Death, Exile, or Imprisonment: Punishment and the Texas Revolution
The above broadside publicized a decree issued on April 14, 1836, by the Mexican General Congress and José Justo Corro, ad-interim President, and put into effect by Secretary of War and Navy José María Tornel y Mendívil (1789-1853). The Library’s copy is an imprint dated April 18; unbeknown to those involved, the Battle of San Jacinto would take place three days later. The broadside was issued by José Gomez de la Cortina (1799-1860), a respected politician and man of letters in nineteenth-century Mexico who at the time was Governor of the Federal District.
The April 14 proclamation stated that
those taken prisoners in the war of Texas to the date of publication of this decree who have incurred the sentence of capital punishment in accordance with the law, will be absolved from the same even though they have been captured with arms in hand.
By this same decree, rebel Texans who surrendered within fifteen days would receive a reduced sentence of perpetual banishment from the Republic of Mexico or a ten-year prison sentence “at an interior post to be designated by the Government to be no less than sixty leagues distant from the coast and frontier areas.”
Some Texans remained “exempt from this indulgence” and subject to execution, including
the principal motivators of the revolution, those who compose the so called General Council of Texas, those who acted as interloping Governor and Vice-Governor, those apprehended in command of any land or maritime armed force, and those who might have committed cold blooded murder.
Many of the precise details involved in carrying out the decree were left to Antonio López de Santa Anna, the “Most Excellent President and Commander-in-Chief of the Army.”
The edict repealed a previous decree Tornel authored with the approval of the General Congress, which was alarmed at the large number of U.S. volunteers immigrating to assist Texian colonists revolting against the Mexican government. Passed in December 1835, the Tornel Decree ordered any non-Mexican citizen captured under arms on Mexican soil to be treated as a pirate and punished accordingly. While many officers in the Mexican Army disagreed with the Decree, Santa Anna insisted that it be precisely followed. He therefore used it to order the execution of Texian prisoners at the Alamo and Goliad, defending his actions by writing, “Law decrees and it is not the magistrate’s responsibility to examine it, but to apply it.” Who, he asked General José de Urrea, “gives me powers to override what the National Government has ordered in such categorical terms, pardoning delinquents of the caliber of these foreigners?” The Tornel Decree first appeared in U.S. and Texan newspapers in February and March 1836, meaning that many of the men who died under its enforcement before its repeal in April 1836 were ignorant of its existence.
References and Further Reading
An English-language translation of the April 14, 1836 decree can be found in The Papers of the Texas Revolution, 1835-1836, volume 5.
For additional information about the Mexican government in the 1830s and the key officials involved, see The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846: Hombres de Bien in the Age of Santa Anna by Michael P. Costeloe; Santa Anna of Mexico by Will Fowler; and the encyclopedia The United States and Mexico at War: Nineteenth-Century Expansionism and Conflict edited by Donald S. Frazier.
For more information about the context of the Texas Revolution, see also Sacrificed at the Alamo: Tragedy and Triumph in the Texas Revolution by Richard Bruce Winders; Crisis in the Southwest: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle over Texas by Richard Bruce Winders; and Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution by Stephen L. Hardin.