Eighteen minutes, by the clock – in that furious eighteen minutes, a strategic battle was won. Eventually it would prove that more than just an errant and rebellious state had been lost to a central governing authority – and worse yet, lost under the personal supervision of a charismatic and able leader. In an open meadow with a slight rise across the middle of it, fringed with tall trees, bounded on two sides by a river and a third by a swampy lake (or a lakey swamp – descriptions are elastic) the dreams of one nation-state died and another was born.
The dreams of one of those nation-states died along with a fair number of its soldiers; ironically, the long-term political career of the man who had led them there was not one of them. He was the prototypical general on a white horse, following a willow-the-wisp of his enemy. He would not die in the swamp around Peggy’s Lake, or in the waters where Vince’s Bridge had been cut down. He would – like his adversary – die of old age, in bed of more or less natural causes, after a lifetime of scheming, treachery and showmanship. This probably came as a great surprise to everyone who had taken part on either side of the 1835-36 Texas War of Independence; that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna would live a long and erratically prosperous life –and his cause of death did not involve a hangman’s rope, a firing squad or an outraged husband. Which, given his career of double-cross, astounding brutality and corruption, should give confidence and inspiration to prospective caudillos everywhere. That is the end of the story, however – the beginning was in Texas, in the mid 1830s.
Which beginning is more tangled than anyone could imagine, from just knowing of it through the medium of pop-culture. For most people, Americans and foreigners alike, that is pretty well limited to movies about the Alamo, and the Disney version of Davy Crockett. Act One – American settlers take over Texas; Act Two – many of them hole up in the Alamo; Act Three – a lot of swarthy and nattily-dressed Mexican soldiers kill them all; Act Four – somehow, the Americans win Texas after all, and in spite of that. Garnish with any number of fashionable intellectual flourishes, conceits and concepts and salt to taste.
The story is of course, much more interesting and nuanced than that – and I have had a great deal of fun in exploring some of the elements, especially now that I have come to the real final act; what happened after the farcical fight over a little spiked and repaired cannon – how that event led the men of Gonzales coming to the aid of those who had similarly aided them, certain musings about the characters of three men who took it onto themselves to defend an old mission half tumbled down. Then there was the massacre of the Goliad garrison, and how the American settlers in Texas took flight from their homes and scrambled east – women fending for themselves and their children, as husbands and fathers went to join Sam Houston’s army. I’ve even mused upon Houston’s character – for he was certainly that; flamboyant, contradictory, self-taught everything, drunkard and dissembler . . . and possibly the one man who held everything together in Texas for the space of six weeks in the spring of 1836.
One way and another, in late March of 1936, Sam Houston had gotten himself put in command of what passed for the Army of Texas, an army made up from a mix of eager volunteers and local militiamen – many of whom were absolutely confident they knew just about as much about the profession of arms as their commander. Many did not – exhibit A, James Fannin, West Point drop-out, brave but indecisive, and the last to be executed of his command, save for a few who were spared because of their profession, by sympathetic Mexican officers, or through having escaped in the confusion when the guns were turned upon them.
This army, to use a cheerful modern expression was making it up as they went along; everything was scratch, volunteer, on the fly – which had been well enough, when they were facing a few disorganized, unsupplied and demoralized Mexican commands in late 1835. But when the self-styled Napoleon of the West came roaring up from Mexico, determined to restore centralist sovereignty – that was a game changer. He came with a large army at his back, not just infantrymen, but also with well-trained and expert cavalry, and artillery, commanded by experienced officers. Against this, the scratch companies of local militia, and eager volunteers fresh from the eastern US had no chance at all, although learning this was a painful and often fatal lesson.
Sam Houston seems to have been the only Texan leader with an effective strategy in mind to counter Lopez de Santa Anna. His own army was short of everything but determination – and as they retreated into East Texas – a slow-burning fury which very often was directed at Sam Houston rather than the enemy, because it seemed to many that he had no wish to stand and fight. He had originally come to Gonzales at the end of March, seventy miles east and south of San Antonio, with the intention of lifting the siege of the Alamo – although with the body of men at his command, one doubts if that was ever a serious possibility. Within a few hours of arrival, he had received word that the Alamo had fallen. Almost immediately, Sam Houston announced that his army would retreat to the line of the Colorado River, generally held to be a defensible boundary, on the edge of the American settlements in Texas. The spring was a rainy one, and the rivers and creeks were running high. As the Texans retreated, they burned Gonzales, and destroyed the river ferry at Burnham’s Crossing. Houston had sent messages to the citadel at La Bahia, commanding Colonel Fannin and his garrison to abandon La Bahia and to meet up with him as they fell back to defending along the line of the Colorado River. More and more volunteers were gathering to Houston – but Fannin’s men would more than double the number at Houston’s command, once their forces were joined.
