The Battle of San Jacinto-1895 painting by Henry Arthur McArdle (1836–1908)
The Mexican Province of Texas, 1836
In 1835 Santa Anna, one of the generals who had led the Mexican people in throwing out the Spanish, was elected president and almost immediately abolished the constitution, making himself a dictator. Like their neighbors to the north, many Mexicans felt strongly about their freedom and constitution. Within a year, the dictator Santa Anna Perez de Lebron reacted to the first resistance to his rule and his having abolished the constitution by leading an army into the formerly prosperous province of Zacatecas. It was an army that burnt, pillaged, and raped its way across the land until the province was both devastated and virtually unpopulated. Santa Anna then made sure that his statement “If you execute your enemies, it saves you the trouble of having to forgive them” was known to every person in Mexico. It was a stern warning, but also showed his total disregard for the “rights of man” and other freedoms lost when he abolished the constitution.
Now, if there was one part of all Mexico that was still willing to revolt against Santa Anna, it was Texas. It was far from the centers of the dictator’s power, and two-thirds of the thirty thousand citizens living in what was then the Mexican province of Texas were immigrants from the United States. The remainder were either established Mexican families with an independent spirit or men who had fled there when Santa Anna took over. The abolition of the constitution angered most Mexicans, and the “Texicans” more than most. Many of the men and officers who fought against Santa Anna, from the Alamo to San Jacinto, were of Mexican descent, and many risked lands that had been in their families for generations. By 1836, things had come to a head and a revolt started in Texas, with a few hundred ill-organized men easily driving out the local garrisons. So far this was all being done in the name of the abolished constitution. But revolution was revolution, and, having led a successful one against the Spanish that freed all Mexico only a few years before, Santa Anna knew he could not allow another revolt to start, even in the distant and relatively poor province of Texas.
The population of Texas was only a tiny fraction of Mexico’s; the Mexican army itself was nearly as large as the entire population of the distant province. Santa Anna had beaten the French army and suppressed much larger revolutions, so it took him several mistakes in Texas to lose both the battle and a war. That he lost at all is more surprising, since Santa Anna was leading battle-tested veterans against men who had no more than a few months at best to train together, and were much more independent-minded and difficult to lead than good soldiers should be. So how did, as Texans so proudly point out, Texas win its independence rather than end up the wasteland that Zacatecas had become?
Santa Anna had been called the Napoleon of Mexico, and he quickly took the name to heart. He was confident, or, as we shall see, overconfident, in the face of any “rabble” in thinly populated Texas. Still, he decided to bring against Texas an army of six thousand of his best troops, most having taken part in devastating Zacatecas the year before. Public statements assured everyone in Mexico City that Texas would meet the same fate as Zacatecas, and that every former citizen from the United States would be killed or driven out of that province permanently. Like Napoleon, Santa Anna felt maneuver was a most important part of warfare. So he carefully directed each march and the routes of every column in his army. Unlike Napoleon, the Mexican dictator took little interest in supplying his army. Determined to put down the revolt before any effective opposition could organize, the dictator ordered his army to move north with forced marches. It being winter, the journey soon took its toll, and more resembled the retreat from Moscow than the start of a new campaign. By the time the army neared the Rio Grande, only about four thousand effectives remained. Two thousand men had fallen from exhaustion, had gotten sick, or had simply deserted during the hard march from the capital to the Rio Grande. These remaining troops were reinforced to slightly more than the six thousand-man army Santa Anna had started with by adding to them the survivors of the Texas garrisons. This meant that there was one Mexican soldier for every five men, women, and children in all of Texas. No one, not even those who wanted it to, such as the president of the United States, expected the Texican revolution to succeed.
The first opposition came on February 23 at the abandoned mission near San Antonio de Bexar, known as the Alamo. As with Zacatecas, Santa Anna quickly made it known that he would take no prisoners. The defenders fought with desperate courage, but by March 6 were unable to hold the large length of walls and were eventually overwhelmed. Those who did survive the assault may have been executed; evidence is mixed. But the final result was that no defender survived.
A few weeks later a mixed force of cavalry and horse artillery caught the largest single force of rebels under Colonel Fannin near Goliad. Trapped in the open, the Texans formed a defense position and drove off the first attacks by the horsemen. Then the horse artillery unlimbered and began punishing them with shot and grapeshot, packets of hundreds of musket balls fired from the cannon like a giant shotgun. Seeing his position was indefensible, Fannin negotiated a surrender. His men would lay down their arms in exchange for being able to return to their homes and the promise to never take up arms against Santa Anna again. These terms being accepted, the Texans surrendered. At this point, Santa Anna ordered that they all be executed. The officers who accepted the surrender protested and were sent away. On March 27, the Napoleon of Mexico forced the prisoners onto an open area and had his men open fire: 342 died, but 28 escaped to spread the tale.
Having destroyed both the only fortress occupied by the Texans and their largest single force, Santa Anna seems to have decided that the revolt was over. Sam Houston was desperately trying to organize what remained of the resistance, but this force of less than a thousand men (at its peak) was being constantly forced north away from the centers of population and their families. So Santa Anna split his force into a number of “flying columns,” which mostly meant they were just small enough to march fairly quickly and live off the land. These columns began to recreate in Texas the atrocities of Zacatecas. You could follow their movement by the smoke from the homes and towns they burnt.
Leading the largest column, about a thousand soldiers, Santa Anna pursued and eventually drove the rebel government completely out of Texas (onto a ship). He continued moving in the general direction of Sam Houston, more concerned with driving the former U. S. citizens out of Texas and burning every building he found than fighting a battle against an already defeated foe.
This overconfidence, and the general exhaustion from a long march and months of campaigning, led to a relaxation of procedures that the real Napoleon would have never tolerated. Pickets and scouts were used only occasionally, and orders were often sent by unescorted couriers.
