History Friday: Disorder in the Court: 9-11-1842

Re-enactors of an early Texas Court

Strange but true – General Lopez de Santa Anna’s invasion of Texas in 1836 was not to be the last time that a Mexican Army crossed the border into Texas in full battle array – artillery, infantry, military band and all. Santa Anna may have been defeated at San Jacinto – but for the Napoleon of the west, that was only a temporary setback. In March of 1842 a brief raid by General Rafael Vasquez and some 400 soldiers made a lightening-fast dash over the Rio Grande, while another 150 soldiers struck at Goliad and Refugio. They met little resistance – and departed at speed before Texan forces could assemble and retaliate. All seemed to have quieted down by late summer, though: Texas had ratified a treaty with England, and the United States requesting that Texas suspend all hostilities with Mexico.

It seemed a good time to get on with urgent civic business, such as the meeting of the District Court in San Antonio. There had not been the opportunity to try civil cases for many years; the town was full of visitors who had come for the court session: officials, lawyers and litigants. Court opened on September 5th – but within days rumors were flying of another Mexican incursion. Such rumors were cheerfully dismissed – not soldiers, just bandits and marauders. Just in case, though, local surveyor John Coffee Hays – who already had a peerless reputation as a ranger and Indian fighter – was sent out to scout with five of his men. They saw nothing, having stayed on the established roads; unknown to them, one of Santa Anna’s favorite generals, a French soldier of fortune named Adrian Woll was approaching through the deserted country to the west of San Antonio, with a column of more than 1,500 soldiers – as well as a considerable assortment of cannon.

Under cover of a dense fog bank on the morning of September 11th, Woll’s army marched into San Antonio, with banners flying and a band playing. Having blocked off all escape routes, the General had a cannon fired to announce his presence. There was some sharp, but futile resistance, before surrender was negotiated. General Woll announced that he would have to take all Anglo-Texian men in San Antonio as prisoners of war; this included the judge, district attorney, assistant district attorney, court clerk, court interpreter, every member of the San Antonio Bar save one, and a handful of litigants and residents, to a total of fifty-five. They were kept prisoner – after five days they were told they must walk all the way to the Rio Grande, but they would then be released. Sometime during this period, the then-Mayor of San Antonio, John William Smith, managed to escape and send word of what had happened to the nearest town, Gonzales.

John Coffee Hays and his scouts had also managed to elude capture upon their return to town. The word went out across Texas for volunteers to assemble; two hundred came quickly from Gonzales and Seguin, led by Mathew “Old Paint” Caldwell, and fought a sharp skirmish on Salado Creek. A company of 53 volunteers recruited by Nicolas Mosby Dawson in LaGrange or along the road to join Caldwell’s volunteers along the Salado Creek north of San Antonio, ran into the rear-guard of Woll’s army, a large contingent of cavalry and a single cannon as they were withdrawing to San Antonio. Dawson’s company was surrounded; in the confusion of surrendering, firing broke out again. Only fifteen of Dawson’s company survived, to join with the San Antonio prisoners on their long walk towards the Rio Grande.

Once there the prisoners were informed that they would be taken into Mexico. Some were paroled and permitted to leave as a personal favor to the US Consul in Mexico City. Others escaped, but most of the San Antonio prisoners were kept for two years at hard labor in Perote Prison, in the state of Vera Cruz, until an armistice was signed between Mexico and Texas in March of 1844. The site of the Dawson Massacre is marked by a granite monument, where the present-day Austin Highway crosses Salado Creek. The first case to be heard at that momentous court session was never settled; Dr. Shields Booker brought suit against the former mayor of San Antonio, Juan Seguin, for a payment of a 50-peso fee. Dr. Booker died in Perote Prison. The lawyer representing him, Samuel Maverick, was paroled after six months in Perote, and returned to Texas.

(I wrote about the Salado Creek Fight earlier, here and here.)

6 thoughts on “History Friday: Disorder in the Court: 9-11-1842”

  1. Sgt – you seem pretty knowledgeable on Texas history. Do you believe, in subsequent years, that Sam Houston regretted releasing Santa Anna after San Jacinto or did he view it at the time as necessary to secure Texas’ independence (was he a practitioner of Realpolitik ?

  2. In the short term, Bill, I think Sam Houston thought it absolutely neccessary to strike a deal with Santa Anna. The Mexican Army defeated at San Jacinto was only a small part of Mexican forces within Texas. Striking a deal that would remove them post-haste was an absolute neccessity. I do think that he might have regretted it later, when Santa Anna demonstrated his own treachery, and ongoing enmity towards Texas. I was a little bit astonished to see just the extent of the ‘cold war’ that Santa Anna and other Mexican officials conducted against independent Texas. Spies, economic and diplomatic sabotage, subversion of the Cherokee, out-right invasion … it never stopped during those ten years. Of course, it also led to a terrible amount of distrust between the Anglo-Texans and the Tejanos, even though many Tejanos had rebelled right alongside the Anglo-Texans.

  3. Bill, Santa Ana had divided his army to better purse the fleeing Texans after Goliad. Only the column with him was captured. Had he been executed, the next senior Mexican commander could have converged the other columns and crushed Houston’s little army within a week. Houston saved Texas many times.

    Sgt. Mom – How is the sequel to _Adelsverein_ going?

  4. Hi, Tom – chugging along, about 3/4 done with the first draft, which is the most important. I am posting occasional chapters on my book blog, here. It’s not the home thing, just tastes here and there.

  5. The Texas Rangers gave a good dose of revenge when they entered Mexico City with Scott in the Mexican War. They ran wild killing Mexicans in the street one night, according to Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star.”

  6. IIRC, that was kicked off by a Ranger being attacked (maybe killed?) by a local street thug, and the Ranger’s comrades taking revenge. There is also an interesting story of Bigfoot Wallace coming face to face with the Mexican officer who supervised the Black Bean draw, around that time … especially as Wallace recognized the man.

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