William Travis's pleas for reinforcements from the Alamo did not go unheeded. Texican volunteers answered the call and began to converge on Gonzales. Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill who had commanded the garrison at San Antonio, left the Alamo on February 11, 1836, to visit his family and help from the Texican government at Washington-on-the-Brazos.
After visiting his family he went to the council received $600 dollars from the governor, Henry Smith. He then began his journey back to San Antonio. He arrived at Gonzales, bought $90 worth of medical supplies and made plans to relieve the men at the Alamo. Neill found a force of 160 volunteers congregated in the town. On March 6 plus force grew to 270 with the arrival of Captain Mosely Baker and 110 men. Neill put together a force of 50 men and with Edward Burleson took the road west to San Antonio on March 7. This group closed to within 18 miles of the fort before being repulsed by a patrol of Santanista cavalry (military forces of Mexico). At this point a small scouting party Texicans broke off from the main group and came within 12 miles of the Alamo and remained two days, hoping to hear the signal guns that Travis had agreed to fire for as long as the garrison held out. Neill, with the main body, returned to Gonzales on the 10th with the scouting party returning the next day.
On March 9, Sam Houston issued orders to Neill, commanding Gonzales, and James Fannin, commanding the 400 men at Goliad, to link up and go to the relief of San Antonio. John Holland Jenkins, a thirteen-year-old from Bastrop was one of the volunteers who arrived at Gonzales and in his memoirs, Recollections of Early Texas, described his feelings: "As I found myself among friends and acquaintances, with all of a growing boy's appetite for good beef, bread, and adventure, I thought there had never been such fun as serving as a Texas Soldier marching against Mexico. But, upon arriving at Gonzales, things began to wear a more serious aspect now that I comprehended more fully the situation in all of its bearings, and in the still hours of the night as we lay and listened to the low ominous rumbling of cannons at San Antonio, I felt that we were engaged in no child's play. I now began to take in all of the responsibility, danger and grandeur of a soldier's life."
Sam Houston arrived on March 11 and Jenkins recalled, "I though I had never seen so perfect a model of manliness and bravery, and my admiration knew no bounds. Calling the men together at DeWitt's tavern in Gonzales, he delivered a short speech setting forth in stirring words the complications of troubles that threatened our Republic, finally closing with a rousing appeal to every Texan to be loyal and true in that hour of need and peril. I yet consider him about the finest looking man I ever saw, as he stood over six feet tall, in the very prime of mature manhood."
Shortly after Houston arrived, two Tejanos rode into Gonzales with the news that the Alamo had fallen and all the defenders slain. Houston arrested both men, holding them until he could find out if their news was valid, fearing to start a panic among the settlers. He sent out Erastus "Deaf" Smith and Henry Karnes to reconnoiter the road between Gonzales and San Antonio. Houston sent a dispatch to Fannin at Goliad saying "Sir: You will, as soon as practicable after the receipt of this order, fall back upon Guadalupe Victoria, with your command, and such artillery as can be brought with expedition. The remainder will be sunk in the river. You will take the necessary measures for the defense of Victoria, and forward one-third of your effective men to this point (Gonzales), and remain in command until further orders." Houston then set forth his concerns about protecting the helpless and the need to not leave anything that could be of aid to the enemy. "Every facility is to be afforded to women and children who may be desirous of leaving that place. Previous to abandoning Goliad, you will take the necessary measures to blow up that fortress; and do so before leaving the vicinity. The immediate advance of the enemy may be confidently expected. . . Prompt movements are highly important."
Houston didn't have to wait long for news from San Antonio. Henry Karnes came galloping into town with news from Deaf Smith stating that they had met Susannah Dickinson with her daughter on the road from San Antonio with the news of the fall of the Alamo. John Jenkins recalled the reaction of the inhabitants of Gonzales: "Many of the citizens of Gonzales perished in this wholesale slaughter ... I remember most distinctly the shrieks of despair with which the soldiers' wives received the news of the death of their husbands. the piercing wails of woe that reached our camps from these bereaved women ... filled me with feelings I cannot express, nor ever forget. I now could understand that there is woe in warfare as well as glory and labor."