But Fannin left it too late – by the time he and his had packed up their wagons, their cannon, supplies and abandoned the old Spanish presidio, a striking force of Mexican troops under General Jose de Urrea caught up with them. Urrea was an able and enterprising officer, given the task of sweeping up settler resistance along the coastal lowlands. Within a very short time he had mopped up several other small Texian fighting companies, surrounded the retreating Fannin’s company, defeated them at Coleto Creek, and forced them to surrender. News of this surrender reached Houston within days – along with the knowledge that Urrea’s cavalry was already striking east. He ordered a retreat – this time to the line of the Brazos River and San Felipe – the town founded by Stephen Austin. Houston set up camp on the Brazos, in what had been considered the heart of the American settlements, near the plantation of Jared Groce, reputed to be the wealthiest settler in that part of Texas. There he rested for nearly a week, gathering volunteers, waiting for supplies from farther east to catch up to him – and for word from his scouting parties. The standing government of Texas fled to Harrisburg, now a suburb of Houston. And Houston waited, listening to the words of his officers – but saying very little of his own thoughts. Like General Washington and his ragged Continental Army, seventy years before, as long as the army of Texas existed in a meaningful way – that was what counted.
A battle was a chancy thing; Washington could afford to (and did) loose many a battle on the way to Yorktown. Houston did not have that luxury; he had allies, in the Americans (including the Regular Army, lurking meaningfully but neutrally just across the border) and American volunteers coming to join him every day, singly or in companies; but the Mexican Army was pressing hard. Santa Anna’s men did not have the sea-voyage from half the world away as the British forces had during the Revolution, merely an Indian-haunted desert, just a few hundred miles of hostile wilderness, or a short coastal voyage. No, I am fairly certain that Sam Houston reckoned that his army had only one good fight in them, so he had best make certain that fight would count, and that all the advantages of ground, time and hasty training of his volunteers would be with him. The country east of the Brazos was where he could count on at least one advantage; it was where the tall oak and pine woods began. The American settlers tended to be riflemen, preferred fighting from cover – not in disciplined ranks, and definitely not out in the open plains and scrub brush country, where Mexican cavalrymen had the advantage of speed and long spears. Texians were not quite yet the peerless horsemen they would become within another two decades.
While Houston drew a breath at Groce’s plantation, he took delivery of a pair of 6-pound cannon, purchased and sent to Texas as the gift of citizens of Cincinnati – and doubly precious for they were the only cannon his army possessed. During that period Houston also received news of the fate of James Fannin and his men, defeated at Coleto Creek and held prisoner in the old citadel of La Bahia. Lopez de Santa Anna ordered that all the prisoners be executed forthwith. Urrea’s officers obeyed – reluctantly, but they obeyed. Nearly three hundred and fifty survivors of Coleto were led out of the citadel on various pretenses, but before they were very far away, their guards turned upon them. A few managed to escape in the confusion. This was horrific, an unspeakable atrocity in the eyes of the Texians, for it had been understood that Fannin had surrendered under honorable circumstances. His men were volunteers, soldiers – and many of them had family, friends and comrades now serving among the Texian ranks. The cold-blooded mass-murder of Fannin’s command raised the anger among Sam Houston’s army to a white-hot pitch – not least because they would expect the same treatment meted, should they be defeated.
