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The Battle of San Jacinto
By James W. Pohl
Texas State Historical AssociationCopyright © 1989 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
The Battle of San Jacinto
In the 1820s many people came to texas, which was then part of Mexico. Many of these immigrants were from the United States. The lure of Texas was found in its vast quantity of good land amply watered by fourteen flowing rivers that nourished the soil as they rolled from the interior to the Gulf of Mexico. It was an agricultural age, and farmers knew that the key to personal and family prosperity lay in fertile soil.
Although President Thomas Jefferson consistently had held to the belief that Texas belonged to the United States through the provisions of the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the question of ownership shifted significantly in his lifetime. In 1819, for example, it appeared that the Adams–Onis Treaty ceded much of the land to Spain; however, the specific boundary line was never drawn, so the extent of sovereignty remained open to question. When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the boundary matter remained unresolved, and no substantive agreement existed between the new country and the United States even into the 1830s. Nevertheless, it was generally accepted that some of the land known as Texas did, indeed, belong to Mexico.
These diplomatic matters meant very little, however, to the many colonists who were eager to begin their lives anew in what they regarded as a land of enormous promise. In an optimistic mood, they flocked to the land grant that had been given to the man who is called the Father of Texas, Stephen F. Austin. Pragmatic yet idealistic, Austin's own view of the diplomatic tangle was relatively simple. He accepted the fact that he and the rest of the newly arrived settlers, whether they had been American, English, German, or something else, were now loyal citizens of Mexico. His attitude in this matter was accepted by most of the people who joined him in Texas, and by the time of the Revolution, these new citizens exceeded the native Mexican population by a ratio of six to one.
Perhaps the most important reason for acceptance of new citizenship was the Constitution of Mexico, which dated from 1824; its provisions included a considerable measure of individual freedom by means of a liberal federal system of government. This happy situation changed dramatically, however, between the years 1833 and 1835. On a peaceful mission to Mexico City, Austin was seized and imprisoned under horrid conditions, on the baseless grounds that he was promoting insurrection and disobedience to the laws. When finally released after almost two years in prison, Austin returned to Texas a changed man. He concluded that Mexican authorities could never comprehend the basic tenets of constitutionalism together with its corollary, due process of law. In the wake of these events, he embraced the doctrines of revolution and independence. Again, his impressive influence swayed the minds of many Texans, who looked to him for leadership and admired him personally.
Austin's change was prompted in no small part by the seizure of power by the new Mexican president, Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón, a thirty-nine-year-old opportunist with tyrannical tendencies. Santa Anna had begun his political and military career as a Spanish Royalist. But by the time of the Mexican Revolution, most people, including Texans, believed him when he said he was a convert to federalism. Upon his seizure of power, however, he became an unabashed Centralist, abrogated the excellent Constitution of 1824, supplanted it with a reactionary instrument, and assumed the role of dictator. He also had a cruel streak, evidenced by the savagery with which he suppressed a Federalist uprising in Zacatecas. It was in the wake of these events that rebellion and the spirit of independence came alive in Texas.
The beautiful little city of Gonzales may claim to be the site of the first battle of the Texas Revolution, for near there on October 2, 1835, an engagement occurred between 160 determined Texan settlers and roughly 100 Mexican dragoons. This was ironic, because back in 1831 Mexico had given a small cannon to these same Texans for protection against Indians; but when relations between the settlers and the authorities steadily worsened, the cannon was reclaimed. There was no guarantee, after all, that it would not be used against Mexicans. That fear became reality when the defiant Gonzales Texans stood with their diminutive gun in the shadow of a two-staffed banner that held a representation of the cannon with the daring legend "Come and Take It." The Texans then fired a blast that drove off the troops. From that moment at Gonzales to the final day at San Jacinto, only six and a half months passed.
Because of Gonzales and another disturbance, this time at Anahuac, General Martín Perfecto de Cós landed at Copano Bay near Corpus Christi with a force of about 500 men and marched them from Copano Bay to San Antonio de Bexar, entering that city on October 9,1835. Cós was a man of some importance—brother-in-law of Santa Anna—although he was an officer of limited abilities. There could be little doubt that the Texans were restless, for on the very next day the settlers seized the Presidio La Bahia at Goliad, where a Mexican constabulary was posted. In addition, Texan forces became involved in two other engagements and won both. One of these was the Grass Fight on October 28 just outside San Antonio; the other was at the Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion on November 26, also just outside the city.