A heavy gloom fell over the recruits of the Texican army and there was much discussion over what route the army should take. Many wanted to stand and fight; some spoke for retreat. A sizeable number of men deserted, fearing for the welfare of their families. But Houston stood in the midst of this turmoil and issued orders that hinted at this plan of action. Retreat, in order, helping the women and children to head back east, evacuating the country. Houston needed time to form, train and supply his army and he intended to do this on the march. He gave his men orders to prepare to retreat and they left on March 13 just before midnight, burning Gonzales behind them.
At Goliad, Fannin prepared his men for retreat. He sent out a forces of 28 men south under Captain Amon King to Refugio to assist the settler's evacuation. Had Fannin left when Houston ordered him to, he might have been able to escape the Santanista column under General José Urrea which had been sent to capture Goliad. But Fannin waited for King's force and sent 150 more men under Colonel William Ward when news came that King was having difficulties getting the settlers moving. Urrea's column attacked Ward's men at Refugio on March 14, with a few of these Texicans returning to Goliad on the 16th. Instead of leaving immediately, Fannin waited another day until Urrea's cavalry came up and attacked his outpost. That night turned cold and rainy and Fannin's men slipped out of Goliad the next morning under the cover of a heavy ground fog. Urrea soon learned of their departure and pursued them, finally attacking them in the open prairie about a mile from the dense woods along Coleto Creek. The Texicans, formed a square breastworks in a small hollow and attempted to fight off Urrea's attacks. The Texican quickly ran completely out of water and began to run low on ammunition. By dawn the next day, Fannin, who had been wounded, had had enough. He surrendered his entire force "at discretion", receiving no terms from General Urrea. Urrea, an honorable officer, believed that the Texicans would be well treated. He immediately made arrangements for the wounded. Texican medical personnel served alongside their Mexican counterparts in the same makeshift ward back at Goliad. Urrea sent messages pleading for humane treatment of his prisoners. But on March 26, orders came from Santa Anna ordering that all 442 prisoners were to be executed as pirates. Urrea was able to save some volunteers captured at Copano, on the coast, who had not taken up arms against Mexico before being caught. He also spared all the Texican medical personnel as they were needed to treat the wounded in Gohad and San Antonio.
Most of Fannin's men were recruits from the United States who had sailed to Texas from New Orleans. One of these young men who survived later wrote of the massacre. His name was John Crittendon Duval and he was from Kentucky: "On the morning of the 27th of March, a Mexican officer came to us and ordered us to get ready for a march. He told us we were to be liberated on 'parole', and that arrangements had been made to send us to New Orleans, on board the vessels at Copano. This, you may be sure, was joyful new to us, and we lost no time in making preparations to leave our uncomfortable quarters. When all was ready we were formed into three divisions and marched out under a strong guard. As we passed some Mexican women who were standing near the main entrance to the fort, I heard them say pobrecitos (poor fellows), but the incident at the time made but little impression on my mind. One of our divisions was taken down the road leading to the lower ford of the river, one upon the road to San Patricio, and the division to which my company was attacked, along the road to San Antonio. A strong guard accompanied us, and marching us off in three directions, rather a singular maneuver, but still I had no suspicion of the foul play intended us. When about half a mile above town, a halt was made and the guard on the side next to the river filed around to the opposite side. Hardly had this maneuver been executed, when I heard a heavy firing of musketry in the directions taken by the other two divisions. Some one near me exclaimed, 'Boys! they are going to shoot us!'and at the same instant I heard the clicking of musket locks all along the Mexican line. I turned to look, and as I did so, the Mexican fired upon us, killing probably one hundred out of the one hundred and fifty men in the division. We were in double file and I was in the rear rank. The man in front of me was shot dead, and in falling he knocked me down. I did not get up for a moment, and when I rose to my feet, I found that the whole Mexican line had charged over me, and were in hot pursuit of those who had not been shot and who were fleeing towards the river about five hundred yards distant. I followed on after them, for I knew that escape in any other direction (all open prairie) would be impossible, and I had nearly reached the river before it came necessary to make my way through the Mexican line ahead. As I did so, one of the soldiers charged upon me with his bayonet (his gun I suppose being empty). As he drew his musket back to make a lunge at me, one of our men coming from another direction, ran between us, and the bayonet was driven through his body. The blow was given with such force, that in falling, the man probably wrenched or twisted the bayonet in such a way as to prevent the Mexican from withdrawing it immediately. I saw him put his foot upon the man, and make a ineffectual attempt to extricate the bayonet from his body, but one look satisfied me, as I was somewhat in a hurry just then, and I hastened to the bank of the river and plunged in. The river at that point was deep and swift, but not wide, and being a good swimmer, I soon gained the opposite bank, untouched by any of the bullets that were pattering in the water around my head...."