But the news received was not all discouraging – the rainy spring kept the rivers flowing high. While it made a misery for his Army, and the civilian refugees fleeing east, it also created even more misery for the Mexican columns. Houston’s spies and scouts spent tireless days in the saddle; his chief of scouts was a long-time resident in San Antonio, Erastus Smith. Known as “Deaf” Smith, for he was terribly hard of hearing, Erastus Smith had made a reputation as a breeder of fine cattle, married a Tejana lady, and fathered a large family. At the beginning of the unrest in Texas he had been more or less neutral – as many long-established settlers had been – but during the siege of General Cos’s troops in San Antonio late in 1835, he had thrown his support to the rebellious Texians. “Deaf” Smith and his men brought rumors of hardship and want among the Mexican Army, even as they approached San Felipe and the various defended river-crossings on the Brazos. Many of Houstons’ officers began wondering openly if Houston would give the orders to engage, to turn and fight – instead, he ordered the Texian Army to fall back, once more, abandoning the line of the Brazos River. Dissatisfaction with Houston’s leadership reached a furious pitch, almost open mutiny; he was blamed for abandoning the Brazos, for the burning of San Felipe, and resented for his insistence upon drill and discipline. The secretary of war in the nascent Texas government, Thomas Jefferson Rush arrived bearing a stern message – stand and fight. Very likely, at this point, Houston and Rusk conferred together and Houston convinced Rusk of the difficult wisdom of pursuing a strategy; a Fabian strategy, like that of George Washington – carefully falling back, while watching for the perfect moment and waiting for the enemy to exhaust resources and men, nibbling at the edge, a small engagement here and there. Houston must have convinced Rusk, for the latter stayed with the Army, even as they fell back one more time.
And then, Erastus Smith captured a Mexican courier, one bearing a particularly important dispatch. And when he read it, Houston knew the time was indeed, almost right. The Mexican forces in hot pursuit of Houston’s army had split into several columns over the weeks and days of their efforts to quash the rebellious Texians; from the start of operations, General Urrea had been coming fast and hard along the coastal plain, and General Gaona had been sweeping the north, along the fringe of Texian settlements on the frontier, while Santa Anna himself and General Ramirez y Sesma driving up the center – all given orders to scour the Anglo settlements, and execute all those Texians who had taken up arms in rebellion, and force all those who had not to leave. Santa Anna’s original plan seems to have been to have all three columns converge on Houston’s force and smash the rebels for once and for all. But at the last moment, Santa Anna detached part of his force to protect his tenuously lengthening supply line, and personally led a force of about 500 soldiers in an attempt to capture those cabinet members of the independent Texan government, who had fled to Harrisburg. Alas, only two of them were still to be found, and they hopped it immediately for Galveston by boat, escaping by the skin of their teeth. But doubtless, Santa Anna was cheered, first by burning Harrisburg to the ground, and then upon hearing from his own scouts that Houston was retreating towards the Trinity River, seemingly with the intent of taking his ragged army to Galveston and continuing the insurgency from there. The projected line of Houston’s retreat would take his ragged army by the river-ferry at Lynchburg on Buffalo Bayou – and if Santa Anna’s forces could beat Houston’s men to the ferry – well, then, the rebellion in Texas would be finished, for once and all. The two forces – Santa Anna’s detached column, and Houston’s underfed, under-equipped and hastily-formed army were on a collision-course.
But who was actually chasing who? While Houston’s army was resting near the ruins of Harrisburg after a brutal forced march, Erastus Smith’s scouts captured a Mexican courier. And when Houston and his staff read the messages, they discovered that General Santa Anna, the President and Generalissimo of Mexico, the so-called Napoleon of the West, the butcher of the Alamo and the murderer of Goliad – was separated from the main force of his own army – and that in fact, Houston had inadvertently cut off Santa Anna from the main part of his army! This was perhaps the crucial moment that Sam Houston had been waiting for. For this he had been gathering an army, desperately holding it together, keeping his own counsel all the while, leading his increasingly resentful officers and men back, and back and back into East Texas, to the oak woods, to the thickly forested bayou country that the Anglo settlers had made their own, waiting for Santa Anna to make that climactic mistake.
