At San Jacinto, 1836

Mexican Independence 001The Mexican War of Independence was a long and bloody affair … as well as the genesis of much internal strife after 1821.  Texas was part of Mexico, but sparsely populated with fewer than 3,500 residents and only around 200 regular soldiers to provide for their safety. Adding to the danger from hostile Indians, American filibusters complicated the lives of residents even further.  With the hope that an influx of settlers might curb Indian raids, the bankrupt Mexican government liberalized their immigration policy.  Finally, able to settle legally in Texas, thousands of Americans quickly outnumbered the Tejanos.  Most of these people migrated from the southern United States; many were slave-owners, nearly all harbored some prejudice against other races whom they regarded as inferior.  Promising to convert to Catholicism, most never did.  Protestant looked down on “papists” and generally would have nothing to do with them.

The migrants did understand that their loyalty belonged to Mexico; most took their oath of allegiance seriously —a loyalty to the Constitution of 1824, which defined Mexico as a federal republic.  Under federalism, the provinces of Mexico were autonomous; they were able to govern themselves with minimal interference from the central government.  Of course, this question of federalism vs. centralism became the source of much political upheaval in Mexico.  The Anglo settlers pledged their fealty to that Constitution. When centralists sought to suspend or ignore the Constitution of 1824, several provinces rebelled.  Initially, the vast reaches of Texas were a part of Coahuila, known as the State of Coahuila y Tejas.  Its capital was Saltillo, which was hundreds of miles away from San Antonio de Béxar.  Within the provincial legislature, however, Texas had but one representative. Tejanos were outraged about this arrangement and after much grumbling, the governor and legislature agreed to form Texas as a major department within the province.  The capital of Texas was San Antonio de Béxar.

All Anglo settlers watched the political upheaval in Mexico with some concern, most eventually reconciling themselves to continue to support the Constitution of 1824 without voicing objection to the increasingly centralized regime which was taking place under El Presidenté Anastasio Bustamante.  When the Mexican legislature abolished slavery in 1829, the Anglo settlers bridled, teetering on the verge of open revolt.  In response, Bustamante prohibited further immigration to Texas from the United States, increased taxes, and reaffirmed the ban on slavery.  Texians simply ignored the law.

Santa Anna 003

El Presidente General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

In 1830, General Antonio López de Santa Annawas was a fence-sitter in Mexican politics.  He claimed to support federalism, a stance that won him the support of Texians, but he was simply waiting to see which way the wind was blowing.  In 1832, Santa Anna led a revolt to overthrow Bustamante; the Texians used this uprising as an excuse to take up arms.  By mid-August of that year, the Texians expelled all centralist politicians and the military from East Texas.  Encouraged by their successes, Texians held two conventions, both intending to persuade the Mexican government to repeal the Law of 1830.  By November 1833, the Mexican legislature granted concessions to the Texians, particularly in the area of immigration, and increased representation in the provincial legislature.  Despite these concessions, the Mexican government remained wary of the Texians [1].

El Presidenté General Santa Anna revealed himself as a centralist not long after seizing power from Bustamante.  In 1835, Santa Anna overturned the Constitution of 1824, dismissed state legislatures, disbanded militias, and arrested federalists.  Rebellions broke out in Oaxaca and Zacatecas; Mexicans took up arms and Santa Anna moved against them in a most-brutal fashion.  When he subdued the rebellion in Zacatecas, Santa Anna authorized his troops to sack the city; more than 2,000 Mexican civilians lost their lives.  In Coahuila y Tejas, Governor Agustin Viesca refused to dissolve the legislature, instead ordering the legislature to convene in San Antonio de Béxar.  A prominent citizen by the name of Juan Seguin raised a militia, but the city council ordered him not to interfere. Meanwhile, Santa Anna’s army arrested Viesca before he reached the safety of Texas.

Texians had a divided opinion about these events.  In the United States, editorials began advocating for independence for Texas.  A minor revolt over the issue of customs duties resulted in public meetings to determine whether most settlers favored independence, a return to federalism, or the status quo (centralism under the tyrant Santa Anna).  With few exceptions, most communities agreed to send delegates to the “Consultation” scheduled for October 1835.

Fearing an open revolt, Mexican military commander in Texas called for reinforcements as early as April 1835.  Politically, Mexico was ill-prepared for a large civil war, but continued unrest in Texas posed a greater danger to the power of Santa Anna in Mexico City.  If the citizens of Coahuila took up arms, Mexico could end up losing a large portion of its sovereign territory.  Always in the back of their minds, Mexican officials feared the intentions of the United States.  At risk were the Mexican territories of New Mexico and California. Santa Anna had no wish to tangle with the United States and the best way to ensure that this didn’t happen was to subdue any rebellion in Texas.  In September 1835, Santa Anna ordered his brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos, to lead 500 soldiers to Texas and quell any rebellious behavior. When General Cos landed with his men at Copano Bay in late September, Texian Empresario Stephen F. Austin called all municipalities to raise militias in their self-defense.

