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The Battle of Concepcion

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The Battle of Concepcion

James Bowie

Portrait circa 1820 by George Healy

The Battle of Concepción:

The Battle of Concepción was the first major armed conflict of the Texas Revolution. It took place on October 28, 1835 on the grounds of Concepción Mission outside of San Antonio. Rebel Texans, led by James Fannin and Jim Bowie, fought off a vicious assault by the Mexican Army and drove them back into San Antonio. The victory was a huge one for the morale of the Texans and led to the subsequent capture of the town of San Antonio.

War breaks out in Texas:

Tensions had been simmering in Mexican Texas for some time, as Anglo settlers (the most famous of whom was Stephen F. Austin) repeatedly demanded more rights and independence from the Mexican government, which was in a chaotic state of disarray barely a decade after gaining independence from Spain. On October 2, 1835, rebellious Texans opened fire on Mexican forces in the town of Gonzales. The Battle of Gonzales, as it came to be known, marked the beginning of Texas' armed struggle for Independence.

Texans march on San Antonio:

San Antonio de Béxar was the most important town in all of Texas, a vital strategic point coveted by both sides in the conflict. When war broke out, Stephen F. Austin was named head of the rebel army: he marched on the city in the hopes of putting a quick end to the fighting. The ragged rebel “army” arrived at San Antonio in late October, 1835: they were heavily outnumbered by Mexican forces in and around the city but were well-armed with lethal long rifles and ready for a fight.

Prelude to the Battle of Concepcion:

With the rebels camped outside the city, Jim Bowie's connections proved vital. A one-time resident of San Antonio, he knew the city and still had many friends there. He smuggled a message to some of them, and dozens of Mexican residents of San Antonio (many of whom were every bit as passionate about independence as the Anglo Texans) surreptitiously left the town and joined the rebels. On October 27, Fannin and Bowie, disobeying orders from Austin, took some 90 men and dug in on the grounds of the Concepción Mission outside of town.

The Mexicans Attack:

On the morning of October 28, the rebellious Texans got a nasty surprise: the Mexican army had seen that they had divided their forces and decided to take the offensive. The Texans were pinned against the river and several companies of Mexican infantry were advancing on them. The Mexicans had even brought cannons with them, loaded with lethal grape shot.

The Texans turn the tide:

Inspired by Bowie, who kept cool under fire, the Texans stayed low and waited for the Mexican infantry to advance. When they did, the rebels deliberately picked them off with their lethal long rifles. The riflemen were so skilled that they were even able to shoot the artillerymen manning the cannons: according to survivors, they even shot down a gunner who held a lighted match in his hand, ready to fire the cannon. The Texans drove off three charges: after the final charge, the Mexicans lost their spirit and broke: the Texans gave chase. They even captured the cannons and turned them on the fleeing Mexicans.

Aftermath of the Battle of Concepción:

The Mexicans fled back into San Antonio, where the Texans dared not chase them. The final tally: some 60 dead Mexican soldiers to only one dead Texan, killed by a Mexican musket ball. It was a heady victory for the Texans and seemed to confirm what they suspected about the Mexican soldiers: they were poorly armed and trained and didn't really want to be fighting for Texas.

The rebellious Texans remained camped outside of San Antonio for several weeks. They attacked a foraging party of Mexican soldiers on November 26, believing it to be a relief column loaded with silver: in reality the soldiers were only collecting grass for the horses in the besieged city. This became known as the "Grass Fight."

Although the nominal commander of the irregular forces, Edward Burleson, wanted to retreat to the east (thus following the orders that had been sent from General Sam Houston), many of the men wanted to fight. Led by settler Ben Milam, these Texans attacked San Antonio on December 5: by December 9 the Mexican forces in the city had surrendered and San Antonio belonged to the rebels. They would lose it again at the disastrous Battle of the Alamo in March.

The Battle of Concepción represented everything the rebellious Texans were doing right…and wrong. They were brave men, fighting under solid leadership, using their best weapons - arms and accuracy - to best effect. But they were also unpaid volunteer troops with no chain of command or discipline, who had disobeyed a direct order (a wise one, as it turned out) to keep clear of San Antonio for the time being. The relatively painless victory gave the Texans a great morale boost, but also increased their sense of invulnerability: many of the same men would later die at the Alamo, believing they could hold off the entire Mexican army indefinitely.

For the Mexicans, the Battle of Concepción showed their weaknesses: their troops were not very skilled in war and broke easily. It also proved to them that the Texans were dead serious about independence, something that had perhaps been unclear before. Not long after, President/General Antonio López de Santa Anna would arrive in Texas at the head of a massive army: it was now clear that the most important advantage the Mexicans possessed was that of sheer numbers.

Sources:

Brands, H.W. Lone Star Nation: the Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

Henderson, Timothy J. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States.New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

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