Miraculously Duval and approximately thirty of the prisoners escaped and eventually made their way back to their homes. All of the remaining wounded, including Fannin, were taken out in the courtyard of the old presidio in Gohad and shot. At this point, Santa Anna opted to divide his forces at San Antonio. The First Brigade under Brigadier General Antonio Gaona was sent off on March 14 to the northwest, with orders to remove the Texicans between San Antonio and the Colorado River, then to turn southeastward to sweep down the west bank of the Brazos River. On March 29 Santa Anna, with the main body of the army, left San Antonio and headed east to Gonzales intending to find and defeat the Texican Army. General Urrea was to proceed with his column along the coast. All three forces were to join somewhere along the lower Brazos River sometime in late April. From there the entire force would press the attack all the way to the Sabine River, the border with the United States.
The news of the Alamo's fall and the slaughter of Fannin's men at Goliad created a panic among the Texas settlers. Their flight was impeded by the lack of wagons, draft animals to pull them and the terrible traveling conditions brought on by the heavy rains. After a prolonged drought experienced throughout Texas in 1835 the skies opened up and sent torrential rains down upon the fleeing settlers, making the roads a quagmire and filling the rivers from bank to bank. The refugees repeatedly found themselves struggling for miles over bad roads only to be met at the river banks with uncrossable fords and crowded ferries. Houston ordered small details of men to watch the roads and river crossings in order to keep him informed of the enemy forces following his small army. One of these under the command of Robert "Three Legged Willie" Williamson woke up one morning to find an enemy force of 600 on the west bank of the Colorado River opposite them. As the company hurriedly made preparations to leave, one of them, Noah Smithwick, remembered suddenly that they had forgotten about a sentry they had left on duty, 64 year old Jimmie Curtice. Smithwick later recalled rushing up to Major Williamson and saying, "You ain't going to leave Uncle Jimmie on guard, are you, Major? 'Good God! No; ride back and tell the old man to come on.' I galloped back and found Uncle Jimmie sitting leaning against a tree, with a bottle of whiskey beside him, as happy and unconscious of danger as a turtle on a log. 'Hello, Uncle Jimmie!' I cried 'Mount and ride for your life. The Mexicans are on the other side and our men all gone.' 'The hell they are! Light and take a drink.' 'There's no time for drinking. Come - mount and let's be off. The Mexicans may swim the river and be after us any moment!' 'Let's drink to their confusion' he persisted, and thinking it the quickest way to start him, I drank with him and we struck out. "'Well, we can say one thing; we were the last to leave,' he said, not the least disturbed."
As the men in Williamson's detail hurried east Smithwick remembered, "The desolation of the country through which we passed beggars description. Houses, were standing open, the beds unmade, the breakfast things still on the tables, pans of milk molding in the dairies. There were cribs full of corn, smoke houses full of bacon, yards full of chickens that ran after us for food, nests of eggs in every fence comer, young corn and garden truck rejoicing in the rain, cattle cropping luxuriant grass, hogs, fat and lazy, wallowing in the mud, all abandoned. Forlorn dogs roamed around the deserted homes, their doleful howls adding to the general sense of desolation. Hungry cats ran mewing to meet us rubbing their sides against our legs in token of welcome. Wagons were so scarce that it was impossible to remove household goods, many of the women and children, even, had to walk."
