” and … this is the big moment … fired the cannon.
  1. The cannon didn’t hurt anyone, but now outnumbered and knowing the Texians were serious about fighting, the Mexican force retreated back to San Antonio.

And that’s it. If you take it out of the context of the Texas revolution, it’s a fantasy for the let’s-play-militia crowd: Evil government tries to seize guns but when the people band together and shoot first, the evil government runs away. (Though it’s important to know that that Mexican commander had been ordered to not fight the Texians, but just to try to retrieve the gun through negotiation or threat.)

Ryan Laughland, of Austin, waves a Texas Come and Take It flag outside Red's Indoor Range in support of open carry legislation on June 13, 2015. Photo by Ralph Barrera. RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Ryan Laughland, of Austin, waves a Texas Come and Take It flag outside Red’s Indoor Range in support of open carry legislation on June 13, 2015. Photo by Ralph Barrera.

The “Come and Take It” flag should be shared as an awesome moment for all Texans (and it has inspired many imitators), but it has mostly been co-opted by the gun-rights crowd. Today the flag is often emblazoned with an AR-15 or similar weapon instead of a cannon and marketed every imaginable way. (You can buy a “Come and Take It” flask on eBay right now. I’m thinking about getting one.)

All this raises one more key question: What happened to the original Gonzales cannon? Well the Gonzales Memorial Museum will tell you that they have it.

According to one report, 10 days after the battle of Oct. 2, the men of Gonzales headed for San Antonio, bringing their now-famous cannon with them. But when the cannon’s axles began to smoke, they buried it outside Gonzales and hurried on to meet their fate.

In 1936 (conveniently, the Texas centennial), massive flooding uncovered a small iron cannon near Gonzales. After being traded around for years, Dr. Patrick Wagner acquired the cannon and after two years of research, determined it was the historic cannon of 1835.

Other historians disagree, saying that the Gonzales cannon was bronze and it likely did end up at the Alamo (where Santa Anna did, uh, come and take it). If it was there, it was likely among those melted down after the battle.

Either way, Oct. 2 is a pivotal date in Texas history and should be remembered along with March 6 and April 21. 


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