Sam Houston’s scouts captured a courier riding to the dictator’s camp. The message told him two things. One was that the column Santa Anna led was much closer than he had thought, less than a day’s march away. The second was that in less than a week the Mexican column was to be strongly reinforced. With his own men more than restive, and some ready to mutiny due to inaction, Houston knew that it was finally time to act. He had already stopped running and was marching closer to Santa Anna. Seeing that the weeks of retreating were over, the Texican army’s spirits rose as they marched to meet the men who were burning their homes and towns. When they realized that the battle was imminent, they cheered.
Unknown to Houston, the Mexican reinforcements had arrived earlier than expected. Sam Houston had at most eight hundred men ready to fight, and the additional arrivals meant that Santa Anna had under his command over fifteen hundred experienced soldiers, including mounted lancers and several guns. This gave Santa Anna, already convinced he was merely completing a mop-up following his victories at the Alamo and Goliad, a false sense of confidence. His army was nearly twice as large as Houston’s and in a good defensible position. His men were professionals, and he had heard of the dissention Houston’s constant orders to retreat had engendered. The Texans would never dare to attack, and all he had to do was wait until desertions, already a Texican problem, and frustration eliminated the opposition for him. Even though he knew the Texans were close, the dictator’s confidence was such that he ordered his army to stand down for the afternoon, relaxing in camp rather than preparing for battle. He joined his officers sipping champagne under the shade of a large tree in the center of the camp and soon everyone but a few guards were enjoying their siesta.
When Houston formed his army for the attack, it numbered 793 men. All were ready for a long-awaited fight, but few had ever really been in a battle. The potential for disaster was great, but the chance to defeat and capture Santa Anna was too great an opportunity to pass up. This was probably Houston’s last and only chance for victory. The Texan commander understood that if he held his men from battle much longer they would certainly mutiny or simply desert. So the decision to attack was made, and soon the double line of Texans waited behind a ridge that hid them from the Mexican army’s camp. Upon Houston’s signal, they moved silently forward.
As the men moved toward the Mexican camp, everyone expected to be spotted and hoped they could gain the relative advantage of the top of the ridge before having to face the Mexican regulars. Amazingly, they approached the ridgeline and nothing happened. No one, especially Sam Houston, could believe their luck. When they finally came into sight of the camp, it was a bare two hundred yards away, and still no alarm was being given. Finally, as the entire double line of Texans came into sight, a few cannonballs were fired at their approaching line, sailing safely overhead but alerting the Mexican soldiers that something was happening. A few musket shots rang out from the camp and drums rolled as men struggled to wake up and form into units.
At this point, a small party of men that Houston had sent to check ahead joined the battle and yelled out that the Texans’ only line of retreat, Vince’s Bridge, was down. Every Texan now knew it was most certainly victory or death, in a most literal sense. Santa Anna never took prisoners, and there was no way to escape. Just as this cry went up, the army being a mere eighty yards from the edge of the confusion-filled Mexican camp, Colonel Sidney Sherman bellowed, “Remember the Alamo and Goliad.” It was both a warning and a rallying cry. “Remember the Alamo” was repeated and he then roared it out in Spanish as the advancing Texans opened fire from only a few yards from where Santa Anna’s officers were struggling to bring order to a now panicky army. The galling fire (most of the Texans were frontiersmen, so many shots hit home) broke the morale of the disorganized men. Resistance stopped except in isolated pockets, and most of the Mexican soldiers ran or tried to surrender. These were the same soldiers who had pillaged and raped their way across Texas for the previous three months, and the units that had taken the Alamo, leaving no one alive. Few surrenders were accepted and panic took over, Santa Anna’s officers and men fleeing for their lives.
The battle took less than twenty minutes. The revenge went on for over an hour as Texans pursued and killed the remnants of the column. Riflemen fired into milling mobs and their small cavalry unit was everywhere, slashing the routing soldiers and ensuring no one was able to reform and offer any resistance. It was not until some hours later that Sam Houston was once more in control of his army and some prisoners were taken. But he was worried. While they had broken the column, this was less than a quarter of Santa Anna’s total army, and the dictator had escaped. Thanks to Santa Anna’s overconfidence, Houston had a victory, but the war was far from won.
The next day, among a few straggling prisoners brought in to join those already under guard, was a dusty, dirty man with a torn shirt that, if anyone had bothered to look closely, was of far higher quality than those of the common soldiers. It was not until his own men began saluting and muttering his name that the Texans realized this prisoner was indeed Santa Anna Perez de Lebron himself. The stained and filthy shirt was, it was later realized, actually held together with diamond studs. Quickly brought before Sam Houston, who was suffering from an ankle shattered in the initial attack, the dictator began negotiating for his life and freedom. Many of the Texans, still desiring revenge for the Alamo and Goliad, wanted to hang Santa Anna right there. But Houston held him prisoner until a month later, when a treaty was signed and Texas became a nation. The deal was that Santa Anna could go free if he let go of Texas. He agreed and returned to Mexico City. After that no one called him the Napoleon of Mexico anymore.
Texas was a thinly inhabited frontier and the Mexican army was nearly as large as the population of the former province. The year before, a much more populous province had been easily turned into a wasteland. Furthermore, Santa Anna was leading battle-tested veterans against men who had no more than a few months, at best, to train and work together. So how did Texas win its independence rather than end up the wasteland the other rebellious province had become? There is one simple reason for this nation-forming defeat: Santa Anna’s overconfidence led to a dispersion of forces, and an overly harsh response that rallied opposition. His real failures were to not maintain local security around his camp or even bother to locate the enemy. It all came down to misplaced confidence and a gross underestimation of the Texicans.