Like a great many locations of note to the tumultuous years of the Republic of Texas, the site of the battle of Salado Creek doesn’t look today much like it did in 1842 . . . however, it is not so much changed that it is hard to picture in the minds’ eye what it would have looked like then. The creek is dryer and seasonal, more dependant now upon rainfall than the massive amount of water drawn into the aquifer by the limestone sponge of the Hill Country, to the north. Then – before the aquifer was tapped and drilled and drained in a thousand places – the water came up in spectacular natural fountains in many places below the Balcones Escarpment. The Salado was a substantial landmark in the countryside north of San Antonio, a deep and regular torrent, running between steep banks lined with oak and pecan trees, thickly quilted with deep brush and the banks scored by shallow ravines that ran down to water-level. Otherwise, the countryside around was gently rolling grasslands, dotted with more stands of oak trees. There was a low hill a little east of the creek, with a house built on the heights. Perhaps it might have had a view of San Antonio de Bexar, seven miles away to the south and west.
In that year,San Antonio was pretty much what it had been for two centuries: a huddle of jacales, huts made from plastered logs set upright in the ground and crowned with a roof of thatch, or thick-walled houses of unbaked clay adobe bricks, roofed with rusty-red tile, all gathered around the stumpy tower of the Church of San Fernando. A few narrow streets converged on the plaza where San Fernando stood – streets with names like the Alameda, Soledad and Flores, and the whole was threaded together by another river, lined with rushes and more trees. The river rambled like a drunken snake – but it generously watered the town and the orchards and farms nearby – and was the main reason for the town having been established in the first place. That street called Alameda or sometimes the Powderhouse Hill Road, led out to the east, across a bend of the river, and past another ramble of stone and adobe buildings clustered around a roofless church; the Alamo, once a mission, then a presidio garrison, and finally a legend. But in 1842 – the siege of it’s Texian garrison only six years in the past – it was still a barracks and military establishment. In the fall of 1842, the Mexican Army returned to take temporary possession.
General and President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had never ceased to resent how one-half of the province of Coahuila-y-Tejas had been wrenched from the grasp of Mexico by the efforts of a scratch army of volunteer and barely trained rebel upstarts who had the nerve to think they could govern themselves, thank you. For the decade-long life of the Republic, war on the border with Mexico continued at a slow simmer, now and again flaring up into open conflict: a punitive expedition here, a retaliatory strike there, fears of subversion, and of encouraging raids by bandits and Indians, finally resulting in an all-out war between the United States and Mexico when Texas chose to be annexed by the United States. So when General Adrian Woll, a French soldier of fortune who was one of Lopez de Santa Anna’s most trusted commanders brought an expeditionary force all the from the Rio Grande and swooped down on the relatively unprotected town . . . this was an action not entirely unexpected. However, the speed, the secrecy of his maneuvers, and the overwhelming force that Woll brought with him and the depth that he penetrated intoTexas– all that did manage to catch the town by surprise. Woll and his well-equipped, well-armored and well supplied cavalry occupied the town after token resistance by those Anglo citizens who were in town for a meeting of the district court. So, score one for General Woll as an able soldier and leader.
Texas did not have much of a regular professional army, as most western nations understood the concept, then and later. Texas did have sort of an army, and sort of a navy, too – but mere tokens; the window-dressing required of a legitimate, established nation, which is what Texas was trying it’s best to become, given restricted resources. What Texas did have was nearly limitless numbers of rough and ready volunteers, who were accustomed to respond to a threat, gathering in a local militia body and volunteering for a specific aim or mission, bringing their own weapons, supplies and horses, and usually electing their own officers. They also had the men of various ranging companies, which can be thought of as a mounted, heavily-armed and aggressive Neighborhood Watch. Most small towns on the Texas frontier fielded their own Ranger Companies. By the time of Woll’s raid on San Antonio, those volunteers and Rangers were veterans of every fight going since before Texas had declared independence, a large portion of them being of that tough Scotch-Irish ilk of whom it was said that they were born fighting. That part of the frontier which ran through Texas gave them practice at small-scale war and irregular tactics on a regular and continuing basis.
One bit of good fortune for the Anglos of San Antonio and the various militias and of Texas generally, was that the captain of the local Ranger Company was not one of those caught by Woll’s lighting-raid. Captain John Coffee Hays and fifteen of his rangers had actually been out patrolling the various roads and trails, in response to rumors of a Mexican force in the vicinity. It was they who – upon their return in the wee hours of a September morning – found every road into San Antonio blocked by Mexican soldiers.
Naturally, they did not let this event pass without comment or response . . .
(to be continued)