Texas

The “Come and Get It” flag now symbolizes something it never did.

This article is part Texas Monthlyspecial issue commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. Read about other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

In late 1835, the Mexican army sent a hundred cavalrymen to the city of Gonzalez to retrieve a cannon that it had loaned to settlers a few years earlier. Revolutionary sentiment was growing, and the colonists were not happy about the prospect of losing valuable weapons. For several hours there was an aimless firefight with few casualties.

As with many other episodes of the Texas Revolution, there is a marked discrepancy between the heroism attributed to the events of the day after the fact and what actually happened. The Battle of Gonzalez was by far the first battle of what would become a revolution, the Lexington of Lone Star State. But from a military point of view, this was a minor skirmish, and the six-pounder itself was, in truth, a rather fragile weapon. It was slow and inaccurate, useful mainly for making a lot of noise. Eventually, the Mexicans retreated.

The great irony is that Gonzalez’s immortal legacy was not secured by indiscriminate fighting near the city, but by the graphic design skills of the women of Gonzalez. According to one report, mother and daughter Sarah and Naomi DeWitt made a police flag out of Naomi’s wedding dress. “Come and get it,” the flag reads, an old wartime taunt written in a dainty sans-serif typeface. Above it is the silhouette of a cannon barrel, and above it is a star, all black on a white background. It’s stingy, modern and unforgettable. Nationality may be secured by war, but it is often forged by aesthetics.

The Gonzalez flag has become much more common in the last few decades in a different form, with an AR-15 or other modern assault rifle instead of a cannon. This version seems to have originated in the nineties, but it has become widespread. It appears on bumper stickers and at pro-gun rallies across the country. Rock star and right-wing provocateur Ted Nugent sells a version of it on his online store. In 2021, I saw a teenager driving an auto rickshaw in Cairo with a sticker on the back of the AR-15 version, a sight the Gonzalez colonists would probably have a hard time interpreting. The new Gonzalez flag is an effective iconography partly because it looks cool and partly because it links today’s efforts to preserve and expand gun rights to one of the oldest and proudest moments in Texas history, an act of defiance against oppression.

But Texas’ history with firearms is stranger and more varied. In the days of the Wild West, the state was desperately trying to curb violence with firearms. Texas banned handguns, and ranchers’ associations pleaded with cowboys to stop carrying six-shot pistols, which, when taken to bars, often resulted in violence and death. The horrendous bloodshed in Texas and elsewhere caused by the introduction of new weapons such as submachine guns in the 20s and 30s contributed to the passage of the first federal firearms law, and some of the worst mass shootings of the pre-Columbian era took place here. It wasn’t until 1995 that the state began easing gun regulations.

Texas Monthlythe archives reflect this change. In the stories of the seventies and eighties, pistols are everywhere, but they are just tools, mostly dispassionate and apolitical, made by their owners alternately terrible and noble. People brought hunting rifles to shoot at Charles Whitman, the UT Tower sniper, which was to be expected. Over time, and especially after the mid-nineties, it became common to speak of a “gun culture” that was more fetishistic, where firearms became a deeply ideological symbol of self-determination for a relatively small group. The percentage of Texans who own guns has been steadily declining since 1980, while a small number of people own more and more guns. According to polls, support for additional gun regulations remains consistently high. But the fervor of those who built their identity on gun ownership only grew. Gonzalez’s new flag is a symbol of that fervor, which pretends to be timeless yet strangely new.

This is a mirror from the other side. Texans have always liked to present themselves as brave underdogs, prospering against the odds, frontier guards waiting for the Mexican dragoons to strike. It’s less true than ever: we’ve overdone it now. We make our own choices, and the decisions that are made here in the boardrooms and in the Legislature affect countless people who do not have the right to vote, both inside and outside the state.

If Gonzalez’s gun looks like a toy today, then the AR-15 is pure power, a weapon for adventurers. A few in the hands of a well-trained team would have devastated both sides in Gonzales that day, as well as the elementary school classroom. No outside power is going to re-establish “tyranny” in Texas anymore. We have only ourselves to thank for the future we give to our children. If this future consists of shooting drills in schools and occasional bloodshed in grocery stores, then the Mexican army is not to blame.

This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of the journal. Texas Monthlywith the title “Return to the Cannon”.Subscribe today.


Image credit: Map of Gonzalez: Texas Land Office/Geography and Mapping Division, Library of Congress.

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