Twenty-one settlements sent 45 delegates to the Convention of 1836, which convened on 1 March. Within one-hour of the convention’s opening, delegate George C. Childress submitted a proposed declaration of independence.  Delegates overwhelmingly passed this measure on 2 March.  Four days later, 1,800 Mexican soldiers under General Santa Anna destroyed the small garrison at the Alamo; every defender lost his life, including James Bowie, William Travis, and David Crockett.  See also: The Dickinson’s of the Alamo.

While the Texian government worked on the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston received an appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Texas Army. His army variously numbered 300 or less men.  David G. Burnet was elected president of Texas; on his second day in office, Burnet announced that his government was leaving Washington-on-the Brazos for Harrisburg, a city further removed from Santa Anna’s army.

After the fall of the Alamo, Santa Anna remained in San Antonio with a small force while directing his generals to destroy all Texian opposition.  Meanwhile, Mexico’s acting president, Miguel Barragán died in office. When he received this news, Santa Anna considered returning to Mexico City to solidify his position.  At the same time, he feared that General Urrea’s victories in Texas would undermine his political standing.  Santa Anna decided to remain in Texas.  In late March, Santa Anna departed Béxar to join General Ramírez y Sesma in his East Texas campaign to clean out the Texians.

On 7 April, General Sesma’s scouts captured a Texian soldier, who informed Santa Anna that the Texians planned to retreat in the face of the approaching Mexican army. Then, on 14 April a small company of Texian irregulars prevented Santa Anna from crossing the Brazos River. Frustrated, Santa Anna led his force of 700 men to try to capture the Texian government at Harrisburg, which he nearly did.  Santa Anna dispatched Colonel Juan Almonte with fifty dragoons to intercept their escape, but these officials avoided capture by taking small boats to Galveston Island.

Despite their flight, Santa Anna believed that the Texian government was in disarray and the rebellion in its final stage.  He had forced the delegates off the mainland, the government had no way of communicating with the Texian army, and most settlers had shown little interest in confronting Santa Anna’s army.  Colonel Almonte’s scouts erroneously reported that Houston’s army was en route to Lynchburg, on Buffalo Bayou.  Almonte supposed that Houston would try to join the government at Galveston.  After burning Harrisburg to the ground, Santa Anna pressed on toward Lynchburg.

On 16 April, Houston’s army came to a crossroad.  One road led north toward Nacogdoches, the other toward Harrisburg.  The Texians took the Harrisburg road, arriving there two days later —scant hours after Santa Anna’s army had departed.  On that same day, Deaf Smith and Henry Karnes captured a Mexican courier who was in possession of Santa Anna’s operation plans, his order of battle, and the location of all of Santa Anna’s subordinate commanders. Houston realized that Santa Anna force was small and not far away.  Knowing that the Mexican army was widely displaced, Houston stirred his men to battle. REMEMBER THE ALAMO.  REMEMBER GOLIAD.  Houston and his men raced to Lynchburg.

The area along Buffalo Bayou consisted of thick oak groves and marshes.  It was a terrain familiar to the Texians, less so to the Mexicans. Houston’s army of around 900 men reached Lynch’s Ferry by mid-morning on 20 April.  Santa Anna’s 700-man force arrived a few hours later.  The Texians made camp in a wooded area along the bank of the bayou; their location provided good cover and concealment from the Mexicans. It also left the Texians no room for retreat.  Houston fully realized this; an army fights harder when the only way out is forward. In contrast, Santa Anna made his camp at a vulnerable location, an open field near the San Jacinto River.  Santa Anna’s camp bordered woods on one side, a marsh and a lake on the other.  Colonel Pedro Delgado recorded in his journal that his general’s selection of encampment went against all military rules and logic.

Over several hours, both sides initiated brief skirmishes.  Throughout the night, Santa Anna worked his men to fortify their camp, creating breastworks of logs, brush, and even saddles.  By early morning, the Mexican soldiers were weary from al their work. General Cos arrived with 540 reinforcements at around 9 a.m.  Having marched throughout the night, General Cos’s men were exhausted.  They were new recruits —out of shape, ill-trained, and unfit for battle.  In any case, as the morning passed with no Texian attack, Mexican officers ordered their men to rest.  Santa Anna’s camp grew suddenly quiet.  Meanwhile, Houston ordered Deaf Smith to destroy Vince’s Bridge, six miles from camp, to prevent Santa Anna’s escape and deny any further Mexican reinforcement. At around 4 p.m., the Texians quietly began their advance through the tall grass pulling their cannon behind them. Texian artillery began firing at around 4:30 p.m.  It was the opening salvo of the Battle of San Jacinto.

After a single volley of cannon, the undisciplined Texians broke ranks and swarmed over the Mexican breastworks, engaging their enemy in hand to hand fighting.  The attack surprised the Mexicans and sent them into panic. General Santa Anna, Colonel Castrillón, and Colonel Almonte shouted contradictory commands, which confused the men further.  The only thing these soldiers knew for certain was that Texians were killing them in a fanatical assault.  Many of the Mexican soldiers threw down their weapons and shouted, “Me no Alamo,” but the Texians remembered what General Houston told them.  They remembered the Alamo; they remembered Goliad; they resolved to take no prisoners.  Other Mexican soldiers tried to escape; the Texians killed them, too.

