Santa Anna in 1847
(February 21, 1794–June 21, 1876)
For nearly fifty years, vainglorious Santa Anna stood alone as the most important political and military figure of nineteenth-century Mexico. Dark-featured, charismatic, and hopelessly opportunistic, he was swept in and out of power 11 times yet remained a rallying point for Mexicans in crisis. Santa Anna’s checkered, self-serving career came to symbolize the national turbulence and instability of his age.
Antonio López de Santa Anna was born in Jalapa, Vera Cruz, on February 21, 1794, the son of Spanish parents. He commenced his military career in 1810 as a cadet in the Fijo Vera Cruz Regiment and fought numerous rebels and Indians on behalf of the Spanish Crown. In 1813, Santa Anna was part of Spanish forces that defeated the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition, a combined Mexican-American filibuster against Texas, at the Battle of Medina. He scrupulously observed that the intruders were hunted down and given no quarter—lessons that he applied later in his own career. The young officer continued serving Spanish interests competently until 1821, when he threw his lot behind Gen. Augustin de Iturbide during the Mexican War for Independence. The revolt proved successful, and Iturbide installed himself as emperor. But within two years, Santa Anna turned against Iturbide and ousted him in favor of Gen. Vincente Guerrero, establishing a pattern of political opportunism that guided him for 30 years. Whenever possible—and without hesitation—Santa Anna invariably shifted political allegiances as the situation demanded. Ruthless and corrupt, he was never bound to political principles or beliefs, only his own ambition.
The new government rewarded Santa Anna with a promotion to general and various posts, including governor of his native Vera Cruz, which he carefully cultivated as a power base. He was catapulted onto the national stage in 1829 after defeating an ill-fated Spanish invasion, becoming hailed as the hero of Tampico. In 1832, Santa Anna engineered a coup against Guerrero and placed Anastacio Bustamante in power. Two years later he removed Bustamante from the presidency, and in 1833 he gained election to the high office on a platform of liberal reforms. Sensing that Mexico was not ready for democracy, Santa Anna ruled despotically, and in 1835 he replaced Mexico’s federal system with a centralized regime. To accomplish this, the general exiled his vice president, shut down Congress, and declared himself dictator. It was hoped, having brought various provincial governments in line with a single authority, that political harmony would be achieved.
Santa Anna’s political schemes completely backfired in Texas, which had been dominated by a steady influx of immigrants from the United States. Numerous residents of Hispanic and Indian descent, weary of autocracy, also rose in revolt. Not surprisingly, Santa Anna regarded this rebellion as a direct challenge to his authority—and Mexican sovereignty. He quickly raised an army of 6,000 troops and hurriedly marched north toward San Antonio. There he encountered a makeshift fortress called the Alamo, a beaten-down Spanish mission, garrisoned by 180 frontiersmen under Col. William Travis and Davey Crockett. During his approach and investment of the Alamo, Santa Anna raised a large red flag warning that no quarter would be given if an assault was launched, and he ordered the garrison to evacuate the premises immediately. When they refused, he ordered his troops forward on March 6, 1836, and the defenders were put to the sword. Three weeks later Gen. Jose Urrea captured a force of 400 Texans at Goliad; upon Santa Anna’s direct order, they, too, were executed. If through these means the general hoped to intimidate the rebels, he sadly miscalculated, and this cruelty became a rallying point for further resistance. Santa Anna subsequently advanced after the army of Gen. Sam Houston, which had been pursuing him for several weeks. Unfortunately for the Mexicans, their careless dispositions along the San Jacinto River invited an attack on April 22, 1836, that Houston delivered with a vengeance. In the course of 20 minutes’ fighting, Santa Anna lost 500 killed and wounded to a Texas tally of six dead. Furthermore, he was captured and brought before Houston. Ignoring cries to hang him outright, Houston made Santa Anna sign the Treaty of Valasco, which recognized Texas independence. He was then trundled off to Washington, D.C., for a lengthy interview with President Andrew Jackson. The Americans became quite impressed by the regal bearing and urbane manners of this noted dictator, and his previous notoriety for the Alamo and Goliad massacres was overlooked.