While these events were taking place, a formal meeting of delegates from various Texas constituencies met at San Felipe de Austin in November, 1835. This Consultation, as it was called, issued a demand as well as a threat to the government of Mexico. First, it demanded the restoration of the decentralized Constitution of 1824 that Santa Anna had arbitrarily torn up; next, it declared that Texans would fight, if necessary, for their rights. It was at this emotional moment that a legendary figure appeared, a soldier with a magnetic personality who raised the cry, "Who will go with old Ben Milam to San Antonio?" At that defiant shout, 300 Texans rose up and marched on Bexar which had been besieged since October. After a stiff fight in which their leader lost his life, they seized the city on December 10, 1835. As a result of this humiliating defeat, General Cós was forced to take his troops out of Texas. It was a heady time, and the jubilant Texans exulted in their successes.
Their joy was short-lived, however, for by February of 1836, an angry and vindictive Santa Anna at the head of an army of about 5,000 men (it would eventually number nearly 8,000) crossed the Rio Grande near Laredo. He was not only Mexico's president but also its conquering general—used to crushing rebellions and determined to suppress this one. He vowed, if necessary, that he would employ even savage means to deal with the insurrection. With that grim warning, he declared all Texans under arms to be no more than pirates and swore that he would claim their lives if any were captured or caught in any act of rebellion.
As Santa Anna marched unimpeded toward San Antonio, farther to the east another Mexican military force, under the competent Mexican general José de Urrea, swept over small Texan forces at Agua Dulce, San Patricio, and Refugio. It was clear that Urrea was headed toward Goliad, which held about 500 Texans under the command of Colonel James Fannin, a soldier who had spent a few years at the United States Military Academy at West Point. It would have been a considerable benefit to the Texan cause had Sam Houston, named by the Consultation to the overall command of the Texas forces, assumed his authority at an early date. As Santa Anna's and Urrea's troops poured into Texas, however, Houston, known as Co-lo-neh, which in the Cherokee tongue means "the Raven," was in East Texas attempting to pacify the Indians. Texas, after all, could hardly fight a two-front war, one against the Mexicans and another against the Indians.
Despite a multitude of problems, Houston saw very early that the main fighting should take place in the eastern wooded area. Consequently, he ordered the remarkable Colonel James Bowie of the Texas militia to take command of the military forces at the Alamo near San Antonio de Bexar. The previous post commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Clinton Neill, would have left his position if he could have done so, but he realized that, if he did, the many artillery pieces that were located there would have to be abandoned. Neill simply did not have the horses or other draft animals necessary to remove the cannon. So there he sat—and so did the artillery. Bowie was ordered as early as December 15 and again on January 17 to destroy the Alamo; however, the famous knife fighter decided to ignore these directions and remain in San Antonio. For one thing, he was enamored of the thick walls, and he was loath to abandon the artillery. Earlier, at Concepción, Bowie had beaten a numerically superior force under the command of Cós without the advantages afforded by either walls or artillery, and he was eager to see how he might acquit himself now that he had both. If it occurred to him that he was disobeying orders, he did not seem to be troubled.
Meanwhile, Henry Smith, an early advocate of independence and acting governor of Texas, sent William Barret Travis, a young officer with leadership ability, to assume Neill's command at the Alamo. Travis also felt that the Alamo should be abandoned, for he shared Houston's assessment that San Antonio and its defenses were simply too far west to be an effective barrier against a huge invading army. In fact, at one point Travis even declared that San Antonio was "the enemy's country." Once on the scene, however, he also was impressed by the thick walls and the abundant cannon, and reversed his position. The Alamo, he declared, was "the key to Texas." Bowie and Travis, now in joint command, disagreed on many issues, but they were of like mind on the value of their fortified position. They would stand at the Alamo with about 150 men. In time, they were joined by more than 30 others from Gonzales, and, Travis assumed, hundreds of additional Texans would reinforce him.
When Santa Anna arrived with his large body of men in San Antonio on February 23, 1836, he quickly decided that the Alamo should be assaulted. For thirteen days he set about positioning his troops, moving a number forward by trenches, placing artillery at critical points, and considering the use of scaling ladders. Finally, just before dawn on March 6, Santa Anna struck the Texan defenses. After a bloody two-hour ordeal, which included much hand-to-hand combat, the massive Mexican weight overcame stubborn Texan resistance. In the end, all the defenders were killed and their bodies callously burned. Only women, children, and black slaves were spared. Among the few survivors was Susannah Dickinson, wife of Alamo defender Alamaron Dickinson. It was she, with an infant daughter in her arms, who carried the news of the ghastly slaughter to Sam Houston at Gonzales.
