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  • “This Is A Cruel Truth, But I Cannot Omit It”: The Origin and Effect of Mexico’s No Quarter Policy in the Texas Revolution
  • Richard Bruce Winders (bio)

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A map of important sites related to the Texas Revolution. Sites of massacres and executions mentioned in this article are specially marked. Map by Donald S. Frazier and Ernesto Rodríguez III.

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“Quarter: The sparing of men’s lives in battle, and giving them good treatment when they surrender.”

Practical Instructions for Military Officers (1811)1

“Foreigners landing on the coast of the republic or invading its territory by land, armed with the intention of attacking our country, will be deemed pirates and dealt with as such, being citizens of no nation presently at war with the republic, and fighting under no recognized flag.”

—The Tornel Decree, December 30, 18352

The most hotly debated issue about the Alamo when I became its first staff historian in 1996 was the fate of David Crockett. Long-time members of the Texas State Historical Association may recall several articles devoted to exploring the manner of Crockett’s death, or more specifically, the validity of the reports of his surrender and sub-sequent [End Page 413] execution after the battle.3 Historians and Alamo enthusiasts took sides, entering into a spirited debate.4 For several years, I routinely received calls from reporters around March 6, asking for information on the “recently” discovered Mexican diary that claimed Crockett did not die fighting. These calls slowly ceased, possibly indicating an acceptance of the surrender account. Nevertheless, visitors still occasionally inquire about that “new” diary and Crockett’s execution at the hands of Santa Anna. I always attempt to answer such questions not by telling them how Crockett died, but explaining that executions were a feature of the Texas Revolution and why it mattered. While some historians may know the reason behind Mexico’s policy of offering no quarter, the general public is still largely unaware of this larger story.

In midst of the controversy that raged over Crockett’s death, few asked the following question: Were there in fact post-battle killings at the Alamo? And if so, why? The answer is “yes,” and one does not have to base that conclusion solely on José Enrique de la Peña’s account, which stirred so much debate. By examining the events of the Texas Revolution as a whole and placing it in a larger historical context, the story of Mexico’s no quarter policy emerges and extends far beyond the well-known massacre at Goliad and the disputed demise of David Crockett. It also becomes evident that Antonio López de Santa Anna was carrying out his Centralist administration’s will in denying quarter to prisoners taken in the rebellion. While much of this material has been available to readers in various articles and monographs, this article endeavors to create a cohesive narrative pertaining to Mexico’s no quarter policy: its origins, chronology, and effect.

The issue of Mexico’s no quarter policy is potentially controversial because the words “butchery,” “murder,” “slaughter,” and “massacre” evoke strong emotions today. Some readers may choose to interpret this study as an attempt to disparage Mexico for its conduct in the Texas Revolution, but that is not its purpose. Evidence shows that the Centralist regime in Mexico embarked on the Texas Campaign with a stated policy of putting all armed foreigners it captured to the sword. The policy resulted in a number of incidents in which unarmed prisoners were killed [End Page 414] after they had surrendered and put their arms down. Ignoring the moral issue of killing prisoners for a moment, was there a legal basis for these actions? While disconcerting, upon examining the criteria needed in order for a war to be formal or legitimate, the answer appears to be affirmative. The basic accepted premise holds that wars are conducted by and between nations. Conflicts outside this construct run the danger of being classified as informal or illegitimate. How a combatant views a conflict determines whether or not the rules of war are extended to the enemy...


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pp. 412-439
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