This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
The Nacogdoches ayuntamiento or town council issued an urgent appeal for armed assistance on Jul. 28, 1832 in an imminent showdown with the Mexican army.
Five years earlier, Col. Jose de las Piedras established a permanent military presence in the crossroads community called “The Gateway to Texas” much to the displeasure of the fiercely independent inhabitants. They had gotten along very well without a garrison and suspected the commandant had come to keep them in line rather than to protect them.
From the beginning, the Mexican colonel and the mostly Anglo-American populace rubbed each other the wrong way. To Piedras the locals were foreign riffraff with insolent tongues in their heads and giant chips on their shoulders. To them the spit-and-polish intruder was a snob and a snoop, and they had no use for either.
The Law of Apr. 6, 1830 mandating a clamp-down on immigration from the United States heightened tensions in the Nacogdoches area. As squatters with no legal claim to their land, the majority of residents worried that the new policy provided the pretext for a mass eviction.
Although Piedras believed he bent over backward to be fair in his enforcement of the unpopular law, those singled out for punishment felt he was picking on them. Critics retaliated with an avalanche of accusations charging the commandant with everything from false arrest to cattle rustling.
The Nacogdoches garrison received marching orders in June 1832 for Anahuac, where an American-born bully had pushed the coastal colonists too far. Piedras did not arrive on the scene in time to prevent a violent clash — the first involving government troops and Texas civilians — but managed to avert further bloodshed by replacing the mercenary with a mean streak, John Davis Bradburn.
Piedras enjoyed the role of peacekeeper so much he decided to play the part for the hometown audience. To spare Nacogdoches the strife suffered by Anahuac, he insisted everyone turn in his firearms.
Piedras’ clumsy attempt at gun control was the last straw. The ayuntamiento defiantly refused to comply, hurriedly organized a militia and sent messengers scurrying across eastern Texas with a desperate request for help.
In the meantime, Piedras pleaded in vain for reinforcements and questioned the loyalty of his own men claiming they were “willing to join anybody’s cause.” He also complained the garrison would soon run out of supplies because every merchant in town had locked his door and hidden his inventory.
Except for Stephen F. Austin’s San Felipe, all the settlements answered the call to arms. Ayish Bayou mustered the most recruits, two full companies, while the Neches, Sabine and Shelby communities responded with one each. The volunteers met at Pine Hill east of Nacogdoches and chose as their leader James W. Bullock, who fought Indians in Florida and the British at the Battle of New Orleans under Gen. Andrew Jackson.
In an ultimatum delivered to Piedras on the morning of Aug. 2, Bullock demanded that he rescind his gun-confiscation edict and proclaim his support for Santa Anna, then in open revolt against the centralist regime. The colonel had four hours to give up or fight.
Piedras replied in the negative on both points and told the Texans, in effect, to come and get him. He positioned his troops in the Stone House, known today as the Old Stone Fort, a church and his headquarters in the Red House and awaited the attack.
Bullock entered Nacogdoches at two o’clock in the afternoon with the bulk of his force. The Texans were greeted by gunfire and scattered by a cavalry charge, but 100 regrouped and fought house-to-house seizing the Stone House, two stores and a saloon.
The plainclothes reserves marched down North Street and triumphantly turned the tables on the Mexican horsemen, who joined their dazed and demoralized comrades in the cuartel or main fortification. When the shooting stopped at sunset, practically the entire town was under Texan control.
Early the next morning, a reconnaissance patrol learned from a priest that Piedras had fled during the night leaving behind his dead and wounded. Seventeen riders, including Jim Bowie, galloped off in hot pursuit, caught the retreating Mexicans at the Angelina and drove them back upriver.
A captain assumed command from the discredited colonel and surrendered on the spot. The 300 survivors of the Nacogdoches garrison were escorted to San Antonio and released, and Piedras was dumped in Stephen F. Austin’s lap. He soon went home to Mexico and died seven years later in the fighting between centralists and federalists.
In the end, Jose de las Piedras proved to be a better fortuneteller than a soldier. A few months before his embarrassing departure from Nacogdoches, he wrote in a prophetic report that the Anglo-Americans’ “scorn displayed toward the Republic of Mexico leaves no room for doubt they will soon be the masters of Texas.”
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