Smithwick also recalled some of his own countrymen who took advantage of the panic-stricken settlers "....There were men - or devils, rather - bent on plunder, galloping up behind the fugitives, telling them the Mexican were just behind, thus causing the hapless victims to abandon what few valuables they had tried to save. There were broken-down wagons and household goods scattered all along the road." Further down the Colorado, Houston's army caught their first sight of Santa Anna's army. A 700 man division under General Joaquin Ramírez y Sesma showed up on the west bank of the river two miles above the Texicans. As Houston scouted the enemy's position looking for a possible advantage, he received orders from the acting government to proceed to Harrisburg and protect the government personnel there. It was also at this time that he first received word of Fannin's men having been trapped by Urrea's force outside Goliad. Houston turned to his aide and trusted confidant, George Washington Hockley, nodded toward his small army and said, "Hockley, there is the last hope of Texas. We shall never see Fannin nor his men."
Most of Houston's army wanted to stand and fight at the Colorado River. Houston, however, realizing that his army was the only force left to deal with Santa Anna's legions, ordered a retreat on March 26. His army headed east toward San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos River. Houston's small army was slowly being reinforced by settlers and recruits from the United States. There was a steady stream of desertions, however, as men left to attend to their homes and families or found army life too disciplined for their tastes. Many recruits decided not to join upon learning that they couldn't keep their horses, this being necessitated by lack of grain and poor grazing. The Texican Army grew to about 900 men including a small cavalry unit of 60 men. The army was divided into groups of ten men, called a mess, and fed mainly on beef procured from the surrounding country and dried corn. Coffee was in short supply and, flour, when it could be found, was often wormy. Each mess was allowed a pack horse for carrying their provisions. In two days the Texicans marched 30 miles and bivouacked on the 28th of March near San Felipe. Here two of Houston's officers refused to retreat further. Houston, wishing not to completely alienate the officers and their men detailed one, under Captain Moseley Baker, with 110 men to take up defensive positions at San Felipe. Another, made up of 100 men under Captain Wiley Martin, he ordered to man the crossing at Fort Bend further down the Brazos River. Houston with the rest of the army marched up river to a point across from Groce's plantation. Here they were ferried across the Brazos by the steamboat Yellowstone.
At Groce's plantation Houston and his army spent twelve days drilling and training for the upcoming battle. Two cannons arrived, six pounders, a gift from the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. Houston's wagonmaster Conrad Rohrer borrowed some oxen from a farm woman, Mrs. Pamela Mann, who was accompanying the army on its way east. Houston's army was also joined by 200 "deserters" from the U. S. Army of Observation poised on the Sabine River under General Gaines. As these men came fully supplied and well equipped, they made a big addition to the small army and were welcomed wholeheartedly by Houston. On April 12 the Texican Army took to the roads again, heading east toward Harrisburg. Two days out, they reached a fork in the road, the left fork heading to Nacogdoches and safety; the right fork heading Southeast toward Santa Anna's army. Houston rode up to the fork and pointed his men down the right fork toward Santa Anna and certain confrontation. At this point Mrs. Mann rode up and demanded the return of her oxen. The wagonmaster refused her request and, cracking his whip, urged the oxen on in his traildriver's colorful language. Mrs. Mann then pulled a pistol and vented her frustration using language with a vocabulary matching the wagonmaster's. Houston, although himself rather proficient in the art of swearing, had never heard anything like the oaths she poured forth and finally threw up his hands and told her she could take them back. She then reached down, cut her oxen loose and retired in triumph. Houston shrugged it off, dismounted from his horse and helped some men pull the cannon. Many tales would be told later of the woman who had "bested" Sam Houston.