In November 1812, the small Spanish villa of La Bahia was on the brink of war.
The Magee-Gutierrez Expedition had arrived on Nov. 7 and captured the presidio without firing a shot. Within a week, Governor Manuel Salcedo arrived with Spanish royalist troops and took up his headquarters at Mission Espiritu Santo on the north side of the San Antonio River.
Upon the royalist’s arrival, Magee made known to Salcedo that his men were intent on liberating Texas from Spanish authority and creating the autonomous “First Republic of the North,” of which Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara would be the head. After stating their intentions, Magee extended an invitation to Salcedo and his army to desert the royalist regime and join the republican cause.
On Nov. 13, Salcedo responded by unleashing a barrage of nine brass cannon across the river and into the walls and grounds of the presidio. Despite the incessant bombardment the presidio’s thick walls suffered little
consequence from the cannonade and allowed Magee’s army time to regroup.
Following the unsuccessful cannon attack, Salcedo decided upon a more patient approach: a long term siege. The royalist troops were separated into three different camps that surrounded the presidio from the north, east, and west. From this vantage point, Salcedo hoped to besiege the fort until the republicans were killed, starved out, or driven mad.
But the element of surprise had allowed the republicans to capture the presidio with significant stores of food, cannon and other armament, and even a military chest containing a significant amount of money from which republican wages could be paid. These precious items were invaluable during the siege though they would eventually run out.
For four months, the siege went on. In the early weeks, skirmishes and battles were common. On many occasions, the royalists attempted to storm the presidio only to be beaten back time and again. Small dispatches from both sides would often scurry about the enemy trying to provoke and irritate one another more than anything.
At the end of every engagement, the leaders on both sides would sit and write their “battle reports,” often embellishing the number of enemy killed versus the number of casualties sustained.
Of all the battles, none were as infamous as the “Battle of the White Cow.” After their supplies had run out, the republicans had a very difficult time obtaining enough food for several hundred men. On occasion, a hunting party might slip out and butcher a bull or some form of wild livestock roaming the prairie.
But often they depended upon local Indian tribes and citizens to sneak food into the presidio at night. One particular day, Magee’s men were rustling for a white cow seen roaming between the presidio and mission. When they went to bring her in the royalist launched a vicious attack in a desperate attempt to save the cow, not for their own consumption, but for her dignity. The battle raged on for two solid hours. The cow lived, and an undetermined but significant number of soldiers from both sides were killed.
As the fourth month drew close to an end, Magee accepted a peculiar invitation to dine with Governor Salcedo at his headquarters. Magee accepted the offer and enjoyed a lengthy meal accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol. Upon returning to the presidio, Magee informed the men that he agreed to surrender upon the promise that he and his men were guaranteed safe passage home.
The men were enraged and emphatically declined to accept the offer and are purported to have expressed their anger by bashing their rifle butts into the ground. Their anger was further expressed when they decided to elect Col. Samuel Kemper as their new commander.