Houston took command of his troops on March 11. Up to this time he had been a general only on paper. His imposing title was commander-in-chief of the army, which summed up his duties fairly well; he was in charge of all regulars, volunteers, and militia. But his position in the field fell far short of the description. On occasion he simply was not obeyed, for he was in command of rough and independent-minded men who did not follow orders easily. The stubborn Jim Bowie was a case in point; James Fannin would provide another example. Houston ordered Fannin to join him in all haste. After all, Houston had only about 370 men at Gonzales, and he could hardly turn back the Mexican army with such a small band of volunteers.
When Susannah Dickinson arrived in Gonzales and told of the horror at the Alamo, the townspeople were stunned. Their fathers, sons, and brothers would not return; they had died within the mission walls. Shock gave way to grief. Houston, on whose broad shoulders lay the responsibility for the defense of Texas, was also stunned, but neither he nor the citizens of Gonzales could lament for long because Mrs. Dickinson brought other news as well. Generalissimo Santa Anna himself, at the head of thousands, was heading in their direction and soon would fall on Gonzales and East Texas.
Quickly recovering, Houston sent word to the Texas government at Washington-on-the-Brazos. He would have to withdraw until he could meet the numerically superior Mexicans at a more advantageous position. Houston's movements were logical; there simply was no way that he could match his Mexican opponent. His few hundred half-trained men with poor arms were insufficient for such a task. The disparity in the sizes of the opposing forces called for a particular stratagem, and Houston had one.
He would withdraw as far as necessary—but, he hoped, not too far. He assumed, of course, that he soon would be reinforced by the garrison from Goliad somewhere in the vicinity of Cibolo Creek. Then he would begin hitting the Mexican forces. These considerations, generally understood by all, were swept away, and Houston's hopes were dashed when it was learned that Fannin, while executing a poor maneuver, had quit Goliad and allowed his command to be caught in the open near Coleto Creek. Out of food and water and heavily outnumbered by Mexican troops under the command of the able Urrea, Fannin had surrendered under what he considered honorable terms. When the Texans were marched back to Goliad, however, Urrea's humane terms were countermanded. The captured troops, crammed into a stifling chapel, had been told to expect repatriation. Instead, Santa Anna ordered the entire Texan command killed in cold blood. A few physicians were spared, and a few other soldiers escaped to tell the dreadful tale.
Thus, the tragedy of the Alamo was compounded by the tragedy of Goliad. Houston now faced insuperable odds. He could no longer merely withdraw and wait for reinforcements—only escape could save the tiny Texas army from extermination. It was no longer withdrawal; it was retreat, a full-scale dash for safety.
Even before the news of the Goliad disaster arrived, Houston had turned over to the desperate residents of Gonzales three of his four supply wagons to help them as they began their flight toward the Sabine. It was all he could spare, and he could ill afford the loss of those. This left him with no means of transporting his cannon, which, with immense regret, he sank to the bottom of the rain-swollen Guadalupe River. The weather had been unusually severe that spring, and the rain poured incessantly even as the foaming stream swallowed the pieces.
The flight of the people of Gonzales marked the beginning of the Runaway Scrape—hundreds of civilians, eager to escape the wrath of Santa Anna, fleeing pell-mell northward and eastward. In time the hundreds became thousands. Gonzales was burned to the ground. No one knows who gave the order. Houston was accused of it, but he denied having issued the command. In any event, the flames did their work, ensuring that the site was rendered useless to Santa Anna. Only cold ashes remained—and the cold hatred of the Texans, who longed to avenge Santa Anna's atrocities, was born. In the midst of this chaos, a somewhat desperate Houston lunged toward the Colorado River.
There are those who maintain that Houston hoped the pursuing Mexicans would outrun their supplies. But it must also be noted that he was simply running—for the life of his army, and the Revolution, and Texas. One more incident like the Alamo or Goliad, and the struggle would be over. Furthermore, he knew that the population center of the Anglo-American settlement lay in East Texas. There, amid the deep forests and in friendly recruiting territory, he would meet the Mexicans on what he only could hope would be more nearly equal terms.
Excerpted from The Battle of San Jacinto by James W. Pohl. Copyright © 1989 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
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