Battle of San Jacinto: Sam Houston Defeats Mexicans; "Me No Alamo! Me No Goliad!"
"Battle of San Jacinto" (1895) painting by Henry Arthur McArdle
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: April 21, 1836
For today's mini-history lesson, I bring you to the final battle of the Texas War for Independence aka the Texas Revolution. It also proved to be the final springboard for the political career of the army's commander.
Background: Texas Revolution (1835-1836)
Americans had been settling in the Mexican province of Texas since the 1820's, under the leadership of Stephen F. Austin. Cultural differences (religion and views of slavery principally) fomented unrest between the Americans and the Mexican government. Finally in 1834, the Mexican Constitution of 1824 was abrogated by President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. He replaced the democratic institutions of the Mexican Congress and state legislatures with a dictatorial control over the entire nation. He also began disarming the individual state militias and replaced them with a larger Mexican army.
American settlers objected to this turn of events. They began organizing Committees of Correspondence, and agitated for Texan self-rule. A few minor incidents occurred throughout the summer of 1835. In October, the residents of the town of Gonzales chased off a unit of Mexican dragoons sent to retrieve a six-pound cannon that had been loaned to the Texans. [To read more on this incident, please read my Burn Pit posting of October 1, 2009, "The Lexington of Texas" .] It was this event which pushed President Santa Anna to assert his power over the settlers of Texas.
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876)
After some preliminary moves, Santa Anna gathered about 6000 soldiers and entered Texas to put down the independence movement. By this point, a provisional government had been set up and was making efforts to assert their freedom. In March of 1836, the Mexican army won two important victories. First, at San Antonio Santa Anna and his army recaptured the old mission called the Alamo, which had been occupied by about 200 Texans and Tejanos.
"The Fall of the Alamo" (1903) by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk
Davy Crockett is depicted using his rifle as a club, left of center
Shortly after the fall of the Alamo, the Mexicans forced the surrender of about 350 Texans near the town of Goliad, men who intended to reinforce the Alamo, but their wagons broke down. In one of history's worst (best?) examples of cold-blooded murder, Santa Anna ordered 303 of these men summarily executed on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836. Fortunately, a number of men feigned death and managed to escape to warn the nascent Texan government of the massacre.
Mexican Pursuit of Texan Army: The "Runaway Scrape"
After receiving word of the twin disasters of the Alamo and Goliad, Texan settlers began an exodus eastward towards American territory. The Texan commander, Sam Houston (see below), realized his army was ill-prepared to face Santa Anna's veteran army. In particular, the Mexican cavalry was experienced and feared by the Texan soldiers. Therefore, he ordered the Texan army to join the retrograde movement. Keeping one step ahead of Santa Anna, Houston ordered a "scorched earth" instituted to deny the Mexican army supplies it desperately needed.
Sam Houston (1793-1863), Commander, Army of Texas
Houston was scorned by his soldiers for failing to take on the Mexican army. He was even ordered on several occasions by the Texan president Edward G. Burnet to face the Mexicans. Texan settlers jeered Houston when his army passed their homes. At one point, Texan officers threatened to command of the army from Houston, and Houston threatened to shoot anyone who tried.
In addition, spring rains caused the local rivers to swell and overflow their banks, giving the Texans several chances to rest and train. He also split his unit of Texas Rangers into two parts, one to screen the retreat of the Texan army, while the other scouted the Mexican army's whereabouts.
[There is speculation that one possible scenario Houston envisioned was to actually lead his Texan army into Louisiana (U.S. territory), whereupon an invading Mexican army could be attacked not only by the retreating Texan army but also by American forces summoned from garrisons in nearby New Orleans. Sam Houston was an old friend of then-U.S. president Andrew Jackson. The two had fought together during the Creek Indian War of 1813-1814. For further information on this, please see my previous Burn Pit Post of March 26, 2010, "Battle of Horseshoe Bend: Andrew Jackson Defeats Red Stick Creeks". The two men possibly had some communication during this crucial period, and Stephen F. Austin was in New Orleans during this time, which lends a measure of credence to such speculation.]
Santa Anna had divided his army – less the casualties suffered at the Alamo – into three wings. The Mexican dictator stayed with his main wing of about 900 men, pursuing the retreating Texans. The weather conspired against him, which allowed Houston's army to gain precious time to rest and train. His pursuit took his army to eastern Texas near the Louisiana border. This area was very marshy and crisscrossed with various rivers. There were also areas of quicksand that could swallow up horses, wagons, and men very easily. Because of the weather, the strenuous march, and the outbreak of disease in his army, Santa Anna failed to locate the Texan army.
Erastus "Deaf" Smith (1787-1837)
The Texans' luck changed on April 18, as Houston's chief scout Erastus "Deaf" Smith brought two Mexican prisoners into camp at sunset. One of the prisoners turned out to be a courier, with dispatches intended for Santa Anna. This was the first inkling Houston had that the Mexican commander was actually with the troops pursuing his army. The next day the main Mexican wing encamped between Buffalo Bayou and Galveston Bay, about 1000 yards away from the Texan camp. Houston's men had established their camp in a grove near the intersection of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River hours before the Mexicans. Santa Anna began receiving information that the Texans were nearby (but not as close as he thought), and decided to rest his army and then attack the rebels on the April 22.
On the morning of April 21, Santa Anna received about 500 reinforcements, commanded by his brother-in-law, General Perfecto de Cos. The Mexican commander now had nearly 1400 men under his command. Upon receiving this information, Gen. Houston began formulating his plans for battle. Even though his 900 man army was outnumbered, they still had the element of surprise of their side.
Next: Part II, Battle of San Jacinto