Despite every effort of the Texian officers to stop the slaughter, the killing lasted for hours. The Texian Army, what there was of it, was out of control and there was nothing that Houston or anyone else could do to stop them.  In all, the Texians cut down more than 650 Mexican soldiers; 300 more became prisoners. Eleven Texians died; 30 others, including Houston, received wounds.

The Texians were lucky. They didn’t win this battle because they were well-disciplined troops; they won it because General Santa Anna, in his arrogance, had made tragic mistakes —the sort of things that an inexperienced junior officer might do.  Nor were the troops under Santa Anna the bulk of his army.  Four-thousand additional Mexican troops served under Generals Urrea and Vicente Filisola.  General Santa Anna also tried to escape the Texian onslaught.  He dressed himself in the uniform of a private soldier and headed toward Vince’s Bridge.  Captain Deaf Smith discovered him hiding in nearby marshes and took him to General Houston.

Houston, in great pain from a bullet wound in the ankle, listened to what Santa Anna had to say. He offered Houston peace in exchange for his life.  The Texians, however, wanted to see Santa Anna hanged.  Houston had a bigger fish to fry.  Santa Anna sent dispatches to his subordinates ordering them to return to San Antonio de Béxar.  Filisola was the next senior officer in the chain of command, and General Urrea urged him to continue the campaign.  General Filisola reckoned that Santa Anna had already caused one disaster; he did not want to create another.  The Mexican army was out of food; the rains had ruined their gunpowder; the roads were impassable; and the troops were falling ill with dysentery and malaria. Filisola also guessed that there would be no reinforcements.

Ultimately, there were two treaties, an idea proposed by Santa Anna.  Houston, Rusk, and Burnet foolishly agreed to this.   The first treaty was one designed for public dissemination of the agreements reached between Mexico and the Republic of Texas; the second treaty was private and included Santa Anna’s personal guarantees. Mexico later repudiated both agreements, claiming that a head of state serving as a prisoner of war could not speak on behalf of his country.

As the Mexican army withdrew from Texas, they took with them many Tejanos who did not want to live in the Republic of Texas (they would all change their minds in the 20th-century). They also took with them a number of slaves who preferred living free in Mexico than in bondage in Texas.  The Mexican army departed Texas in late May, but every Mexican senior officer believed that the war was far from over. The government of Mexico steadfastly refused to recognize the independent country of Texas.  In Mexico City, legislators chastised General Filisola for retreating and replaced him with General Urrea.  Within a few months, Urrea had gathered 6,000 troops to re-enter Texas.  However, internal rebellion within other Mexican states required Urrea to abandon his plan for the reconquest of Texas.

Most Texians expected a renewal of fighting.  The assumption prompted many American volunteers to join the Texas army.  There were so many volunteers that the Texas Army could not maintain records of every volunteer.  Out of caution, San Antonio de Béxar remained under martial law through the end of 1836.  For the Tejanos living there It was a heavy-handed occupation; all Tejanos in the area between Guadalupe and Nueces rivers were given this option: either move to east Texas or migrate back to Mexico.  Texas authorities forcibly removed Tejanos who refused to comply with the evacuation order.  Once they were gone, newly arrived settlers from the United States quickly took possession of these properties.  Hundreds of Tejano chose to return to Mexico.

Texas Republic 1826-1839

Republic of Texas Flag, 1836-1839

For many years after Texan independence, Mexican officials used the reconquest of Texas as an excuse for implementing new taxes and spending money on the army rather than on much-needed infrastructure. Sporadic skirmishes did occur inside Texas, but larger expeditions never took place.  The Mexican government also worried about other Mexican states pursuing similar revolutions and the purpose of Mexico’s army was to keep the people in line.

During Santa Anna’s absence from Mexico, the government deposed him, but no one in Mexico’s history had a more prolific pollical career than Antonio López de Santa Anna.  He would ascend to the presidency on several occasions; he would once more confront Anglos —this time in Mexico during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).  Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna wouldn’t like the result of that war, either.

Sources:

  1. Calore, P. The Texas Revolution and the US-Mexican War: A concise history.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014
  2. Davis, W. C. Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic.  New York: Free Press, 2004
  3. Hardin, S. L.Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994

Endnote:

[1] By 1834, an estimated 30,000 Anglo colonists lived in Coahuila y Tejas, compare to less than 8,000 Tejanos.  At the end of 1835, there were 5,000 African slaves living in Texas—about thirteen percent of the non-Indian population.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to At San Jacinto, 1836

  1. Andy says:

    I have to admit, I’d never heard many of the details in this account of the Battle of San Jacinto. Very interesting account of the revolution and it’s outcome.

    Liked by 1 person

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