Disgraced, Santa Anna arrived back in Mexico, where he learned he had been disposed and replaced by his old adversary Bustamante. Crestfallen, he returned to his estates in Vera Cruz as a private citizen. But unexpectedly another opportunity arose for Santa Anna to redeem himself. In November 1838, a French naval squadron attacked Vera Cruz over the issue of unpaid reparations. Santa Anna quickly rallied Mexican forces and made an effective stand, losing a leg in the process. Hailed as a national hero, he became president again in 1839, was briefly disposed, and served again from 1841 to 1845. His skill at political manipulation proved exceptional, but Santa Anna lacked any scruples whatsoever, and he looted the national treasury for himself and his allies. When the Mexican polity wearied of his penchant for extravagance and outlandish Napoleonic uniforms, he was deposed again and exiled for life to Havana, Cuba.
In 1846, unresolved border disputes arising from the Texas rebellion exploded into war with the United States. Santa Anna wasted no time venturing to Washington, D.C., and convinced President James K. Polk that he alone could stop the war and guarantee further territorial concessions from Mexico. Polk, convinced of his sincerity, placed Santa Anna on an American warship that passed directly through the U.S. Navy blockade off Vera Cruz. Thus far the war with the United States had gone badly for Mexico, and Gen. Zachary Taylor had scored several notable victories to the north. Santa Anna arrived in the Mexican capital like a liberator, forsook his earlier agreement with the Americans, and commenced raising a new army. He was aware that Polk, who feared General Taylor as a possible presidential contender in 1850, had stripped Taylor’s army of most regular forces and transferred them to Gen. Winfield Scott. In this weakened condition, Taylor’s little army would be ripe for defeat if the Mexicans advanced upon him with sufficient numbers. In the winter of 1846, Santa Anna force-marched 20,000 soldiers through the northern desert and confronted Taylor at Buena Vista. The Americans were badly outnumbered, but Taylor and Gen. John E. Wool skillfully deployed their meager resources on rough, defensive terrain, thwarting all attempts to evict them.
Over the course of February 22–24, 1847, the Mexican forces charged heroically but were beaten back and finally routed by the artillery of Capt. Braxton Bragg and the Mississippi Rifles under Col. Jefferson Davis. Santa Anna then sullenly withdrew back to Mexico City, having sustained 1,500 casualties—and a corresponding drop in reputation.
Mexico’s anguish was only just beginning. On March 9, 1847, Gen. Winfield Scott landed his 10,000-strong army at Vera Cruz without the loss of a man and proceeded marching on Mexico City. By dint of his skills as a rabble-rouser, Santa Anna energized fellow citizens, scraped together a new army of 25,000 men, and marched to meet the invaders. However, he was repeatedly bested in a series of hard-fought engagements at Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec, and the capital had to be abandoned. Santa Anna then struck out at Scott’s supply lines by advancing upon Puebla with 8,000 men. That town was garrisoned by 400 soldiers and 1,400 invalids under the command of Col. Thomas Childs, who mounted a vigorous defense. After a 28-day siege, the Mexican leader conceded defeat and withdrew. Worse, for having signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, Santa Anna induced the Mexican republic to cede nearly half of its territory to the United States in exchange for $15 million. The general’s reputation now plummeted to its lowest ebb. Considered by most Mexicans to be a vile traitor, he quickly resumed his status as a political exile.
After three more years in Cuba, Jamaica, and St. Thomas, Santa Anna was summoned home to restore stability to a crumbling Mexican polity. He was elected president once again in 1853 and served despotically for two years. This time his rule had all the trappings of a monarchy (having adopted the title “Most Serene Highness”), and he stifled repeated calls for liberal reform with repression. To fill the national coffers, he sold additional land to the United States, the Gadsden Purchase that covered a large part of the western United States, which only increased animosity toward him. Evicted once again in 1855, he was exiled a third time. From then on, Santa Anna’s political influence waned. He spent the next decade trying to scheme his way back into power, and he even tried allying with the hated French-imposed Emperor Maximilian in 1864. This earned him six months in jail and yet another stint in exile. It was not until 1874 that the tottering old man, the once proud caudillo of Mexico, was allowed home. Santa Anna settled in Mexico City, penned his memoirs, and lived the rest of his days in quiet poverty. He died there on June 21, 1876, having wreaked havoc as an incubus within the Mexican polity for 50 years. On occasion, Santa Anna had in fact served as a rallying point for his people in times of crisis but, bereft of any fixed political beliefs beyond self-enrichment, always left the country worse off than when he found it.
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