On the 19th of April, Houston addressed his army, telling them that they were going in pursuit of Santa Anna. They were going to travel light and fast, taking only the cavalry’s horses, a single ammunition wagon, and the precious cannons, the so-called ‘Twin Sisters.’ Two days later, the Texians and Santa Anna’s column faced each other on a wood-edged grassland, embraced by a loop of Buffalo Bayou, where a tangle of rivers, slow-moving bayous, streamlets, and bogs all intersected – each one swollen with the runoff of a particularly rainy spring. Santa Anna had been reinforced by about 500 hundred men, brought post-haste by General Martin Perfecto de Cos, his hapless brother-in-law, the general who had been defeated by the rambunctious Texans in San Antonio barely six months before. Erastus Smith and a party of men had burned Vince’s Bridge – preventing any more reinforcements from Santa Anna’s other forces. Each commander no doubt thought that they had the other force cornered, and bided their time, each waiting for the other to make his move on the morning of the 21st. Houston with his ragged army of approximately 900 men, with two small 6-pound cannon anchoring his center, Santa Anna with about 1,400 and one 12-pound cannon, all of his camp secured behind a hastily-assembled barricade of packs and assorted baggage. Secure in his conviction that he would be able to overpower the Texians at his leisure, midday passed and Santa Anna had his troops stand down for a siesta. Cos’ s troops had moved fast and were exhausted, so were his own, from building the scratch barricade. The day stretched into late afternoon. From what Santa Anna could see, nothing was going to happen with the Texians today. His soldiers rested in the shade of the trees, while some went to fetch wood, and water.
The Texians were tired also – but they were not resting. They were hungry, frustrated, and very, very angry. At about half-past three, they formed a thin battle line, among the trees that sheltered their camp, the trees that American riflemen were accustomed to fight from; a small company of sixty cavalry on the right, the two cannon, the Twin Sisters anchoring the middle. Captain Juan Seguin’s company of Tejanos from San Antonio was among them, having forcefully declined a request to stay behind for their own safety in the camp in Harrisburg with the sick and the baggage wagons. They had put pieces of cardboard in their hatbands, to distinguish themselves from the enemy. At 4:30, General Houston gave the order to advance across the five hundred yards between their camp, and the Mexican defense-work; he led from the front, on a huge white horse, the thin line of riflemen spreading out to either side. The die was cast – they must win or die, here on this island of high ground, among the bogs and bayous, either that or slink ignominiously back over the Sabine River to the United States. They had a scratch band; some accounts say a fife or a penny-whistle, or even a pair of fiddlers, playing a somewhat suggestive ditty called “Come to the Bower,” intending to deceive whatever Mexican sentries watching into assuming that they were only goofing around. A slight rise ran across the middle of the field, masked the advancing Texians for some critical minutes, stalking through the tall grass prairie towards the somnolent Mexican camp.
At almost point-blank range, the Twin Sisters began firing, and on the right flank, the Texian cavalry began to circle in. Houston impatiently halted and dressed the ranks of the riflemen, having spent much time all during the withdrawal from Gonzales, in drilling them to fire and fire again in organized volleys. After that first wicked volley, crashing up and down the line in a storm of black powder smoke, Houston had probably meant for the infantry to reload, advance and volley again. At that very moment control snapped, the line of men rushing forward as individual skirmishers, as implacable as a tidal wave. Secretary of War Thomas Rusk, serving as an officer in the field, shouted, “If we stop, we are cut to pieces – go ahead – give ‘em Hell!”
Over an open field, in broad daylight, and against experienced professional soldiers, almost total surprise was achieved – a matter which now and even then seemed passing miraculous. The wave of vengeful Texians simply flooded over the Mexican barricade, howling “Remember the Alamo!” “Remember Goliad!” pausing neither to re-load, using their musket and rifle stocks as clubs. They fought in a rage, like berserkers, like Cuchulainn, hand to hand and with their knives or pistol-butts; for they were proud men and powered by unappeasable fury. They had been made by circumstances and Sam Houston’s orders to fall back and back again, to abandon their lands, lives and families, to see their life’s work – their houses, businesses and towns ruined and burnt, to know that friends and kin had been murdered after Goliad, or given no quarter at the Alamo, and now chance had turned their way at last. “Santa Anna quarter!” they shouted, and save for a brief moment when old General Castrillon organized a defense around the single Mexican cannon, all resistance to that terrible fury collapsed. Santa Anna’s army utterly dissolved in the space of eighteen minutes. They were hemmed in by the bayou, by the muddy waters of Peggy’s Lake, where they were shot down from the bank as if they were some strange kind of waterfowl. Remember the Alamo. Remember the Goliad. Santa Anna quarter. The Texians returned with interest the treatment which had been meted out to their friends, kin and comrades; if there might be a defense made of what happened on the field of San Jacinto, let it be noted that what happened there happened in hot blood. This is nothing like the cold, post-battle and command-ordered murder of the handful of Alamo survivors or that of Fannin’s men at the Goliad.
