As shoppers drifted between art galleries and cafés in downtown's La Villita on Saturday, men dressed in hats and coats from the 19th century hid behind walls and pillars, staring down their rifles at others dressed as soldiers in the Mexican army.
Shouts and booms from gunpowder and cannon fire filled the air as members of the San Antonio Living History Association re-enacted the Battle of Bejar, the final days of an 1835 siege by Texian rebels against Mexican forces in what was once La Villa de Bexar, an alternate spelling. The re-enactment is one of several put on each year by the association, whose members stage events around Texas commemorating the significant events of the Texas Revolution.
“This particular battle was literally house-to-house fighting,” said re-enactor Joe Weathersby. “They were actually digging through walls, going into the next house and dropping down through ceilings. It was hand-to-hand. Probably the most brutal combat besides the Alamo.”
The re-enactors put painstaking effort into their research of period dress and their efforts to simulate the battles. Members come from all over Texas and neighboring states to re-enact events at historic places in San Antonio, San Jacinto, and Goliad.
“We’ll go to Goliad, and they’ll lock us up in the church and massacre us that next morning,” re-enactor Jeffrey Opperman said.
Though most people remember the Battle of the Alamo as the only important battle in the Texas Revolution, the Battle of Bejar was a point of escalation in the war for Texas independence. As Opperman put it, it was a moment when the “Texans ran the Mexicans out of the Alamo before the Mexicans ran the Texans out.”
The battle began on Dec. 5, 1835, when Texian leaders launched a surprise attack on the Mexicans. They fought for days, and the battle ended with the surrender of Mexican Gen. Martín Cos, who returned to the interior of Mexico with some of his surviving troops.
“This is the impetus that initiates [Antonio Lopez de] Santa Ana actually starting to march on San Antonio to get here in late February,” said Hilario De La Peña, the association’s president. “It starts that whole scene of the Texas Revolution.”
The re-enactors staged the surrender of Cos and one of his officers on La Villita’s central plaza. After a cease-fire ended the volleys coming from both sides, a re-enactor playing Cos agreed to a parley with another playing Edward Burleson. The Mexican officers’ swords glinted as they performed a military salute.
“What we try to do is to visit with the public and try and explain different things about history, not to slant it to one side or the other,” Opperman said before the battle. “The Mexican soldiers were as honorable as we were. They were defending the homeland. We were basically wanting to rule ourselves.”
De La Peña for many years played Santa Ana in the association’s re-enactments of the Battle of the Alamo. He said portraying these figures forces people to consider the motivations for each side.
“I think you just gravitate to that,” he said. “If you have any love of history, you have to understand the depths of it.”