And Santa Anna, the chief architect of all this bloodshed was nowhere to be found, in the immediate aftermath. The Napoleon of the West had simply – and temporarily vanished. Perhaps it was lucky for him that he did.In 18 minutes it was all over: what little resistance there was put up by Santa Anna’s soldiers – ordinary soldiers, cavalry and all shattered like a glass ornament dropped onto a hard floor. The elderly General Castrillion had led what little fight there was against the battle-maddened Texians spilling over the makeshift defenses, around the single 12-pound cannon, called “The Golden Standard.” When all appeared lost, and his subordinates begged him to flee with them, supposedly the General replied, “I’ve fought in forty battles and never turned my back, I’m not going to start now.” Castrillion had asked that six Texian survivors at the Alamo be spared, and protested the executions of the Goliad garrison – now, Thomas J. Rusk, acting officer and Secretary for War in the Texas cabinet fruitlessly pleaded with his infuriated soldiers to spare the old general – to no avail. Castrillion fell; the Mexican soldiers fled, only to be cornered by droves in the marshes and lakes around, trapped in mud and deep water. (Castrillion’s body was reclaimed by an old friend, Lorenzo De Zavala, a stalwart federalist who had joined the rebels to serve as interim Vice President of independent Texas, and buried on his own property nearby. De Zavala’s granddaughter Adina would later be instrumental in preserving the site of the Alamo chapel and the Long Barracks.)
It was also an extraordinary one-sided battle; seven hundred killed on the Mexican side, with two hundred wounded, and the remaining captured, against nine killed among the Texians, and thirty wounded, of which Sam Houston was one. A bullet had smashed through his ankle, killing his horse. In the aftermath of the battle, he lay on a pallet bed under a huge oak tree, no doubt fretting because General Santa Anna was nowhere to be found among the living or the corpses piled up along the edge of the marshes, or floating in Peggy’s Lake. Santa Anna’s napoleonically lavish tent and campaign furniture was there, his baggage and all . . . but of the man himself not a sign – not until the following day, when detachments of Texians were sent out to round up any Mexican soldiers who had managed to make a better and longer run for safety. One of those patrols went as far as the ruins of Vince’s Bridge, where they intercepted a nervous and oddly subservient refugee who claimed to be an ordinary soldier, in a plain uniform coat and bedroom slippers. He did, however, have very fine studs on the front of his shirt, and when this was pointed out, he insisted that he was one of Santa Anna’s aides, and asked to be brought to General Houston.
The jig was up, as the scruffy fugitive in bedroom slippers was being brought into the Texian camp, and passed by a party of Mexican prisoners. The Mexican soldiers immediately (and perhaps with subtle malice) hailed him as ‘el Presidente.’ He was brought before General Houston, still lying on a pallet under the tree which served as his headquarters, and having his ankle seen to. It had been a near-run thing – a smashing victory, but only over a portion of the Mexican Army. In holding the person of El Presidente as prisoner, Houston had all the aces; he was probably too shrewd to even consider what some of his officers wanted to do, which was to hang the murderer of Goliad from the nearest tree – although he was not above gently needling the erstwhile Napoleon of the West regarding expecting a mercy in defeat that he was not prepared to extend the Texian defeated. Santa Anna was treated otherwise with consummate courtesy. Through him, Houston could gain everything he wanted for Texas – including independence, recognition, and the departure of the Mexican army – without fighting another battle. Santa Anna ordered his subordinate commander, General Filisola to withdraw from Texas, to release any Texian prisoners being held, and to do no further injury to any inhabitants of Texas that they might encounter. Filisola obeyed, although he was later much criticized – and Santa Anna himself would be on the outs with his own government for a while. Texas was, for all intents and purposes, independent.
The last Texian veteran of San Jacinto, Alfonso Steele, lived until 1913. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna would be ‘el presidente’ twice more, be exiled from Mexico twice, help invent chewing gum, and die of old age in 1876, outliving Sam Houston by thirteen years. Sam Houston would himself be president of independent Texas twice, as well as U.S. senator and governor. He resigned from his office as governor in 1861 rather than take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.